In early June 2013 I moved house and was given free rein on a large and weedy vegetable patch. Living further out from town I did not have the access to fresh, local, organic food that I was used to and wanted. Growing my own seemed a good solution.
I have dabbled in food growing in the past, but I would not say I am very experienced. I did however, have a lot of enthusiasm and had read a fair few books and articles that had inspired me in different methods I could try. I also wanted to build on my learnings from the allotment design that I did for my mum.
As it was already well into the growing season when I started, I decided to use 2013 primarily as observation time and aim for a design for the 2014 growing season. To this end I took some photos and recorded the success of my small scale growing that year.
It was pretty rampant, but my housemate James did a grand job of clearing it all. I did, however, have lots of Earthcare guilt about the exposed and disrupted soil ecosystems.
In the meantime I was reading through Aranya’s book Permaculture Design – a step by step guide and reflecting on my previous land-based design. This gave me lots of ideas for taking forwards. So I started by taking measurements to put together a basemap and discovered string and a short tape measure is no substitute for a proper surveying tape measure! Nevertheless I did my best using my smart phone to take bearings too. When it came to drawing it up there was definitely a bit of inaccuracy, but I concluded that for what I was doing that level of inaccuracy wasn’t a big problem.
I also surveyed the plants already there and rated their frequency with the DAFOR scale. It was really interesting to actually identify all of the ‘weeds’ that were growing. I could not deduce a clear pattern from them though in terms of where they like to grow, apart from disturbed ground! It would have been interesting to have done this before it was cleared too, when the plant communities were more established.
I also did an inventory of all of the seeds that I had gathered from various sources – some donated from my mum, some hanging around in the house and some spare ones of Bills. I sorted them into what time of year they needed planting so it was easy to find. I was introduced to James Wong’s book James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution and I got inspired so I bought some seeds for people for Christmas and to save on postage I bought some for myself as well, but as I did not have a plan by that point it was a little bit random which I chose.
I did a small amount of growing in 2013, mostly with spare plants that my mum bought up for me. I kept it all in a small patch and tried out a few techniques like mulching with the weeds I had just pulled up. I kept a record of everything that I did in a notebook, my housemate James also created a blog for recording our experiments, but I never got round to writing on it. I had mixed success, but I learnt things such as that mulching can increase the numbers of slugs and also did quite a lot of unrecorded observation.
This is as far as I had got by the time the year turned and I was starting to get a bit anxious about getting a design together as I knew that I needed to start planting seeds soon.
So I continued with my information gathering by doing some soil tests in a few sites and discovered there was more clay than I had expected, however trying to do a more thorough jam jar soil test just confused me, because there was still so much suspended sediment when I was supposed to mark the boundary between sand and silt that I couldn’t see where the surface of the sediment was and then as the sediment settled over the next few days it ‘sunk’ and so the levels for clay were also inaccurate, although you could quite clearly see the clay layer.
With this information I drew up my basemap and an overlay of existing plants and soils.
I then came to sectors… I had a go at spotting frost patterns, where it lingered and where it melted; I went out in the pouring rain to see if water pooled anywhere or drained in any particular pattern; I chose a windy day and put out a load of plastic bags on sticks to try and discern patterns in the winds flow. I could not discern much variation across the patch from any of them, but there were a few site wide discoveries – the hedge provided a little shelter from frost underneath it; there was no pooling of water even during heavy rain, in fact the whole patch was raised up from the road where water did pool; and there was not enough wind at a metre height to blow the bags even when it was quite windy.
Now the sector where there was variation across the patch was in shading, but having not thought about it in advance I did not have observations from other times of year to use. So I decided to try out the sun compass. The instructions on it were not that clear, so although I had a go I was not sure whether I had done it right. When I tried to turn it into a sun sector overlay I was skeptical of the results, so I referred back to some photographs I had taken in the summer as well as an aerial photo taken around the autumn equinox and observations at the time which was the spring equinox to try and corroborate it. I concluded that I had too much shadow using the sun compass so I ended up using the accurate information from the photos and observations and then extrapolating and using my recordings to guesstimate the rest.
I also found the long term weather data for the area.
The remainder of the Survey stage was looking at what was wanted. So I did a consultation with everyone else in the house and then a much more detailed Client Interview with myself.
The process of putting together the basemap and looking through the results of all of the surveying started off the analysis in my head. I then considered all of this information and used it to identify the key functions of the design. I also set myself some SMART goals around these functions.
From these I attempted to start thinking about the systems that I would need to meet the functions, but I found this quite challenging as the space was quite simple and therefore did not need lots of systems in it beyond growing plants. So I ended up starting with a different tack of writing a list of the plants that I wanted to grow. As I did not already have the knowledge of the growing preferences of these plants I decided that I would create a database which I could then use to help me plan which plants I would grow where. So I created a comprehensive database which you can see a sample of below.
This helped me to see which seeds or plants I did not have and would like. Through this and discussing emerging ideas with other people, I got donations of more seeds as well as a gifts of lots of native wild flower seeds for my birthday.
