Exploring An Urban Oasis: The Ecology Center
"Everything you see around you was the product of the last 12 years. You can make any space look like this; you need to just want to. Our schools could look like this; our homes could look like this; our business parks, and anywhere else that we recreate and spend time could be brought back into a relationship with the Earth."
– Jonathan Zaidman, Director of Engagement & Impact at The Ecology Center
A dirt lot, two palm trees, a small cottage house—it's almost unimaginable that the space, which was once home to the city's construction trucks, is now a thriving ecological oasis. Every inch of The Ecology Center was created with intention, defying the odds of its drought-ridden environment. The truth is, every land area rippled out from Southern California could model the farm, especially in a climate of minimal water. All it takes is a little patience in design, and even the blackest of thumbs could create a colorful, edible garden on an acre or less. There's no time like the present to swap out traditional grass lawns for a self-sustaining Eden. Guided by observations from The Ecology Center, take one step forward in reclaiming your food system.
Novice but necessary. Maps are the best way to conceptualize the current conditions of your home or community space. Sourcing a pre-existing map is easy but may not be entirely accurate. Get a little more creative by starting from scratch, throwing in a dash of color to section off different areas of importance. Maps should always include boundaries, pathways, structures, existing plant and animal life, and any climate-specific notes that would be pertinent to maintaining a garden.
A great guide to further detailing a land map is to use Yeomans Keyline Scale of Permanence (modified by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren). The idea behind the scale is to understand which elements of the landscape are fixed and which are mutable. This pattern of assessment proves useful in increasing the health, fertility, and productivity of the land. From most to least permanent, these questions can help formulate the design pattern used in a garden.
Climate. Does it snow? Rain? Is there a drought or lack of water? Is it humid? Foggy? Climate is important when understanding local and extreme weather. Since weather cannot be controlled, understanding the climate can assist in predicting climatic conditions, weather forecasts, and potential climate disasters.
Landform. What physical characteristics can be attributed to the plot? What is the elevation? Plant placement and growth rely on understanding landforms, including geology and positioning.
Water. What water sources are currently existing (i.e., wells, tanks, and water lines)? Where is the water pool when it rains? Which way and how quickly does water flow? Does it spread evenly across a system? These questions will give you a good indication of how to construct catch and store systems and irrigation.
Access points: How do you get from point A to point B? Which pathways are present for accessing different areas of land? Roads or paths are essential in the conception of how to move materials easily across a landscape.
Plants and Vegetation. What is already growing in a space? Are they thriving or not? Are there problems with the species (i.e., disease)? What animals live in and are dependent on those ecosystems?
Microclimate. Are there tunnels of wind? Are there pockets of frost? Are some areas cool and shady while others are hot and sunny? Where do these microclimates manifest? Though micro-climates are mutable, they do occur on a regular basis in certain areas. Working with microclimates rather than against them could be one of the most energy-efficient methods for permaculture design.
Buildings and Infrastructure. What are the conditions of the buildings already in existence? What is their primary function? Which materials are they made out of? Is there power, electricity, or other utility lines running above or below the land? Mapping areas of human activity are essential if you are co-sharing a space with an intentional garden. Infrastructure becomes important when working on understanding its benefits and hindrances to biodiversity.
Sub-Divisional Fences. How are different areas of the land separated? Fences are mutable and intend to segregate different areas of the farm, for example, separating animals and allowing them to enter designated areas when appropriate.
Soil. What is the condition of the soil? How are you going to improve soil quality over time?
Maps record the complete system and relative time from the past, present, and future. It will be virtually impossible to successfully design a permaculture system without creating or sourcing a baseline map of an area.
"The spider on its web, with its concentric and radial design, evokes zone and sector site planning, the best-known and perhaps most widely applied aspect of Permaculture design. The design pattern of the web is clear, but the details always vary."
