Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Permaculture" from a Lost Age

"When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nr for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, "See! This our fathers did for us." 

--John Ruskin, 
Audel's Carpenters and Builders Guide 

I collect old manuals on construction, horticulture, agriculture, etc. Many of these guides, such as these from Audel in 1921 contain lost knowledge and secrets of doing things in ways that are necessarily "lower tech" and far more energy efficient than the way they're done today. As such, they're often more appropriate to the human scale. 

But they also embody another nearly lost secret... a traditional view towards quality that laid the foundations for long-lasting culture, going back to Homer's careful description of a well-made Greek spear, the sturdy home of a fisherman, or a boar perfectly roasted over a spit.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gravity Heat: the Complexity of Energy Efficiency

Recently, we've been looking into a few upgrades to our ol-timey Gravity Furnace. Whenever we ask for recommendations, we always hear the same advice: "just replace the thing!" 

And that is the generally the advice you'd hear from just about anybody in business that makes money by selling new equpment.  

In fact, a very similar project that I've been admiring for years-another ecological uprade of a victorian home--heralded the replacement of their gravity furnace as their number 1 
"green" improvement! 

But given the particulars of our home and furnace, when I "do the math" I find that replacing our old "octopus" unnecessarily adds to our negative ecological impact as well as increasing our "net" heating cost over the life of our home. 

For those who aren't familiar with a "gravity furnace," they're the simplest kind of central heating you can have, relying not on fans to circulate heat, but on the simple fact that heat rises and cold air sinks.  

And while that system comes with certain draw backs and inefficiencies, it also has some advantages, which from a certain perspective, outweigh the negatives:  

1. Fuel Adaptability: in its lifetime, our furnace has run on wood, coal, oil and gas! If current trends towards economic instability and increasing resource scarcity continue this alone makes our "octopus" very attractive as a second furnace (we also have a modern forced air furnace in for parts of our home.)  
2. Dependable: few moving parts, no fans, baffles, computers, plus strong long-lived materials, little to go wrong.  
3. Ecological impact of embodied energy: As an annualized impact, this equipment's ecological footprint is tiny, even assuming impractically large efficiency improvements, an honest evaluation including the embodied energy of new ductowrk, etc. makes it unlikely that furnace replacement would "pay off" in the lifetime of a furnace.  
4. Financial viability: again, assuming huge efficiency increases only possible with home alterations (wall insulation, increased sealing)  that are likely to have a negative impact on the lifespan of our victorian home (Victorian homes weren't made for that kind of air-tightness)--and not including those costs in my calcualtions--a new furnace is unlikely to pay for itself over its lifetime! When I do the math, the payback time ends up being over 40 years, not including maintenance and parts replacement!  When it comes down to it, the money we save by waiting to replace this monster can be invested in things that will have a bigger ecological impact and shorter pay-back time. 
5. Depressurized heating efficiency in an old house: lab tests of efficiency assume the relative air-tightness of a modern home. In a leaky victorian home, there are efficiencies that come with not having heat "forced" out of the home by a blower. It's hard to measure this factor, but it shouldn't be discounted when calculating supposed benefits of newer furnaces. 
6. Reasonably Upgradable: efficiency improvements can be made such as updating the ignition, adding thermal mass, and installing radiator coils in the flue pipe, which was popular in the 70s and can capture 40-50% of the "lost" heat, bringing efficiency into the range of modern heaters. Unlike a new furnace, these improvements would pay for themselves in a few short years. 

All things considered, it's impossible for me to justify unnecessary replacement of our gravity furnace on ecological, efficiency or financial grounds. It just goes to show that the conventional advice isn't always right, and fancy "efficiency upgrades" sold by the industry don't always work out to be more efficient when you do the numbers. 

