Very often visitors stand outside Lillie House, on Douglas Avenue in Kalamazoo, admiring the lush and fragrant appeal of its gardens with their beautiful plants and trees, butterflies, bees and birds.
Invariably, somebody will ask if anything growing there is edible. The couple who own the home, Mike Hoag and Kim Willis, reply with a lengthy list of culinary and/or medicinal perennials and self-sowing annuals: chives, oregano, garlic greens, salad greens, salad burnet, sea kale, valerian, sorrel, Egyptian walking onions, Welsh onions, Turkish rocket, Chinese Mormon apricot, wild cress, mushrooms, asparagus, potatoes, marshmallow and Good King Henry — more than 200 species, many of them indigenous to the Kalamazoo region.
“My favorite fruits and vegetables are native,” says Hoag. “Paw paws, black walnuts, persimmons, milkweed, Jerusalem artichokes, ramps. In a store, these are ridiculously expensive, but they’re wild and easily grown here.”
Inside their home, which was built circa 1850, Willis displays “the apothecary,” a glass-door cabinet filled with dried herbs, ground and preserved in jars for teas and concoctions. “The more I work with plants and recipes, the more I can teach our students to try new things,” she says, making reference to the couple’s business, Lillie House Permaculture, which offers classes, products and services related to creating edible landscapes.
“Our classes start in May,” says Hoag, “and we hold one class per month throughout the growing season so we can demo, right here on our urban one-half acre, what people should be thinking about at certain times of the year.”
The couple, who are both in their late 30s, also offer nursery stock of perennial vegetables for sale or barter and run a community-supported edible forest garden program through which they teach people how to plant a natural, organic ecosystem of trees and understory plants to provide food, fruit and other materials to meet human needs. Hoag, whose sole occupation is this joint venture, provides landscaping consultation on how to convert land into natural, edible plots. Willis is also employed as development director at local public radio station WMUK.
What is permaculture?
Permaculture began in the 1970s as a system of “permanent agriculture,” as defined by its founders, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. It has since evolved into a way of “permanent culture” applicable to neighborhoods, cities, businesses and organizations.
Willis and Hoag first heard about the concept while listening to a radio broadcast in 2002, when they were students at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Not having land, they made a porch garden at their apartment and foraged for berries and wild edibles along their favorite bike path. They studied with the enterprises Midwest Permaculture, in Illinois, and Angelic Organics, in Wisconsin, and also worked as interns with a permaculture farmer in Illinois.
“Both of us had been longtime activists,” Willis says, “but political change can be slow and frustrating. When we discovered permaculture, we found that we could take direct action on the issues we care about by improving the quality of life of people around us. We determined that if we can make sustainable living attractive, we can create ‘viral change’ in the world.”
For several years, while driving from northern Illinois, where they were living, to Flint to visit Hoag’s parents, they often stopped in Kalamazoo and were drawn to the community’s devotion to culture, activism and food, all of which, they say, “makes this area fertile ground for the permaculture movement.”
They moved here in 2012 and came into direct contact with the area’s permaculture community, including organizations like Van-Kal Permaculture and Community Organized Regenerative Earthcare (CORE); dozens of permaculture-related homesteads, including tiny houses such as the one designed and built by Habitat for Humanity for Kalamazoo environmentalist Ben Brown; and “regenerative enterprises” like Oikos Tree Crops and Fido Motors. The couple connected with permaculture education programs at Come and See Farm, in Berrien Springs, and Gibbs House, an innovative permaculture homestead for students on Western Michigan University’s Parkview campus.
“Kalamazoo has more than a dozen forest gardens and permaculture projects in development,” says Hoag. “Anyone can start learning with Van-Kal Permaculture or get their own garden plot through CORE.”
With a business slogan of “We create pathways to plenty,” Willis and Hoag offer products and services aimed at what they see as a more regenerative lifestyle in which people grow stronger, healthier, wealthier and wiser every day. They believe that, rather than spending time and energy fighting nature, humankind can utilize natural systems to purify water, replenish soil and grow food, fuel, craft materials and medicine.
