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Building community through permaculture

June 18, 2015
by Jeremy Lynch, Moab Sun News Guest Columnist

Looking out a window at USU Moab, a new and special garden – the work of a community – gleans the short arm of light afforded by the late winter sun earlier this year. Each detail – from the young fruit trees (now caged from the browsing deer) to the curving, rock-lined swale – brings to mind an aspect of the design process as it developed and unfolded over the course of a year. What differentiates USU Moab’s Rain Gardens from so much urban landscaping here in the valley is not solely the aesthetics of the space itself nor how precisely it is designed to function with the local ecology, but how the design process was conceived and carried out.

Throughout its inception and implementation, the rain gardens have been a community-designed project. Observation was integral to the process. In our case, it was the shared observation of an invested community.

Building upon the work of motivated citizens and the local Conservation District, USU Moab, in collaboration with the Bee Inspired Gardens Group, is in the midst of establishing multiple rain gardens on its downtown campus in an effort to provide water-wise permaculture education to the larger community. Throughout 2014, USU Extension Sustainability Director Dr. Roslynn Brain, and myself, enlisted the guidance of Jason Gerhardt of Real Earth Design to design and implement the rain gardens at the site of a decades-old parking lot.

In their design, the gardens both hearken to Moab’s ancient roots and its recent history while incorporating the present-day permaculture sciences in order to “un-pave” the way to a future of more permeable landscapes, healthier waterways, a fortified watershed and equal opportunity education.

With an informed look, each element in USU Moab’s Rain Gardens is nuanced, interconnected and clear. The long, sloping swale – or depression – lined with river cobble curving through the garden is designed to slow, capture and infiltrate water from the roofs of nearby commercial buildings. Working both with the natural ecology of the drylands environment as well as the human ecology of urban infrastructure, downspouts feed roof runoff into the swale designed to function like a creek or wash, transporting water during storm events via a meandering course through an oft-neglected leg of the water cycle, feeding thriving plants along the way, all while addressing issues of erosion, non-point source pollution and aquifer depletion. The use of rock in water-harvesting infrastructure, an epochs-old indigenous practice, is employed for its functional utility with the added benefit of providing an aesthetic appeal often sought in modern landscaping.

All of the materials used are sourced locally and are engaged in recycling, reconstitution processes. For example, the mulched wood of invasive Russian olive trees holds moisture in the soil while itself breaking down into a hearty tilth. As noted, the entire garden is mulched (excepting the swale), including the boomerang berms wrapping the young fruit trees to maximize water retention. The composting manure of local mules provides nutrients for young plant growth, inviting biologic life into sandy soils beneath the mulch. These soils are amended, increasing exchange while minimizing hidden fossil fuel inputs and energy expenditures inherent in commercial gardening and farming practices which source their amendments non-locally.

The plants themselves – trees, shrubs and herbaceous species, most of which were grown from locally harvested seed – are planted in patterns which mimic the canopies of dryland forest ecologies, creating microclimates to support and invite unique air, surface and soil life while serving functions which support one another, including: nutrient accumulation, nitrogen fixation, and shade provision. The last of which – shade – is truly a resource in any desert environment, especially in areas of the garden still surrounded by asphalt and backed by a two-story brick wall radiating the absorbed sunshine. In addition, the plants themselves were chosen for their suitability to our unique climate, for their ability to amend soils, provide food and habitat for pollinators, as well as food and education for people. Selections admix the 20th century’s history of extensive orcharding in the valley – peaches, pear, plum, cherry, even jujube – with native species like the desert willow (chilopsis). As an understory, native sand cherry, Utah serviceberry and golden currant crowd the banks of the swale. Apache plume, a nitrogen fixer, pocks the landscape with its pluming bloom, and ground level herbs and medicinals – from thyme to yarrow – work the soils near the roots of trees. Native blanket flower, lo-grow sumac shrubs, Rocky Mountain penstemon and hyssop fill out the native aesthetic midst bee balm and bright daylilies, while banana yucca and Indian rice grass provide an additional alternative food source stabilizing the bank of the swale alongside native three awn and little blue stem grasses. Every flowering plant draws hungry native bees, over 900 species of which call Utah, the Beehive State, home.

Maybe most important of all is that the design for the garden, as well as its installation, was determined in large part through community participation in a series of public workshops. This is where permaculture design transcends the garden and enters into social dynamics. Many of the ideas proposed in these workshops have become realities in the garden. This includes the two tree islands planted with all native vegetation in the heart of an asphalt parking lot.

The perspectives offered up during the workshops – both from minds new to permaculture as well as from practiced gardeners and landscape designers – have proven an invaluable resource. Through these workshops, we were able to stack the functions of teaching, learning and designing – all before a single plant went into the ground.

This presses the point: permaculture design is about more than growing gardens. It is about growing people and communities through an increased interaction with and knowledge of local ecology. In other words, it is about teaching people to teach themselves how the world works around them. In doing so, we build the foundation for shared education and understanding which seeks to work with – not against, nor in neglect of – our environment.

As USU Moab’s Rain Gardens grow up – as the intention of design and function become more apparent with age – they will serve as an educational learning space for students and the community, focusing not only on the benefits of practicing water-wise habits, growing food sustainably, and supporting local pollinator populations, but as well on the social dynamics of thoughtful design and the positive, community-wide effects this creates. The hope with our garden is to encourage others, through education as a community resource, to ‘bee inspired’ to pursue their own projects with an ecological mindset; whether they are growing gardens, managing urban drylands infrastructure, working with sustainable building, providing childrens’ education – anything.

Through education, we can establish the corridors and links that encourage positive exchange, be it a garden built into its local ecology, or a teacher in front of a class of her students. A strong education will spread, settle and sprout like windblown seeds across a healthy landscape.

It is a bright vision, and the time is as ripe as spring cherries to further the work of localized watershed restoration in the drylands Southwest. And in doing so, to call out community spirit, investment and innovation. Collaboration will prove the corridor to good work. Ease our waterways. Establish our soils. Grow our food. Repeat.

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