Thursday, March 2, 2017

What I've Been Reading: "Gaia's Garden" by Toby Hemenway

Have you ever loved a book so much that you try to write a blog post about it not once, not twice, but three times over the course of two years but you can’t even get started because you love the book so much that there’s too much to say?

(Not that I’ve ever done that, of course.)

The book is, as you may have guessed from the title, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by the late Toby Hemenway. I read it for the first time last year and recently finished a second read-through, but there is so much to say, and I love the book so much, that I can’t write anything less than a gushy review. So, here it is.

I had read books about permaculture before, but for whatever reason, none of them clicked in my head. They discussed edges and sectors and guilds and edible forest layers, but my eyes glazed over, and all I really took from those books is that you should create a garden that’s like a diverse ecosystem rather than neat rows of monocrops. This sounded cool, but I was left with no idea of how to actually do this. (It didn’t help that, since permaculture originated in Australia, all the plants and animals mentioned were foreign to me— although I did find it amusing that they discussed different methods for keeping the kangaroos out of your vegetables.) 

Determined to find a book that made sense to me, I noticed Gaia’s Garden in several bibliographies, so I decided to check it out. And as I read it, I started to truly understand permaculture for the first time.

Permaculture isn’t just a method of gardening— it’s a new way of viewing the world. It takes its cue from nature, showing that connections between elements are just as important as the elements themselves. The goal of a permaculture garden is to choose the most multifunctional elements and place them in the most effective relationships. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Like nature, a permaculture garden is mostly perennial, self-sustaining, and deeply interconnected. It works with nature rather than against it. 

Gaia’s Garden begins by laying the groundwork of permaculture theory. In the other books, this is where my eyes glazed over, but Hemenway writes in a way that makes sense, giving practical examples to show what he means when introducing a new term. He describes the mechanics of natural processes like decomposition in a beautiful way (I had never been so interested in reading about earthworms and bacteria before), and explains the basic design theories/elements of a permaculture garden and why they’re so important. 

In the next part of the book, the chapters discuss the basic elements in turn: soil, water, plants, animals/insects. How do you build soil, keep water on-site, choose plants, attract and integrate beneficial animals? These chapters hold the answers.

The utilitarian in me loves the idea that in a permaculture garden, everything has multiple uses (“stacking functions”). I think of plants as being pretty or being food, and sometimes both, but Hemenway opened my mind to other possibilities: habitat for animals, shade/climate control, nitrogen fixing (a symbiotic relationship some plants have with bacteria that essentially make them create their own fertilizer), nutrient accumulation (plants like dandelions dredge nutrients from the subsoil, making it available to their neighbors), mulch, windbreak, building materials, chicken forage, gentle tilling, beneficial insect attraction, and more.

Part three moves into even more practical terms: how can a gardener assemble an ecosystem of tightly-connected plant groups in the most effective way? This section discusses both design and implementation, giving specific suggestions and multiple techniques for creating islands of plant colonies, called guilds, that eventually merge into an unbroken paradise. 

Although most of the suggestions would work better in a typical suburban-sized lot, there are many things I can still put into practice in my small backyard and front yard. (I just got a copy of Hemenway’s follow-up book, The Permaculture City, and I’m excited to read it!)

The book ends with a conclusion about the ultimate goal of a permaculture garden: a self-feeding ecosystem that is a delight for all who visit, be they human, animal, or insect. This is followed by several appendixes with include exhaustive lists of useful plants, seed companies, books for further reading, organizations, and so on.

It would not be understatement to say that this book changed my life. It taught me to see plants, gardens, wild lands, ecosystems, even intangible connections in myself and my community, in a new way. Instead of seeing a lawn with a few patches of weeds, I see a prairie landscape struggling to break up the hard clay with nutrient accumulators because it really wants to be a forest (despite my constant sabotage with a lawnmower). I see clumps of clover and dandelions as nature’s way of patching over bare earth, eliminating erosion, filtering toxins, conserving water. I see cottonwood trees and marvel that they create their own microclimates, even their own rain and fertilizer— aided by birds, insects, and the underground presence of miles of mycelia.

In short, everyone interested in gardening or ecology should read this book. I’m excited to start integrating some of the ideas into my garden, in hopes that someday the plain stretches of grass will be transformed into a dynamic ecosystem where birds, insects, humans and plants can find a place to live in harmony.


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