North Americans’ desire for more attractive properties, fueled by more disposable income and increased leisure, has driven our industry’s growth post WWII. The industry responded and became expert in beautifying and, in many cases, designing and installing more recreationally functional outdoor environments in residential, commercial, governmental and industrial settings.
But the public, composed of consumers with widely diverse desires, keeps raising its expectations and demanding an ever-wider range of outdoor property services. Increasingly these demands are allied to ecological and environmental concerns, and consequently, landscape contractors are being tasked to meet these. This is especially true in terms of landscape design and plant selection. This challenge may even include the incorporation of native and edible plants into clients’ landscapes.
One of the concepts slowly gaining traction within this “ecologically minded” community of customers (often customers with significant financial resources) is a concept known as “permaculture.” One generally accepted but stark definition of permaculture is that it “is a system of perennial agriculture emphasizing the use of renewable natural resources and the enrichment of local ecosystems.” Key to permaculture is the restoration of properties to their more natural, sustainable state using native plants, including attractive ornamentals and edible plants.
It’s also much more involved than designing and installing some natives and edibles in what amounts to a hybrid vegetable garden. More broadly, it is a concept that focuses on improving each particular site’s hydrology, the health and productivity of its soil and providing benefits, including fresh vegetables and fruits, beyond aesthetics.
Certainly, it’s reasonable for you, as landscape company owners and managers, to wonder what permaculture has to do with urban and suburban landscapes. Yes, we asked the same question before attending a pair of presentations at this past winter’s CENTS in Columbus, Ohio, by Ethan Roland Solaviev, a principal and lead designer at Appleseed Permaculture based in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Among the avid listeners packing both of his presentations at CENTS were a significant number of landscape contractors.
Permaculture design is the integration of agriculture, horticulture and architecture, and is the construct of planning a holistic, environmentally friendly approach in outdoor living spaces.
From layout and topography, to composting and mulching, to capturing rainwater and utilizing swales, each facet of land use is calculated and designed for the least amount of human intrusion.
The effort usually centers on a client’s garden area by providing fresh herbs and vegetables for the residents’ consumption. Garden areas are often enveloped with floral designs, adding to the beauty of the property as well as establishing some pests’ protections. The development of natural scapes by not disturbing natural contours is centermost in development of these properties.
Wayne Weiseman is director of the Permaculture Project, LLC, Carbondale, Illinois. He studied with Bill Mollison, one of the movement’s founders, at the Permaculture Institute of Australia. “Permaculture is a movement that is coming into its own,” insists Weiseman.
Beauty and practicality
Weiseman, who is certified by the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), teaches about permaculture, and admits that in urbanscapes most clients prefer beauty before practicality. Even so he insists that edible landscapes can be visually pleasing and also supply a significant stream of fresh foods.
“We can build landscapes aesthetically as pleasing as our cultivated gardens,” says Weiseman. “Imagine substituting edible species for ornamentals, but staying true to the design. This is key to blending in with the neighborhood, enjoying the beauty of landscape design and at the same time, feeding ourselves.”
Weiseman says attention to topography, climate, water, wind, sun, activity nodes and corridors, buildings, machinery and tools, the waste stream and proposed plants and animals that might feed from them all are markers that must be considered in the planning process.
Solaviev, who designs, consults and speaks about permaculture, says that everything in our ecosystems is interrelated and affects the environment.
“Food production contributes 30 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere mostly because the average distance food travels to reach consumers is about 3,000 miles,” says Solaviev.
Adds Weiseman, “Practices such as utilization of vertical space in our planning, ecologically based design and increasing yields – not the size of acreage – is how we maximize opportunities to grow an abundance of food, medicine and utility plants for our sustenance.”
Permaculture, says Weiseman, is about whole systems and not about separate components.
“Because each element in a landscape or the build environment affects every other element at a site, therefore a complete, comprehensive assessment is tantamount to developing healthy, productive, energy efficient relationships between elements for the benefit of everyone involved,” he says.
For example, he, Solaviev and other permaculture devotees include in their design-planning beneficial insect attractants, habitats, aromatic pest confusion, dynamic nutrient soil builders that are capturing nitrogen from the air and pulling up nutrients from deep in the subsoil, including carbon sequestration, or catching carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil.
Eleanor James, owner, Sparrow & Brambles, Jackson, New Jersey, also designs edible gardens and explains that she subtly includes them in her initial contact.
“First question I ask a property owner is what do you want for you garden space? I truly want to know what people want and how they want to use their space,” says James. “Throwing out some fun ideas like local stone fire pits, and edible gardens are always good ways to get the inspiration rolling.”
James says that by educating the client on the many benefits of including native plantings and xeriscaping, with consideration to local flora and fauna, allows the customer to save money because of the low maintenance and high sustainability.
Weiseman explains that the base ethics of permaculture are care of the earth and care of people, which resonates with environmentally engaged people.
Solaviev adds sharing resources as a third leg on the stool, and says he’ll often share the bounty from the land with friends and family.
“The extra stuff I get from the earth I’m going to put back into the earth. The extra stuff I get from people I’m going to put back into people. A radical reinvestment right back into the same healthy system,” says Solaviev.
Training and certification
Both the Permaculture Project and Appleseed Permaculture offer certifications for professional designers and landscape architects who wish to add inclusive design to their company’s portfolios.
It is not as simple as reading a book on the subject.
“The permaculture design system is based upon certain principles and methodologies that govern design work. These principles are witnessed in the behavior of natural systems and therefore constitute a base for human activity that mirrors nature and acts within the laws that govern its behavior,” says Weiseman.
Permaculture is not simply about nutritious, low-maintenance edibles planted in a client’s garden, but holistically designed science practiced all over the world. It meets human needs and increases ecosystems’ health. It is radically different from what most of us have today, continues Solaviev.
Weiseman offers another key element in Permaculture is to develop perennial systems, and says concentration should be on the many fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs that do not require replanting every year.
The USDA planting zone suggests which species will grow best in a designated climatic zone. Solaviev says that the U.S. hardiness zones are changing and many eastern areas have been increased from Zone Five to Zone Six, changing the types and varieties of recommended plants.
“I don’t know why it (climate) is changing, but it is changing and that means a lot for how you design and what sort of plants you will be doing,” he adds.
He offers what he terms an “Omega Level of Diversity” explaining that apples, peaches, pears and plums all come from the rose family and so have common pests and diseases. But that by diversifying from apple to pawpaw to hazelnuts acts as a buffer to pests, diseases and possible climate change.
Weiseman’s new book, “Integrated Forest Gardening: Plant Guilds and Polycultures in Permaculture Systems”, will be released by Chelsea Green Publishers this summer. The book is a comprehensive guide covering plant guilds, and covers in detail both what guilds are and how to design and construct them. The book comes complete with extensive color photography and design illustrations.
For More on Permaculture
Wayne Weiseman, director
Offering design/installation and education
Kristine Beck, chair, director of operations
Certification, advanced teaching, design and farming programs
Fountain City, Wisconsin
Ethan Roland Solaviev, principal and lead designer
Design & installation services along with education leading to certification
Stone Ridge, New York
Eleanor James, owner
Design & installation, education
Jackson, New Jersey