Monday, February 27, 2017

Support Lillie House : Transform your Landscape!

Forest Gardening is the ULTIMATE way to create an ecological, beneficial landscape. It combines the highest quality wildlife habitat and native plants with fruit and vegetable production to help you reduce your impact and take responsibility for your own needs.

And walking out into your own backyard paradise with delicious fruits hanging from the trees and healthy herbs and vegetables growing in the understory is an unmatched luxury that's become all to rare in the modern world.

And this may also be the easiest, lowest maintenance kind of garden or landscape you can have, so your forest garden will also save you time and money.

We think everyone should have one, so we've created an online Introduction to Forest Gardening course to get you started. Kim and I spent the last 6 months putting this together with help and feedback from our forest gardening students, and we think we rocked it.

This course contains over 2 hours of new instructional videos, photographs, diagrams, interactive exercises, plant lists and free garden designs to get you started. More importantly, we've included links on most of our recommended plants so you can buy plants from our top-recommended nurseries that combine realiability with the best prices.

And this time, we're committing to giving each student a chance at individualized feedback on your plant lists and designs, as well as a live online Q&A session just for our students.

Since we believe the best way to learn forest gardening is to start one, this Introductory class focusses on the details you most need to get started, saving the theory and extras for later (but providing lots of links for sources and self study.)

At the same time, we went into great detail where it counts most for beginners, integrating up-to-date best practices and real-world experience from the Eastern Woodland and Great Lakes growing regions - far beyond the basics in books like Gaia's Garden or other introductory forest gardening and Permaculture books.

You can check out the details and register for the course here:

And for the this week only, the first 25 Lillie House readers to register will get the course for $25, with the code:


We like to always make sure our readers "obtain a yield" by supporting us, so this is a great "win/win" way to support our advocacy work in Permaculture and forest gardening while getting a great class out of it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Story of Food Forest Gardening

If you're looking to create a landscape that's easy, low-maintenance and eco-friendly, and that can also be highly productive when you want it to, there's no better system than forest gardening.

Forest gardening is also a traditional land-use that has been tried and tested around the world since pre-historic times. And it's been so successful that it's still found around the world today. We put together this short video as an introduction to these traditional systems found around the world, and some of the lessons we modern gardeners can learn from them.

This video is one part of our online Introduction to Forest Gardening class, which we'll be opening up for Spring registration in mid February.

And if you live in our region, check out our Community Supported Forest Gardening program, which includes a full season of classes, online content, plant material, and consultation - everything you need to get your forest garden, Permaculture, or ecological gardening project started.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Avoiding the Most Common Food Forest Mistakes

Everyone loves the IDEA of a garden, but once you get to the nitty gritty, things get more complicated. The truth is, most people don't keep up their gardens, and instead of a bounty of fruits and vegetables, they end up harvesting weeds, frustration and guilt! Most community gardens fail in just a few years, and instead of fostering community and cooperation, they often lead to arguments, crime and fist fights!
Forest Gardens are no different.
The truth is, while forest gardening CAN be the easiest, most productive and most beautiful form of gardening, most forest garden and Permaculture projects I've seen come to the same bad end. In fact, poorly designed forest gardens can perform worse than regular gardens! For example, the paper A Critical Review of Permaculture documents how a dozen such projects were started in the Urbana Illinois area between 2001 and 2003, and after a decade, none of them remained in their original form! 
Here in my city, Kalamazoo, there have already been a few high-profile forest garden projects that have failed and been completely removed. In one case, a forest garden that cost over $10k and used over 50 volunteers  was tilled and removed in just a few years after planting! In another, an unhappy forest gardener has been looking for someone to take over the project, because it's just "too much work!"
In my talks with forest gardeners and participation in forest gardening communities, there are a number of reoccurring major complaints that keep coming up over and over again. (By the way, most of these are actual quotes:)
"There aren't enough volunteers to do all the work!" 
"The weeds completely took over everywhere!" 
"Everyone hates it and thinks it looks like a mess, especially the neighbors!"
"I spent thousands of dollars and 5 years later all I have is a bunch of bug-filled, rotten fruit!"
"All my apples, pears, cherries, plums, peaches, etc.  are filled with bugs! I don't even pick them!"
"My yard is filled with angry ground wasps from all the buggy fruit laying around!" 
"The paths are impossible to maintain so the whole thing looks like a weedy mess!"
"It's too much work!" 
"Most of my trees and bushes get destroyed by wildlife!" 
Broadly speaking, all of these complaints boil down to the same mistake: poor planning! In Permaculture, these are called "TYPE 1" errors, which is where a project is literally designed to fail.
Being more specific, all of these complaints boil down to 4 big errors:
1.  Poor species slection - planted the wrong species for the project's needs and goals. 
2. Planned for too much work, when not enough work was available. 
3. Ugly, ugly, ugly. Nobody thought of aesthetics and now the neighbors and city staff hate you.
4.  Poor (or negative)  Return on Investment, the food forest is just too expensive,  usually because nobody did the math during planning. 
So remember, the best way to start a forest garden is to do your research nd thorough planning up front! Talk to people who know what they're doing and have experience forest gardening in your area.  
And if you're looking to start forest gardening in the Great Lakes region, check out our Community Supported Forest Gardening memberships. We're sure it's the easiest way to get started, and the cheapest way to start a collection of high-value forest gardening plants. You get a complete set of forest gardening plants, a site consultation with one of our Permaculture Designers, and a complete course that takes you through an entire season of installation and maintaining a forest garden. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

SPIN Permaculture?

Make $50,000 on half an acre doing Small Plot INtensive farming?

That's the promise of SPIN farming, a microfarming business plan that's become very popular in an economy that increasingly fails to provide good jobs, and a culture that's failing to feed us good food and a healthy, happy lifestyle. And so many hope that SPIN farming may provide the opportunity to make a decent income, reconnect with nature, and grow healthy food, without having to relocate to the country. But is it too good to be true? 

If you're reading this and you SPIN, are you farming successfully? How much are you making? 

More importantly, is it Permaculture? Is it even sustainable? 

SPIN farming is not a type of growing system, it is a business model that's available for around $80, which also includes membership in a community of aspiring SPIN farmers. It's a model especially adapted to small urban properties, and can even be used on multiple properties around town, like a de-centralized farm. (There are now many resources that teach the same idea, including many Permaculture sources.) While the business plan is quite expensive, you can learn much of the material by reading various reviews and first-person accounts around the web, to decide if SPIN is right for you before purchasing the plan. 

But as to whether or not SPIN delivers on its promise, you first have to read the fine print. 

First of all, the SPIN model is to GROSS $50,000 on half an acre, not net. Which means your income will be greatly dependent on how much you're paying for supplies and - most importantly - labor. Which is why, in the SPIN model, the farmer is also the accountant, marketer, planner, business manager, volunteer organizer, etc. The idea is to rely on as much free and trade labor as possible. 

Another piece of fine print is this: you can't do it on your own. 1/2 an acre, plus all the business, is generally too much for one person to do for long. The SPIN plan assumes help from at least one other person, which quickly means a best-case scenario of $25,000/person for an adult couple, who are able to source all their equipment and materials needs (LOTS of compost) for free.

This is actually pretty consistent with the historic normal for a small holdings and family homesteads, which I've written about before here. One family can farm about a half an acre intensively. After that, it's just a matter of using land less efficiently, using livestock, or exploiting labor in one way or another. Which is why the SPIN benchmarks are at $50k for a half an acre, but only $54- 60k for a full acre. The system quicky reaches diminishing marginal returns, as more money either has to go into labor, or the work just can't get done. 

A final bit of fine print is that it took the plan creators 3 years to get to a level of $50k GROSS. Whether or not that income became sustainable for them is not really discussed. But what is clear, is that with SPIN, there is a top limit on what is likely achievable, and it's probably around $50K Gross. 

But, looking around at various forums and testamonials on SPIN farming, a reasonable expectation is that after 3 years, 2 farmers working a SPIN model on a 9-month season (with business and marketing in the off season) would be making 10-15K a piece, with $20k as an exceptional outlier. Luckily for us, there are very many SPIN farmers writing about their experiences, so we can get a good idea of what to realistically expect.

