Finding our way back to the garden
Permaculture offers a solution and a path

By Stacey Warde
Tucked away in a lush California coastal valley, Temenos Teaching Gardens teems with plant and animal life one might expect to find in Eden.
Beneficial insects swarm fragrant blossoms; chickens cluck and scratch the ground beside gray water ponds, and llamas chew feed from pens adjacent to fertile organic vegetable and herb gardens.
Stone paths and steps connect buildings made from natural materials, giving the site a sense of wonder and wholeness.
Temenos Teaching Gardens, managed by Larry Santoyo and his wife, Kathryn, is a model of an ecologically sound residence that makes use of its natural surroundings to produce food, energy and reduce waste.
"We're just looking at the landscape and allowing it to direct us," says Santoyo, who has worked the 10-acre site for three years.
Santoyo is a natural systems researcher, designer and teacher who believes we can construct homes and communities that blend into the natural environment, produce healthy organic food, reduce traffic congestion, pollution and stress, and will save "the earth and its precious resources."
This is not a dream, he says. Santoyo reached this conclusion from his own practice of permaculture design, one of the most practical and comprehensive approaches available for making our lives healthier from the ground up.
Permaculture is a design system that creates human habitats compatible with earth's larger, more dependable life-support systems.
It provides a concrete way for humans to situate themselves in their environment without depleting natural resources. In fact, if settlements and homes are properly designed, nature itself will provide the energy and biodiversity we need to thrive, says the former Santa Cruz, Calif., policeman.
One of the most basic goals of permaculture design, he adds, is to create a healthier lifestyle, one that is in tune with nature's ways.
Its ethic of "care for people, care for the earth and share the surplus," grows out of the belief that people must begin to think and act responsibly if we are to survive the future.
Australian ecologist Bill Mollison and a student, David Holmgren, coined the word "permaculture" in 1978. The term initially represented the idea of a "permanent agriculture," where food grows without depleting the soil of its vital nutrients, and without polluting air and water with pesticides and herbicides.
Eventually, the concept of permaculture evolved to include "permanent culture," which, as Wendell Berry has so eloquently articulated ("The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture," Sierra Club Books, 1986) is intricately connected to how we grow, market and eat our food, as well as how we organize our communities.
By protecting and nurturing the resources upon which our survival depends, and by strengthening the interrelationships between humans and nature, and between households, villages, communities and regions, we ensure the continuance of culture.
Today, permaculture design encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including architecture, landscape design, city and regional planning, waste management, water reclamation and horticulture. It is one of the few truly multidisciplinary sciences generating solutions for a sustainable future.
It offers hope and practical solutions in a world that is dangerously on the brink of collapse, says Penny Livingston-Stark, founder and co-director of the Permaculture Institute of Northern California (
"Our potooskies are on the line," she says. The environment and life-support systems of the earth are stressed beyond capacity. Permaculture design offers a way out. Livingston-Stark teaches the two-week design course that serves as a basic introduction to permaculture students across the country.
She's inspired a number of innovators in sustainable living, including Toby Hemenway, whose book, "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture," was the recent subject of National Public Radio's "Talking Plants" with Ketzel Levine on Morning Edition (see sidebar).
Livingston-Stark is a familiar figure in circles of progressive thinkers and activists such as Julia "Butterfly" Hill and Starhawk who are devoted to ushering in a new era of sustainable living standards.
With her long gray hair flowing like the soft autumn beauty of a California sunset, she's easy to spot at events such as the Bioneers Conference, which convenes each year to find "practical solutions for restoring the earth" (
She possesses a young woman's energy and charm, and a mature woman's intimate knowledge of nature, nurture, home and the cycles of life. Her kinship includes intentional communities such as those at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center ( in Occidental, Calif., where permaculture is a way of life.
Her own home site in Pt. Reyes, Calif., serves as an educational center to help people "develop the skills necessary to live a more sustainable life on the planet." Central to her teaching of permaculture principles, as in most design courses, is the garden.
"We think of the world as a garden," she says. "Our goal is to bring humans back to the garden. It's very practical." This is not pie-in-the-sky thinking.
"All you have to do is look at what's on your plate and that will tell you what kind of relationship you have with the earth," she explains. If our food is laced with carcinogens, and lacking in nutrients, we are probably not living as closely to the earth as we need to be healthy.
In permaculture design, she says, "we're trying to support life, and all life. We start with soil and water."
Soil, for example, is built through the composting of organic matter, including scraps from the kitchen, as well as from contributions from the chickens. Unlike organic gardening, however, this system of building the soil is part of a larger design in which each component serves several functions.
A favorite principle of permaculture, she notes, is "how many functions can you get out of every element? … If you can get three functions out of one system, you're styling."
The chickens that fertilize the soil, for example, scratch out and eat bugs as well as provide a fresh supply of eggs.
But the garden isn't the only place where permaculture has an impact.
Her site also includes examples of natural buildings constructed from straw bale and cob, a gray water system that filters and recycles dish and bath water back into the garden, chicken tractors that fertilize the soil, rainwater collection systems that replenish the water supply, a solar dryer, an herb spiral, an earthen wood-fired oven, a food forest, ponds and waterfalls.
Everything in permaculture attempts to mimic nature, she explains, where a myriad of natural factors play a key role in the cycle of regeneration.
As a design science, she says, permaculture is "rooted and based in observation." What are observed are patterns and interrelationships between animate and apparently inanimate things: water, soil, air, plant and animal life. From that, a whole-system design is created in which nature flourishes.
Everything in the home environment - its surroundings, inputs and outputs - is designed to maximize the potentials of nature's abundance: Food goes into the compost, compost goes into the soil and soil grows more healthy food, for example.
Permaculture is beginning to attract more mainstream interest, says Livingston-Stark. Recently she and her husband, James Stark, with the help of friends, put up a permaculture display at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show that, according to garden columnist Joan Jackson, took the show "by storm."
"People were really deeply moved" by the display because the solutions that permaculture offers are "full of hope," Livingston-Stark says.
Reconfiguring our lives to incorporate permaculture design principles may at first seem intimidating, or even impossible, but it's much easier than most people would think, Livingston-Stark says.
We don't need a big plot of land, as some people imagine, to put these principles into practice, she says. And when someone complains about not having the time, she responds: "What else do you have?"
We can start simply, agrees Santoyo, by taking incremental steps. One of the tasks for "cultural creatives," he says, is to further the notion that "there are choices, alternatives" for a better lifestyle, one that isn't so dependent on consuming more energy and earning more money to pay the bills.
We have the power, he continues, to change the way we live. First, there's purchasing power. We can make a difference simply by buying products that represent sustainable values. Our next car, for example, might be a hybrid that uses a combination of gas and electric power. Our clothes could be made with more earth friendly goals.
"Everything leaves a trail," he says. "Look for labels where things are done in a sustainable way."
Making links in this way, purchasing products with a sustainable focus, can help a community begin to turn itself around. Families, for example, don't have to become farmers to eat healthy food. But families can buy their food from local farmers, supporting those who do employ sustainable, ecological farming methods.
This is one example of the kinds of linkages that permaculture seeks to make, he argues.
"That is a tremendous amount of power that makes a huge difference today," he says. "Always start where you are, take incremental steps. It should never be overwhelming."