Tom Gibson and Catherine Feldman are going to present a workshop at the Bioneers Conference: Permaculture and the Home Landscape. I know them both as involved and active gardeners who completed a permaculture design certification course (along with me) at the Shaker Lakes Nature Center this past winter and spring. I’ve had the experience of seeing the lovely gardens that Catherine and Elsa Johnson have created at Catherine’s home. The extensive gardens are a wonderful combination of some of the concepts of permaculture and aesthetics. As I’d not had a chance to see Tom’s garden, I went gladly to meet with him there one afternoon in a free moment, just after he’d completed his Plant Biology midterm at CSU.
It wasn’t hard to find his house, hardy ageratum and white woods asters were blooming in full on the tree lawn, harbingers of sorts to the larger garden filling his front and back yard. Ten years ago, after a sewer problem left a large grey gash in the front, Tom and his wife Carol decided to plant a native garden, full of plants they both liked and were curious about. On the day I visited, blue stem goldenrod and blue asters bloomed in the dappled shade provided by old, tall trees.
I was, more than once, sternly reminded to watch where I stepped, and to stay on the paths. In the back, there was a path made of sunken stone (an idea of master permaculturist Dave Jacke’s) and planted with prostrate bird’s foot trefoil. There was a this- year- new, gentle, privacy fence of smooth alder, a nitrogen fixer. There was wood and stinging nettle, and I was introduced to fuki, a Japanese plant that likes wet shade, and whose stalks are edible. (Also, I was introduced to a new breakfast recipe: Steam either wood nettle, stinging nettle or fuki stems. Then sauté them with garlic. Add eggs and veggie sausages.) Woodland strawberries were spreading their tentacles, and the comfrey, wonderful mulching and fertilizing plant, was growing full after its third cutting. Across from a bed of herbs, there was sweet cicely to nibble on, and a pungent leaf mustard.
So, my tastebuds were happy as Tom and I sat down to talk on the porch.
Q. So, you and Catherine are giving a workshop that involves permaculture. I wanted to ask you, since permaculture is such a large subject, how you yourself define it?
A. Well, I go back to the Bill Mollison thesis, which is to mimic the process of nature to grow the most amount of food with the least amount of effort. That’s true – but it is hard to ‘unpack’ for people who don’t know what you’re talking about. He had to come up with some kind of definition. I guess the way I see it is people integrating food production into their home landscaping. That’s what I’m really focusing on.
Q. That’s what the talk’s going to be on?
A. It’s on what various people in Northeast Ohio are doing to implement permacultue in their yards and in community gardens. But it’s not just your rows of corn and cucumbers – the standard backyard garden. Rather it’s mixing in supporting plants, plants that attract valuable insects, or fertilize, or are nitrogen fixers…so that all supports food production with the least amount of effort, and in an attractive way. I think that’s the thing we have to stress in permaculture, creating something that is attractive.
I think I found that out with my front-yard native garden. We had some Short’s asters out front. I still have some off in the corner. But, for about 6 months out of the growing season they look incredible weedy and stringy and the reaction of mainstream people was ‘Yuck’. In fact, one of my neighbors called the city to complain about all the weeds I left on my tree lawn. And, in a very important way, he was right. I think we have to want, in permaculture, to have mainstream people walk by and say, “Oh, that’s nice’, or “Oh, that’s interesting’, or What’s that?’, rather than, ‘Oh, that person let their yard grow’. There are some people who do this latter kind of gardening, and they’re kind of giving their finger to the neighborhood, and you don’t want to do that.
Q. So, the goal is to get people interested, teach them?
A. Aside for enjoying living in aesthetic, green surroundings, yes. But, after all, one of the basic tenets of permaculture is that you include people and connect with them in a meaningful way. That is definitely one of my major goals. So, with my native plant garden, I put in shorter plants that look more attractive – I still have to do some things to mainstream it some more .But, before, I’d get insincere compliments like ‘Oh, it looks great!’. Now I get real compliments; ‘Oh, I love your garden! I always love to see what’s happening.’
