Do not make the mistake of getting Milton’s Paradise Lost mixed up with Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. If you get confused you will be disappointed, though I suppose to some people, the idea of a permaculture garden on your one-tenth of an acre city lot might be Hell. I have a coworker who would feel that way. She came to me today to ask about a fast and easy solution to a small weedy patch of grass between her sidewalk and driveway and in the process told me she hated being outdoors. Huh? Bugs! Sunburn! Dirt! I am baffled, but I gave her an easy solution that will require very little time outside and she will probably even be able to manage it without getting her hands dirty. She was happy. But back to the book.
Besides the subject matter being totally different than Milton, the writing is, well, let's say it's not Milton. It is competent, don't get me wrong, but you won't be sent into raptures over the beauty of a description of sweet cicely. This is not one of those lyrical, meditative “I made a garden” books.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed it very much. Eric and Jonathan, each trained in permaculture, had been renting a farm in Massachusetts and running a mail-order permaculture nursery. They decided that they wanted to put their knowledge to the test in an urban setting. They bought a duplex in Holyoke. The yard was a patch of scraggly grass and the soil was typical compacted city dirt of poor quality. Perfect.
They moved into their house in January 2004. They spent a year getting to know the light and shade, the wet and dry areas of their lot. They also got to work on improving the soil. They talked about what they wanted to accomplish and began designing on paper. In the spring of 2005 they started planting.
The goal of permaculture is to create a self-sustaining food garden ecosystem that needs no outside input of materials. Through a lot of hard work and trial and error and lots of failures, they managed to do it. After eight years the garden was grown up and producing a huge amount of food. Unfortunately, dopey me, didn't mark the page with the numbers, but I was astonished. Even more astonishing is that they thought they could produce even more if the two of them and their wives (they each got married in the midst of their experiment) could quit their day jobs and spend all day working in the garden. Not realistic, but it is quite something for a small garden like that to be able to produce such large quantities of food.
Their garden was a lot more work than the ideal permaculture garden should be but their goals were quite different than mine would be. I'd want to plant it all and then maintain it. They were constantly experimenting, trying new plants they weren't sure would be hardy, grafting fruit trees, and conducting plant breeding experiments. To be able to do this on one-tenth of an acre is inspiring as is the fact that they had something like 250 different kinds of plants growing there.
The garden they created helped them get to know their neighbors who also benefited from the fruits of their labor. They also received lots of requests for garden tours from individuals, garden groups and students. They love giving tours because it gives them the opportunity to teach as well as learn from others.
At the back of the book they kindly include plant lists, an extensive bibliography, and web resources. While they called their climate cold, they are not as cold as it gets in Minneapolis and I doubt I will be able to grow any of the tropical plants they were able to create microclimates for. I also don't know if I would be able to grow greens all winter in an unheated greenhouse, but that is something to investigate. Still, a good book for anyone interested in this sort of gardening. The initial work of creating such a garden can be daunting, but it helps to learn that even experts suffer from the aches and pains of physical labor as well as face challenges and setbacks. It is also a reminder that gardening is a continuous process that is never truly finished.