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By Orna Izakson

Permaculturists have been searching for a sound-bite definition of their practice for years, and the process hasn’t turned up much that explains the concept well to the uninitiated. Jude Hobbs, a Permaculture instructor and landscape designer in Eugene, Ore., has a list with dozens of different attempts.

The concept is fundamentally about making everything fit, reassembling the pieces of life — food, community, animals, people — that have been shattered by the modern, industrial world. It’s about recreating a world that functions sustainably, recycles everything and works for people and the environment. It’s not just about gardening, but because food is a critical component of life, it’s therefore a critical component of a sustainable life.

Lofty as that sounds, permaculture is tremendously practical, dealing as it does with the basic stuff of living. It can be as simple as growing grapes above the hot tub so you can relax in shaded luxury while enjoying the fresh fruit of the vine. It can be planting herbs just outside the kitchen door to facilitate their fresh and medicinal uses in home-cooked cuisine.

But Permaculture designs also can be as intricate as a multi-layered forest garden, with plants ranging from roots crops and herbs to fruiting shrubs and trees that provide food and habitat, all laced together with twining, edible vines. It includes how you heat your home and water your garden, and urges you to think where and from whom you buy produce or building supplies. It’s about creating a system for food, shelter and community that becomes self perpetuating with little, if any, waste.

“The whole idea is to design your system so that when everything is up and running you string your hammock between two of the trees and you sit back and admire everything and reach out and pluck fruit off the trees,” says Toby Hemenway, a Permaculture teacher and author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. “That’s the basic idea: the designer recliner,” Hemenway says.

It can be done. Many annual food plants produce seed liberally, offering spring babies that volunteer near where their parents lived the year before. Perennial plants and fruit trees get better year after year, often with little tending. The Oregon’s Willamette Valley offers plenty of winter rain to store in tanks for watering a garden through the hot, dry summer.

Permaculture is about putting things into useful relationship to each other, like placing plants that need pollinators next to the bright, fragrant flowers that will attract them. In a Permaculture garden, as in nature, everything has multiple functions; in the Food Not Lawns garden in Eugene, even bindweed, the gardener’s bane, helps by tying tomato vines to their trellis.

Ancient Polynesian taro (Colocasia esculenta) terraces. Limahuli Garden, Ha'ena, Kaua'i, Hawai'i.

Ancient Polynesian taro (Colocasia esculenta) terraces. Limahuli Garden, Ha

The concept isn’t new. People around the world have been practicing sustainable lifestyles for millennia. In fact, the system of Permaculture itself is based in part on the agricultural systems used by indigenous peoples — like the ancient taro terraces pictured here, originally planted by Polynesians on Hawai’i.

Permaculture is growing in the United States, and learning opportunities abound. Check out the educational resources page and garden links as a starting point. Or spend some time with a book. Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden is a terrific starting place. See also Gardening to Change the World, a Eugene Weekly story from August, 2000.

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