Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Mmm, Melons!

By Heather Jo Flores
If you're a gardener and you feel like melons are easy to grow, please, message me! I want to learn your methods. I have found this crop to be one of the most challenging of annual vegetables. If it were anything else, I'd probably have given up by now. But nothing can replace the sweet sticky pleasure of a summer afternoon spent eating a perfectly ripe garden-fresh melon.

I tried a dozen different varieties of melons, and grew them in twice as many ways, and sometimes all I got was a single melon, small and underripe, barely edible after four months of work. Finally, I found a few great varieties and developed a system for getting the best melon harvest possible.

If you're anything like me, you enjoy coming up with systems and structures to increase the yield and functionality of your garden. Anyone who has spent time and resources building trellises, cold frames or cloches will find it easy to agree that it was worth the effort, and this could not be more true when it comes to growing melons in a climate that is prone to late frosts (however brief) and early rains. Use the advice and devices below and you'll be serving up a honeydew salsa by Labor Day!

Choose locally bred, short-season, small-fruit varieties.

When it comes to temperate gardens, the best and most reliable melon variety, a million times over, is the Ha'ogen, a small, tangy-sweet, green-flesh fruit that ripens in about 75 days and falls into the honeydew category in terms of looks and flavor. I have also had good success with Hoodoo melons, a.k.a. "Hearts of Gold," which are more like a cantaloupe. I encourage you to visit www.rareseeds.com and take a chance on whatever appeals to you.
What about watermelons, you ask? I don't recommend them for a temperate climate. It's just not hot enough. But don't let that dissuade you from trying! Just be sure to choose varieties that fruit in 90 days or less.

Do the math.

Read the seed packet and count backwards from when you want to be eating melons. Consider that one quick frost is enough to kill melons, so make sure your harvest will come in well before that. Also consider that melons need as many hot sunny days as possible to grow big and ripen, so if you plant them too early, they will languish in the early summer rains. All of that being known, I think the second half of August is a realistic time to expect your crop. So, if you want to start harvesting August 15, and your seed packet says 90 days, you will need to get your seeds planted around May 15. But don't plant them before Cinco de Mayo. Remember what I said about melons needing those hot summer days to boost the yield!

Set them up to succeed.

Amend with fertile garden compost and thoroughly work up a garden bed 36 inches wide. Melons like sandy loam, and they must be spaced at least 30 inches apart, so decide how many plants you want and plan accordingly. Twenty plants should give an average family a decent harvest, with some to share with the neighbors, so you will need a bed about 25 feet long. You can plant lettuce, spinach or cilantro between the melons, but avoid other cucurbits or heavy feeders like tomatoes or brassicas. Let the melons have the space and resources they need and they will reward you for it.

Don't skimp on water.

Melons love water. Don't go to extremes, but do establish a frequent, consistent routine. Erratic watering can cause fruit deformation, so set up a schedule and stick to it. But don't water overhead when the sun is shining! The leaves will blister and, while it probably won't kill the plants, they will spend energy healing instead of making your fruits. Hand water deeply into the base of the plant with a hose at least four times a week just before dusk. I don't trust drip or automatic watering with my melons, and neither should you.

Keep the melon zone clean.

Throughout the season, keep the entire area meticulously weeded. I don't mulch melons because they rot so easily. Keep the beds clean and free of debris so that slugs, grubs and mold spores don't have anywhere to hide.

Direct sow and use a cloche system.

Most plants in the cucumber family do not enjoy being transplanted. They tend to spend several days in shock before they begin to grow again. When we're talking about melons, this 6-12 day period could make the difference between getting a harvest or losing semi-ripe melons to the first frost. So, to avoid having to worry about frost either at the beginning or at the end of your melon adventure, build a series of cloches and row-covers for your melon patch. That way you can sow the seeds directly into the ground (avoiding transplant shock and growth-delay) and, if you design creatively, your cloches can double as trellises, to keep the ripening fruits off the ground where they easily rot and get munched by a wide array of garden marauders. (Everybody loves melons.)

Here's my cloche system for a 90-day melon:

Days 1-15: Sow seeds in small hills under individual cloches made from gallon-sized milk jugs. Cut off the bottom, remove the cap and punch several holes in the plastic. Sow three seeds in each hill and fit the jug over the top to create a tiny greenhouse. Keep evenly moist until seeds sprout, and when seedlings are five days old, remove the two smaller seedlings and leave only one plant on each hill. This is essential. You must thin your seedlings. Water often, removing the milk jugs during hottest part of the day, as needed.

Days 16-44: Remove the milk jugs, wash them, and stash for next year. Use handi-mesh half-circles to make row covers (see photo). Cut the mesh wide enough to form a low dome over the young plants. Position the covers so that all of the plants are on the inside, about 3 inches from the wire. Now cover the mesh covers with greenhouse plastic and clamp it the plastic to the wire with small spring-clamps. Don't worry about closing up the ends, it's better to have the extra ventilation. If it gets extra hot in June, you might need to remove the plastic or punch holes in it. Keep an eye on the little plants; if they wilt or turn yellow, it's too hot. Pull off the plastic but leave the handi-mesh in place.

Days 45-90: Remove the plastic and convert the row covers into horizontal trellises by gently pulling the tendrils of the melon plants from the inside to the outside, letting them grow a bit more, and then poking them back through. As fruits start to form, make sure they aren't getting too heavy for the trellis. You might need to tie a few branches. If fruits are laying on the ground or on top of the mesh, turn them over periodically so that they ripen on all sides.

​Feel free to try variations on this system and, as with all gardening techniques, connect with your neighbors to see what works for them. Let me know how it goes, and feel free to ask questions and offer suggestions for future articles. Contact me at

#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
#foodforest #growingmelons

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Friday, December 7, 2018

winter sale! save 20% on our online #permaculturedesign courses taught by 40 women from around the world. Links in bio. #onlinecourse #permaculture #growyourown #growfood #community #design #gardening #sustainability #climatechange

Free Mini-class: All Paths Lead Back To Compost

Picture hands holding a small plant in soil
Plants are active participants in the vibrant and diverse community of soil life. There are more than 50 million genera of bacteria in the soil, and more than 50 million genera of fungi. Humans haven't named more than a small percentage, and we know very little about those which we have named. Thus, the vast majority of life in the soil, along with their relationships and functions, are unnamed and unknown.

By some accounts, humans have destroyed 50-80% of earth's topsoil. I find this so troubling, I almost don't know what to write next. However, this is a very clear case of, “the problem is the solution.” There is so much land devoid of life, so many layers and niches just waiting to be filled with diversity, life cycles, and carbon. Soil is an incredible and established reservoir that is ready to hold carbon, if only we nurture it back to life.

​One method for improving the health of your soil is adding compost. Your food is only as healthy as the soil that it was grown in, so you'll want to give your soil biota something good to eat. In this mini class I will show you how to create your own compost.
Picture steaming compost pile
Compost recipes and variations.

This recipe is a variation of the, 18 day Berkley method, and can teach you the basics. As you gain more experience, you can change the recipe. The greater variety of matter you put into your compost, the richer your soils become. You'll need 25-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Some examples:

Sawdust is 500 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.

Fish is 7 to 1.

Urine 1 to 1.

Chicken manure 12 to 1.

Rabbit manure 8 to 1.

Horse manure 20 to 1.

Green weeds 25 to 1.

If you can increase surface area by chopping or shredding, it will speed up decomposition. You will need a lot of materials. Don't go over 4 feet high or it will squeeze the air out. You can use a gravity fall pile, or a piece of wire fence. You'll need a long handled pitch fork with 3-5 prongs, a rake, and a cover to maintain moisture.

You need 1/3 of your materials to be manure, 1/3 high carbon material, or browns, and 1/3 fresh greens. Pitch them all together and mix them up. Then water the hill until it starts to leak water. If you have food scraps, those can be incorporated into the layers and covered. Make sure to avoid: meat, bones, grease, and dairy products. Avoid materials that have come into contact with: Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotic medications, and anything that will take your pH to one extreme or another.

Once you’re more familiar with this recipe, you can put an activator in the middle when you start the pile. These could include: Dead animal, fish, chopped comfrey, yarrow, nettle, or old compost. You have to be certain that you know your recipe, so your pile will cook and not go putrid. Some people urinate on their compost piles to increase the nitrogen. Some add menstrual blood as an activator.

Other common activators, by % of Nitrogen:

Alfalfa meal 2.4%.

Blood meal 15%.

Bone meal 4%.

Chicken manure (dry) 8%.

Coffee grounds 2.1%.

Rabbit manure (fresh) 2.4%.

Rabbit manure (dry) 12%.

Once you have built your pile, you will want to cover it if you are expecting rain. Place branches on top of the pile to hold the cover off the surface, allowing air to pass through. You can also build the pile inside to heat a greenhouse. If conditions are very hot, place your pile in the shade.

If you want to look at your compost activity under a microscope, put a handful of compost in a jar with water and shake for 10 minutes. Then get a pipette and drop one drop on a slide, under a cover sheet, to view under the microscope. Take five minutes to look at this and you will see thousands of organisms every second.

Carbon is more of a fungal food. Nitrogen is more of a bacterial food. Non-woody plants and pasture prefer bacteria rich soil. Trees prefer fungal/carbon rich soil. Flour, paper, cardboard are all fungal food. If you want more fungi in your compost, you can add something like oat flour on every turn.

You can test the temperature of your pile with a good quality compost thermometer. If the pile is hotter on the inside than the outside, then your pile is too dry. If your pile is hotter on the outside than the inside, then your pile is too wet. Compost kept between 131 – 140 degrees for 15 days will kill pathogens, parasites and weed seeds.

If you want to speed up the compost turning process, you can turn your pile every day for 10 to 12 days and get it done faster, but it will be more work. Make sure you put the outer layer in the center when turning your pile, and the inner layer on the surface.
Step-by-step guide to fast composting:

Day one: Create the pile.

Day four: turn it over, ideally putting the outer layers in the middle and the center on the surface, as you move and rebuild the pile. Replace branches and cover.

Day six: turn.

Day eight: Turn every two days.

How do you know if the moisture in your pile is adequate? Squeeze a handful of the matter from the compost pile. If one drop falls, it is perfect. More water than that, and the pile is too wet. No drops, and it is too dry.

The pile should also be very warm. If you put a glove on and push your arm into the pile up to your elbow, it shouldn't be so hot that you say, “Ow”.

Turn the pile on day ten, day twelve, day fourteen, day sixteen and by day eighteen it should be done. When it is just warm, dark brown, fine with only a few chunks, and an earthy smell, not putrid, then it is done.

How do you fix problems with your compost recipe? If you get to day 6 or 8 and your compost is not hot enough, ask yourself:

  • Is the pile high enough?

  • Is the pile wet enough?

  • Is the pile too wet?

  • Have you shredded the carbon small enough?
If it is high enough and wet enough, then you don't have enough nitrogen. Get some convenient nitrogen and spread it into the pile on each turn, such as blood and bone meal, rich manure, or molasses. You have probably lost 4-6 days, or rather, you will have to turn the pile for 4-6 extra days.
Picture cow in front of manure pile
If the pile is too wet, you've got to put a hole in the center with your pitchfork handle and place a chimney in the middle to let it steam off. If it is too dry, just water it.

If you have too much nitrogen it will loose volume fast and smell very bad. Carbon is your sponge and carbon will slow it down.

If your compost goes a little anaerobic in places for lack of air, it will present a white moldy looking powder. That is the first indicator that you've gone over the line in temperature or moisture and need to make an adjustment.

You want 10 compost heaps to an acre if you want to kick off an organic crop garden system.

Your soil will hold more water at the end of this process.

When you get skilled at turning your pile, you can do it in 20 minutes. That's 3 hours of work total for this 18 day recipe. One compost heap this size, spread around a garden, will grow vegetables for one year, for one person.
Slow compostTurning a pile every two days is not for everyone. If you are too busy, you can turn your pile once every 7-10 days. At that rate your compost will be finished in 1-3 months.

If you need to go more slowly, that's okay. You can always assess what your compost needs are when you turn it, and add accordingly.

