Sunday, April 23, 2017

How Come There are Plants OTHER Than Mint and Bamboo?

 
(Our neighbors - Lillie House is nearby the A.M. Todd Mint flavoring facility in Kalamazoo, and we sometimes enjoy the aroma of "stepping into a York peppermint patty" from our garden.) 

Did you know that 90% of the world's mint used to come from a small area around Kalamazoo? 

That's right! We were once the mint capital of the world! Farmers here used to grow mint right out in the ground like maniacs, first in burr oak openings and later as an alternating perennial crop in farm fields, especially in our Kalamazoo mucky soils, often in the same fields as our famous celery (Kalamazoo was also famously once the celery capital of the world, and is still sometimes called "Celery City.") 

But wait - how could we possibly have grown anything BUT mint, I mean, once that "ultra-invasive rampant jerk of a plant" mint got established?! 

 
(MSU - A mint field in early stage of estblishing root cuttings.)

That's right, I'm on about "weeds" and "invasives" again, one of my favorite topics. Listening to the quivering fear in people's voices as they talk about the dangers of The Herb That Shall Not Be Named, or the stern disapproval of gardeners who say it is simpy "wrong" to plant any mints in any garden - EVER - I'm left wondering how we managed to grow celery or anything else ever since around here, if we had this "impossible-to-get-rid-of" bully of an invader growing in all the fields all around us. 

What's even stranger is that as an avid forager and hiker who's spent the last 5 years trucking through the region's thickets, old fields, deep woods, open trails, and every other possible ecology - including old mint fields - I've never once seen this "invasive" growing as an escapee in our region in the wild! If the conventional wisdom I often hear about this plant were even half true, then how could this possibly be?!  

 

We'll get back to mint in a minute, but first: Have you ever noticed th in Asia, there are plants other than bamboo? Again, considering the utter scornful condemnation of any gardener who'd dare to plant any bamboo in their Michigan garden, I'm left wondering how any other plants manage to exist anywhere in asia. In fact, as pointed out by Toby Hemenway in Gaia's Garden, people in many folk or indigenous communties in Asia would be surprised to hear that there's anything wrong with the plant at all.... The same goes for other "Verboten" plants in their home regions, where they're arguably most adapted to thrive: culinary mints, oregano and thyme in the Mediterranean region, sumac, poke and brambles in North America, garlic mustard in the British Isles, and so on.

Now, before a gaggle of gardeners hunt me down and force me to wear the scarlet "W," let me emphasize that caution is called for. While I'm the kind of guy who plants mints as part of a rotation in my garden beds, I'm also quick to caution people against planting specimens (like seedling hardy kiwi and vinca minor) that could become a management nuisance, could escape into nearby woods, or get them in trouble with their neighbors. There are of course plants that were imported to North America that really did become widespread, to the detriment of native ecologies and plants. The most obvious cases are the non-native grasses we use in our lawns, and the dandelions that go with them. And in this case, it is now commonly believed that is the change in land management systems (from grazing and burning to mowing) that is responsible for the domination of non-native grasses - in other words, the plant spreading wasn't the problem, Europeans spreading was. But most often, like mint, these plants have more bark than bite. 

In this fascinating MSU article on historic mint farms in S.W. Michigan  they discuss the need to either replant the field every few years, alternate crops or let the field fallow, because every few years the populations would decline. Culinary mint plants are cultivated by root cuttings, are largely sterile and rarely set seed, so when a plant spreads in your garden it is all the same plant, with the same root system, and - such is life - everything eventually gets sick and declines, everything dies. Even mint. 

 
(My standard summer beverage, mint water with a splash of orange bitters.)

Like any other biological organism on this planet, mint, bamboo, and probably most other plants fingered as "invaders" all have their evolved niche, their roles in the process of "ecological succession," the process whereby nature transforms lawn gradually into an old growth forest. Each species may have its day as king, but it will be replaced as other tougher plants move in and the system naturally grows towards its "climax" as a mature forest, with greater diversity. Then, even the dominant climax ecology, the forest, is no longer deemed permanent, but just another ephemeral community, taking its time in the light until lightning, fire, humans or some other "disturbance" inevitably removes the woods and restarts the process of succeession. 

So it seems to me that the problem very often is not with the plants, but in our thinking and interactions with them. The problem isn't in our gardens, but in our heads, where the thought of a single plant getting "out of place" is an affront to our sense of control. Change is painful. We want our gardens to be "perfect," locked in time, never growing or changing, or getting old. But nature wants the system to mature....

