The Suburbs and Permaculture

farming in the suburbs

The suburbs offer an outstanding—and obvious—opportunity for for food production and permaculture.

Here’s a good overview of the potential marriage of the suburbs and permaculture for growing food, similar to this post. With abundant lawn area in many suburban developments, people can easily grow much of their own food. Or they can share space, rent space, or trade space with people who want to grow food. Water is available through wells or city water. And the land area that could be used is huge.

A NASA researcher estimated that lawns in the U.S. are the most-irrigated “crop” in the nation. “Even conservatively,” Milesi says, “I estimate there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn.” Read the article here.

Here’s what we could have:

veg garden - peas growing like crazy


CSA delivery by bike

CSA delivery by bike in Seattle.

Some areas may even be close enough for bicycle delivery of the veggies!


Becoming A Very Green City

Convergence. Synergy. Whatever you call it, many different organizations in my city (the La Crosse, Wisconsin area) are coming together to learn, teach, and practice sustainable living principles. And it appears that momentum is building. La Crosse is becoming a very green city.

So many different projects are interwoven that it can be challenging to remember them all. Some are well under way, such as Gundersen Lutheran’s projects, and some are still in the planning stages. In no particular order…

Creating a community food system

Hillview Urban Agriculture Center is building a community food system. This nonprofit group is working with Western Technical College, Mayo Health System, Organic Valley, the YMCA, and others to grow and distribute food for local people to eat, addressing food insecurity, food deserts, and healthy eating.

Western Technical College will build a new greenhouse system on campus that will provide space for Hillview, as well as for the college’s Landscape Horticulture Program. The college will build three Passive Houses on the former Hillview Greenhouse site. WTC students will help build one home per year, gaining invaluable hands-on experience, integrating the different elements of the Building Innovations program, and adding to knowledge of best practices for sustainable housing. The houses will be sold, adding to the tax base of the city.

This photo shows the old Hillview site, where three Passive Houses will be built by professional contractors and WTC students.


Western Sustainability Institute will be a regional resource

WTC is also building the Western Sustainability Institute, which is to be a central resource for the regional sustainability efforts of business, government, nonprofits, and education. The Sustainability Institute will be advised by the Mississippi River Region Sustainable Communities Consortium (MRRSCC), which includes members from regional government, planning, education, and nonprofit entities. The MRRSCC is being developed with funding from a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Gundersen Lutheran is nearly energy independent

Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center is a national leader in sustainability efforts through their Envision program, and will be energy independent in 2014. They’ve invested in conservation, tapped the county landfill for methane, invested in wind farms, installed a biomass boiler, and more.

And the City of La Crosse and La Crosse County have adopted The Natural Step, which provides a framework for ensuring that human activities are done sustainably. And many more projects are under way.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

Is Permaculture Mainstream Yet?

Is permaculture mainstream yet? I don’t know, but I keep seeing more great stories of permaculture, like these located in Southwest Wisconsin.

Kinstone Academy of Applied Permaculture

Kinstone Academy of Applied Permaculture

Kinstone Academy is located near Fountain City, Wisconsin.

Primrose Valley Farm

New Forest Farm

Grist article about New Forest Farm.

Madison Area Permaculture Guild

Capital Times article

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

Kinstone Academy of Applied Permaculture

kinstone — Kinstone – Academy of Applied Permaculture.

Here’s the new Permaculture-based educational center near Fountain City. I plan to take a couple classes there this year.

I’m looking at this program too at the Ashevillage Institute.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

Greener Cities Are the Future of Sustainable Living

You’ve probably seen some of the lists of “best places” compiled by various magazines. Outside, Money, and others compile their lists based on their idea of relevant criteria. You see a lot of repeat winners, with Madison, Wisconsin, as a perfect example. It routinely wins a place on both lists.

I like the Outside list, as it shows cities and towns developing new amenities for recreation. What’s especially interesting is towns like this year’s winner, Richmond, Virginia, that have cleaned up previously polluted land and rivers. The James River, for example, was closed to fishing for 13 years due to extreme pollution. After extensive cleanup work, it’s now a recreational hub.


Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Another approach to list-making is evaluating and improving the sustainability of cities. As more than 80% of Americans and Canadians are now urban dwellers, it’s clear that cities have a major positive impact on the environmental health of our world, and on our people. Greener cities are the future of sustainable living

It may seem counter-intuitive that cities can be centers of sustainable living—in contrast to living on the land and growing your own food, and so on—but it makes sense when you think about it. When people live in dense cities, they need to drive less—or not at all—to reach all the places they need to go. Delivery of goods and services is more efficient when more people are clustered together. Housing is more efficient on multiple levels with shared walls, for example, than having a home with four walls losing heat to the outside. Food is grown where there’s room to grow a lot efficiently, then transported to the mass of buyers. Waste is a resource and can be re-used or recycled. And cities draw people from the countryside and lessen humans’ daily impact on some rural areas.

So looking beyond simple measures of what we like in a place, such as good schools, outdoor recreation, and short commutes, what makes a place sustainable? And what are the most sustainable cities?

Siemens Green City Index rates 9 criteria

One measure is the Green City Index, developed by Siemens Corporation and the Economist Intelligence Unit. They applied these 9 criteria to cities all over the globe:

  • CO2
  • Energy
  • Land Use
  • Buildings
  • Air
  • Water
  • Waste
  • Transport
  • Environmental Governance

In North America, the top four most sustainable cities, of 27 evaluated, were San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, and New York City. This is a useful metric, but cities also have a huge negative impact on the natural world. Bulldozing an entire field and building apartments and offices, even densely, removes wildlife habitat, as well as plants that absorb CO2 and produce oxygen. How do cities mitigate this destruction?


Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

What’s missing from sustainability ratings

This blog at the Sustainable Cities Collective discusses adding more green elements to those sustainability scores, such as green-space percentage, natural areas, and biodiversity. Adding those elements to a sustainability ranking will add to people’s consciousness of their importance.

And why are they important? Green space not only makes our cities look better, people feel less stressed, the heat island effect decreases, plants clean the air of pollutants for us, trees add to property values, and provide a host of other benefits.

Green space, street trees, and natural areas can remediate pollution to create healthier, more enjoyable, more sustainable cities, while they also become the places where we play.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

What the Hell is Permaculture?

Permaculture continues to fascinate me. Bill and Becky Wilson from Midwest Permaculture delivered several workshops at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Energy Fair, and I attended nearly all of them. So what the hell is permaculture? You can find a complete description here, but my short version is this: permaculture is a design system that integrates sustainable agriculture and sustainable building to produce sustainable human culture. Permaculture practices heal the earth, and provide sufficient resources for living today, while not taking from future generations.

One example: creating a “food forest.” Build a swale to catch and hold water so the soil moisture is abundant. Then you can plant a variety of food-producing trees and shrubs, such as hickory, oak, hazelnut, apple, and walnut. Next work in smaller plants like blueberries, grapes, and gooseberries. This food forest will produce an abundance of food each year with no planting and minimal work. It’s also a resource for lumber, supports the honeybee population, and may provide meat from game and/or domestic animals. It’s a productive, robust, and sustaining system. And after you get it going, you reap the harvest without planting.

Bill’s own rain garden is another great example. His house has no basement and sits on a flat lot, so clearly this project is easier than one dealing with a basement or a steeply sloped lot. He directed the flow from the home’s gutters to the front yard, where he contoured the land into a slight swale or channel so the water flows slowly through the front yard, across the side yard and next to a substantial berm that directs the flow, and out to the back yard. All along this path the water is seeping into the ground, maintaining soil moisture, and recharging the ground water. This is treating rainwater as a resource, and not waste. And by planting perennials near the swale, the plants rarely need supplemental watering.

These are some tenets of permaculture that bear repeating:

  • wastes become resources
  • productivity and yields increase
  • work is minimized
  • the environment is restored.

Bill also talked about hugelkultur, which is a German method of burying logs to create a highly fertile area. After a few months, the bacteria growth explodes as the wood decomposes, and they produce an abundance of nitrogen, which feed the roots of the plants you plant there. Here’s a video of hugelkultur construction.

