24. Permaculture according to Maurice Smalley

The first 10-15 minutes or so reminded me of the lyric by the C&C Music Factory

… and I’m just a squirrel

trying to get nut to move your butt. . .

That and the fact that he had us hold our neighbor’s hand till the whole room became one continuous circle weaving its way up and down every row of seats in the room. Every one is a squirrel, trying to get nuts, dodging cars, holding hands, getting tired. Now you have some idea of what it is like to experience Maurice Small.

But more than just an impression, Maurice Small is an accomplished practitioner of practical permaculture, vermiculture, and an award-winning organic gardener. For more on the individual that is Maurice Small you can follow his twitter feed here. I will now give you my take on his presentation of Practical Permaculture given at the 2nd Annual Nurturing Sustainable Community Gardens event put on by the North Carolina Community Garden Partners in Durham, North Carolina.

Practical Permaculture, according to Small, is loosely more a discipline of observing and being mindful of one’s environment rather than a dogmatic set of rules and theories espoused by some book. To this point Small quips that we should “shovel the norm away,” because “nature is stronger than any book.” He illustrated his point using the antics of the squirrel in the beginning of class. The squirrel cares not for his garden or his harvest. He does what he does; collecting nuts, storing them, dodging cars, and planting trees. He fills in his place in nature by doing what he is supposed to do and has been doing it for generations upon generations. Much like the psalmist urges us to “remember the sparrow, which sows not or reaps not” but is provided for, Small urges fellow gardeners to remember their place in the natural cycles around them. “Nature gives us a balance,” says Small half-way through his presentation. That if we listen to and observe our respective environments, plan and plant for unavoidable losses (theft, drought, critters, etc), then nature will in the end yield to us the best and strongest that it can produce. To that end there are means and methods which the gardener can use to encourage stronger and healthier results but all of these methods, according to Small, begin and end with the soil; its health and nourishment.

“Living, healthy soil is the most important important foundation for communities.”

Maurice Small talks about Urban Farming with M...

Maurice Small talks about Urban Farming with Meet.The.Bloggers* (Photo credit: GeorgeNemeth)

A self-proclaimed “worm whisperer,” Small advocates the use of vermicomposting to enrich the soils and beds in which one grows produce. He and his family practice their vermicomposting in a very interesting and nuanced way; compost burritos. Compost Burritos are today’s average raw kitchen scraps wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper and placed in and around garden beds. Buried, slightly buried, or not, worms crawl up from underneath and begin to devour the microorganisms decomposing the scraps and paper. When asked if he buries his “burritos” Small replies that he placed them on top, effectively becoming a mulch layer and they soon enough become enriched soil which produces amazing plants.

Another aspect of practical permaculture, according to Small, is the use of the garden as a palette for the senses and therapy not just a tool to grow more food. Since permaculture in its many forms preaches design design design, consider the visual aspects of a garden and how they might be used for reflection or peace. Not to be confused with meditation gardens and such, still productive but also pleasing. Look at native species and cultures, textures and behaviors as cues for establishing a long lasting harmony with your particular surroundings.

Small also advocates the use of gardens as tools to strengthen communities and overcome blight and crime like his projects in Cleveland, Ohio where a 5 acre urban farm built on land reclaimed from in fallen and depressed neighborhoods is credited with a 25% reduction in violent crime.

Finally, in order to feed the soil the gardener must work to catch the water and eliminate run-off with the use of swales and rain gardens. Improve water retention thusly reducing and eliminating costly run-off. To this end Small challenged us all to a No-Water challenge.

This is the No-Water Challenge:

  • during the “off” season, work to establish and improve the health of the soil in your garden. Carefully select and source your inputs to protect the prolonged health of the soil environment. Cover it. Protect it.
  • During the “on” season, do not add water.

The theory is that if you have a healthy system of catchment and retention based on careful observation of your environment, then the plants will be sufficiently provided for. Of course this also involves the use of native varieties and species, as well as careful arrangement and planting (all permaculture techniques as well).

This has been my take on Practical Permaculture, by Maurice Small.

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