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You are a Seed Keeper — that’s a pretty cool job title. Can you tell us more about what you do?
I come from a place called Akwesasne, which is an indigenous Mohawk community near the Canadian border. Traditionally, we are an agricultural nation so caring for seeds and for the Earth in general aligns with our cultural values and has been handed down from one generation to the next over millennia. There’s a lineage of people cultivating relationship to their food and to the Mother Earth. We have quite a number of heritage and traditional varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco and other plants that have been specifically handed down through many generations over the last several thousand years as a part of our traditional food ways. I have the great honor of being one of the seed keepers of the Mohawk people which means that, together with others, I am making sure that the seeds stay alive and healthy and that they’re given freely within our community, as well as passed down to the next generations.
Sounds like a true passion.
It is a real passion. Due to the impacts of colonization and acculturation many of native North American food systems have been dismantled and unfortunately, they are not a part of our everyday life anymore. As a teenager I didn’t really have access to a lot of the traditional foods and to the cultural memory that goes with them. As a young woman I became interested in traditional farming and wanted to learn more about where our food comes from and to create more sovereignty and freedom through cultivation. That’s how I opened this Pandora’s box of the world of heirloom seeds… and wow!
It turns out that not only do seeds have this incredible diversity — a prism of different colors and shapes and sizes and places where they grow best and communities that they come from — but that they also carry stories and beautiful lineages of relationships.
For Mohawk people agriculture was historically at the center of our culture and I was very curious why it no longer was a significant part of my life and how I could reengage and restore that relationship and connection to the land. So I began to ask people, gather seeds and learn more and more about my responsibility to care for them. It led me on a 20-year-long path to being a seed keeper. Being an educator and a mentor constitutes a central part of this role. I am helping people who are in a similar situation I was 20 years ago — curious but not having access to knowledge or seeds. I am passing this knowledge I received from the elders and mentors of mine within the community because I honor the importance of keeping these traditional seeds alive together with the cultural memory that is attached to them.
It is. I run a seed co-operative. We have a 10-acre farm that focuses on stewardship of seeds and education of people about seed care and growing food in holistic ways. I am also the national program coordinator for the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network — a program of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, which works with a number of different tribal communities to create seed libraries and banks and also to build mentorship networks to leverage resources around policy for protecting our seeds against biopiracy, biocolonialism and patenting. I travel all over North America to see tribal communities and facilitate workshops and conversations around how communities are creating these resources in their lives. So that’s my work in a nutshell. It’s complex and multilayered but it’s also a beautiful path to follow. The seeds have guided me well along my path.
So would you say that seed keeping could be seen as a decolonization movement?
To me decolonization is the foundation of the seed sovereignty movement. But I also like to put a positive spin on it: it’s re-indigenising.
We are claiming back our traditions and rehydrating those original agreements that we had with the plants and with our ancestors but also with our descendants. It doesn’t happen only in Native American nations. Across the globe communities start to recognize the importance of durable, resilient, local food systems. Local engagement has been growing the incredible momentum in the last several decades. The Seed Freedom Movement is a part of it because we recognize that we cannot have a durable and resilient local food system if we don’t have locally adapted seeds that are a part of it. Seeds are the foundation of agriculture but they also encode a memory of the land, the climate, the weather, as well as people’s cultural values, aesthetics and stories. And now people of all generations are coming together to recognize the importance of seed heritage, to create new ways to counteract the globalization and industrialization of our food systems, to resist monocultures. At the heart of what I do is the creation of the seed literacy. Even if you’re not a farmer or a gardener, seed is a vitally important thing in your life because we all eat.
Photo: Rowen White
Among Mohawk people the women were traditionally responsible for seed keeping. Is it still the case within this modern growing movement?
Historically in most cultures — although I can confidently talk only about the Mohawks — seeds were considered feminine. It relates to our own reproductive system — it’s the woman who carries the seed. If you look botanically, it’s the female part of the plant that is creating the seed, so this is a feminine expression of the plant’s life cycle. In our tradition and in many cultures and traditions across the globe seeds have traditionally been considered a feminine aspect of the agricultural system and largely it’s been the responsibility of women to care for them.
In your writing you are using this beautiful word — rematriation.
We’ve been using it in a lot of different contexts. Primarily it’s about restoring the feminine back into our lives through our food systems and recognizing that many of the industrial global food systems are very patriarchal, so it’s about creating that balance. Our traditional knowledge wasn’t about women being more powerful than men or the other way round. The point was to maintain that egalitarian balance between the masculine and the feminine.
Rematriation in relation to seeds is about bringing the seeds back home into their original context and into their communities of origin. Speaking more broadly, rematriation is about restoring that feminine energy back into our lives and our communities.
I learned of the word through a man named Martin Prechtel. In my latest blog post I quote a piece from his book “The Unlikely Peace of Cuchamaquic” — he speaks very eloquently about the idea of rematriation, about that holy feminine being restored back into our lives. Among native peoples we talk a lot about repatriation of things back into our communities. So in this case we decided to use a more feminine word. It’s inspired by the work of Martin Prechtel but also by the legacy and lineage within indigenous communities.
Is it relatively easy to engage young people in such work?
For many years there had been this generation gap. Older people were keeping traditions and seeds alive but younger ones didn’t engage, didn’t see it as relevant. But now I’m witnessing a resurgence of the movement among the younger folks in tribal and farming communities but also in a more mainstream culture. People are waking up to the fact that the monocropped way of life and industrialization of everything is damaging not only to the nature but also to our relationship with the world. Young people these days are inheriting a world that is deeply troubled. In a way they know they have to do something and they are enraged. Stewarding seeds is such a powerful, beautiful and inspiring path to follow. It’s a hopeful form of activism. It’s very tangible and it creates something positive to work for instead of working against something else.
We have to be good future ancestors and responsible descendants, so it’s our responsibility to care for the seeds to make sure that younger generations and future generations that we might not know yet have them.
I have a teenage daughter who’s been growing up on a seed farm so this way of eating is her life from day one. She has a great passion for the culinary arts. She wants to be a chef. There’s a spectrum of ways in which young people can engage in this kind of work. If you’re interested in farming or gardening, that’s great but you might as well be a chef, an artist, an activist, a public speaker. There are many different ways to contribute. A lot of our work in the seed sovereignty movement evolves around inclusivity — how we can acknowledge the gifts that different people can bring to the table and how to make sure that a well-rounded resilient food system has many people contributing in various creative ways so it’s not only about growing food.
You also say that seeds are living beings and our relatives. Can you unpack it a bit for people who haven’t grown up within a Native American community and may have a problem with relating to it?
Sure. All of us — and that includes everyone who is reading it now — descend from a lineage of people who had a very intimate relationship with plants. It’s just in the last couple of hundred years of human history we’ve been looking at seeds and food in general as a commodity as opposed to something that was an integral part of our life that we shared. It used to be a commons, a collective inheritance. A long time ago our ancestors — mine, yours, everyone else’s — made agreements with plants that they would take care of each other. There is this intimacy, there are familial relationships that are encoded in creation stories that are held within many different ancestries and bloodlines.
So when I say that seeds are sacred because they are living relatives, I mean it wholeheartedly. That’s how I view seeds and that’s how pretty much all of humanity saw seeds up to a certain point.
Then it started to get industrialized and commodified and our collective view of what seeds represented has changed. I like to remind people that 200 years ago in the United States and in Europe there were no seed companies. People shared and traded seeds instead. I like to tell people to think deeply about their relationship with their food and with the seeds that make this food. If you trace back different cultural lineages, you’ll see that plants and seeds played significant roles in cosmologies and worldviews. In the Mohawk creation story such foods as corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and strawberries figure prominently. They grew from the body of the daughter of the original woman as a gift to her sons. These foods would then sustain them for the rest of their time here on Earth and they literally grew from her flesh and bones. So in our cosmology we see them as our relatives. We have an agreement with them that they would nourish us every day but we have to give back. That’s a reciprocal relationship.
So now, in North America but also globally, we need to rethink and rewrite the narrative of our relationship with food and seed. At the moment there is a dominant narrative in the Western world that sees plants as dead inanimate objects that we just grow, harvest, mechanize and exploit. But that dominant narrative is really just a shallow facade around a much deeper relationship that humans have had with plants for a lot longer. So in our educational seed co-operative Sierra Seeds we challenge that dominant narrative.
This is a radically different view to the one held by mainstream agricultural companies. You are promoting it now not only through Sierra Seeds in the US — recently you joined the faculty of over 40 women who teach the Permaculture Women’s Guild Online Permaculture Design Course where you run a module on seed keeping. It is not a regular part of the PDC curriculum, is it?
