When Planting is Permanent

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With a winter like this, one begins to wonder if anything green will emerge come April and May. Of course, on farms and in gardens, we force the issue by planting seeds as soon as the soil warms. But for a growing group of farmers, spring is a time to watch orchards, berry patches and woodlots come back to life without being plowed, seeded and weeded anew each year. These farmers are practicing permaculture, an exciting agricultural endeavor that produces food and other products without working the tired soil year-after-year. You can learn more about it at LSP’s “Designing a Perennial Farm” workshop on Feb. 7.

Permaculture is a way of providing permanent cover to land while producing an income—a nice alternative to annual row crops that leave the landscape bare for all but a few months of the year. Water, soil and wildlife benefit from this perennial approach to agriculture—it even saves energy. Of course, permacultured land is dormant during the sun-dog days of January and February, but the plants are there, ready to start producing when the days lengthen and the sun strengthens.

Workshops discussing this type of farming sure aren’t dormant this time of year. One of the most anticipated is being put on by permaculture pioneer Mark Shepard at LSP’s Feb. 7 short course.

Shepard’s New Forest Farm in southwestern Wisconsin is one of this country’s first examples of permaculture farming at the farmscape level. For 13 years, he and his wife Jen have been working to convert a 140-acre row-cropped dairy farm into a perennial agricultural ecosystem, using oak-savannah, successional-brushland and eastern woodlands as the ecological models. Shepard is a popular instructor and provides a nice grounding in the art and science of permaculture in this paper.

I first heard about New Forest Farm a few years ago while visiting the operation of Dave and Erin Varney near Viroqua, Wis. Mark Shepard served as a kind of mentor to the Varneys as they attempted to convert their small vegetable farm into a highly-productive permaculture enterprise using a clever mix of annuals and perennials. Perennial plants such as fruit and nut bushes can take years to produce an economic return. So as it got perennials such as hazelnuts started, the Varneys’s One Sun Farm grew annual crops for short-term cash flow amongst the bushes—a system called “stacking.”

This is just one of the many ingenious ways a farm can be permacultured in the Upper Midwest (livestock can serve as key components of a permaculture operation, for example). And you don’t have to be a rural landowner to experiment with this system. Midwest Permaculture has an interesting web page dedicated to a family that is permaculturing their suburban home. And in what should be a fascinating talk, Paula Westmoreland of Minnesota’s own Permaculture Research Institute for Cold Climate will keynote the 2009 Twin Cities Community Garden Spring Resource Fair March 28 in Saint Paul.

Westmoreland’s presence at an event centered around community gardens is an indicator that permaculture can be a reality wherever people are working with, instead of against, the land—city lot and back 40 alike.

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