Monday, May 14, 2012

Urban Farm: Ben Stallings

Ben Stallings invited visitors to tour his Urban Farm in Emporia for International Permaculture Day on May 6, 2012. Ben's 1920-era home sits on approximately 1/10th of an acre. Once you account for the house, the driveway, sidewalks and a small shed out back, there's not a whole heck of a lot of yard space left. Ben's approach to yard management, however, is appealing.

"Taking care of a lawn can be a lot of work," Ben says. "But it's not productive work."

Think of it in these terms: every time you mow your lawn you are harvesting, but in a traditional yard, you receive no benefit from the harvest.

When Ben bought the home in 2008, the yard was primarily grass and volunteer trees. Ben's goal was to reduce the amount of time needed to maintain the lawn and work it into something that would produce a good and useful harvest. He wanted the resulting garden his lawn would become to eventually be less work than the existing grass was.

Ben's background includes a year-long tour on bicycle of various ecovillages and intentional communities. This prompted his interest in permaculture. He become a certified permaculture designer in 2010 and his urban farm, starting with 36 crops in its first year, now supplies food for he and his wife, as well as cash crops for the Emporia Farmers Market where he has been participating as a vendor for three years now.

Ben does not till his soil, but instead uses a process called sheet mulching to enhance his soil and create the beds that become home to his low-maintenance garden plots. He arranges his plants in guilds, meaning that each plant should play some role in supporting the other plants in the guild. Via succession, the harvest from the guilds should change as each system matures. The area around a young walnut tree, for instance, currently grows mulberries, chive and aronia. Onions attract beneficial insects. Beans planted next to onions thrive where beans planted alone do less well.

The back yard includes a greenhouse in its second incarnation. A PVC framed hoop house sort of set up failed to stand up to snow a previous winter. A wooden frame now replaces the original design. In theory, the greenhouse is host to three poly-cultures (plants that grow better together than separately) and he relies on vertical growing to help shad plants that don't tolerate heat as well. 

Since Ben considers much of his effort experimental, there really is no failure on his urban farm. What works becomes material for him to incorporate into his designs for clients. What doesn't work simply gives him ideas for new directions to try at a later date.

An audio recording of the tour, complete with photo illustrations, can be found at Interdependent Web, as well as several other resources of value to those interested in permaculture.

What is permaculture?
"In brief, it is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating elements as a single-product system."
Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison 

Ben offered his guests strawberries and cream and chocolate mint tea. The strawberries were so sweet I never even bothered with the cream. They were perfect, sun drenched and hand picked. And everywhere I looked I saw another ripe one or two begging to be tasted.

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