Permaculture gardening seeks to make land more productive by allowing nature to retake control. Adopted by urban farmers, designers, even tech-savvy futurists, it is already changing the way we design and nurture green spaces. By Katy Kelleher.
The spookiest thing I’ve seen on screen wasn’t in a horror film, nor was it part of an investigative documentary. It was a scene from a children’s movie, Pixar’s 2008 blockbuster, Wall-E. In this envisioned future, humanity has been reduced to utter dependence on machines. People fly around on individually operated motorised devices, perpetually indoors, every element of their lives assisted and controlled by buttons, wires, electric signals. They breathe purified air. They live in a sterilised bubble.
This is not the future anyone wants. It’s not the future activist and educator Sue Bridge wants. When she imagines humanity 100 years from now, she sees some fearful images – famine, climate refugees, destabilisation of our global infrastructure, loss of species, loss of biodiversity. But she also sees hope all around her in the form of pretty orange monarch butterflies, little yellow bees and bottle-green flies. These pollinators have come to feast on her ‘permaculture’ gardens, the highly productive landscape she has built at Wildside Cottage and Gardens in Conway, Massachusetts. Here, she grows all manner of food, from hardy kiwis to sweet potatoes to rice. Here, she maintains an ecosystem.
Permaculture – a portmanteau of permanent agriculture – serves as an alternative to more traditional planting. Following 12 design principles and taking inspiration from the forest gardens of Japan, permaculture gardeners approach planting in a holistic way, pairing conventional fruits and vegetables with species that are often considered to be weeds or eyesores. According to Bridge, the idea is to work with
the laws of nature rather than against them – by using cover crops to boost soil fertility rather than introducing fertilisers, for example, or by capturing and conserving rainwater within the landscape. The result is an ‘edible landscape’ that is both self-sustaining and permanent – to the benefit of people, animals, insects and plants.
This is not a decorative or regimented form of planting, but rather one that takes inspiration from the woods and meadows and emphasises connection between species, which conventional planting does not. A permaculture garden looks different from the conventional garden because it is different. But according to adherents, permaculture might offer a way forward for humanity by tapping into the ancient logic of the planet. ‘We are dealing with an unpredictable future,’ says Bridge. ‘It is imperative that we reconsider how we grow and distribute food.’
Bridge lives in a rural town surrounded by farmland and forest, but even in this context, Wildside is different. Most farms are orderly places, with long rows of carrots and beets, hoop houses for winter sprouting, bags of fertiliser on the back porch and big machines resting by the barn. Wildside has none of these things. Instead, it has forest gardens for mushrooms and nuts, straw-covered, no-till beds, thorny thickets of berries and a rice marsh. At first glance, it looks like a bit of a mess, but as I walk the property with Bridge, I learn that there is a rhyme and a reason for every landscaping decision.
Unlike Bridge, who lives full-time on a non-profit permaculture homestead where she plans against the eventual downfall of civilisation, James Ehrlich has yet to move to the countryside and is yet to test out the moderately revolutionary ideas of his high-tech, high-concept real estate start-up, ReGen Villages. Based in San Francisco, a city that was once a hippy enclave but is now a playground for the elite, Ehrlich also dreams about a future where permaculture landscapes play a significant role in food production, but instead of working with the infrastructure already in place, Ehrlich wants to erect a series of sleek eco-housing communities.
In order to describe these futuristic enclaves, Ehrlich (who is affiliated with the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, Singularity University and the Ames Research Center) shows me a slide that features renderings of neurons, nerve cells, London’s electric grid, the internet, dark matter and mushroom mycelia. They all look the same – like webs. ‘Nature is very powerful. She has been working on these connections for 4.5 billion years,’ he says. He prompts me to imagine a world filled with small, self-reliant, decentralised communities that are ‘regenerative and resilient and focused completely [on] the critical life support systems of food, water and energy.’
Ehrlich’s masterplan is to create neighbourhoods around the globe using the ReGen Village blueprint and software. ‘Imagine, for the first time, neighbourhoods, connected to each other digitally, in relative climate zones that can improve how they optimise their functionality,’ he says. ‘That is a revolutionary idea in terms of the future of residential development.’ It’s also, he points out, a chance to change how humans interact with the landscape, how we live upon the land, how we understand the soil, the bugs, the trees and the air. ‘In this moment, we don’t have other ways forward,’ he says. ‘This could potentially save us and the planet, and the crazy thing is, all the technology to do this already exists.’ However, building these communities wouldn’t be a zero-waste proposition, and it is worth asking how accessible they would be to the average worker. While thousands of hopeful residents have signed up, there hasn’t been any movement towards actually building the communities.
