Garlic harvest officially a success. In the picture above are a few of the plants, total harvest is over 40 bunches of garlic. An excellent yield considering where they were planted.
It is always nice when an experiment works. With two terriers who love to tear around (and into) the yard, it is always a challenge to design planting arrangements that will stay intact. If there is soft exposed soil, they will dig into it with relish.. They are agile jumpers and eternally curious, so raised beds with exposed soil are just as vulnerable. Fencing off parts of the yard tends to be ugly, interrupting both visual flow as well as physical movement and access. My dogs are very careful about where they place their paws, however they aren’t so careful with their bodies…rather, if they know that something will give they have no problem crashing into it. They respect hard or thorny plants, but if they can crash and thrash through soft branches or leafy material, they will. Sam particularly seems to enjoy it. So, I had an idea as garlic planting season approached. Around one of my raised beds that I planted potatoes in, I dug up a border of soil and then as part of the border, I used broken concrete to create a bit of a mosaic. In between the cracks I placed garlic cloves. Even if the dogs wanted to walk on the border, they would not compact the earth any more than the concrete already would. They would keep their paws on the concrete and so the garlic would be able to grow up even if they walked “on” it. They would not break the garlic stalks because they would prefer to jump over the border rather than galloping on top of it. So it could handle both calm ambling dogs and hyper spazzing dogs equally.
Amazingly it worked. They often jumped into the raised bed avoiding forceful contact with the garlic when it was young. As the garlic grew older they avoided jumping over it at all since the bed itself was off to the side of their path and not worth the effort. Ironically when the border was first created, they were thrilled with their new and improved walkway. However, even with increased dog traffic, the garlic shoots came up unharmed. I don’t think I lost a single garlic plant to dog paws.
The bed of potatoes, on the other hand, was mostly destroyed. Little rascals.
A little over one year has passed since we bought the place, and, whether intentionally or not I have been in a bit of a holding pattern. However, the pattern has worn very thin and I am growing impatient with myself. Even as a good permie, iit is time to get a move on…the initial observation cycle is now over. It is time to get busy, get comfortable with solidifying my ideas and start actually putting the pieces of the puzzle onto paper and into the ground.
I don’t have any real answer for why I have been slow to get to this point. Even risking the anger and frustration of my wife as “nothing happens”, I felt blocked and uncertain. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been toying with ideas, but nothing has really been clicking. I remember a wonderful interview I heard a while back about the creative process in which the “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert was talking about how creativity requires a whole toolbox of tactics. Sometimes words have to be wrestled, sometimes coaxed, sometimes teased, sometimes seduced into existence. I feel that way with this design, and it has been frustrating at times because I see bits and pieces of possibility but there has been no “Ah HA!” moment.
However, over the last few weeks there has been one patch of the garden that I planted right when we moved in and this year it is “coming into its own” just like I had planned. It’s nothing spectacular, but it does lift me up every day when I brush against the leaves, when I pick the herbs and as I watch life at work. And I am reminded to be patient, start with what makes sense and what is doable, be willing to experiment and make spectacular mistakes and everything will come together (one way or another!) in the end.
Wow it has been really really long time since I’ve updated the blog. A lot has changed since then! We bought a house, I took a permanent position at work, and I’ve been working with a small group to get a transition town presence here in san jose. I haven’t been doing much design work with my new place which is part of the reason why the blog has been neglected so much. But I’ve started to get back to work in the design process and figured it was time to get the blog going and start documenting the process as it evolves.
So here’s to new beginnings! Right now I’m working on the design for the front yard….here’s what I have to work with…It should be fun!
The blog was down recently due to weak security by Bluehost which resulted in my website being compromised. It looks like they have tightened up their security, but in the meantime, I have to build the site back up.
So it is going to be bare bones for a bit until I can work to get everything back up to speed.
The pictures are all out of order for now, I’ll be sorting that out over time. For folks linking directly to posts from out there in the void, confusion will abound!
Unfortunately I have not had much time to keep current on the blog. Working full time in Cubicle Central has really reduced the energy I have available to read and write about the things I love. What time and daylight that I have available to me I have been devoting to my own garden projects as well as designs I am working on with others.
