The space around one’s home can offer life-changing benefits to one’s body, mind, and soul, as well as one’s pocketbook. Getting all the benefits at once requires a “design mind,” what some have called “pattern literacy,” and the perseverance to work the puzzle.
The life-changing benefits are worth it!
Benefits to the Body
A good design can deflect strong winds. It can shade special areas in summer and warm them in winter. It can direct rainfall to the gardens or into tanks while keeping other places mostly dry. It can even help protect one’s home from fire.
A good design can provide healthy, organic food and medicine and, of course, oxygen and cleaner air.
A good design can make outdoor chores easier, more efficient, and more pleasant. A good design saves money, work, and time.
Benefits to Mind
A good design can provide a nurturing place for private reflection, reading, writing, and visiting with friends and family.
A good design can block and absorb unpleasant noise, while accentuating the loveliest views.
Benefits to Soul
A good design provides food and habitat for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, whose presence can delight us.
A good design can help us recycle and in many ways be more responsible with our little piece of Earth and all the resources flowing through our lives.
Benefits to Pocketbook
A good design can save us money on food, water, medicine, and even entertainment. (If home is wonderful, why go anywhere else?) It can also extend a home’s living space, increasing one’s home value.
So, how do we create this truly good design?
In the 24 years since my certification, I’ve applied Permaculture principles to three homes and gardens, designed a half-dozen passive solar homes or retrofits for others, and gained a reputation as a promoter of passive solar ovens.
In the last two years, though, I have finally brought my garden and yard to a point of sufficient “completion” to have it included in the Evergreen Garden Club’s annual tour this year – even though I don’t actually consider myself much of a gardener! It was the garden design – functioning well on a solid rock lot – that drew the club’s attention. (And the tour prompted me to finally begin studying soil science and gardening skills in greater earnest to improve it even more. Thank you all!)
I doubt I would have had the motivation on this rock to even try to garden if I hadn’t had the insights of Permaculture, so I would like now to share them with my community.
The first step is observation, humbly setting aside what we think we know and being willing to ask questions: Why have skunks chosen this area? Why do those weeds thrive there? Why do I never use this area? Sitting quietly and thinking like a child can help!
Most Permaculture experts suggest that a person should live on a property for at least a year, going outside during rainstorms and otherwise experiencing it in all its seasons, before beginning a design. Sometimes, though, that is not possible, and a consultant or friend can provide insight beyond our personal frameworks.
The second step is to create a map with legal boundaries and constraints, such as easements and fence height limitations, buildings, topography, existing plants and soil types, etc.
The third step is to analyze the elements: What elements exist or are hoped for, what does each element need, and what does each element produce? For instance, a fruit tree needs good soil, water on a certain schedule and to certain depths, mulch to keep its roots at the optimum temperature, nutrition at certain times, pruning, protection from insect predators and late frosts, and more. It will produce not only fruit, but leaf “litter,” shade, windbreak, wood, and more. When a long list of needs and products is created for every element, a good designer will plan to have each element’s products supply other elements’ needs.
The fourth step is to analyze the sectors of energies moving through one’s property: the winds (both prevailing and daily thermals, including cold air flows – which will probably move differently on the property than across the larger terrain), sun (daily and seasonal), water flow, noise, wildlife, erosion, etc. These can be plotted on a series of maps.
The fifth step is to analyze the zones of human activity, beginning with the land outside the most used doors of the house. This first zone is where to plan for daily activities like harvesting herbs or tomatoes for a meal, taking out kitchen compost, collecting eggs and feeding the chickens, watching the children play, watering the garden, and maybe taking a path to and from house and town.
The second zone is for activities performed a little less often, like hanging out clothes, taking out trash, and checking plantings a greater distance from the kitchen door. In a rural area, goats would be sited on the farther edge.
The last zones may only be used on larger lots, though they might also be used on smaller ones. Zone three will contain fruit orchards, which don’t need daily care, and bees; zone four will be for grazing larger animals and growing hardwood trees and other plants with long-term value and needing little maintenance; and zone five will be left wild for education and moderate wildcrafting.
Of course, within each zone, the design needs to also consider the elements over time: how tall a tree will grow, what’s to fill the space until the tree reaches maturity, and how various elements might be “stacked,” for instance ground cover, shrubs, and vines beneath a tree – especially to share needs and products, for instance, understory plants providing shade for the tree’s roots as well as nitrogen.
If the analysis is complete, the puzzle may seem impossible! But dreams may be more doable than one might initially think. The longer I am here on my tiny one-tenth acre of rocky land with a house, small shop, three vehicles (for two people), and a corner with height restrictions, the more I discover I can do.
When I moved onto this lot seven years ago, my biggest priority was redirecting water away from the house and toward where I planned to one day have gardens. Since New Mexico’s rains are often heavy, I had to plan for deluges; since water is so valuable in the desert, I wanted to keep it all on my property, not add it to the rivers running down the street; therefore, I created a long swale (a shallow ditch slightly down contour) to move the deluge alongside the gardens to a deep tree basin near the western boundary, then back across the property, again slightly down contour, to a garden near the eastern boundary. I graded all the property to flow to the swale or other gardens, so that today no significant water flows into the street, and I don’t pay as often for deep watering during the summer. (Click here to see a 1-minute video of the water moving through the swale.)
The second major project was creating garden beds and holes in which to plant trees. Garden terraces were built of dry-stacked stone placed alongside the rock hill (see photo below), and tree holes were pick-axed into the stone “ground.” Today, the trees are doing very well, producing apricots, almonds, peaches, and cherries!
My third priority was creating year-round greenery and seasonal flowers for the front yard – without using very much water, as I feel it’s irresponsible to waste it growing exotics in the desert. I splurged on columbines, which grow near a water-harvesting tank, but all the rest of the flowers and plants are drought-hardy – and beautiful.
Over the years, besides creating food and herb gardens and planting six trees, I’ve also erected a water-harvesting ramada (also good for drying herbs),
and built a grape arbor,
a lovely place to sit on a spring day – and eat grapes in the summer.
My partner and I also installed a few water harvesting tanks. The one below will soon be finished to look like the granite nearby! (See the workshop announcement here. And a post on beginning this project here.)
We also laid an adobe-concrete patio (big enough for parties!) (See the post here)
And we recently installed a water tank for summer dips! (See the post by clicking here.)
I next have plans for a solar water heater (workshop announcement here), outdoor shower, chicken coop, six more fruit trees, bees on the roof (zone three!), and another large garden – enough to keep my partner and me busy for at least the rest of the summer, if not beyond.
Today, this yard, so desolate before, is where we spend a great deal of our life throughout the year – and not just working! My partner and I sit, read, sing, and muse on the beauty for hours most every evening through three seasons.
Since most everyone has a yard of some sort (even a patio can be Permaculture-designed), most everyone has this opportunity. The changes can be made gradually, as time and money allow. The critical thing is the initial design: knowing where things will be best suited in relationship to everything else.
Permaculture doesn’t offer a map, but it helps one learn how to think about creating the map.
Jean Eisenhower has been designing for 24 years and now offers affordable workshops, group projects, and consulting in garden and passive solar home design. She also sells solar ovens and can be reached at 575-534-0123.