with Chuck Marsh of Useful Plants Nursery in Black Mountain, NC
I knew I’d chosen the right workshop when Chuck Marsh started his presentation on Innovative Horticultural Strategies for a new Permaculture Century with a poem by William Stafford.
Chuck then discussed the impending risks of climate change and argued that the horticultural skills needed to develop landscapes that will feed us are in short supply–those of us with those horticultural knowledge need to not only use them and network with each other, we need to teach and share our skills with others. That point harmonized with me especially: my work with the Well Fed Community Garden involves a lot of teaching and explaining skills, techniques, and explanations for why we do things certain ways.
Another introductory point Chuck made which stuck with me was his description of the process of permaculture design as a rebuilding of relationships with plants and animals we’ve lost through industrialization. I write about birds and spiders and plants and bugs a lot in part because I’ve yet to exhaust the sense of wonder it gives me to inhabit their world instead of the world built by human hands, and I think often about those relationships.
But let’s talk about strategies for urban farming and leave the poetry and philosophy for later.
The purpose of the workshop was to discuss strategies for efficient and abundant food production on a small and accessible scale. That description didn’t prepare me for Chuck’s first topic: fencing. He briefly explained a number of different methods of building fences from living plants as well as using foraged or harvested material to build woven fences for animal containment, garden boxes, privacy, and decoration.
Discussing living fencing brought us naturally to the topic of tree maintenance, and Chuck provided a brief introduction to different methods of training certain varieties of fruit and nut trees to grow like shrubs rather than into uncomfortably tall trees. This makes more harvestable branches accessible to human, rather than animal, gathering, and can also extend the life of the trees.
Even the gentle and consistent method of pruning Chuck advocated, rather than one big winter-time prune, yields excess woody material. That material can then be used to build hugelkultur beds, which are garden beds build over buried cores of rotting woody organic material. The rotting wood acts as a sponge for nutrients and moisture, providing a consistently rich environment for anything planted in the soil piled over top of the branches.
Hugelkultur is one way to make your beds semi-vertical and drought-proof, which is extremely valuable when your space and water are limited. Chuck offered several other methods of making vertical growing spaces as well as methods of building efficient and long-lasting garden containers usable in apartments or other soil-challenged places.
I walked away from this workshop brimming with ideas. While I don’t know very much about permacult harvest from row-cropping, having most of my experience in row-cropping, I like it the more I learn about it. Mark Shepard’s keystone talk was similarly inspiring, especially given his methods for combining short term harvests from row-cropping with long-term orchard development.
I often explain to people that a major difference I’ve seen between working on a farm and working in most other industries is the time scale. Planning way ahead of time is a requirement, and more planning is always better than less; actions taken today might not show their results until a long time down the line, but they’re often crucial to making later work easier. So after these workshops, I’m thinking about not just how I’ll launch my farm (when I get it) but how I’ll plan in the beginning for the farm I’ll have after 20 years.