Wednesday, September 30, 2015

SoMi Permamixer

(Pictures from PJ Chmiel.)

It was a great weekend between the SoMi Permamixer and the companion class event with Peter Bane, here at Lillie House. 

We had some great discussions that didn't last nearly long enough and started some relationships that will continue long after the mixer. When the discussions ended, folks often kept on talkin'. And even when a long mixer weekend came to an end, people stayed around for a few extra hours, offering each other feedback and support. 

It was great to meet many of you who read this blog. Your encouragement and support means a lot to me. I suppose I'm kind of an attention-hog that way. ;) It was nice to even meet some Permaculturists all the way from Ohio who found out about the mixer here. In my busy role as one of the event volunteers, I didn't get to spend as much time as I would have liked getting to know folks. But I hope everyone had a good time. 

We'll be trying to get some content from the mixer up online over the coming weeks. In the meantime, PJ has some nice pictures up, including some from our place, on his Flickr here:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sept 26th, 2015 - Join me for the Southern Michigan Permaculture Mixer!!!

(Another great poster by Graphic Designer/Forest Gardener PJ Chmiel

Apologies for the sparse blogging lately, but I've been insanely busy in all sorts of great ways. I've been doing Permaculture designs and consultations for several inspiring families who want to start taking responsibility and ownership for their families' food and waste, giving tours a few times a month, giving presentations on Permaculture and forest gardening, and helping to plan the Southern Michigan Permaculture Mixer, which I'll get to in a minute.

Another surprising bit of good news is you. You're actually reading this! At least a few dozen of you are. This blog now has about two dozen subscribers regularly reading, and quite a few finding it every week. It's been featured as a resource on Permaculture and gardening forums and blogs in 3 different languages! So, thanks to all who have encouraged me to keep working on my writing. 

And in any spare free time, we've been harvesting, storing, pickling, fermenting, and drying non-stop from the garden. For the last month, our yard has required less than two hours a week of maintenance on average, mostly mowing, but we could harvest and store food continuously if we had time. This year we're really verifying for ourselves that forest gardening truly is THE lowest-work and most rewarding kind of gardening you can do. We've even been talking about converting more of our annual beds to forest garden. 

So with all that going on, I have a dozen half-written posts that I'm excited to share, including;
My favorite gardening season recipe, "Super Fast Farm-house Pizzas," 
Using Permaculture to Design Aid Programs,
More info about Lillie House and our programs, 
and even more in the series on small ponds, which I'm trying to make the most in-depth and diverse set of perspectives and resources available online. 

(After much research and planning, the pond is now a work-in-progress!)

September 26th I'll be taking a break to attend the Southern Michigan Permaculture Mixer, a free event at the Gibbs House on WMU's campus in Kalamazoo. This great event is being put on by the SoMiPermamixer Planning Collective, Van-Kal Permaculture and the Western Michigan University Office for Sustainability. I've been helping out as one of the planners for the event, and I can say that it's a very exciting event. We'll have tours of the Gibbs House Permaculture Site, a work event, a showing of the film Inhabit, a potluck lunch and presentations on topics including forest gardening, homesteading, social Permaculture ideas, and building support networks. 

Best of all, one of our true Permaculture elders, Peter Bane, will be joining us and even giving a keynote address specifically for our community of Permaculture enthusiasts and professionals. Peter is author of the Permaculture Handbook, former publisher of Permaculture Activist Magazine, and an experienced designer and homesteader. 

Sunday the 27th, Peter will be giving an in-depth workshop here at Lillie House Permaculture Homestead, on Garden Farming: Designing the Permaculture Homestead.

