Friday, August 10, 2012

The Three Sisters, Forest Gardens, and Hands Off Gardening

Companion gardening is nothing new, and in fact the Native Americans utilized it as a way to plant crops that involved little to no work once they began to grow. I am doing a lot of research on this topic, and on permaculture gardening and pretty soon I plan on starting to design a homestead so that it is mostly hands-off, and will share what I learn along the way.

One of the first articles I encountered while starting to research this subject explained "the three sisters." Which for those of you who are not familiar, is a specific way of planting corn, pole beans and squash where the three plants grow together in such a way that they are beneficial to one another. The corn provides a "pole" for the pole beans to grow on, and the squash is a low spreading ground cover that prevents weeds from getting enough sunlight to grow while also helping the soil retain moisture. This system is just so intuitive and so natural that it just intrigued me. So I began to research further which is what lead me to permaculture and forest gardens.

Forest Gardens with Robert Hart

Now, this video on YouTube gives a very brief introduction to the idea of forest garden, and the documentary I linked to the other day mentioned this as well, but it's an entirely low maintenance system of planting. It involves Hart's "7 Layer" technique to gardening, which shows how interplanting and proper planning can maximize the yield of an acre, while nearly eliminating the work involved in such a garden.
Now the diagram to the left (drawn by Graham Burnett) wonderfully illustrates the 7 layer technique introduced by Robert Hart, and the seven layers are as follows:

1. Canopy layer consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
2. Low-tree layer of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
3. Shrub layer of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
4. Herbaceous layer of perennial vegetables and herbs.
5. Ground cover layer of edible plants that spread horizontally.
6. Rhizosphere or ‘underground’ layer of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
7. Vertical layer of vines and climbers.

So not only does your garden not look like a traditional garden, it really resembles a forest, a forest of edible human friendly foods that you can harvest and eat, but also takes super low maintenance because through resembling a forest you're helping to not overwork the land, and the diversity of plant life helps to enrich the soil and keep the beneficial bugs present. Often we forget in gardening and farming that there are beneficial bugs, much like we forget in modern medicine that there are beneficial bacteria. So this sets up an eco-system in your garden, and the people feed per acre is definitely comparable to modern farming, but this system is sustainable in that, you don't need to let the fields lie fallow to recover for a year, this maintains year, after year. I am beginning to plan out which plant to obtain, and I want to just say for anyone reading this, that my garden is being planned in zone 4b, so keep in mind that I also need to select plants that are cold hearty, as we have long cold winters around here.

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