Primer on [Urban] Permaculture
I’ve just returned from a great little workshop hosted at the fabulous historical Wyck Garden on the topic of applying permaculture principles to the urban landscape. Led by Phil Forsyth, director of the Philadelphia Orchard Project, participants got a great tutorial on how to put permaculture to use here in our Philadelphia neighborhoods. Many of those in attendance were already practicing sustainability in their gardens and found the principles overlap quite a bit with permaculture.
Sheet Mulching Step 1: Cut back any vegetation, soak the ground, place a single layer of cardboard and/or newspaper on the ground and soak it again.
I bet several of you are scratching your heads, wondering what the heck permaculture means. I won’t bog you down with a detailed history on what amounts to an interesting marriage between science and philosophy-bordering-on-spirituality. If you want more on that, you can start your reading here and here. The short and sweet version is that the term was coined in Australia in the 1970s to describe an official movement to design agriculture practices that were more….well, sustainable and permanent (as in not depleting our earth to the point that it would cease to be productive). But the practices of permaculture have been around a lot longer than that; they are really the mantras of any indigenous people that has had to live off of the land, particularly in wooded areas. At the end of the day, permacutlure, like the more mainstream sustainable agriculture philosophy, is all about balancing our consumption and waste in the natural world.
Sheet Mulching Step 2: Cover soaked cardboard and
newspaper with two inches of compost.
In my limited experience, it’s my understanding that permaculture has four main principles: care of the earth as a whole, care of people in our neighborhoods, reducing consumption in all areas of our lives, and sharing our surplus with others, including knowledge on such topics as growing food. Practitioners of permacutlure carry out these principles by employing multifunctional tools (i.e., putting chickens in your garden to eat pests while also fertilizing and giving your eggs), striving to be self-sufficient (i.e., use solar energy and grow your own food), and re-using everything they can (i.e., putting down cardboard and newspaper in the garden to suppress weeds and create a base for composting).
Sheet Mulching Step 3: Add a layer of leaves and then add another layer of compost and of leaves (4 layers altogether and about 8 inches deep). Rake out to be even and wet down if leaves are blowing away. Wait patiently for six months, and you’ll have a beautiful bed in which to plant.
So….how does this apply in our modern cities? That’s what I went to this workshop to find out. Turns out there are outstanding examples of permaculture being applied to cities around the world and those in the U.S. are a bit behind the curve. The ones held up for admiration in the workshop were Curitiba (Brazil) and Havana. After discussing the finer points of permaculture, we were asked to grade ourselves on how much we use permaculture principles in our lives at the moment and then to set a goal for ourselves for the future. I felt I got a decent grade but there are certainly areas to be improved. I drew up this little scorecard for myself.
My goals moving forward are to use public transportation more often and to work at energy conservation in my home. Oh, and get some worms for the compost bin. What do you think your score is? What goals would you set for yourself? Do you have experiences with permaculture you’d like to share?
We finished the workshop off with a demonstration on sheet mulching/composting. This technique is great for anyone who wants to start a garden plot on a currently less-than-desirable plot with bad soil and/or an abundance of weeds and grass. In other words, anyone looking to garden in the city. The photos in this post outline the steps to sheet mulching.