Designing Garden Beds: Keyhole Design

Last week, I wrote about the many social and ecological problems that we face as a society and linked them to the systems we use to meet our needs. 

After that post, I received a lot of feedback from people offline. In fact, from the analytical data I have access to, that last post quickly became one of the most read and shared pieces I’ve written here. Many said they had been thinking similarly along these lines, somehow intuiting the challenges we face, but not quite connecting it to our basic system of production. 

Once you understand that our problems flow from the way we meet our needs, you begin to see how simple acts like gardening or saving money on home energy can have a high positive impact on society. 
But what I’ve really been learning is that there are a lot of people out there like us, who are motivated and inspired to “be the change they want to see in the world.” They want to live better lives and understand that means living in a way that’s better for others, too. 
We want to build Lillie House at that powerful intersection between the vision of a better world and the practical, life-enhancing actions that will bring it into reality. 
So, I will need a little time to take your feedback into consideration as I continue that post, showing how we can “solve all the world’s problems in a garden” as Permaculture Designer Geoff Lawton often says. 
In the meantime, lets talk gardening. 
Keyhole Bed Design
Right now, I have our some of our beds “undressed” for maintenance, so it’s a good time to show some of the hidden features that have worked well for us. These aren’t the prettiest pictures, but they’re a great “behind the scenes” look into our gardening. 
At Lillie House, all of our beds use “keyhole design” to minimze work and maximize growing space. This diagram shows an example of a basic keyhole design that anyone can use to “makeover” their garden:

I’d like to report that we’ve been gardening this way for years and it’s one of those classic Permaculture techniques that’s really worked well for us. In fact, these days I can’t really imagine gardening any other way. 
The basic idea is that if you have a 10′ by 10′ garden space and you divide in into rows, you might get 4 tightly spaced rows, or 40′ of growing space, with 60′ of compacted path area that’s a perfect space for weeds and a poor space for root infiltration to help your crops. Such a garden will be a tight, difficult place to maneuver and work in, too. Worse, if rows aren’t perfectly on contour, university extension research has shown such rows act as drainage ditches, channeling water away from where it can help plants. 
But, if you divide this same sized garden into two larger 4′ beds with a 2′ row in the middle, you can have 80′ of growing space! At 4′, you can still reach to the center of each bed without ever having to step on it. This larger row will be easier to work in and you’ll be less likely to accidentally damage plants. 
But if yo go even further and reduce that path to 5 feet of length, creating a “keyhole” you get another 10′ or more of space. Meanwhile, you only have 10′ of path space to weed and maintain. You can reshape the path to have more room in the middle, where you work, and less room at the enterance, where weeds would start to encroach. 
And now that you have a “keyhole” bed, it can easily be designed to catch and store water, and aid in composting in place. 
Above, you can see where I’ve raked off the mulch that used to cover a keyhole path and used it to mulch the bed for the winter. You can also see how I’ve surrounded the outsides of this bed, especially the vulnerable corners, with “fortress plantings” of perennial vegetables and herbs to keep out the weeds. The high number of perennials also helps the beds store nitrogen and other nutrients over winter and host beneficial insects and micro-organisms. Perennial plants are one of our great natural allies in building soil. 

With the paths raked out, you can also see that the paths and “keyhole” (which is sometimes called a “node”) are dug out level, “on contour” so that they catch water behind the slightly raised beds. This helps soak water into the soil where it’s most useful to our plants. 

 You can also see that the access points are kept small to minimize weed intrusion, but there are roomy “nodes” where one can sit and have more work space. This takes advantage of the best of both  worlds, narrow paths for reduced maintenance, and wide paths for easier work where it’s needed. 

