We collect trash, throw it in the yard, and call it permaculture


To help us put our food forest in place, we’re working with David Homa, to come and coach us a couple of days.  In preparation for the first coaching day, David sent me a list of materials that we’d need: cardboard, used coffee grounds, horse manure, loam, woodchips.  All of these things, interestingly, can be obtained as waste products.   Here are some of the stories from our experience.

There is a huge production of waste cardboard in stores.   I learned of two inefficient ways to obtain this before Mark suggested a very quick, albeit sort of funny, way.  One inefficient way is to call up some big stores, like Costco, ask them if they will collect cardboard for you.  They say they will, so you make an appointment to come, rent a truck to get it, and drive on over there, only to find that they have forgotten all about you.   Big waste of time and money.  You can also find a bike store, and get it from their trash container, but then you are competing with the professional cardboard recyclers who come to get it.  Hard to get the timing right, plus the bike store might be far away.  Finally, you can go to your local supermarket – we go to Trader Joe’s – at the time when they are restocking.  You get a shopping cart, and hang out in the aisles where the staff is putting new products on the shelves.  The staff will be more than happy to pass the large packaging boxes along to you, especially if you’re a little helpful, by, like, flattening the boxes.  In this case, you look kind of like a homeless person collecting materials for the night’s refuge, but on the flip side, you can get a whole carload of cardboard in half an hour at a location that is likely five minutes from your house.

For coffee grounds, we learned to go with the place where you have a good connection.  First, I tried Starbucks, and the person I talked to was quite positive about putting the coffee grounds into a bucket I supplied for them.  However, this coffee shop is not on my usual rounds, and I forgot to pick the first batch up for a week.  When I finally did come, they said they had to throw it out because it had gotten so smelly.  Amazingly, they were willing to give it another go, and this time I made sure to come by at the appointed time for the coffee.   But, they had put the bucket away because they were too busy, besides — didn’t they do it last week – and it got really smelly?  So I came back the next day.  This time, they had forgotten, although they did remember doing it last week and it got so smelly (the smell really must have gotten to them, oh dear!).   In the end, after five trips, I did get a full bucket of wonderfully aromatic coffee grounds.  Hm.   Mark to the rescue (again!).  He said he’d drop the bucket off at the Olin cafeteria.  The Olin folks were happy to help Mark out, and Mark goes by there a couple of times a day, so this method results in minimal effort and a regular supply of coffee grounds.  Ah!

I also collected 12,000 pounds of loam from the dump, made from composted waste and add sand; and 3,000 pounds of horse manure (more on shoveling this stuff in the shoveling post); and had waste wood chips delivered by a tree-care company.  All of this stuff has been taken out of the trash stream, and it is going to go into our food-forest where it will improve soil, and make growing beds.    Which made Ruby comment, “So, what we do is: we collect trash, we throw it in the garden, and we call it permaculture!

Three piles of waste: wood chips, loam from waste leaves and sand; horse manure.

Neighbor Spotlight: Moe and Tesla


This “Neighbor Spotlight” is one of a series I am writing for the Green Needham Collaborative.  It is about ordinary people in Needham doing extraordinary things to be a better neighbor to planet Earth.  Please be inspired!

Some people know how to live a good life and be a good neighbor.  Moe Handel is one of them.  He and his wife, Elizabeth- who is a physician in town — moved to Needham in 1987, and raised their children here.  During his time in Needham, Moe has been an active in town. He is a member of the Needham Exchange Club and on the Boards of North Hill nand the Needham History Center and Museum, he was previously an elected  member of the Planning Board, and for the past 9 years, has been a member of the Town’s Board of Selectmen, which is proposed to be renamed  The Select Board. Moe and his wife have also been good neighbors to our planet. Their beautifully renovated 1711  house (eleventh-oldest in Needham, Moe says with town-pride) has 22 solar panels; all the lights are LED; the historic windows modified to be double-paned; the front lawn has been replaced with a water-sipping ground cover; the kitchen waste gets composted; and, just before we met for coffee in the French Press, Moe had changed his newspaper subscriptions to digital – except for Sunday.  Moe is the first member of his board to receive his packets digitally, further saving paper.

