I'm a permaculture newbie, living in Quebec Canada, zone 5, I think. I've recently acquired a small-to-mediumish property alongside the St-Laurence river. I'd like to create an environment that is basically a giant food garden, and honestly, while I'm good with plants and love critters, the biggest garden I've ever had was in a box by a window. I now have the space to create something beautiful and healthy and up my self reliance, but honestly, I'm not sure where to start.
My knowledge of permaculture is limited to the basic principles, that which can be found on the net, essentially. I guess these are some basic questions I hope that some might want to take the time to guide me with:
1) Sun is important. Is there a good way, perhaps some online tool that would permit me to map out where the highest levels of sun will be according to the time of year?
2) I live in zone 5, otherwise known as the 137 day growing season and 228 day freezing you butt off, plowing under 80 feet of snow environment.
3) What is a good, simple, and effective way to start off on a full-sized, but smallish-learning size garden plan that will not only feed me, but start improving the soil?
Really, I'm at the basics. I know about the concept of making stuff work synergetically, zones, companion planting, thinking systematically, and that top-level knowledge is about my limit. I was thinking of starting off with the traditional row-garden just to get the hang of dealing with a larger garden as a first step, but it seems that without being over-complicated, that there might be a good way to start with some very permaculture basics.
Hi, I am new to permaculture too. I started planning my food forest/biointensive garden last April (when we moved into our current house after many months of remodeling it from vacant cat 2 condition). I am just planting a large amount of plants this spring.
The reason it took almost a year to start here was that I knew I needed to learn about our land before I could think about it systematically. As you already noticed, learning where sun is and isn't will help you get started. There is no web app to help you with this because all of the man-made and natural objects on your landscape will affect sun/shade as much or more than the global patterns of sun height/angle. Easier just to walk around your property areaand record observations of shaded areas and sun for each season. This will take a year but in the meantime you can do a lot of other prep work.
If you are in a city area, you may want to test soil for lead, and no matter where you are, you will want to test soil ph. We did the ph testing ourselves from samples all over the yard. Also dig holes to see what lies beneath (how far down does your topsoil go? is there hard pan or clay? is it full of rocks? a buried sidewalk or abandoned driveway?). Play archaeologist and cartographer for a summer. I made detailed 2D maps of my property and then created a 3D model based on those meaurements/drawings (Google Sketchup is very friendly if you are not a 3d graphics person already).
If you are doing any earthwork or cleanup (terracing, swales, hugelkultur, pulling out old landscape plants or hardscape, correcting drainage problems, installing fencing or espalier supports, creating new patio/deck/outdoor living areas, etc.) that also can fill up a spring/summer easily. Sheet mulch your lawn and future beds, then plant a cover crop on top. This will start building soil a year in advance and make your first plantings that much healthier.
Researching plants, varieties, and determining our needs/yield goals took many months and is still a work in progress. Even after a year's research and designing I still feel the planting phase 1 here is coming "too soon" and am hoping I made good choices. It can be as simple and improvised as you like, or as researched and over-engineered as you prefer. I lean toward a lot of research because I do system design in my work and can't help it! That I consider Excel workbooks an essential gardening tool for myself says everything about my planning style. For you, maybe you just start small and build from there. There is no right or wrong way, only ways that make things more fun, less stressful, and more successful by your personal standards and preferences.
If you learn well from books, I have learned a lot from these books:
The Holistic Orchard - Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips (if you want fruit without harmful chemicals, this is an amazing super practical guide for exactly how to do it)
Gaia's Garden - A Guide to Homescale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (everyone talks about this for a good reason... definitely helps with the big picture design thinking, not really a source for specific how-to info though)
I have a whole shelf of garden/permacultre/pruning/espalier books now but those two were really crucial in the design of my garden. I also suggest getting to know your local university resources (here it is University of MN) that publish free info for home gardeners with specific variety trials/recommendations. General garden books for your zone/area are also helpful (here I chose a series by Don Engebretson with books on trees & shrubs, perennials, etc. because although they promote ornamental gardening over food gardening, they are tailored to the climate I am in). Plus, for maximum biodiversity you will want some ornamentals, poisonous plants, and non-food plantings for beauty and beneficial insects/wildlife. For example, I found that Forsythia is a popular ornamental here for its super early yellow blooms but in an organic IPM article I also found it is a perfect host plant for parasitic wasps that help control Japanese beetles (a big pest in my yard). Oh, and spending a year observing plants in your yard/neighbor's yards will show you what pests to expect no matter what you plant.
Most of our first summer was spent pulling out unwanted trees and now this spring we have a bunch of wood to build hugel trenches/beds. We also took the time to build compost bins and start composting yard/food waste last summer so we have some compost now this year. There is a lot you can do while you plan for your investment in trees and shrubs (which we are starting first because they take so long to establish... getting in our cane fruits, asparagus, etc. is a priority now even though it means we are skipping tomatoes and annuals that need seed starting until next year). Perennials first, to make the forest garden structure/top layers, then filling in with helper plants and annuals later. You might prioritize annuals and start with a bunch of herbs/veggies while you decide on the bigger perennials. Whatever feels right is probably what is best for your garden.
read read read (Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway, The country liviing encyclopedia by Carla Emery, etc.)
but if you already have the land first..take out a sheet of paper and go alphabetically through some plant catalogs..and write down every single thing that you eat..or like to eat, that will grow in zone 5 or cooler..
(i live zone 4b)
if you don't like it, or it won't grow there (bananas) don't write it down.
separate your list into categories like ..grows on a tree, shrub, vine, perennial, anuual (find O P seed so you can save seed, or heirlooms)..
see what you eat the most, and the least..and what is fairly easy to grow in your area..look around and see what people grow..
if you are growing for your own food first..plant those things first..starting with the things that take the longest to bear (fruit trees, vines, nut trees, berries and perennials)...
then get some seeds or plant starts for things that you can plant and eat the same year..annuals or quick bearing perennials..and buy OP (open pollinated) or heirloom, so that if you are successful you can save your own seed and not have to buy seed year to year.
in the meantime feed your soil with any organic material you can get your hands on..in NY right now you should be thinking about planting "as soon as soil can be worked" crops like lettuces, peas, carrots, onions, parsnips, salsify, beets, turnips, swiss chard, spinach, etc..and maybe starting some tender plants in the house to transplant out if you aren't going to buy starts..
locate some other NY permies..there are plenty here and on www.homesteadingtoday.com forums and you might be able to get spare plants from some of them of things like rhubarb, horseradish, brambles, jerusalem artichokes, strawberries, and maybe some seeds..
think of planting in the zones you learned about in the permaculture studies.. things that need the most attention, esp at harvest time, closest to the house..and those that don't..llike pumpkins or nut trees farther from the house..etc..
hope this helps
Bloom where you are planted.
As Kelly said it may take a year to get to know your property, but in the meantime you can download a sun chart for your latitude and longitude and that will at least tell you where the sun rises and sets throughout the year. These are easy to google and they are free.
Here's a great little online app to show the sun's position over your land... you can put in any date, or time, and it will give you the map of the sun for that day. It's based on Google Earth, so you can choose to use the satellite image so you can see anything that might block the sun.
Here's what the page says:
SunCalc is a little app that shows sun movement and sunlight phases during the given day at the given location.
You can see sun positions at sunrise, specified time and sunset. The thin orange curve is the current sun trajectory, and the yellow area around is the variation of sun trajectories during the year. The closer a point is to the center, the higher is the sun above the horizon. The colors on the time slider above show sunlight coverage during the day.