Alternately, you can make an add as you go pile. This requires even less effort, as there is no need to separate your kitchen waste, yard debris, and clippings. Unfortunately, it decomposes at a slower rate of 3-8 months. It is prone to odor problems because the lack of turning allows it to go anaerobic. It doesn't heat up well, which means it does not kill weed seeds and pathogens. It will be less nutrient dense. It might attract pests if uncovered.

If you mix your sieved compost with sharp river sand from the inside bends of creeks or rivers, you can make your own potting mix. The smaller the seed the more sand you want in the mix, for example, carrot seeds, etc. With large seeds you can use 50/50 compost and sand.

​You can also extend your compost by making compost tea.

One way that you can measure the success of your compost is to use a refractometer.

The refractometer measures refracted light through plant fluid. Inside is a gauge, and in that gauge is a blue line. It is used to measure the starch and sugars in fruit. If the starch goes up, the plant is probably feeding and happily using your compost. This shows an increase in the nutrient density in food. Caution: If you use this to measure the nutrient density of food from the supermarket, you won't find it easy to spend money on commercially grown produce ever again.

Now that you’ve seen different methods of creating compost all that’s left is to choose the method that is right for you and to do it! However, if you want to be energy efficient, make your compost near where you are going to use it! Have fun!

This miniclass is excerpted from the Soil Basics module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Lichen June.

Lichen June is a writer, speaker, educator and stuntwoman.  Raised on a dairy goat farm by a naturalist mother and gardening father, Lichen was given a profound sense of ethics and relationship with the natural world. As an activist Lichen has been producing educational events and doing publicity on environmental issues for over 20 years.  Teaching communication and ethics since 2008, and permaculture since 2013, Lichen studied permaculture with Geoff Lawton and Toby Hemenway, and received her certificate from PRI Australia. Lichen is the Executive Director of the NW Permaculture Institute, and co-founder of Elephant Head Educational Designs, creators of regenerative learning materials.

Further reading on this topic:

Darwish, Leila. Earth Repair: a Grassroots Guide to Healing Toxic and Damaged Landscapes. New Society Publishers, 2013.

Hosking, Rebecca. Building Soil with Regenerative Agriculture. Permaculture.co.uk: Permaculture People/Permaculture Magazine, 2015.

#compost  #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #foodnotlawns
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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Earth Based Spirituality & Permaculture — The 5 Elements as a Design Tool

Using Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit to as a tool to design my journey to Andalucía
Picture of a sunset near Ingleborough
Ingleborough from our home in the Yorkshire Dales
The meaning of spirituality I connect with is one which is Earth based and includes being guided by, grounding in and celebrating the different moon and sun cycles, which in turn determine our patterns of days, months, and seasons. Central to this form of spiritual experience are the 5 elements — Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit. These aspects are deeply linked to my permaculture life, work and activism.

​This year I have undergone a big life change from being a hill farmer and palliative care nurse in a remote part of the Yorkshire Dales, to moving to the hills of Andalucía, Spain with my partner, dogs and cats, to a house with just under 2 acres of land. This post shows how I have used the 5 Elements to explore how my knowledge and practice of permaculture can be transferred and adapted to my next life chapter design.

Picture of an outdoor garden with a hangnging jar containing crystals
In the Dales I spent years using permaculture tools to improve the health of the soil on the farm. Carefully designed grazing systems with a wide diversity of agricultural animals made big differences to the biodiversity in the grazing land and the edge with forestry land. I used animal manure combined with structures such as raised beds, hot beds, polytunnels, and then lots of successional planting. This greatly improved the fertility of the soil and also generated extra heat to be able to grow a range of species and variety of both annual and perennial plants I never thought possible. 
Here in Andalucía, the soil is dry, rocky, dusty and steep. I won't be farming any agricultural animals so I need to design how I am going to create and maintain the highest level of soil fertility as I can. Many different perennial and annual plants grow here that I have no experience in growing, so there is much learning to be done.
The Earth Element is also about ensuring life force and motivation is given to other aspects of life, and I intend to use the specific qualities from this element to design and carry out some of the ideas and projects on my ‘to do list for my move here. This will include looking at what I will do in terms of my right livelihood, creativity and taking responsibility for my own health. Designing for this diversity should help to ensure that my life here is as resilient as possible.​

Picture of a contained fire.
Winters were long and cold in the Dales. Soon after we arrived there we invested in a heating system that heated the cottage there well, provided hot water, and allowed us to be able to cook slow stews and soups through burning local wood. We often needed to keep one stove lit for most of the year, so we needed a constant supply of dry wood. We also designed a storage system for the large amounts of wood needed, to be as effective of human energy and time as possible. Our outdoors fireplace was also a really core part of our lives, providing a focus to cook outdoors and celebrate events.
Sun hours in our remote part of the Dales were very few and we designed food growing, animal care and our own holistic health to maximize the use of the available sunlight.
We need to heat our house for the coldest months of the year here in Spain and are already planning a wood burning system and accessing local wood to burn. Wild fires are also a very real danger in the summer months and how to avoid them and then protect our home and animals if they do occur, is something that is really key to our future life here.
The sun shines for about 340 days of the year at our new home which is a really big change for us. Yields we can obtain from that amazing energy include growing a much more diverse and abundant range of food and the potential for heating water and generating electricity for power. The strength of the sun can also be damaging in the hottest part of summer, and creating shade for both our food growing and outdoor living spaces will be part of the design.
Energy and action are also inspired by the element of Fire and I am in the process of using this inspiration to explore how I am going to take my permaculture work (lots of energy and action!) forward from here. I plan to finish my Diploma soon, but then what? And how will it integrate and balance with the other aspects of my life to make sure my energies are used as efficiently as possible?

