Introduction: The Corona Diaries - Getting Started With Permaculture Gardening

About: Failure is not the opposite of success, it's part of success.

You know the first thing I did when France went in lockdown? Building a kind of subversive garden claw from hell. That right morning I grabbed some rebar, heavy steel corner profiles, some tubing and a dozen of welding rods and I only left my workshop a few hours later.

Life goals. Statements. Counterattacks. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Even tho mainstream mary told us it only would be for a tiny little month it didn't take a master degree to know you could easily double that. Even tho mainstream mike told us not to worry too much it didn't take a life lived under a rock to understand that this was bloody serious and that you'd better could stay locked up at least for two months.

The good thing is that this event didn't come to us as a total surprise. The power of ignorance reversed. Having a bunch of facebook friends all over the world matters. If it splashes in the east it will at least ripple in the west, it's science. So when we saw that in the course of january & february things were running out of control in China we knew that it was only a matter of time when Europe would get its part of the cake, too.

First Italy. While people were dying by dozens a day in Bergamo the rest of Europe simply looked the other way. While the whole Po valley was in pure apocalypse no-one seemed to care on the other side of their borders. This crisis has revealed the best and the worst in humankind. Medical personel giving sacrifices to save lives, countries refusing to help their neighbors.

Beside the global picture we tried to anticipate. We decided to lock ourselves up from half february. Anticipating human behavior. No need to stockpile the last days before lockdown, we were in relative safety long before. Food & supplies, more than enough to hold a siege.

So when that 16th of March came we sealed the gates and hoped for the best.

This is one part of our story.

Pictures: before & after, 4 months interval.

Step 1: Adaptability Is Strength

By the start of 2020 we had plans for the summer. We intented to finish our house, get it for sale and move to the Pyrenean mountains. Going off-grid, far away from mainstream, close to nature, living the simple connected life.

The idea didn't fall from the sky. The past years we got saturated by the backlash of living in a densely populated region. Even tho we're living on a quite large piece of land - referring to local standards - we're more & more like an island in an urbanizing ocean, a tiny spot of controlled green chaos in a region that's gradually being transformed from an agricultural stronghold into a giant shopping mall. New districts, new shopping centers, more distribution hubs, more roads, more concrete, more noise.

No country for old men. We knew we would not grow old here. We've seen it happen on other places before. History is just a series of iterations coated with other iterations - zones that were pure farmland two generations ago are now aging suburbs. 50 years ago there were skylarks, now there's surveillance cameras & cracking concrete. Our spot will be in the next wave, it's just a matter of time. There's only 200m from the newest road to our farm.

So yes we had plans to move from all of this fever this summer. We've been gradually building up skills, knowledge & steam and one day you know you're ready for it. One day that plug blows off the neck.

And then came corona. No possibilities to prospect the mountains, no way to leave the house. So instead of feeling bad because of our personal plans being disturbed, we just saw the opportunities of this new normal.

Imagine. No cars on the streets, no planes in the air, no pollution no noise. Can't lie about it, I was out of my mind of pure excitement when lockdown came.

Making the best out of a new situation. That's the key of survival. That's exactly what we would have done in the mountains and there was no reason a virus, a herd of zombies or an approaching space sigar would interfere with this.

Step 2: Food Sovereignty Vs Food Dependance

Living of the land is based on three pillars: shelter, energy & food. A man has to protect himself - zombies & weather - and he needs to keep his metabolism going, so growing your own food is one of the keys to every off-grid / enhanced autonomy - project.

In the same time, knowing what you eat gets a lot of things in the right perspective. Knowing about it's origins, it's quality and the time invested to get it to your plate.

'Your stuff is expensive' is probably the most heard quote to organic farmers. Disconnection overload. Most people are simply not aware about the cultivation process, the skills needed & the time invested to get these veggies on their plate. People use the wrong standards, comparing mass production pseudo veggies to decent soil grown products. There's a difference between a tomato from a hydroponic greenhouse and one from a rich soil in sunlight. There's a difference between monsanto salads and organic farmed salads.

