Permaculture Takes Root in Maine

Fall 2015

By Stowell Watters

Do yourself a small disservice sometime and type the words “permaculture definition” into an Internet search for a refreshing check-in with your college brain. Can you still absorb painful block-text paragraphs and talking-head quotes ranging from the vapidly vague to the searingly specific? Can you mentally digest a hurricane of exposition and published thought with no apparent end and no true consensus? Can you make sense of thousands upon thousands of ideas?

I can’t. I like my definitions strong and short – something I can remember, something concise.

Lisa Fernandes of The Resilience Hub

So I asked a Mainer: “What is permaculture?”

“Permaculture is a design process,” said permaculture dynamo and founder of Portland’s Resilience Hub, Lisa Fernandes. Those words might as well be a cool washcloth to my fevered head. In her definition, permaculture is a holistic way of looking at just about everything. Simplicity.

Or so I thought.

“But you need to remember, permaculture defies the soundbite definition. It is a complicated process, but that’s appropriate, because the problems we are facing as a society are complicated too, and I think a lot of people are realizing, ‘Hey, we have a lot more creativity we can unleash on this,'” she said.

The Resilience Hub has been encouraging such creative unleashing for nearly a decade. It hosts workshops and speaking events as well as plant swaps and “permablitzes” – large group projects in which members converge at a site and implement a design. It’s much like a modern day barn-raising, but instead of people tugging ropes to lift huge walls into place, they dig swales (water harvesting ditches) across hillsides, construct large gardens of sheet mulch, and plant perennial food crops.

Want to take a full-blown Permaculture Design Course (PDC)? Interested in edible landscaping or how to sharpen and use your European scythe? Have a tree in your yard around which you want to plant a garden? Starting a new business and looking for a management plan that doesn’t follow the old top-down tropes?

That is where the Hub comes in. The Resilience Hub is not just Fernandes giving lessons on how to use seaweed in the garden. No, that wouldn’t be very permaculture at all. In fact, beyond the core of organizers, which includes Fernandes and designers Shana Hostetter, Rachel Lyn Rumson, Julie McLeod and Heather Foran, the Resilience Hub is essentially a collective of educators, gardeners, designers, authors and general enthusiasts, all with one goal: Help people expand their toolkit.

A site map posted on the wall of The Resilience Hub in Portland.

Toolkit is a word that permaculturists love.

“Your toolkit, you know, how you deal with problems; that can be on the global level or in your backyard,” Fernandes said.

The Hub is on Anderson Street in Portland, tucked between a multi-use art gallery and an Aikido studio. Although it has existed in one way or another since 2005, the Resilience Hub was incorporated only about five years ago. With an online following of more than 2,000 members (the Portland Permaculture Meetup), Fernandes realized it was time to get serious.

“We realized we weren’t a knitting group,” she said.

And get serious they did. Today a simple stroll through their office is enough to set your mind whirring. The walls are plastered with intricate design maps depicting slopes, the angle of the sun, water movement in landscapes and icons representing the many possible plantings of fruit trees, nut crops, berries – you name it. They offer upward of 70 events a year and hosted the Northeast Permaculture Convergence mega-meeting twice.

They helped design and mark out some massive water-harvesting swales for part of MOFGA’s Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity and are currently working on a project with the East Bayside Neighborhood Organization in Kennedy Park – one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Portland – to design and implement a community garden called the Fox Field Food Forest.

The Hub has come a long way from its humble beginnings at Fernandes’ Cape Elizabeth homestead, where she raises pear trees, grapes, beach plums, hazelnuts and countless other perennial foods on a plot of land about the size of four basketball courts.

“It started as just four of us sitting around my kitchen table, talking about anything that interested us,” she said.

Dave Homa practices permaculture on his own land and through his business, Post Carbon Designs.

One of those original members, David Homa, now owns a permaculture design and landscaping company called Post Carbon Designs.

Homa lives in Otisfield – a town to the north carved out in the 1770s by settlers more interested in flat fields than food forests and polycultures. The settlement plan for Otisfield was typical of much of Maine: Fell the trees, plow the land and sell the lumber to the mills.

What made Otisfield exceptionally ripe for this kind of land blitz was the payload of waterways and arable soil. But where those early denizens wrestled the earth for heaps of corn and potatoes to be sold, Homa, with his kids and partner, Gretchen Voight, grows many unique berry crops

“Aronia melanocarpa; it’s great for you” he said of black chokeberry.

Permaculture people know their plants, and Homa is no exception as he strolls through his lush backyard garden, ducking beneath massive hop vines to point out any and every perennial that crosses his path. This is no easy task, considering Homa is a bit of a collector.

“Sometimes I will be driving down the road and have to pull over because I see something really cool on the roadside and I’ve got to have it” he said, adding, “I think I have about 400 species growing here right now.”

