Tag Archives: subdivisions

Day 16: Don’t Go Down The “Hollers”

And Other Words Of Wisdom From West Virginia

Shenandoah River

Dear Reader:

On Saturday morning, Hubby, the Teen, and I sprang the F-150 from the bowels of Underground Parking Lot 2 and promptly lost ourselves in the maze that is the D.C. roadway situation. You know those maze puzzles in magazines found on the racks of convenience stores? Looking at a map, that’s what you see. Instead of finding your way out with a no. 2 pencil, though, you are navigating a big red truck.

But forget the map . . . we didn’t bring one.

So what was the first stop on our trip? A convenience store somewhere over near Georgetown for a two maps (just to make sure). I was impressed by Hubby’s ability to parallel park the truck on city street between two smaller vehicles. Lucky for us, traffic was really light on Saturday morning. Soon, we were on the George Washington Parkway heading in the right direction and enjoying views of the Potomac through the trees.

Georgetown, I presume?

I was able to snap a picture of Georgetown through the window as we rolled along, heading for the highways and byways of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia on our way to Charles Town, WV.

Farm from a Window

Twenty minutes later, the city and suburban landscape gave way to farmland. Driving down I-495 didn’t seem that much different from I-295 back home. I had to snap this picture of a farm, and an hour and fifteen minutes out of the city, we crossed the Shenandoah River and saw the long, wavy, blue line of the Blue Ridge Mountains ahead of us.

Appalachian Trail Sign

Seeing this sign, I had the feeling that, if necessary, I could get out and walk all the way home to western Maine.

Golf, anyone?

Charles Town, West Virginia is named for George Washington’s brother who had inherited some land here and who laid out and founded the town. Charles Town is a small city with a cute and thriving Main Street filled with shops, churches, library and a courthouse. On the outskirts near the highway, a casino has recently been built, and this is where you see the strip of chain stores and fast-food restaurant franchises. Wisely, the citizens preserved the historic downtown to retain its charm and character.

Houses All In A Row

We zipped through town, me gawking out the window and wishing we could stop and explore, and soon reached farms and cornfields and finally the housing development where our friends live. The development is ten years old and built around a golf course. I have to admit, the houses are beautiful and spacious with generous, rectangular back yards and large, wooden decks for the outdoor furniture and brick patios for the barbeque grill.

Golf Cart

Hubby and A___ decided to hit a bucket of neon-yellow golf balls over on the green. I liked watching all the electric carts zipping around while grilling R_____ with questions about her life here.

We stood in the shade of a tree and discussed women’s golf-fashion (I love the little plaid skorts and the saddle-shoes) and whether or not she enjoyed living here. She said they did—though everyone commutes to work in the city on the train and works long hours, and they still don’t really know too many neighbors even after two years.

R_____ works in town, though, and said she’s met some nice people there. “They did all warn me not to accidentally drive ‘down the hollers,'” she said. “You know, those dirt tracks that lead off the road?” I nodded. “There’s lots of family clan territories down there where they’ll shoot you if they don’t know you.”

Okaaaayyyy, then.

And how easy would it be to get to town without a car? R______ said she could, if necessary, ride her bike, but the road leading in doesn’t have a breakdown lane and the drivers don’t pay much attention to what they’re doing.

Would it be better to live in town, I wondered? She said the houses in town cost about three times as much as out in the development . . . and are ten times as old. I can see how tempting it would be, if moving to this area, to buy in a development where you have a new, huge house and a nice back yard and neighbors in the same socio-economic slot as you.

The downside is, like most exurban housing developments, this one doesn’t allow retail and there are no communal gathering spots other than the golf course/clubhouse. Everyone is so tired from commuting, anyway, that all they want to do is chill in front of the big screen television on the weekend. We sat out on the deck for hours and saw only one neighbor venture out her door. It felt like a ghost town–albeit a well-manicured, nicely-landscaped, upper-middle-class ghost town. If I hadn’t been drinking and eating with friends all afternoon, I would have wondered if any real people actually lived here.

