Landscapes for life
Young Chico woman practices permaculture to create sustainable environs
Earlier this year, Chicoan Meagan Fischer and her roommate, who live in a south-Chico duplex, decided to change their yard into a garden.
As part of this effort, Fischer has been improving the plot of earth between the street and the sidewalk in front of their home, which had been covered in grass and weeds. She retrieved plain, non-waxed cardboard from a Dumpster, removed all tape and staples, and used it to cover the plot, creating a barrier to kill unwanted plants.
She and her neighbors then layered organic material on top of this soil—guinea pig manure and compost with a carbon-to-nitrogen (or “brown-to-green”) ratio of about 25-1. (Browns are dried-up leaves, weeds, sticks, newspaper, egg cartons, egg shells, etc., and greens are mainly any and all plant-based kitchen scraps.)
The next step is seeding clover, a legume that converts nitrogen from the air to a form usable by other plants. Fischer and friends will let the clover grow all winter and spring, then mow it—with a push mower, of course—and will have fertile soil for planting a spring garden.
“We’re adding local resources that would otherwise go to waste, literally building the soil instead of digging into it with a rototiller,” which destroys soil, she said.
Fischer has long held an interest in sustainability, but she didn’t learn that word until encountering it in a Butte College class a couple years ago. A lot has changed in that time for the slender 19-year-old, who is now a certified permaculture designer offering her services, such as the ones she’s using to turn her yard into a garden, to the local community.
She first learned about permaculture at age 14, while watching a video on it at the Chico Peace and Justice Center. Fischer has already completed an associate’s degree in Social and Behavioral Science and a certificate in Peace and Global Studies at Butte and is planning to continue her studies at Chico State. While she hasn’t completely decided on a career path, practicing permaculture design is one endeavor she will keep up.
The word permaculture is the blending of permanent agriculture, as well as permanent culture. The practice is an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.
It was first developed by Australians Bill Mollison, a scientist, and David Holmgren, an ecologist, and their associates during the 1970s. The intent was to train individuals in a core set of design principles, so those individuals could design their own environments and build increasingly self-sufficient human settlements—ones that reduce society’s reliance on industrial systems of production and distribution that Mollison identified as fundamentally and systematically destroying Earth’s ecosystems.
Fischer’s new garden, for example, will allow her to grow food.
If others in urban areas would maximize their space for growing produce, less of it would have to be trucked into cities from surrounding or distant locations. This, she noted, would reduce the carbon footprint associated with food.
Attired in a long brown skirt and brown top, with brown hair falling below her shoulders, Fischer talked about the first step in permaculture design, which is key to the entire process: a period when the designer simply observes a piece of land without putting any projections onto it.
“You let the land teach you,” she explained as both of her grey-striped cats snoozed on either side of her. “You notice the movement of sunlight, air, water—the elements—throughout the day and throughout the seasons.”
The next phase has the designer thinking about all the different elements and how best to use the resources and apply permaculture design principles to create a plan.
A plan for a client’s land might include water catchment and filtration, a grey-water system, and contour swales (ditches on a slope to prevent erosion and help maintain aquifers). It might also include a determination of which crops and companion crops are best suited for the land, setting up a compost pile or improving an existing one, creating irrigation systems, locating passive-solar window placements, and suggesting appropriate natural buildings, such as earthen structures.
Permaculture involves “stacking functions,” she said—anything the designer does should serve multiple functions.
Fischer has attained plenty of hands-on experience at Butte College, where in one class she worked on an organic garden project and in another initiated a pre-consumer composting program on campus. She’s now seeking opportunities to practice permaculture design.
Her fees for design services depend on the scope of the project, and she’s open to bartering arrangements in some situations. As she makes her services known, she’s collaborated with other local designers to found the Chico Permaculture Guild “to promote sustainability in our local area through permaculture practices,” with members meeting regularly and teaching one another by practicing skills: mulching, planting, sprouting seeds, setting up greenhouses, and more.
Fischer’s early passion for permaculture increased when she read The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk, a renowned earth activist and author.
“It describes a utopian world that is exactly the world I want to live in,” she explained.
Fischer attended Starhawk’s two-week intensive—rife with Earth-based spirituality—near Sebastopol last January, completing the curriculum that constitutes all certified programs for permaculture design throughout the world.
Fischer emphasized the permaculture approach to landscaping is to use “small and slow solutions,” whereas some conventional landscape designers want to “rush in and make sweeping changes.” There’s no one solution for any piece of land or problem, she said, also stressing the importance of people creating their own sustainable communities on a small scale rather than relying on government or other entities to “fix” problems such as global warming or the water run-off crisis.
“We can learn from others,” she said, “then tweak what we learn to fit it to our locale.”