Urban Agriculture in Dorchester and Mattapan

For our group project, we wanted to study how urban agriculture could serve as a means to community development by using a local case study as an example. In our case study – an exploration of the practice in Mattapan and South Dorchester – the idea came from the top down, that is the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Mayor’s office, and was presented to the community and citizens of Mattapan and South Dorchester. This case study is unique for that reason, that it was proposed and begun by government bodies instead of a grassroots movement by the community. The project is still ongoing so the effects can be observed going forward.  Read more here

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Learning by doing

Ever since middle school when I learned about my high school’s “Immersion Program,” I have been an advocate for experiential learning.  Through this program, students had four weeks in between winter and spring trimesters to experience a different style of learning, from studying marine biology by scuba diving in the Bahamas, to seeing history in the ancient ruins of Rome.  Some students even designed their own independent study often with an eye towards experiencing future careers.  By learning outside the traditional classroom and going out into the world, students provided themselves an opportunity to contribute something to society instead of just studying it.

Those supporting school gardens have advocated a similar philosophy of education, arguing that kids need to have more than book knowledge to make it in the real world.  They argue for the importance of knowing where food comes from, accessibility to fresh food, and healthier eating habits, among other reasons. Based on most of the arguments in support of school gardens, it is clear that these living classrooms are most needed in schools with students lacking cultural and economic capital. Nonetheless there is a problem with educators assuming that the nation’s poorer kids need to be educated about gardening.

As Flanagan points out in her article in the Atlantic “Cultivating Failure,” by giving our poorest kids a taste of experiential learning we are jeopardizing their already precarious futures.  By using traditional classroom time for gardening, we are denying them knowledge that will presumably provide them greater opportunity in the future.  Achieving a certain basic level of education will at least allow kids an even playing field should they desire to continue on to college, and a college education will, in theory, provide them with better job opportunities and protect them from poverty.

I think Flanagan makes some important points that we need to consider when designing experiential education programs.  Having students practice a mock debate, for example, would better serve them by helping them to construct a valid argument and seeing the value of both sides.  Using geometry to find out the area of a room for furniture arrangement in order to maximize the space would help kids practice problem solving in a real-world setting.  Even the use of a school garden could be put to use as a good learning experience so long as the kids are understanding the growth cycle of the plants or the planting of pair of vegetables and flowers that help support each other’s development, and not just spending romanticized hours learning about where food comes from.

Perhaps the best solution is to provide a selection of experiential learning opportunities in which the children are required to participate, but from which they have the opportunity to choose themselves, as I was lucky enough to do through the Immersion Program.  Those students who prefer debating to gardening or architecture can happily take on a project they will like while still gaining the benefits of experiential learning.  I certainly found my high school Immersion experience valuable, but part of the enjoyment I felt from it was that unlike most curriculum, I had the power to choose a subject that interested me.  If all children were afforded this opportunity with gardening being an option in schools that have the resources to do such, I think many students could discover a lot in their own way.  As Hickman talks about in his article “Edible Schoolyard: Agrarian Ideals and our Industrial Milieu,” children’s natural curiosity is part of what should drive education, and not a forced sense of discovery.  Educators must allow children to have those experiential learning moments while remaining engaged in their education.  It is in this way that we can help them to stay in school and eventually excel in the real world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Word origin: contraction of Permanent and culture or agriculture
The phrase “permanent agriculture” was first coined in a book in 1911 by Franklin Hiram King writing about agriculture that could be sustained indefinitely. It was scientifically developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970’s after seeing how destructive industrial-agricultural methods were to the land (resulted in problems such as reducing biodiversity, depleting topsoil, and poisoning the land and water.)  In 1978 they explained their approach with the publication of Permaculture One. Mollison began teaching their ideas in over 80 countries and by the 1980’s the concept had spread and expanded from beyond just agricultural systems design towards the idea of complete, sustainable human habitats. Today there are several permaculture institutes and classes all over the U.S. and other countries such as this one is based in Santa Fe, or this one in San Francisco.
Permaculture is described as a sustainable design system or design philosophy that uses natural and human systems to create a stable environment that provides for everyone’s needs without depleting any of the environment’s natural resources. Permaculture can be used to build natural homes, grow food, restore diminished landscapes, recycle natural resources, etc. Nothing is wasted, everything is recycled and put to use. Relationships between elements are key. Imitating the world’s natural relationships working together keeps the system going: humans, plants, animals, and the Earth act in harmony.

