Permaculture Education - Californian Style

Alexander Mackie
Friday, 10th February 2012

Permaculture teaching as an aspect of mainstream education is still a new idea, Alexander Mackie looks at how they do it in the U.S

A community college in Oakland, California, offers an affordable urban and locally-rooted introductory permaculture course.

During a class hike, Merritt College teacher Christopher Shein pointed out a ditch. He explained that a 90 foot waterfall had been covered by concrete to build this drainage system. Further down the ditch, where the water can flow naturally again, trees arch overhead creating a tunnel of green. It would be easy to forget that you were in a city, but the hike was the occasion for a lesson on the bioregion around Merritt. Students learned about edible local plants, where their electricity was generated and where their garbage goes. The rest of the day, after the hike, was devoted to class in Merritt's large permaculture garden.

Permaculture U.S.A.
A typical permaculture design certificate in the United States costs around $1,500 and takes place over two weeks, or some 72 hours of instruction. The same certificate offered through Merritt is awarded on the completion of the Permaculture A and B courses. These cost the student only $160, but provide 180 hours of instruction over as much as eight months, or two seasons. This allows students not only to immerse themselves in their education, but also to observe their work in the garden over time.

Because the course is offered through California's community college system, a state funded network of schools, the cost is kept down and courses are offered during the evenings and weekends to accommodate working people. Since the first year of Merritt's permaculture course in 2002, over 500 students have been through the program.

Accessible For All
For teacher Shein, the practical nature of the course is fundamental to growing permaculture as an approach to gardening. In his understanding "permaculture is a privilege, often only accessible to the privileged in our society... there is a bottleneck in permaculture education and we're helping break that open". The program is rooted in the idea of community.

Shein involves the students in what he calls 'Permaculture Public Works Projects', such as planting a large citrus orchard at the campus or helping install a bamboo arbor at People's Grocery, a community farm and food justice project. He describes his approach to the permaculture principle of 'Obtain a Yield' in terms of community: "The course functions almost like a bank, where current students put in sweat equity on the land – maintaining and expanding it, while they harvest what the previous student community has invested into the garden".

The teaching garden itself covers one acre of difficult ground. The process of developing this land, the site of a former a quarry, has taken seven years of work from Shein and his students. The place is now almost a farm in its scope and productivity. On a daily basis, students harvest produce which they cook for potluck class meals.

The practical and hands-on material of the course means that students mulch, weed and spread compost – work that helps maintain the grounds around the Landscape Horticulture department, the section through which permaculture is taught. The students of the course percolate out into the rest of the department, going on to study landscape design, maintenance and installation. Because this course functions as a gateway to the department, much of the basic gardening instruction students receive – about pests, weeds, irrigation, and planting – is couched in permaculture thinking.

Propagating Permaculture
In addition to his students 'seeding' the department, as Shein observes, many of the guests he has invited to speak to the class have gone on to teach spin-off courses. Ken Litchfield, who came as a guest, now teaches courses on mushroom cultivation and 'Beneficial Beasts in the Garden' which covers beekeeping and the integration of other species into the garden. Anders Vidstrand, formerly a student of the department, now works there as a science technician. He maintains a large and productive garden at his city homestead, in addition to his work with the department and his plant propagation activities.

Interpretation & Teaching
For Shein, "permaculture is not about self sufficiency, which is like a walled compound protected with guns, but about self reliance. That means during an earthquake, I say to my neighbors 'Hey I have this 1,000 gallon water tank. Come over and boil some water, come over and share this chicken'".

Shein's educational background helps explain his interpretation of permaculture: his university schooling focused on the history of radical social movements. While at school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Shein helped establish community gardens in abandoned lots which were planted and maintained by the local homeless population.

He cites the influence of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman as leading him to an anarchist permaculture and teaching style. His discomfort as a figure of authority leads to the course's style which emphasizes community focus, student directed learning, mutual aid and self reliance. A class assignment sends students to map their neighborhood and local gardens, fruit trees, grocery stores, farm markets, schools, and other food and sustainability projects in the area. This helps to bring student attention outward to the city around them and hone the permaculture principle of 'Observe and Interact'.

Permacultural Progression
For permaculture to deliver on its promise of 'revolution disguised as organic gardening', the demographic of its practitioners will have to change or expand. At Merritt, this seems to be happening. A recent summer course demonstrated a demographic that went beyond permaculture's typically white, middle class, middle-aged student. Many attend because they have an interest in connecting to the permaculture or environmental community in Oakland.

How students apply their permaculture training mirrors the broad cultural roots of permaculture methods. Former student Nsoah returned as a guest to class to talk about the Moringa, an edible and medicinal tree from southeast Asia. He has been working in acupuncture and will be using his permaculture training to farm the herbs used in Chinese medicinal preparations. Carin, a Swiss immigrant, has used her permaculture training to transition from working in graphic design to landscape maintenance and design with a permaculture focus.

Other former students are involved in local initiatives combating child obesity through gardening, backyard urban farming ventures, or simply starting permaculture landscaping businesses. And as important as those whose permaculture involvement is overt, there are 500 students – with nearly 40 more every few months – subtly incorporating the self reliant and community focused approach to permaculture in their daily lives that Shein teaches at Merritt Collage. 

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For a current list of permaculture courses worldwide see:

Jim Thomas |
Fri, 10/02/2012 - 18:32
Your refreshing approach suggests a truly educational dynamic. Stimulating wakefulness and self-reliance through down to earth practices is yield indeed. best wishes from Greece....