He grows elderberry and apple mint and a tall, green, nitrogen-fixing bush called a Kentucky coffee tree. He grows goji berries, honeyberries and perennial walking onions; yellow sweet clover, bayberry, Siberian pea shrub, mugwort and motherwort; the list goes on, each plant nestled among five more varied and radical others. His take on permaculture: Experimentation is everything.

“Plant things together; each plant does something different and needs something different, so I am always experimenting,” he said, adding, “Sometimes it doesn’t work; like, ‘Wow, that did not grow well there.'”

In this way Homa is more than a collector; he is a designer. He uses one plant to shade another, while another two pull nitrogen from the air and make it available in the plant and soil. Polycultures, stacked functions, redundancy, resilience; all are fundamental in the permaculture world to treating a landscape as less of a one-dimensional show-yard and more of a functional ecosystem that can sustain itself while feeding, sheltering, entertaining and fully benefiting all of its inhabitants.

Coincidentally, that is exactly Homa’s profession. What started as a career in landscaping gradually led Homa to the world of permaculture, where the linear and the mowed gave way to the intuitive, the twisting and the funky.

Aaron Parker, shown here with partner Eva Writt and daughter Amina Writer, runs Falmouth-based Edgewood Nursery, which specializes in hard-to-find perennials.
A permablitz

Likewise, landscapers all across Maine have started moving into edible landscaping and then veering off into full-blown permaculture design. Another landscaper-turned-permaculture-enthusiast named Aaron Parker said, “I am always planting stuff for people, lawn stuff, but what really excites me is the stuff that’s not readily available. The unusual stuff.”

Parker runs the Falmouth-based Edgewood Nursery, which specializes in the cultivation and sale of hard-to-find perennials. Like Homa, Parker uses the scientific name for just about everything he grows, intrigued by the function as much as the etymology of the plants.

His collection is equally impressive, with a host of things the average gardener has probably never heard of, such as the massive fuki (or bog rhubarb, Petasites japonicus), true perennial spinach (Hablitzia), the native bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and a wild celery called Dystaenia takesimana or Korean pig plant. Parker also has a winding homestead garden, complete with ducklings and a host of fruit trees and berries.

Another major contributor to the Maine permaculture scene is Jesse Watson, who runs a demonstration homestead in Rockland and consults, like many of the permaculture designers in the state. His definition for the P word is comprehensive: “Permaculture is a type of design practice, like architectural design or systems engineering, where the end product is an edible landscape designed to function like a natural ecosystem. But deeper than that, the end product is a consciously designed human culture that is ecologically literate and economically responsible.”

Watson and Fernandes both host permaculture design certification courses at MOFGA and partnered with apple guru John Bunker on work for MOFGA’s Maine Heritage Orchard. Watson also helped put on the two permaculture convergences that MOFGA hosted in Unity, and he teaches regularly at the Resilience Hub.

Permaculture ties all of these people together. Whether it is the crew at the Hub offering a class on dowsing for water, or Dave Homa pointing out a hedge of elderberries during a site-walk with a landowner, or Aaron Parker chewing a mouthful of dehydrated Schizandra berries, or even you in your own backyard using a barrel and some old gutters to catch rainwater – the key thread is that we have in Maine a groundswell of people tuned in to permaculture.

Permaculture is not a new concept. Our ancestors who built their homes on hillsides to block the cold winter winds coming from Canada were practicing it, as were the first humans who settled along the Fertile Crescent. They were paying attention; they were actively part of their environment. Jim Kovaleski, a permaculture-oriented farmer in Washington County, defines permaculture as “applied common sense.”

Maybe you have taken a permaculture design course or read a bit of Bill Mollison’s black tome, “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual,” or maybe you heard one of the many speakers at last years’ Common Ground Country Fair use the P word. Perhaps you are like me, curious and slightly confused. That is fine, because it will cause you to reach out to others in search of knowledge.

The firmly rooted permaculture movement in Maine enables us to connect to each other by common interest. Don’t get bogged down by certifications, textbooks and definitions; forget attempts to codify what is and is not “permaculture.” What matters is that we have a word we can use as a compass to bring us together.

Resources

Check the Schedule of Events for the Common Ground Country Fair on MOFGA.org for permaculture talks taking place this year.

Each year MOFGA and The Resilience Hub cosponsor a permaculture design certification course, which begins in the spring and meets one weekend per month for six months. See https://www.meetup.com/portlandpermaculture/events/201906492/

On September 5 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Jesse Watson of Midcoast Permaculture will offer an introduction to permaculture at the Deer Isle Hostel on Deer Isle, Maine. The event is cosponsored by MOFGA. FMI: www.deerislehostel.com

About the author: Stowell P. Watters runs Old Wells Farm with his family in Limington, Maine.

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