Permaculture Pots

Permaculture Container Gardening

Permaculture Pots

Background

In Summer 2011 I hosted a visit by gardeners from my village. It was my first group visit as a LAND project for the Permaculture Association, with my second due the following weekend. Everything went well, the feedback comments were very good, and I was descending into a smog of smugness when my friend Roy, the group organiser mentioned that he had heard somebody saying that it was wonderful, but that they only had a small garden so permaculture wasn’t relevant to them. He quickly added that of course it was relevant, and that they obviously didn’t make that connection, but the smog evaporated, and I was left with a dilemna.

Until that point I hadn’t really considered what I was doing as teaching, just showing people around and telling them about what I was doing, and why. The reality was that for many of them, much of what I was talking about was new, and needed some interpretation to give them something concrete to take away with them. I also clearly needed to help them make the connection between the basic principles, and their own situation.

Introduction

With a problem to solve, only a week to do so, at my busiest time of year, and with no spare cash, there was little point in going through a drawn out design process. Instead I fell back on (trained) instinct), and used a familiar pattern from my Army career, the Quick Assessment. The quick assessment is a battlefield analysis, sometimes made under fire, to come up with a good plan quickly, rather than a perfect plan too late. Exactly what I needed. The headings below reflect that process (Aim, factors, courses of action, plan).

Aim

My aim was to find a way to show how the permaculture principles that were being used here could also be used at a much smaller scale.

Factors to consider

Time

Probably the most important factor for this design. With a second visit due in a week, I needed to find a solution that could be implemented quickly, or a number of solutions including some that could be put into place later. With so much else to do at this time of year, something that required minimal work to achieve would be preferable.

Resources

Money was/is short, so any solution would either need to be free, or to come from my own resources.

Space was limited, with most of the available space away from the house. Using some of this for a smaller garden might be possible. The space closest to my own house is currently used as a dog toilet, and will have to remain that way until all of the current four legged companions are chasing rabbits in the sky.

I had plenty of compost, potting containers, and a selection of plants without a specific home.

With a good understanding of Permaculture, and it’s principles, my own knowledge was a potential resource to be used.

Audience

With the realisation that what I was doing was a lot like teaching, it was clear that I had to make more of an effort to make what I was showing relevant to the group, and that different groups would have different levels of knowledge, experience, and interest. Any solution would need to be applicable to all types of groups.

Yield

When I moved onto the next section, I nearly forgot the permaculture principle obtain a yield. Any solution that I came up with would need to be of benefit to me as well. This is an example of the principle every element should perform more than one function. As well as helping others to understand permaculture, I needed to benefit too.

Gist

I’ve used the word gist instead of pattern, as whatever I did would need to convey an idea, a feeling, a taste of what permaculture is about. It is also very personal, and I had to take a bit of time to think about what it was about permaculture that was important to me.

Courses Of Action

Normally you would consider at least two courses of action, and look at the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Option One. Give a Better Explanation

The simplest solution would be to better explain the relevance of what I was doing, and how that could be applied at a smaller scale, personal to the audience.

Strengths

Cheap, quick to implement, no resources needed.

Weaknesses

Not visual, and cannot be touched, felt and experienced. Seems like a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach.  No yield for me other than the saving of time and resources.

Opportunities

No obvious opportunities for myself, or others from this course of action.

Constraints

None

Overall Assessment.

I should probably do this anyway, but not on it’s own. Knowing that I should be doing it better was useful, and an additional yield from this design.

Option Two. Create a small garden that demonstrates permaculture principles

Strengths

What better way to show how permaculture can be used in a small space than to create a small garden.

Weaknesses

With no available space in the vicinity of the house, it would be a bad example of zoning. As we are not primarily a demonstration site, creating a ‘chunk’ of garden that doesn’t fit in with the overall design is not a priority, nor a good example of permaculture. It would take up too much of my time. That applies not just to the creation of the garden, but also to its maintenance and upkeep. It would be difficult to create a ‘small garden’ that was relevant to everybody. If this was also bigger or smaller than theirs, would the effort have been wasted?

Opportunities

Creating a small garden like this would give me the chance to design at a much smaller scale than I have had to in the past.

Constraints

Time again. Money.

Overall Assessment

Considering how many weaknesses this option had, I was surprised at how attracted to it I was. I think that if there had been more time to spare I might have gone for it, as much for the practise as for solving my problem. That probably says more about me as a person than as a designer. Using an intentional design process made me consider more options.

Option Three. Do nothing.

This wasn’t the first thought  that I had, but probably should have been. Just because one person couldn’t see the relevance doesn’t mean that nobody could. Perhaps rather than acting on a single comment, I should ask the next few groups and for feedback, and then see whether there was a problem, then fix it.

