Permaculture is a system of ecological and environmental design that stresses sustainability in all aspects of life.
Its central tenets revolve around caring of the planet, caring for people and returning a surplus back into the earth to help provide for both the planet and its inhabitants.
That could encompass a whole host of activities.
Danny Swan displays some of the top layer of natural mulch he uses as part of the sheet mulching technique of no-till gardening. This particular mulch consists of wood chips, dried leaves and grass clippings.
The no-till method produces nutrient rich soil. Swan dug this particular handful from greater than 8 inches down from the surface bed easily by sifting through the dirt. This layer, five years ago when Swan first began farming this plot of land in Wheeling, was clay-like in texture and compacted. Through time, and with the aid of earthworms transferring organic material down from the surface, the soil has transformed.
These rows of garden beds were designed using a no-till method of gardening sometimes referred to as sheet mulching. Instead of digging down into the dirt, the gardener or farmer continually applies new layers of mulch and compost to help keep the ground nutrient-rich.
These cold-frame garden beds are growing tomatoes. This type of gardening enables plants to grow and thrive in colder temperatures. Functioning as a mini-greenhouse, the transparent top lets in sunlight while preventing heat from escaping the enclosure.
But let's concentrate on farming and, in particular, smaller, backyard and urban farming.
Permaculture principles can be applied on a larger scale but are easily illustrated when looking at a smaller platform.
Danny Swan is the owner of Black Swan Organics and is involved heavily in the Green Wheeling Initiative.
He's lived all across the country and the world and has seen the effects of overfarming.
Swan lived for a year on mainland China and recalls seeing dust storms plaguing the capital city of Beijing. These storms are believed to be caused in large part because of over farming and excess irrigation.
Current techniques in commercial farming leave the soil less able to retain water. The result is commercial farmers having to constantly saturate the ground with water in order to provide an environment for their crops to grow.
That over irrigation is leading to a drop in the Ogallala Aquifer that is situated beneath the Great Plains region of the country. An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing rock or gravel, sand or silt, from which groundwater can be extracted.
Permaculture seeks to curb against such depletion, among its other pursuits.
Swan manages an urban farm in East Wheeling. While the farm's size and yield are not going to supply food for mass quantities of the population, he does cultivate a good deal of produce from his plot. However, the farm does serve as a microcosm of how permaculture and natural farming principles can be applied on a larger scale.
When you think of backyard or urban gardening, you picture a homeowner, with shovel in hand, digging up the soil in preparation for planting.
Digging isn't necessary. Swan has taken the top-up approach with his gardening by utilizing a technique commonly referred to as sheet mulching.
First, you map out the areas you wish to utilize in planting.
Then, instead of digging in the soil, you cut down the grass and any other weeds as low as possible, utilizing either a mower or weed eater.
You then cover the area with a slowly decomposing substance like cardboard or newspaper. If using newspaper, wet it down slightly to avoid it blowing away.
Then, cover that with a layer of nutrient-rich soil. Atop the soil, place a final layer of all-natural mulch. Swan generally incorporates the use of wood chips, dead leaves and grass clippings for that final layer.
Then you're ready to plant.
As the top layer of mulch is utilized and broken down, usually after 2-3 months, more is added to the top.
But how is the quality of the soil?
"The earthworms love it," Swan remarked.
When he first started planting at his site, the soil just below the surface of the ground was compacted; a clay-like texture.
Now, if Swan were to dig down, he can easily get his arm up to nearly his elbow into the soil before it has that compacted feel.
That top layer also helps to keep weed plants out of the planting bed. When weeds begin to germinate, it's a great indicator that its time to replenish the mulch.
Composting is also key. Mixing together carbon-rich materials like leaves, wood chips and dry hay with nitrogen-rich substances like manure can yield a nutrient-rich material after its given time to decompose.
Swan explained to avoid manure from carnivorous animals. Chicken manure is widely considered top-of-the-line for this function.
Speaking of which, Swan also keeps a smaller chicken coop on the farm. Not only does it provide eggs, but the manure generated by the chickens can be directly applied to the growing compost pile. That pile eventually helps fertilize the soil to keep it nutrient rich for plant growth. That in turn helps provide delicious produce for human consumption.
This no-till farming method best replicates and preserves natural ecosystems. It also provides great quality food.
It's a win-win for both the farmer and earth he's farming, which goes back to the central tenets of permaculture.
Is it good for the environment?
Is it good for you as a person?
The answers are yes and yes.