Monthly Archives: February 2011

Permaculture in the halls of the academy

While in Hamilton, I spoke with Chris Eames, department chair and faculty of Waikato University’s Center for Science and Technology Education Research.  Chris has a background in environmental education, and currently advises PhD student Nelson Lebo, whose research focuses on integrating permaculture into New Zealand’s secondary science curriculum.

When I learned there was PhD work being done on this topic I was eager to learn where it was all going.  I spoke with Chris about his view of whether permaculture fits into the academy, and how he sees the Sustainable Backyard addressing environmental education.  I also interviewed Nelson, which I will post, pending revisions.

“Prior to working with Nelson, I didn’t know very much about permaculture.  He came to me because I have a background in environmental and science education, but he really brought a lot of expertise in permaculture.  His interest is in how we can use principles of permaculture to teach science education.  Through his PhD work, he has developed a framework for using permaculture in science education, and has piloted an intervention built with the principles of permaculture at a local school  using observation, interviews and questionnaires.”

The reality is I’m interested Education for Sustainability, and anything we do related to the environment has a scientific underpinning.  There’s no difficulty in fitting permaculture into a scientific framework, and certainly no difficulty with fitting it into an ecological framework.  And there are no issues there from an academic perspective with fitting permaculture into education.

Regarding the Sustainable Backyard, it’s a great start but they could do more in the demonstration garden.  They could be doing more interpretation to explain to the public that this is a holistic approach to gardening and the benefits that can accrue not only to gardening but all thinking about sustainability.  What visitors don’t see is that this is a completely different way of setting up a garden than, for example, the Kitchen Garden next door.  Certainly this one and other public gardens are missing lots of opportunities to help people make these connections.

Nelson found that teaching using permaculture requires different approaches to traditional chalk and talk in the classroom.  Somehow or another we need lots of professional development in order to facilitate this shift.

In translation, what does that mean for traditional public visiting a public garden?  How can we expect people to make fairly massive leaps from traditional gardening practices to permaculture?

There is plenty of literature in informal learning to suggest providing information is not necessarily enough to change people’s behavior.  Many gardens are designed to showcase plants and how they grow, or garden design, as with the Hamilton Gardens.  What’s missing is the reasons behind why a garden is planted in a certain way.  People need to go away with information and what they can do about it.

How can you recreate a more natural environment that enhances biodiversity, nice living environment, clean water, clean air, etc, especially in this very built urban environment?  How do we create more natural environments in our urban areas?

Tell people what they can do.  How do you cater to the 4 bottom lines:  knowledge, attitude, values and action?  How do you create an emotional response to that?   How do you provide easy access, then get people to go, “yeah, I’m going to do something about that.”

Permaculture in environmental education is certainly an area of burgeoning research.

Permaculture in the classroom

Nelson Lebo (R) and PhD supervisor Dr. Chris Eames with potato harvest. University of Waikato, Hamilton, NZ. February, 2011 (photo provided)

While in Hamilton, I interviewed Nelson Lebo, PhD student at University of Waikato, Center for Science and Technology Education Research.  I was thrilled to learn another academic was researching not only permaculture, but permaculture in education, and eager to hear the details of Nelson’s research.  Here, Nelson discusses the theoretical and practical aspects of integrating permaculture into New Zealand’s secondary curriculum, the focus of his research.

“My research seeks to address two problems:  Number one is incorporating environmental education into secondary schools. The second challenge is that students are dropping out of science after the compulsory years at alarming rates.  Both these challenges are recognized in the international literature.

The New Zealand curriculum is very innovative and allows schools and communities to tailor it to their own needs. This means that there is a potential opportunity to focus on environmental issues – both local and global – by teachers, departments and even whole schools. It empowers teachers because it gives them more freedom and autonomy, but it also scares the hell out of some of them.  When it comes to being creative and running with it, then some suddenly get cold feet. It is a big ask to start teaching in a different way. The New Zealand curriculum offers the opportunity for really amazing and creative curriculum development.  Whether teachers take it up is another issue.

