Book Review by N.R. Mallery
Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre — and — The Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City
By Eric Toensmeier, with Contributions from Jonathan Bates, 235 pages, Chelsea Green Publishing
Since one of my loves is gardening and sustainable living which is ingrained in my soul, I found this book to be absolutely fascinating. I found it hard to put down. I have underlined, dog-paged, bookmarked and highlighted so many parts that I barely know where to start to tell you how important this book is. As we all begin to walk our own path to a sustainable future, we need to start to take responsibility for many of our own needs. One way we can do this is by simply growing our own food — no matter where we live!
The authors take you down their own journey that started on a rural setting where they had the space to grow all of the typical fruits and vegetables that you see here in the northeast. That beginning also grew into a friendship based on their own love of plants and love of the land. This friendship eventually led to a desire to buy and move into a duplex in the city of Holyoke, Massachusetts — with a plan to grow their own edible forest on a small inner city, barren lot where nothing was able to grow. This is an exemplary success story.
Both of them have backgrounds that qualify them to tell their adventure about how they were able to achieve the development of creating what Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden called, “a sustainable, peaceful, and abundant oasis in the urban jungle.”
Their paradise took a few years of learning, not only of what and where to grow the more than 200 low-maintenance edible plants, but also learning through a series of just what this particular lot’s needs were. The plan was for the garden to function as a natural ecosystem with the plants themselves providing natural fertilizer, pest control and weed suppression for low-maintenance edible plants.
Not all of the original plans worked however. They quickly learned that some perennials can actually turn into problems as bad as the weeds they were hoping to avoid. Then they had to find a new solution to the ideas they had learned were misguided. Time showed them what they needed to learn, even if it meant re-thinking and re-planning at times. The permaculture plan included challenging vegetation that does not normally survive the cold climate of New England. Their knowledge was extensive, so that they were able to find many alternative exotic and tropical crops to really make it a true paradise. It included an unheated greenhouse, chickens, silkworms and especially a place to go for a peaceful retreat — all on a tenth of an acre lot.
As with all permaculture, it is really a learning experience for us all – but it is evolving, as did Paradise Lot.
Eric Toenmeier had been involved with and practicing permaculture since 1990. He is the author of Perennial Vegetables and co-author of Edible Forest Gardens with Dave Jacke. He has worked in many farming programs throughout New England and is a graduate and former faculty member of the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vermont. His current interest is in large-scale permaculture farming as a carbon-sequestering solution to climate change. More about his business can be found at www.perennialsolutions.org.
Jonathan Bates owns Food Forest Farm Permaculture Nursery (www.permaculturenursery.com), an educational service and offers edible plant for sale. He has been working in the Connecticut River Valley for over a decade. He has a BA in BIology and an MA in Social Ecology, co-founded Apios Institute and teaches at Yestermorrow Design/Build School. He loves working with others to better the world we live in.
Paradise Lot is much more than a story about two plant geeks and their making of a permaculture paradise. It is also a guide – a resource manual that we can all learn from and follow to make wherever you live into a place where you can realize actual results from the ‘fruits’ of your labor.
Appendix A shows their own hand drawn design plan and field sketches which are fun to figure out. Appendix B is what I really consider a bonus to the book, adding so much additional value to it. It shows the “species they have successfully grown and harvested. All have overwintered except a few of the aquatic and tender tropical species,” the authors write, with a a , “Note that ‘native’ means native to the Northeast and not necessarily to Massachusetts or our country.”
Now my own challenge is to go back through the book and make my own plan on a much larger scale on my own 26 acres. I plan to use this inspiring book as a resource to make my own sustainable paradise meet even more of my own food needs with many more options – for fun, for health and for a future.