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Permaculture is a familiar term for many, but what is it?


In simple terms, permaculture looks at agricultural systems from a holistic lens and views land use more naturally. The term was coined by Bill Mollison -- an Australian researcher and biologist -- in 1978 in which he defined permaculture as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems."


Mollison said that people could sustainably cultivate food, energy, shelter and other needs by becoming one with the landscape.


In short, permaculture systems:

  • Produce little/no waste outputs
  • Consist of gardens that imitate nature
  • Maximize the use of water, sun and other natural energies
  • Require less energy input than conventional systems (i.e., limited human intervention)
  • The aim of this system is to provide sustenance and habitat for people and native animals
  • Focus on locally produced food to reduce the energy output associated with transporting food

The University of Guelph’s Arboretum is home to our very own campus permaculture garden, which is a part of the Gosling Wildlife Gardens. This teaching resource and ecological hub is available to all members of the public to visit, as well as native species to inhabit. 


Horticulture Technician and Arboretum Head Gardener, Caelum Wishart, spearheaded the design and development of the garden in collaboration with other colleagues in the Arboretum. 


Cael Wishart, Head Gardener, and Matteo Pereira, Summer Gardening Assistant, surrounded by raised planters and garden plots in the U of G Arboretum

Cael Wishart, Head Gardener (left) and Matteo Pereira, Summer Gardening Assistant (right). 

(Photo credit: Richelle Forsey)


“The wildlife gardens intend to demonstrate practical approaches, thoughtful plant choices and useful garden features in hopes to inspire visitors to incorporate these elements in their backyards to help attract, sustain and protect a variety of wildlife,” says Wishart. 


The Gosling Wildlife gardens include five separate gardens, each with a different theme; however, all the gardens share many similarities.


The Permaculture Garden is a multi-year project which currently features raised planter boxes, trellises made from recycled wood from previous garden arches, edible pollinator-friendly plants and patio space for gatherings and workshops. 


Many plants in the garden are locally sourced – some species developed by U of G researchers, including Guelph Millennium Asparagus and the Yukon Gold potato. By cultivating locally sourced plant species, Wishart says, encourages the public to buy or grow locally.


“The Permaculture Garden allows us to plant things that fit within the permaculture garden theme that aren’t found anywhere else in the Arboretum,” says Wishart. “This includes hardy kiwi, concord grape, globe artichokes, African Thai basil and unique cultivars of apples, pears and plums.”


This space will soon be an area bountiful in edible perennials and annuals, as well as fruiting trees and shrubs which serve an educational purpose, says Wishart.


In addition to planning what kind of plants would inhabit the garden, many factors were considered when designing and developing the garden.


For example, an area with a good amount of sunlight was crucial for the survival of many edible plant species. 


And foot traffic to the other wildlife gardens was considered, which would better orient people around the whole of the Gosling Wildlife Gardens.


“I took inspiration from several permaculture design books and articles, but also had to consider the space we were working with and come up with a site analysis,” says Wishart. “Without this background information, it would be far too difficult to know what size to build things off-site and how it would look once everything is planted and constructed.”


While there are many aspects to building a permaculture garden, Wishart says, several features of the garden are most significant: reusing, recycling and limiting interaction with garden elements as much as possible. 


For example, the nursery compost pile was used as the soil for the planter boxes; and the water used for the gardens has been sourced from a rainwater harvesting system.


Wishart hopes that this garden will be a gathering place for avid gardeners and members of the public that want to learn more about the benefits of permaculture. 


The Arboretum offers frequent workshops, nature camps and tours of the Gosling Wildlife Gardens to show people the important aspects that encompass the gardens – and provide ways in which people can add these to their gardens. 


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It’s estimated that the world population will grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, and as such, there will be a greater strain on the food system. This is why sustainable agriculture is becoming increasingly important to reduce climate change and promote food security in the long run.


Ironically, while agriculture is one of the primary industries sustaining human life, it's also a leading industry that puts a strain on the environment. From livestock farming to soil tilling, many factors in the agri-food sector contribute to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions.


Climate change leads to unfavourable farming conditions which jeopardize the efforts to feed a growing population. And while the effects of climate change span the globe, the communities feeling the effects most are often lower-income communities. These communities are often the lowest contributors to climate change.


In 2015, all the United Nations Member States adopted The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — this included 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG's) to help transform and encourage action in areas of concern impacting both people and the planet.

SDG2 and SDG13 -- zero hunger and climate action, respectively -- are the two focal points outlined in FAO’s Work on Climate Change guidebook.


Various researchers at U of G are studying this food-climate change intersection and are actively working to promote sustainable agriculture for a more food secure future.


Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle
In 2019, School of Environmental Science professor, Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle’s “Climate-smart soils” project was awarded $1.65 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. This project aims to optimize and preserve soil health and to further enhance food production. Most of the world’s food is produced on soils, and with the rising population, sustainable farming methods are becoming more critical. The Climate-Smart Soils program encourages widespread knowledge of soil health for students interested in pursuing a career related to environmental conservation and sustainable agriculture. The funding for this project has allowed a consortium of professors at the University of Guelph to offer courses related to soil ecosystems, sustainable agriculture and climate-smart soil practices. 



Dr. Christine Baes

A University of Guelph Dairy expert Dr. Christine Baes is well known for her research to reduce methane gas production in dairy cattle through a genome selection project. Cows release methane into the atmosphere through burping, and while it’s a natural process, some cows are naturally less gassy. Baes’ research focuses primarily on selectively breeding cattle that normally produce lower methane.



Muck Crops Research Station

The Muck Crops Research station is located in the Holland Marsh area and is rich in loose organic soil, known as muck, that remains after draining swamp or marshland. The loose nature of the soil allows for greater growth. Various professors at the research station focus their studies on optimizing awareness about sustainable agriculture, with an added focus on crop protection.


A landscape of open sky and a tilled field, with agricultural equipment and storage off to the right side

An open field at the Muck Crops Research Station.

(Photo credit: Mya Kidson)




Supporting Information:

1. United Nations. (2019). World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights. https://population.un.org/wpp/Publications/Files/WPP2019_10KeyFindings.pdf

2. United Nations. (n.d.). The 17 Goals. https://sdgs.un.org/goals

3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2018). FAO's Work on Climate Change. http://www.fao.org/3/CA2607EN/ca2607en.pdf



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Many of you are probably aware that we are facing a climate crisis, but did you know that there’s also a global soil crisis?

Common place agricultural practices remain one of the biggest culprits attributing to the world's soil crisis. These techniques rely heavily on chemicals and physical degradation that further compromises soil health. And as such, the soil loss rate is gradually beginning to exceed the soil’s natural replenishment rate — a widespread concern spanning the world. 


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) this could mean that current soil degradation rates could result in a loss of the world’s topsoil within 60 years — this soil contains invaluable nutrients that plants need in order to survive.


Why should we care?


Well, our food system relies heavily on our soil health. Approximately 95% of the world’s food is sourced from our soil. That’s a lot!

The basis of life depends on soil, and if soil health is poor, agriculture yields greatly decline, making it difficult to feed the growing population.


While it seems like this issue is a never-ending and irreversible one in today's agriculture sector, there's a simple solution called regenerative agriculture. 


So what is regenerative agriculture


This sustainable farming methodology is implemented as a way to ensure soil’s organic matter and biodiversity are restored and preserved to retain the robust-nature of soil for agricultural practices as well as promoting these ecosystems.


     Harvesting in a field that uses cover crops to maintain soil health between main crops  

Photo credit: Heartwood Farm & Cidery



There are a variety of regenerative agriculture practices, some of which include:


  1. Increasing soil fertility and restoration of the microbiome through the implementation of cover crops, compost, animal manure and crop rotations. You can think of this similarly to your gut microbiota. Everyone has a unique group of commensal bacteria that help supply nutrients to your body while also acting as a defense system against pathogenic bacteria. Like the soil microbiome, having a diverse abundance of “good” bacteria maintains the health of the organism they inhabit.
  1. Reduction or elimination of tillage. Tillage disturbs soil aggregates and incorporates oxygen while releasing carbon dioxide. Increasing tillage causes significant soil erosion and carbon emissions into the atmosphere. 
  1. Strategically managed grazing practices can improve plant growth and promote the accumulation of soil carbon deposits. Carbon improves the soil’s water retention abilities, fertility and structure that reduces erosion, ultimately leading to better ground and surface water quality to help advance food security.


By working in conjunction with nature through regenerative agriculture practices, soil biodiversity thrives and enhances agricultural yields to further increase food security globally.



Looking for more resources on regenerative agriculture?


Watch the Kiss the Ground, a documentary on Netflix


Check out this short film by Farmer’s Footprint



World Soil Day is on December 5, 2020, and this year's campaign is “Keep soil alive. Protect soil biodiversity.” Participate in the discussion with your friends and family to raise awareness of the importance of preserving soil ecosystems and how this can have further ripple effects on the world’s food systems. 



Supporting Articles:


  1. Ontl, T. A. & Schulte, L. A. (2012) Soil Carbon Storage. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):35. https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/soil-carbon-storage-84223790/

  2. The Carbon Underground & Regenerative Agriculture Initiative. (2017, February 16). What is Regenerative Agriculture? Regeneration International. https://regenerationinternational.org/2017/02/24/what-is-regenerative-agriculture/
  3. Arsenault, C. (2014, December 5). Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/
  4. Joy, E. (2020, September 24). What Is Regenerative Agriculture And How Can It Reverse Climate Change? Conscious Life & Style. https://www.consciouslifeandstyle.com/regenerative-agriculture/



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