Paradise Lot, Book review

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and The Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City

I’ve been aware of Eric Toenmeier’s work for some time – he authored a compendium on perennial vegetables ( as well as co-authored, with Dave Jacke, a simply gigantic book  called Edible Forest Gardens ( which is the bible on  the ecology and design of home scale food forests.

Paradise Lot is the story of how Eric, along with his friend and ally Jonathon Bates, decide to test the theory of the home scale edible forest model put forth in Edible Forests Gardens by putting it into practice on a small, highly compromised inner city lot in post-industrial Holyoke, Massachusetts.

This easy to read book is the story of how these two men—proud and obsessed plant geeks—spend a few years observing, designing, mending, planting, digging, sheet mulching, experimenting with different cultivars, planting trees, cutting down trees, building greenhouses, and in every other way, testing the limits of the home scale edible food forest. They buy a duplex with the intention of not only growing a great garden, but of attracting their life partners. Happily, they succeed in both endeavors.

While choosing a site with deeply compromised conditions (“there was hardly any way we could have made conditions in our garden worse…”) they also note that this project was “an example of…. Regenerative design, which asks us how our designs can bring a site to life and bring us into a deeper relationship with it and each other through doing so. While sustainability is focused on maintaining things as they are, regenerative land use actively improves and heals a site and its ecosystems… It’s kind of an important topic for humanity this century.”

I liked how part of the story was about the creation of an alternative family and ownership structure, and I appreciated the successes and limitations of the small scale model which they were fairly honest about. I appreciate when people note the mistakes they make, and the good learning that comes out of them. I have run into some similar problems on my small urban lot—also about one-tenth of an acre—but as I am a renter, and a mother, and live in an entirely different ecosystem, my commitments, choices and outcomes have been different. Also, to be honest, I am not quite as geeked out about plants as these guys are!

A banana tree.

A banana tree — yes! in Massachusetts

This book is best for people who are already versed in the permaculture practice of regenerative agriculture, and it will most specifically serve those who live in the cold northeast of our country. I found myself reading about the plants they were growing and how they were interacting and knew that they were not plants that I would have easy access to in my drought-prone place.

But as a model of what is possible, Eric and Jonathon proved that the home scale edible forest garden can grow beyond theory and into practical application, no matter what ecosystem you inhabit. It’s just a matter of finding the right plants for your place, and working with them with conscious intent. This book is an inspiration to be part of the culture of repair, right in your own backyard.

Permaculture Principle #12: Creatively Use and Respond To Change

“Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be”

The image for this principle is the butterfly, which starts as the humble catepillar.  Change is inevitable.  Through careful observation and knowledge, we can intervene creatvely and have a positive impact on the outcome.  Some change is predictable, such as the changing of the seasons or the stages of growth in a small organization or the way we age.  By studying ourselves and the world around us we can peer into the future and make choices in the present that will influence a good outcome.

This principle can be applied in the planning of your annual garden for crop rotations to work well with the changing seasons.  It requires you to understand the changing seasons of your bioregion–perhaps through prior experience and good note-taking, or by speaking with others who have been gardening in the area longer. It can be applied in the way you site permanent features in your landscape.  You know a tree will grow and with a little research you can predict what it might look like in 10 years.  Use this information to place it  in a way that it will have enough space when mature and not interfere with other features in your design. You know as well that eventually you will age and want to retire–how can you creatively ensure that you will have your needs taken care of at that time? Something like this may seem daunting in today’s economy, but new and creative solutions are being developed all the time.

This principle does not ask you to predict the future, but to study the past and the world around you.

post by K. Ruby Blume

Principle # 6 – Produce No Waste

Permaculture principle #6 Produce No Waste   by Ruby


The Oil Eaters

The Oil Eaters (Photo credit: giveawayboy)


Waste is a concept foreign to nature; everything produced gets eaten, decomposed and reused. The earthworm consumes plant “wastes” turning them into enriched soil. Bacteria hang out on tree leaves protecting them until they fall, at which moment those same leaves become their food.


