Garden design workshop at Paradise Lot


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When someone like myself who is

a) a permaculture nut
b) a berry lover
c) a big fan of Eric Toensmeier’s books (especially Perennial Vegetables, and Edible Forest Gardens co-authored with Dave Jacke)

finds out that there is going to be

a) a day-long permaculture garden design workshop
b) combined with a berry tasting (!!)
c) taught by Eric and his co-grower Jonathan Bates in Western Massachusetts the very same weekend I happen to be in the area visiting friends…

…well, clearly, I was meant to be there.

Some of you may have heard of the urban property in Holyoke, MA, known as “Paradise Lot,” now documented in Eric and Jonathan’s book of the same name. The book’s subtitle more or less says it all: “Two plant geeks, one-tenth of an acre and the making of an edible garden oasis in the city.” Eric and Jonathan moved to the property in 2004 and, in ten years, have transformed a barren city lot with “terrible soil” (in their words) into a thriving urban backyard garden with over 40 species of fruit and 70 other perennial plants, a passive solar greenhouse, an aquaponics system, chickens and other micro-livestock, and a tropical garden (in Massachusetts!).

paradiselot-6At the workshop, Eric and Jonathan walked us slowly through every part of the garden and we discussed the garden design and the plants while sampling juicy berries and pawpaw fruit. Their knowledge of plants — and all other aspects of ecological design — is really phenomenal: they could rattle off, with their eyes closed, the English and Latin name of any plant on the property, as well as the plant’s family, habitat, needs and uses.

So, you may ask:

How is it possible to grow tropical plants like fig, citrus, avocado, guavas, and bananas in Massachusetts?

The answer is: by creating a number of different microclimates, simply by drawing on permaculture design principles of relative positioning in terms of sun/shade/wind.

Take a look at Paradise Lot’s greenhouse below. It’s entirely off-grid: there’s no heating system other than the power of the sun. But it’s built as a “tight house”: the north wall (on the right) is fully insulated with rigid foam board, while the south side (on the left) has three layers of plastic to let in the sun but keep out the cold. In addition, the aquaponics system in the greenhouse (blue barrels) has three black tanks of water with 800 gallons of water in them, creating thermal mass as the tanks get warm during the day. All this, plus the thoughtful positioning to maximize solar exposure, means that it never gets colder than 25 F in the greenhouse, even when the New England winters get down to -12 F outside. On a sunny day in January, it can get up to 85 F inside. So many hardy varieties of tropical plants do very well, even through the winter. paradiselotThe front yard is another spot where Eric and Jonathan have been able to create a near-subtropical (zone 7) microclimate, thanks to the south-facing aspect and the driveways which accumulate heat all day long. The plants here include taro, pomegranates, muscadine grape, sweet potato, and hardy banana.paradiselot-5Eric and Jonathan’s focus and passion is really perennial edible plants. But there are also some annual vegetable beds, as well as non-edible plants that fulfill other functions such as attracting pollinators or providing nutrients for the edibles. Below, Eric is standing next to a bed of cow pea greens (apparently a delicious and easy summer green) while pointing out the Korean pig plant, the hot spot for all the beneficial insects coming to the property.paradiselot-8I came back with a head full of ideas and inspiration — and a belly full of berries. In addition to familiar berries such as blueberries and several varieties of currants, the offerings included new (to many of us) discoveries such as goumis, gooseberries, juneberries, or black raspberries. It didn’t take us long to develop a taste for them, as the photo below reveals.paradiselot-3paradiselot-9P.S. Eric is almost finished with his new book, due to be released in February 2015. It’s about “carbon farming,” growing food with this kind of focus on perennials and no-till systems while also sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere in the process. That’s a win-win, in my opinion. Read the book preview here — this is one to look out for!

Off to summer pastures


summerpasturesI am going to be taking a hiatus from regular posting for a few weeks. My husband, our newborn daughter and I are spending most of the summer on extended visits to our families, so I will be away from my home/homestead and therefore less likely to pursue the kinds of things I write about here. The other reason is that I want to be able to focus fully on this time with my loved ones – in particular, this little girl who is experiencing her first summer. It’s possible I might not even have much to write about unless I want to turn Gather & Grow into a mommy blog… Which is not my intention, but who knows what parenthood will do to me!

Once I get back into posting regularly, though, I hope you’ll find the next installment of Gather & Grow to be worth the wait!

In the meantime: may your summer pastures be green, your swimming waters cool and sweet, and your blackberry bushes not too thorny!