I might be able to figure a way to be more habitual about blog writing, but forming new habits out of limited resources is one thing that I have found to be very difficult. It is a skill I would dearly like to learn, the skill of adding little by little to a goal. A few minutes of habitual work each day, building on the efforts of the past and over time and hopefully yielding an incredible return. But right now I am stuck in the paradox where the small efforts seem futile and puny, and I do not yet have the satisfaction of a project that successfully came to completion as a multitude of tiny efforts. I lack that ant-like determination, so I want dreams to be reality…..NOW. It doesn’t help that as your typical creative specialized generalist I also have lots of potential projects that I could be working towards….ooooh how to prioritize….that is the gazillion dollar question.
And honestly, I haven’t had much material to share on the blog these days. I try to offer either my own direct experience with ecological/edible landscaping, or a unique perspective on things that I feel isn’t getting much play in the landscaping and permaculture infospheres. Since I haven’t had the time to be more active in these realms, the available writing material has been sparse.
So here’s to me figuring out how to work blog writing back into my schedule in a sustainable way. I’ll be puzzling this one over, and if I succeed….well, then you’ll be hearing more regularly from me going forward.
It’s that time of year again. Starting last Friday, my yearly throat cold came a-haunting as it normally does with the shift from summer to fall. Usually I make small adjustments to my diet to eliminate “troublemakers” like dairy, but this year I went more on the offensive. I made my medicine. And it sure was good. First I created a nutrient rich chicken broth with lots of garlic, I used that to make a quinoa soup with all sorts of little amendments from the garden, garnished with a selection of greens and topped with some violets, just because. Throughout the day I made a point to make various herbal teas from fresh herbs around the garden: mint, sage, thyme. Occasionally I would throw small amounts of greens, like kale into these teas. Added some honey, and took my medicine. Needless to say, it was a pleasure to do so.
I would love to say that I was cured immediately by the bounty of my garden and my amazing skills of food preparation. But sadly, the symptoms reached their usual level of discomfort and I did get sicker through the weekend. Sunday night I was kept awake by an intense cough.
Now, it could just be coincidence, a one-off event….but….my recovery was much quicker. By late Monday, the cough had pretty much disappeared. In the past, my yearly affliction would usually develop into a lingering cough and sore throat sometimes lasting as long as two weeks.
So sure, it’s purely anecdotal. But this whole year I have been making and taking my medicine and creating a diverse nutrient foundation for my body to draw on in order to operate fluidly and abundantly. Just like creating nutrient-rich living soil is the foundation for garden health, creating a nutrient-rich diet is a foundation for health in the body. And it is so much fun! Processed food has been dropping steadily out of my diet. Not because I am being disciplined, but simply because I don’t find flavored cardboard to be all that appealing anymore. My body has learned (remembered, really) that there is much more to be easily gained from munching on some leaves, than can be scavenged from the wasteland of processed food. In fact, grocery stores are starting to feel like fields of desolation and desperation: a circus of brightly lit packages hell bent on selling salt, sugar, cheap fat, and denuded carbohydrates to the bedazzled shoppers.
Ok, so I wax dramatic. I used to have a curious attraction to grocery stores. There was something meditative about going through the aisles, in looking at the organized arrangements of brightly colored produce, the vast array of foodstuffs. But lately I’ve started to feel like a monkey in a cage when I walk into the glaring arena of food consumerism. I can only eat what’s offered, and most of it is worthless, or at best marginally useful to my body.
I still don’t have a solution to the meat dilemma, but at least I can rely on the bustle of the farmer’s market and the chaos of my own garden to provide me with the fresh produce I need. The interaction with people, the touch of living plants and the smell of rich, healthy soil: these are good healing medicines as well. It is delightful, joyful medicine that I wish more people could experience. Hopefully I can begin to share it more with others, and they can get a glimmer of what they might be missing out on.
An experiment in quickly creating patches of deep, abundant, living soil and long term fertility in the organic garden.
I had a serendipitous moment this morning. It was still pitch dark outside, but I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep, my mind was churning away at all sorts of stuff, some important, some annoyingly trivial (WHY am I awake again?). But ultimately my roving brain pulled together a few puzzles out of the nether and tied them together: there were some buckets of food scraps that needed to be dealt with, some seedlings in soil blocks that probably wanted to get started in real soil, and a bunch of information on soil, fertility, nutrient cycles that I wanted to put to use. All of that suddenly synergized into a darn good little idea. Fertility pockets.
First some background.
