We often perceive of gardening simply as an interface between people and plants, a way to grow food and bring the joy and beauty of growing things into our lives. This month in particular, Benicians eagerly await the ripening of many varieties of homegrown tomatoes with anticipation, while searching out new recipes for a bumper crop. But an expanded viewpoint shows us that a whole ecosystem is just waiting to be created in each garden plot, one with superior capacity for self-sufficiency. This ecosystem contains not only the plant, but symbiotic companion plants, well-nourished soil, beneficial pollinators and natural predators.

In Benicia we are able to grow vegetables year-round, and in August, we begin reaping the rewards of the spring planting. For backyard gardeners who are already planning for next season, consider the concept of mimicking a complete natural ecosystem, rather than just putting plants in the ground haphazardly. This is the basic philosophy of permaculture gardening. Natural ecosystems exhibit both diversity and resilience, and evolve stably over time. According to backyardabundance.org, permaculture gardening is “The harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable and ethical way.”

If this sounds daunting, think about it this way. Putting some thought and planning into your vegetable garden at the onset by mimicking nature will produce higher yields with less effort in the long run and should take care of common problems such as pest infestation and malnutrition. Every vegetable garden—from the most modest patio container garden to the most grandiose food forest—is unique. And regardless of your experience level, it’s always an experiment. Looking at your garden with the eyes of a child will help you engage with each little failure and triumph with wonder and curiosity.

One Benicia resident decided to transform traditional landscaping, including turf, into a full-scale sustainable vegetable garden this year by starting plants from seed indoors in February and March. She planted annual flowers in early spring to prepare the beds, then saved their seeds and planted vegetable starts. Now her garden is in full-tilt, producing heirloom tomatoes that will be used for sauces and soups, and an abundance of squash, scallions, lettuce, carrots, corn and watermelon. But the biggest change she’s noticed is the arrival of a plethora of butterflies and bees, as well as birds.

As we reach August’s peak harvest, it’s a good time to take stock of what worked and what didn’t this year, and begin dreaming and scheming for next season. A creative, playful approach will allow you to set a glorious symphony in motion. Incorporating some of these simple concepts will create a more self-sufficient garden that you can watch with delight while working less. For a few simple tips to get the wheels turning, visit deepgreenpermaculture.com.

Roasted Tomatoes for a Multitude of Uses

Preheat oven to 400. De-stem and cut tomatoes in half horizontally (if roasting cherry tomatoes, use whole) and drizzle with olive oil. Toss lightly with fingers to coat all sides, and arrange tomatoes in a single layer on a sheet pan with cut sides up. Sprinkle with sea salt to taste and torn basil leaves. Roast at 400 for 30-40 minutes, or until tomatoes begin to caramelize. Toss with pasta, or try it on French bread, bruschetta-style. It’s also delicious over many meats and vegetables, used in soup or salsa, or enjoyed straight out of the container it’s stored in.

Here are a few simple permaculture tips to get the wheels turning (from deepgreenpermaculture.com)

  1. Rebuilding soil: The permaculture strategy says that digging and rototilling can disturb the soil. Instead, employ earthworms to loosen and add nutrients. Compost on top of the soil or plant a cover crop in the legume family, such as vetch.
  1. Preserving soil: Soil is an ecosystem in itself and should be protected from erosion and compaction from rain. It will naturally protect itself with weeds; to avoid this you can plant a cover crop or use a simple mulch.
  1. Plant Stacking: In a natural ecosystem, plants grow together vertically from shortest to tallest. Stacking plants vertically increases space-saving and productivity. Plants can also be stacked through time (succession planting) by planting new plants as old plants complete their life cycles.
  1. Companion Planting: Combining plant types has numerous benefits. You can create a protective environment for plants that need more warmth, shade and less wind exposure by planting them next to those that are more resilient. Mixing up your plants also allows for increased growth and productivity and keeps the soil healthy. It can also hide or mask plants from pests and attract beneficial predators. Polyculture maintains nutrient soil balance, while planting a single annual in the same place will deplete soil over time. Mixing plants also means you don’t have to keep track of crop rotation for future seasons.