Herb harvest in five ways


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If this were a normal summer, I’d be using our doorstep herbal garden all summer long and take my sweet time in harvesting and processing the herbs. But this summer we are going to be away for several weeks visiting our families. So, I had an herbal extravaganza this past weekend, gathering as much of our herbs as I could and putting them to a good use… In fact, no fewer than five different uses! I want to share these projects to remind fellow urban gardeners who have limited space that even a modest container herb garden like ours can yield beverages, spices, food, medicine and cosmetics.herbs1. Tea

Nothing says summer like an herbal iced tea, especially here in the South where, on particularly sultry days, as the ceiling fans lazily move the hot air around (we don’t use AC), a mason jar of cool refreshing tea travels with me as I go about my day. As far as beverages go, this one is hard to beat, especially if you get to pick the ingredients fresh at your doorstep. Mint is the classic herb for this purpose, of course; I like to add in some lemon balm as well. This is the easiest of all herbal preparations: pick, rinse, boil water, steep herbs, strain, cool, add sweetener if desired.herbs-3herbs22. Dried herbs

Now is also the time for me to pick and dry herbs to be used in the winter months — for cooking, for tea, and for medicinal purposes. Although little bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling are aesthetically more pleasing, this time I used the dehydrator to dry a lot of herbs at once and quickly. In a matter of hours, a bouquet of sage, oregano, lemon balm, mint, basil and marjoram is ready to be packed into little jars for the coming year.herbs-4herbs-73. Pesto

Note to self: next year, plant still more basil! Five or ten times as much. Even a sizeable plant really does get reduced to a few spoonfuls when you make pesto! (They’re tasty spoonfuls, though.) The food processor is a wonderful, wonderful invention, but when I have the time, I prefer to grind the pesto by hand. That’s when you get to watch the slow transformation of fresh leaves into sauce, and smell the aromas — some of my favorite ones: garlic, pine nuts, basil, parmesan and olive oil — in the process.

herbs3herbs-64. Medicinal honey

Last winter, I made a thyme syrup to help with a persistent cough. This time, I used honey as a base, since it not only extracts the healing properties of thyme, but also has beneficial enzymes of its own. The recipe I used is in Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, and it simply involves gently warming honey to 100 F, adding fresh thyme leaves, and keeping the jar in a warm place for a couple of weeks after that.IMG_1891IMG_20095. Medicinal salve

Lastly, I made a calendula salve. Calendula is an all-purpose healing plant for various skin problems, such as cuts and rashes, and I will be using this salve to treat and prevent diaper rash in our little one. This recipe, too, comes from Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, and uses calendula flowers, olive oil, beeswax, and lavender essential oil. Come autumn, I intend to get more intensively into herbal medicine and will likely be writing about that here, so if that interests you, you’ll want to stop by.


Labor of love


In the last days of being pregnant, I cast on my “labor project”: a cardigan for the baby, made with the silk yarn I spun this winter for that purpose. Someone had recommended that I have a project in mind — something relaxing and not too physically demanding — to keep my hands and mind occupied while waiting for labor to start. And thank goodness I followed that advice, since it was a long wait!silkcardigan3The pattern I chose is Mini Manu by Kate Davies (Ravelry link), a pleated yoke cardigan. It was perfect for this project: simple enough to bring out the best of such slightly fuzzy, slightly uneven yarn as my homespun silk was, yet complex enough to knit that it kept me engrossed in the work — especially since I had to learn several new techniques to complete it: the nine-stitch pleat, i-cord bind-off, and buttonholes. The smallest size, 0-6 months, is fairly loose on my newborn but should fit great later in the summer when we’re in the cooler North.silkcardigan2If I have ever created something slowly and lovingly and painstakingly, putting into every stitch my longing and care for the recipient of the end product, this is it. The recipient herself has not yet shared with me how she feels about it. But I dare to guess that the fuzzy, yet incredibly soft feel of the silk should feel nice on tender baby skin.

The Pedal People


I’m really happy and proud to see Northampton’s Pedal People featured on Milkwood today. The co-founders Alex and Ruthy are friends of friends, and I still remember when they started with what seemed then like an ingenious and slightly crazy idea. Many years later, Pedal People are thriving and keep pedaling!

Originally posted on Milkwood: homesteading skills for city & country:

pedal people01

It takes our favourite kind of people to address the problem of a lack of council-run rubbish collection service with their own bicycle-powered hauling service.

Which is what Pedal People of Northampton, Massachusetts in the United States do! 

View original 501 more words

She’s here!


One week and two days ago, I held my daughter in my arms for the first time. With her arrival, everything else has been made anew in our lives. Her quietly breathing, squealing, hiccuping, warm-bodied presence is the center of our home now. Dan and I are at the beginning of a lifelong journey of getting to know this new person and growing along with her. Aava 1 pv

I’m thankful that, in the months and weeks leading up to the birth, my midwives kept reminding me that every birth process entails something unexpected, something one was not prepared for. In my case, the one thing I had not been prepared for was having my pregnancy go on 15 days past the due date. Those days were lessons on patience and letting go, something that was asked of me in the actual labor and delivery as well. But in the end, what mattered was that we had a healthy baby girl and that I was able to give birth to her in the safest, most natural way possible given the circumstances.

