Hanging basket herb garden

A hanging basket sounds like a small thing to design to permaculture principles.  Physically, the hanging basket I chose is small.  The task of designing it is big.  It took more than one long day of  research, mining gardening books, permaculture information, the permaculture course material, and on-line sites to think through the various aspects to consider.   But that’s what doing a permaculture assignment involves. (I’m taking a permaculture course).

Permaculture practice, suggests mimicking the layers of a natural forest when designing and planting a site.  But, how many of us know, or notice, when we’re walking through a forest that there are seven layers, comprising:

  • Canopy/Overstory – Tall trees
  • Understory – Smaller trees
  • Shrub/Brush – Hard-stemmed bushes
  • Herbaceous – Soft-stemmed bushier herbs, flowers, and vegetables
  • Groundcover – Low-level plants to insulate and protect the soil
  • Rhizome/Root – plants with underground storage, including bulbs
  • Vine/Creeper – Vertical layer climbers and creepers

Is this an idealised forest and not today’s typical forest?   There’s what’s called a ‘forest’  near  me in London,  but there are definitely not those seven layers.  There are tall trees, and some smaller tress and a few rather scrubby bushes. There’s little in the way of herbaceous,  or rhizome/root, and only ivy qualifies as a vine/creeper.  Ground cover typically comprises litter, cigarette butts, nitrous oxide cartridges, dog poo, plastic bags and other discarded stuff.   The volunteer group ‘Friends of the Forest’, run a monthly litter pick and does some restoration work.  They are doing their best to foster an environment that might encourage forest bathing.

What I’m trying, within a hanging basket, is to create an idealised 7-layer forest on a miniature scale.   Thus I need to have the 7 layers.  Beyond that, the basket has to conform to the design principle ‘Every element performs multiple functions.’  I struggled with that concept but found a useful example explaining: 

‘If we look at a fruit tree and call it an element in our garden, we can quickly see that the fruit tree does more than just provide fruit. It gives us a nice shady place to rest, it serves as the habitat for many creatures, turns carbon dioxide into oxygen, and reduces the effects of climate change. With its roots it holds the soil and prevents erosion. It cycles nutrients, turning them into foliage which in turn drops down in autumn to again provide food for life in the soil. Thus, the fruit tree performs multiple functions.’

Also the plants chosen have to be, as far as possible, mutually beneficial.  In permaculture terms they have to form a ‘guild’.    That is, ‘ plants grown in sympathetic relationships, to encourage best use of space, protect the soil, and enhance productivity.’  I didn’t know (but do now) that,  ‘The classic guild is known as the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. The corn provides sturdy stalks for the beans to climb up, while the beans help the corn and squash to access nitrogen in the soil. The squash sprawls along the ground, protecting the soil from erosion and reducing evaporation.’

To form a guild the chosen plants must have similar growing requirements (soil, sun, water, etc) and offer one or more of several attributes.  I’d written a list of the attributes when we were told about them in one of the classes.  Unfortunately,  the list was almost utterly meaningless to me 6 weeks later!  What was a ‘dynamic accumulator’  or a ‘miner’  or ‘primary and secondary yield’?  The only thing on the list of nine I could grasp without needing to look up was ‘insect attractor or repellent’.

So, more revision of the course material. I now know about dynamic accumulation – ‘that is they are plants that gather certain micro nutrients, macro nutrients, or minerals from the soil through their roots, and store these in their leaves.  When the leaves fall in autumn and winter and are broken down, those stored nutrients are then incorporated into the upper layers of the soil where other plants will benefit from their deposition.’

Here I am then, aiming to create a miniature 7-layer herb forest, with herbs that are mutually beneficial and have the similar requirements to thrive.  Oh, and they have to be perennial – very little in a natural forest is annual (or so I’ve learned).  And it would be good if there was year-round visual interest.  This assignment is definitely not a case of thinking what herbs do I like and just planting them hugger-mugger.

Fortunately, I found an excellent online guide ‘Planting Permaculture Guilds – Your Comprehensive Guide’  that supplements my course material well, and is more or less a ‘How To’, with 9 easy to follow steps.  The first two are: 

Step 1.  Choose your anchor.  This is tall tree equivalent – there aren’t many herbs that equate to tall trees but the bay is one and it’s now on order.  I’ll plant it in the centre of the basket and it will provide the canopy under which its ‘companions’  will – I hope – grow.  (Yes, for the moment it is only 6” high but the principle is correct).   

Step 2.  Know your location.  This is the hanging basket when it is hanging in place.  There aren’t many places to choose – to the left or right of the door to my balcony.  It’s northwest facing, and doesn’t get much full sun so I need to choose plants that are shade tolerant.

Right – next thing to choose the plants:  7 layers, forming a guild, each plant (element) having at least three functions, be perennial, provide year round interest, work for my location.  Hmm – more scanning of possible herbs helped by Wikipedia’s table of companion herbs, which lists out by herb which other plants it helps, which it is helped by, what it attracts and what it repels.  So, for example,  basil helps tomatoes, is helped by chamomile, attracts butterflies and repels thrips and flies.

Finally, I’ve arrived at a list that I think meets the criteria.  I’ve ordered bay, chamomile, chives, Vietnamese mint, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, winter savory and yarrow.  I got an email today saying, ‘We have today dispatched you order.’  And next sentence, I guess to make things absolutely clear,  ‘Your order is on the way, and can no longer be changed.’    They’ll arrive later this week, I’ll plant them up, take the photos and submit the assignment.  Before long, all being well, I’ll have a thriving miniature herb garden, and be eating herb enriched meals.

Image: https://www.mydomaine.com/herb-garden-ideas-4845993

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