GREENBUSH, Maine — Heather Omand, wearing a straw hat to protect against the hot summer sun, crouched down to pick up a handful of rich soil from the long raised-bed gardens behind her house.
“It smells so sweet,” she said of the black, crumbly earth.
A few years ago, if anyone had picked up a handful of dirt from the property, it would have looked more like dry gravel — unlikely to support the vegetables, berries, herbs, chickens and ducks that now thrive at Omand’s Organics. That’s the permaculture farm Heather Omand and her husband, Tyler, are proud to have built on the steep-sloped property that previously was most notable for its plain modular home and erosion lines that ran downhill to the forest below.
When they found the property in 2008, it didn’t seem too promising for agriculture — but it was affordable, and located close enough to commute to the University of Maine in Orono, where they were students. Tyler Omand, now 31 and a certified permaculture designer, was interested in permaculture and felt they were up to the challenge of turning 2.1 acres of marginal land into a rich, productive property — and that they could do it without an over-reliance on fossil fuels, commercial fertilizer or human labor.
“Traditional agriculture is energy-intensive and conventional agriculture is fossil-fuel intensive,” he said. “Permaculture is design-intensive. It’s not necessarily stewarding the land, it’s working in a partnership with the land. I’ve always wanted to be a homesteader, and when I discovered permaculture as a system in place to do that, it blew me away.”
According to Lisa Fernandes, the director of the Portland-based Maine Resilience Hub, permaculture design is an ecological design method and a set of techniques for building sustainable and resilient human habitats.
“It tries to mimic natural processes and patterns,” she said Thursday. “It’s often used in food production systems, but it goes beyond that. It performs multiple functions in the landscape — I think that’s why I love it.”
Interest in permaculture design is on the rise in Maine and in New England. Fernandes teaches an intensive 13-day course in Maine every summer, which reliably sells out. She also has been teaching a course every winter in either Portland or Boston, but because interest is growing, she and her colleagues may offer it in both places.
“It’s ultimately about trying to mimic the most efficient systems in the world, which are natural ecosystems,” Fernandes said. “A forest doesn’t get mineral amendments. It gets everything it needs from within its own boundaries or very close by. We want to learn from that.”
She said another definition of permaculture is “earth repair,” and she gets most excited when people describe agriculture land that’s not very good.
“That’s when permaculture really shines,” she said.
Earth repair is what the Omands started to do as soon as they moved to Greenbush. Tyler said they spent the first couple of years closely observing how rain, wind, snow and cold air “flowed” through the property. They started the repair work small, in the front yard, by planting a lot of raspberries in the erosion lines.
Heather, now 28 and the marketing and business coordinator at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said they built from there.
“Permaculture is not an all or nothing practice,” she said. “We started super small. And as it got under our skin, it started radiating out and we got addicted. It’s very fulfilling.”
Always striving to work with the land and not against it, the Omands were able to look at air movement and manipulate the landscape so that they keep the warmest air in the property’s upper zone, close to the house. That means that their gardens are frost-free at least two weeks longer than other parts of the property. They also focused a lot on building up the soil and slowing the movement of water through the property.
A small path behind their house seems to slalom through built-up mounds of earth where blueberries, strawberries and valerian grow. In addition to making it easier to move things around the property with a wheelbarrow, the path’s zig-zags slow runoff and the loss of nutrients in the soil.
At the bottom of the hillside, they dug a small pond to capture water, which in late summer was home to a colony of active frogs. Up the hill, the chickens and the ducklings peck for food and generate fertilizer to be added to the raised beds, which were created with layers of newspaper, organic compost, and the bird’s winter bedding.
“What’s cool about this landscape is that there’s a lot here, but you don’t have to do a lot of maintenance,” Heather Omand said. “This landscape is built to be resilient.”