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Observe and Interact

One of my favourite quotes about gardening, speaks insightfully to its least celebrated season.

“And don't think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It's quiet, but the roots are down there riotous” — Rumi

This truism speaks to me because its refers directly to the first principle of permaculture, and also then urban permaculture — that is, ‘observe and interact’.

The observation part of the principle is clear, if not explicit. The interaction piece, like the winter garden, takes time and intention to understand.

A rain garden birdbath/waterer, formerly shaded by deciduous trees is newly exposed to life-saving, snow-melting sun

Interacting with a winter garden and its ecosystem begins with nothing more than our conscious presence, and a basic awareness of both abundant and meagre natural systems and design.

I’ve spent years studying and learning about permaculture, regenerative and restorative agriculture, forest farming, urban homesteading and other sustainable disciplines. It is through conscious observation that the greatest learning comes.

Winter shade points very clearly to the ideal spot for siting fruit tree roots, safe from the warmth of early spring sun

For sure it has changed me, most particularly it has changed the lens through which I observe everything and everyone in the world. I often say that as a result of my limited learning to date I am blessed and cursed in equal measure, that I cannot unsee what I have seen, and I cannot unlearn what I have learned.

Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living and land use that adheres to natural logic. Permaculture teaches us fundamental ideals based on the existence of a sentient, self-regulating planet on which the six kingdoms, Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaea/Archaebacteria, and Bacteria/Eubacteria exist in pluralistic harmony.

Native snow berries light up the shade garden, seducing wildlife to dine and spread the seeds throughout the landscape

Permaculture ideals relate to the single overarching and holistic ethic of governance that existed long before man evolved to dominate and create new ethics to conquer and divide. In just a few short centuries, we have, in our misguided wisdom, unlearned what our ancestors knew to be true, and in so doing we have mortally wounded the planet.

It is time once again to pay attention, to observe, and to interact. It is time to heal.

Hidden among the leaves during summer, tiny crabapples appear as if by magic in winter, to feed hungry birds

I know enough about how healthy ecosystems and gardens thrive, that when I observe one, I see the good, the bad, and the ugly — at least on surface where creative pseudo-science and citizen activism lives. The same I daresay, goes for people and companies whose ideals and greenwashing serve themselves or shareholders at the expense of the planet. I see them, and I cannot unsee them. I see them as clearly and honestly as I see my own contribution to the world on fire.

Each morning, rain or shine or snow, I walk our small property and observe. I pause long enough to listen, take photographs, and make note of the many small things that appear to be aiding or abetting the Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaea/Archaebacteria, and Bacteria/Eubacteria that live in and around our landscape.

Overwintering birds need above freezing temperature water to survive. Providing a fresh clean source is critical

Winter gardens are honest, stark, and percussively quiet spaces. Winter gardens are for the most part naked, free of the boastful foliage and colourful folly that we celebrate the arrival of in spring, and mourn the passing of in autumn.

Winter gardens throw long and deep shadows, exposing landscapes and design systems in relative black and white so that we might assess them without prejudice or assumption.

Bare ground under the eaves of pots provides refuge for organisms which are a food source for birds

Emails and inquiries from fellow gardeners and potential clients often lament the rain and the snow, wishing for warm spring or summer days during which to introduce me to their gardens. Quite the opposite is true, as very often it is during the so-called off seasons when we can best observe the challenges, assets and hydrology of a site.

There is indeed much going on during the oftentimes extended season of winter. In some parts of the country, winter gardens are buried under an insulating blanket of snow. In others, like the Pacific Northwest where I live, we experience deep cold, but we also experience torrential rain and the relative warmth of our temperate rainforests.

The frontyard birdbath, early morning. Action central for birds, squirrels, raccoons and groggy insects alike

Here, winter gardens exist in black and white, and green. Our family property, situated in the middle of a small plateau carved out of the side of the coastal mountains, sits just above the snow line yet very close to the sea — so, cold and snowy but also wet and warm. There is nothing at all textbook or zone-specific about managing our 1947 property and home, built at a time when the neighborhood was one large and contiguous semi-wild garden. We manage our property through a responsive, circular process of observation and interaction.

Front view of the beautiful north shore mountains, where snow starts falling early October

As the forest around our property dwindles to make room for extravagant homes, the icy cold mountain winds from which we were once protected, launch full frontal assaults on our front yard food gardens and heritage plantings. The quantity and composition of tree litter has changed sufficiently to affect the direction and flow rate of surface water moving along decades-old infrastructure.

Rainwater runoff from newly-paved yardscapes where once there was spongy, absorbent humus, flows in wave-like sheets onto our property. On occasion, during extreme rain events when the water table is full to capacity, rainwater runs into our garage or pools against the foundations of our rancher.

During the wet and stormy winter months, these challenges can be observed in all their naked glory. If I observe closely and quietly, I can see things not just as they are, but as they could be — as they should be.

Wild strawberries grow slowly through early winter, protected under the eaves, warmed by the morning sun

Permaculture pioneer Bill Mollison was famously quoted for offering various incarnations of, “the problem is the solution.” And so it is, if first we observe.

There is an over-abundance of rainwater in the region where I live, yet ironically, during the months of July and August, there are severe water shortages, droughts and wildfires. Most of the precipitation that falls from the sky in the form of rain and snow is directed by design, to exit quickly from residential developments, down into drains and paved gutters, into sewers where it picks up surface pollutants to be removed at great expense by treatment plants before it spills wastefully into the rising sea.