We named her Aava [pronounced AH-vah], which in my native Finnish means wide, open, expansive, specifically with reference to the sea or the wilderness. It is also a Finnish alternate form of Eva/Ava, which derives from the Hebrew word for “life” or “the source of life.” Our hope is that her name will bring to her life openness like that of nature, and a sense of connectedness to all life.

Of all my “homegrown” projects, she is by far the most wondrous, the one I’m most proud of and grateful for.

A simple drip irrigation system



What does a sensible gardening couple do as their last project in the garden before the expected arrival of a new baby?

Answer: Install a drip irrigation system.

We’ve always hand-watered our plants up until now. Frankly, it’s my preference. Walking around the garden in the mornings, watering can in hand, I end up checking on the plants and noticing every bit of new growth, new blossoms, what’s ready to be harvested. Similarly, I notice immediately if there’s wilting, or evidence of pests, or anything else troubling the plants. Slowly and patiently watching the water flow into the soil, I develop an intimate sense of my garden and its needs, almost like checking in on a community of friends every day.

But with the impending arrival of a new family member… we’ve been told we’ll have our hands more than full, and having one less chore in the mornings seems like a good idea right now. So we installed a drip irrigation system in the garden this week. drip-2drip-4

While researching drip irrigation options (this website turned out to be great source of information), we found that we had two primary systems to choose from: the soaker hose and the somewhat more complex drip emitter system. We decided on the soaker hose method because it’s really easy to install and to adapt to new planting patterns. The soaker hose is a black recycled rubber hose with tiny invisible holes from which the water seeps out (something I’m addicted to watching now). The system we got is called Snip N Drip, and it comes with a garden hose and multiple connectors, so it’s possible to connect bits of the soaker hose to bits of the garden hose which carries the water from the water source to the raised bed, and from one raised bed to another. This way, the water drips only where we want it to drip — in the raised beds, at the soil level, close to the roots of our veggie plants.drip-3

The remaining steps are for us to cover the soaker hoses with straw mulch, which will protect them from UV rays and keep them from deteriorating — oh, and to add timers to make the entire process automatic. Otherwise, we might easily forget to turn the water on (or off!) once we have other, hmm, pressing priorities, defeating the whole purpose. But so far, the plants seem to be pleased with the new system. The pea vines popped out their first pea pods, and we also picked and ate our first harvest of broccoli raab this week!drip-5drip

Cooking with the sun



I’m excited to share with you the latest step towards energy resilience and reduced fossil fuel use here on our urban homestead: a solar cooker!! There are few forms of alternative energy that would be more appropriate to our location, for sunshine is the one form of freely available energy there’s lots of here in South Carolina. Although solar panels on the roof may still be a distant dream for renters like us, that doesn’t have to stop us from tapping into the power of the sun in other ways.solarcooking-2I’d long been thinking of making a solar cooker myself, and had collected different designs online. At the homesteading festival last October, I met a guy who had done a superb job at this, but he seemed much more tech-savvy than I am and had done things like using a laser cutter to cut his Styrofoam pieces just the right size. Mine would have been a fairly basic cardboard-aluminum foil-glass contraption. In the end, I realized that since we seem to move around so much, any such DIY version would probably not hold together in the long run. And I wanted the solar oven to be durable. Hence, we decided to invest in the All American Sun Oven, which impressed us at the Mother Earth News Fair last year.

The solar cooker is perfect for things that are best cooked slowly, such as stews, soups, and rice. I launched my solar cooking career with this curried lentil stew with squash and kale. A perfect meal for the weekend: I did the prep in the early afternoon, put the pot in the Sun Oven, and there it slowly simmered for a few hours while Dan and I worked in the garden. Occasionally one of us had to adjust the oven’s position in relation to the sun, but that was really all we had to do. It’s virtually impossible to burn anything in the solar cooker; the worst that can happen is that your delicious dish gets dried up. This is good news for anyone like myself who easily gets carried away by another project. By dinnertime, when the sun was already going down, our dinner was ready:solarcooking2The biggest solar cooking hit so far, though, has been this blueberry banana bread. It turned out perfectly moist and we gobbled down one loaf between the two of us right away.

solarcookingsolarcooking-5Solar blueberry banana bread

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2-2/3 cups sugar
3/4 stick butter, softened
2 eggs2 bananas, mashed
blueberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

Mix together the flours, the baking powder, and the salt. Beat the sugar and the butter in another bowl until you have a light, creamy texture. Add eggs (beaten) and banana. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients gradually, and lastly add the blueberries and the vanilla extract, if using. Pour into a greased bread pan (or two small ones) and place in the solar oven until they are golden brown and a matchstick inserted in the middle comes out clean. How long this will take in a solar oven will vary. On a clear, sunny day, mine was done in about 90 minutes.


The power of the sun is really impressive… and it’s encouraging that our first solar cooking experiments so far have been such successes. Now I just have to get in the habit of checking the weather report as I plan my meals!

A weekend of local edibles


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The theme of this weekend was local food — both cultivated and wild. Farm-to-fork and, hmm, forest-to-fork food, if you will.

Urban wild food foraging is something I’d already been introduced to when we were still living in Portland. I’ve written here before about my adventures with nettles, dandelion and cat’s ear, and elderflower. Alas, just as I had learned to identify and use a number of the edible and medicinal plants of the Pacific Northwest — and figure out where they grow in my neighborhood — we moved across the country to an entirely different climate and ecosystem. In many ways, I’ve had to start over. The botanical world of the Southeast is truly its own thing.

So when I found out that my friend and fellow permaculture enthusiast, Matt Kip, would be leading a wild edible plants walk in the woods on Saturday, I was immediately on board. As we walked and tasted our way through the woodlands and meadows on the banks of the Congaree river with Matt, I realized I was not in the company of total strangers: I met some old friends such as sweet cicely, chickweed, wood sorrel, and nettle. But I made some new friends and acquaintances as well. wildedibles2For example, I’d seen — and of course smelled — the striking, heavy-hanging purple flowers of wisteria that dot the landscape here as the city bursts into spring bloom, but had had no idea that you can eat them as well. Bull briar (also known as smilax) was another new discovery: the tender new leaves are mildly asparagus-flavored, and for me one of the highlights of the walk. wildedibles3I may be able to remember jewel weed and air potato just because of their memorable names… or recognize May apple, pokeweed, and native mulberry (below) because of their distinct leaf shapes…

On Sunday, I traded my hiking sandals for dressier ones as Dan and I joined a number of other foodies to sample the locally sourced fare at the Slow Food “sustainable chefs showcase” potluck and party, an annual event that kicks off the Indie Grits Film Festival here in Columbia. Organized by Slow Food Columbia, this event challenges local chefs to create a dish that uses at least one locally grown, sustainable major ingredient. Guests can also bring a potluck dish to share. It was a feast, and such a fun way to celebrate our local food scene. Dishes that made me go for seconds? The Thai tea and lemongrass doughnut holes, the warm kale and miso salad, the chilled asparagus soup served in dainty little cups, and the feta-and-kale spanakopita rolls with sweet onion jam.slowfoodslowfood-2 slowfood-3 slowfood-4 slowfood-5And just in case you were curious to see behind the scenes of this local food culture… this short documentary, Agri+Culture narrated by Erin Eisele, follows food “from farm to fork” in the Midlands of South Carolina. It’s great to see it highlight the very people who produce our eggs, dairy, and some of our vegetables — as well the advocates who, together with these farmers, are working hard to strengthen the small farms and local food movement in this state. Click below to watch and enjoy! 

The front yard garden


We’re transitioning away from being backyard gardeners: we’ve now become people who grow vegetables in their front yard… and on other people’s land. On a street where no one else seems to be growing edible plants — our neighbors’ idea of gardening is ornamental bushes and lawn — we’re putting our labor, our veggies, and our commitment to growing some of our own food boldly out there for everyone to see.

The reason for the shift was not to make some statement, though. It is simply that, because of the gorgeous tall old trees, our backyard is quite shady for most of the year, and whatever we’ve planted there has not thrived. We even considered moving to a different house that would have a yard better suited for gardening. And then we realized there was a much simpler solution. Following the permaculture principle “make least change for greatest effect,” instead of moving our entire household, we simply moved the raised beds to where they do get good sun — namely, the front yard. frontyardIn fact, we built two new raised beds there, in addition to the numerous large containers we already had. If I had my way, we would have sheetmulched the entire area and planted directly into the soil, but the landlord only allows us to garden in boxes and containers. Which is fine, really. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve watched everything pop — brassica plants and other greens, peas (here freshly trellised), carrots and beets, various kinds of lettuce and herbs. There’s no end to the curious questions, comments and compliments we get from passers-by when we’re out there working.

And we didn’t stop there. I had noticed that the thin sliver of lawn between our driveway and the neighbor’s house gets consistently good afternoon sun for most of the year. Somewhat nervously, I approached our neighbor to ask if he’d be willing to let us expand our garden there. It turned out he had nothing against it. So… woohoo: more room to grow!! The raised bed in the foreground currently has lettuce, onion, fava beans and emerging summer squash in it. The one in the background is dedicated to dye plants — Japanese indigo, woad, and hollyhock.frontyard1frontyard-4Fava beans and summer squash emerging…frontyard-3The fuchsia-colored flowery bush (not planted by us) provides a striking backdrop against which only veggies as colorful as rainbow chard and romaine lettuce stand any chance.




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