Roots, Tendrils, Sprouts and Shoots: A Case Study of Parkallen's Community Garden, a Permaculture Project

By Marlene Wurfel
Earth Common Journal
2013, Vol. 3 No. 1 | pg. 2/3 |

The Design

Careful, intentional design is a core value of permaculture (Shein & Thompson, 2009. p.29).” The permaculturist deploys two special techniques for analyzing and designing a garden: sectors and zones. Thinking through the unique sectors (e.g. public access, direction of the sun, direction of the wind, wildlife, desirable and undesirable views) of any potential garden allows the designer to understand “the garden’s relationship to the surrounding environment (p.66).” Thinking through the zones (e.g. the self and home (zone 0), intensely cultivated space (zone 1), unmanaged nature (zone 5), etc.) encourages the permaculturist to assess the gardeners’ relationship(s) to the garden and how much work will be required to tend the garden once it is in place.

Consider the example of access to water: the PCG garden is designed to be as “self- watering” as possible. Swales and rain-barrels to catch water, which would otherwise run off towards street-gutters or be absorbed into the surrounding lawn, have been installed as a primary consideration. Nevertheless, the PCG designer knew we’d need access to water when doing the original sheet mulching, during occasional dry-spells and to water- in certain projects, like planting fruit trees. The area sloping away from the hockey rink had several advantages as a location: 1) it wasn’t been used by anyone as its slope towards a roadway, and proximity to a large playground and soccer field made it unattractive as a play-space 2) it had access to water (the community league’s hose- system used to flood the rink every winter) and 3) because of its location and slope it could, using swales, catch and store the run-off every spring as the snow and rink-ice melted. Integrating water-catchment and access into the original garden design is a very different process from choosing a place to build a garden and then figuring out how to get water to it once it is built, planted and the lettuce is wilting. The careful analysis of the water sector considered water access in the short-term and for the long-term, by thinking through how the PCG could conserve water as a whole system. While considering where and how you will water is a basic consideration of any competent garden designer, the special focus in permaculture is not on water as a separate component, but as an integrated element that must provide benefits to the whole system.

Sustainable People

Many view gardening as an activity for people who love physical work. The value for and enjoyment of gardening as a physical activity is considerable in some age groups (i.e. adults) but not all: children and college students value gardening not as a physical activity but as an emotionally valuable activity. (Mecham & Joiner, 2012 p. 231) In Mecham & Joiner’s 2012 study of College Students’ Gardening Experiences, entitled “Even If We Never Ate A Single Bite Of It; It would Still Be Worth It,” college-aged students are reported to value community gardening for the knowledge and skills they gain and plan to use in living a more sustainable lifestyle in the future.

As a volunteer in the PCG, very little of the “work” I do is physical. I engage mostly in planning, documenting, outreach, communications, reporting, and, when in the garden, coaching, teaching, and leading. Working smarter and not harder is a great goal for any gardening group because the real benefits of a garden extend beyond physical activity to include social, psychological, and even economic gains (Mecham & Joiner, p. 231). If I was in it for the workout, I’d go to the gym. If I was in it for the vegetables, I’d go to the farmer’s market. My personal reasons for devoting much of my time and energy as a community garden director and volunteer are to share my knowledge and skills, to increase my knowledge and skills, to feel connected to my community, to provide a healthy activity and experience for my children and my neighbour’s children, to ensure those same urban children aren’t disconnected, but connected to where at least some of their food comes from, to make sustainable food a visible agenda in my community, to meet and enjoy like-minded people, and to create a green sanctuary that I can enjoy. The fresh carrots are simply a fringe benefit.

The original group of sustainability-minded people who coalesced in Parkallen to start the community garden are no longer active in the PCG. I couldn’t accurately calculate how many hours they spent in meeting, grant-application, planning, consulting, form-completing, and report-writing in order to navigate the various requirements and agreements between the Parkallen Diggers, The Parkallen Community League, and the City of Edmonton, so that the PCG could be constructed on that strip of grass south of the hockey rink. I do know, however, that the garden did not actually go “ka-boing,” and that a bureaucratic permission-seeking process through the City of Edmonton had to be navigated. I also know that somewhere, between 2009 when the idea was germinated and 2011 when the first seed was planted, the original group had metamorphosed into a new group. One way of looking at this is that the PCG has had a burn-out rate of 100% since its inception just three years ago.

Can a gardening group use the same permaculture principles and values that catch and conserve water to create a stable and sustainable volunteer-base? Can intentional and careful design of a gardening group produce a community that, like an edible-food forest, is complex, self-sustaining, and nearly effortlessly productive?

