Virtual Gardening Game Preaches Permaculture

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

One of the cards in Karl Treen’s ‘Food Forest’ game. (Permaculture Providence)

One of the cards in Karl Treen’s ‘Food Forest’ game. (Permaculture Providence)

PROVIDENCE — To say Karl Treen, coordinator of Permaculture Providence, is into local growth doesn’t quite capture his enthusiasm for sustainability. That he sometimes spends up to 40 hours in a week working on a card game that will better educate children about how plants interact does.

About four years ago, the computer programmer became involved with permaculture — a term coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s that focuses on the study of efficient agriculture based on natural design. Since his introduction to the concept, Treen has earned online certification in permaculture and founded Permaculture Providence. The group held its first meeting in August 2014, at Cluck! on Broadway.

“The idea behind the organization was to create a hub for a permaculture community in southern New England,” said the 47-year-old Treen. “We want to help create mini-ecosystems that feed people. We want to educate people about ways to improve the environment. You can avoid fertilizer, which is like a plant being put on drugs because they become reliant on it, if you know how plants interact.”

Permaculture Providence now has about 185 members, mostly from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and meets a few times a month. The group’s mission is to build a local community of growers, artisans, educators and designers to study, apply and teach the principles of permaculture.

Treen and his wife own a four-family Victorian in the city’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. He called his efforts to grow food on the home’s small plot “postage-stamp gardening.”

To help students and gardeners better understand the connection between plants, Treen has spent the past year and a half developing a card game he calls “Food Forest.” Permaculture Providence members call it “virtual gardening.”

The 68-card deck features detailed botanical drawings done by Treen. The game’s colorful cards feature pictures of plants, animals and structures, and icons that indicate the particular needs of the item on the card (inputs) and the benefits that it can provide (outputs). The cards also show the sun requirements of the plant, describe the role that it plays in a forest garden system, and provide a brief overview of the benefits and challenges of each plant.

He came up with the idea for the card game after teaching a garden education program at the Ocean State Montessori School in East Providence, where his son is a second-grader.

“How plants interact isn’t something kids care about. It’s off their radar,” Treen said. “But it’s important for them to understand these relationships.”

He said the game is 95 percent done, and both students and adults have enjoyed playing it.