One of my favourite permaculture principles is “Observe & Interact.”
There are many ways to observe and interact; one is to notice how the garden is different from year to year at the same time.
Below is a gallery of my current garden from 9-30 April, over the years 2010 to 2014. One April there are bleeding hearts well above ground in a light snow; this April, bleeding hearts have not emerged above ground yet. Ditto the quince blooms. The chives and daffodils are at various heights and bud/bloom depending on the year, not on the date. We had full tulip bloom in 2012, whereas this year we don’t even have buds formed yet. The phlox had emerged much more by 9 April 2012 than it has this year (either on 17 April or as of today). On the other hand, the first crocus emerged in 2011 on 24 April, and this year they peaked around 13 April and as of today, 24 April 2014, they are almost all finished blooming. You can also see how much the peach guild has changed from 2012-2014.
Although we talk about planting peas on Patriots Day here in New England, or putting out tender plants after Memorial Day, actually one April or May (or August or October) is not the same as another. A single late frost or snowstorm after fruit trees have set flower buds can determine whether they bear fruit that year or not.
And even when the consequences of these variations aren’t so dire, I find that looking at the garden on a year-over-year basis helps clarify a number of things, such as :
- When I can expect a plant to show some signs of life in spring. As a less experienced gardener, I sometimes pulled out perennials in reckless disappointment, mistakenly thinking they had died over the winter, when in fact they were just late starters, and in some years they were delayed by two or three weeks more than usual. Buddleia is famous for this, and Joe Pye Weed. I now keep notes about late-starters in my garden book to remind myself not to toss out a perfectly good plant that’s just not a morning person.
- When I can expect a plant to bloom or fruit. Garden catalogs and online sources will you this, generally, but I have found that the actual time varies widely by USDA hardiness zone, one’s own micro-climate, and specific weather that year. I want to know when the plant is likely to bloom or fruit in my yard.
- When there is likely to be a late snow or frost, or an early snow or frost. Dated photos are very instructive! (And successive planting of vegetables is a good solution to these yearly variations.)
- How a plant in one location in the garden differs in growth and healthiness from the same plant located in another spot in the same yard. If a winter is particularly harsh, or a summer particularly hot, one plant may be more vulnerable to damage than the same plant in another, less protected location. I might want to make a change based on this information.
- How my landscape or design is changing over the years and season-by-season, as plants grow taller and wider; as I change which annual flowers, bulbs, herbs and vegetables I plant; as the edges and margins move and evolve over time; as plants come to the end of their lifespan and are replaced; as deer, insects and other animals bring change to my plants or my design; etc. Another permaculture principle is Design from Pattern to Details, or don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. This reminds me to consider how the details of my garden can better imitate the beneficial patterns of nature. What can I change to create a better microclimate, encourage more cooperation among plants and insects, allow more edges for more diversity?
(There are 12 traditional Permaculture Principles, developed by David Holmgren, and then are also other versions. Two I refer to at times are Toby Hemenway’s 14 which are subdivided into principles for functional design, principles for living and energy systems, and attitudes; and Colleen Stevenson’s 17 imaginative The Principle of Living and the Living of Principles.)