These folks getting their hackles up in the comments section don’t yet understand: permaculture is not gardening. And my work revolves around permaculture. So no, I won’t “stick to gardening” and leave 75% of what permaculture is collecting dust on the shelf.
What is Permaculture, Then?
Permaculture as a term is actually a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture” anda portmanteau of “permanent” and “culture”. Its focus is on creating permanent, resilient systems for people, and the food they grow.
Coined by Bill Mollison in the 1970s, permaculture is a design system for creating robust communities of people that live in a way that heals our relatioship with the planet, increases the quality of life for all, and creates permanent, regenerative ways of feeding those communities. To limit it to “just gardening” would be reducing permaculture to something far less integrated and effective.
Mollison – along with his student and co-founder of permaculture, David Holmgren – sought to create a set of ethics and principles that could be used to guide any design, from growing food to building homes, from urban planning to creating healthier social relationships. The obvious benefits of this system for gardening and farming helped launch permaculture into the consciousness of the ag world, especially since the founders “borrowed” heavily from proven traditional indigenous agricultural techniques.
The benefits of growing food using this system are often the way folks are first introduced to permaculture. So it is understandable that people new to permaculture would only have heard that it can be a frugal, natural, and productive way to grow food. But permaculture is so much more. It can do so much more to improve our communities and personal lives.
The principles and ethics of permaculture are not confined to the production of food. Rather, growing food is but one integrated component of building resilient human communities. The three ethics of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share guide all our design processes. In permaculture, we make a conscious choice to interact with the world in a way that cares for the Earth, cares for all people, and uses a fair share of resources (the third ethic obviously reinforces the first two).
The 12 principles of permaculture are a box of tools to help us craft gardens and homes and communities that will thrive. Using effective strategies that have evolved in nature as a guide, the 12 principles are a launching off point to get us to think about creating more interconnected and successful ways of being human beings on this planet. The 12 principles help us improve the ways we grow food and shelter ourselves, in the ways we interact with nature, in the ways we interact with other humans. (I will dive deeply into these incredibly helpful 12 design tools in a future post.)
Does Permaculture Really Work?
If permaculture is such an expansive and sweeping design system, does it really work? The answer is both “yes” and “not yet”.
The beautiful thing about permaculture design is it is scalable. The principles work whether you’re applying them to a small veggie garden, or to entire economic systems. They work whether you’re designing a whole new “green” housing development, or looking to retrofit portions of your 100 year-old house for greater efficiency.
It does not matter if you’re new to permaculture and only know its application to gardening, or whether you’re an old-hat like me, searching for the ways permaculture can help us create healthier, more compassionate, and stronger societies – permaculture design principles will work for both of us. The more we use the tools in our permaculture tool box, the more ways we can create those resilient connections in our lives, our homes, our food systems, our societies. Doing so will benefit us right now on the small scale. And the the potential is there to make large permanent systemic changes using permaculture that will only increase our resilience, our positive impact on the planet, and our quality of life as human beings.
Permaculture is about connection, and so it makes no sense to isolate the gardening aspects of it. The more we see the connections in all things, the more we realize that strengthening other elements benefits us, and makes the whole system stronger. Permaculture says, “integrate, don’t segregrate.” The more we learn that we can not partition our gardens and farms from everything else in life and in nature, the more we see the potential to harness the connections that already exist to build a better world for us, our neighbors, and the Planet.
Native bees are finally starting to get the attention they deserve. 4000+ species of native bees in the United States were overlooked in the popular consciousness for many years while the plight of honeybees soaked up the spotlight. But recently, more and more folks are catching on to the fact that our native bees are a vital part of the ecosystem, and bring a significant benefit to our home gardens as well.
While there are many species of native bees with unique physical characteristics and behavior, there are many universal ways we can support all of these invaluable pollinators, whether they’re the little solitary emerald green Agapostemon bees, or colonies of big fuzzy bumblebees. Let’s look at 5 ways every person can help out our native bees.
1. Grow A Diversity of Flowers
It has become very trendy to create a false dichotomy between honeybees and native bees. As a beekeeper, I am keenly aware of the importance of our native bees. In fact, the loudest voices for native bee conservation are honeybee keepers. And one key component of caring for our native bees is planting an abundance of forage – enough for our honeybees AND native bees, so they can both feast without competing for sources of nectar and pollen.
Flowers are food for bees. Bees need a variety of nectar and pollen sources growing all season long. The more space (in our own gardens, and in public places) we can dedicate to growing a diversity of flowers, the more we care for our native bees.
Of course, we want to grow native flowering plants from which our native bees have evolved to feed. But native and honeybees will feed from a huge array of flowers. Two things are most crucial: 1.staggering blooms so that we have at least one source of nectar in our garden the entire growing season. My garden starts with rosemary and crocus in February, and I have bee forage blooming all the way into October with late asters and sedums. 2. planting open-faced blooms that bees love, with pollen and nectar easily accessible. Native bees love those “daisy-shaped” flowers like Coreopsis, Enchinacea, and asters. In my garden, the two flowers I see visited by native bees more than any other are Rudbeckia (the first image on this post), and Bee’s Friend.
2. Bee Baths
If you’ve ever left a bucket of water out on a summer day in your garden you may have come back to find a bee or two fallen into it. Anyone with a children’s paddling pool has found bees in or around the pool on a hot day. When landscaping and urban design removes shallow sources of water like puddles and little streams, bees must seek out water where they can.
You see, bees need water to drink, just like we do. Bees that live in colonies (such as bumlebees), will also use water to cool their colonies on hot days. When we provide sources of water, we are caring for and supporting our local bee populations.
Bees can drown in deep water, so if you want to create bee waterers that are shallow and safe for bees to access. Using a shallow dish like a ceramic saucer or shallow birth bath filled with pebbles creates open sources of water with safe landing pads for our pollinators. They can safety perch on the stones and reach the water, without risk of drowning.
