UMass Embraces Permaculture

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

University of Massachusetts, Permaculture Garden, Going GreenApril 15—Auxiliary Services at 26,000-student University of Massachusetts, Amherst is in the process of building and planting one of the first permaculture gardens on a college campus, according to Ken Toong, executive director for auxiliary services.

“My definition of permaculture is about growing your own food in the most ecological, sustainable and natural way,” Toong says.

Ryan Harb, auxiliary services sustainability supervisor and a certified permaculture designer, says permaculture is all about designing landscapes in an ecological way, so when finished, very little upkeep is needed because all the work is done up front.

“It almost takes care of itself because of what you plant in the garden,” Harb says. “Growing more food on campus in a sustainable way is part of reaching our campus goal of carbon neutrality. [With this garden] students can be part of the entire food system: working in the garden, watching it be cooked in the dining commons and eating it.”

University of Massachusetts, Permaculture Garden, Going GreenToong says the idea for the permaculture garden started about a year ago, during a meeting of the UMass sustainability committee.

“Students asked if we could have a permaculture garden on campus so we could grow our own food,” Toong says. “We looked at different sites on campus and one of the best places to have this garden was an area in front of our Franklin Dining Commons. The land is about a quarter of an acre that faces west. We think this land will be the ideal location because our students can eat at the dining commons and see the food growing right in front of them. Ryan [who graduated from UMass] joined us as a full-time employee and he also teaches the classes how to do permaculture so there is a partnership with academics.”

Harb says one of the most important parts of preparing the garden was to make sure that no fossil fuels were used in its construction.

“First we prepared the whole land by going through it and aerating the soil,” Harb says. “We got big digging forks and stuck them into the ground like you would with a rototiller in traditional agriculture. Since we didn’t want to use any fossil fuels on site during the production of this garden, we used all hand labor. We had more than 150 people show up and they lifted up the soil to aerate it and then put it back into place so we weren’t disturbing the biological activity in there. On top we added four inches of our own compost that we make on campus. On top of that we put cardboard from the dining commons that prevents any of the grass and weeds from coming up from below. On top of the cardboard we put a mulch layer, made of a bunch of woodchips. All the materials came from campus and all were put in place with student and community labor.”

Harb says the group had to move about a quarter of a million pounds of organic matter by hand. The process took about two weeks. Phase two of the process, which took place in February, had more than 120 people from the community and campus come to the dining commons for a design workshop. Harb says students worked with faculty, staff and professional permaculture designers to give ideas about the design of the garden. This type of workshop is called a design charrette, according to a university press release. A charrette is a short, intense collaborative session during which a group of designers explores design solutions for a particular site.

University of Massachusetts, Permaculture Garden, Going Green“We worked for four hours on a Saturday,” Harb says. “Everyone left feeling really empowered that they had their voice heard. They gave a lot of great ideas that we are going to incorporate into the garden’s design. We also made a documentary film about the garden that is on YouTube. Phase three is planting. We plan to grow a little bit of everything. It’s going to be a mixture of vegetables, fruit trees, berry bushes, culinary herbs and a lot of flowers that will attract beneficial insects. We’ll be able to use [the bounty] next fall in the dining commons. Just getting the education out there and teaching the students how to create this type of garden, you get a really great following. When you have that support, students are going to show up to volunteer their time and work together.”

Toong says they expect to grow about 1,000 pounds of vegetables and herbs.

“This is really neat for us because we know that we can do something with this garden to educate our students,” Toong says. “Instead of just a piece of lawn, we can make the space more productive. I think this garden is teaching people like myself about how much we can utilize the resources we have. We don’t have to rely on machines. We can produce food in the most sustainable manner possible.”