Friday, August 10, 2012

Edges, boundaries and paths

Cultivating the Patch is throwing up interesting questions about edges, boundaries and paths. It's a rectangle of land with minimal boundaries: a large-mesh wire fence on the north and east separating it from the neighbours' properties; a 2 metre wooden fence on the south separating it from the school oval and no boundary on the west other than Jill's and Mike's vineyard.

On the minus side, that means that there's little to block the passage of wind, rabbits and the occasional errant dog. On the plus side, there are none of the issues with shade that we have to deal with in our home garden, caused by mature trees in our and our neighbours' yards, and of course our 2-storey house. The Patch was really a horticultural blank slate.
The Patch - June 2011
Faced with a nice big block of land to grow stuff on, my tendency (and I suspect I'm not alone in this) is to think of growing space, not access, and to begrudge any land dedicated to paths and barriers.

But paths and barriers are necessary. Foot and wheelbarrow traffic compacts soil, so you don't want to walk on land you're going to grow plants in. Aggressive running grasses and other tough running weeds (we're 'blessed' with kikuyu and blanket/carpet weed) would quickly overrun the cultivated land without well-defined borders that can be 'patrolled' for incursions.

I've tried to build some Permaculture principles into how I tackle the issue of barriers – the Patch is defined to the east and west by borders of deep-rooted, perennial plants – primarily comfrey and lucerne, which resist the encroachment of running weeds, provide useful nutrients and mulch to the garden and require little maintenance or irrigation.

To the north, a wattle border will eventually be about 2 metres high and diversified with sheokes, blueberries, etc. to provide shelter from hot northerlies, mulch and enrichment for the garden and some fruit for us.

I'm happy with how those solutions are evolving, but within the garden I feel the need for permanent paths, borders and subdivisions, and I'm not entirely happy with what I've done so far in that regard. One of the issues is the tension between the Permaculture approach I've recently learned – which values edge, diversity and curvilinear forms – and the traditional European organic gardener's approach, which wants straight lines and rectangular beds. There are advantages to both approaches and I haven't yet found a balance which works for us.

The two weeks I spent at Milkwood Permaculture in NSW brought home to me that there is scope for both approaches within an enterprise which is inspired by Permaculture principles. On the one hand they have a nascent forest garden which in years to come will probably be intensely productive with little ongoing maintenance; on the other hand most of their food in these early years is produced in a very traditional looking, labour-intensive organic market garden.

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