Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Sunchoke or Jerusalem Artichoke

Want an amazing edible landscape plant with the beauty of wild sunflowers, that's a hard worker in the garden, a high quality medicinal, a great vegetable and also an extremely productive "carb" crop? 

Yes, yes, the sunchoke, or Jerusalem artichoke is all that and a bag of chips. Like literally, they make really, really great chips. 

But that's just the start of their culinary potential. While I'm personally not too fond of the cooked, unprocessed vegetable, the thinly sliced raw tuber (in small amounts) is a great crunchy stand-in for water chestnuts in salads, and when processed, it becomes nearly as versatile as the potato. We use it plentifully throughout the winter as one of our main "carbs," as the base for soups, in breads and pancakes  as chips, pasta, gnocchi and latkes. The only caution is that the tuber contains inulin, which can cause flatulence, especially in those unused to digesting it. However, according to a few sources, and our own experience, the inulin can be broken down with long cooking, yielding an ingredient better-suited for a party. (Unless you're planning a farty party.)

But for homesteaders, permaculturists and home gardeners who want to maximize the value of their space, the Jerusalem artichoke is even better, because it's the perfect example of a hard-working multi-function crop. 

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1. It's a perennial "carb crop" extraordinaire. Since grain agriculture, the world's main source of calories, is a major driver of climate change, soil loss, erosion, fossil fuel use and a host of other evils, perennial calorie crops are often considered the "holy grail" of sustainable agriculture. Yet, in the cold temperate climates the sunchoke calls home, there are few easy to grow perennial crops that are calorie-dense and can be the backbone of diet. Que the potato, though it is typically grown as an annual on rotation to avoid pests and diseases. But the Jerusalem artichoke, according to many sources has "roughly the same calories as potatoes," yet has "few pests and diseases." As such, they can (and are generally recommended to) be grown in the same place every year, as a perennial. 

2. It's often cited as one of (if not THE) highest-producing vegetable crop/acre we can grow in many cool and cold temperate climate areas, likely out-yielding potatoes in most regions. While this is frequently repeated by Permaculturists, agronomists, extension offices and other industry sources, some readers may be interested in digging a little deeper to see what data that backs this up. While output numbers are somewhat dependent on season and region, we do have some data to provide decent comparisons. For example, a study in the 1980s in Oregon found an average of nearly 64,000 lbs/acre of Jerusalem artichokes, without irrigation. The authors report that outcome was in keeping with research conducted by Washington University. Meanwhile, though Oregon is one of the highest yielding potato regions in the world, with modern high yields (actual yields, including some irrigation) at 53,000 lbs/acre. Purdue's numbers are more conservative, citing University of Minnesota trials with an average production of 30,000 lbs/acre for sunchokes, while reporting statewide yields of 20,000 lbs/acre for potatoes. Although there is some disagreement across sources (with some placing average potato yields higher, and others placing maximum corn yields higher) the general consensus is there's rough calorie equivalency between potatoes and corn  meaning that Jerusalem artichokes can produce more calories/acre than maize, the world's most important calorie crop. While sugar beets and sugar cane outproduce corn and potatoes by calorie when converted into sugar, Jerusalem artichoke may compete or even out-perform these in terms of sugars and gross fermentables

3. That's just the tuber! Yield increases if you count the stalks, which are being studied as an animal feed, an ethanol source, and a compost crop. In Grow-BioIntensive gardening, it is both a "carbon crop" used to grow fertility and create a sustainable farm system, and a "special root crop" used to maximize the nutritional value of the garden. (Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables.)

4. We consider it an excellent mulch-maker plant. In Permaculture and forest gardening, mulch-maker plants are used to grow mulch right in the garden. Because Jerusalem artichoke is hardy, perennial and produces large amounts of mass, it is an excellent source of mulch in the garden. 

5. It's also a great "fortress plant." These are plants that exclude other plants or potentially even pests. In the wild, I consistently see Jerusalem artichoke shading the ground and producing stands without other weeds. Often at the forest edge, it succeeds into grasses expands the forest. It does the same thing in our garden. 

6. A beneficial attractor, wildlife plant, and companion plant. According to the Ladybird Johnson foundation, it has value to birds, pollinators and other wildlife. It attracts a wide variety of native pollinators, moths and bees, including specialist bees that rely upon sunflowers. 

