Growing a vegetable garden can be an emotional rollercoaster. This gorgeous summer we just enjoyed was good for the veggies, but it was also perfect weather for taking off for a week. It must have been a summer of tough decisions for some gardeners. Staying home allows for attentive watering, creating the highs of homegrown produce, and the lows of lost vacation opportunities. Taking off into the bush would have created the highs of adventures had, and the lows of coming home to dead vegetables.
Whitehorse resident Marlon Davis, however, has escaped such valleys and troughs. The stabilizing factor is that she is growing food that thrives in the Yukon climate, year after year, with or without her.
Davis is employing permaculture principles in her garden, and the payoffs are many. She is growing food organically, the plants are perennials and will proliferate for years, and as the plants cycle through life they enrich the soil. On top of that, Davis can head out on vacation guilt-free.
“With the food forest, if you go away, there is generally no harm done: berries fall to the ground, edible weeds go to seed and die, and there is no love lost,” Davis says. “It’s cycling. It does its job. It grows into a forest.
“So if you don’t have a lot of time, that’s a big benefit.”
The concept of permaculture gardening is growing in Whitehorse. The Yukon Permaculture Facebook page, which Davis administrates, has 157 likes, and 50 members.
The philosophy behind permaculture started to germinate in Australia in the 1970s, and has been spreading around the world since then. Some of the ideas at the root of permaculture are creating a garden system that sustains itself, recycling nutrients and water within a kind of mini-ecosystem, and eliminating the need for irrigation and fertilizing.
Davis started a gardening company called Deep Roots Edible Garden Design and Permaculture three years ago, and at the same time started her own garden using permaculture principles.
Her food forest features various heights of edible and medicinal plants, from apple and cherry trees; to haskap, raspberry, and saskatoon bushes; to borage, lovage, yarrow plants; and down to ground covers like red clover and chickweed.
However, this type of gardening does not have the aesthetic allure of neat rows of colour-coordinated vegetables and flowers. Rather, it has more of a wild and unregulated look.
Davis found out this summer that it looks like a bunch of weeds to some folks. Like her father-in-law. He offered to look after the place while Davis and family went on vacation, which was a big help especially for the small, traditional bed of lettuce and carrots, and the small greenhouse of tomatoes and squash Davis has in the backyard.
But he didn’t realize the permaculture garden was actually an intentional garden.
“My father-in-law saw my food forest and came in with his weed whacker and murdered all of my berry bushes and ground cover,” she says. “So it tells me that he looked at it and thought, ‘Overgrown mess of weeds.’ And I look at it and think, ‘Low maintenance, beautiful and bountiful.'”
It’s a big difference in aesthetic.
For her, traditional vegetable gardens in rows only look nice in the fully-grown, all-leafed-out-and-ready-to-harvest stage.
“Once you harvest the annual beds, you have all these coffins with dead salad roots,” she says. “But when I harvest my food forest, it still looks beautiful.”
A full bush of berries becomes a full bush, no berries; a tree with apples becomes a tree, no apples; and so on.
So, if the plan for next summer is to take off when the weather is hot and dry, and, to develop a lush garden, then permaculture techniques may be the way to go. But if what you really need is a homegrown tomato fix, you may have to stay on the emotional rollercoaster.