There’s no such thing as too many gardens.

June 12, 2012 at 4:49 am (Eleanor, environment, Gardening, Other, parenting, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve been saying for the last month and a half that perhaps I’ve over-extended myself with all the gardens I’ve been involved with lately, but they’re all so dear to me, that I can’t possibly think about not participating in one of them.  Closest to home and to my heart is my own backyard garden, where despite the slugs eating all the seeds I’ve tried to start outdoors, I’ve enjoyed lots of greenhouse-grown spinach and lettuce salads, the asparagus has finally sprung forth, the apples are the size of quarters, the flowering kale is 7 feet tall, and the sage is ablaze with purple flowers.

woven wood bean trellis in my home garden

The Family Center where I take my son for a children’s play group finally received a plot in the community garden next-door and, knowing that I am a gardener and student of permaculture, the newly-formed gardening group asked me to come and help out with garden planning and seed starting.  It was a fun morning and I think I even blew a few minds with my explanation of “weeds” as helpers and indicator species.  For example, when asked what to do about dandelions in the garden, I pointed out that, not only are all parts of the plant useful in a myriad of ways as food or medicine, but that the plant itself plays a vital role in rehabilitating worn and compacted soil by reaching deep down with its thick tap root and drawing up water and nutrients that are out of reach of other plants.  After reflecting on this, most members of the gardening group were “wowed” by this new perspective on a plant which has undeservedly earned the ire of gardeners all over.

garden art by landed learning students

Also, I was involved in helping plan the 10-year Reunion of the Intergenerational Landed Learning Learning Project at UBC Farm.  This is the third year that I’ve been involved in the project, so I volunteered to run an activity booth to share with others my passion for permaculture.

activity booth set-up

I worked very hard over the last couple months working on a card game aimed at educating people about the myriad connections between elements of natural and man-made landscapes.  I created a deck of fifty-two cards (and counting…), each one featuring a different element (for example: chicken, human, bathtub, rain) with their inputs and yields listed on the back.  As with dominoes, game play involves laying one of your cards down next to one that’s already been played, but it has to link up–that is, where a connection of resource use or energy flow can be made, or, where the output of one card serves the needs of the other.

permaculture card game

It’s more of an educational toy than a winner-takes-all game, but I think it’s a fun way to illustrate the interconnectedness of man-made systems with those of the natural world.  How well the point came across, I don’t really know, but I do know that people had fun thinking outside the box.  More than one participant caught on to the fact that all the excess heat and steam produced by taking a shower or using a clothes dryer could, with good design, be directed for secondary use to heat a greenhouse, for example, instead of simply being released into the atmosphere.  This is exactly what I wanted people to get out of the game: an understanding that thinking differently about how we design our homes and lay out our neighborhoods and cities, we can create landscapes that both serve the needs of humans and reduce energy and resource consumption.

I have learned so much myself from my involvement with Landed Learning, but I’ve also gained an incredible sense of confidence and pleasure in my role as a mentor and educator, which brings me to my third garden engagement, the Children’s Garden at Charles Dickens Annex.  My daughter started kindergarten this year at this wonderful little neighborhood school.  It’s K-3 and very small, which we like a lot, but the garden, which was established over 30 years ago, has experienced an unfortunately high variability in maintenance and parent involvement over the years.  I’d like to change that by tailoring some of what I’ve learned through my involvement with the Landed Learning Project to working with the younger kids of Charles Dickens Annex.  This year, we have a group of at least 6 parents dedicated to cleaning up the garden and getting the kids from all six classes involved in planting the garden.

At the beginning of the spring, the school owned no seeds, tools, or gloves to even get started in the garden, so one of the parent volunteers who writes for a living submitted a very well-written and thoughtful application for a Small Neighborhoods Grant that will supply the funds for these items as well as pay for someone from the Environmental Youth Alliance to visit our school and speak with the kids about bees and the importance of their role as pollinators.

