Friday, September 8, 2017

Regenerative Public Places - Radically Sustainable Parks

Again and again and again: WHY do we use public money, public projects and public places to pollute the environment, promote climate change, and kill local jobs? There's absolutely no reason why we shouldn't be using public places in ways that have regenerative effects on local ecologies and economies....

In the era of corporate suburbia, you can travel the entire US and never realize you've left home. Suburb after suburb is built out with the same restaurants, the same houses, the same building materials, and of course, the same public places. 

This is good if you happen to be a member of the culture that prizes the totems of suburban life. It's bad if you happen to be anyone else. 

That's because there's little room in the corporate suburbia culture for anything else: other skill sets, cultures, products, businesses, lifeways all get drowned out by the suburban flood. 

And so, if you're American and you value the life experience of visiting new places, having new experiences, meeting new people, and learning about other cultures and ways of life, you have no choice but to travel to exotic locales. Meanwhile, we have interesting, unique communities and cultural inclinations that never get to express themselves right here at home, because they're suppressed by the suburban instinct. 

And of course, this sends our money out of town, and kills local high-skill jobs. But that is, after all, the main point! It allows corporations to cut into the cost of local experts and local skilled laborers, replacing them with unskilled labor and centrally planned products. For consumers, it cuts out the costs of skilled local labor and expertise. And consumers get a cheap way they can conform to their neighbors and the aesthetics of corporate suburbia. It saves money, though some would consider that a short-sighted bargain.

Worse still, one-size-fits-all solutions typically come with increased environmental costs and decreased economic sustainability. Such is the case with our public places, especially in the suburbs. These parks are almost always charactarized by a suite of highly impactful, unsustainable features:
1. Ecologically harmful materials. Concrete everywhere, especially where it isn't even needed: concrete slabs, concrete pavers, concrete infrastructure and buildings. According to the US Government, the concrete industry uses more fossil fuels than any other single industry! And according to research by Columbia University, the concrete industry is responsible for a whopping 5% of global carbon emissions! 
2. Wrong plant, wrong place. While rule #1 in classic horticulture is "right plant/right place," this goes against the idea of "one-size-fits-all." Instead, you see the same 5 or 6 bland plants in every soil, in every aspect, in every park in America. Usually, they look unhealthy and unattractive, too, but that's not the point! The plants aren't there to look good, they're there to prove you're doing your best to conform. 
3. Lots of lawn. Lawn costs fossil fuels to maintain, contributes to climate change and harms wildlife and soil life. 
4. Poor water infiltration. Cement and lawn are both very poor at infiltrating water. Not only does this waste water, fail to refill aquifers and contribute to erosion and water pollution, it costs tax payers extra money to maintain the storm water system. 
5. Little or no value to wildlife. 
6. Little or no integration of social function. Most of these parks have no use, and consequently, rarely get used. 

The irony of all this is that most of these "parks" are required "green space," intended to have benefits to water, wildlife and human inhabitants, yet the implementation often gives us NEGATIVE impacts on all these areas! It would probably be better all around to just leave it a wild thicket, or in some cases, even turn it into another development. 

Luckily, we already know how to solve this problem We have many better patterns from the world of horticulture, Permaculture, indigenous land use, and historic urban planning. I mention just a few in the video above. 

And it doesn't take much thought to come up with a few basic rules for how we could do a better job. Here are just a couple to consider:

1. Do the Math. It's easy to assess the impact of a park project on water infiltration, carbon emissions, and wildlife. There's no reason a public park or green space should ever have a negative impact when it's easy, easy, easy to insure these have a regenerative effect on all 3. A good public place should infiltrate most of the water that falls on it, should sequester more carbon that in emits, and should provide better habitat for wildlife than the surrounding land uses. And it's easy to do these calculations. 
2. Consider highest best use for materials. Don't needlessly use large amounts of concrete, pavers, and blocks unless there's a good reason. These materials are unattractive, don't age well, and are often unnecessary. meanwhile they come with a huge ecological cost. 
3. Right plant right place. Hire a plantsmen, horticulturist, Permaculturist or gardener for the love of god. 
4. Consider native plants and other plants that have high wildlife value. 
5. But don't be a native purist at the expense of the environment. Oftentimes the impact of "native plant gardens" are very high, requiring continued energy use, tilling, and spraying that harm wildlife and reduce biodiversity. 
6. Integrate wildlife habitat. 
7. Integrate social space for humans. Parks should be designed to be enjoyed. Not to make us feel comfortable as we drive past on the way to the next suburb. 

