About the “Permaculture In Action” series
As I travel often and practice nomadic permaculture, I created a series of periodic blog posts describing the practical permaculture work I do in various places that I visit.
Here are the previous episodes of this series published thus far:
Intro: My Mum’s
A while ago, my mum (who lives in mediterranean climate in the South of France), moved to a new house that the owner had just finished building. There was about 800 m2 of bare land and as I visited her this year, she asked me, after obtaining the landlord’s agreement, to create a garden for her.
Because mum doesn’t own the place, she didn’t want to spend much money on the project. She just wanted to have a clean and aesthetic backyard including paths to avoid walking in the mud in the rainy days.
I offered her to add a small vegetable garden that she could easily manage as she’s 66 and never had a veggie patch before; as well as to create habitat for wildlife as her village is a big vineyard area and there isn’t much wilderness left for birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other small wildlife.
As per permaculture principles, I looked into sourcing as many materials as possible locally.
I did a sector analysis and prepared a simple design that I would be able to implement within the short time I would be visiting her.
Project #1: Access paths
We did very minor earthworks to dig the walking paths about 10cm deep. We then laid-out some geotextile to avoid any new growth of weeds, added some sand that we levelled-out and slightly compacted with water, and finally covered the sand with gravel. These were left-over materials from the house construction site and we only had to buy some more geotextile to finish covering the distance of the paths.
Project #2: Food Production
I always encourage my family to eat healthy and to integrate plenty of fruits and vegetables in their diet. Here I created a small veggie patch to produce some plants that mum would usually buy often at the supermarket, and some others that she wouldn’t know much and could benefit from eating more often because of their high nutritional value.
- Salads & lettuces
- Onions & garlic
- Courgettes / zucchinis
- Green beans
- Flageolet beans
- Chards / silverbeets
- Edible & Medicinal flowers
To form the garden beds, we slightly tilled the surface of the soil which was compacted. I added some broken-down wood debris (for carbon) obtained from the town council plus old horse manure (for nitrogen) from an abandoned paddock, then layered plain cardboard that mum collected from supermarkets in the recent months, followed by a fine spread of guano (to give a NPK boost as mum’s compost wasn’t ready) and I finally covered it all up with a thick layer of old unused straw from a friend. Apart from the guano, everything was free and locally-sourced.
As per permaculture principles, the patch is a mix of annual and perennial species, includes fruits, vegetables, pollinator-friendly and pest-repellent flowers and aromatic herbs (e.g. nasturtium, calendula, chamomile, basil, etc.), as well as support species such as comfrey and nitrogen-fixing legumes. I also looked into companion planting and selected herbs and flowers that would protect the other edibles.
In addition to the veggie path, I made an herb spiral near the house so mum could brighten-up her cooking with awesome flavours, and planted the following aromatic varieties starting from top to the bottom:
- Chili peppers
- Curled & continental (flat-leaf) parsley
- Purple & holy basil
- Mint & bergamot mint
I built the spiral being careful to position its lower part to a Northeast exposure in order to protect the basil and mint from the hot summer afternoon sun. On the other hand, I placed the rosemary and thyme on top and other seedlings to the south as they tolerate dry soil and high temperatures.
If you’d like to know how to build your own kitchen herb snail, feel free to read my Hügelkultur herb spiral blog post.
Mini Food Forest
Another step of the design implementation will be to plant nut and fruit trees and a few support species in the fall when the trees go dormant (i.e. around Oct-Nov in the northern hemisphere) in the northeast corner of mum’s backyard. It will be like a very small and simple food forest, not necessarily including the 7 layers, to contribute to food production and also provide a sheltered wooded area for birds.
We will also plant an olive tree near the house and setup a nice Mediterranean-style sitting corner under its shade.
The owner planted 2 cherry trees last year. One I left as is and the other was in the middle of my veggie garden paths so I had to dig it up and move it to one of the beds. After being unhappy of being moved for a little while, it started doing much better than the first one and now shows darker leaves (sign of high nutrient density) and faster growth.
This shows the role and benefits of permaculture practices in conditioning the soil and providing rich nutrition to the plants.
Project #3: Wilflife Habitat
The ethics of permaculture entail to care for the earth and provide not only for the needs of people but also of all living things. As mentioned earlier, the small village of Campagne is dominated by vineyards, which is a monoculture and often treated with herbicides and pesticides. Consequently, there aren’t many areas left wild and I wanted to design mum’s garden in a way that I would create access to clean food, water and habitat for birds, pollinators and other small wildlife.