"Long-term economic contraction is well advanced, and Michiganders are in the forefront of adaptation to it, but permaculture brings a powerful lens to developing resilient home economies that can enhance the well-being of people on every rung of the economic ladder. How can we create economic value when money is scarce, build natural and social capital for long-term prosperity, and create and occupy new niches in the emerging subsistence economy? We will look at the patterns, structures, systems, and practices that promote comfort and security for the home and homestead. This workshop, appropriate for rural, suburban, or urban dwellers, will cover the role of food, water, shelter, energy, and exchange in providing support for the family table. In doing so, we will touch on gardens, food storage, home work spaces, building rehab, and a host of technical approaches to water, waste, and energy. We will also examine the role of support networks in creating autonomous spaces amidst the decay of empire. We will undertake design exercises to strengthen our capacity to create resilient homesteads and to weave our own social and economic safety nets."

Peter Bane is the author of The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country (, and the long-time publisher of Permaculture Activist magazine ( has built a resilient homestead on 2/3 acre in Bloomington, Indiana over the past decade, and is now creating a 10-acre homestead in West Michigan. He serves on the board of the Permaculture Institute of North America (

For more information on both, check out: 

Thanks for again for reading, and I hope to see you at the Mixer. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Designing a Permaculture Pond - Part 2: General Patterns

(Natural Swimming Pool. Wikimedia)

This is part 2 of a series on the design of one of our ponds. You can see the other parts here:
Part 1: Art and Cultural Patterns


Water in the landscape is the great provider. It can clean the soil and waterways, add to your garden yields, moderate micro-climates, provide for wildlife and diversity, yield recreation and relaxation opportunities.... This list could go on for hours.

In Permaculture, we design "from patterns to details," so in this post, I'll be exploring functional patterns, different types of water-features and pond elements and the services they can provide.

In general, there appear to be several main "patterns" for man-made water features, including "natural" ponds, dew ponds, water gardens, wildlife ponds, pools, natural swimming pools, koi/fish ponds, broad-acre ponds, and frog ponds. Using Permaculture design, we might follow the principle of "Integrate rather than segregate," and choose the best of each of these to meet our specific needs. I want to look at each of these, and get an idea of the general elements that make up these patterns.

(Water Garden from Permaculture Designers Frantz Landscapes)
Water gardens: These are the typical landscape ponds that add beauty to any garden or yard. They're  ideal for small gardens and beginning gardeners who want to easily add water to their landscape. They're often made of pre-formed plastic or soft plastic liner, though they can often be made of concrete, or even recycled basins, tires and planters. We lined one in our backyard with betonite cat litter! They often have other built-in water features such as flowing water, waterfalls or fountains. They are typically maintained by the use of chemical additives, and through mechanical means such as pumps, aerators, and water filters. They can be planted with a variety of ornamental plants, and because they are mechanically maintained they don't require an "ecosystem" approach to keep them clean and healthy. There are lots of great resources online, or your local gardening center can help you out. For folks in Kalamazoo, I recommend River Street Flowerland, which has a wonderful display of water gardens and a knowledgable staff.

Natural ponds: These are ponds made of natural materials and usually lined with clay or by "gleying" allowing anaerobic bacteria to naturally water-proof the soil. They are often maintained by creating complete ecosystems instead of mechanical means. They are often planted with diverse plants and stocked with fish and other aquatic life. If a good natural balance isn't maintained, they can become problematic for mosquitoes, bad smells and algae. When well-designed and balanced, they are nearly maintenance free and don't bring noxious chemicals into the landscape.

Gleying is an old-world technique common in Europe and Asia. Does it really work? Here's a thread at Permies where someone used the technique successfully. 

(Dew Pond, Wikimedia.)

Dew Ponds: An enduring mystery of the British countryside. Ponds that mysteriously fill with water, and are never found empty, as though by "dew," or even by "Dieu," as though god himself was watering them nightly. One of the most ancient of man-made ponds. These were designed to bring a reliable water source to farms and pastures. They were lined with natural materials, including puddled clay, lime, concrete, chalk and sometimes pitch. Some argue that "gleying" was a part of the process, as grass and hay were often used, and excrement was often added by grazing animals. These ponds were typically not planted, but often various aquatic plants "moved in." They were designed to naturally fill with water in various ways, so that they were rarely empty, even in the worst droughts, though the mechanism is up for debate.

