Permaculture, a word that combines permanent and agriculture, describes a system of producing a diverse and useful harvest—usually food crops—while minimizing inputs and waste. Although permaculture incorporates many basic principles of organic gardening, such as species diversity and sustainability, it takes the concept a step further.
“Permaculture is more comprehensive in that it encompasses all of what it is to live in a place—food, water, shelter, energy, and how you handle the material stream and waste,” Will says. “Organic agriculture is certainly part of it.” In a home landscape designed with permaculture in mind, frequently harvested vegetables and herbs are sited closest to the house. Small fruits and occasionally harvested crops are planted a little farther away, with orchard fruits and nut trees growing at the edges of the property. This arrangement makes care, watering, and harvesting more efficient.
Nothing goes to waste in a permaculture system, including vegetative debris. Compost piles cook in the lower end of Will and Jeana’s back garden, but their most effective, and charming, waste-disposal system runs on two legs.
“In our small landscape, we have chickens, which give us eggs and entertainment, consume our kitchen scraps and weeds, and keep a range of insect pests under control,” Will says. Chicken-manure-rich straw bedding is periodically gathered from the coop and composted for later use in the vegetable garden. Any food scraps are fed to the chickens, creating a closed system in which compost created on-site feeds the plants, the plants feed the chickens, and the chickens feed the family. Because the chickens are housed underneath a grape arbor, chicken waste also helps feed grapevines. Grapes are a favorite target of Japanese beetles, but in this garden, any beetles unfortunate enough to cruise the area are quickly gobbled up by the birds.
“One of the ways to describe permaculture is that it concerns connection between systems. And when you have multiple connections between multiple systems, by gosh, it sounds just like nature,” Will says with a laugh.
A lofty goal of permaculture is to harvest all water necessary for a garden. Will and Jeana’s rain barrels collect up to 600 gallons per inch of rainfall on the roof of the house and, taking advantage of the natural slope on the property, supply it to the garden. It sounds like a lot, but Will calculates that during dry summers it takes up to 400 gallons to irrigate the edible landscape just once. Watering the entire vegetable garden two or three times a week requires as much as 1,000 gallons. To increase their water-storage capacity, Will and Jeana plan to place a large cistern under a deck, using the soil removed for the cistern to raise an area for a patio.
Form follows many functions in a home garden dedicated to permaculture. “It is funky. It’s functional. It is attempting to be aesthetically pleasing, while at the same time being as productive as possible,” explains Will.
The edibles begin streetside with assorted varieties of apple trees trained against a bamboo fence. Asian persimmons flank a peaked entry arbor, and behind the fence are herbs.
Hanging from one corner of the house is a large white painter’s bucket with a tomato growing from a hole in the bottom. Jeana found that, because of the pail’s reflective white color, this homemade system doesn’t overheat the tomato’s roots.
Elderberries and figs are sited along the side of the house, where these taller plants will not block sunlight to the vegetable garden. White rain barrels are neatly tucked around the back corner, sitting high above the garden to take advantage of gravity.
The original 700-square-foot vegetable garden is located in the back yard’s sunniest spot. It includes a small patio for rest and relaxation. The most striking feature of this space is one of Will’s creations: an outdoor cob oven shaped like a chicken’s head, good for a homemade veggie pizza—incorporating ingredients from the garden, of course.
Beyond the vegetable plot is the grape arbor and chicken coop with its own water catchment system. The back yard’s shady side is the perfect spot for a hammock, a small water garden fed from a word-burning hot tub, and inoculated shiitake mushroom logs.
In 2009, Will and Jeana’s property grew to 1⁄3 acre when they purchased the house next door. Since that building was derelict, they invited Habitat for Humanity to deconstruct it and resell the usable materials. They then expanded their vegetable garden by another 900 square feet on the old house’s footprint.
Fortunately, there was a garage in good condition at the rear of the property, which Will and Jeana converted into a community center for their neighborhood. This building stores recreational equipment for their son, Eli, and his friends, and has become a popular meeting space for monthly potluck dinners.
Will and Jeana open their yard to the public during garden and chicken tours, to students of permaculture, and to anyone interested in sustain-ability. They have posted informa-tion and videos about the creation of the garden on their website, 610kirby-permaculture.org. The website also includes a link to free videos of Will’s permaculture classes at North Carolina State University.
The most striking thing about this property is that its attractiveness complements its efficiency. Will explains: “If a space is well designed to function seamlessly for its intended use, it will be used; if it is used, it will be loved; and if it is loved, it will become beautiful.”
Photography by Kyle Pearce
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine August/September 2013.