By Zach Loeks
This is the first of a two-part article about using permaculture techniques to improve the profitability and resiliency of market gardens. For the second part, click here or see the November/December 2017 issue of GFM.
The purpose of this article is to introduce readers to key concepts and practices needed in the transition to a permaculture market garden- one that is more profit resilient (profitable and resilient), and to encourage this as the overarching goal of farms because it makes sense and cents.
First, we will look at defining some of the concepts behind why market gardens should consider transitioning to permaculture. Then we will introduce the Permabed system as a layout framework for transitioning to annual/perennial integrated production, and finally consider how to successfully trial perennial species for your own local profit resilient agro-ecosystem.
For the context of this article, permaculture is about designing market gardens to mimic ecosystems.
Ecosystems have many goods (fruit, lumber, hay) and services (purification of water, production of oxygen, microclimate regulation). Ecosystem goods and services result in new savings, income and whole system resilience due to a more complex and healthy farm ecology.
An agro-ecosystem is an ecosystem managed to produce goods and services in an agricultural context. Farms and wild lands can become agro-ecosystems by designing them to mimic ecosystem form (layered woodland canopy) and functions (water cycles, carbon sequestration, food web dynamics) while enhancing human access to goods (fruit, lumber, water) and services (shade, windbreak, debris composting).
Transitioning to an agro-ecosystem will increase farm profit resilience. Ecosystem goods and services mean new savings, income and whole system resilience that come from a more complex and healthy farm ecology.
The benefits of a complex ecology on a market garden are increasingly known. For instance, research on integrated production of flowering alyssum with lettuce has been shown to significantly reduce aphid populations because the alyssum attracts hover flies whose larva feed on aphids. In conjunction with cover crops and hedgerows this system has been proven to be cost effective and successful for lettuce growers.
Consider the Return on Perennial (ROP) investment and include the hidden yields and services of perennials (i.e. see the forest for more than the trees).
Value of agro-ecosystem services:
- Habitat for beneficial organisms provided by regular flowering hedges in garden environment.
- Windbreaks in garden prevent row cover and hoop house poly from being blown away
- Reduced desiccation of young transplants from regular hedgerows
- Shade in the garden to grow summer spinach from integrated trees
- Annual hardwood leaf fall provides mulch material and future organic matter for the soil
Shared efficiencies of integrated production:
- Sprinklers used to water early annual crops can prevent frost on fruit tree blossoms
- Easy transition of fertile, well-mulched moveable field tunnel beds into long-term perennial plantings without additional land preparation cost
- Most field equipment is applicable for management of both annual and perennial production: flail mowers, mulching equipment, bed formers
Tangible yields received within 1-5 years:
- Many berries, including higher value black raspberries, elderberries and haskap
- Perennial beds are easily managed for further propagation and sale of plants from suckers, cuttings and seeds
- Trellis stakes from high-density hedgerows of low cost hardwoods like oak, maple and birch.
Agro-ecological goods and services are often hidden and how they improve farm efficiencies must be viewed holistically in order to better understand them and so value why we manage for otherwise overlooked system functions. For example, enhanced summer salad quality in the shade of a fruit tree can justify tree cost before the tree even bares profitable fruit yields. Sometimes the missing ingredient is simply time, such as leaving summer salad greens to bolt as a green manure and flowering hedge for beneficial insects. A tree’s shade is a service and a salad crop’s flowering mass is also.
What is profit resilience?
Profit resilience means the farm is both ecologically and economically resilient. It can withstand drought better and also weather economic downturns. For instance, a woodland market garden has more product potential than either a market garden or an orchard and also can fare better in foul weather or drought due to the integrated nature of the operation. It is important that farms be annually profitable while making perennial investments. Profit resilience is the cornerstone of transitioning to an agro-ecosystem, focusing on maintaining annual crop income while also accruing perennial returns in the form of ever-enhanced ecosystem goods and services to the whole farm. Especially, improved soil, enhanced microclimates and new niche products.
Perennial potential is the gradual accruing of goods and services from perennials following the lines of natural succession from an annual-dominated system towards a perennial-oriented system. This results in ever-increasing goods and services from early maturing fruits and herbs to later maturing fruits and nuts and eventually a full complement of products and services that mimic a mature ecosystem. For instance, mature agro-ecosystems will have a well-integrated soil food web with improved soil water retention, nutrient cycling and organic matter composting.
What is regenerative productivity?
Regenerative productivity means the mode of production (how we grow our vegetables) regenerates the means of production (that which is needed to grow them)- namely the soil. This includes routine practices that conserve/add organic matter, improving soil life habitat and encouraging natural nutrient fixation, storage and cycling.
Invest in profit resilience
Permaculture market gardens must value agro-ecosystem services and directly support ecosystem services to improve yield, reduce waste and enhance efficiencies, while promoting long-term potential. This involves intentional investment in regenerative operations, such as composting, cover cropping, use of specialized bed forming equipment and the intercropping of trees. Buying more row cover or a new harvest tool will not directly improve an agro-ecosystem’s health.
Investment in organizing fields, improving soil and choosing perennial species for the transition to an agro-ecosystem is paramount. In the following section we will look at how to transition successfully.
How to transition
Choose an agro-ecosystem goal. First, growers must consider what type of ecosystem to mimic for their agro-ecology. This could be a forest, woodland, savannah, etc. We’ll focus on a woodland because this offers the greatest potential yield and services for the average market gardener- with many useful edible perennial species that can be integrated, including: raspberries, pears, nut trees, herbs and self-sowing annuals. These have short and medium term yields of edible products as well as long-term investment in high-value niche timber like hickory, oak, maple and cherry.
In a woodland agro-ecosystem there is a ratio of annuals to perennials that maintains open sun-drenched spaces for the future. A good ratio for a woodland agro-ecosystem entails planting three beds in shrubs and canes (elderberry, raspberry, herbs), followed by nine beds in annuals and then three beds in emergent trees (nuts, pears, etc), and then repeat the pattern (3,9 and 3,9).
The permabed system
The term Permabed is short for permanent, agro-ecological bed. Converting your market garden fields to permanent raised beds will facilitate integrating perennial and annual production. Permabeds consist of garden beds formed by moving path material to the bed top instead of plowing and the beds never lose their place in space- creating a permanent framework. How to make the beds and reform them, as well as their permanence, results in important criteria for movement towards an agro-ecosystem. See inphographic p. 23.
Zach Loeks is a market gardener, farm consultant and educator living in the Ottawa Valley, Ontario, Canada.
For more information, see the author’s new book, The Permaculture Market Garden, available from Growing for Market. Part two will be published in the November/December 2017 GFM.