Permaculture Lessons, part two: Disabled Permaculture

This is a guest post by Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales (see contact info below).


Hello! I made a guest post on Awkward Botany in March, introducing myself and my spouse, and talking a little about my life with permaculture. Permaculture is a way I learn about plants, love the earth, grow delicious foods, and connect with others. Permaculture has a community aspect, and respect for all beings is part of that. Permaculture is a great idea for disabled people.

Being disabled is a lot of work, and butting up against ableism all around is part of that. A default assumption many have, including many permaculture teachers, is that people are full of abundant energy and can live our values if we choose to. But being disabled means that what we want to do often isn’t the same as what we can accomplish. Disabled permaculture is a great take on permaculture that Ming and I have been doing together for 11 years of friendship and partnership.

Disabled permaculture is a valuable concept that many people can benefit from and customize to their own needs. Throughout this essay, I’ll mention many ways it helps me and Ming live a beautiful interdependent life.

how we’re disabled

My spouse Ming and I are both disabled. He has narcolepsy, so he falls asleep at unwanted times, doesn’t get restful sleep, and many aspects of life are impacted by his low energy and lack of wakeful cognition. Narcolepsy can contribute to struggles with memory, language, and reality comprehension. Ming also has a diagnosis of OCD.

Ming endures heartache trying to get his medical needs met, since a medication he uses for wakefulness is a controlled substance. The drug war plus health insurance nonsense means he has to jump through more hoops than anyone should need to, let alone a disabled person.

As for me, I have psychiatric diagnoses and hear voices, along with social differences and sensory sensitivities. Some terms that might apply to me are anxious and autistic. I like “crazy” as a reclaimed term, like queer and fat, which also apply. I have a schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type diagnosis. I was sedated on a bipolar cocktail for around 11 years.

how permaculture suits us

Permaculture is a helpful design system for disabled people such as ourselves. We have limited energy and fluctuating capabilities. Sometimes we’re not up for much. Permaculture is helpful as a realistic, forgiving, less energy intensive way of growing plants and doing community.

Permaculture is about working with the land forms and nature’s rhythms, not fighting against them. It’s observantly respectful to Mother Earth and one another.

A goal is to create food forests that are self-sustaining. We permaculturists like to take a long view, start small, design for resilience, and rest in hammocks. We create closed loop systems. It’s fun to consider the weaknesses of our systems’ interdependence and arrange backups for our backups, with layers of redundancy. Problems are seen as opportunities. We have a thing for hugelkultur. We enjoy rich diversity, especially at the edges.

image credit: wikimedia commons

Permaculturists love nourishing the land, with compost, generous mulching, water catchment in swales, and other ways of making the land more rich than the scraggly vacant lots and neglected yard space we arrived to. We like doing land justice, so inviting people in, opposing food deserts by sharing our bounty, organizing community gardens, and working together with locals.

We prefer collaboration over gentrification. Smiling, we get a lot of joy out of seed bombs, guerilla gardening wild areas, and having a lemonade party, when life gives us lemons and we make lemonade.

I’ve enjoyed gleaning fruit to share with Food Not Bombs, harvesting olives with neighbors, and lots of sheet mulching with discarded cardboard to unmake lawns. Permaculture has helped me by giving me a framework for the regenerative, earth-nourishing impulses that stirred within me already.

community and energy

If all of this sounds fun, that’s because it is. Why is permaculture especially good for people who are disabled?

Inviting people in and nourishing community means more people care about our garden, and are willing to step in when Ming and I are less out and about. Thank you to the kind community members who see what needs doing and are empowered to contribute to the thriving of garden life.

Also, permaculture is less energy intensive than other ways of growing plants. Long term solution is a relief. Food forests are like Eden. Creating and tending food forests means there can be a bit by bit accumulation of plants that work well together.

It’s not a stressful, all-at-once venture. There’s not the once or twice annual “rip everything out and start over” that I’ve seen other gardeners do. It feels relaxed and cumulative, good for a disabled pace.

When we have the energy and the weather is cooperative, we evaluate how the garden overall is doing. Do we have room for more herbs? Are enough flowers blooming to attract pollinators and keep them happy? What foods do we want to eat more of, in the next few months? Should we put sunflowers somewhere different this time? It’s unrushed, experimental, fun, and slow.

tree collards for disabled permaculture

The tree collards I mentioned last post are easier to grow than regular collards and kale. Let me tell you about these delicious leafy brassicas as a disabled permaculture example. Tree collards give tasty greens perennially, for years. We get a lot of delicious food from them!

Tree collards are easy to propagate. No need to buy or save seeds, then tend tender seedlings. Just break off a branch, stick it in the garden ground, make sure it stays moist for a few weeks, and hope for the best. It may root and start growing soon.

