Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Most (and Least) Important Tasks for High-Value Gardens (and Farms)

(Draft design sketch for a Habitat for Humanity project.)

Sure, maybe you're willing to put in $30 of cash and work for a single tomato because it's your hobby. But honestly, most people I see start this way end up letting the garden go after a few years because it just isn't worth the time.

From my observations, the people who harvest the most value, satisfaction and, well, produce out of their gardens are those who take gardening seriously. We keep things simple, but we also plan, prioritize and intend to progress over time, becoming better and better growers. Over time, we get better results.

The same is true for those who want to turn their growing into an income through farming. 

One tool we can use to maximize our garden value is the Pareto curve, which shows us 80% of our returns will come from just 20% of our efforts. This is often called the 80/20 principle. Take weeding, for example. The pareto curve implies that 20% of our weeding gives us 80% of our results, yet many gardeners continue weeding to sterile perfection, long past the "point of diminishing returns" where the hours of weeding will have no noticeable results on yields. As it turns out, research on herbicide and pesticide value confirms exactly this!

Over 30-something years spent involved in farming, foraging and gardening, here's my list of the MOST (and Least) Important Tasks for a High-Value Garden or Farm:


The Least Important Garden Tasks:

1. Weeding. Each hour we spend weeding dilutes the real value of our produce, period. Past a point, it has 0 value, yet we slave away (or make the kids do it!) And still, the perfectly, painfully weed-free garden just takes one vacation, bad cold, or family emergency to turn into a weed-covered mess and total loss! I've seen it 1,000,000 times! Yet, you don't have to weed at all to have a good garden....
2. Tilling and digging the soil. It destroys the soil, wastes time and gas, and breaks your back. And yet it is completely unnecessary, in fact -  We haven't tilled or dug in years. 
3. Strimming. Again, unnecessary. Add gas-powered lawn mowing to this list, too.

4. Fall garden clean-up. No value, actually harms garden health. 

5. Fertilizing. Most conventional and even most organic fertilizers have been shown to be completely unnecessary, and even harm long-term soil health. 

6. Most fancy irrigation - especially drip irrigation. While they DO have a place in a smart design, research from multiple sources have been unable to document any value from the time and investment put into fancy irrigation systems. 

7. Most greenhouses. Again, they may have their place in a well-designed system, but it has been difficult for researches to document any good returns on most greenhouse projects. And they're unnecessary for winter produce!

8. Spraying herbicides and pesticides. Just don't do it, ever. Totally counter-productive to a happy and healthy garden. 

9. Cultivating the soil. Again, unnecessary. Haven't done it for 15 years!

The Most Important Garden Tasks:

There's not much in the world I'm certain of, but this list is one thing. Here are the tasks that have unquestionably given us the biggest yields:

1. Day-dreaming in the garden. Specifically, creative daydreaming about issues of design, project vision, and if you're a farmer, branding. This is probably the single effort that has paid me back with the most value. If you don't have a clear vision about what you really WANT out of your landscape, garden or farm, you're extremely unlikely to get it. It's not enough to think: "I'll start a farm = profit!" You need a clear vision of what kind of farm, what kind of garden - and what kind of life you want those to support! Then you can start assessing whether that vision is realistic and making a plan to get where you want to be. For farms, a study from MSU found that one of the biggest determining factors of profitability was the ability to charge a higher rate at market. And that was all about having a compelling vision and brand. 

2. Design. "Permaculture is protracted thought and design, instead of protracted labor." Almost every grunt-work task on the list above can be designed out of a garden! For example, why spend hours per week weeding when you can design a low-weeding or weed-free garden system that will last for years? Why spend time watering, when you can design gardens that water themselves - without expensive, time-consuming irrigation systems! In Permaculture, we use a variety of tools to maximize the design of our own personalized food systems to ensure truly healthy food and gardens that really provide value. To start that adventure yourself, I recommend our Community Supported Permaculture Program

3. Planning. Now, this is a research-based approach to a profitable farm and valuable garden. Research from MSU, Vermont and UCLA have all found that one important factor is associated with profitable farms: planning for success. This means creating goals, keeping records and using that feedback to improve over time. Even if you don't want a profitable farm, that becomes key to a valuable, enjoyable garden. But "diminishing returns" applies here, too. You'll get 80% of that value out of a few simple efforts. 
4. Listening to community members (family members) and customers. This is the single thing that transformed our business from a low-impact money-loser to a high-impact profitable business helping real people achieve their goals. Give the people what they want and need. If you're a home gardener, this goes a long way to getting the fam or friends to help out!