One of the most rewarding things I've learned from Permaculture is to let go of that control, and hand over the steering wheel to mother nature. She knows where she wants to go (ecological succession, greater diversity, more energy) but she's quite happy to take suggestions about how to get there (like which species to include, how much to "produce") so long as we're moving in her direction. What I've come to recognize is that often, my preconceived ideas about what's productive or aesthetic (like what "belongs" in a garden, or what's "native") don't really serve me or the ecosystem. And it feels particularly awe-inspiring to sit as just another individual co-creator in a dynamic evolving space that is "our garden," instead of a strange, sterile incarnation of my own neurosis imposed on the landscape. And it feels nice to look around my garden and see beautiful, helpful plants, each filling exactly the niche it evolved to fill, and doing exactly the job that I should expect it to, instead of seeing hated invaders and enemies.

If you're looking to recover from your own weed-neurosis, here are a few Lillie House articles that might help you learn to seek a functional balance with your weeds, a perspective that I've learned from studying Permaculture and ecology. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

This Hack Get's Mother Nature to Fight Weeds for You: Fortress Plants

 

Look: this is a picture of a vegetable at war with the lawn. 

Given all the attention around the "food not lawns" movement, you might think I'm being metaphorical. But an experienced gardener will understand that the veggie patch is ALWAYS fighting a war for survival against lawn and "quack grass" greedily trying to take over any bit of land it can get access to. 

"I've lost my garden completely to quack grass!!!"is one of the most common tales of garden woe, and usually the only recourse is to completely start over. 

But LOOK AGAIN: Here, it is the grass that's on the run! This spunky veg, with no help from the gardener, is actually winning the war. More importantly, this hardy specimen is holding the line, protecting the more easily overrun vegetables behind it. This is what some Permaculturists call a "fortress plant." Best of all, it's perennial vegetable, sorrel, meaning that once it is established it will come back each year, working to keep weeds out of the garden for years to come. This is one of several tools derived from the study of ecology and natural succession that clever gardeners can use to keep grasses and other weeds at bay. But you can't just plant sorrel in your garden and expect not to have any weeds. To work well, we need to understand and apply the ecological principle behind how it works and design with that in mind. 

 
(Another combo of fortress plants that has the grass on the run.)

It wasn't hard to convince myself that pouring a glass of home-grown elderberry-wine sangria and plopping a couple ice cubes in it would be the only possible way to visualize this. Now, staring at that ice cube it's still hard for me to imagine a wall of ice a mile high. But 10,000 years ago, that's what we had right here in parts of Michigan. In fact, as recently as 9,000 years ago most - if not all- of Michigan was under ice. When the ice melted and the water cleared what was left was a blank slate, in ecological terms a "disturbance," ready for mother nature to go to work repairing. 

But she couldn't just jump in with the ramps, morels and and solomon's seal that characterize mature woodlands, because they need the rich, deep fungal duff found in the mature forests of Michigan. She had to start with plants that could get a toehold into this "blank slate, with little organic matter or fertility to help out. This gradual process of transformation that occurs after disturbance is called "succession," and that's what we're interested in when it comes to weeds. 

Depending on the soil, the ecological history of the site, and other factors, a typical process of succession starts with the small, quick plants that evolved to cover poor "new" soils with little organic matter or easily digestible nutrition, like mosses and lichens. As these die back they enrich the soil with carbon and other nutrients, essentially adding "compost" to the soil and making it accessible to an increasing diversity of organisms. After a while of this composting, grasses and other "pioneer" weeds come in covering the land and playing their role in repairing the disturbance, creating a grassland. Over time, broadleaf plants like dandelions outcompete the grasses, making room for woody perennials to move in, creating a shrub field, then a savannah, then an open woodland, and finally coming to "climax" at a dark, dense mature forest. 

 
(A forest edge imitates this process, gradually advancing on the grassland.)

So, to nature, "weeds" grasses, and even non-native grasses have a role in ecosystems and a place in the process of ecological succession. In a natural system, their time is fleeting, doing their job, then slowly phasing out of dominance, eventually becoming rare in landscapes they had once dominated as they are replaced by the species that evolved to succeed them. This is why there are rarely many grasses or dandelions in a mature forest, and when they're present they are in balance, not dominating the other plants. 

 

But in a conventional garden we're constantly setting the ecological clock back every time we till or weed the garden, recreating the "disturbance" that is the promised land of the very grasses and pioneer "weeds" we're trying to get rid of! This is a system designed to fail!

