Tag Archives: schools

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


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!

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.

Ceres Community Environment Park

Weeks ago, on my flight from LA to Brisbane, the woman sitting next to me asked what I would be doing in Australia.  After getting an earful, and seemingly not quite sure what to make of it, she suggested I visit Ceres. I asked her what it was and she said she wasn’t exactly sure.  I filed it away in my dusty, zone 4 file cabinet, until the Permaculture Sydney North meeting, when it was mentioned again in the context of a community garden.  The name moved into Zone 3, and then when David Holmgren mentioned Ceres during his tour of Melliodora, I emailed to schedule a visit.

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David explained that Melliodora is perhaps the best documented example of a working permaculture garden, but that it is not necessarily the best demonstration garden, since it was set up to meet the needs of his own family.  Ceres, he said however, is a great example of a demonstration permaculture garden.  Indeed, the site is something to behold, get lost in, and meander unhurriedly throughout.  Far more than a community garden, Ceres encompasses a visitor’s center, permaculture nursery, café, education building, global village, market garden, chook area, aquaculture operation, energy demonstration site, and more.   After exploring the site on my own for a while, I met up with Judy Glick, School Programs Manager.  I asked her what the role of permaculture is at Ceres.

“Ceres was set up 30 years ago. One of the first things that was built was a compost heap and a permaculture garden.  David Holmgren helped with the design of it.  The principles of animals working in orchard for example, are still there.  Food gardens of Ceres have been set up with an amalgam of biodynamic principles:  natural predators, natural fertility, planting by the moon, etc.  And some permaculture diploma courses now use our site to run courses.”

Most Ceres teachers have permaculture training and personal permaculture experience, which they can incorporate into each of Ceres pre-planned 50 minute programs.  Though in some tours and programs permaculture is mentioned by name, Ceres doesn’t specify care of Earth or Care of People, [two of the three core permaculture ethics], or focus on teaching permaculture by name.  However, Judy confirms that permaculture is embedded in the ethos of what makes Ceres tick.  According to Judy, “We come at sustainability in a number of different ways, however David Holmgren’s original ideas are becoming rediscovered and coming back again. “

I noted that by way of having a well-developed site and hosting school groups, Ceres shares some of the same issues as botanic gardens who have a vested interest in bringing schools to the site.  Judy acknowledges the similarity, but clarifies the distinction: “We’re not a botanic gardens; it’s not a manicured site.”

Last month, Ceres had their one millionth school visitor to the site.  They’ve been running school programs for 21 years, and addressing the curriculum before school curriculum even addressed it.  Ceres doesn’t get any funding from the department of education or government, which, according to Judy, is actually quite freeing for the organization.  “Anything we do in terms of matching programs [to curriculum] is a service to teachers or is a marketing exercise, but not because we have to.  Basically we’re spot on because there are commonalities, we’re talking the same concepts regardless of what grade.  We don’t have any touch screens, it’s all hands on, real life, things break, are not always working.  The experience of coming here is like an immersion.  It’s not just a program.  The greater part of the organization is doing whatever students are learning about in a program. Any activities on site have to fit with the Ceres mission of economic, social and environmental sustainability. Whether you go to the café, farm, or community garden, all the programs fit within the mission.”

What message does Ceres want school children to walk away with?  “You as an individual are part of the natural and social world and you have a role to play.  We want the kids to have fun and have their eyes open and we want to give them positive solutions, which is sometimes a bit tricky.”

The bottom line on permaculture at Ceres?

“Permaculture is embedded in everything we do.  But people don’t necessarily leave here knowing more about permaculture unless they do a PDC (permaculture design certificate) here. “

I also spoke with Luisa Brown, Ceres Training Coordinator, who runs adult workshops that focus on energy, food and sustainable gardening.  They currently run a complete urban farmer course, which qualifies for ACFE funding (Adults Continuing Further Education, this is federal funding earmarked for supporting marginalized groups, e.g. Aboriginals, men over 45, adults over 55, and those without degrees) which addresses topics such as soil, bee keeping, composting, fruit trees.  An introduction to permaculture is also part of this course, and all the educators have taken a PDC as well as having a certificate in horticulture.

