Saturday, July 18, 2009

Diversity and Permanence Mean Abundance for All

Hooray for diversity. It's Mother Nature's way of keeping things interesting, complex, dynamic, and -- most important of all -- balanced. The balance of nature is no joke, as we are all finding out now that our species has thoroughly upset it. Despite the sobering odds, we can help restore the balance right in our back yards.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area every little valley and hillside has its own micro-climate and unique habitat. We lucky locals get to be amateur horticulturists, if we are so inclined, trying things out and seeing what works in our personal piece of paradise. This fine-grained variation is generally true of California, where Sunset Magazine had to develop its own set of more than twenty climate zones because the limited number of USDA options aren't up to the job of covering the wide array of West Coast growing niches.

Diversity helps create the permanence of a rich ecosystem of mutually supportive living things. That's why our modern habitat gardens are not the tidy rows of mono-cropping we senior citizens may have pulled weeds in as children. More and more, our aesthetic ideal is a colorful jumble of different kinds of plants and different varieties of the same plant.

The goal of a permaculture gardener anywhere in the world is to work with existing natural surroundings to create a self-sustaining food forest. First you have to learn what is there already so you will have a better idea of what might be added.

Know your ground; become familiar with its patterns of sun and wind and rain. Know the soil and understand how water flows across the surface and collects in the low places. Understand what wants to grow there on its own and which insects and creatures have already set up housekeeping. Only then can you intelligently assemble just the right mosaic of trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, herbs, flowers, and -- oh, yes, last but not least -- vegetables. If you do it right, after several years the whole thing "pops" and becomes an intricate web of life that just goes on growing on its own. You can wander through your garden of Eden plucking this and that with nary a care and without breaking a sweat. That's the theory.

I've never seen an actual food forest although I've read about some in this area. There is a famous one down in Point Reyes Station -- I'm not sure if it's open to public these days. Our garden is just a patch of rented ground with about 14 rather unsightly black plastic raised beds (easy to carry around, easy to assemble, relatively inexpensive). After seventeen years of observing I have only a hazy idea of what is happening here, nowhere near the permaculturist's high standard.

But you don't have to be a high roller to get into the game. Our little micro-climate is, at certain times of year, such as right now, a modest middle-class Eden. The plum trees and blackberry vines that were here before we moved in are bearing ripe fruit. The ancient pear tree is resplendent with its not-quite-ready-to-eat harvest, with no effort on our part except some minor pruning now and then.

There's nothing like eating a handful of just-picked warm juicy plums on a summer afternoon or, on a sunny morning, picking fat blackberries and putting them directly onto a bowl of breakfast cereal.

We love the pears during the thirty seconds that each one is at the peak of ripeness -- and love the pear tree for its beauty all through the year.

Little by little by little I am coming to know this habitat and even though I'm not proactively building a true food forest I do cultivate many different varieties of herbs, flowers, and vegetables. We are doing our best to preserve a thriving and diverse community of plants that attracts myriad insects, butterflies, and birds along with the occasional possum, raccoon, and deer. There's plenty for everybody.

Diversity and permanence mean abundance for all.

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