Imagine walking through your yard and collecting tomatoes, basil, oregano and garlic for your marinara sauce and discovering that the blackberries and strawberries are dripping off of the vines just begging to be made into a cobbler. Now imagine walking back inside and snipping greens from your aquaponic tank, and noticing that underneath the lettuce, the trout are the perfect size for broiling and serving with your hyper-local red sauce and salad.

This sounds utopian, and like a lot of work, but to practitioners of permaculture this could be an average moment in any given day — “shopping” just outside their front doors for abundant, chemical-free food.

Permaculture is a design science that models itself on the patterns found in nature while applying them to human forms. One of many ways to apply the principles is by creating a small-scale regenerative food forest, which is “a land management system, which mimics a woodland ecosystem by substituting edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals,” according to the team at the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle. “Fruit and nut trees make up the upper level, while berry shrubs, edible perennials and annuals make up the lower levels.”

By observing the natural state of a sustainable ecosystem, then by substituting food-producing plants for non-food producers, permaculture food forests supply the human need for food while keeping the balance of a natural ecosystem.

Climate change, soil quality and overuse of fertilizers and pesticides are threatening environmental well-being and food security. Industrial agriculture has been linked to air and water pollution, depletion of groundwater reserves, diminishing biodiversity, dead-zones in rivers and oceans and the loss of essential pollinators.

A study conducted by the United Nations estimates that arable lands lose 75 billion tons of topsoil each year and that if unsustainable soil management is not addressed, natural topsoil may be depleted in as little as 60 years. Since 95% of food is dependent on healthy topsoil, how does one stem the tide of erosion?

According to the principles of permaculture, by starting small by developing food forests in local communities. The biodiversity of a food forest creates an ecosystem that can, for the most part, self-irrigate, fertilize, recharge groundwater and attract essential predators to act as a natural pest management system.

Although the idea of permaculture food forests is relatively new, forest gardens, on a small and large scale, can mitigate multiple sustainability challenges such as food security, climate change, soil degradation, aquifer depletion and loss of biodiversity. Food forests can be established in small and large areas, and once established require little intervention or maintenance.

In response to the charge to make a difference, the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies is partnering with the Shenandoah Permaculture Institute to launch the Richmond region’s first Permaculture Design Certificate program. To launch the Permaculture Design program, the University of Richmond is hosting a free lecture and book signing event with permaculture teacher, designer,  consultant and author Wayne Weiseman, founder and director of The Permaculture Project, LLC.