By Dave Jacke
What our times demand now is what I call “regenerative descent.” We need to regenerate the planet and its ecological health while meeting our needs, but we need to descend from the peak of energy use, pollution production, and population and resource use that we now find ourselves upon.
We now use 10 calories of energy for every calorie of food we grow and eat in this country. Most of that energy is coming from fossil fuels. Agriculture is the most destructive force on planet earth. It destroys soils, ecosystems, habitats, water quality, human health (at least from highly processed industrial foods), and contributes mightily to climate chaos.
Small urban and suburban lots can play a huge role in descending from that peak while regenerating the planet. If we design urban and suburban landscapes for not only food production, but also for creating healthy habitat for wildlife, bees, butterflies, and birds, as well as ourselves, we can have a major impact on the health of the world both locally and in faraway places. A key to this is reducing our need for resources from those other places. You can have a beautiful landscape and eat it too, while healing the planet!
What can you grow in the Northeast? Fruits, berries, nuts, herbs, perennial vegetables, and annual vegetables – all kinds of things. Just look at the back of Edible Forest Gardens volume one for the top 100 species, many of which will grow here.
Mostly what this looks like will be a combination of trees shrubs and diverse herbaceous plantings in various combinations. I assure you that such landscapes can be quite beautiful. It doesn’t mean you can’t have lawn, but it would be good if we had less lawn, because lawn takes a lot of energy and creates a lot of polluted runoff.
Can you afford to do it? Well, my question is, can you afford not to? Our well-being depends on changing the way we live. If we want to have a habitable planet, then we need to stop driving so much. We need to stop trucking our food 1500 miles on average from field to table.
I’m not saying everyone should try to grow all of their food on their own lot. But to grow 30% of your own food, or even 20%, makes a huge difference. We should also support local farmers. We should reduce consumption. We should find our satisfaction and fulfillment through healthy relationships rather than trying to do it by buying more stuff.
The place to start is with clarity on what you want your life to be like. Articulate your goals. Detect them inside your heart and body and mind. Do not impose them, but find out what is true for you. That is the only place to start. Discover your own genius. Then learn what you need to learn in order to make those goals reality.
In my book Edible Forest Gardens I lay out a comprehensive design process for landscape design and edible forest garden design. In summary, goals guide site analysis and assessment. The site analysis and assessment informs the design. We need to be clear about what we want, and we need to know the landscape we’re dealing with, then we can find within those two things the best design.
I also urge people to trust themselves. The ability to design lives inherently in all human beings (in my humble opinion). So with a little bit of guidance and getting over one’s fears people should be able to figure it out. It helps a lot to be willing to make mistakes. This is how we learn. What is your goal? That is a very good question!
Our future will be very different than anything we’ve experienced so far in our lives. As Chris Martenson says, the next 20 years will be nothing like the last 20 years. I believe the scale of change will be vast, and so will the implications for our society be. That scale of change is something we need to face.
Where does your food come from? Where does your water come from? How are your human wastes treated safely? The more we can meet our needs and offer our yields in a local, stable, resilient, healthy ecosystem, the better off all of us will be. And each one of us can begin that process for ourselves and help others do the same.
The more systems we have that support ourselves in our own places, and in our neighborhoods, and in our towns that are redundant and resilient and grounded in our local reality, the better off all of us will be. We will need to learn to cooperate and interact with our neighbors more and more as time goes on.
Dave Jacke has been a student of ecology and design since the 1970s. He holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Simon’s Rock College and a M.A. in Landscape Design from the Conway School of Landscape Design. He has run his own ecological design firm, Dynamics Ecological Design, since 1984.