By Katie Navarra
Noise pollution is a common complaint among homeowners living in busy, suburban communities. A perimeter fence can dampen sounds of traffic and neighbors, but, on its own, doesn’t offer any additional benefits by being placed in the landscape.
On the other hand, a well-placed water feature, perhaps near a bedroom or living room window, diminishes noise pollution while also offering a climate moderator, a habitat for wildlife, and when plants are included, soil-building capabilities.
When landscape professionals use a feature to minimize waste, human labor and energy input to achieve a high level of synergy between the design and the environment, they are using a method known as a permaculture. Originally referred to as “permanent” agriculture, the term has been expanded to represent “permanent” culture and has gained in popularity among landscape designers, architects and contractors.
What is permaculture?
Permaculture is a design science that mimics patterns found in nature. “Decisions around planning land use are ecologically sensitive and strive to develop beneficial relationships between the features and humans,” said Erik Ohlsen, owner/principal of Permaculture Artisans in Sebastopol, Calif.
It is not a specific technique or material, but instead it is a broader approach to planning land use. Landscapes planned with permaculture principles are designed to imitate nature, while reducing inputs like labor and energy by creating a symbiotic relationship with the environment that ultimately produces yields that are greater than any one source.
This design approach is not simply considering one thing or one aspect of a landscape, it is an integrative approach that combines multiple functions for an optimized impact. “It’s more than the plant you see in the ground. It’s about soil building, increasing wildlife and pollinator habitat, etc.,” said Josiah Simpson, landscape designer at Regenerative Design Group in Greenfield, Mass.
Australians Bill Mollison and David Homgren are credited with coining the phrase “permaculture” during the late 1970s; however, these concepts have been used for centuries, and indigenous cultures still rely on this land-use approach today.
Thinking outside the box
Creating landscape designs with a permaculture approach begins with a thorough assessment of the site. “We ask the client who they are and how they plan to use a feature,” said Simpson. Then he studies the desired location, the sun and shade pattern, how water naturally flows through the property, and where people and vehicles access the property.
In considering each of these factors, Simpson is able to plan ahead for client comfort, and in the interest of the environment. For example, a patio close to a client’s home is easily accessible for daily use, but less than ideal for the environmental conditions.
A deciduous vine trellis over the patio provides naturally cooling shade from the summer sun. In the fall, the leaves drop, allowing winter sun to naturally warm the area. “If it’s a tight stone patio that we know will have water runoff, we integrate a pitch to a French drain or a rain garden and create a microhabitat for wet plants to grow,” he added.
Crafting a landscape plan with permaculture principles provides designers an opportunity to reap multiple benefits. “Every element I choose provides more than one function,” said Ohlsen. “It’s called stacking.”
When Ohlsen selects plant material, he looks for plants that can offer a variety of benefits — from improving soil health through mineral management or nitrogen fixing to creating a wildlife habitat, providing a food source, and offering an aesthetic appeal either live or as cut flowers.
“For one client, I planted a lupine hedge around an apple tree,” he said. “The tree produced fruit; the lupine is a nitrogen fixer, restoring health to the soil; and the lupine also provided a habitat for wildlife.”
At another site, Ohlsen used a water feature to create a microclimate on a client’s property. Not only did it attract wildlife, offering a habitat and nature experience, the strategic location of the water feature worked as a climate moderation tool. “It absorbed heat during the day and let off heat at night, changing the temperature around it,” he explained.
Ultimately, homeowners and commercial property owners must be receptive to considering a permaculture design approach. Although some clients already embrace sustainability in other areas of their life and will readily accept this approach, others will need a little persuading.
Edible gardens are a great conversation starter for the topic of permaculture. I’ll get to a client’s house and they’ll say to me I don’t have a green thumb,” said Ohlsen. He’ll ask for a tour and be guided around the corner of the house, down a stone path, through an arbor and finally reach a garden that looks less than healthy. “With people’s busy lifestyle there’s no way they will be successful with a garden that far removed,” he said.
Instead, he suggests planting edible gardens in spots through which the client naturally travels every day. When the plants are in plain sight, it’s easier to pull weeds, harvest for eating, and maintain.
“I call it the slipper test. If someone is cooking an egg breakfast on the stove and decides they want chives, they need to be able to go out to the garden, cut chives and come back inside without getting their slippers wet. If their slippers get wet, it’s too far away,” he said.
Another landscape feature that opens the door to discussing permaculture is a rainwater harvesting system. When Simpson explains the benefits of a rainwater harvesting system, clients often get excited. “Rainwater is treated as waste when it’s actually a free resource,” he said. “It can be directed into the landscape, or stored for use in emergency or drought situations. “[Rainwater harvesting is] relatively cheap for a big impact on one’s lifestyle, landscape and water bill,” he added.
Even his clients living in Massachusetts or New England who don’t consider the region affected by drought, have recently experienced drought conditions in recent summers. “These systems catch water from storm events, store the water for use during a prolonged drought period,” he said.
The environmental benefits of a rainwater harvesting system extend beyond the ability to turn “waste” into a resource. When Simpson designs a rainwater harvesting system, he looks “downstream”, beyond the initial components of the system.
“We think about where the overflow of the system will go,” he said. A carefully placed rain garden collects overflow from the system during large storms, and also gathers runoff from non-porous surfaces such as driveways and sidewalks.
In addition to providing a place for the excess water to collect, rain gardens are designed to filter contaminants out of the water before it seeps into the soil. “We’ve designed rain gardens that are planted with asparagus or blueberries that thrive in those environments and create an aesthetically beautiful and functional garden,” he concluded.
For contractors and designers interested in learning more about permaculture, a simple Internet search is a good place to start. Resources including the Permaculture Research Institute (permaculturenews.org) and Permies.com offer a starting place with blogs, videos and more. Universities in the United States and around the world are beginning to offer certification programs in permaculture design.
Katie Navarra is a landscape industry professional based in New York. She is also an accomplished author and freelance correspondent with more than 200 articles to her credit. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo provided by Regenerative Design Group, LLC