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Temperate climate urban lot - is permaculture relevant?

 
Posts: 260
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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Ok, something of an intentionally provocative title, but:

Can anyone point me to a successful small urban garden in a temperate climate?  I am really struggling to figure out what to do with my 1600 sq ft yard.

Some permie concepts (zones and sectors, etc.) are relevant anywhere.  But when it comes to growing food, a small lot in a temperate climate has some disadvantages when it comes to perennials in particular.  Once you exclude nut trees (which take up too much room to be practical at this scale), there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to choose from in perennial species other than fruit and herbs  Fruit is great, but what about greens (we eat a lot of annual brassicas) and starches?    For protein we might eventually do chickens; fats will probably have to remain store-bought.
 
pollinator
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My old house was on a 1/4 acre, but there were several large old trees and shrubs, buildings and a parking lot so actual usable space was small.
I did fruit trees, vines and shrubs, herbs and flower perennials and had some raised beds. Wine cap mushrooms in the wood chips/sawdust that mulched pretty much everything.

With the limited space, and the cheap food prices at that time, I focussed on high value stuff as well as things where there is big difference between home grown and what you can buy. Herbs are top on what you can save. Cheap and easy to grow. Lots are easy perennials that you can plant once and then harvest forever! Small fruits are another easy win. Raspberries are easy, once started and they keep pumping out those bowls of fruit for long periods every year. Rhubarb, aspargus, perennial onions, currants, elderberries, grapes and haskap are all pretty easy to deal with and don't take tons of room. You can make tea with the raspberry leaves and eat some of the grape ones as well. Lots of flowers are not only edible but they can also be candied or made into teas or flavourings.

You can sometimes double up on function for somethings, if space is limited. Hazelnuts, elderberries, rugosa roses, grapes, lilacs, and even some shrub cherries can all work as parts of hedges or fence covers. Permaculture guilds can let you fit lots of different layers of food plants in pretty small spaces.

As for annuals, yeah, brassicas are good. I love kales since you can start early on the harvest and keep taking right to hard frost. They do great in pots. So many ways to use them too. Beans are the easiest starch. I tended to interplant/stagger them, peas and cucumber to keep the 2 climbing arches I had covered.
Tomatoes were something we really like so they would get most of the bed spots but I'd interfill with some fast stuff like radish, bok choy and kohlrabi, so they would be done before the tomatoes got big and then usually some nasturtiums, onions, bush beans and sweet potatoes to be later, low fill. You can eat the leaves on the sweet potatos and nasturtiums as well.

It really comes down to what you want and are willing to not only grow, but harvest, process and eat.
 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 260
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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We have blueberries, cherries, raspberries, pawpaws, rhubarb, asparagus, rosemary, sage, mint, walking onions (though I don’t find them easy to use), chives, sorrel.  It sounds like I was right to suspect that we need to rely on annuals for greens and starch.  I love the idea of perennial greens but my foray into sea kale was a disappointment - I really wish there were more options in the perennial greens category.
 
pollinator
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Sochan is my favorite perennial green. Very early delicious, and prolific.  A 3 year old patch is enough to can a whole year's worth, and still get an amazing show of blooms and seeds for the Goldfinch. Bonus, my rabbits love it too.  Garlic chives are another good choice, especially if you do fermenting.
 
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Permaculture can be done on an apartment patio.  You can certainly do it on a 1,600 sqft lot.  My urban backyard is about twice that size.  

I have:
-1 full sized mulberry tree and 6 dwarfed fruit trees- 2xapricot, peach, 2xpear, plum (pruned annually to keep them smaller)
-Adding a self-fertile almond tree this spring
-8 types of berries- 4xaronia, 4xblackberry, 2xelderberry, 2xgoji, 2xgoumi, 1xkiwi, 1xmagnolia vine (schisandra) & 2xraspberry
-2 4'x8' raised beds and adding a 3rd this spring, primarily for annual veggies & herbs
-7 hens for eggs and some meat

A few of the permaculture techniques that I'm using:
-Collecting house run-off water for the plants
-Growing annuals only in the raised beds, everything else is perennials
-Creating good compost/soil- compost bin, deep litter from chickens, "Back to Eden"  wood chips for my mini orchard
-Growing heritage breed vegetables in my raised beds so that I can collect seeds
-Taking advantage of plant layers with some of my berry bushes growing under the sun-facing edge of my mini-orchard
-Growing vertically where possible- kiwi vine trained up and across 2 trees, tromboncino squash vine grows up into the canopy of my mini-orchard giving me two harvests from those trees
-Chickens- feed food scraps, good for eating bugs and the occasional mouse, produce meat and eggs, help with composting
-Experiment every year with at least one new annual veggie.  Not all are successful, but I've found a couple of real winners this way.
-The dwarfed fruit trees are arranged in a mini-orchard, which not only provides varied fruit, but also provides shade for my free-ranging chickens in the heat of summer and shelter from hawks.
-Use grafted branches on some of the fruit trees to increase production.