5. Investing in community-building. For farmers this is crucial. But for gardeners this is golden, too. The community of gardeners will be your best source of information, seeds, plant material and people to exchange produce with. Community-building is 80% of the point of having a garden. 

6. Education. I grew up gardening and farming, and have apprenticed on a few permie-inspired farms. But taking a Permaculture Design class and really learning my local ecosystem revolutionaized the value I get out of my relationship to the land. Completely worth it. 

8. Nurturing the Soil. Finally, we've come to an actual physical garden task. Each hour you spend mulching, building biodiversity and fertility in the soil will pay you back for years and years to come in better, healthier produce with less work.

7. Nurturing "Systems" and "Regenerative Assets." In Mollisonian Permaculture, "regenerative assets" are those that produce for us and replicate themselves.  When we invest our time into creating and establishing such powerful assets, they to will pay us back for years and years to come. Nurturing a young forest garden, vegetable guild or perennial vegetable patch will take less time than almost any annual garden, yet that investment will produce food for us for decades! Each year, that annual garden will need to be recreated, but the perennial system will keep on producing with minimal effort. And while the annual garden will forever require new seeds, new investments, new energy to create, the perennial systems will actual "reproduce," giving you plant material you can use to spread them further and further, creating more and more valuable perennial systems. Now that's a smart way to spend your time, and a smart way to garden!

8. Observation. Often, we rush to action at the first sight of disease or pest issues, without taking the time to understand the underlying causes, or how the plants and ecosystems might be able to fend better for themselves. Pests are natural! But so are predators, who will eventually show up to reduce pest pressures for us, if we're patient enough to observe how nature works, rather than stepping in at the first sight of trouble. On a different level, observation can show us where appropriate microclimates are what good plant companions or agonists we have growing, or where we need to direct more (or less) water.

So there you have my list. What do you think? What garden tasks do you find most valuable? 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Tips for Avoiding Common Forest Gardening Mistakes

I've been thinking lately about this old article on common forest garden mistakes.

Filling this out more, I've come to conclude that there are probably about 5 top most important elements for establishing a temperate food forest or Permaculture garden, to help improve the aesthetics, lower the workload, and ensure a good early yield. If you've been one of my students, you'll know I advocate for these all the time! Sometimes I sound like a broken record. 

1. Establish clear permanent paths and permanent beds, preferably using a series of different sized paths and "nodes." This allows you to never have to till again and makes gardening way easier and the garden appear more organized and attractive. The level of detail might be different on very large agriforest scales, but even then some form of permanent paths and growing areas are almost always necessary. On the largest scales, a zoned approach to establishment would be very beneficial, and should still probably have intensive areas with clear permanent paths and beds. Gardens without clear paths and permanent beds are just too hard to work in, confusing and frustrating, hard to plant in, plan guilds, and avoid damaging plants. It makes it very difficult to analyze and correct problems and you'll never get to a point of accessible "self-mulching" planting densities. 

2. Density and diversity within beds. I aim for "post wild" planting densities where there is no ground visible between plants. For vegetables, we aim for Grow BioIntensive research-based spacings between plants at maturity. High diversity is also important. This ensures that nature has the tools necessary to fill as many ecological niches as possible. "Guilds," which are designed plant families which mimic the roles found in nature, can be especially useful for ensuring nature has the tools she needs. A few especially important roles are "mulch-maker plants" which produce a lot of mulch within the garden, and rampant ground covers which spread to keep soil covered, like creeping thyme, clover, creeping chamomile, etc. Together, density and diversity can increase early yields, increase beauty, help establish plants, reduce watering, reduce weeding, reduce pest pressures etc. 

3. Plan for high early yields. This isn't always necessary or possible. Sometimes a motivated gardener with longterm goals is willing to invest in the long game without early rewards. Or sometimes the early yield has to be prioritizing soil and ecosystem repair. But most projects will feel more rewarding and be more successful if they start yielding high-quality fruit and vegetables and beauty in the first year and every year afterwords. 

4. "Accept feedback and apply self-regulation." How are things working? Perhaps the most important rule is if things are working well, fix them! Have pests become a major issue on your site? What are you going to do about it? Either you'll need to address the pests or change the planting to resist the pests. Is your soil to dry to support the plants you wanted? Do you have enough labor to sustain the plants and planting style you've chosen? No? Again, you've got two options. But do something, or else your project will continue to work poorly. 

