From humble origins in Tasmania to the front lawn of the White House, permaculture is a rising star in the field of sustainability. Practitioners believe that its simple tenets offer important tools for adaptation in the face of climate change.
Over the past 12 years, the Pioneer Valley has become a national hub of permaculture education and institutions. From backyard gardens to the University of Massachusetts, permaculture is transforming the Valley.
What Is Permaculture?
From “applied common sense” to “an integrated system of resource management,” permaculture is a versatile philosophy and practice. “There are so many different facets, it’s hard to show people the whole concept,” Josephine Nowitz, a student with UMass Permaculture, told the Advocate.
Permaculture revolves around three goals: caring for people, caring for the Earth, and giving a fair share to everyone. Incorporating elements of organic farming, biodynamic agriculture, sustainable development, forestry and natural building, permaculture is a way of thinking holistically about natural systems.
Permaculture began in the 1970s in Tasmania, where, confronting the special needs of the Australian climate, Bill Mollison and David Holgram began experimenting with new systems of gardening, looking for ways to grow as much food with as little land and as little human effort as possible. Mollison authored Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Holgram went on to write Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, which laid down the principles that today are the foundation for teaching and understanding the system.
Permaculture slowly made its way out of Tasmania and to the United States. By 2000, the concept was drifting around organic agriculture circles in the Pioneer Valley and starting to take root. It attracted Lisa DePiano, originally from Pennsylvania and the daughter of a first-generation Italian family. “I think coming from that cultural background really helped me orient toward permaculture,” DePiano said. “First-generation families often have a base level of cultural knowledge, and in my case, being Italian, food was an intact part of the culture.”
Still, interest in sustainability and permaculture took a while to grow. “As a kid, I was like, ‘Why would I can?’” DePiano says with a smile. “I was actively part of that forgetting of cultural knowledge. Now we find ourselves needing to know how to do things our grandmothers did.”
Seeking to escape suburbia, DePiano went to school in West Virginia, where she joined the Sierra Club. There she witnessed the devastation of mountaintop removal, and began to seek answers for the environmental dilemmas she saw around her. Eventually she found permaculture. “It’s active and solutions-based. That’s what I really fell in love with,” she explained.
Now DePiano is a designer at Mobile Design Lab and teacher at Permaculture F.E.A.S.T, an independent organization that runs permaculture certification classes. She was also one of the original members of the Permaculture Guild. “In 2003 we started the Permaculture Guild with only eight members. Now there are over a thousand,” she told the Advocate.
Permaculture F.E.A.S.T., based in Northampton, offers a course designed for those who want to be certified as permaculturalists but can’t take the usual two or three weeks out of work or busy lives to do an intensive class. “This is many people’s first introduction to the principles,” she said.
Not long ago, the only places to learn about permaculture were independent schools like Permaculture F.E.A.S.T Now permaculture is starting to be recognized in the academic world. In the fall of 2010, the UMass Permaculture Initiative (www.umasspermacultureconference.com), then a student-run organization, sent a proposal to UMass Dining to bring farm-fresh food to UMass students, and transform some of the lawns on campus into gardens. The students approached Ken Toong, the director of Auxiliary Services. He listened.
Now three out of the four dining halls have permaculture gardens. Those gardens, tended by students, grow food that is served in the dining halls. The compost is used to nourish the gardens, creating a closed circle of input and output. This is a simple example of permaculture in action.
Permaculture and its principles have other uses, too, including applications in the world of business. Nowitz is an Operation and Information Management student in her fourth year at UMass, and the chief marketing officer for the UMass Permaculture Initiative. She hopes to see our current models of business put aside and models inspired by the three aspects of permaculture—care for people, care for land, and fair sharing—put in their place. “Front line workers often know how to make things more efficiently than the management,” she explained. “Slowly we can phase out the vertical hierarchy.”
UMass Permaculture has won national attention and several awards for its Permaculture Initiative, including the 2012 White House Champions of Change Award.
On a crisp Sunday morning early in November, folk music was playing out onto the suburban lawn of Diana Riddle and Rachel Chandler-Worth. On their third-of-an-acre property, people bustled about, moving soil, mulching, digging and planting. A small group gathered around an apple tree to hear Jonathan Bates of Food Forest Farm talk about pruning and grafting.
Neighbors slowed down as they drove by. Some just wandered past with a long stare; a few rolled down their windows to ask what was going on. “This is a permablitz,” someone would tell them.
Permablitzing started in Melbourne, Australia, where an industrious group called Very Edible Gardens began toying with the idea of getting yards permacultured all in one go—the work of a whole summer in one afternoon.
The plan is simple: permaculture practitioners, or “permies,” as they call themselves, volunteer their time, labor and know-how to a household for the afternoon or weekend. They work with the owners of the property to design a permaculture garden that fits the home’s needs and then build it, often from the ground up, for free. The household hosting the blitz covers the cost of the materials and feeds the group, then they help permablitz another property.
“We had been trying to do it on our own,” Chandler-Worth told me as we watched the group put in the newly built raised garden beds. “We were designing a shade garden around a big old maple, but when it died we had to switch to a different plan.” Eventually they contacted Mobile Design Lab, DePiano’s company, to help. For the lab’s students, DePiano said, “It was the perfect learning opportunity.”
“Our goal was to see how much food we could grow in a third of an acre of land,” Chandler-Worth explained. Raspberries, strawberries, a peach tree, an apple tree, persimmons, pears, perennial flowers, tomatoes, kale, peppers, eggplant, peas, sweet yam and wild ginger, as well as a variety of medicinal and more traditional garden vegetables, were being placed around the yard. “We have some weird stuff that we chose just because it was really neat. We have white strawberries that are delicious and a double bloodroot that is really cool, “ Chandler-Worth said.
Within the space of a few hours, raised beds appeared, an arbor for kiwis was put in place, an apple tree was replanted and the remainder of the front lawn was heavily mulched to make way for new plants.
As a continuing sustainable experiment, permaculture has often come up against legal and cultural hurdles. Natural building uses materials that fall outside building code regulations, chickens in urban gardens cause neighborhood politicking, and gray-water treatment and composting systems can flout local sanitation laws.
“Access to land is a big barrier,” DePiano explained. “Regulations and zoning are based on good intentions, but we need to be more flexible. Now we are asking ourselves how we make the technology that we have legal, and then how do we move to a future where it’s not only permitted but we are getting subsidized?”
Despite the hurdles, permaculture is moving forward. UMass Permaculture recently received a letter from Chancellor Subbaswamy asking the group to help design and build a permaculture garden for his home on campus. Permaculture F.E.A.S.T and DePiano’s class are full of students.
DePiano and Nowitz are certain that the future of permaculture is secure as long as the climate keeps throwing curve balls. Storms like Hurricane Sandy remind all of us how fragile our food distribution systems are, and how strong our communities are. “Sometimes we need dangerous environmental impacts to remind us of what’s happening and that we need to make a change,” Nowitz warned before Sandy hit.
“Now is the time to make mistakes,” DePiano cautioned, “while we still have a safety net. While you can still go to the store and buy an avocado.”•