Sustainability and ethics are the two general pillars of a form of agriculture known as ‘permaculture.’ A combination of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘culture,’ the term refers to the development of sustainable and ethical agricultural ecosystems. The practice—and the 12 specific principles behind it, which advocate for reducing waste, increasing biodiversity, and using resources efficiently within one garden space—was invented in 1978 by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Eventually, the agricultural tradition expanded out of Australia and is now widely used in courses, institutes, and on farms all over the world.
The McGill Permaculture Club, founded by Audrey Wagner, U3 Environment, brings this knowledge and practice to McGill students. In an effort to attract potential volunteers and raise awareness about the potential of permaculture, the club recently hosted their Permaculture Week at the Macdonald Campus. They coordinated over 10 different events, including tours of the student-built permaculture garden, gardening workshops, and an Iron Chef competition using food grown in the garden.
“What [permaculture] really is, is you’re trying to mimic nature,” Wagner said. “It’s based on three ethics, [mainly] earth care, people care, and fair share […Permaculture] has a very ethical core […] that goes beyond sustainability.”
The Macdonald Showcase Permaculture Garden Project—which Wagner developed with the help of Christopher Wrobel, a 2009 McGill graduate (M.Sc Science)—occupies a formerly-unused space by the Farm Centre at the Macdonald Campus. Over the summer, Wrobel and other members of the club built the garden with permaculture principles in mind. One such principle is creating a full ecosystem within a single garden space—so Wrobel and Wagner planted non-edible plants such as milkweed and borage to attract pollinators.
The garden project includes many edible plants as well, including tomatoes, apples, peas, and a hybrid blueberry plant containing three different species on one bush. Many of the plants in the garden are perennials, meaning that they grow back year after year rather than dying after one season and needing replanting—and this isn’t by coincidence.
“Perennials grow back every year, so we don’t have to disturb the soil [or the plant roots] as much,” Wagner said. “[Another reason] why we plant perennials is because […] we want to work with nature. We want to facilitate [the] succession [of nature from bare soil to forest].”
Wagner’s goal is for the garden to become entirely self-sufficient. One way to achieve this is by adding swales, which are dug out tracts of land outside a garden that collect and filter rainwater, decreasing the need for watering.
“In a permaculture system, we want to try to have the least amount of input possible,” Wagner said. “We don’t want to add any fertilizer. Even though we originally added compost [to the soil], a few years down the road […] we want it to be a closed loop.”
For now, the permaculture garden is still in its early stages. The plan for the future is to expand the garden by growing a wider variety of plants and at a greater quantity of so that the Permaculture Club can someday produce enough fruits and vegetables to sell to students and donate to local food charities. The Permaculture Club has a downtown branch as well, which Wagner believes will help promote the project and build connections between downtown and Macdonald Campus students.
“[We want] permaculture knowledge to be accessible to all McGill students, not just Mac Campus students,” Wagner said.
For Wagner, permaculture is not only about the impact it has on the environment, but also about changing students’ views on agriculture and how it affects the planet.
“Generally, [environmentalists] think of [humans] as a destructive force leaving an ecological footprint,” Wagner said. “We don’t really talk about how good of an impact we can make [or] how we can make [our land] better than it was before we found it.”