You will not be self-sufficient on that lot, but you can certainly create quality food for yourself.  Depending on your light, water, soil and climate conditions, you can produce enough meat/eggs, fruit and veggies to give you a good variety of foods that produce over a large portion of the year.
 
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I agree with a lot of what Dian has said, but would take back a step first. I think of Permaculture as a design system, with a set of tools and principals that can be applied to any problem or task. So my first question would be what do you want your space to be for you? Food production is only one possibility, and I would submit that it is implausable and maybe undesirable to make it supply your entire food needs. If food production is your main need then I would look at the high value food - in terms of cost and nutrition (minerals and vitamins) - that you use and look to design a system that provides this as much as your space and time allow. You might be surprised at what can be achieved in a much smaller space and perennials are not the only plants in a permaculture system, although they do have advantages of course!
urban permaculture food producing yard
This is a picture of my Mum's garden, which she still looks after now in her eighties. Although not a 'permaculture' garden it supplies a fair amount of her vegetables and soft fruit in summer, gives her pleasure, exercise and a place to sit outside, and supports wildlife. It could probably provide more food with less work if more edible plants were chosen in the perennial borders, but Mum enjoys the flowers :)
As regards perennial greens, we have a few threads on them here including perennial brassica, Hablitzia, and perennial greens. I really like the leaves of Scorzonera, although that is usually regarded as a root crop.
 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 260
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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Many thanks!  I will read the perennial greens threads and read up on sochan, which is new to me.

I am looking to grow some food but of course not be anywhere near self sufficient.  I want to focus on things I can’t get (at all, or at a good quality for a reasonable price) so herbs and fruit (especially raspberries) were obvious choices.  I also want to have fresh greens through as much of the year as possible, which implies season extension techniques; I have Four Season Harvest but probably need to get more competent at growing annuals first. I also want to encourage my kids to have a good relationship with food and plants (one is picky but loves the outdoors, the other loves all foods but tends to be an indoor bookworm).  Fruit wins out there too although sorrel was a surprising hit.

I have finally largely defeated the aegopodium podagraria that colonized much of the yard so I am excited to plant, and the soil is extraordinarily rich (river valley loam).

The yard is also a play area for the kids (play structure, swings, grass, mud) and I plan to build a work-from-home office shed, so organizing things spatially will take a little effort.  We live at the bottom of a hill in a very wet climate so there is still some drainage work to do as well.
 
gardener
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Well, there are some trees with edible greens.
The Linden or Basswood tree has edible leaves and thrives in temperature climates.
Toona sinensis has edible leaves and is hardy down to zone 6.

Seabuckthorn fruit is said to have as much as 9% fat.
Dwarf chinkapin oak are shrub sized and produce low tanin acorns, from a young age.

Chickens curated compost will benifit your annual gardening immensely.

Annuals that contain significant fat include sunflowers,peanuts and mature okra seeds.

Jerusalem Artichoke is an easy to grow  source of carbs.

Horseradish leaves are a source of perennial greens.
Mioga ginger also has edible leaves.
Day lilies produce greens and carbs as well as flowers.

You can produce foods you cannot easily grow from the land you have  by trading raspberries for potatoes, or blueberries for salad mix.




 
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Toby Hemenway certainly believed it was relevant. He promoted the concept of city permaculture.

Permaculture: "The ethics of earth care, people care and fair share form the foundation for permaculture design."
Earth Care: The way most people grow annuals, as monocultures with many chemical additions and a lot of digging, doesn't care for the earth as well as a permaculture approach of polycultures, minimal soil disturbance, and chop and drop soil building.

People Care: Industrial food tends to be high in calories and low in nutrition. Growing in well supported soil, even if growing annuals, can boost nutrition. Intentionally growing weeds with good nutrition, like dandelions which I regularly add to my bone broth, can boost nutrition without taking up a lot of space.

Fair Share: This is a bit harder, as if one only has an urban lot, you may consume everything you produce - except those years when a plant has everything perfect and goes crazy, and then, one may decide to share the bounty. However, "Fair Share" might also be the outcome of helping out with a seed saving/sharing program for the neighbourhood and beyond. Or helping out at a community garden. Or simply offering free plants to neighbours when you need to divide a perennial that's growing well. Another interpretation of "fair share" can be sharing with insects, birds and amphibians by leaving seed heads and putting up birdhouses or bug-houses.

