A conversation with garden educators at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden

On September 15, I met with Rusty Worsman, community education officer at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, nestled in the Blue Mountains,  Eric Brocken, a ranger with NPWS at Mount Tomah, and Karen Gray, casual education staff at Mount Tomah.

Time was short so we jumped right in.

“Why aren’t botanic gardens doing more with permaculture?,”  I asked.

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“If you go too green you’re alienating 50% of your visitors, who will be put off by environmental messages,” Rusty explained.  Eric continued, “When I was in agriculture and NASSA (Australian and International Organic Certifier), they tried to sell organic for years to government and they were reluctant because there was a stigma associated with it; probably because there was a vested interest in chemical industry. The O & P words (organic and permaculture) just weren’t spoken.   I think things have changed now; people are a lot more comfortable with it now. Consumers now accept organics better, but governments still don’t want to offend vested interests.” Rusty added:  “As a botanical garden, we are focusing on creating a brand of ‘sustainable horticulture,’ instead of organics or permaculture, though both are embedded in the programs we run.” Eric concedes, “We don’t actually tell the public what we’re doing enough.  That relates to marketing as well… But it’s also the whole Kew structure, the conservative mentality.”

“Organics are probably higher up there (than permaculture) in terms of public knowledge.”   Eric and Rusty explain that in some areas of Western Sydney (about 50 k out of the city), neighborhoods that have been in a poverty spiral have probably never heard of permaculture or organics. “Permaculture and organics are upmarket and are generally for more affluent people.”

I found it particularly interesting that permaculture, which historically has been associated with international aid work, and living off the land without the amenities typically associated with material wealth, was grouped with upscale, gourmet organics here. When I asked for clarification about the difference in public perception of organics versus permaculture, Rusty and Eric explained, “People are aware of organic in regard to food production, and permaculture more in regards to land management.  In terms of food production, far more people would be familiar with organics.”

Eric, who has an associate’s degree in Horticulture and has also received a permaculture design certificate, teaches several permaculture-based community courses, such as “Grow your own food,’ ‘The no-dig garden,’ and ‘Sustainable Gardening.’  I asked if the classes tend to address the bigger picture of why these things are important, or if it is more of an experiential approach.

“You go around the class and find out why they’re there.  If they’re there for practical tips, like plant it two inches deep and water, then that’s what they’re there for.   If people come to learn how to grow tomatoes, you can’t tell them to start a cooperative.  But to me the best fertility is organic anyway.  NPK is quite inferior for supplying the full spectrum of nutrients.” Rusty continues, “As a garden we’ve moved in a sustainability direction a lot just since I’ve been here.  When I started all the waste was taken to the dump; now we have our own big worm farm and other biological methods of dealing with waste.  Great debate is held whenever we want to use any type of spray. With schools we talk about doing things in an environmentally friendly way.”

When I asked how permaculture might help Mount Tomah in meeting its mission, Rusty responds, “Permaculture is so holistic; it includes everything.  I think we need to inspire and empower people to do their own growing and sustainability efforts at home, and we can do that by inspiring them through their visits here; some of these kids have never been in a garden before.”

Rusty continues, “I’d like to do more hands-on things here.  In the upcoming master plan, there is scope for doing more hands-on.  There’s not enough space for it now.  There’s only three of us, only one full time.  We’re operating under the Vegemite principle:  We’re spread very thinly.”

“Permaculture is such a holistic concept; you can mold it into lots of shape; in sustainability it fits right in. I cannot imagine botanic gardens using the word ‘permaculture’ because there’s such a stigma associated with it, related to the brand of permaculture as belonging to Bill Mollison and botanic gardens want to establish their own brand.  I don’t think that will change unless there’s some sort of massive public upheaval.  The word organic was avoided for a long time, but now, the Dept of Agriculture can’t avoid using it.  I think really permaculture signifies a significant shift in the way we live, if people were to go down that path.  I think that this institution (botanic gardens) is very traditional.  They’re science-based so they tend to be reductionist in their thinking.”

Karen adds, “I’ve attended lots of world botanic gardens conferences, and I’ve never seen permaculture mentioned, though climate change has begun to be addressed.”

I attended the BGCI (Botanic Garden Conservation International) education congress last November in Durban, South Africa, and APGA (American Public Garden Association) annual conference this year in Atlanta, GA, and I can corroborate Karen’s observation that there was no mention of permaculture at either one.  Yet BGCI published an article on permaculture in botanic garden education in a recent issue of Roots, their education review journal.  So, perhaps we should keep our eyes open for permaculture making its way onto the stage at upcoming botanic garden conferences?

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3 responses to “A conversation with garden educators at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden

  1. It seems like people are put off by labels. Are any gardens or education centers trying to just scrap the labels, ‘organic’ or ‘permaculture.’ How about just teaching something with these things built in. Don’t say “This is the permaculture way of doing this.” Just do it. If it works and the educator can make it make sense then people will accept it naturally. They won’t have to feel pressure, or feel like they are going out on the fringe.

  2. Erin – I do not get to your blog often enough, but when I do – I am enthralled! Keep up the great work, find the missing links, and keep sharing your findings and thoughts. Fascinating! Hope the family is having a blast….much love, Caroline

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