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Tompkins Weekly — June 4, 2012
by Steve Gabriel
The philosophy and practice of Permaculture adds an interesting perspective to any gardening, homesteading, or small farming pursuit. It challenges us to see the landscape as an ecosystem and design a more complex way to interact with it, drawing upon the skills and expertise of not only humans but other animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria to create a bigger whole.

Permaculture, a combination of the words “permanent” and “culture,” was coined in the 1970s, when co-founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren observed that industrial agricultural and development was leading to resource depletion, pollution, and negative effects on human health. They observed both natural ecosystems as well as indigenous cultures in developing a framework for living more lightly on the earth while providing for human needs; food, water, shelter, security.

Today Permaculture is practiced around the world in small villages, on farms, and in backyards. Common practices include sheet mulching (using cardboard or newspaper as a weed barrier and add a thick layer of mulch to garden beds), chicken tractors (movable runs for poultry that allow them to till, scratch, and fertilize the ground), and forest gardening (stacking edible and medicinal trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants in a small space).

Here in Central New York, there is a growing movement to design and implement Permaculture practices on a variety of scales. There is an Edible Snack Garden at a new Free Health Clinic in Syracuse. Farmers at the Good Life Farm in Covert are building a perennial-based farm and using animals for pest control. And the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute (FLPCI) is offering it’s sixth season of classes to educate the public on the principles and techniques of Permaculture.

Australian Permaculture designer Geoff Lawton is known to have said, “You can solve all the worlds problems in a garden.” Whether or not you agree with this idea, the garden is an excellent place to start playing with Permaculture. Here are some unique characters to consider adding this year to increase the diversity and health of the garden:

From the plant kingdom, consider planting one of several nutrient accumulators. These are plants that dig deep into the soil and accumulate nutrients in their tissue, which can then be cut as a living mulch, brewed in a tea and used to fertilize, or consumed as a food or medicine. Three of the best are Comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum), Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) and Sorrell (Rumax Acetosa).

You could also consider adding some unique periennial vegetables or fruits to the garden. Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus- henricus) is a relative to spinach and was a common sight in victory gardens in the UK during WWII. Ground Nut (Apios Americana) is a native vining plant that provides a nutty, edible tuber and also fixes nitrogen into the soil. And Paw Paw, (Ahimsa triloba) has tropical relatives and is perhaps the largest tree fruit we can grow in this climate. It is completely deer resistant and produces a fruit that tastes like a mixture of banana and mango.

All too often plants are the focus of the garden, but in Permaculture systems we employ the help of animals to do the work we don’t enjoy nearly as much as they do. If tilling, aerating soil, weed seed removal, and fertilizing are on the agenda, no creature does this better than the chicken, who can be set on a rotation to turn lawn or field into a garden in days. Just don’t let them loose once the garden is growing as they’ll tear it to shreds; ducks are likely to do better at this stage. They gnaw only on young vegetation but prefer instead to dine on the slugs and bugs that commonly plague vegetable gardens.

Fungi, too, are often missing from the garden as key members in the process of creating healthy soils while yielding highly nutritious and tasty food. Shiitake (Lentinus edodes) mushrooms are grown on oak, sugar maple, and beech logs. They are incredibly high in protein, iron, and amino acids and have been shown to prevent cancer cell growth. The Red Wine Cap, or Stropharia (Stropharia rugoso anulata) can be sown directly in wood-chip mulch and fruits prolifically after heavy rains. These mushrooms taste like a portabella soaked for hours in a fine red wine.

Join the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute this summer for a wide range of classes to help you “permaculture” your garden or farm. On June 10, a discussion of forestry and mushroom cultivation will commence at a farm in nearby Watkins Glen. On June 23 the institute welcomes Jonathan Bates, owner of Food Forest Farm (a Permaculture nursery), to discuss perennial vegetables and forest gardening in a hands-on class. And beginning on July 27th, FLPCI hosts it’s 10th Permaculture Design Certification course, a two-week intensive training in the basics of Permaculture through presentation, discussion, and hands on projects. More information on these programs can be found at:

Steve Gabriel is an educator and forest farmer living in Mecklenburg, NY. He works part-time for Cornell Garden-Based Learning, teaches with FLPCI, and sells mushrooms and forest products through Contact:

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