Category Archives: Community

Strikng a Pose at PranaFest

A few weeks ago I was out at the Ashland Food Coop doing the political campaign work I’ve been doing to make ends meet while continuing work on Vertecology’s evil plan to take over the world with edible vines and up walked Janet Marley of Bahkti Fest fame. The net result of our conversation can be seen in the photos below…

The Hanging Gardens strike a pose while yoga rages on!

Oregon’s got a set of Hanging Gardens, a lovely pair that made an appearance at the first annual and very successful PranaFest at Ashland’s Jackson Wellsprings a couple of weeks ago. While a few hundred of us did our yoga poses under the guidance of a dozen or so of some of the best yoga instructors around, these twins struck a pose on stage and got star treatment all around. Thanks again to Janet for producing this great event, festival producers are like rock stars in my world; thanks to all the rest who made it happen behind the scenes and thanks to the thousand people who came out to play.

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And stay tuned… there is method to my madness and Vertecology is going to the bees! That will make sense in a very short while, I promise!

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A Design Comes to Life at Orville Wright Middle School Community Garden

About a year ago this month, just before I headed off to Haiti, friend and fellow designer/builder Robert Redecker of Earthworks Natural Building Group invited me to do a few renderings to help flush out a circular cob and superadobe bench concept to be installed between three big shade trees at what was to become the Emerson Avenue Community Garden at Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester. At the time the “garden” was just a stretch of patchy lawn sandwiched between a soccer field and a few grand ideas. The 26-foot diameter seating area was going to become a teaching hub within the garden, a place where the school kids could gather around and learn about permaculture from a potential litany of travelers and luminaries in the know.

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I punched out the renderings you see above, then got caught up with the journey to Haiti, then with dropping the Geo at clubs and the water harvesting system at Sugar and the Hanging Garden, and well… you get the idea. Then Robert called me about two weeks ago: “They’re starting the project this weekend and want our guidance.” So with camera and shovel in hand as Saturday morning dawned, I made my way out there for the groundbreaking, got introduced to something like 40 volunteers and found that a good part of the lawn had become, indeed, a community garden. We got busy on the building fast, and here’s a time lapse to tell the tale.

As you can probably tell, we just got to laying out the urbanite floor and setting up the trench for the foundation pour and there’s still more work to be done. Two more workdays are scheduled April 15 and May 5 and more volunteers certainly welcome. (Here or here for more details).

Robert himself has become a devotee of cob and superadobe building, both methods of building using almost entirely earth from the locale where the build takes place, meaning cheap, sculptable and simple construction that’s labor intensive but beautiful, deeply soothing, health- and ecology-enhancing and virtually indestructible when built by competent hands. Check out The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage by Ianto Evans and Earthbag Building: The Tools, Tricks and Techniques by Nader Khaili if you’re interested in learning more; these two books are sort of the earth-building “bibles” and are full of methods, design philosophy and examples of some pretty amazing projects around the world.

And I must add that once lots of people get to work on grand ideas, they have a way of happening. Patchy lawns become hubs and hubs spawn more hubs. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s something afoot with gardens in the schools and it’s only a matter of time before their unused spaces become bona fide food forests cum education and activation centers. Then the food forests start to expand, partly because of people, but also because of birds and pollen and bees and it’s exciting to be here at the beginning of the evil plan for world liberation. Enjoy!

The New Rainwater Harvesting Video

Here’s the new video showcasing the Sugar Shack rainwater collection system with a bit of how-to, the wisdom of experience gained after a few big storms, and some future ambitions! I’m not only excited to have the content out there now; this is a big milestone for Vertecology in bringing the power to the people.

Since long long ago, I’ve envisioned using media as a way to empower DIYers everywhere (think all my talk a few years back about collective intelligence), and to create income streams that will ultimately get reinvested into projects that bring out the creative potential of both human beings and the ecology that has made us possible, into the world that can be.

This video represents the first major step in the fulfillment of that vision. I hope enjoy it. Thanks and happy Friday!

