Up here in Maine, Memorial Day is under four weeks away, so pretty soon the official planting season will begin! But last week the forsythia popped, so everybody is making ready; flats of pansies and petunias have appeared at the hardware store; and (cool weather; nights are in the forties) vegetables like kale and onions are in at the farmer’s market. Last week I stopped wearing my winter parka. Spring is quite a relief from what all agree was an unusually long and bitterly stressful winter, even if (as has been the case for several years now) all the really bad weather passed by us in areas to the far South, like Boston.
So, herewith a video in three parts on really getting your hands dirty again and at last. All three parts are good, but I was especially interested in the third part, Urban Permaculture, because I find permaculture hard to imagine, in Bangkok, say; or London, or Manhattan. So I’ll cover the first two parts only briefly. As usual, I’m going to pull out the passages I find particularly discussion-worthy, and so but you’ll have to watch the video to garner tips and ideas.
[00:00] Part 1: Forest Gardening, with Robert Hart.
[15:40] Part II: Plants for a Future, with Ken Fern (site).
[31:56] Part III: Urban Permaculture, with Mike and Julia Guerra
Part 1: Forest Gardening
Part I is just über-geeky. Plenty of shots of compost, and a discussion of foliar sprays. I like the part where Hart grows runner beans up a rowan tree; I think I’m going to try that. Also too Hart’s wildly British sweater.
Here is Hart on layering, and on how to start your own food forest:
[0:40] Success depends on understanding that useful plants can be grown in a succession of layers which imitate nature.
HART: The natural forest is regarded as having seven stories, as they say, the top story being tall, light-demanding trees, the second story is short, shade tolerant trees, the third story is the shrubs level, the fourth the herbaceous, the fifth comprises plants that spread horizontally, the sixth is the rhizosphere, or root area, and the seventh is the vertical layer, comprising climbers and creepers [like runner beans!].
[13:56] HART: The advice I give to anyone who asks me how to start a forest garden from scratch is to plant an orchard of standard fruit trees at recommended intervals, that is about twenty feet each way. Then plant dwarf trees midway between the standard trees. Plant fruit bushes (currants and gooseberries) in between the trees, and plant herbs and perennial vegetables on the ground level.
Notice the layering in the above design.
Part II: Plants for a Future
Ken Fern is a former bus driver who bought a 25-acre farm in Cornwall next to the ocean, where 50 mph winds are quite normal. Fern’s sweater is correspondingly magnificent.
[28:00] So where did [Hart] gain his encyclopedic knowledge of plants?
FERN: By making lots of mistakes. Once I decided I wanted to grown them, I spent a lot of time reading books, going to botanic gardens and other gardens to see the plants growing there, and to see how they grew, how I’d want to grow them, and what I thought about what they were doing, but basically, it’s just by making mistakes, and learning from them.
Can you tell me about your database, and about your list that you’ve compiled now?
FERN: Yeah, the database started in a very small way about ten years ago, when I had a little card system, and it was just a few hundred species that I personally liked. But the more I visited libaries, and the I knew about plants, the more I wanted to make it comprehensive. It’s come now to a stage where we’ve got about 7,000 species in the database, there’s a lot of information about how to grow them, where they grow in the wild, how to use them, the different uses we’ve got of them, and make that available to whoever wants it. We’re in the process of getting a user-friendly interface, so we can send a complete package out to people…
A garden you can eat, a garden you can wear, a garden you can use as your medicines, a garden you can use as your fuel and to build your houses, yeah, and a garden for all purposes. And a garden you can enjoy as well, you can sit in, and a garden that doesn’t take up all your time. You can actually, for a few hours of work each week, produce the things that you need.
Doesn’t sound like a bad life, as long as the Internet holds up.
