Andrew Millison’s yard is like a jungle. Not just an ordinary jungle, but a veritable cornucopia of flowers, herbs, food, and living materials. While certainly eclectic at first glance, after listening to Millison speak, a sort of order emerges through the chaos. Upon further investigation, one becomes aware of the underlying philosophy of this permaculture landscape.
I had some time to walk Millison’s yard while he got ready to give me a tour. The front is less a yard and more a series of paths situated between pea vines, herbs, and a living chair of interwoven willow known as the Throne. An archway of woven willow provides a portal to the sidewalk while a sturdy board bridges a small overflow pond to the front door. Everywhere bees zip in and out of shady pockets, pollinating the profusion of plant life.
Millison himself is a permaculture designer and instructor. Through the OSU Extension Service Millison offers a series of online permaculture design courses culminating in a permaculture design certification. His work as a designer began in the dry lands of Arizona where issues of water conservation and torrential heat are forefront. Although the conditions are different here, the thought process remains the same wherever you are.
What Is Permaculture?
The term was coined by David Holmgern and Bill Mollison in 1978. The most fundamental aspects of permaculture are utilizing natural patterns and adapting your practices accordingly. The permaculture designer strives to always produce a yield while minimizing, even eradicating, the production of waste. Armed with a detailed understanding of the rising and setting of the sun, seasonally changing wind patterns, and the progression of the weather through the year, the permaculturist aims to create resilient, food-producing, self-contained systems within a fraction of the space used by large-scale modern agriculture.
“I think it’s just a lot more interesting,” said Millison, gazing across his backyard. A chicken wire fence encloses a field of fava beans, artichokes, and garlic. Within the enclosure are separated areas, all part of the chicken rotation system. The chickens do all the weeding and soil preparation as they go about their chicken lives. “I’m just coming in and planting behind them, and so I’m integrating two elements,” said Millison.
The fence connects to a chicken coop on the far side of the yard. “I’ve kind of zoned things out by how much effort they take,” Millison explained. The chicken coop is attached to a greenhouse along the property line. From inside the greenhouse, Millison drops a little door, then lifts a rather large chicken with one hand while extracting a fresh egg with a grabber. “We don’t even have a compost pile, we just feed our chickens all of our food waste and it comes back to us in the form of eggs,” he said.
Millison built the greenhouse with the frame of an old carport and uses it to create subtropical plant guilds. The floor is made of stone with several pits extending almost two feet. “I did this all for thermal mass basically,” said Millison. “In the winter time the sun comes in and the stone helps to moderate the temperature.” A satsuma mandarin, lemon grass, and a variety of succulents live in pots or within the pits.
Walking out through the broccoli and squash, Millison points to a small grove of bamboo. He explains that beyond food production, plants like willow and bamboo can be used for building and crafting materials.
Back in the front yard, Millison explained that when he arrived, there was a row of roses along the sidewalk and grass in the yard. He has since added selfheal, calendula, borage, poppies, Jerusalem sage, and plenty more herbs. In place of roses there are now fig trees, thornless blackberries, and a cherry tree to shade the sidewalk and driveway. I might also mention that Millison has grafted five different varieties onto the cherry as well.
“I am super packing the food in on the street side,” explained Millison. A father himself, Millison lives less than a block from the neighborhood school and has children walking past his home almost every day. As part of his design philosophy, he has made sure that children and neighborhood folks alike can grab some tasty treats without missing a beat.
“In a neighborhood, I think mixing the social, the agricultural, and the ecological [world] is kind of the essence of permaculture,” he said.
Millison estimates that altogether, his one-third acre home is producing between 65 to 75 usable plants. “But then you get into annuals and different types of weeds and the fact they’re useful and then if you added in fungi…” However more interesting than the sheer number of plants is the complex interactions happening between them.
Nitrogen-fixing legumes like peas, fava beans, and lupine grow with dynamic accumulators like yarrow and borage. Together, with some chicken poo, they recharge the soil and support heavy feeders like zucchini and corn. A mix of herbs and native plants ensures that a variety of pollinators visit the garden throughout the year.