Five New Square Feet of Urban Economic Liberation: Planting the Hanging Garden

I’m pleased to announce that the next phase of Hanging Garden R&D is underway. Starting with a 1-1-1 mix of sand, homemade compost and potting soil, I’ve seeded all five levels of a Hanging Garden now swinging from the rafters at the Sugar Shack with small herbs that will help prepare its soil for later planting, attract birds and beneficial, predatory insects like ladybugs, long-term test the Hanging Garden’s performance in outdoor conditions and offer the intentional community here another baby step toward urban economic liberation.

Part of the fun is getting to experiment with five separate “test tubes” if you will. The bottom three levels got dusted with seeds of the yarrow plant, which according to legend was carried into battle by Achilles because of its effectiveness in treating battle wounds, and whose tendency to accumulate minerals means rich soil will be left in its wake. The fourth level up is planted with both yarrow and echinacea purpea seeds to get an idea of how the two behave together. The top level is seeded with echinacea alone, and echinacea is the go-to plant for easing a cold out of your body (something the house could use right about now).

For both herbs the winning planting formula appears to include spreading the seeds no more than ¼ inch deep. The yarrow seeds are little bigger than fine grains of sand and get spread liberally. The larger echinacea seeds get dropped individually about 2 inches apart. Then on all levels, I overlaid some exhausted coffee grinds from the house coffee maker.

The setup will get lots of sun on the rooftop, just like these plants love. It is winter here of course, but it is Southern California and these plants which would get planted later in the spring further north can take the couple of frosts we might get this season. If all goes well, we should start to see little green leaves popping up in about a week or so.

And this is a great opportunity to explore what the Hanging Garden can do best. For while we grow these herbs here, as other installs go up, Hanging Garden clients can begin to share notes – I hope to have a forum for this on Vertecology as  more installs go up and things come together.

And finally, a bit of cross pollination – it’s great to be watering the Hanging Garden with water from the rain harvesting system in the downstairs garden. Already watering the Hanging Garden on the rooftop, I’ve taken on watering the whole roof garden; prior to building the water harvesting system, I knew simply that our rooftop garden needed water. The water messily came out of a hose when I turned on the spigot, and that’s about all I knew.

The Sugar Roof Garden takes about 4 gallons of water per day in winter.

I always felt a pinge of guilt in watering the American Way, having no idea of how much water I was actually using, and only knowing that the water was coming from places like Mono Lake and the Sacramento Delta. By watering with buckets from the harvesting system, I’ve learned that the rooftop garden requires about four gallons per day in the winter time. Sure the watering is a bit more laborious but the information gained while exercising – climbing stairs with bucket in hand, has named the unnamed and means that I can now realistically design for how much water a design-build-permaculture install will actually need and yield.

Thank you Norma Bonilla for the soil mix formula and Baza Novic for the seeds and planting direction. I’ll keep y’all posted, and of course I welcome feedback. Thanks!

The Amusing Muse Exploring Possibilities for the Hanging Garden

One of the things I’ve discovered in dropping Hanging Gardens in some different locations around town is that there are a whole lot of different ceiling situations to deal with. Some are more difficult than others, and the hope is that I can come up with a few standardized approaches that fit most, as in say 95% of mounting situations. Honestly, I’m excited about the challenge, as solving the mounting challenges is beginning to reveal other opportunities that will help flush out the full potential of the Hanging Garden and will enhance its potential as a kit system usable to anyone who wants to turn that dead corner, porch or balcony into an ecological garden.

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Here’s the latest. I had the good fortune of a temporary install at the Hummingbird Nest Ranch in Simi Valley over Winter Solstice evening, when Evonne Heyning, Tirza Hollenhorst and friends put together a fabulous Dance to Freedom event. Already exhausted from the two week treehouse adventure, I had about six hours before the party started to figure out how to mount the Hanging Garden under a huge beam to which I could not attach any screws, except along the hidden top, and over which it was impossible to run any ropes or cables. I had to “side mount,” and wasn’t sure how to pull it off.

