Observe your yard

Observe your yard
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Observe & Interact: How to do it & a FREE challenge for you!

To "observe and interact," is the first of 12 Permaculture Principles espoused by David Holmgren, who together with his professor, Bill Mollison began to use the term, "permaculture" to mean regenerative agriculture in the 70s.

Observe & Interact


How do I observe and interact with my garden in order to design for abundance? That's a question that every gardener should grapple with from the get-go.

One of the things that makes permaculture gardening different from most organic gardening methods is that the process of gardening involves what Bill Mollison called, "protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor."

If we were to break this first permaculture principle down how exactly would we do it?

Well, let's start by observing first.

1. Take 2 hours to just zone out

observe you yardTake a leisurely hour or two just walking about your backyard.

This may seem like a simple enough step, but I warrant that it is seldom done by gardeners. And in this digital day and age, it has become a very difficult thing to do.

First, to find the hour or two to do it and second, to actually be still and let nature, creation, speak to you. Tell you what it does and how it does it so efficiently, so effectively and so effortlessly.

During my permaculture training, we were taken out to a field (an abandoned property that used to belong to George Washington, actually) and asked to just walk around. We did this for a little over an hour in a group. Taking pictures, taking samples, taking notes. Trying to guess what the vegetation was. And we did it in the rain.

"That way you can see how water runs on the property." our teacher, Wayne Weiseman told us.

This is very akin to the way Montessori teachers are trained. I know for a fact that one activity they are asked to do is to observe an inanimate object for one hour. Say a pear. And then they discuss their findings afterward and are surprised to learn how much they learned from that one pear.

observe purple cabbage

Trained as an artist, our same permaculture teacher said, in art school, they were asked to observe a purple cabbage that had been cut in half.

Observation can be learned. And if you really want to learn how to garden, the first thing to do is to learn how to observe.

But what if you don't have two hours to dig deep?  Click here.

To illustrate how poorly I observe, I will tell you that I have lived in our home for over 10 years and only a month or two ago realized where the hose from our laundry drained out to our garden. No wonder that spot was always soggy! In that discovery, I also unearthed the colony of ants that had easy access to the inside of our home.

Having found that hose, I am now inspired by Rainwater Harvesting for Dryland's author, Brad Lancaster to plant a tree in that spot, just as he did in this VIDEO

So have a go at it! Observe and interact with your backyard. You'll never know just what you might discover!

2. Unleash your 5 senses

  • See and familiarize yourself with the different plant types.

The more I garden the more I find myself growing in an ability to recognize the many patterns that different plants come in.

For instance, in the past, I was never able to tell which leaf belonged to what plant. But now, I'm pretty much awed at this new kind of pattern recognition I am experiencing.

I can tell different weeds from one another. And I may not know all their names, but I can tell that this one has netted roots to hold in soil that is easily eroded. And this one has deep tap roots to break up hard-clay soil.

I think this pattern recognition skill is one of two (or probably more) ways a gardener learns taxonomy.

Pattern recognition vs. Taxonomic Classification rules:

The other way is to observe and identify plants is to use the rules of taxonomy. What do I mean by that? You start with something familiar.  Say, a basil leaf and ask the questions inside the "Cheat-Sheet" on the right of this page.

Now take the questions above and answer them for the following herbs:

  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum )
  • Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Cheat-Sheet to ID Your Basil's Plant Family

Determine, is it a flowering plant or a non-flowering plant?

Answer: It's a flowering plant.

Does it have fruits?

Answer: No.

Then look at the stalk.

Is it a square stalk or a round one?

Answer: It is a square stalk.

How do its leaves appear on the stalk? Are they opposite one another or alternating?

Answer: Opposite.

Now smell the leaf. Is it aromatic?

Answer: Yes! Congratulations! You have just identified that your basil (Ocinum basilicum) is a member of the mint family (Lamiacea).

observe your herbs

Let's see in the comments below if you can tell which of the 4 herbs above is a member of the mint family.

  • Taste 

Once you've identified that some of the plants already growing in your backyard are edible, go ahead and try some of them. Be adventurous and try out the weeds!  Be sure to run your identified weed through the database provided below the pics before eating it.  You don't accidentally want to taste poison ivy!

A lot of plants that we think are "weeds" are actually really good for us. Here are a few examples of edible weeds:

    • Dandelion (Taraxacum)observe and taste the dandelion
    • Burdock (Arctium) observe burdock
    • Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) 

observe purslane

    • Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodium album) 

      observe lambs quarters

      Photo courtersy of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine

  • Chickweed (Stellaria media) observe chickweed
  • Clover (Trifolium) 
  • Cactus (Prickly pear) observe prickly pear
  • Redroot Pigweed or Callaloo to those from the Carribean (Amaranthus retroflexus)  
observe pigweed

photo courtesy of chad green

For a database of edible weeds and flowers see HERE.

