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By Karryn Olson-Ramanujan, Spring 2011

In the spring of 2008, I began working as an adjunct faculty in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences  teaching permaculture and sustainability-related courses at IC. I’m a lead teacher and founding board member of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute (FLPCI), so I train students to recognize natural patterns and design to work with nature.

Walking by the student organic garden near Williams Hall, which was underutilized and bordered by a chain-link fence, I noticed that the pattern of student life did not match with the summer intensive veggie model. In the Fall of 2009, I started talking to students in my Principles and Practices for Sustainability about Edible Forest Gardens and how that model made sense in the Northeast, since it mimics the temperate forest ecology of our area.  One of the student groups took on the Williams Garden redesign as their final project, and made good headway, but of course since this course was not a full permaculture design course, the learning curve was too great to complete a robust design.

In the Feb of 2010, sensing the interest around ecological design, I arranged for FLPCI and the office of Sustainability at Ithaca College to sponsor a talk by Dave Jacke at IC entitled, “Ecology, Design, and Agriculture: A New Synthesis.”  As I introduced him, I told folks to hold on to their heads, because their brains were about to explode. I was right, Dave’s talk was packed with content and paradigm-shifting. His main point of departure was asking “What would ecologically designed agriculture look like?” and then focusing on the concept of edible forest gardening as an example of such a synthesis appropriate to the temperate deciduous forest biome.

Pat Haggerty, an IC junior in Computer Science and permaculture design course (PDC) graduate approached me after that talk and asked if he could do an independent study with me. He wanted to move forward the design by the earlier students, so that I could mentor him through the entire permaculture design process and he could apply and practice his permaculture skills. The independent study started in the Fall of 2010. After I briefed Pat on the design process as taught by FLPCI in our PDCs, he embarked on the site assessment of the physical site as well as the “client” interviews. We attempted to interview anyone who could be construed as a stakeholder in this garden—not just the student garden club, but a wide spectrum of interests—including, for example, the workers in the offices that look out on the garden and the relevant IC operations and facilities. From that, we articulated a goals document that became our guide for designing the garden.  In brief, we redesigned the garden to be an inviting, wheel-chair accessible demonstration site that would attract people because of its aesthetics, and stand out as a productive alternative to traditional landscaping.

In the Spring 2011, we continued our work, joined by Noah Mark, who had attended FLPCI’s PDC course that summer and likewise wanted to apply his design skills. During that semester we came up with a final design, and Patrick and Noah presented it to the grounds and other relevant departments, soliciting feedback.

Luckily, the energy around food-producing systems on campus was already brewing, due to Jason Hamilton’s course “Topics in Natural Resources and Ecology: Farming Forests” which is a student run business that produces and sells maple syrup, mushrooms, and honey on campus; as well as  the  “We are what we’ve eaten: A multidisciplinary exploration of foods that shaped human life” course that was being taught by Michael Smith, Julia Lapp and Paula Turkon.

In the Spring of 2012, seeing the energy around the permaculture garden, and believing in experiential sustainability education, Michael Smith agreed to be the “instructor of record” for a research course, allowing four students to take a one-credit course and focus on implementing the design. This enabled me to serve as a consultant and project manager, since I’m in the midst of starting a sustainability consulting and permaculture  business. Students enrolled during the Spring 2012 semester were: Madison Van der Hill, Sachiko Ishihara, Allison Currier, and Noah Mark. We  met every Monday to arrange our work for the week and to share learning. We had two big work parties—one to install the trellis and pergola, and one for soil amendment. We then planted the hardy kiwi vines, a dwarf tree boasting three varieties of pears, and beach plums Earth Day. Just before commencement, we planted culinary / medicinal herbs and flowers–to ensure nectar and pollen will be available for pollinators during the entire growing season, and that the garden will fulfill the goal of being an inviting, aesthetic space.

Madison Van der Hill, who worked on the Edible Forest Garden project in my Principles and Practices for Sustainability course,  received a Dana Internship to work on the garden over the summer of 2012, ensuring it will be looking verdant and full of life when students come back in the Fall of 2012. Among many other tasks, Madison will develop a sustainable process for recruiting subsequent rounds of enthusiastic students who can maintain and promote the garden, ensuring that the design can manifest its fullest potential.

If you are interested in joining us, “like” the “IC Permaculture Garden” on Facebook and send us a message. We’d love to hear from you also if you find the garden to be a restful and inspiring place to eat your lunch, or if it made a difference in your decision to attend IC, etc.

For me personally, the most inspiring things in this project were:

  • Seeing the “aha” look on people’s faces as we explained the design and they started seeing what was possible in this relatively small space.
  • Transforming the site from a “prison yard” atmosphere to a “green room.”
  • The many students and friends who showed up (some of them spontaneously!) and worked their butts off.
  • Talking to the father of a prospective business student about the rationale for the garden—I outlined our expected return on investment, etc. He said that he liked the idea of a garden that had a business case behind it.
  • Staff who look out on the garden have stopped me to say that the new design has brought beauty into their lives.

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