- David Holmgren
What is a zone? In permaculture, zones are used to map the placement of each element of a system in order to understand their energetic flow in order to conserve energy. Like a spider's web, the closer to the center point, the more "efficient and intensive" the energy input is. Moving away from the center point, elements require fewer human inputs and are considered by Holmgren to be more self-sufficient. It's best to work outwards from Zone 0, which can be the home or permanent structure that hosts the highest level of human activity. Understanding patterns of movement around a garden will help in determining where the placement of necessary elements is best suited. Zones are sorted by importance, as closer proximity to human activity is more easily managed. In urban or community gardens, schools, libraries, parks, or other public community spaces can also be broken down into zones.
"If we extend our activities too far and fast while the immediate territory is not organized and working well, we find our energy dissipated." - David Holmgren
Zone 0: The Home. Where most basic daily needs are met, this zone requires the most amount of human energy and attention.
Zone I: The Primary Edible Garden. In close proximity to the home, this area is the highest-yielding, most intensive edible garden. This area is also where most socialization occurs, including play areas, patios/decks, compost and garbage storage, etc.
Zone II: Orchards and Small Animals. Requiring less energy input than Zones 0 and I, this zone can still be intensively gardened but at a lesser scale. The area is best used for food forests, including varied types of small or soft trees (i.e., fruit trees) or small animals such as pigs, goats, chickens, hens, and ducks. Zone II should aim to build and conserve soil and reduce pest entry into Zones 0 and I.
*Depending on the size of the lot, Zones III, IV and V may not be relevant but should be mentioned.*
Zone III: Commercial Crops. Including sown pastures, plantations, dams and large livestock, this area can be extended to introduce agroforestry designs.
Zone IV: Managed rangeland, forests, and wetlands. This is where restorative forests should be planted. Zone IV functions to support the entire ecosystem,
Zone V: Wilderness. This zone requires the least amount of energy input and is the least frequented by humans and human activity. Large trees and free-roaming wildlife are generally seen throughout this area.
"When everyone has this understanding, the mandala-like pattern of zones and sectors becomes a key building block in a bioregional culture of the place." - Dave Holmgren
In addition to utilizing internal flows of energy through zoning, sector planning outlines external energy flows such as wind, rain, water, solar, and fire—also referred to as "wild energies." Sectors are important in understanding risk management and spatial orientation. For example, sun sectors are seasonal and cyclical, changing based on the time of year and day. Calculating sunlight allows for maximal plant placement. All information regarding sectors can be sourced from bioregional data and step one in permaculture design—observation.
Is the plot sloped? Gravity can always be used in favor of a system and to maximize efficiency. For example, water runoff will flow downward, so if you place water sources such as tanks at the top of a hill, gravity can be used to feed the water downhill without requiring additional pressure systems.
Which way will your garden face? Orientation is essential to consider due to the placement of an element and the best use of solar energy. Some plants are sun-lovers, but many love to stay in the shade.
Soil and water are the most critical elements in developing a thriving permaculture garden. Although this can be an additional, more meticulous step, it would be beneficial to understand the quality and pH of both Earth and bodies of water available in a space. DIY Testing or testing kits from baseline samples give a great indication of input needed for thriving plant life. Testing soil can also tell you the type of soil you're working with; clay, sand, silt, or loam.
An additional recommendation is for testing the toxicity and contamination of soil and water, which is best done through research institutions and laboratories. Soil and water contaminants will ultimately become absorbed into a garden, thus creating diseases that can spread rapidly among all living organisms within a system. Preventative testing is vital to plant, animal, and human health.
Plant Hardiness Zone Maps: In year-round gardening, plants should be able to survive in the lowest average winter temperature in your area. For example, in San Juan Capistrano, California, plants should be able to grow between 25 to 40 °F (-3.9 to 4.4 °C). Use the hardiness map to determine which can be grown all year round and which can be grown seasonally.
Complementary Planting. As in the milpa system, plants grow best with their friends. Use the Old Farmer's Almanac to find out which of your plants are best suited for one another.
Succession Planting. Out with the old, in with the new. Succession planting means to have plants available on retainer, thus creating a constant yield for the entirety of the growing seasons.
Native Plants. Plants native to an environment will be the best suited to grow in the conditions already present within a system. Observing what is already growing in the wild areas of your community is a great indication of which plants are native, or you can visit a gardening center to find out.
