Urban Permaculture

Pedalling through the Saanich Peninsula, to the north of Victoria, can sometimes bring the feeling one’s been pitched into a verdant dream. Now in its wet winter, lazy rolling slopes are transformed into blankets of fern; trees bowing overhead possess an air of the ancients, lichen dripping from their boughs; protruding rock faces are moss-kissed goodnight. Our two main learning sites, Ravenhill Herb Farm and Tiny Tree Herb Farm, are located here on the peninsula, and my sense of wonder at the teeming life of the place often comes on these bike rides to class.

The morning vista from the pond at Tiny Tree Herb Farm in Saanich.

Experiencing such lush rural magic, one could almost be forgiven for wanting to pull up stakes in search of their own Walden Pond. But what about the city? I live in one. Somewhere around 80% of other Canadians do, too (particularly in city suburbs, a phenomenon that Statistics Canada calls “urban spread”). Accelerating urbanization has been one of the defining trends of the 21st century, and also a “massive, unplanned experiment” – potent and messy, singularly human, with a feeling of improvisation about it that is at once both exhilarating and scary.

So, what can permaculture offer in the urban context? This week, we spent a day exploring some of Victoria’s key sites of urban agriculture. In pondering this question at the start of the day, what sprang to mind for me was the project of reclaiming (so-called) ‘marginal’ land – that which is thought to be tired or polluted or otherwise undesirable, quietly abundant in the crooks and creases of the city. This is work that demands energy, patience, and creativity, and I easily imagine the potential for dynamic, healing change realized through a permaculture approach.

The People’s Apothecary Garden, another stop on our urban permaculture tour, is a herbal commons focused on medicinal plants. A core principle of the garden is “decentralizing medicine”, a vision for community-based healing with plants. These principles and knowledge are explored in-depth at the School of Western Herbal Medicine at Pacific Rim College.

As the day progressed, though, I was struck most of all by the sense of community building that informed the design and imbued the spirit of the places we visited. It seemed a vital example of the permaculture maxim “the problem is the solution” – the same urban density that can pose such a challenge for productive growing, here harnessed instead in the service of close and fiercely creative agricultural collaboration. In some ways it seems that it is here in the cities that a good part of the latent political energy and social potential of permaculture resides. And this shift turns on the idea that we don’t need to wholly cede our relationship with what we eat to the distance and scale of large rural production.    

We began our morning at a permaculture food forest in the Vic West neighbourhood, the scraping chairs and laughter of the nearby Spiral Café still in earshot from where we stood at the fringe of the trees. Banfield Commons exists for public harvest, thriving under the care of a “food security steward” and volunteers from throughout the neighbourhood. A cob bench at the entrance reads “Sustenance for all,” the faithful tending of the place seeming to belie, at least in this modest instance, Garrett Hardin’s theory of the tragedy of the commons.

A cob bench at the Banfield Commons in Vic West. Note the repurposed bicycle chainring aloft in the tree.

Next door is the Banfield Community Orchard, commissioned in 2013 and designed through a process of  community consultation by a local company, Hatchet & Seed Edible Landscapes. The orchard employs hugelkultur (“hill culture”) building technique, a kind of raised bed growing that mimics nature by using debris wood – a felled tree, say – both for the structure of the bed and as the biomass for growth. Here the decaying wood provides nutrients to the fruit and nut trees growing on top, and also creates a rich environment for vital bacteria, fungi, and mycorrhizae development in the soil.

Nearby in the orchard was an inoculated log dotted with mushroom growth.  Our instructor, Hannah, talked about the role of mycelial networks in supporting self-sustaining growth. Narrow threads that make up the bodies of mushrooms, known as the mycelium, tap into nearby plant roots in an exchange of food and nutrients. But these mycelial networks also function as a kind of subterranean internet, connecting these plant roots to other plants as well. Mature trees can assist younger ones by passing over nitrogen and phosphorus; diseased plants have been shown to send out warning signals along their mycelial networks that prompt neighbours to proactively mount their chemical defenses.

Growth on a log at the Banfield Community Orchard.

After lunch, we walked over to Mason Street Farm, a scruffy jewel of the nearby North Park neighbourhood. Situated on just a quarter acre, hemmed in by proudly fading houses and in the looming shadow of a condo development, the farm has been in continuous operation for 25 years. It’s long been a hub of activism, too: in his living room in an adjacent house, director Jessie Brown recounts the push the farm made in the mid-‘90s to have Victoria enact what was, at the time, one of the first municipal bylaws in North America permitting backyard chickens.

The farm’s impact extends deeply into the neighbourhood. It sells its produce to local restaurants, but also supplies the Fernwood NRG Good Food Box, and donates food for the nearly 1600 daily meals served at Our Place Society. What’s left over is opened up to gleaners with the LifeCycles Project, to be shared among the volunteers, food banks, and local community organizations. There is a nascent plan to establish a “food library” in front of the farm, modelled after little free libraries, for the community to take or exchange food as needed. I get the sense this is done in the furtherance of a project that is deeply generous and compassionate. But there is a strategic element, too. Brown says of agriculture in an urban environment, “You need to farm and build social capital in the neighbourhood in order to affect political pressure.”

Towering stalks of kale at Mason Street Farm, in Victoria.

The social capital doesn’t appear to be in short supply. When plans were announced to re-zone the site of a former school behind the farm to make way for a large development, Brown pushed back, explaining that the new structure would shade out large parts of the farm. The neighbourhood rallied, sending hundreds to speak in support of the farm in a series of public hearings about the development that stretched on for years. In spite of this, the plan was eventually approved by City Hall, and Brown now strikes a pragmatic tone in discussing how permaculture principles will steer the practices needed to deal with this new operational reality.

An example of pollarded willows at Spring Ridge Commons, in the Fernwood neighbourhood of Victoria. Pollarding is a pruning technique traditionally employed for timber production, but here it is used to keep the trees at a fixed height and to encourage dense foliage. Spring Ridge Commons was formerly a disused parking lot, now reclaimed by sheet mulching.

No stranger to obstacles over the years, Mason Street Farm continues to work as an example of the viability of small-scale urban farming. In answer to the challenges of cities – sometimes fraying communities, red tape, the politics of development – this farm and the other sites from the day share a vibrancy and an energy of purpose that feels uniquely urban and which contains great promise.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts.