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 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.

Neighbor spotlights: the Trash Game

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”.  This one is about a trash game.


The current record is 14 weeks.  That is how long it took for Maureen and Bill Bob to fill up one small Needham trash bag (15 gallons).   That is not a lot of trash.  I feel like in our house, we are super-duper re-users and recyclers, but we put out at least twice as much.  How do they do it?  It’s a competitive game, Maureen said.  How low can we go?  What else can we reduce, re-use, repair, or recycle?

Growing up, for Maureen, frugality was a necessity.  Her father taught her to fix things and nothing was thrown away.   As young adults, when Maureen and her sister owned a triple-decker, they found that fixing and re-using things made economic sense.  Over time, recycling and reducing became second-nature.  And at some point, with Bob, it started to become fun.  Together, they go step by step, so that everything they do becomes a habit – and that way it is never overwhelming.

They fix things.  There was the time the microwave started to sparkle and buzz.  So Bob googled “microwave sparkling sparking”.  Sure enough, there is a you-tube video on how to fix this problem (it’s very simple).   Then there were the antique rug with holes holes in the antique rug that Maureen repaired; the ice-cream maker that went to the Repair Café; and the speaker that is waiting for the next Café.   Besides reducing trash, a cool side-effect of these efforts is a sense of greater independence, and personal empowerment.

They recycle and re-use things.  Unneeded household items that still have some life left can be dropped off at the Goodwill trailer at the RTS, or at Savers.  Even worn out and/or ripped fabric,  clothing and shoes can be dropped off at these locations – they are sold to a textile recycler.  Food waste goes onto the compost pile, and Maureen takes this effort one step further, by composting the dog waste in a dedicated hole in the yard.  Rather than buying new books, they borrow them from the library, or buy used ones.  They try not to acquire stuff unless they need it.  They have reduced the in-flow of paper 70-80% by getting all bills online, and setting them up on autopay, cancelling all retail catalogs, and opting out of mailing lists via the Direct Marketing Association.

Overall, this may seem like a lot of effort, but it is not, Maureen says.  It becomes a habit, you make it into a game, you feel good about helping the planet, even if only in a small way.  And reducing the amount of time spent shopping frees up time for other things:  “It’s not that hard to be green.”

This blog was also published on the Green Needham website.

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.