Part III: Urban Permaculture
I should caveat that in the permaculture videos I’ve seen so far (there are rather a lot of them) the use of the word “urban” seems a little flexible — meaning, mostly, what we’d call suburban: Detached homes with lawns, reached by car. So the possibilities for “urban” permaculture will vary according to the land-use patterns of the given city. The garden that Mike and Julia Guerra designed and built would be easy to find space for in Detroit; reasonably easy in Los Angeles or Berlin; possible in Bangkok; not easy in London; probably impossible in much of Manhattan (at least Twentieth Century Manhattan).* Of course, were land values in Manhattan to drop to the level where, say, a Garment District made sense again, more possibilities might open up.
MIKE GUERRA: I was thirty years old before I knew how to grow food. I saw the [???] with Bill Mollison on Channel 4, and all of a sudden it was illumination. It seemed to so easy. He was just walking around, eating from his garden. There was no supermarket in between. There was no heavy lorries. There was no intensive use of poison. It was just there. It was in his garden. He was just walking around eating it.
There was an opportunity of turning a two-dimensional landscape into a three-dimensional food-producing place. … Everything has to be close together to work together.
JULIA GUERRA: When we first moved in to this ground-floor maisonette, the back garden was completely paved, there was nothing there at all. And we had a side area of garden that was just lawn, with a very invasive conifer tree, and the front garden was just purely lawn as well. So we decided we would start with the back garden, as that was the most unobtrusive, and we could really have an experiment with that, and find out what we wanted to do. …
JULIA GUERRA: We actually had to import a lot of the soil mix … because unfortunately with a lot of these new built houses there is no layer of soil underneath, it was just sand and builders rubble, and it was impossible to dig into or do anything with it.
MIKE GUERRA: If you go in the garden now, and put your hands inside, you’ll find there’s a definite sponge structure, and it’s there due to worms. We do no digging, we do no weeding, we do mulching on the surface, we let the worms do the work.
MIKE GUERRA: Permaculture and forest gardening are two different things, to us at least. Permaculture is basically a design methodology, a philosophy, an ethic, a way of designing your landscape, whereas forest gardening is basically a technique, it’s a method or technique of designing a multi-layered food producing or putput producing structure, whether it be food or medicinal plants or whatever. … Permaculture is not about techdniques, it’s about strategy, about design.
MIKE GUERRA: We produce on our 75 meters squared about four to five hundred pounds … of food a year for the kitchen. That works sort of out to about 15 tons an acre, which is better than agriculture land. We do this with only two hours work in the garden a week [after system setup, surely!! — lambert] We do not do any digging, we don’t do any weeding, we basically sow, maintain, and eat. We wanted to show that people could have a real life, but not be completely sort of tired and exhausted by producing food.
JULIA GUERRA: On average, we manage to have produce for ourselves from the middle of May all the way through to October.
About 90% of our produce we usually eat right away.
So I suppose if Mike and Julia worked harder, they could feed themselves year round — they’re not preserving anything!
Personally, I think cities are a wonderful achievement — civilization, and all that — and I’d hate to see them go dark if (when) Big Food’s supply chain collapses, whether from fuel costs, or disintegrating infrastructure, some sort of superbug that gets into supermarket coolers, or general revulsion at the production methods (especially of meat). So developing capabilities for urban permaculture seems like a reasonable hedging strategy, personally and socially. More importantly, and more interestingly, if yield like the Guerra’s are getting is representative, then we might transition from the age of agriculture to the age of horticulture. Is it an urban legend that when the Soviet Union, and with it, collective farms, collapsed, that the Russian people were saved from starvation by home gardens? Apparently not.
NOTE * Except for oligarchs, who could put nifty little gardens in their penthouses. But that’s hardly the point.
NOTE Here’s a much shorter video from Geoff Lawton on permaculture in a “high density suburban” environment. Beautiful design, but I’d still like to know yield, to match that against the Guerra’s experience. That said, I can produce two months (monotonous) winter eating on the eighth-acre patch I work, and I’m not really working it intensively; sitting in the garden is almost as pleasurable to me as eating food.