Permaculture: A Starting Point
By Annakate Tefft Ross

I have looked up the word âpermacultureâ a million times. I know itâTM's an important concept, IâTMve read about it in articles, and IâTMve heard people involved in the local food movement mention it. But until I started researching for this article, I didnâTMt have a strong grasp of its meaning, especially in practical application. After all I live on less than a fifth of an acre in East Nashville. I wondered, how could someone living in an urban setting like I do embrace permaculture techniques?

According to Wikipedia, âPermaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, and environmental design, which develops sustainable architecture and self-maintained horticultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems.â

Got it? Me neither.

Cliff Davis runs Spiral Ridge, a permaculture design firm and educational homestead in Summertown, Tennessee. I asked Davis to put permaculture in laymanâTMs terms for me. Is it about gardening? Composting? Recycling? He says thatâTMs all part of it, but itâTMs so much more.

âPermaculture is a system of design that seeks to harmonize human settlement with nature in a sustainable way. The main goal of permaculture is to build communities that revolve around and care for the earth while using a fair share of resources. ItâTMs about how we design our communities, and transportation systems. ItâTMs about local government and the policies they set.â

Davis says a basic example of permaculture systems at work is the concept of the âthree sisters.â Native Americans would grow corn, beans, and squash together, as they would get more yield through that system than they would growing the three plants individually. The long corn stalks supported the bean vines,, the beans put nitrogenâwhich the corn neededâ back in the soil , and the squash did great growings underneath all of this in the shade of the other plants.

Davis notes that another way to think about it is one element serving many functions.. âThink of a house. It provides shelter for humans, but it also collects rainwater off its roof and provides a space to build community.â Then, on the flip side, each function can serve many elements. âCollected rainwater waters the garden, but it can also provide drinking water and water to flush toilets, etc.â

According to Davis, education is a huge part of permaculture. âIn order for these systems to evolve, we have to educate each other. We use our homestead to teach these practices to others.â

Spiral Ridge offers workshops for many different audiences. âA lot of the people who come for our weeklong classes are do-it-yourself-ers who want to gain confidence to start a garden. Others are interested in the professional side of permaculture as an educator or designer. The age groups are across the board, from 16-year-olds to 70- and 80-year-olds.â

Spiral Ridge is one of several permaculture-focused homesteads in Summertown. The Farm Ecovillage Training Center offers courses and apprenticeships on everything from aquaponics and solar energy to organic gardening and green building.

Adam and Sue Turtle host workshops in their eco-friendly conference center and greenhouses at Earth Advocates Research Farm, also in Summertown. They cultivate edible landscaping plants and other useful plants people can grow in their backyards. âSome of the plants we grow nourish the body and some nourish the soul,â says Sue. Her husband, Adam Turtle, is an ethnobotanist and sells the surplus plants at the Franklin FarmersâTM Market.

They also cultivate a number of bamboo species, which they sell wholesale to landscapers and zoos. âBamboo is one of the most important plants on the planet,â Sue says. âIt creates oxygen, is a dust and noise screen, and the stalks can be used for building materials.â

In an effort to bring some of these teachings to a wider audience, Hands On Nashville (HON), a volunteer organization that runs a five-acre Urban Farm in South Nashville, partnered with Davis at Spiral Ridge. Josh Corlew, Urban Agriculture Program Manager for HON, says they were âblown away at the responseâ to the first classes.

Corlew says, âThe workshops were designed to give people the skills to transform their backyards into places that are beautiful and enjoyable to be in, while at the same time being sustainable and productive.â Past workshop topics included soil fertility, composting, drought-proofing your yard, and building rain barrels. Corlew and Davis say there will be more classes offered this summer.

â"One of the principles of permaculture is to watch the land. Look and see what your yard wants. Is the grass growing? What does the water runoff do when it rains? Can you collect that somehow? Start a compost pile to divert waste from a landfill. Make smart choices about your food and how you spend resources. Buying locally is one of the most important things we can do, â continues Corlew.

Davis says the most important part of the workshops is to empower people to think differently. âWe teach how natural systems work, how they cooperate and not compete, and how we can utilize the systems found in nature to live harmoniously. All of this will ensure a more abundant future.â

I couldnâTMt have put it better myself.

To get involved:
- Check out for more HON/Spiral Ridge classes in Nashville. - HON Urban Farm: - For beginners, Davis suggests GaiaâTMs Garden by Toby Hemenway and Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison. - Spiral Ridge: - The Farm Ecovillage & Training Center: - Earth Advocates Research Farm:

Annakate Tefft Ross is the PR/social media manager for recipe and social network A food enthusiast, she lives in East Nashville and blogs at