Though I’ve been gardening for many years, every season I come up against all the things I don’t know and want to learn. Usually I grab a book or talk to a friendly farmer at the local farmers market to see how someone else does what I want to do.
But recently, I discovered a list of workshops available at the George Jones Memorial Farm in Oberlin, OH — only an hour away — and decided to head there for an introduction to permaculture. I’ve wanted to learn about permaculture for a while but haven’t been able to find the time (or enthusiasm) to read a thick tome about it.
Healing the land, year by year
The Jones Farm itself is just the beginning, only the visible spectrum of activity on this 70-acre parcel of land. A motley collection of fields, greenhouses, compost piles, garden, straw-bale buildings, and wetlands sprawls over what was until 2001 a broad monocultural swath of pesticide-sprayed corn and soybeans. Over the years, organic practices and hard-working people (including students from nearby Oberlin College) gradually restored a varied ecology to the area, establishing the wetlands in the lower parts of the property and building up the soil in others for a current total of five acres of richly fertile farmland now in use.
Behind the scenes and located in the passive-solar straw-bale office building (shown above), the New Agrarian Center (NAC) coordinates efforts in the broader community. The NAC manages the farm and cooperates with Oberlin College to bring food-prep waste from the college’s kitchens out to the farm for compost. During the academic year, the college purchases produce from the farm, completing and enhancing the cycle year after year. During the summer, the produce harvested at the farm is sold not only at the local farmers market but also through a program called City Fresh, established to bring good fresh food into various nutrionally disadvantaged neighborhoods in Cleveland, Lorain, and Elyria, where local grocery stores and fresh produce are rarely found. The people working with City Fresh, recruited from these same neighborhoods, have established a handful of community gardens that have brought new life and hope to their neighbors, as well as excellent fruits and vegetables.
The farm, then, is a busy place, and on the day I arrived for my workshop, the whole joint was jumping with educational activities: a composting workshop led by Evelyn Bryant, head of education for the NAC, and a cob-oven-building workshop under the direction of Chris Fox, a green builder who used to work at the farm. Brad Masi, executive director of the NAC, gathered all the participants in the learning garden (a model of permaculture practices) at the start of the day to share information about the farm, the events, and each other.
After this introduction, Masi took our permaculture group into the main building for a shady, breezy, relaxing setting for our course. He explained that permaculture is a design framework for functional, complex, ecologically sustainable spaces that can be applied at different scales in different climates. While I had understood permaculture to be a blending of “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture,” I hadn’t really grasped the implications of “culture” until Masi pointed out that permaculture goes beyond what is done in the garden. It includes shelter, energy, and people working together in community, and it follows natural designs and processes.
Once he had laid out the basic principles, such as valuing the resources around you and having every aspect of the framework serve multiple purposes to create an interdependent network, Masi took us on a tour of the farm to demonstrate ways they had incorporated these principles.
Cultivating an ecosystem
The office building served as the first example. Built with natural materials, it reduced building and energy costs. It created a micro-climate on the north side for some plantings in the learning garden, allowed for the harvesting of rainwater (a source for future irrigation), and the whole thing could be recycled (composted, really) at the end of its lifespan. The composting practices on site offered another example, as they allowed for the recycling of food scraps into rich soil and, by moving compost close to where it is needed, less work is needed to use this resource, and the soil beneath it becomes more fertile as well, allowing for expanded field space once the pile is gone.
Other intriguing examples of the permaculture principles at work on the Jones Farm include:
- a straw-bale-ended greenhouse (above) that retains heat in winter, and is currently in use as a hothouse for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants
- a straw-bale walk-in cooler used for storing CSA produce after harvest — the structure needs only a window air-conditioning unit to keep food cool enough to be safe
- additional material for composting (brewing mash) and mulching (cinnamon sticks) comes from the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland
- an outdoor composting toilet that provides compost for flowers after a year’s worth of “aging”
- burned beams from a recent barn fire on the farm, recycled into raised beds for carrots (shown here)
- intercropping in the fields, allowing some vegetables to be shaded or nourished by others and making the most efficient use of available sunshine
Even the relationships the farm has made with organizations such as Oberlin College and the Great Lakes Brewing Company testify to the principles in place at the farm. Because, as Masi noted, “You can’t design a farm without designing the community around it.”
In the afternoon, Masi offered the permaculture students a chance to learn a smaller-scale version of the principles in practice in his own backyard, showing how he is working to develop more of a wetland by expanding his pond and to create more edge spaces for added diversity of both flora and fauna. His small herb spiral, echoing the one in the center of the Jones Farm’s learning garden, condenses twenty-five feet of bed space in a six-foot diameter area, and the design creates a different micro-climate for the lower part of the spiral, part shaded and part warmed by the rocks. (He has even noticed a few toads taking up residence between the stones: a built-in wildlife habitat!) And he put us to work sheet-mulching a new keyhole garden bed, using cardboard, wood mulch, compost, brewery mash, and leaf mulch layered onto the space to build a rich no-till garden.
While we could hardly cover all there is to know about permaculture in one day — their upcoming certification course spans nearly two weeks — the workshop gave me enough of an introduction to the principles of permaculture to provide an “a-ha!” moment of understanding more of the bigger picture. There’s so much more to the concept than I had realized before, and having seen the example of the Jones Farm, I’m looking forward to learning more and gradually incorporating some of the principles into my own growing — and living — practices.
Bill Mollison’s “Introduction to Permaculture” is a great starting point, as is “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture” by Toby Hemenway. Friend o’ Ethicurean Severine has a lengthy book list of more permaculture and permaculture-related titles here.