(Note: some folks recommend glass marbles, which are pretty and work ok, but keep in mind that transparent marbles can increase the temperature of the water significantly on a sunny day. If you use sea shells instead of pebbles, make sure they are washed thoroughly to remove sea salt.)
3. Put Away the Sprays
It goes without saying on a permaculture blog that insecticides are not the way to create an abundant garden, safe for wildlife. I have spoken extensively about the dangers of broad-spectrum insecticides that conventional gardeners use (often carelessly and thoughtlessly) to “deal” with one or two garden bests.
When you’re using those broad-spectrum poisons to get rid of x beetle or y caterpillar that is nibbing your veggies, it will indiscriminately kill a huge range of insects, including our native bees. We have to look to more intelligent and sustainable garden design methods – like permaculture – that help us produce organic nutrient-rich produce in our gardens and in commercial farms. The cost to our wildlife and to our own resilience is too high for us to continue on in this manner. Indscriminate insecticides are harming us and devastating our native pollinators.
If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out my video on garden myths (including “you need to spray”) here.
4. Creat Habitat
Unlike honeybees, whose colonies are large and obvious, it may not be so readily apparent where our native bees like to sleep or nest.
Male bumblebees sleep in flowers. Female bumblebees build nests of a few hundred bees in low structures or even in the ground. Many species of solitary bee (such as sweat bees), nest in holes they dig in sandy soil. Many other solitary bee species nest in dead plant stems, cracks and crevices of various woody plants.
So how can we preserve and protect the habitat our native bees for rest and reproduction? -Consider removing your lawn, or at least part of it, in favor of landscaping that includes bare ground for ground nesting bees, wood for carpenter bees, and plenty of flowers for those bees who need a napping spot. -Set up Bee Hotels. – Definitely ditch the black plastic mulch, which not only breaks down to create microplastic pollution, but creates impenetrable barriers to nesting habitat for our stingless groundnesting bees. – If you find established areas of bee habitat in your own yard or surrounding community (like the Tickle Bees of Sabin Elementary), create little fences with signage to educate others while protecting bee habitat from being trampled.
5. Learn About Our Native Bees
I had no idea how fascinating and diverse our native bees are until I became a beekeeper, and started expanding my knowlege in all things Apoidea. I have found bees endlessly fascinating, and it doesn’t matter how many books I read, or how much time I spend observing them in the garden, I am always learning something knew about these delightful pollinators.
If you’d like to start down a fascinating rabbit hole of the 4000+ species of native bees in North America, look no further than Our Native Bees. Paige Embry’s book is a succinct and engrossing dive into a range of bees, the researchers hoping to learn about them, and the conservationists hoping to save them. It is an excellent read, and one I recommend highly if you are just starting to learn about native bees.
Perhaps we’re enjoying those clumsy fuzzy bumbles bouncing about in the garden. Or we’re almost missing the tiny black ant-like Ceratina bees visiting our asters. Maybe we’re noticing those adorable little longhorn bees with their arcing antennae as they drink from our coneflowers. The more we create the conditions that help native bees thrive, and the more we educate ourselves about our many species of native bees, the more we can enjoy and appreciate their presence in the garden, and the benefits they bring to our garden and community ecosystems.
What Are Pepitas? How Are They Different from Pumpkin Seeds?
If you’ve ever carved a Jack O’Lantern, or grown your own eating pumpkins, you’ll know that pumpkin seeds have a thick, white hull. The entire seed can be consumed, hull and all (an excellent source of fiber), and in the US at Halloween, whole pumpkin seeds are often served as a snack when tossed in butter or olive oil, salt, and spices and roasted.
Inside the tough hull is a green, oil-rich seed. Pumpkin seed oil, pressed from these seeds, is rich in Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and vitamin A. It has long been prized as a highly-nutritious and flavorful oil enjoyed in a variety of culinary preparations from cakes to salad dressing.
The nut meat itself – called a pepita – is delicious raw or roasted, and stores well. Because hull-ing the pepitas is fiddly, hull-less varieties were developed so we can enjoy these nutty, delicious seeds without the time-consuming work of removing the hull.
Pepitas are a prized calorie crop, rich in healthy fats (16 g/serving), protein (10 g), and an excellent source of Iron, Potassium, Magnesium, Copper and Phosphorus.
Why It’s Worth Growing Your Own Pepitas
Organic pepitas are a delicious, nutritious addition to our family’s diet. They can command a high price in the grocery store, but are easy to grow, and harvest in our garden. They’re also a really rewarding crop to be able to source locally right out the back door.
If you look back at the first photo in this post, you can see storebought pepitas versus our homegrown seeds. The homegrown are much larger, nuttier in flavor, and richer in those healthy oils than the storebrands, and come with a much smaller carbon footprint.
I’m a big fan of an F1 Hybrid variety called Naked Bear, which produces a moderately-sized bright yellow pumpkin packed full of seeds. It is hardy and yields heavy crops (4-5 plants produces our family’s yearly supply of pepitas). The leftover pumpkin flesh isn’t so great for human consumption, but can be steamed and fed to the chickens and ducks, who will eat it all (raw pumpkin isn’t particularly palatable to poultry, but they love it cooked).
We mostly enjoy pepitas either in pesto, or granola (you can find a VERY old recipe from my very old and rather embarrasing blog here. The recipe is the one I still use today, but instead of 1 1/2 cups walnuts, I use a mix of walnuts sourced from my dad’s trees, and pepitas and hazelnuts from our own garden.)
Sea Buckthorn, A Useful Permaculture Shrub + High-Value Crop
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is a nitrogen fixing, thorny deciduous shrub that tolerates extremely harsh conditions where other plants may struggle. It is native to Russia and China, naturally occuring at elevations above 4,000 feet, but also grows readily at lower elevations, including the seaside. It is not a true buckthorn (Rhamnus spp), and also goes by the names sandthorn and sallowthorn. (If you haven’t guessed from the common names, the thorns are no joke, some growing as long as my index finger.)
