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Dear Readers, I’m easing back in.

Dear fans & advocates of permaculture in public gardens,

It’s been a great long while since last I blogged about one of my all time favorite topics,  but I hope you’ll find my excuse compelling.  It has had nothing to do with wayward interests or distractions or busy-ness.  Well in part it does have to do with busy-ness. The truth is,  I have arrived in the place I feel I was meant to be all along- smack dab in the middle of  the Ithaca Children’s Garden.

After concluding my travels in February, I spent a good solid month nesting and bracing against the inhospitable winter, and began to implement some of the permaculture notions we had been dreaming up while away.

Hardly any time passed before I found myself, quite willingly,  in the position of executive director of the Ithaca Children’s Garden.  It has been a thrilling 5 months since then, and we’re already accomplished so much, not the least has been building an exceptional board of directors.

There is much to say about the organization, and the garden, and I can’t wait to share it with you all.  In due time, in due time.

Suffice to say, for now, is a magical place with whimsy galore, and sustainability infused in its fiber.  It doesn’t make any claims about permaculture, however, keep your eyes out, as we design for a journey down that road.

The work we will be doing is transformative work, which takes time.   However there is no time to waste, and things are already moving.

For starters, we will be launching a new website November 23.  Yes, the day before Thanksgiving!  Which means once you’ve cooked your meal and cleaned the dishes, and before you fall asleep, you can sit back with your cup of tea or your homebrew and read all about the Ithaca Children’s Garden to your heart’s content.

This is a journey worth waiting for!

Happy to be back to my blog, dear readers.  I look forward to staying in touch.

-Erin

Franklin Permaculture Garden, UMass

UMass is converting 1/4 acre of campus lawn into a thriving permaculture food garden, as well as educating and empowering students and community members in the process.  

“We’re helping students recognize they can do something about all the problems in the world, by focusing locally, by focusing on their own backyard, right here at UMass on the campus,” says  UMass Professor of Sustainable Food and Farming, John Gerber.  “Permaculture really takes it home.”

According to UMass permaculture committee member Jean Maxim Arnaud, “Sometimes the best solution starts out with the simplest form.  What do we have now that we can use?  That’s the best place to start if you’re looking for solutions.”

Watch the video, UMass Permaculture Documentary Series, Part 1/3, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWHSzGDItBA

Dunedin Botanic Garden, New Zealand

Spanning 80 acres on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island,  Dunedin Botanic Garden will be celebrating their 150th anniversary in 2013.

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Just after the new year, most staff members were still enjoying holiday when I met with Barbara Wheeler, Collections Supervisor.  She invited me to discuss my work and learn what Dunedin Botanic Gardens is doing with education. When I asked about Dunedin Botanic Garden’s perspective on permaculture, Barbara was extremely transparent:  “When we got your email we had to google permaculture!  We still are not sure we fully understand what it’s all about.”  Wheeler certainly stands in good company.  Through my research, there are many public garden professionals who are unclear about what permaculture is exactly, and how it fits into the public garden arena.   I explained permaculture, and how some public gardens are using permaculture, and Wheeler shared observations about changing attitudes in the gardens over recent decades.

“People used to grow their own food, but in last 20 years, it got so you can buy everything.  But now interest in growing food is actually rising again.  That interest in food gardening has come quite to the fore and we get questioned as to why we don’t have food gardens.”

Like so many other public gardens, Dunedin Botanic Gardens has limited resources of space, staff and funds, and despite public interest, there aren’t any plans at present to incorporate a food garden.

I asked Wheeler about education at the gardens, and she explained one of the funding hardships they have faced in recent years.  “New Zealand’s government has money to spend on environmental education through the Ministry of Education, though six years ago the funding allocated to Dunedin was pulled.  Geographically, the Auckland area was deemed to be more needy and the funding was redirected away from Dunedin.  Past programs had to be done through the curriculum, and we had an on-site education staff go out to schools to let them know what we had to offer, however we had to let that person go when funding was cut, which was an enormous loss.

However 5 kits that were developed before the funding cuts continue to run today, and are available to schools to use during their visits to the garden.  Kit themes include: Orienteering (go around garden and answer questions on certain plants).  Flower power (dress up and learn about pollination, fertilization)  Weather watch (learn how to read rainfall and thermometer readings),  Birds of the Aviary (where they’re from, why they’ve evolved as they have), Maori Uses program:  (learn about flax weaving and plants in culture).  “It’s sort of piecemeal, but it does allow us to offer something, and 8 to 12 schools still regularly book a kit every year.”

Wheeler continues, “A huge thing we want to do more of is outreach programs, whether to school children or older people.  A suburban school came to us and said, ‘We’d like to learn about the bush.  We have 80 kids.’  We decided we could give a half hour tour and seed balls.   We have to manage it quite closely – we do what we can because we’re quite keen on teaching kids about plants and caring for the environment.  The outreach we really want to do is to high schools, because kids between ages 5 and 10 are catered for with environmental education programs, but in high school, environmental education and horticulture tend to flag because math and language are prioritized.”

