During the summer of 2015, I consulted with a non-profit organization in Central Florida that manages eight elementary schoolyard gardens. Their mission: “ to eliminate poverty as a factor in educational success and diet-related health issues”. In pursuit of this goal, volunteers and staff members provide students and their families with opportunities for hands-on learning in the gardens–teaching them how to grow and even prepare their own healthy food.
At the time of my consultation, all eight sites were employing traditional methods of vegetable gardening and composting–which when done on a large scale is quite labor intensive. As the organization continues to grow and install more gardens, they are seeking out ways to make the sites maximally productive, while requiring as little inputs and labor as possible. In other words, they are looking to make their projects more sustainable. That’s where I come in.
As a Permaculture designer, I study patterns and systems found within Nature and attempt to emulate them in order to create sustainable, abundant food gardens. The core ethics of Permaculture are: 1. Earth Care 2. People Care 3. Fair Share
To ensure I achieve a sustainable design and also remain true to these ethics, I use Permaculture’s 12 Design Principles as a guide. (It should be noted that Permaculture’s design methodology can be applied to any system one wishes to make more sustainable).
Below I have listed and given specific examples of how each principle is expressed in the Permaculutre Designs I created for the schoolyard gardens.
- 1. Observe. Use protracted, thoughtful observation and design for specific sites, clients, and cultures.
For example: The garden designs include various elements and plants that will be appealing and interesting to young children. For example, the Black Sapote Tree –which yields fruits that taste like chocolate pudding; and other dwarf varieties of fruit trees–which are smaller and “kid size”. Plants like Walking Onions, Lamb’s Ear, and Pineapple Sage have unique qualities that make them fun to see, taste, smell and touch–making them interesting and appealing on many levels.
Even the design maps have been artistically styled to spark the imagination of the young students–employing the use of bright colors and imperfect qualities (though still to-scale and accurately depicting directional aspects)
- 2. Connect & Use relative location: Place elements in ways that create useful relationships and time-saving connections among all parts.
For example: The designs are laid out so that Banana circles / composting sites are located closest to the portion of the garden dedicated to growing annual food crops. –This way compost can easily be transported from the banana circle to the annual plants (which will require more frequent feeding than plants located in the Forest portion of the garden). In addition to this, nitrogen fixing and mineral accumulating plants (such as comfrey and Pigeon Peas) will be planted close to the composting site, so that they can easily be “chopped & dropped” into the compost pile–adding essential nutrients and minerals to the soil.
- 3. Catch and store energy and materials. Identify, collect, and hold useful flows.
For example: Mulch should be placed around plants and along paths to catch and store moisture in the soil. –Also, mineral accumulating plants (such as comfrey) peppered throughout the gardens will collect & store nutrients in their leaves (which can be “chopped & dropped” into garden beds and compost piles to increase soil fertility).
- 4. Each element performs multiple functions. Choose and place each element in a system to perform as many functions as possible. Beneficial connections between diverse components create a stable whole.
For example: Pigeon Peas planted throughout the gardens will provide multiple functions, including: providing a food source; improving soil fertility (by fixing nitrogen into the soil); attracting pollinators; acting as a living trellis for climbing plants; and their trimmings can be thrown directly on the ground to be used as a mulch.
- 5. Each function is supported by multiple elements. Use multiple methods to achieve important functions and to create synergies.
For example: The function of pest management is supported by: healthy soil full of beneficial microbes (maintained through the practice of soil building / composting); a polyculture food forest which is less vulnerable to disease and thereby pests; plants–like marigold and nasturtiums– that repel pests and /or attract beneficial insects that prey on harmful pests .
- 6. Make the least change for the greatest effect. Find the “leverage points” in the system and intervene there, where the least work accomplishes the most change.
For example: The new designs work with and are somewhat informed by each garden’s original layout. For example, new elements and plants are positioned within the landscape so that they can take advantage of the existing irrigation system.
- 7. Use small scale, intensive systems.
