On December 20, 2016, Toby Hemenway the author of Gaia’s Garden and The Permaculture City died from cancer. Hemenway was an important voice within the permaculture movement for many reasons but I believe his most important contribution was his belief in and promotion of suburban and urban permaculture.
I had heard about permaculture for many years before I took my permaculture design course in 2006. I had attended a workshop about it at a music festival and read articles and books abut the philosophy and practice. At that time, however, most of the work I encountered advocated permaculture as a largely rural practice: a way to create a rural homestead.
Until I moved in with my current spouse in 2013, I didn’t have access to my own backyard. And while I grew up on a farm, I had lived in a city since the age of 15. I also didn’t drive until I was 33 years old. There was no way that rural living was possible for me and it wasn’t even that desirable: I liked (and like) the diversity, energy, and even tension, of cities (tension or friction can bring about exciting opportunities for social change). Although I liked the philosophy of permaculture, it just seemed so inaccessible to me – and to the billions of other people who live in cities.
Gaia’s Garden was different. In it, Hemenway made the case for home-scale permaculture, focusing most of his attention on suburban or urban backyards. He argued that it can be easier to practice permaculture in cities because cities have so many resources (such as all the useable garbage people throw away) and allow for more connected living (for example, you don’t have to be dependent on a car of you live in a city with good public transit). He also argued that cities can be places where people can build a community that is based on a diversity of skills, resources, and people. Sometimes, this is a challenge in rural areas.
First with Gaia’s Garden and later with The Permaculture City, Hemenway paved the way for urban and suburban permaculture. He gave detailed information about how to create permaculture spaces even in small backyards. After reading Gaia’s Garden, I was inspired to start where I was – which meant pots of veggies and herbs on the staircase leading up to my second floor apartment and a permaculture-inspired annual garden in a community garden plot.
Aside from this, the techniques Hemenway promoted and the accessible way he wrote and taught became the main tools in my permaculture toolbox. I still use his clear and detailed instructions for sheet-mulching and have created dozens of gardens this way. The keyhole and mandala designs he promoted became my most loved ways to create gardens.
Hemenway’s ideas will continue to live on in the work of people like me who were inspired, motivated and educated by him and in new generations of permaculturalists who read his books. Every time I touch the soil in my backyard, created after reading his article on sheet-mulching, I will think of and thank him.
I encourage you to check out Hemenway’s books and to read Bomb-proof Sheet-Mulching. In Hemenway’s memory create a garden bed this year in whatever space you have access to and nurture it well.
I received an email recently saying that he was seriously ill but this is the first I had heard that Toby Hemenway had died. I’m glad that you learned so much from his books.