A____ and R_____ have picked out some houses for us for “when we move down here” (not that we are seriously considering it), and we took a look at them. Part of me is drawn to this kind of pretty, quiet neighborhood. I could do so much with a big, flat, sunny fenced-in back yard in a climate where the flowers are already blooming by the first week of March and the growing season extends into November. I was impressed by their neighbor’s raised garden beds with drip irrigation system (I saw cucumber plants, carrots, and feathers of asparagus gone by).

But I do wonder if I’d want to move into yet another housing development just a little too far removed from the center of town, where, let’s face it, the real community-stuff happens and you can walk to the grocery store and return your library books and grab a cup of coffee at the java hut.

I’m not even sure that I’d want to live this far from the city now that I’ve had a taste of urban living.

Spinning Wheel from upstate New York

Of course, I had to ask about R_____’s spinning wheel and was delighted when she told me it belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother! R_____’s great-great something grandfather was a brother to Charles Ingalls, so she and Laura shared this common ancestress. Made me itch to get back to my spinning . . . and reread the Little House books.

A___ and R____ were wonderful hosts. It was delightful to see and talk with them again. The Teen didn’t even complain too much as her new phone is keeping her in touch with her friends back home, and she was able to sit and watched movies in the air-conditioned house all afternoon. She even came outside to join us for dinner and practice her conversation skills with us “old” people. As the sun sank, we reluctantly headed back to the city after securing promises that our friends would come see us for a D.C. weekend before the end of the summer.

All in all, it was a nice trip out of the city.

Sunday, we went back to Alexandria, and I this time I remembered to bring my camera! Read about it next time, Outside the Box in D.C.

We Cambridged, We Saw, and We Concord

For several years now I have wanted to visit Cambridge, Massachusetts. Why Cambridge, you ask? Sometime just before junior high school, I had gone through my parents’ collection of books stored on shelves in the basement and came across a paperback edition of Erich Segal’s book, LOVE STORY. I read it, understanding not much except that she was a young girl who dies. What kind of writer, I wondered, kills off the heroine like that? Stupid book, I thought. I’d go back to my ANN OF GREEN GABLES, thank you very much.

(In eighth grade my teacher gave me a copy of WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, and I realized that heroes die in some books so I’d better get used to it. Two years later I read GONE WITH THE WIND and discovered that even epic love stories can have tragic endings. Don’t even get me started on ANNA KARENINA.)

Sunny courtyard seen through an archway

Anyway, LOVE STORY was my first literary journey to Harvard and Radcliffe, The Coop, Widener Library, and rowing on the Charles River. After that, I had a fascination with Harvard. For me it has been this sort of ideal–as if all that history and learning and writing and lecturing and studying has bonded into the brick and stone structures, permeated the leaves of the trees in Harvard Yard, seeped into the water of the river down which preppy boys skim in long, thin boats. If only I could get there, I fantasized, perhaps some of that intellectual wondrousness (think Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Adams, Al Gore, Matt Damon . . .) would rub off on me.

Plus it just sounded like a really cool, historical, happening place to visit.

So, last weekend when my friend, Donna, invited me to attend her reunion at Lesley University, a small liberal arts college right next door to Harvard, I jumped at the opportunity.

This is Lesley University’s Admissions building.

The entire campus is housed in these beautiful, renovated, Victorian-era houses snuggled up together on tree-shaded streets just off Massachusetts Avenue. If you Google Map it, look for Wendell Street.

Here I am on the steps of the dormitory hall where we stayed. The three-story house was tall and narrow with five or six rooms on each floor. A wooden staircase wound up from the front entrance hall to the two upper stories. Pretty posh living quarters for undergraduates, I thought.

The Coop Bookstore and Cafe

Refreshed and revived, we didn’t stay in our room for long–just about enough time to throw our bags on the bed and eat a brownie from the fabulous table of food downstairs in the common room. Donna gave me a tour of Lesley and then showed me where she used to cut through Harvard to get to stores and whatnot.

