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November 12, 2016

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Love of nature blossoms at urban gardens

CAN you feel this? The soft, crumbly, fertile soil we are walking on,” said Dr Liu Yuelai, as he led a group past nasturtiums, fingered citrons and a patch of wheat. These plants are grown on raised garden beds that were connected by a network of trenches; on the periphery of the garden are mounds of grass clippings set to be used for sheet-mulching.

These are some of the elements that constitute a permaculture system — a self-sustaining model of farming or gardening, with minimal reliance on external resources — something that Liu, who teaches at Tongji University’s renowned College of Architecture and Urban Planning, is trying to promote across Shanghai.

In early 2014, Liu founded Clover Nature School, a non-profit NGO that organizes garden projects and workshops in schools, residential communities as well as public spaces in the city. By now they have fostered 12 “edible landscapes” including this one in Elite Valley in northern Shanghai’s Baoshan District. The goal is to have 2,040 such landscapes in Shanghai before 2040.

Permaculture might be an imported term — first coined in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a portmanteau of both permanent agriculture and permanent culture — but the practice itself is hardly new to Chinese soil.

“In fact, the traditional modes of family farming that dominated Chinese agriculture for 4,000 years can be seen as a form of permaculture, as opposed to modern farming, which is highly commercialized, industrialized, and energy-consuming,” explains Li Haitao, one of Liu’s colleagues at Clover Nature School.

“Li just completed China’s very first permaculture teacher training course,” a jovial Liu says.

Together with his team, Li imparts to an interested public permaculture skills such as composting techniques, methods of rainwater harvesting, and means to curb pests without also eliminating caterpillars which will later turn into pollinating butterflies.

Yet according to Liu, permaculture is more than the sum of these gardening, farming and landscaping practices. It is also about “a set of relationships — among people and between humans and nature.”

In the same vein, “landscape design shouldn’t be only concerned with aesthetics,” says Liu. “I conceived this project because I noticed that my students in landscape architecture at Tongji lacked a real understanding of nature, and I wanted to help them.”

His nature education project consequently took off at Tongji University in 2014, and later branched out to include primary and secondary schools, and even a kindergarten. At the same time, it also took root beyond campus in spaces like Century Park in Pudong and the Knowledge and Innovation Community in Yangpu District.

What Clover Nature School aims to do, instead of boasting permaculture’s lofty goals and principles, is connecting people who live in urban environments with nature. Among its “students” are young children, college students, retirees and white collar workers.

“In a modern society, a lot of us serve but one role in a monolithic system, doing repetitive tasks, which can be dull, if not mechanical. Working with nature, on the other hand, is very healing,” says Liu. In fact, he named one of Clover Nature School’s community gardens “Healing Garden.”

Launched in Pudong’s Tangqiao area this spring as part of Shanghai’s “community space micro-renewal plan,” the garden features flora ranging from vanilla orchids to pumpkin vines and exuded nature’s delight — until some of the residents began to pilfer plants, seedlings, and even soil from the planter boxes.

“We were of course a bit upset at first, but decided to give it another try,” says Liu. “I didn’t necessarily think of what happened as a bad thing. After all, it was a genuine reaction from the residents; if anything, it reflected a real need.”

About a week later, Liu mobilized a few teachers, including Li, to teach the residents how to create better garden soil with techniques like sheet-mulching, which helped put an end to the casual thievery. Liu says many residents by now have become very involved in the garden’s daily maintenance, on a voluntary basis.

“I’m glad to see that we have touched something in people,” he says. “The yearning for nature and community is already there; it just needs awakening.”


For more event information, subscribe to Clove Nature School on WeChat (ID: siyecaotang2014).

Some of Dr Liu’s ‘edible gardens’

• Century Park, 1001 Jinxiu Rd, Pudong

• Healing Garden, 1287 Nanquan Rd, Pudong

• KIC Garden, 129 Weikang Rd, Yangpu District

• Siping Community Garden, 180 Fuxin Rd, Yangpu

• Qianxiaoju Farm, 1599 Fenghuang Highway, Changxing Island

• Tongji University, 1239 Siping Rd, Yangpu District


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