Monday, January 12, 2015

Book review: Eric Toensmeir's Paradise Lot - parallel universe?

My yard Toensmeier's yard

My project took place in Portland OR, his on the other side of the continent in Holyoke MA. My lot was two tenths of an acre, his lot half that. But besides differences in space for trees, and somewhat different plant palettes, Eric Toensmeir's account in Paradise Lot of applied permaculture reads like a parallel universe of my own experimentations with urban lot rehabilitation and perennial polycultures. We each started with infertile and unpromising soil, but guided by permaculture literature from other regions and with the help of gardening partners (romantic in my case; friend Jonathan Bates in his), we embarked on labors of faith towards similar goals of abundant food production and restored habitat health.

And we both succeeded. I've documented most of my experiments, successes, and failures on this blog. Toensmeier has shared much of his plant knowledge, from which I've drawn heavily, in the appendices of Edible Forest Gardens: Volume Two (coauthored with Dave Jacke), his book Perennial Vegetables, and his DVD Perennial Vegetable Gardening. But besides early site analysis in Edible Forest Gardens, a few video clips from garden tours, and the Apios Institute wiki behind a paywall, we haven't gotten many details on the overall transformation of his lot or on his polyculture explorations. Paradise Lot provides a fairly thorough account of how Toensmeir and Bates selected, analyzed, amended, sheet-mulched, planted, and enlivened their site. Though the theoretical process is well described in various forest gardening books, it doesn't hurt to have another case study providing specific details of how a site plan can evolve over the years.

Many individual species are briefly described, without many surprises for those who have already devoured references like Perennial Vegetables and Martin Crawford's Creating a Forest Garden. Most exciting for me is Toensmeier and Bates covering new ground with perennial polycultures (literally). It seems they encountered many of the same challenges I had with perennial polyculture design, especially from lack of hands-on experience growing and using individual species. It's difficult to assemble successful mixes without intimately understanding the life cycle, growth habits, and harvest season of each component. Amusingly, they created a hog-peanut/gooseberry mess similar to, though not as bad as, my infamous gooseberry/stinging nettle polyculture. A great example of why we need to share information about what works and what doesn't, to reduce effort wasted on demonstrably bad combinations!

Disappointingly, the book ends before Toensmeier has had a chance to develop many successful polycultures, similar to my timing of moving before getting to implement my own new perennial polyculture designs. Even so, there are some succesful polycultures and further hints and lessons in the book. Notably, he arrived at the same conclusion I did: low, spreading groundcovers are critical components. He describes success with some strawberry species, a violet, and some native plants, but without many details beyond that of what specific crops to fit together.

I find it very promising that we achieved similar positive results in fairly different climates. We both successfully rehabilitated trashed urban lots into land that could support both humans and non-humans. We both, through the simple techniques of heavy mulching to build soil and planting a wide variety of perennials, created habitat for greater numbers and species diversity of insects, birds, and other life. By selecting mostly edibles for our plantings, we both wound up with abundant harvests of low-maintenance perennial vegetables. (And we both had a shortage of perennial greens in the summer; apparently this has more to do with the life cycles of perennials than with the summer drought of the Pacific Northwest.) We both had similar success allowing natural predators to handle pest outbreaks. We both put a lot of time up-front into planning and design, but both made lots of mistakes easily avoidable by others learning from our examples, so I feel pretty confident that our achievements are replicable by anyone who takes this approach with even a minimum of planning and research.

I felt surprised by how much focus Toensmeir put on nitrogen-fixers, as I realized a couple years into our endeavour that one person's urine fertilizes 4000-5000sf of forest garden, the size of their entire lot. Despite cycling the urine from four adults into the yard, Toensmeier is still carefully planning N-fixing plants at the end of the book. Perhaps they all spend so much time off-site that they can't capture enough urine, or perhaps Toensmeir never thought to calculate this?

The book also features a strong subplot of the two bachelors hoping to attract mates, with as much success as in their gardening! Personally, I was much more interested in the plant-geek narrative, but I'm sure many readers will appreciate the human interest story balancing out the site analysis and gardening.

Toensmeir explores some of the dynamics of the neighborhood, the town of Holyoke, and the even broader community. I found his vague hope of inspiring change through personal example to be unconvincing. I'm fairly jaded by my own experience in Portland attempting to model something approximating urban self-sufficiency and sustainability: not only were our inputs of free wood chips and dumpstered waste streams unscaleable to more than a small fraction of the entire city, and not only did I conclude that Portland would have to kick out half the population even in a wildly optimistic scenario of everyone doing a better job than we'd managed, but only a handful of the people who toured our yard actually adopted perennials to any great extent. So I'm pessimistic (or realistic) about the inability of cities to ever support their populations in any sustainable manner.

But that's fairly tangential to the main focus of the book, and certainly anyone interested in urban, suburban, or rural zone 1 and 2 gardening can and should learn from this case study. It's a quick, fun, and relatively light read. Enjoy!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I too found Paradise Lot's obsession with nitrogen fixers a bit mysterious.
In the natural world nitrogen fixers are largely only present in early successional stages. While not currently engaging in permaculture, I have been looking into carbon sequestration.

My research has indicated that even in a relatively wet climate of the eastern US, 80% of the nitrogen remains on sight and converted into organic matter. 3% organic matter can supply most of the nitrogen needs of soil through natural decomposition processes. I've calculated that 7 years of standard fertilizer (Milorganite) at the recommended rates will produce enough nitrogen fertility to start reducing the needs, to less than half the recommended amount at 10 years.