Permaculture garden planning: from chickens to wormfarm to crop rotation
This page was researched and produced by Anne Goddard, who lives on a 5-acre property called "Gaya'sGift" close to Bundaberg, Queensland.
Permaculture is a method of producing foodstuff in a closed loop that maintains a self-sufficient system.
In any habitat animals, plants and micro-organisms work together in harmony.
Organic permaculture takes the closed loop one step further to include insects - both pest and predator. When pesticides are used against insect pests, both pest and predator are eliminated. As most insect pests breed much faster than predators in the food chain, the pests will return quicker than the predators, eventually causing havoc which will result in further applications of pesticides being necessary.
The need for continual pesticide application causes the evolution of pests which are immune to pesticides and stronger and stronger applications become necessary.
In an organic permaculture garden, the balance is retained. There is no need for applications of pesticides, the predator and prey are maintained in a balanced loop with plants, animals and insects. Once an organic permaculture garden is fully established the human need do nothing but add mulch, plant, water and harvest the crops as they ripen.
As the food produced originates from the elements (organic, permanent), the natural elements of a permaculture garden are fully utilised and permanently protected.
In designing the no-dig organic permaculture garden, I have started with soil. The protection, enrichment and the location chosen with regards to daily sunlight are all interlinked if a successful productive garden is to work long term.
Micro-organisms and worms are an essential part of healthy soil, keeping it friable and loose. Minerals and trace elements produced by worm castings continually enrich the soil.
Organically produced chicken manure is high in nitrogen and essential elements and minerals that soils will begin to lack when asked to produce heavily.
Therefore, chickens become an essential ingredient for the soil. Chickens will also clean up most garden pests when allowed to roam in a free-range situation. Spent chicken shed bedding produces a very rich and protective organic mulch that is ideal for the soil and the plants that feed off the soil.
The bedding I choose in the chicken shed is a combination of Lucerne hay and straw. Lucerne can become sticky, heavy, and mouldy when damp and straw lightens it up. Lucerne was added to the hay as hay can strip the soil of nitrogen while Lucerne will return nitrogen as it breaks down. Hay breaks down slower than Lucerne. Mixing the two maintains a balance.
The chickens' main diet of insects and worms from the worm farm are supplemented on vegetable peelings and scraps from the kitchen and table.
The benefits of healthy, happy, free-range chickens will be healthy soil, few insect pests and an abundant supply of rich eggs which are a delicious deep gold, eggs free of antibiotics, steroids or other damaging chemicals including pesticides.
Worm farms are not an essential item of a permaculture garden, though the compost, castings and liquid produced are an added bonus to the health and vitality of soil structure when added to compost. Worms also add to the removal of vegetable scraps, weeds and even old newspapers. For more information about vermiculture and worm farms, see our vermiculture page.
Compost heaps are an essential part of the organic permaculture garden and utilise any extra organic matter that may be discarded. Nothing organic should be wasted in a permaculture garden. In fact having enough waste for a continual supply can be the hardest hurdle to overcome. The best system is a rotation of three large compost bins. Filling the first by the time the last is ready for use. Adding grass clippings and chicken bedding to any remnant vegetable scraps the chickens or worms do not clean up produces a fine rich compost. Do not use meat scraps in compost bins as vermin will be attracted.
Water in the permaculture garden is important not only for keeping the soil and plants hydrated but also for attracting insects and native birds, which will also feed on insect pests. A water feature with a small amount of mud, encourages predators such as dragon flies, frogs and wasps.
Rocks, logs and other places to hide are important for large and small native predators such as lizards, frogs, snakes and spiders. A water feature is the perfect spot for the placing of a predator habitat, having a two fold benefit of being pleasing to the eye, and a daily sanctuary for predators (and pests). Some people may not like the idea of sharing their garden with snakes, wasps, spiders and other predators. It must be understood that in a closed loop system, a mini "garden of Eden" is being created, and all must be welcome. With a suitable habitat as a sanctuary, these creatures will keep to themselves while retaining their rightful place in helping to keep pests and vermin at bay.
Pests and predators are kept at healthy levels at all times. Obviously some small loss of produce will result from a healthy population of pests. If pests become out of hand, then something is lacking in the garden - the solution is to deal with the problem, by encouraging the missing link, without ever needing to reach for a commercial pesticide.
Depending on the size of land that will be devoted to crops, the below steps are easily multiplied according to size.
How to redesignate a ¼ acre backyard block, normally approximately 20 square meters, to Organic Permaculture
Erect a 5'x 5' snake proof chicken shed with 2 to 4 perches at shoulder height or higher. Line the floor with a mixture of one biscuit of Lucerne hay and one biscuit of straw. There are approximately 7-8 biscuits in a bale. The shed will house 5-10 chickens. For a 20 square meter block I would recommend no more than 10 chickens. Allow this shed to open out (and close off) to the land to be put under cultivation. There should be another opening to the shed leading to a run (or section of yard) that is not attached to the cultivated land to allow the chickens to run when not in the vegetable section while seedlings are establishing. Chickens like to scratch, and their claws can be hazardous in newly made beds with young seedlings.