Some day, this beast will come to the end of its life and it will be time to replace it. Even then, this analysis shows there may be ecological and financial benefits to eschewing fancy "green" high-efficiency equipment promoted by "green living experts," with so many short-lived parts, fussy electronics and high embodied energy for more "appropriate" tech that's simpler, longer-lived, more adaptable, and less expensive. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Quince--a Great Permaculture Tree Crop


If you want to grow your food on trees--and there's a lot of good reasons to do so--then you traditionally would have an easier time of it in the tropics, where there are a lot of "tree fruits" that can be used as staple vegetables, like plantain, avocado, jack fruit, etc. With the powerful productivity of trees, this means that tropical Permaculturists with establish food forests report feeding 30 families from a small fraction of an acre year round from their "vegetable" CSA. Of course, most of the "vegetables" are actually tree fruits! 

In cold climates, our ancestors haven't cultivated many fruits to fill this role. While we do have quite a few tree vegetables, like Toon Tree and Linden, we don't have many traditional calorie rich, starchy staple crop trees. The only two that come to mind are Chestnut and, of course, the Quince.

Most people these days aren't too familiar with Quinces, but our great grandparents were. There was a time when this was the desert-island tree of choice for American settlers--if they only had room for one fruit tree,  it would be a quince, for its versatility and many uses. Not only was the quince prefered over other "pome fruit" like apples and pears for desserts, but its high pectin content, acidity and spicy aroma made it the perfect side-kick for any fruit preserves, jam or jelly. The same pectin content also made it great for cosmetic purposes, including the orignial "hair jelly," or "pomeade." As a matter of fact, I've been using a home-made pomeade for the last month to keep my coiffure in order and I'll be sad to go back to salon products when its gone. It works great, doesn't get greasy or stiff and as Ulysses Everett McGill said of his "pomade" in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? "I like the smell of my hair treatment--the pleasing aroma is half the point."

But more importantly for northern Permaculturists, the Quince has a tradition of being used as a staple in savory dishes going back to antiquity. It has been featured alongside olives in tapas dishes, added to stews in hearty chunks, paired with meat and poultry, used in stuffings, and even stuffed and roasted in its own right, with cheeses, bread crumbs and herbs.


Growing Quinces 

Although it is generally renowned as the easiest-to-grow of all pome fruit--being all but indestructable--growing quinces in regions with Fireblight requires some special considerations. Here in S.W. Michigan we have occasional outbreaks of blight, and the Quince can become problematic. Many orchardists have complained that the species can act as a carrier and that normally "blight immune" varieties of apples or pears will be killed by blight if they're too close to an infected Quince. (I know of one S.W. Michigan grower who reported severe blight outbreaks every year in her "blight tolerant" Seckel pears, which went away completely after removing a nearby Quince.) So, in our food forest, we've planted Quince far from any other pome fruit, in a "zone 2" area where we'll visit it often and catch any blight early on. We also made sure not to place it someplace where it would be a key landscaping feature, since it might require extensive and unattractive pruning. 

Unfortunately, there are no varieties currently marketed as "blight tolerant" in the United States, as the fruit is so uncommon that it hasn't been cultivated or researched much here. However, in the Caspian region, where Quince is still a staple and blight a major problem, this has been worked on, so varieties from this area are often considered by knowledgable growers to have better blight tolerance. According to Quince enthusiasts at Garden Web, Russians consider the variety "Aromatnaya" to be the most blight tolerant cultivar. It is also commonly recommended for ripening well in northern climates and cool, cloudy summers. And while I haven't tried it myself, it's frequently rated among the best tasting Quinces, highly aromatic (as the name suggests) and one of the few sweet enough to be eaten raw. 

(NOTE: While the variety has been cultivated for blight tolerance, American nurserymen will likely be selling it on standard Quince rootstock that has NOT been cultivated for this purpose. That would seem to make Aromatnaya an ideal candidate for growing on its own root. Planting a grafted tree deeply, with the graft below the soil level should allow the grafted species to take root.)

With blight considered, the Quince seems ideal for food forests, reportedly very low maintenance and highly productive in more shade than other pome fruit would tolerate. 


Quince Galette with Goat Cheese and Thyme 

In this traditional southern European Quince Galette with goat cheese, the quince takes on a savory, hearty--even meaty--quality, while retaining a mild sweetness and citrusy aroma. 

Highly recommended. 

