Permaculture Research Institute workshop educates on plants and soil


While some of the University of Minnesota population donned maroon and gold gear to head to TCF Bank Stadium for the first home football game of the season, a small group gathered at Cornercopia Student Organic Farm in St. Paul to learn about soil.

The annual Permaculture Research Institute Fall Fertility Practicum was open to both University students and community members.

The workshop was designed to teach people about plants that can improve soil fertility to help prepare land for winter and prevent soil erosion, said Courtney Tchida, who has been teaching the class for two years.

About a dozen people took turns gathering hay, piling broccoli stalks, spraying water and jumping on a broadfork to aerate the soil on Saturday. They paused to jot down notes, ask questions and share experiences.

The hands-on approach to this workshop was essential to learning how to build greener growing habits, said Tchida, who works at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and also runs the student farmers market every Wednesday at the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses.

She said ecologically conscious farming is all about understanding how plants work together so as not to create any waste.

“I know that it sounds like everyone knows how to just build a compost pile,” Tchida said, “but there’s actually kind of a science behind it.”

Instructing this course for the second time confirmed her belief in Cornercopia Student Organic Farm as a fertile ground for teaching sustainable practices to students and community members, she said.

This fall’s class focused on building a compost pile out of plants and natural fertilizers.

The group studied compost layers, how and when to add water and the temperatures at which the compost reaches its best quality for turning. They then spread an earlier batch of the compost on a nearby onion patch to put in motion the soil-protecting methods they had learned.

For years, the Permaculture Research Institute — Cold Climate has partnered with the University’s resources to make sustainable education available to the Twin Cities community.

As a certification student with the nonprofit organization, University alumna Kate Baird coordinated this fall’s workshop.

She also attended the class to expand her knowledge of sustainable growing techniques. Saturday’s class was a refreshing alternative to many of the workshops she attended in the past, she said.

“Earlier in the season when it’s still cold, it’s a lot of ‘this is what we do, and this is how it’s done,’ but you’re sitting in a classroom learning it, and it’s still kind of abstract,” Baird said.

She said she enjoyed being able to pick up handfuls of straw, pull onions from the soil and chat with her classmates in the open air.

In her time with the institute, Baird has developed a deeper ecological understanding of her impact on the land around her, she said. Rather than asking the same result of every plot, accepting the abilities of the land can create a much healthier result.

“You can really be a success [at] farming without trying to fit that mold,” she said.

When Tchida helped to bring organic farming to Cornercopia three years ago, the soil was nowhere near as suitable for growing as it is now, she said.

Since then, she and her students have implemented these sustainable practices to rebuild the soil.

“We’ve come a long way,” Tchida said.

Shawn Daniel, an intern at Permaculture Research Institute this fall, said he has always been interested in gardening.

Now settled in Minneapolis, he has been seeking more efficient techniques that would help him ready his plots for the next season.

Though his experience with the institute is in its early stages, Daniel said he admires the nonprofit’s approach.

“It seems like a great organization,” he said. “Just working with the land and recognizing that we have to work with it rather than try to offend.”

The highlight of the workshop for Daniel was having the opportunity to discuss the small yet useful growing skills that get passed on over time, he said.

“And of course, it’s just nice to be out on a Saturday morning with nice weather,” he said.