Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Permaculture at UMass Amherst

This is a blog entry from the UMass Amherst Permaculture Blog. I would strongly recommend following this blog, which takes you on a journey from the perspective of 9 individuals, whose job is to create one of the first student led permaculture gardens on a major university campus in the country. A link to the blog site can be found here:

You'll like this, I promise!


Dear Eco-Conscious Reader,

Welcome to the University of Massachusetts Amherst permaculture blog site. My name is Ryan Harb and I was recently hired as the Auxiliary Services Sustainabilty Specialist at UMass Amherst. In September, 2010, eight passionate and hard-working students were selected to serve on the UMass Permaculture Planning Committee. Together, the nine of us have quite the story to tell you.

Our job is considerable: to implement one of the first permaculture gardens on a public university campus in the country. UMass Amherst fully supports and funds this project as it is part of the campus-wide sustainability initiative to raise awareness about a more holistic and ecologically conscious way of growing food.

The Franklin Dining Common Permaculture Garden will supply UMass Amherst Auxiliary Services with fresh, local and organic produce to serve to its students. Please read on to learn how students, outside volunteers, and the campus community transform a conventional, unproductive grass lawn into a highly progressive, aesthetically pleasing, and socially responsible garden directly on campus.

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is a merger of the words permanent and agriculture and was created to mitigate environmental degradation while helping to solve issues associated with modern agriculture. Its approach is simple: to restore ecosystem health by mimicking natural processes. Permaculture gardens are ecologically designed, require minimal maintenance, and provide an abundance of food and resources. The principles of permaculture include observing patterns in nature, catching and storing energy, using renewable resources, producing no waste, and valuing diversity. These principles can be applied to economic systems, land access strategies, and legal systems for businesses and communities. UMass Amherst, in its commitment to sustainability, has adopted permaculture strategies to provide food and education for the campus community.

Read more about permaculture here in a more recent blog entry.

Project History:

The Franklin Permaculture Garden was first conceived in the fall of 2009 by a group of students in Dr. John Gerber's Sustainable Agriculture class. The lawn adjacent to Franklin Dining Common was chosen with the intention of producing food for UMass Auxiliary Services. After much planning and numerous meetings with administrators, the project was given the green light.

Then something unfortunate happened. The project was halted when news arose of a proposed temporary parking lot on the exact site of the garden. Students voiced their concerns that this would delay the permaculture project for years and adversely affect the UMass Amherst Sustainability Initiative. The permaculture garden seemed defeated.

Fortunately, the administration listened to student concerns. The project regained some momentum during the Spring 2010 semester when the proposed parking lot fell through. Ken Toong, Director of Auxiliary Services, began talking with Ryan Harb, a certified permaculture designer and M.S. in Green Building, about overseeing the project that Dr. Gerber's students had proposed. Ryan had recently transformed his Amherst lawn into a yard-sized permaculture garden for his graduate thesis project. His "yarden" served as a model for what the Franklin Garden could be.

In the fall of 2010, Ryan was hired for the job and began interviewing for a committee of eight students with the determination and inspiration to assist him with the project. Thus began the UMass Permaculture Planning Committee and the Franklin Permaculture Garden.

What's Coming Next?

We, the UMass Permaculture Planning Committee, are responsible for transforming the ¼ acre grass landscape into a highly productive and low maintenance garden using no fossil fuels on-site. During October and November 2010, we will be moving over 100,000 pounds of organic matter by hand, with help from many other students and community volunteers.

We will hold educational permaculture workshops for the surrounding community throughout the year, and will partner with organizations such as Big Brother Big Sisters and G.A.A.P.E (Global Action Against Poverty Everywhere) to inspire future generations about the need for sustainability.

Subscribe to our blog! We will be posting twice weekly throughout the year with pictures, stories and video footage to document our progress.

Thanks for reading!
-The UMass Amherst Permaculture Planning Committee


Ryan Harb
Auxiliary Services Sustainability Specialist
University of Massachusetts Amherst

• Email:
• Phone: (978) 314-1176


Amherst Man turns Car into Permaculture Garden

Today, I opened my backseat and surprisingly saw something green. It looked like sprouts, but I had just vacuumed my car. Something must gotten attached to my bag earlier in the day, I thought. Upon closer examination, I noticed it had roots.


