by Erin Marteal & Cecilia Macaulay
After encountering numerous objections to permaculture in the public garden sector based on a perceived fault in aesthetics, I’ve become keenly interested in the relationship between permaculture and beauty. (See background article, Permaculture is many things; Is beauty one of them?) I recently interviewed Cecilia Macaulay, artist and permaculturalist, and asked her for tips on how to go about designing for beauty in the permaculture garden. Though aiming for 10, she easily came to 13, and I have no doubt she will some day write a book on the subject. We hope these ideas spark conversation and inspire aesthetic explorations in permaculture gardens everywhere.
“I want permaculture to spread to the mainstream; enriching other lives like it does mine. If you design beauty into your gardens, people can’t resist, and want one too. Beauty is a source of renewable energy, as valid as wind or solar; it gives people energy to act. It’s easy to get helpers for gardens that are on their way to being beautiful. It takes effort and investment in the beginning though.
The analogy is, if you want birds in the garden, you need to get rid of the cat, and similarly, if you want allies for your garden, you may have to give up some old habits. The exciting thing is, beauty isn’t a cosmetic you slather on top of a permaculture garden. Permaculture attitudes and principles ARE beauty-creation principles. Stare deeply into any striking beauty, and you’ll find something that brings life and liveliness into being.
Beautiful Permaculture in 13 Steps:
1. Make use of very old memories.
What humans find deeply beautiful are those things which have helped us to survive through history, like the smell of a campfire, which echos as the smell of warmth, safety and friends. When we’re under the dappled light of trees we feel a quiet peace and security, which is no surprise since that’s where our furry ancestors made their homes.
Replicate these lively forest elements when you make gardens for people, and watch what happens. When an outdoor table is on an exposed, windy patio, people don’t use it. We are drawn to covered and protected areas. We tend to be attracted to those elements that helped our ancestors survive.
2. Create ‘Families’.
Creating stable, exciting families is what I want to do when composing a garden. When choosing containers for balcony gardens, I stick to similar materials, colors or shapes, so that the plants have a visually stable and cohesive ‘ground’ from which to fruit, flower and do their thing. The growing plants are what we want to give our attention to, the pots just need to be capable, supportive and silent.
The thing about families is, they don’t accept just anyone who wanders into their kitchen. Members have a history and a future together, they understand and look after each other. They make up for each others weaknesses, and together, they have a chance at a stable future, at surviving. Let every member of your garden feel they are wanted and needed. Don’t accept spikey or looming things that will wonder what they are doing there. In a human family, each person has their unique contribution: one tells the jokes, another is boss of getting the DVD player to work. Each have their niche, yet they are all related. That’s the key – not so similar it’s repetitive, not so distant they all feel alone, but getting the connection lively, just right.
Sticking to a common heritage is one way to make a garden look good. Imagine an edible South American garden, with its exotic blooms, drooping with avocados and tomatillos. It can transport you to another world. It’s not just co-incidence that plants who look good together and taste good together also take care of each other in the garden. My Lebanese dinner of Tabouli and Baba Ganoush used parsley and eggplant. Without the parsley in the garden, there wouldn’t have been any eggplant, as its pollen-rich flowers attracted a fearsome praying mantis, who then patrolled the eggplant-eating caterpillars.
While common heritage has its benefits, a well-chosen mixed marriage can be even more productive. Having tropical Bougainvillea clambering over balcony railings can create dappled shade for the delicate English garden it shelters, while its thorns guard against marauding possums. The hot pink flowers and the deep pink raspberries made beautiful music together.
In my garden, I avoided using black plastic pots because they didn’t suit my theme. Actually, I thought they were ugly. But in permaculture, as in nature, nothing is inherently right or wrong. It’s just something of potential value in the wrong place. So to extend my prissy boundaries, I gave myself the challenge of creating a Gothic Balcony Garden, making the black plastic pots into the stars of the show. They did great. They held black kale, black edible pansies, blackberries, eggplants, and lots of spooky mauve – lilly pilly, rosemary flowers.
You could even make a white polystyrene boxes garden that is beautiful. It would take a lot of ingenuity, but it’s not impossible. But if an object is not contributing, not wanted and needed and part of the family, it will be unhappy and so will your garden.
3. Give yourself permission to pass it along.
Give yourself permission to pass on or recycle things you don’t love and that don’t fit your garden’s composition. Our brains often say “I have no choice; I have to accept whatever I have been given.” But we are designers, not victims. We don’t have to listen to the little voice that makes us surrender to living with clutter.