Strengths

No immediate action, time, or expense. Doing so would also have been a good example of applying self regulation, and accepting feedback, which is one of the principles of permaculture. (You could also argue the opposite case for ignoring the first comment).

Weaknesses

If the subsequent groups also struggled to see the relevance to them, their time would have been wasted. Asking them about it at the end would just have highlighted that to them.

Opportunities

No further opportunities for me

Constraints

None, other than my own work ethic.

Option Four. Bracketing the Target

Yes, I know that you don’t understand, but give me a chance to explain. When you are calling artillery or mortar fire down on a target, the fire is indirect. The firer cannot see the target, and you as the observer have to give corrections. One of the ways that you do this is bracketing. If the first round is too far, you send corrections to drop the next one short, then you keep making smaller corrections, bracketing the target, until you land one where you want it. Then all guns fires on the same settings. I can just imagine some of you getting a bit confused, and maybe a little agitated, and certainly not seeing the relevance, so here goes. The size of my smallholding is too large a scale to be relevant for most visitors, nor can I ‘hit’ the exact size for each visitor with a demonstration garden, but I can create a garden that is smaller than all of them, and then THEY can bracket the two extremes to find the relevance to them. So what is the size of the smallest garden possible…. a single pot. A permaculture pot.

Strengths

Quick, cheap, and with a number of useful yields to me.

Weaknesses

Only the standard ones that go with container care. The need for increased watering, and regular feeding. The potential creation of pot bound plants that weaken and die. Competition between plants within a pot.

Opportunities

As you can probably tell from the title, this is the option that I eventually chose, so I’m going to save the opportunities, and yields for the plan (design) section.

Constraints

The number and type of plants that I had immediately available, and the lack of time and money, would limit the choice of plants that I had to work with. This might affect my ability to demonstrate permaculture principles.

Overall assessment

Seems like the best option, and probably best combined with a better explanation. I liked the fact that it would give me benefits as well as functioning as a demonstration aid.

Plan (Design)

Initial Thoughts

Before rushing off and throwing together a collection of plants in a pot, I held back my enthusiasm, and thought about what it was that I wanted the pots to demonstrate. Overall they had to do two things. The first was to illustrate the permaculture principles that were closest to my heart, and that I was using in the overall design. The second was to give an impression of the way that permaculture might look in any land based setting.

Logistically the pot needed to be relatively large, in order to get a decent collection of plants in, but also not so heavy that it couldn’t be moved (people care in action). Luckily I had some 30 litre pots with handles, which met both needs. This would be the setting for my horticultural masterpiece.

Permaculture Container Gardening

The (Empty) Permaculture Pot

Permaculture Principles and pot design

Here in the UK it is fashionable to use the list of principles in Permaculture. Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, by David Holmgren. Whilst I like these as a way of thinking, or as a filter through which to observe, I find that I use some of the Bill Mollison Principles to create with. At the heart of what I do is the quest to add functions, and to design in redundancy, and abundance. So the first principles that I wanted to include in my pot were Every element should perform more than one function, and every important function should be provided by more than one element. To link the pot to my smallholding I decided to try and match the functions provided by the pot, with those of the overall design. Whilst I was unlikely to harvest fuel from a pot, there should be no difficulty with many of the others. Food, bee forage, wild life, aesthetics, even soil improvement. This is an example of the (Holmgren) principle, Design from Pattern to Detail. I take the pattern of what I am trying to achieve over the whole project, and apply those same aims at this scale.

Plant Selection

Whilst my plant selection was limited by what I had available, being a bit of a plant geek, I had lots ‘hanging around’ and available, along with plenty of pots. At this point my normal enthusiasm overtook me, and I decided that if one pot was good, more would be better. This gave me an additional function, in that I could widen the plant list, and show how each pot could be a module, or guild, or element in a larger garden, like a courtyard, or on pavements.

Confession time now. I haven’t yet fully escaped the clutches of consumerism. Nowhere is that more apparent than in my tendency to buy ‘useful’ plants before I have an actual use for them. So at the time of this design I had a number of perennial plants, sat in small pots, long overdue ‘potting on’ into something larger. Using them in my Permaculture Pots did that, and gave me the opportunity to grow them on, before propagating/dividing them. Another two functions added, and I hadn’t chosen a single plant yet.

The first plant that I included was Siberian Pea. It is frequently mentioned in permaculture circles/texts because of the number of functions/yields that it gives.