I've been obsessed with these ancient ponds for years. Here are a few interesting resources:
Rex Research
Edward Martin

(From: One of the most useful sources of information on Wildlife Ponds that I've found in my search. Highly recommended!)

Wildlife Ponds: A different approach to the home pond, these use complete ecosystem design to maintain a healthy balance. They avoid mechanicals like filters, as these are known to damage and kill wildlife such as tadpoles. They're usually lined with plastic or concrete, but may be lined with clay.

(From PRI, and Geoff Lawton, the MASTER of Broad Acre Pond Design. This Article Features his new video on Pond Design, which I own and strongly recommend.

Broad-acre ponds: Along with dew ponds, these ponds were engineered to naturally fill with water to provide for agricultural use. Permaculture designers like Geoff Lawton and Sepp Holzer have brought these to a whole new level, of creating naturally pressured irrigation that permanently hydrates the landscape. They have integrated amazing plant systems like Chinampas, or "floating gardens," and easy fish harvesting systems as well. Some have used them to catch and store geothermal energy for buildings.

(Solomon's Pool, wikimedia)

Pools: Ancient in origin, designed for bathing, swimming and ornamentation, often with fountains and sculpture. Traditionally built of concrete, today lined with plastic. These are typically "pure" water, without plants or wildlife. These are maintained by mechanical and chemical means, but are still often problematic in terms of smell, maintenance and safety.

(Natural Swimming Pool in Germany, Wikimedia. 

Natural swimming pools (ponds): For me, the ideal Permaculture pond. These are a modern hybrid of ecological modeling and swimming pools, that use ecosystem function to maintain a healthy balance for swimming anad bathing. Without chemicals, they produce a water clean enough to drink! They utilize a diverse planting covering at least 1/3rd of the surface area of the pool, and have a segregated area for swimming and bathing.

Though becoming popular in Europe, they're not currently legal in the US, but these make the ideal pool, wildlife and and pond feature all in one. They can even be used for fish or growing plant foods!

So, that gives a rundown of a the main "patterns" for home water feature design. Let's list a few of the Features found in them. A good design strategy is to list the "elements" we want in our own landscape and start experimenting with how they can be arranged to maximize beneficial interactions.

While you're unlikely to find a contractor who will build you one in the US, here's an article from Mother Earth News, proving that with a little research and design, it can be done as a DIY project.

And if you're planning such a project in Michigan, please let me know. I would be very happy to be involved and would gladly contribute whatever plant and building knowledge, not to mention physical labor, I have to your project.

General Design Elements we want in our Small Home Pond:
Natural lining, (options include clay, betonite clay, dew pond lining techniques and gleying. However, gleying seems inappropriate for a small home application.)
Multi-level diverse plantings to create a functional ecology. 
Natural "filter" systems with at least 1/3 of the surface area planted. 
Minimal mechanical systems, if possible, though we're considering a pump for oxygenation. 
A "natural" system for oxygenation and water circulation. 
Planting "shelves" for multiple layers. 
A raised edge for safety.
An animal-resistant lining. 
Good habitat for wildlife. 

With that list, we're starting to "zero in" on the kind of pond we want. Perhaps you're getting a better idea of the kind of pond you would want as well, and it's probably very different than ours. For example, if we had more land in a place where we didn't have home inspections, we'd DEFINITELY install a simple Natural Swimming Pool, with chinampas, walkable keyhole access paths over the water gardens, a large harvesting basin like a dew pond, and a small concrete basin for bathing and swimming! But just not on our acre in the city. 

In the next article, we'll explore a traditional Permaculture "sector analysis," and a few common "Permaculture patterns" for optimizing positive interactions between elements, such as creating microclimates by using the heat-storing capability of water bodies, and using the fertility-producing character of water ecosystems to fertilize our gardens. So stay tuned!

