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Urban Permaculture Transformation in Michigan

by Rachelle Yeaman and Michael Hoag.

Despite being the creators and beneficiaries of the Lillie House urban permaculture site, Mike Hoag and Kim Willis are still a little amazed by all the yields they’re reaping from their property. In four years of striving to harness the power of natural systems, they’ve gone from a scraggly, compacted lawn that took thankless hours to maintain, to a low-maintenance, edible paradise.

Permaculture Student

Lillie House now produces most of their fruits and vegetables, a good portion of their yearly calories, and a growing source of “right livelihood.” Not only is this all accomplished a stone’s throw from downtown Kalamazoo, but their abundance also takes less time to maintain than they used to spend mowing!

A small city in Southwest Michigan, Kalamazoo is weathering the economic boom and bust that has defined the Rust Belt over the last thirty years. Empty, collapsing factories still mar the North Side, and the Kalamazoo River is just now showing the first signs of recovery from the 2010 Enbridge oil spill. But this isn’t a Cinderella story.

Despite the setbacks and daily challenges, locals are proud of their city, and there are strong institutional and cultural supports that keep the area thriving and reinventing itself. The region is full of small- and medium-sized farms, entrepreneurs, artists, and university students.

The food culture is changing rapidly, with the farmers markets growing, natural grocers expanding, and young go-getters pulling together the resources to start up food trucks and restaurants. The area is also an unusual mix of liberal and conservative thought, with a strong self-reliance bent left over from the pioneer days and revitalized through recent tumult, and a constant exchange of ideas washing through the local colleges, pushing social change.

This is the city Mike and Kim chose to make their home, moving from Illinois in 2012. The repressed economy helped their budget stretch further, but they also came with a vision, a challenge for themselves and modern society. What if the home and life they made for themselves was so abundant that they didn’t feel the need to run away to someplace else for a vacation every year? What if revitalization lay just beyond their back door through all four seasons? What if they rejected an extraction-based life and focused their energies on learning how to regenerate self, land, and community?

Lillie House is a constant work-in-progress, but the first four years have yield fantastic results. Here’s the story of how it’s happened so far.

Here’s how the property looked the April that Mike and Kim moved in. The compacted, clay, urban hardpan was already so parched and dead that the first time they tried to dig, they almost couldn't get shovels into it.
Here’s how the property looked the April that Mike and Kim moved in. The compacted, clay, urban hardpan was already so parched and dead that the first time they tried to dig, they almost couldn’t get shovels into it.

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Faced with the depressing, wasteful mess that was their lawn, the first task was to figure out where to start. Geoff Lawton often says, “The best place to start is your edges,” and Bill Mollison used to advise his students to start right outside their door, so Mike and Kim split the difference and started a little of both.

We started a hedgerow planting based on one of our favorite foraging sites, an ecological model adapted to our own growing conditions and one that would thrive with little maintenance.

Mike

That got them started on their edges. Following Mollison’s advice,

We also started hardscaping a set of micro swales outside our door to catch water and get it back into our parched urban soils. We planted a fruit tree guild to start a collection of helpful perennial herbs and vegetables, and one small ‘guilded’ intensive garden bed off a design I heard Bill Mollison describe in a video.

Mike

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Each new planting was all about planning. Mike and Kim knew that they were building permanent infrastructure, so they focused on getting the hardscaping and plant communities right. The goal was to “catch and store” their energy in each project so that it would build on itself with little future input. It didn’t take long to prove one of permaculture’s most basic principles to themselves: new intensive garden beds mean annual upkeep and rebuilding, but once a perennial polyculture is established, it’s on auto-pilot from then on.

With each successful perennial bed, they could move on to the next project. For example, the Apricot/ Pear guild pictured above has required very little maintenance, almost no weeding, watering, fertilizing, or pest intervention since it was planted four years ago.

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Getting the water systems, swales, and paths right the first time felt like a long project, but now this early work saves countless hours of weeding, watering, and maintenance, all while also supporting their garden’s rapid establishment.

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They used rain barrel overflow ports to route water from 75% of the house’s roof into micro-swales that support young forest gardens.

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Once the basics were in place, Mike and Kim could expand the project each year. Planning was still key, and they focused on making sure to get the water supply right each time. This gave them the framework to create solid perennial plant communities that quickly became very low maintenance, allowing them to move on to the next project.

Following that strategy, they’ve been able to establish a tapestry of forest gardens, edible hedgerows, intensive gardens, an apple-tree espalier, the beginnings of a coppice and standard lot to heat their home, and many home sustainability projects.

The key really has been to get nature to do a lot of the work for us.