It isn’t indeed. Permaculture is a fantastic curriculum and a beautiful pedagogy — a wonderful system of knowledge that has been distilled down from a much larger traditional ecological body of knowledge originating all around the world and I think many of us within the movement acknowledge that. There is a very particular curriculum of 72 hours of teaching that accompanies the PDC and seed stewardship isn’t a part of it but then… how can it not be a part of it? Seed stewardship should be an integral part of every farmer’s garden and it was — until a hundred or two hundred years ago. So when we’re talking about permaculture and creating holistic food systems, the seed has an inherent place within it. People need to know how to steward seed and how to cultivate seed that’s regionally adapted to a very specific place and to their own unique low input permaculture system. So I approached the creators of this course and said: “Hey, what if we include a module on holistic seed stewardship?”.
The seed is the beginning. It’s so vitally important to the foundation of all food systems but at the same time most seeds available now aren’t adapted to low input polyculture or permaculture systems.
They have been bred and selected for monoculture in a very different farming system. That’s why I think that for people who are meant to obtain a certificate in permaculture design it’s important not to forget about saving seeds. I feel super thrilled to contribute to this course and hold a little corner of that space to really honor the seeds and all that they give us.
Photo: Christine Peterson, Sacred Ecology
One more thing… I’m sure that everyone who got to this point of our conversation feels like me. I buy the majority of my vegetables from a local farming co-operative so the veggies I eat are local, culturally appropriate and organic. But as a city dweller with a small garden I throw away most of these really good seeds and now I feel super-bad. Any advice for folks like me?
The beautiful thing about this growing seed sovereignty movement is that there are many different community projects and initiatives that are springing up wherever people come together to think creatively about how we can develop more access to good seeds within our communities. So in a lot of places, especially in urban environments, there are seed libraries and seed exchange — places where people help to facilitate the distribution and collection of these seeds. So I would recommend that folks, who don’t have a lot of capacity in their life to do a lot of seed stewardship in their own garden or allotment, connect with the wider community. Seed libraries are popping up — it’s worth to look for a local one and share your surplus of seeds there.
The beauty of a seed is that it multiplies exponentially. It is a wonderful example of the natural abundance of the Earth and I think it is also a beautiful expression of the gift economy. Even keepers like myself always have more seeds than we need. It inspires me to be generous and to give seeds outside of my own home farm. The seeds teach us to be generous and to share our abundance with other people and this is really the true nature of things. We live in a society where the dominant narrative is based on scarcity and austerity, so we need to start paying attention to seeds because they remind us of the inherent generosity of the Earth and of our own inherently generous nature.
You call yourself an “intercontinental cross-pollinator”— could you unpack it a bit?
I’m originally from India and have been living in the United States for almost eight years now. In 2010, I moved to a continent that I’d never been to before. At the same time I feel like American culture and Western European culture are pervasive and set aspirations in the “global South”. And as a result, there is a familiarity but also a dynamic I wanted to investigate . Knowing that I had taken on aspirations that weren’t really my own, coming to the US was also partially a journey of decolonization. I also wanted to give perspectives from other places some kind of a parity.
For example during sustainability conferences or university gatherings at Portland State University — where I studied in America — some folks would say: “So you’ve come to Portland to learn about sustainability” — insinuating in a way that people in India have nothing to contribute to the sustainability movement. And that really pissed me off. I’ve definitely come here to learn but also to share because a lot of what happens in other parts of the world is of an absolute and imperative importance to be honored and integrated.
And did you manage to get your message across to your peers?
I think so. These are small and slow solutions, right? When I first came to the US, I had a lot more anger and fire in me. I may have scared off some people. I came across as this angry Indian woman. But my discipline — and I trained as an anthropologist — is in a way built on a foundation of different ways of knowing and understanding. Especially social and cultural anthropology. But this knowledge is not on a level playing field.
There are geopolitical forces at play that make different types of knowledge weighted unequally. I would say that the established order in the sustainability movement feels very white-centric, middle class, academic.
I know this may not be true around the world, perhaps, but I still don’t feel that enough support, resources and listening are given to some of the stories and case studies that are coming from other parts of the world. And I don’t mean to over-romanticise because there is a fine balance here. But goals, aspirations, and credit typically go to a certain group of people and I’ve been actively working to dismantle this white supremacy within the movement.
I would think that the permaculture movement shouldn’t be a place where white supremacy prevails — on one hand this is quite surprising, on the other — I spoke to Rowen White who is an Indigenous American woman and she expressed her feelings very strongly as well.
I feel like here there is much clearer ethnic boundary between Indigenous and non-indigenous. Being Indigenous in India is a very different thing to being Indigenous in America. People often ask me: are you Indigenous to India? Well, as far as I know, all my ancestors are from there but I don’t see myself as Indigenous in the same way as they do here. I feel that in the United States there is a deep rift between native or Indigenous permaculture and the Western-centric, Euro-centric permaculture. In my experience, most times, Native communities don’t even want to use the term “permaculture”. They have their own words for it including Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Sometimes I see it being bridged but I think there is a lot of unpacking that we have to do on this continent in terms of whiteness and patriarchy. The longer I stay here, the more apparent it becomes.
You said you wouldn’t expect it from the permaculture movement. But how can it be any different? Despite our efforts to dismantle these systems of oppression, we must not forget that we are embedded within them.
It’s more important to me to see how we respond to it. If we really dig into the teachings of permaculture and put the overarching goals first instead of our egos, we’ve got everything we need, even if it’s Eurocentric. But instead of concentrating on social justice we find ourselves divided, defensive, unwilling to grow. For me the biggest point of transformation is the need to set up robust mechanisms for giving each other feedback. We don’t have a culture of accountability and we don’t have a real commitment to growth.
Photo from Ridhi’s archive.
That’s a good point. And it’s a difficult thing to build, there is a lot of resistance towards it.
Yeah. To use a permaculture metaphor: we know that we need to capture rainwater but we’re arguing how to do that. And in the meantime… Dude, the water is just dripping! All we do is talk about divisions: people of color versus white people, feminists versus patriarchy. I’m thinking a lot about metaphors. One of them is a cell membrane which is semipermeable. It keeps the cell intact but it also has means of exchange.
I feel like there’s sometimes too many functions are being stacked and that over-integration is a real thing: we are diluting and homogenizing and therefore replicating the dominant paradigm in a way. And I’m more interested in understanding how to keep things distinct to retain the diversity but at the same time make the relationships between them beneficial — to keep them intact inside but able to exchange value.
It’s a very nice metaphor. But let’s talk practical — your work revolves around regenerating public places in Portland. Was it something you were doing as well in India, or did you get involved in it when you moved to America?
It’s something I was actually dabbling in when I was living in India. A friend of mine started something called “The Wall Project” in Mumbai. Mumbai is a crazy, scary city. I don’t know how I survived there for two years. She started painting public walls in collaboration with other people. When asked why she was doing it she said: “We barely have any greenery and everything is so densely packed. But we have a lot of walls so rather than looking at walls as a separation maybe we should look at them as points of connection.” It all started very informally and I loved that. I took part in one painting action and it felt so wonderful. I got to meet neighbours. There were many people walking by as we still have a lot of walking culture in India. I felt really inspired. And as a young twenty-something really apathetic, middle class, privileged person I didn’t know how to respond. Together with a couple of friends — one of them was an artist, the other was studying journalism with me — we decided to paint some walls in our own city, Bangalore.
I talk a bunch about Bangalore during the module I teach within the Permaculture Women’s Guild Permaculture Design Course because I feel it’s so essential — this is where I came from and this is why I do what I do. So in Bangalore all our hang out places, non-commercial public spaces were eroding so quickly and were driving us into such isolation — at least I felt that. I didn’t want to go to the mall, to just keep buying things to be able to inhabit space. So we started painting walls in Bangalore and that was really meaningful to me.
Sounds like a great project — a combination of art and saving the public space. It is also a part of what you are doing now in Portland with City Repair. Is the local community responsive? Who is getting involved in it?
At this point there are over 65 intersection paintings in Portland. The organization has been around for 20 years and has been growing steadily. We’ve got probably over 20 different communities who are painting and it’s a mixture of repainting the old ones to renew them every couple of years and creating new ones. I feel like the predominant workforce are the usual suspects in the permaculture movement — folks who have a strong critique of capitalism and modern development. I say it carefully because I don’t want to overly homogenize but it feels like they’re mostly white middle class folks who’ve chosen to live in voluntary simplicity.
The more I meet people within the permaculture movement, the more I have a feeling that it’s exactly as you are describing — people choosing to live that way because they are privileged enough to do so. And the communities everyone seems to want to include… don’t get included as much in the end.
The divisions between people run deep. When I was in India I had to make many choices. I grew up middle class so I had a lot of class privilege and I had to fight to go down a route that was not the usual “I’m gonna do an MBA.” There’s a lot of social pressure to keep maintaining the status quo. I have had so many biases because of this, so many prejudices. And one of my favorite ones was involving education. Education was a big deal to me for a variety of reasons. And I’m not saying that education is not important but I don’t think you need to have a degree in anything or to be a high school graduate to be profoundly wise.