I made a few changes based on my preferences, including roasting the quinces in a mixture of rum, apple cider and orange juice. In my short experience with the quince, I've found I really enjoy the complexity of flavor that comes out from long cooking, and quinces paired with rum smells basically like Christmas. Just halve the fruit, remove the core, and roast the quinces in enough liquid to keep the bottom of the dish from drying out, about 45 minutes. The quince should keep its firmness and be ready to be sliced. Don't forget to keep the quince pits, and cover them in cup of water to make a pomeade! 

I also found from similar recipes that the goat cheese could dry out too much, and followed the common recomendation of combining the first layer of goat cheese with one or two egg yolks to keep it moist. The final layer of goat cheese on top doesn't require egg, as it's added at the end.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Designing a Permaculture Hedgerow

Last night, I had the opportunity to join in a permaculture discussion where hedgerows came up, and people who know me know that I'm crazy about hedges. As modern agricultural research turns towards perennial crops, and polyculture plantings, the hedgerow stands out as a traditional and uniquely adapted system for utilizing both. Better still, these woody perennial polyculture systems can do extra work by providing building and craft materials, ample carbonaceous material for composting, providing windbreaks, wildlife shelter, fences for wildlife, create fire and erosion barriers, provide forage, protect livestock or humans, and greatly increase the biodiversity that has a positive benefit on pest and disease problems and system health and resilience. 

Far more than mere shrubbery, hedgerows represent the original "food forest" technology of cold temperate climates, with their linear nature being a perfect adaptation of forest gardening to northern latitudes where light penetration becomes key. And since forest gardening has been called "the world's oldest land use" by anthropologists, it's no wonder that where you find hedgerows they're fundamental to cuisine, medicine, magic, shelter... and life in general.

If the hedge-bug bites you, you can delve deeply into our cultural heritage with a Google quest across the the rich topic of the Hedge, by exploring:
Hedgerow foraging
Tapestry Hedges
French Hedgerows in WWII
The Hortus Conclusus


At Lillie House, our research into hedge-tech has focused on adapting the traditional systems of British and French hedgerows, especially the English "cut and lay hedge" and the French "woven hedge" to the Great Lakes region by using bio-mimicry of the spontaneous, natural hedge-like systems that arise throughout the region. Some of our favorite foraging areas have been these natural hedgerows and we've aimed to study and recreate them at our home.

A generalized European planting would typically use:
A "thorny" main structural planting of 60% Hawthorn or Blackthorn (wild plum) or 30% of each of those. In addition to thorns, these species spread by sucker to fill in dead sections, and take very well to "coppicing," and creating tight woven hedges. 
10-20% Hazel. Hazel was sometimes used as the "main planting," especially in more urban areas where nuts were desirable and 
And a mix of: roses, brambles, elder, crab-apples, damsons, sloes, and wild apples and pears.
Hedgerows intended as wind breaks might include 10-30% evergreens, including yew. Science has verified the wisdom of this traditional approach, finding that a greater density of evergreens increases the turbulance of winter winds, actually increasing the problem instead of reducing it.

To get an idea of these plantings, try looking at some of the offerings of the many British companies selling traditional Hedgerow plants:

For the Great Lakes region, many of these plants could be adapted at least in function, though Blackthorn may experience problems with black rot. Good substitutes for the primary planting could include Sea Buckthorn or Goumi, which both fix nitrogen and coppice well. 

Our US wild plums do not generally coppice well, so they aren't good choices, however other prunus species like Nanking Cherry make good substitutes. 

Rugosa roses make an excellent choice for the US, as do our native elders. Blackberries  or wild black raspberries would also be quite at home in such a planting. Mulberries are commonly found in natural hedgerows here, and I suspect that after some extra work to get it established, Paw Paw would be very happy with life in a hedgerow, too, as it suckers, tolerates shade and takes to coppicig well.  

Through your next drive through the country, a quick look out the window and you're likely to see exactly this kind of plant community growing wild in the ditches. One even happens to be growing along the bike trail down the street for us, which is the one we copied for our planting. There are probably several near your home that could serve as the basis for your hedgerow. 

But not all trees will work well. French and British models typically excluded trees that would be allelopathic (toxic to other plants) or those that quickly sucker and are very tolerant of shade, as they become weedy in a hedgerow. Norway maple, willows, certain dogwoods, and even English elder (a stereotypical Hedgerow tree) were often avoided, depending on the site. Tall trees such as oak, linden and maple were often included, but spaced at least 2 or 3 times mature orcahrd spacing, perhaps 200' apart. These rules typically aimed to keep hedge maintenance low by reducing pruning and weeding. 

Once you have your trees chosen, you'll have a wide variety of perennial vegetables and fruits that are ideally suited to the conditions of a hedgerow. At LillieHouse, these include: strawberries, sea kale, asparagus, good king henry, sorrel, endive (chicory) nettles, poke, comfrey, stinky bob, perennial alliums (we have over a dozen varieties) cleavers, milkweed, turkish rocket, sweet rocket, jerusalem artichokes, japanese yam, grapes, kiwi, ground nut, ground pea, ladies thumb, clover, salad burnet, spring beauty, mints, and many others! Hedgerows naturally take advantage of "edge effect" making them an ideal place for a huge variety of species. 


Once you have an idea about what plants you want in your hedgerow, you'll need to make a plan for establishing it. Like all things in appropriate technology, traditional technology and Permaculture, the trick here is finding the right balance of "intensive" and "extensive" tools for the job. Traditional European hedge systems provide us with a wide range of options here, from the careful and deliberate plantings of urban French Tapestry Hedges to the nature-assisted systems of "dead hedging." 

Any one hedge is likely to use a mix of hedging approaches, but arranging them in order of intensive to extensive, they might look like this:
1. Intensively planted urban or "zone 1 or 2" hedges close to the home: Hand planted at high density around 1-2' apart, relying on selected short tree species chosen to give a yield of fruit, nuts, berries beautiful folliage and flowers. Shorter species make the hedgerow less labor to maintain.  
2. Semi-intensive: hand-plants pioneer species like elder, prunus species, and hazel at a greater distance of 3-5' or more. Birds, mamals, and suckering fill in the hedge. Oftentimes, hedge-layers would encourage the process by throwing fruit cores and seeds into the hedgerow. 
3. Sacrificial planting: very fast growing trees are planted at a useful density 2-3' and quickly woven into a hedge. Later, these trees are selected out as more desirable species fill in. Trees especially suited to this might include empress tree, toon tree, and hybrid poplar.
4. Dead hedging: using available materials, pruinings and fallen wood to build a temporary fence to meet your needs. Over time, perching birds, and mammals help fill in the planting, reliably creating a hedgerow of useful mast and fruit species. The hedge-layer can help the process by occasionally planting in a few desirable species and selecting for the best plants. 

One of my favorite gardening blogs has a great post on how this mix of procedures is covered in the French literature here: 


And finally, if you've come this far into hedge-geekery, thanks for your time! You can find even more info on our hedgerows by searching this blog, if you like. Better yet, take a minute to look at some pictures of these traditional French and British systems:

1. Google search for British "hedge laying."

2. French tapestry hedges:

And finally, if you're planning a hedgerow, please drop me a comment and let me know about it. As a certifiable hedge-geek, I'd love to hear about your project. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Permaculture Garden in Early Winter

The first snow of the year.

A nice reminder of the beauty that comes as things come to the end of their season.

It's good to cultivate an appreciation for such things when you live in a place like Michigan. 

And a time such as ours, where so much of our lives will be lived after the growing season. 

And often that's where the real beauty is found. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Alternative Paths to Wealth

Bill Mollison, one of the founders of Permaculture, famously said that seeing houses well stocked with fuel wood was a better measure of the real wealth of an area than GDP. 

How true. 

Lately, I've been studying "wealth," what it means to different people, and the paths they use to get it. It's certainly an idea that a lot of folks find motivating, and accumulating it's even a core principle for many people's lives. In fact, the pursuit of wealth is one of the key organizing factors in our society, that defines the "right" American way of life and forms many of our most important norms and mores. But for most of my life, the common notions of "wealth" I was taught by society didn't seem very useful or desirable to me. "Wealth," as society defined it, was just a thing that seemed to keep people from accumulating the things I considered valuable, and generally kept people from thriving. 

