Learning by Doing: the Iranian university permaculture garden

Javad Razmi
Tuesday, 16th March 2021

Javad Razmi, the designer and founder of Islamic Azad University Permaculture Garden, shares how he's brought active learning to students, creating an educational space for climate resilience, sustainable food growing and indigenous Iranian plants and water management techniques.

I have always tried to make my students learn through action. To acquaint my students with the principles of permaculture, and a nature-friendly food production system, a pilot site was needed. The university campus was the most suitable place for establishing the first permaculture self-resilient pilot site in autumn of 2016. The arena of this site was planted with Walnut trees 25 years ago and students now have the opportunity to experience the forest farm system. 

So far, more than 100 agriculture students have volunteered to work and learn principles of permaculture and sustainable farming such as composting, recycling, mulching, and the ways of rainwater harvesting. 

This permaculture forest farm is located on the Islamic Azad university, science and research branch campus, 1800m above sea level; which is in the northwest of Tehran, Iran.

To retain moisture, activating the microbiomes, and increasing the organic matters, the surface of the permaculture garden is covered with plant debris and wood chips. The pruned branches of trees have been chopped with 'chop and drop' and used as mulch. There are also Alfalfas planted under the tree trunks to fix nitrogen in the soil and the flowers of the plant are a great opportunity for pollinators to feed, while the green mulch which is provided by the Alfalfas is a fine spawning place for the pest's natural predators. 

Students have made several insect hotels in different dimensions to protect the pollinators and installed them at different heights. The difference in shape and size of these insect hotels made a suitable habitat for different species of insects. Experience has shown that insects are more interested in natural, recycled materials such as pierced woods and rolled papers rather than plastic pipes.

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Insect Hotel is a shelter for various insects; our experience has shown that the use of natural materials can attract more insects to this hotel. Hotels are installed in different dimensions and at different heights in the permaculture garden of the university. This photo, taken in the spring, shows one of the hotels behind the wooden sign of Hügelkultur.

Sowing seeds of wild local plant flowers on hügelkulturs at the end of the winter gives a spring full of flowers for insects, indirectly increasing the yields of the garden.  

The three sisters, corn, beans, and squash, have been grown on the sheet mulching surface as an example to which allows visitors such as students, local communities, academics, media, citizens, and representatives of the government, to become familiar with the benefits of intercropping and the role of biodiversity in improving the food production system. 

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Sheet mulch

Part of the garden is allocated to plots that contain forgotten Iranian crops. Iranian agriculture has an ancient history with strong indigenous knowledge. Introducing new cultivars and species has caused the replacement of former crops which were compatible with the environment. Students can get acquainted with the properties of plants such as the black mung bean, bitter vetch, and sainfoin.

On the other side, the herb garden has been filled with various species of medicinal plants, such as Rosemary, Lemongrass, Thyme, Yarrow, Damask Rose, Hyssop, Sumac, the Caper bush, Common Sage, Echinacea angustifolia, Pot Marigold, Mallow, Milk Thistle, and Hollyhocks; all are important plants with useful properties among Iranian herbal medicines.

The eco pond of this forest-garden with six square meters has been designed at different depths. The stepped design of the pond and its different depths is suitable for various aquatic species such as microalgae, protists, algae, insects, plants, and animals such as toads, frogs, fishes, and turtles. Aquatic plants such as Lotus, Phragmites australis, and Pampas grass are suitable for pond water in that, they can filter the water, optimize the minerals, and prevent the excessive growth of algae and reduction of oxygen in the pond. Meanwhile, insects such as dragonflies and damselflies use the leaves of these aquatic plants for laying eggs in the water. 

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A natural pond is designed to create different habitats at different depths. The material of the body and the floor of the pond is concrete and the layer of metal mesh between the concrete has increased its strength; applying an anti-moisture layer also prevents water leakage.

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The eco pond in summer

Iran is located in the dry region of the Earth; hence, water itself and the methods of storing it has long been the interests of our ancestors. The following are some methods Iranians use to manage the water resources: Qanats in the desert of central areas of Iran; Chale-Sonbak which is located in the southwest of Maranjab; underground vineyards in Bushehr; Bandsar in Sabzevar for flood control; and clay pot irrigation in Yazd.

In the permaculture garden, to demonstrate these water-wise innovations, clay capsules that are connected to irrigation pipes have been placed under the soil. Hence, the relative humidity of soil around the capsules will always be at the field capacity point. Other advantages of this irrigation method are the reduction of weed growth, the reduction of farming costs, prevention of drought or waterlogging, and reduction of soil nutrients leaching as well as water consumption.

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The clay capsules are connected by a tube and located deep in the root zone

On the other side of the garden, the keyhole structure lets us collect rainwater in wet seasons. Vast areas of Iran have the most precipitation from the end of the autumn until the beginning of the spring. A keyhole garden can use the trapped rainwater and bring a variety of food products for a family during the spring. The dry stone wall of the keyhole garden has been inspired by the method of traditional architecture in Kurdistan. 

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Polyculture space on keyhole garden

Soil nutrients are supplied with complete sustainable methods. The redworms, Eisenia fetida, are used to produce compost from plant residues, paper wastes, and organic wastes from the university canteen, which can be used in the permaculture garden either as vermicompost or as tea compost. 

Part of this garden is dedicated to the recycling of graywater in which plants such as water lettuce (Pistia stratoites) and duckweed (Lemna sp.) purify water.

We collect the seeds of native plants of the region and save them in the seed bank in order to preserve and sow them all over the garden at the end of the winter. 

At the entrance of the permaculture garden, there is a well-designed xeriscape rock garden to demonstrate species with low water requirements such as Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), Pigface (Carpobrotus sp.), Yucca (Yucca sp.), and Frankenia (Frankenia sp.). 

Volunteers also can do seasonal activities such as sericulture. Currently, the GEF Small Grants Program, GEF/SGP/UNDP in Iran has adopted a plan entitled: 'Knowledge sharing for promotion of Permaculture agriculture through documentation and network forming between stakeholders and strengthen the conversation among them'. In this project, students have the opportunity to document their hands-on experiences and lessons learned about permaculture.

In conclusion, although the mentioned permaculture garden is only 2,000 square meters, it can provide a series of inspiring initiatives to produce eco-friendly foods that are compatible with nature and it can also be a location for volunteers who are trying to solve the challenges of global hunger in which 650 million people living in the world affected by climate change. Statistics show that during the COVID-19 pandemics, 132 million people have been added to the number of people suffering from hunger. Therefore, it is necessary to promote sustainable and eco-friendly farming practices to increase the level of food security, overcoming biodiversity decline, mitigating climate change, and the reduction of wastes and pollution that are threatening the Earth.

Javad Razmi, Department of plant protection, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences and Food industries, Islamic Azad University, Science and Research Branch, Daneshgah Sq., North Sattary Highway,Tehran, Iran.

Useful links

A guide to olla pots - traditional irrigation system

How to transform landscapes with water: Sepp Holzer

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