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.