The Permaculture Pot

The Permaculture Pot Including a Siberian Pea

So the inclusion of one plant immediately ticks the every element should perform more than one function box. In this case food, bee forage, chicken forage, and Nitrogen fixation, all of which match up with my own priorities. The fixing of Nitrogen is also an example of the permaculture principle use and value renewable resources and services. Planting them in the pot gave me some additional yields. I had read that young  Siberian Pea plants can be easily damaged by slugs, who like the green bark. So putting them into large pots would allow them to grow larger before planting out. I had also observed that the Siberian Pea seemed to be more restricted by smaller pots than other plants, or to take longer before it started to grow vigorously. Giving it plenty of room would help to overcome that. This is an example of the principle observe and interact. My initial plan for these seedlings was to plant them in a chicken forage area, but as described in my Chicken Scavenging System, my priorities changed, and I had not decided where they would be planted. So the pots gave me more time to decide. The Siberian Pea is a tall shrub, so would enable me to mention stacking, and it would also allow a climber to be used, potentially helping to illustrate the different levels in a Forest Garden, for example. As a perennial, it also helps to illustrate the preference for perennials over annuals that many permaculturalists espouse.

The next plants to be included were Egyyptian Onions, and Garlic Chives. Used as food, bee forage, and a perennial. Most Alliums make/prefer a strong fungal association, so also gave me an opening to explain a bit about mycorrhizal fungi, and their importance.

Permaculture Container Gardening

Egyptian Onions in Permaculture Pot

Permaculture Container Gardening

Egyptian Onion

This association led me to another potential function. It isn’t always easy to get a ‘bought in’ mycorrhizal product to take when used with a bare rooted plant, particularly in very cold weather, which is when most bare rooted trees/shrubs are planted. If the bare rooted trees were put into large pots, the mycorrhizal product could be used to innoculate a batch of smaller perennial plants, when the weather was warmer. These could then be checked for colonisation, before planting into a pot like this, allowing the fungi to colonise the tree roots, before planting out.

With two upright plants, I wanted to add a spreading ground cover. I used Sweet Woodruff, and Wild Strawberry. Most of these were planted in separate pots, but with some pots having both. The plants have an edible component, provide some bee forage, are used as a ground cover, and are perennial. Combining the two together in some of the pots also gave me the opportunity to see whether one would dominate the other. This experimemental function gave me an additional yield, and is an example of the principle observe and interact.

Permaculture Container Gardening

Mixed Perennials in a pot

Having started down the observe and interact path, I decided to add a Maximillian sunflower to a pot.

Permaculture Container Gardening

Observe and Interact. Maximillian Sunflower

This is a perennial sunflower, providing food and bee forage, and with pretty flowers. The young shoots are prone to slug damage, so keeping it in a pot would raise it up off of the ground to provide a degree of slug protection. I really wanted to see whether there was any evidence that it inhibited the growth of other plants, as I had read that it was mildly allelopathic. The Maximillian Sunflower is a component of the perennial prairie being researched by The Land Institute, and is mentioned in this article. When I contacted them, they said that they hadn’t observed any effects in neighbouring plants, but I figured that if there were any, they would be magnified by the confinement of the pot.

Other plants used included Milkweed, two types of Sorrel, Good King Henry, Winter Savory, Soapwort, and Anise Hyssop. All perennials, most provide food and bee forage, helping to reinforce the connection between my overall aims, and showing how that could be done in the smallest of spaces.

Permaculture Container gardening

Bladder Senna in Permaculture Pot

Adding Additional Functions

For a small design solution, the Permaculture Pot had provided me with plenty of useful functions, but I wanted to see what else I could do, or how far I could push the usefulness of this design in terms of functions.

The first was to group the pots together in an inverted ‘U’ shape, with the open end facing South. This gave me a model with which to explain the Woodland Glade pattern that I used in other parts of the project design. This is an example of patterning, which is a permaculture technique. It also shows the important of placement within a design. The picture below shows this, although the Mk1 pond used to be in the middle of the ‘Glade’. When I changed the plants, and refilled the pond container, it was in the wrong place. Far too heavy to move now, so it will wait until the end of the Summer.

Permaculture Container Gardening

Patterning with pots

Along one edge I already had a large container with water and pond plants in. This provided food, and a place for wildlife, allowing me to talk about the principle of Zoning, and the importance of wildlife (zone 5) in permaculture design.

Permaculture Container Gardening

Wildlife pond in a (very big) pot

The picture above shows the larger container, which is about four feet across. That below is a more established pond in a pot, consisting mainly of Water Mint, but with some Duckweed and Azolla.

Permaculture Container Gardening

Another Pond in a Pot

As the pots were so close to the house, and contained food plants, the whole bunch of them became my zone 1 garden, providing salad plants for us to eat. With plenty of open space in the pots in the early stages, I added annual salad plants like Lettuce, and Spinach. This gave me an additional food source, and allowed me to explain succession. The salad plants were giving me a yield until the ground cover plants expanded, and filled the space.

