Urban Design at Southwoods Forest Gardens

Hello everyone on the interweb! Now that I’m on Thanksgiving break, I’ve finally got some time to update you all on the design process, which has come quite a ways since my last post.

For the past 5 weeks on Saturday, I have been driving up to Prior Lake, MN to take an urban permaculture design course. The course was an in-depth instruction for analysis and design of a particular site; in my case, the B&B, and for my classmates, their homes. It was a small class, just 4 of us students. The intimate setting in a cozy log cabin style garage-turned-classroom was a fabulous experience. The place was complete with drafting tables (reclaimed from the University of MN), white board, projector, WiFi, and homemade Kombucha to boot. Totally worth the 3 hour commute.

Mr. Halsey, our instructor and professional permaculture designer, has a wealth of knowledge about ecological design in this region. It was great to absorb what he had to teach, and to talk about other projects, concepts, and ideas. I think what I respect about him most is his scientific perspective in regards to design work. Sometimes, it seems, people can get wrapped up in folk knowledge (or the media), and now, more than ever, it is important that ecological design is based on sound science: empirical data that can be repeated and reviewed freely and independently, preferably with collaboration worldwide. Some conversations with Mr. Halsey have me thinking about the importance of scientific studies on sustainable systems. Throughout my schooling in math and statistics, (and watching copious amounts of TED videos), it has been brought to my attention that a lot of data (especially from pharmaceutical industries and biotech industries) are protected from scientific peer review because this information is legally considered “confidential business information” and not available for public, or scientific, review. Or the trials are rigged by design or statistically manipulated, sometimes by omitting over half of the trial data! I think this circumstance, while very troubling at present, leaves those of us researching and documenting ecological design at an advantage for influencing the future. Because when our children, and our childrens’ children, are deciding what kind of world they want to create, they will see the gaping holes of knowledge offered by industrial society, and compare it to what I hope will be a completely transparent, open source, responsibly disseminated world wide database of knowledge, studies, and trials that can be criticized openly, adapted to different environments, and have the potential to evolve through time. It is my view that only this, only the scientific method in its pure form, the philosophy of the enlightenment, has the potential to carry humanity into the future. Not economics, not faith, not hope, but science. They will see that fully informed decisions cannot  be made without all of the information. Hopefully by then, the dubious withheld information that shapes our society today will be seen for what it is, a manipulation, and future generations will view this to be an incomplete, unacceptable analysis of reality. If research continues to be transparent and peer reviewed with the highest scrutiny, we will have provided an empirical base for future generations to learn from and build upon. This is all, of course, assuming that ecological design and sustainability will eventually obtain substantial funds for research and demonstration. Or at least enough private organizations will see it as valuable enough to invest in. I hope they do. Thankfully, strategies for sustainability are slowly being introduced to government agencies concerned with the environment. Anyway, enough philosophy, I’ll get on with what I did in class!

The first week was a crash course in permaculture, mostly review for me. We were introduced to architect tools, like the T-square, 8-scale paper, stencils, rulers, symbols, etc. We practiced base mapping with an in-class activity, translating measurements into a scale map drawing. Our assignment for the first week was to create a base map of our site and begin to fill out the Site Assessment Workbook, a 35 page document of observations and known facts about the site, including photographs and topographic maps.

Part of my 'Site Photo Tour', looking west from the driveway. Pictures are used to document the current state of the landscape and for reference.

What I have dubbed to be the 'utility lane' on the property. Almost every underground wire is burried here. This is also the home of the utility meter, AC, hot water vents, air exchangers, fireplace vents, and the trash/recycling.

Observe: The only gutter on the entire house. Inference: Hella water storage goes right here.

(A much more professional) Base Map of The Tefft House.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, you may remember that I had already made a base map. I ended up redoing it 3 times total, actually ha. The first, to use all the new architect tools and to alter the scale of the drawing. I colored this draft though, which Mr. Halsey very constructively criticized. He suggested that a black and white drawing would serve as a much better tool to me, as the color and pattern from the base map has the potential to clutter and confuse the trace paper overlay assessment maps. And boy was he right! Trying to connect, say, water patterns and access patterns, is hard enough with two layers of color, none the less 3. Also, my third and final result looks much more professional, like an architect’s drawing, don’t you think?

