A Brief Review of
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.
Paperback: Chelsea Green, 2009.
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By Brent Aldrich.
Last summer, when I leapt headlong into vegetable gardening, Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture was one of a few books that I spent some significant time with, wondering how to get my small plots of mostly hot-weather crops to look anything like even the diagrams of densely-planted, highly diversified plants in this book. A second edition of Gaia’s Garden is now available, and I’m still working on the “ecological garden” described therein.
Gaia’s Garden is manual, field guide, narrative, and theory for “ecological gardening,” that is, a garden that “both looks and works the way nature does. It does this by building strong connections among the plants, soil life, beneficial insects and other animals, and the gardener, to weave a resilient, natural webwork. Each organism is tied to many others. It’s this interconnectedness that gives nature strength…This multifunctionalism – wherein each interconnected piece plays many roles – is another quality separating an ecologically designed garden from others” (7-8). So forget about straight rows of monocultures and instead think “keyhole garden beds,” “multipurpose plants,” “garden guilds,” and “food forests.”
Perhaps the most substantial new material in this edition is the chapter “Permaculture Gardening in the City,” bringing this book into conversation with other high-productivity practices such as Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening and John Jeavon’s How to Grow More Vegetables. Although the ideas presented in the first edition of Gaia’s Garden could mostly be adapted to fit city-sized lots, Hemenway makes a significant contribution to gardening in the city by reminding that “to garden ecologically in metro areas, a smart strategist will play to the city’s strengths and mitigate the weaknesses. The great strength of any city – the reason people go there – is the social capital: the synergies and opportunities generated by creative people working together” (230). In this scenario, neighbors fill in the gaps for one another: “My neighbors’ yards had become my orchard. I realized that I didn’t need to plant all my favorite fruit trees. I just needed to plant the ones that were missing from the neighborhood” (231).
By describing the inherent complexity and diversity in the garden, Gaia’s Garden then extends its reach to the larger community, and is perhaps suggestive of Wendell Berry’s description of the “Great Economy,” in which “everything in the Kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com