"Uhm...what is perm-uh-culcher?" That is something that I have been asked quite a few times. Permaculture is basically the practice of utilizing the resources and layout of the land in sustainable, ecologically beneficial, self-supporting, and eco-restorative ways. This includes all sorts of practices from using rain barrels, building grey water filtration systems, monopolizing on microclimates, to growing "food forests" and building permaculture beds that build the soil structure and its moisture retentive value rather then degrade and erode as plowing and rota-tilling do. Other permaculture activities include worm farming, bee keeping, composting, companion planting, natural building....and many, many other concepts around and in-between that I am definitely not a guru on (but maybe one day?). Sepp Holzer is a famous permaculturist from Germany that has managed to utilize his habitat in the Alpine regions to allow lemon and peach trees to grow...and they continue to come back year after year. Yes, I said lemon trees and yes, I said in the Alps.
Permaculture and Herbalism co-mingle because they are both natural ways of living that benefit each other. "Permies," or folks who utilize permaculture practices, have an interest in propagating/incorporating healing plants for self sufficiency and ecology's sakes; folks who have a natural interest in healing with plants by proxy have the desire to grow plants in low-impact, ecologically restorative ways, to ensure the plants that heal are as healthy as they can be for their own benefit and that of those who use them as food or medicine.
So, would you like to learn how to make a permaculture bed that you can direct-plant your herbs, flowers, or vegetables into this spring? Yes? Let me introduce you to the "lasagna" style raised bed...
In case you have never made nor eaten lasagna, it consists of layers of sauce, cheese, noodles, repeat. And then it is baked in the oven. "Lasagna" raised beds are made by using different materials that will be nutritionally beneficial and/or moisture retentive and layering them between dirt. You can start lasagna beds in the fall, adding lots of compost-ables, covering it with landscape fabric and let the worms do the work until the next spring ("baking"), but you can make the lasagna beds ready for immediate planting by using already composted materials.
So, you buy some top soil and have it delivered. Then you buy some bone meal (calcium and phosphorus which your plants need to fruit and flower), obtain some composted chicken or horse manure, worm castings, lime, sawdust (as long as it is free of treated wood which is toxic!!!) or old, rotting wood from the woods, and a big stack of newspapers (no glossy pages--the ink has heavy metals), or pull up the old moving boxes from the basement that you don't know what to do with (remove the tape). Oh, and get the watering hose ready.
So, since you are not disturbing your soil, its structure will stay in place, and be enriched by what you are about to place on top of it. But note the grass. Who wants grass in their raised bed? No one. So, we must kill the grass. But not with pesticides!! This is what the newspaper and/or boxes are for. After taking out the glossy pages from the newspaper and discarding them, and/or the tape from the boxes and discarding that...lay the cardboard flat on the ground (cut the box down one side to make it a flat piece) or layer the newspapers multiple sheets thick (~5-10 pgs). As you put them on the ground, spray the paper/cardboard with the watering hose. This not only weighs down the paper/cardboard so it will not fly away if the wind kicks up, but the moisture helps get it ready to compost over time as well as invites little worms up the the surface.
Now, while the paper/cardboard is still wet, shovel a layer of top soil a couple of inches thick on top.
Next sprinkle a light layer of composted manure. You want it to be the oldest composted manure you can find so the nitrogen has mellowed a bit. Manure is intense so resist the urge to add more because "it doesn't look like much...." You don't want to burn the roots of your plants. Many places will let you haul composted manure away for free because their piles get so large over the year. Call around.
Next spread bone meal (following sq. foot recommendations on package) and/or crushed egg shells.
Then, sprinkle a generous layer of saw dust (free of treated wood) or rotten wood from the woods. This helps the soil retain moisture. You can also add a layer of coir here, which is the husks of coconuts. Avoid peat moss. It not only is rather destructive to the environment to harvest, but it also encourages algae growth and squelches soil aeration. Blegh. Maybe mix in your worm castings and compost to this step!! Mushroom compost is great if you can find it.
Otherwise, add worm castings and/or vegetable/leaf/mushroom compost on top the the sawdust.
After that, sprinkle a dainty layer of lime.
Also consider adding in grass clippings from a pesticide free lawn and your coffee grounds and banana peels from morning breakfast.
Top it all off with a final, generous layer of top soil. Voila! You are ready to plant. In the following year, your lasagna bed soil structure will be optimal, but it will grow plants delightfully well in the first year.
Don't forget to mulch around your plants! It keeps down weeds and helps keep in moisture on a hot summer day.
Also, if you make these in the fall to overwinter and use the next year, you may add more compost-ables (leaves, vegetable scraps, lawn clippings) and less dirt. Don't forget to cover it up with landscape fabric!
Enjoy practicing Permaculture! Plant some herbs!!!