The problem is ignorance. The problem is lack of interest. The problem is pop-culture. People lost connection. Reconnecting is about questioning. Questioning your ways of life. Food, clothing, lifestyle, transport, housing etc. Technology won't save us anyway.

In this instructable I'll discuss how we started this process - or at least a part of it. Even tho there are hundreds of books loaded with the topic, thousands of tutorials on the net and billions of opinions, this is our testimony of one period in our life.

Aim of all this: independence & self-love. Not being dependent on import. Reducing our carbon footprint. Consuming local, following the seasons and having our word to say about the quality of our food.

The pics have nothing to do with the topic. Although they're about connecting anyway.

Step 3: Collaborating With Geography

We're situated in North France (52° nordic latitude) in a temperate sea climate.

Growing food is relatively easy in this region. We've got deep clayisch soils, about 900mm annual rainfall, rarely heavy winds, a diminuating number of frost days and a growing number of summer droughts. That's our geographical setup.

Growing things is not even a real challenge here, most of the veggies all grow by themselves. Easy peasy.

Soil, sun & water. Get to know these and you're already a big step further. It's not a fight, it's collaboration.

Step 4: Grassroot Warfare

Even tho having a terrestrial soil at your disposition is nice, it's not necessary - you can do wonders in a few recipients on your balcony.

You can work in-soil and off-soil. And with soil or without soil, also - aquaponing and stuff, enriched soups and things like that, with tilapias and artificial light etc.

Whatever, in our case I'm talking about a pretty conformist, soil based scenario. Our parcel is a former pasture, with strong deep rooted grasses ruling their seggregated kingdown, having ruled out all other species decades ago, only disturbed by tunelling mammals and busy ants building giant mounts on them.

That said, ants are an indicator for a healthy environment. You loose the ants you're doomed. You loose the bees you're dead.

So, the problem isn't fighting the soil at itself, the problem is fighting the grasses keeping it tight together.

Grassroot warfare. No power tools. This was new territory. This was pioneering. This was muscle & nerves against an army of a billion tiny green warriors ready to resist, trained to survive, in an environment that already had suffered from drought for a month.

Clay soils. Don't even think about gettin' a spade in that.

Step 5: Starting the Party

In classic agriculture one would have taken a spade and turned these clods of earth & grass simply upside down.

Problem is - obviously - getting these clods of earth & roots unearthed in the first place and, second, the pure stupidity of the action on itself, exposing creatures living at about 30cm depth to intense sunlight and drier conditions, disturbing the whole living soil structure. There's harmony & balance in a soil. Turning it completely upside down is killing it slowly, reducing it to a mineral support instead of a wonderful living machine ready to cooperate with you.

So the aim of preparing a soil for permaculture purposes has to be to removal the grassroots and leave as much soil in situ as possible. The soil is your ally, the organisms living in it are your allies. You need them.

You don't need spades in permaculture. No use for them. A few years ago a clever frenchman came up with a smart solution, a kind of large pivoting claw. He named it after his own name, calling it the 'grelinette'. It looks like a giant fork from hell, designed to loosen the soil and to preserve its structural integrity.

There's been a number of variants on the concept and they're widely sold, but builders build, they don't buy.

So I built my own, pretty much overkilled, version. Heavy rebar hooks, heavy steel profiles, all welded. Almost 20 kilogram but totally heavy soil proof. You don't start the Apocalypse with a dart gun.

The world needed a statement. That's how I party.

Step 6: Grelinette Test Run

Second half of March 2020. We selected the 12m x 50m rectangle we wanted to clear and the grelinette went into the ground for the first time.

Tested & approved. At least it worked.

Despite all our preps we managed to get corona away. My wife suffered from severe fever during three weeks, no apetite no energy. I had some minor respiratory problems, burning lungs and some weird memory loss.

This garden became my battlefield. As my friend said: never give up, never give in.

Step 7: Never Give In

It took me more than a week to win the war against the grassroots and there were no survivors. Smashing the grelinette in the ground - even with razor sharp pins and 20kg inertia the clay sealed grass roots resisted like hell - pivoting, collecting the clogs and smashing them on a wooden makeshift anvil.

The genuity of the grelinette is in the pivot. It's the pivot that saves your back, it's the easy levering that makes the work easy. Permaculture is for lazy gardeners, literally. Low impact interventions, collaborating, letting go, faith & shared responsabilities, copying from nature.

Aim is to limit your impact on the soil. There's no such a thing as removing grassroots without soil disturbance. Of course there will be a pile of soil - and organisms - all around that anvil. Of course you'll have impact, but it's a necessary step to a new equilibrium. One without heavy grasses winning every competition for natural resources - minerals, water, space & sunlight.

Once all the roots had been removed all the recoverd soil was spread out all over the area again and the whole was levelled.

Step 8: Permaculture Basics

Permaculture is a way of organic farming where you've got your soil covered, all the time. A covered soil is not per definition a healthy soil, but a non-coverd soil is defenitely an unhealthy soil.

A naked 'clean' soil will be baked & rayed by sunlight, sterilised & dehydrated. Naked soils are dead soils, mineral supports without life, without all these organisms that make your soil healthy & fertile, breaking down organic matter to minerals and aerating by digging & tunneling.

A naked soil will be confronted to the elements permanently. Sun, wind, rain, temperature. UV, temperature changes & humidity changes, you don't want them. Soils are per definition non-dynamic environments. They need stability. Look at the best example of a healthy soil, that is the forest soil. Covered with organic material in decomposition, wet & spongy, full of life. Fungi, bacteria & fauna, breaking leaves, bark, fruits & branches down to minerals that can be recycled by the trees again.

Permaculture is copying from nature. Only deserts have naked soils, and we all know their gardening potential.

Modern agriculture has forgotten what it's all about. It's not about food supply, it's about food control. Agro-engineering, considering the soil as a necessary support instead as an essential player in the process.

Step 9: The Healthy Soil

A covered soil is the common sense of permaculture. Perma. Culture. It's the keystone. It's the basics. It prevents the soil from drying out, it's a buffer to temperature flectuations, it's a sunscreen, it's a water dispenser and it's an eternal food supply.

Organic matter matters. Non acidic, small, plenty, cheap stuff. You can add manure but you don't have to. Most use hay or straw, but small branches of leaf trees or leaves will do the job even better. The best stuff is the stuff you've got for free, right from your spot. We spared about 2000 square meters of our parcel for pasture. Mow, collect & disperse. For years I cut the whole with a thermic brush cutter but since we choose to go fossil free I changed to scything. Best workouts ever.

Permaculture is based on these same basics. No wicked tricks. Low impact interferences. Covering the soil with organic matter, inviting fungi, insects, birds & mammals, combining veggies, flowers & trees, creating a rich self sustaining ecosystem in your backyard. Some plants will protect others, some will attract insects you don't want on others. Permaculture is based on natural solutions. No pesticides no herbicides. Common sense, knowledge & respect.

Step 10: Creating the Operational Area

We're starters in the field, so we chose for an easy scenario: 3 'green carpets' (120cm wide), separated by two alleys (60cm wide).

It's important to say that I dug the alleys slightly out, lowering them by about 10cm, adding the soil to the carpets. The alleys were filled with dead branches & wood chips, the alleys were covered by hay.

This picture is about one month in the process. Still in lockdown. Still kicking hard.

Step 11: Side Projects

Do you know the most essential thing in gardening? Right. The plants. Plants are pretty much key in the whole process. Normally we should have kickstarted the process in january, planting the seeds in tiny liltle pots in a greenhouse and giving them love untill they would be smart enough to get kicked out the house and grow up in their natural environment.

