Taking the ‘Burbs: Square Yard Gardening

December 17, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Ellen LaConte, author of Life Rules: Nature’s Blueprint for Surviving Economic and Environmental Collapse,will be posting a series of essays on her blog that explore the small but cumulative steps we might take toward the conversion of 20th century suburbs into sustainable communities in which post-collapse humans might survive and thrive.  Today’s post is the first in this series.

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Not only are we always starting from the moment we are in, we’re also always starting from the place we’re in. Life’s basic units of economic activity are communities of purpose, partnership and place. It behoves us to remember that on this finite planet, Life rules, we don’t. And Life rules against globalized economies. Archaic bacteria learned that lesson two billion years ago.

And so as we enter, most of us without realizing it, into the early years of the post-carbon and (consequently) post-global/loca-regional age, we will want, or in due course need, to harmonize our economic activities with those of the natural systems within which we live and by which we are provided the goods and services we actually need. The drive to survive will dictate that we create and recreate the human communities in which we live, of whatever scale, along Life’s lines. Our purpose, if we are wise, will be not only to provide for ourselves using what’s available in and to the places we live in and to partner with each other and surrounding communities for that purpose, but also to partner with the other-than-human beings with which we share those places.

It should not be lost on us that the word “place” comes from Greek roots that designated both a broad street or way for humans and also plants and planting of both green things and ourselves.

More than 50 percent of Americans have planted themselves in the suburbs pretty happily despite the fact they’ve got a bad rap as net consumers of goods and services, energy and behaviors we call “neighborliness.” Given the unsustainable passive-consumptive patterns many suburbanites have fallen into, the bad rap is often well deserved. But that’s not the ‘burbs fault. It’s the fault of those of us who live in them. And this has become a matter of importance to me because, after spending most of my adult life homesteading on smallholdings ranging from 10 to 125 acres, I’m now down to just over half an acre in, you guessed it, a suburb. And somehow, that’s ok. Because, if we want to live lives that are more meaningful, mindful, responsible, self-sustaining, organic, hands-on, and healthy, we’ve got to find options even in the ‘burbs. And if we want to help shape a future that will sustain our children and grandchildren unto the next generation, let alone the seventh, we’d best find— and learn — those options. We don’t have to move further out, which for most folks is untenable and for remaining natural communities undesirable. (Though I want to note that the small towns and villages in the middle of America from which Americans are presently fleeing, in search of city incomes, may before very long again become the destination of Americans fleeing cities that cannot support them.) Nor do we have to settle for what seems a bad bargain and then periodically — like around New Years, whether Mayan or Chinese or conventional — feel like we’ve capitulated. Guilt is a bad teacher.

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There’s a third choice; a middle way: we can make where we are as good as it can be. It’s a zen thing: change your attitude and then change your practices. If the ‘burbs as we’ve known them are unsustainable let’s make them more sustainable. If the inhabitants of coral reefs and the edges of forests can do it, so can we.

When we moved to North Carolina twelve years ago we loved the longer spring and fall, the scads of birds, ready access (I can drive or walk less than 1.5 miles to purchase almost anything I might actually need) to the few shops we actually patronize (matronize?), sidewalks for walking in all weathers at all hours, relative ethnic diversity, and more intimate feeling than the open spaces we left.

On the other hand we’d forgotten about the squareness of most suburban house lots. Ours is a sloppy pentagon, but it’s still squared off by fences that belong to the neighbors on four sides and the street out front. Not very Lifelike, fences. We wanted our suburban lot to feel rough and creative around the edges, to feel unfenced. Not messy but less, well, linear. We wanted it to feel more like our place in Maine: productive, participatory, thoughtful, diverse, organic, interesting, at least a little more natural than it was when we bought it and a home for (acceptable) wild things. (While they show up from time to time on their own schedules, coyotes, raccoons and deer are not invited into suburban yards or received happily when they come.) The scale of this project was already right. It required no big equipment or expense. Only the content was wrong.

How to start? With radical biomimicry. Reconceive the squared-off, mower-tamed ocean of grass we’d settled on as a little Earth of slowly expanding continents and drifting islands of flowering and fruiting shrubs, perennial flowers and ground covers, herbs, vegetables, and trees that would camouflage the fences, get rid of grass, provide compost material, and feed us and some family and friends and also feed and provide cover and homes for beleaguered songbirds, bees and butterflies and even the squirrels and chipmunks (The neighborhood’s an old oak forest. Wee sleekit acorn eaters are a given. They may be a meal when the supermarket shelves are empty.) and maybe a remnant frog or turtle or two. We would accept volunteers (aka “weeds”) if they were native, not invasive, and provided cover, deep soil opening roots, beauty or food.

