This guest post comes our way via WGY ally Leo Kacenjar, a DU graduate student developing a community garden that will be informed in equal measures by digital media and permaculture. If you’re intrigued by the concepts he presents, be sure to check out one of the upcoming events listed at the bottom, or visit digitalgardenleetsdale.com.

Human environmental interaction, public health and accessibility of technology are some of the most formidable social problems of the twenty-first century. Community gardens and metropolitan agriculture initiatives lower the rate at which food and supplies must be introduced into a city, provide an abundance of nourishing produce, and empower individuals to become engaged citizens.

The last two decades have also ushered in the creation of faster, lighter, more agile, ever connected, and cheaper technologies. Digital media offer the possibility for new realms of public discourse and participation. To optimistically read these changes, posits new realms of digital democratic public dialogue. Despite technologies’ reduction in price, not everyone can afford them. In addition, our nascent digital devices are worthless without ubiquitous connectivity, or the necessary media literacy to effectively and critically engage with media. The result of the digital divide is a discourse, which has not reached its full potential.

The Digital Garden on Leetsdale is an experimental space that works to combine the positive environmental and individually empowering effects of a community garden with the discursive potential of digital media. The goal will be that digital installations like a wireless hub, computing lab, online communal space (content management system) and various thematic digital art pieces, in combination with a working sustainability park and community garden, will bolster dialogue. Sustainable structures, serving as common area and storage will be functional testaments to environmentally friendly building techniques. The conversational potential of this juxtaposition promises to be beneficial and unique. Topics like sustainable design, networked civic engagement, and urban reclamation will all arise in context of the green space.

The project will work with Kinda Collective – a Denver area artists’ collective – and their immediate community to build a teeming collaborative gardening environment that is informed by the digital media. The gardens will improve the urban environment, provide fresh, locally grown foods, bring the diverse groups of the neighborhood together, and empower its participants.

In combination with this person-to-person and environmental interaction, the digital media will grant anyone opportunities to bridge the site-specific conversations into the digital realm, where greater human/environmental themes might be discussed. The free connectivity, computers, and literacy training through on-site classes and the community website will ensure that no one is left out of the dialogue. The digital art installations will pose questions about human-environmental interaction, though sensorial experiences.

The space will also work to demonstrate alternative lifestyle, building, and food production practices to the community by example. The weekly gardening routine and exposure to the space will suggest a lifestyle symbiotically connected to the environment. The straw bale buildings and construction workshops will teach beneficial home sustainability tactics. The permaculture-steeped community gardens will inform the community about new modalities of agriculture.

Free programming throughout the life of the project will include topics like gardening, sustainable living, environmental, community organizing, digital art, and technological literacy. These elements will make the sustainability park a thriving and vital community resource.

The Digital Garden on Leetsdale has two events coming up that are free and open to the public:

Community Meeting

March 31st 2010, 7pm

4500 Leetsdale

Join us for a community meeting to learn more about the space, discuss what you could get out of the garden and what’s at stake for the local community. Garden plot and permaculture guild applications will be available. There will also be free dinner.

Sheet Mulching Workshop

April 10th 2010, 10am

4500 Leetsdale

Learn the basics of sheet mulching first hand as we prepare the Digital Garden for planting. We will transition the workshop into a potluck BBQ and lawn games as the day progresses.

For more information, visit digitalgardenleetsdale.com.

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.

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!

Kenzie and I were recently asked by our allies at Flobots.org to facilitate an urban permaculture workshop in their new community space on 27th and Larimer. We’ll be covering the ethics and principles of permaculture, giving concrete examples of their application in an urban context, and facilitating a design session to evolve the Flobots.org space along permacultural lines. The event is FREE and open to the public… if you haven’t had any experience with permaculture yet, this is a perfect chance to check it out!

Urban-Invite

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