And finally, these pictures demonstrate the huge amount of continuous mulching we do in our garden. For me, the use of continuous deep mulching is problably the number one element to reduce garden work. In a keyhole bed, the path can be treated as a “mulch basin” where weeds are kept in check through heavy mulching. This heavy mulch hosts micro organisms that can also help clean water and break down contaminants. 
Come next spring, most of this mulch will be broken down to the point where it will pretty much look like beautiful soil. A nice edible groundcover of self-sowing vegetables will already be well established and perennials will begin to bloom and yield for us: 
(keyhole beds in summer, with annuals, perennials, vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers.)
So, to recap, here are a few tips to consider as you plan your garden for next year. 
1. Keyhole beds make the best use of space and eliminate weeding, watering and fertilizing work. 
2. You can design your keyhole beds to catch water and infiltrate it like a rain garden. 
3. You can design your keyhole bed so that the path acts as a “mulch basin,” which breaks down into compost to feed the garden. This compost can periodically be used to mulch the beds. 
4. You can design keyhole beds with “fortress plantings” of perennial plants around the outside, especially at the corners. Good Fortress plants include oregano, thyme, creeping chamomile, clover, perennial alliums like chives, and bulbing flowers like daffodils. 
5. A permanant keyhole “path” means we never have to step on our beds, so we never compact the soil, and as a result, we never have to dig the beds! Keyhole beds are a great approach for “no dig” gardening. 
6. 4 to 5 feet of bed witdth allows most people to comfortably reach to the center of a bed from both sides, so a 10 to 12 foot “keyhole garden” is an ideal size. Larger gardens can be collections of smaller keyhole gardens.
A keyhole garden designed in that way is a classic Permaculture approach that minimizes maintenance and puts nature to work for us. It’s an approach we reccomend and one that’s worked well for us for years. 
If you’ve done keyhole gardening before, I’d like to hear about your experiences, positive and negative.  


Civilization’s Fatal Flaw, the Root Cause of Our Problems – (And How toAddress It)

(Kalamazoo. All images via Wiki Images.) 

“What would a just city look like?” 

A friend recently wrote to me, asking that question. I responded:

What would a sustainable city look like? 
What would a healthy city look like, one that doesn’t suffer from high rates of cancer, heart disease, digestive disorders, obesity and the other so called “diseases of civilization?” 
What would a city look like without hunger? Pollution? Urban decay? War?

It’s impossible to know, because in all of human history there has never been such a city. We have exactly 0 models to draw on in 10,000 years. 

This can be a shocking realization for those of us who do our best to try to solve problems and make the world a better place. 

In fact, all of those things, unsustainability, collapse, oppression and even slavery, social injustice, ecological collapse, pollution, war, exploitive relationship with nature… are part of the common definition of “agrarian civilization,” the type of society that produces cities. Look it up on wikipedia, or elsewhere, and that’s what you’ll find as part of the basic definition. 

You may also learn from a click or two on that wikipedia article that the scientists who study such things class human societies by their “intensivity,” the input/output ratio (EROEI) of their most basic energy transaction, the production of their food. How much energy does it cost people to produce their energy? If you spend a LITTLE energy and get a LOT back, that’s a good situation. If you spend a LOT and only get a LITTLE back, that situation isn’t going to last long. And these researchers have documented a direct correlation between this ratio and all those things we see as “problems.” From this perspective, they’re not really issolated “problems,” they’re are “design trade-offs” or symptoms of the larger problem, which is the low EROEI of the way civilizations meet their needs. 

(A Horticultural settlement, build with 1 year’s sun energy from one small area.)

Hunter-gatherers have a very high EROEI, since they put very little energy IN to their system. So it’s no coincidence that they also have the most egalitarian societies, and the lowest ecological impact, and the fewest “problems”.  Horticultural (forest gardeners) and Pastoral societies, are next on the list, putting in a little energy and getting a big return on that investment. They generally have fairly equitable cultures, few wars, great health, and very low environmental impact. Finally there’s agrarian civilization, the farmers and city builders, which are called “intensive cultures.” They  put a lot of energy into their food production to get a small amount back, and this is where all these “problems” explode.  

We’re the most energy intensive society in the history of the planet, probably by 400 times. And so it may be that we’re 400 times more destructive….

(How many years of sun energy did this take to build?)

I mean that literally. According to USDA research, American agriculture is approaching an EROEI of where we spend 400 calories for every 1 calorie of food we produce. 

This high input problem creates an energy deficit which must be paid in some way, by something or someone. We “pay” with the “problems” above. We’re literally just converting one form of energy to another. 

And this is why all the attempts we’ve made for 10,000 years to “solve” the symptoms above without changing the underlying EROEI problem must be paid for by making another symptom worse. (meanwhile, there’s general consensus based on historical evidence that changes in this basic EROEI have always automatically improved all of these “problems,” but that’s for a future blog.) 

This is the basic question of our politics, choosing who will pay for our civilized society, the civilization tax.  

For example, say we want to address social injustice at home. So, following the common logic used by Kalamazoo’s elected officials, we use more fossil fuels to produce more economic growth and hence wealth, so there’s more available for the underprivileged. Of course, we pay for this increased justice with faster climate change, ecosystem collapse and pollution. 

