Unplated: An Interview with Brandy Hall
On the art of creating an environment that can feed all of us
This conversation is part of the Unplated series, a collection of interviews with folks whose work intersects with food, but who work outside culinary spheres. My hope is that these conversations not only spark your curiosity, but help you think about how what you eat is connected to the world well beyond your plate.
Brandy Hall is the Founder & Managing Director of Shades of Green Permaculture in Atlanta. She has a background in building, earning her General Contractor's license soon after leaving undergraduate, and training as a stone mason, where she fell in love with the way intelligent design responds to the natural world.
Hall has nearly two decades of experience in building off-grid water systems, landscape construction, and integrated farming systems, and is passionate about leading a purpose-driven business that actively creates a healthier world every single day.
I've followed Brandy's work for years, as a fellow advocate for sustainability and local food systems here in Atlanta, and we share many friends and colleagues in common. I was eager to wrap up the year's Unplated interviews with hers because I think it complements the many wonderful interviews with artists and creatives featured here in recent months: Brandy's work is artistic in a different way, and one that I hope will inspire you to think about the plants around you in a new way as you look forward to spring gardening.
JS: First of all, can you tell me a little bit about yourself? How did you come to work with permaculture?
BH: I grew up on my mom and step dad’s ornamental plant nursery farm in Florida. I watched from a young age as they were poisoned by pesticides and herbicides, and after years of worsening allergic reactions and countless ER visits, they moved our family away from the agricultural region of southern Florida to the middle of the woods in Columbia County, Florida where they began a detox, switching to all organic foods and natural products.
I also spent much of my childhood in the wild mountains of Western North Carolina with my dad. As you could imagine, these two parallel experiences were really the start of a lifelong journey of healing and of figuring out how to achieve harmony between the human built environment and the natural world.
With that, I set off to learn and gain experience in my early adulthood. I received a General Contractor’s license, I trained as a stone mason, and I got a masters in Contemplative Education. I spent that time farming and building landscapes, integrated farming systems and off-grid water systems before finally opening Shades of Green Permaculture in 2008.
JS: How do you define permaculture? What makes it different from other approaches to gardening or agriculture?
BH: My favorite definition is “it's all alive; it's all intelligent; it's all connected.” Permaculture is an ethical design science that integrates human activity with the natural world to create regenerative ecosystems. At Shades of Green Permaculture, we’re focused on the 3 pillars of a regenerative landscape: plant communities, water management and soil fertility.
That is, our landscapes contribute to protecting biodiversity, building soil, restoring the water cycle, and growing food, medicine, and pollinator habitat. Most gardens and landscapes are designed to be high input systems ⏤ water-intensive, chemically-dependent, and high maintenance. Instead, we build health from the ground up, creating ecologically-sound interdependent and healthy spaces.
We also offer online classes and resources including Intro to Climate Action Landscaping about how landscapes can alleviate the effects of climate change and the Regenerative Backyard Blueprint, which teaches folks how to design and build their own permaculture-based landscape.
JS: Speaking of gardening and agriculture, I think we often have some inbuilt assumptions about what each means both in terms of scale and distribution/consumption. Where do you draw the boundary between the two? And how do they overlap?
BH: The line between gardening and agriculture is quite subjective, in my opinion. There really isn’t a clear boundary. On one hand, when you’re talking about gardening, you’re generally referring to growing flowers and veggies, while agriculture can include much more, such as livestock or timber. Maybe a distinction is that gardening is the activity, while agriculture is the industry at scale. There are lots of great methods for organic agriculture systems within the industry, but in order to be economically viable, agricultural systems are inherently rooted in maximizing yield.
At Shades of Green, we’re interested in permaculture which is somewhat informed by both gardening and agriculture. It is farming at a human scale. Permaculture deals with the whole ecological system – water, carbon, nutrients, soil, plants, animals, food, and so on and so forth. Permaculture is challenging at scale when we compare it to industrialized agriculture.
It’s inherently less efficient because regenerative farming systems are taking into account contours for water flows, rather than strictly straight machine-passable lines; or pollinator habitats rather than eradicating all bugs; or diversified crops with lots of perennials and fruits and nuts, rather than a single species for miles in any direction. This is going to affect how you harvest, when you harvest, how you process, how you distribute–the whole gamut.
But, what these systems lose in efficiency they gain in health. Reframing agriculture is essential for a more permanent solution to our global climate crisis, and there’s a lot of wisdom that comes with doing things at a human scale–microsystems, microecologies, microeconomies. The UN published a study years ago that said that small-holder farms are the only way we can feed the world without completely decimating it. Food for thought.
JS: How does your work intersect with food? And what can we learn about how and what we eat by applying permaculture principles?
BH: The three pillars of a regenerative landscape are water, soil and plants, including plants that provide food. Food is one part of the larger ecological context – food that not only feeds humans, but also the food that feeds animals and insects and the nutrients in soil as well as the water that feeds plants. The entire natural system needs to be fed in order to thrive.
When it comes to edible landscaping, we do things a bit differently. We lean on perennial food sources, which come back year after year and have a vital role within the landscape – from fruit trees like fig, pomegranate, and persimmon, to nut trees like hazelnuts and chestnuts and perennial vegetables like horseradish greens, asparagus, and sochan.
Each of these provide more than just food for humans, but also feed the land. For instance, horseradish is a dynamic accumulator, which means it has deep tap roots that pull up nutrients from within the deeper horizons of the soil making it available to plants with shallow roots as the leaves fall. Another example is sochan, which is an herbaceous perennial in the Rudbeckia family – it makes a delicious pesto or early spring green, and also provides nectar for critical pollinators.
JS: Part of your work is to help people landscape and garden in a way that situates us within the ecosystem rather than outside of it. Why is this so important? How does our outlook on, and connection to the world change when use this approach?
BH: Gardening, growing food and eating food is also about reconnecting to the land that feeds us so that we care and tend to it and want to be better stewards for years to come. The act of gardening and eating can help us relate to nature and feel meaning.
If you enjoy this interview series, please consider supporting my work with a subscription for yourself or a gift subscription for a loved one. Or, just share this interview with a food-loving friend!