Street performer on a unicycle playing the bagpipes in a kilt

Sure enough, we came out near Harvard Square where you can catch the T, watch street performers, browse for books in The Coop, have coffee at one of the many, many coffee shops, and window-shop for shoes that cost more than I spend on groceries for a month.

Cambridge River Festival

Donna and I were lucky to be here the same weekend as the Cambridge River Festival, a celebration of the arts set up along the Charles. About 2 pm, we slipped into a tent to enjoy a presentation of storytelling by some very talented local teenagers, viewed some performance art (guy dressed up like a giant, slightly creepy, white angel) and then went back to Harvard Square in search of coffee at The Coop.

Once we’d had our fill of mocha lattes and book browsing, we walked around the city for a few more hours enjoying the pretty, landscaped dooryards, quaint neighborhoods, campus buildings, and shop windows. Cambridge really is a walkable city, the kind of place New Urbanists claim we most enjoy living in.

Roses gracing the sidewalk

What are the priciples of New Urbanism?
1. Walkability
2. Connectivity
3. Mixed use and diversity
4. Mixed housing
5. Quality architecture and Urban Design
6. Traditional neighborhood structure
7. Increased density
8. Green transportation
9. Sustainability
10.Quality of life

Of course, Cambridge is an OLD urban model. It is the kind of place the New Urbanists look to for inspiration. Cambridge has the elelments we’ve been missing in all our unsustainable suburbs and exurban housing developments.

Here, you can shop, eat, learn, sleep, exercise, work and play all in the same place without having to get into a car. You can walk or bike or ride the T or catch a bus. The architecture is stunning. The quality of life is fantastic–all those institutions of learning, the emphasis on culture and the arts, the plethora of caffeinated beverages. I felt energized just being there for one weekend. Imagine living somewhere even a little bit like that.

Sign at the Farmer's Market

On Sunday morning, Donna and I even discovered a farmer’s market in Charles Square. We bought bread, sampled cheesecake, perused the greens, and admired the booths. I watched people buying bags of veggies, tubs of goat cheese and long sticks of baguettes and envied them their local lunch.

Donna at the Farmer's Market

We ate a small lunch at an outside table in front of a coffee shop and headed back to Harvard for more sightseeing. I was determined to see Widener Library before we left Cambridge, and Donna wanted to find a church she had attended a few times when she was at Lesley.

Ironically, you CAN park your car at Harvard Yard . . . or pretty close to it, anyway. When we had arrived at Lesley the day before, we were given a pass to park at Harvard’s underground Oxford Street parking lot. Now we stopped to see the buildings around Harvard Yard on our way back to the garage.

Widener Library

Widener Library was closed on Sunday morning, but was still impressive in its huge massiveness. The thought of all those books housed in such a beautiful structure makes me giddy!

Memorial Church

We found Memorial Church, and snapped a few pictures. It was built in 1932 as a memorial to those who had died in World War I and to serve as Harvard’s church.

Pretty grounds at Harvard University

The day was getting late, and so with reluctance we found the parking garage and said farewell to Cambridge. Heading home, we decided to swing through Concord–home to some pretty famous writers back in the day. We drove past Thoreau’s Walden Pond. A little ways down the road was something even more remarkable and heartwarming . . . a community garden!

Community garden just outside Concord

Here where a few of our country’s great writers–Thoreau, Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nat Hawthorne–penned some pretty amazing American Literature, modern Concordians not only enjoy reading but also like growing their own food. According to the official Concord, MA website, “Concord has long supported community gardens and in 2010 has three community gardens on town land with over 100 plots. The burgeoning interest in gardening and local food production has ensured that two of the three gardens are subscribed to capacity, though there is limited turnover from year to year. East Quarter Farm Gardens, near Ripley School, was established in 2009 and still has plots available.”

Three community gardens on public land! Over one hundred plots! Two are filled to capacity!

There in a quaint, old, respected, historical, classy community we find three community gardens, while here in my exurban subdivision carved out of old farmland we have none because some people don’t want to live next door to a garden. How sad–and stupid. When is my community going to wake up?