Picture of feet on the beach in water.
​It rained a lot at our North Yorkshire home, with the yearly average being over 100 inches. Improving the compacted soil, and planting trees, (especially willow) helped to improve the impact of excess water on the grazing land. The raised beds and a human made drainage channel (which used a wide water pipe, perennial plant growth and a mesh outlet, to avoid soil erosion) had a really positive impact in avoiding plants being damaged by excess water.
 Water here in the hills of Andalucía is precious. There is virtually no rain between April and September, and the winter rains are often short and very heavy, with potential for damage to land through flooding and erosion. Systems such as capturing and dispersing rainwater, utilizing grey water, optimizing organic matter in the soil, mulching and growing drought tolerant edible plants are already being considered as part of our design.
Water in the non-physical aspect guides our emotional selves. Water flows, as do our emotions. Healthy emotional health can mean working on aspects of our mental heal that we are ‘stuck’ in, so that positive flow can take place. How can I use permaculture principles and tools to promote my emotional well being during this transition time? Starhawk talks a lot about the connections of grief and the water element, (‘the well of grief’). Being mindful of the loss I have experienced over recent months and years will also feature in this part of my people care/self care designing.

Picture of different colored cloth on a line with mountains behind it.
​The exposed location and height of the farm meant that there could be damaging winds throughout the year. Restoring many of the barns and dry stone walls on the farm and planting trees along field edges improved the shelter and then health and welfare of our agricultural animals. Also choosing native hardy breeds of sheep, cows, pigs and poultry ensured they would thrive well despite the weather conditions that the strong gales brought with them.

Where we chose to site the various edible gardens, raised beds, polytunnel, planting further windbreaks and then choosing type and variety of edible plants designed for short growing seasons, meant we could protect our growing spaces from winds that contributed towards limits to maximum potential.
The winds at our new home can also be strong, and especially so in the winter. Designing our food growing areas to include shelter against strong winds will make a huge difference to the varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs we can grow and the length of the growing season they will have.
Communication and connecting is the inner strength from Element of Air, and here in Andalucía there is an abundance of different factors emerging for this — making beneficial connections with new friends, community and neighbours. Sharing permaculture knowledge and experience with them: Finding systems to have positive communication with friends and family now many miles away, and engaging further with parts of the global permaculture community, particularly those who are undertaking permaculture work in the local area or in similar geographic and climatic locations.

Picture of the sun setting behind mountains with an Alpujarran white house in the front.
Glennie Kindred describes the Fifth Element, Spirit, as ‘the force that unites all the actions of the elements together, so that there is no separation….’ Back in the Yorkshire my spiritual practice mainly focused around celebrating the Wheel of the Year sun festivals, alongside the cycles of the moon, in connection with patterns the farming seasons. My nursing work and interest in using permaculture in designing how we die, also links deeply to spirit and that same cycle flow of life an death. In addition I spent time on a daily basis appreciating my spiritual connectedness with the land I worked on and grounding myself in the present, while honouring the power and energies of the five elements.
It feels reassuring and comforting to know that in Spirit, the patterns and practices that have given me so much meaning and peace in the past will transfer to my future. There will be changes of course, open outdoor fires will be saved for winter months for example, and I can already see that the arrival of rain will be a time for celebration and gratitude…but fundamentally the wheel will keep turning just as it has done, and within it there is much here to connect to.

​Using the five Elements has been a really useful tool in my move here to Spain. As well as exploring the differences in using permaculture principles and ethics in our two homes, its also really helped me to identify some really beneficial connects between the knowledge and practice I feel confident about in my life in the Dales and my design for our resilient future here in Spain.
The following resources have helped with this post 
The Earth Path — Starhawk
Sacred Earth Celebrations — Glennie Kindred
Earth Pathways Diary 2015
Earth Activist Training PDC, California 2013 — Starhawk and Charles Williams
Growing food In a Hotter, Drier Land — Gary Paul Nabha
This article is also published on my blog at Kt Shepherd Permaculture​
The text from this post is published as an article “Permaculture and The Five Elements” in Permaculture Magazine Winter 2015 No 86
#spirituality #ecofeminism #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #permaculturedesign
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Friday, November 30, 2018

Mulch Much?

By Heather Jo Flores
It's that wonderful time of the year when leaves are falling, plants are decomposing and moisture is in the air. A perfect time for mulching! There is never a bad time for mulch, but with so much surplus organic matter available, it makes sense to harness those resources and use them to warm and protect your garden for the winter.

Mulch builds humus. The word "human" comes from the same roots as humus, meaning earth, and in fact our bodies do contain many of the same elements and microorganisms as fertile organic soil. Soil health is linked to our own health, and soil communities bear remarkable resemblance to the flora and fauna in our own guts.

A diverse, thriving intestinal community keeps us humans healthy, and the same goes for the soil ecosystem.

A layer of mulch, whether up around perennials and fruit trees or as a cover for next year's vegetable beds, serves several important purposes. Mulch covers topsoil, keeping it dark and moist, which encourages soil organisms to come to the surface where they eat, breed and poop. Mulch provides habitat for worms and larger insects that travel across the garden in search of shelter. If they find your mulch, they'll move in, further increasing your soil diversity and in turn, garden health. All of this micro-activity is akin to having a teeny-tiny compost machine that cultivates every inch of your soil, increasing organic matter and aeration and building a nutrient-rich foundation for the garden.

Mulch retains water. It acts as a sponge, soaking up the rainfall and slowly releasing it into the soil below. Larger mulch piles can be shaped into mini-berms and used to direct water away from the storm drain and back onto your site. Or dig small swales — shallow trenches on contour — and fill them with a thick mulch to create water-retaining borders all around the garden.

Mulch keeps plant roots warm, which is especially helpful for those varieties that do OK in a temperate climate but would probably prefer a slightly warmer climate, like pomegranate, lemon, bananas and many fancy flowering bulbs. For these plants, I like to use larger rocks and river gravel under a leaf mulch. The rocks retain heat, the leaves insulate. But be careful not to pile the leaves too high up the trunk because they can cause rot. Focus on warming the roots just below the soil surface, spreading out from the plant.

In addition to rocks and leaves, there are several other types of mulch that are easily found in the area. Straw bales can be purchased at any farm store, or try the fairgrounds after an event — they often use bales for temporary seating and in parking areas, and you might be able to get them for free.

I like a thick cover of straw mulch over the top of my compost pile and on vegetable beds. I am not crazy about the aesthetics of straw, however, and so I don't tend to use it on perennial beds. It does make a wonderful insulator, because each of those little pieces of straw is a hollow tube filled with air that gets warmed by the slow decomposition. Excellent for covering garlic beds over winter, or around winter brassicas. Don't use hay! Hay is green and has tons of grass seeds that will grow all over your garden! Make sure you ask for "straw."

