This year, I hope to obtain land to create my own patch of homesteading paradise. As I mentally gear up for the prospect of transforming a piece of raw land into a (hopefully) beautiful, abundant haven of food, animals, and handmade buildings, I am simultaneously seeking stories from folks who have been through (or more likely continuing to go through) that process. Though I am attracted to a rural locale, where development is less, the land is more open, and the restrictions fewer, it has been an enlightening and poignant reminder that not everyone is so fortunate to have access to such circumstances. In fact, it may not even be necessary to live in the country to eat well, grow delicious organic food in quantity, and live the good life.
This is a fortunate time for backyard gardeners and suburban homesteaders, as the literature dedicated to those folks in the suburbs who want to provide more for themselves has been on the rise. One notable book that turns the idea of needing lots of space to grow an incredible diversity and quantity of food on its head is Paradise Lot, by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. Toensmeier and Bates detail the incredible story of the transformation of their 1/10th acre suburban lot into a slice of permaculture goodness, proving that you don’t need huge amounts of space to do so, and that the suburbs can in fact be productive.
The book starts with the duo buying a duplex in Holyoke, Mass., where they soon establish a perennial garden full of multifunctional herbs, shrubs, vines, and trees. Incredibly, Toensmeier and Bates prove that permaculture principles are viable in a suburban setting, even when the forecast is grim, and that a small parcel of land can yield abundant food and nutrition, and even have a bit of space for a few animals, too.
Paradise Lot is no doubt a story of the journey and less of a how-to, but that doesn’t mean the text isn’t brimming full of valuable information and tips for the prospective suburban gardener and permaculturalist. Really, Toensmeier’s plant knowledge is dripping from every page, and you’ll likely find yourself reaching for a highlighter or folding every other page corner because of the abundance of excellent information. Perhaps most valuable is the massive inspiration the book imparts – that you don’t need a whole lot of land to work some incredible gardening and food magic, and that anyone can turn even a scrap of abused land into something beautiful.
Another favorite book of mine geared towards home-scale permaculture and food production is Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, which when combined with Paradise Lot, makes for an excellent two-punch guide to getting your land to be productive, regenerative, and beautiful. Hemenway’s book is full of practical information that will set you on the path to a self-renewing garden. One of the main premises of permaculture – working with Nature, instead of against her, is always the goal, and Hemenway describes in detail how to make that theory a reality.
Gaia’s Garden gets into the nitty-gritty of water management, guilds, forest garden design and layout, and recommended plant species suitable for a perennial food and medicine garden. Whereas Paradise Lot doesn’t dwell on the instructions for replicating a regenerative garden, Gaia’s Garden provides ample ideas and directives for creating healthy soil, making use of small spaces, and taking advantage of natural conditions. It’s practical, based on a lot of experimenting, and overall it’s an excellent addition to the library.
While I’m not about to move back to the suburbs to put these home-scale permaculture ideas to the test, I appreciate other people’s work in experimenting with these ideas. There’s a much better chance for getting our towns and cities across the country a little more productive and brimming with life with excellent books like Paradise Lot and Gaia’s Garden around. (Both are available from MOTHER EARTH NEWS.) Maybe we can re-create Eden in the suburbs after all.
Photos by Chelsea Green Publishing