As the weather warms up, it’s time to reconnect with nature and plan your garden. This year, why not consider one based on the principles of permaculture?
“Permaculture is a design system that looks at how things work in nature and applies that ecology to our designs for food gardens, livestock production, housing/shelter, water use, fiber production — everything that we humans need to survive,” explains resident Cynthia Rabinowitz, executive director of the Northwest Conservation District and owner of The Hidden Garden and Connsoil in Bethlehem, Conn. “Permaculture is based on ethics and principles and, conceivably, could be considered not only a design science but a lifestyle as well.”
Rabinowitz contends that it is important to observe the environment and our lives as they relate to the physical world. “We must also try to familiarize ourselves with the various techniques of gardening that foster organic and biodynamic approaches to heal the land and create healthy ecosystems,” she observes. “Start slowly, watch and learn, read and study, plan your objectives, and learn from permaculture practitioners.”
A few years ago, Ryan Harb, who specializes in planning, facilitating, and implementing permaculture gardens for schools, universities, churches, towns, and institutions throughout New England, launched a nationally recognized permaculture garden program at UMass Amherst. He spoke at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) and initiated a spark on campus that set a plan in motion for a garden based on permaculture.
“A group of 25 permaculture enthusiasts made up of WCSU Roots & Shoots Club members, students, faculty, staff, and community volunteers turned out to help prepare the garden area,” recounts garden manager and biochemistry student Roman Mendieta. “The group composted, placed a cardboard layer, and mulched approximately 1,000 square feet of space in three hours under the guidance of our friend and consultant, Ryan Harb, and permaculture expert Sam Billings, from Treetops [Permaculture in Stamford].”
The WCSU permaculture garden project is sponsored by the Jane Goodall Center for Excellence in Environmental Studies. Laurie Weinstein Ph.D., past chair of the center, honored the center’s namesake by creating the garden.
“When Jane visited us in 2015 she personally dedicated the garden,” Weinstein explains. “WCSU is now one of the go-to places for learning about permaculture. Further, many of the students who have worked in the garden have gone on to work in the field of farming, permaculture and sustainability. Teaching students about where their food comes from, how to work the earth, and how to nurture themselves and the planet are all invaluable lessons.”
Many WCSU classes reap the benefits of the garden, while the university’s food service, Sodexo, utilizes produce from the garden. The garden also provides produce to various local organizations and food banks.
Mendieta says the garden was expanded last spring to include a new herb garden and salad beds. “The permaculture garden has transformed a patch of lawn into a haven for birds and insects. We purposely plant flowering annuals that bloom each month from April through September to provide valuable nectar and pollen for pollinators of all kinds,” he explains.
Jackie Tran, a teacher at Greens Farms Academy (GFA) in Westport, understands the importance of permaculture and realized that GFA’s location is ideal to apply permaculture principles.
“Greens Farms Academy is located on the edges of several ecosystems, including a marsh, a beach, and woodlands. One of the permaculture design principles is to use edges and value the marginal, for these are areas of abundance and diversity,” explains Tran. “We have been implementing permaculture design principles in our grounds and facilities over several years now.”
Tran is now leading the charge to create a food forest at GFA to meet the needs of people and the planet. “A food forest is incredibly more abundant and ecologically regenerative compared to a lawn or a monocrop farm. It’s about harmoniously integrating the natural and built environments to be resilient, regenerative and everlasting,” notes Tran. “The food forest will serve as a perennial polyculture edible forest garden that harnesses the power of ecological succession to produce food, fiber, fuel, and other human needs while providing habitat and forage for wildlife.”
The first phase of planting will begin this spring. GFA grounds manager Tom Barry teaches the Upper School regenerative landscapes course and is guiding students through the site observation and design phases.
GFA has many plans for the food forest, from an outdoor classroom to teaching ecological courses to incorporating edibles into school lunch. Tran adds that history and social studies classes can look at how food forests were used in human cultures throughout time.
“I would like to encourage more people to look at the spaces that they can affect and put their permaculture stamp on them,” Tran notes. “It can be as simple as composting at home or as extensive as creating a food forest for your community.”