The Snarky Gardener has several hugelkultur beds at Snarky Acres. Here’s his Mother Earth News article on them.
Hugelkultur beds are built using buried wood and other organic material. These ingredients break down over time, providing your plants with nutrients and moisture. Breaking down over the next 5 to 10 years, the wood will eventually transform into rich beautiful soil. I recently wrote about my hugelkultur beds at Snarky Acres for Mother Earth News, including what veggies I planted on them and how they are working out for me so far.
The Snarky Gardener is now a Mother Earth News blogger! His first post is an adaptation of “Permaculture While Renting” with more gardening and less permaculture.
It’s not easy being a gardener who rents or a renter who gardens. In “Gardening While Renting“, I discuss the trials and tribulations of putting in permanent infrastructure (fences, raised beds, and improved soil) while knowing the stay could be quite temporary. Spoiler alert: it’s all about the relationship between renter and landlord.
This is the first of many blog posts on Mother Earth News. I’ll be writing under the “Organic Gardening” topic area with new posts coming out twice a month. I’m excited for this wonderful opportunity to expand my reach and bring other snarky gardeners into the fold. “What does this opportunity pay?” you ask. No cash per se, but it does give The Snarky Gardener unprecedented exposure that doesn’t involve an embarrassing “wardrobe malfunction”.
The Snarky Gardener (aka Don Abbott) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent Ohio. Professionally he’s a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented .91 acre urban farm. His blog – thesnarkygardener.com – assists others with growing food in Northeastern Ohio and beyond. He is also the founder of the Kent Ohio chapter of Food Not Lawns. In Spring 2015, he received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland Ohio based Green Triangle. Please like him on Facebook as he likes to be liked. https://www.facebook.com/thesnarkygardener/
Please contact the Snarky Gardener at email@example.com
I’ve been a renter my whole adult life (and I’m pretty old). It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but there it is. My gardening “career” started accidentally with a kind gesture from a previous landlord tilling up an unused piece of his yard. As I read up on everything garden-related while learning on that plot, the term “permaculture” kept coming up. So by the time I moved to my current rented house (aka Snarky Acres) in 2010, permaculture design was being slowly but surely integrated into my gardening practices and overall mindset framework.
When moving to Snarky Acres, I knew my stay would be for a few years as I was going through my bankruptcy at the time. Two things made me choose that specific place: proximity to work (1.5 miles) and the 50 foot by 20 foot fenced backyard garden. As I was negotiating with my future landlord Colin, it was obvious to him I was more interested in the garden plot than the house itself. A good sized fenced garden in a very sunny spot sold me even though the 70 year old bungalow is situated on a busy state route. Colin told me “You can make the whole yard a garden if you want.” Quite a bold statement for a .91 acre plot and he’s kept to his word to this day.
The takeaway here is to truly utilize permaculture on a rented site, you must have buy-in from the owner from the beginning. You may not use the term “permaculture” in your discussions but getting the relationship parameters out of the way before you sign on the dotted line is of utmost importance. If you don’t see a garden, ask about putting one in. If you see one, ask about expanding. It’s like any adult relationship (job, love, business, etc). You negotiate the important stuff before making the commitment, as it’s much harder to adjust once you are in for the long haul (just ask anyone who’s tried to get a raise or more vacation after a few years with an employer). Just decide ahead of time what your deal breakers are. For instance, I loved the garden and closeness to work, but if Colin had said no to River, my little Toy Fox Terrier, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I agreed to pay $30 more a month for her and we moved right in.
The renter’s first instinct is to do nothing permanent since you could move anytime after your lease runs out. I decided instead to take the saying “Bloom where you are planted” to heart. I didn’t want to wait until I bought a place to try out the permaculture design techniques I’d read about. Practice makes perfect and in a way, making mistakes on somebody else’s property is freeing. Of course, you don’t want to invest too much money or time into a rental situation as there’s a chance you’d get your heart broken. Most of my decisions and designs are based on that tight rope walk between temporary and permanent.
