Gardening is my spiritual teacher. If I could come to know the plants and all the creatures that live in my garden — and the wind and water and nutrients that flow around and through it — I believe that I would know the universe. Watching the miracle of photosynthesis, knowing that I’m seeing the fundamental metabolic work of this planet as I breathe my carbon dioxide onto a leaf (and thus become a part of that miracle-making) is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And when I use my urine to feed the plants, I feel powerful in knowing that I am a part of the miracle of nutrients forever cycling through this land.
Interesting Factoid: The amount of nitrogen in the urine the average human produces annually is roughly equal to the amount of nitrogen needed annually to grow food for the average human.
I dream of having been born to a piece of land that contains the wastes and bodies of my ancestors — land that grew the food that fed my mother as she grew me, and her mother as she grew her, and on for generations back. Who would I be, knowing myself in that way?
In the utopian future that I envision, almost everyone has a personal relationship with their food-, medicine-, tool-, fiber-, shelter- and beauty-producing plants. According to Masanobu Fukuoka, one of the pioneers of natural agriculture, in a sustainable culture, 98 percent of the people should be “farmers.” But he’s not talking about people with tractors and chemicals who grow acres of one plant and sell it thousands of miles away. He’s talking about people producing most of what they need from their homes.
In my mythical “Gardenland,” every home is surrounded by gardens. Orchards, ponds, chickens, ducks and pastures are scattered through the neighborhoods. Many of the plants are perennials or self-seeding (and the animals certainly are!), so they do much of the work of gardening themselves. These gardens embody the principles of synergistic gardening, a system derived from Fukuoka’s work by Emilia Hazelip in France. Once established, they require no plowing or digging, no imported manures or amendments, no pesticides or herbicides. In synergistic gardening, the health of the soil is maintained by interplanting, mulching, and recycling all garden and household wastes.
With such healthy soil and deep mulching, irrigation is rarely needed. But when it is, there’s plenty of water available. In Gardenland neighborhoods, homes are built on slopes, saving flat land for large-scale agriculture, ceremonial spaces and other community uses. Each roof feeds water into a cistern that serves the house below it, and there’s always a community pavilion at the top of the slope, used for observing sunrise and sunset, that provides water to the highest house.
Ponds and wetlands are scattered among the homes — providing fish, water chestnuts, cattails and nutrient-rich water for feeding the gardens. Small ponds tucked in protected corners supply water to lizards, birds, bees, butterflies, frogs and other creatures that provide essential services to the garden. Larger ponds serve this purpose as well; they’re also used for fire control, irrigation, domestic-animal watering and swimming.
On the edges of gardens (and in the greenways that define neighborhoods) flowers, herbs and medicinals are interplanted with berry bushes and fruit trees, with such a mix of varieties that there’s fruit every month of the year (if you include the dwarf citruses in the neighborhood greenhouses).
Chickens, ducks, geese and other fowl wander through the orchards and forest edges, eating insects and weed seeds and spreading manure. In the fall, before the annual garden beds are put to rest, the fowl are invited in to scratch and dig for potentially overwintering insects, aerating and fertilizing the soil in the process.
The forest, which defines the boundaries of the village, is sacred to the people of Gardenland, and only limited amounts of timber, mushrooms, berries, meat and medicines are harvested from it. Most of the trees in the forest are allowed to live their full life spans and fall to the ground, where they provide shelter for their young. Some trees, however, are coppiced — cut periodically, with the resulting shoots allowed to regrow until they reach a desired size before cutting again. This produces a continuous supply of just-the-right-size wood for furniture, crafts, shelter and firewood.
And when the foresters go in to harvest wood, they frolick along the broad pathways, chasing butterflies and stopping to picnic and make love and …
Ahh! Such a lovely fantasy! If only there were some way we could create gardens (and lives) like this…
Actually, there is a way — and it’s already being done. Permaculture is a system for designing sustainable human settlements of any size — homes, gardens, communities and towns, even whole bioregions — based on earth ethics and observation of natural patterns. Since the early 1980s, more than 100,000 people worldwide have taken a permaculture-design course and have begun using permaculture principles to disengage from consumer culture and become part of a global-healing movement.
Permaculture uses integrated, whole-system design to address environmental, economic and political challenges. If the problem is defined as “waste,” for example, the conventional thinking is usually “How can we get rid of it?” This typically leads to discussions of landfills and recycling. Permaculture, on the other hand, would redesign the entire system humans use to obtain food and goods so that waste is eliminated. And since permaculture offers whole-system designs, the vision of Gardenland addresses quite a few other problems, too: dwindling fossil-fuel supplies, global warming, soaring health-care costs and so on.
By now, a lot of folks have figured out that governments aren’t going to save us; instead, the solutions must come from the creative actions of individuals and small groups. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And perhaps an agricultural and ecological paradigm shift can begin in your very own garden.
[Patricia Allison has taught permaculture workshops and design courses throughout the U.S. since 1994. She lives in her garden at Earthaven Ecovillage, a permaculture-based intentional community near Black Mountain.]