When I finally did pull it off, managing to keep the bad and the ugly from view, I joined the party, spread the biz cards and then as often happens, got the better, cleaner, more elegant and not to mention cheaper, design solution in meditation a few days after it was all over and at the most inconvenient hour… 🙂

The exciting point is that in this solution however is the beginning of an idea of how to quietly integrate water/nutrient delivery that can be flushed out as needed with future installations. The exploration contines and stay tuned, and I must say thanks to Evo, Brent, Pardox, Ed, Lance, Geisty, Tea Faerie, Fuzzy and a lot of others (pardon me if I didn’t include your name…) for sharing yourselves and an amazing evening under the stars and in the cushest horse stables this side of Appalachia…

Blowing Through the Bottleneck & Occupying Opportunity: A Hanging Garden for the Venice Community Garden

Well some of you might have perused the blog here and seen some cool design projects emerging into some sort of business and then a few rants on new economic models. “Make up your mind,” you might have found yourself thinking, or you might have just wondered how the threads were eventually going to merge, sort of like Cirque and Soleil… is it a Barnum & Bailey circus or risqué theater… which is it…? Well, I’m happy to tell you that the threads do merge into one, and it will become a bit more obvious how here. Opportunities to rise to the occasion and to step into one’s vision often come in strange packages.

This particular opportunity came a few weeks ago as the second client, the Venice Community Garden, lined up for a Vertecology Hanging Garden. Our discussions were filled with excitement. Their existing grant could cover it and they had a spot already picked out.

We all saw that a Hanging Garden, eventually perhaps several, would be great for the Community Garden. A three-level unit could turn one square foot of blossoming, mulching, carbon-sinking, food-making garden space into three with trellising to boot. It would bring beauty and novelty that would make people curious, draw them in and peak their interest in gardening, community, food forestry and permaculture. It could even inspire more creativity, yield potential new gardening students, and bring more income to the community garden’s capable users and teachers.

We saw as well that it would be good for the earth. It is said that an organically-sourced 1.6% increase in soil in currently farmed lands throughout the earth would be the death knell for global warming. Enter the Hanging Garden as soil multiplier. It could create new “edge” and microclimate conditions where biodiversity thrives. It could bring more life into the area, helping to make the whole neighborhood more fertile: think new varieties of plants in each of the boxes attracting the birds and the bees. Meanwhile it would be pulling reclaimed wood out of the waste stream, or at the very least putting income into the hands of sustainable wood suppliers and intrepid CNC Do-it-yourselfers.

And it would be great for me. I’d earn an honest keep, would reinvest the surplus funds to refine the product, design a cool stand to create a freestanding option, develop a manufacturing process, and get lots of footage for outreach and for the Kickstarter campaign I’ve been contemplating. It would bring more exposure for the concept and for Vertecology and new clients to my doorstep.

Great for the community, good for the client, good for the earth, good for the creator; everybody wins. Why then wouldn’t it happen?

Well then last week, the deflated message landed in my voicemail while I worked away at my new full-time “day job” that’s quietly morphing into a part-time job… “The grant is almost gone. We can’t afford the Hanging Garden.” No new blossoming, mulching, carbon-sinking, food-making garden space. No curious visitors. No new inspiration, no new potential students, no new soil, no new biodiversity, no more fertility in the neighborhood, the wood ends up in the garbage after all and the FSC suppliers are a little more broke, no design innovations, no footage and I’m sitting on my hands worried once again about making rent.

We have all been taught that this is the way of things, that there is no other way the world could work. Well-meaning peers remind me of what I already know: that this sort of thing happens all the time. It is to be expected. The best thing is to just plan on it happening some big percentage of the time and move on to the next sale.

But as I said before, opportunities to rise to the occasion often come in strange packages.

Perhaps a year or so ago, newly armed with a Permaculture Design Certificate and ready to kick some ass, I spent the $3 I had in my pocket and a good solid day at a coffee shop exploring how I could launch what is now emerging as Vertecology. It was just an idea then, and in there somewhere was the beginning of a notion of how to break through the bottleneck inherent in the economic monoculture. The point was to be able to do the “good” kind of work, the “work to be done” as Starhawk once called it, the kind of work that liberates the 100% forever, not just the 1% for a little while, that restores the earth’s plenty, the work that continues to yield real ecological, social and technical and artistic “profit” generations after our hands have stopped moving and creates time… The point was to liberate myself and others to be able to do this work and yet share the in the bounty our current economy at least appears to promise.