I also did a wider sketch map of the location of the veg patch marking on the zones and the flows of people.
This where it started to get a bit mixed up, because the season was progressing and I was aware that I needed to start planting seeds and clearing ground now, but I did not have a design finished and so I tried to split my time between the two! For the ease of understanding I will still write about them as separate stages though.
I then went back to the functions and set about identifying elements that could meet them.
These ended up quite process orientated as the key features of water and composting etc were already fixed in location. So although they clarified the approach I would like to take they did not contribute too much to the physical layout, apart from the access side. That is therefore where I focused next, planning the network of paths. With not a great deal of variation across the patch to affect things I designed a network of paths which were visually appealing but gave good access to all beds. I divided the plot into areas so that I could work in small achievable steps. I then used my spreadsheet as well as further internet and book research to put together some polycultures to try out, aiming for a mix of heights and similar planting timings. I then assigned these to each of the areas, depending on how high they grew to minimise shading.
By the time I had finished my design I had already got so far with actions and into the season that it was too late to put together an implementation plan, let alone a maintenance plan. I was essentially winging it trying to use my emerging design to inform my actions.
From necessity I created myself an indoor seed growing area with a giant bit of cardboard covered in foil to try and improve the amount of light there. My landlord had thrown away all of the plastic plant pots so I got inventive with recycled containers with mixed success! I did successive sowing of seeds and managed to keep on top of watering and weeding out the unwanted extras from the homemade compost.
I did intend to start small and keep it achievable. I decided to try and think ahead a bit, so I cleared away some vegetation from one area & covered it in cardboard, compost and black plastic. I covered another area with carpet I found in part of the plot without clearing the vegetation. I realised that I had nothing to make paths out of! I found a few wooden planks, which I put to use as some rather more angular paths.
I then slowly started clearing areas, only removing surface growth though, not digging. My intention was to sow and plant the areas as I cleared them so that it would supress the weeds. Unfortunately I don’t think any of the seeds I planted straight into the soil grew! The weeds however, did!
I got a delivery of partially rotted cow poo from the farm which I spread over an area and it definitely stopped any weeds growing as it was quite acidic still. I planted tomatoes though it and they were fine.
I planted some of the plants out and nearly all of them slowly succumbed to slugs…
By mid June I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and disheartened. I sat and did a bit of a review and decided to just focus on tending and improving the areas that I had already cleared, giving myself a much more manageable focus. This immediately gave me a much more positive outlook and so I went back to some of the areas in progress and weeded them and attempted to rake over the soil to make more of a seedbed and planted a salad polyculture. I also planted out all of the mint plants my mum had given me and James cleared all of the vegetation from around the blackcurrants. Collectively this had a big positive psychological impact.
Then at the end of June the context changed as I decided that I would be probably moving house before the next growing season. This vastly reduced my motivation for thinking longterm as I doubted that anyone else would care for any of it when I had left. So I set to encouraging the wildlife and supporting the plants that were already doing well (minimum input for maximum output), foraging from outside of the plot and harvesting my learnings from the process.
I never got to this point in either the designing or the doing.
I evaluated this design as an integral part of writing it up, going back through all of the documentation, reminding myself and reliving the process, capturing reflections and learnings as I went. In this section I will focus on the content of the design.
What went well?
- A few things did well and gave me a yield:
- I got a reasonable number of tomatoes before the blight got them
- The spinach and chard survived the winter and then produced lots of seeds which I harvested
- The mint and salad burnett were happy
- The herb patch which I didn’t specifically include in my design but which I tended and used as it was outside the backdoor, flourished with my attention
- I got a good crop of chilli peppers and a couple of little sweet bell peppers
- A few purple beans!
- Emergent bittercress and chickweed were great
- Broad beans
- Some other things thrived but I didn’t harvest them:
- the cardoon
- the jerusalem artichokes (too early)
- the potatoes (because I left it until after the tops had gone and I couldn’t find them…
- It got me outside and getting exercise!
- I have a plant database for using in the future
What was challenging?
- Having minimal practical growing experience and lots of theory
- Growing seeds outside straight in the ground
- Not having someone to ask for advice
- Slug proofing
- Keeping on top of weed growth in a large area
- Fitting it in around everything else in life
What I would do differently next time? And have learnt.
- Mulching can encourage slugs
- Seeds like a seedbed, much better germination rate
- Never underestimate nature, you might think something has died, but it may return!
- Over winter manure before planting into it
- Snapped off tomatoes regrow roots if you put them in water, a solution for straggly tomatoes?
- Actually eat your harvest, don’t ‘save’ it as it will go off
- Beans don’t like growing down a piece of string, pull it taught and up!
- Squash loves growing directly into manure
- Tell people if you are saving a ‘weed’, make sure everyone is clear – saves heart ache when they pull it out!
- Clearing surface vegetation gets rid of quite a lot of weeds, but the persistent ones like dandelion and dock will be there a long time without digging them out
- Exposed soil can form a hard crust on top – not great for seeds
- Start collecting resources well in advance, eg. cardboard
- I am passionate about foraging and nowhere near as motivated by growing, so maybe foraging could be my focus and supporting and tweaking my local ecosystem
Did I meet my SMART goals?
- By the end of September 2014 food grown in the Veg patch will have replaced our veg box – I did not reach this SMART goal. Looking back it does not seem particularly realistic! I am not sure that I comprehended the time and effort it takes to establish & maintain a system that productive.
- From June 2014 there will be salad leaves and fresh produce available year round – I had a year round supply of salad burnett and herbs! I did not really meet this SMART goal either.
- The veg patch will be maintainable on half a day per week – I did not get to this stage, but I was not managing to give half a day to implementation so I am not sure if I would have been able to give half a day to maintenance even if I had achieved this.
- In Summer 2014 there will be over 15 species of insect in the Veg patch – I did not measure this.
- By May 2014 rain water will be being captured and used – I did not manage to identify somewhere to capture it from. I was also aware that I was not planning on staying around and so I was less motivated towards longer term actions.
- The Veg Patch will require watering less than once a week in summer 2014 – Well it got watered less than once a week, but I am not sure that that is the same thing!
I am surprised that I don’t have a SMART goal around my learning and experimenting as that was definitely one of my main reasons for doing the design and it had a big influence on the way I did things. I definitely got a substantial yield of learnings.
Design Framework Evaluation: SADIMET
I am not sure that I fully did this design framework justice as I did not really get to the Implementation and maintenance plans, which I can see on reflection would have been very valuable. However, with the much more comprehensive guidance from Aranya’s book I felt that the SAD parts worked well for this land-based design and I feel like I have got much more of a feel for and understanding of it as a framework. The really comprehensive surveying was very useful, although I underestimated how long it would take!
A minor frustration I have come across before was the lack of capturing of ideas as you go along. I did in fact make myself an ideas sheet, but I still do not see a space for this in the framework before the Decisions stage and as I find that the process of Surveying and Analysis generates lots of ideas this is an energy leak in the framework.
I also did not follow the process very linearly, mainly this was due to time pressures meaning I needed to make decisions before I had finished surveying. However, there are also some aspects which I felt contributed to several of the stages, such as the plant planning database which although I have included it in Decisions it contributed to surveying, analysis and decisions. Having used the design web quite a lot I am used to a less fixed process and I am happy that as my confidence as a permaculture designer grows I am happy to make frameworks suit my designing style, by tweaking and adapting them. I also constantly tweaked the design as I was implementing it and doing further observation of the current context.
Tools used Evaluation
Design Process Evaluation
What went well?
- Trying lots of different tools and techniques that I was interested in
- Really taking the time to observe and survey everything thoroughly, there was so much I discovered
- Going through the design process really thoroughly, I now know what is involved and so will be able to be better prepared next time
- Reviewing and tweaking the design as I went along
- Lots of learning and observing throughout that has contributed a lot to my understanding
What was challenging?
- Not having the right tools for the job, eg. not having a surveying tape
- Working out shade mapping without proper observation
- Trying to use tools out of a book, not having someone with practical experience with them to demonstrate
- Not leaving enough time to do all the surveying and designing before implementing needed to begin
- Not having the experience in growing to input into the design process
- Trying to manage the entire Veg Patch
What would I do differently next time?
- Really observing through the seasons, recording sectors, plants etc
- Aim to finish the design in the autumn before, so mulching etc can be done.
- Go for quality rather than quantity focus on a small area and do it well, then build on that foundation
- It is okay for you to have worked some things out in your head, it doesn’t all have to be a really thorough, conscious decision, your brain can be more powerful at solving complex situations than logical thought is!
- Have regular check-ins on progress and vision, to allow for tweaking and momentum
- Make sure I leave time to do the Implementation and Maintenance plans, they are important
- Get more practical experience in growing to input into designing
- Be honest about limits, it is better to assume you have less time to give than over burden yourself
- Now I have a greater understanding of the tools I might need, trying to get hold of them for when I need them
- Find a demonstration of someone using a sun compass
Since moving house I have had a few opportunities to move forwards from this design. I am lucky now to be in a situation where I live with lots of people growing food, which allows me to join in and learn without having overall responsibility for making it work.
We also have Anni Kelsey, author of Edible Perennial Gardening, who is going to be doing a couple of experimental beds on our land, which is a wonderful opportunity for me to get involved and learn about polycultures and perennials in a practical situation. I was also able to bring a bit of my experience to the situation in terms of suggesting that we put a ground cover over the whole beds to begin with so that we can put in the polycultures at our own pace. Also I am going to design the pathways for one of the beds using the same principles and ideas I used in this design, but this time we will properly wood chip them and be able to test them out properly. I also shared my plant database with Anni and others involved and as a result of this it has been used as a resource in an Intro to Permaculture course.
Finally I have done a mini design for the window box outside my bedroom window, really making use of my learning to keep it small and manageable! You can see the design in the mindmap below.