Take a walk through the farmlands of Iowa, and all you will see are seemingly endless stretches of corn. Take a walk up to Block 3 of Dilmun Hill Cornell Student Farm, which is home to the Growing Mosaic Garden, and you will find hazelnut trees, chicory, hardy kiwi fruit, chamomile and a number of other plant species.
The Growing Mosaic Garden is a polyculture garden designed to incorporate many different species that contribute to the growth of the other species within the complex ecosystem.
Wren Albertson-Rogers ’10 designed the garden as an independent study project after taking a permaculture course at the Cayuga Nature Center taught by Steve Gabriel, who works for the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute.
Polyculture — the cultivation of a variety of crops within a certain space — is only one element of permaculture, which is an agricultural design theory that emphasizes holistic thinking, planning for long-term sustainability and a long observation period. All of these characteristics are believed by proponents of permaculture to be lacking in modern industrial agriculture. Monoculture, which is exemplified by the corn crops of Iowa, takes a very different approach.
Take, for example, an apple orchard. The apples could be the main focus, with all other plant and animal species — aside from grass — taken out of the orchard ecosystem. Under the influence of permaculture, Gabriel explained, the apples will be placed in their “natural habitat.” Apples are an understory tree species, so a canopy tree species would be planted above and herbaceous plants below, to mimic a naturally occurring shaded forest.
The apple trees could also serve as a food source and a habitat to combat “diseases and pest issues,” Gabriel said, adding that current practices in agriculture are water and energy intensive.
On a larger scale, Kelley McCrudden ’10, who is manager of the garden, referred to chemical runoff and desertification as “strong examples of what we do to our land” with unsustainable land-use practices.
A garden takes time to establish because crops need to be introduced in a defined order. Viewed from this perspective, the long observation time and the considerable time required to establish a garden are not drawbacks to permaculture. Instead, proponents of permaculture view these as rather critical components of their theory.
“Part of this whole theory with permaculture is that your experience evolves with the garden,” McCrudden said.
Observation is also strongly connected to sustainability because failing to take “crucial factors into account” could lead to “investing more in the long run” to maintain the ecosystem, Albertson-Rogers said.
Permaculture is a thought process that extends far beyond a collection of design techniques. Albertson-Rogers finds that holistic thinking offers “valuable insights into equality,” and taking the time to make observations should “take a lot more precedence than we give it” in the United States, where costly mistakes can be made quickly in the interest of time.
Gabriel said he was most struck by the potential for collaboration with other ideas, including organic agriculture and agroforestry — forest agriculture.
Education was one of the most important reasons for the Dilmun garden’s construction. “People are a huge part of our design process,” McCrudden said.
Although Albertson-Rogers led the design of the garden, he worked closely with associates and volunteers at Dilmun to “assess the needs and interests of all involved to make the effort a community project.” For Albertson-Rogers and McCrudden, the close interaction with their garden and the ability to share it with others is the most tangible benefit of permaculture.