As the skies clear over the Front Range and the air begins to warm (at least for now) my thoughts are turning increasingly to designing my garden for this year. My housemates and I have already created sheet-mulched sunken beds to start the soil-building process, and now we’re starting to figure out what we want to grow and where to plant it. And while we’re eager to continue experimenting with unusual, locally-adapted species like currant, sunchoke, and quinoa, a good portion of the garden will be dedicated to traditional annual garden vegetables.

Fortunately, there’s a ton of information out there about how to get the best yield with a minimum of maintenance and resource use. Unfortunately, that info isn’t always organized in the best way for visual learners like myself – so I’ve decided to create a couple tools to simplify the garden planning process.

The first is a Denver-specific planting calendar for some of the most common garden vegetables. It’s intended to make the often-arduous process of figuring out which seeds to start indoors and when to plant them a little bit easier.

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The second is a web of companion plants to aid in designing polycultures – groupings of species that mutually aid each other. The arrows in the web point towards the plants that are helped, and the thickness of the line indicates the number of sources I found that mentioned a positive association. Red lines are plants that are suggested NOT to plant together.

Enjoy – and don’t forget to check out the Wild Green Yonder’s two-part Ecological Garden Design class this March for many more in-depth resources and ideas!

The following account of sheet-mulching a hell strip is from Denver permie and Wild Green Yonder affiliate Jonathan Hontz. Enjoy!

I have a love/hate relationship with my tree lawn.  It used to be  a 15 x 24 foot strip of weedy, sun-baked, and compacted land that neither the City nor I wanted to spend any time maintaining.  My lady Sabrina and I don’t really do much out there.  Our relationship to this lawn is predominantly visual: we’re almost always just looking at the space and not walking around within it.

My first attempt at landscaping the lawn was a half-hearted shot at making it into a wildflower meadow.  I bought some yarrow, grama grass, lamb’s ear, and blanket flower, planting them at intervals amongst the weeds.  I bootlegged and planted some sunflowers from a highway median to see if they’d like it better in our tree lawn.  After planting, I just let the weeds go, and to be honest, it was a beautiful front lawn, even if it was more wild than flower.  The weeds filled in around the plantings nicely, and created a very lush habitat for hundreds of spiders, grasshoppers, and crickets.  We had a green, healthy, if a bit alternative front lawn that I could look at with a smile.

Then the City inspector came and cited us for having our weeds taller than 6 inches.  I debated whether or not to dispute their definition of “weed”, knowing full well that any definition presented would be easy to circumvent.  In the end, though, I chose to sheet mulch the lawn to bring it into compliance. Sheet mulching, also known as lasagna composting, is a permaculture technique of building soil in place by putting down a weed barrier, layering various components of organic matter and letting them decompose naturally. I’d heard that it was a great way to bring a disturbed or neglected area to life in a short period of time, and was curious to see for myself what the process was like.

After a quick phone conversation with the inspector, who was very pleasant, I had some basic guidelines for what was allowed out in the lawn.  It’s a pretty simple matrix: keep the streets and sidewalks clear, make sure it looks as if it’s maintained, and keep the vegetation low enough around the edges that car doors can be opened without crashing through undergrowth.  Fair enough.

1. Mow and edge

Picture 1I mowed the lawn down to almost bare soil around the plantings and rounded up the materials I’d need.  Adam Brock tipped me off to a pile of brick rubble in his neighborhood that was waiting to be disposed of, and after hauling some home and laying it out, I dug out a bit of a trench to hold the bricks on end as a border for the mulched area.  We didn’t want any of the mulch spilling out into the street or onto the sidewalk, and the brick serves as our woodchip dam in addition to adding a bit of urban flavor to the area.

2. Weed barrier and carbon layer

 

Picture 4Next, I had an opportunity to use some weed-blocking fabric that we had leftover from another project.  Sabrina had acquired several garbage bags full of shredded office paper and some mulched up leaves, which form the bulk of the mulch for the project.  After cutting the brick trench out, I started spreading the office paper down, mixing in lots of the leaf matter to a depth of 3-4 inches, and then covering it up with the fabric.  I cut around the existing plantings and left room to develop small plant guilds around them next year.  The fabric lasted longer than I expected, going all around the perimeter, and even a strip into the center of the lawn.

3.Top Mulch

Picture 7The next day, each layer of mulch got a thorough soaking to help the breakdown of the materials. Our neighbor’s landlord had a few cubic yards of woodchips to get rid of, and this is what I used for the top layer.  I hauled it over in our recycling bin, and laid it down about 2 inches thick on top of everything else The look of the finished lawn is quite sparse – I’d like to eventually figure out how to integrate something edible.

