Hand & Heart: Academic Learning in the South

Nestled near the Black Willow River in Alabama and focusing on community-led design, The Rural Studio part of Auburn University, has committed to guiding the next generation of land-based activists.

Students to the “Studio’s” farm, part of the larger learning environment of program

Students to the “Studio’s” farm, part of the larger learning environment of program

Along with farming, students learn to collaborate on designing and building projects.

Along with farming, students learn to collaborate on designing and building projects.

The studio was founded in 1993 by architects Samuel Mockbee and D. K. Ruth. It is led by UK-born architect Andrew Freear. Each year the program builds five or so projects - a house by the third-year students, three thesis projects by groups of 3-5 fifth-year students, and one or more outreach studio projects. The Rural Studio has built more than 80 houses and civic projects in HalePerry and Marengo counties.

The concept design for their greenhouse, tool shed and cleaning zone for crops

The concept design for their greenhouse, tool shed and cleaning zone for crops

Woven Art: Baskets by James Carthel

Nestled in the senior living community near Kellogg Creek, Milwuakie (south of Portland) lives the enigmatic basket weaver, James Carthel. A retired school principal and native of Texas, James, now in his 80’s, focuses most of his time on gardening and basket making.

Using everything from Poplar to Cedar, Yucca and Grape and from Kudzu to Walnut, James has become versed in most of the known basket fibers in North America.


No great basket maker, however, is complete without using unappreciated fibers! Below, James’ mini recycled plastic baskets.

Nothing is not of the Earth...
— James Carthel

An avid member of the Columbia Basin Basketry Guild, learning closely from native elders, as well as once a board member of the Texas Basket Weavers Association, James has honed his talents and is recognized in Oregon, around the country and even internationally - when I visited with James he had just been in contact with weavers in St. Petersburg, Russia. Keeping this art alive has been Jame’s commitment to his natural environment.

Designing Within: Robert Burle Marx

Robert Burle Marx (August 4, 1909 – June 4, 1994), was an eccentric Brazilian landscape architect, painter, industrial designer, and all-around naturalist. A natural-born plant enthusiast/breeder, Burle Marx made his mark* by designing from within the natural setting. From major highway arteries to private residences and from restoration initiatives to sprawling pubic parks he's brought a sense of whimsy and inspiration to my life and certainly, to my work.

In some Permaculture Design Courses (PDC's), little thought is focused on the designing-element. However, at our Urban PDC's, we truly emphasize creativity and thinking from within the property rather than from a two-dimensional piece of paper. Burle-Marx had a way of brining his projects to life, something permaculture strives to do both with the human element and with the land. 


Agroforestry: Coppice & Pollard Woodland for Food, Fiber and Timber

I have seen a number of willing people with limited skills evolve into confident woods[people] who are actively working woodlands and finding a livelihood 
— Ben Law, "The Woodland Way"

Kent Food Forest, UK - a managed ecosystem for wild and human habitat. 

When I was younger, forests had always been beautiful, unmanaged, wild and regenerative landscapes; human involvement was only for play and learning. Yet, as I began to understand (I was a late bloomer) the layers of forest ecologies I slowly learned that humans now play, and have played for many years, an integral role in the cycle of forests. In this post, we'll be diving into a particular practice of human intervention termed, Coppicing and Pollarding.

Coppicing: Successful cutting of broadleaf woodland during the dormant winter period, keeping alive the stump or ‘stool’ and allowing for future growth of fine straight wood. This practice feeds both human and tree while allowing the leaf fall to return the needed-nutrients back the roots. Food, fiber, firewood, and building material are a by-product and value-added yield from this practice.

Pollarding: Similarl is the practice of harvesting the top layer (at least roughly 6’ above the ground). The same growth appears as coppicing - strong and narrow saplings -  but instead from the top layer of the tree. Historically cultivated around animals to keep fresh young saplings away from hungry grazers.

"The Woodland Way" by Ben Law

This form of agroecology has its roots all over the world and in the last few centuries has gained environmental traction in the UK. Ben Law, (mentioned above and in image) is a fellow I've been following for around four years now - his books (among those listed below), go pretty deep into not only copping and pollarding but also the financial structure of resilient forest management, cottage industries, and water restoration. 