"Screw wealth," I used to say, "it just costs too much."  

The concept of wealth I was taught was very much like the definition you'll find on Wikipedia: the accumulation of valuable resources and possessions. Society makes that seem very straight forward, but for me it always seemed a lot more complicated than that. I think a lot of people feel that way on some intuitive level. That's probably why more and more people are rejecting the "right" American way of life. Pundits on TV and Paternal figures in churches love to scorn and judge these wayward sons, but they're simply no longer tempted by the cheap plastic chochkies, stress, and stagnation that supposedly rewards us for "good behavior." 

One apparent problem is that wealth accumulation is affected by "diminishing returns." If somebody gives you a sandwich, you can have lunch. A second sandwich is a sort of luxury. A third sandwich probably won't taste as good and you'll probably end up paying for it later, either by working it off at the gym or paying for the negative health effects of over-eating. So, maybe you have a friend close by who also wants lunch. Ten sandwiches, and now you've got to waste your time to call your friends or go knock on doors and see who wants a sandwich. One hundred sandwiches and you've probably got to get some helpers to distribute your sandwich surplus. Of course, you'll need to pay them, so you'll need to start charging, so you won't be making any friends this way. 1,000 sandwiches? 10,000? Each step up creates more work to do, more time and resources to manage, and most importantly, at each step, the amount of sandwiches that will inevitably get wasted goes up, giving you a pile of stinky rotting sandwiches to deal with, too. 

A second problem with "wealth" was that I often disagreed with my society about the "value" placed on various things. So many of the "resources and possessions" society considers valuable seem like dirty diapers to me, not something I really want even one of, let alone something I'd want to accumulate. This is different than "diminishing returns," which is too much of a good thing. Even one dirty diaper (or Hummer, or private jet, or private golf course) isn't really something I'm exactly yearning for. All of those things seem to come with lots of "negatives" like smelling bad, or making you look like an asshole, offer very little added utility, and require lots of additional resources, time and money for upkeep, even when you're not using them. 

Anyway, I will be writing a few posts about what real "wealth" means to me, how I'm going about accumullating it, and some tools I've discovered for getting there. 

To start with, here's a quick list of some "resources or possessions" that I highly value and want to accumulate. But I also keep in mind that all of these are affected by the idea of "diminishing returns," which implies that a kind of "balanced portfolio" is an important part of what real wealth means:
--Peace of mind, a calm and relaxed, yet energized and happy mind that's naturally predisposed to good intentions and realistic but compassionate mental narratives. This is the most important resource and possession we can have, as state of mind influences our ability to appreciate and use all the others. There is no activity, resource or possession that is worth sacrificing this one. 

--Time to "spend" on things that are important to me: friends, family, community, life-enriching activities, silent contemplation, nature, art, and play.
--Valuable "intellectual property," skills, experience, ideas, sets of knowledge that can improve life for me and other people.
--Freedom to do as I like so long as I'm not hurting other people. This implies a certain amount of control over your own basic necessities such as food, water, clothing, shelter.... So, a certain amount of:
--Self Reliance.

--To be a part of a respected member of a healthy, happy community and biome. 
--Relationships: friends, family, love...
--Rewarding work where I can contribute something meaningful and positive. 
--A deep connection with nature and my biome. 

--Dirty hands and muddy boots, the feeling of "working" as the "keystone species" in my ecosystem as a natural human. "Obtaining a yield" from working with nature is an extraordinarily rewarding experience. 
--A beautiful and comfortable "home" where I can express myself and be surrounded by beauty. This does not have to be done with expensive things, in fact, the most beautiful homes are humble. To paraphrase Thoreau, people live in big, expensive houses with shiny new things while they romanticize the painting of the rustic old cabin on their wall. The important thing is the restorative and joyful experience of being in a beautiful place. In many spiritual traditions it is considered important to make one's home like the home of the gods! This is old magic....

