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Permaculture and environmental learning in botanic gardens

Volume 7 Number 1 - April 2010

Martin Clement, Gabriel Mngoma, Erin Marteal & Nic Shaw

French: L’enseignement de la permaculture et de l’environnement dans les jardins botaniques

Spanish: Permacultura y aprendizaje del medioambiente en jardines botánicos


As global climate change and biodiversity loss dominate the agenda, Martin Clement and colleagues from Durban Botanic Gardens in South Africa argue that permaculture is both an effective ecosystems approach to food production and a practical expression of environmental learning.


In 2008, the Durban Botanic Gardens (DBG) in South Africa established an innovative permaculture food garden training centre to address ecological literacy and food sovereignty issues while meeting the educational needs of local communities.  In an age of global climate change and biodiversity loss, permaculture offers an important, systems-thinking approach to botanic garden education practice, tools to promote environmental resilience and human well-being.

DBG Permaculture Centre

The garden is abuzz with bright-eyed learners deep in sensory investigations. They lift up comfrey leaves, sniff papayas, and look thoughtfully at the cakey soil, teaming with life, revealed under a bed of straw. These young people are observing, asking questions, making sense of permaculture principles at work.

This is a description from a typical school programme at the Durban Botanic Gardens (DBG) Permaculture Training Centre.  Opened on World Food Day in October 2008, the centre is an integral part of DBG’s mission, an active pilot phase of the larger Garden Window Project that will represent a multi-purpose plant services hub for the city. Like many botanic gardens of the colonial era, DBG was originally a botanic station for the trial of agriculturally important plants (McCracken, 1996). Through the Permaculture Food Garden Training Centre, its food plant origins have come full circle.

Coined in the 70s by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, permaculture (‘permanent agriculture’) is a way of designing ecological human habitats and food production systems that mimic natural processes, while promoting a healthy natural world (Mollison, 2002).  Permaculture emphasizes the harmonious, complex interrelationship of plants, animals, people and the Earth, and is a model for working with, rather than against, nature (Jacke, 2010).

The chicken is a useful example.  In its moveable tractor, the bird scratches the soil of an uncultivated bed, devouring grubs while aerating and fertilizing the soil, providing eggs and meat for sustenance and feathers for bedding.  In the DBG garden, the acacia (Acacia sieberiana) tree is a visual focal point, offers shade for visitors, and fixes nitrogen for adjacent fruit trees.  But rather than singling out the chicken or acacia, permaculture focuses on the multi-functioned relationships and eco-services that add up to more than the sum of their parts (Holmgren, 2002).

Being ecoliterate in an age of climate chaos

According to the Holistic Education Network, ‘The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities. Understanding the principles of organization that ecosystems have developed to sustain the web of life is what we call ecological literacy, or ecoliteracy’.  This goes beyond the mere teaching of the natural environment to foster a deep, personal appreciation of nature and our place in it.  Just as language and mathematical literacies are considered vital for our culture, so ecoliteracy is key to the development of sustainable lifestyles, and ultimate survival of civilization. For David Orr, the goal of ecological literacy is ‘built on the recognition that the disorder of ecosystems reflects a prior disorder of mind, making it a central concern to those institutions that purport to improve minds. In other words, the ecological crisis is in every way a crisis of education.... All education is environmental education… by what is included or excluded we teach the young that they are part of or apart from the natural world’ (Stone & Barlow, 2005). What matters then is the meaningful connection between head, hands, and heart.

Linking biodiversity and human well-being is now key, realizing the connection between conservation and poverty (Waylen, 2006). Food is one of the most obvious elements. Most urban children (rich or poor) and many rural ones follow an unhealthy, incomplete diet, the production of which has a profoundly negative impact on ecosystems.  Offering a solution to poor diets, permaculture is an ecoliterate approach to producing food and an opportunity for inculcating an integrated response to environmental problems.  Methods of mulch-bed preparation address nutrient cycles, symbiosis between fungi, microbes and plants and the management of household waste.  Companion-planting explores the complexity of ecological relationships, and the planting of and caring for a seedling encourages a ‘heads and hearts’ response in us.

‘There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world ... they will live at odds with the world.’ (From Ishmael: An adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn).

Permaculturist Gabriel Mngoma took into account the garden’s need for multipurpose functions in his design, achieving both a cultivated ecosystem and outdoor classroom, with aesthetically high standards. We see how the learning process between permaculture and horticulture can help devise principles for future landscape development at DBG, as well as programmes for deeper ecological literacy.  The programmes created for school and community groups have already spurred environmental education centres and schools to set up permaculture education gardens. Nic Shaw at the Entabeni Environmental Education Centre in South Africa, created a permaculture garden linked to DBG’s education centre after an Entabeni staff member attended our courses.

So far very few botanic gardens are using permaculture in education, land care/design, or otherwise, even though other sustainability-minded organizations are embracing it.  Marteal and Clement are currently investigating this apparent schism.

Next steps

There is now a strong call to re-story – to change the way we think about our cultural manner of living (McKenzie et al, 2009). Environmental education initiatives should go from messaging to action, inspiring ‘creative, confident and innovative responses’ (Taylor, 2010). Permaculture can be a powerful tool for botanic garden education in promoting food sovereignty, human health and ecological literacy, revealing how humans can be part of a sustainable system. Stella Simiyu, BGCI/SCBD GSPC programme officer, highlighted key questions in her presentation ‘Botanic Gardens: Role, Image and Purpose in the 21st Century’ at BGCI’s Education Congress (2009):

  • Are we responding to local challenges contextually?
  • Are we demonstrating relevance?
  • Are we providing a local interpretation of the global responses effectively?
  • Are we too stuck in the past to think innovatively about responding to the future?
  • What value addition do we bring to the institutional, technological and technical landscapes where we operate?
  • Do our education programmes address these issues?

