Permaculture plants the seeds of growth, change

Author Toby Hemenway talks sustainability and better living.

There was a time when agriculture ruled Bainbridge.

Farms sprouted on land cleared by logging and sent livestock and fresh fruit to the growing metropolis across the sound.

Today sprawling neighborhoods have hemmed in island farms and ferries deliver a crop of executives and attorneys to Seattle.

But author and scholar Toby Hemenway believes increasing energy costs and a movement toward sustainability will hasten the day when suburban areas like Bainbridge will again be vital centers for local food production.

“Traditionally places around cities have been used to grow food for people in the city, that’s something we lost when it became so cheap to ship food long distances,” Hemenway said. “I think suburbs will start to look more like villages and towns rather than bedroom communities.”

Hemenway has been a central figure in the rebirth of the permaculture movement, which focuses on utilizing natural relationships between plants, wildlife and people to grow healthy food and communities.

He will give two presentations for the Bainbridge Permaculture Guild this weekend at the Bainbridge Commons. In a talk on Saturday Hemenway will discuss why the status quo of industrial agriculture is unhealthy and what tools are available to build a more sustainable model.

Then in a Sunday workshop he will share ways for established suburban communities can retrofit to be more diverse and productive.

Learning sustainable practices now will ease what Hemenway sees as an inevitable adjustment back toward local reliance as energy costs continue to climb. Along with economic concerns, he believes people are looking to permaculture as the antidote for a growing sense of disconnect in suburban societies.

“I think people have really begun to miss that sense of community,” he said. “They work in one place, shop in another place and their family lives in a completely different place. They don’t feel they are part of a group of people working together as a community.”

Those longings same longings drove Hemenway from his stint in the corporate world.

With a degree in biology from Tufts University he had gone to work for Seattle bio-tech firm Immunex. Even as the company found success developing “blockbuster” drugs, Hemenway felt increasingly disillusioned with his work.

“I realized that I was a manager at a drug company, and that’s not not what I had in mind,” he said.

Playing hooky from his lab one day, he paid a visit to the Seattle Public Library and came across a book by Australian Bill Mollison titled “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual”. Inside its pages he found the intimacy with the natural world he had been craving.

Hemenway quit at Immunex, his wife ditched her Microsoft job and the couple moved onto 10 acres in southern Oregon to live out an experiment in sustainable living.

Together they worked the land, growing a variety of crops, dozens of fruit trees and and cultivating a base of knowledge.

After nearly a decade on the farm Hemenway decided to share what they had learned on the farm in a way that would useful to the average homeowner.

“Part of my realization was, ‘this is great, but most people don’t live on 10 acres,” he said.

Hemenway’s “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture,” published in 2001, was one of the first major books published on the subject in North America and remains a staple text for the movement.

The success of the book convinced Hemenway it was time to come back “to where the people live.”

Now he is based in Portland, Ore. where he teaches at Portland State University and Pacific University while developing urban agriculture projects. He has seen permaculture take root in an increasingly aware body of students and the guilds that have sprung up in many parts of the country.

To bring permaculture to the masses, Hemenway stresses taking small steps will yield the best results.

The easiest change for the suburban homeowner, he said, is to scale back the lawn in favor of ground covers, which use less water and attract wildlife.

Then they can try planting a few fruit trees and perhaps move that bed of veggies out of the back corner and into a place where its more convenient to use, like an unused patch between garage and the front door.

More importantly people need to start questioning everyday choices and and the impact they have, Hemenway said, “We do a lot of things simply because we’ve never thought about them.”

With the seeds of awareness planted early, Hemenway believes the eventual shift toward sustainable agriculture won’t be a revolution but rather a sensible next step.

“Energy will become more expensive and food from far away will be harder to get,” he said. “Permaculture makes so much sense, it’s so logical that I think it will be a natural trend, not something we have to force.”


Get to fruition

Toby Hemenway discusses “How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Planet – but not Civilization” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Bainbridge Commons. Admission $10.

He will offer a workshop, “Retro-fitting the Suburbs: Permaculture food production and plant guilds”, from 9:30 to 1 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Commons. Admission $30.

Contact Chuck Estin at

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