Archive for May, 2013

May 1, 2013

Observation – The Best Gardening Tool and Permaculture Principle 1

After a little stretch of nice weather (upper 70s) in the Twin Cities, snow and Winter Storm Warnings are again in the forecast, so let’s get back to the alphabet, shall we?


We were all born with two of the best garden tools ever.  No, not our hands.  Our eyes.  Although it might make for quick work to have strong hands, it is our eyes that will provide us with the most benefit in the garden.

If you’ve ever wondered why those old ladies and old men seem to have the most amazing gardens, it’s all the years of  observation.  Sure, they know what to do, they’ve been doing it for years.  But there really is only one way to plant a seed or plant a plant… bottom down, top up.  Observation teaches us everything else.  Observing means learning what works and what doesn’t.  Paying attention to where the water goes when it rains.  Paying attention to where the winds come from in the summer and in the winter and what it does to our landscape?  Do we get snow drifts in the same spot all of the time? It means learning where we have micro-climates in our yard so we can select the best place for our favorite plants.

Observation means paying attention to the natural traffic flow in our yards (both animal and human) and knowing that changing that flow will affect other areas.  It’s choosing when to make change and knowing when to leave well enough alone because attempting to do otherwise would only make us crazy.

Observation means paying attention to our soil.  It means knowing how well it drains or holds water. It means knowing where we have low spots that puddle and high spots that dry out.  It means learning from that and choosing the best plants for those locations.  It means knowing when our soil needs “a little something” and getting it there.

Observation means looking to the existing trees, shrubs, plants and even weeds to determine what might grow well with them.

It means noticing when we only have a couple of pests on our plants so we can implement our pest management plan vs waiting until we have a full infestation and wondering what went wrong.

Observation means knowing what is happening in your own back yard.  Who shares your space?  The neighbor’s cat?  How about deer?  Rabbits?  It’s about learning their paths, their habits so you know where to distract or divert them if you don’t want them in that part of your yard.

Observation means knowing yourself and your family.  It means knowing which parts of your yard you frequent (great place for a kitchen garden or herbs) and which places you rarely visit (maybe a place for a nut-tree or two).  It means knowing where your kids play ball (not a good place for Grandma’s delicate cutting flowers) and where they like to dig (maybe add a children’s garden or a fairy garden).

Observation is so important that is the first principle in the Permaculture Design System.  Permaculture, for those who may not know what it is, is a design system developed in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The Permaculture Design System is based on three ethics (Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share) and twelve design principles.

Principle 1: Observe & interact

The other day, I begrudgingly cleaned up the winter mess from our two dogs.  Let me tell you, given too much time on my hands I started calculating how many piles of poo that was.  Trust me, you don’t want to know the answer!  In any case, even though I was in the midst of a less than appetizing job, it did give me a few hours to observe my yard, something that doesn’t happen very often.  As I slowly worked my way around, searching for poo, I was able to see how everything survived the winter, notice where the lawn and soil look like they could use a little compost and seed, and I took note of changes I wanted to make.  My poo duty led to nice new paths giving better access around the veggie gardens and within the raspberry patches.  It lead to moving the compost bin because while it worked in its current location for a number of years, it is now in the way with the addition of the chicken coop.  I planned out (in my head) where I will change the grade slightly to capture water for the new raspberry patch before it runs out under the fence and into the neighbor’s yard.  I planned additional trees and shrubs around the perimeter, minimizing mowing in spaces nobody travels to and I realized that one of the apple trees is on enough of a slope that it probably isn’t retaining the water it needs and that again, with a little movement of soil I could change that process.

Observe and interact means taking note of what is in place and looking for guidance from nature to tell us how to interact appropriately.

Again, our eyes are, by far, the best gardening tool we have.  But we have to take the time to actually observe.  The soil and plants and animals around us will continue on their paths, it’s up to us whether we take the time to watch and learn.