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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.

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.

Among the precepts of permaculture is layering plants in "guilds." A guild is a community of unrelated plants that work well together, and can be efficiently layered, almost like you would find in a forest.

Papio suggests starting with a very simple guild like a fruit tree — choose something you truly like to eat — and then plant beneath it an understory of your favorite herbs, which could be used for cooking and also inviting beneficial insects.

Ideally, plants would be layered so you have not only a beneficial groundcover, but even root crops.

Another permaculture practice is "chop and drop," which means planting things that can be cut down when spent and restored right to the soil as mulch.

"One of the misconceptions about permaculture is that it has to be messy or that you have to deal only with utilitarian things. But you can design a garden so everything is gorgeous and beautiful," said Papio, who oversees the stunning gardens of nearby Sunrise Ridge. Owners Brenda Sanders and Ken Jenkins, both environmental biologists, enlisted the Occidental Ecology Center and veteran permaculture designers Penny Livingston, of the Regenerative Design Institute in Marin, and Ohlsen to create a picturesque garden that produces food to sell to restaurants and farmers markets as well as lavender for essential oils.

Winding through the landscape is a series of swales and channels to minimize erosion and maximize percolation of runoff, satisfying another key element of permaculture by regenerating the water table.

Ohlsen recently opened his Sebastopol center on 5 acres along Gravenstein Highway South. He hopes by next year to offer certification courses for both landscapers and farmers. But backyard gardeners can also swing by to grab veggies from the farmstand and see permaculture principles in action.

Among those are all-perennial "food forests" — edible gardens made up of fruit and nut trees, berries, medicinal and culinary herbs and vegetables like artichokes, as well as plants that attract insects.

Animals can also be put to work in a permaculture system. Ohlsen maintains a flock of more than 100 chickens who inhabit a mobile ark that moves about the property, fertilizing the soil and consuming pests.

(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.)