Diversity creates richness
I recently read that our American society has become more polarized in the last years. People of one political party only want to socialize with members of the same party. The same is true in religion - pray only with people who pray in the same manner. In neighborhoods, where someone "different" moves in, the community can make it so difficult that the newcomer leaves, which then reverts the community back to a tight-knit group of like-minded people. Diversity suddenly has become suspect.
Not so in the gardening world, however. Thankfully, so!
I recently went to a permaculture conference, where the attendees were themselves a study in diversity - ranging from tattooed, dread-locked, face-pierced young people to the pony-tailed, tennis-shoed grandmothers. It was fun. The diversity created a richness that bubbled into tremendous energy as people gathered together to discuss concepts presented in one of the classes.
The permaculture movement has 12 principles, much like the hours on a clock, each one distinct yet moving close to and supporting the next one. Working together, the principles form the whole concept - with the goal of living in a way that honors the land and its people.
Principles of planting
One of the principles is to integrate rather than to segregate. Rather than having a single flower or crop, integrate the area so that if one thing becomes infected with disease, there still will be other plants that can thrive. If that principle is applied more globally, it suggests that the communal is more efficient than the individual. It means that rather than having one person making a dictatorial decision, he seeks input from others, ending up with a richer and well-thought through answer to a problem.
Diversity has been celebrated in the gardening world for years with the concept of companion planting - how one plant can assist the growth of another by attracting beneficial insects, repelling harmful insects, providing nutrients and in some cases by shading an area or offering climbing support. Farmers know horseradish planted near potatoes increases the disease resistance in potatoes. Apple trees benefit from nasturtiums, comfrey and clover planted nearby.
In permaculture, companion planting extends that concept. Guilds -a combination of plants, fungi, nitrogen fixers, etc. - are all planted together to the mutual benefit of all the plants. For instance, an apple tree might be the tallest part of a vignette of other plants. Under and around it, a nitrogen-fixer, such as clover, ceonthus, lupines, etc., can be planted, along with an insectiary, which attracts insects. Further, a weed barrier plant, such as comfrey (Don't weed-eat comfrey - that's how it spreads) can keep grass, which is a heavy water and nutrient feeder, at bay.
Another principle of permaculture is to begin small, which might be a better way to transition into more diversity in our gardens. If we begin playing with diversity by planting a decorative pot on our porch, we can watch and observe how the plants work together - another principle of permaculture in the sense that we observe nature whose systems have been working harmoniously over thousands of years. We don't get overwhelmed when we begin on a small scale.
The other day I was a friend's home and she wanted to share some leeks with me. She went into a fenced-in berm (we live in Diamond Point where deer dictate gardens more than people do!) where she had a russet Japanese maple, purple agapanthus and a lovely Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum with bright cinnamon-candy red berries on the stems and its leaves were fading to mahogany. Right in that area, she had leeks growing, with the silver gray stalks upright, a textural contrast to the lacy maple.
Mix and match
As I was writing this article, my December 2010 Fine Gardening magazine arrived, and I had to laugh because guess what one article was - "Garnish Your Garden with Edibles." Part of the thrust of the article was that some vegetables/grains, such as amaranth, kale and brussels sprouts, have such a textural presence in the garden that we might not even wish to harvest them.
They highlighted several vignettes of vegetables and flowers that worked well, such as 'Redbor' kale, 'Bright Lights' chard and black-eyed Susans. (I know Sunny Farms sells the magazine, if you're interested in buying one off the shelf.)
As we are experiencing a downturn in the economy, many are turning to the earth as a way to extend shortages in the pocket book. That idea interfaces perfectly with another trend to eat locally and to eat seasonal produce to cut down on the petroleum needed to transport food. Eating from a garden where the sun has ripened the vegetables that have been grown in nutrient-rich soil is a far different experience than eating a fast-food chicken nugget meal where we can't recognize, nor pronounce, the ingredients.
There are lots of resources around. A classic is Toby Hemenway's "Gaia's Garden," a text which details guilds and lots of how-to's which are backed up with permaculture principles.
Several other books continue with the idea of growing what we eat: a two-volume "Edible Forest Gardens" by Dave Jacke and Erick Toensmeier over $100, or a book a third as much, "Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops" by Martin Crawford.
If you want to learn more about permaculture, edible forests, guilds, companion planting, there is a plethora of information on the Internet and you can spend days reading and learning.
If all of that reading seems too heady, go out and get your hands in the still-warm October soil and plant radishes (they only need four weeks to maturity) nearby a flower. Simply observe the mini-plot and let it segue into a greater diversity in life.
Bev Hoffman can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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