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Purslane, for example, has become our friend (it’s welcome in salads, soups and stir fries, for example) but one whose visits we limit. Six kinds of raptors get our rapt attention, but also some of the mourning doves and young chipmunks. I have to share pole beans with the deer and protect my allergic partner from five or six kinds of bees. Bats have taken up residence and I labor long in spring to prevent maple, ash and oak seedlings from reclaiming my little planet.

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Twelve years in, it’s still a work in progress. That’s Lifelike. There’s still a bit of grass that needs mowing once in a while (city rules trump Life’s rules on occasion), though it’s unfed and mixed with clover the rabbits and bees like. My back doesn’t permit raking the swales and dunes and mountains of leaves the oaks and maples and ash gift our yard with, so they get blown into unnaturally neat compost piles. I use a tiny manta tiller to break clay. But most of the work in the yard gets done by hand or earthworms. Not all of my vegetable seeds and seedlings are heirloom and few are native to North Carolina. I’m still learning how to recognize and work with what wants to grow here and with the relationships plants and animals and insects establish with each other.

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I am learning not just to “take back the ‘burbs” from ways of living that are detrimental to other living things and to the human future, but also to be taken with and taken by my place until I can make both and intelligent and a sympathetic connection with it. I am trying to know myself as a partner in the on-going Creation here in this particular place, despite its being designated a suburb, a lesser city, a location for humans. For there are everywhere in this place tracks, traces, residues and echoes of Life’s patterns and other-than-human beings, that are not obvious, whose frequency can render them familiar, even common, but whose hiddenness makes them precious. Until I recognize myself as part of their place, I will continue to take, however humbly, control “over” them rather than “of” myself.

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So since most of what lives here depends on what happens below ground, I’m still working with the soil, feeding it with mulch and cover crops and compost and sowing it with worms. Leaving the ants who work the soil, opening it ceaselessly to possibility. Red clay is slow to deliver to tender roots its retained moisture in increasingly long periods of drought, but it yields in time and to them.

You have to look for the fences these days. But the neighbors seem to like talking over the flowering vines and butterfly bush and Russian sage and through openings in the privet better than they did over the fences themselves. Everyone’s noticed that the privet is alive with robins, cedar waxwings and bluebirds in January. Locals wear their binoculars and cameras to the fenceline and comment on the annual profit of blue berries accruing to the 40-foot tall hedge that used to get pruned off flat at four feet. The once-formally shaped boxwoods look like huge banks of dark green clouds and serve as the equivalent of apartment buildings for birds. I plant peas in the corner the rabbits seem to hole up in, though that doesn’t always keep them from the peas I want. It’s almost impossible to see the place as square or pentagonal. It just seems sort of unbounded and almost self-creating. Ever emergent and new. That’s Lifelike too.

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Links to the rest of the series:

Day One: It’s the End of the World as we Know it…or is it?  New Society Publishers

Day Two: It’ll all turn out in the end.  Or will it?   Ellen LaConte

Day Three: Collecting Rainwater  Albert Bates

Day Four: Building Awareness of your Surroundings  Eric Brown

Day Five: The Beginning of the Gaian Calendar  Gaia Trust

Day Six: Conversation Skills You Needed Yesterday  Cecile Andrews

Day Seven: Permaculture: How I’m Preparing for a Local Future  Peter Bane

Day Eight: Peak Oil Advice from German Poets  John Michael Greer

Day Nine: Try Something New for a Sunday Night Dinner  John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist

Day Ten: Resiliency: It’s Not Just a Catch Phrase, It’s a Way of Life  Wendy Brown

Day Eleven: On the Eve of the Prophecy, from a Squat in the Woods  Miles Olsen

Day Twelve: A Woman, a Plan and a Canard… Sharon Astyk

Day Thirteen: How to Make Your Own Fence and Gate for Free  Oscar and Karen Wills

Ellen LaConte

Ellen LaConte is a memoirist, former homesteader and editor of Farmstead and ForeFacts magazines, and publisher of Starting Point newsletter. Her widely endorsed new book, Life Rules: Nature’s Blueprint for Surviving Economic and Environmental Collapse was released by New Society Publishers in October 2012. LaConte’s very smallholding in the piedmont bioregion of North Carolina has recently been designated a certified wildlife habitat where, increasingly, Life does rule.

Tags: suburban gardening