A while back my mom and I were talking about how we dealt with compost. At the time I was all pumped on aerated compost and how it was possible to create a real rich compost in less than three weeks (which involves almost daily turning). She thought it sounded interesting, but said she was going to stick to her method which was to simply throw her food scraps in a hole in the ground for a while then cover it up with soil when the hole was full. She said that it broke down remarkably fast without much effort on her part. I tried the aerobic compost route and did in fact achieve a nice rich compost within a month. But the process always felt….off. It was awesome to create soil so quickly, but I knew that with each pile turn I was exposing all these microbes to the air which were then going on a feeding frenzy and drying out, dying, and releasing who knows what into kind of carbon into the air. Then what happens with this compost? It usually gets top dressed onto soil of lesser quality. They call this feeding the soil…and to some extent it is, but what a waste! Here is this unbelievably rich soil that has been created, and it gets thrown on top? The most precious part of that soil is the amazing amount life that is now living in it. By throwing it on top, the moisture and rich life will die off, killed by sun and eroded by wind. So in the back of my mind the aerobic, compost turning method seemed to have it’s own set of issues, on top of being time/energy intensive. Without adequate moisture and mulching, that effort of creating such beautiful thriving soil simply goes to waste.
To go a little further into the moisture story, I want to pass on one of the most fascinating stories that I heard recently. I heard it at my advanced permaculture design course in July with Robyn Francis. I THINK this was work that Robyn Francis was part of. In India recently they did a special planting method for a forest plantation of various trees. The method was to dig the hole for the tree, fill the hole with water, let the water soak in, fill the hole with water a second time, let it soak in again then plant the tree and (if I remember correctly) water it in. I’m not sure how heavily the trees were mulched with organic matter, but I do remember the area around the tree was mulched with rocks which would capture moisture from the air. That region was hit by a pretty severe drought that year and the trees were not watered at all beyond the initial planting. However, they only lost a handful (literally) of trees from among thousands. Between the mulch and the moisture already embedded in the soil from the double deep watering, the trees had enough to survive.
So, right, back to these buckets of goopy, stinky food scraps that I had collected from a downtown vegan restaurant. The scraps were intended for worm bins at Veggielution, but for a while now the worm bins have been overloaded and pretty foul smelling. So I needed to figure out a way that I could use these food scraps while Veggielution volunteers built a couple more worm bins. So this morning I realized that I could use all of that concentrated, nutritious goodness to create little areas of abundant fertility within my garden, which I am calling Fertility Pockets.
They are nothing complex, nor really anything new, but when I see how they fit into the grand (hah) scheme of the garden, I think it is an elegant solution that requires a one time soil disturbance with long lasting rewards. The basic method is to dig a reasonably deep hole, take a nutrient soup, (like the buckets of food scraps, or anaerobic buckets of compost that have been fermenting in their own juice, yum!, or possibly the weeds that you have submerged under water to kill off), and fill the hole with layers of soup, carbonaceous material and soil (a layered compost basically) and cover the hole with the remaining soil. This will form a small mound which should be planted into immediately with something that would enjoy a rich bacteria-dominated soil (I used kale and broccoli).
This Fertility Pocket method is an experiment and might have some unexpected results, but based on a lot of reading and observation of soil in my own garden here is what I expect to happen. By filling a hole with organic matter high in moisture content and nutrient rich water, in most soils this moisture will very slowly leach out over time. This water that drains into the surrounding area will be high in nutrients and organic matter. The organic matter in the hole will slowly decompose over the following months, functioning as a time release fertilizer and creating an abundant, deep, moist, living soil. The layering of organic matter and soil distributes soil microbes evenly throughout the hole and creates aeration so the soil can breath. As long as this soil is not disturbed and is well shaded by plants and/or mulch, the nutrients will continue to cycle between the soil and the plants who will eagerly send their roots into the newly created treasure trove. By doing just a modest hole, rather than say a double-dug swath or a rototilled patch, this allows everything around the hole to remain undisturbed. Mycelia, microbes, worms and plant roots can all start to move in as moisture radiates out and as nutrients are broken down and made available.
Here was the process I followed this morning:
I dug about a foot down and hit a firm layer of rocky sub-soil.
I widened the hole from there until it formed a rough bowl that would hold two buckets worth of soup plus some layers of soil.
I threw some weeds in down at the bottom to decompose. The bottom of the hole is probably going to be pretty anaerobic for a week or so (just a guess) and it is deep enough so that even if the seeds do not rot away, they are too deep to surface.
