All posts by Matt Power

About Matt Power

A member of the Resilience Hub Board, Matt is an environmental journalist, videographer and dedicated gardener. A founding member of the Tiny House Industry Association, he is Editor-In-Chief of Green Builder magazine. He lives and works in Portland.

Hail to the 1 Percent

Are we Sheeple, or people?

You may not know that the Resilience Hub (aka Portland Permaculture Group) is one of the largest meetup organizations in Maine. With 2,933 members, the only group I could find that’s larger is an “outdoor adventures” group.

Which brings me to our current effort to raise money to keep the Resilience Hub alive. So far, 34 members have donated. That’s 1.15 percent of our membership. We’re extremely grateful to have this tiny, but loyal group willing to show their support in a real way, but it’s a pretty shocking statistic.

Think about some non-necessity you spent $5 bucks on this week (I know, it’s hard to think of anything that inexpensive). Perhaps a mocha latte, or a bottle of wine, or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Now imagine instead that you had taken 5 minutes to send that $5 to the Resilience Hub online.

It 2,933 members did this, we would raise almost the entire $15,000 fundraising goal set by the Hub!

And instead of empty calories, what would you get for your money?

How about hundreds of like-minded friends, access to instant garden and herb expertise, kombucha-making workshops, pruning workshops, grafting workshops, mushroom-growing workshops, permaculture design courses, and a path that puts people first, not corporations.

The billionaire Koch brothers—the other 1 percent, spend hundreds of millions of dollars underwriting their bleak vision of our future: exploitation of ecosystems, dismantling what little affordable healthcare we still have, and tearing up protections for women, labor, civil rights groups and retirees. No wonder they often seem to be winning.

Isn’t it worth just a few bucks to make sure The Resilience Hub is here tomorrow, bringing skills, food and real “resilience” to our lives?

Please DONATE now.

Let’s show the 1 percent that we believe in an abundant future.

Gadget for Soil Testing

I came across this interesting invention that the designer claims will  analyse your soil and tell you which plants will grow there.

The video is worth watching just for the fun value.

If you’re a bit skeptical about the technology (and I’m right there with you), there’s an old book called “Weeds and Why they Grow,” that accomplishes the same feat by correlating the type of weeds growing on your property with what’s going on in the soils.

Can Portland Become Food-Forest Friendly?

The edible landscape promise of Portland is ripe for revolution.


Bloom and Toss.
The City pulls short-lived bulbs out seasonally. Why not go perennial? Photo: WENA

There used to be nothing rebellious about planting seeds every which-where.  Remember the stories of Johnny Appleseed, the folk hero who walked across the country, sowing apples for all to enjoy? He wasn’t wearing camouflage and ducking behind trees. Yet somehow the idea of random acts of horticulture has been villainized, so that we now talk about tossing “seed bombs” into barren soil, then skulking away as if we’ve done something wrong.

Why act guilty about doing a good deed? In my experience, few business owners actually oppose the sudden appearance, of plants and flowers on the fringes of their urban lots.  What they oppose are the supposed negative impacts of those little oases of food security. More on that later.

Re-Modeling the City’s Approach

One of the first places to start in changing the conversation about urban “found” horticulture is with City workers. Have you noticed that many of the most prominent small garden spaces in Portland are managed like potted plants? Workers spend countless hours, and countless tax dollars, planting bulbs in the spring, weeding and adding new mulch, fertilizing soils, only to remove them at season’s end and start all over again the following year.

What they’re doing is essentially the opposite of land stewardship and permaculture. They’re ignoring the complex processes that build and repair soil in favor of “quick and dirty” solutions that use the soil as a mere medium to support short-term plant life.

I believe that, given a nudge in the right direction, Portland’s forest experts and horticulturists would be willing to move in a new, more self-sustaining direction.

