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‘Permaculture’ a Growing Phenomenon in Groton

July 11, 2008

By Hiroko Sato, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.

Jul. 11–GROTON — Leo and Martine Laverdure call their back patio “zone one.”

It’s an area immediately outside their house where they planted lots of herbs to keep the fragrant crops within steps of the kitchen.

Further down from the house is “zone two,” where they put plants that require attention every few days instead of every day. Whatever grows in “zone three” should demand even less care. Forget “zone six.” It had better stay as forest.

Setting zones around your house is a fundamental principle of “permaculture” — or sustainable gardening and landscaping. From using slopes as a natural irrigation system to covering the earth with compost materials — so that worms would come up to eat the nutrients and, thus, till the soil — permaculture involves various techniques that take advantage of the laws of nature.

The Laverdures have already incorporated many methods into their yard and no longer till the soil with tools because that would kill the precious worms.

“I have been trying to be very friendly to soil worms,” Leo Laverdure says. “They are our friends.”

Permaculture refers to a design system for ecological living, according to Jono Neiger, a biologist with expertise in permaculture. Landscapes are consciously designed to mimic the patterns found in nature. And the methods are drawing people’s attention these days as they become more interested in growing their own food without relying on chemicals and gasoline-powered equipment.

Some local residents, such as the Laverdures, already practice it. And Groton Local, a grassroots organization that Leo Laverdure started to promote sustainable living, recently hosted a free lecture and a tour of local residences by Neiger.

Neiger, owner of Regenerative Design in Leverett, is a conservation biologist with 15 years of experience in ecosystems restoration and stewardship. He has worked as the director of the Land Steward and Permaculture Apprenticeship Program at Lost Valley Educational Center in Oregon.

In his lecture in Groton on May 27, Neiger explained what kinds of plants and trees can grow abundant here and supply the most nutritious crops. He also shared different methods, including how to collect rainwater for irrigation, how to best use sunlight and how to use abutting sections of a yard for different purposes — such creating an arbor with a fruit tree next to a green house — for insect control.

Neiger even showed photos of a “compost toilet” for human manure, which even ecologically minded residents like Laverdure aren’t quite ready to check out.

“You have to be a true believer” of zero-waste living to do that, Laverdure said recently, laughing.

But those who had a house visit by Neiger the next morning, including Laverdure, said they discovered something new about their yards.

Lisa Wiesner, who organized Neiger’s lecture and tour, has been using three water barrels to collect rainwater to irrigate her yard. She said she has envisioned beautiful, whimsical plants flowing out of her frontyard, with the backyard stretching toward the Nashua River, offering ideal shades under which the family could relax.

After Neiger’s visit, however, she now wants to create an environment to allow nature to do its work, instead of controlling it and making it fit her idea of beauty. She also started to believe that growing food should be part of gardening.

“Gardening isn’t just for the gardener,” Wiesner said. “It’s really for the planet and species that are there.”

She is interested in working with neighbors to share crops from each other’s yards.

“I felt I have more responsibility for the community,” she says.

And Leo Laverdure is now taking another look at a slope along his driveway that he thought wasn’t useful until Neiger pointed out that the sun exposure makes it an ideal location for fruit trees.

“The biggest change we are going to have to make in our society in the next few decades is that we really have to transition out energy,” Laverdure said. “We have to have better renewal energy and reduce our energy use” — and permaculture helps, he added.

For more information about Groton Local, visit http://www.grotonlocal.org.

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