Practical Permaculture: Growing Asparagus and Strawberries

In my last post I talked about what permaculture is and isn’t. With that foundation out of the way, I invited you to come along as I grow my garden at my new home. Come with me and see how I got started – and how you can, too – even in a less-than-ideal situation.

Starting somewhere

As I’ve said before and I’ll probably say so many times you get tired of hearing it: You have to start somewhere and there is no “right way” to start gardening.

The “best” way to do permaculture is to start with what you have already.

The permaculture doctrine says you disturb the native plants and animals as little as possible and observe the area for about a year before you make any changes. After the observation period ends the ideal situation would be to plant a few crops on the edge of a thriving, old-growth forest with the express permission of all the happy woodland creatures.

I’m not going to be doing it the “best” way, because I didn’t have the ideal situation. Most home gardeners don’t have that. If you are renting you might not have the luxury of waiting a year. If you need the food crops to feed your family letting the land produce nothing isn’t an option. And if you have a full-time job, family and a commute you don’t have time to sit around playing Walden Pond taking notes about the land all day.

I didn’t have a thriving forest ecosystem. What I had was a big yard full of evil grass. There was only one mature tree which I had already put a shade garden around. The only layers were grass, depleted soil and a substantial fire ant layer.

No, that isn’t the color of healthy soil. That soil is severally depleted because of the grass.

Grass is a non-native invasive, harmful to pretty much everything that should be growing naturally. The nicest thing you can do for your local environment is get rid of some grass, so even though I dug deep and disturbed a lot of dirt I didn’t actually disturb many worms or helpful insects because there weren’t many. I had to go deeper than I was expecting to get all the grass roots.

Hardscaping

It took several days for me to dig down and clean out the area, putting the dirt that was going to return to the bed in a tarp to kill the grass. I wouldn’t have done this if it had a healthy rhizosphere, but since this soil is mostly dead it was ok.

Using some pavers the previous owner left behind I put in a border to demarcate the area I was working in and to help keep out grass. Having a small area to work in is very helpful for me emotionally. It’s visually appealing and keeps me from feeling overwhelmed.

I mixed several things with the original soil when I put it back in, including some raised bed soil, cow manure, peat moss, and perlite. After that I covered it with straw and kept it well watered for about a week, to let everything settle hoping to tempt in some worms and good bacteria.

Adding the plants

I bought asparagus plants instead of starting from seed because I wanted to be a year or two ahead. I’ll probably start asparagus from seed if I decide I need more.

I like to make a mound in the middle of the area and fan out the roots straddling the mound. This makes it easier for the asparagus to spread out, which is what you want. Also it looks neat and creepy, like dead scary sea creatures.

Asparagus looks like a sea creature when you plant it like that.

Into each corner of the bed, I put a strawberry plant. Strawberry plants can stay productive for several years. I used a different variety in each corner to stagger harvest and increase the chances of one of them being happy with my climate and soil.

Asparagus and strawberry are two plants that seem to work well together in the garden bed and culinarily. Next spring I will be having a lot of asparagus and strawberry salads.

Leave it alone for a few months

Well, mostly leave it alone. I did harvest strawberries when I could get to them before the chickens or fire ants and ate a few asparagus shoots here and there.

About six months have passed since I started this bed. I haven’t put in any more soil additives. It only got weeded a few times. When there wasn’t any rain for a week and the temperatures were in the high 90s I gave the bed some water. I’ve watered less than a dozen times in 6 months. I want plants that are going to be drought-tolerant and hardy. Because babying weak plants just makes more work for me so in the future.

It’s doing pretty darn well! The fluffy fern-like plants are the asparagus. I think 6 of the 9 plants I put in survived. All 4 strawberries are alive, but one of them might not make it.

Upkeep

Always have an eye out for grass. Once that gets etablished it can kill everything. I found some trying to come in under one of the border bricks while taking pictures for this post.

This strawberry plant wouldn’t thrive in the middle of a walkway, so I put it back in. In the ideal woodland scenario, you would just let it travel wherever it wanted, trusting the environment to maintain the balance.

Permaculture philosophy and this area’s future

Even though it’s only 2 species of plants and slightly better soil than I started with this is a permaculture “zone”. As long as I can keep away the grass this area should be mostly self-sustaining, but probably not very productive for a while.

This is the time to think about how I can make it better. Can I make it bigger? Can I add more species? How can permaculture design principles help this ecosystem? What about those layers? Over the next month, I plan to double the size of this bed and adding a few other species.

Writing these posts has made me “Observe and Interact”, which is one of the 12 design principles of permaculture. That’s caused me to ask myself lots of questions. Should I remove grass in a wider area around it to manage the grass? The soil is still pretty sad, so it will need some work before winter. What’s the best way to do that? Maybe I should think about adding a vertical layer and cover crops? Perhaps lettuce could be nice to fill in the gaps in the soil, help retain water until winter and enhance the rhizosphere when the roots rot?

Stay tuned for my next post in this series to find out which changes and improvements I make.

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