Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Permaculture experiment

November 5, 2013

The permaculture experiment continues. Since we moved onto the property just a little over a year ago we’re still working mainly on the first and second zones.
According to Peter Bane, The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country (2012):

Zones describe a progression of territories surrounding the center of a system. On a homestead or farm, that center is typically the house where people dwell. 
 Zone 0: House and attached structures, other building interiors, pantry consumption, processing, storage

Zone I: Garden, intensive garden beds, laundry and drying yard, woodshed, garden, tool storage, small greenhouse, piped water, outdoor rooms, summer kitchen, rabbits, poultry, children’s play; animals needing special care; (z. 1 or z. 2) root cellar, cisterns, sauna self-reliance, household provision

Zone 2: Orchard, productive fruit trees and shrubs, piped water, small ponds, poultry forage, compost piles, greywater treatment, dairy barn (at the edge of z. 3), workshop, storage barn, mulch crops, nursery crops, living fences, resource inventory, tank aquaculture 

Zones 1 and 2 around our house.

Zone 3 contains fields, zone 4 pastures, and zone five wild areas. Our property is on the small side, about one acre. Sometimes I think there’s enough to do in the first two zones that we’ll never even get beyond them.

One of the good things about permaculture is that it encourages taking things slowly and proclaims that if you’re working too hard it’s because you’re doing something wrong. Peter Bane continues:         
Choose Small and Slow Solutions: Choosing to work with small, slow technologies and systems may seem paradoxical in the face of daunting social change. Shouldn’t we hurry up and get ready? Well yes, civilizational decline and economic contraction should engender in us a kind of urgency. It need not provoke haste. Most people are still sleepwalking toward the future, so it can seem that we must awaken them in a hurry. But haste and the waste it makes are the hallmarks of our energy-abundant culture and the cause of much of our present distress.

Small and slow means local, human-scale, intimate and familiar. It means steady progress and setbacks that do not ruin us. It means appropriate technology: tools that help us but do not enslave us.  (The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country)

Here are some of our small and slow projects:

Trees – We’ve planted a few more trees since we returned to the farm in August, namely two neem saplings (native to India, this regal tree produces leaves and fruit that repel many insects, making it a good addition to orchards and vegetable garden areas), two coffee saplings (to replace two that didn’t survive from last year), and a bamboo plant (of the enormous variety that in ten years or so will produce poles strong enough to build a house).

One of our two neem trees (in the foreground).
A thriving coffee sapling, behind the corn and squash.

Hortas (the Portuguese word for vegetable garden)  - Guy has rebuilt last year’s horseshoe garden following Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening principles, including a soil mix of compost, palm fibre, and vermiculite – we plant the vegetables in six inches of this mix, above the existing ground. Last year most of our vegetables failed to thrive in the local soil even though we added some organic fertilizers such as manure.

The horseshoe garden
In the meantime, I planted some of the same veggies in manure that I seasoned by spreading it in the sun and watering it for five days. So far both gardens are doing well.

Orange tree planted in early 2013.

Orchard – Guy and I agreed from the start that we wouldn’t sacrifice beauty to functionality. We’d seen several gardens and orchards where plants grew well but the surrounding areas were unattractive, unpleasant to walk through.

Last year my daughter and I designed a small tear-drop orchard that would be divided into five sections. This is where we’ve planted most of our trees so far – papaya, lemon, pomegranate, fig, orange, tangerine, coffee, persimmon, nespera, pitanga and jatobá - and there’s still place for many more. We projected paths that would cut through the orchard and a central trellised area for repose and meditation. I’ve been cleaning up the sections and working on the paths (described below).

Agro-forestry practitioners instruct us to plant vegetables and other edible plants, such as cassava (mandioca) amidst the trees as they begin to grow, planting in guilds as much as possible. (See the December 2012 blog entry) We’re just learning, partly by trial and error, but this year we have corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, okra and peppers growing in the orchard, along with the cassava and castor beans we planted last year.

Cassava from a year ago and new corn amid the tangerine, papaya, pomegranate and lemon trees. 

Grass – The area we’ve settled on was mostly pasture, planted with a very tenacious grass of African origin – brachiaria. As you may remember from previous posts (April 2013), one of Guy’s tasks is to cut the grass with his wonderful Austrian steel scythe, a huge job given the vigorous growth of the brachiaria grass. Since the rains started up a month ago the grass has taken off, threatening to go to seed, which is exactly what we want to avoid. We can’t use the grass for mulch once it contains seeds and even when it’s added to the compost the seeds remain active for a long time. (Hurray for the power of seeds!)

From our front porch, late afternoon sun on babaçu palms. Beyond the fence the cows have kept the grass 'mowed.'

I’m encouraging Guy to think of his work as harvesting the grass. Before it seeds, it is a real resource for us as hay, biomass. I use it to mulch the tear-drop orchard, to suppress grass in the open areas, and we use it elsewhere as mulch and as an addition to the compost piles.     
Paths – Between Guy’s ideas and mine we’ve come up with a very attractive and inexpensive way to create paths. We’ve found along the highway just beyond Cocalzinho (the nearest town) a free source of beautiful red wood chips. I hoe the paths clear, line them with cardboard (free from the supermarkets in town) and newspaper, make a border of flat rocks (picked up along the road where they’ve spilled from passing trucks) or small bricks we buy in town for less than 10 cents apiece (not so cheap but the only thing we pay for), and fill in with wood chips. Guy plans to use the same system to surround the horseshoe garden. 

The first section of path.

Insect combat – A constant threat to our tender plants, ants, grasshoppers, cut-worms, and other insects we don’t even know about keep us on our toes from one day to the next. Suddenly last week Guy noticed a cluster of tiny black grasshoppers on a leaf of a jiló plant. (Jiló is a small green eggplant relative, somewhat bitter but delicious once you get used to it and know how to prepare it – sautéed and browned with onion and garlic.) He successfully sprayed the leaf and the surrounding plants with a neem solution, but since then the clusters of little hoppers have shown up frequently on other plants.
We’re learning to make a variety of deterrent sprays along with the neem: garlic and soap, hot peppers, tobacco, for starts. Vigilance – we’re insect vigilantes.