Toby Hemenway Speaks of Pathways to Permaculture

Renowned author and international speaker Toby Hemenway, spoke in Sarasota on November 2nd to a very attentive audience, hosted by Transition Sarasota.

Toby – author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture – gave everyone a fascinating history lesson about how we arrived at the destructive practices of conventional agriculture. More importantly, he talked about how we, as a community, can convert to the more sustainable practice of horticulture, or “tending to plants,” as opposed to what we do now, agriculture, or “tending to fields.”

Having traveled internationally, Toby said he has witnessed many cultures with few resources and materials at their disposal create beautiful permaculture gardens to feed their families and neighbors.

But is it possible for a modern society like the United States to adopt a more natural, sustainable way of providing for our food? A mild-mannered and humorous man, Toby made no grandiose claims that we should demand agriculture be abandoned immediately, but rather that people begin transforming their yards, neighborhoods, and communities into “food forests,” providing for our own needs as much as possible, and working with nature instead of fighting against it.

While permaculture is a relatively new idea to most gardeners in America, it is actually a very old one – one that seemed lost amidst the chemical onslaught that characterized farming over the last century.

More recently, we have seen a trend among conventional farmers towards incorporating “sustainable” practices even on very large farms. Practices include growing cover crops for green manure, precise testing and application of fertilizers. and tilling practices that reduce runoff into our waterways.

However, permaculture delves even deeper into the inter-relatedness of plants, insects, fungi, and soil micro-organisms. This involves stopping the constant tilling and turning over of the soil, which disrupts the soil life beneath. Permaculture also counsels us to let trees and shrubs loosen the soil with their roots, which create channels for water to penetrate it at the same time. All of this means that permaculture ends up being less work, which for me is its main selling point!

As it is, admittedly, impractical to meet all of our needs solely from what we can grow in our own backyards, Toby presented a graph of radiating zones that can help us figure out how to eat locally as much as possible:

  • Zone 1: Grow what you eat the most of closest to home. Your garden should be filled with plants that are easy to grow, that you like to eat, or are expensive to buy.
  • Zone 2: Barter with your neighbors or purchase a share in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to support local growers.
  • Zone 3: Buy from your local farmers’ market. Again, you are helping to support your local growers.
  • Zone 4: Purchase from local businesses such as health food groceries and specialty stores that feature locally-grown produce.
  • Zone 5: If you are unable to get everything you need in Zones 1-4, this is where supermarkets can come in handy.

Toby’s presentation was inspiring to say the least. I went to get guidance for my own garden, but came away with the desire to create food forests in every park in town. Now, I’m going to need more coffee – which we can grow here in Florida, under the fruit trees.