From a Permaculture approach, a better way to keep grasses and other "weeds" from taking over the garden is imitate the process of succession. Author Toby Hemenway called this "fast forwarding to a later stage of succession" beyond the stage where these "weeds" necessarily reign. 

As it turns out, this "mid-succession" state, where grasses and early pioneers have started to naturally cede territory to a greater diversity of herbaceous plants, woody shrubs and early pioneer trees, is the ideal natural habitat for most of our favorite food plants. The soil is rich with organic matter and fertility. A variety of sun-shade habitats provides niches for many plants. Most (but not all) of our veggies can easily find a home in such an ecosystem, and most of our fruit trees are mid pioneers, happiest in such a situation. In nature, this situation is found at the forest edge, where the forest is spreading out converting grassland, and in old-fields and savannah systems. 

This is one reason why a well-designed forest garden works so well: it creates a variety of habitats all hovering somewhere around this mid-succession sweet spot. 

 
(An agro-ecosystem that imitates the mid-succession sweet spot.)

And Fortress Plants are just one great hack that food and ornamental gardeners alike can use to tap into this process. 

 The term "Fortress Plant" is not an ecological term, but rather a handy catch phrase for the various mid-succession pioneers that are adapted to reach out into grassland and begin converting it to forest, through competition, shade and allelopathy (chemicals secreted by one plant to poison its competition.)

So one fortress specimen alone will almost certainly be overrun. But if we can plant these perennial pioneers together with enough density to mimic the spreading pattern of succession, we have a chance at making a garden that is fairly resistant to grass and weed pressures, yet provides ideal habitat to our favorite fruits and veggies. 

 
(An edible hedgerow on the march, converting grassland just like a natural forest edge.)

A final caveat is that different soils require different fortress plant communities, so this strategy takes some experimentation. My recommendation is to use high diversity and high density, giving nature the tools she needs to solve the problem on the soils at hand. 

Starter List of Recommended Potential Fortress Plants

Relatively Low Herbaceous Perennials Idea for the Garden Edges
Most woody perennial herbs, depending on soil (better on sandy soil.)
comfrey, pretty much everywhere
sorrel and blood-veined sorrel
turkish rocket
cardoon
most spring ephemeral bulbs including daffodils and alliums (though the effect is stronger at greater densities and with other plants)
over-wintering annual ephemerals like chickweed, dead-nettle, wild mustards and wild cresses
the monardas
fennel (again, this is probably a weeker effect on most sites, but it has good research proving its allelopathic influence.)

Taller Fortress Plants Often Observed at the Edges of a Forest
pokeweed
sunchokes
Maximillian sunflower
lovage
cane fruit

And this is just one of many tools that gardeners and farmers can use to put the process of ecological succession to work for them. The strategy gets even better when combined with other succession-mimicking hacks, like "nurse logs," another research-based approach to fast-forwarding succession. At Lillie House, these three factors are often seen working together. 

To get a fuller understanding of what these ecological mechanisms are and how they can easily be applied in the garden, we hope you'll join us for this year's Complete Forest Gardening Course, where you can see how these patterns are applied and managed over the course of a growing season, here at lillie House. 

 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Lessons from Urban Permaculture

 
(Diversity and abundance flourish at the city's many edges.)

Everything under the sun comes with trade offs, good and bad, and the great thing about city life is:

The people. More opportunities to work together with others, build community and culture, and generally get stuff done. 

What's the bad thing about city life? 

The People! And the fact that you actually HAVE to work with them to get stuff done. 

That's what makes Urban Permaculture an important labratory for modelling efficient design on any site, from suburban homes to rural farms: City life is  busy life. More people, more to do, more energy and resources, more potential... less time to take advantage of any of it! The efficient use of time, space, resources and social connections to maximize our potential while saving us time becomes the major question of good urban design. 

Busy suburban and rural Permaculturists might find some helpful tips and tricks by taking a look at their urban partners. 

 

We're about to go pretty advanced here: In Permaculture Design, one of our main discussions is about "Intensity," or how much work (energy) you put IN to a system in order to obtain a yield from it. (Also called Energy Return On Energy Invested, EROEI.) "Extensive" elements require you to put very little time or energy into them to maintain them or get a yield. "Intensive" elements require more energy and time, but reward you with a greater yield. For example, a well-planned, and well-managed Bio-Intensive Garden will require a lot of work and resources: digging, weeding, watering, soil amendments, mulch, and dealing with pests and disease issues, but it will return a very high yield of high-value fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, a fairly wild extensive edible hedgerow MAY have a smaller yield, but will take little-to-no resource investments or non-harvest time to maintain and get a yield out of. 

The goal of good design is to look at how much time and resources we have to invest and then create a mix of intensive and extensive elements that maximize the outcome. This works equally well in the garden and other aspects of our lives (in business, it's similar to the 80/20 principle.) 

Another way of putting it? I care less about mamimizing the "profit" of my garden and more about maximizing the hourly wage I "pay" myself to garden.


According to most of my favorite Urban Permaculture resources, including The Permaculture City by Toby Hemenway, the Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, and the movie Urban Permaculture by Geoff Lawton (my top recommended resources) the principle dynamic of urban projects (or other small sites) is that they are more Intensive. Since you've got less space, you can put in more energy per square foot in order to maximize the value. 

But this doesn't necessarily mean putting in more PHYSICAL energy, labor or resources per square foot. And it doesn't mean toiling past the point where it does you any good. 

Instead, we can think of being INTENSIVE about information, creativity and DESIGN, being very deliberate about the choice and placement of each element, right down to each plant! Finding plants to do your work and building rich connections between each of them becomes key and traditional Permaculture design techniques like Zones (check out our video!) become even more important. 

So with that said, here are a few of the design elements that can make or break Permaculture in the Urban environment. 

Maximize UTILITY not "productivity." We can use Permaculture to design beautiful, functional landscapes for ourselves that support beautiful, happy lives. We can design to harvest our most important resource: free time. The best designs aim to go even further, creating "Flexible Adaptability of Intensivity," naturally resting in a "low energy" mode when life gets hectic, but allowing us to quickly scale up intensivity when we have the time to get a bigger yield. 

Aesthetics. In the city, this is extremely important. Many Permaculture project has ended by looking like a wild, horrible mess. But there's no reason a Permaculture landscape can't be incredibly beautiful. Think "Intensity" again. Choose the places where a very "tidy" look will have a big impact, then choose aesthetics that look "wilder" elsewhere to let nature take over. Look into the "Post Wild Edible Landscaping" that's becoming very trendy. 

Higher diversity per acre. Plants also do work in the garden. They can weed for us, convseve water for us, mulch, fertlize, attract pollinators, repell pests, fight weeds and so on. We can even plan a "guild" of plants that can work together to take care of all of these needs for each other. More importantly, when we have high diversity, we take advantage of the Ecological Resiliency/Diversity principle, "the greater # of species in an ecosystem the more resilience and disease/pest resistence is conferred to each individual in the system." High diversity means a healthy garden and less work to do. We recommend starting with at least 30 species. 

Maximize Connections - Get plants to take care of each other. Get plants to take care of your chickens. Get the chickens to take care of your plants. Get your plants to take care of the volunteers who take care of your chickens. Get the volunteers to take care of their communities with your excess plants and chickens. This is how to maximize productivity. (This also works as a way to build the local economy!)

Catch as much energy as possible. In a small space, maximizing each resource is key! We can plant a garden to maximize the light that each plant gets, this is called a "sun trap" design. And we can plan garden beds to make the best use of each drop of water Water. And we can also design to catch social energy from volunteers and visitors. 




Focus on "Social Permaculture." With large spaces, you have more potential output and can accept more "waste." Maximizing the value of a small space means really looking at how people use the space: what they need, what they have to offer, and finding out how to build connections to them. A large nursery can focus on just selling a lot of plants! We have to package the plants we grow with our design and educational services, such as in our Community Supported Forest Gardening program  that packages food samples, plants, design services, and a complete forest gardening course all into one really incredible program!

Integrate Social Elements and Social Space. In small spaces, this may be one of the most important elements  Design your landscape to be your own personal home resort. You can have your own paradise, and eat it too. 

Integrated life design. Finally. Permaculture starts in the garden, but what we learn there can transform our lives, our communities and our society. We can design our gardens by thinking about how our environments can support what's REALLY important to us. In the busy urban environment, we can get a lot of benefit out of designing ourselves an environment that reminds us about what exactly IS important, since it's easy to get distracted by the hustle and bustle of life. We can design PLACES that make us slow down, put our hearts and minds at rests and give us space to really enjoy life. 





And we can design to change society. Our urban location has put Lillie House directly in touch with the true transformational power of Permaculture. Our rural Permaculture partners, often surrounded by vast lawns and monocultures of GMO corn (not to mention "social" monocultures,) rarely get to see the impact their good work has had on visitors after they leave the farm. In the city, we get to harvest continuous inspiration from meeting amazing people doing incredible things, regularly witnessing how Permaculture blows minds and changes hearts, and generally minimizes the harm of our bizarre modern world while maximizing happiness for humans and non-human beings alike.  

When we each set aside time to give ourselves this gift, we are investing in "viral change." If we can design our lives and landscapes to generate true wealth, health and happiness, support a better way of life with more connection to community and nature, then we won't have to twist people's arms to change society. They'll line up for it like its the new iPhone. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Regenerative Landscaping - A New Paradigm

 

Mapping Kalamazoo Resilience

Can we actually map Kalamazoo's resilience and sustainability? 

Is there a tool that designers, planners and sustainability consultants could use to paint the map of Kalamazoo "green" by measurably converting unsustainable, costly land-uses that lessen our resilience and contribute to carbon emissions to "regenerative assets" that help with climate while adding to community resilience and meeting community needs?   

The ecological design system of Permaculture provides us with analytical tools to do exactly that, but it requires a substantial paradigm shift in how we view and measure "sustainability" in the landscape.  Over the last 40 years, the Permaculture community has developed exactly such a tool, the concept of "regenerative" infrastructure, land uses and systems. And it will also challenge Kalamazoo to adopt cutting-edge emerging techniques that move "beyond the war on invasive species," to understand how we can serve nature while simultaneously using the landscape to meet the needs of Kalamazoo residents in a way that is truly "regenerative." 



Regeneration Vs. Sustainability

From the Permaculture perspective, the "sustainability" paradigm is a "type 1 error," a system designed so that it is ensured to fail at its designated goal. Over the last few decades, this recognition has caused Permaculture designers to call for a completely new paradigm. The basis of this critique is as follows:

  1. Sustainability is unsustainable. The typical use of the term "sustainability" when applied to systems and technology that are presumably less harmful, or more easily sustained into the future, than the current status quo. Most enterprises and endeavors wearing the "sustainable" moniker are thus, literally speaking, unsustainable by definition. This includes, for example, landscapes designed with the Sustainable SITES initiative, which can meet every requirement, yet contribute to climate change and waste energy with no benefit. 
  2. Sustainability is Zeno's Paradox. Like Achilles running half way to Zeno's tortoise each day, setting the goal of "moving towards" sustainability ensures that we will never create a just and sustainable society. Yet one wonders why carbon emissions and energy/resource waste has increased over decades of "sustainability"  activism. 
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  1. Sustainability prolongs ecological collapse and injustice. By working to make injust, destructive and harmful systems more "sustainable" we are literally acting to continue injustice and harm further into the future than they would otherwise endure. Some systems are "unsustainable," and it's a GOOD thing that they cannot continue much longer. 
  1. Sustainability is unclear and difficult to measure. Full lifetime energy use and embodied energy are almost never included in calculations, and when included, many (if not most) "sustainable" initiatives are revealed to be less sustainable than the systems they replace. 
  2. The sustainability paradigm does not account for the Energy Efficiency Paradox or Jeavon's Paradox that increases in fossil fuel efficiency will not decrease fossil fuel consumption, and have thus far actually increased fossil fuel consumption. I now refer to the documented facts of the Jeavon's Paradox, which are well documented, not any particular theory created to account for those facts, since it is not necessary for us to agree on the theoretical causes to be suspicious of a course of action that is contra-indicated by the facts. Measures intended to increase the efficiency of local fossil fuel consumption can NOT be expected to have a positive measurable impact on reducing atmospheric carbon. 


Regeneration: The Emerging Alternative

Given those critiques, a very simple and viable alternative has emerged from the Permaculture community: the idea that our human systems must tap into the power of renewable resources and ecosystem services to go BEYOND sustainability, to actually grow healthier, wealthier and wiser over time, rather than reaching to slow inevitable decline. 

As proposed by Permaculturists like Geoff Lawton, the Regeneration paradigm is simple and easy to measure:

A regenerative system yields more resources than it consumes. Regenerative food systems yield more soil and fertility than they consume, while yielding more calories of energy than they consume. Regenerative landscapes catch, clean and infiltrate more water than they consume. Regenerative land uses yield more useful energy (food, fuel, crafts and medicines) than they use (especially in the form of fossil fuels.) Regenerative systems give more to people and human communities than they take. They do not create or sustain social injustice. And finally, regenerative land uses sequester more carbon than they release into the atmosphere. 

