What does Ecological Gardens do and what is your organization's goal?
Ecological Gardens started in 2000 as a permaculture design and installation company. Our goal is to build healthy living landscapes that grow soil, produce nutritious food and medicine, create quality habitat as well as connect people to the land and the rest of nature.
Over the years we’ve transformed hundreds of landscapes in people’s backyards, urban farms, rooftop farms, public spaces, rural farms, and homesteads. Our work has been about 75% urban and 25% rural.
For the last three years we feel like we’ve been operating at ground zero of climate change; trying to build resilient landscapes in the midst of changing weather patterns, the decline of pollinators, and rapid swings in rainfall. We’ve gone through a process of re-evaluating our designs and our work focus. How can we continue to create abundance in the years ahead? What legacy trees do we plant; which ones will be here in 300 years? How do we get even better at jumpstarting soil? How do we design for both flood and drought in the same season?
This is leading us to shift more of our work towards broadacre and regenerative agriculture. The last 5 years have seen amazing advances in knowledge and technology in rapid soil building and carbon sequestration using intensive grazing systems and an explosion in new highly nutritious perennial food crops. There is an urgent need to sequester carbon on larger tracts of land and grow nutritious, non-genetically engineered, perennial crops for people and animals.
Do environmental considerations and resources dictate your landscape designs?
Our designs are based on a careful assessment of the site and the people’s goals, vision, skills, and interests. We design to optimize the long-term health of the land but for any design to be successful it must be grounded in the capacities (time, money, skills and networks) of people living on the site.
What scales have you worked on? Is there a specific scale you specialize in or prefer to design for?
We work at a wide variety of scales and like the challenges and opportunities each present. Over the last several years we’ve been expanding our broadacre work and public spaces work.
What type of clients hire you - what do they care about and what are their needs?
In the early years people were looking for sustainable landscapes and native plants. Then people began wanting more food in their spaces. Over the last 3-4 years many people have been looking for a permaculture design, they want to do what’s right for the earth (bees, birds and their land); or they want to start a farm. Some people just want a landscape design but most people also want us to implement them.
How many people work here and what are their roles?
Paula, Lindsay and Laura are the core of the Ecological Gardens team. Most of us have worked together since 2006.
Paula is the owner and lead designer, focused on designing large-scale urban and rural designs.
Lindsay manages the rural installation crew and is focused on regenerative agriculture work. She is also in the process of starting a perennial plant nursery.
Laura manages the urban installation crew and is focused on urban design work.
Depending on the needs of a particular job we frequently subcontract with other businesses and individuals.
How did you each become involved with this work and why do you do it?
Paula - I came to this work from a deep love of the land, a concern for the loss of biological diversity, and what I, as an individual, could do to change that. To me, re-patterning our relationship with the land from an extractive to a restorative one is our greatest hope for the future.
I love designing and problem solving with the land, pushing my knowledge deeper, and creating places that show people what’s possible. By doing this work, we are healing the land and creating pathways for others to develop a deeper connection with it.
Lindsay – After studying environmental systems in college I travelled to Guatemala and worked at two permaculture farms. I became versed in how ecological farming works and returned to Minnesota to work on cold climate ecological solutions. I began working with Paula in 2005 learning design skills, working on the crew and collaborating with a burgeoning grassroots permaculture community.
Laura – Permaculture has always had an intuitive appeal. I grew up in a family that composted, recycled, shopped locally and lived within close proximity to many of our relatives. As a young person at home, I spent more hours outside than in, and when inside I spent my hours caring for household plants and reading Ranger Rick magazines and gardening books. At school I routinely raised money to protect the rain forest. I learned about turning off lights and unplugging unused appliances to conserve energy and using water sparingly.
My understanding was that we were all in this together and that we all had a part to play. So when I came across the concept of permaculture I couldn’t have been more delighted; here was a framework to lead us all further in exploring and manifesting a holistic connection to the world we live in. I love that at Ecological Gardens we aim to increase connections between our clients and the soil, water, plants, neighbors and the many diverse creatures whom inhabit the planet with us. We are challenged daily in our work and presented with plenty of opportunities for creative problem-solving; every site is unique. Last, but not least, I’m able to spend my days largely outdoors, which is a source of great joy in my life.
Do you have a grandparent or close elders who influenced your work? If so, how did they impact you?
Paula – I grew up on a diverse family farm in northwestern Iowa with lots of plants and animals. My Mom was a major influence in my life. She was a teacher and a farmer alongside my Dad. She helped me develop an appreciation for nature, its amazing cycles and processes, and taught me how to work with the land at an early age.
Lindsay – My grandparents were not farmers or designers. I grew up with a strong influence of being in nature and gardening from my Dad. I have been influenced by many elder farmers in my life, including Bruce Bacon at Garden Farme and Audrey Arner at Moonstone Farm.
Laura – My Mom was raised on a small hobby farm and my Dad in the city on a large lot with fruit trees, berries, vegetables and flowers. This garden in the city is where I first remember having ate fresh tomatoes, rhubarb and apples. My parents likewise have always had an appreciation for diverse perennial plantings, berries and vegetables. While growing up I spent hours in our garden learning to care for and propagate the many plants. I later bought my Grandparent’s home where my Dad grew up and have since expanded the gardens adding chickens and guinea pigs.
Can you define the term ‘Pemaculture’? How does permaculture play a role in your business and the landscape designs you create?