“Permaculture favors small, local solutions,” explains Hoag. “That’s why we established our business for livelihood rather than with the intention of growing into a big company. We want to operate in a way that’s conducive to a small group of people working together.”
Willis concurs. “I want to be on a first-name basis and have quality time with everyone who interacts with us. I don’t want to get so big that I can’t remember who our customers are and what projects they’re working on.”
These words relate to a 2001 essay, “Just So Much and No More,” by environmentalist Donella Meadows, who is one of the couple’s favorite writers. “The first commandment of economics is: Grow,” she writes. “Grow forever. … Want more, make more, earn more, spend more, ever more. … The first commandment of Earth is: Enough. Just so much and no more. … Everything born of the Earth grows to its appropriate size and then stops.”
Creating ‘ecological guilds’
Permaculture plantings involve the creation of ecological guilds, which include diverse plant species that work together to establish a cooperative community through self-mulching, water and energy conservation, and repelling pests. The classic example is the “Three Sisters” — beans, corn and squash planted together in mounds. Beans are a natural fertilizer, corn provides a stalk on which bean vines can grow, and the squash’s broad leaves shade the soil and keep it moist. All three are pest-resilient because insects drawn to one are repelled by the others.
Hoag and Willis avoid the time-consuming task of weeding. Instead, they replace unwanted invaders (dandelion, thistle, garlic mustard, grass) with plants that will contribute to the guild community. Rather than maintaining a compost pit, which requires attention and wheelbarrowing, they chop aging or inessential plants and drop them at the same location, making compost right in the garden, just the way a forest does.
This practice of saving work encompasses the establishment of permaculture zones, which reflect an ergonomic design system of energy conservation. Zone 1 is the place where time is invested daily. To avoid unnecessary steps, permaculturists plant their primary garden closest to the house, not in a far corner of the yard, and they keep their tools nearby. At Lillie House, Zone 1 is the home’s front yard, where, Willis says, “we easily reap the rewards of harvesting fresh food every day throughout the season.”
Their front yard garden also reminds them that there’s no place like home. “On more than one occasion after we’ve been out of town, we’ve gotten out of our car and instantly gone to the front yard to see what’s going on,” says Willis. “We gravitate to some fruit or berries or green beans and sit on the front steps munching. ‘We’re home,’ we say. We don’t even go into the house first.”
Zones 2, 3 and 4 are each farther from the house and populated by plants that require less attention, maybe once a week, maybe once a month. Zone 5, farthest away, is wilderness, where the ecosystem remains unmanaged. “Zone 5 is the teacher, the place we go to see how nature works all on its own,” says Hoag.
Zones for life
This awareness of zones leads to the realization that permaculture is relevant to all aspects of life, not just plants and trees. In some homes, for example, laundry machines are being installed near the kitchen or in a bathroom — Zone 1 — making them more accessible than having them located in a basement.
Taking this concept of zones out of the home, permaculturists note that every neighborhood could be designed to have an amply-stocked grocery store and a cultural center that residents can easily access, preferably on foot or motorized scooter.
Urban renewal programs could be designed to take advantage of a city’s existing housing infrastructure, including homes in disrepair, to provide skilled-trades training, work opportunities, empowerment, economic autonomy and the possibility of home ownership for people who are unemployed and/or homeless.
“Permaculture is a set of design tools rather than a political ideology,” says Hoag. “It’s about applying the philosophy of permanent culture to housing, transportation, buildings and societal systems that foster fellowship within community.” This, permaculturists claim, gives people more beautiful, meaningful lives.
Which leads to the most primal zone: Zone 0, the self. Speaking reverently, Hoag says, “You don’t need to have a particular religious belief to be involved with permaculture, but you do need to work within your internal self and know what makes you happy, what makes your life regenerative.”
Permaculturists relate to “multi-capital abundance” and identify eight “capitals” or “valuable resources” by which a person’s wealth might be measured: financial, spiritual, social, cultural, intellectual, experiential, living and material.
“Our society tends to think only about financial capital, but in permaculture, money isn’t the only capital,” Hoag and Willis say. “To be really wealthy, identify what things in life represent true wealth to you and then intentionally invest in those.”