Tag Archives: permaculture

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.

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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.

Cecilia’s 13 steps to creating beauty in the permaculture garden

by Erin Marteal & Cecilia Macaulay

After encountering numerous objections to permaculture in the public garden sector based on a perceived fault in aesthetics, I’ve become keenly interested in the relationship between permaculture and beauty. (See background article, Permaculture is many things; Is beauty one of them?)  I recently interviewed Cecilia Macaulay, artist and permaculturalist, and asked her for tips on how to go about designing for beauty in the permaculture garden.  Though aiming for 10, she easily came to 13, and I have no doubt she will some day write a book on the subject.  We hope these ideas spark conversation and inspire aesthetic explorations in permaculture gardens everywhere.

“I want permaculture to spread to the mainstream; enriching other lives like it does mine. If you design beauty into your gardens, people can’t resist, and want one too. Beauty is a source of renewable energy, as valid as wind or solar; it gives people energy to act.  It’s easy to get helpers for gardens that are on their way to being beautiful. It takes effort and investment in the beginning though.

The analogy is, if you want birds in the garden, you need to get rid of the cat, and similarly, if you want allies for your garden, you may have to give up some old habits. The exciting thing is, beauty isn’t a cosmetic you slather on top of a permaculture garden. Permaculture attitudes and principles ARE beauty-creation principles.  Stare deeply into any striking beauty, and you’ll find something that brings life and liveliness into being.

Beautiful Permaculture in 13 Steps:

1. Make use of very old memories.

The children of the Jiyugakuen school, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, grow and cook their own organic lunches, then spend playtime in the trees.

Dappled shade under a canopy of maple invites human repose

What humans find deeply beautiful are those things which have helped us to survive through history, like the smell of a campfire, which echos as the smell of warmth, safety and friends.  When we’re under the dappled light of trees we feel a quiet peace and security, which is no surprise since that’s where our furry ancestors made their homes.

Replicate these lively forest elements when you make gardens for people, and watch what happens. When an outdoor table is on an exposed, windy patio, people don’t use it.  We are drawn to covered and protected areas. We tend to be attracted to those elements that helped our ancestors survive.

2. Create ‘Families’.

Creating stable, exciting families is what I want to do when composing a garden. When choosing containers for balcony gardens, I stick to similar materials, colors or shapes, so that the plants have a visually stable and cohesive ‘ground’ from which to fruit, flower and do their thing. The growing plants are what we want to give our attention to, the pots just need to be capable, supportive and silent.

The thing about families is, they don’t accept just anyone who wanders into their kitchen. Members have a history and a future together, they understand and look after each other. They make up for each others weaknesses, and together, they have a chance at a stable future, at surviving. Let every member of your garden feel they are wanted and needed. Don’t accept spikey or looming things that will wonder what they are doing there.  In a human family, each person has their unique contribution:  one tells the jokes,  another is boss of getting the DVD player to work. Each have their niche, yet they are all related. That’s the key – not so similar it’s repetitive, not so distant they all feel alone, but getting the connection lively, just right.

Caterpillar-munching praying mantis

Sticking to a common heritage is one way to make a garden look good. Imagine an edible South American garden, with its exotic blooms, drooping with avocados and tomatillos. It can transport you to another world. It’s not just co-incidence that plants who look good together and taste good together also take care of each other in the garden.  My Lebanese dinner of Tabouli and Baba Ganoush used parsley and eggplant. Without the parsley in the garden, there wouldn’t have been any eggplant, as its pollen-rich flowers attracted a fearsome praying mantis, who then patrolled the eggplant-eating caterpillars.

Raspberries in hessian-wrapped recycling crate, with pink-painted irrigation pipes from rainwater-pond, with Bougainvillea.

While common heritage has its benefits, a well-chosen mixed marriage can be even more productive. Having tropical Bougainvillea clambering over balcony railings can create dappled shade for the delicate English garden it shelters, while its thorns guard against marauding possums.  The hot pink flowers and the deep pink raspberries made beautiful music together.

