Eco Design Training Empowers Finger Lakes Residents

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Tompkins Weekly July 25, 2011. By Steve Gabriel

Many residents of the Finger Lakes region have taken an active interest in managing their landscapes sustainably but are overwhelmed by the task of learning all the parts that make the whole; from gardening to compost to raising small animals. Since 2009, Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute (FLPCI) has been offering a weeknight training that supports residents of the bioregion to understand basic ecological concepts and how to apply them to a design of their backyards, farms, and community gardens.

The class, named “Community Training in Ecological Design,” combines many elements of the traditional Permaculture curriculum, developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia in the 1970s, with activities and design exercises that help students plan out their landscapes. The class is held each year in the Spring and Fall at locations throughout the Finger Lakes, offering residents an opportunity to work with other students on a bioregional scale.

“Ecological Design” is a term that describes creating landscapes that mimic the patterns and process we find in natural landscapes. The aim is to create a diverse ecosystem that provides healthy food and medicine while improving the soil, water quality, and wildlife diversity of an area. The principles and techniques employed can work on a variety of scales, from a small backyard to hundreds of acres.

Elements covered in the training include basic ecology, permaculture principles, healthy soil and composting management, capturing and storing water, small woodlot management, community design strategies, and more. Students will have the opportunity to apply knowledge to a design project of their choice, receiving the benefit of facilitator and class feedback to help improve their design.

An example of a technique learned in the class is the concept of perennial multi-purpose polycultures. The idea is to mix and match perennial plants that have both a human use (food, medicine) with an ecological function (nutrient accumulation, beneficial insect attractor.) The ultimate goal is to create systems that are self-maintaining, providing water, nutrient, pollination, and other needs from within the system. This allows us to work less and enjoy the habitats we create more.

One of many plants that exhibits these qualities is Comfrey, (Symphytum officinale) which burrows down into soil with a deep taproot and concentrates many nutrients in its leaves including silicon, nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron. Placing this plant near shallow rooted plants that depend on significant nutrient inputs (like fruit trees) allows us to reduce both the cost of buying fertilizer and taking the time to apply it. Comfrey leaves can be cut several times a season and applied as a living mulch or made into a compost tea.

This is but one example of ecosystems we can create with a basic understanding of how nature works and some applied thinking toward designing these relationships. As the class moves around the region, it has demonstrated its success to teach both experienced gardeners and landowners as well as people who are new to the subject area. The common thread that ties all of our students together is a curiosity of this approach and the commitment to living their lives in a more sustainable way.

In the Spring of 2009, the class was held in Ithaca at the Southside Community Center, and this past spring at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County office in Montour Falls. Our next offering will be in Syracuse in cooperation with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County and the Alchemical Nursery. The class begins the weekend of September 10 & 11, and continues for nine Wednesday evenings through November 9. We’ll be working to arrange carpools from Ithaca, Tompkins County, and beyond for interested students.

More information can be found at

Steve Gabriel is a teacher, designer, and forest farmer currently residing in Newfield. He is Program Director for FLPCI and also works for Cornell University in the Department of Horticulture’s Garden-Based Learning program. He can be reached at

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