Saturday, August 18, 2012

Are Raised Beds Permaculture?

My friend Kelly and I spent considerable time yesterday while working in the workshop arguing about this very topic. I'm afraid he got the last verbal word in but the subject is preying on my mind so I'm going to write a little about it.

There are some basic principles of permaculture design that have been accepted as more or less the holy tenets of the faith. I'm going to address each one here and then illustrate how a raised bed fits in.

Diversity - Successful permaculture means diversity in plant ecosystems, not monoculture. Companion planting, succession planting, etc. These are design elements which promote diversity. In a raised bed, there is no reason why you cannot have diversity. A method I like to use is to plant deep-rooting plants 2' apart and then utilize the 1' space within with shallow-rooting veggies. Companion planting! That's a win for raised beds.

Edge Effect - Life thrives where systems meet and overlap. Such as at a forest's edge or the shore of a pond. Raised beds are not particularly good at creating an edge effect, but you can certainly use them to take advantage of existing edge effects. A raised bed located to the east of a larger fruit tree may utilize the shade of the tree for plants which need cooler temperatures in the summer.

Energy Efficiency - Minimize the input from human, mechanical, and fossil fuel energies. An example would be the fruit tree planted in one year but which will yield food to you every year for many years to come, with only minimal effort compared to the initial push. Raised beds are the poster child for energy efficiency. They hold soil in a specific location and require only minimal prep and cultivation. Weeding is a snap as well. There's no need for mechanical tillers or plows.

Nutrient Cycling - The output from one process should always feed the next. In a raised bed, this is not so difficult. It's easy to get organized and plant in succession things which improve the soil. Got a raised bed which has had its soil compacted? Plant potatoes or turnips ... anything you dig which will break up that soil. Follow up those heavy nitrogen feeders with legumes. Another win for the raised beds!

Scale - Systems utilized by humans should be human scaled. No need for immense tractors and systems, nor a gigantic field covered with migrant workers. Raised beds can be efficienctly managed by individuals. They are not exceptionally efficient on space, but you can always add more and assign family members "zones" to manage.

That's just a few of the permaculture design elements, but it's easy to see how raised beds fit into that scheme.

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