Smart planning

As the summer progresses and my own permaculture ventures fail to pop up overnight, I’m struck by how comforted this actually makes me feel.

Planning is such an important aspect of permaculture. It says so right in the introduction of a book I’ve had out from the library for months, Permaculture in a Nutshell by Patrick Whitefield:

Successful permaculture systems “can only be achieved by means of careful design. Useful connections can only be made between things if they are put in the right place relative to each other. So permaculture is first and foremost a design system. The aim is to use the power of the human brain, applied to design, to replace human brawn or fossil fuel energy and the pollution that goes with it.”

Garlic takes planning, and even multiple seasons -- but it's oh so worth it

Keeping this in mind, when the permaculture garden I’ve been wanting to plant on The Farm I work at takes a few weeks to come about, I feel excited rather than discouraged. Kelsey and Erin (the rockin’ farm managers) and I spent one week planning, last week planting starter seeds in the greenhouse (chard, bunching onions, broccoli, cauliflower, sunflowers, peppers, basil, cilantro, dill, mint) and arranging rocks for the herb spiral, and will spent this week direct seeding. We might have to hold off on transplanting for another week or two — but it’s all good, because we’ve thought it all through. We have drawings and everything. In my opinion, the outcome will no doubt be worth the wait.

Another thing I’ve been wanting to do for awhile is chickens. A friend and I, upon contemplating our move from St. Paul to Minneapolis, got all excited about having chickens in our backyard — fresh eggs, man! But as time moves along and we realize that we’ve got to build a coop, get permission from the neighbors we don’t have yet, and locate some chickens, we’re realizing that maybe this is a next year adventure.

Once again, though — not discouraged. Because in planning our successful chicken raising, perhaps a little down the line, we’ve come up with more ideas — including a homesteading collective living situation where we try to grow and otherwise make as much of our own food as possible. Pretty awesome.

Not that raising chickens isn’t as simple as having cats, because as I learned this weekend at PRI’s Urban Chicken Practicum, it is! You have to have a place for them to live — that’s the coop and the run — and you have to feed them and clean up after them, like you would scoop a litter box — but that’s basically it. They eat food scraps from your kitchen along with some kind of powder or pellet feed made of mixed grains. And you can find the chickens themselves for 2 to 10 dollars each.

It seems to me that the hardest part is getting the permit — and the hardest aspect of that is getting your neighbors on board. So if you have chicken-friendly neighbors, I say go for it. Fresh eggs, man! I’ll even point you to some chicken list-serves at and craigslist.

Even when maintenance is fairly easy, though, careful planning will create a better, more integrated system. For instance, Seward Growing Lots Urban Farm, where the workshop was held, gets free fish waste from nearby Coastal Seafoods, which they use for chicken feed (it’s a great protein source) and as excellent compost in the gardens. They’ve also got a rain catchment (shown right) that feeds into a kiddie pool, so that when it rains they don’t have to worry about whether the chickens have water.

In conclusion: Planning is important. Smart planning is essential. Smarter planning means less maintenance of the system, less energy you’ll spend fixing what inevitably will go wrong. Think about it.

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A great weekend & a promising future

Last Saturday was a PRI day for me. In the morning I bussed over to the U of M’s Student Organic Farm to attend the Harvesting & Handling Produce practicum of PRI’s urban farming certification program. We got a comprehensive tour from Student Programs Coordinator Courtney Tchida and learned just the right way to harvest different crops.

Some of my favorite useful tidbits:

Marjoram should be snipped off with scissors; other herbs, like cilantro and dill, can be picked off the plant throughout the season, and more leaves will grow back.

You’ll know turnips, radishes, onions and beets are ready to harvest when they start bulging out of the ground.

Urban farmers watching Courtney harvest lettuce

Most greens, like spinach and lettuces, can be cut off with a harvest knife at the growing point, so that more can grow back.

The leaves of kale and chard (and brussels sprouts, if you don’t want the whole plant) should be twisted off the stem.

To harvest carrots, fennel, potatoes, and leeks, a pitchfork should be used to break up the ground before pulling out the root.

Melons will sometimes just fall off when they’re ready to eat! Otherwise, you can smell the blossom and know it’s time to harvest.

Calendula: an edible flower that serves as habitat for beneficial insects

We also got to taste some delicious things — sun gold tomatoes, which I now believe are the most delicious tomato, nisturtium, a spicy edible flower, and pea shoots, which taste shockingly like peas.

The concept of edible flowers is new to me, so I thought it was neat that the Cornecopia farm had a few varieties.

I learned about some edible weeds, too: Pineapple weed, which is like chamomile and can be used to make tea, lamb’s quarters and pig’s weed, which can be used in salads.

Courtney offered a lot of post-harvest advice as well, encompassing the whole spectrum of successful farming. She uses buckets full of cold water to soak the harvested plants, in a process called hydrocooling.

Hydrocooling an unusually small amount of lettuce

This eliminates the field heat and allows the produce to stay fresh. Greens should be harvested earlier in the day, so that they have less field heat to begin with.

She told us how she packages the produce for the farmers’ market, wrapping rubber bands around green onions and putting them in plastic bags, using containers for collards, etc.

