For the permaculture gardener, spring is a time of preparation and planting for the year ahead. Thanks to a the techniques used in permaculture management, permaculturists can get slightly ahead of the curve compared to other horticulture types. Employing a few season extension techniques and soil conditioning, we find that we can get our garden going a little quicker.
For many people in temperate climates all over the world, mild winters and odd early spring weather (most likely caused by anthropogenic climate change) has meant that plants are already starting to wake up. With this in mind, it is extremely important for you to get on with your early spring tasks, to make sure your permaculture garden is producing a continuous, healthy and fruitful yield throughout the year.
While planting is traditionally encouraged in March and April, permaculturists start their yard work a little early, in order to ensure everything is ready to go by the time full planting season kicks in. If you’re wondering what you should be doing to get your spring permaculture garden on the go, here are a few handy tips.
1. Tidy the Toolshed
When you shut up shop for the winter, you no doubt made sure the toolshed was tidy and all your gear was put away neatly. However, as we make our way into spring, it’s imperative that you ensure your tools are ready-to-go and up to the standard they need to be.
Taking an itinerary will help you to understand what you have and what is missing – some tools may have broken, corroded, or gone walkabouts in the previous year. Any tools that are too damaged or aren’t in your arsenal need to be replaced. Gardening without the proper tools can lead you to get creative, however it can also end in back injuries and other musculoskeletal issues – especially if you’re substituting one tool for another that isn’t suitable for the job.
Next you need to maintain the tools. Over the winter, the tools that are sitting in your shed are likely to have been exposed to cold, air and damp. This can cause oxidation of the metals and cracks in the plastic. For anything that can’t be repaired (like broken plastic handles), you’ll need to purchase or make a new tool. This is why permaculture gardeners tend to favor sturdy metal tools with wooden handles, as they can maintained more easily and are therefore wasted less often.
TOP TIP: If you’re looking to purchase tools, start looking in thrift stores and at yard sales. Older and antique tools were made from much sturdier metal and wood. Simply put – back in the day, we didn’t have so many of the cheap alloys and mixed plastics that we have now.
When you mix metals together, their original strength decreases, as less strong metals get mixed in (like aluminium). Older tools are made from cast iron which has a high compressive strength (newer tools are often made of stainless steel which has a lower compressive strength). This means it can withstand high pressure being pushed on it (rather than tensile strength which is pulling). This means they’re less likely to break when you’re digging and you hit a hard rock.
Secondly, the consumer culture of our generation wants us to ‘use up’ rather than ‘use’. In this sense, tools are now made to have a shorter lifespan so you need to buy new ones sooner. This wasn’t the case before – tools were made to last and they do!
For wooden handled tools, you may want to sand off any unwanted dirt or rougher edges, to prevent splinters when using them. Follow this by applying an oil to the wood that can penetrate deeply and condition it – preventing it from becoming brittle. Dutch oil is great for this but olive oil and coconut oil work well too.
For the metal parts of your tools, you’ll need to sharpen and oil them. Anywhere that you see corrosion, you can file this away and rub oil into the metal to help seal it from the elements. Sharpening your tools is super important. You’ll notice that digging with a sharpened spade or trowel makes a wealth of difference, both to you and the ground.
When you try to penetrate soil with a blunt tool, it’s similar to bludgeoning the ground, which causes disruptive vibrations through the ground, as well as killing more tiny microorganisms than are necessary. Similarly, trying to prune trees with blunt secateurs and shears will leave more damage on the tree, as it tears through the bark and wood, rather than cleanly slicing it.
For you as a gardener, you’ll find that blunt tools are far harder to use, resulting in stress on the muscles. Anyone who has worked with a dull hoe can attest to what a literal pain in the neck it is! Use a file, and get those tools sharp!
Try to tighten all handles and screws in your tools. Wobbly tools can break easily and also force you to take the strain on your back and wrists. Make sure you’re using a strong screwdriver to do this, so it doesn’t slip and strip the heads of the screws.
2. Observe and Design
The winter will have had some serious effects on your garden. Strong wind and heavy rainfall can have a dramatic impact on the shape of the land you’re working with. You may find that there are culverts cut into the land where water is eroding away the ground to run off the land.
You may find that storm winds have caused tree flagging, and your trees are leaning in one particular direction. You may become aware that some of the earthworks you previously put in, such as swales and terraces, haven’t held strong over the winter periods or weren’t deep enough to deal with all the rainfall and are now wearing away.
As a permaculturist, observation is one of your most useful tools in ensuring you have a healthy and productive garden. In this sense, understanding how the natural environment and weather patterns have had an impact on your site will help you to work with nature rather than against it.
Make sure you do a thorough walk of your garden, taking note of the changes that have occurred over the winter period. This will help you better plan for planting in the spring. For example, you may notice that a patch of ground has become particularly swampy, causing you to plant edibles this season that enjoy having wet feet, like watercress.
The other observation that’s key to helping your design is to notice those plants you didn’t consciously plant – pioneer plants or weeds. You’ll find that you may have an influx of weeds, even if you planted a cover crop over winter.
