Spending time in our garden is a great way to relieve anxiety and increase our mental health and wellbeing. In this episode I talk about a great garden activity that is beneficial to you and your garden, and will help you to understand your garden space better, using permaculture principles to better assess your garden’s potential.
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I’m going to be talking about a garden activity that everybody can do and it’s a great lockdown activity if you’re not allowed to leave the house. It’s also a great mental health activity if you’re struggling with anxiety, or you just need to slow down the pace at which your mind is turning over. It’s based on permaculture principles and it’s about learning from nature. What we’re going to do is basically talk about learning from what’s already happening in the space and putting ourselves in a position to make the best decisions for our garden and perhaps come up with some different ideas of how we might use spaces.
There’s no better way of learning about your space and understanding it than spending time in it. So we’re going to talk about an activity that is very useful for food planning and certainly for me. I find it very useful to actually come up with different ways of using spaces and I quite often settle on some ideas that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.
The first thing to do is to get a sheet or two of paper and we’re going to write a list of headings that we’re going to fill out as we spend time in our space. Depending on the size of your garden, I did this in eight different distinct areas. You might have a very small urban garden or you might have lots of different areas with different aspects to them. So you might want to consider doing more than one sheet of research paper to really understand how different parts of your garden are working. So I’m going to run through the headlines and then tell you the sort of things I wrote. I’ve got one of the sheets in front of me that I actually filled out a year-and-a-half ago and it’s quite surprising how much it actually did help change my thinking about the area. So towards the northern boundary of my property, we have a large area that is currently on its way to becoming a food forest. But at the time that I did this activity, it was just a piece of grass or at least one side of it was a piece of grass and the other side of this area was the edge of woodland.
Let’s start with just the location, date and the weather. This is useful because there might be things that are happening that you might expect to see more or less of based on the weather at that particular time. The location for me was picnic area/food forest because that’s where we had our picnic bench and the date that I filled this in was the 23rd of May. The weather was dry and bright with no rain for several days. This is important to note these features because of the fact that I know there was no rain for several days means that when we come to look at what’s happening, we can allow that in our thinking and the temperature was 19 degrees and the overnight low was eight degrees. These are all things I noted. Then I went down to list and wrote that the pH level is 7.5 in that area. pH testers are available online very cost-effectively. The one I’ve got is a reusable one. So I think I paid about 8 pounds for it and I just plug it in the ground and it tells me the pH level and I can reuse that forever and ever.
The next thing you do once you set down and you’ve made these notes is absolutely nothing.
You just sit for a good 10 minutes. The reason for this is to allow nature to return whenever you go for a walk in the countryside or walk out into your garden. Quite often a lot of the natural environment quickly changes because there’s a human there and a lot of your small birds and small animals will either freeze or actually disappear. Just sitting still for 10 minutes, you can listen and hear the difference in the birdsong as they return to their normal state, as they become more comfortable with you being there.
The next section on my list was soil humidity and humus notes. Humus is the amount of organic matter in your soil and it will largely tell you about how fertile it will be. So whenever you look at a piece of land, if you can tell that it’s not been disturbed for a long time and that’s going to tell you that the soil food web and everything below the ground are likely in a very healthy state because it’s been left to grow and do its thing. But whatever you can tell about your soil is what goes here. So if you happen to know what sort of subsoil you’ve got whether it’s clay or chalk or something different goes in here and this can all help you to make judgments to what type of plants you wish to plant or what type of fertility you have in the area. It’s certainly a good idea to make any notes that you’re already aware of as you go through in all these cases.
The next section was sunlight and what I did is I drew a very rudimentary picture sketch of the area and I labelled where north was. Because a large portion of the area I was looking at was trees, it allowed me to judge where exactly was getting the sun. So I drew a very rudimentary sketch with where the trees were and the pond in the area that I’d partially created and then I just labelled different areas as the full sun to partial shade.
The next heading title was wind exposure and for this particular area, my notes were fairly exposed to the northeast. So wind exposure can make a difference for lots of reasons, especially if you’re going to be growing annual plants or things that might need to be supported. Whenever you’re planning long-term planting, it’s really important to consider how the wind and sun work because they’ll be certain areas that lend themselves to different plants. Some plants may need support by way of the trellis. If you’re going to implement things like this and that’s going to have an impact on what areas subsequently gets shaded. So it’s certainly worth looking at the wind exposure and the sun area together in my opinion.
The next heading on my list was existing plants. This should be whatever’s in the area regardless of whether it’s stuff you’ve planted yourself, whether it’s stuff you’ve inherited or weeds. Whatever it is, put all the existing plants down there and this whole system what we’re doing is based on permaculture principles. So what we’re going to do is work in harmony with what’s already happening in the space. That doesn’t mean that we have to have our entire garden running rampant with weeds, but knowing what grows where and what is growing well already will help us to make the sort of changes that require a lot less effort to install but also maintain. Under this heading for this particular area in my garden, I had a large selection of native trees, comfrey around the ponds, various introduced edibles and that was introduced by myself and red clover, buttercups, couch grass etc. The area that I had was largely inherited and I had begun the process of creating a food forest in some of it. The best time to do this is before you start planting an area and I may have changed the exact location of where I planted a lot of my long-term planting in this area had I done this activity first.
The next heading in my list is systems to encourage. So I looked around and saw in front of me and to the north a fence that separated our property from our neighbours. I put here edible climbers to the north fence because that was an obvious area that got lots of suns and that it would be really easy to introduce more edible climbers because we already had some blackberries growing there. It was a great place where we could look at something that was already working as a system and encourage that and add to it by introducing more edible climbers of different varieties.
Something else that was a system working and wanted to encourage was self mulching and leaf litter. This is how the wooded area was working and how it works in every woodland is that the leaves fall and act as a mulch to suppress some of the weeds. That’s why when you walk in a woodland quite often, there’s not much growing beneath a lot of the trees. So I wanted to use that system to self mulch around the base of the fruit trees that I was planting. Another system that I could encourage was due to the nature of the pond that was in the process of
being built. There were duck pest control and manure. Ducks are fantastic for eating your slugs and things like that.
My vegetable garden is just around the corner from this area. So if I were to free-range Indian runner ducks, they could act as pest control for my vegetable garden and some of the area in general. The final thing. I put here was aquaculture, the idea of having the pond system as a way of growing food. So those are the systems that I want to encourage from what I could see on this day. You might have different things growing in your area. You might have a chicken coop in your area. You might have all sorts of things that I didn’t have in this particular area, but there are all sorts of opportunities here for things that you can encourage and we’re trying to look at what’s already working and thinking what can we do rather than cutting and chopping things out or in.
The next thing on my list was systems to discourage. I had a predator and pest Ingress to the property at the northeast boundaries, wasted water overflow from the pond and squirrels stripping nuts from trees. We also could see animal runs so I could see where foxes, badgers were getting in through our fences. We also have lots of rabbits that come in and I don’t necessarily want to stop the rabbits coming in but I do want to stop them from eating certain plants. This area of our property is at the highest point, not on a hill, but it does have a very slight run from the northeast corner to the southwest and this where I had my ponds and wasted water overflow. What I meant by that is water was overflowing from my pond and I thought if I could divert that water towards my vegetable bed, that would be a far better use of it. Because if that water is going to be quite high in nutrients eventually because I’m going to have fish and ducks living in the pond. So I wanted those nutrients to make their way somewhere useful not somewhere I didn’t need them.
The next thing on my list is wildlife. If I was to do this again, I’d put this one higher up because it could influence some things that I’ve already spoken about. But here I wrote squirrels, evidence of rabbit, dear seen in the neighbouring pasture. buzzards, magpies, crows, dragonflies, and miscellaneous water creatures in the pond. This includes things that I saw while I was sat there so this will vary dramatically from area to area in your garden. We don’t see any of these mammals near the house when we get very close to our house. We don’t see any of them because we have a dog running free most of the time outside. It is worth taking the time to allow nature to return to this area and seeing what you see while you’re there.
The next category we’re talking about is some of the bigger infrastructure things and its resources. By resources, this can mean anything man-made or natural. So here I’ve got some ponds, compost loo because we had a compost loo that I built in the woods and woodland partial fencing shade and ducks. So these are all resources in the area that I can use that we should try not to waste.
We’re going to run through them one by one again. Well, a lot of this area was the sun so that’s not a resource that I want to waste. Anything that’s in full sun. I want to be used to photosynthesize, to produce plants, to produce food to feed the soil. The next one was the ponds. You can use them to grow food by way of plants or fish and you can use them to house ducks. You can also use them to produce fertilizer, which is several of the things. I’m doing a great use of a pond. If you don’t really have a use in mind, just grow duckweed as feed for ducks and geese. The next resource was a compost loo. The reason this is Is a great resource because it produces fertilizer, but also it means that it’s an easier to use area. We can spend more time in the area without having to go away back to the house. Woodland is a great resource for coppicing for timber but also for harbouring nature partial fencing. So again, we’ve got some fencing ready in place to act as support for climbers. We’ve also got shade so I spent quite a lot of time researching things that would grow in the shade around my woodland as part of my food forest.
The next thing was the problems. I only had two here: pests and soil drainage. We’re on clay so when it rained for prolonged periods, it would get very wet in some areas. I found out that in that area with it being the highest point on our property doesn’t have an issue with drainage. So the only thing I had to think about was pests and we’ve dealt with that largely by building tree guards and many tree farms around most of our planting.
The next thing is a list of four things: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This was basically condensing those thoughts into ultimately opportunities things that we could go forwards with. Under strengths, I put peace. It was a very peaceful place very quiet fertility.
The soil hadn’t been touched and it was a very fertile area and nice sun and shade mix. For weaknesses, I put pests and predators and then we get to opportunities and threats. So for opportunities, we could create strong gilts. There was lots of space that we could create nice strong plant gilts around individual trees in the food forest and other opportunities are edible pond permaculture. So the two biggest things I wanted to go forward with was developing the pond area and developing the food forest. Under threats. I’ve put waterlogging and fox/badger damage. Both of them were mitigated for us. It just didn’t waterlog. We’ve been able to put barriers in place to stop the fox and the badger getting to the plants and in our garden where we don’t want them.
The last heading was just desirable goals and here is just a list of things that I wanted to achieve. In this example, I’d written continued introduction of edible plants, create a safe duck habitat, create edible pond permaculture, planting of Edibles between ponds, a water pump and solar power pump. Introducing irrigation wasn’t a problem because the area drains okay and finally protecting some crops from wildlife. So I’ve achieved that goal. We’ve created a safe duck habitat. However, the pond development is still on my to-do list, but we haven’t been able to move forward with it very much because I’ve just got sidetracked with other things like the planting of edibles between the ponds and the water pump. Then finally protect some crops from wildlife and I’ve been able to do that. It really did make a difference and made it so much easier for me to think clearly about this space.
One of the biggest benefits of doing something like this is it’s going to reduce the chances that you end up doing something and then wish you’d done something different. So it is something that’s really practical and I strongly recommend you do it. Even if you’re only doing it for the practical benefits, peaceful mental health activity is just a side benefit for me. But I hope you found that interesting and I hope that you go ahead and you do at least one of these in your garden. So if you are thinking of doing what I’m just going to run through the headings once more just as bullet points. When I say resources, these can be anything from water access so water butt would certainly be a resource as would standing water pipe. Resources can really be anything. It could be closed access to the tool shed. So don’t undersell your space when you’re going through this list and I look forward to hearing how you got on with it. I hope that you’ll enjoy doing the process.