Or perhaps we use slave energy from other countries to pay for increased social justice at home and pay with war, environmental degradation, etc.  

Or we try to decrease climate change by using less fossil energy and we end up creating slower economic growth and thus increased social injustice, worse health, more hunger, etc. at home. 

Or we attempt to replace fossil energy with nuclear, knowing that this will be paid for by some number of children getting cancer, and tolerating occasional catastrophic disaster. 

Or we try to address hunger by intensifying the caloric output of our economy. We convert low calorie vegetable production to corn and beef, and we exacerbate the “diseases of civilization,” destroy habitat and worsen ecosystem collapse and climate change. 

Or we try to address all these problems domestically by oppressing people and ecosystems elsewhere. 

Or we try to be more “sustainable,” and pay for it like the fairly sustainable cities of ancient China did, through extreme injustice, oppression and poor health.      

Worse still, when we spend energy to solve one of these symptoms as isolated problems, we add to the Energy Invested side of our society’s operating budget, making all the problems worse. 

So one conclusion we can draw is that we need to “go deep” with our efforts, cut to the true cause of the problems, this EROEI issue. This EROEI factor needs to be part of the discussion of all our attempts to create positive change. 

But this is just one reason why all of our attempts to “solve” these “problems” for the last 10,000 years have failed. Another aspect of civilization’s built-in conundrum is the design “trade-off” of hierarchy. Afterall, hierarchy, or the ability for some individuals to “outsource” the production of their basic necessities to allow for specialization, is the very point of agrarian civilization. The reality of that basic situation is that somebody is made to toil to meet everyone’s needs, so that others get to spend their time making art, sitting at the heads of prestigious foundations, practicing “law,” working in local government, or other such things that make cities happen. Notice that no farmer in history has ever had a statue made to honor him or her. 

This situation is fundamentally inequitable and unjust, no matter how you choose who will pay that price.   

But this means there’s a built-in dis-incentive for those who are favored with privilege in such a system to change things. Those wealthy whites with power may complain about racism, the most dominant means of “choosing” the losers in American society, but replacing racism and plutocracy with meritocracy means condemning their children, their descendants to live without their privilege. 

It’s important for us to remember that the modern-day institution of the Foundation was not created to fix problems or right wrongs, but to establish a mechanism of protecting and conserving the “social order” that benefited the families of the wealthy. This was at a time of social uprising, when the wealthy had to convert just enough of their financial wealth into “social capital” to keep their own heads from rolling. They were created by the basic EROEI dynamic, are fed and rewarded by it – and the first goal of their foundations is to maintain that dynamic. 
Or as musician, philanthropist and social critic Peter Buffett (who also happens to be the son of Warren Buffett) bravely puts it:
Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.

If solving problems was really the goal, shouldn’t the obvious solution be to just stop causing the problems? (By the way, I’ll be writing more about Mr. Buffett’s insightful Op Ed in the future.) 

We have to recognize that we privileged Americans are no different than Peter and other wealthy folks. Virtually all of us “Liberal White Do-gooders” in what Peter calls the Charitable Industrial Complex have this same built-in conflict of interest. We all reap the privileges of a destructive oil economy, social injustice, cheap shoes made in Indonesian sweat shops. 

So a second lesson is that we need to analyze where the benefits of our actions accrue, who our actions truly serve, and how we can ensure that we’re really helping what we say we’re helping, so that we’re not just helping ourselves get our picture in the paper, a “Green-trepeneur of the year” statue for our mantle.

Good Permaculture design offers tools and solutions to help us design actions that are mindful of these two lessons: It always seeks to address this “Return on Energy Investment” issue of institutions, and it helps communities being served “Catch and Store” energy and income streams from aid projects.

Most importantly, it helps to create a new, lower EROEI system for meeting our needs, a system that will necessarily have fewer “problems,” right underneath the failing existing system. 

So, how should we spend our time? What kind of efforts should we invest in? What kind of actions should we support and how should we fund them? 

Permaculture offers some very unexpected and interesting answers to these questions. 

Very soon, I’ll be sharing more about the practical specifics of using Permaculture to design effective actions that can help us create the true, effective social change we want to see. 

And how this “good work” can make our lives more joyful, secure and resilient at the same time. 

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned….