The tree collards we have are purple with the green. They’re gorgeous and can get lush in the winter. They’re tasty by themselves, sautéed with garlic, added to beans. We had some on our Passover Seder plate recently. When I cook rice, I might add a few tree collard leaves at the end to steam and greenly compliment my carbs.

When I make pesto, I throw in a few leaves of tree collard with the basil. When Ming is gardening, he often munches a few leaves. I smell them, pungent on his breath, when he returns indoors and kisses me.

It’s fun to give cuttings to friends and share the bounty. We talk about perennial vs annual and biennial. We talk about permaculture as an important guiding force in our disabled family. Even if the cuttings die, ideas and love were propagated. By sharing our values, we’ve inviting them into our life.

I like watching tree collards age, lean over, flower, die back, surge forth, reach for the sun. We keep them in our permaculture zone 1, right by our front door, as they are our darlings. They’re available to us all the time.

inevitable

Many people are disabled one way or another, and many people will become disabled, if lucky enough to live into old age. Disabled permaculture is a way most anyone can garden. The investment can be small and gradual.

Some people think of gardening as expensive, requiring tools and the building of raised beds, remaking the garden seasonally, and the accumulation of books and arcane knowledge. But permaculture is humble, less expensive, and becomes an intuitive part of life.

Our garden is not a separate thing that we can choose to do or not do, this spring. It’s always happening, like the other aspects of our creativity, our health, our family, and the cycles of nature.


Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales is a queer trikewitch who enjoys zines, ecstatic dance, and radical mental health. Find her at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

Permaculture Lessons, part one

This is a guest post by Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales (see contact info below).


Hello, I’m Laura-Marie. I love plants, permaculture, and learning what grows wherever I find myself. This guest post is about the permaculture lessons I’ve learned gardening with my spouse Ming. Ming is a kind, brilliant person who enjoys interdependence, being a street medic, and helping our garden grow. He’s a long-time permaculturist with two permaculture design certificates.

I’ve studied permaculture for ten years. I enjoy it for many reasons: responsibility and interdependence of organisms, long view, appreciation of small. Thinking a lot about water storage, microclimates, and what makes sense for a particular place. That “you don’t have too many snails–you have too few ducks” mentality. Anything you have too much of to use can be pollution, even something usually considered good.

origins

Ming and I are both from California. We moved to this Las Vegas desert from Sacramento, which is at the north part of the Central Valley and inland from the Bay Area. I love Sacramento for its diversity of humans, plentiful parks, and proximity to many other wonderful places. Ming likes that it’s compact, but not too dense. Things are close together and easy to get to, but not overly scrunched up and piled on each other. 

Sacramento gets hot in the summers but cools off at night with a breeze from The Delta. There are rivers, a wet feel, many trees. We liked helping with Food Not Bombs and being part of the peace community there.

When Ming and I gardened in Sacramento, our relationship grew and changed as our plants grew. At Fremont Community Garden, I turned compost for the first time. I ate the most delicious Asian pears I’ve ever tasted and learned what espalier pruning is, for easy reach of fruits. 

I learned how to be a good garden neighbor. The man who grew long beans in the plot next to ours went on vacation and asked us to water his plot. Our reward was harvesting from his garden. I never knew green beans could grow like that, and so delicious.

In that climate and soil, the oregano we had in our herb spiral went wild, like mint does some places. It turned into a delicious weed, and we would harvest whole trays of oregano to deliver to a local restaurant in exchange for cookies and drinks. It was informative to watch the oregano choke out the tarragon, as the herb spiral spiraled out of control.

Our lavender bush got bigger and bigger–I liked my fragrant attempts to divide it, as I learned how to use a shovel. I enjoyed our basil forest, pinching its flowers, and seeing basil wood for the first time.

tree collards

Tree collards are a quintessential permaculture plant. People who want food forests do well to grow this charming perennial brassica. Ming and I grew lush, gorgeous tree collards in Sacramento. They are so productive and delicious to eat. I loved to make curried greens with beans, and I added ripped up tree collard leaves to a stir fry or any veg dish for more deliciousness. Yes, I adored those pretty leaves, whether they were green or purple.  

Our biggest, first tree collard we called Sideshow Bob. Its leaves floofed up like the hair of Sideshow Bob on the cartoon tv show The Simpsons. Sideshow Bob got infested with Harlequin bugs, and I learned how to save a tree collard from Harlequin bug infestation. Squishing around 300 Harlequin bugs between my gloved fingers and putting their bug bodies into a bucket of soapy water was a thought-provoking scene of carnage.  

What am I willing to do, to defend my favorite plant and meal ingredient? I considered what must die to keep my own body alive, what’s worth it. I miss those cute orange gardening gloves that I would never look at the same way again.