--A healthy, flexible, strong body. Secure access to good healthy food and natural medicines. A healthy home environment free of toxins. High quality, rewarding exercise. Comfortable levels of heat and coolth. Secure access to clean water. 
--A fair say in the politics and policies of my community, especially when they affect me. 
--Security. By this, I mean the feeling that--within reason--some "insurance" that I wouldn't be too negatively effected by external circumstances beyond my control. For me, some of this is external, and a matter of having resources and possessions that can be "protected" in some way. It's especially important mentally to make sure your ability to meet me needs is protected. But I also recognize that the bigger part of this is "internal." There's never any perfect insurance or guarantee you won't lose something. Loss is part of life. So true security means having a mental state where these inevitable losses don't overly impact your happiness, health and contentment. 
--Simplicity. As few tangible physical possessions as I can get away with. As few responsibilities and obligations, as well. Do less, better. 
--Compassion for all beings. Compassion makes life richer. 

Of course, any idea of "wealth" has to include "luxuries." The list above provides me with most of the things I'd consider true luxuries, and most are experiences that you can't buy with money these days, a roaring fire, connection to nature, ripe heirloom fruit just picked from the tree....

I feel like if I can design my life to accumulate these resources and possessions in the right amounts, then extra money would just be a bother I'd have to deal with, another responsibility I'd be burdened with, and a detraction from real wealth. Sure, I might like to travel a little now and then, mostly to see friends across the country, but perhaps with some creativity I don't need monetary wealth to do that. 

When I envision a life with the right balance of those things, I see true wealth. 

So, what's valuable? What truly makes a person wealthy?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

And Now for Something Totally Different

Goofing around with a newish piece, haven't really bothered to learn all the words yet. I think I got some of 'em right, though.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Social Elements in A Food Forest

Permaculturists across the world are investing in highly valuable, long-term, naturally modelled systems called "food forests" that are self-maintaining and produce food, fiber, and building materials--a real, durable form of wealth that can enrich their communities for generations to come. 

Well, that is, if those systems last!

In the modern world people often fail to see the value in things like free, high-quality food and materials. I'm convinced that if money DID grow on trees, people still wouldn't take the time to pick it. 

Whenever we plant trees and perennial crops, we do so knowing that most of their value lies well into the future, and that investment may not ever see its full potential. If it's a public or community project, our work must demonstrate enough value year after year to clearly justify the maintenance costs and reward volunteers with the equivalent of a "living wage" for their efforts. If not, our work is likely to be replaced by something that's seen as less of a "drain." If our investment is in the private sphere, such as a home forest garden, then it will have to offer a similarly high value/low maintenance costs to future home owners. 

For this reason, in my studies of Permaculture site plans, I'm always most inspired by projects that integrate these "productive assets" (like fruit and fiber trees, and forest gardens) into social and living space in a way that just works. This is a hallmark of the indigenous "forest gardens" found throughout the world, they are living spaces, work spaces, the places where life is lived out, where people WANT to be--and they just happen to produce 90% of the family's food. If you're not familiar with these indigenous forest gardens, here are a few short videos to provide an introduction. The first is a 300 year old food forest, with Geoff Lawton, and the second is Monty Don's tour of a Keralan "home garden." The section on Mr. Abraham's Spice Garden starts at 34 minutes. 

In Permaculture terms, these gardens "stack functions" providing both productive space and social space. 

So, what are some of the ways people use outdoor spaces at home? Which of these can these be naturally integrated into the long-term infrastructure of a forest garden? 

Outdoor eating/picnic/cookout area
Shady living space for hot weather
Warm/sunny space for cool weather
Outdoor gym, exercise space, functional fitness.
"Private" living space, where family members can go to be alone, study, meditate, take dates
Outdoor sleeping/relaxing space
Outdoor games, horseshoes, baggo, croquet, frisbee golf, hide and seek, tag...
Playground toys. 
Outdoor office
Outdoor workspace
"Strolling gardens"or "enterance gardens" were a popular place to walk with neighborsduring the victorian era. 
Dog runs
Sunny space for some annual gardening.
Family picture backdrop
Tree house
Fire pit
Natural swimming pool/water garden
Outdoor "stage" for music, presentations, plays
Spiritual spaces, sacred circle, meditation garden

The more life activities that can be integrated into our plans, the less likely it is that someone will remove a prized rare fruit tree to put in a fire pit. And the more a forest garden calls out to people to spend time in it, the more it will be valued and utilized. 