For part 2 in this series, click here:

Traditional Patterns for a New World

(Photo, wiki images)

We can create a more just and sustainable world where everyone’s needs are met without compromising the health of our neighbors or the happiness of future generations. And we can do so by reclaiming connections with nature, community and beauty that we’ve lost. 

There are ancient patterns of sustainable, peaceful and egalitarian cultures that we can replicate to find our way. And these are often the same cultures that we visit on our vacations, because their ways of life and the kind of environment they create, speaks to us, deeply. For those of us who feel trapped in a system and lifestyle we know to be destructive and unsustainable, breaking free doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. We don’t have to “give up” a high quality of life in order to stop being so destructive. Perhaps it’s just a matter of giving up things that have never really mattered anyway, the things that clutter up life, to make room for the things that do, the things that make us most fully, joyously human.


If you like Pinterest, we’ll be starting a few boards that show the beauty of these sustainable systems. This way you can get your fix of “garden porn,” as its known on the interwebs, and say you’re doing your part to help envision the future landscape of sustainable humanity. 

In Danger of Falling Food – Kalamazoo Edition

(One of our local unofficial food forests)

“In danger of falling food.” That’s a phrase that one of Permaculture’s founders, Bill Mollison, used to use in his talks. In fact, there’s a video you can find on Youtube with that title.
As you’ll see from the quote below, Bill knew very well that the dangers of Food Forests go well beyond a bump on the head. They could threaten our entire way of life!

“I will tell you a little story. There is a man named Cliff Adam, living in a group of islands with about 40,000 people. Cliff got a grant from the United Nations to collect some food plants that might suit the area. They gave him $136,000. So he took off in his plane and kept sending home parcels. He left two or three friends there who kept planting all these trees. He sent back some 600 sorts of mango, 30 or 40 sorts of breadfruit, all sorts of guava, and so on. When he got back home, he then moved them out in rows on 68 acres near the shoreline. Then he got another 135 acres from the government, up on the hills. So he set out all these trees. About three or four years lat- er, he had all sorts of cassava and all sorts of yams and taros that you could imagine.

He said to me, “I am in a very embarrassing position.”

I said, “What is wrong?”.

He said, “Well I shipped this crop in that wasn’t growing here traditionally.” This was really a coconut economy. He shipped all these plants in, and he set them out as trials. So he said, “The problem is, what I was going to do was this: give the farmers different sorts of mangos, breadfruit trees, and all that, and I have been doing it; but already the production from my two hundred acres would feed the island, and that’s experimental production. I am in the embarrassing position where, as agricultural research and nutrition officer, I am already alone re- sponsible.”

He said to me, “What am I going to do?”

I said, “I dunno.”

This is a difficulty wherever people undertake this sort of assembly. You haven’t gotten very far along the road, maybe four to seven years along the road, when you’ve grown so much food the whole thing gets rather embarrassing, and if you are the agricultural officer of a small country, you could probably feed the country on the experimental plots.

(Snip) …we plant the land, people quickly become food self-sufficient. If you plant on an extended basis, then the whole structure of the economy is affected. What if nobody wants to trade or buy food? What if no one has to bother with it anymore? So there are problems. They are problems of a different order than the problems that we think we have. That has happened to several people who have tackled it seriously within the last five years….

(Snip) Yet people are dying of starvation. The problem is the economy, and land ownership. You don’t have a food problem. I don’t think you will ever have a food prob- lem. If you seriously started this roll away stuff, started to roll all over that place, you wouldn’t get very far before you would have an embarrassing amount of food.

In a money economy, it’s all right only while nobody else is doing it. But what if every- body started doing it? Terrifying thought!

Now the position is already being faced in some small communities where there is such a surplus of food that there is no real economy in food at all.

(A young food forest at Trybal Revival in Kalamazoo)

So, was Bill Full of BS? Often, yes. But the point he makes here is worth examining. I mean, it’s been proven by many cultures around the world throughout history, but can it work in Kalamazoo?
This is something I’ve written about before:, but it’s worth looking specifically into the idea of low maintenance “harvest-only” food forest systems. 

If we were going to try too feed all of Kalamazoo for free, the food forest systems we’d create would be high in chestnuts and cultivated oaks, as the staple carbs, understory hazels as a protein, and probably quinces as a staple fruit. 

