Permaculture greens campus

A summer project implements a container garden outside Thomson House

The exterior of Thomson House, the home of the Post Graduate Student Society of McGill University, was chosen last fall as a site for a project on integrated garden and permaculture design. This initiative reflects the growing trend of permaculture, or sustainable land design, in North America.

The purpose of permaculture is to create stable, productive systems that harmoniously integrate the land with its inhabitants. Permaculture can, for example, greatly enhance a food production system, especially in an urban setting. Planting flowers with blooms that set at different times of the growing season can attract pollinators and beneficial insects to a garden all season long, with the benefit of increasing yields of vegetables as well as biodiversity.

Permaculture can also help solve certain environmental problems that plague urban settings, and help beautify ecosystems with locally adapted plant species that require very little maintenance. Planting landscape buffers with perennial plant species can reduce soil erosion by decreasing the flow of sediments and pollutants into nearby bodies of water and sewers. As surface water runoff moves through the vegetation buffer, pollutants are filtered out.

Moreover, landscape plants, including shrubs and turf, remove smoke, dust, and other pollutants from the air. Project Evergreen, an organization in Minnesota that seeks to create more green space, found that one acre of trees has the ability to remove 13 tonnes of particles and gases annually.

In urban climates, plants are useful in moderating the temperature effects of solar and infrared radiation. Properly selected and placed plantings absorb sound waves, and can significantly reduce ‘noise pollution’.

Roger S. Ulrich, professor of Architecture at the University of Delaware, studied college students under stress from an exam and found that views of plants increased positive feelings and reduced fear and anger A combination of a container and permaculture garden with associated workshops would also help introduce a culture of sustainability among the graduate student population at McGill. In addition, Thomson House would also benefit from sourcing some of their food supply, such as different kinds of herbs and vegetables, from the container garden for its restaurant.

David Wees, a faculty lecturer who teaches a course on urban horticulture at the Macdonald campus embraced the idea of a permaculture garden design at Thomson House and got two groups of students in his class to try their hand at designing such a space. The student group Campus Crops, a QPIRG McGill project that encourages campus gardening, also helped the implementation and management of the container garden. After several weeks of consulting with the operations manager of Thomson House, the chef of the Thomson House restaurant, and several students and staff, both student class groups came up with a computerized design of what such project would look like.

The project included a rain garden – a landscaped area designed to receive storm water and allow it to infiltrate into the soil – positioned on the front ground of Thomson House facing McTavish, a container garden area on the north side, ferns on the heavily shaded west side of the building, and some ornamental grasses along the stairs on the east side.

The project was accepted for funding by the Sustainability Projects Fund under the project leader, Samantha Fink, a U4 student in Anthropology and Environmental Studies. Implemented over the summer with the help of several students from the Urban Horticulture course, Campus Crops, and a number of graduate student volunteers with an interest in gardening, the project managed to achieve most of its objectives.

Amidst several problems such as delays in receiving project materials and resources, and sourcing high quality plants, the team – as well as the student volunteers – learned to improvise and keep their focus on the attainment of the project goals. By drawing on their inner strengths the project was successfully completed.

For a virtual tour of the project, visit