They’re helping heal the earth by design
Helena Farrell, Josiah Simpson and Jono Neiger with beach plums they just picked off the edible hedge permaculture planting in the Greenfield Community Garden. Their Regenerative Design Group firm created the garden strip.
Beach plums at the from edible hedge permaculture plantings at the Greenfield Community Garden on School St.
Sebastian Gutwein, Keith Zaltzberg, Helena Farrell, Jono Neiger and Josiah Simpson at the edible hedge permaculture planting in the Greenfield Community Garden on School St. Their Regenerative Design Group firm created the strip.
We hear words thrown around a lot these days: sustainability, permaculture — like they’ve always been there. In a sense, they have been, because they harken back to ancient ways.
But a few key people have been at the center of the enviro-friendly work, especially in Franklin County and the Pioneer Valley, a hotbed for sustainable agriculture and landscapes. Together, Jono Neiger and others in his five-member, 5-year-old Regenerative Design Group work out of studios tucked away on a downtown Greenfield side street that few even known exists.
There, on Chevalier Avenue, they’re like some of those hardly-noticed groundcover plants or pollinators that are somehow integral to the way nature works. And that’s what permaculture is all about, the group’s partners and collaborators, like Edible Forest Gardens’ Dave Jacke and Greenfield Community College’s Abrah Dresdale, discovered.
For Neiger, who grew up in suburban Rochester, N.Y., and studied field biology before doing restoration ecology work for the Nature Conservancy like planting trees along an eroded stream bank in northern California, there was something of a disconnect, even as he also pushed with groups like Coast Range Association to protect forests in the Northwest from destructive logging practices.
“Here we are restoring the environment, I thought, but what’s our vision for what we should be doing, for a culture that’s not taking it apart and harming it by putting toxins in the water or harming the soil and cutting trees down?”
Neiger stumbled into the answer in 1996 at the Okanogan Barter Faire in Washington, on a table where someone had a copy of “Introduction to Permaculture,” brought back from Australia, where the ideas had taken hold in the 1970s to deal with to environmental and societal problems uncovered in the prior decade. From Australia, the seeds of permaculture had traveled to the Northwest.
“It made a lot of sense immediately,” recalls Neiger, and not just for the landscape. “Here’s a set of visions for creating our communities, our homes, our homesteads, our farms, in ways that put the pieces back together. I eventually got pulled in that direction completely.”
Those “ways” involve studying at how natural systems work and using those observations to design whole communities in a interconnected way. For example, nature recycles nutrients, so eco-industrial parks can be designed to reuse wastes from one industry back to as a raw material for another industry.
“We’re just mimicking an ecosystem,” says Neiger. “There’s no waste, and we’re making connections, putting everything back so it all gets fed back into the system.”
Neiger worked for the next five years teaching courses on permaculture and sustainability at Western Oregon’s Lost Valley Education Center before moving East with his wife and son to be closer to family. That led him to Sirius Community in Shutesbury, where he taught introductory permaculture courses along with Jacke. Among their students was University of Massachusetts Sustainable Food and Farming Professor John Gerber, connecting the principles to agriculture.
The kind of perennial food gardens and edible forest gardens that Jono and his group later designed for Sue Bridge’s retirement home mean there’s toil and less disruption of soil.
“It means less waste, less energy put in, less tilling so there’s less disturbance of the soil so you’re not fighting the weeds and not having to work to rebuild soil structure, always working against yourself.”
By “regenerative,” Neiger means that each design goes beyond “doing less harm” to the environment and to the community that uses it; the project actually helps rebuild the soil, clean the water and little by little, heal the earth.
“We can’t just do less harm,” he says. “There are more and more people on the planet each day. We have to get to the point where we’re rebuilding, we’re putting pieces back together again.”
Neiger went to the Conway School of Landscape Design in 2003 and 2003 for more training, and when Paul Hellmund became the school’s director, he sustainable design part of the Conway program. Neigere began teaching part-time.
Fellow founding partners, Keith Zaltzberg and Sebastian Gutwein, meanwhile, are both graduates of University of Massachusetts School of Landscape Architecture. Zaltzberg worked for working in Ashfield for Dodson Associates. Gutwein did organic farming and stonemasonry before starting their own firms, all merging in 2008. The five-member group works on projects as teams, sometimes collaborating with other professionals depending on the work at private homes, college campuses, hospitals and other settings.
In the past decade, Neiger says he’s seen an explosion of people’s familiarity with the kind of work he and the other permaculture pioneers do. That doesn’t mean architects and project engineers for large residential, commercial or industrial projects are beating down doors to incorporate sustainable practices.
But each project — Bridge’s demonstration garden, spaces created at Marlboro and Wellesley colleges or a healing garden created at Kent Hospital in Warwick, R.I. — creates familiarity with a holistic concept Neiger admits once sounded foreign.
“Were really trying to reach toward this positive vision,” he says. “There are these horrible things happening: We’ve got this culture that’s disconnecting more and more from the land, from things that are real. And we’ve got more and more a digital world. But this is a way back. The exciting thing is that a lot of young people are excited when they find these ideas and go to these places and see it happening and get their hands dirty in it.”
One example is UMass, where Neiger has bene working with a permaculture club of students and volunteers to build gardens that won a White House award and helped inspire a GCC permaculture garden.
“Regenerative” designs — especially those incorporated into larger systems, attracting pollinators to the land or recapturing rainwater, or siting edible perennials into a functional landscape so nature isn’t experienced as something separate — is part of what Neiger sees as a broader value system that encourages restoring communities.
“We live in this community, where young people are going into farming and getting back on the land, small businesses are starting up to support local growers and there are people making things. It’s a reweaving of community.”
After spending much of his own energy battling environmental ills, Neiger calls regenerative design “a positive approach. We use part of our time to keep track of the world and all the things that are happening, but if you let that use too much of your energy, you can get stuck and stifled by it.”
Slowly, he sees a growing, different thrust: “Let’s remake the world, let’s redesign it, let’s rebuild it, lets change it.”
On the Web: www. regenerativedesigngroup.com
You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269