Moe enjoys life, and one of his pleasures is cars.   He used to drive a standard shift Miata, which his daughter learned to drive when she was 10 in case of an emergency (for Moe’s failsafe instructions on how to teach driving a standard shift car, see end of post).   He also owns a used hybrid Lexus 450h, but it has taken a definite back seat to the fully electric vehicle: a beautiful, white Tesla Model S.  What do you like about it, I ask.  Moe’s response comes quick. It is a thrill to drive.  And, he says with a sly smile – you get a great App!  It allows you remote access to the car, your trips, and information about where to charge.  Another enjoyable aspect, for the very sociable Moe, is the community of Tesla drivers.  They meet at the Tesla charging station in Dedham – where the charge is free.  “It takes about 20-40 minutes to get a full charge, but the next generation will be able to charge faster,”  Moe says.  As they wait, the owners share bits of insider-Tesla minutiae, using their own Tesla lingo (getting “iced” means an Internal Combustion Engine taking up an EV charging spot).   What about long-distance travel, I ask?  Not a problem says Moe, he and his wife have gone to New Hampshire and Maine, using the well-spaced Tesla charging stations.  People go all over the country, he says.  It’s the wave of the future!

Addendum: Moe’s method to teach a person to drive a standard in five minutes – getting over the hardest part: releasing the clutch.   Go to a level parking lot with space.  Press down the brake (right foot) and the clutch (left foot).  Put the car into first.  Release the brake.  Then gently release the clutch until it catches and the car starts to move slowly forward (no need to press the gas).  Repeat this until you get a feel for the clutch.   Now, you can build on this skill to add gas and shift to the other gears.   Post-addendum: There are no EV’s where this skill is required.

Neighbor spotlight: Community

imageThis “Neighbor Spotlight” is one of a little series about ordinary people in Needham doing extraordinary things to be a better neighbor to planet Earth.  Please be inspired!

Susan is one of those people who is consistently present when something is going on around town.  Be it a Zero Waste session at the library, the Charlottesville Solidarity Vigil on the common, a Green Homes tour, or many other events, Susan is there.  So I went to talk with her.  Her traditional cape house is easy to spot as you go up her street – it stands out like a happy spring flower in yellow with evergreen pachysandra all around the front and sides.  Inside, Susan welcomed me to her cozy kitchen with a cup of tea, and had laid out a couple of printed pages listing all changes she has made in her living to be a greener citizen.   Wow, that’s impressive!  How did she do it?  Well, for one, she is committed – “I think of myself as a person who cares, so that means I should make changes if they can be beneficial” – and for another, she does it with others, with community.

Although her commitment to the environment goes back to the 1980s – after reading Diet for a Small Planet by Lappé Susan started eating lower on the food chain – a big change came in 2008, when she joined an EcoTeam.  An EcoTeam is a small group of friends and/or neighbors who get together six times once a month, and go through an eco-cleanse of the household following the practical guidance of an EcoTeam handbook.  Each month, a different topic is tackled: water use, energy use, waste, travel, and so forth.  At each meeting, you share how things are going with the others on your team.   Plus, doing one thing at a time made it all easier: “When you do one thing, you realize it’s not a big deal.  Then you have energy for the next thing.”  But I think it’s also doing it together that helps.

Outside of her own household, Susan also creates change together with others. She had a career as the director of membership at Trustees of Reservations.  When she retired, she took a walk with a friend to discuss what to do, and her friend said, join the League of Women’s Voters.  So she did.  There, she eventually became the president (she is currently membership chair).  The League and Green Needham often work together because of the two groups’ shared focus on climate change.  She also (successfully) ran to become a member of town meeting, after seeing a green initiative go down while sitting in the balcony as a spectator – because she figured she’d rather be a part of the group of people making decisions.   In fact, Susan says, “It’s basically what I do.  I socialize with friends, and I am an active member of organizations and groups that I care about.”  Community.

Struggle, patience, peace

More snow fall on March 22 in Needham, second day of Spring

Early in March, Land of Plenty came and cleared the Norway Maples to make room for the food forest shrubs and trees.  Charlotte, Ruby and I spent a couple of days making permaculture piles of branches and duff.  The stickies on the scrum board were moving from the “Planned”, to the “Ongoing”, to the “DONE” column.   Things were happening!  It was so exciting!