5. Have a good clear plan and expectations! Know what you want out of your garden. Do you want lots of food? A beautiful landscape feature? A low maintenance place to observe wildlife that will also grow some food? Some mix of these? If you're not clear about what you want and expect, you're unlikely to get it!

Of course, there are quite a number of other important factors, including planning for good integrated social functions, planning a good support structure, resisting the temptation to intervene too much, etc. If you're interested in learning more of these, check out our summer class on forest gardening starting in May!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

We Deserve Beauty: Finding Inspiration in Patterns

“When you put beauty in a place that has none, that's a game changer.” 
— Ron Finley  

To live in a beautiful, uplifted situation with dignity should not be seen as an exclusive privilege for the elite. It is the birthright of every being born to this earth. The idea that rest of us should content ourselves with stodgy utilitarianism is oppressive. We all deserve beauty. 

To surround oneself with beauty is old, powerful magic. It's no wonder it was seen as so revolutionary, so dangerous for Ron Finley to create a beautiful food forest garden in his poor LA neighborhood. 

Look! The elk in the wood carries itself with pride, dignity, its chest uplifted, its head and shoulders like a king, its every movement, its very presence is an incantation: 


When we dare to create a beautiful, uplifted environment for ourselves, it allows us to be in the moment boldly, rather than shrink to some sense of shame or inferiority, or worse, an aspirational fantasy of salvation - some savior, the lottery, that promotion, the dream-job, the business breakthrough, the revolution - which may never come. 

Instead, we can each make our worlds beautiful and our lives rich. This does not require money. It’s the ultimate taboo of our age, the truth almost everyone wants to hide from you, but you have more power over the way you will experience your daily life than anyone else on this planet does. 

The world we want to see starts with us.

 Looking for “patterns” and models to replicate and adapt is both a good tool for improving function as well as creating beauty. This “pattern language” paradigm makes beauty and good design available to anyone, not just those who can afford designers. (See “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander.) 

Whenever I approach the teamwork of design, and design is ALWAYS teamwork, I begin by finding patterns that fit the landscape, the architecture, the history, ecology and community character of the space. Each space will be different. What is the "genius of the place" trying to say? How can I help it be heard, rather than stifle its voice under my own song? 

These images show just a few of the patterns that inspired our design. The first is the famous “Italian House” at Kuskova. We wanted to invoke this “allee” of trees and hedges framing the entry like a visual mandala setting the mind to a state of focus and attention - visual dharma. And the model was appropriate to the Itaianate design of our home, our climate, our neighborhood and our goal of promoting sustainable living through beauty. 

The next is the model of the Jardin de Cure, a historic form of food forest garden. These were beautiful spaces for growing fruit, vegetables, cut flowers, and medicinal herbs while creating a healing, rejuvinating space. 

These walking paths along fruiting hedges, with herbs were a natural pattern we could include in our design. 

The third example is Highgrove Manor, also somewhat inspired by the jardin de cure. Prince Charles' gardens at highgrove are a model for organic gardening applied to the beauty garden. Most of us do not have the space or resources to have a garden purely for pleasure, we have to integrate herbs, food, and social space into one landscape. But we can still find inspiration in places that work to make people feel GOOD. 

Here we see those Jardin de Cure colors in our gardens, with an edible meadow inspired by Highgrove in the background. 

More Highgrove colors at Lillie House. 

And finally, the most important, inspiring and beautiful pattern we looked to was the "home garden" pattern found throughout the world in indigenous societies. It is the pattern of a just and sustainable society, and one known for its beautiful, life-enhancing environment. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What is Permaculture? A Primer in Pictures and Patterns - Part 2

Note: This is the third installment in a series. See also:
Part 2: Gardens
Part 3: 
Part 4: 


So what is this Permaculture thing? In this post, we'll be exploring Permaculture gardening in pictures and patterns, so we'll keep the definition short and sweet. If you want a more in-depth discussion defining Permaculture, visit Part 1. But for now:

Permaculture is a system for designing human habitats (including homes, homesteads, gardens, farms, cities, etc.) which includes sets of ethics, principles, and design methods, and applies "patterns" derived from nature, sustainable societies, and research-based best practices. 

To begin our visual exploration of Permaculture gardening, I'll empahsize that these patterns may be used in Permaculture, but they are not Permaculture. 

