Working With What You’ve Got: How Losing My Vision Gave Me Perspective


House front — before


House front — after

We all encounter rough spots in our lives. Fortunately, we get to choose how we handle them. For me, permaculture provided the perfect lens for placing hard times into a healing, long term context.

So often today, we are taught to think of things in the short term: a week, a month, a season. Within this timeframe, rough spots can seem monumental and occur as a total breakdown in our way of life. However, by slipping on a permaculture telephoto lens, we can begin to see the solution in the problem.

In 2005, life dealt me a rough spot of a magnitude I had never encountered. After months of odd symptoms, I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, Wegener’s Granulomatosis. While Wegener’s can attack any bodily system, it affected my vision most severely, to the point where I could no longer perform my IT job. Now I live my life seeing the world around me as if it was an impressionist painting – a very blurry impressionist painting.

I’ll be honest with you; I spent almost two years in bed, zoned out on the heady drug cocktail that was keeping me alive. In this drug-induced state, my fantasies ran to abundant gardens and happy animals. In July 2007, I rose from that daze at the mention of an urban chicken class. Urban chickens? I simply had to get out of bed and see this for myself.

And see it, I did. The urban chicken class was held at a suburban property called the Bee Oasis. What had once been an ordinary, ranch-style home in one of the driest cities in the US, had been transformed into a foliage-filled sanctuary where curious hummingbirds buzzed your cheek, industrious chickens tilled the earth and the namesake bees buzzed happily from one blossom to the next. The sheer lushness of the property shocked me. Surely this could not be Phoenix Arizona! How was this possible?

I learned a lot from that class, including a very basic understanding of permaculture concepts. Redundant systems, working with what you’ve got and creating an interconnected community — it all made perfect sense to me and got me excited about life again.

Understanding sustainable systems would consume my energies and creativity from then on. And, as anyone who has scratched the surface of the permaculture concept knows, I found out that observation and experimentation were key. In fact, that’s what got me hooked — the thought of observing, then making a plan, implementing the plan and seeing if it worked, was thrilling.
So what happened next? Well, while I was still pretty smashed on the drug cocktail used to keep the disease at bay, I set about making and implementing a plan for my 50’ x 150’ (1/6 acre) property in Phoenix, Arizona’s urban core. This property would eventually come to be known as “Dolce Verde” (Sweet Green).

My main helpers were my parents; they came down about twice a week for three to four hours at a time to help out. And lest you think that you have to be a fit, 20-something to implement permaculture projects, I’m here to put an end to that notion. My crew included: myself (Jen), then 43 with vision bad enough to qualify me as “disabled”; my mother (Julie), then 67 with an injured right hand, and my father (David), then a hale and hearty 71 year old.

Over the intervening five years, we’ve designed and installed numerous systems. Because we live in a desert, water harvesting and passive solar practices were the most critical. Here’s what we’ve done so far:

— Implemented a series of sun screens in the west-facing front yard. The screens are made up of a series of plants of various heights, including: deciduous trees, shrubs and vines (see images at top of article). The screens serve to block the summer sun from hitting the house. It’s effective too; my front yard and home stay about 8-10° F cooler with this living solar buffer.

— Built a multi-purpose outdoor addition onto the back of the house which faces east. The addition features a hen yard, two compost piles, the outdoor shower and a propagation area for starting new plants. Grapevines fed by graywater from the shower grow on the east side of this structure to block the early morning summer sun, reducing passive heat gain.


House back – before


House back – after

— Turned a nuisance water source into a collective boon by working with my neighbor to divert their rainwater runoff into a French drain system that supports 30 fruit trees.


Side of house – before


Side of house – after

— Built eight, sunken bed planting areas for food crops. These beds are designed to passively harvest rainwater and hold irrigation water in the bed.


Back corner – before


Back corner – after

— Moved the washing machine to the back porch and built an outdoor shower to passively harvest graywater for surrounding trees and grape vines.

— Hosted a number of tours, classes and seed swaps. Because we’ve been open about what’s going on at Dolce Verde, the natural outcome has been a significant increase in the number of neighbors who have gardens, water harvesting features and chickens of their own now. These folks go on to share their own experiences with the neighborhood.

Of course, there were many setbacks and do-overs along the way; I didn’t spring from Zeus’ (or Bill Mollison’s) forehead as a fully-formed permaculture practitioner. But what we call “mistakes” are simply very powerful learning opportunities that allow us to rethink our plan and try another strategy. But those are postings for another day.

I count myself extremely lucky that permaculture crossed my path when it did. After the many personal and financial hardships I experienced during my initial flare, permaculture taught me to take stock and work with what I’ve got. It’s an incredibly powerful and liberating tool. For my part, I’ve tried pay it forward by continuing to observe, implement and add to the common knowledge pool.

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17 thoughts on “Working With What You’ve Got: How Losing My Vision Gave Me Perspective

  1. Wow Jen! That is truly amazing and very very inspirational. I love your practical approach to apparently insoluble problems: if you can’t redirect the greywater from your shower and washing machine because of the house construction – move them out of the house. Keep it up, and please keep us informed of how it goes.

  2. Very, very nice. Awesome who you took what life dealt you, and dealt with it. Definitely an inspiration to never give up.

  3. Beautiful, Jen.

    It never ceases to amaze me what people can accomplish when they work with what they’ve got and accept the resources (including people) that are available to them. It takes an open mind to recognize and amplify abundance. You seem to be doing both! Thanks for showing up for Life in the face of illness, and for paying it forward so generously.

  4. Thanks for your comments, guys. It’s important to note that I did not do this in a vacuum – I had a lot of support not only from my parents, but my friends, neighbors and others. Probably more significant than the greening of my property was this building of community.

  5. Absolutely beautiful! I love seeing what is achievable by urban permaculturalists, especially in harsh settings. Here in Melbourne we also have long, hot, dry summers but are not on sand, so sunken beds are not such a great plan – plus with our potential for sudden downpours, they’d become in-ground mud baths!

    Thank you for showing us around your property :)

  6. Fantastic and inspiring! Would you consider doing a garden tour someday? These photos are wonderful, of course, but it’s so amazing that I’d love to see it in person to ask more questions about how you did it!

  7. Jen, thank you for sharing this with others. As someone who has seen most of this first-hand, and who has been personally inspired and kicked into action by your enthusiasm, I want you to know that many. many people have seen what you have done and gone on to do projects like this at their own homes. And YES you helped build an incredible permaculture community in Phoenix, AZ, USA!

  8. Jennifer! so wonder to see this article. you and I met sometime in 2008 when I toured your amazing garden with my family. Your garden was the first permaculture garden we ever visited. I was briefly a part of the Phoenix Permie community before moving back to Florida. You are truly an inspiration and I am thrilled that others know of all you have done with your garden. Take care! I wish you all the best!

  9. This is truly an inspiring post! I’m an older gal with back problems and have just started learning about permaculture. It’s good to see that your parents were such a help to you…and that permaculture knows no age limit.

  10. @Casey – I remember that tour (and I have pics – almost posted one in this article). Thank you for visiting and hope you are doing well in Florida and keeping the permie faith!

    @Rosemary – I think Permaculture is the perfect system once the main framework has been installed. These days I do relatively little work and am working towards doing even less! An added bonus of permaculture work is that oftentimes, projects can be done as part of a class or community workshop. People get so interested in the cool stuff that you’re up to that they just HAVE to participate. Several of my projects were installed by embracing the enthusiasm of my community.

  11. Jen:

    Originally I am from Tucson and my parents live in Scottsdale. Years ago, I was a founding member of the now-defunct Southern Arizona Water Resources Association that promoted water conservation and xeriscape principals.

    Your home is an excellent example of permaculture principals and ‘right’ living’ in an arid environment. Kudos. I hope more folks in Phoenix and Arizona can see what you can do. The desert is so much more than ‘tumbleweeds and sand’.

    I now live in Boise where we get 10 inches of rain as opposed to Tucson’s 12 inches, and yesterday we set a new record of 110F! On the other hand I have seen it hit -22F. Yes, we have TREES, but that is mostly because they have taproots that get down to the water table by the Boise river.

    Just have one burning question: as we go through Geoff’s PDC, i have to ask: what is your ‘avatar’ picture of? It could be abstract, but I think it is an animal. I simply can’t tell!

    Love to hear back on what the picture is…

  12. Truly amazing and inspiring. Thank you for sharing this. I am encouraged today to get out there and do some more work on my farm.despite the relatively minor obstacles, which are now in put into perspective. Sounds like you have a great property and a fantastic group of friends and family.

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