This website provides a collection of definitions of permaculture according to various experts in the field as well as characteristics of permaculture.
Permaculture for beginners: an illustrated guide
Permaculture inspirational video:
An example of permaculture at work:
Urban Permaculture:
Permaculture is designed for all systems and environments so whether it’s urban or rural, it doesn’t change the design concept. Examples of putting permaculture principles to work in an urban setting: worm composting to recycle waste, creating energy efficient housing, planting companion plants, and collecting rainwater.

Permaculture Design Principles and Ethics:
Since permaculture is sustainable land use design, it’s important to have design principles to follow that take into account the holistic nature of the practice.

There are 12 Design Principles of Permaculture which, when implemented together, allow us to “re-design our environment and our behavior in a world of less energy and resources.”

Design elements are incorporated in relation to one another so that the products of one element feeds the needs of the next and so on in a harmonious cycle.

Design Elements:

  1. Observe and Interact: Use the natural world as a guideline for your own design. Observe how various species interact with one another. Make yourself a part of the design.
  2. Catch and Store Energy: Collect rain, utilize gravity and slope, use trees for shade.
  3. Obtain a Yield: You cannot sustain yourself or continue your work without fuel. A yield is important to continue the cycle.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Be mindful of your practices. Take into consideration their long-term effects.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Utilize solar energy and rainwater.
  6. Produce no waste: Vermaculture, compost, mulch.
  7. Design from patterns to details: Observe naturally occurring patterns. Implement these elements into your design.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: Companion gardening.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: Smaller systems are easier to maintain and use fewer resources. Take on only what you can handle.
  10. Use and value diversity: Plant varieties.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: Don’t ignore the margins. Explore opportunities in unexpected places such as roof gardens or hydroponic solutions.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: Make changes when needed, keeping in mind the effects they will have on the next principle.

Permaculture Ethics:

There are three overriding tenets of Permaculture ethics that ensure a fair and holistic system. It is important to keep all three ethical components in mind when designing a permaculture solution.

  1. Care of the earth: Ensure that all life systems on earth can continue to prosper and grow.
  2. Care of people: Ensure that people can access necessary resources.
  3. Fair share: Understand limits and divide resources fairly to continue all permaculture principles.

Related Links:

Seed International
Boston Permaculture.com
Video explanation of permaculture principles and ethics
Energy Bulletin.net
Why Permaculture is different

In his e-book, Permaculture, A Beginner’s Guide, Graham Burnett describes the idea of permaculture zoning as they apply to the home.  These ‘zones’ consist of 5 concentric circles in regard to design according to differing levels of human interaction and management necessary.
Zone 0
Home center.  Permaculture principles applied here are focused primarily on the reduction of energy and water needs, as well as harnessing natural resources such as sunlight and creating a harmonious environment in which to live.
Zones 1 & 2
Areas nearest to the home/garden.  This is the area in which the food crops are generally concentrated, ranging from those that need the most attention and maintenance closest to the home ranging outward.
Zone 3
This area consists primarily of those crops which require minimal attention such as large fruit and nut trees, as well as large crop areas and pastures.
Zones 4 & 5
Semi-managed and unmanaged brush.  These areas are generally used for gathering wild food and timber.

