“All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.”
– Geoff Lawton, head of the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia
– Bill Mollison, author of The Permaculture Designer’s Manual
Regenerative Warwick is a landscape engineering and design firm that seeks to help our clients by designing and building systems that become more fertile, increase yields, and decrease maintenance needs over time. In this sense, we swim against the prevailing tide of designed systems that seem to always require more maintenance, more inputs, more money — and provide less of an end benefit. The basis of this difference is our application of the design science of permaculture to everything we do.
What then, is permaculture? It’s a science-based approach of observing natural systems to understand how they work, and then applying those lessons in our design along with “tweaking” the systems at critical points in order to meet human needs with minimal effort, all of which is based upon three simple ethics. We’ll get to the ethics in a minute, but first we want you to understand the advantages of this approach. The best way toward that goal is to describe the differences between working with natural patterns vs. trying to impose control upon nature.
Well-functioning natural systems — such as an old-growth forest, a grassland savannah, a coral reef, or a river estuary — have certain common features despite their significant differences, of which we’ll focus on three.
- First is they are complex, meaning that they have many different niches that are all occupied by different species, those species perform multiple functions, and they are linked together in multiple ways (the web of life).
- Second is they are resilient and self-sustaining, meaning that they not only are able to respond to moderate shocks (such as a forest fire or flood), but they may actually require those shocks and disturbances on a regular basis in order to maintain their strength and experience periodic renewal.
- Third is that they tend to provide increased yields over time as larger, more productive, longer-lived species succeed smaller, shorter-lived ones.
An example of the difference between a well-functioning and poorly-functioning natural system can be seen in a mature forest versus a developed residential or commercial lot with lawn and landscaping in place.
The forest has many different types of trees, shrubs, vines, brambles, and understory plants — all of them naturally selected for their fitness to this particular environment. It has more species of worms, insects, and other arthropods living in the soil than can possibly be counted. This doesn’t even begin to address the microscopic soil life of bacteria, fungal mycellium, and countless single-celled protozoa. It has multiple species of insects, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles on and above the ground. It conserves moisture in the soil and reduces evaporation both by the undulating and uneven surface of the soil and the leaf cover on the forest floor. Temperature and wind are moderated, especially during the hotter months. Trees drop their leaves every year, providing food for the soil organisms who turn those leaves into a thick layer of humus, or compost, for the soil floor. Nut-bearing trees such as walnut, hickory, and oak emerge through natural succession over time, eventually coming to dominate the canopy and provide a drop of rich protein for other forest denizens every year. Animal manures decompose and provide food for soil arthropods and microorganisms, and in turn for plants. All “wastes” from one species, or element, are recycled into “resources” for another. Occasionally a storm or moderate fire opens up a portion of the forest floor, causing it to flush forth with new life and start the succession process anew. Transpiration from the tree canopy even helps to create and seed clouds, increasing rainfall.
Comparatively, the recently developed lot is covered with only a few species of plants, often selected primarily for aesthetic appeal irregardless of their suitability to a particular region or climate. Rather than the soil being soft and dark like in the forest, it tends toward the hardpan. Plants have to constantly be watered, or else they will die from the ceaseless beating of blazing sun and dessicating wind that causes the majority of moisture to evaporate in a short time. Soil life is dramatically reduced in both number and variation, as the habitat is not suitable for many of the arthropods, bacteria, or fungus that proliferate the forest floor. There are also vastly fewer species of larger organisms living on and above the ground. Surface vegetation, which is most often grass, is mowed frequently in order to maintain an ordered appearance. “Waste” products such as autumn leaf drop and lawn clippings are bagged up and removed, which further starve soil biota of nutrients, leading to further soil degradation (as well as consuming more resources in transport and disposal). This, in turn, leads to a need for even more required maintenance: watering, fertilizing, etc. Add in the application of chemical pesticides and herbicides and the system is wholly unable to survive without more and more inputs from the outside.
If you wanted to reduce maintenance costs, increase yields, and create an overall more resilient system, which of these would be better to emulate — the forest or the developed lot? The answer is easy, but given the deep and last influence of cultural programming around these kinds of things, we too often opt for the second choice, often out of aesthetic concerns or a desire to fit in with the neighbors. Where our firm comes in is helping you to develop natural landscaping and food production systems — and more often, combining elements of both — that are both productive AND aesthetically pleasing, and produce greater yields with less maintenance as time goes on. We do this through conscious observation and identification of patterns and resources already available, some of which you probably never realized were there. We then craft a design that best leverages those existing patterns and resources toward improving the overall health of the entire system.
Granted, observing and emulating nature is a good place to start, but even that can be carried out to less than desirable ends if it is not grounded in an ethical framework. Here again, our approach does not disappoint, as there are three basic ethics upon which the design science of permaculture is based.
- Ethic #1: Care of The Earth. Unlike so much of modern environmentalism today, this is not meant as an abstract statement, nor is it about removing human interaction from nature. If anything, it means that we have to be more heavily involved in an active “dance” with the natural world, reading the cues it is sending us and responding in a way that is appropriate with the direction it is telling us it wants to go. In a direct sense, this means always evaluating whether our solutions lend themselves to conserving water, increasing ecological diversity, and improving soils while simultaneously increasing productive capacity.
- Ethic #2: Care of People. Improvement of natural systems do us little good if they do not also improve our quality of life, especially as defined by obtaining yields of healthy food, clean water, comfortable shelter and meaningful social relationships. We strive to improve all of these things for our clients.
- Ethic #3: Return of Surplus. In keeping with the emulation of natural systems, surplus must be returned to the targets identified in the first two ethics — earth and people — in order for the system to be self-sustaining. Take too much from a natural system (as we are increasingly doing) and it degrades, leading to collapsing yields. Take too much from people and their life and culture degrades, which leads to a declining quality of life. Take what is left after your needs are met for necessities and comforts (to be individually defined by each person) and return it to the earth and others, and the system can be sustained — or even improve.
Here at Warwick Regenerative Design, you can be assured that we will always strive to maintain a high degree of ethical consistency while developing and implementing innovative solutions to help you improve your overall quality of life, all while reducing your expenses and consumption. Get in touch with us today to get started!