Permaculture Program Instructor Interview with Kristen Miskelly
Kristen Miskelly is a biologist specializing in the restoration and botany of southeastern Vancouver Island ecosystems; a coordinator of the Haliburton Biodiversity project, a volunteer-led wetland and meadow restoration initiative at Haliburton Farm; and an owner-operator of Saanich Native Plants, a local native plant nursery. Kristen teaches the Botany and Plant ID course for Pacific Rim’s Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems diploma program. She recently sat down to talk about her childhood in the garden, her “obsession” with plants, and her take on the invasives debate for the final installment of this year’s permaculture interview series.
Hi Kristen! Where does your passion for plants come from? What inspired you to become a biologist specializing in the native plants of this region?
I have been interested in plants for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest (and fondest) memories is growing a cucumber with my grandpa. I could barely believe my eyes when the seed grew into a cucumber. I was so proud of having grown it. The cucumber was harvested, and I fully expected it would be kept intact so that it could be admired. Instead, during that evening’s dinner, my grandma announced that I had grown the cucumber we were eating! I was quickly in tears. Why were we eating my precious cucumber? After the cucumber incident, I continued learning other plant tricks from my grandpa. We used to cultivate roses through cuttings and he showed me how to keep the humidity high using a glass jar like a greenhouse.
During my teens, I used to garden outside my house. I remember the neighbourhood boy mocking me from his window one when he saw me outside hoeing the garden wearing only my long johns early on a Saturday (he shall be named here as Luke Pollard). That only motivated me. I moved to Victoria when I was 18 and was interested in many things. When I started to learn more about native plants, that’s when a real obsession took hold. Native plants seemed “so real” compared to the other plants I more commonly saw in people’s gardens. My passion for biology was revealed to me when I was doing some upgrading at Camosun College and took a required biology class. I was already in my twenties at this point, but it was the first science class I had since Grade 10 general science (I fainted when we dissected the frog). After memorizing taxonomic names and learning how evolution worked (wow!) I was absolutely hooked. I knew immediately that it was my passion and I never turned back. I also had a friend who told me to “take Science for goodness’ sake” when he found out I was reading “On the Origin of Species” for fun.
For the next 8 years I studied continuously, having to backtrack for two years to upgrade in math, physics, chemistry etc. in order to be accepted to the biology program at UVic. One course that was very pivotal was “Systematics of Flowering Plants”. The lab was taught by Heidi Guest, a super teacher, and the class inspired me greatly. We looked at plants under the microscope, learned terminology, and dissected plants using dichotomous keys. It was a powerful experience knowing you could learn how to identify any plant using this process. We also made herbarium collections (pressed plant specimens) and I gained skills that kept me employed for several years in herbaria following and ultimately led me into my master’s program.
My Masters was a joint program at UVic and the Royal BC Museum studying the ancient vegetation of Vancouver Island. During this time, even though I was learning about “dead” plants, I continued studying the living plants and ecology of our region with every moment of my spare time through hiking, mentors, exploration, collecting, and the microscope. I learned then that there wasn’t going to be a school program that would teach me all the plants I wanted to learn. I had to do that through passionate exploration and put many years in. I continue to try and learn about plants and local ecosystems as much as humanly possible to this day!
In the class I took with you this year, Botany and Plant ID, we talked about the importance of restoration work. You’re involved with the Haliburton Biodiversity Project at Haliburton Community Organic Farm – a demonstration site for small scale, organic farming. What’s the connection here? How does a native wetland restoration relate to farming and food production?
When European settlers arrived in the Victoria area in the early 19th century, they arrived into an ancient system of agriculture. For settlers, the form of agriculture they were seeing wasn’t recognizable and they thought that the meadowlands they were seeing around Victoria were unimpacted by people. In fact, meadowlands and open forests were being maintained by people for foods and medicines through purposeful actions. As a settler to the traditional territories of the W̱SÁNEĆ and Lekwungen Peoples, I try to grow native plants in a way that is respectful to these traditions and legacies. In part, this means respecting the lives of plants and animals that have been tended here for thousands of years and listening to the ongoing guidance of First Nations People in our area.
At Haliburton Farm we try to mitigate harm to the environment through environmental restoration within farmed lands. Though organic systems of farming can be less harmful than conventional systems, they can still pose a threat to native ecosystems. The Haliburton Biodiversity Project came about as a response to mitigating harm while farming. For the last 11 years, a network of volunteers has been working in wetland, meadow, forest, and active farmland at Haliburton Farm to restore natural habitats, monitor and improve habitat for wildlife, trial various restoration techniques, and enhance the ecological value within food production areas. The group actively promotes conservation of natural areas on the farm by planting native hedgerows, removing invasive species, providing habitat structures for wildlife like birds, bats, and bees and education to the public and local farmers. The centerpiece of the Haliburton Biodiversity Project is a wetland and meadow restoration that started with a monoculture of non-native reed Canarygrass and other non-native species. Now there is a diverse wetland that teems with aquatic insects, frogs, bats, birds, garter snakes, salamanders, insect life and native vegetation. A one-acre agronomic grass field on the farm has now been converted to the kind of wildflower meadows that once covered large parts of the Victoria area prior to colonization.