I poured some food scraps on top of the weeds and added a layer of soil. The soupier the better for this part I think.
Added dried out corn stalks and dried grass and other carbon rich stuff.
Added another layer of food scraps (by now the mixture was pretty much a stinky bowl of mud soup) and the rest of the soil
The remaining soil should form a mound. I planted garlic chives, Egyptian walking onions, broccoli, and kale into the mound. The annual brassicas are for immediate capture of whatever nutrients are readily available, the chives and onions will stick around to anchor the soil while I decide what other perennials to add to the mix. I am not too concerned about nutrient lost though, because there is a neighboring maturing broccoli and fruit trees that will probably send their roots over to check out the moisture and the nutrient cocktail.
As a final touch I threw small handfuls of Azomite down to add additional nutrients and trace minerals. Since this is not a renewable source of fertility, I put it at the top to be watered in over time. My hope is that as the plants and the soil organisms kick into gear they will trap most of these trace nutrients and prevent them from leaching beyond the pocket.
Overall the process took me less than 45 minutes and it could have a positive payout for years, especially if the soil remains undisturbed (no tilling!), mulch is added as a top dressing and perennials are planted into the pocket after the broccoli harvest. If I plant a perennial polyculture around the pocket, the nutrients could cycle within that small ecosystem indefinitely. I’ll be doing a few more of these in the garden and will report back on the results after the pockets have had the chance to break down and the plant patches mature over the following year.
Botanical Name: Chenopodium quinoa
This was one of my experiments this year that was quite successful. I have been working towards a lower maintenance, more self-sustaining garden design, and as a low-fuss, high value annual, quinoa has definitely earned a place as one of my preferred edible plants.
Since it has been so successful, I frequently mention it if someone asks what I have in my garden. A common response is “Quin..what?”. My wife and I had our first quinoa dish (a delicious soup) prepared for us by our host family in Ecuador, and we wondered what that little curly grain-looking stuff was. We were told it was quinoa, and after we returned to the US and I learned more about it I wondered if I shouldn’t try my hand at growing it. The seed (it’s not technically a grain) produced by the quinoa plant is highly nutritious and has the rare distinction of being a complete protein. It was a highly valued, sacred crop of the Incas. The leaves are also edible and have a flavor and consistency similar to spinach. For more general information about quinoa check out this Wikipedia article, you can read growing/harvest/preparation information, or you can learn more about specific nutritional benefits.
Quinoa has a very narrow, upright growth habit with somewhat sparse foliage, growing up to eight feet tall depending on variety and soil fertility and water. For the small amount of space it takes up, a healthy quinoa plant can produce a significant amount of seed. I was growing amaranth, quinoa and corn in a small 2’ x 3’ patch and even with all the competition the 3 quinoa plants I grew produced about 1/4 – 1/2 pound of seed per plant, with the plants themselves growing between six and eight feet high.
This is the primary reason why I am so excited about quinoa. It was by far my most maintenance free annual this year. I got some seed from the Bioneers seed swap, and in May, I threw the seed on some moist ground and it quickly germinated, took a little while to get established then started growing vigorously. My quinoa received fairly consistent water, but it is a drought resistant crop and if established well initially will produce a healthy harvest even in dry conditions. This suits our Mediterranean climate perfectly, and I will be experimenting more with drought tolerance in the future. In addition to these benefits, the seed heads are covered by saponins, ensuring that your harvest is protected from most pests. It also means that quinoa requires soaking and rinsing before cooking to remove the toxic saponin, but the extra cooking preparation is a small price to pay for how easy it is to grow, harvest and process.
Since quinoa is not widely grown in the US, it is hard to say which climates would be difficult to grow quinoa in. It prefers warm days and cool nights in order to set seed, and like spinach may not germinate if conditions get too warm. Its original habitat is the Andean highlands of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, which tend to have fairly moderate climates.
If the seed heads get top heavy like they did with the variety I grew, some wind protection or support may be necessary if planting in a windy area.
Quinoa in the Edible Landscape or Food Forest:
The primary benefits that quinoa bring to the garden are its low maintenance, drought resistance and minimal space requirements. On top of that it brings two sources of highly nutritious food, greens from the young plants and seeds in the late summer/fall. It will also readily reseed itself, which is a blessing if you site the plant with that in mind, a curse if it was not your plan to grow quinoa every year. The plant stalks, like corn stalks, make great dry carbonaceous material for the compost pile or mulch…just be sure you don’t mulch or compost with the seed heads or you’ll probably have quinoa popping up everywhere!