The fruit of the sea buckthorn – called the “seaberry” – has been prized for generations as a high-value crop, rich in oils and vitamins. In recent decades, the oily fruit has increased in commercial value due to its use in cosmetics, hair oil, and moisturizers. Farms focusing on seaberry cultivation now range from Canada to Russia to Germany and across temperate parts of Asia.
In my own garden, the sea buckthorn has been a useful hedgerow plant within the food forest design. The leaves are edible for poultry, and can be dried and crushed into their feed. The shrubs themselves fix nitrogen, and their thorny branches provide shelter from songbirds from the endless pressure of urban outdoor cats.
Late in the summer (and into autumn), the shrub produces large quantities of nutritious berries. These berries freeze well, and while they’re too sour to eat straight off the bush, the juice is incredibly good in a range of culinary uses (more on that below).
How to Grow – and When Not To
Sea buckthorn is not right for every garden. I’ll be the first to say, do due diligence before adding plants to your garden or permaculture system. But for those systems where it is well-suited, sea buckthorn is a tremendously beneficial plant. I have zero regrets about adding it here at Parkrose Permaculture.
Sea buckthorn is a pioneer species. This means it is hardy, resilient, and can handle a range of difficult conditions that other plants cannot. While that resilience means it can be aggressive in certain conditions, but also means it thrives in sandy soil, clay soil, areas of high wind, salt, and low soil fertility. And not only does it thrive in harsh conditions that are not suitable for cultivating other crops, it produces large yields of fruit while doing so – and fixes nitrogen while doing so!
Questions to ask before planting sea buckthorn in your garden: 1. Do I like eating the berries? Find someone who grows seaberries and try them before planting (you can also order juice and other seaberry foods online). I tried some at the One Green World fall fruit tasting years and years ago, before deciding to buy. 2. Am I okay with a thorny, 15 ft tall set of shrubs in my garden? How will those shrubs shade/interact with other plants in my system? 3. Do I have a full-sun location for at least two shrubs? Am I aware that even shade from the uppermost branches can cause lower-branch die-back, and that shade is the kiss of death for this plant? 4. Am I okay dealing with suckers (or do I have room to let the shrub sucker naturally)? Will I be okay removing suckers a few times a year for as long as I grow these plants? 5. Does my site need erosion-control, nitrogen fixation, or songbird habitat that could be provided by this plant? 6. How would this shrub benefit my permaculture system and my diet? Do the challenges it may pose outweigh the benefits? Is it right for my garden?
Growing Sea Buckthorn
Size at Maturity : varies widely depending on conditions and variety: 4-20 feet tall, 3-10 feet wide Fruit Production: Dioecious. One male can pollinate up to 6 females. Berries are produced along the inner stems, and can be challenging to harvest. Zones: 3a-9a Temps: -45F – 100F Soil Conditions: prefers sandy, poor-quality soils, but can tolerate a wide range including straight-clay Tolerance: tolerant to wind, salt, poor fertility Sun/Shade: Needs full sun. Significant branch die-back occurs in shade. Will not fruit without full sun. Benefits: Nitrogen fixer, edible nutritious berries, medicinal leaves that can be used as livestock feed, stabilizes erosion-prone soils Challenges: Suckers, sometimes prolifically (especially males) and can form large hedges. Large thorns. Fruit tends to burst when picking by hand. Need a male and female to get fruit. Fruit is too sour to consume fresh.
The leaves of the sea buckthorn can be used as a medicinal tea. As always, consult your healthcare provider and understand fully any medicinal teas you are consuming and how they may interact with pharmeceuticals you are taking. While I’m not going to make medical claims about their use, I have enjoyed the tea myself. The leaves can be enjoyed fresh or dry easily and mixed with other garden herbs for a caffeine-free tea with a bright flavor. I prefer it with honey and milk.
The berries themselves are very, very sour, with a tinge of bitterness from the skin. I liken it to eating the skin of the sourest citrus you can find. As you might imagine, this means they are incredibly high in vitamin C. In fact, one serving has 6-10x the US RDA of vit C. The fruits also contain calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamins B1, B2, B6, and E.
Seaberries are so highly prized because they are also one of the oiliest temperate fruits you can grow. When harvesting the berries, you can see the oil as it’s deposited on your hands and in the bowl. The berries are incredibly rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3, 6, 7, and 9. The berries themselves are rich in oil that gives a buttery quality to the juice, but the seeds can also be pressed to yield an additional harvest of unsaturated oils useful for human consumption and as a skin/hair conditioner.
How to Enjoy Seaberries
Juice. The whole reason I started growing seaberries is because I wanted a temperate-climate alternative to orange juice (we drink a lot of orange juice, and obviously, that increases our carbon footprint). I like to cut the juice with water (about 50/50), and add in honey until I get the sweetness I want.
Any recipe that calls for cranberries, currants, or sour citrus (like calamondin, yuzu, lemon): think curd, jam, cheesecake, and even mixers for whiskey sour.
Fruit Leather, especially when blended with apples or pears, and some sugar/honey.
Seaberries Are A Part of Sustainable, Local, Seasonal Eating
For me, seasonal, local, sustainable food production is a huge part of why I have a permaculture garden. I want to reduce my impact on the planet in any small ways I am able. That includes trying to grow as much of my own fruit as possible, and reducing the amount of imported fruit I need to buy for my family.
My adventure in growing sea buckthorn began as a search for a local, sustainable alternative to orange juice. I have since learned that this nitrogen-fixing shrub is a huge asset to my permaculture garden, as well as to my diet. It is not without maintenance that I keep 3 of these suckering plants happily fitting into my 1/4 acre design – and also not without the occaisional poke from the long thorns. But the sucker-removal is worth it for me as I continue to reap harvests of nutritious fruits, create wildlife habitat, and gain free nitrogen fixation in my garden.
We realized had a water problem in our basement the first autumn after we bought our house. You see, I live in Portland, Oregon, and it rains a lot here. It rains and rains and rains for 9 months of the year. And then we have a dry season July-September. And then it rains again. Sometimes the grey, rainy weather feels endless.
Our house and 1/4 acre had once been part of a larger 1/2 acre plot, but the previous owners flag-lotted the property, and built their house on the back where an orchard had been. Because the flag lot consumed our house’s previous driveway (and garage, which was torn down), the previous owners poured a double-wide driveway in our house’s front yard, taking up enough space for 4 minivans. A huge section of our front yard suddenly became a non-porous surface. It was a disastrous choice for the house.
You can see in the picture above that our house is downhill from the houses across the street. Remember that we live in a rainy climate? And that asphalt and concrete are non-porous surfaces? When it rains, the driveway across the street – and moreso, the street ending in a cul de sac to its right – collect massive quantities of rainwater and funnel it downhill across the street….and straight into my yard.
Now, this water coming onto my property would be less of an issue had the previous owners not poured a giant honkin’ concrete pad right where a garden had been. And even worse, they angled the new driveway toward the house foundation. That first autumn, when heavy rains came, we discovered that this had effectively created was a series of chutes, funneling water from several houses across the street, down the cul de sac road, across the street, down our impermeable driveway…and straight into our basement.
Every time it rained heavily, the area in front of our steps was flooded with 4 inches of water that would work its way down the foundation and into the basement. We put in a sump pump and dehumidifiers – but that still didn’t fix the problem – a problem we battled for years.
The Problem is the Solution
In permaculture, we say, “The problem is the solution.” How can we creatively respond to change? How can we take a difficult situation and turn it into an opportunity?
For years after we bought the house, I would get so frustrated every time heavy rains were forecast. I knew what was going to happen in the coming hours or days: a river of water would come streaming onto my property, down into my basement, damaging my property and creating mold issues inside my home. Instead of getting ticked off and shaking my fist at the weather, I decided to take this as an opportunity to make changes in our yard design, and fix the issue.
As I said, concrete is impermeable. It’s just a chute for water. But rich, fertile soil is highly permeable. And plants drink up water through their roots. And swales slow the flow of water so that plants have time to drink it up before it moves on its way. As I observed how the water was flowing, and how various surfaces in my garden impacted water flow, I began to realize what changes I needed to make: rip out the half of the driveway where most of the water flowed toward the house, and plant gardens carefully design with swales and other ways to slow and sink the water coming onto my property.
Here you can see the driveway removal in progress and the details of my design and thought-process. We hired a professional to cut the concrete into 2ft squares, and then we removed all of them by hand, and I busted up many of them to use as urbanite -(Urbanite is the term coined for pieces of concrete removed from existing structures, and repurposed as an alternative to stone or other building blocks.)
From Concrete Nuisance to Vibrant Garden Space
Where we had removed the driveway, I built 3 sets of raised hugelkultur beds, contoured to further slow and sink the water. I also added a spot for my greenhouse, using cut up urbanite as the foundation (again, not a solid concrete foundation, but blocks that allow for water to sink into the soil below).
The beds were planted with perennials, focusing on fruiting shrubs and pollinator-attractors. Where room allows, I tuck in annuals like pumpkins and inca berries.
The benefits of ripping out half my driveway have proved to be many. Since we added the new garden beds, not one drop of water has reached my basement. My front steps no longer flood when it rains. And I have increased the productive space on my property: increasing food production, pollinator habitat, and furthering shielding my house from an unattractive view of the street and car/city bus noise.
While this project was an investment we had to save for, and took a large amount of sweat equity, it has solved a major problem in our lives, helped restore a functional basement to us, and increased our quality of life, and the beauty of our garden. It has been such a win for our family, and I’m so glad I took the time to observe, follow permaculture design principles, and turn a problem into a multi-faceted, highly-effective solution.
There’s Nothing Like a Home-Grown Fig, and Now is Their Time to Shine
As a child of the 80’s, I grew up with a very limited view of figs. They were that brown mushy stuff with little crunchy seeds in the middle of a Fig Newton. The End. It was not until I was an adult that I came to understand that a fresh fig is a truly exceptional fruit, and the only way to enjoy its full potential is to grow them yourself (or have a friend who does!).
About a decade ago, I started growing figs, and they have proved to be one of the best additions to my garden. For me (in zone 8b), figs have been hardy, disease-free, and consistently productive. (Sure, I have to share the top-most figs with the birds, but I always plan my garden with wildlife in mind. And when your tree produces 200-300 figs, there is plenty to share with the jays.)
Garden Figs are in the Moraceae family, along with mulberries. And like mulberries, figs are sugary sweet, without the higher acidity of most other garden fruits. They taste like pure sweetness, interwoven with notes that can vary from watermelon to strawberry to guava. In fact, figs can be so cloyingly sweet, my eldest kid likes to squeeze a little lime juice on her fresh figs to balance the out. (The Brix – a meaure of the sweetness of a food – of your average apple is about 14. A fig can top 25.)
No, There’s No Wasp in Your Garden Figs. They Aren’t Even True Fruit.
You may have heard that inside each fig is a little wasp. I absolutely love it when folks get excited about our pollinators, and I do not want to take the wind out of anyone’s sails here. But when folks comment on pics of garden figs with, “Did you know that there’s a little wasp inside each one?”, I can’t help but reply that this isn’t quite correct.
There are two native figs in the United States that require pollination by wasps, but neither of them produce food we eat. The Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea) and the Banyan Tree (Ficus citrifolia) both grow wild and require the services of our two native species of fig wasp to pollinate them.