This is just a fraction of the workshops I attended at the Energy Fair, but is a good example of all you can learn.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy

Last weekend was the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s 23rd annual Energy Fair in Custer, Wisconsin. Over the course of the weekend I attended 11 workshops, on topics such as Wooden Cities, Suburban and Urban Permaculture, Small Scale Permaculture Farming, From Foreclosure to LEED, Getting to Zero, Lifestyle Entrepreneurship, Sustainable Living Simplified, and A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy, which has really stuck with me.

First, presenter Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture talked about rocket mass heaters. I’ve read about these before but haven’t seen them in action. The story with these devices is their efficiency and ease of construction. They use only 25% of the fuel of an equivalent wood stove for the same heat output. They usually are built with a cob bench/seating area as thermal mass.

Bill described helping his neighbor build a rocket mass heater for the first time. The stove required some tweaks, such as learning how to get it started with minimal smoke, and realizing that the house was too tight with too little air leakage, they added a fresh-air intake for the heater. And they built the whole unit for less than $100. Simple, cheap, and effective.

As for wood, the rocket mass heater requires so little fuel that trimmings can work fine. Rather than cutting, splitting, and drying firewood, Bill mentioned a technique called coppicing to cultivate and harvest trimmings from deciduous shrubs and trees; a little goes a long way! Here’s an example:

Another fascinating topic was downdraft wood gasification. When burned in a certain way, wood produces abundant hydrogen which can be captured and used to power a gasoline engine. A group in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, produced the following video demonstrating the process. I’ll have to look into this more, but it seems like it could be a viable way to power a home generator for electricity production.

As for permaculture, a complete description of the 12 design principles is a little long, but Bill emphasized that permaculture is simply care for people, the planet, and the future, with these benefits:

  • waste becomes a resource
  • productivity and yields increase
  • work is minimized
  • the environment is restored

As always, I learned a lot, from people who are actively doing what they teach. I’ll add more in another post.


The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

5 Great Things About the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair

All right! It’s time for another Energy Fair! This Thursday, June 14, I’ll be driving to Custer, Wisconsin, for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s 23rd annual Energy Fair. If you’re into sustainable living and building and energy, this event is one of the most interesting and compelling of the year. Besides the camaraderie of like-minded people, you can learn so much through more than 200 workshops, as well as from the vendors and exhibits.

Here are 5 great things that attract me to the Energy Fair each year:

  • 1. Free education at the workshops; it’s incredible how much you can learn from the speakers, and how many workshops there are! In each time slot, there are usually 15-18 workshops happening simultaneously.
  • 2. Inspirational stories from people who have done it (built a wind turbine, or a veggie car conversion, or a tiny home) and from the keynote presenters who are typically working on global issues such as climate change and sustainable agriculture.
  • 3. Great local beer from Central Waters Brewing, a food court where you can meet new friends and chat, and fun musical entertainment!
  • 4. Hands-on demos so you can see how it’s done in real life, by people who do it.
  • 5. Fascinating demos by my friend Roald Gundersen, of Whole Trees fame. Roald uses whole trees and branched columns in his buildings, and has been involved in pioneering research at the U.S. Forest Products Lab in Madison to quantify the strength of branched columns. I’m looking forward to hearing the latest.

In addition, there’s a Clean Energy car show, a Green Home Pavilion, and Sustainable Tables that demonstrate sustainable methods for transportation, home building, and food production, respectively. I’ll see you at the Energy Fair!

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

4 Ideas for Greener Cities

For the first time in history, a majority of humans live in cities. How we make and use our cities has a major impact on how healthy the planet is, and how healthy and happy we are. I want to explore some options for creating greener cities, from the personal level to the city level. What are the most sustainable options for greening our cities?

Make greener yards

One step that may not be obvious is improving our own yards, where we must reduce the use of pesticides on lawns. According to the group Beyond Pesticides, “Suburban lawns and gardens receive more pesticide applications per acre (3.2-9.8 lbs) than agriculture (2.7 lbs per acre on average).” ( Many commonly used lawn chemicals have never been tested for their effects on humans, pets, and wildlife. We don’t know if they’re relatively safe or not—but they’re sold and we use them anyway. Of those that have been tested, some are linked with cancers of various kinds, birth defects, reproductive effects, liver and kidney effects, and endocrine system effects. Some are linked with increased risk of cancers in dogs, and are toxic to beneficial insects and birds.

