growing an ecosystem of abundance

‘Edible Forest Gardens’ workshop with Eric Toensmeier, hosted by Brock Dolman and OAEC.

Though I was not able to attend all of the workshop held at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center,   I nonetheless became even more inspired, and grounded in the practical applications of ‘Edible Forest Gardens’, with the best on the subject: Mr. Eric Toensmeier, author of ‘Perennial Vegetables’, and co-author of ‘Edible Forest Gardens, Vol I & II’. Hosted by the resident water man, wildlife ecologist and permaculture player Brock Dolman, it was a combination I could not resist.

The word went out that the workshop was at capacity for registrations, but  there would also be a public presentation at the Sebastopol Grange- one of those new generation “organic granges”. With a farmers market in the main room, 75-100 of us and squeezed into an smaller adjacent room to see Eric’s presentation. It was quite a polyculture of local permaculture enthusiasts.

Eric Toensmeier plant exploring

Here is some of what I gleaned from the workshop:

With a core of Permaculture Design, this workshop was based on pattern recognition, and application. This was exemplified by the numerous case studies, ecosystem analysis, and species exploration (fellow ‘plant nerds’ were satisfied), all brought together through the Design Process. Eric walked us through is own development, along with his buddy Jonathan Bates, of a barren and degraded suburban backyard at their home in Massachusetts. The steps he promoted are based in good ecology and human development, as Eric is skilled with both plant and people symbiosis:

  • Setting goals
  • base mapping site,
  • analyze and assess site,
  • using a ‘guild build’ to develop a species palette,
  • find ecological analogs,
  • develop a design concept,
  • schematic design
  • a detailed design,
  • specific polycultures.

This process was used in the case study of the transformation of Eric and Jonathan’s own backyard from a bare lot, to a fantastic multipurpose, majorly edible “Agro-Geekosystem”. After sharing his mistakes (or learning experiences) and successes, the evolution of the forest seemed miraculous.
Revising some more lofty beginning goals, later they arrived on the core goals of:

  1. Growing what we like to eat,
  2. that grows well for us
  3. in functioning poly cultures.

Also, he and his ‘plant geek’ buddy found their female partners in the process! (one of their original goals)
With this case study, Eric basically gave us a preview of his new book:

Paradise Lot, due to be released by Chelsea Green Press in Jan 2013.

Paradise Lot
Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City
by Eric Toensmeier
How we did it and the challenges along the way
ISBN: 9781603583992

We then enjoyed a walk about, a parapatetic pursuit of productive perennial polycultures (catching Dolman’s wordplay fever). Touring the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center grounds is always a botanical delight, as we learned about the ancient pear tree established some 100 years by pioneers, the plantings by Robert Kourik and others during the ‘Farallones Institute Rural Center’ era of some 30 years ago, and the more recent plantings tended to by the current OAEC staff, mostly led by ‘Dougo’ Gosling, and Brock.

Brock shows us the swale planting of ethnobotanical species from last year’s edible forest garden workshop

Medlar trees saved from the collection of C. Todd Kennedy produce abundant archaic fruit.

Cute! And so are the flowers of the annual nasturtium and the perennial relative mashua

Tree Collards are a favorite, Eric literally wrote the book on perennial vegetables

Eric and the recently rediscovered late plum, I called ‘October Suprise’ (election year and all)

I missed parts of the workshop when I took a tour of the Permaculture Center in South Sebastopol, with founder Eric Ohlsen, and attending the pomegranate and persimmon tasting at the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard (see my post on the tasting soon)

I re-joined the workshop on the field trip day, again visiting with Eric Ohlsen (owner, principle and senior designer) of the integrated design and install business ‘Permaculture Artisans’, at his residence aka ‘Permaculture Neighborhood Center’
Another example of a lush productive food forest flourishing where was once a barren paved back yard (they removed 45 yards of concrete and asphalt in the process!) Here are some images from Eric’s website that show the transformation:

Ohlsen shows us the flow of water in the edible landscape

Tearing down fences with his neighbor, who happens to be a friend since childhood, the combined back yards infiltrate about 400,000 gallons of run off, mostly from another neighbor’s paved lot, through a series of contour infiltration swales and overflow basins, while keeping some areas well drained for access with rock filled trenches. A densely planted pond featured diverse plantings providing habitat for many beneficial insects, amphibians, and much more, all centered around a melodious waterfall which dilutes the buzz of the nearby Bodega Hwy.

After seeing the abundance of a such a well designed backyard productive perennial polyculture, including timber trees (such as paulonia), nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs (such as tagasaste and Eleagnus spp.), fences of peach trees, selfsown annuals (liken daikon and arugula), chickens, roofwater catchment, cob oven, solar powered lights, and much, much more, we bid farewell to Eric and his family, and continued our field trip.

Walking just a block away, we traveled back in history more than 100 years to explore the historic Gold Ridge Farm, a.k.a. the Luther Burbank Experimental Farm, founded in 1885, which is now a public park.

just some of the 800 plants that Luther Burbank introduced some 100 years ago

I will do another blog post on this legacy of the ‘Plant Wizard of Santa Rosa.

The final day of the workshop climaxed with the participants working in groups on a “Guild Build” exercise, and a hands-on planting, diversifying an existing orchard situated between annual garden beds and the wild mesic forest along a path to Brock’s home.

Brock give us the sun sector analysis of the orchard understory planting project

Eric discusses the species growth habit, functions and uses

Stacking the orchard understory with useful plants along a path was a great hands on project

Dozens of new species of plants were introduced which have never been grown at OAEC (is that possible? they have so many plants in their collection!) We all had a great experience: from theory and design, to selection and implementation, getting things in the ground.

This weekend reinforced what I already knew: both plants and people do benefit from growing together. Thank you Eric, Brock and all the participants.


Eric’s website has a wealth of resources.

I want to follow up on all the Plant & Seed Sources found here:

Keep it juicy,


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