Is this for real? Permaculture in action:

While a central theme in permaculture is the design of landscapes that produce food, the permaculture principles are now being applied to a host of different areas such as education, finance, urban planning and community development  in both rural and urban settings and can be appropriate anywhere from the single family home to whole farms and villages.
Those eager to incorporate permaculture practices are encouraged to slowly adopt principles in order to study best practices for their specific piece of land. While full-scale models of permaculture farms are generally found among activists and educators, it is becoming more commonplace to see smaller-scale examples of permaculture in action. To learn more about examples of permaculture at different levels, feel free to visit the following websites:

Permaculture for Renters
“I would love to do this stuff, but I don’t have any land…”

Created by permaculture enthusiast Leonard Barrett, this website was created for those more transient residents who had the desire to incorporate the permaculture principles into their everyday lives without access to large amounts of land. Permaculture for renters provides workshops and tutorials to enable the urban or apartment permaculturist to format the principles to a more micro-level, as well as providing “a little dose of empowerment to the landless many.”

The Worldwide Permaculture Network
A project of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, this website was created in 2010 in order to catalogue permaculture projects around the world. Projects can be filtered by type (i.e. education, rural, urban, etc.) as well as climate. Project profiles are created to inform other about projects and attract volunteers as well as a forum for advice and support for projects worldwide.

Sounds too idealistic. Do people really do this here? Yes, you skeptic.

UMass Permaculture:
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is one of the first universities in the country to implement a permaculture garden in a public university campus. It is supported and funded by the UMass Amherst campus-wide sustainability initiative. Eight undergraduate students work with permaculture designer, Ryan Harb, to transform1/4 of an acre landscape into a highly productive, low-maintenance garden. The UMass Amherst Permaculture Planning Committee posts events inviting UMass students and the local community to participate in hands-on workshops and meetings:

Planning Committee members also blog on issues concerning permaculture implementation, feasibility, policy, and impact. Permaculture: A Silver Bullet?

UMass Permaculture Documentary Series (part 1/3)

Permaculture Institute of the Northeast (P.I.N.E.):
P.I.N.E. is a non-profit organization based in Amherst, MA that facilitates communications, research, and outreach of regional permaculture projects. It provides a network for designers, sites, and practitioners and is currently building a database for the permaculture community int he northeast. P.I.N.E. Facebook promotes events and workshops happening in their network.
Portland Maine Permaculture:
Portland Maine Permaculture is a group of advocates that are united by their interest in creating a truly sustainable future. They provide information on how to obtain a Maine Permaculture Design Certificate and an Advanced Permaculture Design Certificate. Expected outcomes of the PDC course include:

  • Gain a thorough understanding of permaculture origins, ethics, principles and methodologies.
  • Enhance your ability to build soil, capture water, reduce energy consumption, generate energy, grow and store food, read the landscape and create edible perennial ecosystems.
  • Become a resource for your family and neighborhood, building resilience at the personal, household and community levels.
  • Learn how to start transforming even challenging properties into healthy, hi-yielding, low energy systems of abundance.
  • Be able to approach any property and apply a permaculture design methodology and set of applied techniques to achieve increased resilience and true sustainability.

Getting Started With Permaculture in Boston:

Greater Boston Permaculture Guild:
This group is about learning and sharing skills and techniques to thrive and survive through the challenges presented by climate change, peak oil, environmental degradation and cultural shifts.

Boston Permaculture events: Boston Permaculture aims to bring high quality Permaculture and ecological design education to the Boston area through workshops, trainings, film screenings and lectures.

Online Resources for Getting Started, Facing Challenges:

Permaculture Forums: Best practices, course and seminar announcements, general and specific permaculture resources, & discussion on varying permaculture issues

GardenWeb Permaculture Forum:  This forum is meant for the discussion of permaculture. Permaculture is most easily defined as a philosophy that stresses the maintenance of horticulture or agriculture by relying on renewable resources and compatibility with the local ecosystem. This is the philosophy, which guides this forum.
(Ranges from using a/c water runoff to controlling snails with snakes)

Future of Permaculture: Urban Growth and “Sustainable” Profits

“Farmin’ in the HOOD” documentary by The Urban Farming Guys: Epic story of about 20 families that uprooted from suburbia and made their homes for good in one of the most blighted neighborhoods in the U.S. Lykins Neighborhood 64127 Inner City KCMO. And the game is changing! Together as Lykins Neighborhood we believe there is hope. Crime is dropping! 21% over the last 2 years and the adventure continues. Follow the story at TheUrbanFarmingGuys.com Featuring Aquaponics, Neighborhood Transformation, Permaculture, Urban Farming and lots of fun taking back the neighborhood.