Sideshow Bob tipped over, and Ming found ways to support its “trunk” as it grew diagonally. It was fun to watch Sideshow Bob’s adjustment to sideways life, and we liked to give cuttings away.

Tree collards are easy to propagate, so we had several tree collard plants in our garden after some time. We brought one to my mom’s house and planted it at the edge of her garden. She lived in a different part of California, further south near the coast. Her tree collard flourished there. Every time we visited my mom, I felt excited to see how the tree collard had grown.

sharing

For a while we had two gardens. We had our plot at Fremont Community Garden, but we also lived in an apartment complex with shared beds.There were four beds when we got there, and then two more were added.  

We learned about sharing garden space with friends, including emotions, not wanting to encroach on someone else’s space, challenges of communication and expectations. I had a clump of rainbow chard that I loved to eat and watch grow. It got infested with aphids, but I was hoping to win that battle.  After some time, a well-meaning neighbor ripped it out, and I cried.

We learned how much space is the right amount, and which plants we like to eat grow well in Sacramento.  Tomatoes do well there.  I learned a permaculture lesson about the wave of energy: how having a high yield might not correspond to having enough energy to harvest it.  

One summer, so many cherry tomatoes grew that we couldn’t harvest them fast enough. Big changes were happening in the lives of everyone who lived in that apartment building, when the tomato plants were covered in hundreds of fruits. It was sad, not to have the capacity to share surplus with people in need.

There’s a mushroom farm in Sacramento that gave away spent substrate, which intrigued us.  We decided to try using substrate as mulch. “It could take nutrients from the soil, since it’s just sawdust.  Maybe this is a silly idea,” we wondered.  But we opened the bags and spread the sawdust on our garden beds, curious,

Then there was a rainy couple weeks in the winter, and we found ourselves with more oyster mushrooms than we could eat. They fruited out like mad. That felt magical and was a tasty experiment in trying something out just to see what happens.

promise

In future guest posts, I’d like to tell you what I’ve learned doing permaculture in the desert, and how doing permaculture as a disabled person is a great idea. Please let this post serve as an introduction to how my spouse Ming and I see plants and enjoy garden life.  

We enjoy new experiences, and we have a slow, grateful pace of loving the land. We love plants as food and sibling organisms on this beautiful earth.


Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales is a queer permaculturist trikewitch who enjoys zines, ecstatic dance, and radical mental health. Find her at https://www.listeningtothenoiseuntilitmakessense.com.

Hamburg Parsley Harvest

Earlier this year I reviewed Emma Cooper’s book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, a book describing a slew of unusual, edible plants to try in the garden. Many of the plants profiled in the book sounded fun to grow, so I decided to try at least two this year: oca and Hamburg parsley. I didn’t get around to growing oca, but I did manage to produce a miniscule crop of Hamburg parsley.

root-parsley-1

Hamburg parsley (also known as root parsley) is the tuberous root forming variety (var. tuberosum) of garden parsley, Petroselinum crispum. Native to the Mediterranean region, P. crispum has long been cultivated as a culinary herb. It is a biennial in the family Apiaceae and a relative of several other commonly grown herbs and vegetable crops including dill, fennel, parsnip, and carrot. In its first year, the plant forms a rosette of leaves with long petioles. The leaves are pinnately compound with three, toothed leaflets. Flowers are produced in the second year and are borne in a flat-topped umbel on a stalk that reaches up to 80 centimeters tall. The individual flowers are tiny, star-shaped, and yellow to yellow-green.

The leaves of Hamburg parsley can be harvested and used like common parsley, but the large, white taproots are the real treat. They can be eaten raw or cooked. Eaten raw, they are similar to carrots but have a mild to strong parsley flavor. The bitter, parsley flavor mellows and sweetens when the roots are roasted or used as an ingredient in soups or stews.

root-parsley-2

Despite sowing seeds in a 13 foot long row, only two of my plants survived and reached a harvestable size. Germination was fairly successful, and at one point there were several tiny plants dispersed along the row. Most perished pretty early on though; probably the result of browsing by rabbits. Generally, parsley seeds can be slow to germinate, so when they are direct seeded, Cooper and others recommend sowing seeds of quick growing crops like radish and lettuce along with them to help mark the rows – something I didn’t do.

My harvest may have been pathetic, but at least I ended up with some decent roots to sample. Raw, the roots were not as crisp as a carrot, and the parsley flavor was a little strong. I roasted the remainder in the oven with potatoes, carrots, and garlic, and that was a delicious way to have them. If I manage to grow more in the future, I will have to try them in a soup.

root-parsley-3

Did you try something new in your garden this year? Share your experience in the comment section below.

Book Review: Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs

The spring season for plant-obsessed gardeners is a time to prepare to grow something new and different – something you’ve never tried growing before. Sure, standards and favorites will make an appearance, but when you love plants for plant’s sake you’ve got to try them all, especially the rare and unusual ones – the ones no one else is growing. Even if it ultimately turns out to be a disaster or a dud, at least you tried and can say you did.

That seems to be the spirit behind Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs by Emma Cooper. Subtitled, “Unusual Edible Plants and the People Who Grow Them,” Cooper’s book is all about trying new plants, both in the garden and on your plate. While its focus is on the rare and unusual, it is not a comprehensive guide to such plants – a book like that would require several volumes – rather it is a treatise about trying something different along with a few recommendations to get you started.

jadepearls_cover

Cooper starts out by explaining what she means by “unusual edible” – “exotic, old-fashioned, wild, or just plain weird.” Her definition includes plants that may be commonly grown agriculturally but may not make regular appearances in home gardens. She goes on to give a brief overview of plant exploration throughout history, highlighting the interest that humans have had for centuries – millennia even – in seeking out new plants to grow. She acknowledges that, in modern times, plant explorations have shifted from simply finding exotic species to bring home and exploit to cataloging species and advocating for their conservation in the wild. Of course, many of these explorations are still interested in finding species that are useful to humans or finding crop wild relatives that have something to offer genetically.

Cooper then includes more than 2o short interviews of people who are growers and promoters of lesser known edible plants. The people interviewed have much to offer in the way of plant suggestions and resource recommendations; however, this part of the book was a bit dull. Cooper includes several pages of resources at the end of the book, and many of the interviewees suggest the same plants and resources, so this section seemed redundant. That being said, there are some great responses to Cooper’s questions, including Owen Smith’s argument for “citizen-led research and breeding projects” and James Wong’s advise to seek out edible houseplants.

The remainder of the book is essentially a list of the plants that Cooper suggests trying. Again, it is not a comprehensive list of the unusual plants one could try, nor it is a full list of the plants that Cooper would recommend, but it is a good starting point. Cooper offers a description of each plant and an explanation for why it is included. The list is separated into seven categories: Heritage and Heirloom Plant Varieties, Forgotten Vegetables, The Lost Crops of the Incas, Oriental Vegetables, Perennial Pleasures, Unusual Herbs, and Weeds and Wildings.

This is the portion of the book that plant geeks are likely to find the most compelling. It is also where the reader learns where the title of the book comes from – “jade pearls” is another common name for Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis), and “alien eyeballs” is Cooper’s name for toothache plant (Acmella oleracea). I have tried a few of the plants that Cooper includes, and I was intrigued by many others, but for whatever reason the two that stood out to me as the ones I should try this year were Hamburg parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum) and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

Tubers of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Tubers of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

In the final chapter, Cooper offers – among other things – warnings about invasive species (“our responsibility is to ensure that the plants we encourage in our gardens stay in our gardens and are not allowed to escape into our local environment”), import restrictions (“be a good citizen and know what is allowed in your country [and I would add state/province], what isn’t, and why”), and wild harvesting (“act sustainably when foraging”). She then includes several pages of books and websites regarding unusual edibles and a long list of suppliers where seeds and plants can be acquired. Cooper is based in the U.K., so her list of suppliers is centered in that region, but a little bit of searching on the internet and asking around in various social media, etc. should help you develop a decent list for your region. International trades or purchases are an option, but as Cooper advises, follow the rules that are in place for moving plant material around.

Bottom line: find some interesting things to grow this year, experiment with things you’ve never tried – even things that aren’t said to grow well in your area – and if you’re having trouble deciding what to try or you just want to learn more about some interesting plants, check out Emma Cooper’s book.

Also, check out Emma Cooper’s blog and now defunct podcast (the last few episodes of which explore the content of this book).

Are you interested in writing a book review for Awkward Botany or helping out in some other way? If so, go here.

Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part three

The second section of Evelyn J. Hadden’s book, Hellstrip Gardening, is all about the unique challenges and obstacles one faces when gardening in that stretch of land between the sidewalk and the road. I highlighted some of those challenges last week. This week we are into the third section of Hadden’s book, the part that is all about designing, building, and managing a curbside garden. As I have read through this book, I have begun to look at hellstrips in a much different light. They are no longer boring sections of yard with little potential, but instead are full of possibility and have unique characteristics involving publicity and functionality that are absent from most of the rest of the urban landscape. Now that we are in the creation phase of the book, this fact becomes abundantly clear.

