Category Archives: Permaculture

Blueberries are for the Birds

Being a permaculture enthusiast means playing the long game sometimes. It’s  kind of like having an investment that eventually pays dividends.

I bought our house in 2007 knowing that I would be putting down roots in the City of Durham. What sold me on the property was our backyard—a fenced-in double lot, unusual for a house in the city. I remember kneeling down and scooping up some of the soil with my hands. The soil was black and earthy, unusual for our area where red clay is the norm. An old-timer from our neighborhood later told me that many years ago our backyard had been a sweet potato field.

A sign that things are now paying off is that after 12 years of trying, there were finally enough blueberries this year for our family and the birds.  I had considered putting nets on our bushes to keep the birds away, but I didn’t relish the thought of picking birds out of nets. Plus it would just look kind of ugly.

I also thought about a cat we once had who used to kill birds. I did not want to be responsible for any more death and destruction.   Eat freely, little birds, and sorry about all that carnage.

How wonderful that we can join the birds for this year’s bountiful harvest.

Spider Lilies

I recently read the excellent book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann. An overriding theme of this book is that pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas shaped their environment to fit their needs, time and time again.  Some of these environments were barren  intially but the land inhabitants were able to cultivate them with remarkable success.  He sites, for example the terra preta of the Amazon Basin. This anthropogenic soil was made by adding a mixture of charcoal, bone, broken pottery, compost and manure to the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil.  The soil’s charcoal has remained in the soil for thousands of years.

I was thinking about the book when I stepped out of the house today.   The backyard  has become wild and overgrown due to my inability to tend to it this summer.  In addition to the long grass there are beautiful red spider lilies popping up all over.

These flowers usually bloom around the autumnal equinox and apparently are bulb-producing perennials which likely means someone planted them before I bought the house.

Looking back it was the backyard that sold me on the house.  A large, skinny double lot in the city, I noticed the rich, dark, earthy soil in the back which seemed anomalous considering most of the soil in the Triangle is red clay.

I asked my geologist friend Brian if our soil was rich due to some geological feature. He told me that it wasn’t, that it was more likely the yard had been cultivated by previous owners. He paused for a second and said “but if that’s not the case then it could be a burial mound.”  Startled for a minute, I remembered that one of our elderly neighbors told me that back in the day, our yard was a giant sweet potato field.  I started thinking about the lot’s previous owners and how long it had been cultivated. Hundreds of years?  Thousands of years?

We continue the tradition by composting what we can and giving much love to our beautiful back yard.  We plan on spending the next couple of weeks taming the yard back in shape. But we won’t mow over any of the beautiful spider lilies.


The Bluebirds and the Blueberry Bush

This weekend Levi and I worked and played in the yard together. It’s an exciting time now, as he’s able and interested in helping out on the “Family Farm” on Farthing Street.









A few weeks ago we  put together a bluebird house and stand. I didn’t let him use the drill of course, but his eyes, much better than mine, were able to find the drill bits for me. We staked the house next to the pond and I told Levi I bet they will  love it here at Farthing Pond. We just have to be patient and wait.

Saturday the bluebirds arrived. We watched as one sat  on the house, puffed up mightily, defending his territory from cardinals and thrushes.  This morning, Levi jumped out of bed, opened the curtain and was delighted to see one of the bluebirds sitting on the house.



Outside, daffodils were everywhere like little coming attractions for spring.  Together we planted tulips, which he’d picked out at the garden store for Shawnna (he knows they are her favorite flower.)

As we planted the  tulips in a  row in front of the daffodils, we’d dig up the occasional grub worm. I explained to Levi how bluebirds loved them and we left some as a present for our new friends.

Levi called the ground squishy in some places and he was right. We’ve gotten so much rain this winter.  Over the last couple of months, when it hasn’t been raining,  we’ve been expanding our bioretention area in the back.  The pitcher plant bog is saturated with water and has looked like a small creek at times during the recent rains.


The plants are loving all the extra water that we are catching coming down our sloped yard. For example, we have 3 paw paw trees that are budding now.  The trees sit next to a fake stream bed that I  carved out at the top of the yard in the back. Paw paws are river trees.  We might actually have some to eat this year.











Another example: in front of the bog we have a blueberry bush that is almost eight feet tall. It’s grown like a weed this winter. It’s also expanding sideways and is taken over everything with little runners sticking out all over the  place











There should be enough berries for both birds and humans this year.




Fig Eaters on Farthing Street

Trying to grow our own food has been a challenge, but in recent years we’ve had decent luck with our fruit-bearing plants like strawberries and blueberries, and our enormous fig tree. Every August we eagerly anticipate the fig harvest, and 2017  did not disappoint!

This year little Levi had fun picking figs for the first time. Earlier in the month I had explained to him that we can only harvest the figs when they feel “mushy.”  After that, he’d run up to the tree and squeeze each green, unripe fig, saying “not ripe” to  me.

