While in Tasmania, I met with Mark Fountain, Deputy Director of Collections and Research, and Marcus Ragus, Manager of Learning & Community Engagement of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart, and enjoyed good conversation about botanic gardens and permaculture over a nice cappuccino.
I first phoned the garden weeks earlier to inquire about a permaculture course I saw advertised online, to be told by the receptionist that the course wasn’t likely to run since there weren’t enough bookings. It was the first time the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens had offered a permaculture course. I asked Mark and Marcus why the course hadn’t filled.
“We’ve done very little in the way of promotions. It’s also the perceived value of what we do at the botanic gardens. People are not aware of what we’re doing educationally. This has been the first round of classes like this we’ve offered. A product is only as effective as its marketing, and currently, our marketing department focuses more on major events and communications than education.” Perhaps not unlike many botanic gardens, though there is hope, and some evidence, that the trend is changing.
“We are very aware of what’s happening around the world in botanical gardens and the shift in focus, and that seems to be very strong in America. You can see it in some that are converting carparks into food gardens, with organic gardening and that kind of approach. We’ve had a very strong focus on things just like that.
In fact, the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens is quite famous for its Veggie Patch, the site of a beloved segment of the same name, on ABC’s Gardening Australia with Peter Cundall. Organic gardening principles are followed in the patch, using green manures and compost to naturally enrich the soil. The main beds follow a 6-year crop rotation system to prevent the build up of pests and diseases for healthier soil. (Though Peter Cundall wasn’t at the garden when I visited, and I still haven’t seen the show for myself, it was a treat to see this small-scale, 6-bed vegetable garden in person.) All meant to inspire the home gardener.
Marcus continues, “Organics is really the focus in Australia. Organics is made up of Permaculture, encompasses permaculture. Biodynamics is another one that is very very strong. Biodynamics groups have an effective national and state organization and they form a basis of our growing techniques. There are not as many permaculture farmers as biodynamic farmers, who are more structured. Natural Sequence Farming is another one. One of our aims is to bring these groups together to form partnerships, because we see synergies. There will always be these practices and there’s no use alienating them. In other words everyone has their own mustard, and we work with them all for some sort of learning. Our focus is really to make sure that the community is aware of all these practices.”
I was impressed by this perspective. Rather than shying away from offering a course for fear of perceived endorsement of one land management approach over another, the botanic gardens is rather reflecting back to the community various practices that are already occurring within Tasmania and around Australia. And these are all important, given their relationship with and impact on local ecosystems.
“When we’re looking at permaculture or biodynamics, we’re looking at aspects of these approaches that are impacting natural systems. Farming practices impact local bush, flora and woodlands, and the natural systems at play there. That’s why it’s important to address these issues, and educate about various practices and how they respond to and effect those natural systems.” And how does a botanic garden go about doing this?
“People hear a lot about biodiversity and threatened species but don’t know what that means. If we can package it in a way that’s close to their heart like lifestyle and food then you can also get this connection to the land and plants. It’s also important to get this info out to farmers.”
Why hasn’t permaculture gained traction yet within the botanic garden world?, I asked.
“I think it comes back to esoteric aspects of teaching. The organic areas field is very fragmented as well. There’s a book a week coming out related to organic gardening and they all have similar values but different techniques. Permaculture hasn’t been in the community long enough for people to digest if it’s real or if its up there with myth and legend. It’s only time before these things are taken in and become ‘fact’.
“My belief is there’s not one particular be all and end all; permaculture is one option of a very strong environmental perspective, with Bill Mollison’s emphasis on environment. Permaculture is very structured from a design aspect, and that is really how it stands apart from other strategies, as well as interpretation of natural ecosystems.
“Even with permaculture, I have great problems with certain aspects of it. For example, sometimes they [permaculturalists] are quite limited with how plants can be used in certain environments, and some of those plants are actually weeds. So weed impact with certain types of areas is a big issue across the nation.” Marcus continues, “Issues of sustainability are still not well explained within permaculture, for example bringing external materials in, or allowing adequate quarantine between farms. Some plants chosen might be completely exotic to plants that surround a permaculture property. Also, we have a huge network of community gardens. One wanted to clear out native bushland to put in a vegetable garden. That’s the kind of thing we want to educate about and change.”
After levying some common criticisms of permaculture, Marcus considers the standard limitations found within botanical garden institutions.
“I’m not saying we should go to a hunter-gatherer system, but as far as botanic gardens go, we’re still stuck in a very conservative mindset. We go to the traditional core business of botanic gardens. There’s a skepticism to moving into new areas: How much is it going to cost?”
A possible next step? “There’s a huge movement into healthy living, sustainable living and how to produce food. Community needs to weigh in on how to make these things happen. ”