Primer on [Urban] Permaculture

February 28, 2009 at 7:56 pm 12 comments

Wyck greenhouse and bees

I’ve just returned from a great little workshop hosted at the fabulous historical Wyck Garden on the topic of applying permaculture principles to the urban landscape.  Led by Phil Forsyth, director of the Philadelphia Orchard Project, participants got a great tutorial on how to put permaculture to use here in our Philadelphia neighborhoods.  Many of those in attendance were already practicing sustainability in their gardens and found the principles overlap quite a bit with permaculture.

Laying cardboard

Sheet Mulching Step 1: Cut back any vegetation, soak the ground, place a single layer of cardboard and/or newspaper on the ground and soak it again.

I bet several of you are scratching your heads, wondering what the heck permaculture means.  I won’t bog you down with a detailed history on what amounts to an interesting marriage between science and philosophy-bordering-on-spirituality.  If you want more on that, you can start your reading here and here.   The short and sweet version is that the term was coined in Australia in the 1970s to describe an official movement to design agriculture practices that were more….well, sustainable and permanent (as in not depleting our earth to the point that it would cease to be productive).  But the practices of permaculture have been around a lot longer than that; they are really the mantras of any indigenous people that has had to live off of the land, particularly in wooded areas.  At the end of the day, permacutlure, like the more mainstream sustainable agriculture philosophy, is all about balancing our consumption and waste in the natural world. 

Spread layer of compost

Sheet Mulching Step 2: Cover soaked cardboard and
newspaper with two inches of compost.

In my limited experience, it’s my understanding that  permaculture has four main principles: care of the earth as a whole, care of people in our neighborhoods, reducing consumption in all areas of our lives, and sharing our surplus with others, including knowledge on such topics as growing food.  Practitioners of permacutlure carry out these principles by employing multifunctional tools (i.e., putting chickens in your garden to eat pests while also fertilizing and giving your eggs), striving to be self-sufficient (i.e., use solar energy and grow your own food), and re-using everything they can (i.e., putting down cardboard and newspaper in the garden to suppress weeds and create a base for composting).

Spreading leaves

Sheet Mulching Step 3: Add a layer of leaves and then add another layer of compost and of leaves (4 layers altogether and about 8 inches deep).  Rake out to be even and wet down if leaves are blowing away.  Wait patiently for six months, and you’ll have a beautiful bed in which to plant.

So….how does this apply in our modern cities?  That’s what I went to this workshop to find out.  Turns out there are outstanding examples of permaculture being applied to cities around the world and those in the U.S. are a bit behind the curve.  The ones held up for admiration in the workshop were Curitiba (Brazil) and Havana.  After discussing the finer points of permaculture, we were asked to grade ourselves on how much we use permaculture principles in our lives at the moment and then to set a goal for ourselves for the future.  I felt I got a decent grade but there are certainly areas to be improved.  I drew up this little scorecard for myself.


My goals moving forward are to use public transportation more often and to work at energy conservation in my home.  Oh, and get some worms for the compost bin.  What do you think your score is?  What goals would you set for yourself?  Do you have experiences with permaculture you’d like to share? 

We finished the workshop off with a demonstration on sheet mulching/composting.  This technique is great for anyone who wants to start a garden plot on a currently less-than-desirable plot with bad soil and/or an abundance of weeds and grass.  In other words, anyone looking to garden in the city.  The photos in this post outline the steps to sheet mulching.


Entry filed under: In The Garden. Tags: , .

The Lay of the Land Pizza Dough

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Timmy V.  |  March 2, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Wow… Somehow I missed that you were from Philadelphia! We live in Norristown.

    We incurred a lot of debt on the move to Norristown through poor planning and under-estimation of the cost. Definitely paying that off is a big hope of ours. Also, growing our own vegetables is on our list of things that we want to do both to live more sustainably as well as independently. We also want to be doing more to support our local economy.

    • 2. Jennie  |  March 3, 2009 at 8:45 am

      Timmy – We’re practically neighbors! 🙂 Glad to hear you’re tacklling these tough issues and working towards a permaculture goal of sorts. 🙂 Glad you too the time to comment!

