Blog Archives

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!

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!

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.

The First Residential Install

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Well, I spent the last week and a half building a pergola for Vertecology’s first private residential client. This was an exciting milestone personally and for Vertecology, the name inspired by “Vertical Ecology,” though going with the “e” instead of the “i,” has turned out to be quite the creative inspiration.

Through Vertecology I am committed to the permaculture principles and one of those principles is “stacking functions.” That means making each element you design produce lots of abundance for the whole – the ecosystem, people, the community and the planet. For example a tree provides shade, habitat for lots of plants and animals, mulch and building materials. It fertilizes and stabilizes the soil, raises the water table, creates diverse microclimates supporting biodiversity, and keeps moisture in the locale (the trees are responsible for as much as 50% of the rain that forest regions receive).

A pergola or patio structure like this if well designed, placed, and planted can aspire to that level of multi-dimensional function. At the very least it can do lots more than look pretty, and that said, I still look forward to photos of this one in a year or two.

First and foremost in the client’s mind was beauty, and shade and enjoyment in the warm months. The lady of the house is looking forward to warm-weather entertaining.

And yet this pergola will mean more than 300 new square feet of growable surface area for oxygen-producing, flowering vines. Structures like this and some much wilder ones in the works are one way to make small urban and suburban yards, nooks and crannies unique, compelling and ecologically productive.

Covered with vines that leaf in the warm months, this pergola will shade the west (back) wall of the house in the afternoon, helping to keep the house cool with less air conditioning. In winter the afternoon sun will shine through much thinner foliage from a lower angle, warming the rear wall and therefore the rest of the house with less electric heating.

The client is considering a flowering, climbing vine such as wisteria which while inedible to people, is a big attractor for moths and butterflies who will pollinate gardens throughout the neighborhood as they make rounds and attract birds as they do. The birds will control bug populations, fertilize a bit of ground themselves and possibly bring seeds from other locales.

And finally, this project was built entirely with Forest Stewardship Council certified wood from Anawalt Lumber. While I prefer to work with reclaimed wood, the finer detailing and longer dimensional lengths desired here meant taking another approach. So the pergola also helped finance a supply chain that takes ecology into account and even me a happy ending after an hour on hold: asking the local Home Depot buyer if they carry FSC lumber, he responded “No… but, you’re the second to ask this month, I’m going to make some phone calls to make it happen.”

Build it and they will come…

Ants, Grasshoppers, a New Kind of Economy and the Vision Behind Vertecology

Good morning beautiful world. Here’s a bit of a story for you. There was once an ant and a grasshopper. The grasshopper hopped about all summer, enjoying the fruits and the grains all around him. He looked down on the ant, who spent her summer gathering and harvesting for the winter, industriously taking the bounty into the ground every day… working away.

The grasshopper said to the ant, why do you worry so?

The ant, not understanding the meaning of the word “worry,” asked, what do you mean? I’m just ensuring that our people have plenty through the winter when it comes, that we have abundance then, as now.

The grasshopper replied, “Winter? What is winter?”

This is perhaps the tale now unfolding in America, and not in the way you would expect. We’re now hearing stories in the media about the pending default on US debt, and yes, it is indeed pending. It may not happen on August 2, maybe an emergency deal will be struck, maybe again and again until 2012 or 2015 or even 2040 but it is coming, and through no fault of our own.

It is not a matter of our stupidity, or policies favoring labor or management, or our overspending or our failure to “create jobs.” In fact it is an old story, one that some people might have seen as stupidly and painfully obvious sometime around 1600 AD, when Europeans started coming in droves to the so called new world.

So what is winter then? Do we mean here the inevitable collapse of civilization? Not exactly. There are seasons to all things; many cultures honor and acknowledge this. If you look at a human life, or the emergence of an idea, or the growth of a tree, you could say that there are seasons, periods of progression, each with its own rules, its own appropriate behaviors.

Life on our planet has evolved to work with the seasons, and more than merely to survive them. The evolutionary impulse driving each and every one of us is infinitely opportunistic. It goes beyond “surviving” and makes opportunity of seasons, uses them to maximize the effect of its own energies. The bear hibernates in winter so he can be virile in the spring and strong in the summer. Life uses the seasons as springboards, the way a surfer uses a wave.

So then, perhaps winter is not a thing to be afraid of, though it is a thing to be prepared for. And just like the waves, if we learn to use them, we can capture their energy and catapult ourselves to shore. If we’re impatient with them, they crush us and at the end of being crushed we still have to figure out how to get to shore.

If we try to force a tree to grow out of season we kill it. If we force a child to fill bubbles in a form to make him economically competitive before he can read, we stunt him. If we try to force a truly transformative innovation into a money machine for ourselves or our investors before the next quarterly report, we kill its spirit and lose the true opportunity.

In fact it could be said that the great innovations of our civilization have happened not because of our monetary system but despite it, but that is another story for another day, for now just google the internet and after that, google “Google.”

For now, imagine the street where you live. Imagine it, get into the feel of it. Listen to the sounds, smell the smells, imagine the time of day.

Now imagine there’s just one thing different. Imagine that within a five-minute walk of where you’re standing, in any direction, there is a completely organic forest of food. There are towering trees dripping with fruit. Apples, pears, avocadoes. Maybe there are greenhouses filled with tropical plenty. Beneath the trees are shrubs full of berries and vines growing up around the trees. In the shadows and clearings there are vegetables growing up in plentiful beds.

There are vertical walls and towers bursting with fruiting vines. Perhaps there are pathways and running streams and fish filed ponds stoked with waters captured in the recent rains.

Perhaps there are chickens or goats roaming about in open pens; the chickens are pecking the worms out of the ground before they can become flies. The goats are clearing the brush and dead grass before they can choke the veggies or burn. There are however no fences for keeping people out.

And somebody in the neighborhood has figured out how to make cheese of the goat milk. On the way across their land every once in awhile, you stop by the artful little stand they’ve set up, where the cheese is offered in exchange for a friendly “hello.” They probably demand you eat their cheese. Saying no, well, it just isn’t polite.

The forests near your street have been worked into the available land. Maybe it’s a narrow strip running across the front of every front yard. Or maybe it is a big central park or squeezed between apartment blocks, rising vertically. Maybe it was organized through long, arduous meetings at City Hall, or maybe it was just a bunch of neighbors jumping in on a good idea.

Or maybe it was started some years back when the local hippies just kept insisting on painting up the intersection and seed-bombing the vacant lot the next block over. Maybe it was legislated at the state or even the national level. Maybe you volunteered, maybe you figured out how you could get paid to help, and getting all the exercise you needed you realized you could quit the gym and save the $50 a month. Maybe it was some combination of all the above.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter how it was started.

Now, this is what it looks like. For the most part the food forest now takes care of itself with just a bit of tending, nudging and guiding here and there. The bees pollinate the citrus, and maybe kids from the local school tend some aspects of it, learning invaluable lessons about ecology and natural law and the usefulness of seasons they could never learn in a flurry of classrooms, building forts in the trees after hours and so getting a bit of algebra, geometry, phys-ed and leadership for free before their time, and on and on it goes.

The fruit of the trees and the vegetables and all the bounty is free.

In fact you have to enjoy it. If you don’t there just aren’t enough birds to eat all the fruit, they can only saturate the food forests on other blocks and in other towns with so many seeds, and rotting piles of fruit attract rodents. Of course rodents aren’t so much of a problem since they keep the cats and hawks coming around and the cats and hawks bring more nutrients to the soils, and with the humans offering so much plenty, they’re actually beginning to respond to our training, or maybe guidance is the better word.

Shit here, not here.

So this is what your street looks like. Now expand your view; the whole town looks like this. Zoom out in the Google Map of your mind, and notice that it looks like this for fifty miles in every direction. In fact the whole state looks like this!

The big cities jammed with trellises and wild structures for increasing growable surface areas (some of the designs were pioneered by Vertecology 😉 😉 Yee-haw!) The small towns too and the vast rural areas, each in their own way, are bursting appropriate to how they use the land.

And so the songbirds, nature’s agents of plant biodiversity spread seeds from town to town. A drought or a fire or an invasive species here or there does wreak havoc occasionally, but it looks like this everywhere, and with nature’s vast diversity and reserves and people’s vast resourcefulness, the healing happens quickly.

With your street looking like this, how important is the US default to you? How much does it affect you? You know you will always have food, and will always have neighbors. Can anyone control you now? Can anyone force you into a job you hate, that you know doesn’t make a difference? How much do the battles in Washington effect you now? How much control do they have over your future? How much does your home value in next year’s dollars matter?

If you lost your job, would you starve? And if you knew that starvation was off the table, forever, for you, for your family; if even homelessness meant just ending up in another bountiful neighborhood like yours where the neighbors took you in till you earned your keep, how much would you fear it?

What would you do, that you are now afraid of doing?

And now the logical conclusion of this vision. If it looks like this everywhere, then starvation and homelessness are off the table for everyone. Everywhere. Everywhere where everyone has prepared, like the ant, for winter.

How much longer are the neighbors on your street going to slam their doors to you, staring bug-eyed at the TV because they have to recover from yet another day of life wasted at the office, hoping they can someday sell the house for a cool mil and get the hell out of here?

How demanding is the doctor that you pay up front when you’ve broken your leg, when he knows he will never starve? How much longer is the whistleblower in the oil company going to hold his tongue? How long are the foot-soldiers of that oil company going to keep enforcing the internal memos to crush the guy on your block who’s figured out how to power his car on the rainwater he’s catching on his roof or the lettuce he’s gathering down the street?

That’s right, game over for the conspiracy in the sky.

Free energy and open source medicine are already at hand. And there are people among us who are figuring out how to build powertools in their garages with CNC lathes made of scrap. They too can walk away from the crappy job at the parking violations bureau where they’ve been trained to make you miserable. With easing financial pressures, they can begin to become fathers to their children again and show junior how it’s done.

This is the power of preparing for winter. This is the promise of permaculture.

And to those of you who say this is a wild fantasy, consider this: The kind of food/energy forest imagined here is just an ecosystem like nature builds anyway. This is how the natural world already works, we just haven’t been paying attention. If it didn’t work this way there would have been no human beings. We’ve just been too worried about the stock market and welfare-state socialism to notice, and while we’ve been distracted, some of those “kooks” out there have been proving food forestry is possible.

When we find complex alien life on other worlds, we will find in every case that it was born and now participates in some kind of ecosystem, in every case anywhere in the universe, period. And even with human beings in the mix, there is evidence it really looked this way on some parts of the planet for very long periods of time before the arrival of armed colonists who brought plagues from their unsanitary cities and told the locals to forget their languages.

There is a reason why the English named so many places something-“field” in the lands the Haudenosaunee left behind. Deerfield, Bloomfield, Fairfield, Oakfield, Redfield. There is evidence that the Amazon was, shall we say, enhanced by human hands over tens of thousands of years.

It starts, quite literally, with planting a seed and giving it good environment for growing. In a field, in a windowbox, in a planter in a treehouse, on a rooftop. If this vision speaks to you, do it now. Start saving seeds, start the food forest wherever you can, however you know how. If you’re the social kind, involve the neighbors.

If you’re the reading kind, pick up Gaia’s Garden or One-Straw Revolution, or one of the other countless books starting to hit the shelves. Look up Bill Mollison, check out videos on Youtube. Don’t stop because others don’t start. If you’re the political kind, go to City Hall.

And for God’s own sake lets not make a dogma of it; it’s more like science even when it gets spiritual. Experiment, test, see what works and what doesn’t and share the results. This is our world, not the Illuminati’s and it’s ours because we were born here. Of course that means it’s everyone else’s too – well, okay, even those pesky Illuminati – but they have to get along with the rest of us, and like Bucky Fuller said, we’re the crew of this spaceship so sooner or later we’re going to have to learn to fly it straight.

We’re even finding that organic agriculture can diffuse the population bomb.

Perhaps winter in this case, in the evolution of human culture, is that season brought about by a particular money-fearing culture going against the natural order of things and getting away with it for awhile, sort of like the grasshopper in summer. Going against a natural order that does not bind us, as we have imagined in our tortured nightmares, but one that is designed to offer and seize endless opportunity, and after winter, there is always spring.

And this vision by the way, is the reason for Vertecology. I am more of an architect and hammer-swinging builder than a farmer or horticulturist myself, but I am learning that there’s power in the crossover, what permies like to call the “edge condition,” and there is endless opportunity for radical innovation in design and architecture as those vocations take their rightful, meaningful and essential place in a permaculture economy.

I hope to spend many days of the coming years creating such innovations, to share many of them with you on these pages here, and to use a business model that helps lead us from constraint and secrecy to a world that says to you DIYers out there in big capital letters, “GOD DAMN IT, RUN WITH IT AND DON’T WORRY IF YOU LOSE YOUR PANTS ON THE WAY!” In the meantime, maybe some of you will become clients, and no matter what, thank you again for taking the time to read what’s here.

Let’s do our best to make this the world of our dreams, and we don’t have to blow up the Earth to get Heaven too. Nature really is on our side, even if sometimes, she’s a brutal coach indeed.