Then, we had a big snowstorm.  A week later, another one.  And a week after that, one more (small one).  Everything is buried in snow.  There is nothing we can do outside (aside from shovel – with the appropriate technology, of course).   Today, nearly three weeks later, we have made no progress at all.  It has been absolutely maddening.  I have stomped my feet.    I have sworn never to spend another March in Boston ever again.  I have spent days obsessively checking the weather app on my phone, wanting to make the snow forecast disappear through over-exposure.   One day, I was so desperate, I took the wheelbarrow and tried to wheel it around in the snow, thinking this might work, we could put down wood chips.  But it doesn’t work.  The only thing that could be done was: practice patience.

It’s true that at the beginning of the month, I was feeling completely overwhelmed.   It seemed like the TODO list with all the things I am doing — Big Foot being just one of them — was getting longer and longer, and even daily routines like making the bed and playing some violin were getting lost in the fray.     With all the snow, I figured I had better just start going down that list.   Ruby helped, one day putting up shelves that I’d been meaning to get to for months.  I finalized the Big Foot business plan.  Got our taxes prepared.  Played the violin daily and got a little better at the Kreisler and Beethoven pieces I’m working on.   Spent some time with Josephine in a relaxed way.   Did some work for the Education Commission (my still-client from the career I am ending to go into food production).   Finished some Neighbor Spotlights for Green Needham;  made a cashflow sheet for Simply Circus to fulfill my treasurer duties. Until, quite by surprise, the other day, I realized I was no longer stressed.  The TODO list had been whittled down to a few items.  The weeks of not working outside had given me enough time to catch up.   Instead of struggling, I felt peace.  It was pretty nice.

Root magic

Root magic is when you take a little stick, or a little seed, and you coax it into making roots – the foundation of plant life.   No roots, no plant life.   At the second session of Applied Permaculture we learned about making and caring for roots.   Interestingly, this is not just about putting a seed in some good soil, or sticking a little stick into some clean water and seeing if roots will sprout.   There are rather a lot of little, practical bits and pieces that make your endeavor much more likely to succeed (or fail).   I collected some of the things we went over below to help myself to remember them, but also to give an idea of the specificity of it all.   Eventually, many such little micro-skills collect to become a body of expertise, similar to say, learning to play violin – which is also lots of little micro-skills that accumulate into music making.

David Homa has encyclopedic knowledge of plants, their varieties, their specific needs, and specific uses.   Me, for now, I can remember a few specifics, but more general principles.  I can then use the principles to look up specific knowledge in books or the internet.    As a general insight, I learned there are different ways of making roots happen: for example, you can use seeds, you can use cuttings, or you can mound plants (lean new branch to ground and cover with soil).  But even within each of these avenues, there are specifics – like what size cuttings to take, where to put them, and what to put them in (see below).  If you want to make new plants and roots, you need to know or look up these avenues and specifics.

It’s a lot of information, but I can see how it can build up (different from pruning, which is still a mystery).  It was fun to be back up in Maine, and to see my classmates again – Richard, Erin (2), Marion, Stephanie, Soon Yuk, Nicole, David – and David’s cosy dining room with the permaculture books on it, and organized stacks of paper for this session.

Nicole evaluating where to cut an elderberry branch.

Bits of specific root magic info:

For seed starting, you don’t need nutrients, you need something pretty sterile and that absorbs water well – vermiculite, perlite, spagnum moss, possibly a small bit of compost mixed in.   You also want to make sure you get out any larger bits and use only fine material.  Seeds have their own nutrient packet to start growing roots with, and later, when a few leaves have appeared, you can provide  more nutrients with compost tea.   For making compost tea, collect compost, or fresh leaves into a large fabric “tea bag” (say a gallon large) and put it into a large bucket of water, which you aerate with a simple pump, but only for up to 8 hours or so, otherwise it starts to stink like a dead body and is no good.   For taking cuttings for rooting, it really depends on the plant whether you can take cuttings, but also, how to take the cuttings.  Elderberries: a cutting pencil thick, less than 12″ long, and with 2 or 3 leaf bud pairs, put in water or water with a willow-tea dilution, and leave in a dark place for a week before bringing out to light.  Chokeberries: a thinner cutting and leaving some shoots off the end, less than 12″, and, put these in full strength willow-tea, and in light but out of sunlight.  Willow: very thin branch with shoots, can be longer, put in light but not sun, and they have so much root-power you can use plain old water.  You can use a handful of willow branch pieces to make willow-tea rooting medium for cuttings that need more coaxing like chokeberries (or, if you are in a very un-zen un-permaculture hurry, skip making tea and throw the branch pieces in the chokeberries’ cold water to steep).