Now, you may have eaten figs that have teeny tiny wasps (or remnants of them) inside. Smyrna (also called Calimyrna) figs, grown in hotter climates around the world (and in California) do need to be pollinated by wasps – a process in figs called caprification. These are the figs we often purchase dried and are used in products like those newton bar cookies.
However, the vast majority of us growing figs in the home garden are growing the Common Fig (Ficus carica). These delicious figs are not even a real “fruit”. They are an inverted packet of flowers that is loaded with sweet nectar when mature. There is no pollination occuring at all. That fig you’re enjoying from your garden is not a fruit, it is a syconiumproduced by female trees – essentially a stem-like structure packed with florets on the inside.
Needless to say, if you’re squicked out by the idea of eating wasps in your fruit, or maybe you’re a vegan and thought you can’t eat figs because they’re essentially carnivorous, you don’t need to worry about common garden figs. What you’re eating is an inverted basket or “urn” full of sweet little flowers that will mature into a delicious food without any pollination whatsoever. But, let’s go ahead and say it’s a fruit, because that’s how we know and enjoy them.
Determining Peak Ripeness for Maximum Flavor and Sweetness
Like most of the fruit we buy in the grocery store, fresh figs in the produce aisle will have been picked underripe. Unfortunately, figs picked at peak ripeness are the very definition of ephemeral. They do not ship, and last no more than a day or two. But underripe figs lack the honey texture, sweetness, and complexity of a fig that is allowed to mature on the tree. The fig you buy in the grocery store will only ever be a shadow of what if could have been if left to fully ripen on the tree.
Once picked, the fig will not continue to ripen. If you want to enjoy figs with the best possible texture, maximum sweetness and most developed-flavor profile, you must grow them yourself and pick them only when truly ripe.
If you want to know how to determine peak ripeness for your figs check out my video below (You can skip to the 4:30 mark to get right to the “how to determine ripeness” portion)
Growing Figs (and a Few Cautions)
Perhaps this post has gotten you excited about growing common figs if you don’t already grow them. Let me help you pump the brakes a bit. Permaculture is about effective design, and knowing what you’re in for when planting figs can help you determine if they are really right for your garden.
Figs can handle a wide range of soils, but cold is the kiss of death to a fig. They are hardy to 15F, but can start experiencing die-back with temps below 30F. Breba figs can be frozen off just below freezing, impacting next summer’s yields.
Figs do exceptionally well in pots, so in colder climates you can bring them into a greenhouse or the main house under lights in winter and still enjoy garden figs. In my climate, they thrive in the ground with absolutely no care. I never protect my figs, even if we get snow. I simply accept that some frost damage may occur, but the tree itself will be fine.
Some questions to ask, and crucial things to consider before you plant a fig:
Do you like figs? If you haven’t eaten a fresh fig, consider asking around in your garden club if someone grows them, so you can try them first. They are startlingly sweet, and some folks find them overwhelming. Some folks are thrown off by the texture. Always grow food you actually enjoy eating, so give figs a try before you plant them.
Can you use up the harvest? Figs can produce prolifically. Have a plan for making jam, drying, and sharing with the neighborhood.
Figs are aggressive plants. Are you ready to bring that into your garden? Their roots can be absolute beasts. I grow my figs at the back of my garden, far away from my house foundation, and as far from my neighbors’ foundations as possible. (If your fig is “too happy”, take a shovel and chop just inside the drip line to damage the roots and restrict growth.)
Are you willing to prune? Figs need pruning both to keep them from becoming giant rambly beasts, and to keep fruit producing within reach. Depending on what kind of fig you grow, it needs to be pruned differently. Some figs like my Desert King produce one crop – called a breba crop – per year. They require a different pruning technique than my Negronne fig, which will set two crops of smaller purple figs yearly – one in July (breba) and one in September (the main crop). Learn how to properly prune your figs to maximize your yields.
Figs produce a white latex which contains a compound called ficin. Some folks (like me), have a very strong reaction to ficin. (This is why some folks say fig wood is toxic to burn, while other cultures burn it readily). Ficin causes a red, blistery awful rash if it hits my skin. I wear long sleeves when pruning, and avoid pruning trees when the sap is running if I can. If you don’t know your reactivity to fig sap, wear gloves and protect your skin.
Figs can drop overripe fruit, which can attract wasps and create a mess on the ground. Do you have a plan for fallen fruit? I grow my figs in my chicken run, which means that any figs that drop are immediately eaten by chickens and ducks eat every last bit.
Which Varieties and Where to Find Them
The good thing about common figs is that they are 1. all female and 2. don’t need to be pollinated, so you only need to grow one variety. The question of whether you’ll want to stop at one fig is another thing entirely.
I did a lot of fruit tasting before I chose my fig varieties. If you’re unable to try figs before you buy, I suggest consulting other fig enthusiasts to see what they like best and what grows well in their climate.
I have two figs, Negronne (also called Violette de Bordeaux,Petite Negra, or Ronde de Bordeaux), which is a smaller (but still vigorous) fig that produces medium-small deep purple fruits with burgundy-red interior. To me, these smaller fruits do not diminish my opinion of this tree at all, because while each fruit smaller, the flavor profile is superb. Each fruit has strong strawberry overtones, and melts in the mouth.
Negronne figs also dry well, and make beautiful, deep maroon-colored jam. It is by far my favorite fig of the 8 or so varieties I’ve tasted. If autumn is mild, they will give you two crops a year. And an additional bonus: unlike many of the larger figs, these more petite fruits are not prone to splitting while maturing.
My second fig, theDesert King, is one of the most common figs grown in my area. It’s easy to understand why. This large vigorous tree can get 35 feet tall without pruning, and its fruits are equally impressive. The green fruit with a pale pink inside can be as large as my fist in a good year. While they only produce one crop a year, some years I get as many as 250 fruit of of one tree.