The only pre-existing element that was the closest to a wilderness area / zone 5 was a hedge made of small trees and shrubs on the west boundary of the property. We had seen birds nesting in there and so we immediately placed a shallow water recipient near it as it was a super quick and easy fix. Not a day later, swallows and other birds started to come and drink regularly. It has proved especially useful since June as this summer has been one of the hottest with temperatures above 30⁰C for now more than a month and extremes reaching 43⁰C.
I also planted 2 garden beds of colourful pollinator-friendly flowers, including borage, lavender, poppy, etc.
I then proceeded to create a special bird-friendly area where I built a low rose-shape rock structure and placed a large bird and bee bath in the centre with various herbs and flowers around it. I added a cotoneaster, blackcurrant, ivy and pyracantha that will all become fairly big and provide wild berries as a source of food and dense leafage as habitat.
We soon spotted many birds, bees, bumble bees and other pollinators, rollie-pollies and other small insects, lizards, and even a frog and a toad. Mum now happily complains about bird songs waking her up every morning !
This corner will grow and densify overtime, providing an aesthetic structure to the landscape as much as a safe and enjoyable space for wildlife.
We also intentionally left the area behind the bird bath and future olive tree untouched, i.e. as wildflowers & tall weeds. The first reason is that neither trees nor other deep-rooted plants can be planted above the septic tank and pipes system that runs along the southeast fence. But also, we made sure not to mow or cut this area as the role of these plants through their root system and associated microorganisms constitutes the first succession stage in repairing and conditioning the soil. The spring flowers attracted many pollinators and the tall weeds provided shelter for birds and many insects.
An advantage of attracting pollinators is that we didn’t have to hand-pollinate our zucchinis, like mum’s neighbours usually do.
One last thing we did is to leave the area around the herb spiral in fine gravel and sand, after we noticed that the little sparrows enjoyed dust-bathing there. It helps them clean their feathers and get rid of parasites.
The result of creating a mini wildlife sanctuary has been impressive and we’ve observed plenty more species of birds come to our garden everyday, among many other life forms.
Project #4: Windbreaks
One last objective in the design was to protect the south terrace from the prevailing northwest winds. There is a corridor along the west side of the property where the wind most often blows and spoils our eating experiences outside.
– First, we planted wild bamboos on the northwest corner of the property. These will likely spread and it’s fine.
– We also started raising a stone wall / rock garden as a second windbreak between the house and the natural hedge. We will need to finish this and plant a few dense shrubs on top of it.
– And last, we planted 3 more bamboos right next the deck on its northwest side where the winds come in from. We chose a variety that is non-invasive, is especially resistant to the winds, will provide dense leafage and grow about 3-4m high. These will be perfect and still let the evening sun pierce above them and through the window.
Mum and I are both happy with the progress thus far.
At the exception of the stone wall / rock garden, we finished the first implementation stage that includes all of the landscaping work and main structures. The second stage is about planting all the trees and this should occur in autumn.
We feel we met the main goal of the project which was to create an aesthetic space for mum while respecting the permaculture ethics, and making sure the design would be humble enough to fit within our tight budget, timeline and effort restrictions.
- In terms of budget and because we used many free local resources, mum only spent about 500€ to buy all the seedlings (flowers, fruits and vegetables). We sourced most of them from a local permaculture farm / herbalist. If we couldn’t find free materials and mum had to buy everything (including gravel, sand, soil, mulch, seedlings, etc.) and also pay the normal rate for the permaculture design and implementation work, this would be a project worth about 5,000-7,000€. Not bad for a house initially worth over 200,000€ and where the added value from creating the garden now vastly outweighs the cost of it. So the owner was ok to contribute to some of the costs and it has been a win-win situation for everyone.
- In terms of time and effort, I did the work over 5 non-consecutive weeks, working only part-time (when the weather and family schedule permitted it). I got a huge help from a friend with his bulldozer and driving skills to create the walking paths and my brother also helped us to fence the property all around in March. Finally, another family member is helping with the stone wall / rock garden. Last, it is likely I will no longer be in the South of France in Oct–Nov which means I will have to rely on my family and friend to plant the trees (olive tree and mini food forest).
The rest is all about patience and observing the soil heal, the trees grow and the wildlife enjoy the space as much as we do !