Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Urban Permaculture and Garden Design v.1

© Transition Frome
Last weekend I went on an introduction to Urban Permaculture course at the Environment Centre. I've been reading about permaculture for 10 years, having found some old copies of Permaculture Magazine in the library of a housing co-op I used to live in. I love permaculture to a ridiculous degree, so this is going to be a long blogpost. Get comfy :)

For those who might not know, here is a page of various definitions of permaculture. It's hard to pin down, in some ways, and people often mistakenly think it is only about farms and gardens. Google defines it thus: "The development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient." This is true to some extent, but many designers are now also applying permaculture principles to buildings, communities, and their own personal lives.

I like to think of permaculture as a way of applying common sense systematically and from the start. The idea is that when you're considering making changes to something (be it your business, your garden or your own life) you invest a large amount of time observing what is already there, what constraints are outside of your control and working out what you really want to get from your project. Once you've got a good idea of these things, you start to work out how it can all best fit together so that you design a system that needs minimum inputs from outside, produces minimum waste, and needs minimum work to run.

Image nicked from Wikipedia
During years of espousing the brilliance of this idea to people, I can't tell you how many have said to me "but that's just common sense". Yes, it is, but as I've also heard it said, common sense is not very common. How many of us, when starting a project of any sort, follow patterns set out by habit and previous experience? And how many of us look at the project afresh by first seeing what we have to work with, and what would suit this individual instance best? Not many, I'd wager.

This is where permaculture design comes in, giving us a framework within which to start at the beginning again each time. Obviously our previous experience will provide us with references for what works for us and what doesn't, but it's vital to set this experience in the context of whatever it is that we are attempting. For me, that doesn't come naturally, so I appreciate being shown an alternative way. 

Ooo, get me.

Disclaimer: This is just me daydreaming. Obviously we'll design the garden as a co-op after lots of thorough observation has occurred.

Celebrity pencils courtesy of Poly In Pictures* :)
So, let's have a little walk-through of this gorgeous example of urban permaculture (ahem). Starting at the house, we come out of the back doors into a glazed exterior space. This space is fulfilling lots of purposes. It's an additional area for drying clothes in wet weather, we can bring on plants here and keep tender things which need more heat and attention than they'd get outside. It also provides another link from the living room to the bathroom, and has enough space for one or two people to sit out in. Warm air from this space can also be used to provide ventilation to the living room by opening the windows (which will hopefully become french doors, as indicated here).

Leaving the sunspace, there is a large concrete area. This is already present at the house, and being as it's a lot of work to lift it, I decided to work with it instead. This area fulfills lots of needs, despite being relatively compact. There are raised beds for annual and frequently-harvested perennial crops. A water butt connected to the downpipe from the extension roof provides water for these beds. There's also a herb spiral which is close to the kitchen, with a small pond at the bottom for water-loving plants. This will help to attract more wildlife to the garden. There is also a covered smoking area with a bench under it. In my dreamworld this has a sedum roof, just because I like them (although they're also great for insects). The centre of this area is left as hardstanding so that we can use it for a multitude of purposes; bringing chairs from inside so we can eat out there, doing DIY jobs that can't be done indoors, putting clothes airers out on sunny days and growing extra things in pots, for example. The walls of this space can also be used for vertical growing, and the long kind of washing line which is affixed to poles can run across the whole space.

Moving through the gorgeous trellis wall and archway (the black and wiggly lines on the picture) planted with productive climbers such as hops and kiwi, we come out onto the lawn. This is a social and play space above all else, but it is bordered with productivity on all sides. To the left there are perennial crops in low beds, with trained fruit trees running along the sunny wall.  To the right there is an enclosure for chickens. This has the compost bins in it so as to minimise the amount of trekking about with household food waste we will have to do. People can feed the chickens on their way to the compost bins, and when we clean out the coop we'll only have a short distance to transport the manure/straw mix. Comfrey is planted around the bins so we can cut it occasionally to add extra minerals to the compost. Chickens also love it as a forage food. The rest of their enclosure is also planted with plants which provide forage for them, as are the fences on all sides. This won't supply their whole diet but will hopefully enrich it and make their lives more interesting. The water butt here is for the chickens' water, and to be handy for cleaning out the coop and rinsing compost containers.

Winding our way down the garden we can see more beds surrounding the dwarf apple tree, which also provides a nice shady spot to sit in. The shape of the beds means that all parts of them can be easily reached without ever having to stand on the bed. Also, wiggly is good. Past the apple tree there is a secluded spot just for the bees, which is gated to keep small children and dogs from bothering them. The fences of this enclosure are planted with climbing soft fruit, and inside the enclosure there is lots of insect-friendly planting which will hopefully help to give us a good reputation amongst the pollinators.

Blimey! Well now that you're here, please accept my congratulations on making it through this lengthy ramble! I hope you enjoyed walking through our potential future garden as much as some of you enjoyed walking through our potential future house in Cassian's last post. When dreams become reality, I promise we'll keep you posted :)

- Hannah

Further disclaimer: I was wary of doing a design for any aspect of Labyrinth, because it would be missing the important survey and analysis stages of the design process (which I realise I've just touted the importance of, but bear with me), but I felt that the contribution to my enthusiasm for a house which I have previously not been mad keen on outweighed this flagrant hypocrisy on my part. Also, everyone else wanted to see if I really could squeeze all the stuff they wanted in ;)

I got the orientation details and the size of the garden from an aerial photograph online, and added to that my observations from walking past the back of the property many times. The dimensions might be terrifically wrong, but let's imagine they're not, and then appreciate just how much you can fit into a fairly low-maintenance urban garden.

* Poly In Pictures is Cassian's web comic. Peruse it to see more work by these rather accomplished drawing implements. 


  1. You posted a credit link because of my COLOURING PENCILS! <3 :P

  2. Yay permaculture! I did a permaculture design course at EAT 2011 and it was awesome.

    Currently in the throes of implementing a permaculture plan for our new garden (which was paved all over when we moved in 8 months ago, and now has some rather patchy grass, several raised beds, & a water-butt). In other circs I might have delayed some of the implementation for longer to do more observing, but given imminent baby arrival, I figured that it either happened *before* March or not until some distant future point. So thumbs crossed that I've gotten the more permanent things at least mostly right!

    Re dwarf apple trees: I did some research on self-fertile dwarf apples before buying our apple tree a couple of months ago, if you're interested.

  3. What a lovely comment - and thank you for the link to your blog! The apple post was brilliant, and I have bookmarked it so that I can read through all of the other ace posts.

    Good luck with your garden, and the new arrival :D - H xxx

  4. Enthusiastically permaculture designing a house you don't own yet with Celebrity pencils? Excited? Hannah? NEVER!

  5. I love that spiral garden you guys have! We just bought land and plan to use permaculture design and build a bunch of yurt-shaped earthships linked with greenhouse hallways. We started a blog, too, and right now we're logging our planning stages on the blog. I think this spiral herb garden is so awesome I want to build one on our land, too. If I link back to you guys would you mind if I stole your pic?