Another challenge is students dropping out of science as soon as it is no longer compulsory.  (Year 10 is the last compulsory year in New Zealand, which is the equivalent of 9th graders in US [14-15 year olds.]) My proposed solution to both of these problems is to make environmental problem solving through permaculture the overall theme of the science curriculum.

So the idea is that, theoretically, teenagers are interested in environmental issues because it’s their future and they’ve gone through primary schools where environmental education is often taught.  And if you engage them in local, solution-oriented, science-based, ecological design they’ll have a more positive attitude towards the environment, towards learning and towards science.  In the end you’ll have a population with a higher level of scientific & ecological literacy.  That’s the theory anyway.

My primary research question is, ‘How can permaculture be integrated into secondary science curriculum to increase scientific literacy and ecological literacy among students.’  My first months of graduate studies were really a literature review.  The topic was so broad, and no aspect of the lit review was comprehensive because it included science education, environmental education, Transformative Learning Theory, permaculture and secondary education.

While Transformative Learning Theory, [which describes the process by which adolescents and adults replace and revise existing knowledge, often assimilated uncritically in childhood, with active construction of new and revised interpretations and meanings] is part of my theoretical framework, in the classroom I’m teaching the science of sustainability. The steps of transformation are integrated into the big picture design of the progression of the different science topics, but the students wouldn’t even notice it.  The goal is that all of the science topics required by the year 10 curriculum are taught from a permaculture perspective. In the classroom that translates to science units that are specific to the topics the teacher is required to cover but with a permaculture focus. Sure, we’re teaching about the science involved in permaculture, but we’re also teaching in a permaculture way. My research in one classroom represented 3 units over the course of 12 weeks.

Chris [Nelson’s advisor] challenged me to do the research in a permaculture way.  In permaculture, we design around the resources available.  In this intervention, I designed it around the resources available.  One of the strongest sectors was the NZ curriculum.  It’s a very strong wind – so maybe you need to design wind breaks, or you put up a windmill and harness that energy.  I told the teacher you give me any topic and I’ll make it applicable to the local community and accountable to the curriculum.

To overcome the main challenges my research seeks to address, it is essential to design around the sector influences and energy flows. So to get high quality EE into secondary schools I had to do everything in a very scientific manner, not in a save the world, tree hugging way, but in an experiential permaculture way.  I was a responsive designer. So I designed a locally-based, permaculture approach and the teacher was then able to pick and choose what ideas he wanted to go with.  Then as we saw opportunities arise that we could not have planned for, I could offer suggestions.

It’s been recognized that pedagogical content knowledge (PCK)- the ability of a teacher to know the topic that they’re teaching and to know the best way to teach it- is extremely important.  And it turns out it is extremely rare to find a teacher with high PCK in EE.  Is that teacher going to embrace environmental education and make it a priority while also being confident enough to be an innovative and transformative teacher?  In my research and my experience in schools, I am finding that the greatest need is for teacher training and professional development.

I taught a course at the University – , Education for Sustainability – , and noticed the same thing among the teaching students I was working with.  Most educational researchers agree that the teacher is the key to learning in the classroom.  It is so imperative for sustainability education to provide the highest quality training for teachers.”

Nelson is currently waiting to hear whether a contract will be awarded for teacher professional development for sustainability education in the city of Wanganui where he currently lives. “The way I proposed it was that education for sustainability is not just good ‘green’ education, it is good education period. When done well, teaching through environmental themes is simply good teaching. EFS is not only good for sustainability, it is good for education. Again, when done well it improves the teaching and learning of all topics in school. But as I mentioned before, the teacher is the single greatest factor in student learning. Therefore, if we want to improved learning we also need to improve teaching. Oh, and while we’re at it we’ll help students develop systems thinking skills, hands-on practical skills, a sense of stewardship towards the environment, and environmental problem-solving skills. All of these attributes are inherent to permaculture and permaculturists. So why not connect teachers and students with local permaculturists – practicing ‘citizen scientists’ – to bring the science curriculum alive and make it relevant to students. Most permies I know are mad keen to share their enthusiasm with others. It’s a source of energy. Harness it!

