Living Without the Lawn
Permaculture expert Patricia Pawlicki aims to teach earth-friendly practices for every backyard.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
Permaculture designer Patricia Pawlicki smiles at a reference to the Volkswagen Beetle ad slogan from back in the early 1980s. Along with a picture of the German automaker's imminently recognizable "Bug" — fuel-efficient and cute as a, well, you know — the caption ran: "There's at least one good reason for everything we do." Of course, the photo showcased the car's engine in its trunk, a daring innovation that changed everything about the car's dynamics and got Americans to thinking differently about their cars. Marketed to America's youthful drivers, the car was designed to be simple and cheap to run; the "smiley face" of the auto industry was "green" before its time.
"That's the way it is with permaculture," Pawlicki says, referring to her specialty that employs earth-friendly, "sustainable" practices around the home and backyard. "Everything you do has more than one function, or impact."
In fact, Pawlicki says, ideally each action should be three-fold. She gives the example of a straw-bale wall she is having built behind her Silver City house, a project that will be the subject of two workshops in the coming weeks.
"First of all, you're building with natural materials," Pawlicki says, pointing out the bales of straw and the buckets of dirt that will be used for plastering the wall. "Secondly, you're creating a micro-environment." Pawlicki's straw-bale wall is positioned so that it will encourage proper drainage on her property and buffer traffic noise from the road below. Another example of a micro-environment could be, say, a sustainable garden, a plot in which plants need little or no auxiliary water, where the mix of vegetation encourages beneficial insects.
"And third, it encourages working together with a team." For Pawlicki's straw-bale wall project, she is bringing in green-building experts Tom and Satomi Lander to lead a group of workshop participants. The week after the wall is erected, she will lead another group of workshop participants in earth-plastering, an eco-friendly technique of permanently sealing the wall from weathering elements. "So the act of working toward permaculture automatically builds community," she says.
Community is key to sustainable living, Pawlicki adds, "because when we work together, when we endeavor to know what each other is doing, the planning is better and the result is more integrated, more in harmony."
Pawlicki moved to Silver City two years ago to work as the project manager on the Esperanza Hills Project, a green cluster neighborhood currently in the planning and approval stages, by local owner/developer Bruce McKinney. Last spring, she teamed up with Siri Dharma Khalsa and formed Hi-Desert Sustainable Living. A frequent Desert Exposure contributor, Khalsa also is the coordinator for the Gila Resources Information Project's (GRIP) Living Green Series.
Hi-Desert Sustainable Living, Pawlicki explains, is an umbrella organization under which she is interfacing with local experts and eco-groups, like GRIP, to offer workshops on topics like building a straw-bale garden wall, earth plastering and water-efficient backyard gardening. She's offering a series of mini-workshops at her home — which has become something of a permaculture laboratory — throughout the summer. This month she'll work with local experts to offer at least two workshops on water conservation, teaching participants about harvesting rainwater and building their own cistern.
"We really need to learn to conserve water here in the high desert," Pawlicki says. "Water is precious here, and as the community grows, water certainly becomes a concern."
Getting down to grassroots, Pawlicki gives a tour of her own backyard, located in a small, residential neighborhood in Silver City.
She narrates, "Anyone can make a start, and every action toward sustainability has a positive impact. I like to say that everyone has a backyard of some sort, so start there! You don't need acres to make a difference."
Pawlicki leads the way around a couple of artfully placed rocks, past some sand and gravel areas. At each step, she details the benefits of each action she's taken and its effect on the micro-environment in which she lives.
She nudges with her toe the edge of a layer of straw and cardboard she's laid down. "This is my natural weed barrier. My first goal was to get rid of as much grass as possible. I don't want to water it," she says, then adds emphatically, "We can't afford to be watering grass here in the high desert — both in terms of our water bills and the waste!"
She continues walking down the path between her house and the fence that borders her property. The west side of the yard contains a series of raised-bed gardens.
"I'm utilizing stacked planting," Pawlicki says of her gardening method. "Some of these herbs came back from last year."
Taller plants are at the back of the small, square plots, shorter vegetation toward the front. Some of the plants are well established, others obviously just getting their roots down. It seems nary a square inch of space has been wasted, a naturally weed-fighting method known to "square-foot" gardeners.
"Actually, it would be better to do sunken beds here (in Southwest New Mexico), but I have to work around my gas lines," Pawlicki adds. "I can't dig too deep, so I have raised beds instead, and I have just tons of organic matter in them to conserve precious moisture."
Clumps of a native plant have been planted along the fence line. The vegetation's fibrous branches are useful as a natural roofing material, Pawlicki notes, and the plants' roots hold moisture in the soil for the gardens, as well.
She continues stepping past the beds, pointing out a small patch of grass along the way.
"This is my token 'lawn,'" she says with a laugh. Actually, the small patch will provide some cooling and moisture-retaining benefit, she explains, while not demanding much water or requiring much maintenance.
Past the "token lawn" and a couple more raised beds, the yard opens up, revealing a labyrinth of rings at its center.
"This will be all herbs in here," Pawlicki says, stepping thoughtfully along the winding path. "And I'm getting some nice 'volunteer' flowers coming up, too. These are hollyhocks, which are lovely and do very well here."