Reflections

Of note here is that this process differs from most recommendations for sheet-mulching in one significant way: I have no compost/organic matter layer.  I’ve instead opted to use the (hopefully) decaying weeds and leaves as a green mulch, along with all the waste paper and cardboard.  Some may cringe at my use of office paper, but it is a significant carbon source in my compost pile, and breaks down very well there.  Most printed materials now use soy-based inks, so I’m not concerned about contamination.

Also notable is that this project cost exactly nothing but time and labor for me to do.  All the materials were either on hand (the fabric), reclaimed (the brick), gifted (the woodchips), or waste (the paper and cardboard).  It fits with the character of the house and the rest of the landscape, and will never need mowing or watering.  It’s also interesting that these projects are typically tried in the spring months, but without a ready supply of leaf mulch blowing around and accumulating everywhere, the project may have been more difficult.  Something to keep in mind if you’re planning on waiting until spring.

Autumn’s Invitation

October 8, 2009

GS-Newsletter-Autumn-photoFall has never been my favorite season. Going back to school, shivering in the first snowfall, darker and darker evenings, watching the trees become stripped and gangly… it all seemed so depressing. But as I’ve slowly learned to listen to nature’s patterns, I’m starting to see autumn as a time of precarious abundance, a time when we can live off summer’s bounty as we re-assess our past year and prepare for the cold months.

Sure, I’d rather be biking to work in a t-shirt than a down coat, and I’ll take peaches fresh off the branch over homemade preserves any day. But when I’m surrounded by a culture addicted to perpetual growth, the end of the harvest gives me a much-needed reminder that contraction is just as important as expansion. Indeed, it’s the way all life operates. Without dead leaves rotting on the ground, the soil would eventually be robbed of its nutrients. Without fallen trees, there would be no light on the forest floor for new seedlings to sprout. And without a nightly dose of sleep, our bodies and minds would lose touch with reality and crash.

Still, as an entrepreneur, putting that understanding into practice can be mighty tough. When I’m on a roll with the Wild Green Yonder, I’m almost constantly pushing past my own limits: sending one more email to that awesome contact I just met at a conference, composing one more tweet about a revolutionary gardening technique, promoting my classes in one more place.

To be sure, success in a new venture depends on being ridiculously dedicated and thorough. But paradoxically, I’ve found that my biggest insights, my most creative moments, come when I force myself to unplug. Like fallen leaves breaking down into rich humus, the fertile grounds of innovation are only nurtured when we drop our temporary commitments, take a deep breath, and reflect on the larger picture of which our current situation is a part.

To me, that larger picture would seem to place our cultural zeitgeist in an October of sorts, as well: though we continue to reap the fruits of the great fossil fuel harvest, the first of chills of a different season are here. Does the coming winter of energy descent spell the end of the good times? Certainly not. It merely invites us to use our foresight and maturity to with the roll with the changing season, and preserve the precarious abundance we’ve gathered for the future.

In the meantime, though, there’s still leaves on the trees, and the sun is warm on my shoulders. I’m called to put away my laptop, take a deep breath – and marvel at the bounty.

As this year’s Burning Man draws near, I thought it would be appropriate to repost this writeup from an event I attended in NYC a couple years back. It discusses what we can learn about city planning, community, and “radical self-reliance” from Black Rock City, the ephemeral city in the Nevada desert that hosts the Burning Man festival every year.

What if ecological city planners were given a chance to design a city from the ground up, in a completely empty landscape? What if the city was decreed to have zero environmental impact – and torn down and rebuilt on a yearly basis? While it sounds like something pulled from the journals of Paolo Soleri, this ultimate planners’ workshop actually occurs every summer at Black Rock City, the ephemeral site of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. Known for its out-of-control costumes and massive art installations, Burning Man is also an annual experiment in low impact/high density human habitation: with a population of 40,000 packed in at twice the density of London, this is no mere camping trip.

I got a taste of Burning Man’s refreshingly offbeat design process at “Burning Man: Planning and Evolution of the Temporary City”, a panel at the AIA’s Center for Architecture last weekend. On the stage were Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, Black Rock City planner Rod Garrett, The Eye, architect for one of the festival’s ‘theme camps’, and Hayley Fitchet, a city planner for London-based Gensler.

