Landscaping with a function equals permaculture

Choosing beautiful plants that double as a food source. Selecting ground cover that produces fruit. Saving rainwater for irrigation during dry months. Planting herbs in the front yard.

These all are part of permaculture, a design system based on ecological principles or based on nature.

But those are only a few of the ideas that can turn your property into an ecological haven – whether it be a city lot with a front and back yard or several acres in the country.

Vince Kirchner of Great Lakes Permaculture said landscaping can be beautiful as well as functional.

The Tiffin-based company specializes in providing permaculture solutions for homeowners.

“It’s working with the homeowner to give them what they want,” he said. “Not everybody wants a front-yard garden, but everybody wants to eat.”

One example of beauty and functionality is planting a row of rugosa roses, which can be used in teas and soups. Next to those might be lavender, which has scent, medicinal and edible uses, along with creeping thyme as a groundcover, which doubles as a cooking herb.

“We’re trying to find the most efficient solution for the property,” Kirchner said. “We don’t overdesign or underdesign.”

Locally, Kirchner has been donating his time to work with the Sisters of St. Francis to create permaculture landscaping around Little Portion Green, the strawbale house.

“When we start working with an owner on a project, we sit down and try to understand what they want to accomplish with the property,” he said.

He researches and discusses such considerations as the amounts of wind and rain the land receives, how much water is available, wildlife and plant interaction and the individual wishes of the owners.

For example, at the strawbale house he is taking into consideration the needs of the Franciscan Earth Literacy Center, the St. Francis campus and Sister Jane Omlor, who lives in the house.

Then, he puts together a plan he recommends.

“We started about two years ago, and the plan is still evolving,” he said.

The sisters had a few flooding problems to resolve, and they wanted to create some sustainable food for the property, long term, that didn’t require a lot of work for an aging population.

“We looked at different cash crops with low maintenance – truffles, mushrooms, nut crops,” he said. “Things that, once planted, are perennial types of crops that don’t require a lot of input.”

Around a house, Kirchner said he divides a property into zones.

“The things she (Omlor) uses every day, we would put closest to the house,” he said.

For example, an herb garden and berry bushes might be located in the front or back yard while trees grown for wood or trees grown to harvest nuts once a year would be placed farther from the house.

“We can work with any type of curriculum,” he said. “A front-yard garden, backyard garden, a completely edible landscape.”

Kirchner said acres of land are not needed. Much can be accomplished with a small yard.

“For most people, that’s around the house that they have now,” he said

Instead of ornamental bushes, a plan might include bushes that provide an edible berry. Instead of low-growing ornamental groundcover, he said homeowners could choose low-growing varieties of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries or figs.

“That way, they’re able to harvest something and eat it,” he said.

Some homes are good candidates for rooftop gardens, he said, and some are conducive to aquaculture.

“The fish that live in the water create nitrogen, which is then fed to the plants, which, in turn, purify the water,” he said.

People can choose to harvest food produced by the plants or eat the fish.

Aquaculture systems can range from large-scale commercial systems or apartment systems in 10-gallon tanks.

Overall, permaculture also takes into consideration methods of storing energy, he said.

“Food is a form of energy,” he said. “We take a look at how to preserve that.”

Water conservation is another topic. It often includes storing rainwater in containers – rain barrels, cisterns, ponds or even swimming pools. Stored water then can be used inside the house for daily living or for plant irrigation outside.

“There are methods out there for drip irrigation,” he said. “You could set it up and, once a week, it would automatically water your plants.

“If you could eliminate some of those mundane tasks, how could you use that extra time?” he asked.

Kirchner said the idea of permaculture is not new. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren were the originators of the concept when they wrote the book, “Permaculture One,” which was published in 1978.

He said Holmgren’s definition of permaculture is “a design system based on ecological principles.”

“It started as ‘permanent agriculture,'” he said. “It’s gaining a lot of momentum the last five or six years. There are probably millions of permaculturists around the world.”

Permaculture concepts encompass everything from backyard gardening to the design of public lands by city, state and federal governments.

“It’s a way of creating permanent culture and it’s involved in city planning, food security, climate control, soil remediation and water purification, to name a few,” Kirchner said.

Kirchner, 57, said he became interested in permaculture about three years ago when he began to look at his life differently.

Although he enjoys his longtime job designing glass for the automotive industry at Guardian Industries, Upper Sandusky, he said he began to look at other aspects of life.

“As you get older, you start to think about the things you’re accomplishing in your life and try to find things that give you greater enjoyment,” he said.

He remembered spending time on his grandfather’s farm in Erie, Pa.

“I enjoyed the time I spent with him on the farm,” he said. “And my great-grandfather took me on nature walks.”

He started investigating

methods of growing food at his house on Schonhardt Street, five doors down from Calvert High School.

“Because of my engineering background, I wanted to know why to use something and when,” he said. “I looked into all the different techniques. … All these are great techniques, but when do you use one over another?

“I came across permaculture just through a Web search. What intrigued me the most is that it had ethics to it.”

He said the practice encourages care of the earth, care of people and reinvestment of surplus.

“It impressed me that it had some values associated with it,” he said. “And there are natural techniques associated with it.”

He read books and decided to take a 72-hour class to become certified.

“Then, I took another class to be able to teach, and I became a Master Gardener (through Ohio State University Extension) at the same time,” he said.

During this time, he started to experiment in his yard and discussed the concepts with his wife, Cindy.

“We don’t always agree on the same techniques,” he said. “But we agree on the same principles. We started with a square-foot garden. That was the year I went to the permaculture class.”

His idea was to make the yard – front and back – a permaculture showplace.

“She wasn’t really keen on all that,” he said. “So, we sat down and decided what we want. The front yard has roses and a grape arbor and all that, and it’s going to become a nice sitting area. The back yard is our food area.”

About three years later, the backyard contains fruit trees, hazel nuts, figs, josta berries, raspberries and other berries, currants, grapes, juju and goji berries, among other food sources. And it’s an ongoing project.

“You’re never where you want to be,” he said.

One of the principles he teaches is planning for the long-term, and reacting to the short-term.

“Say you get a pest infestation one year or you get hot weather,” he said. “You take care of the problem without changing the plan.”

Changes might be needed because there might be too much of something or a lack of something else.

“One permaculture homeowner tried to eradicate black ants, and he created a void in the ecosystem, and the fire ants came in,” he said. “He created a void he had to fix. … It’s like a yin and a yang. I have too much of one thing or not enough of something else.”

Usually, he said permaculture doesn’t eliminate weeds.

“We don’t advocate weed-killing and things like that,” he said. “I don’t know of anybody who uses chemicals. A weed is a misplaced plant. The weeds are there for a reason and we use those as indicators of what’s going on in the soil.”

Shortly after he became certified in permaculture design, his mother in Texas and son, Joel, now in Tennessee, also became certified.

“Once you understand the concepts, they can be used in Ohio, Texas or Tennessee,” Kirchner said.

A plan takes into account the climate and location no matter where the site is.

He said Joel has chosen a site in Tennessee to build an American copy of a house made of natural materials designed in the United Kingdom.

“That’s another part of permaculture,” he said. “It’s called a cruck house. It’s a British style of architecture. All the energy is stored in the house.

“It’s interesting to see the kids are looking into an energy-efficient house. The amount of money they’re going to save over their lifetime is phenomenal.”