Gothic garden starring black plastic pots

In my garden, I avoided using black plastic pots because they didn’t suit my theme.  Actually, I thought they were ugly. But in permaculture, as in nature, nothing is inherently right or wrong. It’s just something of potential value in the wrong place. So to extend my prissy boundaries, I gave myself the challenge of creating a Gothic Balcony Garden, making the black plastic pots into the stars of the show. They did great. They held black kale, black edible pansies, blackberries, eggplants, and lots of spooky mauve – lilly pilly, rosemary flowers.

You could even make a white polystyrene boxes garden that is beautiful. It would take a lot of ingenuity, but it’s not impossible. But if an object is not contributing, not wanted and needed and part of the family, it will be unhappy and so will your garden.

3. Give yourself permission to pass it along.

Give yourself permission to pass on or recycle things you don’t love and that don’t fit your garden’s composition.  Our brains often say “I have no choice; I have to accept whatever I have been given.”  But we are designers, not victims. We don’t have to listen to the little voice that makes us surrender to living with clutter.

Throwing things away is difficult for almost everyone, and the reason for that is hard-wired –  an excess of stuff hasn’t killed many of us, but until only one or two generations ago, lack was our constant threat.   If you want to make a beautiful garden, subtracting unwanted things is cheaper and more effective, but a lot more difficult than just tossing pretty new things into an existing mess.

It’s usually the soft-hearted people, the people who can see redeeming points in any broken-down contraption that find themselves mired in garden clutter. – Here is a sentence I find powerful: ‘ Just because it’s there doesn’t mean I have to use it‘.  And the blessing is, once I get strong about refusing things in my physical surroundings, I’m more able to do it in my mind and spirit. Just because an emotion is there doesn’t mean I have to act on it.  Just because I feel angry doesn’t mean I have to express it.  That really changes my life and changes my world.  If you can do it in your balcony garden you can do it in your life.
When you leave things you don’t like in your garden, you get numb to them, which is convenient. The cost is, you get numb to beauty as well.  To keep your vision crisp and appreciative, don’t force it to tolerate mangy stuff.  Be brave, make the decision, and throw it away. The pain of this waste is therapeutic. It will stop you from buying and accepting things you don’t love for the rest of your days, it’s a big milestone in your life.

4. Respect the nature of each thing. 

Stepping stones make a walking trail through the rhubarb, asparagus and salad violas.

Short squat plants look good in short squat pots.  Tall plants need tall pots.  When things are happy and fulfilling their nature, they look good.  If you want to make a path with square tiles, you put them in a straight line, or stagger them, or line them up in an angular basket weave, but don’t force them into curves. If you put them off their horizon, they get dizzy, and no-one is happy.

Rough rocks meander, while straight boards give a structured background, lots of little discoveries can be made in Michele Margolis nature Strip, Sydney. The pink flower was picked up from the road on her way home, to be cherished a few minutes before coming to its final resting place here.

Likewise, lining up odd-shaped rocks like a string of pearls looks awkward. Rocks want to be wild, they want to lay about with big rocks and little rocks, on different levels, as they do in the mountain, in nature.  So just as you don’t force your tomboy daughter to do ballet, or your graceful son to do rugby, you listen to what materials want to be, and let them do a good job of being themselves.

5. Love each plant.

My heritage striped mauve eggplant

It’s easy to love a garden if individually you love each plant.  Fill your garden with plants that have a story. Get cuttings from friends, gifts to mark special events. Get plants that re-create a favorite holiday, or even self-portrait plants, and order rare breeds from the internet. Save the seeds and improve them.  Unlike commonplace supermarket plant, plants with stories attract your affection and attention. You won’t let them die without a fight; they are irreplaceable.

6. Balance the elements.

Mariko my housemate enjoys the summer courtyard’s napping spot.

Nameplate and entrance Morimoto familiy’s Permaculture Guest House, Gifu Japan. Following gravity, dark goes down, light goes up. verticals and Horizontals relate to each other respectfully. A balance of elements are present - metal, wood, water, earth and air, Everything is weathered and humble, the Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi (literally, rusted and lonely).

Having a balance of the five elements makes humans feel at ease. Some wood, some fire, some water, air and void.  Fire might be present through lighting a Mexican chiminea (portable earthen fireplace) in winter, or citronella candle in summer. Water might be a goldfish and reed pond in a big bright bucket, or even just a large bowl with a bamboo dipper –  it doesn’t need to be elaborate, so long as it’s in use and freshly appreciated each day.

Humans don’t like to be confronted by a wall of timber, they like to see airy space between each piece of wood.  Look at spacing in a forest and copy that in your garden. Use a hedge rather than a paling fence, or cover it with a forest of raspberries.

When you use a balance of the proportions found in nature, you feel balanced just by viewing, as the Japanese know. But it’s older than that. “Here is my waterhole, my cozy cave, my hunting and gathering grounds, my clan. Everything I need is here, and I will be safe.”

7.  Be resourceful.

Technoratty - creating a solar powered electric vehicle from repurposed scraps

We can be tempted into thinking that if we don’t earn much money, we can’t have what we want, we can’t bring our beautiful plans into reality.  If you have less money, and you are a value-creating Permaculturist, you will have more time, more community, more skills.  We can often trade something we have for something we need.  If you haven’t got a real-world community, quick, go and get one. Talk to the neighbors, become a WWOOF host, create an Epicurean-style study group in your garden.  Hold grafting days, seed saving swaps.

Installing a collection of fashionable plants risks creating a soulless display.   But a garden pieced together, coaxed into existence through the riches of human connection looks unique in all the world. Most of my gardens were created with the help of brave, life-loving WWOOF1 travelers who came to stay with me.  The garden would hold memories of our time cooking and partying together, getting fond of and grateful for each other.

8.  Create space for human connection.

Kohei (13) helping Cecilia create courtyard edible garden at Asaba Art Square, Yokohama.

Something that connects people will feel beautiful, such as a little space to sit and be together.  If we don’t connect we won’t survive. Conversations you have in useful gardens while shelling peas have a very different quality to conversations had in yet another restaurant or café.

Kohei and Cecilia take a break

9.  Foster beauty of spirit.

In response to the suicide of a child she knew, Mrs Asaba created a neighbourhood art school for children. 40 years later, Asaba Art Square is a small universe of permaculture generativity.

Undesirables will pop up in your garden – a dead rat, an infestation on your plant.  That’s when you say, “I’m brave, strong, creative, and I’ve got Google.”  There’s nothing bad about ugliness, but if it stops you from doing your job caring for people, earth and sharing surplus, well, that’s a waste.  You can’t always have physical beauty. But beauty of spirit is available anytime, anywhere. For me, when I see people bravely doing as they decide, not as their emotions dictate, l feel I’m in the presence of beauty, and it always awes me.

10.  Allow for mystery and surprise.

Compost heated showers, one of the pleasures of APC 10, the Australian Permaculture Convergence in Cairns 2010.

Beautiful gardens do the unexpected. You can do your bit as a designer to elicit curiosity, then discovery by creating wending pathways, hills with stepping stones to clamber and harvest from, little doorways into other worlds in your garden.  Nature will do the rest of the choreography. She will send your garden pests, just to tease you. Then she will send in new insects to clean them up, and you will be grateful. And sometimes nature will send you lavish gifts – anoperatic songbird, a frilly butterfly, a waft of fragrance, and whatever washappening till that moment you will say “I’ve changed my mind – being alive is wonderful.”

11. White is difficult

Gardens look best when they are nature-colored, and here in Australia, nature doesn’t provide big swathes of white.  This dazzling color is best when its renewable; a white flower, a white, freshly licked cat, or a Gum tree displaying luscious snowy limbs under rough bark.  Humans are phototrophic and our eyes will zoom straight to white, so unless your compositional skills are excellent, it will unbalance your garden.

The goldfish was conspicuous, therefore uneasy in the white-bottomed dish. The Mongolian horse hair mulch looked amazing for a while, discolored, and went to the compost.

Go to an art gallery to see how painters manage this color and you might do something extraordinary.  Man-made white is bridal. It dominates, and it needs to stay pristine.

Whether it’s a white fence or a bench, a bedraggled, rain-streaked, discarded bride will curse you every time you pass.

A carefully tended white garden could be breathtaking though – white eggplants, fragrant jasmine, Mongolian horse-hair mulch for the potted plants, and lots of silver foliage.  A Marilyn Monroe garden. But don’t forget, she got her hair bleached every Saturday for decades, not cheap and easy.

12.  Overcome imaginary limitations

Borrow your neighbor’s garden. Just go and capture it. Care for it, get intimate with it, share the harvest. She probably won’t even charge you rent. We are so funny.  We feel we aren’t allowed to love things we don’t legally own.  Being a renter also doesn’t count as a reason to avoid living in beauty. The plants you put in will be your friends, and will enchant your memories of those one-and-only years of your life. Rental gardens are a canvas to practice on, a university course to learn from, they go in your folio as a permaculture designer, and other garden-making chances will then open up for you.

Overcome limitations

If you (and your WWOOFers1) do an impeccable job on one section of the garden, it might give your landlord the confidence to fund the rest of the project. But he won’t invest in your garden if you don’t.

Don’t worry about leaving it behind – we end up leaving everything behind in this life, and it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have had that garden at all.   When you must leave, there is also the option of bringing your tried-and-tested potted trees with you, or giving your pet plants to someone you love.  Gifts given when it’s not even birthday or Christmas have a special glow.  The crisis of having to move an ecosystem can bring people together.

13. Beauty needs love.

Bette Davis said, “A woman is beautiful when she is loved.”  When a garden is regularly tended and gazed at, passers-by feel it, they know they are in the presence of something valuable. Because it’s an ecosystem garden, there will be things not found in regular gardens:  flowers gone to seed hosting useful insects, maybe useful weeds amongst pretty flowers, hollow logs, layers of life and life renewing. Amongst all this may be other signs of activity – skillfully made rain ponds, a convivial breakfast table, sculptures purchased from people you’ve met. This will communicate as engaging liveliness, something rare, and in turn, lovable.

A loved garden does take time, but time with this garden is your favorite hour of the day.

But if the weeds and dead flowers are accompanied by forgotten fruit on the ground, a fence half-repaired with blue string, lolly wrappers caught in prickly weeds, everyone can see ‘procrastination’ and ‘lack of love’ written up in neon lights. Cheap, stuttering Neon lights.  While regular gardens take a lot of fertilizers, Zone One Urban Permaculture gardens take a lot of gazing. Gazing so we know what’s ready to harvest, what bugs are eating what pests, and what needs our help.  And it’s a pleasure, because this garden is our darling garden, and when you have a darling, you want to have your hands on this darling all the time, you want to marvel at the new beauties that each day brings. Imagine choosing a low-maintenance spouse, one you just walk by each day, then throw water on once a week.

A loved garden does take time, but time with this garden is your favorite hour of the day. To make this happen, put a table and chair there, and just start spending time. Breakfast time, or after-work Happy Hour time. Get a rhythm going, because the power of rhythm will carry you and your garden along.
Once love starts, it snowballs, and your garden will elicit more and more, polishing your character, and making you strong, smart and beautiful. So many things I didn’t know about myself were revealed to me though my guru, my garden.

See more of Cecilia’s work:

www.balconyofdreams.blogspot.com

and check out my previous post on Cecilia’s perspectives on intimate permaculture.

1  WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms),  is a network of national organizations that facilitates the placement of volunteers on organic properties, in which the volunteer exchanges labor for room, board, and learning.