So here’s the idea, now being called into the game. I was already planning a Kickstarter campaign as I mentioned earlier. A little one, maybe a thousand dollars or so, to work out the refinements, manufacturing and delivery of the Hanging Garden enough to say I can deliver to expectant buyers in a timely fashion. The plan was to start it after the Venice Community Garden install. I have begun already to compose letters to a couple of very green and like-minded companies for sponsorship. Maybe you’ve heard of the LifeBox? Think receiving your Hanging Garden in a LifeBox, then cutting up the box, throwing the shreds in the hanging planters, water and voila!

Then it struck me like a lightning bolt; roll the Venice Community Garden design/build into the Kickstarter! We’re brought together by our common vision and desire and now a wider community can decide if the project is worth it. The amount of money to be raised wouldn’t need to change and the prototypes would get a home right away. The outreach can be to thousands instead of hundreds of people, and all those stakeholders in the success of the Community Garden, Vertecology, Venice, Los Angeles, even in the ideas of permaculture, regenerative economics and community gardening themselves, can vote with their dollars. To the extent they have the dollars… Well, the idea in this first stage of implementation isn’t completely bottleneck-proof, more on how to solve that in a minute. Just saying that for now the Kickstarter idea is enough to get this ball rolling.

And so what about the second stage of the idea, the second stage which could make our unfolding un-bottleneck-able? Truthfully, it makes sense to test the first stage first, but here goes a little preview, inspired by the new openness and willingness of all you Occupiers to hear. I just can’t help myself. The future, say the day after next Tuesday…

Take out the word “Kickstarter campaign” and replace it with “IOU.” As in: the Community Garden issues an IOU, interest-free, backed by its ability and willingness to redeem the IOU for equivalent value to anyone who hands it back to them. To the degree that the community trusts the Garden to redeem the IOU on request, we accept it as money. I can use it at restaurants, in parking meters, at the car wash, to pay rent (which is a lot lower with the loan interest off the landlord’s back). I can issue IOU’s too but of course the same terms apply. Maybe I’ll call mine Buckys after Bucky Fuller. You can issue too. What would you call yours? Einsteins maybe? After all, the power to issue and the power to choose what you accept or decline is a fundamental human right, just like air, and there wasn’t even anything that says it was illegal, even in long ago 2008 (I’m just sayin’). But little Jedis, with great freedom comes great responsibility. If I’m trustworthy with my IOUs and you charge interest for “loans” and play games like cooking the books while trying to force everybody to accept only your IOUs, karma’s going to getcha, just like our bankster friends. My Buckys will soon be worth four of your Einsteins and good luck dear sir!

Anyway back to the present with the caveat that this future is already being worked on, read about it in Thomas Greco’s Money: Understanding and Creating Alternatives to Legal Tender, and ‘nuff said. Once I have enough experience, partnership and clout with Vertecology, I’ll be investing Vertecology’s resources into helping to make that last paragraph a living reality. Then there won’t be any trouble getting Hanging Gardens out there till something truly better for everyone makes itself known. For now, forget I said anything. Scratch it from memory.

Norma at the VCG is already excited about the Kickstarter idea and I’ll be launching in the next month or two, as we get the materials organized. The Venice Community Garden will get its Hanging Garden after all. Stay tuned & thanks for your continued interest!

Sugar Shack’s Rain Collection System Captures Beautifully in its First Rain

Well it’s always a little nerve-wracking when finally cutting the ribbon on a new project, no matter how much you’ve tested it. Even though I dropped a few 15 gallon buckets of water down the chute from the Sugar Shack’s rooftop to test the rainwater catchment system after I finished the build, and even though I added an extra bead of silicone caulk to those pesky corner-rounding spots in the rain gutters, there was still that nagging sense of… what if?

No more. We got our first storm in the neighborhood yesterday, a few solid hours of rain in the afternoon, and I couldn’t wait until the sun popped out to find out how the system was doing. The inflows were dropping a heavy flow into the barrels and doing just fine. After the rains had passed our four barrels were about half full, about 110 gallons caught.