Beyond these rules, there are several paradigms and resources that can help. 

In fact, public places could be enormous opportunities to heal the earth, fight climate change, sequester carbon, add to community resilience, provide real economic opportunities and invest in high-value skilled labor and expertise in our communities.

If you're involved in the planning, design, or oversight process for public places, I hope you'll do your part to make the most of that opportunity. In most of our communities there are certified Permaculture Designers who are familiar with radically sustainable design patterns. These, or sustainability professionals should be able to help you assess the impact of your project, and likely even save your project money on wasteful materials!  

Monday, August 28, 2017

Viral Transformation Power

Step back, squint your eyes a bit and Permaculture becomes spiraling, self-organizing, self-replicating swirls of energy and matter - if you'll allow me to get a bit "woo," for a moment.

Those who follow this blog know I'm particualrly interested in the measurable energy transactions within systems. To me, this balance of inputs, outputs, and the self-organizing loops that minimize our maintenance and maximize the utility to as many beings as possible is what Permaculture and good natural gardening are all about! I think many of us sense that on a certain level most of what we experience in life is really all about the energy flows between living things. 

This all sounds incredibly hippie when I hear someone else say it. It's usually something like "when energy is flowing well, things are good, and when energy gets stuck or congested things go bad..." Like, totally hippie, you know what I'm saying? 

But any social scientist looking at economic outcomes can tell you the same: It's clear that when money, one very artificial form of stored energy that our society uses to accomplish work, gets "stuck" in certain social strata and does not "flow" well to others, people actually suffer. 

Society needs, like, a chakra alignment, man. 

And any ecologist can tell you the same... when an ecology breaks down to the point that energy is not easily cycled through its biological community, things don't go well. Diversity, biomass, stored energy and life (carrying capacity) all begin to decline. 

One of the most rewarding things on my Permaculture journey has been to observe how these self-organizing swirls have begun to take on life in the wake of our project at Lillie House. These self-organizing energy patterns begin when energy flows away from me to other people... other places. From this perspective it's good when energy flows away from me. Such as when we give rare  plants away to others in the region, this means our collection will remain available to me and to others should we lose a plant, or should something happen to our project. Or when we discover a technique that works well, we want others to learn and try it, too. Rather than lock that energy up, it's better to let it flow! This is what happens when you do Permaculture right: you create "procreative" systems that replicate themselves, bits of our Permaculture DNA go off into the world and mingle with other systems. 

And now, our particular type of Permaculture system has begun to replicate itself all across Michigan, the Great Lakes region and beyond! Our plant material, in the types of polyculture plant communities we've experimented with and developed are going out into the world, spread by a particularly beautiful "vector," earth-loving humans! 

At this point, our home ecosystem at Lillie House has reached a point of complexity, richness and utility that its value is apparent to earth-lovers throughout the region. Just as a fruit or flower might evolve to tempt some other species to play a role in its procreation, pollinating its flowers, spreading its seed, our beautiful, productive ecosystem is reaching out to the people who hold a place for nature, good food, and community in their hearts. 

I do not feel like some brilliant creator of this situation... but just one other part, one member of the biotic community of this place, playing my own small role in spreading around this earth-healing super-organism of Permaculture. Watching its tendrils reach out into the fertile ground of the compasionate heart, wherever it lies, I feel I'm part of something so much bigger than I could ever be as a mere human. 

And that feels incredible. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Era of Edible Forest Gardening has Arrived

(Edible Forest Garden at Lillie House, filled with food, flowers and medicinal and culinary herbs.)

Nature is calling us home, and people all over the world feel it, the urge to reconnect with their landscapes in a more meaningful way than the endless struggle against lawn and weeds. And the forest garden - a designed ecosystem filled with ripe fruits, lush vegetables, craft materials and medicine that integrates native plants and wildlife habitat - is the ideal representation of our rightful human relationship with the world, cultivating the wild, working with ecosystems to meet our needs instead of reaping them for profit or spraying them with poisons: nurturing all the beings around us while rewarding ourselves and our families.