During the months of winter, we slow down long enough to observe the rain and the snow, in all its forms and habits, and can formulate an evolving plan to influence its behaviour in ways that mimic nature. By making small permaculture-inspired modifications in our gardens and on our grounds, we can capture and store rainwater and snowmelt resources on our properties, slowing them down to a speed at which they may be used beneficially more than once, before filtering slowly back into the ground over which they originally fell.

For now, as my rainwater strategy percolates and this crazy and tumultuous year draws to a close, I am happy to share images our early winter food garden. A garden observed quietly in black and white, where riotous green abundance hides in plain sight.

An abundance of winter greens, brassicas and root vegetables under cover in nine raised beds

In my neck of the woods, as in so many areas of North America, beautiful, colourful and nutritious winter greens are easy to grow in containers and in beds. All they need to protect them from bracing winds and crushing snow is a little love and a little cover.

When we apply ‘urban’ permaculture thinking to non-rural settings, we can bend the seasons a bit to help us grow resilient crops year-round in our yards and on the smallest of patios, sundecks and rooftops.

You see this in nature, on the margins of wild landscapes where under the part-sun natural cover and protection of shrubs, rocks and trees, a small meadow or riparian ecosystem has adapted beautifully, thriving even in a productive tableau of all-natural zone denial.

Providing habitat close to the ground and in hedges is essential for birds in need of shelter and camouflage

This year, after a tiring six months of back-to-back extreme weather events, it was all I could do to drag my weary boots out into the rain and cold to transplant the small starts grown from seed in our old greenhouse, into their winter homes.

The plant babies seemed less than happy at the time, looking somewhat neglected and bedraggled following many, many weeks in too-tiny pots and without the benefit of delicious in-ground soil biology within a greater ecosystem.

Par-cel and sprouting broccoli snugged up in the fleece covered high hoop beds

Just as soon as their little roots set foot in the healthy soil outside — covered loosely as it was with either hooped fleece, coldframes, or high glass patio roof — they got busy settling in for the duration. Instantly the plants made friends as plants do, with mycelium and microbes and organisms within their individual and collective rhizospheres, or root zones.

It’s a beautiful thing, the complex ecosystem that exists below the surface of healthy soil, in the so-called soil food web. Consider that just one tablespoon of healthy, living soil such as that found in rich forest floor humus contains more microbes than there are people on this planet. Awesome, right?

a veritable green grocery of nutrient dense winter greens and vegetables

Within a few short weeks in their nutrient dense forever homes, the greens had made up for lost time, growing up and out substantially, in equal measure. Nature truly is so clever and intuitive, so it is no surprise that, when we defer to her impeccable logic in big and small ways, she responds accordingly.

This is the ‘love’ piece. By working throughout the year to observe permaculture principles, ethics, and traditions including no-dig organic gardening, in-bed vermicomposts, and polyculture planting within a larger edible ecosystem, we give our food plants the advantage they need to thrive in environments that were not determined through natural selection.

Ice forms on the in-bed vermicompost but the brassicas remain protected from the crushing wet snow

Canadian winters are notoriously heavy, and since most non-native food plants are somewhat breakable, they require some form of ‘inside outside’ shelter from seasonal elements. This is the ‘cover’ piece.

Resilient, perennial wild arugula produces happily throughout the winter in its exposed raised bed

In coldframe covered raised beds out front, we are growing a variety of mustards, chicories and radicchio, endive, arugula, cut-and-come-again winter purslane, spinach, rapini and other greens. Also in raised beds, under heavy fleece covered high hoops, various brassicas including kalettes, sprouting broccoli, broccolini, brokali, kale and collard greens have settled in.

Kalette buds sparkle with frost, enduring many freeze and thaw cycles under fleece, before harvest in February

Celeriac, cutting celery, par-cel, and perennial fennel are still chugging alongside here and there, as are some late-summer carrots, parsnips and turnips. The root vegetables grow sweeter with the cold, but also provide diversity above and below the surface.

Diverse planting of frilly mustard, celeriac, cut-and-come-again winter purslane, rapini and lemon verbena

Around back, perennial fennel, cutting celery, woody herbs, sorrel and white beets seem content in patio pots set under the eaves or the glass patio cover, protected from the wind and the snow.

Peppermint stick (left) and Tango (right) cutting celery, alongside marjoram and chives, under cover of the patio

Green Komatsuna mustard planted deep in a fabric planter to protect from wind, under cover of the patio

I ran out of steam and dry clothes before I could get the adolescent multi-sown gold and striped beets into the ground, so I will interplant them in patio pots under cover around back. One never knows with beets, if they will thrive or arrest when transplanted, but since tender beet greens are always on the menu, I will locate them very near to the kitchen door, where I can pop out in my slippers at a moment’s notice.

Multi-sown adolescent beets before interplanting in patio pots under cover of the patio

As soon as the deep cold hits, my plant babies will slow down and slumber ever so quietly until mid February or so when the length and quality of sunlight nudges them awake, and me to think about starting tomatoes, peppers and eggplants from seed indoors.

Littleneck sage planted in patio containers, helps overwintering hummingbirds find nourishment on snow days

Until then, I will continue to observe and interact with our winter garden and the six kingdoms of life within it, and share what I learn through success and failure, with the growing community of gardeners and environmentalists who cannot unsee what they have seen, and unlearn what they have learned.

If you can, take a restorative, comtemplative walk in a winter garden or dormant native landscape and absorb its living, breathing, quiet ecstacy.

And if you haven’t already, join the movement.

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