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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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