Ten years ago, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates were just two guys living in the country, running a mail-order seed company while trying (and failing) to meet women. "We weren’t meeting women in the country," says Toesnmeier, "So we decided to find a place in the city."
They settled on a duplex in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was an unlikely site for a couple of bachelor plant geeks: an industrial lot on just 1/10 of an acre, with soil Toensmeier describes as "terrible"—filled with rebar, bricks, and lead. But settle they did, transforming the yard into Food Forest Farm: a miniature ecosystem containing some 200 species of useful perennial plants.
They met women, too, within three years, who have stuck around longer than many of the plants. "We guarantee that anybody who does this kind of gardening will attract a mate, as well, within three years," deadpans Toensmeier. "Like we did."
"Like we did" meaning permaculture: a strategy that eschews sprays in favor of striving to create a self-contained ecosystem.
It’s a goal neither they nor any gardeners have reached yet, but striving for it doesn’t require a botany degree or 200 species, either. All you need is a yard. Next, Toensmeier suggests: "Decide what you want to grow and do some ecosystem goal setting." Then turn to the land itself: Where is it shady? Where is it sunny? Is the soil poisonous?
These different conditions will yield different choices (for more detail, he suggests picking up Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemmingway), but in the case of Food Forest Farm, they started with cardboard. They used a technique called "sheet mulch" or "lasagna gardening" covering the lawn in the stuff, followed by a layer of organic waste materials like straw, leaves and wood chips. "Basically, build a compost pile right on the ground, six to twelve inches right on top of the cardboard," says Toensmeier. "That can convert a lawn to a garden overnight."
Once the soil is ready, Toensmeier recommends berries. "They make food within two weeks or so, they’re easy to grow, they’re easy to move if you put them in the wrong place, and they’re easy to get your hands on," he says. "As opposed to growing your own mushrooms, which can weird people out."
After the berries, he recommends white clover, to provide both shade and nitrogen. Next, you might try Queen Anne’s Lace or sunflowers, to attract "beneficial insects" like ladybugs and tiny wasps that help control pests.
Of course, none of this is foolproof. In Toensmeier’s yard, a similar mix of plants ended up creating too much shade for the berries. "Which is fine," he says. "They’re easy to move."
Permaculture is an iterative process, requiring constant tweaking and shuffling as species thrive or fail. But it’s labor with the intention of reducing labor. "The ever-receding goal on the horizon being that harvest is the only form of management," he says. "Which we have failed to achieve in every part of the garden so far. But we’re getting closer and closer all the time."