This has three major added benefits. First, it has the effect of recognizing that humans are animals, and human communities are ecologies, reconnecting us with nature and ecosystem services. Second, it undoes the tie of Jeavon's paradox, by forcing us to directly address net impact and consumption, directly redesigning the systems that cause climate change, and setting the goal that goes beyond "net zero." And finally, it's concrete, measurable, and mappable, allowing us to set goals and judge real outcomes.



A map for action:

Best of all, the regeneration paradigm provides us with clear lines of responsibility and accountability. We each take responsibility for making our own properties, livelihoods, blocks, neighborhoods, and enterprises regenerative. It becomes the responsibility of the City of Kalamazoo to:

  1. Ensure that the properties it manages are maintained in a regenerative way.
  2. Provide support to residents and business owners to enact regenerative practices. 
  3. This is accomplished by providing "patterns" which land stewards can use apply to their own landscapes and enterprises. 

Harnessing the Power of Nature:

Human systems are all prone to entropy and decline. We build houses, schools, roads, bridges, etc. and over time, without continued inputs of energy and eventual replacement, these manmade systems will continue to decline, requiring consumption of fossil energy and resources. 

But natural systems exhibit "Negative Entropy," growing in stored energy, diversity, and health over time. They are regenerative. It is these systems that we must tap into to create human systems that are also regenerative. 

Regenerative and Degenerative Land Use Patterns:

This simple tool of water and energy analysis gives us a way to analyze land uses as either "regenerative" or "degenerative." Either a use cleans and recharges more water than it uses, or it doesn't. Either it yields more useful energy than it uses, or it doesn't. Either it creates soil, or depletes it. 

If we were to mark such uses on a Kalamazoo map today there would be very, very few "regenerative" areas. Even a map of Kalamazoo city properties would be almost entirely (and very strongly) degenerative, contributing to climate change and injustice.

We will only achieve a regenerative Kalamazoo when we have enough regenerative land uses to "pay" the costs of our degenerative ones. 

Degenerative Land Use Patterns:

Unused/ornamental Lawn: The ultimate degenerative land use. Each lawn costs us water (both from watering and from increased polluted runoff) fossil fuel energy, climate change, and public health (chemical use and machine use) and receive NO useful energy back in return. When this is done on public land, we each pay tax dollars and our fair share of fossil fuels with no public return. If we were to map Kalamazoo resilience, unused lawns would be the darkest red, the most unsustainable land use. One of the best things we could do would be to incentivize the elimination of lawns. 

Athletic fields and other useful lawn areas? While much maligned by environmentalists, lawns like athletic fields are maintained at a useful yield for human inhabitants. They should of course be kept to the minimum necessary to maintain fair access to athletic uses, but they can be seen as a "regenerative asset" contributing to community, public health, etc. 

Unused parking. Unused parking is costly, and has nearly %0 infiltration. 

Degenerative "Restoration Areas." A particularly controversial outcome of an energy/water audit is that many "restoration areas," "native gardens," or "prairie gardens" have a negative energy audit, using a substantial amount of energy while yielding nothing, infiltrating only a small amount of water, in some cases requiring water during establishment, exposing the public to pollution and unnecessary health risks, and requiring long-term chemical and fossil fuel interventions to maintain. Poorly designed restoration projects have minimal (or arguably negative) impact on wildlife habitat. Such degenerative landscapes can be designed fully in keeping with the American Society of Landscape Architects' Sustainable SITES protocol, yet remain highly unsustainable in terms of energy, resource, soil and water use. Because they do not plan for natural succession, or worse yet, plan to require us to fight against nature and ecological succession, they require long-term human, fossil fuel and chemical intervention with no measurable public benefit. Meanwhile, planned Regenerative sites like Lillie House Permaculture in Kalamazoo have more and rarer native plants, require no fossil fuel or chemical intervention, provide high quality wildlife habitat, generate soil, sequester more carbon, catch and infiltrate a high percentage of water, and strongly enhance climate resilience while mitigating climate impact - yet, would not be eligible for Sustainable Site recognition, since we grow useful exotics and refuse to spray poisons. For more information, see "Beyond the War on Invasive Species" by Tao Orion.  

 
(Poorly planned Restoration project causing erosion, soil loss, water pollution and habitat loss.) 



