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Oceana D'amore of Talent explains how she would like her future garden to appear, as students, Dana Delashmutt, left, Calli Roberts and Kathy Blacksheer listen and take notes. - Photo by Julia Moore

What would nature do?

If you'd like a yard that mostly takes care of itself, "imitates nature" by providing a lot of food with minimal care and is affordable and good for the planet, you might want to explore permaculture.

As a group of students of the Southern Oregon Permaculture Institute in Ashland mapped her spacious Talent yard and garden, Oceana D'amore explained that she wanted a comprehensive plan that provides year-round food without her making a career out of it.

The students, enrolled in a course for six weekends, will provide her with a map, a list of things to do and buy, along with a long-range plan that disturbs nature as little as possible and moves her toward having an "edible food forest," says Chuck Burr, executive director of SOPI.

"Think of it as a permanent type of agriculture," says Burr, who offers free yard design for homeowners who invite students onto their land.

"You build the topsoil, you feed yourself and nature gets rehabilitated (from past farming damage)."

The object, says Larry Korn of SOPI, is to get everything — yard, garden, greenhouse, chickens, water system — on the same page so they work together and let nature take its course as much as possible."

While showing her backyard garden to the permaculture students last weekend, D'amore said, "I'm trying to make it productive, beautiful, low-maintenance and sustainable. The students are going to make a site plan, which I've had trouble coming up with, to grow food and improve water management."

Permaculture is a system that generally eschews annual plants — seeking instead to plant perennial food plants adapted to an area, which require a minimum of care and work with the environment, says Korn.

The work comes at the front end, getting it installed, he says, but it's low maintenance to run — and that means you encourage perennial plants such as asparagus, artichokes, rhubarb, berries, currants and fruit or nut trees.

"You're imitating a woodland," says Korn.

Permaculture is not about barging in and creating a whole, new, foreign system, but taking time, says student Leah Winters of Ashland, and bringing in simple, sustainable systems, bit by bit, that answer the question, "What would nature do?"

Permaculturists don't like to disturb topsoil, which has spent years building rhizomes and mycorrhiza (systems of the root ecology) that maximize its interaction with topsoil. Less is more.

So, to kill off unwanted crabgrass in and around gardens, you don't lace into it with hoe and shovel, but, as D'amore has done, you put black plastic on it and let it die back naturally. Then you plant what you want.

"There are three ethics in permaculture," says student Kathy Blacksheer of Ashland. "Heal the earth, care for people and share the excess."

What that means in practice, she notes, is you heal the physical and chemical impacts of traditional farming, you make decisions that bring health to humans and you share the skills, knowledge, tools and produce of your work.

"It's about connecting with the natural systems that let nature run its natural course," says student Dana Delashmutt of Talent. "Nature is already perfect. What we need to do is not intervene in ways that cause problems.

"It isn't done instantly. Permaculture is like nature; it acts slowly," he says, adding that the ultimate goal, a so-called "food forest," is "a step beyond an orchard" and has three to seven elevations or "layers" of food-producing plants.

Showing the "keyhole beds" — horseshoe-shaped raised beds that maximize access — D'amore says she plans to reduce "imports," the hay, leaves, cardboard and such that gardeners bring in.

"I work hard here," she notes, "and I'm looking forward to not working so hard."

For more information, contact Burr at info@sopermaculture.org or 541-941-9711. His website is www.sopermaculture.org.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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