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by Hannae Pavlick

Hannae has interned with Common Sense Gardens since June, 2021. She brings a strong organic gardening background and interest in learning more about permaculture. This is a book review of Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway.

Long after finishing this book, poring over seed catalogs and dreaming of spring, Toby Hemenway’s words stick with me – “And best of all, we lived in this garden, instead of just working there.” I’m still integrating what I’ve learned, but remain focused on building a garden that needs me less and less. And I can no longer walk the streets of Portland without seeing possibilities. It seems this is the overall goal of permaculture; to cultivate vision and curiosity within the gardener.

I’m stunned by how wrong my initial impressions of permaculture were. Though as a whole it is less than linear, compared to traditional organic gardening, the author has proved it can also be formulaic and beautiful, and he holds that complexity with great skill. Hemenway makes it approachable by presenting the theory first, followed by the extensive tools and resources available for planning ecological gardens woven into their surroundings. These make sense even to me, an intermediate gardener.

I particularly appreciate the use of ‘zones’ and ‘sectors’ to break down a project into manageable pieces, starting right outside our door. As Hemenway describes, “This method helps us decide where to place all the pieces of the garden so that they work with each other – and for us – most effectively.” We are asked how we can link design elements to provide mutual support to each other, rather than take on that labor ourselves. “Zones organize the pieces of a design by how often they are used or need attention, and sectors help locate the pieces so they manage the forces that come from outside the site. Using zones and sectors together, we can make the best use of the connections within a design.”

Hemenway guides us into knowing that no matter the space or scale, we are always building towards creating mature habitat versus immature habitat. Mature habitat is characterized by established plants and multiple layers with minimal bare space. Immature habitat is full of annual plants and sees frequent turnover in species present. Immature habitat by design relies on off-site inputs (and lots of labor) to keep water and nutrients cycling, whereas mature habitat is capable of recycling them with far less outside influence. For these reasons we are encouraged towards planting perennials instead of annuals, which also gives an edge over opportunistic weeds that thrive with the frequent soil disruption found in immature habitat.

As a lifelong organic gardener, I already knew vibrant soil was important for overall garden health, but the phrase “microherds” – and the emphasis on raising them – really puts it into a different perspective. It is now my top priority. And there are so many ways to do it well! Since finishing this book, I have applied two new-to-me practices to build the soil. I cut my comfrey plant to the ground and scattered the leaves all over my raised bed, a method known as “chop and drop”. Comfrey is rich in nitrogen. Thanks to invisible decomposers, the leaves will break down over time to make that nitrogen available in the soil. I also chopped down some annual vegetables at the soil level that were finished producing in the raised bed, leaving the roots in place – a gift of carbon for the microbes.

The sheer amount of data shared by the author – charts, tables and illustrations – is incredible. But this book has made a more esoteric impression in my mind, beyond facts and diagrams and new habits. In all honesty, I gladly suffered for many years in past gardens, thinking that was the only way to get it all done, and reveled in a sort of glorious punishment of the body that emptied out my mind. I think the text has worked its magic on me, for I no longer believe that is the goal or inevitable reality of my time spent in the garden. I feel more deeply connected to this small patch of earth I tend. And as I look towards another spring, it now starts with asking how I can best give to the soil this season, rather than just what I can get out of it.

Works Cited
Hemenway, Toby. Gaia’s Garden. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2001.

Photo Credit: Brian Barnhart , website: