Yesterday, we took a day trip to beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, to join Zev Friedman in touring two urban permaculture gardens he has designed. Zev is incredibly knowledgeable about plants, and we often moved through the landscape plant by plant, talking about their properties and what they’re good for. The four-hour tour introduced me not only to a host of useful, edible plants that thrive in this region, but gave me lots of practical design ideas to play with in the future.
The first site we visited was a residential permaculture system in West Asheville, complete with ducks, a pond, rainwater catchment systems, cob-walled raised beds, and a diverse forest garden — all this on one sixth of an acre, and implemented with a minimal budget. In the front yard, Zev has made use of the warm micro-climate due to the south-western exposure and the proximity of the heat-radiating driveway. Four years ago, this spot was a lawn. Now it’s a diverse and productive landscape with fruit and nut trees such as pecan, peach, hardy banana, mulberry, and several nitrogen-fixing goumi berries.
All the trees are strategically placed: the pecan and the peach will grow tall enough to provide shade for the currently exposed driveway. The smaller goumi berries are on the south side of these trees, so that they won’t be shaded by the pecan and the peach. The mulberries are planted right next to the driveway, because the asphalt stores heat and meets the mulberry’s need for some extra warm comfort.
The understory below the fruit trees consists of guild plants, selected because each of them plays a role that is beneficial for the others: horseradish, smartweed, groundnut, five different kinds of strawberries as an edible groundcover… The photo below shows a young guild centered around the basswood tree, the American version of the European linden, which fixes calcium into the soil. It is surrounded by the pollinator-attracting aster (left), the super-nutrient accumulator comfrey (left), sochan (an edible early green), and sorrel (another edible green).
In the backyard, several systems are in place to catch and store energy, primarily rainwater and solar heat. In addition to a large rain barrel, the northern side of the house has a French drain going downslope from the gutter spout, directing rainwater to a contour trench that provides irrigation for the edible plants along the northern boundary, such as elderberries, blueberries, and strawberries. In the photo below, Zev is standing next to the recently completed pond, which will catch and store rainwater and provide habitat for the Ancona ducks, whose coop you can see in the background. (I tried to take a photo of the ducks, but they were too shy.)The raised beds are built out of cob to experiment with making raised beds out of affordable and locally sources materials. The clay for the cob was the result of digging the pond, and the sand came from nearby. The cob also stores solar heat during the day and releases it at night, keeping the plants warmer. And then there was more food — corn and amaranth growing tall, more blueberries, an Autumn olive tree…The second site was a polycropped garden on a 1/3 acre corner lot, utilizing the so-called milpa system of crop-growing. Watch Zev talk about this site and the milpa strategy in this video. A fundamental part of the this growing strategy is the addition of charcoal into the soil. Mixed with compost, it allows the soil to better retain moisture and nutrients. This year, the main crop here is corn, and judging from how healthy the corn cobs looked, they are really loving the soil.
Because the lot has a steep slope, to prevent erosion and to catch and store water, Zev and his apprentices built a narrow swale pond at the highest elevation point on the property. From here water can be directed downslope to the corn and vegetable fields below through gravity-fed siphon irrigation.What’s perhaps most amazing about this site, though, is the way it exemplifies the power of community. A few years ago, the lot was covered in kudzu, burdock, and trash. With a very low budget, but with a lot of help from the community, Zev and the property owner have been able to transform it into a productive landscape for a variety of food crops, such as corn and buckwheat. With an outdoor kitchen, a small amphitheater for arts performances, and a community kiosk planned for the future, this place also promises to continue to be a spot that will bring the neighborhood together.