Cardboard and newspaper can be good options for mulching larger areas, especially if you want to kill grass or weeds. Peel the mulch off in the spring and dig beds, or cover the paper mulch with a thick layer of organic matter (leaves, straw, wood chips, or a blend of them all) and plant right into it. Be careful that you don't mulch over bindweed or Bermuda grass, though — it won't kill them and they'll make a thick mat underneath that will choke out your plant roots later.

Wood chips, sawdust and bark can be beautiful under perennials, but they can be expensive to buy. You can sometimes find free sawdust at a local wood shop. I like to use it for blueberries and strawberries, because they love that extra acid. You can also get free wood chips through
www.chipdrop.in, where you can register your house, indicate what type of chips you prefer, and make yourself available as a drop site for local tree services that need to dump their shredded surplus.

A final word of warning: Some mulches, especially straw and leaves, can harbor slugs and snails. So watch out for that, especially around baby vegetable plants. In another post, I  discuss natural ways to deter these slimy pests. Until then, happy mulching!

#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
#foodforest #mulch

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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Free Mini-class: Urban Permaculture, accessing land in cities

with Becky Ellis

Excerpted from our double certificate design course.

The permaculture movement began as a re-imagining of agrarian landscapes but it has exciting emancipatory potential in re-imagining how cities might become places in which humans and nature co-create and co-operate. Urban permaculture allows us to create ecologically regenerative spaces in our individual lives and in collective spaces.

Lack of access to land is often raised as a barrier to participation in permaculture. Land ownership in North America, both rural and urban, is prohibitively expensive for many people. Many permaculture practices are based on land ownership including the creation of perennial gardens, the growing of food forests, major earthworks such as berms and swales and the building cob structures.
Picture of a woman sitting in her yard next to her Little Free Library
Me and my Little Free Library in London, ON.
In cities, access to land is one of the biggest obstacles for people hoping to practice permaculture. Land in the city tends to be very expensive and zoning rules mean that some practices may be forbidden in certain parts of the city (for example, animals considered ‘livestock’).

In this mini class we will discuss strategies for accessing land in cities.
Although access to land for urban agriculture projects can be an obstacle, people have found a variety of creative ways to overcome this barrier.
  • Accessing public land. Cities contain more public land than rural areas. Many community gardens are hosted on public, or publically accessible, land. Sometimes community gardens have rules or guidelines that restrict some permaculture techniques, for example, not allowing the planting of perennials or shrubs. You can approach this in a couple of ways: You can work with the city department or organization that oversees the garden to change the rules, or you can plant what you want and beg for forgiveness. Both approaches can work. If you plant what you want in your garden plot, I advise you to be mindful of your neighbours and not plant overly opportunistic plants such as comfrey or mint.
Picture of a front yard cucumber hedge
A front-yard cucumber hedge in Portland, Oregon.
Additionally, there is a growing movement around the world for public food forests, community farms and collective apiaries. Collective projects in public spaces can be an important way to begin to reclaim the commons and can help to disrupt the concept of private property. This is an important part of beginning to grapple with what it means to decolonize our cities. We can begin to shift our language and practice from one of ownership of land to one of care-taking and attachment. I have found it very useful to, while retaining my community activism and grassroots organizing, find some allies within city governments whether that be staff or city councilors.
Picture of a handmade bee hotel
A bee hotel in Luxembourg Park, Paris.
  • Community land trusts. There has been a growing movement for community growing projects on private land (such as vacant lots, private land with short-term leases, or, in some cases, public land with short-term leases) to be turned into community land trusts. Many of the community gardens in New York City that were set to be destroyed in the 1990s were saved by a community land trust. This can still bring up some tricky issues about who has the right to control that land. If the land trusts are larger non-profit with a lot of paid staff, there can still be a disconnect to and with the creators of the project. Don’t be discouraged though! There are many examples of grassroots land trust projects that value and practice participatory democracy.
  • Sharing other people’s property. There are many instances of people who have property sharing it with people who don’t for urban agriculture and permaculture projects. Sometimes this is done between strangers, using a website that matches them. More often it involves friends, family, and neighbours engaging in the kind of sharing that is a cornerstone of a connected community. It can be awkward to approach a neighbour, acquaintance, or even a friend about using their land for a project. As Heather Jo Flores suggests, “Go on, go over there, bring some seeds and a smile, and ask!” Even after they say yes, it means delicately negotiating some sort of mutually beneficial agreement about how the land will be used, by whom, and for how long. This is another reason why social permaculture is so crucial, and potentially amazing. You might not get the answer you want but you might find the possibilities for collaboration and creativity to be even greater than you hoped.

  • Accepting temporary access. As mentioned above, sometimes people can only get temporary access to land in cities. They may be renting their apartment or home, or a community project may only be given a temporary lease. It can be helpful to think of your project/design as part of a larger urban ecosystem. As Flores beautifully points out in Food not Lawns, “Growing ecological gardens, wherever you can, is never a waste of time. Nothing lasts forever, and if you can get a few baskets of food without damaging the environment, and perhaps leave behind some long-living fruit trees, then the larger ecological community will surely benefit from your labors. If you can do these things while also educating others, then your work will succeed many times over” (p. 24).

  • Guerilla Gardening. As noted earlier, many now established gardens got their start as guerilla gardens, i.e. people gardening on land without permission of the landowner. This is often done in vacant lots but people have also planted fruit trees in public parks and put garden baskets on public streetscapes. These projects may become permanent or they may be destroyed, but they have several benefits. One, they add to ecological health and biodiversity for as long as they exist and two, they encourage people to ask challenging and critical questions about city design and the food system.

  • One word of caution: In order to not replicate racism and/or classism, I recommend that you guerilla garden in your own neighbourhood. Sometimes well meaning people try to initiate urban agriculture or permaculture projects in neighbourhoods that are not their own and may, unwittingly or not, be part of marginalizing or alienating people in that community. Don’t decide for others what they need: Focus on the communities in which you are already well-integrated and then work in solidarity with other communities and neighbourhood.
Picture of an urban street container garden
The container garden in Washington D.C.
Now that we’ve discussed strategies for accessing land in cities it’s time for you to explore these strategies first hand. A recommended way to start would be to find an urban permaculture project and volunteer for one hour. Do whatever is needed but be sure to talk to people about their experiences while you work alongside them. If you can’t find an urban permaculture project, find a community garden or urban farm.