Permaculture zen

After Land of Plenty left, as I mentioned, we had two huge piles of brush, taller than a person, in the yard.  The original plan was to rent a chipper to turn this material into wood chips for paths, figuring it would take one work-day with Ruby – Ruby is our wonderful live-in intern/woofer, who helps out two days a week in return for room and board.  Unfortunately, it turns out, you can’t rent chippers of a usable size for us.  So, what to do with two gargatuan piles of brush?

I have read a fair amount about permaculture, including how to create hugelkulturs and terraces and swales.  I spent a day in a class at my earlier permaculture course just on this stuff.  But none of this prepared me for the practical question of dealing with enormous piles of brush.  How do you turn it into something you can use?   I did not remember any information about this very practical, and sizable, problem.

Ruby and I discussed our options.  Get a company to come and chip it with a big machine.  Get a big machine to stomp the stuff down.  Start a long, manual process of cutting the branches – sorting them into 1/2 – 2″ straight sticks, and then a pile of very small branchlet-duff.  Sticks can be piled fairly densely so they can serve as further material for the hugels and the terraces/swales, while the duff can be used to fill in gaps.  In the end, we reasoned, this manual labor would be creating a useful material we would otherwise not have.  Plus, in the spirit of permaculture, we’d be re-using what is on-site with minimalist tools.  It would be zen.

And so we went at it.  Six hours of clip, clip, crunch, throw, clip.    We talked about life, work, society, permaculture.  The sun came and went.  The big messy brush piles got a bit smaller.  Our organized piles of sticks got a bit bigger.   We did not finish.  The next day, I did three more hours.  I did not finish.  I started to wonder whether this is a sustainable solution – really, who in the world would ever pay you to do this long, slow labor even if it is rather nice to do?     The next day, Charlotte and I did a few more hours and were joined by her lovely friend Dana.  The day after, I did four more hours.   We are really near the bottom of the piles, but still not done, and we are 24 person-hours in.  Then came another 20 inch snowstorm, burying the piles for a week.  True zen.

Charlotte and Dana creating neat wood piles


Moving the woods – trees

I mentioned we are moving woods from the back of our property to the North-east side in the previous post, To say “moving the woods” is somewhat deceptive, as trees are not easily moved.  What you end up doing is you you re-move the woods, by cutting trees, and then plant new ones elsewhere.   Our woods consisted of many Norway maples, which are not particularly beautiful, or edible – they are a non-nitrogen fixing, colonizing tree (great for taking back deserted human waste-land).    We also have two Elms, a treasured suburban tree that was decimated by Dutch Elm disease, and a Catalpa, which fixes nitrogen and produces pods, which we decided to leave as canopy trees over the planned hillside with hazels.

I spoke with a couple of companies about re-moving our woods — both companies that love trees, and doing things right.  Talking with people who really know trees is immensely enjoyable – they can see so much about the trees’ health, future, past, relationships.   I find it amazing that people can have learned so much about trees – beings that are so different from us (even while being such a part of our world).  I engaged Land of Plenty.   The day after the fiddlehead transplant, they came for two days to take down eleven Norway maples, a few other small trees we wanted to replace.   There was a team of three: Ben, Luke, Brad.  Below is a photo of one of Luke up in one of the trees.

By removing the Norway maples, we will create space for hazelnuts and honey-locusts (which fix nitrogen, provide lots of nectar for pollinators, grow pods for livestock, and can be coppiced for young wood).  We will also get more sun in the southern half of the site.  A third use of the cut Maples is to store their carbon.  All of the wood from the Maples will go underground to form the core of hugelkulturs, swales and terraces (the latter two on the hill).  There, the wood will decompose into humus, and the carbon in the humus will remain underground for a long time.  Yeah, goodbye carbon!

Luke from Land of Plenty cutting one of the larger Norway Maples