That said, it’s reasonable to presume that all chemicals are potentially dangerous, even if used as directed. Therefore, minimizing the use of all chemicals is beneficial, and eliminating the use of as many chemicals as possible is preferable. I would distinguish between pests we should address for health reasons, such as mice and roaches and mosquitoes, and pests we simply dislike, such as crabgrass.

Eliminating the use of chemical pesticides, however, won’t remove the need for them. Fortunately, we have some options that are less toxic and nontoxic. Search for “nontoxic pest control” and you’ll get some ideas. The most crucial step, and possibly the most difficult, is managing your expectations. It may not be possible, for example, to have a thick, green, weed-free lawn without the dreaded “four-step program” of fertilizer and pesticide. So get over it—this fertilizer and pesticide combo is exactly what we need to eliminate! It’s time to accept that heavy use of chemicals comes at a high price, and that you can choose to use nontoxic methods.

Stop wasting water

Another option for greening our cities is changing how we use and manage water. According to NASA’s Ames Research Center, lawns are America’s largest irrigated crop (WorldChanging page 160). This is a colossal amount of water and offers great potential for improvement, as much of that water is wasted. At the same time, many areas of the country experience seasonal water shortages, partly due to lawn watering, and most of the continental U.S. is now abnormally dry to in extreme drought. To put it simply, many areas of the U.S. do not have adequate supplies of water due to drought and/or a growing population, yet people continue to waste water on their lawns. And even worse—it’s usually drinking water!

At the city level, city officials are making changes such as using permeable paving surfaces to allow water to drain back to the aquifers, requiring grading and contouring of developed land to allow draining into the soil and minimizing draining into storm sewers, encouraging conservation with tiered pricing, and restricting lawn watering.

At the personal level, we have quite a few options, as well. Stop watering your lawn; let it fend for itself on rainwater. Reduce the size of your lawn and landscape with drought-tolerant plants. Collect rainwater with rain barrels and use for your garden and landscape first, and for your lawn last. If you must have a lush green lawn, determine how much water your lawn needs for your climate conditions and be sure not to overwater. Plant appropriate species of turfgrass for your climate. Consider installing soil moisture sensors to help you regulate the amount of water you use, and if you have an irrigation system, keep it well maintained and leak free. In some areas, you could even divert graywater from the washing machine and use it for irrigation.

Let it go

A third suggestion for greening our cities is strategic laziness. Let’s plant millions of trees and shrubs, and then relax. Let’s stop demanding a manicured look and let nature decide what works and what doesn’t. A perfect example is the land along our highways. Why do highway departments mow so much grass? They waste a lot of fuel and man-hours doing so, and prevent trees from sprouting and growing naturally. Most of this land should be a maintenance-free native landscape. Sure, areas next to intersections should be maintained for visibility and safety, but I see no reason why cloverleafs must be mowed in their entirety. Some people will complain, as they want it all to look tidy like their lawns at home, but many of us prefer the natural look. It’s cheaper and healthier, anyway.

This idea of strategic laziness pertains to cities, as well. I noticed in Berlin, Germany, that the amount of urban vegetation was much higher than, for example, Minneapolis. I saw more weeds and grass growing in sidewalk cracks, and more “unmanicured” shrubs and trees on property boundaries. That translates into less gas-powered maintenance, and less herbicide use. In contrast, here in Wisconsin most homeowners keep their yards very tidy and have plenty of lawn area with too few shrubs and trees. They maintain their yards with gas-powered mowers and spray glyphosate to keep it all weed-free. They prune and shape shrubs into tidy round balls. Lots of room for improvement. This is anecdotal, of course, but would be interesting to study further.

When we talk more specifically about the urban forest, or our city trees, the benefits of a city filled with trees are well documented. Our urban forests are crucial to making our cities greener, as they:

  • sequester carbon
  • improve air quality
  • moderate heat and save energy
  • moderate high winds
  • filter water and moderate erosion
  • increase real estate values
  • as well as providing benefits to people such as calming us and helping us slow down a bit.

References herehere, and here.

Urban trees are beautiful and functional

Urban trees are beautiful and functional.

