Permaculture movement growing in Nanaimo

Permaculture projects in Nanaimo are creating a more sustainable community.

Carly McDowell

Carly McDowell

In a world of rising energy and food prices and disappearing wilderness more people are attempting to increase their self-reliance and become better stewards of the planet.

To accomplish those goals many people in Nanaimo are turning to permaculture. Some of the projects they are working on include creating more efficient homes, leading reforestation projects in community spaces and working to increase food security.

Permaculture is a philosophy that attempts to mimic natural design and encompasses many movements and elements such as green building, organic gardening, sustainability, food security, bioenergy, ecology and community design.

“Permaculture seems like one of the most important movements happening on Earth right now,” said Anthony James, who uses permaculture techniques at his home.

Javan Kerby Bernakevitch, owner of Permaculture B.C. an organization that provides permaculture education and certification on Vancouver Island, said permaculture is a response to declining vegetation systems and the loss of biodiversity on the planet. He said it is about restoring natural biodiversity and living more harmoniously with surroundings.

“We are trying to create regeneration – sustainable human habitat through an ethical science,” said Kerby Bernakevitch. “In permaculture the thinking is revolutionary but the solution is simple.”

Kerby Bernakevitch said valuable soil is being stripped away and washing into the ocean and nutrients from vegetables peels are being thrown in the trash. There is a large amount of waste created in today’s society and permaculture strives to create zero waste. Anything that is taken out of the soil needs to be replenished.

James and his partner Carly McDowell are ensuring their home has rich soil to grow food for their family. The couple has incorporated permaculture design into their home on Harewood Road. When they purchased it the yard was littered with garbage and the walls of the home were almost falling down, said James.

Over the last year they have been rebuilding using local wood for the roof and have rebuilt one wall out of cob. The goal of the couple is to grow enough food to sustain the household, reduce energy consumption and become sustainable.

The backyard is a mosaic of gardens, herbs hug the front porch, pea plants climb up the side of the home and chickens cluck in a pen. Even a small crack in the cement of the backyard cement patio has been used as a planting space.

The couple gathers grass clippings from a nearby park to use as mulch for their gardens, which keeps the weeds down and the soil moist for longer periods of time.

The cob wall on their home is a natural breathable material that retains heat to warm the house, said James. They are also incorporating passive solar design techniques by planting fruit trees at the south side of their home to shade the house in the summer.

Jack Anderson, owner of Greenplan a Cedar company that designs green homes and sustainable communities, said planting trees on the north side of the building creates a sun trap that envelops the building and shades the building from harsh summer heat. Also adding glass to the south side will heat it in the winter.

The concept is passive solar gain, said Anderson and it allows natural elements to work as heating and cooling sources for the home.

“Permaculture has been a very sleepy design method over the last few decades, but involvement in permaculture is beginning to explode,” said Anderson. “People recognize the need to become more food and energy reliant.”

Anderson designs green homes and sustainable communities and received his permaculture design certificate in 2008. He also uses elements of permaculture in his design to help create efficiencies.

“It’s an amazing approach to how we should be developing habitat in our community,” said Anderson. “It allows us to mimic what nature is doing.”

He said permaculture encompasses renewable energy systems and natural building techniques such as straw and bale as well as cob. When designing a home it takes into account where and how rain lands on the building and where it runs off in order to store it for later use on the property.

If a major earthquake were to strike the Island the philosophy is a well-designed permaculture community would be able to help people get through the crisis with local food sources and energy production.

In a home design a principle element in permaculture is creating zones. The zones extend outward from the home with the items people want to access quickly, such as herbs and vegetables, nearest to the house. Items that are less valuable are further away. Zone five might be a food forest with a few fruit trees and companion plants that will make it self-sufficient with very little human intervention once established. These companion plants would be nitrogen producers and plants to attract pollinators.

Creating companion planting can also be applied to reforestation projects and is a technique that Michael Geselbracht has been using to restore Pioneer Park to a more natural forest. He received permission from the city and the Nanaimo Rugby Club to work on the 13 acre parkland and has been leading work parties on the land.

Geselbracht said the forest, which was logged and replanted several decades ago, has undersized small spindly trees below larger ones that block sunlight. As a result the understory hasn’t grown.

“It isn’t healthy,” he said. “Ultimately it’s just stagnant.”

Geselbracht said because the forest was changed by humans they should intervene to restore its balance.  He said Pioneer Park forest is a deadened forest with little or no canopy of plants. During the work party people remove the spindly trees to allow light to reach the ground and then companion plants to create a self-sustaining system that doesn’t require as much intervention to maintain itself. Trees that are removed are converted into fence posts, bean poles and firewood.


Permaculture was created by Bill Mollison and co-developed with David Holmgren in the late 1970s. It is guided by three key ethics: care for the Earth, care of people and fair share. There are several design principles that fall under the key components such as use and value biodiversity, using small and slow solutions, produce no waste, value renewable resources and services, catch and store energy and more. Many of the design principles attempt to mimic nature and creating sustainability.

Sider: Pioneer Park forest party

People in Nanaimo have a chance to participate in a permaculture work party and help restore a forest to a more natural balance.

Michael Geselbracht is hosting a Pioneer Park Forest Party Saturday (July 2), from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; participants meet at the rugby clubhouse. The forest thinning work is from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The day includes meditation, forest thinning, a potluck and evening entertainment.

People are encouraged to bring their own hand tools such as machetes, axes, gloves and wheelbarrows. Work is done with non-motorized tools, except chainsaws are used if there is too much wood to cut by hand at the end of the day.

For more information please contact Geselbracht at or 250-294-6903.