Building on the improvements of the "native plants movement," the "wild" landscaping, and then post-wild landscaping paradigms, permaculture-designed forest gardening not only preserves and increases biodiversity, but it also maximizes the potential to create habitat for pressured wildlife, catches, cleans  and infiltrates water, dramatically reduces (if not eliminates) our dependence on finite petrochemicals, and sequesters more carbon! Most importantly, it reduces our negative ecological, climate and social impact by helping us grow some of our own food, in the easiest way possible. Moreover, scientists tell us we need to maximize forests if we want to reduce the impacts of climate change. And so the "food forest" has arrived as the new model for the ideal eco-friendly, conscientious landscape design.

(London Glades forest garden, which won top honors for future-friendly gardening at the prestigious Hampton Court Flower Show.)

Forest gardening is now widely being called "the oldest human landuse" by academics across many disciplines, with traditional systems across Europe being recognized as important elements of national culture and heritage. But while the western world had largely forgotten these systems, Indigenous communities around the world, especially in the tropics, have kept these systems alive as vital lifelines and important resources. In fact, modern researchers are documenting how these systems allow human societies to harvest the energy of "ecosystem services" in ways that decrease poverty, lessen oppression, mitigate the human impact on wildlife and biodiversity, provide community resilience and autonomy, reduce work hours, and enhance public health (McConnel, Goutum, United Nations, etc.). It was these systems that inspired the first modern Western forest gardens, especially that of Robert Hart. 

Slowly at first, starting with the earliest visitors to Robert Hart's forest garden in Shropshire, this most modern/most ancient form of landscape captured people's imaginations: to live surrounded by a landscape of bountiful food, regulated by natural ecosystem services. And then they began to spread like wildfire, with models springing up in cities throughout the western world. 

(The famous Pensioner's Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, top honors, modelled after a traditional English form of forest garden.)

Their influence began to be felt in the world of high landscape design as post-wild, naturalistic landscapers began including more edibles into their work, creating little edible ecosystems that were - in a sense - already forest gardens. 

(Food, medicine, comfort, nature...) 

Quickly, the idiom became a dominant force in aesthetic garden design with the famous Pensioner's garden at the Chelsea flower show. This now-famous garden, modelled after the traditional "cottage garden" cultural icon - recognized as a form of forest garden integrating food, flowers, teas, medicines together in a half-wild natruralistic planting - stoked the fires of the public imagination world wide.

 (Kate Frey, ornamental agro-ecology with fruits like polarded grapes, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.)

The forest gardens kept coming as designers like Kate Frey also took top honors the Chelsea Flower Show, perhaps the world's most prestigious garden competition, with a naturalistic ecosystem of edible plants, wild medicines, and wildlife habitat in a low-maintenance assembly that has been described as an unofficial forest garden. The edible ecological gardens she's gone on to design have been excellent models for what post-wild edible landscaping could achieve in terms of beauty and comfort. 

(London Glades, photo via the Telegraph)

And now, the London Glades, an official forest garden, designed with the Permaculture system, has won a gold medal at the Hampton Court Palace flower show, another of the world's most prestigous competitions! And, at first glance, they nailed it! This is a beautiful example of the form. Of course, there's more to a forest garden than beauty, and I would need to look over goals, production objectives, required inputs, desired uses, plant selections and so on, to really know if this is a great forest garden. But, since forest gardens are really about meeting specific needs, and I beleive the primary objective  here was beauty, then I think this is a wonderful example. To find out more, view plans and see some mock-ups, visit:

(London Glades, Telegraph.)

The time of forest gardens as an aesthetic medium has come, for any community-minded, conscientous people who want to reconnect with nature while doing one of the single most important things they can do to reduce their negative climate, ecological and social impact. In a world where political solutions seem hard-won and often ephemeral, this is a source of hope, a form of direct cultural transformation we can take action on right outside our door, at our place of work, at an empty lot or bike-trail near our homes....

(Aesthetic home forest garden at Lillie House.)

And  finally, a small community of aesthetic-minded gardeners have been working to refine the aesthetics, functionality and comfort of these gardens to move them beyond mere low-maintenance food gardens, but to make models for truly attractive, viable gardens for the home, business or public landscape. Indeed, at Lillie House, we take pride in matching forest garden designs to the architecture, community character and "genii loci" of each place, such as our front yard Jardin de Cure  modelled after a historically-acurate style of garden that was popular when our house was built!   

(Jardin de Cure, another traditional European forest garden with ancient origins.)

If you would like to visit us here and experience a few different models for what a home forest garden can be like, feel free to send us an email at or connect with us on Facebook. We have an Introduction to Forest Gardening class coming up on Sunday, August 20th, and may schedule another session for a weeknight around that time. 

(Lillie House.)

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Permaculture for Sanity Retention (and Landscape Management)

Kneeling on the lawn, dirty gloves to your face, you see the writing on the garden wall: you now understand the "gardener's trap" you find yourself in - and you find yourself praying to that great tiller in the sky, to just come end it all. Now. Your garden (literally) looks like the heat death of the universe. A manifestation of pure chaos. The apocalypse, but with weeds. 

And grass. 


I know this is a very geeky metaphor for a gardening blog, but it might seem clever in a moment if you bare with me.

Two years ago, you started your first garden bed. And while the work filled up much of your freetime, it was sooooo worth it: Beauty, cut flowers, fresh food - you were hooked. 

You wanted more. You came up with a plan to convert your whole yard into gardens. Maybe annual flowers. Maybe an annual vegetable patch. Perhaps an English border garden. "Lawn be gone!" you proclaimed. 

But in the second year, as you started working on your new beds, last year's beds still demanded your attention. "That's ok," you thought," this is my hobby." And your expanded gardens expanded into your life, taking up the rest of your freetime. You still had dreams of conquering that lawn, but realized in your heart that you'll never get there. Unless you can coax someone else into helping you. 

I talk to many gardeners who've run up against this wall of time constraints. So many with big plans, but not enough time to implement them - and still keep up the gardens we already have. 

But at least it works. You have enough time to maintain the gardens you've created. You and your garden are a "stable system." 

Until there's a problem. (And there's always a problem.) A particular "weed," or even a beloved plant gets out of control. Ants start farming aphids on your favorite tree. A family of rabbits moves into your vegetable garden. Powdery mildew. Or even just a few weeks of extra rain and cool weather causing the lawn to need more mowing can tip you into the trap. 

And because these problems require additional time to solve, and because you've already run yourself up against your personal time limit, you're now in:

The Gardener's Entropy Trap: Where your gardens takes increasing time and energy to maintain, but you're all out of time and energy. And if your problem gets out of control, there's a real chance it will enter into what's called a "phase shift," like the melting of an ice cube, a move towards chaos that takes a LOT of energy to get it back to the original state of organization (being a garden.)

So there's no time to lose! You need energy!

Seeing the desperate look in your eye, neighborhood children run as you approach. Friends, family and even the significant other are all suddenly VERY busy with work/knitting/darning socks.  

Now, the only viable solution is to dig up all the perennial weeds, till the garden under and start all over again. You give up. Fall down face first into the tangle, and let the minty darkness of the weeds envolope you.... 

You now understand one of the fundamental ideas in Permaculture. Blown up onto the societal level, you can recognize the same "entropy trap" or "complexity trap" in the problems of Urban decay, ever-growing taxes, our declining infrastructure, failing schools, our unstable financial system, a floundering industrial food system....  

Whether you're a ornamental gardener, market gardener, farmer, or homesteader, as we put energy into our landscapes, we all run up against this complexity trap sooner or later. The Energy Law of Gardens: A garden in motion will always  expand to fill your life. 

But it doesn't have to be that way. The primary idea of Permaculture is that there is one force, one source of energy that was available to us all along, and it WANTS to help us, if only we'd have chosen to make a place for it. That force is nature. And the energy it can provide is through what's called "ecosystem services." 

(This naturally-occuring food forest filled with garlic, mustards, medicinal herbs and fruits requires 0 maintenance.)

Here's the Permaculture strategy, in contrast to the complexity trap: When we start a garden, we design a "self-organizing" or self-maintaining system where nature does most of the work. We try to design systems that aren't just low-maintenance, but that can actually free up more time and energy for us! We replace needy lawn with ecosystems! We get that done and stable. THEN we move onto the next project. 

In this way, we can finally conquer the lawn, and transform our yards the way we always wanted to. 