There are dozens of other tasty and beautiful fig varieties on the market, with varying cold hardiness, productivity, and fruit shape/color. My favorite source for fig trees is One Green World Nursery here in Portland, Oregon. They ship all over, and have a huge selection of permaculture trees, shrubs, and perennial vegetables. You can also propogate figs very easily from cuttings, so ask in your local garden clubs when folks are pruning if you can take cuttings and start your own tree for free.
If you currently grow figs, I hope this post helped you know when to pick for maximum flavor and enjoyment. If you don’t grow figs, I hope this post encourages you to consider common figs for your permaculture system.
There is absolutely nothing that compares to a fig picked fresh from the tree at peak ripeness. Permaculture design creates an opportunity for us to expand the diversity in our diets, and the pure enjoyment of our food. And a fresh ripe fig is the very definition of pure enjoyment.
My Yard Got Meme’d and Went Viral. Folks Doubted The Garden Was Real.
When Strangers Think They Know Your Garden Best
A few days ago, a meme of my front yard garden went viral on social media. I didn’t make the meme, and it’s been incorrectedly credited several times as the garden of a man in the UK, but it is, in fact, Parkrose Permaculture.
Inevitably, when someone shares a single image like this and it spreads rapidly on social media, criticisms, “gotchas”, fault-finding, and definititive judgments flood the comments section. Everyone becomes an authority and makes confident assertions and declares “this is how it really is” based on one image.
I responsed to the most common declarations in my video today (see below), but I wanted to take some space in this blog to address in detail one particular “hot take” that I didn’t address thoroughly on YouTube (perks of reading the blog!). It’s a question folks have asked long before this meme was made, and today I’m going to answer it, so let’s dive in.
Your Garden Isn’t Real, Angela.
The skeptics came out of the woodwork on each and every share, calling the images “faked.” They were confident that this garden must be photoshopped. It couldn’t be real. No one could really transform their front yard like that, right? Total strangers became “experts” on my garden based on a single meme showing a small portion of the yard. As the French say, “Trop beau pour être vrai,” and being manic with our skepticism sure is en vogue.
OK, OK. Maybe It IS Real, But She Definitely Doesn’t Have 32 Fruit and Nut Trees on 1/4 Acre.
While the confirmation bias of folks making these assertions on the internet was intensely strong, several lovely humans did return and say, “Gah, my bad! I should not have made assumptions,” after viewing more pictures of the garden or finding my YouTube. It takes integrity in our modern society to say, “Welp, I goofed that up. I’m sorry!”, so I appreciate it when folks admit they’re wrong and want to do better going forward.
To be fair, the transformation of the garden is profound. I look back at pictures of the house when we first moved in, and it doesn’t feel like my house at all. Although, even back in 2009, in my mind’s eye, I could see what the garden would look like in time. I had faith in the process, and have enjoyed every step of getting from there to here. It may seem too good to be true, so I understand the skepticism. But perhaps ask questions instead of assuming. Afterall, you know what they say about that…
Ok, but seriously…32? Impossible.
If folks believed that the images weren’t fake, they still called me “dishonest”. According to these guys, based on one image, they knew I was clearly “exaggerating” how many trees I can carefully fit on the property. It simply didn’t mesh with their mental image of how trees should be positioned in the landscape. It didn’t fit with the image of how horticulturists and modern farmers tell us we must grow fruit trees. Afterall, if you haven’t seen it done, it can be difficult to imagine another way. It’s easier to disbelieve than ask for evidence that might change your mind.
If You Really Grow 32 Fruit and Nut Trees, What Are They, Hm? Hmm?!
I have compassion for the level of skepticism happening in response to this meme, and I thought perhaps the most helpful thing to do here – both for doubters, and folks interested in adding trees to their own gardens – would be to list out for you all of the trees I grow here. I’m going to be totally honest right from the get-go: The youngest tree is 2. Most are over 10 years old, and a few are 15 (purchased as 1-2 yr old trees, or squirrel-planted before we moved in). It’s not actually 32 trees, but check for yourself:
Plums, European (Prunus) x5 – Shropshire Damson, Stanley, Early Laxton, Bavay’s Greengage, Early Italian
Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) x3 – Allegheny, Rappahanock, and Suquehanna
Elderberry (Sambucus) x2 –Nova and York (I used to have a Blue elder, but removed it)
Apple (Malus) x6 – Ashmead’s Kernel, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Roxbury Russet, Honeycrisp, Liberty, Cox’s Orange Pippin (again, I used to have more. It was too many apples)
Medlar (Mespilus germanica) – Breda Giant
Pear, Asian – triple grafted (In a pot)
Pear, European – Seckel
Fig (Ficus carica) x2 – Desert King and Negronne (the latter is superb)
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) x3 – (this is technically a shrub, but grows very very large and I treat it like a tree) 2 females, and 1 male
Hazelnut (Corylus) – my lone nut tree. I coppice it for firewood and plant stakes. Nuts.
Persimmon (Diospyros) x2 – Early Fuyu and a hybrid persimmon, Nikita’s Gift
Quince (Cydonia oblonga) x3 – Aromatnaya, Krimskaya, and an unnamed variety
Mulberry (Malus rubra) x3 – Illinois Everybearing, Contorted, and Dwarf
Purple Robe locust (Robinia) – this tree’s seeds are not edible. It is an important nurse tree in my food forest, produces edible blossoms, but will eventually be cycled out.
Peach –Oregon Curl Free
Jujube (Zizyphus jujuba) – Lee and Lang
Lemons – Meyer and Variegated Meyer in pots (they live in the greenhouse in winter)
Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis)- also in a pot, and sheltered in the winter outdoors
Like I said, not 32. That list makes 40. I generally don’t count the trees in pots, but they are an important part of our system and do produce important yields for me and I should. I did not include bush cherries, large shrubs like goumi and aronia and tallbush cranberry. Perhaps smaller fruits are a topic for another post in the near future.
