By Beth Ward
“I got a text from a client recently who has a three-year-old,” says Brandy Hall, ecological designer and managing director of Shades of Green Permaculture. “They were in the garden and found a bunny rabbit eating their strawberries. The three-year-old was sitting near the bunny, too, also eating the strawberries. And I just thought, ‘this the whole reason I do this. This is everything.’”
What Hall and her team at Shades of Green do in a general sense is install ecologically sustainable landscapes for clients as varied as Monday Night Brewing, Grady High School and a residential farming development in Costa Rica. They help build habitats for birds, bees and pollinators. They restore watersheds, rebuild depleted soil, create landscapes where native and edible plants can thrive. They install berry thickets and fruit trees, rain gardens, flowers that attract hummingbirds. They help you reduce your lawn’s dependence on chemicals, irrigation, frequent mowing.
On a deeper level, though, Shades of Green Permaculture is looking to help people build real, symbiotic relationships with the land they live on, with the life that thrives there, whether that land is homestead on 10 acres or a small patch of urban yard in a residential neighborhood—relationships built on respect for the natural world, for its innate intelligence and its fragility.
Hall recently spoke with Atlanta INtown about this work, about creating regenerative landscapes and combating climate crisis from our own backyards.
How did you first come to fall in love with the natural world?
I think back on my childhood as being a little juxtaposed. My mother and stepfather ran a 15-acre ornamental plant nursery in south Florida in the heart of conventional agriculture. Our farm was surrounded by sludge-filled drainage ditches, and I remember from a very young age growing up on that farm always being outside, climbing on piles of potting soil and digging for pincher bugs. And then on the other hand, my dad is from western North Carolina, and it’s just this pristine, beautiful wilderness. I would go spend summers with my dad and my family up there, and we would go camping for weeks at a time on the Manawa River and Lake Manawa. So, I don’t think there was ever a point where I was like, ‘oh, here I am coming from a city and all of a sudden I discover the natural world.’ It was just always sort of around me. But I think there was a really distinct kind of feeling between being in more intact wilderness and being outside in a more cultivated ‘ag’ world. One felt clean—I remember playing with my cousins, and we would just go down to the creek and play Ferngully and make dams and climb up the rhododendron patches. And then being down in south Florida, and every time they sprayed – we would have to flee the farm because my parents were deathly ill due to the chemicals that were being sprayed.
And how do you think those experiences led you to Shades of Green all these years later?
Both sets of my parents are entrepreneurs, so I grew up around folks that just always worked for themselves. When I graduated from college, my dad, who is a builder, encouraged me to get a general contractor’s license. So I did, and I just started studying with him. I also apprenticed as a stone mason for a year with a natural building company in Virginia and just fell in love with building things out of earthen materials. It was just incredible for me. When I did finally take a permaculture design certification [later], it being a whole-systems philosophy, I think it kind of synthesized a lot of threads for me. At that point, being in my early 20s, I had treated all of these jobs that I had as learning experiences, but I always felt compelled to ask, ‘am I teacher? Am I builder? Am I a farmer?’ It didn’t actually make sense to me that I was all of those things until I discovered this philosophy of permaculture, which is the synthesis of how we interact with our landscapes.
Can you explain a bit about permaculture? How does the idea and philosophy make Shades of Green different from your typical landscaping outfit?
I think, traditionally, permaculture was really about creating permanent agriculture. It’s kind of a portmanteau of those two words, and it’s food-systems based. In the urban and suburban context, though, we’re not really compelled to grow all of our food. As city dwellers, we’re off-site a lot times—stuck in traffic, bringing our kids places, working out of the home. One of the things that we’re doing differently from just permaculture in general is thinking about our productive landscapes beyond just the human stakeholders, because it’s not necessarily about producing all of our food. It’s really about creating soil and creating habitat. It’s thinking of our little sites of land in this context of larger ecosystem of services—things like sequestering carbon, filtering water and restoring water sheds, reforesting and rebuilding habitat. Our little yards, in conjunction with lots of other people’s little yards, start to build this sort of patchwork ecology that I think is really important, especially in the climate context. These little things that we do add up to significantly more impact together. I think the other piece of it, to go back to what defines us or differentiates us in how we approach landscaping, I think the education piece is a really huge part. We have classes and a lot of free materials and resources to empower people even if they don’t go through our services. Also, just helping clients to see the landscapes that they live in through the lens of what’s possible there, in terms of restoring or amplifying the health of the site, thinking about the intuitive ways we can manage the resources that are on our sites—the forest, and the soil and the water. And in the design process, choosing everything for [the site or yard] for a reason. It’s that intersection between the aesthetic goals and the needs of the ecosystem.
So many people turned to gardening and their outdoor spaces as a kind of psychological salve during quarantine and the COVID crisis. Why do you think that is? And do you think the pandemic has help bring a different kind of awareness to our relationship with the natural world?
Definitely. From a very base level, we’ve gotten a lot of folks that just feel safer at home, and so they want to create more green spaces that are useable at home—outdoor rooms and play areas for their children and gardens. That’s definitely something we’re seeing a lot of. But also, just a new awareness of the fragility of some of the larger supply chains, especially early on, our not being able to get certain types of foods. I think that was sort of an eye-opener, like, ‘oh, if something like this hits, we’re actually really fragile. Maybe it’s good to be able to supplement some of these things with our own vegetables and things that we have growing in our yards.’ So that’s definitely a piece of it. I don’t know what everyone else is feeling, but I know that for me, it feels like there’s just so much going on right now on a global scale, on a political scale, it just feels very daunting. Every day you wake up and there’s a new thing to fight for. It’s a draining thing. And I think that the green spaces are the spaces that recharge us and allow us to continue having hope.