Permaculture gardening: minimal effort, maximum production

Patrick Whitefield
Monday, 1st January 1996

Patrick Whitefield introduces the concept of his favoured system of gardening - highly productive with minimal effort...

Over the past few years I have developed a style of gardening that suits me well, though it looks a little unconventional. A friend who visited for lunch one day was a bit mystified when, colander in hand, we approached what looked like a jumble of wild plants to pick a salad. In a few moments we had filled the colander with a mix of tasty leaves. He looked quite surprised and said, "I see you have a minimalist garden."

The name has stuck. Based on perennial and self-seeding vegetables, including some wild ones, it is a garden which requires very little input, yet it can put a salad or a pot of greens on the table any day of the year. It is the kind of garden which has often been associated with the name permaculture in the past. Of course permaculture is not synonymous with any one style of gardening. In a good permaculture design the gardening methods are chosen to fit the individual gardener and the individual site: and that is just how my style of gardening arose.

My work takes me away from home, often for a couple of weeks at a time, and often at important times in the gardening calendar. Perennials and self-seeders fit this pattern well, because once the garden is established there is very little work to do, and a fortnight's absence in, say, the middle of May is not the disaster it would be in an annual vegetable garden. In addition, after some years of chronic illness, my physical strength is not that great, so anything which reduces the amount of work is welcome.

The main influence on the site was slugs. Until we moved last autumn I was gardening in a place so sluggy that it was impossible to grow most kinds of annual vegetables without massive and constant use of slug pellets - which I will not do. On the whole the perennial and self-seeding vegetables are less highly bred than the annuals, and have not had all of their natural resistance bred out of them. Also, perennials do not have to pass through the vulnerable seedling stage every year, as annuals do. A minimalist garden is not immune to slugs and snails, but it is highly resistant.

Site & Layout

All vegetables need a fertile soil in order to yield well, but if you plan to have both a conventional annual garden and a minimalist garden, the annuals should get first priority on the most fertile soil. They are high input/high output plants compared to the perennials and self-seeders, and you want to be sure of a return on all the work you put into them. Heavy clays are only really suitable for a minimalist garden if they are well structured and well drained, because of course there will be no digging. As for light, perennials and self-seeders need as much as annuals, but not necessarily at the same time of year. Many self-seeders do most of their growing in autumn and spring. Perennials, which spend the winter as a mature rootstock or complete plant, can put on a lot of growth early in the spring, when annuals are still seeds in the seed packet or at most seedlings in a seed tray. This means the plants in a minimalist garden are doing much of their growing before trees come into leaf. Most of them can be grown successfully in the shade of deciduous fruit trees, as long as they get some indirect light from the side. In fact a minimalist vegetable garden is very much the same thing as the ground layer of an edible woodland garden.

Many self-seeding vegetables, including some perennials ones, can be invasive if given the opportunity. They do not get this in a minimalist garden, where most of the space is occupied by vigorous perennial plants. But in an annual vegetable garden there is plenty of bare soil for much of the year, and they can spread into it like weeds. So minimalist and annual gardens should not ideally be sited side by side.

A minimalist garden needs regular attention, if only to note which of the wide variety of plants is ready to eat, so it should not be sited in some out-of-the-way corner. It can be designed to look attractive, by careful arrangement of vegetables with contrasting leaf texture and shape, and by the inclusion of a few flowers - many of which are edible.

Since this is a no-dig garden it needs to be laid out on a bed system, i.e. with a network of paths so that it is never necessary to walk on the growing area. I have used both keyhole beds and the conventional straight beds. The shape of the site and existing paths may suggest one or the other.

Plant Profiles For The Minimalist Gardener

Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. maritima)
A wild perennial which grows around the coast of England and Wales, this is the ancestor of beetroot, chard and other cultivated beets (which have all had the perennialism bred out of them). It is an excellent spinach, with a taste as good as, if not better than, cultivated kinds. Unlike many edible wild plants the leaves are large, so picking is quick and easy. The picking season is from April to October in cooler areas, and all year round in milder areas, though winter picking should be very light. Peak production is in May and June, tailing off after flowering, when the leaves get smaller. Seed can be bought from wildflower specialists. It is best sown in a cold frame or nursery bed, then planted out at somewhere between 30 and 50cm apart - but I am still experimenting with this.

Ramsons (Allium ursinum)
A woodland perennial, found all over Britain, ramsons or wild garlic is a real shade lover. It rarely does well in full Sun, but given shade from deciduous trees and a moist, alkaline soil it can outcompete most other herbaceous plants.

It is the broad-bladed leaves that are eaten, not the bulbs, which are tiny. It is ready to pick in March and dies down again in June. This makes it a good complement to bulb garlic, coming ready when last year's dried bulbs are often running out, and just when the first green bulbs of this year's crop are ready. It is also excellent in salads, or as a sandwich filling with cottage cheese or peanut butter. The flowers, brilliant white globes, brighten up the shady parts of the garden in May.

Seed can be bought from wildflower suppliers. The plants can be raised in pots and planted out during the dormant season or seed can be sown direct. A spacing of 10cm is about right.

Perennial Kale (Brassica oleracea)
Like the beets, all the garden brassicas are descended from a wild seaside perennial, but perennial kale is the only true perennial among them. It is tough, multi-stemmed, clump-forming and virtually immortal. Although it can play host to the common pests of brassicas it is relatively unaffected by them.

It is green throughout the year, and starts growth early in the spring. The leaves are often rather small, about the size of well-grown common spinach, and have a nutty taste which is much better than the annual varieties of kale.

Stem cuttings will take any time from spring to autumn, and should be planted at around 60cm apart. In a year or two they will grow to form a thick clump, and although it will spread it is not invasive.

Patrick Whitefield is a permaculture writer and teacher. To see a selection of his books, visit Green Shopping.