I hope that information is helpful for folks. In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to lay out how I fit all these trees, why I need them all, and what my design process is. It is my sincere hope that I can help illuminate how permaculture – real world permaculture, not a thought exercise – functions. Hiccups and all. That’s my goal in blogging and making videos: to share the design process of permaculture, explain the principles, and how the work in the context of our real, hectic lives, and in our real gardens. For me and my family right now, 40 trees works in that context. It enriches our lives and feeds our bellies, and creates habitat for wildlife.
In an extractive world, regenerative ways of living can seem really foreign. Our knee-jerk reaction can understandably veer toward skepticism when someone tries something far outside the cultural norm. It’s my hope that permaculture – and other resilient design systems – can become accepted and normalized. Goodness knows we and the Planet need them.
If anything, I’m grateful that despite all the hater-ade I got from this meme blowing up (as much as permaculture memes can blow up?) on social media, it has helped more folks discover permaculture design, and helped more folks question the status quo when it comes to our gardens, our neighborhood design, and how we organize our society. I love sharing my garden, and am glad this experience has given me the opportunity to share it with more people, and explain in more detail how the system is designed and functions.
2022 thus far has proven to be a difficult year for fruit growers in my part of of the world. Coming out of multiple years of drought, we started off the year with record cold snaps. We had a freak 3 inches of snow after our last frost date. In fact, the snow hit so late that stone fruit were already blooming in the Pacific Northwest. Frozen blossoms are nothing short of a disaster for orchardists. Many gardeners liked me had to face the harsh reality of a year with no cherries, no peaches, and few plums. Even early apples and breba figs yields have been hit.
On top of the freeze, a cold rainy spring kept pollinators hunkered down. And heavy rains created unusually high fungal pressure. Blueberry crops have disappointed many, since they bloomed while temperatures were too cool or the weather too rainy for bees to be out foraging. Decade-old raspberry patches have root rot for the first time ever. Even my blackcap raspberries – a reliable crop with consistently large yields – had poor pollination.
A Resilient Berry in Hard Times
While the weather has absolutely crushed many harvests in my garden this year, all is not lost. In fact, one of the reason I grow a huge diversity of fruits is so that if one – or 6 – crops fail, I have many others that are likely to produce well for me. Building diversity into our systems increases our resilience. And one such insurance policy that has yielded fantastically for me over the years it the mulberry.
Mulberries (Morus rubra, Morus alba, or Morus alba x rubra), are a genus of trees known for their production of deep reddish-purple fruits that are reminiscient of blackberries (Rubus genus). (White mulberries are, obviously, white or pale pink). The fruit is delightfully sweet, and lacks the acidity of blackberries.
These beautiful trees produce profusely, with berries ripening over several weeks to months. This results in a reliable daily harvest for long periods of time. I pick for a f ew minutes daily, and quickly fill multiple gallon containers in the freezer, with lots leftover for fresh eating each day. In July, dessert in the evening often looks like a handful of mulberries straight off the tree.
(Note, unlike blackberries and raspberries, the stem of the mulberry runs the whole length of the inside of the fruit. It’s totally edible! You can eat it, or not. Your choice, but the fruit is melded to the stem at its core and the stem cannot be removed.)
For me, growing mulberries has been a critically important part of our resilient design. When other berries fail, no matter the weird weather, my 3 mulberry trees produce reliably. There is plenty to share with wildlife (and my poultry – ducks love mulberries). When we build diversity into our permaculture systems, we create insurance policies for ourselves. My mulberries are my berry insurance policy: when more fiddly and delicate fruits fail, I can count on mulberries to give me a yield.
Tips for Growing Mulberries
In my temperate climate, both red (M. rubra) and white (M. alba) grow well, but in many places white mulberries are an invasive species, spreading vigorously and displacing native trees and shrubs. Check before you plant, or consider only red mulberry species.
Fruit size, color and quality vary considerably across varieties, but all are sweet and good eating. My Contorted Mulberry produces rather small fruit in moderate quantities, but my Illinois Everbearing is a workhorse: cranking out huge quantities of good-sized fruit for weeks on end. The Pakistani mulberry produces elongated fruits prized for their unusual length, but can be a bit less cold tolerant, so I chose not to grow it here.
Consider that birds will love your mulberries, too. I count on 20% of my harvest going to wildlife and plan accordingly when it comes to pruning.
More cold hardy varieties can be grown in zones 5 and 6-8, with less tolerant varieties 7-9 (In cold snaps, the trees can get die-back, particularly in areas pruned during the previous year.)
Trees range from 6-20 meters (20-60+ft) at maturity, depending on species and variety. Choose carefully I don’t care what the catalogs tell you, mulberries are fast-growing, vigorous trees, and mine needs diligent pruning (pollarding) to keep it an appropriate size for my garden (see video above for more info).
Mulberries like a sunny spot, and can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. Once established, they are extremely drought tolerant. I never water my mulberry trees.
One of the beautiful things about permaculture design is that it is site-specific. This means you tailor your design to your needs, your yard, your community. Mulberries are not the right choice for every garden design. As I mentioned earlier, the trees can get quite large. If I were not committed to yearly pollarding, Illinois Everybearing would not have been an appropriate tree for my yard.
Mulberry juice stains. Everything. Hands, clothes, concrete, roof tiles. When deciding if this tree is right for your design, plan accordingly. Don’t plant over a driveway, for instance. I pick berries wearing dark-colored clothes so they aren’t ruined by any falling fruit or the juice that gets all over my hands.
In permaculture we design with stacking functions in mind. This concept means we try to have every element in our garden do as many “jobs” as possible. We looke for the connections in different elements in our system to increase resilience. In order to address the issue of stainy, fallen fruit, prevent fruit flies, and keep the area under the tree tidier, I planted my largest mulberry in my poultry run. Ducks and chickens relish mulberry fruit and quickly clean up every fruit that hits the ground. So my mulberry tree feeds not only our family, but also provides weeks of snacks for the poultry with zero effort on my part. And it stacks another function in nicely: The birds enjoy the shade the tree provides as it effectively cools the chicken run in summer.
When planning your permaculture system or homestead, perhaps a mulberry might be a tree worth planting. Understanding the pluses and minuses of this tree, how would it work into your design to increase your food security when other crops might fail? Consider the mulberry, a tree that has served our family well and is a crucial component of my resilient garden design.
I did not intend to reboot my blog after a several year absence with a post like this. But life is full of surprises. Some welcome, and some not. It’s how we respond and adapt that makes all the difference.
This week, a documentary film company made a meme of my 14 year-old permaculture garden in Portland, Oregon, USA, using “before” and “after” images, taken more than a decade apart. It immediately went viral and was shared thousands of times across multiple social media sites.
I didn’t make this meme, and had no control of what happened to it when it was set adrift in the swirling garbage patch that is the internet. That being said, watching the descending swarm of commentors attacking a garden I have poured my heart and soul and sweat and energy into for almost a decade and a half felt like watching my baby be thrown to the wolves.
Strangers Know Your Garden Best, and They’ll Make Sure You Know It
In a matter of hours, I’d been bombarded by comments sprinkled around social media as this meme gets shared over and over: -interested folks asking how they can learn about my garden
-other gardeners sharing their gardens which look similar
-total strangers boldly declaring the images were faked or that based on ONE picture, they were sure my garden must be overrun with snakes and mosquitoes and my water bill must be astronomical
– and hundreds of insults and offensive comments. “Looks like a foreclosure.” “I’d move if this was my neighbor.” “What a mess.” “She wouldn’t know a pretty garden if it bit her in the ass.” “Looks like shit.”
As a small-time YouTuber, but dedicated garden educator whose real life is lived in blissful anonymity, I’m not accustomed to being pelted with disgraceful behavior like this from hundreds of total strangers. Performative cruelty lobbed straight at me and my home is not a daily occurence in my life. Needless to say, it’s been a rough couple of days.
The Problem is the Solution
My heart feels a bit beat up, and my idealistic belief in humanity shaken a bit, but I wouldn’t be a permaculturist if I didn’t choose to see this experience as an option to design for a better world. In permaculture we have a saying, “The problem is the solution.” This simple phrase means that hidden in the problem are the keys to designing solutions that heal. When we break apart and examine the problem, when we reframe the “problem” as an opportunity to observe and learn, we can begin to understand and craft solutions. Pain, hardship, failure all can lead us toward solutions if we let them.
Let’s start with reframing. I don’t have a “slugs are eating my greens” problem. I have an “abundance of duck food” solution. Similarly, I don’t have a “windy spot where every plant gets windburn” problem. I have a “chance to design a windbreak and create shelter” opportunity.
So, what is the solution in this situation? As I kept sifting through the comments, two areas for improvement rose to the forefront for me.
The Solution is People Care
1. What can be learned when folks feel entitled to weaponize their loneliness, anger, bitterness and denigrate a stranger and her work in public? What can we do to help improve our People Care when we interact with each other?
As the parent of 4 kids, I see the solution in our youth: in the ways they’re normalizing therapy, working on healthy communication and empathy. They’re learning to set boundaries. They actively work on healing from their trauma. They’re growing into the kinds of adults who can make a better future.
Those of us who have positive relationships with kids can help encourage the permaculture ethic of People Care and promote a culture of nontoxic and empathetic interaction. You don’t have to be a parent to work on your own issues and help instill non-toxic masculinity, strong boundary setting, and compassionate communicate in kids. In fact, doing so helps you heal from the trauma we hope to never strap our kids with in the first place.
We have an opportunity here to be better people, and do better by each other going forward. When we heal the ways we think about and relate to other human beings, we are on the road to creating resilient communities.
Shifting Our Expectations of Front Yard Gardens
2. Why is it that the dominant (particularly American) mindset is that a lawn with a row of boxwoods is “pretty” and “tidy” and “good”, and a vibrant, productive garden that creates habitat for wildlife, and food and resilience for the family who lives there is seen as “ugly” and “messy” and “trashy”? We’ve been so indoctrinated we have lost sight of what truly diverse and thriving gardens look like, and boring, resource-heavy lawns have been normalized. The solution is to retrain our eyes,, our hearts, our cultural norms.
Those of us who already garden this way, should do it proudly and work to shift the culture and our expectations to see permaculture systems for what they are: a way to improve the lives of the folks who live there and increase resilience and biodiversity. We have an opportunity here to educate and a chance to expand our view of beauty so that we can become resilient people in an increasingly unstable world.
Am I saying I expect everyone to like my way of gardening? No. Am I expecting every unique individual to love my lush, abundant permaculture garden when they’ve been conditioned their whole lives to see flat grass and shapeless blobs of ornamental shrubs as beautiful? Not by any means. In fact, permaculture is site-specific design. Every garden is tailored to the needs of the gardener and her land and climate. So, I don’t expect anyone’s garden to look just like mine.
But I do hope we can learn to do better by each other and by the planet. We are better than the worst of these comments. These folks who took their time and their energy to behave in public with performative cruelty toward a stranger not only show the rest of us how not to be, but they themselves have the opportunity to do better going forward.
I don’t think I could have made it more than 20 years doing permaculture in late-stage capitalism, a warming climate, and a divisive culture if I wasn’t an idealist. I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t eternally hope for the best for people and the planet. I’m glad to be back to blogging, and while this isn’t quite the topic I had intended to relaunch my blog, I’ll take it and learn the lessons along the way.
I’ll be posting regularly here while I continue to make YouTube videos and work on writing my book. Lots more to come on permaculture design, practical resilient gardening, and community connection.