So what is permaculture? Bill Mollison said, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”
Permaculture in Action
Millison took me on a short stroll down the road to a community park on Crystal Lake Drive. Only, the park isn’t a real park, it’s a privately owned lot. The owner wanted to do something nice for the neighborhood and teamed up with Millison to make that happen.
“The goal of this project was to simultaneously create food production, hydrological integrity—absorbing water and rebuilding water tables—and also just creating a magical landscape that was fun for kids,” Millison said.
The landscape is indeed magical, with a maze made of thornless blackberries and raspberries and a secret bench hidden on an island. The peripheries of the lot are planted with willow, jostaberries, fig, and persimmon. The banks of the deep trenches are planted with creeping rubus, nitrogen-fixing creeping ceanothus, and creeping kinnikinnick.
Millison formed the trench by cutting into the drainage swale along the road. “In the winter time, we have increased the surface area contact between the ground and the water,” Millison said, “so we are basically recharging the groundwater table more so than just sending it down the ditch.” The trench maze stored water for an additional three months this year, and will only function better as the garden matures.
“Fast forward a few years and the whole island is filled with bamboo, the willow have formed a hedge around the back, and all the berries have filled in so you can’t even be seen from the road,” said Millison.
Albeit small-scale, this maze serves to illustrate the thought patterns that permaculture designers follow. “It crosses agricultural, social, hydrological, and ecological [issues],” said Millison. The end goal is a place where the community can go for a good time, while also producing food and strengthening the presence of nature within the neighborhood.
Permaculture is also a large-scale practice. Millison is co-founder of Permaculture Design International (PDI), a collaborative design firm with colleagues spread across the country and throughout the world. Their portfolio boasts projects in the US, Mexico, Haiti, India, and Africa.
“We felt there is not a lot of really professional-looking international design firms, yet the interest in permaculture is rising,” said Millison. As a collaborative enterprise, PDI is able to take on projects that are greater than any one person and benefit from a larger network. Millison explained, “We have had some pretty prominent work just due to our connections.”
In fact, earlier this year the PDI crew produced a report for a 36,000-acre purchase on Maui, Hawaii. However, Millison pointed out that PDI is still a fledgling company and that much of their effort has been on developing the inner workings of their organization. Either way, PDI is well on its way to providing the services to match growing permaculture design needs worldwide.
Community Impact and Learning Opportunities
Millison’s presence in the neighborhood is unmistakable. During our stroll, Millison pointed out neighbors’ beds he collaborated on and plants that he propagated from, even showing me the most delicious grape vine on the block. Despite all the material one could read, often the best way to learn new techniques and find the right plants is by talking to the folks in your neighborhood and trying things out.
“If you have kids, you end up wanting to create an environment for them,” said Millison. “My son said before, ‘How come those people don’t have a garden?’ Like for him, it didn’t make any sense to not have a garden.”
Permaculture is both a practice and a philosophy. Students that take Millison’s online class range from professional designers looking to learn new tricks to elderly folks designing small herb gardens. If you take Millison’s class, you will learn the design techniques behind permaculture. After producing a series of maps depicting external site influences, seasonal changes, water flow, and more, you will develop a final plan. Ideally, you will have designed a project that produces food and workable materials, recycles waste, provides some habitat, and is in tune with the patterns of where you live.
Moreover, your design and the efforts of bringing it to life are very much a labor of love. The practice of permaculture has deep roots in the study of ecology and the notion that life on this planet is interwoven. Ultimately, permaculture aims to provide a solution to mass monoculture agriculture while helping to restore some ecosystem services at the community level.
There are many reasons to consider permaculture at your own home. Whether you want to know what is in and on your food, want to integrate more wildlife into your property, or just love natural-looking gardens, permaculture gives you the tools to take a different approach.
By Anthony Vitale