I loved that Courtney was giving us such practical advice — throughout the morning, we really got a look into the workings of a small organic farm that’s been in operation for seven years. Courtney, who’s been there the whole time, has been through a lot of trial and error, has learned what works and what doesn’t.

Now, she’s sharing what she’s learned and spreading organic farming practices to us. How great is that?

Cat mint: a perennial that bees love. Lining the row is the Dutch white clover that the farm uses for many of the paths -- their best material so far, as it works well for weed competition, supporting beneficial insects, and nitrogen fixation.

And in the afternoon, the PRI June Gathering at Concrete Beet Farm proved stimulating and delicious! We showed up in the rain, snacks ready, skeptical that anyone else would show up. In the end, it was fabulous.

The excitement at the gathering, the people, the ideas, the cheesy kale chips, were contagious. I talked with Alissa about her raw food website, which I  simply can’t fail to direct you to, with the concrete beet farmers about their season (going well!), and with Jo and Jerry Brandt, whose farm I can’t wait to visit.

The permaculture community here in the twin cities is growing, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. We’ve been coming up with ideas to keep the energy going.

Here are some of them:

1) Work and learns: Getting people out there. I’ve really found, through my part-time job on a farm this summer, that hands-on work is the best way to learn. We’ll be collaborating with operations throughout the area to get interested people learning by doing.

2) A farm tour day: A day of farm tours, caravans, and awesome opportunities to connect with the local sustainable ag community.

3) A harvest festival! We’ve got plans in the works. Think: sweet concert meets fresh produce. Stay tuned.

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House of Hope’s new community garden: a Design and Demonstration project

Hello again! Here it goes, the first example of permaculture in the community — it’s a good one, and it comes right from us at PRI.

Just a few weeks ago, PRI worked with members of the House of Hope Presbyterian Church on Summit Avenue in St. Paul to install a community garden using permaculture design principles.

All proceeds from the garden will go to the food shelf at Neighborhood House in West St. Paul, the largest in Ramsey County serving 14,000 people.

The garden will be maintained by volunteers from House of Hope and Neighborhood House with a farm manager overseeing the project. PRI will be developing a Farm Manual to help train team leaders and volunteers. The focus will be on developing a set of skills, so that interested helpers can develop gardening skills while working.

This type of education is how we build sustainable communities. It’s all part of permaculture and making things last.

Church volunteers at the installation

And so far, the interest and enthusiasm is impressive. From talking with Paula Westmoreland (our director) and Jenna Robson (our community organizer, who helped install the project), all the volunteers at the installation – church members, primarily – were hard working and ready to learn.

Positive feedback from the neighborhood came pouring in, too, as passers-by stopped to look and cars honked approval.

For me, this project almost epitomizes what permaculture is all about. We’re using a free space to grow food for people who need it. We’re transforming a landscape to be more productive.

And it just reinforces for me that we should be using more spaces like this. Surrounding this beautiful garden are miles of green lawns up and down Summit Avenue. Bright green squares their owners spend so many hours and liters of water on. In a world where time is money and water is scarce, why aren’t we growing more food? Couldn’t we use these lawns?

In part, it’s an issue of familar aesthetics. Vegetables aren’t typically considered pretty. Straw mulch doesn’t usually fit in with the look of ornamental gardens. And because the church is a historic site, they needed approval from the Historical Society to install the rabbit-proof fence.

Strawberry foraging area along the sidewalk

Lucky for us — beauty is an important element of a healthy permaculture system. In the House of Hope garden, eggplants are planted with petunias, bush beans with pansies, mustard greens with marigolds. In these polycultures, the edible flowers provide habitat for beneficial insects and in some cases keep pests away. Their presence promotes biodiversity, which is good for the soil. And they look nice.

Along the sidewalk, pollination gardens have been designed with both aesthetics and practicality in mind. Meant to mirror the Gothic architecture of the church building, the specific flowers and grasses attract beneficial insects, like butterflies.

Potato towers lining the fence

And in addition to the main production garden, there are potato towers and a strawberry foraging area, where passerby can harvest strawberries, chives, borage and rhubarb as they please.

Paula is hoping that the House of Hope community garden will serve as a model for other permaculture projects throughout the cities. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have sustainable food-producing gardens especially in neighborhoods where the food is limited?

What if we planted strawberries for the picking in North Minneapolis?

I’ll be charting the garden’s progress throughout the season, so check back for updates and more exciting local projects, including the herb spiral that I hope to plant this week! Until then, happy summer.

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Hello, hello, hello.

Greetings from PRI Cold Climate! We’re doing some great things this season and we want to share it with you.

Here we’ll be bringing you permaculture musings, glimpses of permaculture-inspired farms, gardens, backyards and projects going on right now in our region, and step-by-step how-to demonsrations you can do at home.

We hope to offer insight into permaculture practices specific to our colder climate and create conversations with you, the internet public. Tell us what works, what doesn’t, what makes you excited, what you’ve seen and experienced.

A local foods and sustainability enthusiast fairly new to permaculture, I’ll be learning as the season progresses, creating my own permaculture garden and exploring projects and pieces of land from integrated whole farm systems to community gardens to my windowsill.

Together we can learn to create more sustainable lives and communities through permaculture. So let’s do it.

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