Organic Gardening: Tenets of permaculture
July 16, 2010
Few things in life are as consistently amazing as those moments each spring when the seedlings of our garden push through the soil toward the sun, affirming that life has returned for another season.
Perhaps most satisfying is the fact that our garden, at Maytag Mountain Ranch in Hillside is grown organically – planted and cultivated the way nature intended without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. It has been seven years in the making but today everything is in balance and, when nature does her part, the garden produces a great bounty of vegetables, fruit and even honey.
Our fruit trees, shrubs and annuals grow about 120 miles south of Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Vail, and share the same challenges and opportunities found in any high-country environment over 5,000 feet. A short growing season, hailstorms, early and late snowstorms all affect our bounty, but one of our ranch employees and an East Coast transplant, Deanne Montgomery, aptly observed that gardening at altitude “is not as difficult as people said it would be.” She has recognized that planting in a new environment requires creativity and planning, but also opens up possibilities.
At Maytag Mountain Ranch, we grow a 1-acre garden and raise 300-head of grass-fed and finished cattle. The ranch and its 3,000 acres is certified USDA Organic and relies on the tenets of permaculture – a term coined by Australian Bill Mollison, meaning “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture.” Also referred to as “sustainable agriculture,” the idea is to create a culture or society of interdependent plants and animals. Ultimately, a garden planted with permaculture techniques gives back to us and the earth far more than a garden that relies on pesticides or fertilizers. While we have 3,000 acres to work with, any size garden can flourish when you keep the following tips in mind:
Start with active, healthy soil. This point is critical in the high country because a shorter growing season requires gardens to grow fast. (Our ranch, for example, has 110 days of frost-free conditions, leading us to plant in June and harvest in mid- to late September; Denver, by comparison, has about 135 frost-free days.) I recommend creating your own active compost pile, with sources of both carbon (such as straw) and nitrogen (horse manure). If maintained correctly, an active compost pile heats up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit within days, breaking down matter quickly.
Plant selection is key. In picking plants for a permaculture garden at high altitudes, be mindful of the shorter growing season and the need to represent four different, symbiotic layers of growth. Each tier works in concert with the others:
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• The first and tallest tier includes deciduous trees and pines, which create shade and a root system that provides drainage.
• The second tier includes flowering and fruit plants such as fruit trees, shrubs and bushes, which attract insects to pollinate.
• The third tier constitutes nitrogen-fixing plants such as buffalo berry and other legumes, which restore nitrogen in the soil. All plants need nitrogen to grow. Most plants – annuals, for example, only take from the soil. But adding nitrogen-fixing plants to your garden reduces stripping and maintains a healthy balance.
• The fourth tier includes annuals such as lettuce, peas and tomatoes, plus clover, which is also a nitrogen fixer but is closer to the ground than the shrubs in the third tier. Most of the choices in this tier are the staples of a vegetable garden.
Finally, because our garden is organic, we don’t use pesticides or fertilizers – and we don’t need them. Here are some tips to achieve the same result:
• Proper planning keeps pests at bay. Insects attack less healthy plants. By that logic, if plants are healthy, insects are less common. If a garden’s elements are in balance, pests are seldom found. Chickens and other birds, for example, eat insects; planting trees that attract birds helps preserve this cycle.
• Organic matter fertilizes the soil. Use natural mulch, such as shavings, to fertilize the soil as it decomposes, which also traps water and protects the soil from the sun.
I’ll leave you with a single tip for your permaculture garden: plan. The better we understand nature’s patterns, the more likely we’ll find them replicated at our doorsteps.