Steve Kovacs wrote:

walking onions (though I don’t find them easy to use)

I had to start thinking of them as "green onions" and then stretch my kitchen skills to treat "green onions" as a substitute for cooking onions. In other words, I chop them into soups and stews, add them to my bone broth when I'm making it, cook and whiz them in with any sort of spread or dip that I'm making, and be *really* generous with them when they're growing well.
 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 260
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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We actually do have a linden as one of our street trees, and I will vouch for the leaves being reasonably tasty for the first week or two that they sprout.

As for people care, I like pawpaws but not enough to eat all the ones our three trees produce - sadly few of my neighbors and colleagues like them so they are hard to give away.  You can’t get any lower-maintenance than pawpaws, though, and they make a nice privacy screen and seem to soak up a lot of water on the wettest part of the property.

Thanks everyone for all these recommendations- some I had tried before (Hablitzia didn’t germinate for me, have to try again) but most are new to me.

Oh! And what they say about the indestructible nature of comfrey is true - I have some growing very happily under our (boo hiss) Norway maple street tree.  Not even dandelion will grow there but the comfrey is flourishing in hard packed soil and heavy shade.
 
Dian Green
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With greens being a priority, and a wet space, you could try cress. Our new place has a stream at the south end and I'm going to try cress and the perennial arugulas as well as sorrel. ( the bunnies loved the sorrel at the old place so much we couldn't get any for us)
With large trees, I do hosta, ostrich ferns, sweet woodruff, wild ginger and a few shade flowers. The hosts are edible. Not a ton of production but they do stretch the aspargus in the spring.

I love our walking onions! They fill in for green onions and shallots during the summer. In the fall, I cut all their green sprouts, along with our parsley, some celery greens and whatever other soft herbs I feel like adding, right before hard frost. Then throw it all in the blender with some wine, lemon juice, vinegar or oil and freeze it in lumps. Instant, delicious soups and sauces with one round of work. It'll often last into the next summer and saves so much time and effort.
IMG_1079.JPG
Instant, delicious soups and sauces with one round of work
 
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In the greens department, Lamb's quarters grows wild in my area, and is pretty tasty, I'll munch it raw when walking in the yard, or use it in things cooked. I'll bet you have other "weeds" that are edible. I know I have a lot more green things growing in my yard than I know how to use.
 
pollinator
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I'd recommend https://www.librarything.com/work/12933703/book/243700589 Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City by Toensmeier and Bates.  A fun read, explaining their logic and priorities.
 
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Collard greens are a superfood and would also do well there.

j
 
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I am not familiar with growing perennials in Massachusetts.

This thread talks about perennials in a temperate climate:

https://permies.com/t/20491/Top-Ten-Perennial-Vegetables-Temperate

This article by the University of Massachusetts offers some suggestions:

Plant perennials (which live for many years) such as rhubarb, asparagus, and strawberries along one side of the garden where they will not interfere with preparing the rest of the garden. These plants need plenty of space.



https://ag.umass.edu/home-lawn-garden/fact-sheets/planning-vegetable-garden

The forum also has a forum for perennial vegetables that might also offer some suggestions:

https://permies.com/f/384/perennial-vegetables
 
Heather Staas
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Jumping on the Paradise Lot book recommendation, there's also a great video on youtube with Geoff Lawton touring and showing that property in Holyoke MA.   I've been there for volunteer day,  super cool and inspiring place showing what can be done here in W. MA in an urban location.  It's been sold now, not sure if new owner still entertains visitors/ volunteers.
 
master pollinator
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Steven Kovacs wrote:Some permie concepts (zones and sectors, etc.) are relevant anywhere.  But when it comes to growing food, a small lot in a temperate climate has some disadvantages when it comes to perennials in particular.  Once you exclude nut trees (which take up too much room to be practical at this scale), there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to choose from in perennial species other than fruit and herbs  Fruit is great, but what about greens (we eat a lot of annual brassicas) and starches?    For protein we might eventually do chickens; fats will probably have to remain store-bought.


Personally, I don't worry about the mix of plants I grow. I grow what I need and what thrives in my climate. It's a mix, annuals and perennials.

Mostly I focus on the true foundations -- building deep, fertile soil. I think my efforts to infuse soil with depth, resilience, tilth, "permanence" support the plants I want to grow, and will be passed down as a quiet gift to the next owner. Most everything that matters, from survival to civilization, flows from healthy, fertile soil. My 2c.
 
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