Stones and Legumes

If I had to distill down my learning from Permaculture into their essences-I would choose two-one a theory and one practical. The theory is that of turning your perspective on its head-more specificaly of turning waste into a resource. Examples of this even in my small yard are numerous and I haven’t even scratched the surface. Our subdivision was backfill with quarry castings-zero organic matter, a frustrating mix of lay and sand-and hundreds of rocks. Like many of our new neighbors we spent the first weeks after we moved in slowing walking the yard with a hoe and wheelbarrow collecting them by the ton-well that’s not true as many of them hired contractors to rake their lawns with heavy equipment. But as some complained of the expense and hassle of the cleanup. We quietly lined paths with them, built berms with them, and used them to add interest to our as yet unplanted gardens. In the backyard I piled some of the larger, but not as attractive stones into what I hope will some day become chipmunk habitat, but in the mean time is a focus point in the bed that I use to force my first spring plantings of radish and lettuce-the several hundred pounds of stone hold enough of the day’s heat and provide some frost protection buying me another week or so of planting in the spring when I am itching to get my hands dirty. This year the stones actually solved an immediate problem for me-my second raised bed had taken a beating at the hands of last years spring rains, I needed to get the bed protected. Pricing out 100′ of cedar and posts for a formal raised bed came to almost $100 per bed, and it felt, well, wrong to cut lumber just for my garden. I had dropped several soccer ball sized stones on the uphill side last summer for some protection from the runoff-why not use stone and save the trees and some money? Problem was that I didn’t have enough stone left-and certainly not enough large ones. But my neighbors did! In the same vein of taking the coffee grounds from our local baristas I was able to turn the waste headache of my neighbors into a resource in my yard to the betterment of us both. Turning waste into resource isn’t that hard-rain barrels and gardens went in under our downspouts to reduce our impact, and allow us to grow more varied native plants than we would have otherwise. I no longer need to fill bird baths-I grow them!!

The second most poignat lesson was the simple legume. The legume has reached a level of reverence with me akin to composting-nature’s miracles unfolding before my eyes. Legumes from the simple pea to the mighty Locust trees have evolved a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria. The legume provides food for the bacteria in the form of secretions from its roots, but the real fun starts in what the bacteria gives back-it fixes nitrogen from the air into a soluble form that is used by the plant. Legumes actually make their own fertilizer! Any bean farmer will tell you that inoculating your bean crop with the proper bacteria (available at the seed store) will net you a 10-30% boost in yield. But the fantastic part is that you can get the benefit in your formal plantings as well. The gains of using legumes as cover cross are well documented-fix the nitrogen into the plant, let it grown and then turn the cut plant into the soil for the fertilizer. But you need not cut the plant to benefit-a legumous shrub or tree will drop is leaves in the fall, and all plants daily grow and scrub off roots which are also high in nitrogen. For this reason I have tried to mix in a legume in every bed I plant-and then tried to stack functions onto my plant choice whenever I can. We have 2 large windows in our living room that are often hope for the breeze-under these I planted a perennial sweet pea that will fertilize the bed around it, but also fill my home with the unmatched scent of sweet peas in bloom all spring long. In our perennial beds I have planted native False Indigos for similar reasons. Inidgos are also critical early nectar sources for my little six legged friends to attract them early, so they can lay their brood and start muchin on aphids and pests. The importance of legumes for me is that it opened the perspective that plants can do more for my gardens than just look pretty or provide food. When you start planting legumes you open yourself up to the possiblity of guilding your garden-taking the Three Sisters idea of planting several species together fr the benifit of all. I caused a small scene at a farmers market last year when I discovered a stand selling Russian Comfrey-a prime nutrient accumulator and biomass generator that I had been searching for for months in vain.

My current favorite legume is the Goumi shrub-the ultimate function stacker. Its a nitrogen fixer, it provides nesting habitat for birds, is a decorative shrub due to its beautiful foliage and flowers, and when the flowers drop they are replaced by edible egg shaped fruits that I am told make for fine fresh eating and darn good jam. I have 3 coming this May-and they will be the first plants in to my forays into Forest Gardening focusing on taking my food crops out of the raised beds and into the shrubs and trees. The long term goal is to create a semi-self sufficient multi layered ecology of trees, shrubs, vines, vegetables and herbs, and root crops very similar to what you would find in a typical temperate forest-but take a Permaculture twist to it and choose plants that fill the ecological niches but are skewed to producing crops for my family. Forest Gardens take decades to develop-I had better get started!


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