Graphic garden design in reverse

All the permaculture books talk about design and planning, but I have managed to do it completely back to front. I have a fairly well integrated garden, at the stage of holding open days and showing people around, yet I have only just produced a proper pictorial plan of the garden. I finally had to do it: writing an article for Permaculture Magazine on Scavenger Technology (to be published in PM 74), they wanted something to show ‘how it all fits together’. Without taking to the air there’s no way of seeing the whole garden at once. So I got out my pencil and rubber, tape measure and coloured pencils and produced one. It would have been more useful to have done it twenty years ago, but it has been an interesting exercise.


Mock up from my three sheets produced by John Adams of Permaculture Magazine
I already had a base map of the house and boundaries so, having a deadline, I used this. I had begun to plot permanent features as a home education exercise with Cai.  It had an unorthodox scale of ¼in:1ft which worked well because I could fit the whole plot on three sheets of A4 and, using sixteenths, it divides nicely into four, as does a foot. This was accurate enough, but next time I will use an industry scale: I still prefer imperial, but it makes things more complicated when scale rulers and current practice are both in mm. I also found a website, My Everchanging Garden that gives instructions for how to use Excel spreadsheets to design your garden. You set the gridlines to the correct scale of graph paper, and go from there. Next time I will give that a go. I would also experiment with cutting out little patterns for each element – then jig them around until it works.

If you were designing before implementing, you would think about what you want or need and where to place it.  I was predominantly measuring what I’ve got and how far it is from another thing I’ve already got. The first lesson was that if I had done the plan first I would never, never, never have planted as many trees. Because the idea is to depict the crown of the tree as it will be when mature. You see all these nice permaculture designs with trees incorporated into the scheme, but it doesn’t drum in quite how big they are. Put it this way: if I hadn’t used a bit of poetic licence with mine, most of the front garden would have just been tree canopy. It clarified starkly why it is that my garden is so dark. If I had drawn the plan at the outset I would have planted fewer trees and in different positions.

Blackcurrants are another case in point. Why ever did I think I was going to need so many blackcurrants? They are everywhere. One would have been sufficient, two or three would have been plenty. But I seem to have got a bit carried away. I love blackcurrant cordial, and they grow fairly well in shady areas – but they also create dark shady areas as they lean over and reach for the light. Working to a plan, rationally conceived after calculating yield required, creates a reason for putting or not putting plants in a particular place. Otherwise the temptation is to root every cutting or leave every seedling to grow. There’s a lot of that in my garden.

Paths would also have been improved by pre-planning. Squeezing and shuffling between everything makes use of the garden difficult. If I had decided at the outset: ‘All paths 3ft wide’, and drawn them in, plant positioning would have been very different. All of this leads to another conclusion: don’t try to do too much in a small space. You can do a lot of something, but you can’t do everything.

In fact the plan clarified how badly I use a lot of the space. Leaving blank the ‘non-areas’, the gaps in between the intentional elements, I totted up a lot of unused nooks and crannies. Drawing a plan first would have encouraged me to use these gaps, using permaculture placement principles, so that one element supports another. Even so, it is still useful to have identified the gaps and I am looking forward to planning something nice for them.

The virtues of planning are many-fold. The interactive exercise of thinking about it, working on it and researching the data that goes into it is informative, provides clarity and you get to ‘make it your own’. Then having the use of the plan takes the pressure off while you’re implementing it and helps with decision making. Next time I’m going to do it the right way round.

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