Exploring Permaculture in the Big City

© Jennifer Hattam. Participants in an urban-permaculture workshop in Istanbul surveyed a small plot of land while learning what food-growing techniques might work best there.

On a damp and dreary afternoon, about 15 people are gathered on a windswept hill overlooking the Bosphorus, standing in a tiny patch of green surrounded by Istanbul's endless urban sprawl. They intently examine a muddy mound of dirt, covered with cardboard and weeds -- the inauspicious-looking start to what participants hope will be a gardening revolution in Turkey.

Earlier in the day, the group, led by Steve Read, one of the founders of the French Permaculture Association, had scoped out the small plot of land, observing its soil conditions and its slope, where it got sun and what was already growing there before developing a garden design. This preparatory work is an essential part of permaculture (short for "permanent agriculture"), a way of designing and maintaining "agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems" (in the words of workshop organizers) that emphasizes working with the land rather than fighting against it.

Cultivating With Cardboard
Next, following the contour of the land, the group dug out a pair of swales, or channels, and piled up the topsoil to create a raised bed surrounded by what looked like a small moat that would help capture rainwater runoff. They laid broken-down cardboard boxes on top of the dirt, then damp weedy grasses from the surrounding area. In permaculture, you want to "utilize available, often waste, material and concentrate it to increase the soil's fertility," Read explained. If kept wet, the cardboard and grasses will decompose while holding moisture in, a process of "cold composting" creating rich, damp, wormy dirt.

© Jennifer Hattam. Workshop instructor Steve Read explains a permaculture technique.

The technique is just one of many being taught at a five-day workshop on urban permaculture held at various locations around Istanbul, from its crowded core to its far-flung suburbs. For the first three days, participants met at different types of gardens to explore the possibilities of permaculture in an array of spaces; on Saturday and Sunday, they will convene at Bilgi University's santralistanbul campus for a more detailed introduction to the practice. (The weekend workshop costs 100 Turkish Liras, or 50 liras for students and those with special circumstances. To register or get more information, email hubistanbul@gmail.com. Turkish speakers can also read about the workshop and related activities on the website of the Sustainable Living Festival.)

'I Want My Plants To Struggle A Bit'
Once the cold composting is complete in the new garden bed, holes can be dug in it and planted with seedlings or big seeds, like beans or peas. Read recommends that the new gardeners just "water in" when they plant; if you water the whole bed throughout the growing season, he says, "the roots will grow too close to the surface" rather than spreading down deep, where they can find their own moisture. "I want my plants to struggle a bit so they will be good to eat," he says.

The stone wall behind the garden plot could sprout apricots, kiwis, and peaches if the plants are trained with wires, Read added. "Your wall is just ideal," he enthused. "You can just see it covered in fruit!"

The same principles demonstrated in this small garden-to-be, Read noted, can be scaled for use by large farms -- the paths through the area would be wider and the rows of food straighter, but the idea would be the same.

© Jennifer Hattam. A raised garden bed created by workshop participants.

As the temperature dropped and rain began to fall, the group retired to the porch of a neighboring home for a short Q&A; session, with local environmentalist Filiz Telek, one of the event organizers and the moderator of the Permakultur Istanbul online discussion group, translating Read's comments into Turkish as needed.

"Permaculture is about asking, 'Why am I doing this?'" Read said. "It's not about clever technological solutions for driving, but asking, 'Why am I in this car in the first place?' I constantly end up taking things out of my life that I don't need."

Pondering Pests
When asked about pest control, Read said the options start at doing nothing, and advance to removing or relocating the pests or introducing things that eat them. If it gets to the point where he has to employ even a pesticide approved for use in organic production, he said, "I know there is something wrong with my design." Incorporating more balance and diversity into a garden design by leaving part of it wild serves a practical as well as philosophical purpose by increasing the likelihood that the area will naturally to attract birds or other insects that will eat the pests.

Everything in a permaculture project should ideally contribute to the larger whole. Recapping an earlier discussion about lawns, one participant said, "Grass doesn't have to be wasted space -- get a sheep!" Because who would want a boring green patch when you could have a bounty of cheese instead?

More On Permaculture
Permaculture: Spreading the Green Gospel
Backyard Permaculture in Oregon: Peak Moment TV
The TH Interview: David Holmgren, Co-Creator of Permaculture
The TH Interview: Maddy Harland of Permaculture Magazine, part one
Earthworks St Albans: Permacultural Training for People with Learning Disabilities
Offshoots Permaculture Project
Permaculture Magazine: Solutions for Sustainable Living
Permaculture on Waiheke Island

Tags: Agriculture | Gardening | Local Food | Permaculture | Turkey | Urban Life

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