Monthly Archives: November 2010

Permaculture is many things. Is beauty one of them?

Throughout my travels, I have encountered a perception that permaculture and aesthetic beauty are mutually exclusive endeavors. According to multiple sources in the public garden sector, this divergence is at least partially responsible for non-inclusion of permaculture in some public gardens, with a perception that permaculture is, whisper, untidy. Even, shhhh, messy.
In the permaculture sphere, aesthetics are rarely mentioned. Where there is mention, it is usually discussed in one of two ways. First, permaculture is beautiful based on the inherent beauty of living systems. Bill Mollison, in a 2001 interview with Scott Vlaun of Seeds of Change, says, “We do good systems and they work very well and they’re full of life. And when they’re full of life, to me, they’re full of beauty because things are happening there that you could never design.” Graham Bell, in his book, ‘The Permaculture Way,’ echoes this simply: “Every living thing has its own beauty.” Clearly there are many who recognize such inherent beauty in natural systems.

But look at any public garden and you will see that humans around the world have been cultured and accustomed to label something quite more manicured as beautiful. And by comparison, messy, untidy, and even unsightly are adjectives often ascribed to permaculture by non practitioners.

Perhaps not everyone is innately disposed to recognize such living, thriving systems as beautiful. Particularly if the function behind the system is misunderstood. Bill describes the beauty in the context of its function, and explains his understanding of the function as the reason for his appreciation of their beauty. It would be quite an interesting research project to see what the correlation is between people’s understanding of permaculture at play in a garden and their perception of its beauty.
In permaculture, as a design science based on multiple uses, all signs point back to productivity supported by ecologically sound and interconnected practices. Bell explains this in no uncertain terms. “Being aesthetic doesn’t count as a use. Looking nice,” he explains, “is not a use.” In his interview with Bill, Vlaun asks, “So when you design a garden, beauty is not the issue, its function.” To which Bill replies, “Function.”

Which leads one to wonder – Is beauty not of human use, value or function? Can we fairly discount beauty as a compelling human desire? Does it not fit in with life, love, friendship and the pursuit of happiness in the quality of life conversation? At the very least, people are at least in part motivated by beauty. Countless poems, world famous works of art, and million dollar industries based on the human desire to attain beauty can back me up on this. And public gardens are no exception. If public gardens are quite concerned with aesthetics, and permaculture is not at all concerned with designing for aesthetics, one might conclude this divergence of objectives justifies the disconnect. However if the permaculturalist is willing to embrace aesthetic beauty as but one design function among many, the path to public garden integration, and ostensibly acceptance by the public, may be quite shorter.
Compared to the potential gains, what does permaculture have to lose?

Permaculture was never meant by the its co-originators to be rendered philosophical. Rather it was designed to manifest in practical application. In this spirit, part two of this topic will be about designing beauty into the permaculture garden, featuring permaculturalist Cecilia Macaulay. Keep your eyes open!

Teacher studies unique plot (Hamilton Press, 10 Nov 2010, Page 5)

Hamilton, North Island, New Zealand has been home for the last 3 weeks, and The Sustainable Backyard, started by the Hamilton Permaculture Trust in 2001 at Hamilton Gardens has been the subject of my focus. I was recently interviewed by the Hamilton Press about my work here. Look for more blogs upcoming about the Sustainable Backyard, but in the meantime, the article might give you a sense of the special nature of the garden.

Teacher studies unique plot
Hamilton Press
10 Nov 2010

HAMILTON Gardens is a special place, said visiting American permaculture student Erin Marteal. Ms Marteal arrived in midOctober to spend two months in the city with a focus on the Sustainable Backyard garden at Hamilton Gardens. â€�â€�Having a…read more…

Mount Annan Botanic Garden

Mount Annan Botanic Garden is totally unlike any botanic garden I’ve visited. Sited in a suburban area at least a few kilometers from the nearest public transport, it is spread out across a sprawling 440 hectares (almost 1100 acres) and is designed for people to have a drive through experience. According to Caz McCallum, Assistant Director of the Botanic Garden Trust, the garden was intentionally spread out for the original director, as a strategy to discourage the city from reclaiming pieces of the land. As a result, the four main theme gardens alternate with tracts of meadow, bush and arboreta.