To that end, I spoke with my friend Kim, who worked in the City’s horticultural dept. for a couple of years. She says that the current practice of planting “ornamental” gardens, and removing the bulbs every year is in response to “what people want.” By people, she means both residents and business owners, and certain garden groups. There have been efforts to plant perennial gardens, she says, but these require regular maintenance during the summer—more so than the bare ground broken only by annual bulbs, and the City doesn’t have the money to pay for the labor. Even with the pulling and planting of the bulbs, she says, it works out to less labor than regular maintenance of perennial patches.

I wonder, however, if those gardens were fully mature permaculture ecosystems, if that would still be the case? In any case, we’d have to overcome objection #3 below to make this work.

“There’s been a lot of turnover in those (horticultural) departments over the last couple years,” Kim says, “But there’s a lot of new blood in there, so things are changing.” Horticulture, she says falls under the umbrella of the City’s forestry division, and Jeff Tarling, the City Arborist, has shown a willingness to try new approaches.

Fears and Fallacies

What’s really needed, to get Portland to embrace a more sustainable use of urban greenspaces as gardens is to address and overcome three primary objections:

  1. Hunger Hangout. I’ve heard from city workers in the past that fruit trees are seen as problematic, because they might become magnets for loitering homeless people. I think this concern is unfounded. I know from experience with our 7-11 Garden Space this summer, that even when the trees were ripe with hundreds of apples and pears, not one vagrant person ever sat underneath them to graze on the fruit. In fact, to our surprise, nobody touched this free food source. Not until we picked all the apples and left them out in a bucket did anyone take them. Honestly we would have liked to see many people stopping by to stuff a few apples in a knapsack.
  • The Rot Factor.  Another concern I’ve heard, which Kim confirmed, is that businesses especially are afraid fruit from trees will fall and be left on the ground to rot. In my experience, squirrels and aggressive sparrows in town make short work of fallen fruit, but to ease their fears, I do think the City’s idea of “adopting” urban gardens may be necessary. Perhaps the Resilience Hub can work with the City on a system for people to sign up for a certain time frame to manage the seasonal bounty, and hand off responsibility after a year or two to other local volunteers. City gardeners have experimented with this a little, but had trouble achieving critical mass.

  • “Out of Control”. This is where subjective taste comes in. Unfortunately, many people have acquired a narrowly defined aesthetic of what an urban “garden” should look like. This look has been reinforced by years of expedient, sterile, but well-intentioned management by the City. What’s that look? Monocultured flowers and shrubs surrounded by a deep layer of weed-free bark mulch. We ran into this aesthetic when 7-11’s marketing guy came to town. He perceives our perennial food forest garden design as out of control. This expectation of a corporate-style landscape is one that only time and beautiful counter-examples can overcome.  For the short term, the answer is compromise. We’ve had to “layer” our trimming of the perennials in the 7-11 garden and repeatedly invest in more mulch. We’ve also had to cut the ground cover artificially short, especially the white clover, to please the corporate sensibilities. It has been more work for us, but has preserved good will with the store owners.

Just a Little Effort

Managing a small patch of beautiful, natural (and partially edible) landscape is not an onerous task. It’s a genuine labor of love. Imagine some barren patch of earth near your house, perhaps the edge of a school playground, or an overgrown alleyway, or a parking lot border, but see it as it could be, humming with pollinators, ablaze with butterflies and berries. Every time you leave your home or apartment, it’s like opening an unexpected gift.

If you’ve been looking for something local you can do that doesn’t involve protest marches in Washington, DC or running for office, planting a regenerative garden amidst the pavement and brick is literally a low-hanging fruit option for you.

Over the next couple years, let’s try to gradually shift the narrative of Portland’s garden scene away from plant-and-pull ornamental gardens, toward longer lasting, less water and fertilizer intensive—and at least partially edible plantings.

The insurgency starts now.

Good Suckers Make Good Fences

Water spouts from apple and pear trees make perfect wattle fences.

Pear tree with water spouts

Haircut Please?
The vertical sprouts atop this pear tree are prime material.

CALL THEM WHAT YOU WILL: Water spouts. Scions. Suckers (although technically these sprout from the ground). Unless you do loads of grafting (a good use for healthy scions), most of the unwanted vertical growth on your fruit trees gets tossed.  Why not “put them Suckers to work?”