This miniclass is excerpted from the Urban Permaculture module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Becky Ellis. 

Becky Ellis is a permaculture educator and community activist in London, Ontario, Canada. Becky is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Western University. Her research project is focused on the relationship between people and urban bees.  Becky maintains the blog Permaculture for the People https://permacultureforthepeople.org and regularly gives workshops and presentations about urban permaculture, community gardening, and gentle beekeeping. She embraces the challenge of bringing permaculture (and honeybees!) to the suburbs.

Further reading on this topic:

Thomas, Pandora and Starhawk. “Black Lives Matter: A permaculture perspective”. Permaculture magazine. July 11, 2016. Accessed December 8, 2017. statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter activists. A must read.

Flores, Heather. Food not Lawns: How to run your yard into a garden and your neighbourhood into a community. Chelsea Green, 2006. A fabulous, in-depth guide to permaculture, especially focused on cities by our very own Heather Jo Fores. This book has a very good focus on community organizing - unlike some permaculture books it does not simply focus on transforming private spaces. It’s so inspiring that it spawned, Food not Lawns activist groups throughout the continent.

Piven, Frances Fox and Richard Cloward. Poor People’s Movements: Why they succeed, how they fail. Vintage Books, 1977. This is another older book that is a classic. In this book Piven and Cloward examine movements of and BY poor people. This book has been deeply influential and also puts forward the argument that poor people’s movements must be self-organized not implemented for them by well-meaning (or not) do-gooders. One of my favourite activist organizations is part of this movement - the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

#urbanpermaculture #communitylandtrusts #guerrillagardening #publicland #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #foodnotlawns
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Thursday, November 15, 2018

“Waste Not Want Not” Twelve+ R’s for Creating a Life Without Waste

Picture of the earth
Too wonderful to waste (NASA)
Most of the challenges we face in the world today, including climate change, diminishing resources, loss of biodiversity, food and water shortages, are the result of the wasteful practices of our modern society. Clever technologies conveniently remove the burden of dealing with the consequences of waste by distancing us from them, at least temporally. But invariably the impacts just cycle back somewhere or sometime else, often dumped on future generations. Tossed plastics don’t just disappear in the dump, the carbon dioxide from our industry and cars reaches out to the poles, waste cycles back to us, because we are part of a closed system, a beautifully complex web of connecting and cycling feedback loops. The impact of wastefulness goes beyond the material costs, something more profound is lost; the gift of wisdom that comes from insight that these feedback cycles offered us, an awareness of the value of our interconnection.

More and more people are joining a movement for a different kind of society, one based on the same ethics that guide permaculture; care for the people, the earth and future generations. People are claiming back their lives from mindless consumerism, debt, and wastefulness, to a life of awareness, self reliance, community and enjoying quality time. Taking practical personal steps, can be empowering in our own lives and lead to wider community level change, that ultimately leads to a profound cultural shift. In many communities such change is already in motion.
Picture of two women with a salad from the garden
Picture of a chart made by the author
Here are Twelve+ Rs to help guide you on your way to cutting down on waste. It may seem a simple goal, but it can be eye opening, and have surprising repercussions in all aspects of your life. While acting in your own life, you will be joining with other people all around the world, participating in becoming part of the positive solution to the bigger global challenges facing all of us.

 To cut down on waste-simply refuse to receive unnecessary items (even if they are free) or buy stuff that is not reusable, compostable or recyclable. Say no to plastic bottles, and bags, to package goods, to unnecessary items like junk mail, and stuff with high embedded costs. What we don’t take we don’t waste. There are movements like the Voluntary Simplicity Movement and Minimalism that aspire to cut back on waste. As the name implies the Zero Waste Movement takes it one step further-reducing waste to particularly zero.

: We can reduce what we do bring into our lives. Declutter. Conserve. Simply buy, own, and use less; water, fossil fuel based energy, chemicals, appliances, and stuff in general, etc. Lift the burden of stuff off your back and livelihood. Reduce what you thought you needed to own, clean, maintain, and replace. Step lightly into a new life where you accumulate less stuff and appreciate what you have.
A picture of a woman building with repurposed materials
Picture of a basket made from repurposed materials
Picture of two women building with repurposed materials
Repair: Fix things rather than tossing them and buying new ones. Buy things you can fix. For example Fairphones is making phones with parts that can be replaced when broken so the whole device does not need to be tossed. People are coming together in “repair cafes”, where they can share repair skills so items can be fixed and reused.

Reuse: Buy second hand when you can: clothes, furniture, appliances… everything. When you are done with something, give it a new home rather than throwing it away or even recycling it. When you buy, buy things that are well made and will last, that can be reused for generations. I still wear my dads old shirts that are about 30 years old and my 25 year old bike still works great. Antique furniture is cool and valuable and can often be found inexpensively at swap sales and flea markets — IKEA just doesn’t make things like that now.

