Permaculture moves forward at the LA County Arboretum & Botanic Garden

Jill Morganelli, Horticultural Curator at the LA Arb explains an artistic feature of the Permasphere

18 Aug. Back in LA and just hours before taking off on V Australia #8, I stopped in to chat with Richard Schulhof, CEO of the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden about the status of permaculture at the arboretum.  I was pleased that Jill Morganelli, Horticultural Curator was also able to join us.

Despite the recent departure of the garden’s permaculture curator, Caitlin Bergman, permaculture is not only holding steady, but growing at the LA Arboretum.  Plans are afoot for developing a new permaculture garden in a space now referred to as ‘turf island,’ that also happens to be right out in the middle of the garden.  It will feature native California plants, along with some edible and medicinal plants important to local indigenous cultures.  Different from the Permasphere tucked off in the back 40, the new permaculture garden will be hard to miss.  It will also be well-interpreted.

According to Jill Morganelli, “People want to see how they can do this in their own backyard.  To me, our job is to show an example of what homeowners can do at home.”  Morganelli also emphasizes the role of community: “permaculture is as much about community as it is about growing.”

One of the challenges of public garden education, according to Schulhof, is “how to make it more accessible.  Public gardens can do a better job of teaching natural systems.  It’s very difficult to get people interested in carbon cycling and mycorrhiza.  However in permaculture, you’re physically doing it; you’re engaged in it.”

Permaculture also differs from traditional public garden horticulture in its focus on process as much as on the end product. According to Morganelli, ” A permaculture garden is entirely about process.”  Many public garden displays are about creating a display for the public, but don’t necessarily teach a visitor how to do it, nor do they create an impression that such a display is achievable or accessible.

Another way permaculture stands apart from other types of public garden education, according to Schulhof and Morganelli, is that it “holds particular appeal for teens.  Especially teenage boys, who are one of the most under-served audiences of public gardens.”

With such a positive public response and the educationally apposite nature of permaculture at the LA Arboretum, why are so few other public gardens following suit?  “There is a great deal of risk aversion in the museum and public garden fields,” suggests Schulhof.  Schulhof also posits that some may think permaculture has been superseded by other more sophisticated green technologies.  “Permaculture is extremely low tech, and you can do it in a very local way.  However, understanding of permaculture also requires a certain level of science literacy that many people don’t have.”  Many public gardens may also find the low-cost of implementing permaculture to hold significant appeal, especially in our now sluggish economy.

Yet permaculture is still widely misunderstood.  The first question most people ask about permaculture at the LA Arboretum is, “What is permaculture?”  When I asked whether any concern or negative response about the aesthetic quality of the permaculture garden had been raised by the public, Shulhof reports he’s heard only positive, great things about the aesthetics.  He admits, however, that with the new, much more visible permaculture garden, more criticism is likely.  “As director,” he says, “if I were not provoking visitors to ask questions, then what are we here for?”

“I’m from the era of ornamental horticulture, and I really feel I’m witnessing the end of that era.  Young people today want to make a difference.  I see permaculture in public gardens providing an avenue for that impulse and interest.”

NOTE: Keep your eyes out for interview clips in future blog posts.

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