Practical Urban Permaculture – Part 2 – Design

We are all designers, design is nothing more than the arrangement of elements and flows in your life, we design our outfits, meals, homes, gardens and schedules. We design our lives around the problems or elements that shape our world. We design our outfits for form and function otherwise we would all be walking around in yellow and orange ski gear in august clueless as to why we were sweating. Design is one of those words that has been blown out of proportion to the point that most people think you need some form of higher education and fancy letters after your name to be included in the design club… I’m here to tell you that is just not the case. We have all been designed to be designers and I would like to awaken your thought process so you realize it.

A permaculture practitioner has a spiritual and physical attachment to the land they are designing, we see things that others don’t. When you look at the site you are designing think of it as a system, study the watershed and airflow and observe the animal and insect patterns. One of the first things I do is look at the list of variables that I will be working with.

1. Soil

2. Water

3. Sun

4. Temperature

5. Expected yield/type of yield

6. Animals and Insects

Once you have your variables then all you are basically doing is plugging them into a sort of equation and weighing the results. The design equation is different in every situation but a relatively sound minded gardener can responsibly solve any garden problem using permaculture basics. Remember that permaculture design is not only design but also figuring out ways to rationalize keeping and working with/around existing elements in the landscape. Sometimes the hardest part of permaculture design is convincing a client to keep that old oak tree they have been saving money to cut down for years.

Normally soil structure is a concern that is weighed but when dealing with an urban lot you are rarely working with soil that has been in place for more than 100 years, usually it is less than 20 years old. When a house is torn down fill is brought in to cover the demolition site, this is usually rocky, lifeless clay and absolutely no attention is paid to soil quality. For this reason I say if you want to till the lot go for it, another option is to bring in mountains of organic material and cover every square inch in it and basically start over…  I am a supporter of working with what you have, which often means amending the soil you currently have to work with, but I have worked on lots that have so many bricks the only option is to work up from the existing soil surface.

Whiskey is worth drinking, but water is worth fighting for. Water is the all mighty equalizer, you either have too little or way too much. The trick is to figure out a way to harness what you have whether it involves clever drainage ideas or ways to shed it away. When I design the beds in a garden I employ two different tactics involving raised areas designed to shed water and depressed areas to channel and collect that runoff creating what I consider the two basic rain garden concepts… Gardens designed to shed water and gardens designed to harness it. Location plays a role in the placement of these types of gardens and differs on every single lot, once again the principles of water and rain water collection are sound the only thing that changes is scale and gradient.

The amount of sunlight is often a huge barrier in the urban landscape, a north facing wall can be shaded most of the day while a south-facing wall can be so bright and so warm that it can raise your garden a zone or two. I have seen massive Brown Turkey Fig patches here in Pittsburgh that normally would need some protection not just survive, but absolutely thrive for 20+ years due to the fact that the homeowner knew the importance of having a brick south-facing wall with no obstructions to block the sun. Shade can be a good thing as well, creating cool spots to grow early and late season vegetables that would otherwise die when grown in the dog days of summer. Once again permaculture is about working with the conditions at hand, don’t change the environment… work with it and adapt to it…

Temperature and sun basically go hand in hand, just work with it and know it well. Spend time identifying the hot and cool spots and work with them. know and understand your specific micro-climates and don’t be afraid to test the limits of your site and the plants used within it.

The amount and type of yield that you are aiming for needs to be considered in your design. Things will change drastically depending on what you want your garden to produce. Permaculture although mainly food oriented, does not limit gardening and landscaping to food production. You could be working for a client that wants a permaculture landscape but wants absolutely no food grown on their property… would you turn them down? What if they were your only job opportunity for the year… Would you really turn them down? A true permaculturist would take the job and begin healing the land using phytoremediation tactics incorporating only ornamental plants with the end yield being workable farmable land for future generations.

Pests and beneficial insects come in so many shapes and forms… On the pest end we have everything from aphids to children, and on the beneficial side we have everything from honeybees to children. This is one of the aspects of design where a lot of experience and a solid working knowledge of animal and insect life cycles and habits becomes necessary. So many gardeners, landscapers and farmers may know every plant name out there, but when it comes to animal and insect life all they know is how to kill the thing with poisons. If you have a pest that bothers you figure out what pest bothers it and promote its existence. Usually when you have a pest problem it can be fixed by the promotion of beneficial insects so in a way we promote the life of the good guys in hopes that they will control the bad guys… Promotion not eradication!

I could never fit every little aspect of permaculture design into one little blog post, these are just meant to be some ideas to start with. If you are really interested in permaculture design then I suggest you take the Permaculture Design Course wherever it is offered in your area. If you only take one thing away from this post then I would want it to be that you are a designer and when gardening should think like a responsible designer. Remember every thing you change or affect will have an effect on many other aspects of your garden, so when changing something think it through and do it responsibly. If you are not 100% sure of something you are about to do…  step back and take the time to properly think it through.

Promotion not Eradication – Chris

This is a photo from the Whitney Avenue Urban Farm the bricks were used to absorb sunlight and heat to help start my green seeds earlier. Notice how the seeds closer to the south-facing side of the bricks sprouted earlier and are growing faster.

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One thought on “Practical Urban Permaculture – Part 2 – Design

  1. Fascinating, Chris. I had never thought of gardening in terms of an equation. Love your brick-bordered beds and the structure in the center.


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