Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Designer Becomes the Recliner: An Introduction to Permaculture

Last Saturday I took advantage of a fun opportunity to attend a permaculture and sheet mulching class for the new Community Orchard of West Seattle at South Seattle Community College. Did I mention it was free!? I found out about it by keeping up with Sustainable West Seattle news. The Orchard was started from a generous grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The orchard will be a demonstration site for growing fruit sustainably in our climate and a meeting place for the community to get more involved in local food production. I got to attend the first design session of this space! How exciting. I really wished I could have stayed for the second half of the class, the part where you get your muscles moving and start sheet mulching (going from lawn to garden). The idea is to convert this elongated stretch of grassy space into rich soil so the fruit trees that will be planted here get a good growing start. Wood chip paths will eventually meander through creating space for people to walk, tend to the trees, and pick the fruit.

Now this space won't be your traditional orchard. That's why it is so amazing! It will feature spaces dedicated to yes, fruit, but also nut trees, vegetables, and herbs. It will be a small eden of goodness amidst a bustling college within our city. Now how do you get from boring sprawling lawn to an orchard brimming with food?

New to permaculture? Well so am I. This was a new term for me until recent times. I found that the people who practice permaculture have a difficult time explaining it and I am no different. I am no stranger to that in my own field of study. Here is a definition I came across recently. Permaculture is "... the art of respecting nature and working with it, rather than against it, to cultivate land, plants, and animals and people by fostering mutually beneficial relationships between them. In this sense, it's also the art of achieving the most by doing the least." Doesn't that sound like a wonderful way to approach gardening and land use? Let's work with nature and design a space that is abundantly productive for people, the plants we grow, and the natural systems we want to preserve. Let's be the designer that becomes the recliner and let nature do the work for us. This is the idea behind the community orchard, to anchor the community in a way of growing food locally that sustains us and the people here long after we are gone.

On Saturday, we started from scratch with this big, empty, grassy space. We are all use to seeing big grassy spaces. Just about everyone has a lawn at their house. Lawns are nice to look at but hard to maintain. They require constant watering, fertilizing, edging, mowing, demossing, and aerating. And you can't just have a lawn, you have to have a better lawn than your neighbors! Well that is just silly. Lawns are work. Every time I go for walks in West Seattle I look at the lawns and think, that space would make a good vegetable garden. Lawns are pretty but so is a bountiful garden. I bet you are thinking, well gardens are a lot of work too! Well, it all depends on how you garden (learn more about permaculture). Instead of deciding to pull the grass out or kill it with grass poison, the group collected piles and piles of cardboard boxes for months and flattened them in to a giant heap before covering the grass. The pile sat there like a giant sponge soaking up the rain. Compost piles and mulch were not far away and waited patiently next to wheelbarrows and shovels for willing bodies to begin work. And they began work. Two pieces of cardboard were laid out over the entire lawn (except where the pathways would go) and were then covered with layers of manure, leaves, and compost. This will sit and decompose for 6 months into rich soil to plant in. The grass will be gone! I swear, it's like trick. But this is nature at work. The process of decomposition begins. I look forward to seeing the end result.

I learned so much while attending this short two hour class. I learned what considerations go into designing a community orchard or any garden space for that matter. I learned how to sheet mulch and witnessed an amazing turnout of people in the community eager to get involved. I was able to see how to begin to transform a big empty space into something that will be abundantly productive. The grant for the project will allow trees and vegetables to be put in this year. Educational signs will describe to visitors what is planted where and why. A traditional orchard will be grown in one corner while a forest garden in another (trees, bushes, vegetables, and roots all densely mixed together in the same space). I'm really excited to stay connected to this project. Classes and work parties will occur each month and I will be sure to post updates on its progress. I will post a picture this weekend of the sheet mulching that was done last week at the work party to see how one begins to transform grass to garden. Perhaps we all will be so inspired to do the same in our own yards!


  1. Hey, I found your blog via Ben's facebook. I love it. I am so jealous of this great garden and learning opportunity. I'm trying to do some container gardening in my apartment. Last year was a dismal failure, but I'm at it again, so here's hoping this time it works out. :D Looking forward to your updates!

  2. That's great, Katie! Yeah, I just have a small deck but it is south facing so I plan on developing a container garden on it this spring. It will be my first attempt at doing so. I'll write about it as I go along but if you have any tips on lessons learned last year I'd love to hear them!