  • 3. Zeke  |  March 3, 2009 at 1:34 am

    Just dropping by.Btw, you website have great content!

    Unlimited Public Records Searches!

    • 4. Jennie  |  March 3, 2009 at 8:46 am

      Thanks, Zeke!

  • 5. Era  |  March 3, 2009 at 7:44 am

    Great post! I live in West Philly and I really enjoy reading your blog. I actually got my composting worms from Dorene Pasekoff in Phoenixville (she runs the community garden out there). I have since shared mine with neighbors so my supply is low and I need to wait for a bit so they can reproduce, but I’m sure Dorene would be happy to share her worms with you (she should be easy to find on the interwebs, if you have trouble I can give you her e-mail address).

    • 6. Jennie  |  March 3, 2009 at 8:47 am

      Era – Ooooo, a local worm source!! 🙂 I’ll google her and if I don’t find it, I’ll let you know. Thanks for the tip! Now here’s one for you: it sounds like you might be pretty experienced with the compost thing, but if you were looking for pointers and/or need a free bin, Wyck Gardens is hosting a composting workshop in April (the 18th, i believe,but I can double check if you’re interested).

  • 7. Jason  |  March 3, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Thanks for this post — particularly the pictures. Currently I grow a sizeable container garden on my balcony, but I one day plan to own some land of my own (in the meantime, I’ve got my name on a waiting list for a rental plot in my town’s community garden program). The process of sheet mulching to prepare a bed for an upcoming season is one that is better shown in pictures than in words. I know this because I’ve read several books on the process and have only just now totall understood how that would work.

    A question: Did the instructors mention anything about “loosening” the soil before applying the newspaper/cardboard? I’ve read so many differing opinions about how much you should or should not “disturb” the soil. But, one source I’ve read seems to be in favor of disturbing the soil a little bit so that the new organic material can trickle down (perhaps quicker than if it’s all applied in a top layer).

    • 8. Jennie  |  March 3, 2009 at 8:51 am

      Jason – So glad the pictures help! As to your confusion, don’t worry because I think there are many schools of thought out there on sheet mulching steps and I too have occasionally scratched my head over them. This particular instructor said not to disturb the soil as you want to retain as much soil structure as possible…the roots of the weeds and grass are actually good for aerating the soil. That being said, if you’re working with a very infertile, hard-as-rock, with little vegetation plot, I’d personally suggest giving it several pokes with a pitch fork (but not turning it over with shovel or anything). That’s my two sense on it at least. One of the links I included in the post discusses (briefly) the various approaches. If I can be of any other help, I’m happy to track down answers for you. 🙂

  • 9. Lo!  |  March 3, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Loving the blog. This is great information on permaculture — and great photos of the easiest technique I’ve found for creating great gardening spaces. Being patient is the hardest part!!

  • 10. Melly  |  March 14, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Oh boy…I am so glad I read further down. I don’t have to dig up my lawn…I can do this!! We have lot’s of cardboard and newspapers for use. No leaves though. Hmmmm. We should have started this in November.

  • 11. Pam Chaplin-Loebell  |  August 14, 2009 at 7:02 am

    I really love your blog!

    I have been reading through various posts on gardening, and I saw somewhere that you mention a community garden in Mt. Airy. I live in Mt. Airy, and I’m thinking ahead to next season, as I would like to garden but don’t have much room at home.

    Can you send me more information about the community garden in Mt. Airy?

  • 12. M. D. Vaden  |  March 29, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    Sure liked the nice apple photo in the top image when I stumbled upon this blog.

    We live in an urban area, so we did sheet mulching with mulch alone, sparing the cardboard and paper for recycling. Turns out from researching facts, that using cardboard triggers pollution via new paper product manufacture.

    If we were further out in the countryside, we would probably lay the paper layers.

    Anyhow, curbside recycling is available in our area, and just happens that 98% or more of our grass smothers with much alone. A win win deal.


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