Create a small shallow pond (about bath-tub size) with a square meter mound of rocks either within the vegetable plot or nearby.
Fence off the cultivation area using chicken wire and star pickets. This is to keep the chickens out while the seedlings are establishing themselves. The wire should be buried into the ground and/or folded in an L shape outwards to keep out rabbits if they are a pest species in your area. A screen of mixed natives for windy areas may be necessary, ideal plants include species such as Grevillia and Bottle Brush (which will encourage birds and insects), Wattle (fix nitrogen in the soil and fast growing), and paperbark for badly draining areas. Mixing these types of plants in a screen is inexpensive and efficient. Remember not to block out sunlight with your screening plants. If your plot suffers from dampness, or poor drainage, placing a water-loving tree (such as a paperbark) in or near the damp area will correct the problem.
Mark out the beds onto the lawn or soil with string. I like beds that are no wider than 4 feet, and at least 10 feet long with a path of 2 feet in between - this allows for ease of access from both sides of the beds without having to walk on (and subsequently compact) the soil.
Paths are best covered with weed retarding matting such as old carpets or similar porous materials.
A watering system is laid out and set up directly onto the lawn or soil. Depending on the quality of the soil, a deep soak is usually necessary prior to cultivation. Once well watered, I liberally fork the soil of the vegetable beds penetrating the tongs of the fork at least 6-8 inches into the ground.
Paths are best covered with weed retarding matting such as old carpets or similar porous materials.
The beds for cultivation can then be fertilised with a layer of pre-purchased organically produced animal manures and a sprinkling of lime if necessary according to the PH level of the soil.
Following a generous application of compost, the beds are then heavily mulched with a cover of at least 8 inches of well-aerated straw and Lucerne hay. When available, I like to place as much seaweed as possible on top of the straw mix. A good soaking with organic seaweed emulsion tea keeps the straw in place. The tops of the watering system risers should be just visible through the straw, and will allow the rows (and hoses) to be easily traced. I then leave the beds for at least 6 weeks, allowing any weeds that are going to grow through to do so. Weeds are easily removed at this stage, as their root systems will be spindly and weak and not well established.
Introduce purchased earthworms to the surface if they were lacking in the soil prior to preparation. See our vermiculture page!
In the no dig garden, it is difficult to grow seeds through the heavy layer of mulch, though not impossible. The best solution in the first year is to grow your seeds in seed raising mix and compost (planting the seeds on the day following the laying of the straw), and plant the seedlings into the beds when the weeds have been removed. If you decide to plant seeds direct the seeds should be sewn into the compost and soil below prior to the mulch being laid.
When seedlings are established allow the chickens to roam freely in the patch to keep insects at bay and freely fertilise the garden.
In subsequent years the waste from the chicken shed can be utilised as mulch. As the beds mature, you may wish to "turn them over", if you choose to do so, seeds may be planted directly into the soil, and allowed to grow on before further mulching takes place.
Remember to rotate the main crops from bed to bed each year following the basic cycle of Brassica, root crop, corn/tomatoes, legume.
Monocultures cannot be avoided when crops such as corn are grown in a bed - cross fertilisation via close grouping is necessary for this crop. Planting garlic, onions, herbs and various Brassica as an under-story helps to retain diversity in a bed. To replace nitrogen in the soil, use the spent stalks as steaks for peas the following year if they remain strong enough.
Diversity and healthy soil is the key to pest and disease outbreaks, avoiding monocultures avoids losing a large crop to the same outbreak. Confusing pests is simple with an assortment of crops, use a different location for each crop type within the same bed each cycle maintains the health of the soil.
Mapping your beds each year in a note-book is a wise necessity.
Action for World Development - As part of its campaign for sustainable development, since 1987 AWD has explored approaches that link environment and development, attempting to raise common concerns that face people living in urban and rural situations. In 1993, AWD started to trial the running of permaculture courses and workshops and in 1996 moved on to a comprehensive permaculture education program.
Sharelynx: Australian Sites. The Cairns Net "....monster collection of links to Alternative Self-Sufficiency Survival Information sites where you can find out anything that is of interest in protecting yourself and your family...."
Sharfin: Self-Sufficiency Survival Information sites. Another page from the same Site as quoted above.
Permaculture International Limited. Permaculture International Limited (PIL) provides services to members in support of their work in permaculture design.
Permaculture Magazine. Permaculture magazine is published by Permanent Publications. This site covers most of our activities as well a wide range of permaculture topics and resources and is divided into four sections for easy browsing: Permaculture Magazine - Solutions For Sustainable Living, Magazine Information Service, Earth Repair Catalogue, Permanent Publications.
Permaculture Visions. Permaculture Visions International© - Permaculture by Distance Learning - With students from Alaska to Outback Australia.
Permaculture and Sustainable Living & Livelihood. Communications for a Sustainable Future (CSF) [at Colorado University] was founded on the idea that computer networking could be used to enhance communications with the objective of working through disparate views and ideologies to secure a more promising future. The contents of the archives and the quality of communications on CSF are intended to reflect this purpose.
ATTRA: Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas. The ATTRA Project is operated by the National Center for Appropriate Technology under a grant from the Rural Business - Cooperative Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.