Regenerative Patterns:

Regenerative Restoration: Ecological restoration and habitat projects can always be designed to be "regenerative" by ensuring that they yield positive Energy Return on Energy Investment and they infiltrate as much water as possible (forest is typically considered to infiltrate 100% of precipitation.) This can be done by accomplished by planting to "obtain a yield" from the land use, or by designing for the process of ecological succession to take place, instead of planning to fight it with chemicals and fossil fuels. Compatible energy-positive land uses include native-heavy forage gardens and forest gardens, community mast lots, agriforest systems, community coppices and lumber lots. Kalamazoo could grow 100% of Kalamazoo's home heating in carbon negative community coppice lots that would also create many rewarding jobs. Land uses that work with succession will move from a stage of prairie to old fields and thickets to young woodland and eventually forest. Gardens, public space, and parks can be planned to mature beautifully through a process of natural succession without heavy human intervention. Since our modern soils and climate are necessarily  non-native soils and climates, such gardens and landscapes will necessarily include "exotic" species or even "invasives." Without including such plants, it is nearly impossible to create a regenerative landscape.  When planned accordingly, such land uses are among the most regenerative management systems. 

Agriforest systems. These are systems planned primarily for human use, and can include public forest garden and foraging systems. Especially important in such systems are carbohydrate crops, primarily chestnuts, as grain agriculture will always be grossly unsustainable and Kalamazoo will need to start supplying more of its own calories in sustainable systems close to town (if we are to have any hope of becoming Regenerative.) These can include coppice lots for heating, lumber lots for building, etc. 

Successional gardens: This is the magic that begins when we simply stop intervening in nature's process. There are many plots of maintained land that would be more beautiful, sustainable and functional immediately if we simply stopped mowing them. 

Erosion control forests: Forest is the ultimate erosion control system. "Green infrastructure" should be priortized over expensive, unsustainable techniques. 

Water infiltration forests: Forest catches and infiltrates nearly 100% of precipitation, more than most poorly designed "rain gardens." Even young forest has a major impact on unburdening our stormwater infrastructure and preserving clean water for the future of Kalamazoo. 

Urban Agriculture: Many publicly and privately owned lots can be used to create jobs and healthy food for Kalamazoo residents. I would rather my tax money be spent on such uses than on maintaining poisonous wasteful lawns. 

Homescale Permaculture Landscape: Permaculture landscape, by design, grows food for minimal energy input, reduces labor and maintenance costs, includes native plants and wildlife habitat, sequesters large amounts of carbon and catches and infiltrates as much water as possible. Designs aim to be "energy positive" producing more useful energy than is required to fuel the home, making them good energy investments. Most investments pay for themselves in one year or less. 

Community Gardens and farms: Well planned organic community gardens and larger community farms can help with both mitigation and resilience while requiring less maintenance than lawns or degenerative land uses. 

A Kalamazoo Alotment system: In Great Britain, cities are constitutionally required to provide a large sized allotment of roughly an tenth of an acre to each family to help fight poverty and ensure public health. Publicly owned land in Kalamazoo could be managed in the same way, saving tax-payers money while providing opportunity for income and fighting hunger. 

This new paradigm gives us the directive to use "restoration" money in a way that is restorative to both the people and natural communties of Kalamazoo. It moves restoration grants and monies out of the hands of a few high level experts and the distant chemical companies they largely work for, and into the hands of Kalamazoo residents to use Kalamazoo's landscapes in a way that provides income, food and security. 

By supporting and promoting truly REGENERATIVE land use patterns directly in the landscape, we can have a direct and measurable impact on the sustainability and resielience of Kalamazoo. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Seed Starting at Lillie House

 

To sow seed is in our flesh and blood, deep in our cultural memory. Here we hold in our hands the potential for life, the stored energy and blueprint for beings who can transform sun energy into beauty, fragrance and food. As we sow, we set intention for the abundance of the growing year: "5 broccoli, 5 Redboor kale, 5 fringed kale." We shall reap what we sow.

Tamp the soil with care. Touch the earth. Wish the plant Devas sweet dreams, that they may wake and grow vigorously, grow strong. 

Recognize for a second, that all our human religions are grounded here, all have wisdom and teaching drawn from the sowing of seed. Even our path of scientific inquiry started here, with the understanding of seed and soil. (This is a stark defining difference from the modern, groundless religions of consumption, technology, and singularity, which aspire to set humans free of the earth, of the body, to wander, to search like hungry ghosts in the cold, perfectly empty void of space, for new, pristine planets to break into the gaping, bottomless maw of our consumption.) 

Uh.... "good luck with that!" I say.

But gardeners touch the earth and begin making practical plans for another growing season, another season of earthly delights! 

 

Of course, we just can't do anything the "normal" way. The best gardening is experimental. It is evolved over time to the needs of people and place, the particulars of climates and taste. 
So, in the spirit of being "open source," allowing others to be inspired by or improve our methods, here are some of our seedy Spring practices. 