I met a shepherd once who just blew my mind. We were talking about metaphysical things, the cosmos, the purpose of life and I was astounded: “Wow, you think about these things?” And he said: “Yep, I’ve got a lot of time, I’m a shepherd.” The fact that he was illiterate didn’t mean that he didn’t think about awesome things. We’ve got a lot of divisions and opinions that we replicate. One of them is that uneducated folks hold problematic beliefs. And I’m not saying it’s never true — really problematic beliefs do exist as a result of a lack of access to education. For example, I worked in a red light area with a non-profit organization and I was told that one of the myths they were trying to debunk was that the cure for HIV was to have sex with a virgin. But at the same time there are different sides.
Sometimes, we’ve got this romantic notion that in rural India, for example, everything is idyllic and we just need to return to that lifestyle. And that’s not all true in the same way that cities are not all bad. To me permaculture is not only about harvesting rainwater and building physical eco-infrastructures — it’s a design philosophy and approach, right? So we have to define a challenge, its context and the goal and design the process to meet this goal. And it applies to social structures as well.
The City Repair Project in Portland, Oregon. Photo from Ridhi’s archive.
And how do you integrate this approach within the module you’re teaching — the placemaking?
That’s a good question. I think I try to share some things, to come from a personal narrative perspective instead of blanket statements like: “People of color this…”, “Indian women that…” I do not want to be tokenized or be a representative of any of those identities. I wear all of them. I try to own my experience and I also admit that some of these institutionalized ways of oppression do constrain various other people. So I chose a personal narrative approach because I feel like the biggest potency for transformation is in personal growth opportunities. People hear about the effects of capitalism and globalization in other places but many don’t get a chance to meet someone who grew up there.
So I’m talking about Bangalore and how my whole world changed and I dedicated my life to being a part of an empowerment-based approach. I really believe in place-based power. Placemaking is never just about the material stuff, about painting the streets or the cob oven on the corner. All those things are great, they foster the sense of coming together and being in community with one another. But for me it’s also a deeply personal journey: what’s my role within this? What’s my place?
I feel like if we had an ability to root in places deeper and cultivate a meaningful conversation not just with the land but with each other — without being scared to show some vulnerability — I think many problems on the surface would kind of melt away.
Your place started in India, now it’s the United States. How does your middle class, educated, Indian family feel about the life choices you’ve made?
I love my parents. I realized that although as a teenager I thought I was fighting against them, actually I was enacting exactly what they taught me. I’m such a product of them. And I told them that. I said: “You know dad, I’m making these choices because of the values you’ve instilled in me.” And he just smiled and said: “You’re so smart, you know how to get to me!” But I was telling the truth. And I think this is when I started to understand that things don’t exist in duality but in between, in the grey area.
While my parents still don’t fully understand what I’m doing and why, we have conversations. They are surprised that I’m struggling, that I find it expensive to go to India and rarely have time. They say: “You’re working very hard but you’re not rolling in the dough, you’re not comfortable. You’re not even financially stable, forget comfortable! Why are you doing this?” I performed well at school so it’s definitely by choice and they really try to understand it. Over time, they get more snippets.
I’ve been doing this for 10 years so they know it’s not a phase I’m going to grow out of. And it’s really important for me to bring them along because they are true inspirers of this whole path that I’m walking. Recently my dad bought me land in India that I will return to and turn into a permaculture-inspired place. To me is a symbol that although he doesn’t fully understand what I’m doing, we’ve got this understanding and trust. He says: “I don’t know how you’re going to do this, there are wild animals and stuff.” And I say: “You’re right, I’m terrified, I don’t know how to do this but I know I will die trying.”
He doesn’t need to be a permaculturist and I don’t need to be a business person but we can develop a relationship of mutual respect: although it’s not my path, I see it’s yours and I respect it and in ways that are aligned with my own values I will support you. And I think that such respect fosters so much possibility for collaboration, mutual benefits and a truly diverse community where we are all walking our own paths.
Growing food at home is hardly a new idea. But in this culture, where more people know how to take the perfect selfie than how to grow a potato, urban agriculture has become a form of activism. The slogan “Food Not Lawns” is spreading like wildfire.
Here are some reasons why:
Lawns are the largest agricultural sector, covering more than 40 million acres of land and consuming more than 800 million gallons of fuel each year in the U.S. alone, according to Duke environmental professor William Chameides. The cost of organic produce is prohibitive for many families. Growing their own gives them access. Eating fresh produce improves health and increases vitality. Gardening brings a family closer together and sharing surplus produce, seeds and plants builds community with neighbors and fellow gardeners. Growing food creates a sense of empowerment and gives gardeners the feeling that they have control over their food supply.
These are just some of the ideas that sparked the Food Not Lawns movement. I started the original Food Not Lawns organization in 1999 in Eugene, Oregon. Three of us who cooked for the local Food Not Bombs chapter started calling ourselves Food Not Lawns and hosting workshops in our garden. Our vision was to share seeds and plants with our neighborhood, to promote local awareness about food security and to learn about permaculture, sustainability and organic gardening.
Within two years the project had expanded to include dozens of gardens around the neighborhood, and Food Not Lawns was rewarded with a Neighborhood Development Grant from the city of Eugene. From there, Food Not Lawns continued to blossom. Now, 16 years later, Food Not Lawns is an International network with more than 50 local chapters.
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions that I get from people who want to turn their lawns into gardens:
How do I get rid of the grass?
There are a few options, each with pros and cons:
Sheet mulching. Sheet mulching is a technique where you cover the grass with cardboard and then pile on organic matter — straw, leaves, food scraps, soil. It’s basically like building a wide, short compost pile all over the yard. The top layer is covered with fine mulch and then nursery plants and seeds can be planted directly into the mulch. This is the preferred method of most permaculture aficionados, as it is the least harmful to soil communities and can be a quick way to build up garden soil for growing food. However, sheet mulching can pose multiple problems.
If you have the kind of grass that spreads through underground rhizomes, there is a good chance those roots won’t die under the mulch, and will eventually create a hard-pack of thick roots that your plants won’t be able to penetrate. Also, the piles of un-composted materials can tie up nutrients and make it hard for your veggies to thrive.
Garden boxes, aka raised beds. This can be a great way to build gardens quickly, while still maintaining paths and patches of your lawn. Spread a layer of landscape cloth or cardboard on the ground to suppress the grass, and then build boxes in any shape on top. Fill with organic garden soil and you’re ready to plant. This is a great technique for people who have back problems and prefer to garden in beds that are up off the ground. Problems with garden boxes include the continued growth of grass rhizomes, as I mentioned above with sheet mulching. Also, the soil in the boxes gets stale over time and will need to be replaced and/or amended. Garden boxes also tend to decay and fall apart over time, and will need to be repaired.
Roto-tilling (or hand-digging). By far the most effective way for permanently removing your lawn is to dig off the top layer of grass and then till up the soil underneath. This presents a blank slate for designing your garden layout, and new plants will be able to send deep roots into the ground. Tilling can be problematic, however, if you have lots of rocks or toxic soil. Tilling also disrupts micro-communities in the soil, so it’s important to mulch over the new beds with good organic matter. Once you’ve tilled and established a garden, you probably won’t need to till again as long as you maintain the garden and keep the remnants of grass roots from re-establishing themselves.
Does it have to be in the front yard?
Of course not! In my opinion, the transformation of any lawn to a garden is always a good thing. However, growing food in the front yard becomes a statement to your community, telling them that you value homegrown food. Front yard gardens invite community dialogue, and bring fellow gardeners in the neighborhood out of the woodwork. Front yard gardens can also provoke complaints from the neighbors, however, so follow these four basic guidelines to help ensure those neighborly reactions are positive:
1. Be creative. Spend some time designing a garden that is beautiful and unique. Get some books on edible ornamentals and create a landscape people will see as a work of art.
2. Be consistent. Don’t let the front yard get overgrown and unsightly. Keep up with weeding, mulching and pruning. Be ruthless with dead and diseased plants. If your energy for gardening wanes, scale back your plans and only grow what you can maintain.
3. Be charitable. Offer surplus produce, plants and seeds to your neighbors. Invite them to share in the harvest and offer to help them with their garden ideas. Neighbors who value you as a friend are much less likely to cause problems.
4. Be considerate. Understand that not everyone in your neighborhood will be as excited about growing food as you are. Don’t leave piles of soil or cardboard in the driveway for weeks on end. Consider their needs and they will consider yours.
I’m overwhelmed! Do I have to rip out the whole lawn?
Not at all. In fact I recommend starting small. Remove a section of the lawn and plant a little bit of food or a herb spiral. Or remove the lawn around the edges and plant an edible hedge of raspberries and currants. Or just carve out a few circular spots and plant some peaches and figs. These small changes will provide a delicious inspiration for you and your neighbors, and when the time is right to take out the rest of the lawn, you’ll be ready!
Want to learn more, post your pics, and get/give garden advice? Check out our Facebook group www.facebook.com/groups/foodnotlawns.official Heather Jo Flores is the author of Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, and a co-founder of the original Food Not Lawns organization in Eugene, Oregon in 1999. She lives in Spain, where she spends her time managing a Mediterranean Food Forest and teaching online workshops for women writers. http://www.heatherjoflores.com
My goal with the #freepermaculture project is to give people access to the resources I wish had been available when I first started learning permaculture, way back in the 1990’s. We didn’t have much in the way of internet then, and Facebook hadn’t even been invented yet. So we used the library and good old fashioned hands-on trial and error to figure stuff out.
If humanity has a snowball’s chance at survival in the coming climate cataclysm, it will be permaculture tools and techniques that get us out of this mess. But we need to get on it, NOW, and it pains me to see finances preventing people from experiencing the joy and fascination that comes with learning permaculture. So I’m doing something about it.
Here you’ll find suggestions for learning permaculture for free, and also for finding ways to fund your permaculture education. I only make suggestions based on what I, myself have done and continue to do.
I hope you enjoy the work, and thanks for being here, --Heather Jo
7 ways to learn permaculture for free
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1. Enroll in our yearlong online permaculture course.
Designed specifically for folks who don't have a lot of time or money, this course will give you one bite-sized class per week for a full year, taking you step-by-step through a permaculture design process, focused on your own home, garden, and community. Check it out at www.freepermaculturecourse.com. Tell all your friends!
I know, this is so obvious. And you already know there are a bunch of amazing permaculture books that you can get at the library. But did you know you can download a ton of excellent reading material, including some full-text PDFs of the best books about permaculture? Ok maybe you know that too. But where do you start? It’s overwhelming.
To help cut out the noise, I’ve selected a handful of super-value texts to get you started.
Food Not Lawns was born out of the “Sustainable Horticulture” study group we had going at our house in Eugene. We met up every week and discussed texts--like a book club, but with more dirt! We often had our meetings in somebody’s garden, where we could discuss ideas while pulling weeds. Stacking functions! Now that we have the internet, there are so many excellent study groups online. Again, it’s overwhelming, and some of the Facebook permaculture groups aren’t really that helpful. (In fact, as bizarre as it seems, several of the largest Facebook permaculture groups are run by internet trolls, unfortunately! So be careful!)
If there is someone in your community whose work you admire, approach them and volunteer to help. We can learn so much from help each other, and through respecting and seeking out the wisdom of our elders.
And, if you are are a wise elder, consider looking for an young’un to pass your skills on to.
Maybe you know alot about something besides permaculture, but you want to learn permaculture? How about setting up a skillshare with somebody?
Most of the permaculture teachers I know LOVE doing exchanges like this. If you can’t think of anyone in your own area, start hanging out at the farmer’s market. Or,check out our faculty and see if one of those folks inspires you to reach out.
5. Trial and error.
This one is obvious too, but it cannot be overstated. You can take a dozen expensive design courses and still have no idea what you’re talking about. You have to get out there and start designing! Beyond designing, it’s important that you get dirty and do some serious implementation. Only through years of hard-won experiential knowledge will you ever truly master the fine art and science of permaculture design.
The good news is, implementing permaculture design projects is pretty much the funnest thing ever! The #freepermaculture blog is packed full of hands-on ideas to help you find new ways to get your hands dirty with permaculture.
6. Raise funds in your community to do a Permaculture Design Certification Course together.
In 2001 the Food Not Lawns collective raised enough money to pay Toby Hemenway and Jude Hobbs to teach a permaculture course for our whole neighborhood. It wasn’t very hard to raise up the money, and the results were completely awesome.
Ok, I know this whole article is supposed to be about learning permaculture without having to attend an expensive design course. And I’m a very critical, skeptical person myself. But I have to say, a good permaculture design course, taught by knowledgeable people who have taken the time to learn not just how to do permaculture but also how to teach it...well it can completely change your life.
And there are ways to pay for it. I’ve known tons of students who did a gofundme with friends and family to come up with tuition money, offering the reward of teaching free workshops to funders afterwards.
Others, like myself, leveraged existing community projects to get funding from the local municipality. Back in 2001, after two years of being super visible and growing gorgeous gardens all over the neighborhood, Food Not Lawns got a grant from the City of Eugene to pay Jude Hobbs and Toby Hemenway to do a 72-hour certification course for myself and twenty neighbors. It was awesome!
Most cities have little bits of funding for stuff like this, and if you frame it right, you can raise money to hire top-quality teachers and still be able to offer training for free to yourself and your friends.
What I am saying is: think outside the box!
You’re a designer now, you can do this.
That being said, I recognize that not everybody has access to the time and resources to attend a PDC, regardless of the cost. Not everybody can get ten whole days (plus travel time) to go to an immersion course.
So, just in case you didn’t already know, I’ve collaborated with 40 women to create a low-cost, go at your own pace online permaculture design course that includes an extra certification in advanced social systems design.
We offer the entire first module for free, PLUS, we offer discounts for survivors of abuse and for women of color, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you need support and want to get serious about becoming a certified permaculture designer.
7. Write for the #freepermaculture blog.
As I mentioned, our blog is a hub of skills, resources, and information, brought to you by a collaboration of some of the brightest minds in the movement, and it might just help save the world.
And, as you learn, what better way to solidify your knowledge than by writing about your experiments?!?
We’d love to feature you on our blog and get to know you better through your designs. So, if you fancy yourself a writer, come on! And if you already have your own blog, I’d love to do a guest post there as well.
Also, connect with me directly if you’d like to do a writing work-trade for a partial tuition waiver in our online permaculture design course.
And check out this program for Permaculture Women Writers. It’s not free, but it’s focused on helping you turn your garden writing into a cash crop!
P.S. Does the idea of writing for publication terrify you? If it helps, I can share that when I wrote Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, I had never published a single article! And honestly, sometimes I cringe when I read my writing in that old book (it was published back in ‘06), but it has changed a lot of people’s lives and empowered them to grow food and build community, so I am glad I pushed through the apprehension and just shared what I had with the world. And now that I’ve spent the last 13 years honing my professional skills as a writer, we’re doing a new revised edition! It’s due out in Spring 2021.
Over the past five years I have been simultaneously studying to be a Birth Doula and working my way through a diploma in permaculture. I attended my first birth just one month ago, which was a truly magical and consolidating experience. To my advantage, integrating my concurrent pathways has proved itself to be seamless in many ways. The common ground between the two is rich and fertile. Abundant in ideals and practice, they can complement each other. Permaculture is an umbrella term that encompasses many design solutions and systems that seek to realign the balance between nature, others, and ourselves. Permaculture looks to integrate human solutions with what nature already provides. Doulas add a layer of humanity and reverence to the most natural, innately human, and momentous happenings of our lives.
“Doula” is a Greek word, which means female caregiver. It is an ancient role that, traditionally, encompassed preparing people for, and accompanying them and their families through, the two greatest rites of existence: birth and death. A doula is a layperson that does not need any particular credentials. Formal training is not an absolute requirement, but for those wishing to embark on this meaningful path, there are some excellent courses that will prepare, inform, and encourage. A broad knowledge of current practices and an awareness of wider cultural and historical practices can be a valuable awareness to have, but a doula always works from the bottom up — with people, on their terms — not in the world of theory. A doula does not offer medical care or expertise, but they can assist a person in navigating through the medical world by supporting their intrinsic right to do so.
Before the last couple hundred years it would have been common for us all to be well acquainted with the ritualistic, spiritual and physical aspects of our closest ones birthing and dying. These events would also have, for the most part, taken place in intimate, domestic settings. Since the move towards a professionalized medical culture, beginning roughly 250 years ago, care has been largely outsourced to hospitals and specialized centers’. Rather strangely, birth and death have become, in industrialized societies, considered as separate from normal experience. They are treated, widely, as abnormal events that require intervention — often in hospitals with only medically trained staff considered fit for attendance.
The renowned obstetrician Michel Odent has long championed the role of birth doulas in the delivery room. He proposes in: Birth and Breastfeeding,one of his many books, that simply having the calm, steady presence of a trusted woman in the vicinity while a woman labours will have myriad benefits–including increasing the woman’s natural flow of oxytocin,a powerful bonding hormone often referred to as the love or shy hormone. High levels of oxytocin are an essential component of natural birth and it increases in great quantities during labour. Physiologically, we have much in common with our mammalian relatives, who like to birth in hidden, dark places. When we feel protected, safe and undisturbed, our bodies and minds are better prepared to birth. Synthetic versions of birth hormones are sometimes administered when natural supplies are low, which in some cases may be necessary or even life saving — but they can also have undesirable side effects. An increased need for interventions of this type could be seen as an indication that the birthing environment is not as conducive to a woman’s wellbeing as it could be.Instead of placing medical intervention at the top of the list of solutions, her emotional state should be prioritised. This is just one example of the imbalance, liable to be overlooked in a highly medicalised system, that doulas can help redress. Doulas can attend all types of births and birthing environments such as at home and hospital births; planned caesarian or non-surgical vaginal births.
