November 4, 2009
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
I 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
Next, 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.
The 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.
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.
April 14, 2008
It’s one thing to learn about the work of pioneers like Paul Stamets and John Todd and get all excited about their vision of the 21st century. It’s quite another to roll your sleeves up and actually start putting that vision into action. But that’s just what my buddies at the Blacktail Permaculture farm are on well on their way to doing. Situated on plot just outside of Denver, the Blacktail crew recently submitted a grant to use fungi to filter polluted groundwater and restore the native tallgrass prarie ecosystem. While grants don’t tend to read all that interestingly, this one happens to packed with verdy tidbits about the science of regeneration. Read on for the full text.
March 3, 2008
By Adam Brock
Is all the good space left in New York gone? With construction cranes and scaffolding as ubiquitous as taxis these days, it’s easy to think that within a few years every square foot of space that can be built on will be. A closer look, though, reveals that even after a decade of manic development, New York’s urban space is vastly underutilized. While condos and office towers continue to rise all over town, vacant lots with no sign of impending construction still abound in all but the densest of neighborhoods. Meanwhile, there are great opportunities for utilizing street space more intelligently, and thousands of acres lie untapped on city roofs.
And it’s a good thing, too: the way we reinvent these underutilized spaces will be crucial in determining the long-term resilience of New York City. We don’t need more condos for rich people from other countries. We need more trees, more green spaces to get away from the daily grind. We need to start growing more of our own food. We need to provide jobs for the working class that will lift them out of poverty while restoring the quality of the air, soil and water. In short, we need to figure out how to pastoralize the city as thoroughly as we’ve already urbanized the countryside.
The difficulty with making New York City greener is not a lack of space. Rather, it’s a lack of control over the space that’s available. In a city of dense, highly-prized real estate, decisions about how we manipulate our space are left in the hands of those who can afford to pay for it. The fate of the urban environment is determined by developers: entities which, constrained by the need for short-term returns, simply aren’t designed to think about the longer-term social and environmental consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, the people that do care about these things – the people that actually live in urban neighborhoods – are rarely given more than a token voice in the planning process, and they rarely have the tools to envision how development might work better than it currently does. Even city governments, which used to guide the urban form through zoning, civic beautification, and urban renewal projects, have largely ceded control of the urban environment to the free market due to ever-tightening budgets and the lure of tax revenue from big-ticket properties.
Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that there’s no grand plan for how our cities are evolving: design from the bottom up can have its merits. It might not grow the economy as much as luxury lofts and big-box stores, but elements like small businesses and owner-built houses bring vitality to a place that modernist monuments and slick corporate megastructures lack. On the other hand, only city governments have the ability to create and maintain the critical infrastructure necessary to keep a city functioning, and only government and business have the money to transform our cities on the scale that’s necessary. The challenge for the 21st century, then, is to figure out a synthesis of top-down guidance and bottom-up authenticity, applying the knowledge and capital of government and business to the desires of the community.
It’s a massively different process than the one that occurs today, and the transition will probably outlast our own lives. But while we’re waiting, I think it’s worthwhile to start imagining ways that we might, if given the chance, start to redesign our own communities. I began doing just that last semester with The Living Domino, an ecological concept plan for a vacant factory complex down the street from my house. My most recent design challenge, Metropolitan Green, takes the same values and shows how they can be applied on a somewhat smaller scale.
A few blocks south of the Bedford Ave L stop, there’s a little triangular block where the slightly diagonal Metropolitan meets up with North 3rd street. Small and awkwardly shaped, the lot contains a mostly empty private parking lot and an overgrown triangle of a garden, and has thus far resisted development. The street to the north contains a bagel store, a lumber store and a laundromat, and sees hardly any traffic besides deliveries to these retail establishments. The result is a block of wasted space, an unsightly agglomeration of pavement, cars, and chain link fence in a space that’s ideally suited for a public plaza. Currently, more than half of the surface area of the triangle is taken up by sidewalk and asphalt, neither of which get much use.
Metropolitan Green proposes an arrangement would combine biology and architecture, while giving Williamsburg residents some much-needed public green space in the process. The design integrates the block with the buildings to the north, erasing the street that divides them except for a small access driveway for the lumber store. A greenhouse would emerge from the south side of the bagel store, collecting heat to help keep the building warm and providing a pleasant space for eating outdoors and growing a small amount of food year-round. Just to the east of the greenhouse, a small pond and intentional wetland process the organic waste from the bagel store and lofts above it, while providing a home for several types of edible fish. A matrix of raised beds allow vegetables and herbs to be grown outdoors nine months of the year, while the southernmost portion of the block is left as an open park.
