Thursday, April 30, 2015

Can Permaculture Feed the World?

This weekend at a Permablitz event I had a great discussion with another Van-Kal member, and we discussed the idea often sited by Chem-ag that chemicals and corporations are "feeding the world" and that systems like Permaculture would lead to mass starvation.  

My knee-jerk judgement was that, yes, it would be difficult for a system like Permaculture to feed 7 billion people.

But, would it? 

Permaculturists like Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison often claim that Permaculture could feed the world a healthier, more diverse and delicious diet than chem-ag. 

So, who's right? Chem ag or the Permies?

Well, lets see if we can get to the bottom of this.

For discussion: According to the research of the Grow Biointensive organization, published in "One Circle Garden," a working man could feed himself 100% of his nutritional and calorie needs with a well-designed 1,000 square feet of garden, less for women, children and sedentary men. Even in a cold climate. 

Lets use Kalamazoo as an example. With it's population of under 333,000 (metro) it would take 7,575 acres to feed itself using the One Circle diet.  Kalmazoo sits on 25 square miles, or 16,000 acres, twice as much as needed for the One Circle. Subtracting for water, buildings, roads, etc. Kzoo could still probably meet the One Circle plan just off unused areas from within the city! 

But lets go further. 

An approximation often used in Permaculture is that you could feed any settlement with a 50 foot ring around it. Since 25 SM=πr2, (Area of a circle) and C=2πr, we'll fudge things to keep the numbers easy and say that Kzoo has a rough circumfrence of 18 miles, so a 50ft ring gives us an additional 35,000 acres, (creating 16,000 rewarding Permaculture garden farm careers!) an additional 5 times the minimum amount, to grow crops for trade, security and luxuries. And, since a circle yields the mimimum "edge," this MASSIVELY under-estimates the actual acreage in our more fractal-like 50 ft border zone. 

Beyond that, a local tapestry of small towns, outlying homesteads, and eco-villages could provide an even greater abundance, should we decide to create a Permaculture civilization. 

This is similar to a calculation made by the Illinois Bioneers that their whole state could be fed off of people's front yards!

Given that math, I have to conclude that--even if the grow-biointensive research was off by a factor of 100 (giving a calculation of about 2 acres per person world wide, still only one third of the world's arable land)--the Permaculturists are right, we could easily feed the world a richer, healthier diet in a fraction of the land currently used by chem-ag, by using good Permaculture design, and we'd end up with a more regenerative, richer culture, more beautiful landscapes, healthier ecosystems and full, rewarding employment as a bonus. 

A better world really is possible. And finally, with Permaculture we no longer have to wait for anybody to lead us to it or make it for us. We can build it ourselves, right here and now, starting in our own front yards.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Forest Garden for Every Occasion

While "Food Forests" or "Forest Gardens" have become something of a gardening fad these days, there's really nothing new about them at all. In fact, some academic sources have begun calling them "the world's oldest land use."  

In my opinion, we modern "Forest Gardeners" have a lot to learn from the traditional, slowly-evolved gardens that were once the backbone of cultures around the world. Researchers across many disciplines from Agronomy and economics to ecology and anthropology have delved deeply into the well-known, ancient food forests across the Asian and African tropics (as well as the Amazon, which some researchers have begun to charactarize as the world's largest food forest!) with some of the most famous being the "Home Gardens" of Kerala, India, that inspired the modern Food Forest trend. And as we come to understand how those systems function, both socially and ecologically, we're recognizing their universality, seeing well-developed and culturally appropriate Forest Garden systems in the pre-columbian Americas, and even in the temperate and cold regions of North Asia, Northern Scandinavia, Russia, the "black forest" of Germany, the Mediterranean, and the British Islands. 

Looking at all these long-lasting, highly successful systems, it's amazing how much they have in common, and to me, that implies that there are a few patterns for us to learn from and emulate if we want our Forest Gardens to have similar staying power. 

One of these universal patterns is a recognition of proximity: people have different sorts of forest gardens depending on how far they are from home. Permaculture Designers honor this traditional wisdom with the concept of different "zones" the further away you are from home. 

Based on this wisdom, many of these traditional forest gardening cultures developed two different systems, one for home and a second system for the public commons further from home.

There are now some nice studies of how these distinct home and public garden systems work in traditional cultures, such as this one: 

In these systems, home Forest Gardens provide families with luxurious high-value fruits and vegetables, a wide variety of spices and herbs, the majority of their food and some excess for trade and income, and of course, beautiful living space. These crops require daily care and attention to thrive but are well worth the effort, if placed close to the home where that attention happens naturally without special effort.

Meanwhile, the public systems rely heavily on nature and succession to do the work, since they're far from  home and travel amplifies the "costs" of human labor and energy inputs. These systems are typically harvested collectively for commuity income, fibre, building materials, low-maintenance calorie crops, and a variety of low-maintenance fruit, vegetables, and spices for the market that can be grown extensively working with sucession. 

Many of these lots are visited just once a year--or less--because harvest and nature provides almost all the management. These are the famous "swidden" systems of the old world that start with clearing old food forest for lumber, planting new trees along with a ground cover of anual crops, and provide a cascade of different crops as the forest matures, until it's time to clear it again in 15 or 20 years. 


Beyond the tropics, the traditional temperate garden systems of Europe also evolved public and private versions that might make appropraite models for us in the Great Lakes Region. Up until the "green revolution" driven by fossil fuels, Medieval Great Britain, for example, evolved a complex system where the famous "cottage garden" was the centerpiece of home health and nutrition, as a home Forest Garden of high value fruit trees that require pampering, mingle with perennial and anual vegetables, flowers, and medicines growing together in an ecological assemblage that today would look "wild" to the modern gardener. 

Next, there were community "allotments" inside the settlement and close to the living quarters, where low-labor cultivated fruit trees and perennials and self-sown vegetables kept maintenance low. 

Beyond that in an outer zone from the community was the cultivated farmland where grains were grown communally, integrated with a Forest Garden system of Multi-purpose "hedgerows" of wild (or semi-wild) fruit, medicinal plants, building materials, fuel, vegetables, mushrooms and wild game. 

Wood for fuel, construction and crafts was grown in managed Forest Garden systems called copses, where shade-loving vegetables and medicines, chestnuts and hazelnuts, a wide variety of mushrooms and game were also harvested. This system of common hedgerows and coppice lots was also freely used by families and farmers to graze and fatten their livestock. This system changed and evolved along with the culture, but remained in some vestigal form right up until oil came to dominate our lives. 

A very similar system evolved in France, with its famous hedgerows, communal woodlands, and semi-managed (by grazing) common hillsides where villagers would collect medicinal and culinary herbs, such as the famous "Herb du Provence." 

Meanwhile, the "Jardin de Cure," or Parishiner's Garden, may have been the original multi-purpose, ecological "Permaculture Community Garden" and "Edible Landscaping!" 

These gardens, usually centrally located at the village church, were created by village volunteers for their busy Curate, the leader of their church. They had to be multi-functional, beautiful, and work with nature to be low-maintenance. They needed to provide the Curate and his Parish a beautiful spiritual place for contemplation and comfort in times of crisis. And they also had to grow high quailty fruits and vegetables for the Curate as well as special church celebrations, cut flowers for weddings, funerals and holidays, and also medicinal herbs--as the Curate, often the most learned man in the village, would also function as a healer. And the system of formal beds with semi-wild informal polyculture plantings allowed village volunteers to take care of it in their spare time. 

Up to now, most modern public and community Forest Gardens in the US have been designed to be demonstrations  of what could be done at home. I've visited a few that even included demonstration "zone 1" garden areas, modeling what should be done right outside of someone's front door, even though the nearest front door was at least a mile away. 

These are great gardens that filled a necessary educational role, and provided design opportunities for new designers. But now that home forest gardens (actually at people's homes!) are becoming common across America, I would encourage the next generation of projects to aim to reflect the traditional common sense of proximity, and to research and demonstrate the value that Forest Gardens can bring to the real public commons. 

To think about it in Permaculture terms, almost all public and community Forest Gardens are going to be in zone 4! So, rather than demonstrate "zone 1 and 2" on those sites, we should figure out how to demonstrate the concept of zones by designing great zone 4 gardens that really make sense!

Examining these traditional home and public systems, here are some patterns we can begin to learn from:

Home Forest Gardens:
--Extremely high diversity--people like to collect plants!
--More intensive: high-input items like cultivated fruits, fruits that REQUIRE harvest, more anual vegetables, salad crops, etc. This is where you'll find difficult fruits like dessert apples and plums.
--Emphasis on low-processing, high nutrition food crops to be used fresh. 
--Multi-purose landscape that integrates food production into PRIVATE yard functions such as home parties, contemplation, outdoor cooking, relaxation...
--Uses human labor to plant and maintain select plant specimens such as grafted trees. 
--Provide families with fresh fruit and vegetables, medicines, a beautiful home environment, excess production can be "scaled up" for income, recreation (gardening)

Public Agriforest Systems:
--Lower diversity, only aggressive plants that will fend for themselves if neglected.
--Plants appropriate for the stage of succession, ie. pioneer species in young gardens. 
--Very extensive, plants that rely on nature and succession to tend them, such as wild edibles, "weeds," berries, wild fruits, etc. 
--Emphasis on low-maintenance: high-calorie food crops like corn, squash and grains, durable foods like spices, animal fodder (animals don't typically require pampered and perfect fruits and vegetables,) and non-food crops like building and crafting materials. 
--Multi-purpose landscape that integrates food production into PUBLIC functions such as farming, hunting, travel (road-sides) community meeting space, religious worship, etc. 
--Largely relies on natural systems and succession. For a temperate example, look at the "dead hedging" and "tapestry hedge" systems of Britain and France, where a rudimentary fence was made of wood and stone, understanding that birds would perch there and other animals would then inhabit the "hedge," and their droppings would plant high-value edible plants. Meanwhile, these systems were guided by throwing down seeds and selecting for the most desirable species as the "hedge" filled in. 
--Provides a community with the VALUE of fuel, building materials, jobs, foraged "wild" fruits and vegetables, wildlife habitat--and MOST IMPORTANTLY, they do this without creating a burden for the community that has to be maintained with "volunteer" labor, fossil fuels and ongoing inputs. 

To me, the most important thing we can learn from these dual traditional systems is that if we're asking "who will maintain it and how will it be maintained?" then we're asking the wrong question. Either, it's private and that answer is obvious, or it's public, and it would traditionally be designed so that use, harvest and natural succession provide most of the maintenance required. 

All of America's new public and community Forest Gardens represent an inspiring view of what we can accomplish when we work together. And it's even more inspiring for me to think of what the future could bring, as these systems evolve to better serve the American landscape and bring value to American communities. More importantly, as a Permaculturist and community member, I look forward to public projects that compliment the forest garden I have at home in the way they do in traditional cultures. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Permaculture: A New Baseline for "Thriving"

When Permaculture Designer Mark Lakeman recently visited with Kalamazoo, I spoke with him about our American mindset of seeing everything as either a problem to be solved or as just another utilitarian tool for survival. 

Our homes, yards and communities are such a problem for us that we spend all our time dreaming, planning, saving and working so that we can go someplace else where people live more beautiful lives in more beautiful surroundings. Then, when it's time to come home, we get depressed. And as soon as we're back, we start saving up for the next trip away. 

What if instead, we spent that time dreaming, planning, saving and working on where we live,  so that when we came home we'd drop down to our knees and weep  because our home is so beautiful and our community so beloved to us. 

That's the new baseline that Permaculture can provide us with. It's time to stop trying to solve all the problems we continuously create, and start envisioning ways of living that are truly beautiful. 

This is true of our gardens, our homes and also our food. 

As farmers and gardeners, our baseline is often the same: gardening is fraught with problems and the food from it is just another tool for our survival. It's always shocking to me when farmers refer to fruit and vegetables as "units." 

There are places in the world where instead of utilitarianism, growing food is art. The San Mariano tomato, The Charentais cantaloupe, "Black Dirt" onions.... These aren't just "units" to the people who grow them, they're life!

By teaching us where to put our energy, which crops can be grown "extensively" and which ones "intensively" Permaculture frees up resources for us to reimagine our baseline of food, too. This year at Lillie House, we're shifting our perspective from just growing food, to growing some of the best quality food possible. 

It's time for us to change our baseline, to start dreaming about what food, gardens, home and life in Southwest Michigan could REALLY be like.... 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spring at Lillie House

It's springtime and we've been busy planting our final round of intensive plantings in our forest gardens. This year, we're adding dozens of new perennial and self sowing species to our collection of edible and medicinal plants and we're pretty excited about them. 

We also re-dug part of our ditch and swale system that handles water from the down-spouts that drain half of our roof area. 

In the four years this little water system has been in place it has created a massive amount of soil, which had completely filled the drains and swales, causing them to stop functioning properly. What's interesting is I mean SOIL, not just mushroom compost (the swales were filled with logs and wood chips.) There was no distinguisng the original compost material from the surrounding soil. It had been thorougly mixed with our Ostemo Loam to create a beautiful, rich black soil with amazing texture. 

K was able to dig out this ditch and swale system in about 1 hour. 1 hour of work every 4 years isn't bad, especially if we harvest a huge pile of beautiful soil each time we do it. 

We're also busy planning a series of forest garden tours for this summer so we can share what we've learned. Hopefully at this point our garden is starting to enter into some predictable stability, so we can keep things looking good for visitors with minimal maintenance. 

And of course, we look forward to sharing some of our exciting plants, sch as this miner's lettuce, a self-sowing annual that seems to be natralizing in our forest garden. 

So, how's your garden doing this spring? 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Perennial Gardening at Mother Earth News

For folks who want to add more Perennials to their garden, here's a good starter article with beautiful pictures and plant profiles, from Mother Earth News:


On a different note, I had a great time this weekend meeting new friends at the Mark Lakeman presentation and the Garden of Hope Exhibit, where I gave a presentation on Permaculture. 

As one of the organizers of the Mark Lakeman event, I've been very busy the last few days with people who were inspired by Mark and who are eager to start doing "City Repair" and Permaculture in Kalamazoo! 

As such, it will be a few more days before I post the extra materials I promised at my presentation, so keep a look-out because they're coming soon.