In the case of chestnuts, an acre produces over 2,000 lbs of nuts per year. Under this, you can plant many crops, shade lovers in the understory and sun-loving crops along edges. We could interplant hazelnuts, fruits, greens, perennial vegetables, etc. for a complete diet. 

So, utilizing the productivity of chestnuts, we could plant less than 1/4 of the 500 Square Miles of arable land in Kalamazoo County and provide a considerably higher quantity of food in sheer weight than the average robust American diet of a Tonne of food per year (according to NPR’s The Salt.) The 50 foot ring around Kalamazoo city that I wrote about in the linked article could feed everyone in the city within walking distance! 

And it would take far, far less to feed all of Kalamazoo’s hungry and impoverished a healthy, diverse diet for FREE. And even less than that if we were to include acorns in the diet. 

All that’s lacking is the desire to get “the economy” of the way and let hungry people feed themselves. What are we waiting for? 

Forest Gardening Tips from Evolution

Forest Garden

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Forest Garden systems, “the world’s oldest land use,” are “layered” gardens where fruits, nuts and staple crops fill the trees overhead and the understories are filled with valuable shrubs, medicinal herbs, materials for crafts and building, as well as even more fruit and vegetables. They are nearly universal to human cultures, found throughout the world. Virtually everyplace where trees can grow, these systems have emerged.

Researchers across a wide variety of fields are begining to understand that tree-dominated forest edge and forest clearing ecologies are our human Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. An EEA is not the specific PLACE that a species evolved in, but the specific type of ECOSYSTEM we evolved in, the specific NICHE a species evolved to fill. It is the place where a species’ hard-wired behavior patterns make the most sense, get the best results. It’s the place where we naturally feel home, the kind of place we instinctively seek out and try to create.  
Because of our ability to change our environment, everywhere humans have gone we have recreated our EEA to the best of our ability. This is the key to human adaptability. 

(Forest Garden in Burkina Faso, Wiki Images)

Forest gardens are a huge part of this. It’s a deeply, foundational human response to life to surround one’s self with a beautiful safe environment, filled with all the food and medicines we need, under the healing canopy of trees which even condition the air to bolster our immune systems and better meet our evolved needs. 
So we can learn a lot about being human and about forest gardening by studying these evolved natural ecosystems. We do well to learn their patterns and surround ourselves, as our ancestors have, with the forms that have served mankind well through our whole evolutionary history.   
What are these universal charactaristics that we can learn to emulate? Here’s a short list of powerful patterns we can use in our forest gardens:

1. Flexible Adaptability of Input to Output Ratios: 

This is my number 1 goal in designing any forest garden or “Agroforest” system, period. And it appears to be a fundamental feature of every traditional form I’ve learned of in my research and sysnthesis of broad research on traditional Agroforest systems. But it’s something quite counter-intuitive to us modern forest gardeners. 
And it is in stark contrast to the primary goal of every modern Agricultural landscape and the systems designed and advocated for by the Extension system, which is Gross Productivity. A corn-producing system, for example, is deemed successful by how much total corn it yields in a given year. To meet this goal, it becomes acceptable to put far more calories IN to the system than we get out, total. So a “successful” or even “ideal” modern corn field can take 400 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food. We actually have a negative return on our investment!
It’s important to note that, according to commentators like Jared Diamond, no civilization has survived long once their “return on investment” became too low. 
Oftentimes, modern Forest Gardeners can fall into the same trap of prioritizing Gross Productivity over other benefits and measures of success. (Skepteco publishes many critiques of Permaculture and Organic Gardening systems based on this fallacy that raw gross productivity is the only measure that matters.) 
“If it isn’t more PRODUCTIVE than conventional Ag, then what’s the point?” I’ve heard many times from many quarters. 

(The Spanish Dehesa is a low-output system which has survived the centuries)