For all the recent excitement around the idea of sustainability, designs such as the Living Domino or Metropolitan Green are still considered too radical to be feasible – but that’s no reason not to keep working at them. There’s no doubt in my mind that the end of cheap oil and need to mitigate global warming will demand a reinvention of the built environment far beyond what’s currently deemed politically feasible, and the more we can start to envision that eventual metamorphosis the better. Indeed, that metamorphosis might just happen sooner than we think: the economic climate seems to be changing even faster than the meteorological one, and it may not be long before crops begin to take the place of condos as the newest member of the urban fabric.
February 11, 2008
While I might not be doing a whole lot of posting these days, Andrew Faust is keeping himself busy on the blogosphere. The following is the first piece in a series, cross-posted on Green Brooklyn, on how permaculture principles can apply to urban settings, specifically in NYC.
Permaculture works with whole systems integrated ecological design goals. We create designs based on our understandings of how the earth works and what human beings truly need for a high quality of life. As a person practicing and teaching permaculture design in New York City, I describe the goal of permaculture as: to create ecologically intelligent designs for human settlements.
In part we accomplish this by creating more regionally self-sufficient, local economies. I call it retrofitting the infrastructure. Instead of centralized mass production, the commodification of basic necessities and the long distance transportation of goods and energy services, we want to shorten the distance of transmission of all goods and services, this improves quality, efficiency and creates truer food security. In permaculture design we seek to close the loop on linear energy and nutrient flows.
In this series we will look at what these design goals offer in the way of insights and opportunities to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Brooklyn and New York City overall. Some of the key urban permaculture issues we will explore through this series:
- Bringing ecological design to New York cities infrastructure
- Water issues, air quality, soil contamination
- Boosting our vitality and health
- Creating healthy architecture
- Greening urban environments
- Bringing food production, trees and biodiversity back into urban landscapes
In whole systems design analysis everything is interconnected and pollution is a result of an unused excess. We want high urban density areas like New York City and Brooklyn to begin to generate and properly digest some of its vast quantity of imported and exported nutrients. By adopting this goal we will address a range of interconnected realities which I shall outline herein.
Some facts and figures to get us rolling:
- New York City population: 8,250,567 as of 2006
- New York City imports 20,000 tons of food a day
- New York City exports 13,000 tons of trash a day
- 40% of New York’s trash is organic matter
- 600 diesel fume spewing tractor trailers a day haul this trash in a nine mile long convoy to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and Idaho
- The average NYC household throws out 2 pounds of organic “waste” a day = 1 million tons a year
- There are 12,000 vacant lots in New York City which are publicly owned
So let’s connect the dots. The way to improve this highly energy intensive and pollution producing linear flow is to begin composting this organic matter, turning this “waste” into a resource. We need to have accessible and well maintained ways to compost properly throughout New York City and Brooklyn. We need to begin composting on a citywide — as well as individual household — level. Start small and remember one person beginning to compost makes a big difference.
One of our ideas in Permaculture is that within the problem lies the solution. These are a couple of clear examples of how this works.
In Brooklyn there are many brownfields and other contaminated old industrial sites.
One of the most successful ways to bring back a contaminated site is to begin to introduce living soil (i.e. compost), a diverse vegetative community and mushrooms and fungi. The microbes and enzymes in living soil breakdown a wide range of harmful synthetic chemicals and certain plant species are known to sequester heavy metals, enabling the gathering and reclamation of these metals.
In our upcoming postings on Urban Permaculture we will look at the dynamic processes by which nature provides us with healthy air, water and food. We will look into the many ways to bring these essential ecological elements back into our urban landscapes.
This Urban Permaculture series addresses a range of ecological issues in New York City and Brooklyn and presents permaculture design solutions to these city-wide problems. For more information about Andrew Faust and his Permaculture Design in NYC class, please go to The Center for Bioregional Living at www.homebiome.com.
January 17, 2008
By Adam Brock
Yesterday’s City Dirt has a nice mini-interview with ecological designer Andrew Faust, founder of the Center for Bioregional Living. A recent Brooklyn transplant, Faust has been spending the past several years practicing sustainable living on a homestead in West Virginia and teaching permaculture courses. These days, he’s got some clever ideas for reintegrating nature into the five boroughs: how about a backyard wetland to soak up hundreds of gallons of stormwater runoff? Or a series of floating plant filters to clean up the Gowanus canal:
I want to design floating pond remediators. These are rafts will host plants that clean the toxins out of the water. In China they created floating walkways to clean up the open sewage canals. Not only are the plants removing the toxins from the water, but you have a beautiful area for people to stroll through and enjoy the waterways.
Plant pods seem to be on everybody’s minds these days: a similar concept was proposed in H2Grow, one of the finalists in the Envisioning Gateway contest.
