Ben, I suspect we are, as the days of cheap energy draw to a close, and the real costs of running a global economy become more apparent. But I rarely try to predict the future any more; there are just too many unknowns, variables, and short-term manipulations of markets.
Although there is plenty of toxic soil (and air) in cities, as you are suggesting it's wrong to assume that all the soil is polluted. Assumptions like that don't make sense. The soil at each specific garden site needs to be tested for organic and metal pollutants. Many cities in the US offer free lead tests, lead being the most common soil pollutant in cities, but we need to be doing more comprehensive tests, looking at other metals and petroleum-derived contaminants.
I see a certain irony in worrying about polluted soil while we are inhaling pollution with every breath in many urban environments (not to mention those people who are eating GMO and chemically treated food).
I think you are doing the right thing in testing, creating mineral-rich soil (which can reduce uptake of heavy metals) and building raised beds. Most feeder roots in soil are in the top 6-12 inches so growing in raised beds and hugelkultur makes a lot of sense.
I've got a section in "the Permaculture City" on the pros and cons of urban food growing, and I think there are a large number of factors that make it challenging. There are examples of cities that seem to have grown a large amount of their own food, such as Havana during the "special period" after the Soviet collapse, but for the most part, cities have rarely been a significant source of high-calorie foods. The traditional pattern, until the 1960s, when cheap oil and refrigeration that allowed food to be shipped long distances, was for cities to be fed by the farms surrounding them (hence the strange license plate theme for New Jersey, "The Garden State," because NJ, rural NY, and rural CT fed NYC via truck gardens until the sixties). This is an ancient and healthy pattern.
Land in cities is expensive, and food is cheap, so the economics are weighted the wrong way. Urban soils and air are often toxic, so urban food may not be that healthy. The nutrients for fertility must be imported--it's very hard to find enough land to grow compost crops or manure-producing livestock in the city proper. Most urban farms are growing vegetables, which, though nutrient dense, are low in calories (a pound of kale has 150 calories) and it's hard to find enough land to grow the grains and other high-calorie crops that we need to give us 2000 calories a day. And there are several more reasons why growing enough food to yield a full diet is very hard to do in a city. The theoretical minimum for enough land to feed one person is around 1/4 acre (not including fertility crops or manure), though in our current food system it's more like 2-4 acres. And there's just not enough open land per person in a city to do that, except in the big, post-war sprawling ones that have large peri-urban green spaces at their edges.
So although I think growing food in cities is important as a way to connect people to the land, and has many other benefits, I'm not sure that a good designer would arrive at urban land as an appropriate place to grow significant amounts of food. There are good reasons to do it, but we're kind of imposing our desires rather than arriving at a wise solution when we try to feed ourselves from within the city limits. The ancient pattern since the dawn of civilization is for cities to be fed by the rural land that surrounds them, and, as long as we've got cities, this makes sense to me.
Pat- Laying out swales in a small lot is pretty easy. The simples and best tool for establishing contour lines at small to moderate scale is an A-frame level, which I've described in Gaia's Garden, and there are many descriptions and videos of how to use them on the web. They are easy to make, just 3 sticks, string, and a weight.
I assume by "swale" you mean that you are wanting an on-contour berm and basin system that will infiltrate water, rather than a drain for moving water away from wet areas. Brad Lancaster's book, "Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond" Volume 2 has really good information on how to determine the spacing and depth of swales based on soil permeability, slope, and rainfall, so if there is any question in your mind about how much water your swales need to retain, that can help you figure out placement. It's important not to be dumping water onto your neighbor's yard or to put in a swale that will saturate a neighbor's soil with too much water. Often, swales in urban yards are less deep than in rural places because people are walking around a lot of the yard--unless you can integrate a good path system on the berms. That means more swales, since the water holding capacity of each swale will be less. Or you can make the straw-filled swale that I describe in GG, which is very unobtrusive. The swale can also be filled with woody mulch to make it less of a big ditch, although in large rain events, the much can get washed out of the swale.
Without knowing anything about your rainfall, soil permeability, slope, there's not much more I can tell you.