Now, I can't reduce all of Permaculture to one article. But I want to give you the single most important concept to understand HOW we can recruit mother nature (and her services) into our landscapes, farms and gardens. 

The Intensity Spectrum

In Permaculture, systems that require a lot of energy and time from us humans are called "intensive." This includes things like flower beds, veggie patches, produce fields and native gardens. Those where we let nature do the heavy lifting are called "extensive." These include: naturally occuring ecosystems, stable agriforest systems, mature forest gardens and well-designed guilds. 

Somewhere inbetween these two, there is a spectrum of relatively intensive systems, like edible meadows, intensive forest gardens and guids, hedgerows, slashmulch gardens, annual polycultures, etc. 

The whole point of Permaculture is to balance intensive/extensive systems in a landscape (or city, or business, or organization) so that they better fit our available resources and our goals, minimize maintenance (by relying heavily on extensive, self-organizing systems) and maximize usefulness (by using JUST ENOUGH well-chosen intensive systems.) Period. 

Permaculture Zones

Zones are the most important tool for helping us achieve a good energy balance in the landscape. 

Choose your battles. 

Whether your goal is profit, beauty, or food sovereignty, keep intensive systems small and focussed.

(Clean edges where it counts at Lillie House)

Clean Edges 

Again, one of the most important concepts in Permaculture. We expect clean lines in the garden, even in the market farm. But these take a LOT of energy to maintain. So choose the places where clean edges will have the biggest impact on aesthetics and productivity. 

(Edible border garden with "clean edge".)

Soft Edges. 

Elsewhere, we can use "soft edges" with fortress plantings and pioneer plant communities to maintain the edges for us. 

(Soft edges at Lillie House.)

Post Wild Aesthetics

Even in the ornamental landscape, we can blend Intensive and Extensive. Having tidy Intensive gardens where it counts to make a visual statement, and using "Wild" aesthetics to lower our maintenance elsewhere. This ain't a Permaculture idea though, this was once a  major concept in horticulture, now mostly forgotten. 

(The "wild" potager at Cambo is famous as an ornamental food garden.) 

(A "Post Wild" landscape design.) 

(An edible cottage garden associated with the PFAF project.)

Defeating Entropy

Armed with Permaculture, and with nature as an ally, you're ready to take on the lawn, once and for all. Working with nature, a little at a time, creating stable communities and plantings as we go, we shall garden the world.

The Beginner's Permaculture Garden Bed Make-over
Fortress Plants 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Who Cares for Whom?

See this glorious variegated corn? I'm so drawn to its colors, its beauty. 

This is one multi-use variety we're growing in our no-till slashmulch 3-sisters garden of corn, beans and squash. This was intended to be a "plant it and forget it" type of garden. But I just can't forget this beauty. 

Instead, I'm spending a little extra time tending and nurting this planting, drawn to want to tend this beautiful plant. And that is deep ecology. 

In a very literal sense, this plant has evolved to coax gardeners like me into tending it. Just as all cultivated plants have: through their usefulness, their great flavors, their intoxicating aromas, and of course their beauty. 

No doubt the synergy goes both ways. I take care of  them, they take care of me. Surely, they provide me with a high-calorie carb crop that provides me with the energy I need to garden. And the rich, brilliant flavor of the corn in its milk stage keeps me near, protecting the seed crop when its at its most vulnerable. And yes, this food is medicine. 

But beyond that, could this plant offer me healing and nourishment through its beauty? Does it hold me as a devoted protector with its inspiring colors? When I sit and look at it, is it building my connection with my ecosystem, teaching me to be a better steward? Healing my relationship with the earth and my community? 

When I tend her, I tend the soil, I tend the myriad of beings that dwell therein. And so, I tend myself: making the habitat that supports me richer, more fertile, more abundant and healing. This is part of the magic of forest gardening. 

I'm drawn to the beauty of this diverse landscape. I want to increase its health, enrich its diversity. And so I make the land better for myself, and all the beings I share it with. It has transformed me, a lowsy destructive human, from a "pest" into a beneficial. 

Through forest gardening, I no longer want to "control" the landscape, go to war with it, limit its diversity. I want it to be wild, free, healthy and diverse, and I prioritize techniques that lead to that end. 

"Come to me. Tend me. Give me water. Cover my soil. And I will nurture you, too. I can heal the sickness that has grown in your heart...."