Feel free to contact Nelson about his research, or visit his blog on applied permaculture for house renovation and property design.

Email: nfl2@waikato.ac.nz

www.ecothriftydoup.blogspot.com

The story of the Sustainable Backyard through City Council eyes, Bill Featherstone

Many people were involved in the development of the Sustainable Backyard, and Bill Featherstone was one such key player.  Bill held office of Manager of Parks & Gardens for City Council during the conceptualization, installation and the first 9 years of the Sustainable Backyard.  He was also keenly involved in the development of Hamilton Gardens as a whole.

Booklet available for purchase at Hamilton Gardens that explains the principles of permaculture in the Sustainable Backyard

His name was on my list of people to contact when I ran into him at a kumara (sweet potato) planting in the Te Parapara Garden, the first traditional Maori garden in New Zealand. After the plants were in the ground, we sat down over tea to discuss the origins and challenges of the Sustainable Backyard.  Bill, having just entered retirement, had a lot to say.

“Three of us came up with plan for Hamilton Gardens in the 1980s, and that plan did not include the Sustainable Backyard.  After the Hamilton Gardens concept got momentum, a number of community groups came forth wanting a garden representing their culture or community group, (e.g. the Dutch community here wanted a garden featuring windmill & tulips).  A group came forth wanting a permaculture garden.  It really had a hard time for a number of reasons.  First, there was no design.  And we were very protective of maintaining a high standard.  For many people, a permaculture garden looked untidy.  If it was going to be provided on a voluntary basis, how did you guarantee that there was going to be continuity, not just on a day-to-day basis but for the long-term as well?

There was reluctance on our part to take it on.  They were finally admitted because they didn’t ask for anything other than a piece of land.  They didn’t ask for any money – they said they’d do the whole lot themselves.  They were here on a year-by-year basis and had no security of tenure.

After a while, the Trust showed that they could work here on a regular basis, and more importantly, they were actually running community education days, and that was important to me.  If all we had was a small group growing vegetables and eating them – well this was more than that.  People were coming to the gardens to learn how to grow their own food and learn the principles of permaculture.

[The Hamilton Permaculture Trust] also said they wanted some more land, in the suburban areas.  Their membership waxed and waned like a lot of community organizations.  But [Hamilton Permaculture Trust] did have people who were there through thick and thin – who held the philosophy and kept it going.

I said, “Why don’t you stop looking for land, and use the land that everyone’s got.  Why not encourage people to use their own garden.  If you have 6 people interested you can trade off meeting at their own gardens.  But [the Permaculture Trust] was committed to being on public land.  They got to the stage where they didn’t have enough committed volunteers that we’d all agreed was appropriate for Hamilton Gardens, so they asked Hamilton Gardens to take responsibility for the maintenance of the garden.  (i.e. get money from council so they could pay someone to look after it.)  Council did give a grant, but they didn’t have someone whose only job was looking after the garden, so the commitment level of people looking after the garden was not always there.  The Trust came back and asked council to take it over.  We agreed to, because the garden had proved itself to be of value to the community, largely because of the education capacity, and the national, and international movement.

Permaculture and sustainable backyard gardening is still not a widespread interest, but I believe that it is a sustainable interest. Over the last 5 years, there’s been a remarkable resurgence in an interest in growing vegetables at home.  I know nurserymen and they were caught unawares – kept selling out of vegetable seeds!  It’s leveled out, but hasn’t dropped below that initial surge.

There’s a parallel in people wanting to plant fruit trees, and there’s a genuine interest in growing varieties that are common when I was a boy.  People my age are saying, “Fruit doesn’t taste like it used to taste.”  There is a growing number of heritage varieties going into home gardens.  I think, if you’re growing vegetables at home, the reality is people won’t save any money, in fact it might cost money.  But that’s not the primary motivation.  There’s a genuine concern about the use of chemicals in food production.  So, permaculture & sustainable backyard gardening is inextricably mixed in with organic gardening.  Many people will say they grow vegetables because they know they’ve been grown without chemicals.

