Whether you grow some plants on your balcony or you are lucky enough to have your own garden, you may often be faced with questions like “What to grow?,” “How?” and “When?” Of course there are many different ways and personal preferences to answer these questions. One approach worth having a closer look at is permaculture, especially if you are interested in, to say it in the words of its initiator Bill Mollison, working with rather than against nature and looking at plants and animals in all of their functions rather than treating any area as a single product system.
Together with his student David Holmgren, Mollison coined the design approach of permaculture in Australia in the midst of the 1970s as an alternative to industrial farming. Historically focused on the stewardship of land and nature, in permaculture, people, their buildings and the ways they organize themselves have been and remain central until today. As we all know, nature provides the best examples of complex systems not only being abundant, but also sustainable and self-balancing too. So the first out of twelve advisory points Mollison and Holmgren gave us to design our environment sustainably is to “Observe and Interact.” For billions of years life has appeared in innumerable forms. It develops, organizes and sustains itself via self-balancing, cooperation, self-regulation and various other mechanisms, which can be discovered by observing patterns and structures of any natural system–a single plant or a whole garden. These botanical systems maintain themselves without a need of reproducing surpluses, which exceed the resources being available. From these observations as the source of new insight and creativity permaculture deduces design principles and tools applicable to any imaginable system like a community, a farm, a garden, a lifestyle or even a career.
For starting your own observations you don’t even need to go to the fields or forest. Most bigger cities have a variety of small and larger scale urban gardens today. So why not give it a try? Visit them and take some time to have a closer look.
Start your observation with your eyes–what can you see? Where does the sun shine, which spots are shady and which spots are windy? Which plants are cultivated in which areas, have they been planted in monocultures or are they mixed with other plants growing side by side? Personally, I prefer to do my observations in the permacultural forest garden I work in, which is located in Berlin Neukölln and provides fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits to a small Italian restaurant called Café Botanico. The garden area is about 1000m² and contains many beds filled with a huge number of various plants growing and thriving side by side. The method used there is called companion planting: various plants benefit from each other in regards to pollination, pest control and plant disease, providing of habitat useful for animals and maximizing the use of the space.
So, coming back to your balcony or garden, why not sow or plant various plants together in one bed or even in one flower pot? Lettuce and radish for instance benefit from each other in several ways. Radishes germinate much earlier than lettuce seeds. The faster growing radish seedlings protect the tender seed leaves of the lettuce from midday sun by providing shade. Later on the radish leaves get harvested and the lettuce gets more space to grow.
There are many more plants which would love to be neighbours. Just try it out! As I mentioned before, this is just the first of twelve principles. Read my following articles to get to know more about urban permaculture step by step.