Growstones: Growstones start out as discarded glass from the landfill. We reclaim and repurpose that glass into 100% eco-friendly Growstones that make your plants and our planet happy. Earth friendly products range from green technology building materials such as biodiverse green roofs to media for water filtration, soil enhancers for container gardeners, soiless media amendments and hydroponic growing systems.

Mycobond: Eben Bayer is co-inventor of MycoBond, an organic (really — it’s based on mycelium, a living, growing organism) adhesive that turns agriwaste into a foam-like material for packaging and insulation.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Virtue in Unlikely Places

I am not a patient person. It has never been a strength of mine. I finished undergrad in three years with a double major because I didn’t want to waste my time and my parents’ money by dragging it out for another year. The oven never cooks fast enough for me and I’ve ruined more than one batch of frosting by applying it to a cake before it had a chance to fully cool. I come by it honestly as both of my parents are the kind of people who will do something themselves instead of waiting for someone else to do it. New Englanders through and through, they need to get where they’re going fast and soon. No time for lollygagging. My father is a champion tailgater. He once tailgated a logging truck on a rural Vermont road for 25 miles before passing it. There were no other cars on the road. We were not in a hurry. But he found the only other vehicle around and followed it closely enough to let the driver know that my father did not believe he was driving fast enough. My brother has the same impatient gene. While stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for the pedestrian light to change, he said “50 seconds! Who needs 50 seconds to cross the street?”
Patience: not a Merrill family virtue.

So for the life of me, I can’t understand why I chose to start the container garden on my deck from seeds rather than sprouts. For weeks, I’d inspect the pots every day, looking for a spot of green or some change in the porous dirt surface, any sign that something was happening down there. It was an interminable few weeks. But during all that waiting, something happened. I began not to mind it. I began to look forward to the eventual sprouts and to relish the morning watering before I’d even had coffee. I’d wake up every morning, walk out onto the deck in my pajamas and peer into the pots, looking for something growing there. And when it finally happened, it was more rewarding than I’d imagined. To me, there’s something different about starting a plant from seed rather than a sprout. It seems to me that when you buy a sprout, you’re getting the plant halfway home. Someone else has taken care of the hard part for you – the days and weeks of waiting – and given you a head start. But when you start something from seed, you have a hand in the entire process. Sure, it’s frustrating to have no choice but to wait for nature to take its course and turn your carefully tended seed into a plant, but it does teach you patience, a virtue often sorely lacking.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the rosemary, sage and lavender plants in my garden that are full and lush and useful immediately in cooking and fragrance. But I bought them that way. Other than not killing them, I haven’t had to put in a whole lot of effort. But the heirloom Thai and lemon basil and zebra tomatoes I planted as seeds? I love those even more even though at the moment, they’re nothing more than tiny sprouts, the leaves miniatures of what they will eventually become. To use a family analogy: the sprouted plants are like adopted children. I love them and wouldn’t give them up for anything. But the seed plants I made myself. I take a special pride in those.