For example, Organic Gardening, MAY be used in Peramculture (though quite frequently it is  not) but Organic Gardening is not Permaculture. It is just organic gardening, used as one part of a Permaculture design! At Lillie House, we grow our food and nursery stock entirely without imported non-organic chemicals, free from biocides, and with almost no organic spraying! However, what we do has little in common with organic gardening, beyond the goal of sustainability and care for the soil. We don't dig the soil. We try to minimize the use of plastics. We have no use for most common organic garden tools, sprays, or pest control techniques. We hardly ever even add compost to our beds! To explore the difference between Organic Gardening and Permaculture, visit this excellent article at

Likewise, Permaculture gardens are NOT native plant gardens, but may heavily use native plants. 

Native plant afficianados have commented that our Permaculture gardens at Lillie House may have more native plants than most - if not all - the native plant gardens in our city! Yet, our garden works to create additional wildlife habitat and habitat for native plants where it counts most - out away from our home in the city. If we can use our own land to meet our needs much more efficiently (while still benefiting wildlife locally) then that frees up larger areas of marginal agricultural land to go back to nature. And those are the areas that will have the greatest benefit to plants and wildlife! This is why many consider Permaculture gardening, or Ecological Gardening the ULTIMATE ecological landscape.

Permaculture gardens are "integrated," not "segregated." 

As you can see from the image above/right, there's no seperate veggie garden, orchard, wildlife garden, herb garden and flower garden. It's all one big veggie-orchard-wildlife-flower-herb garden. This maximizes diversity and takes advantage of what ecologists call the "diversity-resiliency principle," that generally speaking, the greater number of species in a system, the more resilience it confers to the individuals in the system. The Permaculture garden recruits plants, beneficial insects, and wildlife to work for us. That means fewer pests, fewer diseases and less work for the gardener!

One of the most inspiring exemplars of this kind of integrated gardening is Bealtaine Cottage:


Polycultures are gardens where we grow multiple crops, rather than monocultures, with one crop alone. This is another technique that takes advantage of the diversity resiliency principle, as well as maximizing space in the garden. 

This includes annual polycultures, like the beds in this study from BALKEP....

and dynamic (ones that change over time) annual polycultures like this one at Lillie House. 

These are based off the popular Ianto Evans Polyculture, and it is a classic way we plant and establish new beds. 

And "mixed" polycultures of annuals and perennials. 


Guilds are polycultures that are designed to function like ecologies. We recruit plants to fulfill "guild roles" that might be found in a natural ecosystem, like "mulch makers, nitrogen fixers, groundcovers, insect attractors, and fortress plants." We can even stack functions and use plants that are functional, edible, and beautiful to increase our yields. The most common guild example is a fruit tree guild, like this apricot tree guild at Lillie House. 

We can also arrange guilds to take care of our annual vegetable beds, as in my sketch of the annual garden guild concept going back to Mollison. 

This is the design you see in all our vegetable beds.

Deep Mulch Gardens

Deep mulching conserves water, builds rich soil, eliminates weeds, and enhances plant health and resilience. This image of "sheet mulching" is from Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway. This technique has also been called the Ruth Stout method, Lasagne Gardening, back-to-eden (with wood chips) and sheet composting (by Rodale) but it likely as old as gardening itself!

These maincrop production beds at Zaytuna Farm utilize deep mulching and forms of polyculture and companion planting. 

Water Collection

Permaculture gardens tend to use a variety of techniques to havest and save water. Because of these techniques, at Lillie House, we have grown our garden with almost no irrigation over the last 5 years. 


And these techniques taken together reflect a deep concern for the health of the soil and the maintaining of fertility. Deep mulches build healthy soil while nitrogen fixers add fertility. One technique often used are "permanent beds and permanent paths" which helps beds develop soil structure and can make digging and tilling unnecessary. This sign is at the Peace Garden in Flint, a project we've supported. 


Many Permaculture gardens and farms work towards no-till gardening. At Lillie House we only dig on rare ocassion to harvest and shape new beds to collect their own water. We do not use "alternative tillers" like "tilthers" or harrows, as these have been shown to be the same as conventional tilling. This image shows our "slashmulch" garden, an ancient technique practiced around the world, where no digging is done to prep a garden. 

Grow Bio-intensive

No-till can be a challenge, especially for certain crops on a commercial scale. Many Permaculture gardens and farms use the "Bio-intensive' method, a proven research-based way to maintain fertility and soil health while minimizing tilling and digging. Other soil systems used by Permacultures include French Intensive Gardening, Korean Natural Farming, Biodynamics, and Natural Gardening. Many of these use microbial preparations to enhance soil ecology. From a Permaculture perspective, one could critique the highly sustainable garden pictured below on the grounds that the beds run off contour, wasting water and causing erosion. Bare soil may also be a problem. 