First you'll need to show that there is community support of a broad nature for the project. If it's just you, the gov't won't go for it. They need to see that it will be funded, installed competently, maintained for many years, and deeply supported and enjoyed by the community. They will want to see a track record showing you or others involved in the project have done food forests that are successful, so pick a good team of experienced people. Lots of places have done this, and there are good guidelines for doing it. The Beacon Hill Food Forest in Seattle, which gets a lot of press even though there are many other worthwhile public food forests, has gone through the whole process very successfully and you should contact them or other groups that have done public food forests (and there are dozens now).
In such a small space, true guilds are going to be hard to do. I'd eliminate any soil-building plants that don't produce food and instead add lots of good compost to build soil health. I'd put in some insectary plants, as we need pollinators in the city. But I'd stick mostly with high-yieldingtubers, veggies and greens. I've done a fun, small space guild with mashua and peas or beans up a trellis, kale, and some salad greens. But you'll get a lot of yield from more traditional relay and high-density plantings of vegetables and perennial greens.
The webinar :Growing Simple Abundance" will be repeated today at 2PM US Pacific time, Oct. 27. And anyone who registers for it can view the recording later. See Cassie's top post for the link.
Odd that Rose thought is was just an intro to the course I'm offering. I spent an hour describing high-density food growing methods, listing 6 major methods and how to do them; methods for extending the seasons, an introduction to biointensive and square-foot gardening, greenhouses and hoophouses for small yards, planting in relays, a brief overview of guild design for small yards, and testing and remediating toxic soil. Then we spent 10 minutes describing the upcoming course (which will cover a vastly wider range of material than the webinar: energy, water, community, and livelihood, among others, which I did not talk about at all in the body of the webinar), and 10 minutes on Q&A. But I know you can't please everyone.
Gentrification is indeed a huge and complex topic, and I doubt if I can do it much justice in the small amount of time I've got right now. Developers need incentives of many kinds to build anything other than high-end housing; that has to come from an enlightened community and tax base that understands the importance of mixed-income communities. Large blocks of low-income housing are not the solution, as we've learned. Regulations and incentives can act as a short-term "solution" (if that is the right word; palliative is more like it) but we're fighting a tough uphill battle here. Every bit of this culture's major economic institutions--finance, real estate, development, construction, tax bases, insurance, government, and more--has evolved to be dependent on income growth, so asking those institutions to take less money rather than more by housing low- rather than high-income people is against their inherent nature. As long as those structures are in place, gentrification will be favored over mixed-income neighborhoods. The ancient Greeks and Chinese complained about gentrification, so it's pretty well baked in at this point. Until those institutions can be radically restructured (and I don't see how to do that except via a collapse of civilization followed by a return to a more decentralized culture) the only way I see to fight gentrification is to enact laws and regulations that de-incentivize it. And that's where citizen activists, responsive government, and a non-NIMBY attitude all come into play.
There's a lot more to say here, but that's all I've got time for.
Nancy, you're on the right track for retaining more water in your yard. Build organic matter in the soil; that's really the key. And build up the natural worm population (earthworms and native worms so they w ill aerate the soil and allow deeper water penetration (red wigglers can't survive in soil). Do that with deep mulches of soft OM like straw and leaves, and tons of good compost. I like to top a straw mulch with a woody mulch, as the worms love the straw and the wood chips help build up soil fungi, which are primary sequesterers of carbon. Activated biochar will help, too.
I'm not sure why you want bentonite. That's usually used to seal soils to prevent water from penetrating. I know that clay does help with moisture retention--though nowhere near as well as organic matter, but I'd be worried about oversupplying bentonite and sealing the soil or creating a clayey hardpan.
On question #2, I'm not a nutritionist, but fruits mostly provide fast-burning sugars, not slow-calorie releasing starches and other carbs. And grains, tubers, and nuts have protein as well. I would not rely on fruit as a major carb source. I'd go with nut trees, tubers, and annuals like corn and beans. But it's hard to get a lot of calories from a small yard. My strategy is to grow nutrient-dense veggies, as they are expensive to buy compared to carbs and you can get constant yields in a mild climate like W. WA. Calorie crops are inexpensive, comparatively, so I buy these if there isn't a quarter acre or so to grow them (and enough time to be a subsistence farmer).
I've just posted a new article called "Permaculture: The Design Arm of a Paradigm Shift," and the title pretty much sums up the topic. It's my latest thoughts on fruitful ways to think about permaculture and where it fits in the larger scheme of things. I hope you find it useful. It's at this page
New Englanders: I'm doing a one-day workshop on urban permaculture in Boston on February 7, at Mass Audubon's Boston Nature Center, along with a public talk on the 5th. Details on the workshop are at here.
Hemenway Urban Permaculture Workshop
I'm also doing a public talk at The Sanctuary in Jamaica Plain on Feb. 5. Details are at
Hemenway talk details
Please share with your networks. Looking forward to seeing you there.
It will be great to be back in Beantown (even in February!)--I used to live there.
Cropping and then enlarging the result reduces the pixel count, effectively lowering the resolution, and that makes the photo unsuitable for publication unless it was terrifically high-rez to begin with. In this case, it's best to let the publisher do cropping and other manipulations.
Nicole, that's a great looking duck house, and I like that the pond feeds plants. If you can get me a photo of the exterior that is more of a close up (not so much wooded background), I can almost certainly get it into the book (which is due Friday, but I can get a little leeway on photos). Any detail shots of the pond watering system would be great. Ducks in any photos are welcome, since they are charismatic cute little critters. If you can manage that, send photos to me at urbanpc (at) patternliteracy dot com.
Thanks! And thanks to all others for their help and interest.
I've seen lots of small yards in cities--like my neighbors in inner Portland--who had ducks. Small duck house, kiddie pool or bathtub for a pond, swale nearby. Or friends in Minneapolis who had whole flock. These days, lots of yards in cities are bigger than those in tightly packed suburban developments.
Plus, to me, "urban" included anyone living in a town where pavement is the dominant landform, and that includes small town (US census definition of a city is >25,000)
Thanks, Burra. I contacted David Heaf a few days ago and he sent me that photo of his "exploded" Warre hive. I am still hoping to get a photo of a Kenyan-style top bar hive in use. Everyone where I live uses Langstroths, it seems.
For a book on urban permaculture to be published by Chelsea Green next spring, I am looking for good quality photos of attractive, or innovative, or permaculturally cool looking duck houses. I'm also hoping to find a photo of a duck pond that feeds a swale or other fertility system.
For the final photo I'll need high resolution (3Mb or better) photos, but if you want to send me a sample, low rez will do.
I don't have funding from the publisher for this, so I can't pay anything, but I'll mention you and your business if you have one. The people who got mentioned in Gaia's Garden did okay from it, and I hope this book will help my permie friends too.
Please send samples to urbanpc (at)
For a book I'm writing on urban permaculture, to be published next spring by Chelsea Green, I need one or two photos of a top bar hive. I need a publication quality shot (that is, no shadows or funky contrast on the hive, junk lying around it, etc) that shows the hive itself, and, ideally, a second shot that shows a comb. If you've got one photo that does all that, so much the better. I will need high resolution for the final shot (3 Mb or better is best) but a low-res sample is fine for now. The deadline looms, so I need this ASAP.
I don't have funding from the publisher for this, but will gladly give full credit to the photographer and mention their business, if there is one. It didn't hurt people to have their names mentioned in Gaia's Garden, so I am hoping this book can help the people mentioned in it, too.
Please send samples to urbanpc(at)
It looks like I didn't do my due diligence on this. After such a good experience with organiclifeguru.com in their production of my forest gardening video, which is 7 hours of workshop instruction for $60 with handouts, I only gave the preview of the drought talk a quick glance. I agree that $40 is too much, and that it's not a course. It's a 90-minute lecture that I've given several times, now with the title "The Joy of Drought," and I've gotta say, I think it's a pretty cool talk--it shows how one permaculture principle can be applied to create a comprehensive drought-proofing that has over 40 other benefits. It slips in a whole raft of permaculture ideas while dealing with one of the most serous problems we're facing in the West. It's currently my most requested lecture.
That said, the post is not a "review" any more than my lecture is a course. It doesn't review the actual content of the lecture at all. It's a complaint, not a review. And the polite, proper thing to do when you have a complaint about a product is not to blast it on a public forum and talk about "scam," but to bring your complaint to the maker and ask them to make it right. Especially in a small community like this where many of us know each other and are easily reachable. If you had done this, I would have immediately asked organiclifeguru to give you a refund. Since you chose to handle it this way, I feel no obligation to help you. But I will ask the producers to change how they are offering this.
Thanks to all for the great threads. Congratulations to the winners. There are some good folks here, doing great work, and I continue to be reassured that the people who are doing this work are making a huge difference. Thanks again.
Thanks for those kind words. I put a camera in every copy (with the feed going also to Paul for his plans for world domination), so I am pleased that people keep them close by.
Vines are tricky, but choosing the right vine/support combo is the answer. A kiwi--I don't think so. A friend pulled a mature apricot down with a hardy kiwi; that's why they use 6x6 posts for their trellises. But a grape? Maybe. Choose a less-vigorous variety and hack it back nearly every year. Or use a really big tree that you can climb (my friend trained the kiwi up a Doug fir). And yes, dead trees are great for vines. In a small yard, I stick to trellises for vines, since control is important. But in larger yards, I'll run them up trees. But less vigorous is wiser.
Permaculture would suggest multiple strategies, so resistance plus creating alternatives seems wise, and one without the other historically has not helped much. I know that a lot of people in Pc come from a non-violent background, and for those who don't like that sort of in-your-face activism, there is plenty of design work to do. David Eisenberg says a good strategy is "Have more fun than they do and make sure they know it." But I also am in agreement with Derrick Jensen, who says that the people profiting from gutting this planet are not likely to stop doing it just because we ask nicely or turn our backs on them. In the most recent book that he co-authors with Lierre Keith and Aric McBay, "Deep Green Resistance," they make a very good case for active resistance as being essential (though the shrill "you pacifists are stupid losers" tone that can creep in I found off-putting). I highly recommend it. They argue that just walking away to your utopia is both irresponsible and ineffective at causing real change, and give historical examples (their analogy, given the plight of so many species is, if your neighbor was being beaten, is walking away the right thing to do?). But we need those models in place to provide a fear-free alternative, or else we end up like most revolutions (France, Russia, etc), lots of dead, same old bosses. So don't feel guilty if "all" you are doing is creating paradise, but let other people know you are doing it. And give some of the food to Occupy.
I think Occupy has huge potential. The gift they've made of creating the term "the one percent" is immensely valuable, as it shows that the 99% are in the same boat, no matter what our differences. Having a name for it is a critical step.
Holly, you're thinking in the right direction. Keep the water from leaving your yard. I assume that things can get dry between rains, even though you may get a fair amount of rain. Create shade, create shade, create shade. Mulch like mad. Don't worry too much about swales unless you are seeing serious runoff during storms. A trench around your property may make sense, just don't flood yourself. Build organic matter and get roots into the soil. There was another thread--sorry that I can't find it--about staying cool in FL, too. Your reverse suntraps are a good idea, but make them permeable to any cooling winds; you want both shade and ventilation. Try to have light-colored landscape features, not many big dark rocks and things to accumulate heat.
Yes, planting legumes as well as mulch and humus (big root system) plants while other stuff is growing is a good idea. Turn your yard into a living sponge. Good luck.
The only thing that will "feed the world" at 7 billion is massive fossil fuel inputs, or some replacement for that. The reason we managed to get beyond 4 billion or so is because in the 1960s we figured out how to turn oil into food. That allowed us to develop food sources for another 3 billion people, instead of the famine that most population biologists were predicting at the time. Maybe we can put off the day of reckoning again, too, but at some point we need to deal. Food requires energy and fertilizer, and oil and natural gas have given us an abundance of those. But that party is over. Permaculture can help with a transition to a smaller population by recycling the abundance that oil has given us (though the amount we can keep cycling depends on energy, so that amount will decline with energy descent), and by letting us reduce our ecological footprint, since Pc creates habitat while producing food. But because permaculture is grounded in sharing the planet with other species, some of its yields go to other species, while the yields of agriculture go only to us, other species be damned. Farmers don't really like wildlife in their fields. This means that though some methods used in permaculture can be highly productive for humans--like keyhole beds--overall permaculture systems may not yield as much as intensely fossil-fueled ag, because in Pc we are agreeing not to take all of it. So, short answer, no, permaculture cannot feed 7 billion people or more, because if you are gutting the planet and spewing fossil fuel pollution over everything, you are not using permaculture, by definition. But permaculture looks to me like the best way to make the transition, by closing the loops as the system runs out of oil over the next few decades. Maybe a miracle fuel will come along, but I'd rather we learned to live sanely on the surface of a finite planet first. Walk before we fly, and so far we haven't mastered crawling yet.
The third ethic was originally "set limits to population and consumption" as stated in Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, but I suspect population limiting is too much of a hot button for many, so we go for "return the surplus" because, if I may be cynical, we can fudge on what the surplus is--my savings account isn't really surplus, right, so I can keep my money--but it's damned clear what population is; if you have more than 2.3 children you are contributing to the most serious problem on the planet. I won't sugar coat that. As for the irony of smart people not having kids, that's how they got to be the elite in this culture: by concentrating resources on 2-3 kids, instead of spreading it over a gaggle of them. The plan has always been: It's great to have plenty of dumb people, to be my slaves. Since I control all the money and power, their numbers are irrelevant.
But population the critical issue of our time, especially the population of the developed world, where 1 American consumes and pollutes as much as 9 Brazilians or 55 Zimbaweans. Everything else, climate change, pollution, energy descent, comes from too many people on a finite planet. Low populations can get away with all sorts of things that dense ones can't. Life gets unforgiving fast at high population levels.
But this issue devolves into politics really fast, doesn't it.
The beauty is, if we don't fix it ourselves, nature will fix it for us, just in a far more ugly way. There's a video on the web I highly recommend by Albert Bartlett called "Population, Arithmetic, and Energy" that makes all this very, very clear: a stopping of population growth is inevitable, and the things that decrease population are all very ugly, except for voluntarily having a small family.
There are very little hard data on permaculture systems per se. But there are plenty of data on the various methods that Pc uses, and that's where you should go. Agroforestry, mulches, polycultures, perennial systems, keyline plowing, and on and on. So look up the sub-system that has data, and talk about how permaculture employs those methods.
I know of no way to protect plants or us from the systemic release of radiation from Fukushima. There are specific solutions for specific isotopes and problems, like, some fungi can accumulate certain isotopes. But there is so much misinformation coming from the news--no one agrees on which isotopes, their risk, their amounts, their half-lives, and on and on. I would advise doing research and coming up with solutions that make you more comfortable. Beyond that, as my friend Larry Santoyo says, all you can do is clench your butt cheeks, grit your teeth, and lean into it.
Compost piles should almost always be covered: rain will leach nutrients, sun will dry the pile.
I'm not a big fan of guerrilla gardening unless there is a gardener to take care of the plants. I've seen the vast majority of guerrilla projects fail, because people think they can just sow and go, and it doesn't work that way. Gardens need gardeners; if the natives are struggling, then food plants would do even worse. And if your city has a natives-only policy, they will hit the plants with herbicide, which would then be your fault. I've seen them do it. It would be far more useful to everyone, and more successful, if you went to the proper city office with a proposal about how the natives are doing poorly, the people who walk the trail would love some shade and some food, so why not plant some things for the principal species using the trail: people.
There are many resources for school gardens, both how to physically make them and how to do the political dance to make it work, which is far harder. I don't have any specific references (I'd have to do a lot of digging, and I just can't take the time with dozens of posts to answer). Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard is one of the pioneers, but there is little written on permaculture school gardens. If you are new to Pc, start with something you know how to do and then learn from there. It would be a shame to fail right off the bat. There is a teacher in Hood River, Oregon, Michael Becker, who is doing incredible school garden work, way beyond anything else I'm aware of. Google him, as there are articles on his work.