“We have a lot to do with sustainability organizations.  But we haven’t had any contact with botanic gardens.”  Why not? I asked.  They just haven’t contacted us, I suppose.”

Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mt. Coot-tha


Margot Macmanus, Brisbane Botanic Gardens visitors services coordinator by the demonstration garden used for permaculture teaching.


While in the beautiful Queensland city of Brisbane, I visited Brisbane Botanical Garden (Mount Coot-tha).  There I met with visitors services coordinator, Margot Macmanus, who graciously explained the garden’s involvement with permaculture.

Though the gardens don’t run any permaculture programs, they do offer up their garden space as a venue for a local instructor, Linda Brennan, a local horticultural celebrity of sorts, to teach permaculture classes along with other organic gardening courses.  “The gardens is a really great place for her to run her classes and its great for us to have someone really well known (she has a column in the newspaper). Permaculture classes get booked up pretty well – it’s worth her while to do them. She charges a reasonable price.  We provide venue and promotion.  She manages bookings and

inquiries – that works really really well.”  However, Brennan’s classes and workshops are geared toward the homeowner rather than local school groups; Margot refers local school groups interested in school gardening to Northey Street Farm, an urban, community permaculture farm. (I also visited Northey Street while in Brisbane, look for a post in the next day or so.

Margot explains the limitations of getting more hands-on with school groups:

“We only get to spend an hour and a half with the kids in lessons and we try to do some sort of potting up activity with the kids and it’s so time and labor intensive that it just didn’t work for us.”  Though many teachers are repeat visitors, each class tends only to come once per year.

Though the focus on permaculture is not geared toward kids, the focus on kids education really revolves around sustainability in the garden.

“All of our lessons do address sustainability in the garden.  Our Keeping Cool in Changing Times lesson does a biodiversity role play around the garden.  They are asked to think about what it would be like if they were a creature, like a koala. Two kids stand on a piece of paper.  They’re told there’s a new estate going up; and asked to think about what that will mean to them, as koalas.  They have to fold the paper in half (to represent the diminished habitat) and still stand on the paper.  Now there’s a drought and the paper is folded in half again.  The idea that there is limited resources.  We try to make it as experiential as possible.  We’re trying for that ‘aha moment’.”

“We had ‘Worm Magic’ with Growing Communities on Kids Day (an annual event at the gardens).  That’s the sort of thing we’re really good at.  The education staff get right into it.  Drawing kids in and helping them see how things work.”

I asked Margot what the general visiting public seems to know about permaculture. “I think people would have heard of permaculture but would not necessarily know what it is.”  Apparently, even in Oz – the birthplace of permaculture- it has not become as mainstream as one might imagine.

Growing Communities


Giuliano Perez, Growing Communities


Brisbane, Queensland.

Giuliano Perez, co-founder and current coordinator of Growing Communities, a not-for-profit organization that supports Queensland schools using gardens for teaching and learning, has big ideas.  Collaborating closely with schools and their communities toward this end is one way to address big issues of sustainability, food security and nutrition.  And permaculture plays a chief role in the organization’s work.

However, you won’t find the word ‘permaculture’ featured in Growing Communities literature or website. Even so, permaculture is at the core of what defines Growing Communities’ approach and practice.  Recently I met with Giuliano at the Three Monkeys Coffee House in Brisbane’s West End, and he helped shed light on perceptions of permaculture and his own organization’s leaning away from flagging it as such.

“Everything we do is permaculture, but we don’t go out there saying, ‘Hey this is permaculture.’ In fact we’re trying to move away from naming it permaculture.  We are moving toward doing gardens for sustainability thinking. It’s all about caring for the earth, caring for the people, and fair share of resources.”

Giuliano continues, “We do [abstain from calling it permaculture] consciously and subconsciously as well.  I would say that permaculture brings about all these connotations that don’t necessarily align with some of the conservative thinking of teachers & principals who want to have gardens and grow vegetables and initiate sustainability initiatives.  Instead of flagging this concept that [might be] associated with ‘hippies’, we just don’t flag it.  But we do [practice permaculture].  As an ethic, we’re all about observing and learning from nature.  We’re all about slowing down and recycling; multiple uses, you name it.  For us, permaculture is a way of being.  You practice it in everything you do, and the garden is just one way to do so.  You can have a guild, for example, around a kitchen, and you can apply everything to the people side of it, even moving away from the plants.”

When I asked Giuliano whether the stereotypes around permaculture are changing, he agrees that they are:  “Permaculture has permeated the mainstream; slowly it has in that it’s become an accredited training.  So I think that’s a recognition that the stigmas are being removed.  I still think a lot of people do permaculture certificates with the aim of buying a bit of land and attempting to live sustainably by themselves or doing it in their own home.  But I think that is changing.”

Giuliano also reflects on permaculture in a historical context.

“There’s this big thing about permaculture but when you think about it, it’s nothing new.  It’s all just common sense; the ancestors were doing it, living sustainably, using & sharing resources sustainably.  I had Pacific Islanders come into the multicultural garden and they said, ‘Hey we did this back home.’  Permaculture is not new.”

Originally from Chili, Giuliano’s background is in visual and performing arts, theater for kids, design and multi-cultural work. His undergraduate degree is in humanities, communications, film and media and he is now working on his master’s in education for sustainability with Griffith University, Brisbane. He completed his PDC (Permaculture Design Certificate) in 2005, and in 2008 he received the Winston Churchill Fellowship and traveled to England, California, Cuba, Argentina & New Zealand looking at garden-based learning in schools.

I asked Giuliano to reflect on how permaculture might fit into the botanical garden landscape, particularly related to environmental education.

“My take on botanic gardens is they’re a museum of plants.  When I go to botanic gardens I enter a different space and it’s just about the plants.  You go there and look at them and learn the botanical name, but to me what’s lacking is the social link between those plants and us; what’s the social history of those plants? How do we relate to them and how do they relate to us?  You could apply what permaculture’s about in the direct relationship between us and plants.  There are a number of places that are public [like botanic gardens] that are not fully exploring their capacity/potential to serve the community.  Their potential role for community development has not been fully explored.”

Giuliano has recently developed a network of schools who are using gardens for teaching and learning around the world, the World Garden Project.   “At the heart of the WGP is the development of global citizenship. Through the language of gardening the project promotes dialogue across countries and continents, fostering a greater understanding of the different cultural, social, economic, ethical and environmental realities of communities from around the world.”

“I love gardening and all that.  To me, though, it’s more about a way of being and interacting with the world; fellow beings and non-humans and how we interact in an ethical way.”

Permaculture and Environmental Learning in Botanic Gardens

While there is a wide body of literature on public gardens, and a growing body of literature on permaculture, there is virtually nothing published on the intersection of these two fields.  Until April of this year.

To read article, click link in article citation

With growing interest in the botanic world about permaculture and how it can be used in environmental learning,  Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) was keen to explore this topic in their quarterly Education Review, Roots. I coauthored an article along with Martin Clement, Gabrial Mngoma, and Nic Shaw that appeared in the April 2010 issue, that addresses some of the ways permaculture is such a natural fit for botanic gardens, particularly in environmental education.  Click the link below to download the article.

Article Citation:

Clement, M. Mngoma, G. Marteal, E. and Shaw, N. (2010) Permaculture & Environmental Learning in Botanic Gardens, Roots: Botanic Gardens Conservation International Education Review, vol. 7, no. 1.