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Book Review: Paradise Lot

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City
Written by Eric Toensmeier, with contributions from Jonathan Bates
Published by Chelsea Press, 2013

Reviewed by Penny Lewis

Like a well-designed polyculture, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates have packed a lot of valuable and interesting information into a small space. And unlike many plant books, this one truly is a page-turner.

Self described plant geeks with widely different backgrounds, Toensmeier and Bates worked together on a variety of projects before they set out to create a multi-storied, forest garden in the winter-challenged, northern state of Massachusetts. Paradise Lot is the story of this eight-year process, from inspiration, through design, implementation, and evaluation. It is a story of hard work and successful food production achieved by overcoming the challenges of a tiny urban lot, the shade of mature Norway Maples, nutrient-deficient soil, heavy compaction, clay, lead, and urban prejudice against chickens.

Toensmeier came into this project with a rich background in permaculture, having authored Perennial Vegetables and co-authored the superb two-volume set Edible Forest Gardens with Dave Jacke. But it was with the 2003 purchase of a one-tenth-acre urban property in Holyoke, MA, that the many years of apartment-dwelling research would go into practice.

Throughout the book, it is clear that Toensmeier is a skilled observer, lifelong learner, and talented educator. The reader benefits from his descriptions of lessons learned studying 12 thousand years of management practices of indigenous Californians and observing perennial polycultures at every opportunity including: harsh urban environments; tropical permaculture sites at Las Cañadas, Mexico; long established permaculture sites in England; and a demonstration farm at Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) in Florida. Though Toensmeier has written the majority of the book, like well-placed seasonings in a succulent dish, Bates contributes his own flavor to this tale with personal anecdotes and reflections.

Paradise Lot includes a good deal of permaculture theory woven throughout the case study of this urban gardening experiment. There is thoughtful planning (nearly a year’s worth before planting), careful soil management, well-researched plant selection and placement, informed resource use/reuse, and ongoing evaluation and readjustments as needed. And Toensmeier is equally open about the setbacks and design failures as the success stories. In the Guiding Succession section, he explains that natural selection is not the only editor in their garden. After years of waiting to grow sandraberry, he freely admits that the reality did not match the long-awaited dream. The small fruits had large pits, were bitter, and the plant became a dreadful weed.

In many ways, Paradise Lot is a reality check on the possibilities of perennial food production for both authors and readers. After a few years testing their original lofty goal to create “a mega-diverse living ark of useful and multifunctional plants,” Toensmeier and Bates revise their goal to something more achievable and realistic “to grow the things that we like to eat, that grow well for us, and assemble them in functioning polycultures.”

The delightful sub-text of this permaculture tale is that of two single guys in search of life mates to share the bounty of their gardens. No spoiler alert here, you will have to read the book to find out how well they achieved those very personal goals. And I highly recommend that you do.

Eric Toensmeier will be a featured speaker at the ELA Conference on February 28th. Copies of this and other of Toensmeier’s titles will be available at the ELA Conference Bookstore where he will also be signing books.