When it comes to nutrition, nature knows best

Permaculture is a dry, dull-sounding word to describe what Ron Berezan does. Organic, money-saving, food-security-enhancing gardening of the future is what it should be called.

Permaculture is a dry, dull-sounding word to describe what Ron Berezan does.

Organic, money-saving, food-security-enhancing gardening of the future is what it should be called.

“It’s a method of designing agriculture that mimics the natural patterns of an ecosystem,” said Berezan from Edmonton.

Yikes. Even its definition doesn’t do it justice.

Nomenclature aside, Berezan’s permaculture-design business, the Urban Farmer, is gaining serious popularity in Alberta, where he’s getting people hooked on growing their own food in inventive ways at home.

Next week, he’ll be bringing his gardening philosophy to the Yukon, a place in desperate need of food sustainability.

So let’s start from the ground up, shall we, and figure out what this newfangled permaculture thing is anyway.

Looking beyond conventional wisdom, human beings aren’t actually that good at making food.

Nature is better.

The slow, painstaking work of harnessing the sun’s energy through plants, animals and soil might have taken millennia to develop, but it remains the standard bearer of food production.

Think of a modern food crop. You still need tons of fertilizer to make things grow. And while it makes more food, more quickly, a field of canola is a less stable energy-sink than an old-growth forest.

Permaculturalists take nature’s expertise to heart. While human instinct might make us think more fertilizer, more digging and more intervention equals more production, a holistic perspective reveals letting it be is the best gardening mantra.

These ideas have been around for hundreds of years, and in a modern context permaculture has been practised since the 1960s.

But a slate of new societal pressures – rising food prices, climate change, fertilizer overload and disenchantment with the fast-paced luxuries of the information age – are popularizing a practice that fits any person’s land-owning situation.

“It’s definitely growing,” said Berezan, who is 48.

His Urban Farmer business helps people design gardens.

You can visit his property, or he can visit yours. Berezan will help you figure out the best way to make your lawn as close as possible to the way nature intended it, while still producing some tasty, healthy food.

He’ll take the orderly little rows we usually imagine when we think of gardens, and find ways of infusing forest plants and animal life into it with a design that allows different species to feed each other’s production.

The designing goes beyond just personal plots to how an entire city might be able to mimic the flowing ecosystem it once was.

And it’s usually much more pleasant to look at.

This year he will hold 59 different workshops on everything from fungi to edible forest plants.

“I was already booked up by January,” he said.

He holds large presentations and private evaluations to share his expertise.

While most people might envision do-gooder urban gardening as a communal thing, Berezan’s one-on-one method might be an indication of why he’s become so popular.

Berezan can be a lot more effective if he gets to see a person’s property and then applies his design principles to a certain lawn, rather than selling blanket designs.

His clientele is rapidly changing, he said.

There’s lots of people who get into permaculture with a save-the-world attitude,

but most are just regular people looking for something simple and healthy to do.

“For older people, it’s a health thing,” said Berezan.

Many adults are into it only to get away from the constant buzz of Blackberry’s, Twitter and Facebook.

“I think people just want to do something that’s simple, something that they can do with their hands,” he said.

“For sure, there’s a political reason for a lot of people. But it’s really mixed.”

Berezan’s not alone in reinventing permaculture for today’s needs.

A lot of university-aged adults are looking for ways to garden, but don’t have any land. A new movement, called Small Plot Intensive farming, or SPIN, is gaining speed in a few cities across Canada, he said.

SPIN is when a person will rent a piece of someone’s land to garden in exchange for some of the food that’s produced.

And in parts of the United States hardest hit by the recession, local gardening is taking hold of some inner-city food supply.

In Detroit, where massive plots of urban land have become vacant following the fall of the once-mighty car industry, large organic farms are sprouting up, said Berezan.

The downtown core lacks affordable, cheap, healthy food and urban gardens are filling the void.

The US isn’t the only place where necessity is pushing people back to the land.

Cuba began an organic farming out of necessity in the early 1990s.

After the Soviet Union collapsed and pulled funding for communist allies, Cuba had no choice but to begin producing its own food.

There are many permaculture sites on the island nation, said Berezan. On a recent trip, he toured a mixed garden huddled in the middle of a tobacco field.

He’ll be heading back in May and June for a seven-week intensive tour of permaculture farms, students in tow.

Examples of permaculture seem counter-intuitive to the production-obsessed agriculture of our age.

No-till gardening, for example, doesn’t involve any digging or herbicides. All you have to do is just let things grow.

Tillage kills a lot of small animals and disturbs their habitat. No till encourages growth the way nature intended it. The practice also sequesters more carbon dioxide than normal gardening.

There is a debate within permaculture on whether gardeners should focus on traditional species, or invasive species.

But the fact is that exchanging information on plants around the world has never been easier, and the perfect local fit might actually come from miles away.

“My feeling is that if you can’t find anything that’s native, you should use what works,” said Berezan.

And while necessity may be sparking permaculture’s spread faster than principle, it’s important not to overlook the least-utilitarian aspects of gardening nature’s way.

Berezan, for one, finds that permaculture plots tend to bring people together.

He’s often caught people picking the Saskatoon shrub on his property.

“You’ll come around the corner and find something with a guilty grin on their face,” he said. ” But it’s a better way of getting to know your neighbours.”

Ron Berezan presents Permaculture In the City upstairsat the Alpine Bakery on Tuesday, February 16 at 7:30 p.m.

Contact James Munson at


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