Whether in a natural setting or a community; permaculture is a symbiotic relationship between everything that exists as it is. Where changes, new ideas, or even the decision to leave some things the same are based on the beneficial attributes of each component as a part of the whole. Permaculture is all about finding ways to maximize the health and well being of the entire ecosystem in a way that creates an environment for life to thrive for years to come. In nature this concept works within the natural functionality of your soil to increase both the health of the soil and the health of your garden, rather than altering your soil and the landscape in a way that depletes the health of the soil long term.
Ever since I personally decided to adhere to the rules of permaculture in my own gardening adventures, I find this philosophical science in everything I see. As a part of the think-tank of the future our historic downtowns, the principles of permaculture have ignited a new perspective of thought for innovating thriving communities. In a traditional sense, permaculture gardens lead to a thriving backyard ecosystem. So exactly what would a “downtown ecosystem” look like?
I suddenly began to see beyond brick and mortar. Beyond simply recognizing an Italianate. Beyond only the story of the town’s history in 1890. Beyond even seeing a coffee shop as I sipped a very real cup of coffee within the very real 1890 brick walls. Instead, I saw a vibrant plant whose species has remained within our landscape for over a hundred years.
A historic downtown could be a single street, a square or several blocks- whatever it is, big or small, it is its own “microorganism” within the bigger economy and society. Making it a garden that thrives for as many more years as it has already existed is actually quite simple. The core of downtown should be filled with dining and retail that supports local residents’ businesses and locally made goods. Second floors should be used as residential housing. Downtown residents feed the economy and create a sense of culture. Just as the garden with its many annual vegetables relies upon perennial neighbors to provide stability and nutrients to the soil for next years plantings. While summer tourism or yearly festivals may bring an economic harvest to be realized in the fall, having that symbiotic relationship between all the components of a downtown will make it grow, well…organically.
My strawberries are a perennial staple in the vegetable garden, the boxes along the sides of the house and the flower gardens alongside the goldfish pond. They provide nectar for the bees in early spring, food for me shortly after and as their leaves die off and fall they provide mulch for next years plants. Our downtown core when thoroughly thought out acts much the same, except instead of nectar, food and mulch, it creates a place people want to be, going from one business to the next pollinating the local economy. The fruit is shared in the form of taxes and reinvestment. When a few leaves fall off in slow times the roots are still there to be consistently enjoyed by permanent residents who live just above and work just around the corner or a few blocks down the street.
What is within the core of a healthy ecosystem will need the most attention, though being mindful of what will work best within the soil of your downtown will make it less so. Either way, this is the area that people will most likely notice something needs tended to. We have created a bad habit in the last 20 some-odd years of putting all our focus on easy access highways and byways, dreaming of big box stores and chain restaurants that as we fly by at 60 miles per hour, we notice they come and go the same way my creek’s deep pools do every time we get a heavy rain. Having my gardens close to the house where I see them everyday forces me to trim the roses and pinch the basil. It’s a bit further back that the staples of permaculture make their home, or in terms of downtown permaculture, your service based businesses.
Every resident and business has service needs such as insurance, tax preparation, lawyers, auto repair and so on. My own company, though I admit not nearly as necessary a service as previously mentioned, sits just south of our downtown square. I give directions by explaining what well known core business I am located behind of. I belong there. I don’t belong in the core, I exist to provide something to the core and my reach goes from there.
Service based businesses don’t attract tourist, downtown shopping events or even a destination with friends on a nothing planned weekend. They do however provide something needed twelve months a year, and the people who work for them eat lunch, buy birthday presents and meet up for a happy hour every so often.
The final region of downtown permaculture is the forest, or in this case the neighborhoods. The homes stand like deep rooted trees, their streets like paths, places of worship and schools like the rocks that keep everything in place. With a strong downtown core and a healthy service region the neighborhoods will thrive just like the forest denizens that stay for generations unknown.
Often beyond the neighborhood is the edge. The edge is a place that in permaculture is the where working with nature instead of against her becomes a Zen-like surrender to accepting what is. Edges are a disruption of nature, they leave us with a void in the soil. Nature as we all know is perfect, and quick to repair disruptions and fill voids. So we get what we refer to as… weeds.
“A weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
This is one of my husband’s favorite quotes, although he jokingly refers to our Native Missouri pollinator garden as a bunch of really expensive weeds. Our property has Asian honeysuckle, Canadian thistles, Johnsongrass and a myriad of other weeds. Some are referred to as noxious and many invasive. Invasive, as are we.
I myself am no less invasive to North America let alone the State of Missouri as any single non-indigenous plant. So when we are honest about it, a weed is something that doesn’t fit in with own agenda of what should be. A weed is simply unwanted.
Out we go in a battle against nature with chemicals, poisons, shovels and yanks to remove the reality we don’t want to see. In true fashion of reality, it just keeps coming back. Too often the edges of our cities are filled with a reality of people we turn a blind eye to, they aren’t a part of our grand vision of community perfection. Instead of hating the edges, what if we learned to love them instead? What if we learned to realize the edges and voids of supposed perfection are actually potential to the whole of the ecosystem?
When we first purchased our property, we decided to let a few acres of pasture go back to its natural state. The first few years it quickly filled with brush and grasses. A large wild blackberry patch took hold and thickets popped up making homes for rabbits and turkey. Soon after small trees began rising up out the knee-high foliage. Today, almost eleven years later much of this little spot is indistinguishable from the woods it borders. A healthy community is also an ever-changing ecosystem that doesn’t thrive without acceptance and patience. There’s a story behind the edges, a reason the edges are there. Know that story, dig below the surface and find out what your soil is made of.
“Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony, opposition to them brings disaster and chaos” ~Bill Mollison
From the core of the garden to the depth of the forest, everything can work in tandem creating beautiful blooms for decades to come.
Audrey L Elder Past to Present Research LLC