And the same "stacking of functions" holds true for public space, too. In fact it's probably even more important. Some examples:

Art exhibits
Outdoor theater
Dance recitals
Small, intimate concerts
A bike/walking trail
Frisbee golf
Camp grounds
RV park
Dog Park
Senior pictures and other portraits
Vermicomposting near the fishing spot
Athletic fields--yes, even these fields of grass could benefit from Permaculture design! Imagine low-maintance trees next to the bleechers, providing a shady place to sit and fruit planned to ripen throughout the sport's season. Meanwhile, edible hedgerows provide a windbreak around  a soccer field... 

And this list is just a start. What other social functions can be integrated into our sites? 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fall Morning

Had a great time at the South Michigan Permaculture Mixer yesterday. It is heartening to meet so many great people building a bridge to greater personal freedom, health, and cooperation with nature. Of course, that sounds a little cheesy and day-dreamy, when what really inspired me about the day was the very down-to-earth practicality of the whole thing. These people were just rolling up their sleeves and quite literally building a better future--real, tangilble wealth and resources like renewable energy sources, fruit and nut orchards, practical housing, human-scale DIY technology, and so on. Unlike the evanescent fantasy "wealth" of stock markets, credit cards and "innovative financial instruments," where value can vanish in the blink of an eye, these Permaculturists are investing in assets that will keep people warm, sheltered, happy, well-fed and spiritually nourished for generations to come.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Permaculture Principle: Obtain a Yield

One of the most rewarding things about gardening is learning to see the connections between things in the garden system. It's amazing how everything in nature shares and cycles energy streams, "catching and storing energy" and cooperates to enrich the ecosystem for the whole.

Autumn Olive Pasta Sauce--Delicious!

What makes that investment of each individual's time and effort possible is that they are rewarded for this activity. Everything that lives has to "obtain a yield." For those of us who are natural "do-gooders," inclined to give freely of ourselves, this may be the most important Permaculture principle.

When we "only give" we do work that is ultimately unsustainable. But it's also potentially dangerous. There's a wisdom inherent in the collaborative "enlightened self interest" of natural communities, which keeps everyone working a niche and obtaining a yield from it. When we create systems or communities that bypass this, where we give without obtaining a yield, there's a danger that we will disrupt a natural connection where someone else could "help themselves" and obtain a yield in doing the work we did for free. Often times, such as in our well-meaning interventions in low-income or natural communities, we end up hurting the people we intend to help, preventing community members from starting businesses and enriching the ecology of their community.

I believe our garden will be a "good work" that will build the ecology of or community. And it's a joy to do. But I have to admit, it makes it easier to commit the time when our garden "pays" us in some very tasty things to eat!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mushrooms Note

Hello to all who attended the mushroom cultivation workshop at the KNC this weekened. Please feel free to search the blog for food forest design notes and information on some of our "guilds" here at Lillie House.

As I have been "under the weather" over the last few days, I haven't gotten around to posting additional mushroom info and resources yet. I will make sure to get them up as soon as I'm feeling up to snuff.

Thanks again for the fun time,


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Early Fall Garden

Well, besides very nice crop of peas, and a few tomatoes and peppers, we really never got around to "putting in" our garden this year. And most of what we did put in became lunch for wildlife. We never tilled or dug any garden beds. We did hand cast a few seeds now and then, but we never dug in seeds in any traditional way. We never watered, almost never weeded, certainly never added fertlizer.

And yet, we have harvested fruit, herbs and vegetables almost every day since sometime in April. We've hardly bought any vegetables during that time. And we've had large salads out of the garden available pretty much every day, though sometimes these just go to the bunny or the worm composting bin. At least a few times a week we make meals that almost entirely come from the garden, minus things like oils and salt. To be honest, even though we didn't do much gardening this year, our garden has done almost too much for us, we certainly didn't use all of what it produced for us. 

That's the beauty of Permaculture design based on perennials and self-sown vegetables, fruit and herbs. And our garden is only getting started. each year will add a greater yield and variety of fruits and vegetables, even if we never do another thing in the garden other than mow paths and harvest.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Easy Sidewalk Garden with Sheet Mulching

So here was the slope to our sidewalk. Ugly, eroding, and nearly impossible to mow or maintain. 

Figuring out what to do with this has been a major challenge for us, as the conventional wisdom is to repeatedly spray with poisons to defoliate the slope, then plant it with a garden. 

But we don't use chemicals at Lillie House, so we had to find a different way. 

Our way also had to be easy, cheap, and easy to maintain long-term. We dont' want to have to spend any time weeding, watering or maintaining this slope. 

On top of that, it would be nice if it were multi-purpose, as we don't necessarily want to eat food grown next to our high-traffic street, but we also don't want to "waste" the space. 

Anyway, we will come back to add some finishing touches and plant this new garden in the Fall, so that it's ready for next year, but this is what it looks like after a day of work:

It's pretty self-explainitory, but keep reading if you'd like the details of how we did it. 

Our strategy begins with installing 2"*8" edging to hold mulch in place and prevent erosion and then "sheet mulching" the slope. (Sheet Mulching is basically putting down a weed barrier, in our case newspaper and cardboard, then layering a thick pile of mulch on top of it with a good balance of "green" and "brown" material such as you would with composting.

First, we edged the sidewalk:

Next, we installed Edging
We explored several different techniques, but we basically just needed something that would keep the sidewalk clean and clear and help hold on our mulch. 
Then we began sheet mulching. We cut a large amount of organic material from our hedgerow, including comfrey, grass, yarrow and sunchokes to help fertilize the soil. We also added a little finished compost. Then we started putting down the newspaper and cardboard. The only trick to this was installing a few horizontal rails and sticks pinned down with ground stakes to help hold the cardboard down and hold the newspaper in place. Finally, we mulched over the cardboard with whatever organic matter we had on hand and then finished that off with a thick layer of wood mulch from the free municiple mulch lot. 

Now, we're ready to come back and plant this slope this Fall with a special mix of ornamental plants that will be low maintanance and still provide us with a good "yield" that we can harvest from this garden. We'll post more on that when it's planting time!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tour of Lillie House

Welcome to a virtual tour of our home, built by the Lillie Family sometime in the mid 1800s.

For many years now, we've been looking for a better way to live. For us, that meant a lot of what we'd read about in the "back to the land movement," more freedom, more simplicity, a lighter footprint and a deeper connection to our ecosystem. 

But coming from the suburbs, we missed the rich connection to culture, education, friends and community of living in the city. So we found an acre in a college town with a beautiful old house. 

In our three years here, we've started transforming the place through the tools of Permaculture design. You can learn all about Permaculture here.

Unlike the "hard work" gardens we had in the past, our garden works for us now.

We don't till, we don't spray or fertilize, we rarely weed, and hardly ever water.
Yet It provides us with fruit, herbs, vegetables, and salads virtually every day of the year, and a true relationship with nature and our food. 

Ecologically modeled "food forests," as well as edible hedgerows, and perennial guilds, conscript plants and wildlife into doing much of the work for us. 

And creating diversity not only saves on garden work, it brings in a wide variety of wildlife into our lives.

And Permaculture has taught us the value of using "restoration" to save money and time. Old houses can be the "easiest" houses for the same reason that they can be the 
greenest houses: materials.
They evolved in a time when things were made with quality materials meant to last, with designs intended to be maintained indefinitely and lived in comfortably with low energy inputs. 

On top of that, they were made in a time when everything was made to be beautiful. 

A strategy of finding the steps that yield the greatest return on investment has helped save us time and money we can return back to our projects, creating a "positive feedback loop." 

According to Consumers Energy, simple, low-cost steps have made our big old victorian home one of the top 15% "most energy efficient homes" in the city. 

And, of course, all of this has allowed us to easily transform an empty city lot into a place of beauty and plenty.