Plants make you a better person.
That's what seems to surprise students the most in Bastyr University's Certificate in Holistic Landscape Design, a hands-in-the-dirt program on how to craft landscapes with all the wisdom, beauty and efficiency of the natural world.
"The program developed my ability to observe," says Deena Lewis, who used the certificate to move from a business job at Microsoft to a position designing landscapes at Cascadia Edible Landscapes. "I learned to notice how water moves through a landscape, and where a tree casts shade during the day. And observing natural things in a new way also changes how I observe other people and my work."
But it's even simpler than that. We can simply say plants make you a person. We wouldn't be around without their quiet green work transforming sunrays into our life-sustaining food.
That may be reason enough to learn a thing or two about photosynthesizing creatures. The 15-month, weekend-focused landscape design program does exactly that, teaching students to raise, nurture, repair, transplant, sell, harvest, extract, appreciate and learn from a huge array of plants.
The program draws on permaculture, the burgeoning field that believes humans should keep an eye on wilderness as they garden. The word is a contraction of "permanent agriculture," suggesting we should farm in sustainable ways that don't drain the soil of nutrients or replace diverse ecosystems with bland monocultures.
"Permaculture is about emulating the patterns of healthy ecosystems," says Alexis Durham, Bastyr's garden supervisor.
Bastyr's program also goes beyond permaculture certification to teach organic greenhouse management, pest management, herbal medicine basics, indigenous uses, mycology (cultivating mushrooms), seed production, grant writing and business practices.
That's led to new careers for alumni like Lewis and Andrew Walton, who's working on one of the coolest farm-to-school programs anywhere, teaching organic gardening and cooking to K-12 students on Washington's Lopez Island.
Then there's alumna Ashley Ayres, who has designed educational materials for Seattle's Food Justice Project. Working in Bastyr's Medicinal Herb Garden has been her "saving grace" while working through a second degree in nutrition.
"Getting out there, being a part of where our food's coming from and working with plants … that's what I came here for," she says.
After graduation, she plans to use her knowledge to help the food justice movement make healthful food available to everyone.
The program is about more than career skills, says Durham, an instructor in the program.
"It's really about observation, and care for the earth," she says. "You learn to pay attention. To not rely on scarce resources. To make use of everything and eliminate waste. You learn patience."
Whenever possible, permaculture designers observe a plot of ground for a full year before working on it. That's one advantage Bastyr's program holds over shorter programs, Durham says. Classes take places on weekends and evenings over five academic quarters, letting students learn throughout the seasons. The evening and weekend format also lets full-time workers and dual-degree students join the program.
Other distinguishing marks of the program: Bastyr's gardens, the botanical medicine lab, the medicinal and culinary expertise on campus, and the program faculty, which includes accomplished permaculturists like Marisha Auerbach and Dave Boehnlein of Terra Phoenix Design.
"The faculty really form the backbone of the program," says Lewis. "They're well-known in the area and have a huge network they really offered up to us."
That's another thing we can learn from plants, says Durham: "Plants do well in groups, like people," she says. "You learn that diversity leads to greater resilience. You learn to value the margins — important things happen at the intersections at edges of ecosystems."
Ayres learned that in her capstone project. Each student plans a large project and pitches it to a client, as they would in a professional setting. Ayres helped design a plan for a historic farm site along Washington's Sammamish River, celebrating the region's agricultural history and reintroducing native edible and medicinal plants.
Lewis's project reimagined the property of a cohousing community in nearby Bothell. Her team reworked plans for the gardens, along with designs for a chicken coop, pond and tilapia farm. Much of their work focused on fixing drainage problems.
That underscores another lesson from plants: Be willing to change dysfunctional behaviors. While the term permaculture is only 35 years old, much of the philosophy comes from before the industrial agriculture revolution, when farms were more likely to mimic natural patterns.
"When you put things in rows, you have a lot of weeding and maintenance to keep them healthy and not competing too much with weeds," Durham says. "We teach how to create symbiotic relationships among the plants that minimize the manual labor for you. You plant intentional weeds to keep other one from coming in."
(See a guide to creating a simple "forest garden" with five plants.)
Durham, a 2008 graduate of Bastyr's undergraduate herbal sciences program, returned to Bastyr after teaching for Herb Pharm and raising plants for Horizon Herbs in southern Oregon. She says she came back to pursue her love for teaching, to manage Bastyr's extensive gardens and to share with others the pleasures of working with plants.
"Plants really taught me to be a better member of community," she says. "I want to do that for other people.
"I think the act of caring for plants is just as healing as the plants themselves."
Learn more about Bastyr’s Certificate in Holistic Landscape Design.