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How two plant geeks grew a 'paradise' in a blighted backyard

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(Read caption) Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, shows snap peas growing in a community garden on a vacant lot in Detroit. In 'Paradise Lot,' two inner-city Massachusetts residents write about how they transformed less than an acre of their blighted yard into a thriving food forest.

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Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates are not your average backyard gardeners. They call themselves plant geeks, and they’re not kidding.

Toensmeier sustained a serious head injury in 1994, and to heal, he memorized thousands of Latin plant names, families, orders, and superorders. He also cross-indexed a tome of edible plants with references listing cold-hardy varieties and perennials. Bates studied biology and ecology and spends a lot of time poring over Plants for a Future, an online database of useful plants. Not surprisingly, when the two friends bought a duplex together in 2004, they didn’t build your average garden.

They set out with a list of ambitious goals. They wanted to transform their yard into a permaculture oasis by planting “a mega-diverse living ark of useful and multifunctional plants” from their bioregion and around the world. They hoped to harvest “two handfuls of fresh fruit every day for everybody in the house, including guests, for as long a season as possible,” and also to attract birds, beneficial insects, and a couple of bachelorettes.

Toensmeier, the main author of "Paradise Lot," who also wrote "Perennial Vegetables" and co-wrote "Edible Forest Gardens," doesn’t skimp on details about how he and Bates turned a “dead and blighted” one-tenth of an acre of compacted soil in a “biologically impoverished neighborhood” of Holyoke, Mass., into Food Forest Farm, an Eden for edibles. Although it is more memoir than how-to, "Paradise Lot" outlines the basics of sheet mulching, raising silkworms, keeping chickens, and growing mushrooms. Readers will gain an understanding of the principles and objectives of permaculture, a movement that began in Australia in the 1970s. It combines indigenous land management practices, ecological design, and sustainable methods to create low-maintenance gardens that function like natural ecosystems.

It’s inspiring and a little daunting to read about what Toensmeier and Bates achieved on their small plot in eight years. They managed to transform their Massachusetts front yard into a tropical garden. In their backyard, they installed a pond, shed, and greenhouse, and they grow about 160 edible perennials, many of which you’ve likely never heard of before. Here’s an inventory of the berries they harvest each season: honeyberries, strawberries, goumi cherries, Gerardi dwarf mulberries, four kinds of currants, gooseberries, jostas, blueberries, wild raspberries, golden Anne raspberries, ground-cherries, wintergreen berries, juneberries, and lingonberries.

Toensmeier hopes the complexity and diversity of Food Forest Farm won’t dissuade beginners from experimenting with permaculture in their backyards, since part of the reason they undertook the project in an urban area with typical inner-city problems was to make it a relevant example for amateurs to emulate.

“Our desire to try many new things—new models of production, hundreds of new and interesting species—meant that we put a lot more time into a garden of this size than any reasonable person would ever do,” he writes. It’s helpful that the book shares the friends’ ample mistakes, setbacks, and revisions, making it clear that the most important thing a gardener needs if embarking on a similar project is a dedication to experimentation.

"Paradise Lot" offers gardeners more than inspiration and instruction. Toensmeier and Bates present an unconventional alternative to the American dream: two single men committed to a friendship and to making their backyard and neighborhood better.

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“Trusting each other with such a responsibility felt especially rare in this world,” Bates writes in one of the short essays he contributes to Toensmeier’s text. The friends’ dedication to each other and to a patch of land paid off. “We made our little paradise here,” Toensmeier writes.

Moreover, "Paradise Lot" is permeated by an incredibly hopeful and compelling vision of humans’ place in nature. Toensmeier is critical of the environmental movement’s emphasis on minimizing footprints, because he thinks that permaculture and indigenous land management practices offer us ways to affect ecosystems for the better. After all, he and Bates turned a barren lot into a habitat for fish, snails, frogs, salamanders, raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, bugs, and worms.

And the wildlife actually helps them manage the garden. The birds eat insects. The opossums eat rotten fruit when it drops. The squirrels eat unwanted Norway maple seedlings. Some permaculture farmers even employ squirrels as labor by setting out buckets near their nut trees, letting the squirrels fill them, and swapping the nuts for corn.

Toensmeier is convinced it’s time for us to re-evaluate our ideas of “nature,” “agriculture,” and “wilderness” and embrace the potential to transform our communities into beautiful, healthy ecosystems like Food Forest Farm.

“Imagine what would happen,” he writes, “if we as a species paid similar attention to all the degraded and abandoned lands of the world.”

• Abby Quillen wrote this article for Love and the Apocalypse, the Summer 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Abby is a freelance writer in Eugene, Ore. She blogs at newurbanhabitat.com.

This article originally appeared at YES! Magazine.

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