Getting to Know Carl Pickens
What’s your number one saying?
Follow your heart and dreams and let them be an expression of the kind of world you want to live in.
Where are you based?
I grew up in Auckland and currently live in Warkworth. It’s a picturesque town, a bit light on excitement but practical in terms of locale for work. I travel a lot between the Waikato and Northland and this is roughly halfway (Auckland traffic notwithstanding). We have a family batch on Kawau Island which is another drawcard and the beaches around here are magnificent. I spent a lot of my formative years in Canterbury though. I have a real fondness for Canterbury; the down-to-earthness of people there, the open plains, the Port Hills...the iced-over puddles on a winter morning … beautiful Lyttelton. It’s where I studied both Landscape Architecture and Organic Horticulture at two very different times in my life. Canterbury has been good to me.
Building a garden in Christchurch back in 1995 CPIT organic growing school class of 2005
I moved back north after the 2011 earthquake. I missed long summers and tropical fruits and had an ambition for creative work that was proving hard to realise in Christchurch. The climate in the north is markedly different to Christchurch and I’ve had to learn a kind of adaptability and resilience due to moving home and business several times over. It takes time to rebuild. I have at times wished for more constantness but I realise that is not the way of nature and I am indeed part of nature. Now I just roll with change as best I can. That said I’m enjoying being settled here with a flourishing design practise that constantly keeps me on my toes.
Other places I’ve lived include Switzerland and London (where I learnt to build gardens). I just love Europe and have found it super inspiring in terms of design thinking, historical architecture and cultural diversity. There is a kind of human scale to the buildings of Europe where old architecture has been preserved and I find it very relatable. I think the diversity of culture in Europe means people have had to learn to try and live with one another's differences over many centuries. Sometimes I feel like we’re still struggling to do that in NZ and anything a bit different get’s chopped down quickly. For me, this can feel a bit small and culturally narrow at times. I do love my country though. I hope I get back to Europe one day….on a sailing ship please!
Edible gardens, Berne Switzerland 2019 Subdivision on water, Utrecht Holland 2019 -
The Dutch are masters in Urban Planning
I remember taking papers in Sustainable Design at the Auckland Uni School of Architecture in 1999 and writing a paper about permaculture. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time but I loved the whole idea of it and was obsessed with patterns in nature. To me, permaculture had a rebellious kind of feeling but in a constructive way. I thought…’ this is the kind of world I want to be part of creating and what better way to use my landscape architecture training’. Actually, if I think back further while travelling through Guatemala in 1997 I was intrigued by the small-scale diverse farming I saw on the banks of Lago De Atitlan. The mosaic of mixed cropping appealed to my love of patterns, in a very natural and organic kind of way. It captured my imagination and I sketched these landscapes as I travelled. I also remember sketching old ruins and wondering how such a civilisation could feed itself without modern technology and also why it collapsed.
What led you to permaculture?
I think there has always been a kind of internal compass in me seeking balance, both in myself and in the natural world, in agriculture and in gardens. If I could sum it up it would be like saying I really had no choice in the matter, I’ve known I wanted to draw and create gardens since I was 15 years old.
BTW I was in Europe in 2019 for a Churchill Fellowship researching Urban Agriculture, you can watch the presentation on what I discovered here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-w_X4ij4os
Saving seeds, rooftop garden Paris 2019 Hops in a public space, Andernach Germany 2019
What is your profession/passion and who are the people you share this with?