Q. But now, with permaculture, you’re also producing food.
A. I love the example in Dave Jacke’s book about Charlie in North Carolina. He exemplifies the permaculture yard. Charlie estimates that he works about 70 hours per year in his yard, yet he gets this tremendous production of food, lots of fruits, etc. So, that’s my goal with my permaculture garden. I have a different landscape than he does, but I would like to get fruit in various seasons. I would like to get enough to have ebough greens for salads every day, and I’d like to get lots of greens that I might cook in the morning, cookable greens like ramps and nettles and fuki. In the rare sunny spots I want to get the more mainstream vegetables. I want to use vertical gardens – Catherine’s had good success with them this year – and grow potatoes, carrots and tomatoes in one big, multi-layered bin.
Q. Would you say that the goal is to enjoy gardening and create as much food as possible?
A. I would say that the narrow goal is to create as much food as possible with the least amount of work, but also to have it be ascetically pleasing.
The larger goal is, and I might be a bit more radical than I might want to appear talking to a mainstream audience, but I think that the core problem in America today is the dominance of corporations. In their own way, most big corporations are corrupt, not illegal, necessarily, but corrupt. The credit card industry, for example, discovered in the 1980’s that, rather than provide a straight-forward service, they could make much more money by gaming the system to take advantage of peoples’ weaknesses. They lured people with low interest rates, then, if they were late with payments (which the credit card industry business model predicted with great accuracy) they could hook them on much higher interest rates .Until the last couple of years, that behavior was perfectly legal. Or, take the food industry. It has discovered, ‘ Gee, if we hit the sweet spot for fat, sugar and salt, then we can get people to gobble as many Triscuits and Poptarts as possible’. That leads to obesity for some and higher healthcosts for everyone. And the whole non-nutritious food sector is subsidized by an unholy alliance of agricultural state legislators and inner city congree people whose constituents, each for their own reasons, want production of large volumes of cheap food. It’s not illegal, but it’s ultimately corrupt.
That’s why I don’t watch professional sports anymore, even though I grew up a passionate fan. As much enjoyment as you get watching a great athelete like LeBron, it’s really all ablout selling fast food to couch potatoes. And until you break away from either spectator sports or fast food, you don’t realize how these can become addicitions that stop you from savoring the rest of life.
You can go on and on like that – we’ve refined our knowledge of human nature a lot in the last century. Corporations tend to exploit or evolutionary weaknesses: permaculture tries to build on our evolutionary strengths.
Q. So, I think you’re talking about permaculture as something being off the grid of our monoculture.
A. Well, its lessons. You can’t provide 100% self-sufficiency, although you can become more independent through the power of community. Our fellow student Kathleen , for example, is planning a community garden, and is already employing barter, like offering tomatoes in exchange for walnuts.
The more people that are independent from the broader economy, the more they can separate themselves from corporate tactics. That’s what I hope, anyway.
But, we can’t divorce ourselves from the modern world, either. The Internet gives a tiny, tiny group like practitioners of permaculture, an otherwise unimaginable way to connect with each other around the world. And universal government-supported health care would eliminate a major barrier to people who want to become full-time, small-scale farmers, or other locally-based occupations. So, you’ve got to find a balance.
Q. Well, you are currently a business person.
A. I now do PR for high tech companies,. I’ve been fortunate to have ethical clients I really enjoy. And I just ghostwrote an article on artificial intelligence that appeared In Business Week a few days ago, which is another scary topic. Don’t get me started!
Q. So, when you talk about corporations, you really are a man who knows what he’s talking about.
A I’ve spent my adult life doing that. As a correspondent for Business Week, I’ve dealt with big industry. I was a foreign correspondent in Frankfurt for 6 years. I was in Pittsburg, and I wrote about the steel industry. I’ve dealt a lot with multi-nationals and the biggest German corporations.
Q. I know that a good number of your posts on the NEO Permaculture webpage have to do with business issues.
A. Yes, and relating them to the permaculture answer. Or, partial answer.
Q. So, is it the bit of the radical in you that drew you to permaculture?
A. Well, I don’t know if it ‘drew’ me. I think I’ve always been interested in plans and bugs and things. I think it was my early interest as a little boy, though I’ve never deeply pursued it. So, permaculture is resonating with that part of my personal history. Also I do find it to be a valuable response to the corporatization of American life.
You can find Tom’s posts and more on the NEO Permaculture webpage (edited by Tom in collaboration with Jennifer Duda) by going to Local Food Cleveland, and clicking under “Communities,” then on NEOPermaculture.
Post by Maren