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I spent the morning meeting with Dan Bishop, Manager of Horticulture, Helen Byfield-Fleming, Coordinator of the MacArthur Center for Sustainable Living and Allen Powell, Community Education Officer and Caz MacCallum. According to Dan, “Mount Annan has never had a permaculture garden. We do sustainable gardening instead. Sustainable is different than organics, but we do use chemicals… sometimes chemicals are part of creating a sustainable environment.” As in the case of Chilean needle grass, he explains, without using chemicals, you have no chance of controlling the weed. “We don’t have the staff or resources to hand pick.”

Before becoming a botanic garden, the land served as a dairy farm, then horse land, and as a result, Mount Annan inherited a huge weed seed bank. “We have finite resources and staff and we’re trying to present to the public, which presents a challenge,” adds Caz.

Messages of sustainability, however appear throughout Mount Annan. A recently converted bottlebrush garden now focuses on backyard sustainability: the Big Idea Garden. This garden presents accessible cultivars that can be purchased in the local nursery, information about caring for the home garden, sustainable water use, recycling, as well as interpretation about beneficial interactions and microbes.

One display shows Lilly Pilly (Syzygium, a native Australian plant) being used for topiary, demonstrating you don’t need buxus to do the job. Numerous examples show recycling and reuse of materials, from benches and walkways to a worm farm made from a repurposed bathtub. Chris Cole, the principle horticulturist for the Big Idea Garden was taking a course at Permaculture Research Institute when I visited Mount Annan. It will be interesting to see what new ideas he brings back to Mount Annan.

Mount Annan Botanic Garden is also home to the Sydney research facilities, including a tissue culture laboratory, seed drying and storage rooms, growth cabinets, climate controlled glasshouses and several shade houses, all focused on the conservation and horticulture of Australian plants, particularly threatened species and species with economic potential.

I also visited Macarthur Centre for Sustainable Living (MCSL) which, while an independent organization, sits on 5 acres of Mount Annan land and partners with Mount Annan on aspects of administration and education. MCSL aspires to showcase sustainable living practices including waste-water management, recycling, green building and green energy techniques to the public, as well as organic gardening. I spoke with Tao Tribels who has been a volunteer tour guide since 2003, and Ruth Bolomey, another volunteer who designs the food gardens and works them two days per week.  Ruth hails from Chili where she grew up on a farm.

The gardens are lush, productive and beautiful, chock full of flowers, herbs, and vegetables and showcase companion-planted beds. I asked Ruth what her take on permaculture is. “I’m more flexible than permaculture. If you go in the forest you see there are still water and food requirements, it’s not just anything growing anywhere. It doesn’t work when it’s all mixed. You really need to organize your plantings.”

Permaculture has earned a reputation in some circles as planting more or less randomly, while many permaculture sources advocate for thoughtful planting combinations to promote most effective use of resources and promote healthy guilds. Ruth completed an introduction course in permaculture but did not pursue the full permaculture design course because, she said, it seemed to apply more to big farms, which was not relevant to her needs.

Allen Powell, community education officer, explains Mount Annan’s school education program which begins at the pre-k level and continues up through technical college. “We need to hit every teacher individually. Every grade has sustainability and Aboriginal Culture in the curriculum, which is new this year. We have the best Aboriginal program in the Sydney area, as well great sustainability programs, but the botanic garden competes with environmental education centers.”

“Botanic gardens have been amazingly slow at picking up this whole sustainability thing. Because it’s our future, our kids future, if we do the right thing now and lock in these things as habits when they’re young…….”

Mount Annan is actively encouraging cyclists to visit the garden, for example by offering a significantly reduced admittance fee. The main mission of Mount Annan Botanic Garden is to inspire conservation and appreciation of plants, in particular, Australian plants. “We also have a responsibility to increase participation and visitation, and as part of our state mandate, recreation as well. Cyclists generally consider botanic gardens to be boring places, where they’re not made particularly welcome. It’s a user group we haven’t reached yet,” says Dan. Development of a 7 k mountain biking trail – the Enduro Trail – through the botanic garden is another way of meeting these objectives.

