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Revolution disguised as organic gardening


What is permaculture? Learn about this problem-solving approach that attempts to meet human needs while enhancing the health of the planet.

Don’t call Javan Bernakevitch a gardener. Instead, think of him as a systems analyst of the biospherical kind, a landscape designer and engineer who has no interest in pretty placements of inedible plants, shrubs, and trees.  

Natural connection

Instead, he says, his eye is trained to see layers of natural connection that, when properly placed and developed, will produce a consistent supply of all a human being needs to survive—food, shelter, and community—without doing damage to the earth’s ecosystem.

Bernakevitch is a permaculture practitioner, someone who has studied nature and natural systems and applies these principles to create human environments that are self-perpetuating instead of transitory, sustainable instead of short-term. He creates environments that are connected to, instead of isolated from, that blanket we all share, known as Mother Nature.

Born and bred in Alberta, but now living in Victoria, BC, Bernakevitch is a relative newcomer to the field. When he first heard about permaculture eight years ago, he initially dismissed it as “a hippie thing.”

Distant beginnings

Originally, it may well have been, an idea springing from the early awakenings of the environmental movement some 40 years ago when the word permaculture was first coined by Australian biologist Bill Mollison and ecologist David Holmgren. They used the term to describe the deliberate design of ecosystems that offer diversity, stability, and resilience, a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature.

From those early days, the concept of permaculture has expanded and deepened, and today it is based on three simple but profound core ethics:

  • caring for the earth
  • caring for people
  • fair sharing of the earth’s bounty and resources

These ethics help to focus the principles, strategies, and techniques on which permaculture is based.

The big disconnect

Permaculture has 12 simply stated principles, which seem at heart to be just common sense. Among the most important: integrate rather than segregate; work with nature rather than against it; create no waste.

It’s only when you mull over how many of us know food only as something to pick up at the grocery store—not something that comes from the earth—that you begin to see the huge disconnect that has become the norm for so many urban dwellers.

What is permaculture?

The answer can be both simple and quite complex. Is it a philosophy? A social and political movement? Is it, as Bernakevitch says, a design system, a strategy for using the earth’s resources in a sustainable way?

“After 20 years of practising permaculture, I still have trouble defining it,” says Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (Chelsea Green, 2009). He’s also an adjunct professor at Portland State University, Scholar-in-Residence at Pacific University, and currently a field director at the Permaculture Institute (USA).

But try he does. Hemenway describes permaculture not as a movement or a philosophy. Rather, it is the problem-solving approach used by the movement and the philosophy to meet the goals of designing a world that meets human needs while enhancing the health of the planet that supports us.

Permaculture is that and more, according to Jane Hayes, a Toronto permaculture teacher and coach who helped design the Children’s Garden program in Toronto’s High Park in 1998. “I’m not just interested in the gardening. I’m more interested in the way people can come together by doing this,” she says. “I’m a social permaculture person. For me, it’s about people working deeply together.”

A topic to sink your teeth into

Hayes, who trained in permaculture with Hemenway in Oregon, has engaged thousands of people in the rudiments of permaculture through her work, which in 2007 was consolidated into her company, Garden Jane. The course outline and agenda for a two-day workshop called Introduction to Organic Gardening and Permaculture runs to 26 pages, so make no mistake. This is not instant oatmeal.

“Yes, it is time-consuming to learn all these things,” Hayes says. “But it’s like anything you want to get good at, like yoga practice. It becomes easier over time ... Just find one or two things that draw you to this. Is it exercise, eating great food? Ultimately, we all end up more successful, happier if we can see our connection to the land.”

Such courses and workshops are held across Canada, with BC leading in both permaculture classes and communities built on permaculture designs.

Based on Hayes’ course outlines, topics covered may include building up the soil, what to plant in a small urban garden, and how to mulch and water successfully. Pest and disease control are also discussed, as are weed control, companion planting, harvesting, and storage.

All courses are based on permaculture principles, such as catching and storing energy (think solar through the use of greenhouses or cold frames), produce no waste (think composting and recycling), and integrate rather than separate (think companion planting and crop rotation).

Observe and interact

But it’s the first principle of permaculture that all of us can apply, not only to our gardens, but also to ourselves. That principle is observe and interact. Before you can begin to garden successfully, you must study the area where you want to grow food with respect to access for the gardener as well as availability of light and water. It’s similar to considering what skills and talents you have before applying for a particular job.

“We all have pieces of it [permaculture] in ourselves; we know it intuitively, but we don’t have the vocabulary,” says Hayes. Permaculture specialists, such as Hayes, Bernakevitch, and Hemenway are helping to teach us how to articulate this.

In a way, permaculture is survivalism that looks with hope to the future and has a can-do attitude about changing the destructive ways we’ve treated the earth. It seems a more appealing alternative to the traditional survivalists who see only doom and despair ahead and who feel compelled to withdraw from the world as a result.

As Graham Burnett says in his book Permaculture: A Beginner’s Guide (Spiralseed, 2008), “Permaculture is revolution disguised as organic gardening.”

Plant these friends together

Companion planting is almost as old as gardening itself. This simply means planting certain plants together for better yield and flavour. Basically, by planting a variety of plants together, it confuses the insects that seek out a particular plant.

  • Beans are happy near celery and cucumbers, but dislike onions and fennel.
  • Beets like being near bush beans, lettuce, onions, kohlrabi, and most cabbage family members, but aren’t so happy with pole beans and mustard.
  • Carrots, lettuce, radish, onions, and tomatoes like each other’s company, but don’t like dill anywhere near them.
  • Corn likes pumpkins, peas, beans, cucumbers, and potatoes, but doesn’t like tomatoes.
  • Lettuce grows very well with onions, strawberries, carrots, radishes, and cucumbers.

Good gardening habits

Gardening, with its bending, stretching, lifting, and other movements is great exercise. But overdoing it can cause pain and injury. Here are four tips from the Physiotherapy Association of BC on how to avoid injury.

1: Warm up. Begin with a warm-up, either by doing some light raking or by walking to warm up the muscles. Do some light stretches before, during, and after your gardening session.

2: Maintain good posture. Always be conscious of your posture—particularly the core muscles—and body movements. Use your legs and keep your back straight when picking up large or heavy objects; hold objects close to your body to prevent back pain and strain.

3: Practise ergonomics. Stay close to the ground to trowel, plant, and weed. Wear knee pads and make sure your tools are sharp when pruning or sawing.

4: Pace yourself. Take breaks and change tasks to avoid overuse of certain muscle groups.

Where can I learn more?

There are groups organized to advance permaculture’s tenets in, or near, most major urban centres.

  • Do a search on permaculture with the name of your city, and you’ll find information on upcoming classes or workshops.
  • Google any of the names in this story—Javan Bernakevitch, Jane Hayes, or Toby Hemenway—and you’ll find a lot of information.

3 tips for planting flavourful crops

Here’s a taste of what Jane Hayes’ workshops ( cover under the heading “What to Plant in a Small Urban Garden.”

1: Plant the most highly productive and prized plants, something you love to eat. Picking different greens continuously for eight weeks is more exciting than watching two pepper plants grow all season.

2: Grow a variety of heirloom and native plant varieties.

3: Top planting recommendations for a new gardener include

  • greens such as leaf lettuce, romaine, chard, kale, arugula, and spinach
  • super tasties such as tomatoes, peas, strawberries, and carrots
  • flavourful herbs such as chives, basil, parsley, oregano, mint, thyme, and rosemary
  • fall vegetables such as garlic and kale
  • companion plants such as marigolds and nasturtiums


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