Years ago I was researching ecotour sites in Costa Rica for a group called Ecoteach, which takes teachers and students on marvelous adventures where they volunteer to help protect sea turtles, assist with wildlife rescue, and restore rainforest. As we investigated possible sites, I noticed that most of the small farms and homes we visited mixed edibles and ornamentals in the same plantings. Edible plants in great profusion were not segregated in special areas or rowed out in beds, but planted naturalistically. I soon learned that in rural Costa Rica, most people use native edibles in traditional plantings called agrofloresta, or forest farming. Homes are nestled into native forest or jungle flora, with bananas and gingers, apples and orchids, coffee and chocolate growing side by side.
Where North Americans would grow lawns, agrofloresta uses nitrogen fixing ground covers, some native, some imported. Cows and sheep graze high-protein grasses in modest meadows where chickens and ducks roam free. The result is both charming and efficient: Over the past fifty years, agrofloresta has been developed into a sophisticated system that’s highly productive, providing families with many of their food needs without requiring toxic pesticides or expensive fertilizers. Where forest was cleared and land degraded by huge cattle ranches, small holders have restored native plants and healed the exhausted soil through staged succession plantings. Though it’s estimated that it takes about 300 years to fully restore cloud forest or jungle ecologies, agrofloresta jumpstarts the healing process considerably.
In temperate parts of the world, a similar system called permaculture is gaining ground. Co-founder Bill Mollison, an Australian ecologist and wildlife biologist, has characterized permaculture as a highly adaptable system that incorporates elements of agrofloresta, sustainable agriculture, and organic farming with naturalistic design. Permaculture design begins with observation, learning about the land, the weather, and the wildlife on a given site. Next is energy capture; wind, water, and solar power are all used and reused passively and actively. Edible plantings, from trees and shrubs to perennial herbs and annual vegetables, are incorporated whenever possible.
Like doctors, permaculturists pledge to do no harm, and to leave the land in better condition. Low tech approaches are favored; horses provide not only power but valuable manure. Nothing is wasted, so composting, worm bins, and soil building recycle detritus into garden gold. As much water as possible is captured in soil and in containers, from rain barrels to huge holding tanks. Soil is healed with compost mulches and cover crops, though permaculture design replaces rows and beds with open meadows. Trees and shrubs provide fruit, nuts, and homes for wildlife, while living fences provide kindling and firewood.
Good For The World
Interdependence is valued over independence; community building is as important as soil building and sharing promotes conservation of effort and resources. A diversity of crops replace monocultures, hedgerows replace fences, and new ideas like no-till farming edge out destructive “standard practices”. Permaculture practitioners take the long view, working for a future they may not see, and including the needs of both fauna and flora in all planning, long or short range. Thus, plantings that feed and shelter birds and critters and support beneficial insects and pollinators are as valuable as any human food crop.
One great beauty of the permaculture way is that these principles can guide designs on the smallest scale. Backyard permaculture can inform the simplest design as well, creating elegant solutions that serve a multiplicity of needs. Instead of a turf lawn, consider creating paths through a walkable tapestry lawn mix laced with nitrogen fixing clovers and pollinator friendly flowers. When choosing ornamental trees, consider those that provide shelter and food for birds and insects, such as crabapples and native hawthorns (not invasive Europeans).
Natives And Allies
Native pollinators naturally prefer native plants but often visit allies as well, so grow both blueberries and huckleberries, salmonberry and raspberries, native hazels and filberts. Use native strawberries for ground cover as well as your favorite everbearing varieties for the table. You and wildlife can all enjoy the shade of alders and willows, both of which are important nesting and fodder trees for woodpeckers, sapsuckers, owls and songbirds as well as native squirrels and all sorts of beneficial insects. Oregon grape blooms early, providing nectar for many pollinators and food for birds. Flowering currant (Ribes) is a beautiful shrub that’s home to a host of birds, bees and butterflies.
One important consideration for all who are thinking about creating a more natural garden where insects and critters are welcome is the fact that all critters need water, food and shelter. Unless we have natural ponds or streams, we may need to provide shallow bathing bowls and keep them clean and full of fresh water. Food will be abundant wherever we offer a diversity of plants but providing food and shelter means allowing some visible “damage” to plants we may hold dear. It also means leaving much of the garden undisturbed in winter, when butterflies, frogs, toads and other creatures are hibernating. If you tend toward neatness over the natural, this may be painfully difficult, so one way to ease into a new way of caring for your garden might be to allow sweet disorder to reign in areas you don’t have to look at every day. Keep you entry and walkway as neat as you please and comfort your tidy self with the knowledge that letting go of a little control now will pay a dividend of flourishing garden life in the future
Here are some good places to learn more about permaculture:
For information on ecotouring in Costa Rica, check out this link: