Resiliency Institute in Naperville works for sustainability
Most vegetable gardeners can tell you that if you plant a zucchini seed, you may well find yourself supplied with an abundance of the prolific summer vegetable for a decent stretch of the summer. Still, you’ll need to put another seed in the soil next year to repeat the experience.
Put a couple of dwarf fruit trees and a nut shrub or two into the ground, however — and surround them with compatible native plants, tossing in a few nitrogen fixers, pest confusers and other valuable components — and there will be food year after year, for the foreseeable future. No seeds attached.
Michelle Hickey and Jodi Trendler want that mindset to replace the intervention-dependent annual philosophy that currently governs suburban horticulture. Their new nonprofit Resiliency Institute, headquartered at the McDonald Farm in Naperville, aims to show people how to practice the principles of “permaculture” at home.
Traditionally used on farm-sized expanses of land, permaculture is based on the idea that symbiotic systems of plants, when sufficiently nourished by a reliable water source, can keep people sufficiently fed every year.
Trendler and Hickey are simply adapting the idea to local plots of ground, after seeing inefficient and resource-draining practices all around them.
“We just said, ‘Look at all this land, look at all this waste. We need to bring this to the suburbs,’” Hickey said.
Each has completed the certification program offered by Midwest Permaculture, southwest of Kankakee, and they are offering training in the sustainable practices at the farm.
The pair is well aware that as home to more than half of the U.S. population, suburbs comprise what, in permaculture terms, is known as the edge zone: the convergence of two ecosystems, rich in biologic diversity and productivity. The certification course is being taught in blocks of three three-day weekends, or two four-day weekends.
“We decided, bringing it to the suburbs, that we needed to target the suburbs,” Trendler said.
One of the primary aims of the institute is to foster greater food security, as a way to fight hunger by establishing self-sustaining food systems. An array of workshops and classes spotlight topics including edible wild plants, food preservation and growing fruit. Several dozen of the sessions have been held since the institute was established in January, involving about 170 students, some of whom have come from out of state.
Among the organization’s first major projects is the conversion of an ailing tree line behind its offices in the old Clow farmhouse into a 40- by 135-foot food forest. Once complete, it will be hydrated by a swale — a contoured, level ditch winding through the self-managing perennial plant system.
At a pair of upcoming “permablitz” workshops on Sept. 14 and 21, volunteers will continue clearing out undesirable plants from the tree line, lay down layers of organic materials to create a mulching system, and dig holes for planting a dozen new fruit-bearing trees and other beneficial flora, most of which will be planted next spring. The point is to show that permaculture can be done in virtually any yard, by anybody.
Hickey already has demonstrated the assertion. In her front yard on West Jefferson Avenue near River Road, an edible forest has replaced most of the traditional lawn and bedding plants that were there before.
“Every day I walk through my yard and say, ‘OK, what am I picking today?’” she said.
In an ironic twist, the Resiliency Institute already has unwittingly violated one of the dozen principles on which it is based: start small. The principle of permaculture has met a far more open reception than Hickey and Trendler expected, and that has left them short of instructors, among other things.
“You tell people about it, and they say, ‘Why aren’t we doing this already?’” Trendler said.
More information about the Resiliency Institute, permaculture, educational programs and volunteering opportunities can be found at www.theresiliencyinstitute.net.