Right now, they remain a rendering. While Bridge promotes an extremely low-tech, off-grid version of permaculture living and Ehrlich dreams of a high-tech, globalised, and monetised future (he stresses that these communities are a good investment from a purely financial perspective), they are both drawing from the same basic idea: that the Earth can be made more productive by leaning into the wildest tendencies of its residents; that future generations will need to interact differently with the land in order for the Earth to survive.
While Ehrlich’s radical vision has yet to be made a reality, landscape designers and gardeners (both amateur and professional) have been creating smaller scale permaculture gardens for decades in all kinds of contexts. Pricey hotels like Bio-Agrivilla i pini in Italy, the Mana Earthly Paradise in Bali and the Witt Istanbul in Turkey are capitalising on the ecotourism trend while providing fresh produce for the hotel kitchens. Although these gardens are often fairly small, they can introduce visitors to the concept of permaculture and encourage them to embrace some of the wilder and less desirable plants that grow naturally in their hometowns.
Secil Erdogan of the Witt Hotel admits that its gardens are ‘not so big, but it’s anyway a green spot’. Erdogan says he prefers the ‘conscious design’ and resilience of permaculture gardening, and that guest feedback has been quite positive. People are becoming more curious about planting gardens that don’t look like regular gardens. Forest-style and meadow-style gardens have also been installed on rooftops in London, New York, Los Angeles and Paris. Property owners like them because they require less maintenance and sound appealingly modern. Time will tell whether they become truly permanent fixtures of the urban landscape.
It’s hard to tell whether this kind of small-scale growing makes any sort of real difference. Bridge says even big corporations can install permaculture gardens (‘marginally helpful as a teaching tool, depending on signage … otherwise it’s probably greenwash’). Landscape designer Cecilia de Corral fears the current passion for greenery among the architecture and development industries might be a trend – an extension of the houseplant craze. ‘I think a lot of people think green space is a luxury,’ says the New York-based Corral, who got her start working as a farmer at the Brooklyn Grange. ‘We have to move away from that.’ She notes that there is an increased interest among younger city residents in planting even in the smallest of outdoor spaces, including fire escapes and window boxes. ‘Having plants is very of-the-moment, but that trend communicates something about the time and place we are living in,” she says. ‘People are hungry for a connection to green space and nature.’
Richard Klein, exhibitions director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, knows that his work ‘probably won’t change minds about global warming’, but he believes there is a potential for artists, curators and creatives of all types to help ‘creep the world forward in a progressive direction’ by promoting dialogue and instilling hope.
In 2010, Klein and his colleagues brought in performance artist Fritz Haeg to install one of his extensive edible landscapes on the suburban museum’s grounds. ‘We had never done any project that activated the campus of the museum with gardening before,’ he says. In the end, it was ‘really a staff garden that eventually morphed into something else’. Haeg’s edible landscape turned out not to be feasible for the long term, yet it made a small impact. ‘We now have a pollinator pathway on the property,’ explains Klein. ‘It’s made from all native plants. At the end of summer, you’ll see five monarch butterflies there simultaneously and caterpillars eating milkweed.’ Klein has also been working to bring more museum shows that focus on climate change into the programming of the Alderich.
‘If you want to change the world, art is probably not the best way to do it,’ he says. ‘But what I do believe art can do, particularly with environmental issues, is awaken the sense of wonder.’
While I don’t live off the grid and have no plans to build a commune, I did spend much of last summer watching monarchs and wondering how I could entice more of them to visit my land.
I planted and I hoped. Without knowing it, I began to fall in line with the main principles of permaculture gardening. I stopped planning garden beds and began to plan meadows. I stopped worrying about fertilising tomatoes and began embracing the uncontrollable growth of my blackberry bushes. I stopped working against the encroaching forest and began, slowly, to embrace it.
These actions don’t feel radical. And perhaps they aren’t going to make a huge impact, but gardens have always been a site of political resistance, ever since the first public green spaces broke ground. ‘That public parks should exist at all was a radical idea,’ wrote Nathaniel Rich in his review of Fredrick Law Olmstead’s writing for The Atlantic. Olmstead, he explained, strove to create ‘natural’ spaces in the midst of urban centres as a way of promoting health and happiness for all citizens, not just the privileged few. ‘But Olmstead did not foresee that the entire planet would become a park,’ he continued. Landscaping was once radical. Now, the most radical act would be leaving things be.
Instead, maybe there’s something to be learned from our contemporary radical gardeners. Perhaps in the future, the sprawling lawns that dominate public gardens can be replaced by pollinator-friendly meadows. Perhaps instead of parks dominated by elms and oaks, we’ll be seeing more city spaces plant plum trees and pears. Perhaps our aesthetics will evolve so that we no longer yearn to see such neat rows and trimmed hedges. Maybe we can move towards embracing the wild beauty of natural landscapes, the overgrown logic of weeds.