Week #2 we did another power point presentation and began doing ‘bubble’ maps with trace paper, or bum wad. This is the point in the design that is messy, fast, and creative. The idea is to make curvilinear shapes that interlock in patterns reflected by the landscape. These shapes will serve as borders or boundaries in the final design. Straight lines and 90 degree angles are patterns rarely shown by nature, and are thus avoided in the design. Remember, the idea is to mimic nature, and natural patterns and cycles. Although, in an urban, grid-locked environment, the geometry is unavoidable, so we work with what we’ve got to soften those unavoidable straight edges and sharp corners. Our assignment for this week was to generate a bunch of different bubble maps, and pick one to clean up. During that week I also finished my site analysis maps. This wasn’t an assignment for this class, but rather a strategy taught to me this past summer by Jono Neiger, conservation biologist and professor at the Conway School of Landscape Design. I used these maps to clearly illustrate where different zones and environmental conditions were present, and thus where certain elements of the design should be located to maximize functionality. After I had a map that I thought embodied the voice in the site, I ran it by my Dad and Marsha. We made some minor adjustments and additions, and I began to finalize my map into a proposed design during week #3.

One of my many bubble maps. You can see the colored base map draft #2 underneath the overlay.

During week #3 we started to focus on polyculture design and placement of plants. Polyculture design, as opposed to monoculture design, is a way of landscaping that incorporates more than one (“-poly”) crop or plant in the same place (“-culture”). This is where the science has a great potential to dig deep. There is so much that is known about relationships between plants in communities, but there is also so much that is yet to be known. There is a lot to say regarding polycultures, but Mr. Halsey helped us walk through the thought process behind relative location based upon factors such as size and shadow, nitrogen fixation, nutrient accumulation, mulch and soil generation, pest control, nectary habitat, and aesthetics. We also got a tour of the Southwoods site.

An exploded Kombucha bottle on a fence post makes for a quaint accent in the orchard.

A view of the Southwoods orchard in late October.

Mr. Halsey gave me some tubers from his Jeruselum Artichoke plants. 🙂 I planted them when I got home.

A reclaimed airport luggage carrier makes for a great little outdoor greenhouse.

Mr. Halsey showing us the worms used in the vermicompost, a rapid soil creation technique.

Using large drums filled with water to store thermal mass, the radiated heat allows veggies like broccoli to thrive well into October and early November, even here in MN.

By week #4 we had generated the complete proposed design map. Here’s mine for the B&B site:

Proposed design for the Tefft House Bed and Breakfast Permaculture Garden.

This week we were also introduced to the epic Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate Plant Database. Remember that whole rant about science and data in ecological design? Well, PRI has hopped on that train long ago, at least in regards to organizing and disseminating what is already known about plants and their ecological functions. This database is like the holy grail of permaculture design tools! The place is a goldmine of information. The site includes individual plant information sheets, natural plant associations, cultivated polyculture and guilds, and a plant characteristic search. This last one is my personal favorite; if you have a niche on your site to fill, let’s say a shade-tolerant, nitrogen fixing, shrub that is at least 4 feet tall, you just check the boxes and the site generates a list of all the plants that are suited to be grown in MN that fill your requirements. The list is all hyper-linked to each individual plant info sheet, and the entire list can be exported to Excel for reorganization. Yeah. Sweet.

A plant information sheet from the database.

For the final week, our assignment was to generate a plant species list using the database, and complete our final design. Well, I didn’t quite finish my entire design yet, but I’ve begun the process. I’m breaking down each section of the site and designing each component first on a 8″ by 11″ sheet of paper, and then I plan to make a larger map of the final design complete with plant lists, info sheet, and blooming schedule.

The blooming schedule for the forest garden.

Patch Design: Forest Garden.

During our final week of class, we shared our designs, got information about where to get seeds, practiced some mulch and compost calculations, talked about finalizing numbers of plants within a budget, and talked about some practicalities of installation. Mr. Halsey also gave me some Wild Indigo seeds, a multi-functional native prairie plant that fixes nitrogen, is a dynamic accumulator, a soil building mulch maker, a nectary plant and helps to control erosion. He also gave me Kombucha mother, or scoby, so I can start to begin brewing my own Kombucha tea! I’ll soon be posting about that, as well. 🙂 Thanks for everything, Dan!

And that’s where I’m at! I’m going to focus on finals for the next week while the semester comes to a close, but winter break will spawn my final design. Oh! I also applied to PRI’s Urban Farmer Certification course, which runs 9 months starting in January up in the Twin Cities. Well, I think that’s all for now! Until next time…