Aesthetically, the plant itself is not much to write home about. It resembles lambs quarters when it is young, with pleasant green leaves that have a faint silver shimmer to them. As it matures and starts to put more energy into seed production it tends to grow leggy and may start to lean under the heavy seed burden. So if aesthetics are a concern, either some support might be needed, or choose a sunny out-of-sight corner since the plants may start to flop around and look unsightly. As they matured in early August, the seed heads on my quinoa went through a wonderful color change from green to gold, red, pink, very much like how a sugar maple changes in the fall. So, while the plant itself can get a bit gangly and awkward as it matures, it can exit with a bang. This might be dependant on variety, and I’m not sure what variety I’m currently growing. It sure was beautiful though!
I will be experimenting a lot with quinoa in the future, there are so many benefits to this plant that I am very surprised it is not more commonly grown here in Northern America. It may be that varieties have not yet been developed for our various climates, but hopefully more work will be done in this direction in the future. It’s delicious, and it is a very valuable crop to have, especially for vegans.
Title: Edible Forest Gardens – Volume One: Vision and Theory
Authors: Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier
Publisher: Chelsea Green
I am a pretty voracious and quick reader, but it took me several months to work my way through Volume I. The writing style of the authors is very readable, and the content is fascinating and information rich, but as the title indicates it is a book on food forest THEORY, which means diving deeply into ecological theory and forest structure. While reading Volume I, I found myself often distracted by other, more “hands-on” literature, so I would read a few chapters of Volume I and then dive off for a brief affair with another book, only to return to Forest Gardens a few weeks later to take on another chapter. It took me a while to get through it but I am deeply, deeply grateful to the authors for putting together such an incredible resource. I think they wove a good balance between discussing the broader theory on forest dynamics, while zooming in to particular topics, such as vegetation layers, soil, roots, etc. I would highly recommend this book to those that are really serious about designing their landscapes, farms, or acreage as an ecosystem. It is a wealth of information and the authors have done an excellent job of providing the theoretical framework behind edible food forest design. For those of you that have a more casual approach to gardening and landscaping, or for those that just want some practical examples up front, Volume I might be more than you want to take on. I am just starting to delve into Volume II, which puts theory into practice and might be more geared towards folks that just want to read some instructions and dive in. I’ll be sure to report back when I have completed Volume II.
What I enjoyed:
Chapter 5 “Structures of the Underground Economy”: This chapter is by far the best thing I have read about soil, roots, nutrient cycles and fertility. It provides a broad scale view of the whole “underground economy”, yet also packs in an incredible amount of specific information on the different “engines” of the economy (microbes, roots, fungi, etc). It condenses much of the information that I have read over several books, articles, etc into one integrated framework without watering down or excluding vital information. It is truly a remarkable source of information on the world beneath our feet.
Analysis of Existing Food Forests: The authors take three existing food forests (one of which is Robert Hart’s forest garden) and they offer respectful critiques on what is working in the system, and where things could be better. It was nice to have the concrete examples to reference and anchor the theoretical and conceptual information that they were laying out.
Rethinking invasive species. There were two large sidebars devoted to the analysis and discussion of “invasion biology” that broadened my perspective on the contentious issues surrounding invasive species. They criticize the tendency to blame the individual “invader” and instead encourage a deeper analysis of what root causes allowed the “invasion” in the first place (human disruption might be a good first start!).
Everything Else! There is so much information in this book, and even though it gets pretty deep into theory and concepts, it is written at a level that is accessible to your average (but determined) reader.
One of the principles in Permaculture is to seek the least change for greatest effect. Imagination, visualization and planning are excellent ways to put this principle into practice. Exploring, discovering and defining our intentions helps form the foundation for everything that follows in our design. The primary cost in doing this is taking the time to think about it, time to let our minds wander freely and time to probe deeper into what is driving and inspiring us as we develop our design. Knowing and focusing our intentions yields clarity, energy and context that will help inform the entire process going forward, within planning stages and throughout implementation. Rather than diving right into creating your dream garden, I recommend making the small change of mentally mapping out your ideas and intentions before hand as part of your design process. I believe this has the potential to make a huge positive effect over the lifetime of the design on many levels, including more efficient use of time and resources, and improvements in quality and beauty.