Emerson's House

Perhaps if I were as effective a writer as Emerson or Thoreau, I could convince my fellow community members to find a place for a communal garden space, to change the bylaws which allow cutting trees in order to put in a swimming pool but not for a sunny garden area, and to begin changing our subdivision from a car-centric, single-use, unsustainable, exurban backwater into a walkable, mixed-use, connected, sustainable, green community.

Cambridge house on side-street

Or maybe I just need to get out of Dodge for awhile.

Stay tuned in the next week or so as Outside the Box travels to Washington D.C.

February Whiteout

My New Best Friend--The Shovel

Dear Reader:

I’m going to blame it on the weather. Outside The Box has been as blank and white as the snow-covered Maine landscape this month. I’m still finishing up the second January sock (just the toe to finish, thank goodness), and I did buy some soft pink yarn for February’s footwear. If I really put my mind (and fingers) to the task, I may be able to finish this month’s and next month’s socks by the end of March. In the meantime, I’ll be wielding a much larger tool than my double-pointed needles.

Need I say it? The shovel.

On Friday, the snow began falling before daylight and continued until dusk. Our community “plowguys” barreled through at regular intervals, keeping the roads clear and wide, and as I watched the white stuff pile up at an alarming rate all day, I scowled and daydreamed about moving to Hawaii. Then I washed laundry and did the dishes. Finally, around noon, Dear Daughter and I began watching back-to-back episodes of LOST on Netflix and trying to find clues that would back up my theory that the Island is a metaphor for purgatory, a holding place where the characters are forced to face their bad choices and inner demons and make restitution before moving on, so to speak, off Island. Since I seem to be living in a Miltonian icy rendition of hell here in Maine, Purgatory In Paradise offered some psychological relief from the mid-winter blues.

“Anything but shoveling” became my motto of the day.

I realize I could have been finishing the socks instead of numbing my brain on now-defunct television shows and idle thoughts of emigration to tropical paradises. I am, if nothing else, adept at procrastination on many levels. However, despite my not inconsiderable shirking skills, I finally conceded to reality and donned my new ski pants (bought at 75% off at Levinsky’s, a family-owned, Maine surplus store which opened in Portland in 1919 and is now located in Windham. Click HERE to read more about this local gem!) and headed out to shovel, scoop, slide around on the underlying ice, and curse Mother Nature and her evil spawn, Snow.

An hour or so later, the area in front of the garage was clear, the end of the driveway passable, and my clothes and boots and hair were soaked from the wet, heavy precipitation which still continued to fall from the dark gray sky. The plows had given way to the sand-trucks. Kicking off my boots and throwing my wet outerwear into the clothes-dryer, I contemplated the pros and cons of living in this condominium-on-steroids homeowners association in which I live.

Red squirrel eating apple in tree

Lately we have had a marked increase in community activism. A facebook page was created. One hundred-fifty community members signed up. There has been discussion of road maintenance, clubhouse oversight, neighborhood crime watches, possible creation of a dog park, and renewed interest in a community garden. More people than usual attended the latest monthly Board of Trustee meeting. People have expressed willingness to serve on various committees.

I see all this as reason for hope. Together, we can make a more vibrant, sustainable community within our larger town communities. As part of an association, we accept an added level of responsibility (including extra fees) along with our added benefits. And while it is important to strengthen our association, we also should remember that there are great opportunities for service and fellowship outside our gravel roads and wooded house lots, over the river and through the woods to our town Main Streets. As townspeople, we can support our local library, shop at our local stores, have lunch at our local restaurants, and join our local civic organization. Since we aren’t zoned for business, it is important to support our local town businesses as much as possible. Greater outreach and cooperation between the “sister” towns and our association can only be positive for everyone.

Nothing is ever perfect, weather or culture or community. Sometimes we need to take a little break, hole up in our houses, and retreat. Eventually, though, the time comes to pick up that shovel and get to work, because there is always work to be done . . . Outside the Box.

Sprawling Apart

Lady's Mantle Sprawl

Lady's Mantle Sprawl

Dear Reader:

Here in my rural subdivision, life goes on as usual–at least on the surface of things. The Fourth of July weekend brought an unusually large number of ATV’s careening down our (posted) roads, an impressive parade of decorated motorboats chugging across the lake, and a barage of illegal fireworks booming behind the sheltering pines from dusk ’til midnight. The smell of grilled meat wafted across shaggy, soggy yards. Neighbors we hardly ever see strolled by, blinking in the novelty of sunlight after two straight weeks of rain. Friends stopped in for potato salad, bratwursts, and strawberry shortcake.

Looking around, you’d never know there was a recession on or staggering-close-to-ten percent unemployment or a war. Maybe that’s part of our American charm–our optimistic belief that sooner or later everything will work out just fine and yankee-doodle dandy. The ungraspable debt will be paid off. Terrorism will be defeated forever. Want ads will sprout like weeds in the classifieds section of the newspaper. Solar and wind power will totally replace oil energy. We will go back to building our subdivisions, taking thirteen car trips per day, and listening to talk radio on our hour-long commutes to and from work in the city.

The fact is, people here in Maine (like the rest of the country) LIKE suburbia.

In 1999 the Maine State Planning Office conducted two homebuyer surveys to see where people were moving and why. They discovered that 42% of people who were buying homes opted to move from a city to the suburbs or rural outlying area. 33% were already in a suburban setting and moved to another suburban setting. An analysis of the survey sums up:

These homebuyers appear to value being within walking distance of
a corner store and the library, knowing neighbors by name, knowing
they can drop by a neighbor’s home and that he or she will feel
comfortable doing the same. They say they would as soon be close to
gyms, ball fields, movie theaters, and cultural activities as be able
to walk out the back door to hunt, fish, ski, or snowmobile. They
value running into friends and acquaintances at the coffee shop on
Main Street as well as seeing wildlife out the windows of their home,
and visiting neighbors on their porches after dinner as much as
watching a solitary sunset from their homes. Some prefer privacy to
contact with neighbors but still want proximity to stores and services
and don’t want to be forced to get their privacy by moving to largelot
suburbs or the country. Still others may prefer a rural setting,
but if they knew they were contributing to the loss of wildlife
habitat, working farms and woodlands, or open space around towns, they
would reconsider.

The sad fact is, the suburban model of housing development is so ubiquitous that we homebuyers feel we have no other choice than to move to the suburbs if we want to escape conjested streets, too-close neighbors, concrete landscapes, and social isolation. This urban sprawl has eaten into our valuable agricultural land and has eroded wildlife habitat. Ironically, when we do move to the suburbs in search of a sense of community and small-town neighborliness, we are often disappointed. Let’s take each of the values listed by homebuyers and compare those values to the realities of my homeowner’s association (which shall remain nameless.)

#1 Walking distance to corner store and library: We can’t. My housing development was built in the 1960’s on rural land at the edges of two separate towns. We have very few points of entry from town roads and state routes, and there are no sidewalks or even breakdown lanes amenable to walking or even bicycling, even if we were inclined to walk or bike the miles between our home and the distant town centers. Zoning rules prevent any retail development in our association, so we have no coffee shops, corner stores, booksellers, or newspaper stands within walking distance. The only businesses of which I’m aware are home-based childcare operations and perhaps some telecomuters working out of their basement offices.

#2 Knowing the neighbors by name: In old-fashioned, small-town or city neighborhoods in years gone by, houses were built close to the street. You knew all the neighbors and their kids. You chatted with them over the picket fence dividing your properties and waved at them from your front porch. You sat in each others’ kitchens and drank coffee. You worked with them at businesses in town. You went to church with them on Sunday.

While this theoretically can take place in a subdivision, the reality is much different. Built on a series of cul-de-sacs, our houses sit back from the road. Decks and porches are relegated to the private, backyard area rather than the social, front lawn area. Few of us work in our actual towns, commuting instead to jobs in the city. We have no churches or other traditional gathering places in our association, though we do have a couple of clubhouses. We have compartmentalized our lives–working one place, socializing another, coming home to the subdivision to sleep. We could make more of an effort with our neighbors–probably should–but neither the design of the subdivision nor our car-driven lifestyle lends itself to old-fashioned neighborliness.

#3 Close to gyms, ballfields, cultural activies, etc.: This we have. Our homeowner’s association amenities include an outdoor pool, two indoor pools, tennis courts, clubhouses with billiard tables and meeting rooms, etc. Most of us could walk to at least some of these amenities, and the use of them is included in our association dues. Sadly, while we have the space for cultural activities that might invite more civic participation and neighborly interaction, we homeowners are so disconnected that these sorts of activities are rarely planned and sparsely attended. The infrastructure is there, however. While we can’t do anything about the road layout, we could, if we wanted, hang out at the gym or hold movie nights at the clubhouse.

#4 Wildlife out the window: Ah, we have this, too. Our rural subdivision has wildlife preserves in place, dirt roads, a lake with lots of marshy areas, and quite a few undeveloped (and undevelopable) lots. I’ve seen deer, moose, loons, herons, foxes, and turtles while driving or walking in my neighborhood or canoeing on the lake. Proximity to nature–animals, trees, wildflowers, wild berries–is a big plus. We can swim in the lake, hang out on one of the many association beaches, cross-country ski through the woods, and sit outside beneath a shady beech or oak tree.

All in all, my rural subdivision is a pretty good place to live . . . for now.

But what happens when things go wrong? If energy costs become too prohibitive and traveling back and forth to school, to the grocery store, and to work becomes a financial hardship, many of us may choose to leave. Others of us will be stuck here whether we like it or not, struggling to figure out a way to live in a place with very little to offer in an energy-depleted world.

Would it be possible to transform our suburbs into sustainable communities where we could shop, work, and play all within walking distance of our homes? Or would the suburbs become the future American slums as some New Urbanists predict?

While we still may have some time before the realities of peak oil hit (when demand outstrips supply in a real way as opposed to the artificial shortages of the 1970’s), the time to address the cons of our suburban design while continuing to protect the pros is now.

The Maine State Planning Office survey revealed that those same homebuyers who were flocking to subdivisions would just as soon live in walkable, urban communities if city and town neighborhoods were planned to reduce traffic, to provide areas for privacy as well as common areas for community, and to design parks and other wildlife areas. Adding a good pubic transportation system within the urban neighborhood will also be a big plus on the side of urban development. State planners encourage this kind of New Urbanist vision as a way to reduce sprawl into our valuable agricultural and wild rural areas, and there are indications that buyers are already moving back to the urban centers. Click here to read about The Great American Neighborhood program. How will our old sprawling subdivisions fare in competition? How soon before home values begin to fall?

If we want to protect our investment, we’d best be thinking about how to provide those things that future homebuyers will be seeking and the current subdivision model doesn’t provide. We need to think about transitioning our single-family residential communities into walkable, mixed-use villages where people can work and worship and play and shop. We need to devise some kinds of “Main Street” areas for community gatherings and cultural activities, and we need to figure out how to provide public transportation. We need to think about education and how to get our schools back into our neighborhoods rather than on the edges of town. It wouldn’t hurt if we figured out how to feed ourselves by promoting the creation of backyard and community gardens, farmer’s markets, and food co-ops.

If we don’t take care, those who can will go elsewhere . . . and the rest of us will be stuck at the end of our cul-de-sacs wondering how it all went wrong.

A Porcupine, A Turtle, and A Dragonfly

June 3 2009 019Dear Reader:

A porcupine, a turtle, and a dragonfly went into a bar . . .

Oops, wrong characters, wrong story. Let me try that again: A porcupine, a turtle, and a dragonfly crossed paths with me yesterday, and I was reminded once again why I enjoy living here in my rural subdivision despite the dirt roads and scrub-brush and towering half-dead pine trees and the somewhat marshy, shallow lake. This place is a regular wildlife refuge! In my six years here I’ve seen deer, moose, skunks, racoons, snapping turtles, painted turtles, pileated woodpeckers, blue herons, loons, and a fox. Some people claim to have spotted black bears. Red-winged blackbirds abound in the cattail marsh up the lake aways. Bass and pickerel haunt the water. Three winters in a row we had an owl hooting in the pine just in back of our house. I’ve seen dragonflies in every shape, size, and color among the yellow waterlillies and purple pickerelweed lining the shore.

But yesterday was notable for the sheer variety of creature sightings. Watching the porcupine try his hardest to get out of the road, into the brush, and under an overhanging rock, I wondered if maybe a quilly mating season was underway. Waddling across the road must be an effort for these stout, short creatures who carry an arsenal of daggers everywhere they travel, and I imagine it must take some strong incentive–food or sex–to tempt them from one weedy ditch to the other.

The painted turtle, thank goodness, was on the side of the road and not in the middle where I might have run her over. As I passed, she stopped, craned her neck, and took a good look right back at me before going on her merry way. Where was she going, so far from the water? I’ve seen tribes of them sunning their shells on the dead, bleached tree stumps up at the far end of the lake but never in the road. Was she looking for a good spot to lay her eggs? Hunting frogs in the swampy depression at the foot of the wooded hill? Do turtles even eat frogs?

After a long day of community activities and square-foot garden planting, I sat down in the late afternoon to drink a cup of coffee on my front steps, and there on the cement walkway was the first dragonfly of summer! He was an unremarkable color with a single pair of wings, but he was a reminder of the hot, sunny days just ahead. Dragonflies are beneficial insects, along with ladybugs and bumblebees and many more.

Sipping my coffee and contemplating my winged companion (could it be that the myth of faeries was inspired by these delicate, winged creatures?), I began to think about the web of life and how we are all part of a vast ecosystem that connects such varied creatures as porcupines, turtles, dragonflies, and people. There are the creatures we don’t even see–the underground insects, the beetles beneath the bark of a tree, dust mites, bacteria. Everything works together, sometimes coming unbalanced but then righting itself again sooner or later.

The kind of landscaping and gardening we do can either fit into this ecosystem or work against it. A fairly new approach to designing human habitats is permaculture. Permaculture design is based on the idea that everything works together and has multiple purposes. Everything is connected, so the idea is to take advantage of those connections to create beauty, function, and usefulness. For example, when you raise a few chickens in your backyard garden, you can feed your kitchen scraps and weeds to the cluckers (waste management), harvest the eggs (food), and use the resulting manure as compost for future gardens (soil building). The chickens will also hunt for insects that might otherwise harm your plants (pest control).

Another example of permaculture design is the concept of garden guilds. A guild is a plant community where each plant benefits from the other. Native American peoples developed a plant guild that is known as the Three Sisters. Corn, pole beans, and squash are planted together. The corn acts as a trellis for the beans, the beans (a legume) help add nitrogen to the soil for greater fertility, and the squash acts as a natural mulch to keep down the weeds that might steal nutrients from all the plants.

Another guild is an apple-tree guild. I learned about this one in an awesome book called GAIA’S GARDEN: A GUIDE TO HOME-SCALE PERMACULTURE. I took this book out of the library and decided to buy it about five sentences into the introduction. It has not just theory but also practical suggestions and guidelines for using permaculture principles in your home landscape.

The apple guild is definitely one I am going to try. I was already planning on installing a couple of apple trees into my landscape, but now I will also plant a ring of daffodils at the distance where the trees branches will end at full-growth. The bulbs will inhibit the growth of grass beneath the tree, so there will be less competition for nutrients and less need to fertilize. Deer and gophers do not like to eat daffodils, so planting them at the edge will keep those creatures from damaging the tree. Within the circle of bulbs can be flowers and herbs that attract beneficial insect pollinators like bees, or that can be used for food or medicine by humans. The author of the book, Toby Hemenway, mentions things like yarrow, comfrey, dandelion, clover, and fava beans. Some of these also work as mulch plants and nutrient-adders. Everything works together, making less work and headache for the gardener while also creating a beautiful environment that mimics what Mother Nature does. You don’t see entire fields of corn growing up spontaneously, but you do see tiny understory plants growing beneath trees in the wild.

