Category Archives: Urban Permaculture

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.

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.

#Permaculture Lending Library Coming to The #Resilience Hub in March!

Many of you have gotten a taste of our permaculture library over the years while attending permaculture workshops and events.  Some of you have even helped schlep our “traveling library” in and out of our teaching spaces in our now-infamous blue cargo boxes!

Well, we have finally taken the leap of cataloguing our growing collection (major shouts to LibraryThing.com of Portland, Maine by the way!), getting glass-fronted library cupboards for our office and will soon be setting up our “open library hours” down at The Resilience Hub on Anderson Street.

ResilienceHub s books LibraryThing

The library (not fully loaded into the system yet) contains more than two hundred titles – books, periodicals and DVDs – on everything permaculture, regenerative agriculture, food forestry, green and natural building and renewable energy.  Want to research plants for your own property or farm?  Thinking about building a cob oven?  You’ll be able to come on down to the Hub and use our resources to help your planning.  We will probably pair those library hours with some “Ask a Permaculture Expert” clinics and pop-up cafe events as well!  Our library cupboards will be on wheels, so we won’t rule out rolling these things into the parking lot when the weather is good.

Check back for more details soon but, in the meantime, you can track our growing catalog online anytime!

Unitarian Universalist Church Exceeds Fund Raising Goal to Implement #Permaculture Plan

File_000 (1)My son and and I enjoyed a great service at the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church (“A2U2”) in Portland, Maine last Sunday (our first service there even though we’ve visited the church for other reasons many times). But despite how fabulous the sermon by Rev. Myke Johnson on laughter yoga, that was not our reason for attending!

File_000A couple of years ago The Resilience Hub was engaged by A2U2 to help convene a participatory permaculture design process with their congregation. The 70s-era church sits on a seven-acre site a few miles from downtown Portland and really wanted to make the best use of their property while also really living into their mission to “walk lightly on the earth.”

Over several months, (along with their Environment Committee) we convened awareness-raising events like permaculture movie nights, field trips to permaculture sites and a custom “Intro to Permaculture Design Short Course.” Further to that we did site assessment and analysis. Meanwhile surveys, interviews and interactive display boards engaged even more members of the church. It turned out to be one of the more “participatory” initiatives ever carried out by the church and resulted in a Draft Concept sketch and a motivated set of teams researching feasibility and budgets for different design elements to take to an all-church vote.

photoBack to this past Sunday’s celebration…  A2U2 recently completed their Capital Campaign, which had set a goal of raising $215,000 toward the implementation of the top-priority components of their permaculture plan (more on this later).  They were overjoyed to report that pledges not only met, but fully exceeded, this goal.  Now the real work begins!

I look forward to following their progress and collaborating whenever possible.  Multi-stakeholder design (churches, schools, business campuses, etc.) is a very special category of the professional permaculture world – one that takes more time and energy than most residential or farm designs.  But the results are critical:  without good process (i.e. “social permaculture”),  we jeopardize our ability to implement even the best permaculture design of physical spaces.

We will post more as this project unfolds!

LisaF, The Resilience Hub

Fox Field Food Forest November Update

FFFFlogo4.8We are pleased to report that we are making steady progress on the Fox Field Food Forest Project and the primary ADA compliant pathway will be installed starting during Thanksgiving week.  We will also get an “information kiosk” up to explain what is happening, since these initial steps might be confusing to someone who doesn’t know about the whole project!

Background: For those new to the project, the East Bayside Neighborhood Organization (EBNO) received funding in early 2014 to design and install a neighborhood food forest in keeping with increased urban agriculture happening around the city and to kick off the theme of “Edible East Bayside” (embedding food in the landscape in a variety of ways).  The City, The Resilience Hub and staff from Wright-Pierce have been working with EBNO all along the way.  It took some time to find the right spot (the eastern corner of Fox Field) and then more time to involve as many of the neighbors and neighborhood groups as possible.  And there’s always more of that to do!  But we have been committed to as robust of a participatory design of the Fox Field Food Forest as possible.

