Permaculture seeks to maximize the yield from a cultivated plot. Without compromising the health of the plants, the soil or the animal life that is interlinked with the garden, increasing the yield from a permaculture site is one of the primary considerations when coming up with a design.
Of course, maximizing yield in such a garden is only done with the principles and techniques of permaculture – care for the earth, use less resources, and so on – in mind. Maximizing yield is also the primary motivation of industrial agriculture, but it is achieved in a far more harmful manner: by growing monocultures, by using chemical fertilizers and pesticides which, while protecting the crop, have deleterious effects on many other parts of the ecosystem, and by impinging upon natural environments in the quest for more product.
In the permaculture garden we seek to maximize yield via less destructive or intrusive methods, and techniques that work in harmony rather than in an antagonistic relation to nature. Below are some tips to help increase the yield of harvestable crops from your site, without the use of unnatural or harmful techniques.
Many plants benefit from growing upwards – which benefits the permaculture gardener by requiring less square footage at ground level. It is particularly useful for those short on space. By instituting trellises, fences and poles for certain crops to grow up, you not only increase the amount of plants growing in the plot, you may also experience knock-on benefits, such as your vertical plants providing shade or wind protection to more fragile, lower-lying species, or even, if grown against the wall of your house, helping to moderate the temperature of the house by absorbing summer sunlight or blocking winter winds, meaning you energy bills are reduced. Vegetable species that are suited to vertical cultivation include tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, squash and melons. The latter two species are heavier when they fruit, but you don’t need any kind of reinforced support – the plant will develop thick stems to hold the crop, even if growing up a trellis or thin stake.
Interplanting refers to the technique of planting species together that will benefit from their proximity and be ready to harvest at different times. This typically means that thy will not be competing for the same kinds of nutrients at the same time, as they will be setting fruit one after another. Certain combinations of species offer mutual support for healthy growth. For instance, the classic Native American combination of the “three sisters” – corns, beans and squash – all grow better by being interplanted with one another: The corn provides stalks up which the beans can grow, while providing wind protection for the low-lying squash, which covers the ground, suppressing weeds that would otherwise compete with the corn an beans for soil nutrients and moisture. Interplanting can also help provided more soil nutrients – such as planting legumes around fruit trees – or repel pest insects, such as Interplanting tomatoes with cabbages as the former repels the diamondback moth larvae, which can decimate cabbage crops.
Succession planting enables you to plant crops that will mature at different points, meaning that rather than harvesting a crop and then having to replant with a second crop and wait for maturation, you harvest crops from the same bed throughout the growing season. For instance, a single bed could yield and early crop of lettuce, followed by a crop or corn, and then finally a harvest of leafy green vegetables that take longer to reach harvestable size.
Extend the Season
While permaculture gardeners try to cultivate their crops in accordance with the natural rhythms of nature, a few unobtrusive tweaks can help to extend the growing season beyond that which local climate conditions suggest. For instance, using a greenhouse, or even a conservatory, to start your seedlings while the winter frosts are still on the ground gives them a head start when you plant them out in spring, meaning you can harvest them earlier and gain more yield by succession planting. Using cold frames and mulches can also extend your growing season by protecting your cops from the first fall or winter frosts, so you can harvest for another few weeks.
Native plants are those that are most suited to the local climate and soil conditions on your plot. They are the species that have developed interdependent relationships with indigenous wildlife over centuries, and so are more likely to survive and thrive on your site.
While many permaculture gardeners know that by increasing the edge of their garden beds – by, for instance, designing a keyhole bed system – they increase the area of cultivatable land within the bed. But fewer are aware that the same principle applies to garden beds when it comes to height. Rather than having a flat surface to your bed, mound up the soil so that it forms an arc. This increases the surface area available for planting.
Arguably the simplest yet most important step a permaculture gardener can take to increase the yield from their plot is to improve the quality of the soil. By adding plenty of organic matter to the soil, ensuring the soil gets well aerated, and that moisture does not drain too quickly or become waterlogged, the plants in the soil will be able to access all the nutrients and moisture they need to thrive and produce abundant crops. A healthy soil also means the bed can support more plants, so aiding other techniques such as vertical growing and interplanting.
Many vegetables can be harvested when they are, technically, still immature. Carrots, peas, beans, broccoli and spinach are all plants that can be harvested when young and still provide a flavourful, nourishing crop. But the added benefit is that all these species, if a crop is harvested early in the growing season, will provide a secondary harvest later in the season. Broccoli, for instance, one the main head has been cut early in the season will provide one or two secondary shoots that will form flower heads for harvest later.