Permaculture in Practice: Observe and Interact

Do you have parts of your gardent that struggle? Or gardens that once did well but are on the decline? Do you know why? How do you know?

When I first started adding gardens to my yard, I planned based on the knowledge I had of my yard, but I didn’t know a lot. I knew my growing zone, I knew that the areas on the south side of the house would get more sun than the north side, that the east side would get morning sun and the west side would get afternoon and evening sun. I knew all of the yard had very, very poor soil because (as is standard in new developments where I live) the top soil had all been stripped away and sold before my house was built and replaced with just a thin layer of top soil that had been allowed to erode away before we moved in and quick planted grass to hold on to what little was there. I knew that the wind blew very strong around the houses and through our yards, as there was almost no

With this information, I planted. Some things did well. Some things failed almost immediately. Some things slowly declined. And I started to ask myself, ‘Why?’

Sometimes I could not find an answer, but other times there were clues. For example, the foundation bed on the eastern side of my house was a struggle. Many of the plants I tried there died. Others were severely stunted. It had soil that appeared just like the soil in the rest of the yard. It got a full half day of sun before falling into the shadow of the house in the afternoon. It’s grading and overhangs were similar to the other sides of the house.

But spring bulbs planted there were a week or two behind the spring bulbs of the same variety planted on the south side of the house, and were even behind bulbs planted on both the west and north sides. And for some reason, the soil on the east side was always seemed to be drier than soil on the other sides of the house, even soil under the eves on the other side of the house (perhaps because our prevailing winds are usually out of the west, and can blow the rain under the eves on other sides of the house, but not under the eves on the east?). While most of the bed did get sun for half of the day, a quarter of the bed was also shaded by a deck off the back of the house, which meant it only got a few hours of the coolest sun of the day before it fell into shade.

I had been thinking my plants all wrong.

Over time, I’ve found new plants that do well in that space as I have learned more about its microclimate. A pie cherry does wonderfully in the south-east corner. The extra shade makes it flower a bit later than it might have otherwise and miss spring frosts. Horseradish and Vietnamese mint are happy there – and don’t go out of bounds, likely because it is a rather difficult environment. Lovage, walking onions, amelanchers, aronia, irises, golden alexanders, russian sage, spiderwort, strawberries, and bleeding hearts all seem quite happy and have lasted many years. It just took a little time and observation to find the right plants for the space.

Early spring in the garden – The cherry tree, aronia and amelanchers are really doing well, although after 10 years the amelanchers are still about 1/3 of the 12′ height promised by the nursery. Horseradish, Lovage, walking onions and other perennials are just starting to show up. We are participating in no/low mow May, so the grass, dandelions and violets are getting quite large! The dead looking tree is a Northern Catalpa, which always leafs out late, but rewards us with beautiful orchid-like blossoms in June when the other trees are done flowering.

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