Permaculture is a design system based on a set of ethics – Care for Earth, Care for People, Care for the Future – and a set of design principles developed from studying how natural systems create abundance and resilience.
At Ecological Gardens we use this design process in our work. We believe that people are part of nature and the healthiest landscapes create opportunities for people to interact with nature. We look at the landscape from a whole systems perspective, assessing the flow of energy, people and materials through a site. We lay out the landscape in an energy-efficient design based on zones of use. We consciously position plants on the landscape to strengthen relationships between plants and animals, soil organisms and plants, plants and pollinators, and plants and people.
Why would someone choose Ecological Gardens over another landscape design company? Do you specialize in any particular types of design?
We specialize in regenerative, multifunctional landscapes that produce food, function, and beauty.
At an urban scale, most of our designs incorporate annual and perennial foods (fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs), pollinator habitat, bee lawns, unique groundcover mixes, micro-topography, dry creek beds, and rain gardens. Other features - such as natural play spaces, forest gardens, patios, chicken coops, etc. - can also be incorporated depending on client goals.
At a rural scale, our designs incorporate earthworks, waterworks, windbreaks, chemical buffers, insectory islands, fedges, animals and animal paddocks, orchards, forest gardens and kitchen gardens. Other features – buildings, crop plans and livestock plans – can also be incorporated depending on client goals.
Our approach is to create a healthy landscape that works for the people living on the property; one they can enjoy living and working in. Many of our designs are implemented in phases so we often have a long-term relationship with our customers.
Our designers are all trained in permaculture design and whole system thinking. They understand soil, plants, animals, and garden or farm themselves.
We work collaboratively with our customers. Over 90% work with us during the implementation so we can teach while we work and they get a deeper understanding of their land.
We are a business run by women. This is very unusual in the land-based industries particularly in installations. People are always surprised by this.
Can you walk us through your basic design process for new clients?
Our design process varies depending on the scale of the property.
For properties of 2 acres or less:
We start with a design questionnaire and a consultation to collect a customer’s goals and vision, then we do a site assessment, looking at topography, soil, sunlight, water, wind, existing plants, pests and weed pressures. The customer’s requirements and the site assessment are the main inputs to our design. We draw a base map, lay out the flow of the site and define spaces, then we do detail design. The customer receives the design, a detailed plant list, and a design report. The design report lists soil, water, and predator strategies along with proposed implementation phases and a phase one cost estimate.
For farms and homesteads of 2 acres or more:
We follow a similar process but use some different tools and go into more depth.
As part of the site assessment, we create a set of overlays that include aerial, topography, soil, access, and existing landscape patches. After that we do a sector-zone analysis, design proposed patches and uses, and develop a staged implementation plan. The customer receives the patch design and a report that identifies sectors and zones of use along with earthworks, disturbance strategies, plant communities and infrastructure for each patch, and the proposed implementation plan. Based on this we decide next steps for detail design and implementation.
For larger properties we are now offering a Drone Aerial and Ortho Design option:
We partner with a company that uses drones to get an up-to-date aerial video of the land and then translates it into a 3D model of the property. This can be very helpful on a larger scale, after major earthworks, and be a useful tool for monitoring changes in landscape health over time.
In addition to design we also do property assessments and consultations.
What were you most proud of this past year?
We received two awards for our work in public spaces this year and we’re just starting this work!!
We were awarded a 2014 Best Places Award through the Sensible Land Use Coalition for our Urban Flower Field project, a collaboration with Public Arts St. Paul, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and others. Urban Flower Field is a transitional park in downtown St. Paul that has 96 soil remediation plots and some amazing public artwork. We’re excited to be doing art-science collaborations that educate people about the environment. Movies and educational events are also happening there.
We also received the 2014 Best Permaculture Garden Award from Metro Blooms for our Tiny Diner restaurant landscape design in south Minneapolis. It was great to collaborate with Kim Bartmann and Koby Jeschkeit-hagen on incorporating many elements into a public space – edible gardens, rooftop bees, integrated water management, a willow thicket playhouse for children and a community education space. We’re excited about the opportunity to showcase what’s possible in public spaces!
We are especially excited about bringing regenerative agriculture work to the next level with larger implementations. This spring we’ll be planting 4 acres of hazelnuts, using goats and pigs to forage buckthorn, set up several multi-species grazing systems, and planting berries, fedges, and a variety of crops at several farms.
What are the biggest challenges you think you’ll face this coming year? How do you plan to address them?
Our biggest challenges are:
- Climate change; we will continue to evaluate our designs and different plant varieties to see how well they are adapting to the shifting climate and adjust accordingly.
- Access to high quality perennial plant material; either not enough of it is available locally or it has neonicitinoids and other harmful chemicals applied. We are starting our own nursery and helping others do the same to increase healthy plant material for the future.
- Finding earthworks and other contractors that share our values and design approach. We are actively building our network of collaborators in areas where we’re implementing landscape designs.
- Keeping this work affordable for our customers while earning a living for ourselves. Most of our customers are middle income or have a limited income. We will broaden our products and services and continue to experiment with ways to accommodate different peoples’ situations.
How can people support what you’re doing?
By spreading the word about what we do! We want to grow our work and get more of it in the ground. Let us know of any good partners to collaborate with!
Photographs by Minneapolis-based photographer Lauren Carpenter, except where otherwise noted.