Toby Hemenway On How Horticulture Can Save Us

What I like about author and permaculturalist Toby Hemenway is that he does a lot better job, frankly, of explaining permacuture than do the founders of the movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Hemenway is a better writer and demonstrates how permaculture’s abstract designs principles can apply at the household and neighborhood level. His book, Gaia’s Garden, A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture ought to be on everyone’s bookshelf.

Last Thursday at the National Heirloom Exposition Hemenway gave a talk entitled “Redesigning Civilization: How Horticulture Can Save Us.” What he meant by “horticulture” is not, say, propagating begonias. Rather, he defined horticulture as gardening, the kind of gardening some indigenous people did when they influenced the landscape to produce useful and edible plants. In other words, what we in the West would call permaculture. This is in contrast to agriculture which Hemenway considers to have a destructive influence on ecosystems, human health and culture.

Hemenway also, justifiably, critiqued some corners of the urban homesteading movement for promoting an egocentric self-sufficiency–”MY food on MY land” as he put it–a kind of industrial farming on a household level. While “self-sufficiency” appears in the subtitle of our first book (our publisher’s idea), it’s not a term we use. Kelly and I always emphasize, like Hemenway, the importance of community. We are much more comfortable with the title “gardener” rather than “farmer”. We need farmers, of course, but I’d like to think of urban homesteading as being more about small scale, permacutural type projects that involve both individual and group efforts.

The takeaway from Hemenway’s talk for me was the importance, especially in urban areas, of integrating community in any permacultural design project. After showing what everyone reading this blog knows, that our modern world is in big trouble, Hemenway ended on a positive note. With small scale, thoughtful design we can go a long way to solving some pretty big problems.

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  1. I second that! Toby’s book Gaia’s Garden was my intro to permaculture, and I didn’t “get” pattern language until hearing him describe it in a design course. An excellent teacher!

  2. Here’s another vote for Toby rounding out my permaculture education! On that note, here’s an interesting study: http://oardc.osu.edu/7023/Cleveland-Other-Cities-Could-Produce-Most-of-Their-Food-Ohio-State-Study.htm that describes how the city of Cleveland Ohio could produce 100% of its produce (fruit, vegetables, chicken eggs, honey) by using industrial/commercial flat rooftops, 80% of every vacant lot, and 9% of every residential lot. We’re no longer farming, we’re gardening. And we shouldn’t try to mimic large-scale farming practices at the smaller scale – what do they say – “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results…”

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