Until recently, growing food myself held little interest. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy food straight out of the ground. Like many people in my native Italy, I grew up spoiled by a cornucopia of fresh produce every summer, pulled from the garden my grandfather tended with care. An abundance of lemons, peaches, apricots, lettuce, zucchini and tomatoes thrived in that little paradise on the Amalfi Coast populated by bees, rabbits and chickens. I always wanted to recreate a place like that of my own.
My chance came this past December. While walking along Rockaway Beach in New York with a friend, I spotted a wide clapboard house flaunting a big “For Rent” sign. We snuck into the big backyard and could instantly picture a lush garden flourishing there. We signed a lease within weeks. But how to go about taming this wild and unruly new lot? Our answer is to work with the land, rather than against it, using the ecological design practice of permaculture.
A blend of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” permaculture was born in the 1970s as a set of practical, integrative and holistic solutions based on the resilient patterns found in nature. The edible forest we’re building, for example, mimics the structure of a natural forest, with a raised vegetable garden surrounded by a careful composition of perennials, shrubs, fruit trees, ground-hugging berry plants and layers of garlic and mushrooms.
To give me some pointers, I asked Andrew Faust, a landscape designer and consultant who has been teaching an intensive permaculture curriculum in New York for the past six years. Founder of the Center for Bioregional Living, Andrew focuses on how to integrate the built environment with the landscape, and provides his students, who often live in urban areas, with practical tools. In his class you can design a concept for a property you already live in, but also brainstorm on how to create projects you think should exist in the world. This will be a lesson in life as much as it is in gardening, I’ve told myself. So far, so true. With that in mind, here are some of my lightbulb moments.
LESSON No. 1: VISUALIZE YOUR GOAL
Permaculture is first and foremost design based, so knowing how to draft a landscape plan is an important skill to hone. “Once you identify things like southern exposure, average rain fall, who lives in the building and where they spend the most time, your design options just start to emerge,” says Andrew. For instance, an aquaponic system would make a lot of sense in a contaminated brown field in Red Hook, Brooklyn, but would make very little sense along the Hudson in upstate New York. You should always ask yourself what the goal is for your site.
LESSON No. 2: LET GO
Accustomed as urbanites are to well-manicured parks and lawns, a permaculture edible forest might appear like an uncultivated mess. But this is the way nature designs: a sophisticated and structured environment where everything has a purpose. It already employs viable ways of controlling insects and using sunlight. All you need to do is watch and learn.
LESSON No. 3: THINK DIFFERENT
If you start looking at the city with fresh eyes, it becomes a wealth of resources. Pieces of wood and cardboard, for example, can be used to create mulch to cover the soil before growing. Try to challenge conventional approaches and think of ways to grow upwards, not only across. When planting seeds, avoid straight rows as much as possible, as this traditional method exists to facilitate harvesting but does not benefit the garden as a whole. Instead, go for curved rows. Scalloped shapes will naturally protect the plants from wind and soil erosion, act as suntraps in clearings, and require less weeding in the unplanted areas.
LESSON No. 4: START SMALL
“It’s important to just start with the real world and take one step at the time,” says Andrew. “Do whatever amount you can, and supplement the rest from local rural sources.” In urban city centers, you will ideally grow things that don’t weigh a lot, can be harvested frequently and can be grown easily on a rooftop or in a container garden (think: lettuces, arugula, collards, kale and cabbages), taking your environment into consideration. (The types of crop that would allow residents to be self-reliant in the borough of Manhattan will differ even from Brooklyn – there are subtle climatological differences.) The aim should be to reduce manpower to the minimum by carefully intercropping a mix of plants, creating fertilizer rather than buying it and storing and using minimal water for cultivation without irrigation.
As the Japanese farmer, philosopher and permaculturist Masanobu Fukuoka once said, “Nature is already perfect, you can only nurture it.”