Tag Archives: 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.

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.

St. Joseph’s School Garden, Hamilton NZ

While in Hamilton, New Zealand, I met with Clark McPhillipp, Associate Principal at St. Joseph’s Catholic School.  Five years ago, four students and one teacher got together to do a sustainable garden project.

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They contacted the Hamilton Permaculture Trust and took a field trip to the Sustainable Backyard garden for ideas and inspiration. They did some serious research and analysis on paper and worked with Cheryl, the Coordinator of the Trust, on the design and plans, which included worm farms made from old bathtubs, well-built raised beds, and chooks.  The students were involved in an authentic learning experience and leadership capacity from the very beginning.

Now that the garden has been in operation for a sustained period, the systems are pretty well in place, and the garden has become part of the school’s identity.  The school scraps get fed to the worms and the extra worm pee is sold at Parish.  The chooks are used in sexuality education.  Students learn about companion planting by putting plants together with their ‘friends’.

“We do inquiry-based learning in all things here at the school,”  says Clark of how the garden links in with curriculum, “and the garden is a fantastic way to bring the curriculum to life in a real way.”  He also explains the garden is a much more effective way to address learning outcomes than the traditional, more removed and abstract curriculum content.

The garden beds are extremely well-built and, Clark concedes, are made out of pressure treated lumber.  He knows that is not the typical permaculture way, but opted for a durable solution that would last a long time using readily accessible materials. To protect against the leaching of the potential for toxins into the soil, they lined the beds with an impenetrable membrane before filling with soil and compost and planting.

The following year students put together the garden shed.

“This wasn’t done by adults.  This was done by kids with some adults overseeing,” says Clark.

The garden has been featured on garden tours and the students host regular visitors.  Today involvement has grown to 30 kids and 3 teachers and is still growing strong in its 5th year.

Permaculture Praise

Five months into my 6-month Dreer travels, I reflect back to the origins of this course of study I’ve been immersed in.  I have pasted below a post that I wrote while carrying out an internship with Durban Botanic Gardens (South Africa) in June-July 2009.  For me, it was a defining moment that has shaped my future as an environmental educator.

16 June 2009

Tuesday I assisted in leading a Permaculture Program for 15 senior primary learners.  What an inspiring group!  These youngsters were incredibly enthusiastic about learning, and genuinely interested in understanding plants.  My American accent worked in my favor here, and the endearment was mutual.  As part of my usual process, I collected Straight Talk at the program’s conclusion.  One learner wrote, “This was one of the best days of my life!”   Who could ask for more??

Giving a seedling to DawnA student eager to take care of her own plant.

I am convinced that permaculture is one of the best growing systems for teaching about the natural world.  It’s almost like magic – no dig beds, EM, plants that are DOING so much for each other, even while looking innocently passive.  Insect-plant interactions, ecosystem awareness.  And chickens do the work to boot!  What a sensible system!  I am enrolled in a 10 day Permaculture Design Course that starts in two weeks, so I’ll keep you posted on new learning!

Mount Annan Botanic Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willunga Waldorf School Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

On October 8, I met with Dorothy Dhaeze, Acting Education Coordinator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, who toured me around the gardens with extra attention towards the children’s and kitchen garden and other features that speak to sustainability and education.

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While not practicing or educating about permaculture, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne does a fair bit of environmental education.  Botanic garden education serves all grade levels from pre-k on up, including a toxicology course for tertiary (college level) vet students.  In addition, the botanic garden offers professional development courses to teachers in topics such as no-dig gardening, a concept often practiced in permaculture gardens.  “We have learned to ask teachers when they book whether they have a school garden, and most do.  And most of those are food gardens.”

The Kitchen Garden is part of the Children’s Garden, designed with raised beds and some fruit and nut trees.  It’s packed into a fairly modest sized area but packs a pretty big punch of color and crop.  While tidy and well-organized, this garden demonstrates process as well as product:  there are several propagation trays around, and beds that have recently been cleared.  Dorothy explains that children are invited to do a hands-on activity in the garden as part of the Kitchen Garden school programs, whether planting or harvesting, weeding or mulching.  There’s also a water tank with a sign explaining why it’s important to capture rain water, and a compost turning bin right in the middle of the garden.

A pond in the children’s area is used to run a mini-beast class, with nets and microscopes and hands-on activity. The spores from the underside of the water fern ‘Nadoo’ was used by the Aboriginal people for food, and John King, the sole survivor of the Burke & Wills Expedition, lived with the help of Aboriginals and by eating these spores.

Do the programs explicitly address sustainability issues?  “It depends on the program:  Some programs are plant biology, like ‘Plant Works’, and most programs you do something hands on, like planting or propagating, and in doing so, we talk about maintenance.  Water is always a big focus and we talk about how they’re going to water the plants without using tap water, so mulching, collecting rain water, and selecting plants that don’t need a lot of water are all discussed.”

One of Dorothy’s favorite classes is ‘Changing perspectives, changing landscapes,’ in which they look at historical perspectives, Aboriginal heritage, and different philosophical approaches over time.

The same philanthropist who funded the children’s garden also provides a bus for under-resourced schools, so everyone can participate.

Another exciting program the botanic garden runs is through their endangered and rare plants collections.  School groups visit the collections then propagate some of the species with the guidance of horticulture staff, and then reintroduce these seedlings to their native habitat.

Guilfoyle’s Volcano showcases innovative ways  to harvest and recycle storm water, including use of biofilters, as well as featuring low water use plants.  The volcano is part of a larger water management system that is in development, and though there’s not much interpretation now, there will be more to come.

The rainforest walk has changed over time into the ‘forest’ walk, as the rainforest plants were unable to cope with the lack of water that has been a pervasive situation over the past decade.  This is one of the ways the botanic garden has adjusted practices to align more closely with resource conservation.