By MICHAEL FRETT
ST. ALBANS – Josh Lareau’s yard is a sprawl of bushes and young trees. There are currant bushes near his house, blackberries stretching along his property line and a few trees grafted into place toward the back of his yard. He can rattle off the names of the different berries he’ll grow, and mentions his excitement over adding mushrooms to his garden.
“Mycelium is underutilized in farms these days!” he says excitedly, describing the burlap sacks he’d like to fill with sand and inoculate with mushrooms at key points in his yard. He adds that these sacks, eventually ripe with mushrooms, will both sop up rain water and filter the leftover water running off his yard.
Lareau is a permaculture and gardening enthusiast in St. Albans. Relatively new to the practice – he says he’s really only been heavily involved for about three years – Lareau’s helped grow some of these gardens at other points in the city, and has advocated for their use as a way to provide healthier food options and purify some of the water entering the St. Albans Bay watershed.
Lareau said he has a hard time really pinpointing what inspired him to build his own permaculture gardens. The former banker will say, though, he knows why he does it.
“So much of it revolves around my kids,” Lareau said. “I want them to grow up to be good stewards to the land.”
Permaculture is a practice of designing a garden around the patterns and structures of a natural ecosystem in a way that renders the garden self-sustaining. The practice plays off of the relationships between different plants and animals in the ecosystem, with the end goal being a garden that, as the name suggests, can be permanent.
A permaculture garden is divided into layers that mimic those in a more natural environment. At the highest point of the garden is a canopy, usually provided by large trees like oak, which is the example Lareau points to in his own garden.
Beneath the canopy rests a layer of shorter trees. These might be shorter cousins of those providing the garden’s canopy, or could simply be smaller trees like peaches and apricots. Below that are shrubs, like Lareau’s berry bushes, and beneath that an herb layer that includes cover crops, flowers and, as the name suggests, herbs.
Near the bottom are a ground-cover layer of weedier plants that prevent erosion and provide nutrients for the forest’s floor, followed by a root layer where gardeners might grow some in-ground vegetables.
Vines provide a seventh layer in permaculture, and some might add mushrooms as an eighth.
Lareau had virtually no background in gardening before jumping into his permaculture garden. He started with a few bushes he purchased and some heavy reading. Lareau still points to one of those books, “The Resilient Farm and Farmstead” by Vermont’s Ben Falk, as his primary source, as well as Keith Morris from Prospect Rock Permaculture in Jeffersonville.
Beyond that, Lareau relies on a network of other gardeners to help flesh out his expertise and coach some of his growing plans.
“Networking plays a huge role,” Lareau said. “Everything seems to be in who you know in a lot of ways.”
That’s truer for Lareau today than it might be for others taking up the trowel, as Lareau often relies on contacts to procure some of his more specific muses – he cites a three-way trade he’s working on over some Wisconsin bomber peaches – and for off-site storage for some of his seedlings.
Trial and error
In the five years that he’s worked on his garden, Lareau has learned that failure is a recurring theme. Sometimes plants might not take to the soil or a tree graft, where the body of one tree is grafted to the roots of another for the sake of making that tree more survivable, might not take. Other times the failure is more manmade: A pair of gooseberry bushes in Lareau’s front lawn were destroyed when a roofer’s pickup backed over the curb.
“It was a sad day that day,” he said with a sigh.
Lareau’s garden is full of as many failed experiments as there are successes. There are a few stumps in his yard where a trimming didn’t take, and near the back wall of his yard, an experiment in grafting had apparently fallen through when his kids accidentally dropped a board of wood on top of the seedling.
He also mentioned seaberry, sometimes known as a sea buckthorn, that he hasn’t been able to grow despite his best efforts.
“It’s amazing. It’s got incredible nitrogen storing capabilities,” he said. “It produces this berry that is becoming world renowned as a superfruit.
“I saved a bunch of seeds,” he continued. “I found a couple by Healthy Living, got permission to go out and harvest some of the berries, make a couple cuttings, and none of them have taken.”
It’s a natural part of the process, though, Lareau added. For someone who’s building his first garden, trial and error is just a part of the game. Even five years into his first permaculture garden, Lareau said that there’s still a lot to learn from failure.
“I feel like the best way to learn is to fail,” Lareau said. “There are some things that I have done that I have failed at with permaculture and growing and gardening, but I’m making notes and reading a lot, and hopefully those mistakes will be avoided in the future.
“So much of permaculture seems like it’s trial and error,” he said.