Finally, no introduction to Permaculture gardening would be complete without reiterating the idea of zones. Zone analysis shows us that different techniques work better on different scales and with different levels of care. In smaller, more intensive Permaculture systems closer to the home we'll find more vertical gardening, trellises, water-harvesting beds, and greater diversity. Away from the home, on larger scales we'll find more "extensive" systems. So any Permaculture garden may use any variety of the patterns above depending on the location and goals. That's reflected in this classic image from the Permaculture Designer's Manual. 

Up Next: Part 3 (Coming soon) 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What is Permaculture? A Primer in Patterns and Pictures - Introduction and Inspiration

Note: This is the INTRODUCTION to a series. See also:
Part 2: Gardens
Part 3: Building
Part 4: Organizing


Ask 10 "Permies," folks interested in Permaculture, and you'll get 10 different definitions. 

Some will tell you it's an easier way of vegetable gardening. In fact, "most people enter Permaculture "through the garden gate" as Permaculture Designer and author Toby Hemenway used to say. 

However, recently I've met people who had no idea that Permaculture had anything to do with gardening! For them, Permaculture was about forgotten building skills, meat farming, or primitive skills, sustainability, or even community organizing. 

Permaculture is about Patterns

But one thing ALL these definitions have in common is PATTERNS. In this series, we'll be exploring Permaculture by looking at some of these patterns. So, before we even attempt to define Permaculture, lets take a quick glance at a few of the biggest broadest Permaculture "patterns" and the various realms we might see them in. 

We'll also be pointing you towards some of the best Permaculture sites on the internet!

My suggestion is to skim this series, take in the patterns, let them speak to you and inspire you. Then double back and go into more depth on the topics that most inspire you. That is the standard Permaculture journey. Use this piece as a choose your own adventure. Let it be a roadmap in pictures and patterns. 

Permaculture is About Meeting Needs

Our needs, the needs of the planet and its ecosystems. The needs of the future. So, Permaculture is applied to any of the systems we use to meet our needs. This is seen in the Permaculture Flower by, co-founder David Holmgren, from Holmgren's site 

Permaculture can help us in the garden.

Permaculture is often found in the garden, making things easier, more productive, more profitable and more beautiful. This is a shot of our food gardens at Lillie House. We'll be looking at other Permaculture gardens in this series, too. 

Permaculture is about a healthier, safer, more just and sustainable food system for everyone.

It's being used to change the concept of farming

This image is from Zaytuna Farm, one of the most famous Permaculture sites in the world. 

Permaculture helps us build more livable, sustainable homes. 

This image shows a form of natural, sustainable building from Strawbale Studio, a fantastic resource in Michigan, a place I have been lucky to take attend some classes. 

It can give us more sustainable forms of energy

In this case, a rocket mass stove, by Ernie and Erica Eisner, can heat a home sustainably while emiting almost 0 carbon pollution! 

It can help us take back control over our health

An image of homegrown medicines in our apothacary cabinet in Lillie House

Permaculture is being used to create more vibrant, healthy neighborhoods and communities.

This image is from the  City Repair Project, which applies the patterns of healthy communities, such as the "village square" to bring people together. In this image, neighborhood residents used a street painting and gardens to make their neighborhood safer, slow down traffic, and build a community out of formerly issolated neighbors. Now, there is a Village Building Convergance to help people re-design their own neighborhoods. 

Permaculture can heal degraded landscapes

Our site in 2012 and 2015.

And it can even heal whole communities, holistically, starting with their ecologies. 

The story of the Loess Plateau is incredibly inspiring. This transformation helped stabilize the community, increased income by 4 times in just 10 years, increased measures of health, academic performance... all from starting with healing their ecosystem. 

It can fight climate change, soil loss, the depletion of our aquifers, the decline of fisheries, and ecosystem collapse. 

And finally, it can help us design more beautiful, meaningful lives, with a richer connection to nature and our communities

And if we can get that right, then we can create viral change. If we can create truly beautiful, rich lives by working with nature, instead of against it, and healing the planet and communities instead of exploiting them, then we won't have to twist people's arms to create change. They'll line up for it like it's the new iPhone. 

Next: Defining Permaculture and Patterns Part 1: