Garden Notes: Spring Fever, Permaculture, and the Magic of the Marginal

The tomatoes arrived last week in the nursery, sending gardeners everywhere into a kind of fever pitch. A mix of impatience for the taste of summer, and shock that it was That Time Already. Breathe deeply, hold on, we told those gardeners. It’s really not time to plant tomatoes yet. These first early harbingers of summer are just advance scouts. Unless you have a greenhouse, it’s just too cool outside for them, still, especially at night. Yet gardeners are an opinionated bunch, and observant, too; there may be some idyllic pockets of warmth and sun that might allow an early tomato to flourish in this county in April, and no one might know them better than a gardener pining for summer. Gardening is above all a hobby of observation; the starting, siting, watering, feeding, and harvest all depend on a willingness to slow down and observe conditions on the ground to optimize harvest, or aesthetic enjoyment. 
We’ve been growing ever more interested in this as we expand our offerings at the store; from our exploration of aquaponics, to greenhouses, rainwater harvest and drought tolerant gardens, soil building, and compost, to the very concept of permaculture; all of them have in common a foundation of working with, and not against, the natural forces that shape our gardens, our diets, and our sense of what is possible. In addition to the demonstration garden that lines our little section of Highway 9, we have recently begun to renovate a garden up in Bonny Doon to provide beautiful, edible fodder for our website content. Putting the principles of permaculture into action is not a one-time expenditure of energy; it’s an ongoing dialog that changes with each season, each year. Trees grow and cast their shade in different ways; the seasons are too hot or too dry or too wet, but the principles of permaculture apply to all of these things equally. As Bill Mollison, one of the original founders of permaculture said decades ago, “ Permaculture is a process of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour, and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” As we break new ground, and renovate old, we are holding these concepts in mind, utilizing the shade of a growing fir as a place to grow cool-season crops like lettuce in the summer, while pruning the fruit trees to allow light to reach the center. There are twelve design principles of permaculture; too many to articulate in this particular post, but one of them has been echoing as we prepare the beds for planting this season, and consider the ratios of sun, shade, water, roots, and nutrients. Good old number eleven, as articulated by David Holmgren, reads as “Use edges and value the marginal. The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse, and productive elements n the system.” The concept of valuing the marginal rings especially true as we study the strip of land along the highway that fronts the store, or the open patch of ground surrounded by woods in the mountain garden. Neither are what you would think of as prime agricultural land. Yet within the constraints of these two gardens, we’ve found ample room to grow by simply paying attention and working within the parameters of what we were given. 
The demonstration garden is built on a foundation of pure hardpan, layered with base rock and decomposed granite that formed the bed for the nearby sidewalk. Not the ideal conditions for a garden. But with only a few years of tilling and application of composted organic material, the sidewalk garden has become a source of food for many in the community. The reflected heat of what might be seen as a negative attribute, the nearby highway, and sidewalk, has allowed us to grow peppers, tomatoes, and other heat-loving crops well into the late fall. The cement acts as a heat sink, bringing warmth to the garden earlier in the year, and extends that warmth later into the night as days darken. Now, in early spring, we can feel that same warmth radiating on our backs as we weed and test the irrigation, preparing for the growing season ahead. 
It’s always a challenge this time of year to balance what crops to plant. It feels so good, so dang good to be out in the sun with our hands in the earth, that it’s hard not to fill up the whole space with leafy crops. Lettuce, kale, chard, peas, kohlrabi, cabbage, all of them are so happy at this time of year, and there’s time to get in one more crop before the sun really starts to sizzle and make them bolt. But we’re trying to restrain ourselves, leaving room for the summer crops that we are so looking forward to. There would be room for even more if we would tear out the masses of collards and arugula and borage that have gone to seed in the demo garden…but it is such a joy to watch the bees busily feed at the flowers, and another joy to incorporate them into our own foods as well. We’re making lots of food spiked with flowers, because why would you choose NOT to eat flowers. It’s spring in the garden, as all the birds and the bees and the humans know. There’s enough for everyone, here at the margins, where interesting things are always happening.
We’re making lots of food spiked with flowers, because why would you choose NOT to eat flowers. It’s spring in the garden, as all the birds and the bees and the humans know. There’s enough for everyone, here at the margins, where interesting things are always happening.

Over to You

It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you grow beautiful, sustainable, gardens wether you have sprawling acres of farm or just a tiny plot along the highway. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.