Photo by David Dodge, Green Energy Futures

OUTSIDE of the 3,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art community solar greenhouse at Invermere’s David Thompson Secondary School, Rob Avis and his group of design interns are busy bringing a tantalizing vision of sustainability to life. Over the past three years, they’ve been transforming the surrounding 12,000 ft2 of barren rock and silt into a vibrant public space that will feature a constructed wetland, community garden plots, a teaching area with a double-chambered cob oven, and a multilayered forest populated with plants selected for food production, wildlife habitat, pollinator refuge and soil building. There are even plans for a chicken moat (a pathway forchickens to access the food forest and keep pests down) and a “duckcuzzi” (a jacuzzi repurposed into a pond). Avis and his students are designing this landscape using the principles of a growing global movement called permaculture.

Derived from the words “permanent” and “culture,” permaculture strives to create healthy and durable human communities that work in dynamic balance with the environment. According to Avis, a former oil and gas engineer and founder of the Calgary-based Verge Permaculture Consulting and Adaptive Habitat, it’s all about looking at and doing things differently. He explains how unlike linear approaches to problem-solving that prescribe reactive fixes to complex problems, permaculture emphasizes systems thinking by acknowledging the existence and importance of connections and seeks to turn liabilities into opportunities.

Much of this can be seen in the development process of the Invermere Permaculture Garden; embedded in the project’s core design is the philosophy of working with nature rather than imposing human will over it. Instead of importing scarce groundwater and fertilizers derived from fossil fuels to create a lush but ultimately unsustainable garden space, Avis and his Verge students employ their observational skills and multidisciplinary backgrounds in ecology, hydrology and engineering to create a self-sustaining and regenerative system that requires little human input once established.

Conscious of Invermere’s droughtprone summers, they have developed an innovative management system of roofs, tanks and swales to capture, store and deliver over 250,000 litres of annual rainfall into the gardenscape. They have planted fast-growing cover crops of buckwheat, annual rye and field peas to boost nitrogen and organic matter levels in the soil for future food forest crops. By planting these climateappropriate perennials that mimic the growth and succession patterns found in natural ecosystems, they build diversity and resilience into a space that will yield a bountiful array of fruits and nuts while establishing rich habitats for pollinators and wildlife for years to come.

In permaculture, each design choice strives not only to satisfy human desires, but also to leave the landscape in a better condition than before by all metrics. This is the key innovation of ecological engineering: combining appropriate technologies with traditional wisdom. It is also the power of integrated design, mindful of actions and consequences, embracing environment and community while creating win-win solutions.

The Groundswell Community Greenhouse and permaculture garden at Invermere's David Thompson Secondary is designed to work with natural forces instead of having strictly human imposed upon it.

Hands-on applied permaculture

For many of Avis’ students, the ability to get hands-on with the permaculture garden is just what they’ve been looking for. Already well versed in permaculture principles, the time they spend in Invermere on a working site provides them with a prime opportunity to team up and apply their skillset towards building something tangible together.

Motivated by personal interests, students from the 2014 cohort came away from the experience with invaluable insights. One was thrilled at the possibility of applying learned techniques to revitalize public land, while another was excited to put gleaned practices into use on agricultural properties in West Africa. Some lessons are of a more personal nature. One intern discovered her affinity and aptitude for working on small-scale projects, noting that working with others who share similar values was instrumental in helping her realize her own strengths.

Inspiring change

The spirit of collaboration extends beyond Avis and his students. Verge Permaculture works with Invermere’s Groundswell Community Network, an internationally acclaimed grassroots organization that owns and operates the on-site community greenhouse, which grows fresh produce for the high school’s cafeteria and provides training opportunities for the school’s chef training program. With shared interests in applied sustainability, Groundswell executive director Bill Swan saw the partnership with Avis and Verge Permaculture as a natural fit. He hopes that this multi-year integrated project can serve as a showcase for how food and design can help connect people and community.

Already, the Groundswell Community Greenhouse and the Invermere Permaculture Garden have garnered significant attention from local volunteers and out-of-town visitors, as well as support from both government and the private sector. Swan believes that these projects will continue to inspire other towns and cities across Canada that are seeking to adopt more environmentally sound practices and reduce liabilities from climate changerelated impacts. Beyond that, Swan hopes that they will help generate awareness around food sustainability issues and build the critical momentum necessary to affect lasting change.

In the 21st century, humanity faces increasingly complex environmental problems that are resistant to simple solutions. More than ever, people are confronted with news of melting ice caps, vanishing species, and the costly consequences of extreme weather events. This constant doom and gloom can be overwhelming for those who wish to act but find themselves without the means.

Projects like the Invermere Permaculture Garden and collaborations between forwardthinking organizations like Verge and Groundswell are vital in combating despair, apathy and cynicism. They show people a more hopeful and attainable future. They can engage, educate and motivate future leaders to new ways of thinking and doing. Most importantly, they can empower people with the practical and mental tools to not only survive, but to thrive in an uncertain world full of challenges and possibilities

Looking to try out more gardening methods? Here’s what you need to make aquaponics work at home.

Can permaculture solve California’s drought problem? Find out at

Isaac Yuen has a Masters in Environmental Education and Communication from Royal Roads University. His essays and creative nonfiction pieces on nature, culture, and identity have been published in various environmental magazines and literary journals.

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