The Haliburton Biodiversity Project is an innovative and unique demonstration project in our region for how agriculture and natural systems can coexist. Haliburton Farm serves as a template for how other local farms can profit from enhancing the ecological values of their own sites. Healthier ecosystems at Haliburton Farm provide nutrients, pollination, enhance populations of beneficial insects, provide pest control services, retain soil, and stabilize water flow. These provide many ecosystem services essential to the surrounding farm and ultimately this translates into profits too. We are grateful to the W̱SÁNEĆ peoples on whose land our project takes place and we always have this top of mind.
One of the most profound experiences we have had stewarding this area was when students, teachers, and elders from LÁU,WELNEW Tribal School harvested Camas from the Haliburton meadow. This Camas harvest represents an incredibly important part of food security in our region and reminds us that the farms we steward are superimposed on traditional forms of agricultural that were here many thousands of years before Settlers arrived. Healthy farms go beyond reducing chemicals. Instead, management should include conserving natural features, planting native vegetation like hedgerows, and promoting native wildlife.
David Holmgren has been critical of what he perceives as a “war on invasive species,” and has suggested that some restoration efforts seek, misguidedly, to return ecosystems to an idealized former state. And there is a line of thought in permaculture that privileges favourite non-native “permaculture plants”. Is there a tension here? How does permaculture design thinking apply in the context of habitat restoration?
It is a fallacy that people in restoration think they are returning ecosystems to a pristine state. In our area, the role of Indigenous land management has been so profound that to even begin to understand local ecology you must first recognize the impacts and role of people on the landscape. My husband James provides a useful definition that we use regularly in courses:
“Ecological restoration is not an attempt to go back in time to an imagined pristine condition. Rather, it is an attempt to reduce causes of degradation and to recover the conditions that will allow the full complement of natural species to thrive”.
Arguments against the removal of invasive species are a controversial and important issue and I wish there was space here to discuss it in depth! The pro-invasive arguments I have read are based on a string of convincingly misleading oversimplifications from possibly well-meaning people. One of the premises I hear from those arguing for invasive species (and that I hear from some people interested in permaculture) is that the composition of species within an ecosystem does not matter to ecosystem health as long as the species being replaced performs a similar ecological function (e.g. carbon sequestration, pollination services). In essence, the argument ignores the complex relationships many species have with other species (that are often unknown much less understood). I for one am humbled at how very little we know about species and ecosystems and would argue that we can’t simply replace species with other species and expect them to replace the “functions.” The argument is flawed in many ways, but for the purposes of this article I should stop there! Among many reasons, people who promote the use of native plants recognize local ecosystems are unique and specialized to a given place and to conserve them means conserving biodiversity on a global scale.
Permaculture holds at its very core a philosophy of working with nature. To work well with nature, you must first begin to understand it. I think an expert in permaculture should also have working knowledge of local ecology, flora, and fauna of the place where they work. If a permaculture practitioner can not walk through local ecosystems and recognize species and ecological process how can they be expected to effectively implement a permaculture design that benefits nature? On what criteria can they evaluate their projects success and its benefits to nature?
I think non-native plants selected for permaculture gardens should be non-invasive to reduce detrimental impacts to native habitats. Some “permaculture plants” are invasive, but their use is continued because they are useful to the people using the plant. Just because a plant can be “used” (essentially every plant can be), does not mean that it should be planted. A plant’s role in peoples’ lives is incredibly important, but a plant’s worth should be assessed beyond how useful it is to people. Every medicinal plant has a native origin, and a true permaculture approach celebrates, conserves, and treasures plants that are particularly well-suited to a given region (native plants!). For people passionate about plant uses, I highly recommend books like Saanich Ethnobotany that have collated Indigenous uses and knowledge specifically about our local plants, and attending nature walks and events with local experts from Indigenous communities sharing their knowledge.
You operate Saanich Native Plants, an organic native plant nursery, where you propagate your plants entirely from local stock. What does your average day look like at the nursery?
The thing is, there is no average day! That is part of what I love about our work. Something remarkable happens everyday, whether it’s talking to an interesting person, being part of a workshop and learning something new, or embarking on a new restoration project. Nature is so dynamic as is growing plants! I am absolutely in love with native plants, so I am surrounded by things that I love all the time. I learn more about each plant all the time and try to gain an understanding about every aspect of their life history (seed, cotyledon, adult, ecology, food and medicinal qualities etc.). One of the best, and strongest, parts of the nursery is our collaboration with other people. Weaving people together to form a stronger base for any project is invaluable. We also work with staff and other contractors who make our days diverse, lively, and fulfilling. We learn so much from working together and we have formed close friendships and bonds with one another. Much of the work we do takes place at our nursery location, but we also do workshops, courses, talks, events, restoration projects, and consultations away from the farm. This year, we expanded our native seed production to Fairfield Farm in Cobble Hill, and that has also broadened our understanding of site preparation techniques. And hopefully next year we’ll be expanding our seed cleaning and storage capacity as well if all goes well!
Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing a career in botany or plant ecology?
Just do it! Much depends on what aspects of botany and ecology a person is interested in, but in general study, study, study! Don’t expect you can take a perfect program that will teach you everything you need to know. You need to find mentors and spend time outdoors studying on your own time. There are plenty of botany jobs out there for passionate hard-working folks who have mastered their given area.