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The title is borrowed from a documentary film about Permaculture: a design approach to developing food production systems which have the stability, productivity and resilience of natural ecosystems.

In truth, my own relationship with permaculture has followed a decidedly non-linear course. In the late ‘70s a good friend forwarded a copy of Permaculture I, the book that was to spawn a global movement. That volume lay moldering in a trunk for two years while I globe-trotted in search of the unridden waves of Santosha and a few other remote destinations. Once having ‘been there and done that’ it was back to the books and hands into the soil.

The conscious design approach and wealth of different techniques influenced much of my work around my suburban lot in San Diego. “Zones” of plantings and rainwater capture, trellises with kiwi-fruit to cool certain rooms, and bananas and papayas tucked into a south-facing nook that helped them survive the occasional harsh winter in a ‘micro-climate’ designed just for their needs. In truth, the tricks and techniques in the ever-growing Permaculture opus combined with my yearning for waves in warmer waters. With the books back in a trunk, I headed south, for greener pastures and a larger palette on which to try out my design skills.

In truth, the designs and techniques don’t just leap off the pages into your yard or farm and magically transform everything into a Garden of Eden before your eyes. The wetdry tropics impose their own seasonal challenges, timing is everything and the term ‘site specific’ comes into play from the bottom to the top of a hill and from one slope to another. But successes far outnumbered failures and motivated me to take on one of the challenges mentioned by Permaculture guru, Bill Mollison, in the film referred to above: “Well, we always did really want to become developers!”

It might sound counter-intuitive that someone who is probably in an NSA archive, on some ‘eco-freak hit list’, would want to carve up some land and build homes. Well, the fact of the matter is that agriculture and ecosystems, just like businesses, are all about inputs and outputs - both material and financial. Permaculture design strives to integrate the built environment into the natural environment in ways that capture resource flows and enhance both food production and the surrounding ecosystems. The obvious example here in Guanacaste is the re-use of water and ‘waste’ out of the home into ‘waste water treatment’ systems that capture the available resources and turn them into, say, bananas which thrive in a moist, well-fertilized environment. Another approach
is to establish a verdant patch of greenery, strategically sited to cool down the warm summer breeze before it wafts into your home.

One of the most appealing facets of the whole thrust of permaculture has been the development of perennial polycultures—think edible forest systems—in which you have food production from the numerous levels of a carefully designed, multi-storey Garden of Eden. The food forest may not be the global solution that die-hard promoters of Permaculture claim it to be, but it can certainly be an attractive—and tasty—complement to a residential development here in Guanacaste. Several factors bear mentioning.

In our area, the array of techniques to deal with the seasonal challenges of water management -- earthworks to capture and infiltrate runoff in the rainy season, and the costs of irrigation in summer--are beyond the budgets of small farmers. Developments are another story.

Part of “development” is, in fact, pushing a bunch of dirt around, providing access to, and suitable sites for, human habitat. With a bit of foresight and an eye for both the lay of the land and the behavior of water, developers can do themselves, their clients and those living downstream a big favor by contouring the design of the project into an elaborate network of ‘rainwater harvesting’ earthworks.

I can only hazard a guess at the thousands of plants, manhours and dollars that are spent on landscape installation and maintenance in the developments around here. Suffice to say that even a small fraction of those resources, diverted into ‘edible landscaping’, and combined with the aesthetics and skills that landscaping professionals bring to the table, would be sufficient to surround their clients with a yearround, bountiful harvest of fresh produce. Sadly, my one experience at urging the head of landscaping for a nearby project to incorporate fruit trees into his planning was met with the reply that “they’re too messy.” Ten years later the homeowners association is clamoring for more fruit trees and scraping together the funds to ensure that “better late than never.”

It just seems like an obvious win-win approach for both developers and their clients. Given the constant increases in food prices, the scares, scandals and recalls of tainted food products and the growing concern and global opposition around eating GMOs, factoring a bit of food forest into a project no longer seems like such a hard sell.

Where I call home, at the edge of the jungle, I wish I’d had greater luck in practicing what I preach. Nonetheless, within fifty yards of my ranchito, I can harvest four different varieties of banana, root crops for starches, lemons, mangoes, guanabana and a selection of leaf crops for salads, soups and stews. The extra bit of good news is that the edible landscape also tends to support your local wildlife population, from birds and butterflies to squirrels and monkeys. Really, as I see it, the only downside is the possible need to don a hardhat sometimes, when you’re walking around your forest garden, in “grave danger of falling food.”