Faust, meanwhile, will be keeping busy this spring teaching a permaculture certification course in Manhattan on fridays. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to sign up.
January 9, 2008
By Adam Brock
The following is the first in a four-part series on the current state of urban agriculture. In this and the next three sections of the series, I’ll be showing the ways in which urban agriculture is quickly spreading its roots, and assessing the potential of cityfarming from the perspectives of business, equity and leisure.
Environmentalists have been warning of the fragility of our food systems for years, but the recent spike in food prices has made more mainstream outlets take note, as well. The December 6th cover story of the Economist declared the “end of cheap food”, while a recent Guardian article warned that “the risks of food riots and malnutrition will surge in the next two years as the global supply of grain comes under more pressure than at any time in 50 years.”
There’s no avoiding it: like many other aspects of industrial civilization, our current agricultural system is in a state of crisis. In California and the Midwest, factory farming is eroding thousands of square of miles of topsoil every year, slowly drawing the nutrients from some of the world’s most fertile farmland. What’s to blame? Overproduction and chemical fertilizers, which, being petroleum based, are themselves nearing the end of their shelf life. Add to these concerns the possibility of herbicide-immune pests and land competition from biofuel production, and it becomes pretty clear that, within a generation or so, we’re going to have to completely reconfigure the way we cultivate and transport food.
The first line of defense, of course, is family farms, which are back on the upswing after decades of decline. But the small farms currently in existence won’t provide nearly enough to feed the massive appetites of our large cities, and rising fuel costs might make even a trip of several hundred miles uneconomical. In that case, it might make sense to procure our food from even closer to home – as close, perhaps, as our own backyards and rooftops.
How much food are we really talking about here? Is it possible that we’ll soon be feeding ourselves entirely from the city limits? I did a back-of-the-napkin calculation for a class last year that tried to estimate how much land it would take to grow all of New York’s produce within the five boroughs. The Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, which handles most of NYC’s conventional produce, has a throughput of 2.7 billion pounds per year. Growing that amount using permaculture techniques would require about 100,000 acres, or three times the entire parkland in the city. Possible? Sure. Feasible? Not so much.
That is, unless you take the farming indoors – and go up. The vertical farm, a high-rise building solely dedicated to the intensive cultivation of produce, has made headlines recently as the answer to the food crisis of the 21st century. Its main proponent is Dickson Despommier, a Columbia professor that’s led courses examining the feasibility of vertical farming for the last few years. His students have explored the viability of everything from buildings full of gourmet lettuce to complicated ecosystems of chickens, tilapia and dozens of crops.
As crazy as it sounds, the vertical farm isn’t completely without precedent: greenhouses like the massive Eurofresh complex in Arizona have been utilizing hydroponics to grow high-yielding indoor crops for years. But in its stacked growing rooms, use of cutting edge materials, and of course its location, the vertical farm is indeed something entirely new. Theoretically, a vertical farm has the potential to provide for a neighborhood of 50,000, making our cities agriculturally self-sufficient. But getting one off the ground would take an investment of hundreds of millions, and it’s bound to be decades before they start proliferating.
Food security is a vital and oft-overlooked component of sustainable cities, albeit one that might take decades to acheive. In the meantime, though, there are a host of other reasons why cityfarming makes sense in the short term. In fact, the urban ag revolution has already begun: from backyards to rooftops to vacant city-owned lots, urban farms are popping up all over the place – and in the process, they’re transforming not only food systems, but underprivileged communities, urban economics and even our brain chemistry. If the twentieth century accomplished the urbanization of the countryside, the twenty-first will see the pastoralization of the city, proving once and for all that crops and condos can peacefully coexist.
December 18, 2007
By Adam Brock
Gateway National Recreation Area is one of New York City’s best-kept natural secrets. A collection of playing fields, tidal marshes and islands on the southeastern edge of Brooklyn, Gateway is chronically underfunded and poorly served by mass transit – with the result that hardly any New Yorkers (myself included) have ever been there.
With the Envisioning Gateway contest, it looks like that might be changing. Sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association, the contest lets you vote on one of 8 professional proposals to revamp the area – most of them with a serious ecological bent.
The Reassembling Ecologies proposal suggests clustering all the human activity along a single axis, leaving the rest to remain untouched. [un]natural selection takes the opposite approach, creating a constructed wetland and connecting the islands with bridges and causeways, with the premise that “human health and ecology exist within and not separate from the surrounding environment”. There are also proposals to turn Gateway into a “national eco-urban research zone” and to flood the area and install a network of hydroponic pods.
Voting ends at the end of the year, after which NPCA will present the designs and public feedback to the National Park Service. Definitely worth a look – and a vote.