I never would have anticipated that gardening would teach me patience. I thought after thirty years that wasn’t something I was ever going to learn. I certainly wasn’t going to get it from my parents (my father is likely tailgating someone in rural Maine as I write this). But when it comes to gardening, I’ve found that I’m content to plant some seeds, water them when needed and let nature do the rest. I’ve found how fulfilling it is to have my patience rewarded.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Food is Good to Learn: Thoughts on the Intersection of Food, Education, and School Gardens

20th century French Anthropologist, Claude Levi Strauss once stated, “Food is good to think.” Certainly, this is an inspiring notion to have in the back of one’s mind, but limiting in practice if one first does not know about food. Maybe, for the 21st century, a century based on over-extraction, defined by diet related illnesses and failing school systems, it should read instead, “food is good to learn.” As chef and education reform activist Alice Waters plainly stated, “Children’s eating habits stay with them for the rest of their lives,”[i] so if one has not learned from a young age to think about food in new and varying environmental, cultural, socio-economic, and human health contexts, then Strauss’ sentiment falls on deaf ears; the status quo continues to dominate.

In Caitlin Flanagan’s article, Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens Are Cheating Our Most Vulnerable Students, she argues that school gardens are useless because they do not help students pass standardized testing:

“Here is the essential question we must ask about the school gardens: What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs—so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed— improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future (especially the all-important high-school exit exam) and passing Algebra I, which is becoming the make-or-break class for California high-school students?”[ii]

By saying this, Flanagan boldly asserts that ultimately education is about passing standardized testing, not preparing children for the realities of world once they leave school.

Flanagan then opines the entirety of the California Public School system stating, “I have never seen an entire school system as fundamentally broken and rudderless as the California public schools, a system in which one out of five high-school students drops out before graduation,[iii]” but also notes that out of the 9,000 schools in California just one-third of them have school gardens as of 2008.[iv] Maybe this “rudderless” system and overwhelming failure speaks to the larger issue of the current education system, not the “failure” school gardens “cultivate”, given that around 6,000 out of 9,000 schools in California do not have school gardens.

Additionally, California statewide growth in the Academic Performance Index (a measurement used since No Child Left Behind Act, 2001) positively correlates with the growth in school gardens over the last ten years.[v] Though, statistics aside, it is clear that the current education system is failing our youth, as is our food system, and as more and more people are becoming aware of the inseparable connection between the inner workings of food systems and their own every day lives, it becomes more and more obvious that food reform impels education reform.

Flanagan states that the, “rationale behind the school-garden movement mushes together two emotionally stirring ideas: first, that kids will learn by doing, and second, that millions of poor kids have so little access to fruits and vegetables that if they don’t spend their school day growing some on campus, they will never get any at all.”[vi] She never bothers to argue against the first idea and I think any one would have a hard time arguing against the notion that children, particularly elementary and middle school aged children, learn best by doing.

Her second argument has little to do with school gardens. In fact, from my understanding many school districts have such archaic health codes that children never actually get to eat what they grow other than a bite here or there. Ultimately, I think Larry Hickman’s citation of 19th century education reformer and garden activist John Dewey best sums up the uses and necessity for school gardens, and it has nothing to do with direct food access:

“Dewey’s immediate goal was thus to lead his students to learn more about themselves and their world. But his edible schoolyard also served his long-term goals. It was a tool that he used to engage the native interests and powers of his students and then to encourage them to develop the type of experimental frame of mind that is essential to the growth of intelligence.” [vii]

It is this development and expansion of the mind that is so important during one’s youth that urges the need for not just school gardens, but food-based education on a large scale in our institutions. It is not about getting poor kids food in school because their parents cannot afford to, or do not know how to feed them well at home. Rather, it is about giving kids the tools they need to fix the problems that exist, to avoid having their own children and future generations suffer as they do.

Flanagan’s wildly reductionist conclusion only works to support Hickman’s analysis of the work Dewey did over 100 years ago, the work that so many are undertaking now: “The suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself. The solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better.”[viii] Yes, the dietary choices are largely the result of a problem, our corrupted food system; but if kids are not taught about this problem, about what they can do to fix this problem, about how the problem directly affects their lives and the lives of those they love, if they are not both informed and empowered, then nothing can be accomplished.

As a side note and somewhat inconsequential conclusion, access to economic opportunity and financial stability in no way directly correlates with healthy eating as Flanagan avows above. Since 1971-1974 to 2001-2002, obesity has increased in those who make $60,000 or more a year by 276% (9.7% to 26.8%)![ix]

[i] Waters, Alice. 2006. “Eating for Credit.” The New York Times, Op Ed, Feb 24, 2006

[ii] Flanagan, Caitlin. 2010. “Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens Are Cheating Our Most Vulnerable Students.” The Atlantic. January/February 2010. p. 4.

[iii] Ibid, p. 7

[iv] Ibid, p. 3

[v] California Department of Education. Adequate Yearly Progress Report. Website. Retrieved 6/20/2011 from http://ayp.cde.ca.gov/reports/APR/APRSearchName.asp?TheYear=&cTopic=AYP&cLevel=State&cName=&cCounty=&cTimeFrame=S

[vi] Flanagan, Caitlin. 2010. “Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens Are Cheating Our Most Vulnerable Students.” The Atlantic. January/February 2010. p 5.

[vii] Hickman, Larry. 2000. “The Edible Schoolyard: Agrarian Ideals and Our Industrial Millieu” in Thompson and Hilde (eds.) The Agrarian Roots of Pragmatism. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. p. 198.

[viii] Flanagan, Caitlin. 2010. “Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens Are Cheating Our Most Vulnerable Students.” The Atlantic. January/February 2010. p. 6

[ix] Hitti, Miranda. 2005. “Rich-Poor Gap Narrowing in Obesity.” WebMD Health News. May 2, 2005. Online. Retrieved 6/20/2011 from http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20050502/rich-poor-gap-narrowing-in-obesity

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovative Immigrants

For all of its perks, city living can sometimes be pretty irritating.  One of the things that I have struggled with the most after moving to the ‘big city’ is the lack of space, especially green space, to call my own.  Living on my own in a small second floor apartment has forced me to get pretty creative with gardening, so whenever I travel I always keep an eye peeled for innovative ways in which people have incorporated gardening and urban dwelling.

This past weekend, I took the bus down to New York to visit my best friend, and being the planning nerd that I am, I forced her to be a tourist with me and visit the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.  If you’ve never been, this is possibly one of the lesser known, but coolest museum in the city.  The museum inhabits an old tenement building in the lower east side, with the apartments representing different families and times when various immigrant groups lived in the area.  The museum has gone to great lengths to gather information on the specific families that lived there over the past 100 years, finding records, pictures, and even artifacts from that time and replicate the apartments to their best ability.

As we walked into one of the apartments, I was immediately enthralled by the incorporation of plants in the windows.  Instead of window boxes on the outside of the windows, there were strings running inside the window casing with morning glories and peas growing up them.  Not only did it provide a natural screen to the slightly unimpressive view of the alleyway, but they were growing food!  After asking the guide for more information, she explained that oftentimes the tenants planted these vertical window gardens for food, but more often just to have a bit of life in these small and somewhat depressing apartments so far away from home.

This idea of needing some form of connection to the outdoors and a bit of home is one that really resonated with me and ties back to many of our class discussions about immigrant farming and gardening inside cities.  Especially in that time, immigrants had to be creative with their use of shared spaces, and thrifty with their money, but still they took the time to incorporate frugality and beauty in their homes.

I’ve had a personal attachment to morning glories for quite some time, as they were my grandma’s favorite and preferred flower for her veranda, so I’m eager to try this particular vertical gardening treatment in my own home, with sweet peas and morning glories.   With a lot of string and a little luck, I’ll be able to bring a little piece of home to Boston.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Parker Street Guerrilla Garden

Photos of the Guerrilla Garden on Parker Street in Mission Hill, Boston.

Raised Beds - Bobby and Nataka


Front Right Corner of the Guerrilla Garden/Franciscan Brothers Home

String Bean Trellis - Keith and Lucia

Plots - Keith and Lucia

Mullberry Tree

Next to Art Park

Compost Heap from BNAN


View from across Parker Street

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment