One of the reasons why permaculture holds so much promise is that, in the future, cities and suburbs need to be producing more and more of their own food, and permaculture strategies are perfect for growing a lot in small spaces. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting some really impressive urban permaculture farmers here in Portland, and want to introduce three sites that exemplify some of the key principles of urban permaculture design. All of them are on regular-sized urban lots, but as you will see, their owners have transformed them into productive edible landscapes.
Believe it or not, this urban backyard was covered by a lawn only about six months before the photo was taken. The first thing that permaculture expert Marisha Auerbach and her partner did upon moving in was sheetmulch the backyard and bring in a truckload of compost to cover it. They then created raised beds out of strawbales filled with composted cow manure, and began to plant directly into them. Over time, the straw breaks down, and the combination of straw and compost creates a fertile growing environment for veggies.
The raised beds are not all straight lines and angles, but organically shaped, creating interesting pathways in between. Right behind this bed is the fenced-off area for chickens that goes all the way around the edges of the property like a moat. This is the property’s perennial fruit zone: young fruit trees and berry bushes are currently getting established there, and in the meantime, the chickens improve the soil.
Marisha thinks carefully about maximizing the relationships between her plants. Vegetables are interplanted with other plants, which serve functions such as fixing nitrogen or attracting beneficial insects. Plants are allowed to go to seed and re-seed themselves, which means less work for the gardener. The diversity of this garden is mind-boggling — so many varieties, so much going on.
The second urban permaculture farm, Tabor Tilth, was established about 13 years ago. There are now several mature fruit trees — including paw paw, native to the US! — and various dye, fiber, and medicinal plants in addition to fruit and vegetables. But I wanted to focus on this neat little system:
Connie raises meat rabbits in these hutches. On the left, you can see bamboo growing; it is used to feed the rabbits and provide shade for them. The rabbit poop falls into the ground, and it, in turn, provides nitrogen for the bamboo. On the other side of the bamboo is a fish pond made out of an old bathtub. The fish eat mosquitoes, and when the water overflows, it provides water for the bamboo, which needs a lot of water. It’s really an ingenious closed nutrient loop, a great example of the kind of integrated system that permaculture is all about. The rest of Connie’s garden follows similar principles. Every plant is where it is for a reason, as a result of careful consideration of both its needs and yields. Diverse plantings, compost heaps and so on create food not only for humans, but also for pollinators and soil micro-organisms — and yes, for the fish and the rabbits and one very friendly bluejay. Connie estimates that she is able to produce about 60-70 percent of the food that she eats and barters on this 1/5 of an acre.
The third site, Planet Repair Institute, is perhaps Portland’s most active urban permaculture education site. I’ve visited them a few times for lectures and workshops, and am always so impressed with all that they are doing. The main house features the first code-approved straw clay retrofit in Portland, with beautiful mosaics and sculptures on the external walls (in progress in the photo below, during Village Building Convergence 2012).
This is the view from the street. As you can see, no space has been wasted for a lawn. Instead, it is all dedicated to an intensively planted vegetable, herb, and flower garden. On the far left, you may be able to see the rain barrel system of six rain barrels, which provide water for watering vegetables during Portland’s hot and dry summers (a consideration in urban areas, where the water bill would otherwise run very high). In the middle is a low-cost greenhouse made from salvaged materials. Also, be sure not to miss the funky tower on the right — the world’s first solar-powered Cat Palace! At the back of the house, there is an equally funky Chicken Palace, as well as other examples of natural building and more vegetable beds. These are also the folks behind City Repair and their annual ten-day place-making festival, the Village Building Convergence, which inspires urban neighborhoods and communities to reclaim public spaces and create commons that invite people to come together, rather than being divided by the grid. But that is a topic for another post!
To sum up, here are some of the key strategies of urban permaculture design:
- create integrated systems in which the yields and needs of various elements support each other
- establish a rain barrel system for collecting rainwater
- recycle and produce nutrients so that you can return them into the soil as they are used up: lots of compost, various compost teas, diluted urine for nitrogen, green manures
- maximize food production by making use of small spaces: grow vertically (trellising, vines etc.), in narrow areas on the sides of the house (e.g. espaliered fruit trees), in containers on fire escapes and balconies
- think outside the box: you can grow food or keep bees on the roof, or plant a garden in the median strip between the street and the sidewalk, or rip out the driveway and plant a corn field instead!
- make use of the unused resources around you: source dry leaves for mulching from your neighbors in the fall, coffee grounds and veggie scraps from nearby cafes and restaurants, scrap materials for various building projects, and willing collaborators and participants for work parties from the neighborhood
If you’re still hungry for more inspiration, check out this site.