The old adage You are what you eat holds true in more ways than one. If the food we eat isn’t high quality, our bodies won’t be able to function at their full potential, and the quality of our output will suffer as well. Today I’m going to talk about how permaculture design can help us grow top-quality crops that we can enjoy eating and sell at market to get the most value from our land, while also building healthier communities and living in harmony with nature.
The World Bank estimates that roughly 40 percent of all cultivated land in developing countries is lost every decade to erosion, flooding, salinization, urbanization and desertification. If we don’t re-think our agricultural strategy, by 2030 we could be losing as much as 80 percent. One innovative solution is permaculture: growing food on landscapes that don’t require large amounts of water or fertilizer and are built to adapt to climate change. Permaculture offers several long-term benefits: you build up soil quality (rather than eroding it); have more predictable harvests; and have stronger plant varieties that can adapt better to their surroundings.
The 4 cornerstones of permaculture
According to Bill Mollison, co-creator of permaculture and founder of The Permaculture Institute, there are four cornerstones to creating a permaculture garden. Those are: caring for earth, caring for people, reinvesting surplus and giving back to earth. We have to have an attitude that we’re looking after it [earth] as if we live here ourselves. A great way to implement all these things is by learning about and incorporating companion planting into your own home gardening space. Companion planting is when you plant different kinds of food next to each other that benefit from one another’s presence, like having tomatoes interspersed with basil plants.
Healthy soil is paramount to growing healthy food, regardless of whether you’re planting a garden or farming thousands of acres. Plants require nutrients to grow and they also need water. With both of these things coming from soil, it’s obvious that it has an important role in growing crops. A layer called topsoil naturally builds up on top of subsoil over time; however, many times our fields are tilled by farmers and left fallow, allowing their rich topsoil to wash away into nearby bodies of water. This loss hurts not only our environment but also our future as consumers—as produce grown with organic methods is more nutritious for us than conventional alternatives.
How to build soil
Before you start thinking about planting seeds, be sure to think about preparing your soil. A healthy soil starts with plenty of compost and other nutrients, as well as biological diversity. The best way to create compost is using an outside bin or garden compost heap, but if that’s not an option (or you live in an apartment) kitchen scraps can go into a small plastic container kept outside. In either case, remember: keep things moist and turn regularly to get optimal results.
Give your compost pile or bin a natural boost by adding worms. Not only do they love decaying organic matter, but they also have an uncanny ability to convert it into rich, earthy-smelling fertilizer. Plus, they’re fun to watch! To create your own worm farm at home, follow these steps: First, purchase some red wriggler worms—also known as Eisenia fetida—from a supplier (online and/or local) that specializes in vermicomposting products. Be sure to get more than you need so you can use them as seed stock for future batches; if your first batch dies off prematurely because you made mistakes along the way, having backup seed stock will help ensure success on your next try.
What vegetables should you grow?
Growing your own food is a rewarding process, not to mention an excellent way to save money and live more sustainably. Many gardeners start with lettuce, carrots or other common vegetables, but there are many others worth considering. Take mustard greens, for example: They’re easy to grow and have been shown to improve bone density while lowering cholesterol. Other uncommon—but delicious—vegetables include okra, asparagus or green garlic. Whether you’re just getting started or have years of experience under your belt, consider trying some new vegetables.
After you’ve planted your seed, it’s important to make sure it has everything it needs to grow. Plants are like humans; they need air, water and food. Since plants absorb water and nutrients through their roots, make sure they are kept evenly moist (not wet) and feed regularly with a light fertilizer. You can even try adding composted manure or homemade compost tea to your watering routine (about once per week should be enough). To keep your plants’ leaves nice and green, add liquid kelp or fish emulsion while watering since these will provide nutrients your plants can easily absorb. In fact, studies have shown that kelp improves growth by as much as 40 percent! -MM