All summer I had been hauling 5 gallon buckets of wood chips, cardboard, and compost in my car, as I was in the midst of 4 separate permaculture garden projects. Needless to say, some of the compost and wood chips spilled on my floor, in my seats, etc.

About 4 weeks ago, I transported some buckwheat seeds in my car, to my garden at 3 Willow Lane in Amherst, Massachusetts. Can you guess where this is going?


Apparently some of the compost had found its way down in my backseat seat-belt-buckle. Apparently some of the buckwheat seed had also found its way down there. Some moisture, perhaps from the hot days and cool nights we've been experiencing lately, added to form the perfect storm.

I now have buckwheat growing out of my backseat seat belt buckle!

Thank you for reading,

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Amherst man turns yard into permaculture garden

I haven't posted in quite a while. Here is an article that came out today, Thursday, September 23, 2010 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The current project I'm working on is one of the first highly visible permaculture gardens being implemented on a mainstream college campus - The University of Massachusetts Amherst. It will be co-designed by students. The article below briefly mentions this project. Stay tuned for more updates!


Link to article here, but may not work without a login account:

Amherst man turns yard into permaculture garden

Gazette Contributing Writer

As with all organic gardening, permaculture starts with the soil. But it goes far beyond just eschewing pesticides and building a compost pile.

"Permaculture is an ecological design system that involves edible perennial landscaping," said Ryan Harb, the first green building graduate of the University of Massachusetts, who has transformed his Amherst front yard into a beautiful garden of edibles.

"There is no one definition of permaculture," he added. The concept is meant to minimize effort and concentrate on a low-maintenance system.

Harb taught a course in permaculture at UMass as part of his graduate program. He needed a master's thesis project in the green building program and decided that a garden in his front yard was his best bet.

"My project had to be something big. It had to be something that would get people talking," he said. "Most of all it had to be educational, something that people would actually want to learn about which would benefit both the individual and the planet as a whole."

A year ago Harb and his friends sheet mulched his front yard, about 6,000 square feet that was previously lawn.

"We mowed the grass very short and then took digging forks and aerated it," he said.

Next they amended the soil, following the dictates of a soil test from UMass, adding needed minerals. Finally they covered the area with good compost.

"It was grass, white powder, then black compost, 3 inches deep," he said. Cardboard then covered the entire area and was itself covered with wood chips.

Five months later, in the spring, there was incredibly deep soil ready to plant. However, Harb and his friends knew they couldn't quickly maintain a 6,000-square-foot garden, so they laid out garden beds edged with sapling logs accompanied by wood chip pathways. Half of the beds were seeded with white clover, a nitrogen-fixing legume that builds up the soil.

They kept costs down by applying for grants, begging for free compost and wood chips and bartering for perennial plants from Tripple Brook Farm in Southampton, Sirius Community in Shutesbury and Eric Toensmeier in Holyoke.

They planted several hazelnut bushes plus a pawpaw tree and beach plums along the street (because they tolerate salt), Nanking cherry and two very small peach trees. Some of these form focal points at the axis of the beds and paths in a simple landscape design.

They also planted perennial vegetables like arugula and kale and five kinds of alliums (onions): chives, Chinese chives, walking onion, wild leeks and regular onion. All of the perennials did well, Harb reported.

Among the annual vegetables that thrive were the heat-loving cucumbers and squash. They have a nice crop of pumpkins and cherry tomatoes that flourished. Fava beans, an unusual crop suggested by Llani Davidson of the Sirius Community, were great, Harb said. They ate them cooked and raw. The only vegetable that didn't do well was potatoes, he admitted. The dread potato beetles just couldn't be controlled with the compost tea with which he drenched them.

Harb was away much of the summer, but his tenant, Alex Kermond, kept the garden going, watering frequently during the drought. When Harb taught a permaculture course at the Sirius Community early in the summer the class made a field trip to his garden and spent an hour weeding.