But this isn’t how our ancestors thought about their forest garden systems. These were people who relied upon the efficient production of calories and nutrition (Input/Output Ratio) for their very survival, and their quality of life was largely measured by a HIGH return on investment ratio. They could not afford to spend 400 calories to produce 1 calorie, they couldn’t even afford to spend 1 to produce 10!
This is a vitally important piece of lost wisdom for us to understand. 
If they could INVEST a few hours of energy a week and insure that all their needs were met, then this high return on investment (Input/Output Ratio) meant that they had a great deal of free time to pursue joyful living. Studies of modern cultures where forest gardening is the primary economic unit, such as Kerala India, or the Gardens of Complete Design in Kandy (McConnell, 2003) have found that these people typically only “work” a few hours per week! The rest of their time is spent living. So, it’s no wonder that such regions, while “poor” by western standards, have high measures of health, happiness, and literacy, and they are rich in cultural and artistic traditions. 
The key to this quality of life factor is not Gross Yield, but Flexible Adaptability of Input to Output Ratios. This means a system can be stabilized at a low-input rate that requires very little maintenance or care, but is designed to be quickly scaled up to a greater deal of productivity with added input. 
On a continuum, a single successful forest garden could quickly switch between various input/output regimens like this:
1. Low input/low-moderate output. No external inputs. Little maintenance. The priority “yield” is ease of care and low work, high free time. Produce yields may be low, but are enough to augment quality of life for the family and maybe even provide some income. Fairly tight tree spacing minimize weeding pressure and create self-mulching paths. Understory is mostly perennial and naturalized as a “foraging” garden ecosystem. 

(A low-input/low-output home paw paw system with virtually no inputs or non-harvest labor required.)

2. Moderate input/moderate output. Selective mulching, fertilizing and pruning to increase sun penetration and yields. Increased produce yields require increased maintenance and harvest work, but provide a greater deal of food and income. A naturalized, self-regulating, largely perennial understory dominates with a few select anual plants (like tomatoes) added in places. 

Food Forest Kalamazoo

(A system at Lillie House in a moderate-low input regimen during establishment, but designed for flexibility as a primary goal. Image, PJ Chmiel.) 

3. Moderate high input, moderate high output. Active mulching, thinning and pruning tree crops to orchard density and culture. Active composting, mulching, and organic fertilizing, with some materials brought in from off-site. Understory starts to include cultivated gardens and intensive cropping beds, often in deep mulches. Productivity begins to get high, allowing for family members to increase income or support more people. Perhaps a family member was laid-off from outside work and requires additional income. The forest garden quickly responds to fill this need. 

(Garden beds under a Moderate-high input regimen at Lillie House.)

4. High input/ exceptional output. Trees are converted to maximum productivity forms. Organic matter is imported to subsidize high outputs. The understory is converted to intensive cropping or animal systems. Surprisingly small pieces of land have been used world-wide to provide a sustainable livlihood for a large number of people under such management. Due to “over-yielding” from many stories at many times of the year, the yields of such systems are huge, yet still far more sustainable than conventional ag. 

Designing such a flexible system that can quickly be tuned up or down this scale is not difficult with a little fore-thought, and it provides for a greater number of life circumstances and needs. Traditional models are nearly universal, with patterns and techniques to be found in systems including the German Streuobst (F. Herzog,) the British Hedgrow, Nepalese Home Gardens (Gautum, 2004), the British Copse, the Eastern European Mosaic Landscapes, Traditional Greek Olive/Grape agroforestry, Tropical Forest Gardens, and etc. 

One important factor in tweaking this ratio is planting density. For more thoughts on planting density to control input/output ratio, see:

2. High Diversity. 

A universal characteristic of these systems is a very high number of plant species. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 300 species/acre. Diversity is the number one factor in system health resiliency and stability, (ecological resiliency theory) as well as the number one factor in improving human health benifits. It’s also key in supporting #1, flexible adaptability, as the plant material for various regimens will be available on site for scaling up. 

(An extremely high diversity polyculture system at over 300 species/acre.)

3. Integrated Social Space/ Cultural Yields. 

These traditional systems universally have a high degree of cultural significance and integrated social space, and cultural traditions. In Nepal, for example, home forest gardens are seen as a primary living space and a major factor in social status (Gautum, 2004.) The Streoubst systems in Germany and Hedgerows of Britain are surrounded by culturally significant foraging and picnicing rituals that have protected these systems from being replaced by “modern” land uses. (F. Herzog.)

For more thoughts on Integrated Social Space, see:

4. Aesthetic “Yields,” Beauty of Landscape. 

The aesthetics of forest garden systems is another universal which is completely disregarded by modern “scientific” agriculture. Humans must live in our agricultural systems. There is an irrefutable benefit to making these landscapes places that people WANT to be in. Across all cultures, where these systems have endured, the aesthetic value has been a major factor. 

If you want your forest garden to last, make it beautiful.

Virtually all traditional forest garden systems can be considered aesthetically important models for us, but a few stand out as aesthetic “specialists.” On the home scale, the Jardin de Cure of France and Cottage Gardens of Britain stand out as systems that have survived since antiquity, largely due to their aesthetic and cultural significance and appeal. 

