Review: Gaia’s Garden

Some time ago, I looked for some books that would provide a good introduction to the topic of permaculture. Turns out there’s quite a bit of literature on it and one of the ones I chose was Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture which gives an excellent introduction to permaculture and specifically how to apply the principles to small and medium suburban blocks of land. My interest in permaculture is both theoretical and hopefully someday in the not-too-distant future also practical. But what on earth, you may ask, is permaculture?

Permaculture, originally short for “permanent agriculture“, can be described in a diverse range of complementary ways. In the context of this book in particular,permaculture is a design approach to create landscapes that function like ecosystems. That short description, however, hardly does the overall concept justice. Permaculture is based on dozen or so principles which can be applied to a wide range of topics;

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use and value diversity
  10. Use edges and value the marginal
  11. Creatively use and respond to change

Several of the above principles as well as the overall intention of permaculture appeal to me; one particularly interesting aspect that one can quickly learn to apply elsewhere is that of stacking functions; nothing in nature does just one thing, and we can learn to take that into account in non-plant things as well. To give an example from the very simplest end, a roof in a house need not be just for protection from the elements; it can also be used to capture energy, heat water and collect precious rainwater. In the garden environment, when following the principles in garden design the workload of the gardener is greatly reduced. We have come to understand “low-maintenance” gardens as consisting of few plants and lots of rock and tiles etc – not exactly conducive to having a productive garden. Other appealing features are the resilient nature of the garden created, the diversity, the different micro-climates and sustainable gardening in that permaculture eschews using any pesticides or other artificial and unnatural controlling mechanisms.

In short, there’s a lot to like about permaculture once you start understanding what it means.

The typical garden treats plants in isolation; carrots here, potatoes there, an herb in that row – not much, if any, attention is given on the interactions of the different species and how well they complement each other. Permaculture changes all that. We all know plants and other elements of an ecology have needs; things like various soil nutrients, water etc. Properly designing the ecosystem so that these needs can be met by other participants of the ecosystem as opposed to requiring human intervention is advantageous to not only the participating plants but also the gardener. As the book puts it very well;

Each clever linkage between design elements means one less job for the gardener, one less wheelbarrow load to schlep into or out of our garden. Each need not satisfied by another component of the design becomes work for the gardener; each product not used becomes pollution. The idea is to minimize both by designing wise connections.

There are many fascinating insights in the book; from the impressive recycling natural systems do to the role of trees in creating rainfall, the role of hedgerows in limiting insect outbreaks, to the numerous redundant design elements that can be used to store and hold water in the ground and many other things, I definitely learned a lot from the book. One enlightening insight was that “exotic” or “invasive” species need not be a bad thing; one can have an ecologically well-functioning system with both kinds of plants present; diversity alone limits the possibilities the invasive species have to invade too much and other techniques can be used to limit them further. Exotics, i.e. non-native plants, can also be successfully weaved into a sustainable and product garden. One thing also worth mentioning is that permaculture is not the same thing as being organic; while they are related topics, permaculture is a much broader topic, encompassing many areas and design elements not considered at all by organic guidelines. Food grown in a garden designed by adhering to permaculture-principles is organic, but an organic producer does not necessarily take into account permaculture principles.

One thing that the book does not cover in any significant detail is the role of domesticated animals and how those can be linked with the design. There is discussion about the wild animals’ roles, but useful multi-purpose animals like chickens are not, I think, given the coverage they would deserve. So it’s worth keeping in mind that Gaia’s Garden is predominantly a book about plants; it doesn’t provide much guidance in the (domesticated) animals-department. For plants, however, it has an extensive list of examples and lists of plants that can be used as well as example guilds (a collection of plants in a mutually beneficial relationship when planted close to each other). Being a book geared towards the US, not all of them are obviously applicable everywhere else, but it does provide an excellent start.

As an introductory book to permaculture as well as a design manual for your garden design, I can highly recommend Gaia’s Garden. Given all this new information, I’m of course itching to put some of it into practice. That will, however, have to wait for a while as our current “garden” is a “low-maintenance” piece of tile-dominated terrace-type of arrangement with room for not much at all.

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