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Planting plans: Course details methods to encourage natural landscapes

Georgia Erdmann (left) along with Stephanie Allard and Robert Allard discuss potential designs for a woodland border along the woods in a homeowner’s lot in Nymore. They were among a group of about a dozen people who participated in a four-week-long series that developed ideas to rework the property using permaculture and sustainable methods. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Mary Mitchell purchased her home in March, an attractive two-story house positioned in the middle of a quarter-acre lot in Nymore.

Mitchell, the manager of the local food shelf, had pondered some fresh ideas for her lot, a mix of flower beds, grass lawn and woods.

Now, thanks to a four-week series of hands-on explorations and idea-generating, she has a master plan. Her lot was selected as the site for the recent Bemidji Permaculture Design Charrette, through which participants developed concepts for what the lot could become. Their plan will be presented on Tuesday at Mitchell’s home. Anyone wanting to attend should gather at 5:30 p.m. at the Rail River Folk School.

“Permaculture is all about relationships and interconnections,” said Diana Kuklinski, a permaculturist in Bemidji who led the series, as she addressed participants during the first evening’s class in mid-July. “It’s about working with what is there instead of what isn’t there. It’s about knowing your site.”

Whereas conventional designs for landscaping more often are created by choosing plants based on color and texture, ecological design creates shelter for wildlife that can feed people and animals, and purify the air and water.

“It’s been a very practical learning experience,” said Kathryn Gonzalez, one of the participants in the charrette, who has been attending many of the meetings of the new Rail River Folk School Permaculture Guild.

While familiar with many permaculture concepts, Gonzalez attended the course to learn more about the design process.

“It’s not just talking about what should or should not be there but it’s really about applying it,” she said.

Mixing the elements

The group going through the charrette conceived its master plan by marrying both what the natural environment offers and also what Mitchell herself wanted to see. The plan involves a mix of a woodland buffer, offering a transition from the woods to grassed areas; a natural prairie-like area for pollination; apple fields; and other elements such as a fire pit. Plants, to be put in place next year, were donated by Prairie Moon Nursery and Jerry Stensing, with Trees Minnesota.

Each area was defined by different subgroups of the larger charrette participation as they developed plans for how plants should be positioned and chosen to effectively cultivate natural habitats.

“What we want to do is slowly connect all of the elements and create a flow,” Kuklinski said.

The group spent its first night exploring Mitchell’s lot, recording their first impressions through sight, sound and texture. Several commented on the overall feeling they got from the lot, which while located within the city limits, has a rustic feel. Others said different areas of the lot offered different sensations: The front yard is more landscaped and linear; the side lot, more relaxed with a feeling of it being like a sanctuary; and the wooded back portion cultivates habitats for wildlife, so you can often hear birds singing and other animals moving about.

“There was a kind of moment where you have to kind of experience the land without thinking, almost like a meditative state,” said Hannah Klemm, who lives outside of Hackensack and attended all four sessions of the charrette. “I found that particularly challenging but I found it very useful. When you take that moment without judgement it allows you to notice things and see things you maybe wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

Participants further assessed the site, noting its slopes, and investigated the soil, determining its type, texture and pH levels. Some of that work showed that initial intentions for the plans were not feasible. For example, a rain garden at one time was considered but it would not be a good fit for natural conditions.

Kuklinski said she plans to hold another charrette either this fall or next spring. Anyone interested in attending may email her at

Klemm, who had met Kuklinski last year through Sustainable Tuesdays at the Rail River Folk School, said she has always been interested in sustainable methods and gardening. She signed up for the charrette in hopes of learning more about landscape design.

“It strikes me as a very open-minded mindset, an open-minded philosophy,” said Klemm, who said she found the charrette very useful. “I encounter a lot of, ‘This is what works and this is my way, and this is the right way,’ kind of thinking. I like permaculture because it’s more inclusive than that. It’s always looking for possible solutions in a very natural and respectful way, in way that works more with the cycles of nature.”

For Gonzalez, she said she found herself frequently thinking of ideas during the charrette that she could apply to her land outside of her earth home.

“It’s given me some really good ideas on how to take a step back and really look at the landscape … and it’s definitely increase my confidence in approaching different aspects,” she said.

To see the master plan

Those who participated in the Bemidji Permaculture Design Charrette will present their master plan on Tuesday evening. Anyone interested is invited to gather at 5:30 p.m. at the Rail River Folk School to either carpool or follow along to the home where the work was done.

Want to learn more?

The Rail River Folk School Permaculture Guild is an informal network of participants and leadership by the Indigenous Environmental Network, BSU Sustainability Office, and Diana Kuklinski’s Solar Rhythms Permaculture.

The mission is to promote permaculture  ethics and framework in educational programming, community outreach, design, and community building in the Bemidji region. Like a plant guild, the permaculture guild is comprised of a diverse group of individuals synergizing their relationships to make the greater Bemidji area a better place.

The guild invites anyone interested to come to Permaculture Tuesdays, held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month at Rail River Folk School.