Permaculture is a term gardeners occasionally hear but don’t necessarily understand. To better comprehend it, I met with someone who knows a great deal about it.
Ryan Herring is a Master Gardener and Master Composter/Recycler but, more importantly, he holds a permaculture design certificate.
“Permaculture is a set of ideas with ethics and principles that go along with it,” he said. “On a personal level, it involves incorporating everything I do between my lifestyle and the systems and ecosystems I live within. On one level, it involves seeing a function in nature and trying to replicate that in the rest of my life.”
He gave the example of watching the movement of water through a landscape.
“It’s changed my approach to how I shower and how I use water for washing dishes or clothes,” he said. “I’m always thinking about where that water goes and how I can reuse it. I used to be pretty mindless about it.”
A combination of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” the term “permaculture” was initially coined by Bill Mollison. The idea was to design productive systems for growing food as well as ways to interact with our natural world in a sustainable way.
As Herring and I walked through his landscape, I was able to see how he puts these philosophies into practice. His primary areas of interest are soil and composting.
“I’m an organic gardener, even to an extreme,” he said. “I avoid adding any fertilizer to my garden and instead add nutrients through composting. It creates a better environment for the plants, and I get equal, if not more bountiful, crops from it. What I’m out here doing is creating more habitat for soil microbes to live in.”
When he and his family moved into his Spokane Valley home eight years ago, Herring wasn’t yet following permaculture practices. Both the front and back yards had large lawns, and he quickly realized how much work maintaining them involved.
“It made me focus on what I was doing,” he said. “Was I creating a better environment and something purposeful? At that point, I started taking classes to learn more about gardening and composting.”
He is a firm believer in reusing and repurposing materials. His beds are edged with stones that were left over from construction sites. Herring has kept some lawn for his kids to play on, using the grass clippings as mulch and in his compost. He repurposes tree snags and branches to provide birds with places to perch.
There are many perennials and annuals planted throughout his yard to attract pollinators. He leaves sunflower heads in place during the winter to feed the birds. Combined plantings of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees help the soil hold as much water as possible.
Herring grows a lot of plants through propagation and leaves spent flower heads on many plants so more will grow from them the following year.
By embracing permaculture philosophies, he has learned the most important concept of all:
“Don’t fight with nature,” he said. “Learn how to work with it instead.”
Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at susan@ susansinthegarden.com.
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