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Review: Paradise Lot

What is it with Permaculture these days? How has this one-time marginal and conspicuously misunderstood movement (a movement that was, not too long ago, almost exclusively associated with well-intentioned but sometimes naive hippie back-to-the-landers) become the conceptual sine qua non for modern environmentalism?

In case you think I am overstating the point: design thinking, whole-systems analysis, resilience planning, pattern languages, biomimicry, local food systems, agroecology, urban farming, rooftop gardening, green infrastructure, water catchment, carbon sequestration, bioremediation, distributed innovation, appropriate technology, community finance, peer-to-peer and distributed manufacturing -- all of these increasingly-familiar concepts and movements have been embedded within permaculture since it’s early development in Australia in the 1970s and 80s--at time when almost no one else was talking about them. Even if you haven’t heard of permaculture, you are probably aware of at least some of its impacts.

At the heart of the movement has been the small-scale, intensive garden-farm, which practitioners see as both the ideal setting to develop and present permaculture design principals, as well as a real, practical response to ecological challenges and economic insecurity. Using permaculture techniques, even very small lots can become highly productive, allowing households and communities in suburban and urban areas to become much more self-reliant for basic needs with a minimum of labor. I believe it is the appeal and promise of the garden-farm that has been the main driver for permaculture’s spread; there is something deeply attractive and empowering these days about the idea that with the right mix of plants and techniques one can provide a good measure of food for oneself and family on a small scale.

In practice, such self-reliance can be harder than permaculture experts sometimes make it sound (I write from experience). This is where Eric Toensmeier’s Paradise Lot comes in. Anyone who finds him or herself discouraged in their permaculture garden efforts should take heart and read this book.

before_after_eric_toensmeier_2004
Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates' yard when they bought their house in 2004. Source: Permaculture Research Institute.

Toensmeier is one of the heroes of the modern permaculture movement in North America. As the junior co-author of Dave Jacke’s mammoth and game-changing Edible Forest Gardens, and later as the author of Perennial Vegetables, Toensmeier established himself as the guy who was willing to take on the long, grinding research into edible, temperate climate perennial plants that will ultimately be necessary if we are to create low-input, self-managing food systems that don’t destroy soil on an annual basis.

before_after_eric_toensmeier_2011
Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates' yard in 2011. Source: Permaculture Research Institute.

Unlike his previous books, though, Paradise Lot is not a reference, or dense guide to theory and design. Instead, it tells the story, as the subtitle suggests, of how two “plant geeks” turned one-tenth of an acre into an “edible garden oasis in the city.” The process becomes a kind of nerdy adventure tale (not to mention the sweet love-story sub-plot).

The book begins with Toensmeier and his friend and fellow permaculture designer Jonathan Bates (who contributes his own perspective in a number of passages in the book)  starting (and failing to make money at) a perennial seed company in rural Western Massachusetts. When it became clear they would need jobs, the two friends began looking for property in the city.

The reasons were as logical and human as they come--they wanted to meet people, specifically women. They also believed that for various reasons--proximity to services, public transportation--urban life was more sustainable than rural. In 2004 they ended up buying a small duplex with a 1-10th acre lot in a heavily immigrant and working-class section of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Within a few years, each had achieved one of their major goals of finding love; now instead of just two friends they were two couples sharing a duplex and permaculture garden.

At this point, Toensmeier was already making a name for himself through teaching and publishing about permaculture. The fact that he was already a well-known permaculture expert makes his honesty about early doubts and mis-steps in developing the property’s food-producing potential all the more courageous and inspiring.

“The first year, (and for a few years thereafter) the tallest plants in our backyard were annuals--something of an embarrassment for a guy who writes books about perennial edible forest gardens and sets out to prove their potential.” He describes struggling against weeds, numerous plants dying, the rampant spread and takeover of others and the challenges of integrating nitrogen-fixers while leaving enough room for the edible understory that was, after all, supposed to be one of the great garden-design innovations of permaculture. And all of this was happening after he had finished Edible Forest Gardens.

This process -- making mistakes, putting things in, taking things out--is, for better or worse, an unavoidable part of establishing a multifunctional garden. From my own experience I can say that one of the most challenging things about the permaculture approach is that it can take years for major crops to begin producing; in the meantime, low yields, slow progress and delays can make one question the validity of the whole enterprise. After all, if it took permaculture expert Eric Toensmeier years to get established, what hope do the rest of us have?

And yet, throughout the process, Toensmeier and Bates project courage, perseverance and most importantly, a cheerful, child-like attitude that allows them to take setbacks in stride and less-successful design choices as important learning experiences.

As a result, by the end of the book, Toensmeier writes, “looking back, I find it almost scary to see how closely Jonathan and I were able to achieve our goals . . . while a lot of individual experiments have failed, overall there is no doubt in my mind that cold-climate forest gardening is a model that can work.” In one of his contributions, Bates says that keeping track in 2010, he estimated for the four residents the garden produced 400 pounds of food in a six month season, which included a startling variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs from chickens. Not bad considering what they had to work with going in.

Toensmeier concludes the book with a reflection on what would happen if gardens like his became widespread. He is honest about the fact that it’s not possible to produce all food four people eat on the land they have available, though they came close to providing for all of their fresh produce and some protein to boot. But Holyoke is a relatively small city (population 40,000)--it’s not that hard to imagine it producing much of its own food sustainably, supplemented with grain, beans, meat and diary from a ring of nearby farms, as Toensmeier suggests.

The most moving part of the book comes at the very end, when Bates and Toensmeier reflect on the possibility of leaving their little piece of paradise. After the work and love put in, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the possibility they might just leave; permaculture is, after all, all about achieving a kind of permanence in life and culture that is absent in our current unstable and unsettling society. And yet, one senses that the almost Zen quality of non-attachment the two friends have toward their work is the very thing that allowed it to flourish and bloom. That, in the end, is perhaps the most important lesson of the book.

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