Permaculture and the Suburban Homestead

Homemade Composter

Homemade Composter

Dear Reader:

This week while the Democrats and Republicans are fighting it out over whether or not photos depicting the treatment of captured enemy combatants should or should not be released to the world at large, I am focusing my attention on something more important . . . the front lawn.

I am not talking about the front lawn of the White House. My own front lawn. I can’t do much about what happens in the Beltway. My opinion about water-boarding is a, well, drop in the proverbial bucket. My own front lawn, however, is my domain. Here I have some (but not total) control over what stays and what goes, what is planted and what is cut down, what I will grow and what I will not. I am responsible for this little patch of earth I call home, at least for the weeks and months and years I will live here. I am the mistress of flower beds, the queen of garden boxes, the final arbiter of the rotting pine tree’s fate . . .

So why am I so giddy with this dubious power? Today the tree came down. THE tree. The tall, skinny, half-rotted, dead-branched, nine-tenths limbless white pine which towered eighty feet into the air, thirty feet from my house for the past six years. It’s double-trunked cousin keeled over in a wind and rain storm a couple years ago, luckily falling parallel to the house rather than on top of it. The shallow root system couldn’t handle the moist, soft earth and the steady wind blowing east to west. We watched it fall from the basement window figuring we’d be safest down there. I’ve also watched a white pine break off one third of the way up its trunk and fall on my car. Let me tell you, witnessing one of these giants as it crashes to the ground is awe-inspiring. And scary as all get-out.

Now, to be completely honest, I’m feeling a little sad about that tree. It was a micro-ecosystem in and of itself. A chipmunk had a nest inside the soft, damp, splintery, rotted core of the trunk. Acrobatic nuthatches clambered up and down, upside down and rightside up, hunting insects. (Probably the big, black carpenter ants that streamed out of that tree seconds after it hit the ground.) Crows landed on the top brances in the early morning sometimes. Bluejays hopped warily along the ground beneath it, snapping up stray birdseed from the feeder. The tree reminded me a little of those Ents, the tree gods in the LORD OF THE RINGS, the way it towered and overlooked the deciduous beech trees winter, spring, summer, and fall.

I guess with power comes a certain responsibility, and with decisions, guilt. I’ll live with it because with the loss of the lone pine (and a couple of smaller sapling beeches beside it) I finally have a spot in my yard sunny enough to grow a veggie garden.

I didn’t always want to be a gardener. I grew up watching my parents work in our vegetable plots summer after long summer hour. I was conscripted into pulling a few weeds every now and then and snarled at the horseflies. I snapped my share of beans and shelled dishes of peas. The hiss of my mother’s pressure cooker was a constant for a couple of weeks every summer as she canned the green and wax beans.

We ate this bounty all year–fresh during those hot months and frozen or canned all winter and spring. It looked like way too much work to me. Aside from one summer when I planted yellow summer squash next to my dad’s zuccini plants, I had no plans to take up the garden hoe when I married and bought my own home. Even when I moved into my current home six years ago, I planned on supporting local agriculture by frequenting produce stands and voting with my shopping dollars at the Hannaford store by buying organic produce (never mind that it was shipped here from Mexico or California.) A mostly shaded lot didn’t seem like a problem back then. I could have a few flower beds near the house, maybe a couple potted tomatoes for fun, but a backyard vegetable garden was not even a blip on my radar . . .

Until I began to read books like Michael Pollan’s OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA and Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE. I learned about our food system and its dependence on oil products and overland trucking inputs. I heard people talk about “locavores” and “slow food” and “sustainability.” These books led me to such topics as Oil Depletion, Hubber’s Curve, and suburban homesteading. All of a sudden, I realized I was living an unsustainable lifestyle, in a suburban-style neighborhood, with trees shading all of my lawn except where the septic leach-field lay, and if I even wanted to start growing my own food, I’d have a real tough time doing it. Nevertheless, I took my spade in hand and got to work digging up a garden plot just outside the septic area.

It was good exercise last summer. The birds sang. The insects hummed. I sweated. I had only a few more rows to double-dig when I decided to actually watch the shadows and the sun. To my dismay, I discovered the big pine not only threatened to crash down upon me in the winter and spring, but it also managed to shade my garden area until 10 AM. By 2 PM, the sun was behind the chummy, communal clump of the pines on the back side of my lot, leaving me with barely four hours of sun, in the very hottest part of the day. Not the best growing conditions. I was too discouraged, even, to try, and so the garden plot went to grass, and the grass went to seed, and I despaired over the winter of ever growing food on my own front lawn.

More reading. More learning. An article about agro-forestry in an old MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine caught my attention. I decided to see what kinds of things could be grown in a forest-like setting. Nut trees. Mushrooms. Some types of weeds and herbs good for medicine and/or plant dyes. This was all interesting, but on my small one-acre lot, growing these sorts of products would be recreational at best, and it didn’t answer the more basic problem of actual food. I couldn’t see feeding my family a diet consisting solely of walnuts and shiitake mushrooms. See here for info about growing mushrooms. Even with some foraged dandelion greens and fiddleheads in the spring and wild berries in the summer, we’d be hard pressed to survive.

Somewhere along the line I heard this word “permaculture,” and like most new words and ideas, you hear it once and then it seems to pop up everywhere. What exactly is permaculture, you ask? Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. (see the Permaculture Institute of Australia website here from which this definition was taken for even more great information.)

Permaculture design around your home takes into consideration many factors and systems and attempts to integrate them into a harmonious whole–everything working together for maximum sustainability. A trained permaculturalist can come to your home and draft out a system for your property. Individuals can also take permaculture classes in order to design their own plans. Even trying a few permaculture practices on a very small scale can a be step in the right direction–for instance, catching rainwater from your roof or planting some parsley in the perennial flower beds. At it’s most extreme, permaculture systems incorporate sunrooms for off-season growing and for heating, ponds, rainwater cachement systems, composting tiolets, greywater recycling, animals for pest reduction and for fertilizer production (think chickens, scratching for bugs and pooping nutrients back into the lawn).

I’m beginning to look at my wooded, one-acre suburban plot in a whole new way, trying to figure out how I can combine the trees with the food-producing areas with the recreational areas with the shelter areas with the pollinator habitat areas. Did you know bumblebees like tall grasses? I didn’t, but now that I do, I’m wondering where I can grow some taller grasses for these busy, bumbly little carriers of pollen. In place of the beech saplings and the three dead or dying trees out front, I will plant a couple varieties of dwarf apples. Maybe deeper into the woods where some pines fell of their own free will, I can find a good spot for a nut tree. Can I grow vining crops up the trunks of trees along the edge? Can I find a spot for some Jerusalem Artichokes? Can high-bush blueberries serve as foundation shrubs? Should I create a mini-pond somewhere? What is better, turning table scraps and lawn litter into compost or using it as mulch?

All these questions to explore! All these experiments to try! I should be able to stave off boredom for years to come. So here’s my question for the week: What have you done around your property that combines systems–say, of food production plus recreation or beautification plus energy savings? Have you had good luck growing certain food plants in shaded or semi-shaded areas? Have you ever worked with your local officials to change zoning rules to allow small-animal husbandry or bee-keeping? Write a comment to share with other readers. We’d love to hear from you . . . Outside the Box.

ps: There are people out there who have been homesteading in the suburbs or the city for years. One of the best, most exciting examples is the Jules Dervaes family in California. Their Path To Freedom initiative is a remarkable example of what can be done on a very small plot of land. Check out this video. I promise, you will be amazed and inspired!

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