How Does Your Garden Grow?

University of Massachusetts Amherst breaks ground with one of the first permaculture gardens on a public university campus.
By Cara Lucas

Ryan Harb and University of Massachusetts Amherst students are breaking ground on a sustainability project without actually breaking the ground. It’s called permaculture, a non-invasive philosophy that eased its way into mainstream society with a simple approach to sustainable gardening.
 
Located on a 1/4 acre plot of land adjacent to one of the campus dining halls grows one of the first sustainable gardens on a public university thanks to the passionate community that is nurturing it. Harb is UMass Amherst’s Sustainability Specialist and the new permaculture garden project director. Like many young, passionate graduates, Harb’s entry into the “real world” stirred a desire to permeate change—for the better. He saw studying permaculture as an avenue for transformation and earned his Masters in Green Building from the same university that he now gives back to with his garden project, a symbolic example of the cyclical nature of permaculture in action.
 
What is Permaculture?
By definition, permaculture is an ecological design system that provides sustainable solutions to modern agricultural problems by utilizing the environment’s living organisms—or put simply, sustainable land use design. These ideas were established to mimic the wetlands and forests that thrived on natural, self-relying principles.
    
The term permaculture was coined to integrate the words “permanent” and “culture.” This emphasizes the idea of drawing on every resource around you—no matter how scarce—in order to maximize its use and eliminate waste.
    
Permaculture is based on the summation of three ethical principles:
 
>> Care of the Earth
>> Care of People
>> Sharing the Surplus
 
The permaculture concept can be applied, not just in gardening, but in social and economic circumstances, as well. It pulls on the belief that we can all take something from each other and implement it to mature as a society, continuing to be ever-evolving and, at the same time, remaining self-sufficient.
    
“Food brings people together,” Harb says. “Getting your hands dirty and working side-by-side with people for a common goal brings about awareness and helps focus on the issues at hand.”
 
The Process
The great aspect about creating a permaculture garden is that you can do it anywhere: a lawn, the desert, or your own backyard. This reflects back on the concept and culture of permaculture in that the problem soon becomes the solution. Using your local resources, you, too, can make it happen.
    
Here’s how the students at UMass Amherst did it:
 
Step 1: They first laid a layer of sheet mulch, which provides a no-till, laborsaving
preparation technique that strives to improve soil health instead of disrupting it.
Step 2: They then outlined a design, planning how the garden would be organized and what plants they wanted to grow.
Step 3: Lastly they implemented the design plan.
 
There are also other facets that go into preparation for a permaculture garden. During the initial site assessment, it is important to conduct soil testing in order to establish the nutrients that are present or lacking in the ground. Although
    
Although there is no tilling involved, you must aerate the ground and reduce compaction to make the soil light, airy, and ready to absorb nutrients. You can use digging forks to do this, just like sticking a fork into a baked potato!
 
Fruits of the Labor
The great thing about permaculture is that it doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you live on a school campus, or work at a corporate job. You don’t need land that is fertile or even have to have a green thumb. The basic principles are simple, and sometimes the simplest solutions are more logical and efficient than complex ones.
    
“I would suggest people start learning about permaculture by taking a class. We can apply permaculture principles and ethics to everything, including our administrative departments on campus,” Harb says. “The students feel just as passionate about it as I do, but it’s great to also see administrators and professors sitting around talking about how they can implement more permaculture principles into various projects on campus.”
    
This season, the UMass Amherst community will plant various in season fruits, vegetables, and some special herbs. These include Asian pears, blueberries, raspberries, chard, potatoes, carrots, cherry tomatoes, and basil—all interspersed with decorative flowering plants.
    
The dining halls are expected to receive about 1,000 pounds of food from the permaculture garden, reinforcing the methodology and ethics of permaculture and thus completing the circle of caring for people, caring for the earth, and, finally, sharing its surplus.