Sometimes, you will find that members of the same family taste alike. A ground cherry (Physalis peruviana) for instance, which is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceas) tastes very similar to a tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and yet so much sweeter.

observe ground cherry

ground cherry

Some flowers are edible as well and we've been trying them out this year while gardening:

  • Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum) observe nasturtium
  • Borage (Borago officinalis) observe borage
  • Marigold (Tagetes)observe marigolds
  • Pansies (Viola tricolor)observe pansies
  • Disclaimer: As always, when tasting your vegetation, make sure it comes from a lawn that has not been sprayed with pesticides. Also, for those concerned with the oxalic acid content in certain plants, we suggest cooking them (as one would spinach). For more info on oxalic acid see here.

    • Hear

    Do you know what birds like to hang out in your backyard?

    I thought I did , but didn't really, until I found a database of bird calls online.

    I quickly realized that there was not just one kind of call per bird. Each bird had a whole host of different calls.

    Sometimes a song, sometimes a gruff "warning call."

    One time, our family did an experiment and played the mating calls of the birds that liked to fly around our backyard from our deck. Surprisingly enough, we got some blue jays actually coming to greet us!

    You can find many bird calls on THIS WEBSITE. Have fun with this one!

    observe the birds

    • Touching

    Do you ever notice that some leaves are fuzzy? Here are some that we've noticed in our yard:

    • Lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina) observe lamb's ear  
    • Dusty Miller (Jacobaea maritima)observe dusty miller
    • Sage (Salvia officinalis)observe sage
    • Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) just the top parts of the leaves, the bottoms have bristles!observe cardoon
    • Borage (Borago officinalis) observe borage

    We also notice that certain animals like slugs and deer do not like these fuzzy leaves. I wonder why? I've never seen that observation written anywhere but it's something that we see year after year.

    Humans however (kids especially), in contrast to the deer and slugs actually enjoy feeling the soft, fuzzy leaves of these plants.

    • Smelling

    The sense of smell, among all the senses, can be the most mysterious for us because it is perhaps the least studied or thought about. Only in the last 25 years have scientists identified the molecules in our noses responsible for detecting odors.

    A recent neuropsychological study released in May of this year, found that smelling (or the loss of this function) predicted "cognitive status and decline" better than seeing or hearing among their test patients.

    Other studies have shown that loss of smell is actually a good predictor for mortality risk increase!

    These data on the importance of our sense of smell should compel us to  use our noses even more in observing our gardens and of course, the larger world.

    observe compost

    The smell of our compost can tell us when it is "done" or imbalanced.

    This information can be very difficult to explain. I can show you a picture or play you an audio file. But you'd have to smell cured compost for yourself and then compare that smell to your own compost pile to find out what I mean when I liken finished compost to an earthy-rich smell of soil.  

    Another way to use your smelling senses is to relate different plants to one another.

    Carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) leaves observe carrot leaves

    can look like Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) leaves

    observe queen anne's lace

    and that is because they are from the same family (Umbeliferae). But if you rub the leaves on your fingers, you will find that distinctive carrot smell and know which plant you have actually grown.

    Sometimes I ask the kids to bring me some greens to include in the meal and they bring me all sorts of stuff. I can help them better identify a lemon balm, from the sorrel, from the dandelion, by having them do the same technique. Rub them and smell.

    3. Interaction: The Next Practical Step to Observation

    Having observed our yard, how do we then interact with your garden?

    This is where the design comes in. From your observations, you will discover plants and animals that are already working to bring balance to your system. Your job as a designer (for that is what we all are, garden designers) is to:

    1. Maintain / Support the patterns/systems that are already working
    2. Adjust your garden design for balance when you do find a problem
    3. Use / Work with what you already have

    We will deal with those 3 topics in a future blog. But for now, we have a fun and FREE challenge to offer you on Permaculture Gardens. It is designed to help you observe your backyard and we call it... The Bug Hunt Challenge!

    This is the last week of Bug Hunt and we would like to invite you to hone your powers of observation and hopefully your kids as well!

    (If you happen to read this blog after August 31, 2018, you can still join the challenge and get the PDFs but no prizes will be awarded.)

    It's very simple:

    1. Snap a pic of a bug in your garden or neighborhood.
    2. Post it on Instagram with the hashtag #bughuntchallenge or on our website www.growmyownfood.com/bughunt.
    3. Enter your email and name on www.growmyownfood.com/bughunt to ensure a valid entry to the challenge.

    By taking up this short challenge, you receive a FREE PDF Scavenger Hunt printable

    Observe through the Bug Hunt Challenge

    to help you identify common garden bugs as well as an online "Field Guide" to help you know how to balance those populations of "pests" you may have in your backyard.

    And finally, please vote for the winning picture. Every week, the winner with the most votes is chosen and wins a free packet of seeds. The overall Bug Hunt Challenge winner receives Nancy Lawson's book "Humane Gardener" in the mail.

    This is a super WIN-WIN scenario. So take back our ability to stop and smell more than just the roses, let's find all the bugs too.

    NEXT BLOG:  "Join the Climate Victory Garden Campaign!"

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