Paradise gardening as a political imperative
In this essay, which completely changed my life in 1999 and set me on the path I’m still on today, Joe Hollis writes:
“Our world is being destroyed, in the final analysis, by an extremely misguided notion of what constitutes a successful human life. Materialism is running rampant and WILL CONSUME EVERYTHING, because its hunger will never be sated by its consumption. Human life has become a cancer on the planet, gobbling up all the flows of matter and energy, poisoning with our waste. What can stop this monster?
Nothing. Just this: walk away from it. It is time, indeed time is running out, to abandon the entire edifice of civilization / the State / the Economy and walk (don’t run!) to a better place: home, to Paradise.”
How do we get to Paradise? Easy! We grow it, everywhere we go.
At this point, we don’t need to dwell on why growing food forests and paradise gardens is so important. If you’ve made it to this place, you know why. And it’s not a hobby or even a choice anymore. At this point, devoting massive portions of your spare time to gardening is an imperative. So, let’s get to how to create a diverse, thriving garden that will last for a thousand generations and provide sustainable yields over multiple layers of time, space, and function.
Heather Jo Flores' lawn in February 2020
Permaculture is known for long-lasting, low-maintenance perennial gardens that stack plants in time, space, and function. The polar opposite of a monoculture, a well-planned polyculture will yield year-round, providing food, seeds, and compost crops for people, wildlife, and microorganisms alike. Because they are so diverse, polycultures yield more and are less susceptible to disease and insect infestation.
The result of this type of agriculture is a lush, abundant oasis, teeming with fresh fruit and birdsong, and when I heard Joe Hollis call this type of agriculture “paradise gardening,” it made sense to me and I started calling it that, too.
Everything you need to know about gardening, or quite possibly everything you need to know about life. You can learn from the plants.
Every time you interact with a plant, whether it's a microscopic one or a giant ancient tree, you learn something about the planet, you learn something about yourself, and you learn something about how to bridge the gap between what we currently call humanity and the potential for a sustainable future as a coexisting symbiotic species here on the planet in the global biosphere.
As gardeners with our hands in the soil, we have the opportunity to create a legacy that we can see immediate results from our own lives, and we can see reverberations as we move through the garden over the seasons and over the years.
Gardening gives us immediate feedback. The plants are able to exhibit evolutionary traits very quickly, because their life cycles turn over so much more quickly than ours. So, we can learn from them about how changes in the biosphere, changes in microclimate, and even tiny changes in the way the wind blows can have profound effects on the success or failure of an organism and the community that organism is connected to.
We can use the natural forest as a model for building guilds that layer functional niches within niches in space and time. When we plant several of these guilds together the result is a multifunctional, polycultural garden that thrives in low-maintenance perpetuity.
To understand this, think of the way a forest looks: small plants and debris cover the ground so that no soil is bare. Larger plants and shrubs grow up against small trees, and tall trees fill in the gaps to create an overstory canopy that is rich in bird and animal life. Vines wrap around the trees and drip across the skyline. Something is always sprouting while neighboring plants die or go dormant for the season, and some kind of food is always available. The entire forest remains moist and cool even on hot days, yet cold winds and killing frost rarely penetrate the dense growth, so the interior of the forest remains temperate, while sun loving plants crowd the edges where there is more light. Every nook and niche has something to offer and is home to something or someone, so that every square foot reeks of life and diversity.
We can view the layers of a polyculture in three parts: function, space, and time.
Layers in function, space, and time
Here’s a rundown of niches the plants in your garden could occupy, to create layers of function, space, and time:
Layers of Function
Vertical gardens in Kansas City
Layers in Space
Layers in Time
Sure, summer is the peak season for most gardeners, but in many climates you can have food and flowers year-round, and you can also design plantings to succeed each other, over the many years to come. Use niches in time, combined with niches in space and function, to deepen and diversify the productivity of your garden.
Tips for using the time layer:
P.S. Diverse doesn’t mean crowded!!
Always be sure to give each plant plenty of room to grow. Clotted areas provide the moist, sticky conditions many harmful pests need to thrive, and when plants are too crowded they compete for nutrients, which weakens them and makes them vulnerable to insects and disease. So water, weed, mulch, and prune when necessary. The most common mistake gardeners make is planting things too close together— remember how big the plants will be at maturity, and make sure they have the space they need.
Most plants, from annual daisies to ancient yew trees, generally follow the same life cycle: the seed grows into a plant which flowers then produces a fruit which contains seed.Each stage provides us with an opportunity for a yield, or in other words, we can use plants at different stages. Imagined the life cycle of plants as a flow of water, with each different way of using plants creating eddies in the flow.
Check out the example chart here, and then download this blank PDF version to try for yourself.
Relevant Links and Resources
If you're working in a temperate zone, Maddy Harland's series on food forests will be of great value to you. Even in other climates, the core principles will still apply. Start with this video:
Joe Hollis discusses his approach to Paradise Gardening.
Be sure to subscribe and check out the rest of his channel. It's wonderful!
Graham Bell, author of the Permaculture Garden, gives a tour of his food forest
If you're of a more tropical persuasion, check out Sarah Wu's permaculture food forest in Costa Rica
And here's something for cold climate folks, from Kareen Erbe
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