7. As a common plant of thickets and forest edge, it can fill in gaps in hedgerows and dead hedges while woody perennials get established, then tends to fade as these larger plants grow in. We've used this at Lillie House and a few of our related client and student sites. 

8. It's salt-tolerant. 

9. It's medicinal. It is a well-known source of inulin, used to help diabetics and others with problems related to insulin. As a prebiotic it may improve the composition of gut microflora. But while Jerusalem artichokes are a great source of inulin, most inulin available in the US is imported. Studies have documented Animal studies have found positive results on rats  pigs, and even fish. One study found that a Jerusalem artichoke diet improved the digestion of pigs and made their farts smell "sweeter." 


To Cut or Not to Cut? 

Cut out cutting out the flowers of crop plants. The internet is filled with old farmer's tales about cutting the flowers off Jerusalem artichokes to improve yields. As with most other crops, where it either completely false or economically disadvantageous, removing the flowers dramatically reduced yields in both the M.U. study and the Oregon State study. In fact, yields were more than halved by late-season removal of flowers.  


While Jerusalem artichokes have few pest or disease issues, are salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant and may require less fertilization than other crops, the common warning is that they may become "weedy" or "aggressive" in some situations. Some even call them "invasive" even in ranges where they are native plants!

One may wonder how, with such an "invasive" plant growing natively across much of North America, anything else ever managed to grow here! Or why it's so relatively uncommon when compared to so many plants that don't bear the burden of the scarlet I. 

Or perhaps it isn't so surprising when considering that many sources, including the Illinois Wildflower.org noting that it more commonly persists on disturbed soils, with other plants succeeding in time without tilling.

We can learn the same thing from the dozens of reports online of gardeners failing pathetically in their attempts to pull, dig up, till or otherwise "weed" Jerusalem artichokes. This does NOT work. It only makes them happier. However, I have been monitoring several wild patches for years in my area, and can report that without the encouragement of "weeding" them, they show no signs of spreading. Some patches appear to go into decline after a few years without disturbance. The same has been true at our site, where a few of our prize patches have disappeared completely. 

Other patches have been killed by animal pruning. Recall the huge negative impact of late-season removal of just the top 3rd of the plant? Imagine what happens when you remove the whole stalk earlier in the season. In fact, it is a little too easy to kill plants completely by poor timing of cutting. Mowing is a sure way to control their spread. 

My advice is to plant them into naturalistic systems like forest gardens, where they will be controlled by the process of ecological succession, or plant them where they can be controlled by mowing. A linear food forest or edible hedgerow may be the perfect place for them. And for heaven's sake, if you're trying to get rid of them do not try to remove them by "weeding!" 


The best place to store Jerusalem artichokes is in the ground. They tend to go rubbery in refrigeration or even cellaring. But patches can be dug throughout the winter where soils do not freeze, and maintain a good texture and flavor all winter. 


We leave most of our sunchokes until January, as I believe the sugars are highest by then. Tubers harvested later are considerably sweeter in my experience, than those harvested in the Fall. 


Plant disease-free healthy tubers during the dormant season, Spring or Fall. The Oregon study found maximized yields at 17 inch spacings, but closer spacings did not significantly reduce yields, making them ideal for perennializing or inclusion in naturalized ecological growing systems like food forests or hedgerows. Yield was best in full sun, but chokes can grow and produce in fair shade, yielding moderately in fairly dense shade where few other vegetables would have produced. 

On our site, they have persisted and produced well within the dripline of black walnuts, suggesting them as potential juglone-tolerant crops. 

Sunchokes can be found producing even on depleted soils though they produce best with fertilization. 1 inch of compost or 4 inches of organic mulch is generally recommend for organic growers, along with minerals where soils may be depleted. 

Chokes can typically survive and produce in the Great Lakes region with no irrigation, but some watering during drought may increase yields. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Fall clean up VS. chop & drop, mulch, and wildlife habitat

Question and Discussion: Eliminate debris to reduce pests and diseases (clean garden practice) VS mulching, chop & drop and creating wildlife habitat: which is better? 

Question from one of our students: 

"I've read that one major way to inhibit garden pests organically is to eliminate debris to get rid of places the pests hide.  But you taught us the value of mulching and chop and drop which also make sense.  So I have been putting freshly chopped leaves down in the fall.  I think it helps with weeds and retaining moisture and must also add organic content.  But I am still having trouble with the squash vine borer... and had to throw away the squash plants early because of the vine borer and also a virus in the zucchini.  Do you have any thoughts on that?  I also practice crop rotation."


