Daily Archives: October 20, 2010

Gaia’s Garden

In a recent post about rain gardens, I recommended Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. I thought of that book one day last month when I visited a demonstration garden maintained by Seattle Tilth, an urban ecology organization in Seattle.

Seattle Tilth, "Permaculture"

I photographed this Seattle Tilth garden sign. It provides a concise definition of the complex concept of permaculture gardening. Here’s what the sign says:

Permaculture is a set of techniques and principles for designing agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is a combination of the words “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture” and was first defined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia who were inspired to design human systems that functioned with the same efficiency and vitality as forest ecosystem. . . . Its goal is to create a permanent landscape with minimal inputs [such as labor, irrigation, fertilizer] where relationships between plants, animals and people are enhanced.

Kale, broccoli, marigolds, lavender border

Tilth’s teaching garden ultilizes one of the tenets of permaculture gardening: begin with a wide array of plant types, and nature will sort out a coherent community of mutually supportive life. This photo shows a bed of flowers and vegetables, a happy contrast of colors and functions.

Gaia’s Garden exists in two editions, 2000 and 2009. After the first edition was published, the author moved from a home on ten rural acres to a small urban lot in Portland, Oregon. Mr. Hemenway includes an additional chapter in the 2009 edition, “Permaculture Gardening in the City.”

Straw bale garden

Urban and rural gardens often look very different. It might seem easier to mimic the look and function of nature in a rural setting. The premium on city space means that yards must be multifunctional. “Permaculture is a design approach to create landscapes that function like ecosystems, but that doesn’t mean they must always look like what we see in nature. A well-mulched raised bed and a forest floor, though looking very different, are both homes for the talented microbial alchemists that decompose dead tissue and stitch it back into the dynamic flows of life. ”

I appreciate the focus on practicality in Gaia’s Garden. A wise advisor, Mr. Hemenway offers detailed, well-organized information. His highest wisdom stems from the notion that idealism should not get in the way of making a garden that is ultimately effective for the people who use it. He writes, “Overall, doing an imperfect something is better than doing a perfect nothing.”

That’s good advice in and out of the garden.


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