Botanic gardens might consider how permaculture can help address the following questions:

  • How can we better connect food gardening, environmental learning and action?
  • What are some of the important points to consider when linking indigenous knowledge systems and food garden programmes?
  • How can we develop Ecological Literacy within existing botanic garden food garden programmes?
  • How can we help develop a more active food garden learning network?

Gardens are places of story. In what way can food stories enrich our environmental learning?



References and further reading

  • Cappra, F., 1999. Ecoliteracy: The Challenge for Education in the Next Century.  Liverpool Schumacher Lectures.
  • Holistic Education Network:
  • Holmgren, D., 2002. Permaculture:  Principles & pathways beyond sustainability, Holmgren Design Services.
  • Jacke, D., 2010. Ecology, Design & Agriculture: A Synthesis. Lecture at Ithaca College, February 4.
  • McCracken, D. P., 1996. A New History of the Durban Botanic Gardens. Parks Department, City of Durban.
  • McKenzie, M., Hart, P., Bai, H. & Jickling, B., 2009. Fields of Green Restorying Culture, Environment, and Education. Hampton: New Jersey.
  • Mollison, B., 2002.  Introduction to Permaculture, 2nd edn, Tasmania, Australia: Tagari.
  • PELUM South Africa, 2006. ‘Food First’ Working Conference, Pietermaritzburg,
  • The Schumacher Centre for Technology and Development, Bourton Hall. 
  • Simiyu, S., 2009, at BGCI Congress on Education in Botanic Gardens, Durban, South Africa, 1–5 November.
  • Stone, M. K. & Barlow, Z., 2005, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, Sierra Club Books
  • Taylor, J., 2009. The Environmental Crisis, Biodiversity and Education for Sustainable Development: a Partnership Response in Environment, People and Conservation in Africa.  Spring 2009, pp. 22-8.
  • Waylen, K., 2006. Botanic Gardens: using biodiversity to improve human well-being. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Richmond, UK.
  • Windfuhr, M. & Jonsén, J., 2005.  Food Sovereignty: Towards democracy in localized food systems. FIAN-International, ITDG Publishing.



Graham Burnett, dans ‘Permaculture – A Beginners Guide’ décrit la permaculture comme  ‘…une révolution déguisée en jardinage biologique’. Alors que la Permaculture (‘agriculture permanente’) est une approche écosysthémique à la culture alimentaire, il s’agit aussi d’une forme de jardinage qui est à la fois un art provocateur, une source d’inspiration, un moyen d’hygiène environnementale durable et une expression pratique de l’enseignement  environnemental. Cependant, peu de jardins botaniques se concentrent sur la permaculture.  Cela est intrigant étant donné que les plantes alimentaires sont déjà bien insérées dans beaucoup de jardins botaniques, d’écoles et le jardinage communautaire est activement promu.

En 2008, le Jardin Botanique Durban, en Afrique du sud, a établi un centre de formation de permaculture alimentaire innovateur pour présenter les problèmes liés à l’éducation écologique et à la souveraineté alimentaire tout en reconnaissant les besoins éducatifs des communautés locales.  A une époque où le changement climatique et la perte de la biodiversité nous sont présents à l’esprit, la permaculture propose une approche systématique significative aux pratiques éducatives des jardins botaniques, offrant des outils pour la résilience environnementale et le bien-être de l’être humain.


Graham Burnett, en ‘Permacultura – una guía para principiantes’ la describe como ‘Permacultura ... revolución disfrazada de jardinería orgánica’. La Permacultura (agricultura permanente) es un ecosistema cultivado orientado a la producción de alimentos, al mismo tiempo es un tipo de jardinería que sirve de inspiración para la creatividad y el arte, es una manera sana y práctica para el aprendizaje y la sustentabilidad del medioambiente. Sin embargo, pocos jardines botánicos se enfocan globalmente en permacultura. Esto es interesante dado que las plantas alimenticias se muestran y encuentran muy bien representadas en numerosos jardines botánicos, además que la jardinería es promovida activamente en las comunidades y escuelas.

 En el 2008, el Jardín Botánico de Durban en Sudáfrica creo un centro de entrenamiento en permacultura de jardín de alimentos como respuesta ecológica a la alfabetización y temas sobre la soberanía de alimentos satisfaciendo necesidades de las comunidades locales. Especialmente hoy en día en que nos atañe el cambio global climático y la perdida de la biodiversidad, la permacultura es muy significativa, es un sistema de acercamiento práctico que provee herramientas para la recuperación del medio ambiente y el bienestar humano.

Martin Clement
Education Officer
Gabriel Mngoma
Permaculture Training Coordinator
Durban Botanic Gardens
South Africa.


Erin Marteal, Cornell University Fellow in Public Garden Leadership, focusing on outreach and education, and 2009 intern with DBG’s Permaculture Training Centre E-mail:,

Nic Shaw
Director of Entabeni Communications
Entabeni Environmental Education Centre
KwaZulu-Natal Drakensburg
South Africa