Gardening with Alli: Permaculture

19 Jul

Permaculture is, as Wikipedia tells us, “an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that are modeled on the relationships found in natural ecologies.” While it involves lots of thought and absolutely lots of knowledge, on the surface it looks haphazard, messy, thoughtless. My background in agriculture is the result of growing up on a very small family farm, where we farm essentially the same way as my family did nearly fifty years ago, when they first bought the land. Why? Because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We’re a far cry from organic, and our two-acre garden is in regimented lines and clearly defined sections. I won’t lie—I want to pull up the volunteer tomato seedlings along the fence, and seeing baby bean plants transplanted to the space in between my neat rows of summer squash makes me want to cry. I’ve learned a lot of things since coming to Smith, many of which differ hugely from what I learned growing up—and I’ve been more than open-minded about it, if I do say so myself. But this, this is different. I can’t tell you why—I understand, on an intellectual level, why permaculture makes sense. It’s sustainable, smart, and very much the hip new thing. So why am I, a bread-baking, Berkenstock-wearing, certifiable hippie unable to reconcile myself with what is very much part of the current green movement?

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I can make a number of excuses—the top at the list being that I’m a bit neurotic and I like everything (including my gardens) organized. But many of my fellow Community Gardeners are similarly anal, and yet somehow manage to embrace permaculture totally and completely—hence the beans in between the summer squash. What it comes down to is this: gardening is not simply a part of what I do to work towards sustainability or to further “green” my life style. It is a family thing, almost a cultural thing; it’s not entirely about being organic or lessening my carbon footprint (although those are of course added bonuses). It’s also about my parents and grandparents, my siblings and cousins. It’s hard to break out of habits and to learn new ways to do the things I’ve been doing for years. In some ways, I relate a lot to those old curmudgeon-y New England farmers, the ones who resent the new wave of young kid farmers and their new-fangled ideas. Ground cover instead of mulch? Ridiculous. Forest gardens? Absurd. But I am a not-so-old dog, and the Community Garden is, if nothing else, an educational tool. So I’m trying, as hard as I can, to ignore the little voice inside of me crying about the leaf litter intentionally spread on the tree circle or the volunteer tomato seedlings that have been allowed to grow wherever they very well please and to learn, at a still sprightly age, some new tricks.


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