Permaculture is a subject very dear to my heart and, although I have written about it before in the magazine, I feel that a serious re-visit is in order.
Permaculture is, as some of you undoubtedly know, the practice and art of ‘permanent culture’ which means the cultivation of permanent plants, in this case edible plants of all kinds, as against the cultivation of annual/seasonal species which must be re-grown each and every planting season.
Concentrating on perennials plants (another word for permanent plant species – although ‘permanent’ may mean plants with a limited lifespan of perhaps 3 – 5 years or more – they will not necessarily live forever), makes far more sense, ecologically and labour wise, than repeatedly having to dig and sow. Once one has made the switch, aside from keeping a small patch of land for favourite seasonal vegetables, herbs and fruit, one is unlikely to revert to what is basically a very costly and environmentally destructive system.
An edible garden based on Permaculture is beautiful, fascinating, and productive. If you have got it right, a healthy garden in which all growing and living things naturally interact to maintain balance and harmony on all fronts lives with you.
The backbone of such a splendid garden, or farm for that matter, is usually trees. These trees may have edible fruit, nuts, flowers or leaves and are home to climbing, twining and rambling vines producing fruit, vegetables or nutritious leaves. Beneath this shady canopy of trees and vines will be productive bushes and shrubs, large and small, inter-planted at distances suitable for the species concerned. Next on down the line are ground hugging creepers and plants with edible or medicinal uses and then those species producing edible tubers/bulbs/roots or underground nuts like peanuts for example which can, with care, be grown as a perennial rather than an annual crop.
Such a many layered, naturally interactive, garden/farm also attracts many species of pollinating insects without which there would be no crops at all. Plus, it is home to birds and small animals which, in most cases although not all do little, if any harm and which can be of tremendous benefit all around.
Having explained the above, this does not mean that you must have a sizeable area of cultivable land on which to practice the art of permaculture. If there is no room for trees then plant shrubs/bushes. Or, if there is no room for those either then concentrate on low growing edible or medicinal plants to cater for your basic culinary and health requirements. This is where, as always when something ‘different’ is advocated, potential problems immediately arise in that so many people are not open to dietary change. Although, as climate change begins to have serious consequences on global agriculture, change is going to come whether people like it or not!
Take a ‘common’ leafy vegetable such as spinach. This is purely seasonal and is a very thirsty plant species and one which also requires quite a lot of nutrients, in various forms, in order to be even reasonably productive and, if temperatures shoot up, then the plants have a bad habit of ‘bolting’. This means that they suddenly, due to stress, decide to stop producing the leaves for which they are grown and concentrate of sending up towering spires of flowers to form seed instead.
Life without spinach may sound like bliss to some but leafy greens are an important part of a healthy diet and there are numerous species of edible, tasty, nutritious green leaves of a perennial variety which can replace spinach etc altogether. And which, unlike spinach, are relatively drought tolerant too. Take the indigenous tree ‘Moringa oleifera’, more commonly called ‘Drumstick tree’ or ‘Horseradish tree’ in this part of the world and known as ‘Saijan’ or ‘Soanjan’ in Urdu/Punjabi. Well known, especially in rural areas throughout the Punjab, the long seed pods or ‘drumsticks’ have long been used as a seasonal vegetable, yet few people appear to be aware that the leaves, especially the young therefore tender ones, are an excellent green vegetable when cooked in all of the many ways that spinach can be cooked. Moringa trees can be quite large when mature – which means an awful lot of spinach – but, if grown in very stony soil, they naturally tend to ‘dwarf’. These nutritious leaves of Moringa contain vitamin A, protein and antioxidants and are actually far more nutritious than actual spinach which is fairly high in oxalic acid. This should be avoided by anyone with rheumatism, arthritis, gout and a range of other medical conditions including the very debilitating bone disease called osteoporosis.
The biggest problem in starting a permaculture garden is that of identifying, and then locating, climatically suitable species. Therefore, it is easiest to start out with the ones that you are familiar with and which are to be found in local nurseries during the time of year when they can be transplanted with ease.
Beginning at the top with trees and depending on which region of Pakistan you reside in, then you may like to include at least some of the following: Bananas, guava, sharifa, dates, chico, mulberries (red, white or black), figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, apples, apricots, lychees, strawberry tree, peaches, nectarines, persimmons, pears, jammun, loquat, mangoes, plums, cherries, pomegranates, avocado, papaya, star fruit, tamarillo (tomato tree) olives, hawthorn, rowan, quinces, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecan nuts etc.
Vines include: Grapes, kiwi fruit, passion fruit, akebia, roses, jasmine, dioscorea batatas – these are a wonderful variety of Chinese yam, similar in taste to a sweet potato and also formed underground but with a long, straight down, tapering yam-root and which, above ground, climb rapidly to a height of 6 – 20 feet depending on growing conditions and climate.
Bushes/shrubs include the following: Roses, hibiscus, falsa, lemons, kumquat, blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries, elderberries, berberris, Cornelian cherry etc.
Now, as for medium and small growing edible plants, there are so many that I cannot list them here but will, instead, devote the very next gardening piece entirely to this subject.