Sunday, June 25, 2006


Permaculture--where Lansing must go

This is from some friends in the Pacific NW (near Bellingham, WA, pretty far up toward the Canadian border). Although this area has more folks, we also have a richer growing season (and colder winters!). This report about permaculture installations in the Northwest is inspiring.

This is what Lansing will need to do--all this stupid grass has to go, to be replaced with edible crops, and we all need to learn to put food by again. Michigan as a whole is blessed with a great climate for growing a great abundance and variety of things. What we need is to be teaching Michigan kids useful skills in schools---like how to grow food, and how to preserve it---so that they can live independently of oil supplies.

Here's the report on permaculture:

This week on Thursday I wangled a visit to a local Bellingham permaculture home. The guy was a younger person, friend of someone I know at the college, and he agreed to show my friend and me around the place after he got done with work.

He bought an old small house 8 years ago, and it had the usual gravel drive and grassy lawn, just like most of the neighbors still have---totally boring American landscape needing constant mowing and trimming to fit into the surroundings.

Not this guy's place - it was a jungle on a nice-sized city lot. The grass in the pathways he simply tramples down as he walks through. The rest is raised beds with perennials or re-seeded plants. Surrounding is fruit and nut trees, with berry bushes underneath - with no spacing between, totally thick and very productive. Probably dozens of species of plants.

He has very little of the standard high-maintenance veggie garden---stuff just grows each year and he harvests and pulls out invasive weeds and occasionally makes changes to an area. I liked his model for how to replace grassy areas with food in a city lot. He even has chickens in an enclosure with lots of trees and shrubs - and they absolutely control weeds on the ground around the plants. He still has to feed them. When he bought the place, no birds at all---now it's a little bird haven surrounded by human devastation (lawns, driveways, and streets).

On Friday, we visited another permaculture site on a much larger scale---10 acres plus. The Bullock brothers bought 10 acres of forest (doug fir, cedar) on Orcas Island back around 1980---they had studied permaculture with Bill Mollison and Holmgren and came from Hawaii.

At the lower boundary of their property was an old valley swamp without the water. Somehow they re-flooded the swamp as their first action and it's still a productive bog with permanent water. Then they took out forest trees in a scalloped pattern in the lower half of the property to
develop as a food-growing and nursery area, adjacent to the swamp. They built structures on the upper ridge, probably 100 feet above the swamp.

At the mid-levels, above the intensive growing area, is where interns (maybe a dozen?) live and work. The interns pay something like $100 a month to stay there and work under guidance (aka slaves, but with the twist that the slaves want to be there and pay for it and have freedom
to experiment).

Spotted around the property are 10 composting toilets, very crudely built with locally available materials - but highly effective. The little outhouse structures have handles on them, and when needed they pick them up and move them on, leaving the composted waste in situ. That's then a great place to put a new tree.

Water management is where they've put in a lot of work - solar PV cells (used, previously fried, very cheap, still working fine) drive DC pumps that move water from the swamp area to holding tanks up the ridge, which then gravity (& also other-pump-pressurized) feeds the highly complex watering system. Orcas gets half the precip that B'ham does, and they have a south -west facing slope that makes it quite warm, even hot when we were there.

They have numerous greenhouses without active controls for propagating plants and have some semi-tropical varieties in the warmer spots. They have fruit/berry bushes from all over the world, plus some they've managed to invent. For fruit trees, they have a system of keeping grass away and nutrients in by planting day lilies right near the tree, then a ring of comfrey in about a 6-8 foot circle around the tree. The lilies and comfrey come up each year on their own and bring nutrients to the surface, and the dead comfrey is mulch to keep out the grass. Very low maintenance and good for the tree.

We're gonna do that very soon this summer with our fruit and nut trees. I also want to learn to graft like Doug (tour guide) Bullock does so we can grow different varieties of fruit on tree-stock that has good roots but is presently non-productive---he's done that on many, many trees at
the site. I'm also going to be propagating the bushes like mad and make the areas I'm developing bush factories galore to help keep down grass and make food. Gooseberries, currant (big on them), aronia, sea buckthorn, goumi, thornless blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and so on.

The only animals are chickens, which they use for eggs and as chook tractors (chickens in a movable cylindrically-shaped cage---they totally eliminate weeds wherever the cage is) and ducks that they use for slug patrol during the non-growing season (I don't know where they go in the spring - didn't see them). Also didn't see any slugs or mosquitoes, amazing enough for this area.

They are now developing another 8 acres of leased land adjacent to theirs. It was hard to figure out the business model - I think the interns are one source of income, and the nursery another---they sell plants you just can't get anywhere else in No. America. They also sell design/ development services in other countries---Nicaragua was one that kept popping up in conversation. . . .

The next step up in complexity for permaculture is likely the top level---applying permaculture philosophy to a town or region such as a county. Unfortunately, there is no model for that to my knowledge. Some wannabes (S.F., Portland, ...) just starting down the road, yeah, but nothing in place. It may be possible for a town like Bellingham (a little over 100,000 folks) that's still not totally packed with people---but we're infilling as fast as possible still and housing prices are way beyond reasonable now & probably not sustainable.

Bellingham is perhaps small enough that, if we can preserve the good growing land surrounding the city, enough food might be grown there to support the town and be close enough to the population to get it to them even after oil shortages become endemic.

The city will also need to educate people on the model of the first place I visited so as many as possible grow as much of their own food as possible and have some joy in the process of doing it. That would inevitably stimulate much better neighborhood relationships as people learn to know each other and share ideas that work well. My big question is whether the city, or any city, can get through that multi-decade process peacefully enough to actually survive. If we start right now, possibly. If we wait until the actual gasoline shortages hit and prices skyrocket, perhaps not. I fear we'll soon find out what lengths people will go to (even neighbors) when the feeling of panic occurs when we can't afford to buy (or cannot even find in stores) the food we need.

I have no idea how society will survive on the larger, more dense scale of cities with millions of people; how can Japan feed the inhabitants of Tokyo without oil to grow and deliver food to their 37 million mouths?

Here's a link to the Bullock bro. farm website so you can read a bit about permaculture and see some photos of their stuff:

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?