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Sierra Sumner headshot

Boost Sustainability and Community at Your HQ: A Case Study in Permaculture

At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, permaculture gardens have become an important part campus life—and they could offer companies ideas on new ways to engage employees and the local community.
By Sierra Sumner

For several years, we have seen more businesses take on creative projects related to gardening and green space. Some have added public green spaces to their corporate campuses to engage the communities where they do business, while others are experimenting with gardens for employees in order to boost workplace wellness.   

The snowboard company Burton, for example, created gardening plots for employees at its Burlington, Vermont, headquarters. Technology companies such as Facebook are transforming rooftops into areas where employees can take a quick respite from the office to relax or even work on their laptops in a more “chill” environment. 

But what about all of that open space between buildings that is barely touched? Those large swaths of grass intersected by concrete walkways may be the new frontier for companies that want to inspire workers and boost health and wellness while mitigating their environmental impact.

A new take on community gardens

Is your company occupying land with vast amounts of lawn that is barely touched? Is the executive team looking for new ways to reduce emissions, take a stand on environmental stewardship, or engage employees and the local community? Those lawns within your corporate campus could be used for a better purpose. Take a look at one college campus in New England for ideas on how to maximize open space that otherwise sees little use.

Permaculture catches on at this New England campus

At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, permaculture gardens have become an important part of the community, a place for education and a way to work toward a more sustainable future. Created by students and first funded by the university’s administration in 2010, the UMass Permaculture Initiative converts underused grass lawns on the Amherst campus into edible, low-maintenance and easily replicable gardens. 

First coined by Bill Mollison back in 1978, permaculture is “a set of design principles used to create resilient systems that model natural ecosystems,” says Xochiquetzal Salazar, sustainability coordinator for campus gardens at UMass Amherst. “[It’s] kind of a long way of saying that we’re trying to do what nature does really well and still grow some food in this garden.” 

Permaculture is more than supplying the cafeteria salad bar

Like other forms of sustainable agriculture, permaculture carries benefits that go far beyond growing fruits and vegetables. Healthy soil is a carbon sink: As plants use sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to create their own food through photosynthesis, their roots deposit carbon into the soil. This natural nutrient exchange makes soil more fertile and increases its water retention capacity—which leads to better crop yields, as well as a net reduction in atmospheric carbon, giving sustainable farming approaches like permaculture the potential to help fight climate change. “The heart of permaculture is more than just about sustainability; it’s about regeneration,” Salazar told Northeast Climate Hub. “When we’re talking about mitigating climate change, that’s a really important conversation that needs to start happening.”

At UMass Amherst, five permaculture gardens serve as food sources and hands-on educational resources—reducing food transportation costs and emissions and familiarizing students with sustainable design. On the surface level, the gardens offer “a beautiful space with a different aesthetic than the rest of campus,” says Daniel Bensonoff, sustainability coordinator of campus gardens at UMass Amherst. “It’s a chance to reconnect and pay attention to natural rhythms.” These gardens also provide space to examine ecological design, consider how to redesign space, and learn more about the “nitty gritty” parts of planting, he explains. 

“Permaculture, in general, offers people a way to put their values and beliefs into practice,” Bensonoff adds. “It’s a chance to be positive agents. Humans can not only do less harm, such as by recycling, but [also] create beneficial ecosystems.” 

An approach like this is not only beneficial for universities like UMass Amherst, but also for any stakeholders looking to actively combat climate change, grow local, develop a community and reduce their ecological impact. 

A lasting ‘permaculture’ at UMass Amherst

The university’s first permaculture garden began with students taking a sustainable food and farming course, who were inspired to create a major impact on the community and had an interest in edible landscapes. Thus, after careful planning, the Franklin Permaculture Garden was established in 2010 as the first permaculture garden on campus. 

The Permaculture Initiative has since grown to include pollinator boxes and four other gardens, including the Berkshire Garden, and won the 2012 Campus Champions of Change Challenge awarded by the White House.

“This was a student-created project,” Bensonoff says. “It became an important part of the institution. It’s important for students to know that they can make an impact and positive change.” 

Make sure you invest sufficient time and resources in a garden

For those interested in starting their own permaculture project, Bensonoff advises to “slow down and do the work of making careful observations of physical and social landscapes. Think about what is going to happen here over time . . . if we’re thinking about long term change.” In a place of higher education, there is a high turnover rate because of students graduating, he explains, so the university had to develop a plan for the garden that reflected this reality. This included a succession plan, allowing for the garden to be as public as possible and, in addition, renew local resources in the community.

“You can do everything we did with a fraction of the funding, if you are careful with planning and use your local resources,” Bensonoff says. This involves what he called the “permaculture paradigm,” meaning that you should map out all possible resources and collaborations. After coming up with an idea, he thinks about who else might be interested in it and who might have valuable skills allowing them to contribute to such a project. “It does take time and energy to build these networks, but it pays off in the long run," notes Bensonoff.

Permaculture spaces can serve as a space between public and private. Anyone at the university can harvest from the gardens, which has created opportunities for these spaces to engage and educate students. Student and staff gardeners placed sign postings to explain how much food can be harvested and when it would be ready for harvesting, in order to avoid killing plants and encourage participation. 

“We are always looking for people to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings. We would like [the garden] to have an impact on everyone,” says Bensonoff. To increase public engagement, the university holds events in the gardens, including film screenings, talks, hands-on workshops and partnerships with organizations like the local farmer’s market. 

Community building on a transient campus

Another factor adding to the permaculture gardens’ success has been partnerships. The gardens operate with drop-in hours for volunteers and a practicum course that requires three hours a week per student in the gardens. The program has partnered with UMass Dining since its inception, as well as local farming and the student Farmer’s Market. Next year the university is considering a partnership with the Isenberg School of Management, its business school, to focus on and promote “ecopreneurship” for those interested in business and making environmental change.

A movement that could gain traction worldwide 

While the permaculture movement is at its relatively nascent stage, this trend has the potential to scale up and help curb environmental degradation, boost food security and offer opportunities for skills building.

The list of permaculture projects across the globe include a garden at UNC-Ashville, an African Woman Rising project in northern Uganda that is helping to feed refugees, Recinto del Pensamiento in Colombia’s coffee growing region, and the Blue Mountains Edible Gardens Trail in Australia. 

Image courtesy of UMass Amherst Permaculture Initiative via Facebook

Sierra Sumner headshot

Sierra Sumner is a senior at University of Massachusetts Amherst studying English and Legal Studies. She is a writer with interests spanning numerous topics, including sustainability and travel, consumer impacts, and legal policy. She is also a mentor and editor for other writers at the UMass Writing Center. Sierra is from Massachusetts, California, and Hawaii. 

Read more stories by Sierra Sumner