A flicker of blue outside my window just caught my attention. A jay is making a call at my garden boxes. Guess I’ll go see if any of the new tomatoes and peppers need a drink. Maybe I’ll scooch down for a look at the teeny-tiny ants that have colonized my lawn and think about the interconnectedness of nature. Or maybe I’ll just make myself a cup of coffee and read some more of Hemenway’s book.

Have you ever practiced companion planting in your gardens? What animals or insects have you observed recently? Share you experiences, join the circle, celebrate connectedness right here . . . Outside the Box.

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!

Community Garden . . . Inside the Fence

Last year's garden beneath the trees

Last year's garden beneath the trees

Dear Reader:

Sometimes thinking outside the box gets you into the strangest places–in this case it got me fenced in. Let me explain.

I live in a subdivision. Okay, nobody here wants to call it that because it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter subdivision ala WEEDS (too many trees and dirt roads), but our “homeowners association” is 2000-houses big, is situated on the outskirts of town, and it is a good 35-60 minutes from any of the cities where most of our community members work. Every day, members of my community hop into their individual gasoline-powered vehicles and leave the community in order to travel to their place of employment. We have no restaurants, grocery stores, corner markets, coffee shops, bookstores or any other retail businesses within the borders of our incorporated development. We have to drive out of the community for food, clothing, furrniture, trash bags, tiolet paper, lattes, cigarettes, and everything else people can’t live without. Needless to say, there is no public transportation.

Our 1/4 to 1 acre lots are shaded by tall, half-dead white pines whose tendency to crash down during wind and ice storms can knock electricity out for days, but on this former productive farmland whose old stone walls stand testament to our community’s agricultural past, we cannot cuts trees in order to provide sunlight for backyard gardens. Tweaking the tree-cutting policy to make room for veggie gardens would take an act of the State of Maine legislature, or so one of the community trustees informed me at a Board meeting. However, the Board was willing to consider an alternate suggestion–the community garden.

I can work with that.

Community gardens provide space for food production, foster relationships among neighbors, encourage self-sufficiency, and give our kids a chance to learn gardening techniques. The American Community Garden Association provides guidelines and suggestions for groups just starting out on a communal agricultural venture. Click here to learn more.

Our first garden committee meeting was held this week, and we discussed possible locations. An unused tennis court seems perfect. It is 117 x 117 feet and surrounded by a tall fence–perfect for keeping out pesky deer that love to munch on tender vegetable seedlings. We will be asking the Board for permission to dig up the cracked court surface and to use community-owned loam to provide soil for the garden. Specifics have yet to be worked out such as size of lots, best-practices (i.e. rules), and whether or not we will make a driveway through the center of the garden area so that people can back their pickups to their plots, but community members are interested, echoing a trend across our country to pick up where Victory Gardens in the 1940’s left off.

When the First Family puts a backyard garden at the White House, we know something is changing out there in America. We are beginning to realize that in order to have a sustainable lifestyle, we need to bring food production back home, as in back of the home.

If towns and cities and subdivisions foster a spirit of self-sufficiency regarding food, then we are one step closer to weaning ourselves from big agriculture, big corporations, and big oil. We will provide a safety net for ourselves independent of big government. The spirit of freedom in a summer squash. Self-reliance in a sun-ripened tomato. Can it really be that simple?

A backyard or community garden is just one way to cut your reliance on multinational supermarket chains, food trucked thousands of miles, and genetically-modified vegetables. Other options are shopping at locally-owned grocery stores, frequenting local farm stands, and joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. More on these later. In the meantime, enjoy the warmer weather, the daffodils, and the sound of the “peepers” at dusk . . . outside the box.