Permaculture may conjure up images of drum circles and people of the patchouli persuasion, but it's much more than a hippie lifestyle handbook. In fact, many people are practicing its principles without even realizing it. If you've recycled, composted, planted a garden, bartered with a neighbor, or canned vegetables, you are already on the road to becoming a permaculturalist. Although the definition is as ever-changing as the environment it seeks to imitate, permaculture is an ecological design system that aims to create efficiency using three main tenets: take care of the earth, take care of the people, and share the surplus. In practice it can take the form of solar panels, straw bale houses, bicycles, aquaponics, backyard chickens, or rain barrels, and it's often associated with homesteading.
At the most recent meeting of the Charleston Permaculture Guild, attendees ranged in age from 20 to over 60, a diverse group of people who work in affordable housing, agriculture, medicinal herbs, and computer science. The common thread among the group is learning how to utilize permaculture principles to help themselves and others live more efficiently, with a smaller footprint, and with increased self-sufficiency.
Chris Carnevale, a co-founder of the guild, admits that he was surprised at the mix of people that attend Charleston meetings compared to the more granola audience he saw in Colorado. "Our membership is over 120 people, and it is very diverse. Our members are looking for practical solutions."
Shirley Brown, a retired nurse, attended the meeting to share her firsthand experience transforming her James Island yard into a food forest. "Everything in my yard has a purpose," she says. The main mission for most of the plants in her garden is to provide healthy organic food for her family. After researching production methods, she became wary of produce sold at the store and decided the only way she would know how it was grown would be to grow it herself. Shirley's lawn, which once cost her time and money to upkeep and provided her no value, is now her personal grocery store. "There is nothing like deciding what you want to eat and walking out your front door to pick it." After only a year, she boasts over 25 fruit trees, 11 blueberry bushes, seven blackberry vines, 40 varieties of herbs, and traditional garden crops. As if that isn't impressive enough, she is also adding grape vines and grains this fall.
Dominick Giordano has worked with Brown and other homeowners to integrate permaculture principles into their landscapes and lifestyles. Giordano connected with Carnevale earlier this year and they decided to pull together to get the movement started locally. The two are hoping to garner support for a permaculture learning center that will serve as a demonstration site and living laboratory.
Scott Steedley with the International Center for Sustainability is also working to raise awareness of permaculture principles. He spends time going between Charleston and Costa Rica, sharing best practices and educating both communities through action-learning initiatives. "If we can observe nature and how it works most effectively," he says, "and use the knowledge it provides to consciously mimic its processes, obtain a better yield with less work, conserve resources and leave no trace of waste — then we have learned the proper dance."
Thane Hollington was attracted to permaculture for its use of technology to save energy, which led to his company Solar Hot Water Works. Hollington harnesses the elements to provide a clean and cost-effective source of energy. For him, permaculture is all about "the realization that everything is connected." After reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, his interest in permaculture expanded until he found himself wanting to create his own power, food, water, and soil. At home, Hollington is working toward energy and food independence, but he admits it's a challenge to bring it to the farm scale.
Shawn Jadrnicek has taken the leap from residential permaculture to the Clemson Student Organic Farm, where he is currently the farm manager. "[Permaculture] is a tool for designing the landscape and your life in a way that is harmonious with each other and nature, which results in less work and more savings." He also admits that while it involves planning, design, and investment up front, it will allow you to live a lifestyle that is "frugal and lazy" because it lets the natural systems do all the work.
With a degree in biology and years of experience in landscape and irrigation design/installation, Jadrnicek's approach to permaculture is very practical, which has allowed him to connect with skeptical audiences. During a presentation to the South Carolina Agriculture Council, Jadrnicek gave a virtual tour of his transition of the Clemson Student Organic Farm utilizing permaculture principles. The audience of predominately older male farmers was soon furiously scribbling notes as he walked them through everything from site layout and building orientation to rainwater collection and pond management. His ability to name the size and type of irrigation fittings while giving cost saving calculations is enough to convince any skeptic of the value behind permaculture design.
In the end, it's hard to argue with a movement that advocates getting more for less, playing nice with others, and improving this little planet we call home. If nothing else, creating a self-sufficient homestead and strong community is the ultimate insurance policy against a bad economy, natural disaster, or worst-case scenario, zombie apocalypse.
Visit the Charleston Permaculture's Facebook page for more information and to find out more. The group's next meetup is scheduled for Sept. 20, 7-9 p.m. at GrowFood Carolina.