-For example: In the new designs, the total square footage dedicated to the growing of annuals is reduced by approximately one half. In the future, all annuals (which are conducive to the method) should be planted according the bio-intensive, square-foot gardening method–which produces optimum yields per square foot. Also, the new designs call for the North West corner of each garden to be converted into a perennial Food Forest.
- Optimize edge. The edge—the intersection of two environments—is the most diverse place in a system, and is where energy and materials accumulate or are transformed. Increase or decrease edge as appropriate.
For example: Some of the schoolyard gardens are located along streets or sidewalks–in such instances shrubs or trees should be used to create a sound and sight pollution barrier; this will lessen distractions and give way to a more ideal learning environment.
- 9. Collaborate with succession. Systems will evolve over time, often toward greater diversity and productivity.
For example: As fruit trees mature and spread their canopies, more shade-loving plants can be introduced into the system (planted below the fruit trees).
- 10. Use biological and renewable resources.
For example: Organic food waste should be collected from each school’s cafeteria and composted on site; in this way the school’s (continuous) waste stream is used to build soil and feed plants.
- 11. Turn problems into solutions. Constraints can inspire creative design.
For example: Each garden has the “problem” of sinking hugelkultur beds. This can be turned into a solution by building the beds back up with soil builder and compost and then planting a perennial food forest in the beds. –Although the sinking beds are less than ideal for annual crops (as they are easily flooded), the breaking down of the aged wood (the main hugulkultur ingredient) has created a nutrient dense, humus rich soil which is ideal for supporting edible forest plants, such as fruit trees and berry bushes.
- 12. Get a yield. Design for both immediate and long-term returns from your efforts.
For example: The new designs include fruit trees which may take a few years to bear fruit. However, herbaceous and root crops–such as okinawan spinach and cassava–are also included in the designs, and will provide a food source within the first growing season. And because the vast majority of the plants included in the new designs are perennial, they will provide yields for many years with little or no effort other than pruning and harvesting.
For those who are interested, here is a detailed list (including descriptions) of the main elements and techniques I included in the permaculture designs for the schoolyard gardens (located in Central Florida). —In the long run, these features will save resources, energy, time, & money:
- BANANA CIRCLE: (substitute for the current “hot” composting stations/system) A multi-functional circular compost pit which can be used for food production and soil building. The pit is 3 foot deep and 4 to 6 foot wide–filled with organic matter and surrounded by a berm on which various edible crops are planted.
- FOREST GARDEN: A seven “layer” garden that duplicates the diversity and distinct layers found within a natural forest. The result is a healthy, functional ecosystem less vulnerable to disease, and maximally productive. Another benefit to the food forest, is that once it is established (other than harvesting) it requires very little work or maintenance.
- ALLEY CROPPING: Growing annual crops between widely spaced trees or shrubs.–I recommend growing Pigeon Peas in each bed. –Not only will they provide an additional food source, but they also: improve soil fertility (by fixing nitrogen into the soil), attract pollinators, can be used as a living trellis for climbing plants, and their trimmings can be thrown directly on the ground to be used as a mulch.
- WORM TOWERS: A method of “direct composting” which utilizes worms.–HOW TO: Holes are drilled all over the sides and bottom of a 5 gallon food-grade bucket (with a lid), and the bucket is then buried, so that the lid is level with the ground. (Do not drill holes in the lid). Food scraps are deposited into the bucket and worms enter through the holes and eat the food. They then exit–making their way through the garden bed and leaving their poop behind as fertilizer. Keeping a lid on the bucket ensures there is no smell and also keeps vermin out…… This method of composting and fertilizing requires a fraction of the time and energy required by the current “hot” composting system (which requires constant flipping).
- INSECTARY PLANTS: Plants that attract pollinators and beneficial insects that prey on harmful pests.
- MINERAL/DYNAMIC ACCUMULATORS FOR “CHOP & DROP”: Plants that gather nutrients & minerals that other plants are not able to access. They store the nutrients in their leaves; they can be “chopped” and “dropped” directly onto the soil so that the nutrients are made available to other plants.
- PERENNIAL VEGETABLES: Only have to be planted ONCE, and they continue to grow all year (or die back in winter and come back on their own).