Ithaca Children’s Garden integrates permaculture education into programs and site

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Tompkins Weekly 04/29/13

By Erin Marteal

Permaculture is a word becoming more commonly heard in mainstream conversations these days, particularly around our fair city of Ithaca.  Recent visiting speakers on the subject including Peter Bane and Ben Falk have spoken to packed rooms with standing room only, and people who are just beginning to understand what permaculture is all about are circling around for more. Cornell University has begun offering and filling up a Permaculture Design Course for academic credit in collaboration with Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute. Public parks are being considered for permaculture-based renovations. So what’s the buzz about?

Permaculture, at its essence, is clean, smart, common-sense living.  It’s hard not to be intrigued.  Going beyond organic, it is a design science that recognizes the triple bottom line of people, planet, and economic profit. Permaculture designs to build resilience into social, environmental, and economic systems. It involves close observation of natural systems in order to mimic and complement them, rather than override them.  In short, permaculture encourages more connection to the natural world while providing well for our human needs.

But more than that, designing with permaculture principles is downright fun. It is a way of looking at the world, from micro to macro systems, and making the abstract tangible, even exciting.

Because of this, permaculture can be quite successful as an education tool in public gardens. I had the privilege of interning at both of the only two public gardens in the world where permaculture is given focused attention as an educational approach: at the Permaculture Training Garden, Durban Botanical Gardens, South Africa, and The Sustainable Backyard, Hamilton Gardens, New Zealand.  Despite a 6-month intensive trip visiting dozens of public gardens and as many school and community gardens and farms, I discovered few using permaculture in education. However these two sites, along with Northey Street City Farm, in Brisbane Australia, demonstrate tremendous potential for how permaculture can be used to teach children about their role in the ecological web of life, in their own communities, right where they live.

These models serve as inspiration for the current and forward direction of the Ithaca Children’s Garden (ICG).  While ICG has been environmentally-minded and growing organically from its inception in 1999, ICG will be taking its commitment to environmental education of Ithaca’s youth to a new level this year.  ICG has received funding from the Haslinger Family Foundation to integrate more permaculture elements into the garden in 2013, dubbed “The Year of Food.”

Some of the new elements will include a dwarf mixed-fruit orchard, an edible forest garden, outdoor kitchen, rain catchment, integrating mixed polycultures into the existing edible garden, along with chickens, native bees, and rabbits.

A successful polyculture extends the concept of companion planting to a whole ‘community’ of plants, which benefit, support and protect each other.  For example, apple trees, comfrey and scented geranium and calendula all work together.  Comfrey’s deep roots break up & mine the soil for nutrients. The scent of geraniums confuses codling moths and prevents them from attacking the apples, and calendula attracts beneficial insects.  All three smaller plants provide green mulch for the apple tree, and the apple tree in return drops apples and leaves that fertilize the smaller plants underneath.  Chickens are part of this community too; they destroy pest grubs and their droppings are rich fertilizer, while their eggs provide food for people.  Rabbits also provide nutrient-rich droppings great for the garden.  Integrating animals into the ecosystem makes sense, as they help complete the nutrient cycle allowing us to rely less on external inputs and supply our own resources “right from the farm.” In a children’s garden, animals are a natural magnet for curiosity and contact.   By creating ecosystems on display for the public that are rich with life, we increase our ability to change knowledge, attitudes, values, and actions; the key characteristics of authentic environmental education.

This year, ICG will also be piloting a “Permaculture Camp” July 8-12, in partnership with Cornell Garden-based Learning.  Geared towards rising third-six graders, Permaculture Camp will involve setting up some of these new elements in the garden, learning all about permaculture in a very hands-on, senses-on and fun way!

In his book, Ecological Literacy, David Orr said “All education is environmental education…by what is included or excluded we teach the young that they are part of – or apart from- the natural world.”  The Ithaca Children’s Garden is excited to be integrating new ways of being part of the natural world, or rather – revitalizing old ways in a way that makes sense today.  Through teaching young people about permaculture and systems thinking, we can show them it is possible to provide for our own human needs while also improving the ecology of the landscape.  Volunteers, interns, program participants, and casual visitors are always welcome at ICG! Contact or visit ICG at to learn more about how you can get involved. Spaces still available in Permaculture Camp.

Erin Marteal is Executive Director of Ithaca Children’s Garden.

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