​Plus, used items can be passed on with a story of care and respect. Reuse is not limited to stuff. For example greywater can often be reused through a simple design to water trees. Using your imagination and permaculture design many items can be creatively reused multiple times.
Picture of a basket made from 500 recycled bags
A basket crochet from 500 recycled plastic bags
Repurpose and Upcycling: Here is where people get really creative; turn pallets into furniture, a cigar box into a guitar, cut wine and beer bottles in half to make drinking glasses. There is a whole movement of reusing spent cooking oil to run cars. If you like crocheting, you can take 500 plastic bags like my sister Nina did, and crochet them into a bigger, stronger, better bag. People are building whole houses with “junk”, using everything from tires to plastic bottles (check out the earthship movement). You can make beautiful art, musical instruments, new clothes from old ones, old clothes into other useful stuff, (felting old sweaters into blankets). The examples are endless. Be creative, have friends help, throw an upcycling party.
Picture of a compost pile
Picture of worm compost
Regenerate: Compost organic waste in worm bins, backyard compost piles or through community composting programs to regenerate soils. Your organic waste problems become the solution. When you do buy, try to buy items that are compostable such as paper packaging rather than plastic. Buy clothes made from organic cotton, bamboo, or wool rather than polyester. Consider what items are made of, and choose biodegradable wherever possible.
Picture of at home recycling
Picture of paper towels from 100 percent recycled materials
Recycling: Is what you do, only if you can’t do the other R’s. It’s a last resort and it has to be done right otherwise it’s just “wishful” recycling. If we toss recyclables improperly into the bin like people do with garbage that’s what it might become. You may need to wash off food, separate by type, and bring things you want to recycle to certain drop sites. If you do buy, buy things made from recycled materials. Our plastic bucket is made from recycled plastic, the paper I print on is recycled paper. Buying recycled products reduces the extraction of more raw materials and helps close the loop for materials that are non biodegradable like plastics.
Picture of people sharing a meal
Picture of hands holding up a structure
Rethink: Is there another way to get this item rather than buying it, even if its recycled? Could I borrow it? Lend it? Swap it? Share it ? Communal ownership of tools, bikes, cars, land, homes, boats, washing machines and more.. is an example of rethinking consumerism. Here is another opportunity for creativity and building community. Our reliance on brain numbing convenience has really taken a lot of creatively and fun out of collaborating and sharing. And it’s not limited to stuff; transportation, services, work, projects, meals…all these activities, when shared, can build relationship webs of interdependence that create vibrant and caring communities.
Picture of different currencies
Redesign and reinvest: Innovators and regenerative product designers that are inspired by natural cycles have created a circular economy movement in which long-lasting product design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling are encouraged and rewarded. Taking it even further economists such as Kate Raworth, in her book “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist”, suggests we redesign our economy so it is based on earth and people care instead of one based on endless growth where costs are externalized. We can support these movements politically and as investors and consumers. Reinvest your money in your community and where your values are. More and more people are turning to alternative value base currencies.
Picture of a garden with some harvested vegetables in a basket
Picture of herbs in a jar
Resource and resilience: Reduce your waste resource footprint and create a more resilient lifestyle by growing and making your own resources. Growing some of your own food and herbs, even in small quantities, will lower your waste footprint. What you can’t grow resource locally at farmer markets, thereby reducing waste from transport and packaging. You can also resource your own toothpaste, shampoo and cleaning products using a few simple organic ingredients that are biodegradable and need no packaging. (The Internet has loads of recipes. I can pretty much take care of all of these with a kit of vinegar, baking soda, white clay, citrus peels, olive oil, and a bit of homemade soap).
Picture of a yellow flower
Relax, reflect, and recharge: Wastefulness is often the result of a rushed, over-extended lifestyle. Slow down. Take time to remember do things the way you want to, smell the flowers, play, reach out to friends, and act with care. It is indeed a shame to waste life’s gifts of time, opportunities, and people.

​Recognize, revere, and reward: 
The opposite of being wasteful, could be described as recognizing and appreciating what life offers us. The twelve +Rs can become a part of our daily practice that reflects and builds on our values to cherish life. From this orientation we are simply less likely to make choices that lead to waste. And more likely to recognize and enjoy what we have, in our lives, communities and the world. Our collective actions can reclaim a shared reverence for life. Acting together we can co-create deeply rewarding feedback loops.
Want to learn more and join a vibrant community on this path? The Permaculture Women’s Guild Online Permaculture Design Course, created by 40 international and expert co-facilitators offers a unique, meaningful, and in depth learning experience for people wanting to take part in creating a more resilient and sustainable future, click on this link for the complete information.
#waste #repurpose #minimalism #zerowastemovement #permaculture
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Thursday, November 8, 2018

Towards a Socially Sustainable Permaculture — Some Practical Steps

There is no doubt that over the past decades, permaculture has grown tremendously in popularity. Permaculture Design Certificates, books, movies, meetings, convergences, teachers’ groups — all have seen an increase. I would argue that Permaculture has grown into a bonafide, international, globally connected movement. For enthusiasts such as myself, this is generally great news. However, with popularity, also comes analysis and responsibility.
An illustration of a person carrying a city on their back
Permaculturists such as Heather Jo FloresKim Del Valle Garcia, LisaDePiano, and Silvia Di Blasio have all contributed analyses which point to the fact that there is certainly a large deficit within the permaculture movement in terms of understanding how oppression is systemic in nature, and how permaculture without awareness of this can perpetuate racism, sexism, classism, cultural appropriation and other forms of discrimination.

I think that the current work on decolonizing permaculture has a wealth resources to offer and this article is my humble attempt to add to that body of knowledge. This is a piece for folks who see the need to implement decolonization and social justice within permaculture but who might be left wondering what to do first in order to transition towards a more conscious and just permaculture practice.

​For instance, I might be interested in stopping the appropriation of knowledge, but I might not know the right words to use to give credit to local indigenous peoples in a way that is not only respectful but that also acknowledges the histories of violence and oppression that have lead to me, a white woman living in Canada, being able to do something like appropriate indigenous knowledge and not even be aware of it in the first place!
Picture of an illustration of a woman holding a rake in her garden with her dog by her and trees and a mountain in the distance

To help me contribute to this conversation, I think it would be useful to situate permaculture within a general context of social justice. When I use the term ‘social justice’ I refer to the acknowledgement of existing inequalities in terms of the distributions of power and privilege amongst social groups, as well as the work being done to address these inequalities.

These inequalities stem mostly from historically rooted social and economic systems that perpetuate violence, oppression, and discrimination based on intersections of race, gender, age, class, education, gender, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness and more.
So, what are some ways that the permaculture movement can engage better with social justice? Below are a few practical tips for reflection and action that could be useful for permaculture practitioners.

Actively make room in permaculture for people who may have more difficulty than others participating in the movement

Permaculture is often marketed as a movement that is ‘open to anyone’ or ‘doable by anyone’, but often we do not address the fact that some folks, while on board with permaculture ethics and principles, might not feel comfortable, or might not have resources to participate to the extent that others are able to.

First, think about this: who is usually present at permaculture gatherings, courses, and meet ups? Do you see any trends in terms of things like gender, skin colour, class or education level when thinking about who is out there teaching permaculture?

