Raising the food forest

When a very large project needs to be done, in traditional communities, everyone gets together for a day or a weekend, to do it together.   The Amish or Menonites in this country still do this.  A small community of skilled people can build an entire barn in just a weekend (see the chapter on this in a lovely book by an MIT grad who goes to live with a Menonite community for a year: Better Off).   In the permaculture community (can we call it that?), we do something similar.  A group of people gets together and spends the afternoon making a big push on a garden project.  Call it a permablitz, or a garden raising, or raising the food forest.

Last November, I participated in my first garden raising with the Boston Food Forest, when we planted out 40 trees and more at the Ellington Street Food Forest.   Yesterday, I went to another one in Dorchester.    Just last week, we had one of our own at Big Foot.  It was posted as an event by the Boston Food Forest Coalition (thank you!).   Who would have believed it: ten people – 7 adults and 3 kids – who I had never met before, who had no relation to me, showed up on a beautiful Sunday, based on nothing more than the promise of working hard together outside, and getting lunch.   There was Mark with his daughter Ruby, who often goes to gardenraisings; Alison, who’s interested in healthy food; Lana, who was in Newton and just checked out what good Meetups were around; Monica and her family who are starting a food forest in Canton; Taylor who is moving back to West Virginia to start a food forest there; and Alex, who splits his time between helping to set up the next FIFA World Cup and doing permaculture.  Ruby and Izzy from Olin came as well.   And Mark said he would make us all lunch.

I had expected just two people to show up but at the last minute found out via Facebook that many more were interested.  A little frantic rush around the neighborhood procured more shovels and wheelbarrows – thank you neighbors!

It was fantastic!  There is such an energy buzz when a group of human beings get together on a joint project.  We are hard-wired to do this.  It sets off a gzillion positive neurons, firing all over our bodies, sending the message, Yes, this is good!  What we raised is Hugelkultur beds — more on those in another post (basically, these are raised beds with a core of wood to increase moisture retention and soil fertility).  I put out all the tools together in a clear location and added a little “sign-in” table, where you could list tools you brought (to be sure you took them home) and give us an email so we could stay in touch.  Then, together, we dug out lilies and asters where the Hugelkultur beds were going (putting the plants in a pile to be transplanted on to the hazel hill).  Some of us dug out a base of one Hugelkultur bed, then brought in wood and discussed how to best arrange it.  Another group of us went to the base of the hazel hill where we arranged large pieces of trunks to create a long ridge that will ease the end of the slope.  We talked, we dug, we laughed.  We moved piles of stuff that we thought “No way!” could we move those.  Appropriate technology indeed: many helping human hands.  Someone always kept an eye out for the kids.  At about 1 o’ clock, Mark called us all in for lunch and we sat on the deck, eating piles of food, and all of us happy with our work, happy to be eating, and doing lots and lots of talking.  Then we went out for a few more hours and did some more work finishing our Hugelkulturs.  Really, it was pretty cool.   This day deserves LOTS of pictures.  Here they are.



Neighbor Spotlights: from lawn mowing to activism

20180205_151035This is another Neighbor Spotlight about ordinary people who are making extraordinary changes in their lives to be a better neighbor to planet Earth.

I met Stephen at a Green Needham planning meeting for a town event (keep an eye out for further notice).  He impressed me with his upbeat, calm presence, and with how he packaged our ideas in a way that nudged our group from somewhat disorganized searching to excited purposefulness.  In the course of the evening, I learned that Stephen gives climate talks around the area, that he was trained by Al Gore as part of the Climate Reality Project, and that it all started with a new lawn-mower.

