Back to the garden

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden–
Joni Mitchell

It’s finally spring after what seemed an interminable Narnia like winter in the northeastern U.S. My wife and I have relocated back to Lancaster, PA ( a boomerang town in there ever was one) to put down roots and re-inhabit this bioregion, this life-place. I am again embarking on my right livelihood as a permaculture designer and teacher (as well as continual student) with my dear friend Ben Weiss and another friend, Jono Droege. With spring it is time to “get back to the garden” to borrow a phrase from Joni Mitchell (please don’t quiz me on her music, I know only this one song). Here in Lancaster I am amazed by the beauty around me, from the forests, the idyllic looking farms, to the rivers, and even the urban center of Lancaster city itself. I am also amazed that so many people in the outskirts of town and in the suburbs still insist upon having a monocultured lawn of some non-native grass which is completely devoid of any  purpose, except of course to drain the wallets of those who have them. Lawn upkeep is a hugely energy intensive and altogether idiotic undertaking. The potential is great, the converts seemingly few.

As I walk around the neighborhood where we are staying until we find a place of our own, I see vast potential to re-inhabit this bioregion and to lessen the food related footprint of those who dwell here. Most of the yards have no garden of any kind and those that do have one only maintain a small portion of their yard for growing food. No one it seems is growing any fiber or coppice species. It seems the myth of “easy food” and “cheap energy” is still alive and well here. What to do to change hearts and minds without being a doomsayer has long been a philosophical query. I sometimes want to go door to door like a permaculture evangelist…

For myself, I have in the last three weeks since my arrival from CT, helped to install two raised be gardens for clients and have put in a 400 square foot garden of my own at the Lancaster Community Gardens plot in the city. I could easily use another garden of the same size! Would that all these houses that surround me do the same. How different a landscape it would look. Permaculture is certainly much more than just a way to garden, yet growing our own food, fuel, and fiber is imperative if we are to gracefully transition to a less energy intensive future (barring some sort of amazing breakthrough in Tesla like energy production). I have of course beat this particular drum before yet it is important to keep playing it until people get it.

The benefits of organic gardening include: exercise, chemical free, nutrient dense food, quality time together with family and community members, ecological literacy, time outdoors, decreased food miles, soil regeneration, increased biodiversity, and myriad mental and emotional benefits that come from a sense of purpose, satisfaction, nature time and so on. If only we had commercials on TV touting these benefits rather than those that prop up the “lawn care industry”.  Suburbia in particular holds tremendous promise in terms of putting land back into production. With skillful permaculture design applied that potential increases exponentially.

I can easily imagine homes featuring yards with perennial polyculture gardens along with gardens featuring annual fruits an veggies. Larger areas could have full fledged forest gardens while some areas unsuitable for either could have coppice species. Parks that feature large grassy seating, play areas could take the place of individual lawns. The energy savings and community building would be fantastic! One day…hopefully soon.

Garden for a client.

Raised bed garden for a client.


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