The Portland-based permaculture and sustainable living organization Resilience Hub holds more than 60 events every year, ranging from small workshops to expert lectures to full classes, and has twice played host to the popular Northeast Regional Permaculture Convergence events — most recently in 2014.
More than 250 people have graduated from the group’s permaculture design certification courses since they started in 2008.
Founder and executive director Lisa Fernandes serves on the board of the Permaculture Institute of the Northeast and is an adviser for “Green & Healthy Maine Homes” magazine. She also participates on Portland Mayor Michael Brennan’s panel to expand sustainable food systems in the city, among many other state and local board and committee appointments.
So what, exactly, is permaculture? The term is generally used to describe sustainable agriculture designs based on natural ecosystems. These are often home-garden systems that are closed loops, taking maximum advantage of household compost and rainwater collection to keep the systems as self-sufficient as possible.
We asked Fernandes a series of questions about how Mainers who want to live more sustainably can launch their own permaculture gardens.
Q: What advice would you give someone interested in developing a permaculture garden for their property?
Lisa Fernandes: For those new to permaculture design, checking out a few videos and reading one or two permaculture books might be a good place to start (Editor’s note: Fernandes’ recommended reading and video list can be found below). This will open up the field of what is possible in our climate. But the start of any real permaculture design process is to set some goals with all members of the household involved in the conversation. For example, does this family want to produce half of their own vegetables, some of their own fruit and perhaps some fresh eggs? Do they want to achieve that goal within one year, three years, five years? The best goals are tied to a certain date in the future. After agreeing on that “big picture goal,” the wish list of design elements (such a fruit trees, rain barrels, backyard chickens, etc.) as well as “problems to solve” (perhaps poor soil, too much shade, erosion in some places, etc.) can be articulated. At that point, the residents can start implementing their design as time, money and energy allow! It helps to join in with members of the local permaculture community which is very active and takes pride in helping each other out.
Q: How scalable is permaculture? How much or what kind of property do you need to pull it off?
LF: Since permaculture design is something you use, not something you do, it can be applied at pretty much any scale. Originally, the permaculture design concept was applied to fairly large land holdings and ranches in Australia. Since then it has been applied to everything from tiny urban spaces and typical suburban lots right up through college campuses, large farms and multi-family cohousing and ecovillage plans.
Almost any property is suitable for permaculture design depending on the goals. The only client I ever almost turned down was someone who had just moved to the Northeast, bought 10 acres on the north side of a mountain covered in conifers and wanted to start a mixed vegetable farm. Through some lengthy design conversations we were able to recalibrate their goals to something more suitable for the land they bought (mushrooms and ducks, in this case).
Permaculture really shines in what many people consider “marginal” spaces like slopes, rocky soil, degraded landscapes and edges since it focusing on healing damaged spaces and helping them be more ecologically healthy year after year, even as we meet our human needs from those systems.
Ultimately permaculture design is like a toolkit, or a way of organizing the tools and techniques that are available. Some people confuse the discipline of permaculture design with the most visible “applied” techniques (like no-till, mulching, perennial crops, hugelkultur). The power of permaculture is that it helps to make the best decisions about which techniques to use or not use within the parameters of ecological principles, design goals and site conditions. It helps build a better map from here to there.
Are there particular vegetables or plants that have proven to be particularly strong or versatile for permaculture designs in Maine?
LF: There are so many native as well as non-native multi-function plants that are great for our region. Tree crops are always a solid bet and I encourage people to start with something other than apples (which can be done ecologically, but with a big learning curve). I suggest Asian pear, European pear, plums, peaches, paw paw, and as many nut trees as the property can support (walnuts, northern pecan, hickory, cold-hardy almond, hazelnuts, some of the more palatable oaks). Many berry and vine crops thrive here as well such as grapes, strawberries, raspberries, hardy kiwi (keep it well pruned!), aronia, seaberry, goumi, goji, serviceberry. A really exciting category of plants that many permaculture people in Maine are experimenting with are the perennial vegetables, and not just asparagus and rhubarb. I have sea kale, ramps, good king henry, turking rocket, sylvetta arugula, dystania and lovage (both sort of celery substitutes), water celery, a perennial vining spinach, air potato and so many more.
Essentially, the plant palette for Maine is enormous and we can start with a wide range of natives and then supplement from there.
Does the Maine climate present challenges to developing a successful permaculture garden? Does Maine offer any unique benefits to developing a successful permaculture garden?
LF: Once someone understands their site conditions (sun, wind, slope, soil, wildlife, water, etc.), then permaculture systems can be designed to thrive in those very conditions. So the challenges only really come when we try to force design elements onto a site for which they are not suited. And sometimes we only learn that by trial and error as we get to know our piece of property. Actually, the typical “lawn” is one example of trying to force a design element into an ecosystem for which it is not really suited; you can do it, but only with an enormous set of inputs like time, equipment, weeding, fertilizers, etc.
Two really big benefits that come to mind for Maine are: water and community. We are so incredibly blessed to live in one of the few remaining parts of the world that receives relatively high volumes of rain, pretty well-spaced throughout the year (not just in one or two monsoons for example). That makes this climate extremely resilient. Long winters don’t really trump that at all from my perspective.
On the community side, we reap the benefits of many decades of support for things like organic farming, trying new things in terms of growing and then helping each other out with advice and even mutual aid in the form of shared labor and tools. It’s no coincidence that Maine has one of the largest organized permaculture communities in the world.
Lisa Fernandes’ recommendations for reading, viewing:
- “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture,” by Toby Hemenway
- “The Resilient Farm & Homestead,” by Ben Falk
- “Perennial Vegetables,” by Eric Toensmeier
- “Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective” (film)
- “Gardening Australia: Permaculture and Organic Gardening” (television)
- “Global Gardener” (television)