A slightly edited version of this article was published in Permaculture magazine’s Winter 2014 edition.
Trying to design a suburban permaculture garden around our family has led me to discover something – that far from it being a world of compromises, permaculture is the perfect approach to the family garden.
It cannot be, thought we, that to make a garden “child-friendly” it must be relinquished entirely to an Olympic size trampoline or turned it in to an “Outdoor Room” where all life is confined to pots.
Surely we can get a good way towards our permaculture dreams and mix it in with all the demands of family life? Surely.
Permaculture plots measured in acres rather than square metres might inspire awe, fantasy and perhaps a little jealousy (in me anyway). But whilst can all dream of what we’ll do if we one day manage to buy that smallholding, if permaculture is to achieve its true potential, it has to thrive and blossom on the streets people live, work in and walk past.
And for one thing, that means it needs to be completely integrated in to the hustle and bustle of suburban and urban family life.
So we set out a while back to start creating a permaculture garden in our ordinary patch of suburbia, which can withstand the footballs and footfall of four children and a very food-focused dog. We’re still learning. Here is what we’ve done so far.
Making the design fun
Hear anyone talk about their permaculture patch and the sparkle you’ll always see in their eye gives away that alongside the three principles of permaculture (earth care, fair share, people care) is another constant – fun.
Vegetable patches bursting with flowers, beans growing up sweetcorn, quirky shapes and winding walkways. Fun weaves its way through the essence of permaculture.
We’re looking to build as much fun in to our patch as we can. This year’s idea is a pea walk way, over the path between two raised beds. It maximises the growing space, by growing the peas up between the two beds instead of over one bed, leaving more space for growing food in the beds.
But it’s also great fun for our youngest daughter. It’s too low for us to walk through but she can stroll through the tunnel, picking the lower peas and eating them as she goes. Higher up there is still plenty for us to harvest later on.
Planting flowers like Calendula and Borage around the veg also adds not only a wonderful touch of colour but the fun of edible petals too (at the same time as helping out the pollinators…).
Any garden benefits from breaking it up in to zones, but with a family, that’s all the more so. Footballs and sweetcorn don’t mix well after all.
Before we even moved in to our place a few years back, we went straight out the back and planted an edible hedge across the width. Now a few feet high and thick with hawthorn, wild rose, blackthorn, blackcurrant and more, it can take a solid thumping and has acted as a great wall of defence for our more delicate crops beyond.
Eleagnus (Autumn Olive) would have been a better choice than Hawthorn, given Hawthorn’s habit of spreading fire blight to apple trees, but you live and learn.
The hedge also does a very good job of holding back the cute but otherwise useless dog, who has developed a taste for radishes, compost and broad beans straight from the stalk…
Over to the side of the garden, a living willow dome, bursting with green just six months after planting and weaving in to place, provides a natural den for our toddler to avoid the same threat of incoming footballs as well as a fantastic place to avoid the glare of the midday sun. Growing mange-tout through the willow provides a snack for her whilst she’s in there too.
(And there is a lawn for the football and sunbathing too. It’s not all about food and flowers.)
Storing the stuff
We may try to minimise “stuff”, but having a few children means quite a few bikes, scooters and tricycles, all of which need a roof.
To our mind, no space should be wasted space in a permaculture garden and a big roofed area for bikes would be a dead zone. With no garage, our solution has been to build a bike shed with an edible green roof.
Underneath, the bikes are easily accessible and safe from the rain. On top is a three-zoned green roof. At the higher end, out of reach without a ladder, is a light soil made of grit, sand and a little compost, in which a mixture of sedum and wildflowers compete. Below that, just within reach of the adults, is a richer soil mainly housing the same plants again but with edible flowers trailing from the sides. And at the lowest end of the roof, within easy reach, we grow salad crops like lettuce, radish, a few herbs and strawberries in a richer soil still.
Structurally reinforced with beams and uprights (but we’re still to finish the sides), it is strong enough to take the weight of the rain and an added benefit is that so far, it’s been totally slug-free.
To the kids it a bit of fun and a handy place to keep the bikes out of the rain. To us it’s key to good permaculture – seriously efficient use of all space.
Green fingers and dirty hands
“Daddy likes it when I’m muddy” – it seemed like a good idea when I first said it. It’s backfired a few times now. Even so, to our minds a family garden should be an all senses affair.
We’ve designed what may perhaps be the country’s smallest “forest garden” but which has nonetheless been producing a bounty of salad crops, fruit and herbs for months. I’d recommend making a “micro forest garden” if you can afford a little space. Martin Crawford’s forest garden book is all you need to start.
The added benefit of it for us is that it’s helping us to show the children that there is so much more to eat than the shops would have you believe. They can pick and eat chickweed, hawthorn leaves, nasturtium flowers and plantain alongside more familiar things like mint or gooseberries.
We do protect the kids from the threat of foxgloves and the like, but not by teaching not to put anything in their mouths. Instead we’re loosely managing what’s where (so not having any foxgloves in the forest garden for instance) and helping the children to learn to respect plants, understand the risks and see that nature – even in a managed garden – will provide quite a bounty when you learn what’s edible and look beyond the shop’s shelves.
Growing little sweet treats like alpine strawberries, mini tomatoes and mange tout provides the kids with a really healthy snack that they’re free to nibble on as they run round the garden too.
Involving the older ones in some of the more skilled jobs – like summer grafting – has also helped make gardening seem like less of a chore and more of an experience and, if the grafting works, gives them the amazing result of Medlars growing on Hawthorn.
There is a machine for everything. Cutting grass, strimming grass, chopping branches, cutting wood, even blowing leaves. Many of them, at a suburban garden scale, are pointless (and the leaf blower is just pointless full stop) but we’re taught to covet them.
By using hand tools in the garden, we’re showing that there are other ways to manage a patch of land that is greener and less disruptive and we’re sharing some ways to do it that don’t depend on oil.
So we try to scythe, sickle, chop, hammer and saw instead, and involve the kids by teaching them how the children to too. In doing so they get the chance to build bug houses and the like, so helping out the garden system. And whilst some of it might look odd to the neighbours, it’s all part of the master plan of normalising for the kids more than what our consumer society might like you to think of as normal. There’s a machine for everything. There’s also a skill.
Permaculture’s many benefits
As far as we’ve found so far, permaculture has been the perfect way to design a fun, sensory, edible, colourful space for the family.
The garden as a system – teaming with frogs, with wildflowers, with edible plants in the borders and hens and crops all over the place – has all the mayhem and richness of any permaculture space. But it’s giving us all what we need too.
Of course it’s not all about the kids. Families have adults in them too. We’ve both got work commitments and with four children, our time out in our patch it limited. Again, Permaculture provides through its very nature. A system that prevents weeds through ground cover, reduces the need to water plants and allows for a bit of wildness in appearance makes it ideal for a busy family.
To us, it’s not been about compromising permaculture so far, but adapting it to the conditions, which as far as we see it, is what permaculture is about. Adapting, learning, innovating.
Over the fence is a barren desert of cut-throat lawn and neatly trimmed roses. Compared to some spaces, that’s green. In London alone an estimated 3,200 hectares of front gardens have been covered with concrete, bricks or gravel1.
With something like 18% of urban space in the UK taken up with gardens2, the country has at its green fingertips the potential for a nationwide web of sustainable green patches.
To get there, we need to integrate permaculture in to ordinary family life. It’s in these spaces of square metres that the real growing revolution will bloom.