In fact, Dunedin Botanic Garden has been recently developing a unique relationship with a neighborhood school.  The headmaster has mandated that every class in the school visit the botanic gardens every year.  One of the teachers contacted the botanic gardens to inquire about whether there was a service project that their students could get involved in at the botanic gardens.

“Knowing how many resources are involved in setting up and running something like that, we were very reluctant to jump in without having a clear plan, which takes a lot of time, and without being sure we had the resources to execute it well.  Recently we decided yes, we can do it: they can do litter pickup.  Our gum trees shed eucalyptus leaves and bark and the students are keen to help us clean it up over a 2-hour period.”

But from Barbara Wheeler’s perspective, the botanic garden doesn’t want the students just picking up litter.  They want the students to learn something about plants while they’re there.  The concept in development is grounded in citizen science.  Intermediate level students will observe flowering times of plants in the garden, recording whether it is in flower, bud or autumn leaf at a given time of season.  This information will assist the botanic garden in developing a key record of significant plants in their collection.  The collaboration can continue indefinitely, and could be extraordinarily useful in monitoring the impact of climate change through the garden’s collections. And the potential for sharing and growing is infinite, with similar partnerships possible between schools themselves.

One of the things that has been identified in Dunedin Botanic Garden’s strategic plans is strengthening education, and hiring a full-time education staff member is a necessary step to achieve that.  Wheeler is hopeful that once their 150th anniversary is behind them, they can begin focusing more on education.

The Sustainable Backyard: a laboratory for tertiary students

During one of my first visits to the Sustainable Backyard, I encountered a class of tertiary students using the garden to identify plants.  I introduced myself to the instructor and asked for a follow-up interview.  After several failed attempts, I finally met with Antoinette in the shade of the Sustainable Backyard.  Antoinette is a faculty member in the Landscape Department at Wintec, a polytechnic school that sits adjacent to Hamilton Gardens, and shared the ways in which she builds sustainability into her landscape design classes.

“I use this particular garden in two formal classes: Landscape Design 2 and Theory of Landscape Design.  I tend to focus quite heavily on ecological health and using ecology as a basis for design.  We touch on permaculture in terms of edible gardens and relationships between plants and people and the function they satisfy.  But it sits within a bigger picture of ecology.  We look at house angles, sun angles, shade, etcetera.

I love coming down here to show students the relationships between plants and that plants should satisfy more than one function, such as attracting birds and providing color.  Aesthetics is one.  It’s quite interesting.  It’s a much healthier landscape compared to many landscapes designed by others.  It’s based on function; Form follows function.

I’ve taken my students on a field trip to Waimarie Community Garden [started by the Hamilton Permaculture Trust]. We extend it into farms as well.  Farming is huge here – it’s also a huge polluter.  We’re looking at ways of improving the landscape, not just stopping phosphates from going to river, but by putting edible plants in the riparian zone.

 

Fejoah Tree in The Sustainable Backyard

We talk about ecosystem services, and there’s a bit of focusing on monoculture.   Monoculture is highly open to risks of collapse.  Then there’s biodiversity. And then there’s an ‘in between’, where production is balanced with biodiversity.  So get in fruit trees.  Open your mind to the plant world.  I want them saying, “I can use fejoahs and pine nuts in my design.”

 

My Landscape Design Two class is all theory.  We do plant identification and spend  one week on edible plants.  I try to have them look at the landscape in an edible way.  If you’re going to plant a box hedge, you can use chili or guava.  Look at forms of plants we’ve always used in our backyard, but look at them from a different angle.  When you have climbing plants, you can have them growing up your corn, for example.

I have a nice video of Nigel Wilson and he’s building a garden in the desert and he’s creating an amazing food producing, lush forest.  It’s great to show them that.  My experience with education is it’s a jumping off point. I just try to wow them with stuff so they can take what they need or want.  My students are between the ages of 19 and 30.  Some day they might think about permaculture, or growing beans up their corn.

Usually they’re really interested.  They’re really interested in cutting edge technology.  Green roofs were very popular this year.  We usually tend to bombard young people with a whole bunch of terrible statistics, instead of showing them what they can do.

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.

Sustainable Backyard: One of Hamilton Gardens’ most popular gardens

Shortly after arriving in Hamilton, I had the chance to meet with Peter Sergel and Gus Flowers of Hamilton Gardens, Director and General Manager respectively.  I asked about public interest in the Sustainable Backyard.

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Gus explains, “It’s a small garden, but the interest in it is huge. The gardener [who left and was replaced between the time of this interview and the time of writing] would have been asked frequently all kinds of question. A common question at the Visitor’s Center is, “Where is the Sustainable Garden?” People also want to know what types of plants grown in the Sustainable Backyard and the chickens attract a lot of interest, as well as interest in knowing more about companion planting and beneficial insects. This public interest is the reason we started with developing the [Sustainable Backyard] booklet. (Currently, the Sustainable Backyard is one of only two gardens for which individual booklets have been made available for sale at the Visitor’s Center.)

When asked how the Sustainable Backyard fits into the whole of Hamilton Gardens, Peter replies, “We have a concept for all the gardens here. It’s about the history and meaning of gardens. We are not a botanical garden. We are really about the story of gardens. The Sustainable Backyard formed a community of interest around it. They [Hamilton Permaculture Trust] started as a community garden (in the site next door to its current location). Because it complemented our collections perfectly and because of public interest, council approved it. The stated goal of the Sustainable Backyard is to produce enough to feed a family of 4. It provides a message about sustainability. It’s a permanent fixture here.”

Gus speculates that of the visiting public, it’s about 50/50 who know about permaculture. “Others are curious about what this new thing is. From word of mouth I think it [the Sustainable Backyard] is one of the most popular gardens.” Peter referenced a survey in which visitors ranked their favorite gardens, and the Sustainable Backyard was right at the top, only behind the high profile Italian Renaissance and Indian Char Bagh Gardens.

I asked about partnerships that are in place to support the Sustainable Backyard. “We have a very good relationship with the Hamilton Permaculture Trust. They provide all of the formal education that takes place in the garden, which is very good for us because we don’t have an education program. It’s one of the main reasons we wanted to have the Sustainable Backyard garden here. We also work with a father-son team to manage the bees. Wintec is also a partnership we can tap into – the students give us some extra help.”

So far it seemed like the Sustainable Backyard and Hamilton Gardens was the perfect marriage.  I asked about unique challenges that are presented by the Sustainable Backyard.  “We get complaints over the condition of the chickens. People are always concerned about the chickens. We’ve had vandals. The worst was when there was a ruckus in the garden and someone called the police. The media showed up with the police and it turns out someone who was strung out on drugs was eating a live chicken. The cameraman caught the whole thing and aired it on T.V. Also, our solar panel [that operates the pond pump] has been stolen twice, and crops sometimes get stolen. The storage shed was broken into and the information board was attacked. Throughout the garden, we’re increasing our security, including putting in irrigation and quarry alarms, stationing a security guard and upgrading fences. Parkour is also a huge problem throughout the whole gardens.”

I also spoke with Sheree Austin, Assets Manager at Hamilton Gardens, about unique challenges that managing assets of the Sustainable Backyard presents.

“We are required to use contractors approved by Council, and many of them refuse to use sustainable products, for example untreated wood. [Using sustainable products in the Sustainable Backyard is one of the mandates of the design concept of the gardens.] I have been able to source with Cheryl’s (coordinator of the Hamilton Permaculture Trust) help. It’s really good because it’s a different kind of garden. We’ve been very very lucky that we’ve had the Permaculture Trust support us.

“I also order plants for the garden so I’ve had to learn about rotation of the beds. Because I only want a small number of plants for the Sustainable Backyard, and the nursery is used to supplying at least 50 plants of each variety, it’s been an adjustment to thinking about ordering. We get heirloom seeds from Kings Seeds because we’re trying to go for different color tomato or different carrots than people are used to seeing in the grocery store.

“One thing I had trouble with early on when the solar panel got stolen multiple times was that it took some time to find someone who understood what we needed it the panel to do. The Permaculture Trust gave me a list of all the assets and rough costs because there are things in this garden that are no where else in Hamilton Gardens (like solar panels). I basically contact the Trust first if I need to source anything for the garden outside of the usual materials. They are always available.

“I came in on the weekend to help them [Hamilton Permaculture Trust] build the adobe pizza oven and it was really interesting to get involved with that. People are really interested to learn what they can do in their backyard. We get lots of questions about the chicken coop and the bee hives.

1 To address this theft concern, the solar panel was relocated to the top of the pergola, making it less visible and providing natural guards in the form of lively honey bees, whose hive is perched right next to the panel.

Plants, animals and cultivated ecology in The Sustainable Backyard

After spending two months researching a particular subject, it’s difficult  to summarize all that is worth mention, or even the highlights, in one blog post.  To ease the challenge I have featured other voices, and will continue to post several more interviews of other key stakeholders, on the Sustainable Backyard.  However this post is meant as part two of Finding the Sustainable Backyard, Hamilton Gardens, the reward to virtual visitors in the form of a 60-photo slide show featuring the cultivated ecology within the Sustainable Backyard.

One major focus of my work with the Hamilton Permaculture Trust was redevelopment of their website, and as part of that work I created a virtual tour of the Sustainable Backyard.  Rather than duplicate that effort, I encourage readers to visit the main Sustainable Backyard page, and link directly to the virtual tour with a clickable map, which shows the garden design.  I have chosen different images for this slide show, and readers who view both should get a pretty good idea of what the Sustainable looks and feels like, and maybe even get a sense of the sounds and smells.

As you view the slide show, I ask the reader to consider the following questions:

What unique challenges does a permaculture garden located within a public garden face?       and…

How does the Sustainable Backyard address (or not address) these challenges?

I would love to hear your responses, so when you’re done watching the show, please take a moment and write a comment.  Also, if you’d like a caption or more information on a particular image, let me know!

If you’d like to stop to read the interpretive panels, roll your mouse over the show to reveal controls. The show is 4 minutes, and I’d recommend opening your favorite radio station on Pandora or Live 365 while you watch.

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Learn more about the history and development of the Sustainable Backyard and other initiatives of the Hamilton Permaculture Trust by visiting the  Hamilton Permaculture Trust website.