In the garden we compost everything that is left over, use wood from pruning to stake plants or edge our garden beds or use egg shells as a natural snail control that then becomes available calcium for the plants. The next wave of limiting waste is to prioritize the use of natural compostable materials in other areas of our lives. Building materials such as earth, cob and wood, that can eventually return to the earth,. Clothing fibers like wool and cotton are similarly compostable. Who will be the first to produce a fully bio-degradable computer or mp3 player? That also produces no waste in it’s production? Don’t know where to get biodegradable products?

Here is one cool website for home products:


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Permaculture Principle #4: Self-Regulate; Accept Feedback

Principle #4 Self-Regulate, Accept Feedback

The next installation in Ruby’s meditations on the permaculture principles:
When we notice something isn’t working, we need to adjust to bring systems back into balance. In the garden it might be something as simple as noticing that your plants are getting under-watered and adjusting your watering schedule. If flies and smell are building up in your chicken coop, you may need to tweak the system to make it easier to maintain.

On a personal level, this principle invites us to apply self-criticism as well as to accept critical feedback from others with grace. To sit in the “hot seat” and consider the feedback others give us rather than defend ourselves, is a practice that requires fortitude and strength of character. The experience of making a mistake, being called on it, accepting responsibility and adjusting ones behavior builds a strong personal ecology and sense of self-worth. Conversely learning to give feedback in a manner that supports forward movement is a fine skill to develop.

A young couple and their baby sitting beside t...

Imagine a world in which political leaders and large corporations were able and willing to self-regulate and accept feedback!

For now, we’ll have to work on enhancing this essential and difficult human skill at personal scale,

Principle #1: Observe and Interact

K. Ruby Blume reflecting on the permaculture principles, one by one.

Permaculture principles

Principle #1 Observe and Interact

This is just about my favorite and most easy to remember permaculture principle. And although it seems obvious, it is so often the step that is left out of the equation when we start a project. We can see this especially when we look at larger developments, which haven’t taken into consideration important features in a landscape like passive solar gain, or rainwater flows, or wind, or the neighborhood in general.

When you take the time to slow down and simply observe something—a plot of land, a group dynamic in your office or in your chicken flock, it gives you time to reflect on what is actually happening right in front of you. This gives you information that can be useful as you move forward in creating better, more efficient, and abundant designs for living.

The classic exhortation in permaculture is to observe your land for ONE YEAR before placing any permanent features (such as fruit trees or hardscaping). This gives you time to observe microclimates, the path of the sun, different types of soil in your plot, rainfall, neighbor impacts, and so on. When every action is a response to what you are actively observing, your efforts become more effective and there is less need to undo mistakes.

Here’s an example from my own farm: The first year I was here I placed a beehive in the back end of the garden. It was a great spot for humans because the bees were out of the way. But these bees only got direct sun for a couple of hours in the late afternoon. They were always more aggressive when I managed them and they never thrived. It took me a while, but finally I saw it—this was simply a bad spot for the bees. I moved them to a sunny west fence line and they thrived. That shady spot in the back is where my rabbitry now sits—a much better use for that back corner.

And finally here’s a tip from John Muir Laws, an amazing California naturalist who published a wonderful field guide to the Sierra: When you observe, allow yourself to notice out loud. Start with “I notice…” Then as you get more curious, try starting with “I wonder….” Verbalizing what you are seeing can deepen your capacity to see and move you more easily from observation into problem solving.

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Huffington Post

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to Santa Barbara where I got to teach at UC Santa Barbara, deliver a keynote speech at a fundraiser for the great, local Santa Barbara Food Bank and their Grown Your Own Way program, as well as teaching at Fairview Gardens, Michael Abelman’s former farm in Goleta, now continuing its suburban farming mission.

I met an interesting woman named Linda Buzzell who is a permaculturist and psychotherapist – one of the only people I’ve met who really shares a lot of my own skill set. She edited a book called “Ecotherapy: Healing with the Earth in Mind” with Craig Chalquist, which I have been reading slowly and savoring. It’s been like finding a whole bunch of brothers and sisters I didn’t know I had — healers who are acutely aware of our environmental condition and the precariousness of this time for humanity. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the connections between healing, deep ecology, grief work, and bringing the work of psychotherapy out of the small quiet clinical room, and into the world.

Linda kindly penned a short review of our book for the Huffington Post. Linked here: