The truly beginners’ permaculture garden!

So, upon returning home from Brazil, I was very motivated by the Mandala Gardens that our group saw at various places we visited, and interested in building my own.  I discussed with my Dad the possibility of setting one up in our backyard, and began reading about permaculture gardening techniques and theory (online and in three excellent books from our public library– “Permaculutre: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability” by David Holmgren, which provides a more philosophical basis; “The Permaculture Garden” by Graham Bell, which has excellent drawings and diagrams; and “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture” by Toby Hemenway, which is an excellent how-to guide.)

After reading a fair bit and thinking about our yard structure, we decided that we were probably better suited to start a little smaller than a mandala garden, and build something that would better use the slope of the yard, and be more manageable for us as beginners.  This helpful wiki got us started on putting together the garden, along with tips and tricks from the books we had.

As we put together the garden we took photos.  I’ve posted some below along with step-by-step instructions for how we put together the garden, in the interest of helping others who might be considering doing the same!

We began by choosing where to put the garden.  We eventually decided to put it on the downhill side of a small garden shed in our yard.  This spot has a gentle slope, gets quite a bit of sun, and before was just grass.  We chose this location for a few reasons.  First, it is easily accessible to the water tap in our yard as well as the shed where we store our gardening tools.  Second, it is a little more protected from the wind by the shed than the rest of the yard is.  Third, we’re thinking about transforming the shed into a chicken coop in the next couple of years, and this would allow the garden and chicken run to be integrated with one another, providing excellent fertilization to the garden by rotating where the chickens run, and using their manure on the beds!  This photo gives you a sense for what the area looked like when we began:

Next, we drew out a plan for the garden beds.  Still with the mandala pattern in mind, we decided to set up connected key-hole beds that maximize the bed-space, and also look aesthetically pleasing.  We also had to plan so that the garden would be fenced in, as we have a lot of deer in our neighbourhood who would be happy to eat all our fresh veggies otherwise!  I’ll try to upload a scan of the plan we drew once our scanner is up and running.

We then began pulling together all of our supplies.  This meant finding the materials needed to create good soil for the beds, following the instructions that Toby Hemenway gives in the book, “Gaia’s Garden” (similar instructions can be found online, but I thought the book made it most clear).  For the area we were planning to make into a garden (around 150-200 square feet), we needed to gather:

  • a 2-3 foot stack of newspaper (no glossy sections, which leak bad inks into the soil)//about 300 square feet of cardboard (again-no glossy stuff, just the brown cardboard, all tape and staples removed)
  • soil amendments, depending on whether the soil is acidic, basic, whatever (you’re supposed to test the soil first–we skipped this part)
  • bulk organic matter (we chose to go with 6 bales of hay, but you could also gather about 4-8 yards of mulch, meaning grass clippings, leaves, yard waste, wood chips, whatever)
  • compost (1/4 to 1 cubic yards worth—we have a compost for our house that’s been building up for a couple years now, so used the bottom part of that)
  • manure (1/4 to 1 cubic yard—we had a local company deliver some since we don’t have a truck or way to transport it, but if you do a cheaper option would be to go to a local farm and pick some up!)
  • a top layer of seed-free material (again-straw, leaves, sawdust, pine needles, whatever–we went with straw)

Since we couldn’t get everything that day (the manure needed to be delivered two days later), we decided to prepare the area and get everything else ready.

We cut the entire back lawn and spread the grass clippings in the area that we wanted to be garden eventually, leaving the paths bare, just to make the outline clear.  We also did some weeding and threw the weeds down there, as they would get covered by cardboard to keep them from spreading into the new garden soil.

Next, we dug the holes for our fence-posts.  For half the fence-posts we were able to use wood that was left over from other projects (the advantage of having Dad help–he’s a carpenter!)  The other half we bought (for quite cheap too!) at a local store, Castle on Cook St (who I’m plugging because they were very helpful!).  We dug the holes about 1.5-2 feet deep, put a thin layer of crushed rock at the bottom, inserted the post, and filled around it with crushed rock while holding it plumb and packing the rock in tight to support the post.

These photos give a sense of what the grass clippings looked like spread out, as well as the process of putting up the fence-posts!



When we had all our posts up we hung the door for the gate (again, a leftover door from another project, now repurposed!), but didn’t put up the deer fencing because we figured it’d be easier to set up the beds without the fence in the way.  We put on the sprinkler for a couple hours to get the under-soil wet, and then left the rest of the work for once we had the manure dropped off.

Once we had the manure, the process of putting together the garden beds was quite easy!  First, we spread cardboard over the areas we wanted the garden beds to be, and newspaper over the path areas.  Then, we hosed it all down to help it decompose (this helped keep the newspaper from blowing away also!)

Second, we spread a thick layer of straw over the garden bed areas (about 8-12 inches thick).  We didn’t fluff it up too much, just spread out the chunks enough to cover everything.  Then another spray with the hose everywhere.

Third, we covered that with a thick layer of manure.  We had gone on the big side and ordered a whole cubic yard, so it went on pretty thick (about 4 inches deep everywhere).

The manure was followed by a sprinkling of compost from our composter along the middle of the garden beds.  You can see in the photo here the compost right before we took it out of the composter!

Finally, we spread another, thinner, layer of straw on top of everything, only about 2-3 inches thick.  This layer keeps the soil underneath from drying out, and protects it from weed seeds.  And sprayed it again with the hose.

Being tired, we didn’t put up the deer fencing that day, but the next.  Putting it up was pretty simple.  Just hold up the deer fencing, and tie it to the posts!  These photos show the garden from a few angles.  The fencing is hard to see, which is great, because it lets you have a good view of the garden!  My brother, Jack, and I moved the bench in also 🙂





Another comment is that we didn’t have as much newspaper as we should’ve for the paths.  So over the next few days (whenever we get the paper!) we’re going to keep adding in order to make sure that layer is thick enough.  And then we still need to figure out what we’d like the path to be made of!

As for planting (as this is what everyone asks :P)  it’s a bit late in the year now to plant much, and the layers need some months to start to mulch and decompose into really good soil.  So, while we’re thinking of experimenting a bit with planting a few things to see how they do, we won’t get anywhere near a full-scale garden this summer.  Next year, though, watch out!


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