Greening our urban waterways

Last for this post is our abused urban waterways. What’s left of them, anyway. So many have been filled in, paved over, straightened, turned into open sewers, and treated as dumps, but the potential for improvement is huge, and it’s crucial that we improve them. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created the Urban Waters Movement to do that, by working with communities to reduce pollution entering rivers and to repair the damage. Many urban waterways are being restored to a more natural state and are once again accessible to people, with parks and trails and access for fishing and paddling.

Urban waterways, though damaged, can be revived.

Urban waterways, though damaged, can be revived.

As the world becomes more and more urban, we have unmatched opportunities to green our cities. These ideas are just four of many, but would have substantial benefits.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities.

What makes a livable community?

Community seems to be a popular concept right now. People all over the United States are realizing that sprawling, monolithic, and unsatisfying development—the kind that has been dominant for the last half-century—can be modified and improved. Dozens of books have been written on this subject, and from many different perspectives, such as transportation, health and fitness, land use, and so on. What is happening to drive this awareness and desire for change, and what makes a community livable and pleasant?

Well, from my perspective, the desire for a real “community” springs from the crap so many Americans have to live with. In between the “bucolic” countryside and the walkable urban downtown is a mess of development that is entirely car-focused. Christopher Leinberger, in The Option of Urbanism, calls it “drivable sub-urban” development. We also call it sprawl.

It’s made up of gigantic neighborhoods of similarly styled houses, and nothing but houses. Then across a busy four-lane highway, a “big-box” retail center, with acres of asphalt parking lots. It’s low-density, large-lot development that gobbles up open land. Walking or riding a bike in these areas is either unfeasible because the distances are too great, or the heavy traffic on multi-lane streets and highways discourages anyone not driving a car. It’s either too far or doesn’t feel safe. It’s not healthy, either.

Since 1960, “the overweight population has doubled, the obese population has increased 5 fold and the population with extreme or morbid obesity has increased by a factor of nearly 12!” (Downey Obesity Report)

According to the Centers for Disease Control (2000), “In the USA the proportion of children who walk or bike to school declined between 1969 (42%) and 2001 (16%) resulting in less exercise.”

Why we ended up with this development is a topic for another blog post, but people can see that drivable sub-urban development is not healthy, and for many it is not pleasant. Let’s look at an alternative model for development, one that is designed for humans and not cars.

The American Institute of Architects has created 10 Principles for Livable Communities that help us make our communities pleasant, functional, and human centered. Check out the Center for Communities by Design for more information and more detail on these principles.

1. Design on a Human Scale
Compact, pedestrian-friendly communities allow residents to walk to shops, services, cultural resources, and jobs and can reduce traffic congestion and benefit people’s health.

2. Provide Choices
People want variety in housing, shopping, recreation, transportation, and employment. Variety creates lively neighborhoods and accommodates residents in different stages of their lives.

3. Encourage Mixed-Use Development
Integrating different land uses and varied building types creates vibrant, pedestrian-friendly and diverse communities.

4. Preserve Urban Centers
Restoring, revitalizing, and infilling urban centers takes advantage of existing streets, services and buildings and avoids the need for new infrastructure. This helps to curb sprawl and promote stability for city neighborhoods.

5. Vary Transportation Options
Giving people the option of walking, biking and using public transit, in addition to driving, reduces traffic congestion, protects the environment and encourages physical activity.

6. Build Vibrant Public Spaces
Citizens need welcoming, well-defined public places to stimulate face-to-face interaction, collectively celebrate and mourn, encourage civic participation, admire public art, and gather for public events.

7. Create a Neighborhood Identity
A “sense of place” gives neighborhoods a unique character, enhances the walking environment, and creates pride in the community.

8. Protect Environmental Resources
A well-designed balance of nature and development preserves natural systems, protects waterways from pollution, reduces air pollution, and protects property values.

9. Conserve Landscapes
Open space, farms, and wildlife habitat are essential for environmental, recreational, and cultural reasons.

10. Design Matters
Design excellence is the foundation of successful and healthy communities.

It’s interesting to note that most of these principles, if not all, are simply a return to the way we used to build cities. Not all of us have forgotten what makes a livable community.


The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities