Permaculture Design For Your Backyard
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Depending on what you read the average size of the American lawn is around a quarter of an acre or to put it another way around 10,000 square feet. For the most part these lawns are what is called ecological deserts by the biological science community. Lawns are primarily 2-3 species of turf grass which means that they lack the essential diversity needed to provide habitat and perform ecosystem services. They are also not as efficient at controlling water runoff, or providing essential things like food production.
Now if you think about it do you really need 10,000 square feet of grass that you will have to cut, trim and fertilize and really receive nothing in return from. Or could you convert some of that space to a permaculture landscape that is better for the environment but also provides you with fresh homegrown food with relatively little effort.
Now to convert a lawn to a permaculture landscaping their will be some effort involved on your part. To transform a lawn can be difficult to do to the nature of turf grasses. They are evolved to withstand and comeback after disturbance so getting rid of the grass is your first step in creating a permaculture landscape. There are a few easy methods that I like to use that can effectively take care of your grass.
Dig and Heavy Mulch
By using heavy mulching materials like straw, pine needles, leaf litter, or shredded newspapers you can remove one of the things grass needs to grow which is sunlight. The basic method is deeply dig only where you will be planting and lightly dig up the surrounding turf. Then plant and cover the lightly dug turf with a very deep layer of mulch. I would recommend at least 8 inches but preferably a foot of mulching material. This will smother most of the grass but some repeat digging and mulching may be needed.
Dig, Cardboard and Heavy Mulch
To really do a good job of smothering grass I have tested a variation of the method above that uses another layer between the grass and mulch. This method I find is even easier than the one above since you have to do less digging to accomplish the same goal. First you will clip the grass very short wherever you want to kill it. Then you will again dig deeply where you want to plant but you don't have to dig the surrounding area.
Then plant whatever it is your growing in the deeply dug spot. After you have planted you can then lay down either one layer of brown corrugated cardboard or multiple layers of black and white newspapers or mulching paper. This extra layer of cardboard or paper act as a strong durable barrier that will prevent the grass shoots from growing past it. This combined with a thinner layer of mulch say 4-5 inches is very effective at killing grass. The best part is that the paper or cardboard will eventually be incorporated into the soil. This is a great technique for removing grass over larger areas and is much less effort than digging or tilling everything up.
Permaculture Layout Step by Step
Step 1-Look at the Blank Yard
On the right you will see a simple representation of a house and yard. The house is situated to the front of the lot with a majority of the yard on the south side of the house. To comply with the standard size of the yard in America a good permaculture design will use everything that is available in the way that best suits your goals and the landscape. In this case I will assume that my yard is 10,000 square feet of good level soil.
Step 2- The Basics
To start a permaculture yard you must first build some of the most basic structures that will get you started. The first thing to install would be a series of raised garden beds in which you can grow annual garden crops in. These can be made of large pieces of lumber like 2x8's, cinder blocks, mounded compacted dirt, natural stone or whatever you have handy. I personally prefer lumber as it gives you options like attaching hoop houses or cold frames right to the garden beds. I would also make sure to use either rot resistant wood like ceder or standard boards instead of treated lumber.
While as of this time there has been no indication that the chemicals used in treated lumber affect plants I still am hesitant to use them in raised garden beds.
After the building, filling with soil and planting is done you can move on to constructing compost bins and installing rain barrels. Compost bins come in many shapes and sizes and you want at least 2 if not more separate bins. This is because even when you get good at composting it does take time and your supply of compost materials will probably exceed your space if you don't have multiple bins. Finally you will want to have multiple rain barrels installed to capture excess moisture and store it later for dryer times of the year. Taking advantage of resources like water for later use is a critical part in the permaculture mindset. You have to get in the mode of what can I do now that will benefit me in the long term.
Step 3- Long Term Thinking and Production
After you have the basics like water and compost taken care of and your garden is growing nicely you can start to consider more long term items like trees, berry plants
and perennial garden crops. With a permaculture mindset you are probably aware by now that lots of things can be grown together which saves you space, water demands and weed control. For example on the right you can see in addition to the annual garden beds there is now fruit/nut trees and a perennial garden space. By growing things that produce year after year you will save yourself time, money and probably some sore muscles. Both the orchard and berry plants that are mixed in will take time to fully
mature and produce but once established they work really well together. Berries while liking full sun can deal with the partial shade present in the orchard and at the same time they provide a useful ground cover that reduces weed problems in the orchard. For the perennial garden bed think asparagus, rhubarb, sage, thyme and lemon grass. By establishing hardy plants that come back you can guarantee at least
something edible will be growing.
Step 4- Maximizing Your Space
With the addition of a few more things you will have reached a high point in the layout of your new permaculture landscape With the addition of a sturdy fence of your choice of materials, a chicken coop and trellising you will begin to maximize vertical as well as
horizontal surfaces. When you look at a area you have to consider the horizontal space but also the vertical space present on buildings and fences. If vertical spaces are used
correctly they can grow all sorts of great food items. The example I have here is grapes trellised up the south side of the house. The same principal can be applied to any sturdy vertical surface and can be used to grow many different types of edible plants. You also will want to have a sturdy tall fence all around your yard for a couple reasons. The first being that during specific times of year you can let your chickens wander the whole yard. This is a good thing because they act like little garbage
disposals and will clean up spilled produce from the orchard and garden beds. They will also be spreading their manure around for you which is a great fertilizer especially when it is spread by the chickens themselves.
The second reason is you will want to keep thieves both the human and animal variety
away from your hard earned produce. So a tall fence combined with a large outside dog is very effective at keeping most opportunistic animals at bay.
What I have presented here is a potential layout of what a permaculturally designed backyard could look like. It is a very site specific process that will require you to understand what you have available to you. I have tried to give you some ideas of what a yard could look like if you wanted more than just grass. To really get into this process check out some of the other articles I have available on the Green Living Library.
Any questions you have about this or any other article I have written let me know through the contact page and I will get back to you as quick as I can.