This is the sixth article in an ongoing series that I've written in our town's alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I've also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town's transition into this new future we have before us.
In my last article I discussed the benefits of using natural forest ecosystems as models for no-till, sheet mulched gardens. This time around I’d like to extend on the idea of learning from nature to help us understand the beneficial roles of native plants and critters in our garden. The critters I’m most interested in seeing in my garden are small and usually very colorful. Birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, and insects are a part of almost any ecosystem in the Midwest and they are welcome in my permaculture garden anytime.
My guess is that some of you might be shaking your heads at the thought of inviting insects into your garden. Today’s gardeners and farmers have been taught that insects are an enemy of any effort to grow food crops and a huge industry has made a great profit from that way of thinking. Over the years corporations such as Monsanto have been very happy to sell gardeners a stew of chemical insecticides intended to eliminate any kind of insect life in the garden or around the home.
Permaculture approaches gardening very differently. In fact, from the perspective of permaculture the annual vegetable garden is just one part of a much larger integrated site design which also preserves and recovers natural biodiversity. In such an ecological landscape annual food crops such as tomatoes, squash, and corn are likely to be interplanted with native perennial wildflowers such as Purple Coneflower, Butterfly Milkweed, Bee Balm, Yarrow, Goldenrod, and Spiderwort. By creating a design using native perennials we ensure a steady supply of food for beneficial insects which perform many duties in the ecosystem including the fullest possible pollination of our crops. Yet another function of many of these native plants is as medicine for us. Purple Coneflower is perhaps one of the better known medicinals, its leaves and roots can be harvested for tea and tinctures for stimulating the immune system.
It is true that insects harmful to our crops do show up but in a well developed, healthy ecosystem the treatment for those insects is, of course, other insects. While ladybugs are perhaps the most well known predator of insects such as aphids there are a great many more beneficial predators that are likely to call our gardens and food forests home. Parasitic insects such as flies and small wasps such as braconids lay their eggs inside of other insects which are then eaten by the hatching larvae. As adults these insects consume pollen and nectar.
Yet another member of our community are spiders which act as a valuable control of the insect population and, as it happens, prefer the dark moist environment of a mulched garden. Round out this eco-community with lizards, frogs and toads which will do their part as well. These critters will also benefit from a thickly mulched garden as well as small piles of rocks placed around the garden. Even better, build a small garden pond in or near the garden which will not only provide habitat for the reptiles and amphibians but will provide a space to grow more food crops for you. An example is Broad-leaved Arrowhead, Saggittaria latifolia which provides us with edible tubers which
can be eaten like potatoes and which have a few medicinal uses. Lizard’s Tail is another easy to grow pond plant which has several medicinal uses.
Our feathered friends, wild and domestic, are another part of the surrounding ecosystem as well as our permaculture design. Many of the native perennials which are beneficial to pollinating insects are also suppliers of seed to a fantastic variety of wild birds. In the summer and fall leave your dead coneflowers standing where they are and watch birds such as the American Gold Finch feast on the seed. Not only do the birds benefit from the nutrition but they’ll help spread the seeds around and you’ll start to notice new plants popping up without any help from you.
Chickens and guineas are fantastic consumers of ticks and insects, turning that source of protein into protein for us: eggs. Use a chicken tractor to move them around different areas and they will till the ground with their constant scratching and leave behind manure which increases the fertility of our garden.
Because permaculture designers take a broader view of the “garden” as just one part in a larger system, the variety of multiple yields is much greater. Once a permaculture system is established it should produce more energy than it consumes which is largely the result of taking an approach that recognizes the possible connections between organisms in our system and which seeks to maximize their output to our benefit.