For those of you that have gone through a Permaculture Design Course or similar design instruction, many of these methods will be familiar. I follow this process for my own personal projects, and it can also apply when designing for a client if we can understand and internalize their intentions as much as possible (something any designer should be striving for!). One last thing to note is that this is an iterative and non-linear process. These “steps” should be revisited, even if just briefly, throughout the design and installation process to further refine, enrich and adjust your intentions and your garden design.
Just Dream – I take the time to find a comfortable spot and allow my mind to roam free, play with ideas, ask questions, imagine possibilities. This is your chance to really let your imagination go and find what it is that you ACTUALLY want out of your garden. Questions to ask might be: What do I want to be doing in the garden? What is in my garden? How much time do I want to spend working on it? What does it look like? Who is in my garden? Why is ________ so important to me? What is the garden providing to me, my family, my neighborhood, my environment, my world? Anything goes at this stage. Your garden could be your own private nudist resort, a conduit for communicating with extraterrestrials, a laboratory for discovering the next greatest organic technology, a water park. Don’t be afraid to blow the lid off of what everyone tells us that a garden should be. My wife actually has a wonderful idea which is to make parts of our garden be an agility course for our two terriers. It means I will have to come up with some clever planter construction and earth works, but there is no reason why our family can’t do this AND have a place to entertain friends and family, grow all sorts of native, annual, and perennial foods, create wildlife habitat, have an abundance of flowers, flavorful and medicinal herbs and also have a wonderful place to relax in the evenings. Take the time to play with ideas, let your mind roam free and find what gets you really excited about your potential garden.
Observe – Take the time to really learn from the landscape. If you are choosing a site for your project, the more specific you were in the dreaming/imagination exercises, the easier it will be to avoid a site that will become a source of frustration later. There are so many ways to observe a site that this could be the subject of another entire series of articles. When doing observation, I think the most important thing is to take your dreams, aspirations, pre-conceived designs and put them on the backburner. Many of my mentors emphasize the importance of “listening to the site” and learning as much as you can from the site without jumping to conclusions or being selective about the data. In the observation stage we have the chance to gain deeper and broader knowledge about the site before deciding the next steps. There are many ways to do this but the methods of learning fall into two broad categories, both equally important.
Active Exploration: By physically exploring the site we create an internal mapping through sight, touch, sound, smell and taste. Move through the site at different times of day and in different seasons (if possible). Look at the site from inside and outside, explore it from as many angles as possible. Use all your senses. Our vision tends to be very dominant, so frequently blur your vision or close our eyes and allow your other senses to be heightened. You will experience the temperatures, humidity levels, terrain, sounds and smells much more intensely. The more physical knowledge you gain of the site, the more instinctive and informed your decisions will be.
Passive Observation: This can range from just sitting and watching the site to gathering data on the general patterns about the site. Talk to other local gardeners, read, take notes, learn about weather patterns, prevailing winds, soil types, current and historical use, current and historical ecology, external environment…it is good to get a grasp bigger frame in which your site sits and also help hone your understanding of unique aspects of the site so that your design can work comfortably within these influences and factors.
Brainstorm – If you have been envisioning (dreaming) and observing, now you have the challenge of bringing the two together to bring a workable design into being. This is where we often have to get really creative and allow our observations to play, wrestle and merge with our dreams. When we look at the chaos of the site, it is often hard to map it to the vague, grandiose ideas in our head. That in itself is a book unto itself, but these articles are more about the imagination process, so I won’t say much about design. Instead, I encourage you to allow the dreams to persist and inform your design even when your observations show you that some of your ideas may not be appropriate (or even impossible). If your idea is really important to you, allow that the possibility might exist, but you just don’t see it yet. You may even have to put that “impossible” dream aside for a while and revisit it occasionally to see if you have any new insights that might solve the puzzle.
Lets do a brief, whimsical case study: So here’s the problem: you live as part of the acequia system in the New Mexico Desert and you really, really want part of your land to be a water park. Water is critical and cannot be wasted. Is it impossible to have your water park? I don’t think so. One way of respecting the scarcity of water, yet still realizing your dream, might be to use the event of your weekly water allotment as the opportunity to have your water park. When the dam opens, it could spill into a series of slides and pools on its way to irrigate the property. The splashing and playing in the pools themselves could be a method of irrigation…so there you have it! An appropriate, environmentally conscious, multi-functional water park in the middle of the desert! Now each time the dam opens there is the possibility of a wonderful water party to celebrate the event.
If we hold on to our intentions, allow them to inform our decisions, and remain flexible in how the dreams are realized in our designs, amazing things can happen.
Sleep on It – I cannot say enough about the power of sleep. Bill Mollison advocates the hammock as the designer’s most important tool, and I couldn’t agree more. A comfortable place where you can observe the site, read, peruse the internet and occasionally doze off…now that’s a design tool that everyone should have. While there is still a lot of mystery surrounding what our brain is doing during sleep, there is growing evidence that sleep is extremely important in the creative and learning processes. As discussed in Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, it appears that in various stages of sleep our mind is actually very actively seeking solutions to problems that we are currently wrestling with in our life. In a fascinating RadioLab episode on sleep (at minute 31), Dr. Gulio Tunoni explains that when our brain has intently focused on something during the day, sleep will bring clarity and refinement. So rather than banging your head on the desk, or trying to cram that last bit of data from the book into your memory…if you are feeling tired, relax, just let yourself drift let your brain take it from there
Listen to Your Body and Emotions – In western culture we have divorced the mind and body. This is one of the stupidest dichotomies ever. Our body IS our mind and likewise, our mind/brain communicates through the body via these powerful, sometimes irrational, sensations that we call emotions. When we set our intentions, these emotional signals can be indicators and guides. I try to pay attention to these signals, but I also try and probe them. I think anyone can have the magical ability of “intuition”. Rather than it being some rare gift, I think intuition is the learned ability to have a sophisticated internal dialog. For me personally, if something “doesn’t feel right” rather than just ignoring it as illogical, instead I try probing that feeling a little more and try to decipher where the unease comes from. It could just be that I am stepping into new territory and feel nervous about it, or it could be a huge blunder in my design that I am not consciously aware of. Likewise if something “just feels right”, I try teasing the idea out a bit further, to see where it goes. Sometimes the idea just doesn’t work, but often it adds a whole new element and improvement to the design. The most elegant and useful designs will probably arise from a balanced, active dialog between your heart and your mind.
Create a Model of the Design – This is probably where things will get frustrating. Our ideas feel SO GOOD when they are in our mind. By creating models, whether they are drawings, digital plans, an auditory or written descriptions of the layout, timelines, actual 3D models or something else, you are bringing representations of your ideas into the world. This is often a difficult process, but it is invaluable. Again, this is the principle of least change for greatest effect. By creating a model of your design, it will quickly become obvious where your thoughts and ideas are not clear or where it is difficult to articulate the ideas that you have. It is way better to work these things out “on paper” than to find out later that you do not have space for that $1000 greenhouse, or that your planned planting of the oak tree would result in oak branches in your living room in ten years, or that your timing is off and your vegetables will be buried by snow before they even flower.
Set a Deadline – Exploring our intentions can be very engrossing, fun, liberating and exciting. However, if you are at all like me you might spend a little too much time in these pre-design stages and not actually get anything done. So set aside a reasonable amount of “dream time”, but it helps to have a deadline for getting your ideas on paper and actually putting the design into action. It also helps to set little re-imagination points along the way in the design process so that you can take a step back and evaluate whether your design is still following your original intentions, or if in fact your intentions and the design have changed through time.
Have Fun! – Find what brings you pleasure and satisfaction, and try to find ways to bring those elements into the garden and nurture them. If you do not have elements in your garden that excite you, gardening begins to become a chore. Just as a personal example, I love to grow food, but as the summer reaches its end many of the annual vegetables start to sprawl and flop around, die off, dry out…my vegetable garden begins to get unruly and even though there is a ton of great food out there, I find I don’t really like to be out there…even to the point of not harvesting some of the great food! So as I start to plan my future food garden, I’ll be looking more towards perennial foods, and integrating annuals in a way that doesn’t require major aesthetic maintenance and allows them to age ‘gracefully’ in the landscape. The aesthetic is as important to me as the functional (food), so I have to respect and nurture both elements in order to keep myself and my garden happy.
So I hope you can explore and get to know deeply the intentions that are most important to you as continue on in your garden and life designs. Hold them before you, and may you find deep satisfaction, meaning, joy and purpose in whatever you do.