This new lawn-mower, which Stephen bought a few years ago, was battery-powered and replaced a gas-powered one.  On the summer day when he first took it out, Stephen had already noticed its lightness.  Turning it on with a simple press of the button, he felt pleasantly relieved not needing to prime the gas, set the choke, and yank the wire.  “Never again,” he thought, smiling.   Starting to push over the long grass, the machine was powerful, quiet; his two boys stayed around – wanting a turn.  Wow, that’s cool, they used to run inside from the noise and the smell.  They even asked if they could use the mower. Stephen had an epiphany: maybe going green was easy and nice.  Based on this experience, Stephen and Heidi became “creeping environmentalists” (Stephen’s term).  They started making incremental green choices, each time saving money and effort, so the was next step easier – right up to the tipping point into activism.
There was the way composting and recycling – initially to save on the costs of the pay-as-you-throw bags — became a game.  “Wow, no trash, only recycling, to the dump this week!”.  They replaced portions of their lawn with drought-resistant perennials. There was the time MassSave came in for a home energy assessment and left a free carton of LED lights saying, you’ll never have to buy another bulb as long as you live in this house, and will save 85% on lighting costs.   There were the 16 solar PV cells they bought with a Mass Energy loan, where the costs of repaying the loan were less than what they used to pay for the electricity.  Then there was the Bolt, for which Heidi was the key motivator.  Getting into the Bolt for the first time was the lawn-mower moment all over again: this car is faster, quieter, and not smelly!  Plus, Stephen realized, we’ll never have to change broken spark-plugs, mufflers, drive belts, or any of that stuff because the car does not have them.
All of these changes made life easier, cheaper, and yes, greener.   But a real turning point occurred last year, when Stephen went to a Climate Reality Project talk.  Here  Stephen learned that climate change is not about saving polar bears or a few coastlines.  The inter-connected system of climate change, the speaker showed, threatens everything we value – prosperity, peace, our civilization as we know it, within the lifetimes of today’s children.  But, he continued, we are already using existing technology to turn things around and we need to act to make it happen faster.   Both Stephen and Heidi realized they can help to make things happen faster at the local and state level.  Stephen was trained by Al Gore in Pittsburgh for three days last summer and now gives talks where he can – in schools, houses of worship, and organizations — and has become active in Green Needham.  Heidi has become engaged in local political groups.  Doing so gives them hope.  Do they have the time?  They got rid of things that are less important, like a few TV shows.  “I know I will be doing this the rest of my life,” Stephen says.   That will be a gift to all of us!

Neighbor Spotlights: One Thing Leads to Another

Over the years, but particularly in the past year, I have met a lot of people who are making changes in their lives to be a better neighbor to planet Earth.  They are pretty ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  They are inspiring, and we all need inspiration, so, I’d like to shine a spotlight some of them.  I’ll call these “Neighbor Spotlights”.  The first one is about Donna & Bill, and it’s how one thing leads to another.

A year ago, Donna & Bill had a free home energy assessment and she got some bad news. Now, Donna is a woman who gets things done. She raised two boys in the Needham schools with her husband, Bill, is an active member of the Community Concerns and Green Committee at Christ Episcopal Church and one of Green Needham’s most energetic affiliates. She cares deeply about the environment and worries about our future, but also acts. In 2013, Donna and Bill had 22 solar PV panels installed to cover at least 60 percent of their electricity needs. Since 2008, they have been driving Priuses. They also built an Energy Star 5-Plus certified cottage up in New Hampshire. So they could have been resting on their eco-laurels, instead of getting a home energy assessment.

The news they received from the energy assessment was that they could not get the insulation upgrade they had hoped for because the 30-plus year old boiler in the basement had a small carbon monoxide leak. Without the insulation, the carbon monoxide seeped to the outside and did not cause a problem, but with buttoning up their house, it could potentially build up indoors. To upgrade the insulation, they would first need to replace the boiler. At this point, many home-owners might have given up. Instead, Donna & Bill pursued the new boiler and the MassSave incentive to replace it. But the new boiler, it turns out, led to needing to replace the hot water tank. And this led Donna to investigate a solar hot water tank.  Now, this cost $9500 up front, but, with the MassCEC rebate, 30% tax credit, and 15% Mass tax credit, her out-of-pocket cost was just over $2000 — same price as a regular hot water tank.  So they went with solar hot water*.

In June, Donna and Bill got their solar hot water system, which will cover 70 percent of their hot water needs. In the same month, the new 95% efficiency boiler replaced the old one which was hobbling along at 70%. And, in the end, the insulation upgrade happened, which will shave even more off their fossil fuel energy use.

Do you think Donna & Bill will stop there?  Nope. One things leads to another and in January 2018 they will have twelve more PV panels installed* to fuel their future electric cars! On to shopping for those EVs!


The first solar panels on Donna and Bill’s house.
  • The companies Donna and Bill used for their installations: solar hot water by New England Solar Hot Water; twelve new PV’s by Rayah Solar.

Learning to share – again

When we are very young, our parents and our teachers teach us to share.  Increasingly, modern social sciences tell us that humans are, by and large, naturally inclined to be cooperative and collaborative, so the nudges given to us as preschoolers have fertile ground to work with.  Our parents and teachers also encourage us to be independent and take initiatives.  I took this to heart.  My parents tell me that one of my very first utterances as a two-year old was “sef do!” — I want to do it myself.  No tales exist of any precocious sharing capacity, so perhaps this story is a case of “never too old to learn”.

This farming project is mine, I mean, I am the one who is doing it.  But it is also going to take place in the house and in the yard that I share with Mark, and his income is going to pay for the running costs – for a few years at least.  So maybe I was feeling a bit defensive.

MY Project!

In any case, what happened is that I would talk about plans — “we’ll put a row of fruit trees here, and a pond there, and chickens over in that place” — and Mark would offer some suggestions or ask questions, like “Do those trees grow here?” or “Where will we put snow piles?” and then I would get mad and tell him not to micro-manage MY Project.

Instead of getting mad back, Mark said, “Yeah, it’s your project, but I’d like to be a little part of it.  Can we find a role for me?”  This led us to identify what expertise Mark has that compliments mine.   Mark has a lot of experience coaching colleagues and organizations – helping them define project goals, tasks, and challenges; and figuring out a process to get where they want to go.   We decided to use this in the farming project.   On a couple of walks and evenings by the fire we used his frameworks for planning.  This led us to develop a very useful Project Goals document, and a Resource Need document (more about those next).   But the best part of it is that instead of doing it myself, by sharing I have found my very first farm partner.  And I like it!

Community connecting

As I said, one of the exciting aspects of this new endeavor is that there are so many people who are trying to figure out how to grow food in a healthy, equitable, restorative way.  Yesterday, I went to a Meetup hosted by the Boston Food Forest Coalition to work with some fellow farm folks at an Audubon sanctuary in Mattapan (two weeks ago, I attended another BFFC Meetup in Dorchester to plant a food forest on an urban waste plot with about 50 other volunteers and had a lot of fun).  The BFFC is a very active organization that works with neighborhoods and neighbors to plant food forests all around Boston.

At the Meetup, I met: Michael, the older Audubon groundsman full of knowledge and energy; Betty just back from Barbados; Mesquita a student from UMass; Gail who has a small apple orchard in Vermont; Alex from Germany, consultant to FIFA and organizer of the pro-soccer league in India; Ginny, a young autistic woman, eloquent and proud of her identity; and Orion, the director of the BFFC, who, as I found out, was a former international development expert (sound like a familiar story?…).  I mention all of these folks because the sheer diversity of people interested in growing food in new ways is something to celebrate.  Our tasks were to put mouse protection around the fruit trees (Alex and Gail in the photo) and mulch the blueberries and raspberries with wood chips (Orion below).


After we were done, Alex, Orion and I ended up standing around and chatting for another hour.  All three of us came together at this garden from various degrees of high-power international careers.  So interesting…  Topic of the conversation: the very local acts here at the BFFC on the one hand, and a global awareness that this all needs to be linked into much, much larger social shifts.  Alex talked about grassroots soccer organizations that ballooned into strong forces of social change.  Orion talked about his vision of green cities, with lots of areas for trees and people.   I brought up that to have an impact, you need to have an organized network — and we talked a little about what exists already.  It was the beginning of a conversation, but I expect I’ll run into Alex and Orion again, and we’ll continue!