Gaias GardenWonder why it takes so much work and money to keep a tidy grassy lawn or a weed-free veggie garden? It’s because you’re fighting nature, instead of letting nature work for you. That simple idea’s the starting point for Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, a book by Toby Hemenway that promises to show you how to harness nature’s power towards your own ends.

“Most gardens ignore nature’s rules,” writes Toby, who points out that nature doesn’t till, create monocultures, or rely on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Do these things and you’ll be fighting an uphill battle. After all, tilling means a ruined soil structure and depleted fertility, while planting blocks of the same plant is like creating an all-you-can-eat buffet for all sorts of bugs.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up on growing a veggie garden or nice backyard landscape, settling for an unruly, unmanaged tangle of urban wilderness. Gaia’s Garden’s about including people in nature — and about combining the many segregated elements of the garden into a cohesive whole.

Most gardens are fragmented, with “an orderly vegetable plot here, flower beds there, and a back corner for wildlife or a natural landscape,” Toby writes. “And each of these fragments has its weaknesses. A vegetable garden doesn’t offer habitat to native insects, birds and other wildlife. Quite the contrary — munching bugs and birds are unwelcome visitors. The flower garden — however much pleasure the blooms provide — can’t feed the gardener. And a wildlife garden is often unkempt and provides little for people other than the knowledge that it’s good for wild creatures.”

Gaia’s Garden explains how you can go about combining these fragments through permaculture techniques so you can get the most out of your plot of land without working so hard. The book starts easy — explaining how dividing your garden into zones (how often an area’s used or need attention) and sectors (how to manage the forces that come from the outside, like wind or wild animals) can help make the most out of each spot. Then Gaia’s Garden gets into polycultures — “dynamic, self-organizing plant communities composed of several to many species” — moves on to guilds — an “attempt to bridge the broad gap between conventional vegetable gardens and wildlife gardening by creating plant communities that act and feel like natural landscapes, but that include humans in their network” — then gets into the holy grail of permaculture, the “multi-storied forest garden” — which showed me that I think of “home-scale” as something much smaller than Toby does.

Throughout the book, you’ll see illustrations of sample polycultures, guilds and other garden models — plus instructions on designing your own guilds or gardens. Gaia’s Garden also explains how you can integrate smart water use — from making a catchment or graywater system to creating a swale or a backyard wetland — or animals — from bees and beneficial bugs to livestock — into the ecology of your garden.

Gaia’s Garden was first published in 2000, but the second edition came out earlier this month with 60 more pages, including a new chapter on urban permaculture, a few new plant lists, and a bunch of new color photos and  design drawings. The softcover book’s available for $19.77 on Amazon.

Make nature garden for you
'Gaia's Garden' shows you how to get the most out of your garden -- while cutting back on the maintenance work.