by Elisabeth Torg
Eric Toensmeier has a vision for how we can take better care of the planet. He’s a plant guy — a permaculturist to be exact — and he believes that the solution to climate change lies not only in clean energy, solar panels and wind turbines, but also in leafy greens and how we grow them. In other words, if we change the way we farm and grow food, then we can sequester carbon, slow climate change and address other world problems at the same time. Problems like feeding people and the disparities between the rich and the poor.
An award-winning author who writes about permaculture (that’s short for permanent agriculture) and perennial plants, Toensmeier’s first two books, “Perennial Vegetables” and “Edible Forest Gardens,” have received multiple awards, including the American Horticultural Society Garden Book of the Year, the Foreward Magazine Home and Garden Gold Medal Book of the Year Award and the Garden Writer’s Association Silver Medal. And on May 11 of this year, an interview with Eric was aired on National Public Radio in Boston.
His most recent book, “Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City,” was recently featured in The New York Times in garden writer Anne Raver’s article, “Their Trip to Bountiful” (New York Times Home and Garden section, Feb. 13, 2013).
As a permaculturist, Toensmeier studies the interrelationships between different plant species and understands how to create carefully designed ecosystems that are self-sustaining, pest-resistant and food producing. He believes that the solution to saving the planet is by changing both the types of crops we grow and the way we plant them. In essence, he wants to turn the globe into “an edible paradise.” “Perennial and regenerative food production systems have tremendous potential to help stabilize global climate and provide fair access to food,” writes Toensmeier.
The prolific 42-year-old author currently resides in Holyoke, Massachusetts, but his childhood roots are in the Chestnut Hill area. Raised Quaker as a member of Plymouth Monthly Meeting, he grew up in Lafayette Hill and attended Plymouth Meeting Friends School (PMFS) for 5th and 6th grades and then Germantown Friends School (GFS) for 8th grade through 12th, graduating in 1989.
It was as a PMFS fifth grader that Toensmeier participated in a week-long program at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (SCEE) with his classmates. Pick up “Paradise Lot,” and you’ll find mention of that SCEE experience. In the introduction, he describes his first magic spot moment. “This simple exercise as a child sparked my curiosity and wonder for the natural world for years to come,” he writes.
“That was through Plymouth Meeting Friends School. That was the start of a lot of things for me.” He shares that in addition to learning outside the classroom, the experience was “not just learning names of plants, but about the relationships between plants and animals and the role they play in ecosystems.”
At GFS, Toensmeier remembers having the opportunity to pursue his interest in plants and the natural world at a deeper level. He took coursework in biology, ecology and more. Thirty years after his SCEE experience, ecosystems are what Toensmeier’s work is all about. The garden in “Paradise Lot” is one such ecosystem. Toensmeier and his permaculture partner, Jonathan Bates, converted a barren, rubble-strewn lot in Holyoke, Massachusetts into an “edible garden oasis.” Over 160 varieties of edible plants grow there, including pawpaws, Asian pears, gooseberries, edible flowers and more. Now Toensmeier, his wife Marikler Giron Toensmeier, a native of Guatemala, and Bates’ family share the garden. (The Toensmeiers have one son, Daniel, 16 months.)
Today, Toensmeier travels the world to give workshops and lectures about sustainable agriculture, edible landscapes and edible forests. He presents information on perennial food production systems to groups ranging from Mexican agronomists, Mayan villagers, seed bank directors, urban farmers and aspiring permaculture entrepreneurs. To date he has educated about 1500 to 2000 farmers on sustainable agricultural practices.
Some of his workshops are held in the Philadelphia area. Twice a year, spring and fall, Toensmeier offers workshops in West Chester. (See his website for his schedule). The next book on the horizon focuses on carbon farming.
Toensmeier learned recently that part of the fifth grade curriculum at Plymouth Meeting Friends School includes learning about food sustainability issues and the connection between farming practices and climate change. “As they grow up,” he said, “they get to decide how we run the world and feed people. We can do it in good ways or bad ways. Getting educated early will help with that conversation. They are going down the right road.”
Elisabeth Torg is a freelance writer with over 25 years of professional writing and communications experience. Her work has been published in the book, magazine, newspaper, newsletter, and web markets. She lives in Chestnut Hill with her husband and two daughters. Elisabeth’s home garden includes only two perennials — strawberries and mint. With only 1/3 of her garden planted as of late April, she is starting to appreciate the wisdom of Eric’s focus on perennial fruits and vegetables.