Garden Like a Boss

Keepin’ It Wild

By James Loomis

Playground East is an experiment in permaculture.

Tucked away in the Highland Park neighborhood, “Playground East” clearly lives up to its name. The plot is indeed a playground for permaculture enthusiasts, a research station for them to further their land stewardship techniques in an urban setting.

The difference between the permaculture approach to food cultivation and that of most other organic agriculture is seen between Playground East and their neighbor on the adjacent plot, Keepin’ it Real Vegetables. Tidy organized rows of crops on one side, sprawling guilds of multi-story plant communities on the other. Keepin’ it Real vs. keepin’ it wild; I’m pretty sure both sides of the fence are winning.

Boasting over 40 varieties of edible and medicinal perennials, the Playground East vision is facilitated by Jim French. “Even the weeds we have are edible and medicinal,” he says. “Take plantain, for example. If you get stung, you chew some leaves into poultice, apply it to the sting, and voila! No more pain.”

The word “permaculture” describes an approach to agriculture based on attention to interrelationships among plants, trees, animals, insects, and other components for health and productivity. A pillar of the Salt Lake City permaculture community, Jim leaves his vegetative signature wherever he goes: It’s purple orach, a delicious spinach-like plant that propagates profusely (see CATALYST, July 2017—“Orach: Nutritious, Attractive and Easy to Grow!”) or as I have dubbed it, “Jim French Graffiti.” Whenever Jim works your property, the purple orach will soon follow. Jim never leaves the house without a pouch full of seeds.

The Playground East project began on November 5, 2014, as a renovation of a plot previously used for vegetable production on a large lot owned by Michelle and Michael Colvin. The 1/8 acre garden was designed on a napkin and built the same day—which, Jim will admit, is perhaps the worst faux pas an individual might commit in the permaculture design process.

However, the team got it right, and the garden is lush and productive in less than four years. With flood irrigation waters that don’t begin flowing until late May or early June (and then only sporadically, as the garden is at the end of the irrigation line), the layout and water conservation strategies are crucial for success in our arid climate. (At crucial times, Jim has been known to deliver water to the plot on his electric-assist bicycle.) “It’s all about holding the winter snow and the spring rain. It’s really worked,” says Jim as he points out the various elements interlinked to form the foundation of the garden.

A giant “J”-shaped Hugelkultur mound forms the perimeter on two sides. Hugelkultur is a German technique for building soil and storing water by burying stumps, logs and other excess woody material that often pile up on large land stewardship projects. This material is combined with compostable materials as it is buried, then covered with soil, which results in the perfect habitat for beneficial fungi to colonize and consume the wood. This liberates the nutrients held within, and the fungal biomass forms a giant biological sponge which holds tremendous amounts of water and fertility which it can then deliver to plants at a later date, in exchange for starches and sugars from the plants.

Deep mulching is another strategy Jim uses to preserve moisture, and he is taking this technique to the next level by eventually producing all of the mulch needed on site. Perennial winter rye grass, comfrey, ornamental grasses, lamb’s quarters and other plants are routinely “chopped and dropped” to continually renew the mulch layer. Plants such as comfrey, as well as dandelion and chicory, act as “dynamic nutrient accumulators.” When included in this mix of mulch plants, they provide additional nutrients mined from the subsoil by their deep taproots.

Most importantly, the shift from annual food plants to perennial food plants is what makes garden systems like Playground East so resilient and efficient, while significantly lightening the workload for the land steward. Egyptian walking onion and tansy enjoy the protection of a peach tree overhead, and all three stand guard over strawberries and thyme. Elderberry, honeyberry, gooseberry and seaberry (aka sea buckthorn) are peppered around the plot, all very drought tolerant and delicious. Blackberries and red, golden, and black raspberries lurk everywhere.

“I look at Playground East as a way to spread the community’s plant library. It’s an incubator for other people’s successes. The raspberries originally came from my neighbors. They establish themselves here and then go on to others. Ninety-eight percent of the plants here were orphans,” Jim says.

All of this work was done without power tools or petroleum, “except that one time I borrowed a Sawzall,” he admits. Jim usually commutes to the site, and almost everywhere else, by bike.

Jim is a permaculturist even beyond the garden. He’s active on community issues of recycling, solar power and air quality, and since the beginning has been an invaluable assistant to CATALYST in the ongoing success of the annual Clean Air Solutions Fair.

“It’s a wonderful situation,” Jim says, looking around.

You might say the world is his playground.

James Loomis is the Green Team farm manager for Wasatch Community Gardens.

This article was originally published on June 29, 2018.