Food in New Zealand supermarkets comes from overseas.  In mid winter you can buy a plum from California that tastes like plastic though it looks magnificent.  A tin of apricots ten years ago was grown in New Zealand. Today it’s grown in South Africa and imported.  Many people are concerned about apparent lack of regulation in some of these producer countries.  For example there was an enormous reaction to melamine in baby food imported from China.    The mindset is, “You can’t trust the food that comes from China.”  It’s absolutely irrational, but that’s the mindset.  Even my wife said, “let’s go back to growing our own vegetables.”

I don’t know that very many people use the words sustainable or permaculture when they’re gardening at home, or even when they come to these community days, but “organic” and “safe” and “in control of what I ingest” are the motivators for people growing food at home.

If we take a holistic view of health, it’s got to get better.  This is an era where people are talking about cocooning.  We have more and more homes where fewer people are talking to each other and feeling love and concern.  And we have attrition of volunteerism.  Community gardening is one example of benefits that go well beyond a parsnip and an apple.

Chinese Scholar's Garden

In 1986, we built the Chinese garden, and put enormous effort into authenticity and integrity of design.  We reflected and realized that one day we’ll retire, and all this thought is going to be vulnerable to inadvertent change. We came up with landscape design statements that captured design philosophy of each garden.  Not to say they’re immutable, but if you make a change you do it wittingly and you know the impact on initial design.

When the Permaculture Trust said, “we want [City Council] to take [the Sustainable Backyard] over.’  We said, “sit down with us and talk about the sustainability, regime for maintenance and preservation for the garden.  How do we insure an acceptable standard?  We all negotiated a mutually acceptable preservation standard, which became the landscape design statement.  My tip for others is to have a written agreement so at least you know where you are.

I recommended to Council they keep the Sustainable Backyard.  Peter (Director of Hamilton Gardens) conducts visitor surveys, and one of the questions was, “which garden do you appreciate the most?”  There was a significant group of data to suggest that visitors appreciate the Sustainable Backyard, so it was easy for me to make a recommendation that I believed was the right one.  Numerically, the evidence was there that people were enjoying the garden.  Some people might not be interested in the whole philosophy of garden, but may enjoy a particular aspect of it.

Bee hives atop grape pergola, Sustainable Backyard

On one occasion, I visited community education day in the Sustainable Backyard, where there was a person talking about keeping bee hives.  I was one of a crowd of people who were there and I suspect that many of the people weren’t interested in chickens or water chestnuts, but they were interested in keeping bees.  And the Sustainable Backyard garden was an appropriate place to learn about bees.  There are many dimensions to the level of interest individuals have in the Sustainable Backyard.  I don’t think today any public garden would have any difficulty including a garden of this nature.  However, just because it can be done successfully, don’t relax the rigor.  The rigor was an important part of the process, because what it did as a pioneering movement, was it showed political people, decision makers that they could meet the tests.  And I think the tests slightly modified the actual garden.  There were some things that are non-negotiable if you are going to be on public land.

The most worrying part is the council can weed and feed chickens, but we don’t have an education officer in the gardens or public relations person.  In the meantime, we’re dependent on people like Cheryl Noble and the Hamilton Permaculture Trust to run those community education days, and they’ve been doing that successfully.  One thing about all voluntary organizations, is they depend on 2-3 key people.  The vigor of voluntary organizations is only as strong as those 2 or 3 people they have at any particular time.

I didn’t make it easy for [the Hamilton Permaculture Trust] to get the garden.”

———–

Read my previous blog post, Reflections from Permaculture Trust co-founder Adrienne Grant for the Hamilton Permaculture Trust perspective on the same era.

Read a short interview with Bill Featherstone’s on his retirement in the Waikato Times article,It’s time for Bill to reap rewards.

