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Permanent culture


Urban gardening is taking root in empty spaces across the city. Experts say it’s no fad.

Giancarlo Gonzalez November 19th, 2013

The neighborhood tortoiseshell cat tiptoes past a cotton shrub, through purple hyacinth bean vines and onto rows of tomato and pepper plants.

A gentle buzz of activity starts this crisp morning at CommonWealth Urban Farms, beginning with a list of priorities for the volunteers. There’s a compost pile to work on, followed by planting garlic and shallots and then digging up sweet potatoes.

One young volunteer finds a garter snake, and after the workers finish their digging, she gently lays down the garden pest-control helper into a shrubby, shaded area.

Lia Woods, the organizer of the work party, makes sure everyone receives some garden-fresh goodies. Woods is one of the founders of CommonWealth and is passionate about providing healthy, fresh food to the community.

“Anybody can be a gardener,” Woods said. “The first few years, I just made a lot of mistakes, but it was fun to be outside, learning.”

CommonWealth started out as group of people committed to turning vacant lots in near northwest Oklahoma City into productive green spaces that would benefit the local community. Its vision has evolved into a focus on local food production as a way of creating a healthier and more just world.

Woods believes embracing the permaculture philosophy is the next step in CommonWealth’s evolution.

“We have high labor input, which is very enjoyable work, but in order to make it economically feasible to run it as a business or to offer a model for other people to have a business doing this, we have to find a way that has lower input, which is one of the hallmarks of permaculture,” Woods said.

What is permaculture?
Permaculture is an ecological design system that aims to create a garden or landscape that sustains itself, the gardener and the rest of the natural world. The goal is to develop a site until it meets all the needs of its inhabitants, including food, shelter, fuel and entertainment. The word “permaculture” itself originally referred to “permanent agriculture” but was expanded to mean “permanent culture.” The word was coined in the mid-1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

Native Oklahoma author Bob Waldrop, who has studied permaculture for over 30 years, believes strongly in its ethics.

“There are three permaculture ethics: to care for the Earth, to care for people and to care for the future by always circulating surplus and understanding that there are limits,” Waldrop said. “We think that piling up huge economic conglomerations is a natural aberration. Nature is decentralized. And if we had fair and just economic systems, we would not have huge concentrations of wealth and we wouldn’t have huge concentrations of poverty.”

Randy Marks, principal owner of Groundwork Applied Designs in OKC, uses permaculture as an important part of his landscape design.

“We approach every design from a whole-systems standpoint,” Marks said. “We want everything to work properly and not cause any harm to the surroundings. We want it to enhance life and to be beautiful and while making the habitat for birds, insects and our fellow creatures livable.”

The volunteers of CommonWealth meet every Saturday morning for a weekly work party. They’re focusing on bio-remediating a lot next door by using mushrooms. It’s a process called mycoremediation, and it might take up to two years to degrade or sequester contaminants in the soil. It is neces sary in order to safely plant.

Meanwhile, the garden yields fresh peppers, sweet potatoes and blooming flowers. The bounty is gathered and dispersed in a lean-to.

“I believe that local food is important,” said David Braden, a founding member of CommonWealth, “and ideally, I would love to teach other people to be doing this and have it transform the way we eat in Oklahoma City.”

This community work event (at right) may include making compost, sifting compost, weeding garden beds, digging, planting vegetables and flowers, trimming and cleaning up, filling paths with wood chips, etc.

Anyone is welcome to come and help for part or all of the morning. Everyone shares lunch together after the event.

 
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