I was privileged enough to be able to attend and volunteer at the 5-day long European Permaculture Convergence in Bolsena, Italy in 2016. I was also happy to see presenter Pandora Thomas from the United States talk about social justice and her permaculture training programs for empowering youth at risk and formerly incarcerated folks with permaculture training. Still, Pandora was the only person whose workshop I attended in the convergence to address permaculture through a critical social justice lens and to actually have created a project around it. She was also one of very few people of colour to hold a workshop.

​Given their importance, the kinds of initiatives that Pandora is a part of should have a much larger presence in meetings, convergences, and published material about permaculture; so why don’t they? Perhaps because when the organizers of an event, project or course come from a place of privilege, it is easy not to have to reflect on those things which don’t affect them. So, research and reflection are the first step.

What are some simple things to implement? If you run a permaculture course or workshop, make sure there are gender neutral bathrooms, make sure it’s accessible, and let everyone know! Make sure that participants know that you will be addressing the issue of how folks with more resources in the community can “redistribute the surplus” (one of the core ethics of permaculture) more equitably within their communities, and invite speakers who might be best qualified to discuss this to participate in your workshop/course. Include topics that are locally relevant for marginalized communities. In Canada and the United States that might be something like: How can we work with indigenous communities to support them in their efforts to protect their lands and resources or in current struggles they have with the government?

Obtain Anti-Oppression Training — Don’t Just Read About it!

In order to better understand the concrete ways in which permaculture can be colonizing and generally problematic within the context of social justice, it is important to get the facts from a reliable source i.e. someone with experience in conveying and working with these kinds of topics.

I firmly hold that all Permaculturists need to cultivate an understanding of systemic oppression and colonial history in order to be better equipped to articulate why permaculture practices can contribute to ongoing colonization and to understand on a deep and meaningful level, why this needs to change.

Permaculturists, permaculture teachers or business owners could all benefit from attending workshops with facilitators trained in anti-oppression and social justice work. These can be found in most small and large cities or online. In Canada for instance, we have the PIRG’s — the Public Interest Research Groups — which are student-run bodies that provide support, services and training around issues of environmental and social justice. They will often have facilitators that can provide this kind of training or at least be able to help direct people to organizations or individuals who can. In the States I know about AORTA (Anti-Opression Resources Training Alliance) and Movement Generation who are also doing amazing work.

Design For Processing Discomfort When Faced With Uncomfortable Topics

This ties in closely with the point above. Facilitators who provide social justice and anti-oppression training are also great at helping folks work through the inevitable discomfort that talking about things like power and privilege can cause for many people.

Folks who hold more privilege and power in a given society will often need to process reactions such as guilt, shame, and defensiveness when they come to understand that they have grown up and in, therefore participate (though perhaps unintentionally) in a system that is oppressive to others.

In 2015 I wrote my masters thesis about this same phenomenon happening in the transition towns movement — a sustainability movement closely linked to permaculture — and how these feelings of discomfort around privilege sometimes perpetuated alienation between the movement and others trying to participate.

Through my thesis-writing process I found that I underwent much of the expected feelings of shame and defensiveness as I reflected on the harmful ways I myself had participated in permaculture-based projects. In my permaculture experience, teachers often urge students who anticipate a problem to “design for that”, i.e., to correctly anticipate or identify an issue and use resourcefulness to consciously mitigate it. Having read lots of material on social justice and being connected to activists and facilitators who could help me, I was able to design for having these difficult feelings and was able to get support in processing them.

I have to say that the experience was transformative for me, I am so happy to have gone through it and to be now able to participate in permaculture in a way that better aligns with my views of the world.

Actively Support Social Justice Groups and Activists in Your Community

In my experience, permaculturists often exist in a kind of social bubble. I think this happens when folks looking for more sustainable ways to live come across like minded individuals in the form of students, teachers, or connections they make at permaculture networks and events.

The bonds formed between permaculturists can be very strong and lead to the desire to collaborate solely within these networks. There is nothing wrong with any of this, however, indirectly it can cause a sort of bubble effect that can lead to permaculturists closing in and focusing on building their projects from scratch while simultaneously being oblivious to work already being done in their communities that they could support.

Of course, without reflecting on histories of colonialism or systemic oppression, it’s understandable that permaculturists who hold more privilege might not see the connection between their sustainable homestead (perhaps located on unceded Indigenous territory) and local Indigenous communities fighting for land rights.

However, once the consciousness is there, I do think that the desire for meaningful connection and collaboration comes. One thing to do, is to research your community, go outside of the ‘permabubble’ and offer your skills as a volunteer or show up at events hosted by local organizations and activists who are working towards justice and equity.

There are also ways to exist outside of the bubble within the permaculture community. For example, if permaculturists own a large acreage, why not offer some of that land to use for free to a local social justice organization which may not have such access? Why not invite activists from other groups to come and teach workshops or modules within your permaculture programs? Why not provide scholarships to participants in your partner organizations to attend your permaculture courses? Taking one step will lead to the realization that there are so many avenues for collaboration.


The beauty of permaculture is its amazing versatility as a holistic design system. A meaningful connection to the land can be regenerative to both the land itself and to the people stewarding it, but this connection needs to happen with a deep understanding of the inequalities currently present in our local and global communities. It is necessary to carry out a careful insertion of permaculture projects and practices into the existing matrices of power and privilege in our communities in such a way that these projects contribute to empowering and supporting the work of those folks who could benefit the most from them.

Want to know more?

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post! If you are interested in learning more about the social dimensions of permaculture as part of the first online Permaculture Design Certificate taught by a group of 40 women from around the world, check out THIS LINK.

Short Bio:

​My name is Lucie and I live in Kelowna, Canada, where I run a permaculture group and work as a coordinator in a non-profit organization that empowers community members facing hardships by teaching cooking, farming, and employment skills. I have a masters degree in the social dimensions of sustainability from Lund University and a background working in social sustainability, community building, writing and mixed media art. To find out more about me and what I do please visit luciebardos.net.
​ #decolonizingpermaculture #social justice #permaculturewomen #freepermaculture #socialpermaculture
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