The Reemergence of Permaculture Design

This story originally appeared on page 99 of the spring 2015 issue.

Story by Lauren Ladov | Photography by Sumayya Allen

Aviva with the Mud Builders of Atlanta and Corwin May with Georgia Tech's Arkfab lead volunteers at Wheat Street Garden as they build the cob thermal mass part of the rocket stove.

Aviva with the Mud Builders of Atlanta and Corwin May with Georgia Tech's Arkfab lead volunteers at Wheat Street Garden as they build the cob thermal mass part of the rocket stove.

Within minutes I was stripped of shoes and socks and ankle-deep in mud. I arrived at Wheat Street Garden, an urban growing space in the Sweet Auburn Historic District of Atlanta, to learn about permaculture. To my surprise, it meant that I, along with 20 other volunteers, would help create a high energy-efficient stove out of cob, a mud-based natural building material. Led by the Mud Builders of Atlanta and the Georgia Tech group ArkFab, we enjoyed a day of mixing mud by foot, shaping cob-balls by hand, and building the oven itself. It was a short foray into this branch of ecological design that simultaneously cultivates the soil and the soul to create sustainable, permanent and interconnected cultures.

Though cultivating the soul and the soil sounds heavy on the new-age lingo, it’s actually more practical than preachy. “An ethic of feeding to be fed,” sums up Brandy Hall, where core values revolve around caring for communities and the earth, and sharing resources. In 2004, Hall founded Shades of Green, an ecological landscape design firm that offers classes around the Atlanta area, and has trained over 100 students who apply their certificates throughout the non-profit sector, landscape design firms, city government, the building industry and many others. She was raised by parents who owned a seed company and built log cabins. Pursuing careers in both stone masonry and education, Hall’s introduction to permaculture allowed her to see how all these practices aligned under the same ethic. “Food is one arm, building is another arm, educating is another — and they all work together to mimic natural systems.”

One of the most challenging aspects of design for Hall is that permaculture adopted a “stigma of ugliness” during its inception in the ’70s. Initially a very fringe movement, Hall jokes that most people consider permaculture design as stapling two pallets together. But she argues, “Anything that is organized according to permaculture, to naturally evolve with humans, is very beautiful.”

Essentially, it’s a design that responds instead of manipulates. “Rather than trying to impose our view onto a landscape, permaculture flips that around and starts with observation and analysis,” Hall explains.

Lake water management, one of Hall’s favorite permaculture topics. The typical attitude regarding rainwater around the household sphere is to divert the water away from the building structure. The house gutters will deposit water towards the sewer systems or create a pool in the yard. Southern environments like Atlanta oscillate between periods of drought and inundation. Permaculture finds a balance by maximizing the potential energy of rainwater. Designs like rain barrels, passive irrigation and hugelkultur (mounded garden beds shaped with rotting logs) capture and amplify this free, but fickle resource from the sky. One inch of rain on one acre amounts to over 27,000 gallons of water. 

A permaculture design by Sumayya Allen.

A permaculture design by Sumayya Allen.

Looking at the compost pile at Wheat Street Garden, Sumayya Allen, the designer for Shades of Green, suggests a window planting of evergreens, like pineapple guava, to act as a screen for both sight and smell, “So it’s not affecting the people working the land.” The evergreens would also provide shade to keep the compost from getting too hot in the summer months. Allen formerly worked at Wheat Street Garden, mostly as an accountant. Returning today for the first time since getting her permaculture design certification with Shades of Green, she now sees it through a design lens. “When growing systems quickly expand, especially in urban areas, there might be people who know how to farm the land, but they often haphazardly start planting things and later have to correct for it.” This is not just an issue in growing spaces. The entire realm of sustainability and sustainable design is a constant battle of retrofitting and reproducing. Imagine if we designed landscapes, homes and products with sustainability at the forefront — both for the people and the environment.

Currently designing for another urban garden space just south of Turner Field, Atlanta’s soon-to-be-defunct baseball stadium, Allen aims to enhance food security in the community where the neighborhood does not have easy access to fresh produce. “I really enjoyed the process because it involved meeting the community for feedback on what they want, which guided the entire design process,” she remarks. “If we can’t eat it, we don’t want it,” the community told her.

PDC courses are expanding throughout the Southeast and the nation at large. As we face more and more ecological challenges due to climate change, resource exhaustion and economic imbalances, permaculture offers a skillset and, more importantly, a mindset to adjust, respond and thrive. 

Karina and Steve do the "cob dance" at Truly Living Well's Wheat Street Garden as they mix clay, sand and straw for the earthen concrete "cob" (a sustainable, chemical-free building material).

Karina and Steve do the "cob dance" at Truly Living Well's Wheat Street Garden as they mix clay, sand and straw for the earthen concrete "cob" (a sustainable, chemical-free building material).

BECOME A PART OF PERMACULTURE

1. Take Yourself from Consumer to Producer: Grow your own food, even if it is just a pot of basil on the windowsill. Heal yourself with herbal remedies and nutrient-dense foods.

2. Be Wary of Water: Sick of paying high water bills? Observe the water use in the household and respond productively. Install rain catchment systems, like barrels, so you can use the (free!) rain to water your garden or wash your car. And if you don’t want to give up those long, hot showers, then use that time to capture water for other uses. Put a bucket in the shower to use to flush the toilet.

3. Natives Know Best: Grow native plants in your yards and gardens instead of ornamentals. Native plants attract pollinators and wildlife, and they need less water and less maintenance because they are adapted for the local climate.

4. Waste Not: Waste is only waste if you deem it so. Take advantage of the abundance around you. Consider composting and choosing reusable products.

5. Integrate Instead of Segregate: Diversity is nature’s choice, and it increases resilience to stresses and challenges. Different elements, be it in the garden, kitchen or beyond, will build relationships with one another to support and help the whole system thrive.