Permaculture Comes to Jackson Heights

Ibacache teaches children how to garden in Rockaway, Queens. (Courtesy of Monica Ibacache)

Not many New Yorkers are familiar with the term “permaculture,” but Monica Ibacache is determined to change that. Ibacache, a Chilean-born educator, will be teaching a permaculture class this summer to middle school students between 6th and 8th grade in The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, the first such summer course to be offered in New York City.

So what, you ask, is permaculture?

Well for starters, permaculture is not a science; it is a philosophy and a movement that rethinks human habitats using natural solutions to problems. Permaculture—a compound of the words permanent and agriculture—was introduced by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two environmentalists, in the mid-70s as an alternative approach to agriculture and community design in Tasmania, Australia. Since then, several communities around the world have adopted permaculture’s principles in designing sustainable human settlements.

“Permaculture attempts to answer problems like ‘How can humans meet their needs without trashing the planet’?” Ibacache says. “It is a way to restore balance between humans and nature.” The problems it seeks to solve are often complex but, according to Ibacache, the solutions can be embarrassingly easy. Ibacache is also the founder of the non-profit organization,”Beyond Organic Design” which facilitates educational programs on sustainability and urban farm design.

She has been teaching permaculture design since 2007. In a nutshell, permaculture adopts patterns and relationships that are found in nature and focuses on using earth sources to come up with sustainable fixes. For instance, planting parsley, coriander, or basil to repel insects from eating in a garden of tomatoes, is permaculture’s answer to using pesticides. Another example is the use of fungus instead of chemicals to eliminate lead in soil. “It shows how important diversity is,” says Ibacache. “The more diverse a community or a system is, the stronger it grows.” Aside from sustainable farming solutions, other permaculture examples include using solar or wind energy as alternative power sources and designing buildings with proper processing facilities for efficient waste disposal.


Ibacache shows students how to build tree guards during permaculture course. (Courtesy of Monica Ibacache)
Getting up close and personal at 7 Pastures green roof: A girl examines worms she found in the soil during permaculture course. (Courtesy of Monica Ibacache)

She admits that New York City is a challenge for practicing permaculture due to lack of land, because permaculture solutions have so far been primarily land based. “What does nature show in the concrete jungle of New York?” is a question Ibacache’s summer class will explore. The course will consist of open-ended projects, in which Ibacache will act as the client and the students as the designers, who have to suggest sustainable, appealing, and eco-friendly solutions to meet the client’s requests. A potential project could be the design of a community garden, for which the students have to figure out how to provide water and electricity and grow plants without any use of fertilisers or pesticides.

Ibacache has taught permaculture design two times in the past at The Renaissance Charter School in the form of a week-long intense program. The “students’ enthusiasm and focus was impressive, ” says Ariel Sacks, a teacher at the school, who notes that the course succeeded in engaging even children who seemed to be indifferent at first. As permaculturists, students would cut wood to help build tree guards—fences that protect the area around a tree—for a New York city block or grow plants in an eco-friendly urban garden. Now that the program will be a summer-long course, students will have time to study permaculture notions in depth and finish an entire project.

To fund the summer course, The Renaissance Charter School had to submit a $10,000 proposal to the New York State Assembly. The school managed to get $8,000 out of the total required amount from the state. Ibacache is fundraising to raise the balance of $2,000. The permaculture course at The Renaissance Charter School is set to start in July.

“I feel permaculture is something that should be taught in every school,” says Ibacache.“Most kids don’t know there are solutions for environmental problems out there that they can actually be part in.”