We’ve had two garden clean-up parties so far, at which we transplanted the blueberry bushes, and prepared the raised beds for planting by weeding and adding compost to them.  There are two mature apple trees in the back of the garden from which the children harvested fruit in the fall to make apple pie for their Thanksgiving celebration lunch.  The trees, however, were quite overgrown, making it difficult for people, even little people, to move around them.  I made it my project to prune these trees during the garden clean-ups and, although it was a bit late in the year to prune fruit trees and we did lose a lot of the flowers, the trees are now producing a lot of fruit and look much better.  I think the increased air flow and light that will penetrate through the branches will help keep these trees healthy for a long time to come.

annex kids started pea seeds on classroom windowsills

We’ve also submitted a grant application to the Vancouver Greenest City Fund to supply the school with funds for some additional projects.  For starters, we need to build a new composting system.  At this point, there is no flow to the compost system; new organic material is simply added willy-nilly to one of four separate black compost bins and the result is a big mess.  Composting is an important part of organic gardening, as it completes the cycle of nutrient flow, returning to the soil what has been removed.  But, if we’re going to educate kids and participating parents, we need to do it properly so that it results in a nutrient-rich compost that is safe and effective, not smelly and harboring potentially dangerous pathogens.  So, we’re asking for materials to build a single three-bin composting system with clearly-labelled compartments for adding new material, turning in-process material, and completed compost.  We’ll add labels with instructions on what can and cannot be composted in a small backyard system.  Additionally, our grant application requests funds for rebuilding the raised garden beds, as some of them are starting to rot and they’re all quite low to the ground, which makes them inaccessible to students that use wheelchairs and walkers.  The paths through the garden are also prohibitively narrow for children who use mobility devices so it would be nice to redesign the layout of the beds to accommodate those students.

Another project I’ve been brainstorming for the Annex is the creation of a food forest play space on the back side of the school.  The idea came to me when I observed my daughter and her friends playing under the overgrown bushes.  They had formed a club called the “Nature Nuts” and were hiding out in their “clubhouse.”  It brought to mind a book I read a while back: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit-Disorder, in which author Richard Louv argues that urban children suffer from a lack of natural spaces in which to play freely and imaginatively.

Looking around the grounds of my daughter’s school, I notice exactly what Louv describes: fancy modern (and no doubt expensive) play equipment that offers a limited array of ways to play and a large grassy field ringed by some nice shade trees.  There’s no denying that the latter affords ample space for running around, playing sports, and having picnics, and the former aids children’s development of skills and coordination, but neither offers much for the imagination.  By contrast, natural spaces with varied topographies, trees for climbing and swinging from, overgrown bushes to hide in and around–these allow children to escape to other worlds and play anything they want.

I realize many parents feel that it is unsafe for a child to be out of sight in a public place because there are bad people in the world and tragic things have happened to children in places where they should have been safe, like on school grounds.  That being said, children shouldn’t be denied a connection to nature because their parents have been fed a dose of media-hyped paranoia about child predators.  And maybe, just maybe, access to nature for all members of society can have a humanizing effect and engender more sensitivity and compassion in all people.


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Permaculture Explained

February 26, 2012 at 7:39 am (permaculture) (, )

The following quotes by Bill Mollison, co-developer with David Holmgren of the central ideas of permaculture, should help to unpack the meaning of the word Permaculture.  Afterall, it has come to mean so many things to so many people, it can be hard to pin down a concrete definition.

“The overall aim of permaculture design is to produce an efficient low-maintenance productive integration of plants, animals, structures & man; with the ultimate result of on-site stability & food self-sufficiency in the smallest practical area.”

“Permaculture is the study of the design of those sustainable or enduring systems that support human society, both agricultural & intellectual, traditional & scientific, architectural, financial & legal. It is the study of integrated systems, for the purpose of better design & application of such systems”

“Permaculture Design is not the rain, the roof, or the garden. Permaculture Design is the connections between these things.  Permaculture brings cohesion where there was once isolation.”