Caz McCallum adds: “It’s hard to engage with people as a botanic garden because there are so many other distractions. We want to educate, but we also want to focus on recreation. There has been quite a lot of nearby development of big houses on small blocks, leaving very little land left to enjoy. They come here to recreate. It’s good for them and good for us, because over time they might get something more out of it.”

“Most people come for recreation, and bring their eskies (coolers) and barbecues,” continues Dan. “The garden is wallpaper for their experience. While most people visit other botanic gardens for recreation as well, there tends to be an expectation that they will have a ‘botanic garden experience’ as well during their visit, which is typically not the case here. We have to work a little harder than most botanic gardens in this regard.  The siting of the new entrance to the botanic gardens will be through the conservation area first, which will help bring the focus to conservation in more direct way: it will be the first thing people see rather than the last.”

Botanic Gardens of Adelaide

“As a botanic garden, do you reflect a community’s thinking, or push them forward?”

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Established in 1855, the Adelaide Botanic Gardens was an early example – possibly the first – of planting Eucalyptus in a garden setting.  By doing so, natural growth of a subtropical ecosystem was facilitated, speeding the successive forest growth that would have taken much longer otherwise.  This example is one of many highlighted during group tours and school visits that inform the public about the role of biodiversity in an ecosystem – and the hand humans can have in promoting  biodiversity in an ecosystem.

I met with Steve Meredith, Schools Education Manager, who toured me around the gardens and pointed out some exciting new initiatives.  One is a new water works project in which wetlands are featured in on-site water filtration, along with cleaning and reuse of storm water, interactive creek walking, and under water views. Another project under construction at the time of my visit is a new garden focused on health, in which one side is devoted to medicinal plants while the other emphasizes preventative health through psychological, spiritual and contemplative well-being.  Adelaide Botanic Gardens is also drawing up plans for an organic kitchen garden, which will include permaculture.

Rooted in a constructivist pedagogical approach, the main objectives of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens school programs are to give students a “wow” factor, make an impression, and send them off in hope.  “By extending the learning through kids’ hypotheses, we can shift people’s attitudes even more,” adds Steve.

The garden’s focus on education has made projects possible that would not have been otherwise- such as the notable Conservatory, built in 1989 as a Bicentennial Project. At the time there was controversy within the community surrounding the intensive resources that would be required to maintain a rainforest conservatory, especially in the throes of drought that had hit South Australia especially hard. When the educational goals of the conservatory were communicated to the public, making it clear that the conservatory was to be a living laboratory rather than a display garden, the community shifted, and became much more accepting. “How can we expect the next generation to be stewards of the rainforest if they’ve never had any experience with it? It’s about immersion. If students feel the real, the learning will be more powerful.  It’s about education, not display.”

Dynamic conversation about kitchen gardens and permaculture ensued when we met up with Katrina Nitschke, Manager of Community Education and Public Programs, Sarena Williams, Coordinator of the Kitchen Garden Initiative,  and Marilyn Kuchel, Project Assistant with the Sustainable Landscape Initiative, for coffee.

Katrina: “With permaculture, there’s a perception that it’s the whole thing or not at all.  There’s a real tension there.  How can we make value judgments that extend beyond what we’re doing at the garden?”

“Botanic gardens see themselves as socially inclusive.  However, if you want to be inclusive, you have to be unafraid of making a statement. As a botanic garden, “do you reflect a community’s thinking, or push them forward?”

A paper just published in April 2010, ‘Redefining the role of botanic gardens: towards a new social purpose,’ addresses this conundrum. Based on research conducted by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester and commissioned by BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International, the authors site a lack of leadership within the botanic garden sector with respect to promoting environmental stewardship:

We have the situation where botanic gardens could be leaders in environmental sustainability, looking at ways of reducing our impact on the environment and
reversing the loss of biodiversity, but there is no impetus from within the sector to ‘lead the way’. (p. 102) go to article

Marilyn: “There is a disconnect because we have our botanic garden, which is a scientific institution.  The community has ownership of the title of permaculture and what the issues within permaculture are.   We don’t pretend to be experts in permaculture.”