We had other plans in january. We planted nuts and thus wasted precious time. That was then, you don't adapt you don't survive. Luckily enough we have the best neigbors ever, being totally in the same spirit as ours. Permanent & organic farmers. They had done their homework right during the winter and whole armies of upgrowing veggies ready for the upcoming planting season. They supplied us generously with tiny salads, cabbage etc.

By the start of lockdown it was still freezing at night, there was no way we could let them outside. So in a rush I changed a big window in one of our side buildings, just to buffer the time it would take me to get the land ready. While everybody was chilling Netflix series I was rushing to build things to prevent other things from failing.

Moral of this story: think ahead, anticipate, make a planning for the year and be ready to adapt.

Step 12: Gardening With the Moon

More or less knowing what you do is pretty much important if your intention is surviving next winter. Producing, harvesting & conserving. From november till april you'll have to do with what you've got. Produce, consume & conserve the rest.

Knowing a few things about plant metabolism is a must. Water & minerals are a thing, pests are a thing, relationships to other plants are a thing, the influence of moon cycles on plants are a thing.

Moon cycles affect plant growth. A moon cycle is about 29 days and a half and during this cycle the moon grows - crescent moon or waxing moon - and diminishes - waning moon. Just as the moon’s gravitational pull causes tides to rise and fall, it also affects moisture in the soil. Therefore, it’s said that seeds will absorb more water during the full moon and the new moon, when more moisture is pulled to the soil surface. This causes seeds to swell, resulting in greater germination and better-established plants.

During crescent moon plants are full of energy, they're stimulated, it's the perfect time to plant or seed ou piquer. Harvest conserves better, also. During waning moon the plant goes in rest, sapstream is less intense. It's the best period to harvest wood tho. Waning moon harvested wood conserves better that other.

To plant by the Moon, follow these guidelines:

Plant your annual flowers and fruit and vegetables that bear crops above ground (such as corn, tomatoes, watermelon, and zucchini) during the waxing of the Moon - from the day the moon is new to the day it is full. As the moonlight increases night by night, plants are encouraged to grow leaves and stems.

Plant flowering bulbs, biennial and perennial flowers, and vegetables that bear crops below ground (such as onions, carrots, and potatoes) during the waning of the moon - from the day after it is full to the day before it is new again. As the moonlight decreases night by night, plants are encouraged to grow roots, tubers, and bulbs.


Step 13: First Habitants

About 6 weeks after the start of lockdown our first salads - who'd been growing wild behind glass all the time - found a new home in the former pasture.

Finally these weeks started to pay off. The hardest work was behind, from now on it was about controlling the situation and watch these babies grow.

This was the start of the lazy gardening. Once you've got your soil covered and watered nature's your ally.

Step 14: Water Management

It might seem obvious, but water is key in growing veggies. If you want them to grow fast you gotta soak them when they're young and have an eye on them all the time. The more you have a healthy soil the less water you'll have to add to the equation - healthy soils act like a sponge or a hughe dispenser, the plants will take just what need from it and since these soils are covered with organic matter evaporation will be limited.

That said, rain is free and having your back covered will cost you only the recipients itself. We're collecting rain water and we'll take care to have our reserves always at level. We also have a well wich goes deep enough to have water the year round, in 'normal' circumstances.

Water management is for your garden what energy management is for your house: the less you consume the better it is. Healthy soil and dosing the amounts you add, no need to get the whole parcel flooded all the time.

Last year our region suffered from severe drought for three months. Temperatures rose to 42°C - almost 10 degrees above the norm. We consumed all our rain water and got our well almost dry. We only used it to for the trees we had planted that year and we only had a small veggie setup. This year things are different. Our trees are still in need and there's a whole garden to watch out for. Our consumption will be a lot higher and thus we anticipated, or at least we're trying. Adding more rain storage helps.

