December 28, 2015

Christmas 2015

We’ve had unusually warm weather this season that we almost thought we’d be enjoying Christmas dinner outdoors. The latanas didn’t flower much summer but did fall through winter but with the change in temperature the day after Christmas, will probably be sending them hibernating. The added color has been nice.


Last year I learned about Home Depot giving away free tree trimmings of which I made fresh garlands to decorate the home. This year I thought of making a door wreath but saw them on sale for $10 so bought one instead; the wire frame of which pretty much paid for itself seeing I can reuse it too.

Christmas day I woke early to raid the garden to make the centerpiece. Last year I used for the first time a foam block but this year decided to put the cuttings directly on the table. It should last a couple days.


Christmas day dinner was inspired by Mimi Thorisson’s Christmas dinner (actually her centerpiece too). We had chestnut soup, quail, and buche de noel (by Baguette et Chocolat).


October 30, 2015

New Zealand’s Green Pyramids

This is an image of One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand. While I did notice the terracing, I did not give any thought to what its purpose was, or if there was a purpose. The terracing was for me like part of the landscape, one chiseled by wind and rain, or by the finger of God. I would later learn that the terraces were excavated by manual labor for planting kumara (sweet potato). New Zealand’s own green pyramids carved into the land each step paved with varying shades of gold.

Terrace building into the landscape is actually an age old system for utilizing water and was used in areas where it was mountainous or hilly. The idea of a terrace was two-fold: it leveled the area for planting; and it incorporated the idea of swales to help infiltrate rainwater. (I’ve been learning about swales for planting our own vegetable garden because our back yard is situated on a slope. When it rains, the water rushes down the slope and takes everything in its path with it.)

Terraces and Swales

Swales are designed to manage water runoff, filter pollutants (or hold nutrients) and increase rainwater infiltration; and can even be seen in areas where the land is flat. In this video, Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design, is utilizing terracing for hillside paddies in Vermont! Who would had thought to come up with the idea to grow a staple food like rice in a cold climate. Genius.

While I wonder if growing rice in New Zealand’s climate and marshland areas could had been feasible (even today), the Maori however were not rice growers. During pre-European times most of their calories came from growing kumara, a food said to have originated in South America. While the kumara flourished in the islands where the weather was more suited to cultivating it, the temperate climate of New Zealand limited the kumara’s growing season and how it could be stored.

Food Storage

Kumara was grown in summer (December-February), and the tubers harvested in March. They could not grow in cold temperatures, so the tubers had to be stored (or preserved) during the winter months. Maori stored kumara and other related crops in subterranean pits to be planted out later but storing tubers underground was beneficial in other ways as it gave the produce more taste and hence a tastier crop the following season. There is some evidence that different tribes preferred a particular type of storage, some of which took the form of elevated covered food platforms, and others that resembled cellars dug into hillsides with easy access as kumara was a staple that was eaten during winter. It’s most likely then that Maori utilized two types of winter storage at the same time: subterranean pits for long term preservation; and a cellar or platform for regular access.

New Foods

The discovery of New Zealand by European explorers in the 18th century introduced into the country new foods, such as potatoes and other forms of sweet potatoes some of which were hardier and therefore easier to grow and store. In time, these new foods replaced many of the delicate growing kumara varieties in the Maori diet, much of which is now lost to us. While the loss of these varieties is a loss to understanding more about the culture and what could had been valuable contributions to food science; for Maori, it meant less time spent laboring in the fields and in food preparation—something we can appreciate today with our reliance on technology and convenience.

September 23, 2015

Advice for Building Sustainable Living Spaces

Great advice from Whole Systems Design‘s Facebook page for those looking at building sustainable living spaces. Image is of their permaculture farm in Vermont.


Some repetitious patterns that have emerged on recent site consults… Sharing in the hopes that others can learn from it. I’ve been seeing these patterns for years but they’ve been especially acute in almost all of the past couple dozen consults:

  • Start small: find the area with the most solar access near your house (south of house usually) and build raised beds there. Then move on to bigger things. Utilize your Zone 1 first. What values are you getting from the sunniest outdoor space closest to your kitchen door? It should be the most useful space in your landscape.
  • Don’t take on too much: do what you do well, then expand as things are managed well. At the same time, try stuff—don’t be paralyzed by analysis.
  • Don’t get spread out!: Most folks tend to place elements too far apart to be most useful: barns need to be very close to homes, gardens close to homes. Cluster. Take a huge cue from vernacular design in both site planning and building systems. Walking around on site will add up to years of time if you’re not careful.
  • Nuts to the north—berries to the south: from north to south is tallest to lowest growing plants for maximum energy capture. Apply this pattern universally (reverse south of the equator or if you WANT shade).
  • Honor thy zones: From your kitchen door working outward: intensive veggies/greenhouse space, most intensive perennials, less intensive perennials, grazing, forestry. Greenhouses are super intensive—should be within 20 steps of the kitchen and against a building, but not up against an insulated building in cold humid climates ideally, shed and barn are ideal.
  • Ensure that maintenance can keep up with implementation. Implementation often means mulching/deer protection, watering, etc. And that is dependent highly upon ACCESS and your TIME. Planning, establishing and maintaining your access is primary, if you can’t access it you can’t maintain it. Even perennial plantings require maintenance, except for the unusual plant like black locust and willow, most plants in most places are a 3-6 year commitment minimum to get above deer browse and working for you. The designer may be “the one in the recliner” but only after a decade or five. For most people in most places for most of the time the designer is the one with dirt jammed under their fingernails.
  • Manage your water early and often: map its flows and THEN place buildings, roads, gardens, etc.
  • Seed early and often: find your bare soil, seed it, keep it covered. Look for moving water in storms, check dam it, seed it, slow it. Divert to low angle slopes.
  • Use what you have: it’s common for infrastructure and space to be underutilized, rarer that it’s maxed out. Do you really need a new building? Chances are your existing space is not used fully. Consider that before building more. Zone 1 is never full.
  • Building issues: are lower areas of the structure getting wet from splash back, snow drifting or surface flow? In cold humid climates buildings rot from the ground up most often. And the structure earth connections are rife with mistakes, take extreme care in these areas.
  • Do site planning before you build!
  • Do goals planning and understand site processes and features before you choose a site. More than one third of the visits I do are on sites not well suited to client goals. You can’t fix that later on.

July 6, 2015

Clippings from the garden













April 9, 2015

Spring is here