Choosing a Style

When deciding how to design and plant your curbside bed, it is important to consider – along with aesthetics – the functions you wish to achieve (storm water runoff collection, food production, wildlife habitat, etc.) as well as how you are going to maintain it. You may decide to embrace minimal maintenance with a mass planting of a single species or mass plantings of a handful of species in sections called drifts. This can be very attractively done, but it also has the risk of a disease or pest wiping out a section of plants. A mass planting of ground covers acts as a living mulch and will eliminate the need to replenish non-living mulch. Hadden provides descriptions of a few styles of garden design, such as formal, naturalistic, cottage garden, and stroll garden, each with their virtues and limitations. Growing food is also an option in a hellstrip. If this is the option you choose, keep the bed looking full by intermixing flowers and crop plants, growing perennial crops, and staggering planting times. Ultimately the style of the garden is the preference of the gardener; however, the environmental conditions of the hellstrip must also be a consideration.

Choosing Plants

Because hellstrips are by nature public gardens, they are the ideal place for plants that appeal to the human senses – plants that invite interaction. Hadden calls these plants “friendly plants.” They are plants that are aromatic, have interesting textures and bold colors, “feel great underfoot,” have “aesthetically pleasing symmetry,” and have unusual flowers or unique foliage. Hadden asserts that, “plants that invite touching engender good will,” so consider the ways that your hellstrip might make you a better neighbor.

Their public nature also means that hellstrip gardens are not the place for rare and valuable plants, and instead are ideal for easily replaceable and self-repairing plants. This includes perennials that are easily divided, shrubs that reproduce by layering, creeping plants that send out runners, and plants with seeds that are easily collected and can be sown in bare spots. One option is to plant only annuals. This eliminates the loss of plants during the winter when snow, sand, and/or salt are deposited in the beds by road clearing equipment. Just be sure to protect the soil with mulch or a cover crop during the cold months of the year.

A hellstrip is also an ideal location for an alternative lawn. Traditional lawns require loads of water and fertilizer and regular mowing in order to stay looking good. There are lots of other grasses and ground covers available now that are drought tolerant, require little or no fertilizer, don’t need to be mowed often or at all, and are still very attractive. Hadden has a website all about lawn alternatives called Less Lawn.

The seed heads of blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), one of many attractive alternatives to traditional turfgrass. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The seed heads of blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), one of many attractive alternatives to traditional turfgrass. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

When selecting plants for your hellstrip garden, consider the conditions it will have to endure. Unless you want to make serious amendments in order to accommodate certain plants, it is probably best to choose plants that are already adapted to your site. One way to determine this is to observe sites similar to yours and see what is thriving there; particularly make note of plants that look like they have been there for a while. Also, feel free to ask local experts at garden centers and public gardens what they might recommend for your site.

Earthshaping

“Diverse topography makes a more visually interesting garden, and it adds microclimates, letting you grow more diverse plants.” Shaping a curbside bed can also serve other functions such as softening traffic noise, defining pathways, collecting runoff, and providing wildlife habitat. When building a large berm, first create a rocky base and then fill in the spaces between the rocks with sand and small gravel. After that, add topsoil and firmly pack it down with machinery or a rolling drum. Small berms can be formed by simply piling up excess soil or turning over sections of sod and piling them up. Maintain good plant coverage on berms in order to reduce erosion, and consider planting shrubs with extensive root systems like sumac (Rhus sp.) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.).

Hellstrips are ideal locations for rain gardens and bioswales since they are typically surrounded by impervious surfaces. Storm water can be directed from these surfaces into your rain garden, thereby reducing the amount of storm water runoff that must be handled elsewhere. Hadden provides a brief overview on how to construct a rain garden; the process is too detailed to go into here. If you are serious about building one, it is important to do your research beforehand to be sure that it is built properly. There are several great resources available; one that I would recommend is Washington State University Extension.

Partnering with Nature

Time spent managing and maintaining your hellstrip garden can be greatly reduced when it is well planned out, contains plants that are suited to the site, and has good soil health. Helping you achieve these things is essentially what Hadden’s book is all about. Watering properly and wisely is key to the success of your hellstrip garden. Hadden suggests organizing plants into “irrigation zones,” separating those that need little or no water from those that need frequent or regular watering. When you do water, water “thoroughly and infrequently to maximize deep root growth and drought resistance.” Consider installing a drip irrigation system, particularly one that will direct the water to the roots of the plants and deliver it slowly. Avoid watering areas where there are no plants, as this encourages weed growth.

Mostly likely you will be doing some amount of trimming and pruning in your hellstrip. Consider how you will handle this plant material. You may choose to cut it up into fine pieces and leave it as mulch; or maybe you have a compost pile to add to. Large woody materials can be placed in a section of your property set aside for wildlife habitat. Choosing plants that will not outgrow the space will reduce the amount of pruning you will need to do.

As much as Hadden is an advocate for alternatives to conventional lawns, she is also an advocate for reducing the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Nobody enjoys hearing the clamor of a smelly, polluting leaf blower echoing through the neighborhood, so be a good neighbor and use a broom or rake instead. You will probably enjoy the task more as you listen to nature, get some exercise, and revel in your garden.

Continued focus on building healthy soil is paramount to the ongoing success of your curbside garden. Continue to add organic matter by letting some of the plant litter lie and decompose. Plant nitrogen fixing species like lupines (Lupinus sp.) and false indigos (Baptisia sp.). As much as possible avoid compacting the soil, especially when it is wet, and keep tilling and digging to a minimum once the garden is planted.

Partidge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate), an annual plant in the pea family (Fabaceae). One of many nitrogen fixing plants that can help improve soil health. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), an annual plant in the pea family (Fabaceae). One of many nitrogen fixing plants that can help improve soil fertility. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Again, this is only a fraction of what Hadden discusses in this section of her book. Consult the book for more of her wisdom. The final section of Hellstrip Gardening is a long list of plants that are “curbside-worthy” complete with photos and descriptions. Next week’s post will be all about a particular type of hellstrip garden that employs a subsection of those plants.

Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part one

Keeping a garden alive and thriving is replete with its inherent challenges. Plants have needs, and those needs vary by plant. Lots of sun might be great for one plant but harmful to another. Some plants are very drought tolerant and don’t require much water beyond what falls naturally from the sky, while others insist on regular supplemental irrigation. Plants also have preferred soil types, and that soil must provide a proper balance of nutrients. Then there is the litany of potential pests, diseases, and predators that can present themselves at any given moment. Frankly, it’s surprising that any garden stays alive, all things considered.

Some gardens have added challenges. They may be regularly visited (and trampled) by the public, who may or may not have pets in tow. They may be surrounded by paved surfaces which increase ambient air temperatures significantly and can introduce contaminants to the garden in the form of road salts, petrochemicals, fertilizers, sediments, and animal waste. They may encompass utility boxes, water meters, and road signs that require regular visits and occasional maintenance. All of these things describe the plight of a curbside garden, also known as a hellstrip – that section of green space between the road and the sidewalk. Comparatively, backyard gardens are veritable havens for plants.

Hellstrips have been on my mind for several years now. It all started back in graduate school while studying green roof technology. One of the macro benefits of green roofs is storm water mitigation. During a storm event, green roofs capture a greater proportion of precipitation compared to conventional roofs and slowly release it back into the environment. Storm water is a major issue in urban areas where the percentage of impervious surfaces is high. These surfaces prohibit precipitation from infiltrating the soil and recharging groundwater and nearby waterways. Instead, this water is rushed away and directed into either waste water treatment facilities or local waterways, carrying with it the contaminants that have collected on paved surfaces and rooftops. Gardens along roadways can be engineered to manage storm water in a similar way that green roofs do – capturing it, filtering it, and releasing it back into the environment at a slow pace – thereby minimizing the negative effects of storm water runoff.

A rain garden or bioswale planted in a hellstrip to help mitigate storm water runoff. (photo credit: epa.gov)

A rain garden or bioswale planted in a hellstrip to help mitigate storm water runoff (photo credit: epa.gov)

The hellstrip in front of my parent’s house has been the source of many headaches. It is another reason why hellstrips have been on my mind. It is a weed patch, but not intentionally so. I remember many years ago when my mom told me she was going to replace the weed patch with buffalograss. She was elated by the idea – little or no mowing, very little supplemental water, a cool alternative to conventional lawn. Now, years later after planting dozens of buffalograss plugs and making a concentrated effort to keep them alive and prospering, the hellstrip remains a weed patch. But my mom hasn’t given up hope. The hellstrip will be conquered in due time.

Riding my bike to work last summer, I regularly rode past a house that proudly displayed the potential that curbside gardens could reach. The house sits on the corner lot of an intersection that, due to the angle of the connecting roads, gives the lot a long triangular shape. This makes the hellstrip longer than most of the others in this neighborhood. On this lengthy strip, the owners have planted an expansive and diverse vegetable garden. While once upon a time vegetable gardens were largely confined to backyards, they have lately been making more regular appearances in front yards. Few, however, are as bold and as public as this one – a true hellstrip success.

Last year, garden writer and lawn alternative enthusiast, Evelyn Hadden, put out a book called, Hellstrip Gardening. When I discovered this, I was intrigued, especially considering all of the mulling over hellstrips I had been doing for so long. I was curious to learn what she had to say. It has taken me until now to read it, but it seems like an opportune time to do so. After all, we are in pre-spring, a time when garden planning is being done in earnest. Perhaps this book will give me some ideas and encouragement to tackle some hard to garden spots this year. And maybe this review (and Hadden’s book) will inspire you to do the same. After all, this approach (as Hadden suggests) doesn’t have to be limited to curbside garden beds and can, in fact, be applied to any garden with challenges beyond the norm (like gardens along driveways and in alleyways, for example). The ultimate goal, for me at least, will be to pass along whatever knowledge I gain from this to my parents so that we can address their hellstrip issues once and for all.

hellstrip gardening book

Hellstrip Gardening is organized into four sections: Inspirations, Situations, Creation, and Curbside-Worthy Plants. This review will also have multiple parts that will be posted as I read through the book. The first section of the book is intended to inspire and encourage – to show through words and pictures what others have done and to give you that “if they can do it, so can I” sort of feeling. It also introduces some of the challenges of gardening in hellstrips as Hadden visits 12 gardens across the United States and talks with the people who designed, installed, and maintain them. She tells the story of how the gardens came to be and showcases some of the plants and plant combinations that were used in each situation. The challenges will be fleshed out in the following section; these narratives are meant more to demonstrate what can be done. There are dozens of great photos throughout, and the short plant lists at the end of each profile are sure to be useful.

Now that we’re inspired, next week’s post will take a look at what Hadden has to say about addressing challenges and overcoming obstacles that are unique to hellstrip gardens.

Our Backyard Farm and Garden Show: Fall 2014

I had every intention of documenting this year’s garden more thoroughly, but as things tend to go, the days got busy and the year got away from me. Now here we are in mid-October, still waiting for the first frost but accepting its imminence, watching reluctantly as another growing season comes to a close. We took several pictures but few notes, so what follows is a series of photos and a few reflections on what transpired this past year in, what Flora likes to call, Our Backyard Farm and Garden Show.

Abundance

Abundance

I guess I should start at the beginning. Last year I was living in an apartment. I was growing things in two small flower beds and a few containers on my patio. That had been my story for about a decade – growing what I could on porches and patios and in flower beds of various apartments in a few different parts of the country. At one point I was living in an apartment with no space at all to grow anything, and so I attempted to start a garden in the backyard of an abandoned, neighboring house – geurilla gardening style – but that didn’t go so well. At another location I had a plot at a community garden. The three years I spent there were fun, but definitely not as nice as stepping outside my door and into my garden.

Earlier this year, I moved in with Flora. She was renting a house with a yard, so when I joined her, I also joined her yard. Flora is a gardener, too; she had spent her first year here growing things in the existing garden spaces but wanted to expand. So we did. We enlarged three beds considerably and built four raised beds and two compost bins. We also got permission to grow things in the neighbor’s raised beds. And that’s how our growing season started – coalescence and expansion.

Then summer happened. It came and went, actually. Most days were spent just trying to keep everything alive – moving sprinklers around, warding off slugs and other bugs, and staking things up. Abundance was apparent pretty much immediately. We started harvesting greens (lettuce, kale, collards, mustards) en masse. Shortly after that, cucumbers appeared in concert with beets, turnips, basil, ground cherries, eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, etc. Even now – anticipating that first frost – the harvest continues. We are uncertain whether or not we will remain here for another growing season; regardless, we are considering the ways in which we might expand in case we do. Despite the amount of work that has gone into our garden so far, we still want to do more. Apparently, our love of gardening knows no bounds.

A view of our side yard. It is pretty shady in this section of the yard but we were still able to grow kale and collards along with several different flowers and herbs.

A view of our side yard. It is pretty shady in this bed but we were still able to grow kale and collards along with several different flowers and herbs.

 

We grew several varieties of lettuce. This is one that I was most excited about. It's called 'Tennis Ball.' It is a miniature butterhead type that Thomas Jefferson loved and used to grow in his garden at Monticello.

We grew many varieties of lettuce. This is one that I was most excited about. It’s called ‘Tennis Ball.’ It is a miniature butterhead type that Thomas Jefferson loved and grew in his garden at Monticello.

 

'Shanghai Green' Pak Choy

‘Shanghai Green’ Pak Choy

 

'Purple Top White Globe' Turnips

‘Purple Top White Globe’ Turnips

 

A miniature purple carrot with legs.

A miniature purple carrot with legs.

 

Two cucumbers hanging on a makeshift  trellis. I can't remember what variety they are. This why I need to remember to take better notes.

Two cucumbers hanging on a makeshift trellis. I can’t remember what variety they are. This why I need to remember to take better notes.

 

'San Marzano' Roma Tomato. We grew three other varieties of tomatoes along with this one.

‘San Marzano’ Roma Tomatoes. We grew three other varieties of tomatoes along with this one.

 

The flower of a 'Hong Hong' sweet potato. We haven't harvested these yet, so we're not sure what we're going to get. Sweet potatoes are not commonly grown in southern Idaho, so we're anxious to see how they do.

The flower of a ‘Hong Hong’ sweet potato. We have not harvested these yet, so we are not sure what we are going to get. Sweet potatoes are not commonly grown in southern Idaho, so we are anxious to see how they do.

 

We grew lots of flowers, too. 'Black Knight' scabiosa (aka pincushion flower)was one of our favorites.

We grew lots of flowers, too. ‘Black Knight’ scabiosa (aka pincushion flower) was one of our favorites.

 

Some flower's we grew specifically for the bees, like this bee's friend (Phacelia hastate).

We grew some flowers specifically for the bees, like this bee’s friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia).

 

We grew other flowers for eating, like this nasturtium.

We grew other flowers for eating, like this nasturtium.

 

Even the cat loves being in the garden...

Even the cat loves being in the garden…

It has been an incredible year. “Abundant” is the best word that I can think of to describe it. We have learned a lot through successes and failures alike, and we are anxious to do it all again (and more) next year. Until then we are getting ready to settle in for the winter – to give ourselves and our garden a much needed rest. For more pictures and semi-regular updates on how our garden is growing, follow Awkward Botany on tumblr and twitter, and feel free to share your gardening adventures in the comments section below.

Square Foot Rooftop Gardening

Square foot gardening is a method of gardening that was described and popularized by Mel Bartholomew. The basic concept is simple: measure out your garden beds into equal squares (4 feet by 4 feet) and then plant individual crops into each square following specific spacing recommendations for each crop. The square foot method is intended to eliminate the inefficiencies of standard row planting, making vegetable crops easier to plant, maintain, and harvest. Bartholomew’s book about square foot gardening was first published in 1981. From that book came a television series on PBS, various other books and updated versions of the original book, a square foot gardening product line, and the Square Foot Gardening Foundation.

As a long time gardener, I had been familiar with Bartholomew’s book and its basic premise for a while but had never read it until recently. I found the book to be basically what I expected: a description of how to garden in squares instead of rows. I can see how this system could be very simple, attractive, and efficient while simultaneously producing decent sized yields; however I felt like Bartholomew’s description of the process made gardening into a very methodical, calculated, and meticulous task bordering on joyless. I’m sure that’s not how he sees it (nor how it really is), but then again, he’s a retired engineer [insert smiley face here].

For a long time I’ve had an interest in green roofs. I even went to graduate school to study them. So when I got to the part in Bartholomew’s book where he talks about square foot gardening on rooftops, I was intrigued. Green roofs (along with rooftop vegetable gardening) have become fairly common in urban areas in the past decade or two. And for good reason. Green roofs offer myriad benefits including mitigating storm water runoff (and the numerous sub-benefits involved with that), reducing the urban heat island effect, increasing a building’s energy efficiency, and re-introducing green space and wildlife habitat that was lost when a building was built.

Vegetable gardening on rooftops is a practical solution for residents of urban areas where space for gardens on the ground is limited. Restaurants – like Noble Rot in Portland, Oregon and Café Osage in St. Louis, Missouri – have found that they can grow some of the produce and herbs they need on their rooftops while simultaneously setting themselves apart from other restaurants. There are also a few urban farming operations on rooftops (Brooklyn Grange and Eagle Street Rooftop Farm for example). Michigan State University (an institution with one of the most prominent green roof research labs in the U.S.) has a research program dedicated to improving rooftop vegetable crop production. So with this recent trend of growing food on rooftops, I was curious to read what Bartholomew was saying about the subject more than thirty years ago, back when green roof vegetable gardening was less than mainstream.

The reality is that square foot rooftop gardening gets only a brief mention in Bartholomew’s book (at least in the first edition – perhaps he has more to say about it in more recent editions), but what he does have to say is relevant.

Rooftops are windy:

“Stay away from plants that grow tall, have delicate stems, or that might be blown over when they are mature and filled with ripening fruit…The wind can be unmerciful to a plant; it whips the leaves about and can dry out the plant in short order.”

Rooftops are hot:

“The other big consideration for rooftop growing is heat buildup…These conditions will naturally affect both the frequency and amount of watering the garden will need.”

Rooftops have weight limits:

“The soil in your rooftop garden should be as light and porous (yet still be water retentive) as possible. Mix in lots of vermiculite and peat moss.”

Each of these three considerations (wind, heat, and weight) continue to be considerations for any vegetated roof whether it includes vegetable crops or not. Yet people are figuring out how to overcome these obstacles, constructing and maintaining incredible rooftop gardens that are both productive and beneficial.

Rooftop Garden - Manhattan, New York ( photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Rooftop Garden – Manhattan, New York ( photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In future posts, I intend to elaborate more on this topic, profiling individuals, groups, and organizations that are making this sort of thing happen. Comment below and share something about your favorite rooftop garden and/or recommend a rooftop garden that should be profiled in an upcoming post.