However Adelaide Botanic Gardens does aspire to be a central hub for kitchen gardening, and kitchen gardening resources within the community.  In other words, they hope their new demonstration kitchen garden will act as a connector of sorts.  The garden, divided into sections, will include permaculture, inclusion gardening, and a multiplicity of activities suited to different learning modes.  A project worth watching as it unfolds.

Willunga Waldorf School Garden

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It was the end of a long day that had started at 4 am, continued with faulty GPS communication, a resulting missed cab and sizable bribe of a nearby shuttle company, and miraculous arrival at the airport 28 minutes before scheduled departure time.  After breaking cue and relinquishing my son’s souvenir finger cuffs at security, we felt we’d experienced a sequence fit for a cheesy made-for-t.v. movie.

More than 12 hours after the grueling start, I was unwilling to forgo our final tour of the day, a visit to the Willunga Waldorf School garden.  Allegiance to my travel weary family forced me to inform our consummate host, Jeff Simmons, a parent and gardener at the school, that we’d have to keep it inside of 10 minutes.

Nearly ninety minutes later,  I was still gaping at the gardens, which were far more expansive than any school gardens I had seen before.  Ten minutes would have been woefully insufficient.

At this Steiner (Waldorf) school, growing things is integral to the curriculum, from kindergarten where the focus is on sensory immersion – bright colors, beautiful scents, and rich textures, to Class 3, where students focus on gardening and farming, growing grains like wheat and rye.

The gardens are all maintained organically and biodynamically, and feature a variety of permaculture principles.  Companions such as garlic and marigolds are planted to deter pests and promote plant health. Many different crops and varieties are grown here, providing a rich and extensive outdoor living laboratory.

The school employs three (part-time) gardeners through a creative tuition exchange, so the kids don’t have to do all the work.  But there are some of the same challenges you’d find in any school garden.  Like precious shrubs that have been lovingly converted by young hands into forts.  The garden staff have addressed this issue with creativity, allowing it in one area and creating an additional fort-building area with loose detached limbs in another.  Archways have been installed in certain areas to encourage kids to look up – and therefore slow down -when entering a garden space.

One thing is clear.  With a focus on the garden, both for beauty and for learning, the sky’s the limit.

Aldinga Arts Eco Village, South Australia

Situated on 18 hectares, Aldinga Arts Ecovillage (an hour south of Adelaide) is the physical manifestation of an idea that sprung 20 years ago among a group of artists and permaculturalists wanting more self sufficiency and an intentional lifestyle.  Land was purchased in 2000, and the ecovillage is now home to about 200 adults and 50 children. Resident Sue Eltahir toured us around. 

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“We’re encouraged to blur the edges of the Common Land.” In accordance, Sue’s verdant, edible garden curves out into the common area, though the village policy of “share excess food” and “pick, don’t strip” are well observed by neighbors.  Besides the green building techniques (see slide show for Sue’s hand-made adobe bricks), water catchment systems, and edible gardens grown by residents, Aldinga also has its own waste water processing facility that filters water on site and dispatches the effluent to the nearby wood lot.

Several acres of arable farm land at the outer edge of the ecovillage are currently under cover crop, building soil for a future permaculture demonstration garden.  Sue and another resident are using part of this farm land to experiment with growing native and vulnerable mally trees, such as the Eucalyptus dissita, whose roots also happen to be particularly effective for carbon sequestration.  They’re also experimenting with growing acacia to coppice for chook fodder.

One of the most unique landscape elements of the ecovillage is the purpose-built outdoor movie theater.  Mounded up with piles of Earth left from construction of the existing dam system and building sites, the grassy knoll is protected by a curved hedge and faces a movie screen, behind which beautiful views of the valley roll into the distance.  Movies are screened twice monthly and, according to Sue, “it’s a terrific community building activity.”

Ecovillage residents are now working on raising funds for capital improvement projects, including a community kitchen and meeting place and separate education building.