Throwing things away is difficult for almost everyone, and the reason for that is hard-wired – an excess of stuff hasn’t killed many of us, but until only one or two generations ago, lack was our constant threat. If you want to make a beautiful garden, subtracting unwanted things is cheaper and more effective, but a lot more difficult than just tossing pretty new things into an existing mess.
It’s usually the soft-hearted people, the people who can see redeeming points in any broken-down contraption that find themselves mired in garden clutter. – Here is a sentence I find powerful: ‘ Just because it’s there doesn’t mean I have to use it‘. And the blessing is, once I get strong about refusing things in my physical surroundings, I’m more able to do it in my mind and spirit. Just because an emotion is there doesn’t mean I have to act on it. Just because I feel angry doesn’t mean I have to express it. That really changes my life and changes my world. If you can do it in your balcony garden you can do it in your life.
When you leave things you don’t like in your garden, you get numb to them, which is convenient. The cost is, you get numb to beauty as well. To keep your vision crisp and appreciative, don’t force it to tolerate mangy stuff. Be brave, make the decision, and throw it away. The pain of this waste is therapeutic. It will stop you from buying and accepting things you don’t love for the rest of your days, it’s a big milestone in your life.
4. Respect the nature of each thing.
Short squat plants look good in short squat pots. Tall plants need tall pots. When things are happy and fulfilling their nature, they look good. If you want to make a path with square tiles, you put them in a straight line, or stagger them, or line them up in an angular basket weave, but don’t force them into curves. If you put them off their horizon, they get dizzy, and no-one is happy.
Likewise, lining up odd-shaped rocks like a string of pearls looks awkward. Rocks want to be wild, they want to lay about with big rocks and little rocks, on different levels, as they do in the mountain, in nature. So just as you don’t force your tomboy daughter to do ballet, or your graceful son to do rugby, you listen to what materials want to be, and let them do a good job of being themselves.
5. Love each plant.
It’s easy to love a garden if individually you love each plant. Fill your garden with plants that have a story. Get cuttings from friends, gifts to mark special events. Get plants that re-create a favorite holiday, or even self-portrait plants, and order rare breeds from the internet. Save the seeds and improve them. Unlike commonplace supermarket plant, plants with stories attract your affection and attention. You won’t let them die without a fight; they are irreplaceable.
6. Balance the elements.
Having a balance of the five elements makes humans feel at ease. Some wood, some fire, some water, air and void. Fire might be present through lighting a Mexican chiminea (portable earthen fireplace) in winter, or citronella candle in summer. Water might be a goldfish and reed pond in a big bright bucket, or even just a large bowl with a bamboo dipper – it doesn’t need to be elaborate, so long as it’s in use and freshly appreciated each day.
Humans don’t like to be confronted by a wall of timber, they like to see airy space between each piece of wood. Look at spacing in a forest and copy that in your garden. Use a hedge rather than a paling fence, or cover it with a forest of raspberries.
When you use a balance of the proportions found in nature, you feel balanced just by viewing, as the Japanese know. But it’s older than that. “Here is my waterhole, my cozy cave, my hunting and gathering grounds, my clan. Everything I need is here, and I will be safe.”
7. Be resourceful.
We can be tempted into thinking that if we don’t earn much money, we can’t have what we want, we can’t bring our beautiful plans into reality. If you have less money, and you are a value-creating Permaculturist, you will have more time, more community, more skills. We can often trade something we have for something we need. If you haven’t got a real-world community, quick, go and get one. Talk to the neighbors, become a WWOOF host, create an Epicurean-style study group in your garden. Hold grafting days, seed saving swaps.
Installing a collection of fashionable plants risks creating a soulless display. But a garden pieced together, coaxed into existence through the riches of human connection looks unique in all the world. Most of my gardens were created with the help of brave, life-loving WWOOF1 travelers who came to stay with me. The garden would hold memories of our time cooking and partying together, getting fond of and grateful for each other.
8. Create space for human connection.
Something that connects people will feel beautiful, such as a little space to sit and be together. If we don’t connect we won’t survive. Conversations you have in useful gardens while shelling peas have a very different quality to conversations had in yet another restaurant or café.
9. Foster beauty of spirit.
Undesirables will pop up in your garden – a dead rat, an infestation on your plant. That’s when you say, “I’m brave, strong, creative, and I’ve got Google.” There’s nothing bad about ugliness, but if it stops you from doing your job caring for people, earth and sharing surplus, well, that’s a waste. You can’t always have physical beauty. But beauty of spirit is available anytime, anywhere. For me, when I see people bravely doing as they decide, not as their emotions dictate, l feel I’m in the presence of beauty, and it always awes me.
