On just over an acre of land, Linda Geronilla's home stands out from others in the neighborhood. It's not the solar panels on her home's roof that won her national awards for energy conservation but the sprawling natural growth of her front and back yard: layers of soil and plantings based on the permaculture gardening model. 

"My yard, I think is probably even more important than the house," Geronilla said. "Most people can't afford the layout for solar panels. Permaculture is all within people's grasp."

Permaculture, or sustainable gardening, is a practice that dates back hundreds of years but grew popular in the 1970s when two Australian scientists produced their findings on pesticide use. 

"Permaculture is a way at looking at your land and combining people, plants and animals in a sustainable fashion," Geronilla said. 

In 1990, Geronilla, now 68, said she learned she had aluminum poisoning from deodorant she was using and "became an expert in chemicals." The psychologist earned a master's degree in nutrition and learned more about growing her own food.

When she and her family planned to move to from Canton, Ohio, to Charleston in 2014, and builders worked on her home on Johns Island, she got to work on her clay and sand yard. 

She laid cardboard over weeds, then a layer of wood chips followed by small bits of her compost soil. Slowly making her way around the property, layering cardboard, wood chips, compost to cultivate better soil. Her objective was to get 6 inches of good soil on her property. 

Walking the property, the soil is soft under her feet. Her front yard is broken into different mini gardens with different types of plants alongside one another.

Permaculture

Linda Geronilla pours compost on top of wood chips that covers cardboard that she uses in her permaculture garden at her Johns Island home.

Geronilla described her outdoor space as one with an orchard in the front yard and a vegetable garden in the backyard.  

"People have a very traditional view of what a lawn should look like, people don't understand if you go back 200 years, everyone was pretty much a farmer and what I have is what they had 200 years ago," Geronilla said. "I have what I call a homestead. We produce for our immediate family." 

Designing solutions

Professor Geoff Zhender, an entomologist and Clemson University's coordinator of sustainable agriculture program, said permaculture, sometimes referred to as farmiculture, relies on a dozen design principles developed in the late 1970s by two men from Australia. 

Zhender said some of the principles include taking time to observe nature and design solutions on what is going on in your backyard or farm, not producing waste and designing space so gardeners don't walk far to get to fresh produce. 

"One of the main things is to be open and observe instead of compartmentalizing and reducing everything down to a small scale," Zhender said. "What they're advocating is be open, look at the big picture." 

Zhender said he believes there's an emphasis on permaculture and farmiculture now because of the focus on sustainability. 

"People may not necessarily call it 'permaculture,' but the principles based in permaculture are used in other things as well: agriculture, landscape," Zhender said. 

Permaculture

Linda Geronilla uses clover instead of grass in her permaculture garden at her Johns Island home. The clover helps introduce nitrogen back into the soil. 

Instead of grass, clover sprouts between the gardens. Geronilla incorporated clover instead of grass because it grows slower and requires less maintenance, putting less greenhouse gasses into the environment when her husband mows the lawn. Rainwater runs off her roof into gutters and is collected in a 1,300-gallon cistern positioned under her porch. 

What she's learned about good plants and bad plants, good bugs and bad bugs is also something Geronilla is passing along to her granddaughters, who help pull used coffee grounds from single-use coffee pods and remove seeds from dying flowers.

Spreading practices

Permaculture's presence in the Charleston area is growing and spreading to a younger generation, too.

Meredith Garrigan, owner of Wecology Gardens, said she feels these practices are lost on people nowadays.

She's working with The Pink House Neighborhood Resource Center in the Ardmore Sherwood Forest neighborhood to teach children about permaculture practices. Each Wednesday, she works with children in the program, teaching them about soil and the benefits of pollinators like bees.

In North Charleston, founder of the nonprofit Fresh Future Farm Germaine Jenkins said she believes in permaculture because it helps provide for those with limited resources and income. Using a sliding scale model, people pay what they can afford. 

"We needed a grocery store and the neighborhood hasn't had one in a while," Jenkins said. "We're using those principles in order to feed people and show how good produce is grown and tastes. ... We're doing all this stuff, growing probably 30 different items, maybe more, over the course of a whole year on less than an acre."

Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelaporterPC. 

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

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