By Logan Sander
We are here in Pitikele village trying to plant a “traditional” homegarden, but in many ways how we’re going about that is as foreign as we are. I believe our homegarden will be what we hope it to be (i.e. diverse, representative, productive, beautiful, and educational), but it won’t be traditional in the sense that it came about the way that other homegardens in Pitikele do. I’ll explain why this isn’t a problem and try to make clear our approach to designing and creating a homegarden.
Obviously, we’re neither from Pitikele, nor do we have a great depth of personal experience with the types of plants we’re growing (I’m from Alaska, Laura is from Virginia, and Blair is from Washington State). As a result, we’ve been forced to adopt a somewhat novel approach to our homegarden. When a person in Pitikele plants a homegarden, it’s a long-term, highly iterative and experimental process. Instead of up-front planning, I believe “traditional” homegardens arise out of patterns observed in countless neighboring homegardens, skills learned early in life through helping and watching in the family garden, and through a personal (and somewhat variable) understanding of the requirements of each plant. We’ve had peeks into this process by observing Someratane and Tillekaratne’s work on their own gardens, and my impression is that folks opportunistically gather plants they desire to grow and plant them where it makes sense to them — gradually, over a period of time that spans generations. And it works — beautiful gardens develop with no maps, no deadlines, no external labor to organize, no design principles, no grand plans. Since we don’t have these experiences to draw from, and we’re trying to get this garden up and running in a year or so, our approach is necessarily more cerebral, planned and abbreviated. We’re hoping the end result is recognizable to local folks as a homegarden (we think it will be!).
Our approach to designing this garden borrowed heavily from our experiences with permaculture design, professional forestry and our gardening experience. In permaculture design, a space is divided into “zones” that reflect the management needs and priorities of a place. For example, “Zone 1” includes those areas around a home where the manager/occupant is most likely to interact, i.e. the walkway from the car to the front door, the area around the patio, the planter box outside the kitchen window, and so forth. This is where one would concentrate those things that have frequent management needs (watering, weeding) and produce frequent yields where convenience is a key attribute (culinary herbs, medicinal plants). The complete schema is as follows (adapted to our context):
Zone 1: near the house, frequent maintenance and/or yields, enjoyable aesthetics, access is most important; e.g. culinary herbs, frequently used medicinal plants, flowers, plants that need to be grown near the home.
Zone 2: moderate maintenance needs; e.g. vegetable crops, fruit and nut trees, medicinal plants, perennial crops.
Zone 3: low-maintenance, more extensive tall-tree orchards, and timber trees.
Zone 4: e.g. woodlot, natural forest management.
Zone 5: “wilderness,” or at least, unmanaged areas.
Because there are three of us designing our homegarden, we thought the concept of zones would help us to divide the work so we wouldn’t need to “design by committee.” This way, with constant consultation and feedback, we could each focus on our own design problems, keeping in mind that the relationships between our designs were as important as anything else. Laura would tackle Zone 1 around the home, I would take on the surrounding Zone 2 fruit trees, and Blair would handle what we call Zone 3, the outlying tree gardens of coconuts, jak fruit and other tall, widely-spaced trees.
It doesn’t take long to realize that traditional homegardens blur many of the boundaries between these zones, though I believe the categories are useful. We observe at every homegarden a zone around the dwelling that has potted plants, ornamental flowers, medicinals, and everyday food plants. This high species diversity, low-abundance region has been called the “patio” in Sri Lankan research articles, and it corresponds precisely with the Zone 1 definitions of most permaculture designers. Zone 2 is not quite as tidy, but we’ve still recognized a rather tight ring of fruit, nut and timber trees around the home that neatly corresponds to Zone 2. Zone 3 is overall looser, as Zone 2 tends to cut into and between areas of Zone 3.