The great thing about the A-frame and water level is that they can be knocked together from any old crap and calibrated on site. The device with the carpentry level needs to be very precisely built--the legs dead even, the crossbar dead level, and so on (which is fine if you have the tools and skill). An A-frame is just 3 sticks lashed together carelessly (almost) and the a string with a weight that is calibrated on site. There are plenty of websites that tell how to do it.
The problem here is that if you try to seed annuals under established grasses, especially perennial grasses, you are pushing succession backwards. Annual herbaceous plants, especially the ones we eat, are early succession species. Grasses are slightly later, and perennial grasses later still (shrubs are next). This is an oversimplification, but the grasses have created conditions that are not favorable to the establishment of annual herbs. As people suggested, you need to set back the grasses. They are shading the seedballs, and I'll bet everything in the seedballs needs sun. Seedballs are not the silver bullet that some people expect them to be.
Doug fir is usually more of a mid-succession tree, though they can get very old. But in much of the greater NW (and SW MT is part of that) hemlock, true firs, and sometimes cedars, which are all less shade tolerant, are the late-succession dominants. Probably not "many" species of trees, but 2-4 or so in that area. I'm not a complete expert on MT, though, so a local ecologist would know better.
The thing we've learned about forests is that they are naturally patchy. Part of a forest would be late succession (they don't say climax any more, since that implies an end or target, and the forest is too dynamic and changing for that) but there are always local burns, blowdowns, bugs and blights, etc., to keep things much more mixed than the old view allowed for. And then there were native people setting fires all over the place, but they did that for thousands of years, so that was "natural" by some definitions, too.
I agree with Tel about not mixing the layers. In these cases I'm a fan of deep mulches, to get more biological activity above, and percolating down into, the clay. And,yes, plants with deep roots like comfrey (though that will fairly permanent), daikon, and some of the fibrous-rooted cover crops like mustard or rapeseed to get OM into the clay and open it up.
I'm not aware of any permaculture books for the Sonoran desert, but Scott Pittman has posted all the back issues of Permaculture Drylands Magazine at his website, http://permaculture.org You'll have to search for the exact link. Pc Drylands was published for a decade or so and has articles by many great permies doing good work in the Sonoran and other deserts all over the US SW. And there are nuggets on growing tucked into Brad Lancaster's "Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands" books. Several mainstream gardening books are desert-specific, and will help you think about it. And there are a lot of smart permies in Tucson, Phoenix, and NM who have a wealth of knowledge--the Sonoran Permaculture Guild being one resource.
The big thing in the desert: learn to create and enhance cool, moist microclimates. Learning about microclimate will help you almost more than learning about specific species and technique.
Parker, you're doing great work in identifying and gathering all that waste. I don't expect that waste stream to be so rich for much longer, so the time to benefit from it is now. Major items for converting into soil or farm resources would be all the paper and cardboard, wood chips from tree trimmings, construction debris, yard waste (most could be recycled on site; it's bizarre to send it to composting sites); and all the food waste, on farm and at processing plants as well as at the kitchen and table. The food industry wastes about 1/3 of its inputs, so that's a rich spot to focus. Nice work!
My firsthand experience with this is limited to plums. The grafted variety grows from a seed, or at least it looks and tasted the same to me. I have been told this is the case for alls tone fruits. I assume it is true for apricots, but don't know for sure. I think someone ought to find a more certain source of info on this; mine was from a very experienced Colorado orchardist, but ya never know.
A Kindle version of GG is available. I've been told that in some versions the photos are small or missing, but Amazon will get you another version if that's the case. I've thought about making DVDs but unless I want to do Youtube quality, to do a decent job would cost $25,000-50,000 for 90 minutes of film and take me months, so I probably won't be doing that. Chelsea Green Publishing and I have talked about a follow-up book that looks at a dozen or so Pc sites, with maps and photos and plant lists of each. Might do that someday; it would be fun, so maybe a film version could come along with that.