Last fall, my young family and I moved to a new house: a tidy two-bedroom on about a quarter acre, 5 or 10 miles from city center. It has two cherry trees, a garden strip on the front edge of the lawn, and a fenced back yard bordered with rose, hydrangea and holly. It’s a lovely little rental: pretty enough as is, but also full of potential for something more. In our minds, “something more” meant chickens, a street-side herb and artichoke garden, and a serious vegetable patch in the back.
So we set out – husband, baby and I – to make it happen. I built a hen house, and we inherited three chickens from a friend. They roam the lawn freely, so we made a simple fence out of 4x4s and chicken wire for the vegetables. We dug out the grass, and we planted. And just a few months later, our hard work was rewarded.
With grass. Weaving itself into the fence. Grass, towering knee-high between rows. It swells at the edges, consumes the plot we left empty for later, encroaches on the carrots, threatens the mustard, drowns the kale. The peas are doing beautifully, and the sweet lettuce thrives; the corn and pumpkin seedlings are getting taller. But the grass! It’s the principal element in the whole scene.
Now, I’m not much of a weeder. With a baby on the scene, I don’t have the time for it – at least, not the kind of time it would take to redeem this picture. A part of me wants to dig the whole thing up and start over. Maybe next year will be different. But that’s a real waste of a growing season, isn’t it?
Which is why I got excited when I read these words from Mitra Ardron’s Blog:
A no-dig garden is a basic Permaculture tool - minimizing the work required to maintain a garden. In essence the garden is built up in a series of layers on top of whatever you have before.
That sounds great. Because I don’t like the idea of uprooting another carpet of sod, chunk by chunk, and slowing down my compost pile with it. Sod chunks don’t break down quickly, and in the meantime they make the pile difficult to turn. As for roto-tilling (rather than uprooting and removing), even after multiple passes, we’ve found it extremely hard to get rid of the root clumps. So I’m listening, Mitra.
Here’s the idea. Take your (overgrown, insatiable, all-consuming) plot of grass. Layer it with cardboard. Pile some good soil or compost on top. Mulch it. Water it, a lot. Then, plant it – either by sprinkling a mixture of sand and seeds over the mulch (the water will carry them down to the compost), or for bigger seeds, planting them directly underneath it. No more grass. (In my case, because our garden is already planted, we might have to get by till next year with a partial solution: cardboard just between the rows.)
Following that, the next logical step would be a weed barrier around the fence line. Mitra suggests rock or wood; if rock, he recommends filling the gaps between stones with soil, then planting it with herbs to keep the grass from moving in. I especially like the idea of using plants themselves as a barrier. Artificial barriers decompose with time, but plants regenerate. Which brings us back to the whole point of permaculture: building a living system, a “permanent culture” of diverse, self-supporting species. If you do it right, you don’t have to break your back to keep things moving in the right direction, because they’re already trending that way, on their own. And that’s what I love about it. Permaculture enlists the world to work for you, with you. If you set up your garden so each element is supposed to be doing exactly what it wants do to, what it’s made for, you don’t have to fight so hard. You don’t need a ton of time to maintain it. Your efforts are aligned; you’re working together.
Is this a life lesson? I think it is.
You know those moving walkways at the airport? Permaculture is like the difference between being carried forward as you walk, versus pacing along the floor next to it: exerting more effort to get to the same place, or (worse) struggling up the conveyor belt in the opposite direction. As long as you’re forcing your will on a thing, you’re going to spend the bulk of your reserves just holding your ground. Much better to align your goals along the grain, not against it; find a way where the natural flow actually supports what you’re trying to do. Whether that’s your garden or your life, it means less work, less stress and less failure.
So when it feels like the world is conspiring against me – whether that’s a lush scarf of grass threatening my vegetables, or anything else – I like to step back and think about permaculture.
Let us hope that doing so will help save my carrots.