The following quote, by Alison Peck, who teaches high-altitude Permaculture in Colorado, says it all:

“Permaculture gains its name from the dream of a permanent, sustainable agriculture & culture. Permaculture expands edible landscaping to consider all of the elements that are part of a natural self-sustaining landscape. […] Permaculture works with natural forces to create productive landscapes rather than forcing production with inputs of energy & chemicals. The elements, the earth, plants & animals, are woven into a complex, balanced landscape providing good shelter, energy & more. A permaculture can be created in a back yard or with many acres; it can range from a minimum maintenance condominium planting to a productive farm. A carefully created permacultural landscape requires no more intervention to be healthy & productive than a mountain meadow needs weeding or watering.”


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Hugel What?

February 13, 2012 at 6:46 am (DIY, Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , )

Hugelkultur…as in raised garden beds built, mound-like, of bramble and soil.

I’m expanding the garden once again with the addition of a hugelkultur raised bed on the rear of our property.  The project was inspired by and decided upon within an hour of finishing reading Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture, in which Holzer describes a method for establishing new and long-lasting garden beds by simply piling up raw materials and covering them over with soil.  Hugel is German for hill, or mound.

The inner-most ingredient in a Hugel bed is wood–branches and trimmings from the yard, old lumber if it isn’t treated or painted with lead, even entire fallen trees for a really long bed.  By design, the wood, as it decomposes in the center of the mound, should become like a sponge and hold a resevoir of water which plant roots can tap into and feed from.  The largest wood goes in the center, followed by smaller branches and brambles.  I didn’t happen to have any fallen trees at hand, just a sad Christmas tree the city kept missing on collection day and a fifty-year-old carpet that had sat outside in the rain for a year, molding and falling apart.  Into the Hugel bed they went.

Carpet and rotting wood form the foundation of the Hugelkultur garden addition.

The middle layer of the bed can be made of whatever organic materials are on hand… anything biodegradable, really.  I would put coarser materials on first, like straw and leaves; then finer, nutritive materials like manure and/or compost.  The latter will provide immediate fertility to initial plantings, while the longer break-down time of the former will ensure continued fertility and soil tilth.

Finally–and I’m not even to this step yet–the bed should be covered with topsoil and planted into immediately.  As plants get established and start growing, sending down their roots, the layers of the bed will be woven together so that the whole thing holds.  Mulching between plants will also help retain soil and water.  Alternately, you could sow the whole bed with a “green manure” cover crop like clover, vetch, or lupins which would hold the soil in place and fix nitrogen in preparation for planting a heavy-feeding crop like corn on the new hugel bed.

I think my new Holzer-inspired hugel bed will be planted with clover and lupins initially and, later, with sunflowers, peas, beans, squash, some heat-loving herbs, and the tayberry (which will be trained against the wall of the neighbor’s garage).  When completed, my hugel bed won’t be nearly as high as Holzer makes his, but with the addition of a trellis along its ridge for the vining plants to grow up, I think it will do double duty as a privacy screen blocking the view from the lane behind our property.  I’ll post more pics as it comes together over the next few weekends.

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Permaculture Diploma Class Winter Solstice Meeting

December 18, 2011 at 12:41 am (goings-on, permaculture) (, , , , , , , )

I know, the actual solstice hasn’t occurred yet, but the group only meets once a season and we try to do it as close to the solstices and equinoxes as possible.  Last weekend’s meet-up took place in the city, for a change.  Previously, we’ve met up at Rolling Earth Farm and the Heart Gardens in Roberts Creek and Elphinstone Provincial Park–all on the beautiful Sunshine Coast.  I didn’t make it to the second class because the June 26th meeting was too close to Henry’s due date and I sure as heck didn’t want to be in labor on the ferry back to Vancouver.  I did, however, take two-month-old Henry to the third meet-up, which was also on the Sunshine Coast.  I couldn’t leave him for a whole day because he was exclusively breastfeeding at the time and wouldn’t take a bottle, even if I had been able to pump enough milk for the day.  He was a dream–he slept every time we got in the car to caravan to the next location; he slept snuggled up to me in the wrap as we tromped through the forest; he nursed discreetly in the sling while I hiked down a cliff; and he was very pleasant for the short time that he was awake when we stopped at Delvin’s to view a permaculture video.  I never thought taking a baby on a trek like that would go so smoothly!

Anyway, last weekend’s meet-up took place in Vancouver.  First on the agenda, we met at Strathcona Community Garden, which is one of the oldest in the city.  It is quite large, sprawling in a delightfully ad-hoc manner, and boasts a mature espaliered apple orchard consisting of several dozen dwarf heritage varieties.  While there, a couple of us shared with the group on the progress of our mapping projects.  Mine were very well-received.  I think my architectural background shows in the readability and quality of detail of my base map and sector diagrams.  The mapping component of this course is an exercise to get the designer thinking about the different properties of a landscape–sun and shade; wind and water flow; circulation of people and animals in the space; and, in the case of an ultra-urban environment like mine, sources of noise, litter, and pollution.  Understanding how these affect the landscape helps the designer know how to mitigate negative effects and use available energy and resources wisely.

Our next stop was the Purple Thistle Center in East Van.  They’re a non-profit, youth-run center for arts and activism.  After checking out their guerrilla garden across the street, we went inside to get warm, had some snacks, and did a design exercise focusing on the suburban environment that most North Americans have inherited.  Environmentalists like to blame the suburbs and the extensive sprawling network of roads they necessitate for the twin  problems of traffic and greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention millions of collective man-hours wasted every year by people sitting in traffic).  It’s been said that the suburbs kill culture and art and community… But, maybe it’s time for a re-visioning.  Maybe the suburbs aren’t so bad in themselves, if people would or could stick around during the day and create a community, by bringing in businesses and shops, by encouraging home business and start-ups–ways of working that don’t entail an hour drive into the city.

One thing suburbs have going for them is lots of fairly cheap land that could be used for food production.  Let’s face it: farming isn’t exactly a lucrative enterprise and land for urban farms and community gardens is constantly under pressure from the urban real estate market and property development.  Until society chooses to value wholesome agriculture and uphold its place in our communities, farming will by and large continue to be relegated to the cheapest, most marginal lands further and further out from the center of human culture… as if agriculture can be divorced from culture.  Besides encouraging the conversion of every lawn to food-producing gardens, other ideas we came up with for “greening” the suburbs included: creating pocket markets for the swapping of goods, crafts, or produce between neighbors; weekly or monthly street closures for music and arts festivals to bring people out into the streets; creating community kitchens; using permeable surfaces for parking to increase rainwater absorption and mitigate flooding by run-off; using old rail-road rights-of-way for walking and biking paths; adding bike racks; getting schools involved in gardening; planting fruit and nut trees in the boulevards; reforesting vacant land; painting traffic-calming street mandalas a la Portland; creating space in local strip malls for a local-only store, micro-loan credit union, and co-operative where residents can rent space.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but you can see from this list alone how many low-hanging fruits there are to start greening the suburban landscape.

While the class went back to Cottonwood Community Garden to compare it’s permaculturally master-planned lay-out with the more organic (no pun intended) flow of Strathcona Garden, I had to rush home to nurse Henry down for a nap.  I got back just in time to caravan to the next location, SOLEfood Farm on the Downtown Eastside where our lovely hostess, Sara Dent, runs an urban PDC course.  A group affiliated with the organization United We Can started this inner-city farm in 2009 on property leased from the Astoria Hotel next door.  It consists of dozens of long and narrow raised beds on an old parking lot. 

Despite consulting a landscape architect on the lay-out, they have significant drainage problems–proof that even the pros are sometimes still learning as they go.  The gardens looked somewhat dreary on a cold almost-winter day; everything was covered in plastic hoop houses, so not a lot of color until you peek underneath and see beautiful stands of collards and rainbow chard.

The greenhouses they use for growing tomatoes in the summer were chock full of seedling trays yielding an abundance of salad greens.  Throughout the fall and winter, they’re still seeding something every single week!  What a goal to set in my own garden!

Once the sun set, it started getting really cold, so we wrapped up the day with a tea and snack at Organic Lives, a vegan raw-food cafe and store at Quebec and 2nd Ave.  The food looked great, if a bit pricey.  But, hey, you get what you pay for, right?  It’s not easy finding places to dine out that are in keeping with the ethics of permaculture.  Two thumbs up!

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Getting Started With Permaculture

November 29, 2011 at 6:24 am (permaculture) (, )

So, I’m taking this advanced permaculture diploma course.  The first meeting was last March (2011); meetings are held each season as close to solstices and equinoxes as possible.  There are readings to keep up with, but mostly the work is self-directed.  At the end of two and a half years (ten meetings covering three full growing seasons), each student will submit a condensed version of their progress journal, including maps and pictures, to one of the international permaculture accrediting organizations.

As a record-keeping component of the course, I was thinking of starting a new blog–one devoted entirely to permaculture projects and the progress I make over the two and a half years of the course in converting my property into an urban mini-farm producing food year-round.  In the end, I’ve decided to stick with Rain Rain Go Away because there really is no better name for a Vancouver-based gardening blog.

Of course, there is more to permaculture than gardening, but gardening is a large part of what we do.  But, gardening to a practitioner of permaculture doesn’t just mean planting out the same old annuals season after season.  What we’re after is a perennial “forest garden” comprised of layers of edible and medicinal plants.  We go heavy on native species because their adaptation to a given climate makes them easy to maintain with what water, energy, and nutrients are already available in the landscape.  Permaculture is about making conscious design decisions–frequently in imitation of natural processes (bio-mimicry)–that economize our use of locally available energy and resources and minimize (or, ideally, eliminate) the need for external inputs of all kinds.

As designers, we are always asking ourselves, “How would Nature accomplish this?”  Say I want to create a new bed for edible plants where currently there is a lawn.  I could do the back-breaking work of digging out the grass, removing vital soil and nutrients in the process.  Or, I could “sheet mulch” the area where I want the new bed, saving myself a lot of time and wasted effort.  To do this, you simply lay sheets of cardboard directly onto the lawn to keep weeds and grass from coming up through your new bed, then cover with layers of compost, manure, soil, and leaves.  Over time, the layers settle and the natural process of decomposition by bugs and worms incorporates your former lawn into your new garden bed without you having to dig it out.  As in Nature, energy isn’t wasted on a task that will take care of itself given time.

Sheet mulching isn’t rocket science; you use what you have on hand.  When I sheet mulched half my lawn to double the size of my veggie garden, I used brown paper lawn bags, out-of-date road maps, and some nasty old carpet padding of mostly natural fibers.  I had just moved to a new property (new to me, that is) so I didn’t have compost hanging around from the previous season and leaves and manure are either scarce or problematic to acquire without a vehicle, so I ended up ordering a truckload of compost/garden soil blend delivered to my house.  I consider it a very worthwhile, albeit expensive, one-time external input to get me started on the road to creating my urban mini-farm.

One of the basic tenets of permaculture is “obtain a yield.”  There are definitely things I’d like to change about the layout of the garden addition, things I think I didn’t get quite right this first year and will try to address before a major plant-out next spring.  But, in the end, I can’t complain about the harvest: several rows of perfectly straight carrots; thick bunches of arugula and chard; pounds and pounds of zucchini; prolific cherry tomatoes; soy beans enough for two plates of edamame; three types of beans for snapping and drying, and the best-tasting cucumbers I’ve ever had.  There were even sunflowers and millet for the birds!

Sheet mulching the garden addition was just the beginning.  In subsequent posts, I’ll be expanding on other projects we tackled this year just to get up and growing, including the seed-starting set-up, the greenhouse rebuild, and messy experiments in canning to preserve the harvest!

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