Now I can  get a more accurate idea of how much water we can catch: I went to www.noaa.gov and typed in our zip code. The nearest weather station to us is on the USC campus, which is a few miles away, but it’s close enough to give an idea of how much rain we got. The USC station got about 0.16 inches of rain during the storm; an average LA rain year of 15 inches would fill our barrels almost 50 times, though most of that will occur over the course of an entire six month “wet” season, and anything over 0.3 inches at once will be lost to the overflow.

It’s a good thing then that I actually improved the garden drainage by shunting the overflow directly into the drainage pipe, and there’s ample opportunity (and barrels around the garden) to do a rooftop catchment as well.

A Rainwater Collection System for the Sugar Shack

Here are some shots of the gravity-fed rainwater catchment system I just finished for the Sugar Shack, the 14-person urban intentional community in the heart of Mid-City LA where I have been residing the last few months. It has been an incredible learning and growing experience, one that has begun to fulfill my vision of “permaculture structures” that are amazingly beautiful and amazingly multi-functional, and I hope this system will serve the community for decades to come.

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This is a 220-gallon system composed of the four 55-gallon drums you see in the photos, all acquired by one of our housemates from a TV shoot he worked on a couple of months ago. The system has two collection sources, on the left a roughly 80 square foot sloped second-story roof area, and on the right the roof deck over the community room. On that side I think we’ll get about 200 square feet of collection area, based on how the roof up there slopes.

In an average LA rain-year, with about 15 inches of rain and about 85% efficiency in the system (we’ll lose a bit of water to some gutter leaks even as I’ve improved them extensively), we can potentially catch up to 2,200 gallons, assuming we cycle the water into the garden between the usual run of winter and spring storms.

For every foot you raise the rain barrels, you get about one pound per square inch (PSI) of pressure, so I built the table to raise the barrels about 2-1/2 feet off the ground and stabilized it with concrete pier footings on a bed of sand. When the barrels are full, the added height will yield a pressure of about 5 or 6 PSI, enough to run a hose around the garden (and maybe better than our showers, I might add :)). Plus a double coat of eco-friendly Penofin oil finish on reclaimed wood otherwise headed for the garbage is amazingly beautiful, waterproof, easily restored, and will last for years.

Learning about rain catchment in the last couple of years, I was compelled to take the project on as a gift to the community; like any well-designed permaculture system, a good rainwater catchment system as part of a larger ecological strategy can provide multiple “yields” or benefits to residents and communities. Some of these are hidden until you look a little closer at a good system and what it can do. Catching water for garden use is actually just the beginning, and more than it seems to be at first glance. A well-functioning system

  • Keeps local moisture local. Instead of shunting rainwater uselessly and often toxically down storm drains, captured rainwater cycles through your garden, then percolates through the soil and back down to the local aquifer or evaporates from the leaves of plants. Either way the water gets naturally cleaned in the process and eventually becomes available to plants, animals and people in the watershed to use again either via rain or wells. Even just putting filters made of old window-screen on the inflow points of your system can cleanse the inflow more thoroughly than many municipalities now do, even if some of that inflow just ends up in storm drains as excess.
  • Converts dollars into ecosystems – the system costs some money to build, but then increases your self reliance as opposed to dollar reliance. You spend a little money only once, rather than continuously for costly municipal water unsustainably imported from somewhere else, and the captured water supports your food forest.
  • Can save lives in a disaster. In LA, like much of the world, fires are a fact of life and when the municipal water supply is taxed, 220 gallons to wet the ground can mean the house is still standing. Even non-potable water can be boiled and drank in an emergency as well; 220 gallons for the Sugar Shack can mean a 6-day emergency supply for the house’s 14 residents.
  • Can take the pressure off aging infrastructure. In the US, much of our water infrastructure is approaching the limits of its design-life. Considering the condition of our institutions and economic system here in the US, we can’t count on these systems getting redesigned or even restored to original functionality any time soon. “We the people” must now shoulder the burden of building a decentralized infrastructure, but this can be an opportunity.
  • Can include structural elements that can become trellising for vertical gardens. The truss beams on our table will make nice supports for tomato vines.
  • Can act as thermal mass, dampening temperature fluctuations around the garden and even part of the house.
  • And can give you more water than you might expect. Depending on your location, you can perhaps expect to see your system fill several times during a season. The system I built here in Los Angeles for instance is a 220 gallon system; during an average winter, I expect that it will get filled three or four times based on the square footage. To see how much water you can collect from a system, click here.

In the near term, I’ll be posting some video on Youtube showcasing the Sugar Shack system and releasing a short e-book on how to build your own rainwater catchment system. For now, enjoy the photos while your party is reached and stay tuned.

Oh, and let it rain, let it rain, let it rain!

Lighting Up! – The Geo Rocks LA Decompression

Last weekend the Geo made its first public appearance with sequenced LED lighting by Lumen Nature. The Los Angeles Decom crowd was pretty amazed, and kudos to Tom Bolton for dropping something like 100 hours building the lighting system on his living room floor. The pics speak for themselves and give a little sense of how bright the future just might be for these super-bright, programmable, endlessly interactive, and yet very low wattage little diodes.

This is also Vertecology’s first real foray into the festival circuit and is giving me a glimpse of just how far this game can go. To say that the crowd was amazed was an understatement, considering that at every instant throughout the night there were at least 3 cameras on the structure and we literally had to guard it all night to prevent climbers from damaging the wiring (we’re working on how to protect the wiring now, so that y’all can climb away!).

This has indeed been quite the experiment, and I am now developing design proposals for next year blending permaculture principles and the best of DIY, open-source tech, to educate, inspire and incite the world that is possible.

And I want to give a shout out to Athena Demos, friend and LA Burning Man/Decom organizer – I just sent you a text message asking where we could drop the geo for some good photos, and the rest was history. Keep it up girl!

Here’s the link to the music score as well, a beautiful remix of Handel’s Xerxes -Largo by Kowalski & Minimalist. Gorgeous.

To have the Geo at your event, have a look at the Modular Portable Structures page. Thanks!

California Knows How to Garden, Down in Venice and Good Ol’ Watts…

You won’t hear about it on the evening news. The papers might cover it on page 30 of section Q, but a groundswell is underway in LA that could become one of the cornerstones of an emerging “Pangaea food forest,” a meta-solution and rebirth of the commons I’ve shouted out about a few times on this blog.

Here are a few shots from recent community garden builds at LA public schools, one on the Westside, the other on the Eastside.

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The Westside: Coeur D’Alene Elementary in Venice, there’s me working alongside around 200 volunteers coordinated by Norma Bonilla and Frances DellaVecchia one recent Saturday. Thanks also to Creative Artists Agency, 44 rocking YouthBuilders, Robert Redecker, Francisco Castillo, Boho Chic and a whole lot of others.

The Eastside: George Washington Carver Middle School in Watts, where there’s been a roughly weekly happening coordinated by Athena Demos of Burners Without Borders and Clarency “Lucky” Luckey of LAUSD, thanks also to WorldWorks volunteers and a whole lot of others.

Like any decent permaculture move, we get multiple benefits from just the simple (though not easy) act of getting a school garden started. Free organic food for the locals. Oil-dependence and money-dependence giving way to economic, political and spiritual self-reliance. Neighbors working side by side, getting exercise and sun while connecting with each other. Kids learning the nature of nature from nature itself, getting a deeper reflection of who they are and what’s possible. Inter-generational cooperation, restoration of the “hoop of generations.” Healthy ecosystems bringing biodiversity to the neighborhood. Authentic public space where minds meet and create the unpredictable, sparking true cultural evolution and resilience. And on and on it goes

So… let the games begin. We’ve got the baddest gardens. No, we do, Westsiyeeed…! Let it rip! Vertecology’s gonna get nasty and play both sides.

For more on the Carver Garden and how to get involved if you’re in the LA area: www.laburningman.com, click on the “Carver Garden” menu link.

For more on the Coeur D’Alene Garden and how to get involved: contact Norma, the Garden teacher at norma@earthbreaths.com.