While it’s often described as “the world’s greatest party,” Burning Man is much more than a weekend of hedonism. At the core of the burner philosophy is the idea of sacredness: nothing is sold at the festival other than water and coffee, and for many, the experience is imbued with a sense of the divine. Harvey explained how the unique architecture of Burning Man heightens this sense of wonder by employing timeless concepts like site orientation, bilateral symmetry, exquisite detailing, and natural materials – concepts that the sleek, convoluted architectural forms of today seem to have left in the dust.

While Harvey played the mystic, Garrett was all professionalism, choosing to focus on the logistical challenges of Black Rock City and how it’s evolved since he came onboard ten years ago. Shaped like a C, with the iconic Burning Man itself at the center, the city plan is scaleable to accommodate a growing population, and allows people and goods to easily access all parts of the site.

Black Rock City

Well-intentioned though it may be, Burning Man is still prone to the pressures of development that threaten any growing city. Garrett related a fascinating tale of how, in the early 2000s, the theme camps (grandiose setups constructed by groups of longtime burners) were contributing to a sort of Burning Man gentrification, forming a literal inner circle around the main esplanade. In the spirit of equality, Black Rock City was rezoned in 2005 to spread them out along the radial streets. The result: the theme camps now act as attractors for “neighborhoods”, bringing together burners with similar interests.

It might seem that the very aspects of Burning Man that make it such a compelling case study – ephemerality, lack of context – would limit its applicability to real-world urban design. But Fitchett, the final presenter, convincingly argued to the contrary, explaining how her three years at Burning Man have informed her work as a planner. Want proof of the importance of landmarks? Look no farther than the Man, standing at the heart of the temporary city until the ritual burning on Saturday. Need reassurance that streets without traffic signals are actually safer? Observe the way bicyclists naturally take to the middle of the Black Rock City streets, while pedestrians cluster around the edges. Perhaps Fitchett’s most original Burning Man-derived insight was the conviction that our public space need not be mediated by commerce. “The chance to be a participant in public life,” she quipped, “should not come at the price of a cup of coffee.”

It was a comment that captured well the spirit on stage, and of the festival as a whole. In the two decades since its founding, Burning Man has become the riotous epicenter of American counterculture – a reputation it’s earned by providing a place, however fleeting, where people can relate to each other without the inevitable distortions of the dollar sign. Back here in reality, we might not be refashioning our street grids or imposing a barter system any time soon, but even so, Burning Man is well worth the consideration of those of us looking to reinvent urban life. After all, if Larry Harvey and his team can bring forty thousand people to the Nevada desert in summer, they must be doing something right.

Fall Class Schedule

August 13, 2009

I’m happy to announce WGY’s fall season of Permaculture workshops, including Intro to Permaculture, Urban Permaculture, Permaculture for Renters, and Obscure Edibles for the Colorado Climate. Most classes will be held at the Denver Botanic Gardens and Denver Urban Homesteading, a brand-new local market and reskilling center.

For full descriptions and registration links, visit the classes page… and feel free to distribute the poster below!

PC-poster-fall-2009

I wrote this post a year and a half ago, when I first encountered Pitchfork’s inspiring brand of anarchy as a visitor to Denver. Today is Pitchfork’s last day as a functioning collective – the murals have all been painted white, the rooms lay bare and eerily clean. I’m reposting this essay as a tribute to the incredible impact that Pitchfork has had on Denver’s now-thriving urban homesteading community. It will be missed.

Over the last year or so, I’ve slowly begun to come to terms with the fact that everything that mattered in the first two decades of my life – all my achievements and disappointments, my aspirations and concerns – occurred under conditions that are fast becoming obsolete. The economic meltdown that’s currently underway only serves to underscore the fact that the growth-centric society in which I grew up is poorly suited to the new realities of a rapidly changing climate and declining supply of energy.

Fortunately, I’ve never been one to shy away from change. Instead, I’ve spent the better part of the past year trying to figure out what it might mean to live in a way that works with, rather than against, natural systems. Do l I have to renounce the urban lifestyle to live sustainably? Will it make me happier, or more stressed out?

For now, these questions are largely hypothetical: as long as I’m at school in New York, sustainable living remains little more than an abstraction. Sure, I can refuse plastic bags, buy local food, and use compact fluorescent bulbs in my apartment, but in the end these are only gestures at leaving a lighter footprint, greening the edges of a way of life that is fundamentally against nature. But with graduation fast advancing – and the prospects of finding a secure career seeming less attractive by the week – I decided to use the generous break between my final two semesters to seek out a Forest Green way of life in my hometown of Denver.

