With permaculture, you turn your backyard into a private food forest

It is raining lightly this Sunday, but the ten-man group that is being guided through the food forest in the Permakulturcenter Haarlem is undiminishedly enthusiastic. Behold, there is a Sichuan pepper plant, and there is a hawthorn. In that kitchen garden bed are primroses and gourds, relatives of the artichoke. Plums, cherries and later walnuts will soon grow in the field further ahead, where you can pick blackcurrants and dewberries from the bushes. Edible plants grow even in the pond. “You have to go out into the water to harvest them,” says the board member, who explains the principles of permaculture today.

Officially, the ‘edible garden’ is only part of the permaculture, a design method that focuses on sustainability and living with nature. It can also be applied to architecture, for example with a view to ecological construction and renovation, local energy sources and integration of rainwater collection. But it is above all the prospect of being able to harvest food from one’s own garden that appeals to the imagination of those present for this open day.

“I do not know anything about it, but I am very curious,” says Liesbeth de Wit (55). “My husband and I recently rented a cottage with an apple tree in the garden. The ripe apples lay in the square and on the street, I thought: how wonderful, that abundance. Choosing yourself is a lot more fun than buying it in the supermarket, is not it? I try to live consciously, among other things by eating organic and regularly harvesting in the local self-harvest garden, which I have taken part in. So it would be a logical step to sow edible plants in my city garden. I just do not have a green thumb. The grape I planted last year was immediately eaten by the snails. ”

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A private pantry could be a gift for those who are new to gardening. The great advantage of this is that nature can more or less go its own way and weeding and pruning are kept to a minimum. “Many people have to get used to the idea that you do not tear everything in,” says Tosca Peschier (31), co-founder of Permakultur Center Haarlem. “Permaculture is not labor-intensive, but knowledge-intensive. You have to immerse yourself in it and decorate your garden smartly, then nature makes a lot out of the work, and you can harvest all year round. ”

About 80 percent of the harvest from such a garden is for humans, the rest is for the animals. “It is good for biodiversity and makes pesticides unnecessary. If you have many aphids one year, the next year you get ladybirds that eat aphids. By planting plants at different heights, colors and structures, one can still harvest enough because different insects eat different plants. Classical gardening is, in fact, a struggle against nature. Permaculture works in harmony with nature. ”

the seventies

The term is a combination of the English words permanent and agriculture, and was invented in the 1970s by two Australian biologists who mapped ecological processes in Tasmania’s forests. This would enable people to design functional ecosystems themselves, was the idea. For example, when planting a food forest – as opposed to a kitchen garden – seven growth layers are assumed, which also occur in forests. Roots and beets, for example, grow underground, the ground is covered with wild strawberries, root vegetables and herbaceous plants grow in between, shrubs and fruit-bearing shrubs tower over it, and fruit and nut trees are tallest. The insects and birds that come to it ensure a natural balance, among other things through pollination and prevention of pests.

The idea is much older, says Tosca Peschier: Thousands of years ago, people also planted edible plants in the Amazon. “There are about twenty thousand species, but only a limited number of crops are grown in agriculture. This monoculture is slowly changing in the Netherlands, organic methods are already used in agriculture, including permaculture. And now more and more individuals are discovering it. ”

Since the pandemic, Permakulturcenter Haarlem has twice as many registrations for permaculture courses than places. “People were at home, but could still go out into the garden, it will play a role. But the climate crisis, the financial crisis and the war in Ukraine also make people think about dealing with the world and the origin of food. If you’re thinking, ‘What can I do?’ then an edible garden is a good start. If only because it teaches you how a cycle works and that everything is connected. ”

Pass on knowledge

Rachel Cannegieter (39) is here today with her husband and two children aged seven and ten. Enthusiastically, the oldest jumps into the pond with his boots, the youngest looks mesmerized at an edible plant that has just been told that there are also poisonous varieties – so you have to know what to pick. Cannegieter: “I am a sustainability consultant in the fashion industry and have therefore been aware of the environment for some time. Bees are threatened with extinction, microplastics have recently been found in human blood. I’m worried about that. We live in Zaandam but are looking for a house outside the city with some land to grow our own vegetables. My grandmother made her own jam, her own sour. I would like to pass that knowledge on to my children, but I have never learned it. We live in a society with many technical farms, but something has also been lost. I would like to find that again. “

Many people have to get used to the idea that one does not tear everything

Workshops and courses are held across the country that explain the basic principles of food forests. Sometimes you can also learn to pick game, preserve, ferment or cook at the same institutions with the ingredients from your own garden. Maranke Spoor is a teacher at the Permaculture Education Foundation in Amersfoort and has already had so many registrations for the annual permaculture course, which starts in September, that a double group is planned. “I have been doing this for twelve years now and have experienced highs and lows in the form of enthusiasm. We are definitely seeing an increase right now. The striking thing is that the audience has changed. When I started, many interested people were hippie types. Now students often come from the city and the starting knowledge level is higher. I teach IT professionals, bankers, academics. Often they have already read well. ”

A common beginner mistake is what Spoor calls ‘Sweet little plant syndrome’. People do not dare to make choices, leave any plant that has been blown over and think it is pathetic to replace ornamental plants with, for example, a berry bush. As a result, their garden often contains too few plants for a good yield. People think they do not have enough space for larger plants or think it is sad to replace the azalea with a berry bush.

The opposite is the ‘permaproppers’ the paradises’ which are just too crowded. “It all starts with a good design that does not contain too many annuals. Annual plants require a lot of maintenance and are not good for the soil. Each scale size requires different decisions. In a small city garden, for example, you will still have to prune – which is not necessary in many food forests – because space is limited. But if the basics are right, everything keeps each other in balance, and you should no longer prevent a snail from eating your cauliflower. ”

onion soup wood

Those who do not have the time or desire to dive into do and do not can buy a ready-made food forest package including planting plan. It’s even easier to hire a food forest designer for design and construction.

“I do not want to talk about a proliferation of food forest designers,” says Spoor, who previously could also be hired for this job, “but there are significantly more than for e.g. ten years ago. That’s a good sign. More and more people are realizing that they can do something themselves and that the tiles need to be removed from the garden, among other things to counteract heat stress. In addition, an edible garden is regenerative: it restores nature so that you contribute to a solution to environmental problems. ”

No garden? “You can also grow herbs and edible plants in a window sill,” says Spoor. “And a balcony is enough for an onion soup tree. You will not be able to get your entire food supply from it, but neither will you with a full, medium-sized backyard – the greengrocer has nothing to fear. Giant harvest is not the goal either. Permaculture is not only about gardening, but also about raising awareness and fighting ecological illiteracy. ”

She followed her first permaculture education with the British pioneer Patrick Whitefield. “This is common sense, I once told him after a lesson on food forests. To which he replied, “Yes, but common sense is very uncommon.” All the initiatives to grow food myself, no matter how small, give me hope. A better world starts in your backyard. “

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