Helen Loughrey spent most of her life in Maryland before relocating three years ago to Greenwich. In the front yard of her old house Loughrey designed and worked a garden full of edible flowers, ornamental cabbages, and other greenery depending on the season. Planting in the soil brought her a joy she struggled to describe.

“I forgot about all my problems,” Loughrey says. “Once I started working on putting those things in, it just, it was wonderful.”

Loughrey is the owner of Deep Heart Permaculture Design in Greenwich. It’s a landscape design company that transitions suburban properties into green spaces for food, resiliency and productivity. The principles of the permaculture design method form the backbone of the company’s core values.

Permaculture Design

Created by a pair of Australian ecologists in the 1970s, co-creator David Holmgren describes permaculture as a system of “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fiber, and energy.”

The system operates on 12 basic principles, guiding the permaculturist’s actions and ethics in the garden. They’re holistic principles, such as “accept feedback, produce no waste”, and “value diversity”, to name just a few. Together, they help to nurture sustainable and productive green environments—no matter if it’s in a suburban backyard, on an urban rooftop or in a small windowbox.

But incorporating the permaculture principles in the garden does more than just grow plants. Permaculture can also help spark personal growth. After all, “Everything is connected,” says Loughrey.

“Everything Is Connected”

To apply permaculture in the garden, it’s important to start thinking like a permaculture designer. Would another shape for that garden bed allow us to grow more and different kinds of plants? Could a climbing plant on the house help hold in heat in winter?

A permaculture mindset is about thinking of the whole system, and fully utilizing everything in the garden. Here’s one handy rule of thumb for the beginning permaculturist: think of at least three separate uses for each individual plant or object you intend to put outdoors.

As a concrete example, in order to grow elderberry, plunking down a bush in a dry location may not be the best choice, even if your garden is mostly dry zones. That’s according to the owner of CT Edible Ecosystems, Sven Pihl. His Guilford-based business provides permaculture design solutions for residential and commercial landscapes.

Pihl says either working on a natural slope in the garden or grading one by hand will create a natural “wet spot” as rainwater runs downhill. In that kind of environment, elderberry will grow much more verdantly and prolifically. And, as a bonus, the rainwater caught at the bottom of the slope can feed other plants that love moist environments, too.

It’s this process of stopping and observing that is at the heart of permaculture. Understanding where, when and why things happen in the landscape creates win-win environments for plants and for people.

But not everyone is looking to build an environment that’s sustainable over the long haul. Pihl says one of the challenges of working in Connecticut is meeting resistance from clients who may not want to modify their designs.

“I meet a lot of ‘just do it’ types,” says Pihl. But he knows from personal experience that nature gives greater rewards over the long term.

During the economic crisis in 2008, Pihl turned to urban homesteading and permaculture to help provide necessities during rough times. “I was living in New Britain and began urban homesteading,” he explains. Over the course of three years, his homesteading project grew significantly. “That led me to grow my own food and work with my community, and grow food for my community—people in need—primarily people on my street,” he says.

Growing food holistically helped Pihl to serve his neighborhood. For Loughrey, a former licensed social worker, the benefits of those community ties can’t be overlooked.

“I think a lot of mental health problems are basically about isolation,” she says.

Moving into Presence

Over the past 40 years, Tim Currier transformed his 60 acres of land in Newtown, known as Sticks and Stones Farm, into a productive, organic garden and moss farm—a farm that attracts nature seekers from all around New England.

Developing the land’s natural potential has been Currier’s dream since a two-year stay in Malaysia, working with the Peace Corps. Echoing both Loughrey and Pihl, Currier finds that systems like permaculture allow people to get back in touch with the world and, crucially, with themselves.

“Living out in nature is a source of inner peace—and if you’re just running, running, running on concrete all the time, it’s a lot harder to slow down and be present,” Currier says.

But the permaculture principles for Currier aren’t just a template to run a farm or plant a garden. They’ve also provided a map for living his life and influenced his decision to spend a part of each year in a rural zone of the Hawaiian islands.

“What I’ve gotten out of it has helped contribute to how I live today: living very simply and trying to live very present. And working land is a gift to you to be able to do that. It’s working soil. And anybody that does it will tell you that it’s a prerequisite to being happy.”

To incorporate permaculture principles in the garden this spring, start by stepping back and observing what’s actually happening. Next, focus on how to generate the most productive use of resources in all your outdoor endeavors. And remember that ultimately, everything is connected.

“A permaculture lifestyle is really a happy lifestyle. You’re being very proactive and you’re not abusing
anything. You want it to sustain itself and you want it to go on. That is a source of happiness. I’m a very happy guy,” says Currier.

Quinlan Mitchell is a freelance writer living and working in New England. Connect with him at qcmitchell@gmail.com or visit his LinkedIn.