Weeds often indicate the state of the soil. You may have planted a healthy layer of cress, but notice that butterweed is springing up in between. While it resembles mustard seed flowers or dandelions, butterweed is not edible. For the shrewd permaculturist though, this tells you something about the soil – butterweed likes damper, cooler areas. In this respect, you know that the soil must be damper down below and the area doesn’t get full sun.
In turn, you can use this information to creatively design your garden. You can push out the non-edible butterweed by replacing it with something that likes similar conditions and has a similar root system (shallow and fibrous) and structure (grows at about 3 feet, and branches off). You could substitute them for marsh marigolds or Caltha palustris (you can pickle the flower buds and use them as a capers).
Make sure that you really incorporate your observations into your design. Where is the water flowing away and where can you direct it to flow into your garden? Where has the wind affected the plants and trees and how can you shelter your garden from this? What’s the sun’s coverage like and where do you need to accommodate for shade or full sun? Are there any patches where nothing has grown – how can you improve the soil in these areas?
By planning all these things, you’ll have a much clearer idea of where to plant each species so they get what they need, help to work with the land to get the most from it, and complement the surrounding plants and features in your garden.
3. Repair Earthworks and Garden Features
You may find that some of your earthworks (swales, terraces, net and pan systems etc) haven’t withstood the winter months as best as you would have hoped. Perhap there was more rain than you had accounted for, or perhaps your diversion channels have eroded and no longer serve their purpose well.
Now is the time to add a few alterations and repair them. Bear in mind, however, that early spring is not the time to start earthworks. The ground is still cold and hard, and rain could come at any moment, which will significantly impact your ability to effectively build strong earthworks – fall is the season for this kind of building. That said, you may want to make some tweaks to help remedy any obvious erosion issues.
Equally, the wind and rain may have battered your garden beds. You may find that garden boxes are looking a little shabby or fences may have taken a beating. You will need to make sure these are back in shipshape before you start planting again.
4. Chop and Drop
Most permaculturists will plant a cover crop over the winter which helps to create a carpet of green mulch to condition the soil ready for spring. For some of these types of green manures, like clover, they can stay atop the soil as you move into the spring months, with you planting among the greenery, pulling the clover away as you plant.
However, many permaculturists like to cut everything back to the soil level, leaving the roots in place – known as ‘chop and drop’. By doing this, the green that you cut away will die off – as they break down, the nutrients in the greenery seep into the soil, improving the soil fertility. Nitrogen fixing cover crops are especially good at this, as high levels of nitrogen in the soil acts as a fertilizer, helping your veggies to grow faster and stronger.
This is also the time for weeding. While your cover crop may have kept most weeds at bay, you will undoubtedly find that pioneer plants have been attempting to invade your garden throughout the rainier months. After noting down your observations on the types of weeds and clusters they appear in, you’ll want to pull them out – making sure to get all the roots out so they don’t grow back.
If you are pulling weeds that are seeding, you need to put these weeds into your compost pile in the middle. The heat of the compost pile will burn up the seeds, preventing them from spreading. Those that aren’t seeding, and that don’t’ re-root easily, can be used for sheet mulching or can be put in large buckets of water to ferment into fertilizing weed teas.
Late winter and early spring is the ideal time for pruning. As the leaves haven’t grown back yet, you’ll be able to see the structure of the tree clearly. Moreover, the tree itself still remains in its dormant stage, meaning it won’t be so traumatized by the cuts. Pruning fruit trees, while it seems contrary to common sense, actually allows the tree to produce more and better quality fruit.
When you’re pruning, you want to make sure the tree has a good even structure, that’s strong enough to hold weight evenly across its branches. You need to leave enough branches that there are a good number of leaves for effective photosynthesis, but at the same time, you want the canopy to the open enough to allow light to reach all parts of the tree so that as much fruit as possible will blossom.
By cutting the tree back, you allow the branches to remain strong (a little like trimming your hair). Tree branches that grow tall and lanky are not as able to hold heavy fruits, so the fruits that are produced tend to be smaller and fewer fruits will grow on each branch.
When pruning, consider the 5 Ds – Dead, Damaged, Diseased, Dying, Disfigured. You want to cut back anything that’s dead or dying because it won’t produce anymore. Damaged and disfigured branches are likely to produce poor quality fruits and will have a lower yield than other branches. Diseased branches can spread sickness to the whole tree, resulting in everything dying if you’re not careful.
6. Build a Cold Frame
Cold frames are like mini on-the-spot greenhouses that allow you to extend the growing season, by enabling you to get your seedlings going early.
In late winter and early spring, your plants can fall foul to a late or unexpected frost or a cold spell. Cold frames help to deal with this issue by emulating a slightly warmer climate, similarly to how a greenhouse works.
A cold frame is a small box that sits directly on your raised or sunken beds, or can even sit over planters. The sides tend to be opaque and can be made from metal or wood, while the top is made from transparent glass or plastic.
The back of the box is higher than the front, giving it a sloped roof, which is attached to the box with hinges, allowing you to open it easily. The slope should be calculated to make the most of the sun’s angle. As a general rule of thumb, take the latitude of your garden, and add 20 to it. This gives you the slope angle.
Example calculation: If you are at a latitude of 30, you need to add 20 to 30 – this gives you a 50 degree angle of slope for your cold frame roof.
The cold frame should face the sun, with the sloped roof facing south in the northern hemisphere, and north in the southern hemisphere. If you’re in a particularly cold climate and you’d like to extend the seasons, you can insulate the walls of the cold frame and paint them black, as this will allow light to penetrate through the top, and will trap it inside the cold frame.
It is important to ensure that your cold frame is well ventilated or the plants will suffocate. Keeping a thermometer inside can also guide you as to when you need to open the lid so they plants don’t die of heat. You should open the cold frame when it reaches 65-75F.
Interestingly, some people make their cold frames with bales of hay and old windows. The old windows are a great way to reuse something you no longer need, while the bales of hay are a great biological resource that can be utilized for mulch later in the season. The bales of hay are an excellent insulator, as well as enabling air to pass through, keeping the cold frame ventilated. Bales of hay are also relatively heavy, and therefore protect against the wind.
You can use the cold frame to get your seeds started and to start growing your veggies a little earlier than normal. As the temperature increases, you can remove the cold frame and the vegetables carry on growing where they started. Unlike a plant nursery, this means far less disturbance to the plants as they grow as they don’t need to be repotted.
7. Build Your Beds and Mulch
Getting your beds prepared is perhaps the most obvious task of all of them. The way you choose to build your vegetable beds is up to you, but you should consider utilizing space as best you can using varying designs (keyhole beds, herb spirals, etc), as well as designing in 3 dimensions.
Consider how you can have climbers working upward to take advantage of the extra space, as well as considering the use of rooftop and window boxes to add more vegetable growing area.
If you’re building beds straight into the ground, you’ll want to use the raised and sunken method. By digging out sunken beds, you can transfer the soil directly next to it to create a parallel raised bed. Early spring plantings will experience a wetter environment, so you’ll want to plant into the raised beds to avoid flooding and soil saturation. As you move into the drier late spring months and summer, you’ll want to plant in the sunken beds, so any rain water collects in the trough.
Make sure to sheet mulch your beds to keep weeds at bay, as well as providing insulation and fertilization for the soil. Mulching improves soil health and helps to retain rainwater, to prevent it running off. In early spring, you can start to mulch the sunken beds as well as the raised bed, in order to prepare the soil for later plantings.
It’s really crucial to remember to build your beds on contour, along the lines of the land. If your beds are sloped, rainwater will run-off which means you’ll need to water your vegetables more as you lose a precious resource.Not only this, the runoff will often take a lot of the soil nutrients with it, depleting the soil. Dry soil will get blown away in the wind and your plants will suffer.
8. Plant Your Early Veggies
Some vegetables need to be planted early as they need the colder weather to germinate. Using a cold frame, you can get these veggies started early without leaving them exposed to potential frost and flood. Here are a few edible plants to get you going in the early months of spring.
• Potatoes – Potatoes like to be planted in early spring but they won’t germinate until the soil temperature reaches 45F. Starting them in the cold frame is ideal.
• Leafy greens – Rocket, kale, lettuce, chard, and spinach are better planted earlier as they tend to bolt quickly if planted in the warmer months, going to seed almost instantly.
• Peas – Traditionally, the first peas were planted on St Patrick’s Day. Start them in a cold frame and you’ll be taking advantage of three-dimensional planting space as they climb, while they will also put nitrogen into the soil.
• Rhubarb – Rhubarb is a perennial plant with huge leaves that shelter the soil and work well for chop and drop mulch. If you want to divide the rhubarb as it grows, do this while it is young otherwise the crown becomes very tough and difficult to separate in more mature plants.
• Asparagus – Asparagus is another perennial that is super healthy and gets more productive each year.
• Crucifers – The cabbage family can be planted early and can handle relatively cold temperatures. This includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.
In short, as a permaculture gardener, you need to get into action now. Spring brings all the opportunities you need to start a prosperous and diverse vegetable garden. However, as you move into the spring months, you’ll notice that there is so much to do that you end up rushing or not getting everything done.
By starting early, you can prepare your tools and land to ensure you have everything ready to go as you plant in stages across the spring months. This also means that you’ll have a yield earlier in the year as well as stronger, more fruitful yield later in the year.
Emmy Jenkins, AKA Permie Emmy, has spent many years traveling around the globe and working remotely, dipping her toes into a myriad of disciplines. Having spent several years volunteering on sustainable farms, Emmy chose to delve deeper into permaculture theory to understand the social and economic patterns often neglected in the philosophy. When she’s not planting edible gardens and frolicking the jungle, she’s consulting on projects around the world to help permaculturalists to understand regenerative ‘Fairshare’ economic patterns and to encourage People Care patterns that focus on biomimicry.