Birth doulas “mother the mother”. Many women would attest that having the support of a doula has been invaluable. If a person has a trusted friend or relative to fulfill this role, then it is so much the better. As not all of us do, doulas take a valuable place in the wellbeing of society.
An experience of being deeply cared for can change generations
A birth doula will typically meet a woman (and her family, if applicable) a few times before birth to talk through expectations, build relationships, and sort out practicalities. They will attend the birth, supporting the woman and family in the way they want and will often follow on with one or two visits afterwards. There are also postnatal doulas that help with the transition of the mother after the birth, as well as with practical matters such as cooking and cleaning. In addition there are prenatal doulas that support a woman in finding her own approach to the birth beforehand, but do not attend the event itself. There are many roles doula can fulfil depending on how they work and their preferred specialty.
There are also death doulas. On the opposite side of the spectrum, at the end of our lives, it is not very difficult to imagine that a steady, strong, and caring presence would be endlessly soothing in the universally inevitable journey across the threshold of the unknown. To be in an indifferent environment with no attention or regard given to your very unique and precious humanity at the very end of all you were seems the ultimate insult and loss — a sad crescendo in a throw away culture — and yet a reality for too many. There has been, as with birth doulas, a rekindling of the age-old tradition of death doulas in recent years and many are rediscovering the value of tangible human support at this very vulnerable time. A focus on building a relationship and being sensitive, receptive and present will also be at the forefront of what a death doula can offer.
Doulas respect that the human body is an exceedingly intelligent system, one that we will never come close to understanding in its entirety; one that is nestled in and interacting with many other complex systems — both naturally-occurring and institutional. A doula can help a person ascertain and understand their choices, advocate for them, and also help them reflect on past experiences. Just as Japanese farmer/philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka espoused the ideology of: “do-nothing farming”which encourages less toil and a cooperative attitude towards the land. Doulas know too that being is vital; a strong presence in the whirlwind of life is what we search for in times of need.
There is a well-known axiom in permaculture: Everything Gardens. This means all of our actions and opinions ripple outward to have an effect on the environment. It is important, therefore, that a doula becomes an emblem of self-care. They need a network of support along with the tools to self-reflect, download, and recharge.They need the space to fill their wells so that they may give again. They must ensure the lenses through which they view the world are as clear, compassionate, and open as they can possibly be.
Doulas, of all kinds, are enjoying a renaissance. It’s not difficult to understand why. We add a layer of nurturing and unconditional support to humanity’s most cherished and sensitive moments. We do not coach. We do not advise or project our own prejudices. We do not try to solve or change. We seek to empower a person to navigate through and understand their options, to feel empowered and heard. Our role is to observe and respond to the individual, their environment, their family, and their cherished hopes. Our job is to listen — deeply, with more than just our ears — with our whole beings — always without judgments and to just stay “with”.
Rewilding has become a bit of a buzzword recently. It seems to have caught people’s imaginations. However, it might surprise you to learn that, in many rural areas, rewilding can be quite controversial. In this article, I hope to explore why rewilding has become a “thing,” explain why it might be problematic, and who knows? Perhaps I can suggest an alternative way forward.
When people talk about rewilding, they are usually thinking about somewhere remote and far away. But these are not empty spaces. There are already communities here: of plants, animals, and people. However, rewilding projects rarely seem to consider who or what is already there, nor ask what impact the “rewilding” actions will have on existing (often fragile) ecosystems.
Rewilding and biodiversity in the UK
In Britain, upland areas of Wales and Scotland are popular for rewilding, but the sites for rewilding projects often seem to be chosen by people who are unaware of their existing biodiversity. Phrases such as “degraded ecologies” and “green deserts” are used, yet the uplands of Britain contain large areas of blanket bog. These wetland habitats have protected status, because they are home to unique ecosystems.
Blanket bogs consist of peat which can be several feet deep. It acts as a sponge for both rain and carbon. They take thousands of years to form, especially to the depths found on British uplands. This means it is thousands of years since these areas were forested. The names of different aspects of the landscape reflect this, such as Moel Hebog, a mountain in Snowdonia whose name means Bald Hill of the Hawk.
Rewilding projects generally involve planting trees. In this case, “rewilding” means destroying the bog to plant a forest. Nature doesn’t stand still, so reforesting those peat bogs means losing species that have evolved to fill this rare niche.
Before trees can be planted on peat bogs, the bogs have to be drained. This means rainwater is no longer held there. Instead, heavy rainfall rushes straight down into the rivers, often resulting in flooding downstream. This is why there has been severe flooding in the lower reaches of the Severn Valley, for example.
Destruction of peat bogs also releases carbon into the atmosphere. Peat bogs are considered to be the most efficient carbon sink on earth, storing up to 30% of the planet’s carbon despite covering only 3% of the surface.
Reforesting peat bogs also means disturbing the soil. Our knowledge of the soils beneath our feet is limited, but one thing researchers are discovering is that fungi play an important role in soil ecology. Any soil disturbance damages fungi, whose mycelium may stretch for miles. A recent study in Sweden suggests that fungi may be far more important than trees in terms of storing carbon.
It may also come as a surprise to many people to learn that maintaining peat bogs is best done by mixed grazing of native sheep and cattle. Ensuring that this is an economical option for farmers is the simplest way of protecting upland habitats and their capacity for storing water and carbon.
Rewilding and people
Places earmarked for rewilding often have a strong local culture as people depend on each other to survive and make a living in harsh conditions. Their skills, experience and expertise in managing the land may span back generations and this is reflected in the local language or dialect and in the culture, all of which are often deeply intertwined with the climate and terrain. These are resilient communities — yet at the same time they are fragile, because the loss of one or two people can have a big impact on the whole community.
Cleared crofts, Isle of Rùm, Scotland
In both Wales and Scotland many feel that rewilding is a continuation of colonialism. There is a long history in both nations of the mountainous landscapes being used as a playground for the rich and for resource extraction, be it slate, water, coal or more recently, renewable energy. Rewilding can be seen as yet another grand idea imposed on the land and on the people with little thought or consideration for local opinions or concerns. Promises of economic benefits through tourism may be greeted with dismay: the lack of affordable housing due to a combination of second homes, holiday cottages and low paid seasonal work means tourism has already resulted in significant rates of homelessness in rural areas, and in the loss of young people to cities.
Including local people and their views in discussions about rewilding means thinking not just about other people’s perspectives but also about how we see other people. Much has been written about the “othering” of people who are different from “us”. We tend to see people who are different from us as either scary or exotic, or simply not see them at all.
In rewilding debates, the opinions of local people are often dismissed or simply ignored. The assumption that local knowledge and expertise is irrelevant is familiar within a history of colonisation: the name “Wales” comes from a Saxon word meaning foreigner or barbarian, with connotations of inferiority and “otherness”.
What I find intriguing is how rewilding effectively labels nature as “other”. Some wild things, such as sharks, are scary, and some, such as plankton, are invisible, but rewilding seems to be exciting and exotic.
The problem with this way of seeing the world is that we forget that humans are part of nature. And if humans are part of nature, then where we live and what we make are also part of nature. High rise office blocks may be ugly and power stations are undoubtedly polluting, but they are not in a separate bubble: they are made from and are still part of the earth.
But why does this matter?
The danger is that labelling certain areas as wild allows unlimited development everywhere else: off-setting nature, instead of carbon. Believing that a place is being restored to its ‘pristine’ wild state means that, in the city, life can carry on as usual.
Is rewilding simply a way of off-setting normal life?
If so, it is not really beneficial; it’s a convenient package that masks the real problem.
Is this why rewilding is popular?
Is rewilding popular because, if you are living in a manmade cityscape, it helps to know there is somewhere unspoiled out there?
Is rewilding a thing because, if your days revolve around schedules and shifts, profit margins and targets, you can only stay sane if you know you have made some hillside more “pristine”?
Is it because, when our plastic, commodified lives get to be too much, it’s good to know there’s a rewilded place we can escape to?
These scenarios suggest that rewilding may actually reinforce the idea that humans are separate from nature and not part of the wild.
Cities feel very different from the countryside but is this because nature is absent, or because we are distracted by other things?
What if, instead of trying to recreate an idealised pre-human landscape, we start seeing cities as habitats and ecosystems in the same way as we see mountains and forests?
Trees in the city — or a city within a forest?
Trees are an important part of the cityscape, and each tree supports a whole ecosystem. But glued to smartphones, we forget to notice even our human neighbours, so what chance does a caterpillar or ladybird have, much less a spider? Yet many creatures have evolved to live alongside us in cities and inside our homes.
We can spend days unaware of the sunshine, the rain and the changing seasons, yet the air we breathe, the water we drink, even the sand in the concrete and glass are all part of this earth. A teaspoon of soil can contain more living creatures than the total number of humans alive today. Our own bodies contain even more: we carry whole ecosystems with us on our skin and in our digestive systems wherever we go!
Are we obsessed with rewilding places far away from us because we are so separated from our own natural-ness and wild-ness that we do not see human spaces as places where nature exists?
If humans are as much part of the natural world as every other creature, then human cities are also as much a part of nature as anthills or seabird colonies. What if we look again at how we see cities, and how we see our place within cities?
The Welsh word for habitat is cynefin (pronounced cunn-e-vinn, with a short e as in nest), but it means much more than that: it’s a place you know intimately, a place that you feel safe in. It’s a place you care for and look after because it nurtures you: it’s your home, and the foundation and source of your life.
Rewilding and food
Arguments for rewilding also seem to ignore the whole question of food. Like it or not, cattle and sheep are grown for food. If the hills are cleared for rewilding, what will people eat instead? This is a serious question, because the lowlands are already in use for both arable and livestock farming. While some advocate growing only fruit and vegetables, it’s important to be aware that large scale arable and horticultural farms generally offer far less in terms of biodiversity than permanent pasture. It does puzzle me why upland areas are chosen for rewilding, rather than arable areas where huge fields have been created, and the hedges and shelter belts that used to edge smaller fields have been lost.
Another factor that needs to be considered is what can be grown, because in the UK’s temperate climate, growing sufficient protein from plants alone is not straightforward. Most vegetarians and vegans rely on imported soya and other pulses, some of which is grown in what was rainforest. Un-wilding one part of the world to re-wild another part makes little sense.
Vandana Shiva says that instead of seeing nature as something wild and separate, we need to see it as essential for life. She suggests that making sure the food we eat is grown in ways that don’t damage nature — or us — is a way of reconnecting with nature. This connection becomes more immediate if we grow some of our food ourselves. This might seem impossible for those living in densely populated areas, but in this free mini-class Becky Ellis suggests a number of ways of finding space to grow things in cities.
Instead of convincing ourselves that modern life can be offset by segregating nature and keeping it safe, and at a safe distance, and segregating food-growing so it’s tidied away and unseen, why not ask ourselves what the real difference is between cities and places we think need rewilding?
The main things people notice when they come to the countryside are the quiet, the clean air, and the different pace of life. Instead of trying to preserve parts of the countryside and return them to an arbitrary point in time and evolution, is it not better to tackle the noise and air pollution and the frenetic pace of life in cities?
For example, what would happen if we stopped always looking for new stuff? What would happen if we questioned the endless need for more economic growth, and for profit at any cost? What would happen if we refused to accept work environments with inflexible schedules that erode our well-being, and increase our separation from each other and from the outdoors?
There is a phrase in Welsh, dod at fy nghoed, which means “to reach to a balanced state of mind,” but it translates literally as “to come to my trees,” suggesting that to be well, we need to be connected to the natural world.
Perhaps if we become aware that the wild, the natural world, is all around us, even in towns and cities and on industrial estates, we will start to realise that these are habitats too; that humans and all we do, for good or ill, are part of an integrated, interconnected ecosystem. And perhaps, we will become more connected, or re-connected, to our own wild-ness, our own habitat, our cynefin.
Because perhaps it’s not nature that needs rewilding, but us.
Climate will vary more locally through human structures, topography, altitude, vegetation and water masses. This is called microclimate. By observing and analysing our microclimate we can design strategies to modify it.
Let's look at some of these factors in more detail.
Topography is the shape of the landscape and includes aspect and slope. Hills, mountains and valleys affect how wind moves through a landscape, as the wind moves around hills, speeds up near the top of hills, and funnels through valleys.
Aspect, the direction land faces, affects the amount of sunlight on a site. For example, a south facing site in the Northern Hemisphere will be a sunny site and can produce more biomass/vegetation.
Slope, the gradient or steepness in the land, will affect wind speed; this increases towards the top of a slope. Turbulence will be experienced just past the top of a slope. This is important information when situating wind turbines, as they work more efficiently without turbulence.
Cold air will sink and move down the slope. Accordingly, the slope will impact thermal zones, and a cold sink may occur just above structures or vegetation lower down the slope or in slightly depressed areas. In colder areas this can create a frost pocket.
Altitude. Temperature decreases with higher altitudes. We also find higher wind speeds and more moisture, because of rain or other precipitation at higher altitudes.
Studying existing vegetation can give us clues to rainfall, wind strength and direction and soil fertility. A way to discover the prevailing wind in our local landscape is by observing trees.
This picture shows how the wind has shaped the trees, restricting growth on the side that the wind blows from, so that there's more growth on the other side.
As well as trees being affected by wind, trees themselves can also affect the wind in the landscape and other microclimate factors. For example, in temperate climates it is cooler and less windy in a forest while it's hot outside of it, as trees provide shade and a more moist microclimate and act as a windbreak. At night it stays warmer in a forest compared to out in the open, as the trees create shade from the wind and trap warmth. This does depend on the season and vegetation/leaf cover.
On a larger scale trees contribute to the creation of rain through evapotranspiration.
Urban environments create warmer microclimates through the "heat island effect," as concrete absorbs more heat than the surrounding countryside. In general it is warmer in the centre of a city. The hard surface of buildings, roads and straight lines of streets also create a wind tunnel effect, where wind speeds up. Tall buildings can create wind turbulence. Buildings can create a rain shadow, so there is a drier and a wetter side.
Microclimate and niche.
Microclimates are directly connected to ecological niches, where organisms occupy a space where they can thrive optimally. Creating, or being aware of having, a variety of microclimates, means you can have a wide variety of niches for more diverse planting, keeping animals, and thus increasing yields.
We can make modifications to a microclimate to reduce and direct wind flow, as wind has a growth limiting effect on vegetation. On a windy site, planting windbreaks and shelterbelts is one of the earliest modifications needed. These create more sheltered areas and can direct the flow of air, including cold air coming downhill. Using plants to reduce wind is more effective than solid structures, which create more turbulence. In addition, we can choose species for multiple functions, which again creates more yields.
We can modify our local climate or microclimate by adding water storage, which can modify temperature fluctuations. On a larger scale, we can introduce lakes or ponds to modify heat and to add light reflection. On a smaller scale, adding water storage inside a greenhouse or polytunnel will help buffer extremes of temperature.
In hot climates, planting trees and adding vegetation gives a cooling effect. This is as a result of shade and evaporation, which creates cooling.
We can modify climate and microclimate through buildings, like adding a greenhouse. When we place a dwelling to the North of a greenhouse (in the Northern Hemisphere) we can make use of surplus heat and protect plants. We can paint walls white in darker, shadier areas to direct in more light and improve growth and ripening by reflecting light. Dark walls reduce frost risk by keeping warmer.
We can use thermal mass like rocks or stone walls to absorb heat and plant more tender plants close up to it. We can also use the cooler temperature of the Earth, whilst it’s warmer at the surface, to create a root cellar for food storage into the Earth, without energy based refrigeration.
In cooler climates, you can create sun traps. These designs are sun-facing and wind-still, creating shelter from cold and destructive winds by capturing maximum sunlight all day. In the Victorian era in the UK, walled gardens were built on large estates to create microclimates for tender crops. Fruit trees were trained up against the walls in fan or espalier shapes.
Hot beds are created by placing small glass frames on top of piles of manure, which generated heat as they rotted down. This is a form of season extension.
Women's PDC Microclimate info & exercise, Klaudia - YouTube
Start making some notations on a basic sketch map of your design area. Notice how microclimates work with both intentional and unintentional design. Note other microclimate factors: buildings/structures, landform, altitude, aspect, slope, larger vegetation; sketch these onto your map. Make a very basic notation of the microclimates with colours or symbols.
Note areas that are driest, wetter, windiest, most wind-sheltered, where it might be warmest in the morning and evening, and anywhere that would be cool all day.
What different needs and opportunities are associated with these microclimates?
Klaudia draws on over 20 years experience and study to express her lifelong passion for the environment through facilitating people care and social design programs across the UK, Europe and the Middle East. She’s an Environmental Scientist, Consultant, Parent, Mentor, Coach, Permaculture Teacher and Designer and student of healthy intact cultures and indigenous wisdom. Using her many practical and ceremonial skills, her work focuses across land-based, community and inner sustainability in order to fully activate the human potential in service of life, culture repair and rebuilding the village.
Further information on this topic:
Cloud catchers. In an arid climate in Peru the people are harvesting fog for water as a low tech method of irrigating crops.
Regenerative Agriculture, Beyond Sustainability. An inspiring film about regenerative agriculture. For the microclimate relevant part, watch from 12:35 to see the story of one farm, known as 'Dry Lands', that was destroyed by its previous owner. When the new owner replanted, he found that slowly the temperature on the land dropped, the climate changed, soil 'grew' as he added organic matter from vigorous pruning, water was retained, drought conditions were reversed and water started to run in the streams year-round.