When the first figs started turning, I pulled one off and broke it in half, showing him the sweet mushy inside, then took a big bite. He did the same with another fig but decided he didn’t really like the taste.  That didn’t stop him from picking figs with Oma, though.

We are now enjoying Oma’s fig preserves, and have been eating them with toast, biscuits, and straight out of the jar.




Paw, paw, where’s my maw?

This weekend I got to play tree doctor as I performed an IVF procedure in our  paw paw patch.  Fortunately, the procedure was inexpensive, requiring only a plastic bag and a paint brush, and a knowledge of paw paw anatomy.  Paw paws can be tricky to fertilize because they are too stinky for bees, giving off a carrion smell that attracts flies.  The flies are supposed to pollinate them, but haven’t been doing a great job.  Since our trees haven’t borne any fruit yet, I decided to step in.

Paw paws have an interesting developmental life cycle.  When the flowers bloom in the spring, they start out as females.   Note the stigma in the middle, which is part of the female anatomy.


After a few weeks, the female flowers morph into males,
becoming “hairy” with a coat of pollen.


The procedure was pretty straightforward: I would take some of the flaky pollen from the male flower of one tree and transplant it to the stigma of the female flower of another tree.  Fortunately, I had a few male and female flowers on each tree.

Pretty soon I identified my first male donor.  He was ready to go and didn’t need any priming.

My assistant handed me a plastic bag, and I began flaking the pollen off the male flower with a paintbrush, letting the pollen flakes  fall into the plastic bag.

Then I went to a neighboring tree to find a female flower.  “That’s a very healthy stamen you have, Ms. Paw Paw,” I said reassuringly.

With my artist’s brush I dabbed on the pollen flakes and gently applied them to the stigma of the female plant.  We’ll see if anything bears fruit.  It’s just a matter of time now…

Thrills from Blueberry Hill

For years we’ve been trying to grow blueberries, but we’ve had scant results.  Despite giving them plenty of water–blueberry plants require at least an inch or two of  water a week–the berries have always been few and  tiny.  That’s why my eyes almost popped out of my head when I visited our neighborhood friends  Sally and Sandi yesterday.

Before my eyes were BlueberriesNorthgate several blueberry bushes,  sagging with plump, ripening fruit. Seething green (or blue?) with jealousy, I grabbed the biggest, fattest blueberry I  could find, and ate it.   At least it made me feel better.

Naturally I wanted to know what their secret was.  Comparing and contrasting their bushes with ours, I discovered three factors that seems to have contributed towards their more  bountiful harvest.

First, their blueberry orchard sits at the bottom of a sloped hill, an area of the yard that gets a lot of drainage. In fact, it is the perfect location for a rain garden.
BlueberriesNorthgate3Sandi told me that they don’t water their plants very often, and I can see why.  Permaculture at work!

There are also no large trees near their yard, which meant  that the plants weren’t visited by those pesky  cankerworms this spring.  These worms chewed huge holes in the leaves of our blueberry plants, which I know must have stressed them out.  Next year we’ll be banding the trees in our yard to repel  the cankerworm invasion.

What might be helping them the most, however, is something called soil acidifier, which is available at most garden centers.  Sandi told me that she applies the soil acidifier at the base of the plant, careful not to get any on the leaves.
blueberriesfertAs you might know, blueberries love acidic soil, which is one of the reasons they thrive in the North Carolina mountains.  Now I’m convinced that we might have the winning formula for blueberry production.

 Why all this fuss about blueberries?   For one thing, they are a healthy dessert alternative; one cup of blueberries has 80 calories.  They are a true super food, containing antioxidants, Vitamin C and fiber.   They seem to promote cardiovascular and brain health, and might help prevent certain types of cancers.  Research studies have shown that they reduce brain damage in rats.  And of course they are tasty!

For more on blueberries, check out the U.S. Highbush Bluberry Council’s website.

Nice work Sally and Sandi!






Strawberry fields forever

 Yesterday Shawnna  harvested our first strawberries of the year.  She waited until I got back from my trip to do this.  I don’t think I would have had that kind of self control!


I got the plants last year from our neighbors Dan and Darcey, who had more strawberries than they knew what to do with.  They told us that the strawberries were in such abundance that they could smell them when they got out of their car.  The strawberries were so plentiful that some were rotting on the vine.  They warned me that the plants would spread rapidly and would need to be thinned out.  I told them we would love to have that problem!

Now our front yard is full of them, and there is the added bonus of not having to mow that part of the lawn.  Life is good!




Foraging for onions

Nothing could be finer than foraging for food in your backyard on a glorious North Carolina spring morning.  Today’s harvest was wild onions, and there were  onions ‘o plenty.

wild onions

Wild onions are part of the allium genus of plants which includes all types of onions, garlics, chives, and leeks.  (Allium is the Latin word for garlic, by the way.)  This morning’s  mantra was “all alliums are edible,” which happens to be true.

I dug a whole bunch out of the ground, washed them and put them on the chopping block.  They looked a lot like scallions to me and definitely had a similar taste.   I chopped them up and threw them in the crockpot to give my beef stew some more flavor.


Franklin decided to get a little taste for himself.

Franklin  tries some wild onions

I’d be curious to know if anyone out there knows where to find “ramps” which are a variety of wild onion that have become increasingly popular on the restaurant scene.  Their stems are flatter and wider then the more conventional kind you see around here, and have a distinct garlic taste.  They are also native to the Appalachians.  Next time I go up to Boone I think I’ll try to find some.

By the way,  Chicago got its name from Checagou, which is the Potawatomi name for wild leeks. Apparently the  surrounding marshlands were saturated with rotting, wild leeks.  True story.

Bon Appétit!


How permaculture saved my basement

Three years ago today, some friends invited me to hear permaculture enthusiast Toby Hemmenway speak at the Nicholas School of the Environment here at Duke.  As I walked to the lecture, a gentle snow blanketed the ground.  Little did I know what a positive impact this lecture would have on my life.

Permaculture, it turns out, is a garden design methodology that is modeled after natural ecosystems.  It is a beautiful and simple paradigm, and requires from the gardener a little common sense, some strategic planning and a bit of upfront work.  The gardener is then able to leverage the resources that nature provides for free. The end result for the gardener is a huge payoff in terms of yield versus mount of overall work in the garden.  Or as Hemmenway writes in his book, Gaia’s Garden, “The idea is that you buy nature drinks, and she picks up dinner for you.”

In his talk, Hemmenway traced the development of humans from primitive foragers to modern farmers.  He spoke about the rise of horticultural societies, cultures that had advanced beyond simple foraging but did not practice what we think of as modern farming.  They were (and are) something in-between.  Examples of these societies are numerous, such as the Hopewell culture in the U.S. or the Nuaulu in Indonesia.   To outside observers visiting these communities for the first time, Hemmenway said, their landscapes often  appeared wild and untamed; a closer look, however, would reveal things like sophisticated plant guilds and food forests growing everywhere.

I guess you could call these horticultural societies the first permaculture practitioners.  Hemmenway spoke about how people in these groups only had to work a few hours a day on food production, which gave them more time for leisure activities.  In contrast, the typical modern farmer would have to work 2-3 days to produce the same amount of food.

From that point on in the lecture, I was completely captivated.  I realized that through strategic planning and common sense I could actually work less in the garden and get better results at the same time!   All I had to do was adapt to the new paradigm.  If there was a gardening Bible, Gaia’s Garden became my New Testament, a radical break with my gardening past.

That spring my wife and I focused on utilizing all of the natural resources available to us in our yard, a sloped urban lot about a quarter acre in size.  We started with water collection.  I was amazed at how quickly the 80-gallon barrel we already had filled up, so I bought some 275-gallon barrels and put them under the other available downspouts.  With some help from my wonderful friends, we built a ten-by-twelve foot goldfish pond on the sloped backside of the yard.  We have about 2,000 gallons of water at our disposal at any given time.  We have never run out of water, even in the worst droughts of summer.

We also knew that we could take advantage of our sloped yard by catching water as it came down the hill.  We did this by slowly sculpting the yard, digging small trenches  and building up mounds of dirt, leaves and compost to catch water runoff. (Hemmenway describes these water-catching techniques in his book.)   The overflow area in front of our pond became a bog where we’ve planted things like insect-eating pitcher plants and scouring rush, which attracts insect-eating dragonflies.

With so much water available to us, we began thinking about turning our yard into a giant edible landscape. We started with blueberries, and have since added strawberries and elderberries, as well as fig, plum and paw-paw trees. We also plant vegetables, of course. This year we’ve created a new vegetable bed that will be fed by water runoff.

Adhering to the principles Hemmenway outlines in his book, I also became obsessed with making our yard a “closed system” where nothing would ever be thrown away.  I can’t think of a better example than the piles and piles of leaves that accumulate under our giant oak tree each fall.  In the old days, we would grudgingly rake up the leaves, put them in bags and let the yard waste people pick them up.  Now we use all of the leaves in the yard, creating small “hills” that are part of the contoured landscape. Eventually they turn into compost, along with the scraps from our kitchen, which we can use for gardening.

Three years later, it keeps paying off.  With all of the landscaping we’ve done, I don’t have to mow the yard anymore.  In fact, I gave our lawnmower away.  Strawberry plants have replaced much of the grass in the front yard.  Our basement used to flood regularly because of all the water runoff; we haven’t seen a drop of water in the basement in ages.  We’ve reduced the amount of time we have to spend watering the plants because nature is helping us out.  We’re attracting more wildlife to our backyard, including frogs, interesting birds, dragonflies and butterflies.  Most of all, we’re having fun and enjoying our yard more.  Thanks to my friends and the Nicholas School for turning me into a permaculture enthusiast!  Don’t take my word for it, see Hemmenway’s lecture  from  February 2010, and get his book,  Gaia’s Garden.