Toby Hemenway’s book, Gaia’s Garden, really changed the way I look at our property and how I garden. The phrase “permaculture” was new to me, and it wasn’t something I’d really considered before. Although, in my own defense, a good deal of it strikes me as common sense. Zones, guilds and designing a food garden with an eye to the future are concepts that were easy to understand and rationalize. And the idea of my garden as a thing of permanence – well, that really resonates with me.
In his presentation at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair, Mr. Hemenway expanded on the concepts explained in his book, and talked about permaculture in a way that I’d never really considered before – applying those same concepts of garden design to everyday food choices. He also reflected on the inherent problems with an industrialized agriculture system, which is a topic I’d like to touch on, but on another day. I was amazed at how much information he fit into one hour – and how fast that time flew by!
Back to permaculture: If you’re not familiar with it, the basic gist is that you work smart, not hard. Plants are sited in zones, with the things you need the most (or most frequently) in the closest proximity to your home. Plants are chosen that will not only feed you next week, but for years to come. You also group complementary plants together, so that they form communities of their own, in which each member provides some sort of benefit to the others. And last, for the purposes of this article, you work with the land that you have, rather than fighting to change it into something that it’s not.
Granted, that’s my super-simplified recap, of a much broader topic. I highly recommend checking out his book – I’ll include some links to his website and others, later this week. This way, you can get a taste of what it’s about, in case you’re not ready to commit to a whole book on the subject.
But how does this idea of a gardening system translate into our day-to-day food choices? A good deal of it comes down to localization, which many of us GRIT readers are already familiar with. We’ll start in Zone 1, the closest to your home: grow what you can. If you have a small space, and all you can do right now is grow your own herbs, then so be it. Maybe your neighbor, who has more room than you, can grow some other things that you can’t. You make an arrangement to trade some of those herbs for whatever he’s growing. That’s Zone 2, from your perspective – your neighbor’s garden. Zone 3 is a little farther away, like your local farmer, butcher or dairy. Then you push out to Zone 4 and what none of those other three zones can provide – that’s going to your local natural foods store or grocer. And so on, to Zones 5 and beyond, if you require certain things that you can’t get closer to home.
I think one of the things that appealed the most to me about this is the idea of neighbors co-opting their local food supply. I love having the ability to support local farms by joining their Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, and that fits nicely into this model. For us and our neighbors, we’re also fortunate that we can grow quite a bit amongst ourselves, and are willing to share the workload as well as the bounty. We’ve just gone in on some beef with our friends, and I’m looking forward to sharing that story with you as things progress.
What about you? Do you live in an area with like-minded neighbors who you could do this with?
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