10. Allow for mystery and surprise.
Beautiful gardens do the unexpected. You can do your bit as a designer to elicit curiosity, then discovery by creating wending pathways, hills with stepping stones to clamber and harvest from, little doorways into other worlds in your garden. Nature will do the rest of the choreography. She will send your garden pests, just to tease you. Then she will send in new insects to clean them up, and you will be grateful. And sometimes nature will send you lavish gifts – anoperatic songbird, a frilly butterfly, a waft of fragrance, and whatever washappening till that moment you will say “I’ve changed my mind – being alive is wonderful.”
11. White is difficult
Gardens look best when they are nature-colored, and here in Australia, nature doesn’t provide big swathes of white. This dazzling color is best when its renewable; a white flower, a white, freshly licked cat, or a Gum tree displaying luscious snowy limbs under rough bark. Humans are phototrophic and our eyes will zoom straight to white, so unless your compositional skills are excellent, it will unbalance your garden.
Go to an art gallery to see how painters manage this color and you might do something extraordinary. Man-made white is bridal. It dominates, and it needs to stay pristine.
Whether it’s a white fence or a bench, a bedraggled, rain-streaked, discarded bride will curse you every time you pass.
A carefully tended white garden could be breathtaking though – white eggplants, fragrant jasmine, Mongolian horse-hair mulch for the potted plants, and lots of silver foliage. A Marilyn Monroe garden. But don’t forget, she got her hair bleached every Saturday for decades, not cheap and easy.
12. Overcome imaginary limitations
Borrow your neighbor’s garden. Just go and capture it. Care for it, get intimate with it, share the harvest. She probably won’t even charge you rent. We are so funny. We feel we aren’t allowed to love things we don’t legally own. Being a renter also doesn’t count as a reason to avoid living in beauty. The plants you put in will be your friends, and will enchant your memories of those one-and-only years of your life. Rental gardens are a canvas to practice on, a university course to learn from, they go in your folio as a permaculture designer, and other garden-making chances will then open up for you.
If you (and your WWOOFers1) do an impeccable job on one section of the garden, it might give your landlord the confidence to fund the rest of the project. But he won’t invest in your garden if you don’t.
Don’t worry about leaving it behind – we end up leaving everything behind in this life, and it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have had that garden at all. When you must leave, there is also the option of bringing your tried-and-tested potted trees with you, or giving your pet plants to someone you love. Gifts given when it’s not even birthday or Christmas have a special glow. The crisis of having to move an ecosystem can bring people together.
13. Beauty needs love.
Bette Davis said, “A woman is beautiful when she is loved.” When a garden is regularly tended and gazed at, passers-by feel it, they know they are in the presence of something valuable. Because it’s an ecosystem garden, there will be things not found in regular gardens: flowers gone to seed hosting useful insects, maybe useful weeds amongst pretty flowers, hollow logs, layers of life and life renewing. Amongst all this may be other signs of activity – skillfully made rain ponds, a convivial breakfast table, sculptures purchased from people you’ve met. This will communicate as engaging liveliness, something rare, and in turn, lovable.
But if the weeds and dead flowers are accompanied by forgotten fruit on the ground, a fence half-repaired with blue string, lolly wrappers caught in prickly weeds, everyone can see ‘procrastination’ and ‘lack of love’ written up in neon lights. Cheap, stuttering Neon lights. While regular gardens take a lot of fertilizers, Zone One Urban Permaculture gardens take a lot of gazing. Gazing so we know what’s ready to harvest, what bugs are eating what pests, and what needs our help. And it’s a pleasure, because this garden is our darling garden, and when you have a darling, you want to have your hands on this darling all the time, you want to marvel at the new beauties that each day brings. Imagine choosing a low-maintenance spouse, one you just walk by each day, then throw water on once a week.
A loved garden does take time, but time with this garden is your favorite hour of the day. To make this happen, put a table and chair there, and just start spending time. Breakfast time, or after-work Happy Hour time. Get a rhythm going, because the power of rhythm will carry you and your garden along.
Once love starts, it snowballs, and your garden will elicit more and more, polishing your character, and making you strong, smart and beautiful. So many things I didn’t know about myself were revealed to me though my guru, my garden.
1 WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), is a network of national organizations that facilitates the placement of volunteers on organic properties, in which the volunteer exchanges labor for room, board, and learning.