Looking a little deeper, I see many stories of SPIN farmers having catastrophic crop losses, which makes sense for a growing system that's very hard on soil and uses very close plantings without space "wasted" for support plants. Since all fertility comes from off-site, SPIN farmers also open themselves to the risks of contaminated compost, which can immediately end any farming business.  

So, does SPIN deliver on its promises? I'd say "yes," but only if you read the fine print! And expect to work HARD for each and every penny. I suspect that many SPIN farmers would make an hourly rate no better than the $3/hour made by many farmers, as documented by University Extension research. 

Now, is SPIN Permaculture? 

The main premise of Permaculture is to "catch and store energy" of our labor into perennial systems, and communities that will help us slowly grow wealthier with less labor and input. It's getting the MOST back, out of the least work, and getting bigger returns over time. 

The point of Permaculture is that it pays dividends

Since SPIN is entirely based on doing the same annual work each year for (hopefully) the same return, without ever accumulating value, it is not Permaculture. 

And while Permaculture comes with a "built-in retirement plan" as the ecosystem naturally gains value and stability, a SPIN farmer will be doing the same exact thing at 70 as they were at 20, unless they somehow managed to save a large percentage of their income. 

(A Permaculture system with wildlife habitat, perennial plants, and off-season harvests.)

SPIN does not intend to increase wildlife habitat or ecosystem function, or to catch and filter water or other resources, which are other major goals of Permaculture. It would be difficult to do SPIN, without considerable adaptation, without tilling each year, which is both bad for soil and uses a lot of oil. In fact, the amount of oil/unit of food is higher with this type of production than in large commercial agriculture. Soil fertility comes from off-site, making it almost impossible to trace whether the farming is actually depleting soil elsewhere. So, SPIN is not sustainable, even if its adherents are trying their best to replenish the soil carbon and fertility they're mining. Those who call SPIN "sustainable farming" are using a very misleading definition of the word "sustainable." 

One final caveat that may be important to Permaculturists is this: "the farmer eats last." The few SPIN farmers I've spoken too, like many traditional farmers who make market gardening their main focus, compain that the best of their crops go to the market, not to their families. Unlike Permaculture, which prioritizes growing the healthiest food in "zone 1" for our families, a SPIN farmer will be putting most of their time into market crops, and the best will go to the customers. 

But SPIN could be part of a Permaculture system and plan, with good design. It could be part of the early succession of a system as perennials were maturing. It could be integrated with other social concepts, and use Permaculture techniques to lower costs, reduce labor and provide fertility on site. Since many perennial crops are far more profitable per square foot, Permaculture could help make SPIN more profitable, breaking through that $20k barrier, and certainly to increase that hourly wage. 

For gardeners with some experience, there are better resources with more information, for far less money. I especially recommend those offered by Grow BioIntensive. But for absolute new farmers digging the soil for the first time, the SPIN plan could be a way to get started towards Permaculture. It might be a good way to gain confidence and learn your market while making some income - like a paid internship you hire yourself for. But once a new grower found her "farm legs," I wouldn't suggest staying on the SPIN path for long. And even for the beginner, there may be better plans out there worth considering. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Winter Farm/Garden Design Exercise

The "MAXIMUM PRODUCTIVITY OR GTFO!!!!!!!" mantra you see in a lot of gardening/farming discussions, for me, is like so much of the "bigger is better" American silliness that we see: more explosions, more flash, more glitter, more money, bigger houses, bigger cars, big muscles, bigger skyscrapers and WHO CARES about whether or not it makes any sense otherwise. A lot of the time, in fact, MOST of the time, this leads us to poor solutions that don't actually work, but hey - they're BIG FAST EXTREME AWESOME!

So we have BIG CARS that hardly drive, cost too much, waste gas and money, and break down all the time. "AWESOME!"

And we have BIG HOMES that waste fuel, are hard to heat, hard to keep clean, expensive to furnish and break down all the time. "AWESOME!"

And we have big BANK ACCOUNTS that cost us our happiness, our connection to people in our communities, and don't correlate well to satisfaction. "AWESOME!"

Even in Permaculture some assume that the goal must be BIG PRODUCTIVITY per acre or square foot. 

But that doesn't even make sense on big farm fields, where it wastes soil, water and fossil fuels, and due to the law of diminishing marginal utility, dramatically increases food waste as it increases processing and transport costs. While BIG AG claims BIG PRODUCTIVITY is the only way to "feed the world" it's common sense that more efficient return on investment and lower yields per unit would actually leave less food wasted and get more people fed and employed. This is especially true when one considers "total people fed over the system life" - the ONLY measure that means anything. A BIG PRODUCTIVE field may feed 4 times the people over the short term (in an ideal season,) but burns out its soil productivity in a short time, whereas a sustainaby productive system will feed a quarter of the people but if it lasts 100 times (or more) as long, it will feed 25 times (or more) people!             

And MAX PRODUCTIVITY makes even less sense on the small farm or homestead, where it may not help the land stewards meet their personal goals, create good lives, serve their society well, or steward the land at all!

(Late November harvests of fennel bulbs, parsnips, carrots, squash, tomatoes, potatoes...)

For me, the goal of the ideal Permaculture system is to optimally meet our needs now, and in the future, even if those needs might change a little. Which means for me, the goal is maximum flexibility while allowing us to invest in Permanent infrastructure, especially: "Flexible Adaptability of Input to Output." Meaning if we want to save money and time, it can go into "low input mode" being largely self-maintaining and still giving us a well-rounded diversity of production: plants, seed, nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, craft materials, fuel, etc. But if I want to, I can quickly adapt the system to respond to more inputs and more energy with greater productivity - of whatever market crop I want. 

While I was out working the garden today, I did a little design exercise that I found very helpful. I imagined what some of my potential goals would be for this system at Lillie House, and how I could adapt the system to meet those goals (and how quickly.) 

(Another late-season dinner harvest)

I realized that the more flexible our system is, the more likely our work is to last into the future!

Right now, our system is maximized for:
A BEAUTIFUL home living space that enhances our lives
almost 0 off-site inputs
low maintenance
relatively high yields of plant material, seeds and cuttings as our main income crop,
emphasize perennial vegetables and fruit crops,
well-rounded yields of daily salads, fruit, vegetables, flowers, craft materials, herbs, medicines, calories and protein - IN AMOUNTS WHERE WE CAN EASILY HARVEST, PROCESS, AND USE THEM with no waste. 

(soap-making with home-grown herbs and fragrances)
But I could imagine various scenarios where any of the following might become practical goals for the people living here. 

Here's the thought exercise: For each of these goals, how would you adapt your system? Could you get there in 1 season? 

1. Maximize productivity of vegetables while maintaining well-rounded diversity. 
2. Maximize productivity of calorie crops while maintaining diversity of yields. 
3. Maximize productivity of fruit while maintaining diversity. 
4. Maximize production of annual vegetables while maintaining sustainability, not importing fertility and maintaining a diversity of yields. 
5. Maximize production of herbs or medicines, etc. 

(small batch of lavendar-calendula soap.)

6. Create a beautiful, stable, extremely low-input/low-maintenance home landscape for the non-agricultural family, that maximizes ease and beauty, but still gives the family access to healthy food, herbs, fruit, flowers, etc. 
7. Maximize learning, education, or cultural opportunities on site while maintaining diverse yields, etc. 
8. Integrate appropriate animal systems, chickens, etc. while maintaining diversity, etc. 
For me, the "win" was that I could easily imagine steps I could take to quickly meet any of those goals in one season, without dramatically changing our design, infrastructure or earthworks! To me, that's a good design! 

(Fruits from earlier in the season)

Of these, there are 3 goals the most useful seemed to be our current goal, #5 (most profitable for product sales) and #6 (for sale or property transfer) with an honorable mention to #7. None of those deal with maximizing productivity. The least useful is #4 as it is the least profitable and least health/life enhancing.