20150722_162759
Design session with the kids at Mayo Street this summer

Highlights of our current status:

  • Thorough soil testing was done and the site was found to be quite clean, with no remediation needed.
  •  First DRAFT drawing (FFFF ConceptualPlan 8.21), based on neighborhood design sessions, has been created
  • Primary path and explanatory kiosk going in now
  • This winter we will circle back with neighborhood groups for feedback on the DRAFT design
  • Working with the City to develop the stewardship and maintenance plan
  • Will create the final drawings at the end of winter
  • Doing some additional fund-raising to install Phase 2 of the Food Forest in the 2nd half of 2016
  • Start the installation of the rest of the Food Forest in the spring with neighborhood work parties, permablitzes and more!
  • So far involved parties have included EBNO (residents & businesses), Resilience Hub, Wright-Pierce, City of Portland, Root Cellar, Mayo Street, Portland Police Dept, Parks Commission, Study Center in Kennedy Park, Portland Housing Authority and some early conversations with the Muslim Community Center.  More of all of this to come….

Watch for more updates and the formation of a neighborhood stewardship team to help ensure maximum use and care of one of our new neighborhood assets!

Great old photo for perspective on the area.  Our site never had buildings on it, just playing fields.
Great old photo for perspective on the area. Our site never had buildings on it, just playing fields.

Fox Field Food Forest:  It’s more than just a garden!  It will be a convening place with edible landscaping, learning and playing opportunities, a social space, an oasis of ecological health and beauty in East Bayside for all to enjoy!

The Ultimate Bomb-Proof Urban Composter

Many of you are wondering how to compost food waste in the city (or any urban, suburban or similar area where space comes at a premium and neighbors are almost in your back pocket).  You may be concerned that, even if you do find space to compost, odors, bugs and other bigger, badder pests will crash your composting party – and perhaps your neighbor or landlord relations!  Nothing dampens compost enthusiasm like a pile or heap “gone bad.”   Alas, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ve been teaching composting since the early 90s when my partner and I became a Master Composters in Washington State and our city made composting education mandatory in order to take advantage of the “free” and very subsidized compost bin deals.  I’ve worked with dozens of bin designs over the years and what I’m proposing here is my Ultimate Bomb-Proof Urban Composter.  It is pest-resistant (I’ve never known a rat to chew into this, but I haven’t met ratzilla yet), discrete and affordable (maybe free).  I’ve actually never tried to destroy it with a bomb; maybe I need a new name.  Nevertheless, here it is:

  1. Get a galvanized metal trashcan with a lid.
  2. Drill 1/2″ holes all over the lower half of the can, including the bottom.  The holes can be 4-5″ apart or even a bit tighter if desired and you have well-drained soil.    Optional:   Drill two 1″ holes just below the rim of the lid and cover with no-see-um mesh from the inside to allow additional ventilation w/out bugs being able to get in.  If you’re super bug-phobic, you may also want to gasket the lid for a tighter fit.
  3. Bury the can in the ground just deep enough that the holes are underground and not visible.  Pick a location that a) you are likely to actually use and can easily get to with a bucket of kitchen scraps, b) is well-drained and not in a wet spot and c) matches your aesthetic needs to either hide your composting activities behind a shrub or fly your compost flag by prominent placement (your choice).
  4. Make sure soil is filled in all around the buried portion of the can.  You can even plant something interesting around it.
  5. Deposit food scraps into the can whenever your kitchen container is full, covering each “dump” with some dry, carbonaceous material like sawdust, wood chips, dry leaves, etc.  (keep some stockpiled nearby).  Do NOT “dump and run” without covering the fresh material.  The water content in the food waste should be enough moisture to keep the process going.
  6. Secure the lid with bungee cords to keep raccoons and curious kids out.
  7. Compost happens.
  8. Every 2-3 years “rest the bin” for a few weeks, remove the contents (or dump back in the hole when you pull out the bin), and move the bin to a new spot and start again.  The spot you’ve just vacated is perfect for planting a tree or shrub – super fertile!  The 2-3 years figure is based on a household of 2-3 vegetarians or 3-4 omnivores (the latter not putting meat/animal products into the bin).

What this is not:

This is not a system for creating large amounts of finished compost product; it’s just a way to manage your food waste sanely rather than sending it to the landfill or incinerator.

This is not a system for composting “yard waste” like grass clippings, branches, etc.  That would require a different setup which you can certainly do side-by-side with this if you want to make your whole composting operation less attractive to animal pests.

Enjoy!