Medicinals. Keep your ancestors alive by planting medicinals like turmeric, echinacea, lavender, and chamomile. Tried and true– most medicinals are backed by traditional medicine doctors around the world. Incorporating them is a beautiful way to increase the healing potential of your garden.
Seeders. Seed-heavy plants give an opportune moment to create an heirloom seed lab and start an annual tradition of harvesting seeds to use for the seasons to come.
Lastly, when choosing plants to go in your edible garden and permaculture design, you should grow what you eat most of and aim to make it as colorful as possible. Eating the rainbow is packed with phytonutrients, including carotenoids and flavonoids. Phytochemicals are responsible for the color, taste, smell, and texture of all plants. These potent phytonutrients are highly beneficial to the entire bodily function while preventing diseasing most types of diseases.
Once you've designed and built your system– it's time to get to planting and watch as the fruits of your labor begin to flourish.
"The first thing you have to do is learn how to farm and do so in a manner that is not only in a value and belief system environmentally sustainable, or ecological, but is also economically and energetically sustainable. Me telling you, "You should go start a farm. Good luck! You're going to lose all your money!" is not a really sustainable operation. "
Permaculture gardening is starkly similar to the proverb, "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." Each landscape is as unique as the human fingerprint. Success cannot be had by simply "copy and pasting" a system already in place. Leaders in the agroecology, permaculture and regenerative movement simply give the tools to achieve positive and sustainable outcomes. Once the foundations are built, it becomes easier to take models from different permaculture systems around the world and alter them to suit the needs of a landscape. The Ecology Center is a learning hub for those ready to begin their journey into regenerative agriculture and permaculture design.
"Not a lot of farmers' kids or grandkids are raising their hands to say, "I'd like to take this up." We are actually losing a whole generation of knowledge and skills in agriculture... So we're working in this geography to build ecological literacy in agriculture to replicate this model. And it doesn't need to be The Ecology Center. It can be your farm, my farm, his farm."
If you're a hands-on learner, the best way to learn about permaculture is to connect with a local regenerative farm and inquire about what programs they have available to the public. Luckily, you don't need to be in Southern California to get a taste of their work. There are other, varied models available across the United States and the world that also serve as blueprints for helping you establish your oasis.
"How can you on half an acre, one acre, two acres, or three probably, create a profitable, energetically sustainable, environmentally viable farm operation? What are the tools that you need? What is the crop plan? How do you operate it? How do you build relationships with chefs? How do you go to direct-to-community farmers' markets or a farm stand? That's what we are teaching our farm apprentices. What we are doing through our Farm Apprenticeship Program is demonstrating on a small footprint, which is what's available to us in Southern California. Most of us aren't coming across 20-acre or 280-acre farms. There are scattered plots of land owned by cities, school districts, and housing developers that want to see more of this work in action because of the value of the energy it creates for that community."
Farm apprentices are trained in the methodology of The Ecology Center and scale the operations by going offsite to help build the foundations for schools, communities, parks, or anywhere they are needed. An example of this was a school in Encinitas, which was the first organic school farm in the country. They also broke ground in Anaheim, a second school district inspired by the impact of the farm's work in Encinitas, and wanted a piece of the pie. In both places, The Ecology Center apprentices designed, built, staffed, programmed, and maintained the farms to their blueprint. In order to be sustainable, the apprentices hand ownership back to students and the staff so they could run the farm.
If you can be the drop in the bucket to make a bit of a difference in this bit of geography, that's a great start. Ultimately and inevitably, those waves will create ripples where it attracts folks from other spaces—the kind of passionate people that want to be a part of the movement to both take it and translate it into their language. I do believe that there are principles and practices here that, like sharing abundance, like the core values that we've established for both our internal operations and how we manage our teams and organization, as well as externally and how we show up for the community, are pretty universal. That people do come here from around the world and say—how can I do that?
Networking and connecting future farmers to impact projects hosted by school districts, land owners or developers, and cities are where the work of The Ecology Center ripples beyond Southern California. This effect is contagious; once it starts to spread, we can finally reclaim our relationship with how we grow food and how we eat food.
Get the best content and best stories
in your inbox every day!