The Forest

A lawn is a monoculture. A field of corn is a monoculture. One blight or storm can destroy or flatten a monoculture. A forest, on the other hand, is a complex system. There is a canopy layer, a shrub layer, a soil layer, and a rhizome layer. If it’s a poor year for something in a forest, say the hazelnuts, something else is likely to have a great year, maybe the oyster mushrooms. Permaculture values the forest model for its productivity, diversity, and stability (Shein & Thompson, 2009, p. 46).

To encourage the strength and complexity of a garden, the permaculture layers fruit trees, fruit and nut-bearing shrubs, vegetables, herbs, and low-spreading vines such as pumpkins. You don’t need a background in permaculture to understand what “an edible food forest” is. Standing in the PCG and observing a tall corn stalk with runner-beans climbing up it and a blue hubbard-squash vine spreading out underneath it is a fairly complete lesson in permaculture. There are not neat rows where one might expect neat rows. Rather, plants grow in guilds, strata and poetries. The intention is not to mimic a farm planted with the end-goal of being efficient to plow and machine-harvest, but to mimic a forest that has naturally evolved towards complexity, diversity and stability.

How can we mimic the forest model within our community of gardeners? How can we build a stable forest of gardeners?

Most permaculture books and courses focus on tending for plants (2011, Roth). Literature on how to encourage a social permaculture is much less abundant than that on how to nurture a vegetable permaculture.

Looking to idealized nature for design inspiration is certainly not a new idea (Clavin, 2011, p. 947). “Since ancient times, designers have looked to nature and ecological systems for solutions to their common problems” seeing nature as “a perfect model to follow” (ibid.). Is nature, in fact, a good role model? Does modeling upon natural systems yield positive results?

Leeds Metropolitan University’s Alma Calvin’s research in “Realising ecologogical sustainability in community gardens,” demonstrates that community gardeners who follow natural and sustainable models of gardening, such as permaculture, experience the greatest levels of well-being and satisfaction from their gardening experiences (p. 951, see Tables 1 & 2). Calvin reports a correlation between gardeners working within a non- rigid design system that is open and responsive to multiple feedback loops, the gardener’s sense of empowerment to make decisions in the garden at the micro-level, and the gardener’s enhanced sense of wellbeing from gardening (p. 950). Says Calvin:

The wellbeing capabilities and functionings associated with agency are facilitated by an ever- fluctuating environment, continuously offering the user new opportunities in a safe space to express oneself, restore and learn. Although ever changing, the sites are kept in check by ecological site processes and a non-rigid design maintained by a site coordinator/gardener – maintaining dynamic balance. It is the combination of agency and dynamic balance which is the essence of realizing ecological sustainability in these community gardens. (p. 952)

My instinct as a director of the PCG is to avoid over-prescriptive rules in the garden. It means less work for me if I don’t have to enforce any rules in particular, and moreover, I want to let people respond to the garden on their own terms. I want people to read the PCG, like one reads a story or a blog post, and form a personal, subjective reaction. I want the PCG to invite people to explore their relationships with food and with food production, as well as with the strangers next door. I want it to open dialogue surrounding our relationship with public space and civic space, as well as our relationships with rules themselves.

The same study that demonstrates that community gardeners respond very positively to a sense of agency and the freedom to be self-led, also reveals that community gardeners do not “particularly value opportunities to participate in the more organizational and managerial aspects of site design and development” (p. 954). Calvin also points out that an “ever-changing, non-rigid and user-led approach perhaps does not bode well with the more rigid zoning and planning tools imposed by planning authorities” (p. 956.) Indeed, we feel that the amount of paperwork required of us by City authorities is onerous, especially because our garden does not fit into their standard forms, e.g. “How many individual plots do you have? What is the size of each plot?” Their response is to ask for more and more documentation about our internal processes to the point that those internal processes themselves become threatened by the paperwork burden required to document them.

My instinct as a CG director is to protect other members of our gardening group from the amount of paperwork required to keep the garden in funds and permissions. This has the effect, however, of keeping me out of the garden since the number of hours I can devote to the PCG each month are finite. It also prevents me from spending my time on community-building which means that if I am approaching burn-out under my current volunteer-load, it’s unlikely that I’ll have others to rely on, which could be the makings of a vicious, downspiraling cycle. Our core members have been writing Terms of Reference to satisfy grant requirements, instead of tending green-beans and thinning carrots together with our neighbours. This growing season, only our second, has left us feeling like we’re in a somewhat fragile place: more a period of stasis than growth.

If we take a lesson from our garden, and from what has worked so far, increasing the number and diversity of our community gardeners should be a top-priority. Tending to whatever creates a sense of well-being among gardeners should be another.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

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