I run the practice out of a home office in Warkworth, 45 minutes north of Auckland city. I’m lucky to have two highly skilled team members (Stacey and Elena). One is a Landscape Architect and one an experienced CAD Technician (you can see their profiles on our website www.carlpickens.co.nz). They enable me to do the heavy lifting in terms of site visits, preliminary design, client meetings and consultancy. They follow through with gusto and make my sketches and scribbles look presentable and professional as well as assisting with creative input. I joke that I run an expensive design program (vectorworks landmark) that I have little idea how to use because I don’t need to - thanks to them. I also have a network of horticulturalists I work with such as Judy Keats who assists with crop production schedules and planting projects and Richard Tippett (of Tippetts garden fame) who is something of a planting guru. We are pretty hands-on here and like to get involved in the implementation of what we design as much as possible. Here’s a video of Richard doing some ripping prior to tree planting in 2017 We need a bigger ripper! https://www.facebook.com/343550778994118/videos/1758876300794885
Building steps at Kelmarna Farm 2017 Setting out plants, Matakana 2020
I’ve also collaborated a lot with Daniel Tohill and Nick Robinson who are both good friends. The intention of this practice has always been to raise the profile of permaculture and organics and demonstrate how resilient and productive landscapes can be aesthetically pleasing and altogether desirable. I admit I have never claimed to be a purist when it comes to permaculture (I am in fact a landscape architect and organic grower first) but I do believe that in this practice we are in some way helping to bring permaculture to a wider audience in Aotearoa. One thing I would like to do (sometime in the future) is help emerging designers learn the skills which have taken me two decades to develop. It’s difficult to know just how that will happen but in due course, I am sure a way will present itself.
The things Elena and Stacey can do on the computer never cease to amaze me…..
A hand-drawn plan that has been rendered in photoshop, Northland 2021
How would your friends describe your sense of humour?
A watered-down version of Kramer off Seinfeld. Well, that’s how one of my friends describes me and he’s probably exposed to my wacky side more than most.
What's your personal take on Permaculture in New Zealand?
I am not sure how well I can comment on this. I have for the most part observed from a distance as I have not had the time or inclination to be more directly involved in the movement or governing body. I mostly do my own thing with a few friends and colleagues. What I have noticed from observation is a lot of good people doing good things, no shortage of strong opinions on matters, new energy working with indigenous values and a strengthening of local networks. I see permaculture still sits for the main part outside the mainstream, though in my own practice I have noticed a growing interest from people who are happily (and sometimes not so happily) engaged in societal norms like jobs, families, houses, mortgages etc, and are financially well-resourced too. If permaculture is becoming more accessible to the masses that can only be a good thing I think. I also notice places like Pakaraka Permaculture, Kelmarna Gardens and Permadynamics are doing great things that raise the profile of permaculture in NZ and demonstrate it has real value in many different ways. At the end of the day I think permaculture means different things to different people. Some are interested in the philosophy of it and how that can influence and change society for the better, others just want to grow food in a holistic way with more peace and less effort. Everything has its place.
What lesson in life stands out the most for you?
You know how to ask the big questions. For me what stands out is the idea of judging others as being a kind of mistake...on a spiritual level so to speak. Who knows what people have gone through and are going through (especially these days). I find this kind of thinking to be a really meaningful contribution. I have often been guilty of judging others myself and when I do I notice it usually comes from a place of my own suffering or ego….very good to notice! Following on from that...what is true for me may not be true for someone else. I’m not really interested in bending anyone to my own will but I do hope they will listen to my story (and me to theirs). Heck someone may think permaculture is a stupid idea. That’s ok too. Let them be.
Tithonia at Permadynamics 2018...see how kikuyu is dying off underneath
If you could pick a favourite plant, what would you choose?
I love plants and this is an almost impossible question to answer (also it changes from season to season, year to year). If I had to pick a current one though it would be Tithonia diversifolia because it suppresses Kikuyu grass….nuff said! Oh and because I refuse to choose just one plant - corn because it’s so hungry/demanding/hard to grow well and I love a challenge. Fresh corn on a summers day, who doesn’t love that?
What changes would you like to see for permaculture in the future?
A greater uptake by the general populace in terms of how they implement and manage their farms, lifestyle blocks and residential gardens would be magnificent. Experienced practitioners consulting with local bodies and councils on a regular basis regarding the design and management of local parks and streetscapes would be a bonus too. New subdivisions designed using permaculture principles. This is all well and good but I do hope for a more fundamental sea change in the future, one where the current (IMO) slow to rapidly escalating collapse of western consumerist society as we know it is replaced with something more gentle, slower, less focused around money (especially indebted money), more about sharing, trading, wellness centric, etc. I can live and hope eh!
What question do you wish to ask those who are reading this?
Did you get something out of this? Let me know if you did. Often one never really knows.
Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, how do you think we go about creating a slower, more gentle, kinder-to-the-earth kind of world? Is that even what you want and how would you help that along?
Finishing with some sketches from Mexico and Guatemala in 1997
Get there if you can