Teaching Through Permaculture Experience
by Patrick Praetorius
Most schools emphasize the importance of caring for the environment. Recycling is taught, perhaps even practiced on site. Endangered species are studied, and funds may be raised to save the rainforest. While these efforts are valuable, they often leave students disconnected from their own close association with nature. Students are left with the sense that the environment is something far away that needs to be saved for the cheetahs. The reality is the environment is as near as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the neighborhoods in which we live.
Lee Barnes, former editor of Permaculture Connections writes, Permaculture is the use of ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, appropriate technology, and community development. Permaculture is built upon an ethic of caring for the earth and interacting with the environment in mutually beneficial ways. The study of permaculture empowers students with the knowledge and thinking skills to put the care of the environment on the front burner of their lives.
Oak Grove School in Ojai, California has attempted to take the principles of permaculture and apply them to the design and implementation of their schools garden. Everythingfrom the greenhouse to the pondserves the goal of a sustainable natural system that has minimal environmental impact, both now and in the future. What follows is a description of several principles of permaculture and how the school implemented those principles in the design and development of its greenhouse and garden.
WORK WITH NATURE, NOT AGAINST IT
Nature is often subtle, and to understand it takes careful observation. Through observation we can come to know what our environment will support in terms of plant growth. Rather than deciding what is wanted, then altering the environment to make it possible, look at what the existing environment will support, and choose plants that are suited to it. This saves a great deal of energyphysical labor, fertilizer, and so on, because it takes advantage of the natural system that already exists.
Observation is the cornerstone of science and is a skill that needs to be fostered in students from the earliest ages. At Oak Grove, students made observations of the local environment guided by the need to understand what it would support. Observation led to questions: What is the weather like? How much sunlight do we get? What is the condition of the soil? What will grow here? This led to purposeful researchanother key aspect of science.
EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED AND, WHEN IN BALANCE, SELF-REGULATING
So much of our modern world is designed and constructed separately. Cars, stores, buildings, parks and so many things all serve specific functions and create the notion that everything is separate. Nature actually operates on the opposite principle. Soil, plant life, animal life, climate, and sunlight all operate together. However, this connectedness can be difficult for children to see because of their constant exposure to a world built on seemingly separate things performing separate functions.
A permaculture garden demonstrates the connectedness of nature by fostering natural connections between interdependent parts. With this in mind, Oak Grove is creating a forest garden. The forest garden consists of a variety of plants: trees, annuals, perennials, vines, and small shrubs, grown together so that they serve the needs and accept the products of each other. In selecting plants, it is important to consider what species are best suited for the climate and soil of the area.
The school used native species as much as possible, not only because they grow more easily, but also because they contribute to the natural self-regulation of the environment. Trees create shade and microclimates for plants that enjoy partial shade. Annuals can grow between rows of fruit trees, fixing nitrogen and helping the soil. Vines can be trained to grow up fruit trees, attracting bees for pollination. And perennials can be used to create natural borders and pathways, as well as grow food.
Composting food scraps and plant trimmings is another way to take advantage of natures connectedness. Layer the materials (green for nitrogen and brown for carbon). Each layer is its own micro-biome, supporting different kinds of decomposers. Also, layering, rather than mixing, allows for better air circulation, which is a key part of a successful composting process. Ideally, the compost should be kept moist and airy. Red (brattling) worms can be added. Unlike earthworms, they thrive in the acidic environment and really improve the speed and quality of the composting. By composting, students observe the relationship between life and death in a natural system.
PLAN FOR EFFICIENCY; USE BIOLOGICAL RESOURCES
To create something in a way that is ecologically beneficial to humans and the environment takes knowledge and planning. It also requires a willingness to do things differently. Oak Grove School decided that a greenhouse would be useful for propagating plants as well as an excellent educational tool. Rather than head off to a building supply company for materials, the school researched ecological construction practices and decided to build a straw bale greenhouse.
The design and construction of the greenhouse was an educational experience in itself. Students created designs that were later used in construction. Students also helped in the construction of the greenhouse, learning concepts like load bearing and joinery. The greenhouse was built with straw bale construction on three sides and glass with sliding glass doors on the south-facing wall. It was built at the top of the garden so that water draining off the roof could be diverted downhill for irrigation or to fill the pond.
MAKE USE OF THE EDGE EFFECT
One of the most exciting principles of permaculture states that where two biomes or environments meet, diversity of life increases. Making use of the edge effect in designing natural areas promotes the biodiversity that is necessary for a self-sustaining system.
One way to take advantage of the edge effect in a schoolyard is to create a pond. A pond invites an abundance of life, from the smallest microbes and insects, to fish, amphibians, and birds. All of these organisms contribute to the garden, whether by reducing pests, nourishing the soil through their waste, or pollinating plants. Encouraging such diversity is thus a means of ensuring that elements in the garden make functional connections that are mutually beneficial.
A pond with an irregular shape, including small coves and little points of land, creates a more hospitable environment in which life may flourish. Similarly, the variety of depths in a pond helps a diversity of plant and animal species co-exist. The pond is also a great outdoor science project. It provides a living demonstration of several different natural processes: photosynthesis, the food chain, and the water cycle. Students are fascinated by the microbial life of the pond.
EXERT THE LEAST EFFORT FOR THE MOST GAIN
The importance of this principle lies in the saving of energyan important life value we all can learn. Through research and planning, any activity or endeavor can be done more wisely in terms of resources needed and energy spent.
For example, we knew we wanted to build a straw-bale greenhouse because it is made from all natural materials and is naturally insulated from the cold. We also wanted a pond that would serve as a welcome mat for frogs and other bug-eating critters as well as a natural repository for rainwater. We placed the pond about five meters (15 feet) below the greenhouse, so that while digging the hole for the pond, we were also collecting mud for the greenhouse walls. As well, when rain fell on the greenhouse, the gutters would divert rainwater into the pond. These simple design choices exemplify the principle and help students see the connection between design and efficiency.
CARING FOR PEOPLE
Our needs for food, shelter, education, work, play, and social interactions must be met if we are to be healthy. Therefore, a permaculture garden should be more than a food production area. It is a welcoming place where people can gather to talk, play, observe, meditate, and work in a pleasant environment. Since Oak Grove is a school, we felt it was important to create an outdoor classroom that would fit into the natural surroundings and be an inviting space.
We chose a spot under a tree on one end of the garden with a good view. Rather than building up, we went down. We dug out an area that is about 60 cm (2 feet) deep at the back end, but, since it is on a slope, levels out to about 20 cm (8 inches) at the front, creating a horseshoe shape. The back end is lined with dirt-filled grain bags covered with plaster. These are layered like the coils of a clay pot to create a circular seating area for resting and instruction. The front end opens to the garden. This outdoor classroom illustrates several principles of permaculture. First, by building into the ground, we worked with nature, not against it, in the sense that we created a smaller visual impact on the landscape. Second, we used natural materials, thereby limiting the environmental impact of the project in both the production and eventual disposal of those materials. Third, by taking advantage of the natural slope, we got the most gain from the least effort. In essence, half the work was done for us.
The principles of permaculture are closely interrelated and all are based on the idea that we human beings need to change how we interact with our environment. Our ecological footprint grows bigger every day, and much of what we call progress is harmful to the environment. When we use the principles of permaculture as the basis for design decisions, we act and progress with nature. Doing so reminds us that we, too, are part of natures complex systems. We cannot survive outside of nature; it behooves us to act in harmony with it.
Patrick particularly wishes to thank Oak Grove teachers Teph Dobbie, Onah Helgesson and Theresa Bulla-Richards for their contributions to this project.
Mollison, Bill. Introduction to Permaculture. Tagari Publications, 1991.
©2006 by Synergy Learning International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
- Patrick is an educator, writer and permaculture enthusiast living in Ojai, California.