Have you noticed vegetable plots in your neighborhood that used to be lawn? The home garden is making a comeback, and the impact could be profound.
Years ago, while earning a degree in plant and soil sciences at UMO, I was unaware that a potential food production revolution was taking root halfway around the world. Permaculture, as it came to be known, is the “design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems with the stability, diversity and resilience of natural ecosystems.” It evolved from the work of Bill Mollison more than 50 years ago. Mollison, who grew up in Tasmania, described his life as a dream, where he spent most of his time on the sea or in the bush, fishing and hunting. In the 1950s, he saw that natural systems were degrading and was determined to find a different way to provide for human needs.
The result of Mollison’s work is a system that mimics the processes of nature by building a diverse, interconnected community of plants and animals. It is less labor intensive than conventional food growing, reduces pest and disease problems, improves soil health, does not rely on chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and, best of all, it creates a perennial edible landscape. Astonishingly, it even has potential to enhance food security for large numbers of people!
I saw this process firsthand at the home of Charles and Julia Yelton in Whitefield. I was there with my permaculture design class, a six-month program offered by the Portland Permaculture Group.
The Yeltons said observation is the first step in creating an edible landscape. Before turning over one spadeful of soil or planting a single seed, a permaculturist studies the land, its soil, topography, climate and inhabitants. Each element in the ultimate design, they explained, performs multiple functions based on its natural characteristics.
For example, a barnyard chicken provides eggs and meat, recycles by consuming kitchen waste and produces waste that can be used as fertilizer. An apple tree provides fruit, shade and beauty, and attracts pollinating insects. The result is a self-sustaining, food-producing ecosystem that produces yields year after year with minimal maintenance. It also looks quite different from a traditional home garden.
At the Yeltons’, tidy weed-free rows of annual plants that are commonplace in a traditional home garden are replaced by diverse polycultures, plants of different species that form mutually beneficial relationships and produce greater yields when grown in the same patch. An inviting, magical atmosphere prevails. Though it may appear unkempt, an elegant order lies beneath, just as in a nature.
The Yeltons’ compact food forest demonstrates that large acreage is not required. Even a small suburban lawn can be transformed into a veritable Garden of Eden; an ornamental, food-producing oasis that provides recreational space, serenity and virtually no mowing, a place where you can spend time harvesting and relaxing rather than tilling and weeding.
Permaculture is not, however, a return to “primitive” agriculture, but is based upon our best scientific understanding of ecosystem function. It is perhaps the only truly sustainable form of agriculture because it works with, rather than against, nature.
As I learned more about how to put these practices in place, I wondered how much impact permaculture could have on food production. Could permaculture feed the world? The recent United Nations report, “Agro-ecology and the Right to Food,” states that sustainable small-scale farming could double food production in some areas where food security is most needed.
According to recent statistics, Russian families are growing 40 percent of the country’s agricultural output on small family plots, called dachas, permaculture style. Permaculture alone will not supply all of our food needs, but just imagine how it could transform our relationship with food and enhance our lives in other ways as well, while contributing significantly to food production.
Whether you are a seasoned farmer, a novice gardener or have never planted a seed, consider this an invitation. Come back to the garden. Start small and add a bit more each year. Enjoy the bounty and create a food forest that will leave the living legacy of an edible landscape.
Bonnie Sammons is a food grower, science teacher and novice permaculture designer. She is a member of the Education Team of Sustain Mid Maine Coalition, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the people of central Maine. For more information, visit www.sustainmidmaine.org