In industrialised nations we have become used to being able to buy every type of fruit and vegetable all year round. When you grow your own, you quickly become aware of the limits to what you can grow in your area because of the seasonal nature of gardening.
Different crops are ready at different times of the year, with summer being the main season for the majority of crops. The further you are from the equator, and the higher your altitude, the shorter that precious summer season will be, and you may experience a hungry gap when few fresh vegetables are available.
A super simple cloche or cold frame can work wonders for extending the season. But truly, if you want to create a beautiful, productive, inspiring, and multifunctional space on your site, you simply must build a greenhouse. Whether it’s a tiny makeshift hothouse you can barely stand up in, or a hundred yard high tunnel filled with mature trees, a greenhouse will increase the diversity, yield, and enjoyment of just about any site.
Top ten reasons to build a greenhouse:
Start seeds early (and late!) Many seeds need warmth to germinate and develop into healthy seedlings. If the growing season is short, getting ahead can make a big difference. Protect tender perennials and grow exotic plants. Increase your yields by extending the range of plants you can grow in your climate! Protect early blooming fruits (like apricot) from heavy rains. Flowers on fruit trees are often quite delicate and can be damaged by rain, wind or frost, resulting in big losses to your fruit crop for that year. Choose dwarf varieties and plant them right inside the greenhouse. Covered space for propagation and transplanting projects.Some plants respond well to a bit of nurturing, resulting in stronger, healthier plants. And gardeners also respond well to a warm place to work on a cold day! Choose a corner of your greenhouse to double as a potting shed and you’ll spend less time carrying seedling trays around. Channel heat into your living space in winter. Build a lean-to greenhouse built against the sunny wall of your house and enjoy the extra warmth in the house. Indoor/outdoor space for messy projects. Leave an open area in a section of a larger greenhouse and you’ll find that you use it all the time, for all sorts of projects. Zen gardens! There is nothing like a high-ceiling greenhouse full of blooming, tropical, edible, aromatic, and succulent plants. Build your own mini-arboretum and escape to it when you’re feeling down. A mentor of mine even had a tiny office in his greenhouse, where she would go to get away from the family and write. Secure medicinal and high-value plants. A well-built greenhouse with a locking door helps keep both animal and human marauders from making off with your crop.
Increased humidity for mushrooms, aquaculture. Some greenhouse designs include extra moist, dark, humid zones for cultivating edible mushrooms. Aquacultures also enjoy a more humid environment, and doing something inside a greenhouse could also allow you to add powered pumps, lights, and other features.
Guest housing! Sleeping in the greenhouse when it’s full of plants is the best!
You can plan space for propagation (seed starting) in a larger greenhouse, or build something intended especially for getting a jump start on the season. For convenience, or for simple ergonomics, this should be a bench or shelf. Extra lighting can be installed and/or heat mats are needed in more Northern climates. In temperate climates this may not be necessary.
Generally your greenhouse should be attached to your home or nearby, in your zone one area, because you will need (and want) to go there every day.
Larger greenhouses used for preservation crops such as tomatoes, peppers, or fruit trees, should be placed in zone two, unless it is more of a kitchen garden, then it should stay near the house. On a larger scale it is possible to have all three.
When a greenhouse is in constant use throughout the seasons, in particular if it is filled with more permanent perennial crops, other factors need to be considered year round:
When choosing or designing a greenhouse or polytunnel, it is important to ensure there are sufficient doors and windows that can be opened on warm days. It is surprising how quickly it can get really hot inside, often way too hot for both humans and plants!
On the other end of the spectrum, (unless your greenhouse is heated in winter) if you live somewhere with extreme cold, or if you have particularly delicate plants, more heat can be captured by insulating the greenhouse with a double wall plastic or glass. Recycled bubble wrap can be used for small areas, and combining techniques such as white walls, rock mulches, and even a cold frame or some cloches inside your greenhouse, can make a difference to whether your plants live or die.
If you live in a zone with high elevations, where winter weather sets in early and the permafrost levels go deep, the most energy efficient way to capture heat is by digging well below that permafrost level, preferably into a south facing hillside. Then, make raised beds within the greenhouse using compost.
For most homestead type greenhouses, raised beds are a good option for efficiency, either filling them with a good quality, bought compost, or ideally with your own homemade compost. I prefer French double dug beds integrated with high quality, on farm made biodynamic compost. Others prefer no-dig beds.
Another option for very cold zones is to put heat coils under the beds. These can be heated by either geothermal heat or via a closed loop hot water system fed by a solar hot water heater, wood boiler, or on demand water heater.
Airflow is very important for any greenhouse situation. Air flow is linked to temperature control. When the vents are open, air flow increases. But what happens on colder days when the doors need to be kept closed? Not only do plants need C02 for growth, they need airflow to prevent molds and fungus.
TIP: The biodynamic preparation called 508 can help regulate moisture and keeps fungus down in the soil. It is quite simply Equisetum arvense (field horsetail). This is an ancient plant full of silica. Pick in Spring, dry, add one ounce dried equisetum to four gallons of boiled water. Let this concentration cool then put it in a bucket and let it ferment for a week to four months. Strain off the plant material and store in a glass jar until use.
In my experience, the best greenhouses and polytunnels include a pond. This helps with pest control because it provides habitat for predators, e.g. frogs. It also improves the air quality, so may be part of the answer to the previous question.
Because greenhouses and polytunnels are confined spaces, it is possible to turn them into exclusion zones. For example, Alice Gray of Tyddyn Teg, North Wales, has excluded slugs from the farm’s extensive polytunnels. She did this by laying a strip of bran all around the inside edge of each polytunnel. As long as the bran stays dry, slugs are unable to cross it, and as she laid it inside the polytunnels, it does stay dry. Then she applied nematodes within each polytunnel. These ate all the slugs inside the polytunnels, so the polytunnels are more-or-less slug free.
The main disadvantage of greenhouses and polytunnels is that the rain can’t get in, so plants do need to be watered regularly. Doing this by hand may be time-consuming, but it does mean you get a close look at the plants while you are watering them and may spot problems early, such as pests or mineral deficiencies.
However, irrigation systems are very useful, and can be designed to use rain water gathered from the roof of the glasshouse or polytunnel, or can be part of a wider system of channels from a pond or dam. Whether you use overhead sprinklers or soil-level drip feed depends partly on what you are growing: For example, some plants are more vulnerable to moulds if their leaves get wet, especially within a humid glasshouse.
Soil & Fertility.
You can plant your greenhouse plants in pots on the ground, on tables, or on landscape cloth. Or you can just plant directly into the ground. As always, consider your soil’s needs, and make specific choices based on the geography and climate of your area.
Within a rotation system, fertility is managed at least partly by the different needs and gifts of different plant families. For example, the pea and bean family feed the soil via the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules. When planting perennials, in particular within the confines of a glasshouse or polytunnel, it is worth putting some thought into this before planting.
Do some research into the needs and gifts of different perennials and companion planting. Mulching works well, but remember it may introduce or encourage the pests you have just excluded!
Here are a bunch of examples of greenhouses in use in the temperate Willamette Valley of Oregon. Here in zone 8, a simple greenhouse can extend the growing season by two months on either end and makes a huge difference in our annual yields.
Growing In Greenhouses - YouTube
If you need ideas and inspiration you could go find a greenhouse! This could be in your local park or botanic garden, or in a community garden or on a neighbour’s patch. Notice the differences between what is growing inside the green house and what is growing outside.
Re-visit the greenhouse at different times of the year, and in different weather conditions (e.g. on a warm sunny day and a cold wet day). What changes do you notice, both inside and outside the greenhouse? Talk to the gardener(s) and ask them what they value most about the greenhouse.
This mini-class is excerpted from the Aquaculture and Season Extension module of ourdouble-certificate design course, taught by Marjory House, Marit Parker, Tao Orion, and Heather Jo Flores.
Marjory House has been gardening and farming in the Willamette valley of Oregon for over twenty years. She currently owns and operates a seven acre farm with over 450 apple trees, and over an acre of vegetables grown for restaurants, farmers markets and Serro biodynamic seed company. She has maintained a fruit tree pruning business for fifteen years and a biodynamic consulting business for the last seven years. She can be reached through her website www.gobiodynamic.com .
Further reading on this topic:
The Year Round Vegetable Gardener, by Niki Jabbour. Niki is located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She gardens year round in the cold north and hosts a weekly talk radio garden show.
I can't stop eating them. There's a fig tree at the place where I am staying and I can't seem to keep them out of my mouth! It's a huge tree, maybe 50 years old, sprawling across the low wood fence and dropping down into the neighbours' yard. They don't mind. Every October, both houses get more figs than they know what to do with, just from the one tree. It's a Black Spanish, and it's famous among fig aficionados as being one of most prolific, cold-hardy and easy to grow varieties.
If you don't have figs in your garden, you should plant one immediately! Plant 10! Figs are not only beautiful, delicious, nutritious and easy to grow, they also provide shade and privacy, create habitat for birds and insects, and are star players in food forests from Vermont to Arcata to Spain and back again.
