Work a garden for a change

Permaculture offers hope of a more just and peaceful world. We must recognize its pioneers.

Nathan Paulsen

For the past two years, I’ve had the good fortune to participate in the day-to-day operations of a local organic farm. Before meeting Pete Seim, gardener extraordinaire and former manager of Garden Farme Community Supported Agriculture, I had virtually no experience turning a seed into a vegetable. I couldn’t tell the difference between straw and hay, or a zucchini from a cucumber. There was nothing in my thoroughly urban upbringing to suggest that I would spend any part of my adult life laboring in the countryside. At the end of the day, my decision to learn how to garden was motivated by the understanding that I have a personal responsibility to create a more just and peaceful world in my present life.

This lesson was brought home to me by my involvement in the anti-war movement in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Everybody organizing at that time knew that President George W. Bush had already made up his mind to attack Iraq despite overwhelming evidence that the war would be a terrible mistake. The phantom sensation that ensued after banging my head against a rather formidable wall didn’t stop me from publicly expressing dissent from the administration’s inhumane and illegal foreign policies. However, it did raise questions in the back of my mind. I had a nagging, inarticulate feeling that while protesting was important, it wasn’t enough. After the bombs began falling, I determined to complement my anti-war activism with something more concrete, something that would get my hands dirty constructing a viable alternative to a future of war, oil dependency and ecological ruin. The Garden Farme seemed an ideal place to begin.

Garden Farme is a 90-acre parcel northwest of the Twin Cities between Anoka and Elk River. Owner Bruce Bacon, whose family has lived on the land for generations, has managed to integrate woodlands, restored prairie and wetlands with a tree nursery and raised-bed gardens.

Bruce has made his land part of the rapidly growing permaculture movement initiated by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid-1970s. The word itself is a contraction of “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture.” Mollison describes it as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and nonmaterial needs in a sustainable way.”

If the concept remains a bit vague in your head, don’t worry. Mollison himself admits that permaculture is an elusive, multidimensional idea that defies easy categorization. I prefer to look at this fuzziness as one of the movement’s strengths. It leaves room for innovation and little need to worry about the kind of dogmatism that has plagued the history of so many other good thoughts.

While permaculture may not lend itself to a concise definition, among its main insights is that food production and human settlements are most efficient when they are designed to mirror ecological principles. One such principle is that each element in a system should serve multiple functions. Mulching is a perfect example. At the Garden Farme, we apply straw and cornstalk to the top layer of soil in pathways and around plants. Mulch retains soil moisture, heats the soil in the spring and fall, keeps soil cool during the hot summer months, controls weeds and adds organic matter and nutrients to the soil. The fruit trees that dot Bruce’s property are another example of an element serving multiple functions. You get a delicious snack and welcome shade in 90-degree temperatures. Beyond this, each element should save energy (energy cycling) and every function should be performed by many different elements (redundancy). I’m aware of at least eight additional permaculture design principles; more I’m sure than anybody cares to hear about in this column.

Permaculture also emphasizes the need for protracted observation of our surroundings. Permaculture gardeners give careful consideration to natural patterns before making interventions, thus allowing them to conserve water and energy while developing sustainable food production systems. They remain minimally intrusive and do the least amount of labor possible to get the job done. In other words, don’t cut down the whole tree if a branch is causing you problems. If you do choose to do something that changes your environment, take the time to observe the consequences and make adjustments accordingly. Most would probably be amazed to learn how routine it is for these simple precepts to be ignored in the practice of industrial agriculture.

I cannot imagine where we would be without the likes of Pete Seim and Bruce Bacon. They not only had the courage to pursue the path less traveled, but also give support to others similarly trying to make their way in the world today. By sharing their knowledge of how to live right with the earth, they offer an antidote to the cynical and troubled times in which we live.

Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at [email protected]