(Streuobst, Wiki-images.)

On the broad-acre scale, the Spanish Dehesa and the German Streoubst have become characteristic attractions of their regions, and important attractors of tourism and culture. 

So, as we modern forest gardeners and agro-foresters look to find new, experimental forms adapted to modern life, we should also look back to the forms we evolved with and that have nurtured us since our earliest days as a species. We should understand, appreciate and emulate the “holistic” benefits of such ecosystems as tools that support and enrich our lives in more ways that our science will ever be able to measure and understand. 
But when we re-create these old, old systems – beautiful, resilient and secure – we find ourselves once again where life makes sense, our Evironment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, and we know without a doubt that we’ve “come home.” 

Tour Sunday, Focus: Forest Gardening Basics

This Sunday, October 11th at 9:00 AM we’ll be giving a tour of our garden with a focus on Forest Gardening Basics. The garden is looking quite beautiful this time of year and we may also have a variety of fruits and vegetables to taste, including paw paws, kousa berries, galapagos tomatoes and a variety of herbs, greens and vegetables. 

On these tours, I try to be flexible and follow where the interest of our guests leads, but for the focus on Forest Gardening basics I’ll be prepared to cover:
Why forest gardens were almost universal to human cultures.
A basic approach to design.
Forest Garden Architecture: Multiple layers, homogenous textures. 
“Guild” roles to design gardens that work like ecosystems.
Top Recommended woody plants and perennial vegetables. 
The number 1 most important factor in designing a forest garden. 
A variety of approaches to installing a forest garden. 
Different approaches to meet different goals. 
In addition, our partner PJ Chmiel is also giving a tour of his very impressive forest garden. I highly recommend seeing it. 
We already have a few people signed up, so it should be a nice tour and a nice morning. I hope you’ll get in touch with me or PJ to join in. See the poster above for how to sign up. 

A Permaculture Plan for Kalamazoo

Permaculture thinking isn’t just a tool for the home landscape or farm. Ecological modeling can be applied to town and city planning, as well.
I was recently asked by a neighbor for my input on a City policy around “Sustainability” and the following is slightly adapted version of the letter I responded with. 

More specifically, the request began with the question: 

What are the key physical attributes of “sustainability” for Kzoo? 

From a Permaculture perspective, the key physical attribute of a sustainable Kalamazoo would be systems that:
Care for the earth
Care for people
Respect natural limits

Being more precise and measurable, and very literal, Kalamazoo CANNOT be sustainable without:

1. A food system that creates more soil than it costs, with a “positive energy audit,” meaning it produces more calories than are required for input (in all forms including transport.) Right now, we lose soil each year and spend around 400 calories of energy for each calorie we eat. 

2. Production of more net energy resources (in all forms) than are imported. Right now, Kalamazoo produces virtually 0 energy resources. 

3. More wealth is imported to and created in Kalamazoo than is exported from Kalamazoo. 

4. Repair and regeneration of habitat, wild nature, and with it ecosystem function, which has already been damaged too severely for a “protect what’s left” approach to be sustainable. 

5. More water is infilltrated into deep aquifers than is withdrawn. 

6. More is produced by city residents than consumed.

7. Renewable resources are valued, produced in the city, utilized whenever possible. 

8. A just, and equitable society with meaningful work for everyone, without which, the system doesn’t deserve to be “sustained.” 


However, I’d like to provoke you (the City Planning staff) to go much, much further. Many in the circles of Permaculture, environmentalism and cutting-edge applied ecology  consider “sustainability” an out-dated concept and a poor goal. They say it’s one that we should abandon if not actively oppose and organize against. 

Firstly, “sustainability” is seen as an oxymoron in that it’s something actually intended to prevent the development of sustainable systems. “Sustainable” is flat-lining, at best, but usually it’s far worse, a “goal” of continuous decline and decent, but at a rate slow enough that we can bare it. Taking current systems, which are fundamentally unsustainable, and taking steps towards “sustainability” (the “sustainability” approach) means you never reach a system that is sustainable. 

Sustainability is “Xeno’s Paradox” in another form, where the tortoise who gets “half way” to the finish line each day will never reach the finish line. 

This “sustainability” approach as it is almost universally defined literally means protecting and enshrining the status quo unsustainable ways of meeting our needs. 

