Permaculture principles - lessons from the 'Year of the Slug'
2012, dubbed “The Year of the Slug”, gave us the wettest summer for 100 years, and hampered our efforts to establish our Agroforestry project in Devon.
All year, we tried to work, dream, plan, and generally try to build a connection with our own little paradise.
It wasn’t easy. It has rained every time we have been there. Every single time. Without fail.
The constant rain on heavy clay soil has turned our already wet paths into thick claggy mud, making access difficult and progress frustrating.
But as sapling permaculturists, we are learning to view these challenges from a more constructive viewpoint by using one of Bill Mollison’s principle tenets of permaculture design: The problem is the solution. This may seem initially like a nonsensical contradiction, but the idea is that you should focus on the opportunities presented by a situation, rather than concentrating on the obstacles.
So how exactly do you turn months of persistent, torrential rain into an opportunity?
Progress has been slower than we would have liked, but a damp year of enforced observation has meant that, in many ways, we have got to know the land better than we would have done in a dry year. We have learned which parts of our level site are more liable to get waterlogged and which parts have some natural drainage.
Consequently we have established very easily where the best places will be for ponds, and how these can fit into our design. We have learned the hard way where our van will get stuck in the mud.
We expect rain in Devon of course, but 2012’s extreme rainfall has encouraged us to bear in mind the potential for heavy rain in all our designs.
The miserable weather brought fewer hours of sunlight and decreased pollination, causing many crops to fail and we can expect future wet years to follow suit, but we have to look at the benefits of increased rainfall and be prepared to make the most of the rain when it comes.
With well thought-out water catchment, we can store water in wet periods to be used in dry spells. Putting ponds and water tanks at the higher end of your site means that you can move it downhill very easily using gravity.
Additionally, if autumn rain means that the frosts come a little later, then we could actually have a longer frost-free growing period.
And we can mitigate the waterlogging effect of extreme rainfall with thoughtful design:
• We already have a lot of trees on our wooded site, but we are lucky enough to have the space to put in ponds and plant even more trees.
• Replacing bare soil with mulched beds will help prevent the ground from becoming waterlogged, and will build soil by adding organic matter, which will also improve the ground’s water-retention capacity.
• Incorporating raised beds or Hugelkultur beds (large raised beds filled with wood) into your garden can increase your growing space, create a variety of microclimates suited to different plants, and all that buried wood acts like a big sponge, soaking up excess rain when it is wet, and storing moisture for when it is necessary in dry weather.
The main thing we took from 2012 was a reinforcement of the importance of diversity. The year went from drought to flood, and it would be naïve and foolish to dismiss this as a one-off, however much we might hope that we will not see another year like this in our lifetimes.
We have seen what can happen when we experience extreme weather and we can now design our gardens accordingly, by:
• Concentrating on perennials wherever possible – they are more resilient than annuals.
• Planting a diverse variety of crops suited to different conditions. Those that prefer dry conditions will suffer in wet weather and vice versa. With a mixture of both, we will not be putting all our eggs in one basket.
There are significant challenges ahead. We hear a lot about the growing population and whether it is going to be possible to feed 9 billion people. This also clashes with our increasing use of “biofuels” which requires more and more land to be used for fuel production.
Throw in the effects of climate change and a global economy still teetering on the verge of collapse and there are likely to be hard times ahead for us all.
However, if we start to think and act differently, we can meet these challenges together. It is time for all of us to start looking for opportunities, rather than obstacles.
You can follow the progress of Iain and Wenderlynn’s agroforestry project on Twitter: @wishtreewood
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