Kickstart the North Memphis Farmers Collective

Of the many vegetable gardens that sprung up in the wake of the 2008 econopocalypse, more than a few touched off neighborhood aesthetic disputes and visits from code enforcement officials. One such tempest involved Adam Guerrero, a high school math teacher in Memphis whose garden got him in trouble in 2011 (and whose cat allegedly damaged a neighbor’s 1991 Cadillac Seville–the horrors!).

As often is the case in these stories, there’s a happy ending. What began in one yard has grown into an urban farming movement transforming vacant lots into sources of food and jobs. There’s a Kickstarter:

The City of Memphis faces many challenges. Among them are blighted vacant lots, food deserts, health challenges, and unemployment. North Memphis Farmer’s Collective seeks to take these challenges and turn them into solutions by using what others see as waste as the fertilizer for vacant lots, thereby turning decay and blight into blossoming Urban Farms.

As we expand, we need the use of a tractor, chainsaw, wood chipper, other heavy equipment and garden tools to scale our operation and offer more naturally grown healthy local produce.  Currently our Collective grows fruits and vegetables by hand on over four acres of vacant property.

They have just seven days to go towards their $10,000 goal.

Bees will love your Coyote Brush Hedge


Image: Wikipedia (our picture of the NHM’s coyote brush hedge came out blurry–which really is a shame because they were good looking hedges. You wouldn’t guess it from this pic).

One of a series of posts inspired by our recent tour of the new gardens at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

Baccharis pilularis, called coyote brush, or chaparral bloom, is an unassuming Western native plant with a secret super-power: native and non-native pollinators love, love, love! its tiny little flowers. If you want to lavish affection and care on the pollinators in your garden, plant one of these babies, if you can. It really is one of the best plants for the purpose. (For more info on coyote brush, here’s a nice post at the Curbstone Valley Farm blog with lots of pictures. And here’s its page at Theodore Payne Foundation.)

What I didn’t realize until our recent garden tour at the Natural History Museum, though, is that coyote brush makes a perfectly lovely hedge if it’s pruned up right. I’d never even thought about it. Most of the talk one hears about coyote brush is that it is sort of ho-hum in appearance but can be used to provide a background to the more showy native plants. I never even thought about how its small, sturdy, bright green, evergreen leaves make it a perfect hedge plant.

So, the lesson here is that you can have a more formal/tidy/traditional garden, and still serve the pollinators– as long as you lay off the clippers for a couple of months in the summer and let the hedge bloom. No excuses now!

For those of you in other parts of the country, can you name a good hedge bush that pollinators like for your area? And be sure to name your area, so folks around you can use the information.

On that theme, here’s a link to beneficial plant lists, organized by region, created by the Xerces Society.

Village Homes: A Model for Sustainable Suburbs

I’ve recently discovered a truly inspiring housing development in Davis, California. This is not new news–it was built in the 1980’s, but it’s new to me and worth sharing.

Village Homes is the brainchild of architect/developer Michael Corbett. It encompasses 70 acres and 200-some homes. It has all the space and privacy that brings people to the suburbs, but it’s designed with considerable intelligence. For instance, the homes are all designed according to passive solar principles, so their heating and cooling bills are considerably reduced. Some have even have green roofs. But more interesting is the landscaping, the massive network of bike/walking paths and the creative use of public space.

The entire development is essentially a big food forest. All of the rainfall is captured and instead of being directed to the sewer system, it runs to swales between the houses, to nourish fruit trees. The resulting space is a lush park full of edibles, from exotic jujubee trees to grapes to almonds. Residents can stroll around in the abundant shade and pick fruit at will. Only the almond crop is off limits–the almond crop is harvested every year and sold to support the the gardening services for the entire development. There are also community garden space available for those who wish to raise more food crops than their own yard space allows.  The lush growth coupled with the reduced asphalt surfaces makes the whole development 10 degrees Farhenhiet cooler in the summer than the surrounding suburbs.

I could go on and on, but perhaps the best way to get a feel for it is to watch the 10 minute video above. It’s hosted by Permaculture guru Bill Mollison, who’s a big fan of the development.  It’s well worth the time to watch it all the way through.

Also, here’s a short paper on the development, which gives all the pertinent facts, friendly for quick skimming: Village Homes: A model solar community proves its worth.

And finally, here is a video someone took during a site tour given by Michael Corbett, the developer. It doesn’t have as many visuals as Mollison’s video, but has some good insider tidbits in it, as well as discussion of some of the other features of the development, like office rental space and day care.

LA’s Parkway Garden Dilemma: Not Fixed Yet

parkway garden on Sunset Blvd.

A parkway vegetable garden on Sunset Blvd..

The City of Los Angeles’ crackdown on parkway vegetable gardens made international news thanks to an article by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez was reporting on two parkway gardens that were issued citations by the LA Bureau of Street Services. This crackdown came two years after Ron Finley was busted for being a vegetable gardening outlaw.

Over the weekend I started seeing articles, Tweets and Facebook posts (some of which I’m guilty of spreading) stating that the city council had approved parkway vegetable gardens. This is not technically correct. The city council has just suspended enforcement of parkway planting regulations while they await a report from the Bureau of Street Services.

While I suspect the council will ultimately allow vegetables in the parkway (it’s political suicide to oppose healthy food, after all), we also have to remember that the devil is in the details. I’m willing to bet that the Bureau of Street Services will allow “edible” plants but leave in place their short list of ornamentals as well as their requirement to keep those ornamentals mowed unless you apply for an expensive permit.

While I’m all for vegetable in the parkway, I also think that the city should be encouraging the planting of native and Mediterranean plants. My advice for the Bureau of Street Services for their new regulations:

  • Consult the community: activists, landscape architects, non-profits and individuals like Ron Finley. If you had done this the last time we would not be wasting time and money to re-craft the parkway regulations.
  • Throw out your plant lists. There are a lot of species of plants on the planet! Why can I plant Achillea millefolium but not Danthonia californica?
  • Avoiding plant lists also goes for using the word “edible.” Most “weeds” are edible. Marijuana is edible (but would probably not last long in the parkway!). A lot of plants are “edible” but not necessarily something you’d want to eat. If a neighbor complains about my set of parkway plants can I just make a salad to prove they are “edible?”
  • Allow growing plants over 4-inches without permit fees. If plants are not allowed to go to flower they have little benefit to pollinating insects and birds. And we don’t need more lawn mowers and leaf blowers in this city.
  • Get rid of the permit fees. Why should someone be charged to do the right thing, i.e. plant an attractive set of either edible or drought tolerant plants? There’s currently no permit fee to plant a water hungry lawn that needs to be “mowed and blowed” every week.

It gets down to the simple fact that a human being has to decide what is a “nuisance.” Untended Bermuda grass with a couch and busted up bookcase: that’s a nuisance. But you can’t specify in the municipal code what a garden should look like. All you can do is offer suggestions. To that end I would suggest that the Bureau of Street Services collaborate with the community to come up with a web site showing some good examples. But, again, let’s back off on the lists and permit fees.

And a suggestion for those of us on the receiving end of these future regulations. We have to pay careful attention to what they are crafting. If we don’t like it we need to press back. If the city council goes ahead with another set of ridiculous guidelines we need to actively ignore them. That is, if they let us plant edibles but not drought tolerant plants without a permit, we need to plant a lot of drought tolerant plants until they realize that our neighborhoods belong to us, not the paper pushers in City Hall.

And if you haven’t seen Finley’s Ted Talk yet, please get with the program.