Gardening Semi Permies in ActionMarch 28, 2014
In each space I’ve lived — city, farm, ranch, suburbia — my family and I have continuously honed gardening methodologies that makes us what I’d call semi permies. And, our most recent garden renovation project might inspire you to aspire to the same.
I’m not likening my methods to a semi-permanent hair solution that eventually washes out; my endeavors are more permanent, but not completely “permie“. By semi permie, I mean I seek out ways to work with nature and with what we have on site first — but not always. I recycle, recapture, and reclaim what I can. I grow and build habitat to invite in wildlife. I host honeybees, mason bees, and I’ve even adopted unwanted bumblebees. I seek ways to borrow or barter with friends and neighbors next. And, when necessary, I’ll purchase what I need to create and maintain a wonderful piece of planet as much in step with nature as I can manage, enjoy, and in some cases tolerate. It’s not the permaculture ideal, but it is the reality my family and I can live with.
Space, time, interest, passion, resources, and other factors have always played into how much (or how little) each of my gardens could self-sustain. I grew up looking to make use of what our land offered rather than buy in everything we needed — or thought we needed. But, I also grew up buying things.
I am thankful to live in a world where I can purchase rain barrels to collect water, a warm climate lime for my curry, and call an arborist to bring me chips s/he wants to recycle from another job site in the neighborhood. And, I can combine the function of these purchased or bartered goods to water my garden during drought, pluck cilantro from my greenhouse to finish that curry, and line my paths and replenish my beds with the chips my arborist offers up. Embracing this balanced urban approach is just how I roll.
When we moved into our home years ago, our first gardening project was digging out a section of lawn to install a couple of raised seasonal vegetable and perennial berry garden beds. We made several mistakes, but the area served us well until about a year ago. After almost 15 years, the cedar beds were finally rotting through. The pea gravel paths over landscape fabric were hideous. And, grass had invaded the berry bed, which housed wonderful blueberry shrubs and not-so-great-anymore strawberries. Sounds and looks (see below) like renovation time, right?
This area of the garden happens to get the last of the late evening sun. It’s not a big space, but we wanted to reclaim part of it as a sunset spot for a couple of chairs. You know — a wine sipping spot for two at the end of a long day. We also wanted to create a bit of buffer between the nearby sidewalk to the west — without blocking the sunlight. And, we wanted to be able to continue cultivating some edibles in this sunny garden pocket. But, because we know we may need to a big sewer excavation near this spot within the next couple years, we didn’t want to spend a lot of money making an enormous, costly change right now. In fact, the almond tree that will eventually live in this area is spending its first few years with us growing up in a pot.
So, we put on our semi permie hats and set to change it up in a day.
We began by pulling weeds to compost (off-site) and landscape fabric scraps to trash. As we pulled, some of the boards began to crumble, so the most rotted bits went into the compost bins. (Remember: they’re untreated cedar, so they’ll continue to rot nicely.) We composted the strawberries that were no longer productive, and carefully dug out and set aside the blueberry bushes to replant later.
A few of the old boards were still in decent shape, so using the rebar that had been holding the rotting raised beds together, we installed a couple of the good boards at top of the existing west slope. This gave us something to retain a small berm, which raised the grade — a change that would help provide privacy from the sidewalk. It isn’t the prettiest retaining wall, but the nearby plants will hide it. Eventually, these boards will also decompose, but they’ll do the trick ’til we get that expensive sewer work completed.
For the opposite side of this bed, facing into our sunny sitting spot, I scavenged our property for retaining materials. We pulled out an old nurselog that was languishing nearby. Originally, we had hauled this from a neighbor’s when they had a hazard Cedrus taken down years ago. Adding to the log retainer, I inserted a few “rocks” from around the property. Over a decade ago, we had scavenged these from a friend’s house when we used our truck to help her move; they’ve filled in empty spaces all over the garden over the years. Now, they’re focal retention pieces in our new space.
Once the retaining spaces were in place, we emptied out one of our composters that was full of great decomp material from our garden — a mostly a mixture of brown leaves and green leaves and fern fronds from the past year’s garden clean up efforts. We turned the compost into the recycled soil from the old beds to replenish them.
In the small area where we envision sitting at sunset in the summer, we used up a small pile of arborist chips that have been languishing on our driveway since last spring. Along with the chips came a healthy population of worms, too.
Then, we replanted the blueberries in the western-most bed. The sidewalk is about 4.5′ lower than where we will sit. The blueberries are planted about a foot higher than the wood chip seating area. So, their tops are about eye level when I’m standing. That means when we sit, the berries will provide privacy from the public sidewalk (at least in summer when they’re leafed out & that’s when we’re out there).
The next day, I filled in cracks between the boulders and logs as well as edged the beds with sedums and sempervivum that had edged the previous raised beds. I planted strawberries (that I bought) below many of the blueberries, seeded some carrot and spinach, and I popped in a few cabbage and broccoli starts from our greenhouse.
A potential hail storm was predicted the next day, so I sought to cover each tender seedling with some sort of cloche for protection. Unfortunately, front yard theft is a reality in our neighborhood, so I chose not to use some of my finest art cloches by Barbara Sanderson of Glass Gardens NW.
Instead, I looked to old, plastic pot trays I had purchased years ago when we needed something to help get our summer tomatoes through hot, dry days while we were on a roadtrip. They did the trick then, and they’re doing a bang-up job as ugly, but functional little cloches in our new garden beds.
Finally, after replanting, I went to my rain barrels to scoop up captured rainfall to sprinkle over the replanted beds. Fortunately, several of our barrels capture water from the polycarbonate and untreated wood roof of our greenhouse. It’s relatively clean, which is ideal for watering edible plants.
And, I did take a risk with one piece of art — a serving platter really — that sits on an old gazing globe stand, and placed it into one of the new beds as a bird and bee watering hole. No, I won’t share my blueberries with the birds, but I will invite them to drink and sing. And, this will also provide another place for our bees to belly up the the bar together.
The garden isn’t finished. It’s never finished. But, by simply re-imagining the function of a space, recycling many items we already had on hand, and buying just a couple of plants, we now have a wonderful new outdoor room where we can spend summer sunsets snacking on fresh summer berries as the world goes by — never knowing we’re just a few feet away.