Not only does a tree grow in Brooklyn, but you can find a whole food forest there, as well. At The Old Stone House—a 1699 Dutch farmhouse and the kick-off site to the Revolutionary War—Claudia Joseph, with the help of students, apprentices and volunteers, is at work growing an edible landscape using permaculture principles. As a permaculture teacher, consultant and community gardener, she’s passionate about bringing food to the people, and in 1998, she founded the New York Permaculture Exchange, which facilitates the free exchange of ideas, materials and labor related to permaculture. Urban Farm caught up with this busy woman to learn more about her role in the growing permaculture movement in New York City.
Permaculture, the term derived from the concept “permanent agriculture,” is described differently by different people. What is your working definition?
Claudia Joseph: Permaculture combines the knowledge of many specialized fields to develop new problem-solving techniques in the design of whole systems. This work involves creating beneficial relationships, connections and redundancies while relying heavily on one’s powers of observation, intuition and imagination. Bill Mollison, an Australian field biologist regarded as the “Father of Permaculture,” believes permaculture is based on care of the earth, care of people and sharing the surplus. Care of the earth means care of all living and non-living things: soil, species, atmosphere, forests, micro-habits, animals and water.
In the past few years, permaculture design has become quite trendy, but you began training in and practicing it in the 1990s when it was much less on the map, especially New York City. How did you get your start?
CJ: In the 1990s, I was living in the Bay area; permaculture was already big in California. I completed permaculture trainings at The Permaculture Institute USA, founded by Bill Mollison and Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. After becoming certified in Permaculture Design, I taught at Merritt College (Oakland, CA), Berkeley Ecology Center and Oakland Botanical Demonstration Gardens. I established the East Bay Permaculture Exchange in 1998, my own permaculture design business. Many people in the Bay area became interested in establishing permaculture gardens in the wake of Y2K, preparing for the possibility that the event might cause food shortages.
You relocated to Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 2004. How did you connect with and become part of the permaculture movement in your new community?
CJ: In part, I was in the right place at the right time. I volunteered at The Garden of Union, a communally operated garden founded in the mid-1970s, The garden works in partnership with the Park Slope Food Coop, one of the largest food coops in the U.S. I eventually helped build and manage a 14-ton compost system.
I used to walk around the neighborhood with my young daughter, and we lived near the Old Stone House, a Revolutionary period historical site surrounded by a park and playground. I heard they’d hired a new director, and there was money that had been raised to do restoration on the gardens. I went and spoke to the director, and she shared my vision of creating gardens shaped by permaculture principles that refer to the Dutch Colonial period during which site was created. I was hired as the Director of Environmental Education.
How has the Park Slope community worked with you to transform the gardens at the Old Stone House and the middle school adjacent to the park?
CJ: Eight garden areas at The Old Stone House and two areas at the adjacent Middle School 51 have been shaped by permaculture principles and cooperatively installed with adult students, middle-school students and volunteers. Themes of self-reliance and environmental stewardship are reflected in plantings for food, medicine, craft material, wildlife support and water catchment.
What are some of the challenges you encounter as director of the OSH gardens?
CJ: There are so many ongoing challenges in an urban garden setting, from people picking flowers and then just throwing them on the ground, to dogs that are allowed to run in the gardens and trample beds, to children who are not supervised, to a recent increase in the rat population in the area. I try to connect with the people who come to the park in hopes of teaching them. I started a caregiver and child gardening program, designed to get caregivers and children involved in the gardens to learn about, help plant, and maintain the food and medicinal plants.
What do you find rewarding in your work, and what do you hope for in the future?
CJ: It is so gratifying to observe and speak with the visitors to the gardens. I meet people from many different cultures and see how they connect with plants they recognize from their childhoods that were used by their family members either for food or medicine. I share as many plants and seeds as possible with people that visit.
The New York Permaculture Exchange hosts two outreach events a year to help encourage connections between those who share interests in permaculture, urban gardening and related skills—a Seed Celebration and Share in February and a Skill Share in October, which includes tours of the Old Stone House gardens.
A main goal for the future is get more volunteers to work on-site. I am getting older, and I feel that if I wasn’t there supervising and coordinating everything, it might not continue to grow.