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Gardens that sustain earth and spirit

  • Owner of DIY Edible Gardens, Angelica Papio, looks over Sunrise Ridge Gardens in Sebastopol on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Papio creates permaculture gardens that apply sustainability principles to landscapes. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Even on a damp and overcast morning, Angelica Papio's garden is a pretty place, a wonderland of effervescent flowers and foliage.

And yet nothing in this small space gets to just sit around looking gorgeous. They have to earn their keep, and ideally, each will multitask.

Papio has selected each plant to serve a purpose, either as food, as medicinal herbs, to attract beneficial birds and insects, or as nitrogen fixers to fertilize the soil.

Sunrise Ridge Gardens

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Like a wildland in nature, this garden set in a temperate, hilly zone above Sebastopol is a mini-ecosystem, designed based on the principles of "permaculture."

It's a word that is only slowly starting to enter the common horticultural lexicon as more people turn on to sustainable landscapes. A mash-up of "permanent" and "agriculture," the term was coined in the late 1970s by Tasmanian field biologist Bill Mollison to describe a new approach to agriculture and community design that brings together elements that sustain and support each other.

Many of the ideas of permaculture would later be embraced in the sustainability movement. But Erik Ohlsen, of the new Permaculure Skills Center in Sebastopol, said permaculture goes beyond sustainability to actually enhance or regenerate land, from replenishing water tables to enriching soil.

"Permaculture," he explained, "is a design science that is all about designing and creating sustainable human habitat and infrastructure that takes care of the environment."

"The original intent was permanent agriculture — how can we have sustainable agriculture," said Toby Hemenway of Petaluma, a leading writer and educator on permaculture. "Now we think about it as permanent culture because the design lessons from the garden can be used in the design of houses and businesses and communities. The garden is where we start."

Hemenway's book "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture" is the top-selling book on the topic. In September he will begin teaching a nine-month permaculture design certification course through the Petaluma-based nonprofit Daily Acts, as well as speak at Santa Rosa's National Heirloom Exposition.

Hemenway said one of the practical advantages to permaculture is that it is self-sustaining: Once you set up a garden system, using perennial food plants like fruit trees, berries and herbs mixed with plants like yarrow that build the soil naturally or attract birds and beneficial insects, it can last for years.


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