It is also by others as being “counter-revolutionary.” From this perspective, it’s only from a position of insulated privilege, where our current abusive systems and institutions are actually still somewhat serving us, that anyone would even want to entertain the idea of “sustaining” the status quo that requires child labor in Asia and war in the Middle East. 

Finally, it fails to inspire action. A “Sustainable Kalamazoo” can trudge on forever into the future, like a dead-end job or a bad marriage, no matter how kindly it relates with its residents, or not. 

“How’s your marriage doing, Bob?” 

“Well my wife said she thought we were “flat-lining” so I think she means it’s becoming more “sustainable.”  Yep, I think we can both survive it indefinitely.” 

Inspired yet? Is that a vision of a marriage you want to work for? 

Instead, let’s envision a “regenerative” Kalamazoo that heals us, revives us, and makes us stronger, wealthier and healthier each year. With systems that make our soil more fertile, our water more pure and our environment more life-enhancing each day. Where each resident can expect a “regenerative” life of growth, health and fulfillment in a healthy, beautiful ecology. 

Dump the “Sustainability Plan.” Let’s not make “flat-lining” our goal. If you’re going to have a goal, aim for the stars, right? Maybe we need a “Revolutionary Plan” for a truly different and better approach to meeting our needs.

A few policies I’d like to see:

A “De-Growth” plan. “Serve fewer better.” No growth is smart growth. 
-Right now much of Kalamazoo’s political leadership is proposing various ways of “growth” as the way to solve budget shortfalls and create a better economy.
-A great deal of evidence suggests S.W. Michigan MAY be in for net population loss in the near future, implying “smart growth” is a zero-sum game where we exploitively compete against other communities to capture population. In addition to being unethical, what if we lose? A prudent plan would AT VERY LEAST acknowledge reality with a contingency for negative growth. 
-Don’t plan for growth as the basis for a functioning economy and a solvent municipal government. Guess what? That’s what every other municipality is doing. Some are going to lose! Why put all our eggs in the growth basket? 
-There is a great deal of evidence that Kalamazoo has too large a population, especially of “imported” professionals. Every unemployed person, and virtually every employed one gives me testimony to that fact each time we talk. 

Embodied Energy and Maintainability as part of our “Sustainability” Definition.“Sustainable Buildings” are almost never as sustainable as those that they replace, especially when accounting considers “embodied energy” of materials. Also, many modern “Maintenance Free” materials cannot be maintained, meaning they are designed for the dump. Let’s stop calling them “sustainable.” 

An “Ergonomic” or “Energy Zones” approach to integrated use and zoning, especially regarding food, work and consumption. This is especially vital around food, as the basic energy unit of a local economy. This would produce the “freshest” foods, which require the greatest number of shipping trips, closest to the places where people live, saving us time, energy and money. Meanwhile, it would put foods that require only minimal intervention and infrequent harvest further out from town. The same thinking can be applied to other resources, not just food. This would have huge environmental and economic benefits. 

A plan to “Activate” the Kzoo electorate. So few people here vote that I personally deny that the municipality has a mandate to so much as pay its own bills, let alone exercise extreme authority like eminent domaine, planning and policing. It should be seen as a disgrace to our “elected” officials to get approval of 8% or less of eligible voters. This ain’t difficult to fix. It’s Polly Sci 101 stuff. But it’s clearly convenient not to. 

Urban Community Coppice agroforestry Lots to sequester carbon and provide low-cost carbon-negative heating fuel (in pelletized form) for FREE to low-income residents, as well as food, improved air quality, healthier ecologies, meaningful work,  etc. That’s right, we can actually heat our homes in a way that is literally “sustainable” for very low cost, producing this energy right here in Kalamazoo, while SEQUESTERING more carbon that we release into the atmosphere. Why would we NOT work on this? 

No More “Community Visioning.” Return of power to the “kitchen table” level. Virtually everyone outside the system considers Kalamazoo’s “Neighborhood Association” system to be utterly broken, over-powered and over-politicized. Too often, Kzoo residents get policy and land use imposed on them by politicians (with virtually no electoral mandate) who have never even stood on their block. Then we ask why people don’t vote? The role of the city should be to support that kitchen-table level and empower people to envision and create their own unique environments. This is in keeping with Christopher Alexander’s pattern of community tapestries. Let this “Tapestry of Communities” be our shared Community Vision, instead.