Reflections from Hamilton Permaculture Trust co-founder, Adrienne Grant

Adrienne Grant, co-founder of Hamilton Permaculture Trust, with kiwi on Mokoia Island, Lake Rotorua

I met with Adrienne Grant, co-founder of the Hamilton Permaculture Trust to talk about the genesis of the Sustainable Backyard and the Hamilton Permaculture Trust.  Adrienne currently works with New Zealand’s Enviro Schools and while she is still occasionally involved with the Trust, the Trust has developed a life of its own.  She reflects here on the early days of the Permaculture Trust and the genesis of the Sustainable Backyard.

“In 1997, I worked as a researcher in the U.K. looking at social disadvantage and environmental action, and when I got back, I wanted to do something that would make a difference.  I met Al (Alaisdair) Craig through City Council – who also knew Mel (Melanie Allcutt, co-founder of the Hamilton Permaculture Trust).  He saw idealistic, young 20-somethings and put us together to get us out of his hair.

What a mistake!  Mel and I got on great, and we decided we wanted to learn how to grow our own food with other people.

We saw community gardens, organic gardening, learning to grow your own food with other people – a communal thing which could inspire others.  Mel had done a Permaculture course.  We saw this as a way forward.  This was something that was really grounded.  It wasn’t out in the forest, it was something that could be brought back home.  It was something everyone could do – it was really practical.

We didn’t think about whether Hamilton needed it, we just wanted it.  We got funding from Council ($5k). We were young, idealistic and naïve.  We organized a couple of community meetings to see what interest there was, and that’s where we found Cheryl (current coordinator of Permaculture Trust) and Katherine, Anna, Chris and Robin (current Trustees)  It was 1998 when we first started talking, and that year we founded the Hamilton Permaculture Trust.

We looked around town for a site.  We met with Bill Featherstone (Head of parks & Gardens).  We basically asked, “Could you give us a bit of land please?”  He replied, “ I’ve done it before and every time it fails. What makes you different?”  I was gobsmacked, and said, “Because we are!”  Somehow he gave it to us.  (See Bill Featherstone’s perspective in my next blog post!)

We had some city council funding, and had contacted community agencies.  Everyone we talked to seemed to be really supportive of the idea.  We had examples from over seas [of successful community gardens].  We put together a portfolio to sell the idea to the community.  We were gauging interest of funders and agencies that could support us.

In 1999, a site at Hamilton Gardens that was covered in rubbish was allocated to us for two years.  We had a core of three volunteers, Mel and Cheryl and myself, and half a dozen people who would occasionally work in the garden, but it was hard to get ongoing help on a regular basis.  There wasn’t a clear idea of management at the time, we were spending a lot of time trying to get funding, etc.  We cleared the site and landscaped it and learned to grow vegetables.

After a year they [City Council] said, you know you’re going to have to leave this site, but you can take on the Backyard Garden as a permanent project.  The Hamilton Gardens have a history that every garden has been developed out of a community organization.  He saw that we were really committed to it.

We gave it a good long think and saw it as a positive thing.  We began winding down community gardens and took on [what is now] the Sustainable Backyard.”

I asked Adrienne what the secret to longevity of the Hamilton Permaculture Trust and the Sustainable Backyard has been, when so many other volunteer-started projects fall by the wayside despite best intentions.

“The Permaculture Trust has been essential, like a family, and we’re aligned because we’ve always had a sense we were doing something really critical.  We’ve all had a sense of ownership.

More than 10 years have passed, and it’s [Hamilton Permaculture Trust] still there, still doing stuff and making a difference in Hamilton.  We started something and it endured.  It’s about the people having a common goal, common purpose, and good honest communication.  We operated in that consensus framework.   We’ve also benefited from continuity.  So many board members have been there from the beginning.  It’s not just about governance; it’s been about the Sustainable Backyard and running organic gardening and facilitating community gardens, education in the community and events.

“The sustainable concept can be difficult to understand.  That idea of permanence provides another interpretation to the idea of sustainability.  We also explain it [permaculture] as a design system for living sustainability.  We used it [the word permaculture] to drill into what sustainability is.  Permaculture is a useful word to explain and use to break down and drill down.  We made Permaculture really really simple for funders – we broke it into simple language.