Intelligent water management is key in the whole permaculture setup. Nothing worse than being forced to use tap water to grow your veggies.

The pictures show one of our actual rain collecting setups - one large roof, a gutter and elevated barrels to get some decent pressure - and a few pics fromlast year's drought, with a totally desesperated blackbird resting in the shade.

Step 15: Greenhouse Rock

In our temperate oceanic climate, a greenhouse is almost necessary if you want to be food self sufficient. You start planting seeds in january, and by the first waxing moon of spring you'll be ready to get half of your garden filled. One month later you'll harvest the first salads of the year. Without greenhouse you'll loose at least two or three months.

Some veggies like tomatoes don't support being outside too well. Moisture makes then succeptible to fungi and in no time you've lost all your plants. Some/most tomatoes grow best in regions with summer drought - aka the Mediterranean climate. If you want to grow them elsewhere you'll have to simulate their optimal growing conditions, and thus a greenhouse in one step in the right direction.

You can build your greenhouse in fancy alumunium profiles and high end glass, with recycled windows or with steel tubing and plastic. It's all up to your budget and your likes.

Cost of our greenhouse: 400 euros. 200 euro for 10 arcs etc, 200 euro for the polyethylene cover. Almost 50 square meters. You're growing a lot in that.

We found our arcs on a second hand site btw.

'What are you going to transport them with?' asked the seller me when I arrived at his place.

'With my van, of course' I answered pointing at my red monster.

The guy started laughing 'there's no way you'll make that possible', he told me.

'You know what?' I replied, 'let's make a deal', 'If I manage to get all this load in motion we'll cut the price in half, and if I fail I pay you the half more. Deal?'

'You're loosing your money, but yeah, deal!!' the guy said.

Two hours of heavy rigging later - I literally used all the ropes and belts I had in my van - I called the guy and invited him to make a test ride around his farm with me. Five minutes later I gave him 100 euro, kicked him out of the cabin and speeded the hell out of there.

Sometimes you just gotta be confident in your skills.

Yay, we had a cheap greenhouse structure. Same story here: a covered soil is a healthy soil.

Step 16: Good Company

Plants love good company, just like us. Some plants grow better in company of others than alone. Tomatoes & leek for example, they just love each other. Planting corn in combination with squash & beans is a well known example (cfr. the three sisters method) - the corn will offer support for the beans, shade for the squash and the beans bean will give nitrogen in return to everybody.

Planting lupin outside the garden is a good way to prevent aphids devastate your crops. The lupins will attract the aphids and get them away from your loved ones.

Adding fruit trees in your garden will also benefit your crops. Never underestimate the power of tree roots and their delicate symbiosis with mushrooms. Permaculture is based on natural interactions.

Try to make your garden bird friendly - tits eat thousands of caterpillars in one season for example. Leave dead wood in the area, it will serve as hide for solitary bees & wasps, the first being good pollinisators, the second good pest predators.

There's so many do's & don'ts and we still have a lot to learn but we're getting there, by trying & testing and learning from our mistakes.

Step 17: Afterthoughts

Today we're half july 2020, four months after the start of the first lockdown. It's amazing to look back and see the evolution of this parcel of land again through all these pictures. We had definitely different things in mind for this summer, but the energy this whole pandemic gave us made us experience something totally inexpected.

These four months counted. I hope we made them count.

This pandemic forced us to take a step back, it made us reflect, it made us set a lot of things in the right perspective, a perspective we wouldn't have had without the impact of this tragedy.

It made us also realise we're not so far from ready for a more ambitious off-grid project. This period will serve as one of our stages in this rocket of life, and we'll build new projects upon this knowledge & new aquired skills.

At the end it's all about adaptability, it's all about attitude and doing the right thing, limiting impact and trying to grab a tiny piece of harmony.

I hope you enjoyed our tiny experience. A new way of life is possible.

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