Which is how I found myself living in the Pitchfork Collective, a cooperative living space founded about a year ago in central Denver. The three-story house, in the historic Five Points neighborhood, is home to an ever-shifting cast of characters, all between the ages of 17 and 27. During the course of my stay, I met couch-surfing hipster vagabonds, transgender wiccans, crust-punk anarchists, and many other folks too unique to slap a label on. What united them all was a respect for diversity, defiant individualism, and a belief in sustainable community.

Like any group of activist youth, the Pitchfork Collective wasn’t without its downsides: the industrial-sized sink was rarely without a pile of dirty dishes, and during the course of my stay, more than a few non-residents took advantage of the house’s open-door policy by overstaying their welcome. Still, I continually found myself surprised by the amazing things going on around the house – at any given time, collective members might be busy making crafts to sell on Etsy, planning for the springtime permaculture garden, teaching a class on positive menstruation, or cooking burritos to hand out to migrant workers. Despite the griminess, the constant flux of residents, and the youthful naiveté, I had to admit that Pitchfork was thriving. And it’s not alone: at least five or six similar houses have formed just past the frontiers of central Denver’s gentrification, all of them connected in a tight-knit community of young radicals.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Pitchfork was its role as host of Denver’s Food Not Bombs, a program that cooks and serves recently expired food to needy communities across the country. Every Saturday morning, volunteers made the rounds at several local grocery stores that have agreed to donate unwanted food, delivering dozens of boxes of produce, baked goods and leftover bulk goods to Pitchfork’s front lawn. An ever-shifting crew of residents and friends assembled to sort, prepare, and cook the food, working with whatever was in abundance that week. Once the dishes were ready, they were loaded into an old biodiesel pickup and driven to a nearby park, where a crowd of eager customers awaited.

The long train ride back to New York gave me some time to assess my stay at Pitchfork. Is it sustainable? Probably not – even Food Not Bombs is based on a surplus of produce grown far, far away. It’s also not for everybody; with such a diverse set of roommates, collective living can strain the most open of minds. Still, I don’t think Pitchfork really needs to be a universal template to be successful. After all, the whole point of the regeneration is to move away from universal templates in favor of new ways of living based on local climate and culture. Under these criteria, then, I’d say the Pitchfork Collective is a damn good first attempt at urban sustainability. In a society filled with cookie-cutter neighborhoods and lives that lack meaning, Pitchfork proves that diversity can succeed, that you don’t need stuff to be satisfied, that community is key – and that doing it yourself can be a whole lot more fun than letting others to do it for you.

One of permaculture’s hallmarks is polyculture: the mixed cultivation of a wide variety of bioregionally-appropriate species. In a process called “guild building”, permaculture designers select plants that will mutually enhance each others’ growth while providing their human stewards with a yield. In the classic Native American polyculture of maize, beans, and squash, for instance, the beans add nitrogen to the soil and use the corn stalks for support, while the squash act as a groundcover preventing weeds from competing with the other plants. The resulting yields of these “three sisters” are greater than if each were grown on their own.

Fortunately, a wealth of information exists in print and online for researching and selecting guilds – check out Plants For a Future and the University of Minnesota’s nursery database for starters. Still, this species information is spread across several websites, it’s difficult to sort through, and it’s rarely specific to the climate you’re in. As a result, guild building isn’t always as user-friendly as it ought to be.

In response to this challenge, I’ve begun the Atriplex Project – an attempt to create a comprehensive open-source database of useful plant species for Denver’s bioregion of the shortgrass steppe. Its current incarnation is a google spreadsheet that anyone can edit and export, although down the line it would be great to develop it into a more user-friendly standalone website.

Modeled after Dave Jacke’s exhaustive plant species matrix in the back of Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2, Atriplex is sortable by climate zone, light/soil preferences, size, and a host of other attributes. So far I’ve got about 100 species listed, though not all have complete information. Because the google spreadsheet link is rather cumbersome, there’s a url alias at http://tinyurl.com/atriplex for your sharing convenience.

Forestgarden screenshot

As an open-source document, I intend for Atriplex to eventually reflect the collective wisdom of all growers in this bioregion. The more data that comes from our direct experience, the more accurate and useful it will be. Here are a few ways you can help:

  • If you’ve grown or observed any of the listed species, add locations to the “Local Examples” column.
  • If you know of a reliable local source of a species (whether a nursery, a yard, or a wild patch) write it in the “Seed/stock Sources” column.
  • If you have tips on how to grow or eat a species, or just want to give it a thumbs up/thumbs down, add your thoughts in the last column and be sure to write your name afterwards.
  • If there’s something you think is missing from the list, add a new species by right-clicking on a number on the far left side and selecting “Insert 1 below”. No need to fill out every column or worry about the order.

Thanks for your support – and good luck guild-building!

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