And if you're enjoying this series, please use the buttons below to help us promote this free series on social media.  

Monday, September 7, 2015

Designing a Permaculture Pond - Part 1: Art and Cultural Patterns

There was a grove, dark with holm-oaks, below the Aventine, at sight of which you would say: ‘There’s a god within.’ The centre was grassy, and covered with green moss, and a perennial stream of water trickled from the rock.”
– Ovid, Fasti
(Photo above Gudrun's Pool, mentioned in the ancient Norse sagas.)

Note: This is a multi-post series. Please check out the other parts here:
Part 2: General Patterns for a Permaculture Pond

There's probably nothing that does more to invoke the "spirit of place," the "Genius Loci" than the presence of water in a landscape.

Like other "wildlife," we humans respond on a deep intuitive level to water, sensing how it nourishes all things in the ecosystem, cleanses, and restores us with the song of deep tranquility, a song we can so easily lose ourselves and our cares in. It's a consistent feature of the places we flock to for vacation, retreat, sanctuary.

In the ecological garden, water gives a flowering of wildlife, insect and plant diversity--the "fount of life."

In the edible landscape, water allows us to grow some truly exciting and nutritious food plants, and aquatic ecosystems are the most productive habitats on earth, in almost every measure. Water "super charges" the productive garden.

Right now, we're in the process of designing and implementing one of the 3 planned ponds in our site design. While we've had some ideas about how these would look and function, we're really just now going from the "big patterns" to the more detailed ones. We're keeping our options wide open, playing, exploring and dreaming about how water will function in our home habitat.

In this series of posts, we'll be "thinking out loud," walking through our design and research process, through testing and trialing, from begining to implementation, in (almost) real time. We're happy to let people learn from our mistakes, just hopefully, we won't be giving you too much to learn.


One of Permaculture's "Holmgren Principles," named after Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren, is "design from patterns to details." According to this principle, I'll be looking at several broad categories of "patterns" that can be applied to ponds. 

But I like to start every creative process by connecting to the deep wisdom of culture, the subconscious and intuition, rather than letting the conscious logical brain call all the shots. The conscious brain is really good at things like taxes and train schedules, but when we let it lead the creative work, we end up making stuff that's about as sexy as, well, taxes and train schedules. 

Speaking of taxes and train schedules, lookie here: 

This is exactly the kind of "water feature" my "accountant brain" would create: 
Flowers, check; 
rock border, check; 
fountain, check;  
waterfall, double check;
wrap that pond up with a schedule D and send it to the IRS! 

Because, if you're doing "pond math," you just add up a bunch of elements until they equal "awesome pond." So if you add even more elements, you'd obviously get an even awesomer pond, right?

Now, doing the pond math: angel statue + lighting + waterfalls + fountains + light-up palm tree = the envy of every suburban gambling addict. Any Vegas casino owner would feel right at home. I bet they've got a slot machine in the gazeebo.  

Honestly though, it's obvious a lot of love went into that distinctively DIY display, so in a way, I kind of love it. It's bold, gaudy and extremely American. And it communicates a LOT about American values. 

But we're certainly looking for something different, patterns that will lend a spiritual depth to our home. We need a backyard to act as a sanctuary, an oasis where we feel secure that all of our needs are met and we're helping to heal our dysfunctional relationship to nature. 

And while we want our home to invoke a simple and genuine human habitat that could be timeless and universal, that whimsical Vegas DIY pond surely beats the water features that I see landscape "pros" selling homeowners across America, "AS SEEN ON HGTV!" 

These speak of a different kind of math. It's like factoring the focuss-grouped numbers and cookie-cutter design elements guaranteed to add to your home's resale value, treating our HOMES as mere investments. 

These "pro ponds" also speak of our relationship to nature, utterly disconnected from ecological reality. What does it SAY to have a waterfall apparently flowing out of your fence, or a mini alpine mountain rising incongruously out of your Iowa back yard? What does it say that we dress up such a proposterously artificial hoax to look like a "natural pond," that anyone can see isn't natural to the setting? What must we think of "nature?" 