Those straight, green shoots make a perfect material for wattle fencing, screens or even low, raised beds.

I learned a few tricks about wattle weaving from an expert while visiting a reconstructed medieval garden in the UK a couple of years ago. He worked primarily with willow, but he pointed out that the staves have to be green when woven, so they will tightens up and stiffens as the material dries.

Weaving wattle is easy, whether you’re a wizened woodworker, or a willing wannabee, so let’s get cracking! Here’s the process step by step, so you can get off the computer and go out and start making wattle.

1. Cut the Spouts. Snip them at an angle, so they heal naturally and don’t collect water. I’ve noticed that trees that have been pruned aggressively in the previous season tend to produce the most water spouts. Any vertical growth that is pointing toward the tree, crossing another existing branch, or simply pointing skyward is a good candidate. If you’re nervous about how to trim an apple tree, watch my video on the topic, filmed locally. As a bonus, there’s a section at the end about how to prune raspberries, hosted by the amazing Laura Mailander of Cultivating Community.

put vertical posts in ground

Ready for Weaving. The earth makes a natural tensioning device.

2. Set a Frame. Once you’ve  collected a sizeable pile, pick four or five of the thickest spouts, and set them aside. Use a pick axe, or a metal spike to pound a series of holes in the ground. Frozen ground actually works great. Put the thick end of the spouts into these holes, and you’ve created the frame for your wattle “loom.”

3. Back and Forth. Start at either end pole, and begin weaving the spouts behind then in front of the poles. Put the thin end of the spout through first. Leave a few inches extra sticking out before the first pole. You will trim all of the spouts later. Now start at the opposite end with your next water spout, weaving in the opposite direction. Between each cours, push down on the spouts, to they are tight against one another.

Tighten Up. You may notice, as you add to the panel, that the outer two poles want to “drift” outward, squeezed by the pressure from the spouts. You have a couple of options to halt this. You could weave a piece of natural twine around the end post,or you could simply choose spouts that have natural branch formations, and use them to “lock” the vertical poles in place. I chose this option because then I could brag about not using any storebought materials!

Out of Material? Ok, so now you’ve made your beautiful section of wattle fencing. If you’re like me, you may run of of spouts and wish you had more. One option is to begin planning for next year’s wattle construction. You can create more raw materials by looking for stumps and fast growing poplar trees on your property. Scrape all of the leaves off the vertical spouts and they’ll keep growing straight and strong and you can add them to next year’s wattle fencing.

Ideas for Using Wattle. To make your wattle last for several years, you need to prevent it from constant ground contact attach bigger stakes to the ends and raise it off the ground an inch or two. Possible uses inclued, trellising, deer fencing, raised beds, or rustic hardscapes to break up a flat garden plot. I’ve also seen people use wattle as a base material for building a low-impact storage shed. You just apply mud and straw to it, and produce a strong, durable wall system.

Now get out there and make some wattle.

Urban Leaves: Free, Plentiful, and Laced with Lead

City leaves often contain heavy metals, so compost with care.

A few years ago, I heard Maine farmer Will Bonsall “go off” in praise of leaves as a natural and free form of compost, better, he claims, than almost anything else you can buy in a bag. But he was talking about leaves acquired on or near his rural farm, not the ones raked off of city lawns.

Mixed Blessing. Although rich with nutrients, urban leaves can also be high in lead and aluminum. Source: Chemical Composition of Municipal Leaf Waste and Hand-Collected Urban Leaf Litter

I’ve been using about 100 bags of leaves as compost every season, collected from curbsides around Portland, where the locals conveniently rake it up and stuff it into paper, biodegradable bags.

What could be wrong with free, easy to access (often pre-shredded) leaves? Unfortunately, there’s a catch. (Isn’t there always?)

While reading an obscure book written in 1870 praising the use of “muck” by southern farmers (their term for half-rotted leaf mold), it ocurred to me that use of leaves in rural and urban settings shouldn’t be assumed to be equally virtuous.

The Lead Problem

In many areas of Portland, for example lead levels in soils are hundreds of times higher than “safe” levels, as determined by the EPA. I know this from samples I have had tested. Certain areas are worse than others, of course. Prior to 1978, most homes were painted repeatedly with lead-based coatings. Any house in Portland older than that likely STILL has lead content in the paint, the plumbing or elsewhere.

Lead doesn’t dissipate much on its own, so our soils are heavily afflicted with it. The older and denser the region of town, the higher the likely lead (Pb) content.

Back to my point about using leaves as mulch. Are they safe? Do they pick up heavy metals such as lead?

The answer, according to a study done in New Jersey on municipal leaf mulch, is yes, (unfortunately).

Researchers  found numerous metals in curbside leaves, including lead,  iron and aluminum. They suggest that this occurs because the fallen leaves “become contaminated with urban soil and dust from the road surface through various processes (raking, lawnmower pickup and vacuum) used for litter collection in the yard and at curbside.”

Of the various contaminants, lead is arguably the most concerning. How bad is the potential pollution in city leaves? They apply a standard of 45 Mg/ha, based on tests of sewage sludge–which equates–by my calculation, to about 45 tons of leaf matter spread on 2.5 acres of land.

Break that down to the garden plot level.  An acre is 43,560 sq. ft. If you were only adding this much material to your beds, you would add about 1.21 lbs/sq. ft  of leaf compost per year (108,900 sq. ft, divided by 45 tons/90,000 lbs.=1.21 lbs. per square foot).

Given this level of application, lead levels in your garden would not exceed the EPA rules for “annual pollutant loading rate”–at least for a few years.  In the worst case scenario, with the highest level of lead contamination the researchers found in leaves, an application of this much leaf matter would take 16 years of repeated use to exceed EPA levels.

Don’t get too relaxed, however. If you’re like me, you add significantly more leaf mulch than that to your beds.

Let’s say you have a 4 ft. x 20 ft. garden bed. At the intensity of leaf mulching suggested by the researchers, you would only add 96.8 lbs. of material to the bed (80 ft. x 1.21 lbs/sq. ft.). But I’ve often added many times that much free leaf mulch to my beds at the end of a season, haven’t you? A yard of compost weighs between 1,000 and 1,600 lbs., depending on water content. That means that if I happen to apply what amounts to a yard of highly contaminated (at the worse end of the scale) curbside leaves to my annual beds, I could exceed EPA safety levels for lead in my garden in less than two years. And this assumes that we can trust the EPA guidelines are strict enough, which is a matter of some debate.

What to Do Now?

All of this is incredibly frustrating of course. Human beings somehow seem to turn the most benign sources of natural abundance into new forms of poison. We’re encouraged to buy our way out of the problem, paying exhorbitant amounts for “clean” compost products in 80 lb. bags. What a racket! It’s not unlike what’s happening with our water supplies. We’re forced to either buy bottled water or install an expensive filter if we want to drink clean water.

So let’s not give up on urban leaf compost. We just have to be more strategic in where we obtain it. And also, here’s one caveat: If the leaves will be used in a garden that is strictly ornamental, you’re probably safe to use as much urban leaf material as you like. The lead levels are probably too low to be of concern for pets or casual contact. I would mainly be concerned with gardens used for food production. The details matter. Certain plants, such as berries and fruit trees, for example, are unlikely to draw lead contamination into the fruit. But other plants absorb lead like crazy, especially in their roots. Brassica nigra, or Black Mustard, is a good example. Mustards seem especially good at extracting lead from soils. So are sunflowers.

Where I would take special precautions, however, is with the introduction of urban leaves to  annual gardens where cabbages and leafy greens are grown for consumption.

Here are my suggestions for reducing the risk to your health and your soils, while still using urban leaf compost:

  • Avoid gleaning from the old City. In Portland, for example, I would not use leaves gathered on the West End or Munjoy Hill, nor in Bayside, for that matter. A lot of the debris from the great fire of 1866, for example is buried in Bayside, and these “historic” areas are often toxic wastelands in terms of the lead contamination of the soils.
  • Look for natural lawns. Much as we’d like to see all lawns replaced with permaculture gardens, that’s a long way off. In the meantime, gather leaves from homes with heavy grass cover that doesn’t look like herbicides have been applied. The grass reduces direct contact between leaves and soil.
  • Favor new developments. Scout out new developments  on the urban fringe, where homes were built after 1978. I suspect someone has a map of Portland with an overlay based on the age of the neighborhood. If so, post it here in the comments please.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings about urban leaves. I wouldn’t take them off your list of permaculture resources. Simply be more selective in where you acquire them. Head for the outer suburbs, and be careful about buying your mulch from organizations that use urban leaf compost as a major component of their mix.

Matt Power is a West End resident and board member of The Resilience Hub (resiliencehub.org), a Portland-based organization that brings permaculture and community together. He is also the author of “The Tiny House Tactical Guide,” and Editor-In-Chief of Green Builder Magazine.

Edible Abundance Next to the 7-11 Parking Lot

Three years of strategic planting and coaxing demonstrate that urban food gardens can grow almost anywhere.

If you happened to walk by the 7-11 parking lot at the corner of Dow St. and Congress St. in Portland this fall, you may have seen the evolution of an eye-catching urban garden.

About three years, my partner Melissa and I decided to tackle the only open piece of ground near our house on Dow Street. With permission from the 7-11 owners, we began to systematically apply permaculture strategies to bring life back into soil that looked more like fireplace ashes than dirt. Three previous trees on the spot died long ago, leaving only stumps, and scrub grass and weeds struggled to survive.

This narrow strip of land (mostly hidden by snow at this writing) now includes two healthy apple trees, a pear tree, a blueberry plant, strawberries, along with ample comfrey, several herbs and medicinal plants including yarrow, oregano, thyme, sage and chives. You’ll also find speedwell, daylillies, clover, salvia, and Creeping Charlie as a groundcover.

This garden showcases the power of “permaculture.” We’ve noticed many small pieces of land in the City where harsh chemicals, dog droppings, trash and neglect have damaged soils. We wanted to show that even the worst land may be rejuvenated, if you apply the right techniques and patience.

The process requires a lot of heavy mulching, along with careful planting of different species of plants that assist the trees as they take root. For example, the leafy comfrey plants around the trees are called nitrogen fixers (forgive me if you know all this stuff already). They extract nitrogen from the air and deposit it into the soil, especially if you trim them and let the leaves rot around the trees. Other plants, such as the clover and Creeping Charlie groundcover, keep the soil cooler and allow plants to better respond to drought.

Each year, the amount of work we volunteer in the garden has decreased. We water only about one third as much as we did the first year, and the groundcover is gradually replacing the old scrub grass that was there. We’ve planted sunflowers in the areas that still need work, because they extract heavy metals from the soils, and provide food for birds and squirrels. Later, we’ll replace them with perennial plants like the upper half of the garden. The area is now alive with bees and sparrows again by mid-summer.

We believe a place of peace, beauty and food brings many intangibles to the city. So many cool things have happened since we started the project. Less trash is thrown into the area. People with mental illness sometimes sit among the birds and bees and find a moment’s solace. Older neighbors stop by and ask about the plants and thank us for creating a place they enjoy as they walk home. Someone has put many beautiful painted stones around the trees. We have even had some of the regular alcoholics in the area offer to “guard” the garden and “kill anyone who goes near those trees!” We thanked them for their kind offer and told them that was probably a bit excessive …

This year, our hard work really produced in a tangible way, when the two apple trees actually sprang forth with a couple of hundred delicious apples. Next on the agenda, to identify other properties in the area where magical food forest gardens could appear in coming years, and interest other neighbors in “adopting” a patch of neglected ground.

Matt Power is a West End resident and board member of The Resilience Hub (resiliencehub.org), a Portland-based organization that brings permaculture and community together. He is also the author of “The Tiny House Tactical Guide,” and Editor-In-Chief of Green Builder Magazine.