One of the problems with collecting seeds from biennials, especially root crops, is that leaving them in the ground takes up space, and leaves them liable to slug and rat damage over Winter. (It also really mucks up your rotation). The normal solution is to lift and store them, and plant them out in the Spring. I decided to try planting Celeriac into some of the pots, to see if they would survive the Winter, and flower and set seed the following year. The plants are just (July 2012) about to flower

The complete pot is like a mini guild. It was a logical step from there to consider the planting out of an established collection of plants that had already occupied the root zone of a young tree in a pot, potentially reducing the competition from other plants. I have yet to test this, but it seems like a good idea, and I will.

The size of the pot means that it can be easily transported, giving anybody wanting to introduce some of the thinking behind permaculture a portable demonstration tool. This is probably more useful than a collection of pictures and descriptions.

Implementation

The planting of the pots took a couple of hours, with much of that time used mixing compost ingredients. I ended up with seven different combinations of the plants listed above. I only had six Siberian peas of the right size, so added a Bladder Senna to one pot.

Maintenance

Maintenance has been carried out alongside my other plants in pots. Watering, and feeding being the principle job. The groundcover plants have done a good job of suppressing weeds, which are far less frequent in these pots, than in my others.

Evaluate/Tweak

For a small and simple design, the Permaculture Pot has given me a huge yield of functions, as well as providing food, and bee forage. I think that it is one design that as a pattern will be really useful to other permaculturalists. I have deliberately not provided too much detail about specific plant combinations in this design write up, as I want anybody thinking of using the idea to create their own. It should be possible to custom design a pot(s) for any purpose. The interest in the pots earlier this year, by students of a Permaculture Design course, was a good indication of how useful they were, despite hardly mentioning them. (It was cold that day, and an element of people care was needed).

My combinations were limited by the plants that I had available, and would have been different if I had designed them a year in advance. The paragraph below expands on this a little.

The planting scheme would have been better with a climber included. This could have been something like Runner Bean (food, bee forage, Nitrogen fixer), Wisteria, grape vine, or kiwi. The inclusion of a perennial root crop would have been good as a teaching aid, but may not be as practical to harvest within the confines of a pot. Many of the plants used were herbaceous perennials, and adding another twiggy shrub might have been better for demonstration purposes. The Winter Savory does this to a certain extent, but perhaps using a small fruit bush would make the point better, and be more useful in terms of food production.

There has been no evidence of allelopathy in the Maximillian Sunflower pot. A Milkweed plant failed to come back this year, but then others planted alone in pots have failed too. If I were desperate to use the combination I could do a bigger trial, but there is no need.

The pots are in their second year of existence now. This has been led by my lack of young Siberian pea plants to replace the originals. They have really benefitted from the large pot size, have grown well, and should have been planted out by now. When my silly season ends (August), I want to get them planted out, and replace them with other plants. I have a number of pot bound soft fruit bushes, and Bladder Senna, that are long overdue some extra room, whilst I prepare their new homes. These are likely to form the framework for the Mark II version. I have sown some more Siberian pea, and should I continue as a demonstration site, this will need to be done annually to keep a regular supply coming. The surplus may have value for plant sales to visitors, adding another potential function.

Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design

This design is included in my portfolio to demonstrate my engagement with the wider community. It is also an example of the principles apply self regulation and accept feedback, and Creatively use and respond to change. Perhaps more importantly it shows that I can design on a much smaller scale than the other portfolio designs.

Evaluation November 2012.

Since completing the design, the Permaculture Association have suspended the LAND Project Group visit scheme. There is little point in maintaining the pots if there are not going to be paying visits. Most of the larger plants (siberian pea and bladder senna) are ready for planting out, and I will do that this spring. One benefit of that is that it will reduce the watering that i have to do during dry periods.

The design itself has attracted some attention from other permaculturalists who may use the idea to help them in their own demonstrations. That’s nice.

8 thoughts on “Permaculture Pots

  1. whatgrowsfromaseed

    I love this design Deano, the thought you put into it, the clear way you detail the thought process, your obvious knowledge and the photos are also beautiful. Thanks for sharing this, it has really inspired me, best wishes, Tracey

    Reply
  2. Erin Waterbury

    I’ve been poking around your sure for a few days now, thank you SO much for sharing your thought processes! This page in particular has been wonderfully inspiring for me as I dream of having a homestead but for now and the foreseeable future I’m living in an apartment with only a small balcony. You’ve helped me see that I can do more than just read right now to work toward my goals.

    Reply
  3. Darius

    I really liked your comment about Succession. Using annuals until the perennials colonised.
    I think this kind of thinking also provides others small and slow solutions and is also a form of ‘sucession’ from small plantings to larger well placed ones.

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Darius
      The pots managed to get loads of potential functions and yields. I suspect that growing plants that need restricted root runs (figs), or are not fully hardy and need protection in Winter, would be a good way ahead. Using a planting pot that root prunes (air pots) would be great if the plants need to be planted out later. I agree with your comment about succession, and in the comment mentioned that this solution could be tweaked easily by others. A pattern for others to use, and put in their own detail.

      Reply

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