And most of these professionally landscaped ponds are every bit as ridiculously over-wrought as the DIY Vegas pond, without its sense of irony and whimsy. I'll take a simple, functional water garden made out of a tarp or a kiddie pool over these any day. 

(Post at World Wide Koi Club

Here, at least there's no fakery, or attempts at cheesy disguise. This is a cute little water feature that adds ecological and productive functionality without cheapening "nature" or lying to us. This is the kind of pond that Eric Toensmeijer and Jonathan Bates had for a few years at their famous "Holyoke Edible Forest Garden," and it served them well!

But surely, there are patterns that point to a simple, genuine approach appropriate to a humble human habitat, one that will look "in place" in my back yard food forest garden, without trying to fool anybody.

(Rie Cramer ~ The Goose Girl at the Well ~ Grimm's Fairy Tales ~ 1927

From the earliest times, humans have lined natural pools and wellsprings with stones and rubble as a sign of sacredness and importance, the need to simply decorate the important landscape features. And also to protect them from animal digging and erosion. These simply lined "sacred pools" are a deep archetype in our art and depictions of sacred places. They are a "natural" feature of human habitats.

(Gudmunder the Good's Pool, Iceland)

Throughout the old world, these ancient wells and pools are the stuff of sacred myth. Preceeding Christianity, pagan Europe held these pools as the dwellings of the fae, and of the "spirits of place." 

(The Three Heads of the Well, Arthur Rackham)

As Christiandom came to reign, these sacred wells became associated with saints, especially ones who had a habit of getting decapitated! Often these saints, baptized in holy wells would lose their heads to heathen scoundrels, then go parading through the country with their noggin's tucked under their arms like footballs, a testament to the new god's power. 


Another common pattern was the cairn, built to shelter a spring and protect it from run-off and rain contamination. 

(Holy Wells of Ireland)
These often flowed to a pool, where pilgrims could bathe in sacred waters.

Such sacred wells are often depicted in art. It's easy to sense that there's something holy in such patterns. 

(Clover, from Will Worthington's Druid Plant Oracle.)

And still today, many are drawn to the healing powers of such ancient places like "Chalice Well," in England. Over the ages, gardens and orchards often rose up around them, further enhancing their nourishing symbolism. At places like Chalice Well, these gardens eventually became quite elaborate, but still seems so genuine, and far from what you'd see in any casino. And at most, the original well sites often remain in their untouched paleolithic condition. 

(The original "challice well," which is said to have been in continuous use for thousands of years.)

What strikes me in all these images is the naturalness of this pattern in human habitats, the need to simply leave our mark on something important to us, with the simple, local materials available. 

In most of these famous European sites the local material was limestone and slate, materials that would look out of place in my Michigan back yard, as much as I love the look. I find that in Michigan gardens, these always lack that genuine "sense of place." We know it on a subconscious level, even when we don't know that we know. 

So, how would this pattern have manifest in a stone-age Midwest?

(Do It House, Interesting post on Russian Holy Wells) 
In Russia's glacial till, the oldest holy wells and pools repeat the same patterns, but with wood, concrete and roundstone adorning the sites. Many of these have had ornate orthodox chapels built around them, but inside, the wells often still bear their ancient ornaments.

And as we continue to plan our backyard pond, these are the "patterns" and materials we hope will invite a discernable "spirit of place" to make its home in our home landscape. When we post the finish photos, hopefully you'll see some of these patterns repeated in our little pond. 


Stay tuned for the next post in the series, as we "scientifically" calculate exactly how many water falls, fountains, statues and palm trees will net us the maximum increase in our "curb appeal." 

(Or not. Just seeing if you were paying attention!)

And we'll get into the "functional" patterns of garden ponds as we decide what kind of "Genius Loci" we want to invite to our home.