 

Materials
There's no particular soil mix or method that we can swear by. We use a variety of tools, depending on the type of seed we're trying to germinate. 

Commercial pellets. Generally, we try to avoid buying pellets, especially peat, which is very unsustainable and has a high impact contributing to climate change. However, we still recommend these for beginners. But with that recommendation, comes the advice that we should all move as quickly as possible to producing our own seed-starting materials. We also will still sometimes use peat pellets for starting very small, high-value plants, or plants that are very sensitive to damping off or irregular moisture, because these pellets have the best moisture-retaining properties, and the fine grain keeps seeds and small roots in good contact with moist growing medium at all times. 

 

Compost mixes: These are mixes we create at home from our compost pile, vermicompost and mushroom compost systems. Again, we try to get the best ratio for the type of seeds. Slightly underfinished mushroom compost tends to have the best draining texture and coarseness, good for sowing larger seeds. Meanwhile, vermicompost tends to have the finest texture, better for sowing fine seed. We'll sometimes mix in sand or vermiculite to get a better mix, though these materials are not sustainably harvested so we keep it to a minimum. 

Toilet paper and newspaper rolls. These are great, easy to make, easy to use, and a good way to recycle. 

 
Late Winter/Early Spring (Feb- March) Plants and vegetables for seed starting, by sowing time and technique:

Start indoors in seed trays: (Mid-Feb- March)
Perennials. Most perennial plants over-winter, requiring cold stratification, then germinate in early Spring, so this is a good time to start most perennial Permaculture plants and vegetables. 
Cabbage-family plants, Many of these are best sown in later summer as fall crops in Michigan, but we've had good yields on spring-sown broccoli, dwarf boc-choi, cauliflower. We plant a few ornamental kales and a few cabbages, though these perform best as fall crops. 
Shungiku (chop suey greens.) 
Alliums. These are tricky in seed trays, as growing onions greens must be kept "trimmed" to keep from falling over. If done well, it can get you earlier, larger bulbs, but it is probably easier to sown outdoors in the garden. 
Parsley
Celery

Sow outdoors in seed trays and flats. March.
Easily-sown perennials like Turkish rocket, good king Henry, etc. 

Sow outdoors in measured, spaced plantings. Mid-March, using Grow Bio-intensive spacings.
Potatoes (buried deeply they shouldn't need protection.
peas (We sow our first succession on St. Patrick's day, but provide protection to heat the soil and fend off freezing. Seeds will rot if they don't germinate.)

These we plant depending on weather, as soon as we get warm weather and the soil can be worked. (can sow multiple successions every few weeks.)
Beats
Radishes
Carrots
Parsnip
Turnip
Onions and other alliums

Scatter-sow outdoors, often in polycultures. (March - as soon as soil has warmed or can be worked.)
Arugula
Mustards
Salad cress
Fennel
Radish
Carrots
Parsnip
Lettuces - we find these grow as quickly through scatter-sowing in place as they do when started indoors, so we find no advantage to starting these in plugs. 
Mache
Poppies
Peas (for pea tips) 

 

Sown Indoors in Trays for Summer: (Mid April - May) Will get "leggy" if started too soon!
Solenacea family: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, ground cherries. 
Tender summer annual herbs: basils, cilantro, etc. 

Sown Outdoors after frost (can sow multiple successions every few weeks:)
Wild tomato varieties like Galapagos. 
Ground cherries
Corn
Beans
Squash
Melons
Cucumbers

Sown Indoors in Trays for Fall: (June, transplanted out when weather is cool and wet and danger of really hot dry weather has past.)
Brussels sprouts
Kale
Winter cabbages
Boc choi

Sown outdoors for fall (In July, under the protective shade of taller plants that will be removed after hot dry weather has past.)
Beets
radishes
turnips
parsnips
baby greens
arugula

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NOTE FOR BEGINNERS: When we were starting out, we'd focus on learning just a few plants a year, starting with our favorites and "easy" crops like lettuce, carrots, beets, tomatoes and radishes. Also, we used the garden planner from GrowVeg, which was free at the time (It's still free for 7 days.)
https://www.growveg.com/subscribeinfo.aspx
For beginning gardeners, we also recommend "How to Grow More Food" by John Jeavons.

And if you want to get started with Permaculture, try planting a few easy, perennial edible ornamentals into your flower gardens, such as asparagus, Turkish rocket, sorrel, Egyptian onions, or chives.