Mike

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4 years later, the transformation is stunning. Not only is their yard is filled with fruit, vegetables, and herbs, but the air is filled with birdsong and the whir of a wide range of insects. Anyone with an eye for ecological diversity can see the vast difference between Lillie House and any conventional city yard. “We walk out into our yard and see our food, our flowers, our medicine, and a place that never fails to make us happier,” says Mike.

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With a high-profile location on a busy road in the city, Lillie House is keen to demonstrate that it’s possible to have a beautiful yard and still grow a whole lot of useful plants. Visitors often say, “You have such a beautiful garden! Do you also grow any food?” It’s hard not to chuckle, because well over two hundred species of food flourish at the site!

Where the upfront work of hardscaping and water management was the secret to rapid growth, the secret to the beauty of Lillie House is the permanent ground-cover of perennial and self-sowing herbs, medicinal plants, and vegetables. These perennials maintain the beds, enrich the soil, and keep weeds at bay. And harvesting is never just an end result.

As Mike and Kim harvest, they make room for their favorite summer vegetable annuals, which are inter-planted into a diverse polyculture of companion plants. If there’s an even easier way, they haven’t found it yet.

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Each year, a few beds get used for annual plantings, while the others “rest” under their perennial plantings.

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But that’s only the front half of the property. While the front yard is the public face of Lillie House, the backyard is a wilder food forest, a personal retreat to commune with nature, right in the heart of the city.

"Boy, I wish I had time for a garden like this!"
“Boy, I wish I had time for a garden like this!”

That’s another comment they hear from visitors.

“We don’t have time NOT to!” Mike answers.

Tracking all of their time, inputs, expenses, and yields, they can say with confidence that gardening saves them both time and money. Achieving another permaculture goal, the Lillie House site produced a positive return on investment in the first year, and the value has continued to grow each year since.

They average only a few hours a week of non-harvest garden work over the season, which is less than they used to spend mowing, weeding and trimming for no yield at all.

They eat better than they could ever afford to without such a garden, often eating a dozen peaches or apricots in a day, or over a pint of expensive, nutrient-dense berries. Mike is proud to note, “Expensive salad mixes that would cost a fortune at the store are a daily staple for us. Even in its first year, our garden produced most of our vegetables and a large percentage of our yearly calories.”

Four years later, it’s also producing a lot of their fruit, as well as significant income. For Mike and Kim, it’s proof positive that with good design, a project can be profitable in the first year, allowing the tenants to make a living off less than an acre without degrading the land.

One day's casual fruit harvest--at least, this is the portion that made it inside!
One day’s casual fruit harvest–at least, this is the portion that made it inside!

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Despite an abundance of exotic perennial veggies and fruits, there’s still plenty of room for all their favorite annuals. Most of their meals start like this one, with a quick trip out to the food forest just beyond their door.

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Great food and a beautiful place to live are wonderful results, but none of it means much without people with whom to share the abundance. Lillie House grows relationships by supporting neighbors and visitors with plants, classes, and consultations. In turn, the community supports them. Visitors come from across the Midwest for tours and classes, and many locals come for ideas, inspiration, and advice.

By listening to the needs of community members, Mike and Kim designed a new project called “Community Supported Permaculture Programs.” They packaged food, plants, classes, and consultation into a single service. The idea is to make it “everything you need to start a Permaculture project!” The CSP Program is the latest chapter in Mike and Kim’s pursuit of a fulfilling lifestyle.

The greatest thing about our project has been connecting with so many others doing their own amazing projects. To paraphrase Bill Mollison, in a world with increasingly complex problems, it’s been an enduring and empowering source of hope to join in a community that is finding simple-but-powerful answers and putting them to use in their everyday lives.

Mike

Michael Hoag is a manager, teacher, designer and consultant at Lillie House Permaculture, who believes beautiful, healthy landscapes grow beautiful, healthy people. He has studied with Geoff Lawton and Bill Wilson.

Kimberly Willis is Director of Development at WMUK Public Radio and teacher/designer/consultant with Lillie House Permaculture. She co-evolves with the forest gardens at Lillie House and contributes her detail-oriented aesthetic eye and skill in project management to Lillie House projects.

Rachelle N. Yeaman is a jack of many trades, but her particular passions are writing and permaculture. Through work with the People’s Food Cooperative of Kalamazoo and the anti-racism nonprofit ERACCE, she’s developing theories and applications for social and economic permacutlure. As Lillie House expands and creates new programming, she offers collaborative support in outreach and teaching.

Mike Hoag
217-369-2236

For more from Michael, Please visit his website: http://lilliehouse.blogspot.com.au/

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