Harb bought his seeds from Fedco, an organic company in Maine. "We spent $100. It was like a Christmas present," Harb said with a laugh.

Soon they will be pulling up the annual plants and composting them. Then they will put down a cover crop, either winter rye or buckwheat. Each year they will add more compost. They have applied for an innovation grant from the Timothy Harkness Innovation Program at Hampshire College.

"We call our project Yardening, replacing a yard with a garden," Harb said. Next spring they will plant more fruit trees and bushes and continue to build up the soil.

Harb is renting his house to four UMass students, most of the them in the university's plant, soil and insect science department and one in the landscape architecture program. All of the students took his permaculture course last year.

Meanwhile, Harb is working on a new project at UMass - a permaculture vegetable garden outside Franklin Dining Commons, which will feed some of the UMass students.

"It's in the very, very, very beginning stages," he cautioned.

In October Harb and his friends plan to sheet mulch a 10,000-square-foot area on the west side of the dining commons. In the spring they will plant crops, salad items and herbs close to the building so the chefs can step outside and harvest them for cooking.

"The whole idea is opening eyes up to having a designed landscape to be useful as well as ornamental," Harb explained.

"Someday I envision people walking down a street and reaching up to pick an apple or a peach right off the tree," he said.

Cheryl Wilson can be reached at

Photo: Amherst man turns yard into permaculture garden
Harb inspects the squash in his permaculture garden in Amherst.

Photo: Amherst man turns yard into permaculture garden
Ryan Harb in his garden at 3 Willow Lane.

Photo: Amherst man turns yard into permaculture garden
Clover growing in Harb's garden. Harb said he likes using clover as a ground cover because it helps improve the soil.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer Updates

Greetings all,

The garden is in full-swing and I am now officially moved out of 3 Willow Lane. The goal of the project was to create an ideal living situation for environmentally conscious college students in Amherst, MA. The house is now on it's way to being the model sustainable and educational residence that I envision. Lot's of side projects are going on including energy efficient measures (tightening the building envelope), and permaculture activities like shiitake mushroom log inoculation, backyard composting and indoor vermicomposting, rainwater catchment, and the highlight of it all - an entire yard edible forest garden (yarden).

Currently I am at Sirius Community in Shutesbury, Massachusetts. For the next 3 weeks I will be finishing co-teaching a course called Sustainable Design and Construction. 16 students from around the country have traveled to western Massachusetts to learn about green and natural building and participate in hands-on activities related to building environmentally beneficial structures. We are thinking beyond sustainability in this course and focusing our efforts on regenerating the global ecosystem that we are all a part of.

The planet is dealing with a lot of abuse right now - and a lot of it is directly related to how humans are living (but not all - mostly it stems from the lifestyles that people in "developed" countries are living). We are having some incredible discussions in this SDC course, which is set up by Living Routes - a non-profit organization that focuses on sending students abroad to ecovillages to learn about sustainability.

If you want to follow our time here at Sirius and get a glimpse of what we are doing each day, there is a course blog set up which has the following description:

"USA 2010 - Sustainable Design and Construction Course Blog
A thoughtful account of student and faculty experiences at the USA 2010 Sustainable Design and Construction course at Sirius Community located in Shutesbury, Massachusetts. One student is asked to start blogging on Day 1 (June 20, 2010) and his/her experience is read on day 2 by another student - who will pick up the story where the previous student left off. This continues throughout the course and each student and faculty member will post at least once during the course (approximately 19 entries will be written between June 21 - July 11, 2010). Get ready to take a journey with the USA 2010 SDC Group - a story told by 19 individuals who will share experiences together for 3 weeks and live in community at the beautiful Sirius Ecovillage in scenic western Massachusetts."

Today's entry by Joe features pictures from a primitive shelter building exercise. Check it out if you get a chance

I might not be posting much again this summer due to a very busy schedule. I'm here at Sirius until July 11 then immediately head to Holmes, New York to begin working with teens and raising awareness about green building and permaculture at Omega Institute Teen Camp.

That's all for tonight. Good night everyone.