The sprawling nature of a fig leaves space between for annuals and perennials. Try currants, comfrey, seaberry, canna and blueberries, for starters.
Fig trees can definitely take up a good amount of space, so give it to them. If you live in town or space is limited, plant the figs on an edge, against a back fence or on the parking strip. In the country, plant a patch to create a circular grove or establish a border. I have never had problems with deer eating figs, though your results may vary.
But not all figs are created equal. Many types of figs will literally drown in a wet winter and/or die back all the way to the ground every time it freezes. Here are my four favorites. Each of these bears fruit at different times, so plant one of each and you'll have an extended bounty. These are available online and at most of the local nurseries.
Black Spanish, as mentioned above, is always a winner. It loves hot summers and wet winters, and can be quite prolific, even in a marginal site. The fruits are medium-sized, dark, firm and juicy, and delicious fresh or dried. Naturally smaller than other varieties, in the right spot it can produce two crops a year.
Desert king is one of the best varieties for maritime gardens because it resists late spring frosts and ripens in mid-summer, even in cooler microclimates. Trees can get quite large.
Lattarulla, aka Italian honey fig, is more of a golden color, excellent for drying and can bear two crops in one season, one ripening in late July and the second in mid-September.
Vern's brown turkey fig, not to be confused with plain brown turkey, was developed by Oregon gardener Vern Nelson and is widely known as reliable, productive and prolific in temperate gardens from British Columbia to the Bay Area. It bears large, sweet brown figs and will often produce two crops a year.
Neverella, also called Osborne prolific, makes stunning, opalescent fruits. Naturally a smaller tree that is more shade-tolerant than other varieties, this is an excellent choice for urban gardens.
Petite negra grows only 3 to 4 feet tall — perfect for your container garden! Medium-sized fruits are reddish black and come twice a year.
You could also just take some cuttings from an existing tree in your neighborhood. Figs are super easy to propagate. If you know of one that does well where you live, just wait until it's done fruiting and then ask to take a few cuttings, either from the tips of the young branches or from the suckers around the base of the tree. If you get lucky, some of those suckers will already have roots growing! Get the cuttings established in pots and plant out in early spring while they are still dormant, or if you can keep the soil evenly moist for a month or two, then you can just stick the cuttings directly in the ground.
Once established, figs can be extremely drought tolerant, but, as with most trees, they need to be watered regularly for the first three years. Use this young-tree time to establish companion perennials before the shade canopy of the fig begins to spread. They respond well to an annual top-dressing of rich compost, but aren't especially needy when it comes to maintenance, fertilizers or pruning. In my experience, figs don't take kindly to being pruned, and whole sections can rot if a cut is made improperly. Prune if you must, but be sure to do it only when the tree is completely dormant: after Thanksgiving and before Groundhog Day.
Fun fact: Figs are an inside-out flower, and some varieties are pollinated by the aptly named fig wasp. Other types of wasps don't pollinate but simply use the figs as a nursery for their larvae. These wasps are also known to hunt insects that are harmful to plants, so having figs benefits your whole garden. "I wish I wouldn't have planted that fig tree" said no one, ever.
In a forest, the plants collaborate. They take turns blooming, share space, distribute different nutrients and succeed each other over generations. In our home gardens, we can create diverse, low-maintenance food forests by mimicking these patterns. In its most basic form, this is called companion planting, and gardeners have been doing it for millennia.
You probably know the classic "Three Sisters" example. Native Americans grew corn, beans and squash in a shared space because together they repelled pests and provided a successional yield. I have heard from some old-timers that there was actually a fourth Sister: lupine, a self-seeding, nitrogen-fixing biennial that was planted all around the corn patch to repair the soil.
Ironically, as much as I am a true believer in perennial polyculture gardening, I don't grow the Sisters. I like to hill my corn (like potatoes) and that disrupts the baby beans and squash. I also find that the corn patch needs more than just the beans (and/or lupine) to repair the soil. So I plant the corn, let it get a few inches high, then plant potatoes in between the stalks. Every week or so, I hill up the dirt around the corn and potatoes with a hoe. I do plant squash, but only on the ends of the rows, so that they can sprawl out away from the patch.
Then, after harvesting corn and potatoes, I cover crop the whole thing with fava beans over the winter to repair and hold the soil for the next rotation.
In permaculture, we use food forests to grow as much as possible on a small piece of land. Using those principles, we design garden beds with a collection of complementary perennial trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, roots and annual vegetables called "guilds" that are placed in a microclimate landscape best suited for the group. The idea is to group plants together for specific reasons, encourage them to spread into permanent, self-managing landscapes, and thus reduce the amount of effort it takes to grow food.
You don't have to plant a whole food forest at once. You can carve out niches and build one guild at a time. As they grow, these plantings will attract birds, pollinators, microorganisms and fungi. Over time, as you add more and more guilds, your entire space will yield to nature, becoming your own handcrafted Eden.
How to Build a Guild So exactly which plants do we group with which other plants? It takes a lifetime to learn all the differing functions, get familiar with the size of plants at maturity, with their growing patterns and individual needs. There are some great books on the topic, and any search for "companion planting," "food forests" or "perennial polycultures" will keep you busy reading and designing all winter.
For now, I offer you a handful of my personal favorites from years of experiments with hundreds of plant combinations that yielded mixed results. These are the guilds that I continue to plant in every food forest I design.
Blueberries, strawberries, valerian, yarrow, spinach/lettuce/orach Blueberries are slow-growing, water-thirsty and thrive in an acidic mulch like sawdust. Strawberries also enjoy the acidic mulch, and can get well established as a ground cover before the mature blueberries shade them out. Valerian and yarrow are clumping, blooming medicinal perennials that attract beneficial insects and help build soil for the berries. Together they look great and share space without much intervention. Sow the spinach between the spaces and alternate with patches of lettuce and orach.
Apples, horseradish, clary sage, kale Apples cast deep shade and only a handful of plants will thrive under them. Horseradish repels diseases common to apples, and the two are a classic pair. Because I often use it in my apothecary, and because it doesn't mind a bit of shade, I add clary sage. The fuzzy, aromatic biennial, which grows up to 6 feet tall, glimmers throughout year two with huge plumes of purple flowers. Interplant a few different kinds of kale and you will have a rainbow of foliage.
Figs, seaberry, canna, comfrey, squash If you have space, this guild is epic in every way: year-round harvest, giant flowers, mulch crops and vegetables. Visually, it's Jurassic. Figs can get quite large at maturity and tend to sprawl. Between those sprawling shoots you can plant comfrey, which will fill the space with fuzzy foliage and tubular flowers that pollinators love. Seaberry fixes nitrogen and also produces a tart, seedy fruit that can be dried or added fresh to a wide array of dishes. The canna has edible roots (similar to tapioca) and needs a bit more sun, so plant it on the southern edge. Poke in your squashes around the border to give the tendrils room to run.
Peaches, rosemary, marigolds, arugula, zinnias, cucumber Peaches don't cast a ton of shade. They tend to be sparse with skinny leaves. This means that companions that wouldn't do well under other fruit trees will do just fine under a peach. I like the way rosemary looks, especially when joined with annual plantings of marigolds, arugula, zinnias, and other tall, showy annual flowers. Cucumbers do enjoy full sun, but smaller varieties can thrive in mottled shade, and I have grown some beauties as a ground cover in this guild.
Pears, echinacea, beets, poppies There is something about a pear tree in bloom that always reminds me of the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe image that I grew up with. To me, the way a pear tree holds its blooms looks like an angel. As a sort of tribute to that beauty, I plant echinacea with pears. Echinacea is a clumping perennial with fancy daisy-like coneflowers in purple, green, white and pink. It's medicinal and beneficial to gardens, with a network of thick roots that help to break up the soil and increase nutrient distribution. Beets fit perfectly in the spaces between, and the foliage is visually splendid in this combination. If you want to make it really beautiful, add some poppies, but keep in mind that poppies are heavy feeders, so you'll need to compensate the soil.
Generally speaking, as a nitrogen fixer, I habitually sprinkle white subterranean clover seed, both as a cover crop and as a living mulch in beds and paths. It makes an awesome cover, attracts pollinators, and can be easily removed when you decide to plant something new. For best results, mix organic clover seed — coated in bacterial inoculant — with fluffy, finished compost and keep it in a bucket for easy access. If there's a spot with bare soil, sprinkle the seeded compost around and make sure it gets evenly watered until the clover is established.
Finally, please remember that just because plants in a guild support each other, that doesn't mean they don't need your support. You need to weed, prune, mulch and clear. You need to harvest the food, save the seeds and participate in the cycles and seasons. A food forest is an ecosystem, and the gardener should be a part of that. In fact, for the first three years, your newly planted guilds might need some extra attention. Think of the baby plants like little puppies — you have to train them, nurture them, and raise them, but if you do a good job, they will be your best friends for many years to come!