Lillie House is a 1-acre Permaculture Homestead in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Here, we work to live well, care for the earth, care for people, and respect natural limits.
The old rules and “road maps” for life just weren’t working for us, in fact, it felt like they were working against us. I’m not sure they actually work for anyone anymore. We’re looking for a better, healthier, more joyful way of living, with more freedom and – most importantly – more peace of mind.
We’re finding it with Permaculture, Forest Gardening, community, and “Restoration.” A sense of place. Meaningful work. We don’t always get it right, but we’ve come a long, long way. “Two steps forward and one step back” gets you further than never taking that first step. And if you’re stylish and clever you can make those steps into a groovy little dance. Maybe get your own internet meme.
We want Lillie House to be a “model site” for real people with real problems and real goals. Our path needs to be “replicable” to as many people as possible. Permaculture for people, not “super heroes.”
So we need to build our lives on a real, live human scale and budget. No scammy funding schemes. No money from heaven. No slave labor. No “blue sky budgets” or big savings accounts. We weren’t funded by a “Kickstarter” campaign or a grant from the Richy Rich Foundation. You won’t see any of the “shiny flashy dazzling” over-sized, over-designed, over-complicated “Permaculture” features that sell books and look impressive on tours, but never pay for themselves in the real world.
If it doesn’t pay for itself, we can’t afford it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t last. If it ain’t for real, it ain’t here.
And each step has to give us LESS WORK, not more, and MORE FREEDOM, not less. We’re no longer willing to work ourselves to death over the “big flashy” stuff – that wouldn’t be “people care” and it wouldn’t be “Permaculture.”
And it has to be fun. Because (as Bill Mollison used to say) “if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.”
The “Home Garden” or “forest garden” is as old as man, probably older, a basic part of the human experience. Some anthropologists are calling it “the oldest human land use” and we’re discovering they were a nearly universal adaptation across continents and cultures.
Our garden is designed to be a beautiful, restorative place, the ultimate home health-food store, our main source of food, medicine and fuel, as well as an important source of income. It’s been planned using tools like One Circle Garden to provide a diverse diet, and give us the security of growing a full-year’s supply of nutritional and caloric needs. It’s a landscape where we feel secure and cared for, where our needs will be met.
And it’s a boon, not a burden. It’s been designed to be maintained by a couple people on just an average of 2-4 hours of work a week, instead of a flock of woofers and under-paid interns toiling long hours.
To accomplish this goal, we’ve discovered a few very successful patterns:
Planning for Success: This is first on our list because it’s the most important advice we ever learned. We didn’t just plant things because we liked them or use our instincts about how many. We didn’t just pack in as many “goodies” as we could.
We researched, found current best practices, a variety of perspectives, and historical models. And then did the math to “right size” our gardens. Our “swales” are sized to catch the right amount of water, no more, no less. We calculated the amount of fruit and produce we wanted to have and created a plant list to meet those goals. Same with bed space, we’ve got exactly what we need, and recognize that any more would be a burden. We respected that the “law of diminishing marginal utility” certainly applies to a garden.
Food Forest Gardens: Notice how nobody ever has to weed or fertilize a natural forest? Food forests are gardens that work with nature, rather than against, and employ plants and other natural allies to do work like weeding, fertilizing, and mulching, so that you don’t have to. They grow a very diverse set of plants in many layers that mimic a natural forest. Food forest gardens can be designed to be extremely low maintenance and yet still very productive.
The Front Yard Jardin de Cure. This is one of the historic traditional “food forest garden” of France. It combines beauty and “neatness” of formal beds with the ease and productivity of “wild plantings.”
Polycultures: Polyculture is an approach of growing many plants together like an ecosystem, as opposed to one crop all alone. We’ve been experimenting heavily with polycultures including the famous Ianto Evans Polyculture and “guilds” of companion plants that work together like a team.
Ecological Modeling: We’ve studied productive wild plant systems in the area and copied their spacing and species distribution. These systems are highly productive with no human interference. We want our garden to work like that.
Edible Hedgerows: Another ancient form of “forest garden.” Ours are designed like some historic models from Europe.
Espalier, Edible Fence: Fruit trees can be trained to make an edible fence. The trees are more productive, healthier and grow slower so they require less maintenance.
No-Dig Gardens: Digging or “tilling” the soil destroys soil diversity, fertility and health. It wastes energy. It’s also a bummer. Who wants to work that hard? Most of our gardens have never been dug. Those that have were dug only one time.
Accessible Design: We use a system of permanent paths and “work places” that are “right sized” to maximize productivity and minimize maintenance. Permanent paths mean we never have to dig our no-dig beds, because we’re not compacting the soil.
Redundant Water Wise Systems: We’ve planned our garden with a multi-layered strategy for being water wise. We’ve got swales and passive swales, and natural water-collection reservoirs to catch and store water where our plants can use it. We have a few “Hugelkulture beds,” though the “jury’s still out” on whether they’re worth the work. A better approach is an engineered system of mulching and plant spacings to minimize water use. We’re building good soils, which hold water naturally. And we’ve even got things like rain barrels and soaker hoses, but with the other systems, we usually don’t end up even putting them out! If you need those complicated systems, you got the design wrong.
A Diverse Plant Collection: This is one of the keys of garden utility, ease of maintenance, beauty and health. Diversity has been found to increase the health of ecosystems and individual plants, and it works in gardens as much as wild-lands. We’re nearing 300 species of useful, edible, medicinal plants. That also enhances OUR health by providing a very diverse set of nutrients and phytochemical.
An Emerging “Coppice and Standard” lot: Coppice lots are a traditional land use that provides great wildlife habitat, a variety of harvests and wood for crafts and fuel in a way that is not just carbon-neutral, but carbon negative, sequestering more carbon in the earth than is released through burning.
Winter Gardens: Greenhouses and hoophouses maybe necessary, but for most people they are costly, difficult to maintain, and a pain to irrigate and grow in. We’re collecting a variety of “greens” that are available even in Michigan’s cold climate winter without any protection other than snow cover. Meanwhile, we’ll be converting our attached porches into more permanent and easier-to-maintain winter growing space.
Simple Composting Systems: Nothing expensive. just worm farms, trench composing, sheet composting, mushroom composting, rabbit litter, “chop and drop” composting in place, and a good old fashioned “hot” pile. There are many ways to turn waste into “black gold.” The more you use, the easier things will be. The simpler, the better.
Water Garden Systems. We’re just starting to work on these. Aquatic systems are among the most productive. Water Gardens put that fact to work for us. They’re purdy, too.
Lillie House is an 1840s Victorian house on a “less-than one acre” site in Kalamazoo’s urban core.
We focus on a “restoration” rather than “renovation” approach to maintaining our home, because we appreciate the “embodied energy” and evolved functionality and beauty of old homes. We’re not convinced that modern “high energy” disposable materials that were “designed for the dump” are somehow “better” than hand-made materials that are almost endlessly maintainable.
We work with natural materials when possible and “repair instead of replace” durable assets like our steel gutters, antique windows, antique sinks, heritage floors, plaster walls, and so on.
We’re “formalizing” an informal “energy action plan” that starts with being conscientious and investing in the Highest Return on Investment items first, to save us money and help us pay for more energy investments. Positive feedback loops are even better than Fruit Loops, which are a delicious part of a balanced breakfast.
Already Lillie House is pretty consistently in the top 10% most energy efficient homes in the city.
We’re a “community-based business” that focuses on products, tools and programs that grow the health, happiness and freedom of our community members by allowing them to “catch and store” life-enhancing energies through good design, and accumulate real wealth in assets like “food forest gardens,” “home health-food gardens,” edible hedgerows, and efficient home features. We want to help you turn your home and landscape into a great support system to meet your needs, as well as your own personal “dream vacation” resort.
We also grow food, valuable plants, medicinal herbs, fiber and fuel. We make a variety of products from what we grow and forage. We share our knowledge and experience with design, Permaculture, wildcrafting, restoration and Forest Gardening. We organize events to build community and share knowledge. We work to restore the “gift economy” when we can, by giving freely from a spirit of abundance.
We enjoy connecting with people sharing our work, dreams and goals. The more connections we make, the stronger and more resilient we become.