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Permaculture Tour





When I attended the Annual Meeting of the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ last month, one of the events I was most interested in joining was the tour of the community garden at our host site, the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Fifteen years ago, a group of students at UMass Amherst proposed to take a grass lawn outside one of their dining facilities and turn it into a permaculture landscape.  A permaculture landscape is a type of landscape design that intentionally mimics styles, patterns, and relationships found in nature, often allowing for an abundance of food in a space we might refer to as a community garden.


Once the proposal was approved, students, working with faculty, formed a committee and began to redesign a 12,000 square foot lawn into a working garden.  They worked closely with the community, and over 1000 students, faculty, and staff contributed to the design and creation of the garden.  Within a few years, the garden was thriving, as well as winning awards, including the 2012 White House Campus Champions of Change Challenge, from which the committee members went to Washington, D.C. and met President Obama.  And the garden grew!  From the success of that first garden, three more sprung up on campus, each its own example of how to create permaculture in any environment.


As I toured the garden with our guide, I was struck by the simplicity and versatility of the space.  In the center of the garden were standard crop rows growing various vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes, harvested and replaced seasonally.  Surrounding the rows were the perennial vines, bushes, and trees that offered recurring harvests of a variety of fruits like blueberries, raspberries, and peaches.  Mixed in were more rare plants that offered edible fruits, nuts, and berries.  And near the edge of the garden close to the kitchen, there was the herb garden, which the chefs came to use daily.  At various points around the garden, we found places for composting, a shed for tools, and multiple bee hives to help with pollination.


As I took in all these different garden elements, even with a taste of some excellent blueberries, I reflected on their harvest policies.  Anyone was able to come and harvest at any time, whether student, staff, faculty, or just local community member.  They asked that people only harvest what was available to harvest, only take what they needed for that day, and find ways to volunteer when able.  This was how they were able to share in their abundance.  But they also took a wise approach to harvesting, understanding that in offering this free harvest, they were giving up control.  And so, while they didn’t encourage a few individuals taking most or all of a harvest, they also didn’t sweat it in the grand scheme of the garden.


After all, this was a garden for the entire community, and it was hard to regulate what the community needed on a day-to-day basis without falling down the rabbit hole.  Instead, they offered this permaculture as a gift: a gift to the school, a gift to the community, a gift to nature, and from my perspective, a gift to God.  This garden was beauty in action, something to engage all of our senses while also bringing a sense of peace and connection.  I wonder how we might think about permaculture in our own community, particularly at First Parish.  If you’d like to be a part of exploring that conversation more, please drop me an email or give me a call.  If you’d like to learn more about the permaculture garden at UMass Amherst, please visit https://www.localumass.com/permaculture/.


Pastor JT

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