Suburban Permaculture with Janet Barocco and Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk, as we get to see in the video at bottom. Peak Moment host, Janaia Donaldson, visits Heinberg and his partner Janet Barocco in their own venture in sustainable living in suburban Santa Rosa, California.

When they bought the place in 2001 it was a complete disaster, Richard tells Janaia, but it had advantages that drew them to it, such as being within walking distance of where they worked and shopping areas, having a large ¼ acre block and the house itself being small enough that they felt capable of remodelling and caring for it.

Permaculture Student


The ‘before’ shot

Richard and Janet take Janaia on a tour of their garden, sharing stories of how things evolved along the way. The first thing they planted in the backyard was the culinary herb garden, close to the kitchen for easy access. Then, following permaculture philosophy, they also planted a kitchen garden in their Zone 1, which consisted of veggie beds and dwarf fruit trees. Janet explains her choice of flowering perennials at the edges of the garden beds, as attractants for pollinators such as bees. We get to see lots of lush veggies growing, as well as some of the 25 fruit and nut trees they have planted.


The ‘after’ shot

Janet speaks of her increasing enthusiasm for container gardening and some of the benefits, such as less pest problems, easy to control watering, space saving for people who don’t have much land available and the ability to locate the containers right where they can be most easily accessed.

One of the special areas is a little Zen Garden, designed purely for beauty and enjoyment, which was inspired by a trip to Japan. It’s a lovely spot to relax and contemplate! We also see a work in progress — an area prone to flooding destined to become a pool which will attract wildlife, including frogs. Close to that is a traditional Native American three sisters spiral garden, consisting of corn, beans and squash.

Richard introduces us to their low-tech hanging solar food dryer, which simply consists of shelves and mesh. It operates using the heat of the sun, which is ideal for their climate, he explains.

He also shows us the “magical technology” of their solar clothes dryer…. (In other words, a rack placed outside in the sun, from which clothes can be hung.) They also make use of the sun for cooking, with their two solar ovens, from which they often enjoy a tasty sun-kissed meal.

We also get a glimpse at their new ‘Energy Garden’ crops of sorghum (for ethanol) and sunflower (for bio-diesel), which is part of the ‘Energy Garden Project’ for the Post Carbon Institute, which involves quite a few people running this experiment. “It gives us experience in producing energy crops” Richard explains “and also we get to see just how much sorghum or sunflowers it will actually take to make our car go 20 feet…. Obviously it would take acres to move our cars for any substantial period of time, but we gotta start somewhere.”

After showing us one of their rain barrels, we head into their Garden Room, where the water from the barrel is pumped by an old fashioned hand pump to water seedlings in the room.

Richard explains that they had planned for the Garden Room to be a kind of solar greenhouse, having the dual functions of being a good place to grow their seedlings and as a heating source for the house. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite as well as they had hoped, as they couldn’t allow the room to get too hot or it would have killed their seedlings, and so didn’t really produce enough heat to fully heat the house.

Some of the other sustainable aspects of the property which are discussed are composting, vermiculture, insulation, solar ceiling tubes and their solar power set-up.

Down at the rear of the yard we discover a tiny building, which Richard and Janet call their ‘Summer Palace’. It is only 120 sq feet, and is made from as many ‘green’ materials as possible. A lot of the construction was done as a community type event, they tell us, and several of the features were actually designed by one of Richard’s students. What a delightful little place for reading or watching life in the garden!

I asked host, Janaia Donaldson, for her thoughts on her visit with Richard and Janet:

I really admire Richard Heinberg. He walks his talk. If anybody is aware of the potential effects of peak oil, it’s the author of Powerdown and The Party is Over. I was astounded at how much he and his wife Janet Barocco packed into their suburban lot: dozens of fruit and nut trees, various zone gardens and water features, as well as solar electric backup and rainwater catchment. Now to get the neighbors to join in….

Take the time to watch this episode and see how true pioneers in the peak oil/sustainability arena put their beliefs into practice.