Here’s a little secret (don’t tell Colin). I didn’t ask the landlord explicitly if I could plant perennials or put in my original 4 hugelkultur beds. After building trust over the years (i.e. paying my rent on time and not being a big giant pain in the ass), I didn’t think it would be a problem. Besides, both can be eliminated with a little effort if necessary, though I would hope the next renters would know what they have. I’ve even thought about writing a letter to future tenants to let them know what’s on the property and how to reach me for questions (hint: thesnarkygardener.com). Colin even mentioned one time about putting in a peach or pear tree but as landlords do sometimes, he has bigger fish to fry and has never discussed it again. I’m sure if I wanted to initiate planting a tree (even offering to pay and/or assist with its planting), he would be all for it. Maybe that’s a subject to broach next year.
Being a renter does give you constraints you wouldn’t have with your own place (assuming your house doesn’t have a homeowners’ association). For example, I grew up a 4Her and was thinking hard about getting some meat rabbits at my current place. That would mean I would need to ask the landlord and then build up a temporary yet secure structure. These constraints (and the fact my next door neighbors make a lot of noise – fireworks and loud parties – that would literally scare the rabbits to death), made me decide not to pursue this project. Instead I put my efforts into expanding my garden from 1,500 to 2,500 square feet and trying to grow as much of several staples (potatoes, dry beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and sunchokes) as I could. I came across a permaculture quote that sums this situation up nicely:
“The more limitation and restrictions you put on a design, the more creative you become” – Geoff Lawton
And creative we have become. This spring, Colin was over on the property to fix the neighbor’s septic system and remove some old trees from our property. He rented a cool backhoe with a claw that we watched tear out trees like a giant iron hand ripping weeds from the ground. The Snarky Girlfriend got Colin’s attention and had him dig a trench, move several rotting logs into the hole, and pat them down in place. To think a landlord would help us with our permaculture hugelkultur mound still blows my mind.
Another creative permaculture project we completed was an outdoor kitchen designed with all temporary pieces including a store bought 10′ X 12′ gazebo, a 2 burner gas grill, a self-built vegetable washing station, supports for runner beans and peas, raised beds, and a 5′ X 5′ greenhouse. Of course we’ll need to break it all down if/when we move, but every design has its downsides and consequences.
So as you can hopefully tell from my ramblings, being a renter is not the death of your permaculture dreams. Turn your problem (being a renter) into your solution (utilize permaculture where you are). If you can’t get your current landlord to let you dig up the front yard, ask about the back yard. If you can’t plant there, ask about pots and other temporary solutions. If they are a big no no (what a jerk), rent a community garden plot, grow inside (using a south facing window or grow lights), or buy a mushroom kit off the Internet. If you get too much resistance or want a more productive solution, a more drastic relocation might be order. Remember every site (rented or purchased) has its constraints. Just be sure you move in with terms you can live with for the long-term.
You are probably asking yourself “What the heck is permaculture?” The Snarky Gardener will try his best to explain without being confusing or condescending (wish him luck).
Permaculture is a combination of “permanent” and “culture” (though it was originally derived from “Permanent Agriculture”) and is a natural pattern design science. People often hear about permaculture as part of a gardening discussion and think it’s new upcoming gardening technique (like square foot gardening or vertical gardening). Actually, permaculture is NOT gardening per se but is just one place where permaculture can be applied. Steeped in nature, permaculture applications lean toward the physical world including farming, earthworks, housing, buildings, heating/cooling, cooking, food preservation, and water storage. It is also utilized for human systems, such as communities, education, alternative currencies, and computer systems design (and yes, we human beings are part of nature). Typical applications include food forests and rotational grazing. Permaculture is a paradigm shift, a movement, a different way of viewing the world, and a possible framework to build your life around. I like to describe it as “Creating abundance through nature”™.
Permanence is, of course, at the heart of permaculture. Permanent is relative (as we are all technically temporary), but here it refers to designing for the generations ahead of us. Energy and other inputs are high at initial implementation with maintenance and harvesting in later years. A system can’t truly be enduring while accepting continuous inputs from the outside (fertilizer, gasoline, electricity and money). Permaculture strives to take advantage of the more renewable onsite resources – sunlight, water, soil, leaves, wood, perennial plants, animals, manure, human labor, caring, love, humor, snarkiness, art, music, and ingenuity. This thinking runs counter to our society’s current short-term focus.
I was originally introduced to permaculture through my vegetable growing education, as gardening is a gateway drug to permaculture. As my skills and experience advanced, I sought better and more efficient techniques. Mentioned in blogs, podcasts, and books (my favorite being “Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community”
by Heather Flores), I slowly internalized the overall concepts (including comprehension that permaculture does not just apply to food production). In early 2015, I advanced my knowledge further by attending a Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course (7 full weekends of fun). A PDC sets the foundation of understanding and allows graduates to pursue permaculture design careers.
I think what really attracted me the permaculture is the systems thinking that runs throughout. As a software developer for the last 25+ years (wow I feel old), I work with systems on a daily basis. Thinking holistically is natural for me as is resource-intensive new development versus the small tweaks of the maintenance cycle. Patterns are also a part of software development – relationships between objects, standard user interface design, project management, and so forth. To me, developing a software application is the same as putting together a permaculture design, just with a different tool set (and more dirt under my fingernails).
Return of Surplus (or sometimes Fair Share: Set Limits and Redistribute Surplus).
For people looking in from the outside, permaculture seems like re-purposed ancient techniques (was told this by an experienced master gardener and I agreed). But here’s an important differentiation – permaculture is not about techniques (though some are labeled as “permaculture techniques”) but on designing deliberative systems that utilize these techniques with the three ethics intertwined. Just because you dig a swale (otherwise known as a big giant trench) to hold water doesn’t mean it’s permaculture. If the trench is just one piece of a whole design with an understanding of water flow and storage, then it’s permaculture as intentions drive design. Just implementing a technique when it’s cool and trendy is not. I’ve also seen examples where people have implemented permaculture-like systems (for example, the rotational grazing of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms), but I would argue they are not practicing permaculture (not that there is anything wrong with that). Again, intentions drive design.
Along with the three ethics are the 12 Permaculture Principles. These help put the individual into the proper mindset when designing.
Observe and Interact
Catch and Store Energy
Obtain a Yield
Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
Use and Value Renewable Resources
Produce No Waste
Design from Patterns to Details
Integrate Rather Than Segregate
Use Small and Slow Solutions
Use and Value Diversity
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
Creatively Use and Respond to Change
Here’s a non-garden real life design example that might make things clearer (or murkier, I’m not sure). After attending our Permaculture Design Course, we decided to build an outdoor kitchen based on the Summer Kitchen pattern discussed in Peter Bane’s book “The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country”. We purchased a low cost semi-temporary 12’ X 10’ gazebo and built it outside our back door (within Peter’s recommended 50 feet from our main kitchen). This simple (albeit labor-intensive) action turned an inhospitable grassy area into a multi-use room available 6 or 7 months out of the year. A two burner propane camp stove (plus the propane grill we already had) lets us cook and can food outside instead of heating up our house unnecessarily. Observing that the area to the south of the gazebo receives 3 to 5 hours of direct sunlight a day, we installed a 5 X 5 greenhouse, raised beds for semi-shade tolerant vegetables (like beets and arugula), and a trellis against the gazebo for shade, privacy, and pole beans (not necessarily in that order). A homemade outdoor sink built with scavenged parts lets us wash vegetables (and save the water for irrigation) without all that dirt walking into the house. When we aren’t using it as a kitchen, we process seeds or just enjoy our backyard in comfort.
All 12 principles above are represented with this elegant solution (at a rental property no less):
Observe and Interact – the site; especially sunlight
Catch and Store Energy – canning, seed saving
Obtain a Yield – vegetables, seeds, meals, relaxation
Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback – reconfiguration of tables and chairs as needed
Use and Value Renewable Resources – sunlight, water, plants, seeds
Produce No Waste – canning, vegetables, sink, compost
Design from Patterns to Details – patterns 39 and 42 from “The Permaculture Handbook”
Integrate Rather Than Segregate – all the disparate pieces as one system
Use Small and Slow Solutions – temporary and inexpensive pieces
Use and Value Diversity – different technologies and techniques
Use Edges and Value the Marginal – unused area next to house, gazebo’s south side
Creatively Use and Respond to Change – adjust based on seasons and changing needs
Over the years, I have found many permaculturists can be quite serious as they believe the world needs saving and permaculture is the answer. One story I love to tell is when the Snarky Girlfriend and I were going through our PDC. Peter Bane was teaching about water by having us imagine ourselves flowing from the mountaintop, down the valley, and gently down the river. The Snarky Girlfriend made a sarcastic comment about “watching out for the banjos”. Not one smile or chirp of laughter from 25 plus people, just overwhelming silence (guess no one was a “Deliverance” fan). Normally the Snarky Girlfriend’s warped sense of adult humor is her best asset, but during our classes, it rarely hit the mark. I guess permaculture is a sobering topic not to be taken lightly.
One thing that still puzzles me is the politics that runs throughout permaculture. I do see how permaculture has the potential to make big differences with issues like climate change, economics, peak oil, and social justice. Many in the movement believe we as humans need to do as much as possible as soon as possible as humanity may be too far gone already. The trouble is I’m not into permaculture to save anyone (except maybe myself). I practice and teach it because the concepts and systems just make sense to me. During a leadership workshop held by Heather Flores of Food Not Lawns this summer (name dropper!), I realized that I’m a “reluctant activist” (my term). For me, producing my own food is logical knowing what we know about the industrial food system. I want to spread that word and help others to grow their own vegetables but not from any sense of justice or activism. Don’t get me wrong – I believe these are very important causes – they are just not my primary motivation. By teaching others about organic gardening and seed saving, I can see how I’m going against the status quo. Guess I’m a rebel with a cause but without a clue.
I believe the most important lesson I’ve learned through my ongoing permaculture training (it’s never really over) is that every person is a designer. Each of us has the talents and skills to build better systems, whether they be for just our own selves or for the benefit of all mankind. Permaculture gives us the tools to create these systems eloquently using nature’s gifts instead of with the finite resources of billions of years of stored sunlight. It is just up to our imagination and persistence to make it happen.
I named this “Permaculture Awkwardly Explained” because I have found it difficult (and watch others struggle also) to describe permaculture to people. It’s sort of like talking about how the color blue tastes or how green sounds. Maybe it is something that just has to be experienced. Hope I was able to bring you closer to understanding.
The Snarky Gardener is expanding his food production area in 2015.
The Snarky Gardener is expanding his growing space by 100% in 2015. He has plenty of room east of his current fenced in primary 50 ft X 30 ft garden. The new area will be approximately 60 ft X 20 ft (1,200 square feet). It won’t be fenced in but instead will be planted with vegetables that groundhogs and rabbits find less desirable (see Groundhog Love for the complete list). Garlic was already planted outside this fence during the fall. The Snarky Gardener doesn’t usually believe in rototilling as it damages the soil so he will be strategically broadforking just what he needs and when he needs it. He might also schedule a “broadforking class” a la Tom Sawyer through Kent Food Not Lawns or the Kent Community Time Bank to get additional assistance.
Potatoes will be planted next to the garlic in April or so. Since potatoes are in the nightshade family, animals normally leave them alone (unless they are really hungry deer). Tomatoes will be planted along 2 fences (50 foot long and 5 foot tall) running east to west. These steel fences will be reused to fence in and protect other crops in future seasons. Added in between these tomato rows will be onions, leeks, peppers, and bush zucchini. Members of the Allium family (onions, garlic, chives, leeks) are generally avoided by animals, especially deer and rabbits. Some gardeners will specifically plant garlic around areas they want protected from unauthorized munching. The bush zucchini will be protected with fencing and/or cover until big enough to have protective spines. Years of groundhog intrusions (and watching the neighbor’s unprotected garden) have taught the Snarky Gardener that they won’t seem to mess with the spinier vegetables. Turnips, mustard, and clover will cover any other bare soil as living mulch. Turnips and mustard have been outside the fence for the years now at Snarky Acres without so much as a bite. Clover could be eaten by herbivores, but there’s plenty already out in the yard, so the SG is not concerned.
The Snarky Gardener will also be adding more hugelkultur mounds to his property. Last fall, there were 4 raised beds built with much sweat and cursing. At least two more will added to the south of these in the spring. The six plus will be filled with plenty of annuals, including tomatoes, peppers, beans, and greens. There are additional plans to build hugelkultur beds north of the garden where big, giant pine logs (2 feet in diameter) have been attracting groundhogs, poison ivy, and brambles. These logs will be cut up and used to create perennial herb, onion, turnip, and rhubarb beds. All these can handle a little shade as this area is in the 4 to 6 hour daily sunlight realm and should be left alone by the aforementioned plant-eating wild animals.
One more thing: the Snarky Gardener may be adding second-hand vegetables (aka livestock) to Snarky Acres in 2015 and will be writing about it in the spring.