Clean Garden Practices: Typically, this refers to removing all organic material from the garden in Fall to reduce places for pests and diseases to overwinter. The aim is to reduce pest and disease populations by reducing the places they can overwinter. 

Organic and Green Mulches: Dead and living organic material, plant materials, placed deliberately on the soil surface to increase soil moisture, regulate temperature, save water, increase soil carbon, repair soil fertility, increase soil life and wildlife in the garden.  

Chop and Drop: A Permaculture term for the action of cutting organic matter, plants, weeds, and grasses and using them for mulch in the garden rather than removing them to the compost pile. When uses as the basis for managing the soil, such a system is academically referred to as "slashmulch," and is an ancient gardening practice from around the world. 

The Diversity Resiliency Principle/Theory: A Theory in Ecology, sometimes referred to as a principle, that states: the greater diversity in an ecosystem, the greater degree of resilience (from climate factors, disturbance and pest and disease pressures) is conferred to the individuals in the system. Greater diversity = Greater health.

Ecological pest and disease control: Fending off pests and diseases, in part, by increasing wildlife habitat, habitat for pollinators and generally relying on the "Diversity Resiliency Principle."


Unfortunately, there's no good short answer to this complex question. Most gardeners will pick one of the two approaches that best matches their temperament and goals. but advanced gardeners may create their own hybrid to support their specific goals. My review of the history of this discussion found a strong move away from clean garden practice over time, with studies showing many benefit of mulching, debris and "messy garden practice" (as some termed the action of avoiding fall clean-up) including on populations of beneficials, and crop resistance to disease and pests. Many mainstream horticulture sources now advocate against strict "clean garden" practice. Meanwhile, most of the evidence supporting clean garden practice appears annecdotal, or dependent upon chemical management of pests. 

Personally, I favor the more natural approach, as I believe current research demonstrates it better matches my goals of achieving sustainability, maximizing wildlife value, saving time, and still producing high yields of high quality produce. 


A very timely question as gardeners in the northern hemisphere contemplate whether to follow the "fall clean-up" regimen, or newer advice to leave debris and mulch to create wildlife habitat. 

First of all, these are some very common questions regarding the practice of chop and drop and mulching. And once you're asking these kinds of questions and making these kinds of observations, in my opinion, that's when you're on the path to expert old-world gardening! You can only take the conventional color by numbers approach so far, but once you start coloring outside the lines you can really maximize the value of your garden, if you're willing to trouble-shoot and experiment a bit. 

First we're going to look at the conflict between chop and drop and clean garden practice, then we'll get into the specifics about squash as an example. 

So, clean garden practice VS. ecological pest control: The truth is both of these methods work. Clean garden practice reduces SOME garden pests and diseases, those that overwinter in debris. 

Or at least there's annecdotal evidence of this, though an hour search through extension and master gardener recommendations on fall clean up from a dozen different sources found 0 studies documenting the effect of clean garden practice. With this, I turned to my collection of horticultural and agricultural textbooks, my copy of Integrated Pest Management, and again found no sources documenting a positive impact of clean up. However, this classic did site a few studies where summer pest populations (such as spider mite) were predicted based on sampling populations of overwintering insects, but there are several reasons this doesn't quite clearly support clean garden practice. 

What I found instead, was a history of changing opinions and practices, with a textbook from the 30s recommending VERY thorough clean-up, even to the point of mercilessly removing every last fallen leaf! Of course, as studies have increasingly demonstrated the value of leaving debris (such as leaves which fertilize soil) these old-fashioned practices have consistently loosened up. (If anyone has studies showing or implying the benefits of clean garden, please send them my way!)

Anyway, whether it's proven or not, it is logical to assume that removing debris reduces the numbers of certain pests that overwinter in that debris. The downside is it also gets rid of the pest-predators and beneficials, which often live in the same debris! Hey, living with your food is a good idea! For most of our existence humans did the same thing. Of course beneficial organisms do the same. And we do indeed now have plenty of good research to show that leaving debris increases populations of beneficials! And, researchers are concluding that plant residues and no-till systems are correlated with a "lack of serious disease and pest pressures."

And that's a major reason why, while still debated, even many mainstream horticulturists are no longer advocating for a strict Fall clean-up.

If we want to take a more forest-like approach, we can mulch deeply, and leave debris in the garden, which also leaves more pests in the garden, but also provides habitat for beneficial organisms that fight pests and diseases. This is important, because pest populations typically grow much faster than the predator populations needed to provide natural control. Often, unless there's already a population of predators in the garden, our crops are destroyed by the time they ever show up! But OVER TIME providing habitat builds up an army of beneficials to help fight pests and diseases for you. Mulch and debris are fantastic beneficial habitat. For example, comfrey leaf debris has been found to host large numbers of beneficial insects. Hollow plant stems are the main over-wintering spot for predatory wasps and native pollinators. Corn debris hosts a beneficial bacterium that also predates on powdery mildew (though some disagree), and even inhibits weeds in squash, two reasons why the Native American 3 Sisters planting works! 

Using this method, we're recruiting the power of what's often called the "Diversity Resiliency Principle" which been demonstrated to function in natural ecosystems, and there's increasing evidence proving the theory is sound and showing it works wonders in agro-ecologies, too. 

In addition  to increasing soil life and beneficial organism populations, there are very many benefits of deep mulching, especially "chop and drop" mulching with plants grown in the garden: 
- it saves water
- it conserves soil moisture which helps plants regulate their health and prevents problems like splitting, damping off and blossom end rot, 
- it increases soil carbon
- it increases soil fertility
- it prevents erosion, 
- it reduces weed germination and weeding work
- it can replace importing compost

The down side of deep mulching is that it DOES provide habitat for some pests to live in, both overwinter, and during the growing season. It sometimes can take time for the needed beneficials to establish themselves in the garden and provide that ecological control and balance. 

In the short term, clean garden practice probably reduces SOME BUT NOT ALL pests and diseases (just those that overwinter in plant debris.) But when these pests do find the garden (which they always do) there will be no predators to hold them in check or for plants to call on for protection. Modern research shows plants really do "call" for help, secreting hormones that attract predators of the pests and diseases attacking them, but this only works if the predator populations are also built up in the garden. 

In that between time, deep mulching and chop and drop will probably greatly reduce gardening work and required imported inputs like fertilizer and compost, but the pests may mean somewhat reduced overall yield. My personal experience and sense is that most of the time, a deep mulched garden will still have a higher "return on investment," meaning a greater yield for the time, money and effort put into the garden. 

So, my take is that clean garden practice might work better for gardeners who are prioritizing maximum yield over "return on investment" and looking to do 90% of their own pest prevention through spraying, etc. Or for those who don't have time to let a more balanced ecology develop over a few years time (though it might not take that long at all!) An ecological approach may take time to build up enough diversity to give the plants all the tools they need, so that when they call for help, there are predators nearby. But it will quickly start saving time and imports, and eventually, it can radically reduce the pests and diseases in the garden. 

Most gardeners will choose one of these two approaches, since they seem opposed. But I think expert-level creative gardeners can actually maximize by using both, selectively, depending on which pests they're dealing with and which crop they're growing. For example, black rot on grapes is spread through "corpses" of infected grapes and plant tissues. When dealing with these tissues, I move them away from the grapes, rather than chopping them in place. But clean garden practice won't help much with slugs, since some species (and life-cycles) overwinter in soil rather than in surface debris while fireflies (which, in their larval form, eat slugs!) do overwinter in grassy debris! So, if slugs are the problem, clean garden practice over winter may hurt beneficials more than the pest. But during the season, slugs largely live on and in debris and mulch. So if a slug population get's very destructive on a crop like small seedlings of greens, I might temporarily remove the mulch until the greens can fend off the slugs better. Or I might just put down some crushed egg shells or slug traps around the vulnerable plants. 

Squash bugs, however, overwinter in debris (and other sheltered places like rocks, logs, or buildings) so clean garden practice MIGHT help control populations. Parasitic wasps and flies feed on squash bugs, though, and these too overwinter in debris.... 

Overall, my approach is to trust ecological controls and good variety selection as my "baseline" approach, allowing diversity to build up over time to reduce pests and disease in the garden. This also keeps my gardening very simple! And it reduces my overall "input" time. If a particular pest gets out of control, I try to learn about its specific life cycle and natural predators, so I can apply a remedy that really makes sense. In some cases, that remedy might be clean garden during a part of the year near that particular crop. In this way, my gardening slowly evolves, becoming very subtle, very in-tune with the specifics of my own site, the beings I share it with, my crop preferences, and my own needs and way of living. 

Regarding the specific question of squash, the biggest factor is variety and species. Not all squash are the same! For example, the pepo species (summer squash, zukes, acorns, etc.) are much more susceptible to both disease and pest pressures through most of North America, while the Mochata species (my favorites are the Seminole pumpkin, Tonda podana, and neck pumpkins) are much more vigorous and disease/pest resistant. Maximas (brodee galeux, hubbards and buttercups are my favorites) are typically considered inbetween, but that may depend somewhat on location, with them performing poorly in our gardens in Illinois, but better than pepo for us in Michigan) My own personal solution is to grow all of these in deep slashmulch, but plant pepo and maxima species in successions and plant mochata species (especially seminole) once. Pepos usually produce much faster than other species, and you can get a good yield before the plants succumb. I find this preferable to fighting a long losing battle to keep them alive against wilt, powdery mildew, squash bugs, cucumber bettles and vine borer. With all those enemies, I assume I'm going to lose the battle and my goal is simply to get as many squash as I can over the season, not to keep the plants alive the longest. Mochatas take longer to produce longer-lasting squash with deeper flavores and more nutritional density, but they can also tend to fend off most of these attackers better if given good nutrition, as you experienced. Since Maximas tend to also require a long time to mature, but fend poorly against pests, they take the most work to grow and tend to require diotomaceous earth for squash bugs and BT (a liquid bacteria that kills the larvae) for borers. Unless I'm in the mood to do that extra work, I let somebody else grow maximas. (There is also the C. Angyosperma species (like cushaws) which I've heard would be similar to Maxima, but I have no experience growing them.)

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Caveman Bucket List: 20 Peak Experiences for a Priceless Life

That's just an awful selfie

I mean, with all of Japan's beautiful architecture and stunning mountain-top views, why would zen master Hakuin, known to have travelled far and wide in his search for enlightenment, choose to depict himself with gramma slippers and a feather duster, seated in his simple zen seat, the place he spent the majority of his day-to-day life? Boring! Everybody knows this image would have earned WAY more likes and follows if he'd struck a pose in front of the Yellow River, panning some duck face and flashing the "shocker." At least put on some sweet new kicks, bro-friend!

Did the poet HanShan exclaim "yolo" as he left civilization for the hermitage on Cold Mountain? Was anyone there to tweet about it if he did?

With all that long-winded poetry about well, just sitting around doing nothing, why didn't the mystic Rumi ever write about what was on his bucket list? Or did he? 

And, why did Henry David Thoreau continue to sit around boring Walden pond day-in, day-out, once he'd crossed off #32 build a shack and # 43 grow some beans? - AND written a whole book about it to humble brag to the Concord elite? 

These days, everyone is into "Paleo" diets and "caveman" fitness, convinced that we humans evolved to live, eat and exert ourselves in a certain way, and that despite all their backwards lack of airconditioning, our ancestors just might have known SOMETHING about how to be human. Why does nobody ever wonder what was on the Caveman's bucketlist?  

Ecologists say each species has its own Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the niche in which they evolved, and in that place, their evolved actions, habits and instincts make sense! But if you remove a species from its EEA, it continues its evolved patterns, but they may no longer fit, and the species may in essence, act insane! Rather than argue over what our most human ancestors ate and drank, why not ask what they LIVED FOR and how they LIVED? 

For tens of thousands of years (and probably much, much longer) our ancestors went about living their lives, creating memories, discovering untold secrets, having adventures, building life-long deep relationships and romances, busting through personal limits, dancing with gods and goddesses, communing with the raw forces of the universe... often without ever even leaving their own villages. Instead, most of our human cultures marked their lives with journeys into dark, mysterious places, found the empty core of the universe in eachother's souls, deconstructed the very meaning of life and put it back together in the form of something spectacular, achieved stunning magnificience in ritual and rite. Somewhere way back in your family tree was a shaman great, great, great, great grandmother who dreamt of YOU and her fondest wish for your life was that you would learn to feel the heady power of the sacred grove as she did, that over the chasm of great time and distance you and she would resonate in one-ness there together. 

These subtle yet profound life experiences our ancestors lived for are all but forgotten today. We ask: If a tree falls in the woods, but nobody posted it to IG, did it really happen? Did all our human ancestors up to the advent of the zipline and iPhone 5 lead dull, meaningless, unfulfilling lives? 

Or in contrast, would Henry David Thoreau look upon the jet-setting, world-travelling elite of modern Concord, and still flee their "lives of quiet desperation" in search of his hut in the woods?

In my life I've been privileged to travel further than 99.999% of the humans that ever lived, spoken to people in 9 different languages in their own countries, sold original works of art, music and poetry, played in a punk-rock band, sung Opera on professional stages in Europe, starred in plays (good ones!) and movies (terrible ones!) written 3 novels (yup) slept in a castle, played in a marching band, visited some of the great gardens, art and architecture of the world... 

But these are not among the most profound moments, experiences and lessons of my life. Nor do they mean that I have "lived" more than those who haven't had these luxuries. Sure, I've had some profound experiences while visiting exotic places, but the profound parts could have just as likely (probably MORE likely) happened without ever leaving the house. And what one discovers on a real adventure is found inside, and has little to do with the scenery. 
None of the following fundamental human experiences require belief, none require drugs, none of it requires meeting the Dalai Lama or attending expensive beach-side retreats in the tropics with world-renown "spiritual teachers." These are not things to be bought at any prices. And these are experiences that are found in all traditions, and are open to anyone, from Christians, to Pagans, to Muslims, to Buddhists, and Atheists. I can fully believe in these fundamental human "spiritual" experiences without having to believe in anything supernatural. In fact, most of the experiences on my list come from "atheistic" spiritual traditions. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not kicking the bucket list idea entirely. At its best, the bucket idea taught a generation of Americans to live their lives, to value experiences over buying stuff, and being adventurers over being consumers. Rad. But at its worst, it makes us into consumers of our own lives, looking to buy experiences, approval and wisdom from others. 

So here's a new section for MY bucket: the vital human experience, the Caveman list, aspirations most of our human ancestors likely shared in. I really don't ever need another selfie sipping umbrella drinks on an exotic beach, and neither did Captain Caveman. I want to journey to far darker, more mysterious, more hidden places: the room of the wolf-mother wallpaper, the room where the antler carved the drum... and shit. I've personally visited enough of these places to know that they are real, and well worth the price of admission. But I'm not gonna put a big checkmark next to them to show off, because they're the sort of things you build a truly fulfilling life upon, not the kind you cross off once you've got the bragging rights.


1. Being still enough long enough that the "world rolls in ecstasy at my feet," as Kafka said. This is a fundamental experience, sought after in all the world's mystic traditions, because it is both a profound experience in itself, but also something that is said to deepen the every other potential experience. When one can quiet the mind, it is said we can experience our lives more directly, instead of having to squint to see reality through the tint of our own rose-colored glasses, and we can hear the song of the world without struggling over the noise of our own mental chatter. This is an experience that can be had both alone and with company, such as in the Japanese tea ceremony, or participating in contemplative arts.

2. The breakdown of perception of time. Mystics across many traditions wrote about this experience and modern science is confirming the possibility. Some highlight destinations in the travelogues of mystic literature: "to see my own face before my father was born," to spend a "few eternities" as the god of the sea as the Buddha did, and to finally understand that line in Revelations about "a time, times and half a time." Seriously, wtf? 

3. Sympathetic joy. To experience the joy of others opens us up to a whole world of joy! Infinite joy! It also defends us from the boring grumpiness of jealousy when our friend gets a promotion. It can even deaden the sting of enmity and hate. But it is also said this deep form of compassion is the basis for experiencing the arts more fully. Imagine feeling what the great painters felt as they put the final touches on their masterpieces? Can you feel whatVonnegut  felt when he finally put God Bless you Mister Roosewater to sleep?     

4. To co-evolve in my own forest garden. This is another fundamental human experience, intimately connected to spiritual traditions and religious rites in many cultures. It's an amazing thing to grow inside such a system... like "the Doctor and her TARDIS," or Doc Brown and his DIY time machine! I believe, as new evidence suggests, that this is how we evolved, as tenders of the wild, long before we returned to the life and death thrill of the hunt. 

5. I am my ecology. My ecology is me. Sacred connection with nature. This is something far more profound than the common new-agey version: "We're all one, we're all like connected, man!" This is an experience born of both insight and deep understanding.. 

6. The care of magical creatures. One of the lies we tell oureslves in our culture is that "animals" are not the same as us, they do not feel, do not have their own romances and adventures, hopes and dreams. And so we de-vitalize them. It takes a sort of renunciation (renouncing this lie) to begin to see our non-human animals as the vital, living, amazing creatures they actually are. Once we do, we're surrounded by magical creatures more magnificient than anything in Harry Potter. 

7. Deep, life-long relationships such as those formed in folk societies and horticultural villages. It would be amazing to share a cup of coffee with a friend over 50 years of time.

8. The Epicurean Life: Self-reliance, living with friends, Contemplation. Epicurus wanted to learn what made the ultimate human life. His bucket list was real simple, yet so profound that ideas about the good life still bears his name today!

9. Getting un-carved: A right view of a simple life as described by Raymond Larose in his Siji-Tsu. In it, he describes the simple, daily life of a daoist sage in his village. It is a beautiful, profound take on life. To get up, stretch, breathe, eat while reading a few lines of a book for inspiration, mindfully practice some kind of useful, simple work, take a meal with friends, spend some time in quiet contemplation, walk in the garden....

10. Life in "Dunbar's village." The Dunbar Group researches relationships in horticultural societies and folk villages. They describe the kind of relational landscape humans evolved having and it is again, beautiful, profound and simple. It would be an amazing accomplishment to get to experience that! For most of us, this will mean getting creative about how we engage in village building and community organizing. 

11. A life-long path of spiritual development. It's said these tools can be sharpened over a lifetime of use, polished into sublime states of refinement and radiance. What an opportunity!

12. Freedom from possessions. Hard work in the modern age, yet quite a worthy accomplishment! This might take me some time to fully get to. But I hope to work towards this the rest of my life, making a goal to own less, and less and less, to make room in my life for what's really valuable. 

13. The freedom of self-reliance. To grow my own food, grow my own medicine, be able to live off the land, to be as trusting and care free as the "lilies of the goddamn field."

14. To stop trying to control the world, to stop "aspiring" to exert "power" over others and over society, and instead lead by example. To fully "let go" into life and "trust" the world. That sentence has a bunch of worlds with a bunch of quotation marks, because our society has all sorts of bad ideas about these things. I've come to think that what I was taught was "power" is actually a complex of delusion, agression and insecurity. "Aspiration" as we use it too often lacks any genuine self-knowledge, which leaves it as nothing more than settling for conformity to a sick society. Finding what it means to "trust" humans in such a sick society is its own challenging quest. 

15. Deep trust and true love. Awe, I'm a romantic like that. But I'm also not limited by conventional ideas about what any of that means. 

16. The Djanas. These are the states of concentration the word "zen" is derived from, and they've often been compared to mind-blowing orgasm, but timeless and infinite, and subtle. While this word comes from the Buddhist world, one can find similar descriptions of states of deep concentration and contemplation across many of the world's mystic traditions. 

17. The outright ecstasy of creative, artistic revelry, to "lose myself" in song and dance. The great experiences of life lie along the extremes of the spectrum of "pleasures subtle and gross." According to the great mystics, it is the experiences at the "sublte" end, found through renunciation, that are the greatest experiences a human is capable of. Such as djana. To experience them, we must quiet the roar of our own minds, our own emotions, our own senses, and even our own senses of our senses. "What am I when I'm no longer here?" But, surely there's something to be said for "gross" bold, hedonistic overwhelming pleasures, too! And at the far end of that spectrum, the mystics, philosophers and poets of the ages place the intense emotional physical experience of losing oneself in song and dance, or revelry. 

18. To commit to and follow a culturally relevant spiritual tradition. Tough for a skeptic like me. But I wish to be more than a consumer of spiritual products. I wish to experience that fundamental of following a spiritual path. Many paths lead to the top of the mountain. Only one moon shows in the sky. 

19. To eat really, really good just-picked fruit at that magical moment before the sugar starts converting to starch and the complexity of flavor is so profound you literally see technicolor. Or at least I do.  

20. Lucid dreaming. 

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: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/london-glades

(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 lillie.house.kzoo@gmail.com 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