Permaculture Orchards on Vacant Land
The Port Authority of Cincinnati owns lots of Vacant Lots through their Land Bank program. They acquire dilapidated buildings for demolition and try to get the lot back in the hands of neighbors, or developers, or someone who will do something good for the neighborhood. These lots don’t always have an end user, and a lot full of grass isn’t super attractive to most people. We are following behind some of their demolitions to install a very specific, lower maintenance, highly resilient orchard system. The first was in 2017, with 2 more in 2018.
1) We begin with basic site analysis of sun, slope, soil, water, and vegetative and built architecture. We are asking basic questions of; “is this a good site for fruit trees”?
2) If it is, then we immediately start reaching out to neighbors and community groups to learn more about the area and site. We are also searching for long-term partners and beneficiaries of a Public Orchard.
3) Once we know the sites we are working with, we begin an abbreviated Permaculture Design Process and determine the planting pattern for these specific orchard systems.
4) We order the materials and plants that are revealed in the design process. There is a pattern or, palette, of species we use for these orchards, but there is always massive variation and adaptability.
5) We schedule work days and commence with building, which is always more complicated than it sounds.
6) We celebrate…in several years…with fruit in hand.
3 Keys to these Urban Permaculture Orchards
Tarps – This is huge for maintenance. Most community gardens are time energy intensive. By spending energy up front on tarps (including the carbon inputs) we save massive energy over time. A few hours of weeding each year is all it needs. The orchard will also need pruning and training, mowing, and harvesting (which is the fun part!)
Trio – Disease is a big issue in the fruit tree world. We space varieties and species far apart to limit the spread of disease, or the chance that disease could take one tree but not another which is more resistant to that strain. Also these trees have a Nitrogen fixing Black Locust between them for a timed release of nitrogen which is bio-available to the fruit trees as we cut back the locusts. The pattern here is (N)itrogen Fixer, (A)pple, (P)each or other fruit tree – Hence trios with the name of NAP.
Support Plants – we are creating small plant communities in a place that was formerlay a home or just grass. There are infinite connections possible even on a small 50’x100’ plot of land. To ensure the fruit trees have what they need to support themselves and ward off pests who want to eat our food, we place a complex palette of plants in each orchard to provide for predatory wasps, nutrient needs, pollinators, and other critical ecosystem functions.
3 Orchards as of 2018. 30 Fruit trees, 100 Berry plants, 240 Perennials/Medicinals. Expected yield of fruit by 2021 = 3,500 lbs each year thereafter.
Whole Site Design and Master Plans
I have been doing Master Plans for 4 years and it is my favorite work. The ability to dig deep into all the systems acting on a site, and match the needs of the land with the needs of the people guiding the evolution of a site is deeply settling. Knowing that the things I recommend are truly good ideas for the land and not just cookie cutter, fun Permaculture tricks is very satisfying.
A client reaches out and we meet up to discuss the initial shape and needs of the Design. As we come to an agreement we move into a process of goals, analysis and mapping, goals again, concept, schematic, detailed site map, report and pattern of development with maps to wrap up the design. Of course this becomes messy, but that is the general pattern. Most of the time there is an exhaustive list of resources for the client to draw on as their plan evolves. This takes a minimum of 2 months to possibly a whole year.
At the end of the process, the client should have all they need to take the next step and follow it until the site is developed which will take some refining along the way, and most likely take 8-12 years to have all systems up and running.
The needs and abilities of an Urban Homestead are different than a farm or larger site. Though every site is unique, there are common patterns and a more streamlined process to follow for discovering what a homeowner on a smaller site might want and what they are able to cobble out of their land.
The Sankofa House, featured here, is a co-living space in Price Hill. There are several adults or many households living under one roof. Therefore, a unifying of goals was essential before making changes to the land. Several themes emerged as important and these were used as overlays for decision making as we got down to species and material selection. We spent about 4 weeks going back and forth, solidifying a unifying concept until everyone was satisfied. We left the design in the schematic phase, without going into extreme detail. Because the owners of the site are quite capable and prefer to the let site evolve, this design was created as an aid to that process, not a prescription. This choice changes with each site.
10 Fruit trees, craft and community spaces, pond for fish and enjoyment, medicines and flowers throughout, peace and productivity
I’ve been involved in dozens of community garden projects over the years. While at Price Hill Will, we built 7 distinct and varied community garden projects and installed over 100 home gardens through our Grow it Forward Program. We taught classes, has dance and salsa-eating parties, meditated, and grew with our neighbors. Community gardens are hard work, but we learned if you vary the labor with diverse groups of people, and then get those people together every now and then, it can be way easier and way more fun!
Every garden is different, but you need good partners to start. Initially, establishment looks like not biting off more than you can chew and growing into the rest of the space. Burn out is the number one killer of community garden projects; the second is unclear or temperamental ownership models. It is good to have diversity everywhere, especially in species selection. Not just in annual crops, but having nectary and perennial foods around. We try to thread small scale food forestry and annual crops together to create patches of abundance and ecosystem immunity. At the end, if you grow food, with people, the yields are almost too much to bear.
100,000 square feet of growing space, 1000+ pounds of produce between the gardens each year, redistributed to folks participating or community pantries, thousands of volunteer hours to see these less than used spaces become alive again.
Rocket Mass Heaters
Rocket Mass Heaters (RMH) are a wood burning, masonry heating appliance. I built my first Rocket Mass Heater on the 2nd floor of a sturdy old home in 2015. Everything I had read said you couldn’t build on the 2nd floor. Suddenly, an insight, a flash of lightning! All the information regarding RMH is coming out of Oregon and California, inside newer construction, stick framing and 2×8 or 2×10 floor joists. I was dealing with true 2×12 floor joists made from old hardwood, not new soft pine. I ran the numbers with an engineer friend and we were confident the RMH and several people in the room would not break the floor. So we built it over a period of two months, with one two weekend workshop to teach the process as we built it. Most of the work was just getting the “mass” us the stairs. It runs now like a giant space heater for that 2nd floor, not a whole home solution by any means, but good to supplement.
Then in 2018 we travelled to Japan. In that process I reached out to a new Permaculture Farm project. We wanted to help contribute something and stay for a little while. Looking around at what skills I had to offer that they needed, it looked like building a RMH was the ticket so we agreed and showed up several months later to build!
Initial design was done with photos and sharing through email. The biggest hurdle was sourcing materials and metric conversions. We learned a lot, particularly that galvanized pipe which is dirt cheap in America from all our forced air systems, is crazy expensive in Japan. We learned we could use concrete gutter forms for next time, but there were many learnings and lost in translation difficulties. We assembled a team on farm with different skill sets, I led the process and we began building the RMH for their primary dwelling. Next to the kitchen, in what would become the primary hub of the house during the winter months. The build took a week and we only had a few things left to finish that Kyle (the owner) would do after we left. It was an amazing time to introduce RMH to this area of Japan and now that crew has plans to build more. I think we will see lots of more these popping up in the Okayama Prefecture.
2 RMH, capable of burning 1/10th the fuel of a traditional free standing wood stove for the same effect in a conditioned space. A sweet warm bench to recline and read on in the winter months.