“It’s spring time,” proclaims permaculture teacher David Shaw, as he clutches a hunter green steel digging fork. “Time to go.”
Indeed, signs of spring are all around: bees are gathering nectar from budding lavender, bird songs ring out from every direction and the garden of the Santa Cruz Waldorf school is filled with 16 eager students, anxious to get their hands dirty.
But the approach here is much different from what you would find in most gardening classes. Today, the garden is being tended as a part of the Regenerative Design Institute’s Four Seasons permaculture class.
Permaculture, derived from the words “permanent agriculture,” is a set of ethics, principles and techniques that guide designers to self-sustaining, regenerative systems. When originally conceived in the 1970s, it was applied largely to gardening and farming, but since then has expanded into solar energy, water and more.
“Permaculture is different in that it’s holistic,” says Shaw. “Gardening is an aspect of permaculture, but so is natural building, and alternative currencies and restorative justice.”
So far, the class Shaw co-teaches has covered topics as diverse as ecological gardening, water systems, soil ecosystems, landscape design and beekeeping. Future classes will delve into questions such as how to use technology appropriately, and how to integrate livestock into the landscape.
Many practitioners see the gardens that come out of permaculture not just as landscapes, but also as places for social change.
“I really like that permaculture principles can help the affluent live with less, and the poor live with more,” says Tom Bentley, one of Shaw’s students. “When we look at some of our societal problems, more talking isn’t going to help. Permaculture unleashes people to get their hands dirty.”
A key aspect of a permaculture garden is that it is constructed to evolve with its environment.
“When I describe permaculture, I must include the word ‘design’”, says Shaw. “It is a system for design that breeds resilient and regenerative qualities. [Permaculture systems] are not only sustaining, but have the ability to grow in abundance and durability over time.”
So, what do these regenerative systems look like? One example is the “edible forest garden,” a perennial garden that is modeled after a forest.
“In permaculture, we so often look to the durability and resilience of forest ecosystems. They are so complex. There are mature old trees next to tender seedlings,” says Shaw.
In a garden designed with permaculture principals, you might plant an apple tree with a comfrey plant and sage underneath. The apple tree provides fruit in the fall and shades the other plants, while the sage provides herbs and tea all year round, and forage for bees. The comfrey shades the base of the tree, and pulls nutrients up from deep in the soil. In this system, each plant has unique needs that are being supported by the other plants, and unique yields that support the other plants and also human life.
“Each plant has many functions, and the orchard as a whole has many functions,” says Shaw. “There is habitat for hummingbirds and bees, healthy soil and food for humans. It’s acting like an ecosystem.”
Sowing the Seeds
One great place to start locally is the Permaculture Design Certificate course offered through the Regenerative Design Institute, which runs every November through November.
Another option is Cabrillo College. Last fall, the school started offering an Introduction to Permaculture class.
“This class is the gateway drug to more permaculture,” says Ken Foster, who teaches the annual course.
Foster focuses on permaculture in Santa Cruz, where the concept has really taken off.
“The thing that excited me and a lot of people in the class was that it was really tailored to our local culture and local scene,” he says. The class went on field trips to local farms and gardens, visited a house built using natural building techniques and had a beekeeping workshop with local expert Palika Benton. “People were surprised at how cross-disciplinary permaculture is.”
Besides classes, Santa Cruz has a wealth of companies that can help you “permaculture out” your home, including ecological landscapers, natural builders and people who will install graywater systems. The crux of permaculture, however, is its focus on community.
“Many people want to be self-reliant, but we need collective solutions for collective problems,” says Shaw.
Take, for example, Transition Santa Cruz. The group is modeled after an international Transition Town movement, which was founded on permaculture’s reliance on resilience and community. The Transition Town movement “supports community-led responses to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness.” The Santa Cruz chapter aims “to build community resilience in the face of environmental challenges,” says member Rick Longinotti. The group is taking on global issues with local actions like potlucks, workshops and meet-ups.
One prominent project that came out of Transition Santa Cruz is the group Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives.
“We want to set ourselves up with a water supply that is sustainable,” says Longinotti, who founded the group. The group saw the proposed desalination plan as a step toward increased reliance upon fossil fuels and a less resilient system, and is calling for more diverse solutions, and more collaboration in determining them.
“There are many examples of permaculture in action throughout Santa Cruz,” says Shaw. The list includes multiple seed lending libraries, the wealth of locally grown food and a bi-annual reskilling expo, to name a few.
“These are all examples of people finding creative and collective solutions to problems, creating a more resilient community and world.”
While Santa Cruz has become a hotspot for permaculture principles, there are many people seeking to carry the movement to a broader audience. Chief among them is Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden, which has been the best-selling permaculture book for the last seven years. Hemenway gave a recent talk at UCSC, where he explained how permaculture can help humans create a better world using patterns from nature, and replacing industrialized farming with small-scale growing.
“What our farming has become is just another resource extraction scheme. It’s a way of growing people as fast as possible, not necessarily healthy people, not necessarily happy people,” he says. “This is where I turn to the idea of sustainable horticulture.Think garden, not a farm, think hoe, not a plow,” he told the audience. “Horticulture is a way to have stable society, and it’s less destructive than agriculture.”
Hemenway went on to list several cultures which have existed for thousands of years as horticultural people, such as the northwest coast peoples or ancient Oaxacans. In fact, scientists are now waking up to the idea that the Amazon jungle, a very “wild” place indeed, was in fact likely tended by humans.
“The prevalence of food crops is much higher than you would find in a random distribution,” he says.
Permaculture draws on the patterns of these ancestral cultures to create small-scale, regenerative systems of growing food, Hemenway says. By returning to a world that is patterned after nature, he believes humans can create a better world for all living things. “If you look at all of the things that [humans] build, as soon as we build them, they start to fall apart,” he says. “And if you look at all the things that nature creates, they get better over time. Mostly all living systems evolve and grow and thrive and learn. Those are the things we should be building.”
Hemenway suggests starting small, and looking at our own lives. What food can we easily grow for ourselves, or in partnership with neighbors? Are we willing to support a person whose livelihood is growing food by going to a farmers’ market or joining a CSA? Supporting tool-lending libraries or seed-saving workshops are other small solutions that bring big change, he says.
Ultimately, his message is hopeful: “Human beings can be this wonderful presence on the landscape, that increases biodiversity and creates a place for us as well.”
5 Steps to a Permaculture Garden
Being that permaculture is a design process, there is no easy “one size fits all” how-to. Instead, the best way to dive into permaculture is to steep yourself in the design process. Here are the basics; to learn more in depth, check out Toby Hemenways' Gaia's Garden or Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual.
1. OBSERVE: What are you working with? Grab a lawn chair, a tasty beverage, and sit down to watch. What are the constant influences on your yard, such as sun, water, or wind? What animals make their home there? What is there that you like and don’t like?
2. ENVISION: Now that you know what is already there, what do you imagine it becoming? Brainstorm on what the ideal yard would be for you.
3. PLAN: Once you have a clear idea of what you want, it's time to actually map it out. How do you turn your ideas into reality? What steps would you take? Draw pictures, make maps,get creative.
4. IMPLEMENT: This is where you get out the tools, put on some grubby clothes, and get your hands dirty. It's great to invite some friends and make a day—or many days—of it.
5. ASSESS: How did you do? If you are satisfied, have a party and celebrate! If you are not satisfied, still have a party, celebrate what you learned, and do it all again. Many permaculturalists would say that this process is never finished, that you are continuously reassessing and adjusting your design.