I first came across Gaia's Garden (Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition (affiliate link)) in 2013 and although I had tried to read other permaculture books before that, this was the one that really helped me to understand the concepts, both what to do and why. Toby sadly died recently, so I thought it was a good time to review the book in detail. Toby made an enormous contribution to permaculture and I'd like to remember him by reading his book again.
Throughout this post I will relate the concepts back to how I've applied them in my vegetable garden at Eight Acres, on the farm and how I want to develop my new garden.
Introducing the ecological garden
In this chapter Toby explains his concept of the ecological garden as a combination of an edible garden, an ornamental garden and a wild space. Not just combined, but connected and multi-functional. I think I am only just starting to see this, as I want more flowers for my bees, my vegetable garden is evolving into a more wild space with ornamentals (mostly geraniums, marigolds and violets) as well as edibles and herbs.
This chapter also contains several pages of permaculture basics to get you started and a very interesting discussion about the benefits of native vs exotic plants. He also brings up an interesting point that the more you grow for yourself (even if you're not completely self-sufficient) the more you are helping to avoid habitat loss in other places and on other farms. I hadn't thought about it like that before.
A Gardener's Ecology
This chapter expands on the concept of the ecological garden. Three principles are introduced:
- Finding a niche - certain plants and animals will only grow in certain ecological niches, you need to create many of these in your garden
- Gardening in succession - recognising that your garden will continually evolve as new niches are created and new species can take over, eventually you will have a semi-stable mature garden, especially if you use plenty of perennials vs annuals.
- Backyard diversity - a diversity of niches will result in a diversity of plants and animals, which is a good thing as you start to attract natural predators to plant pests and natural companions to the plants that you want to grow
I am often asked how I control pests in my garden. Honestly, I don't do much at all, I think we have enough local birds and predatory insects that I very rarely have one pest get out of control, and if I do it will only kill the weakest plants that were not producing well anyway. I think that encouraging niches and biodiversity are the key to a productive and easy-care garden.
Designing the Ecological Garden
This chapter gets into the detail of designing the ecological garden. It was a good time for me to read this chapter, given my recent musings about our new garden. A few key points from this chapter:
- Look for patterns in nature, rather that just using straight lines, to maximise gardening space. For example, keyhole gardens and herb spirals. The added advantage is conserving moisture in the soil as there is less empty space for evaporation and more space filled with plants.
- Use edges to create more space - edges being particularly productive areas. (use edges and value the marginal)
- The design process should involve both observation and visioning. Observation involves spending time at the property and looking up data on climate, looking at topographical maps (for larger properties) and generally getting a feel for the place without making any decisions. Visioning is about thinking of all the functions that you want to achieve, such as growing your own food, providing habitat for native animals etc. There is a great explanation of zones and sectors in this chapter (see more in my post here).
After reading this chapter several years ago, I started working on the permaculture design for our property (you can check out the full document here).
Bringing the Soil to Life
This chapter explains the microbiology of soil and how and why to nurture it. When I first read this book, it was the first time I'd really thought about microbes in the soil, other than that they might cause disease. What I now understand is that plants provide exudates from their roots to feed microbes, and the microbes support plants in many ways, so we should be doing everything we can to support this relationship (the interconnected soil web) and nothing that may destroy it (so no chemicals in the garden!).
Toby suggests three methods of building soil life on three different scales - compost (small scale), sheet mulching (medium scale) and cover crops (large scale). This is a good way of thinking about it, as one solution is not going to work in all situations, so you need to adjust to match the scale of the problem. I really liked the way Toby explains soil microbes, very easy to read and not overly scientific or complex. I have a few posts about soil microbes here.
Catching, Conserving and Using Water
Water is such an important topic for gardens in brittle environments, where rain is infrequent and unpredictable. The chapter first explains how water can be stored in the soil by building organic matter, then the use of swales and ponds to hold water. Re-using grey water is another topic - I feel like we waste so much grey water every time I let the bath out, so that's a project to think about long term.
Finally there is also a discussion about rainwater tanks, which I think are pretty common in Australia, even in cities. Of course all our water here is rainwater and we have four large tanks connected to the house and the roof. There is discussion in this chapter about how to hide rainwater tanks, but I don't find them ugly at all, they are a symbol of our water collect self-sufficiency, so I don't mind seeing them lined up outside the kitchen window!
Plants for Many Uses
Toby contrasts traditional garden design (choosing and placing plants for aesthetic reasons only) with a permaculture design, which considers all the functions of a plant and combinations of plants, to create a practical garden. Thinking about using plants to create shade, fix nitrogen, for food and medicine.
I think the important thing here is that a functional garden doesn't have to be ugly. I really want to create a bee-friendly garden using herbs, such as lavender, marigold, borage, comfrey, winter tarragon, dill, parsley and calendula (etc!) - these are all beautiful flowering plants, that also have medicinal, culinary and other uses. Even plants like ginger and lemon grass can be visually pleasing as well as useful. I find ornamental gardens odd, why go to the trouble of maintaining something that ONLY looks nice, when you could be producing so much more for your effort?
Bringing in the Bees, Birds and Other Helpful Animals
This chapter is about living creatures in the garden. Toby already discussed microbes in the soil, so this is about things that live above the ground. Everything from using chickens (in chicken tractors of course) to attracting beneficial insects.
This is often a problem for organic gardeners who have transitioned from regular chemical gardening. If you are used to paradigm of spraying all insects and then you want to stop using chemicals, you look for an alternative way to kill the insects. Toby suggests instead, it would be better to look for a way to create an ecosystem to manage the insects.
The thing to remember is that the vast majority of insects in your garden are either beneficial or benign, so you don't want to keep them all out, and the easiest way to get rid of the pest insects is to encourage their predators. Many are nectar-feeding, so you can also attract pollinators by planting flowers. I also encourage people to keep their gardens open to birds and lizards etc, that will also eat insects.
If I have a serious insect problem, the only thing I use is neem oil, as it affects the chewing insects that eat leaves, without harming pollinators. But in general, I sacrifice a few plants in order to build the overall ecosystem of the garden. I am noticing the difference now that I'm gardening in pots and the aphids have found my kale, I definitely do not have an ecosystem there yet!
Creating Communities for the Garden
This is the first chapter of part three - assembling the ecological garden, so this is where all the concepts in the previous chapters start to come together. The first chapter is about creating communities in the garden. This is where Toby takes the typical monoculture garden designs and turns them into polycultures.
I think this is where I got a lot of my garden ideas (I read so much, I forget where it came from). I don't plant anything in straight lines. I actually don't plant much at all, I mainly scatter seeds and see what comes up. I also get a lot of volunteers from the compost. If things are too close, I thin them or move them around to suit. Everything is mixed up, few things are planned, it seems to work, especially as you thin out some areas and then more seedlings come up.
To be continued... only four chapters to go!
Find out more about Permaculture using these books (affiliate links):
And the other posts in this series: