What was it that initially drew you to the principles of permaculture?
I’ve been involved in local bush regeneration projects, seed saving and sustainability for more than two decades. I came to permaculture because I was committed to making a positive change to my local environment by participating in earth remediation projects. Permaculture deepened my understanding of taking personal responsibility for my actions, and that meant considering personal sustainability and contributing to community resilience. Permaculture provided an ethical thinking tool that informs practical solutions for a world in transition; that still resonates with me.
How has your garden at the Wollongong PCYC (Police Citizens Youth Club) evolved?
The garden first sprouted in 1999 as a place for the rental community to see permaculture in action. Our initial focus was growing and sharing food together, in a beautiful subtropical food forest designed to provide respite from the industrial cityscape. This was a time of experimentation, with a variety of natural gardening practices that proved successful in our bioregion. It was also a time of celebration, because I was involved in creating something meaningful, and pioneering with friends.
How did you get that garden off the ground?
There were a few anomalies that guided our path.
The ground was made up of industrial waste, which made us soil shepherds. The methods we used to build up that soil have been used to inform other permaculture and community gardening projects – in and beyond the region.
Being based at the Wollongong PCYC meant we were connected to the wider community; many people started to visit to gather and share information, plant materials and gardening practices. We became an incubator for folk to come and develop an understanding of permaculture, design and maintenance skills, and to transfer that to other projects.
How would you describe the garden today?
The garden is a dynamic urban permaculture demonstration site that inspires and enables others to gain practical skills for their own project, or to simply garden regularly with others.
What have the kids at Cringila Public School taught you about the benefits of grubbing about in a garden?
Alongside my work in the community garden, I piloted the ‘Living Classroom’ project at Cringila, which is a template for permaculture projects we’ve rolled out in four other public schools in the region.
The students generate such enthusiasm and laughter when learning in nature. They express joy and gratitude with each new discovery, particularly when it involves tasting fruit or vegetables they’ve planted. Their observations and interactions with this living classroom help them to think about how to solve some of the larger environmental problems they will inherit. I love how practical children are: they respond positively to climate change by requesting to plant trees. It is encouraging, particularly when our leaders are not being proactive or positive about climate change.
The natural approach children have with sharing and teaching their peers, younger students and particularly adults about the design, and how a garden functions, is also very inspiring.
How do you weave your university studies in teaching and fine arts into permaculture practices?
I first thought of how I learn, what engages me and where I like to experience that learning. University provided access to co-create programs and learning environments that consider the whole student, and how to support them in their educational experience. Learning by doing and being creative with others seems to bring out the best in the students and staff we work with. Our permaculture classrooms constantly evolve and require creative design and maintenance. Whether supporting student artworks or the garden maintenance, the pedagogy is the same; the context varies depending on the site and the students.
How would you describe the thriving community garden, fifteen years on?
It has morphed into a food forest of robust natives and exotics in a space that is dotted with sculptures, features a meditation area, and chickens scratching about in the dirt. It provides hope.
How has the community garden become a hub for healing?
The garden has helped youth at risk, and those who have suffered major personal trauma.
It quickly became a place for us to breathe, dream and create in, so it makes sense that folk are attracted to the space and find they can escape – even momentarily – from their difficult situations. Working with the soil is an incredible healing force. To be engaged in activities that work in balance with nature resonates with our inner self and creates happiness.
What is it about this intensive organic method of growing that so inspires you?
Permaculture is a solution for growing a responsible society that consciously chooses to live in a natural balance with the earth for generations to come.
Aaron Sorenson and Dan Deighton run Elemental Permaculture. They are now taking registrations for the 2014 Urban Permaculture Design Course, to be held in Wollongong from 21 September to 4 October. For more information, visit www.elementalpermaculture.wordpress.com