For instance, sweet chestnut, ash, hornbeam and yew are just some of the tree species Law focuses on in his books - listing average pricing/acre @ around $1200/yr. From timber to food and and from animal forage to biochar. Not to mention sustaining the living habitat for man years. 

Wattled willow makes an attractive fence

For a clients property, we're in the design phase of focusing on their perimeter fence line - taking the old design of a hedge, and incorporating coppicing/pollarding and edible fruits = "Fedge", or fruiting hedge. Not only creating a visual and sound barrier from the road but also cultivating an abundant food/timber-producing habitat. 

Beavercreek, Oregon - potential fedge along this northern edge.

Here's the working plant list (not complete) - mimicking layers of the forest here: 


  • Black locust/Honey Locust: Prime species for this, edible blossoms, nitrogen fixer but also one of the most important fast-growing hardwoods for firewood production

  • Red Alder

  • Linden (basswood)

  • Sweet Chestnut

  • Willow (woven throughout)


  • Persian Mulberry

  • Black Elderberry

  • Persimmon 

  • Willow (woven throughout) 

Shrubs: Early succession of edible/Medicinal crops:

  • Black Currants

  • Witch Hazel

  • Blueberries

Ground Covers / Mulching

  • Oats, Rye, Clover

  • Lupine, Marigolds, Daylily, Comfrey, BeeBalm 

  • Inoculate woodchip mulch with king stropharia (wine cap) mushrooms

On our homestead here in Oregon, there's a beaked hazelnut (a solid coppicing species) - its wedged between the fence-line and our wood storage. We use it for woven bamboo fence posts and kindling. Note the catkin growth, a sure sign of when one should be pruning (coppicing/pollarding).

Whether you're on a small urban lot or a multi-acre homestead, this practice and other agroforestry techniques can greatly improve abundance, habitat and livelihood! 




*** "Tree Crops" (1929) was one of the catalysts for permaculture (1970's) - note the byline: A Permanent Agriculture!


Water ways: Stormwater Management

Storm water management is one of the most important problems facing our cities today


Here in Portland, we have super dry summers and consistently rainy wet seasons - making it a prime location to incubate creative and effective responses to water management. 

Tanner Park is an internationally recognized water management design for both people and planet - designed by the revered firm, RAMBOLL STUDIO DREISEITL, they've taken waste water and transformed it into a living, breathing park. Mimicking natural swamp systems and levarging beauty/learning:

As part of my continuing learning into this field - spreading my young wings beyond the safe and inclusive world of permaculture, I put together overview of what's plainly considered 'green infrastructure' and 'sustainable design':



  1. Give three examples of green infrastructure
  • Community-led Food Forests: This can be variable in size; mimicking the layers of a forest, with food/fiber-producing overstory, understory, vines, shrubs, ground cover, mushrooms etc. These dense plantings (historically organized in the city by Portland Fruit Tree Project) can benefit the following: Pollinators' habitat, wildlife habitat, food for the community, learning, medicine, entertainment, micro industry, carbon sequestration, shade (inhibiting the heat growth of an urban environment), erosion control (in certain areas),  and specifically water purification (allowing water to flow over these areas and be absorbed by the roots and cleaned by the roots as well).
  • Green Roofs: A method of populating rooftops with plants and naturally-safe materials to improve otherwise degraded and underutilized surfaces. The result can improve and benefit: wildlife, cleaner rainwater, carbon sequestration, temperature regulation (both in the city on a whole and within the given structure), provide habitat restoration, teaching opportunities, food production, pollinator promotion, and beauty.

The Sanctuary @ Planet Repair Institute - notice the blending of the green roof with the rest of the landscape.

The Sanctuary @ Planet Repair Institute - notice the blending of the green roof with the rest of the landscape.

  • Rain Gardens: An element that allows either the homeowner or business-owner a way of moving excess water on their site into a beautiful and multi-functional swale. This swale is lined with either EPDM, a geosynthetic layer or gleyed with clay; adding stones and planted with sedges, rushes, grasses etc. This garden or swale has the ability of both capturing water from roofs or runoff, creating habitat and then purifying water before it makes its way back into our waterways or water table.

2. Name two reasons that investing in green infrastructure might be a be a better choice for a community than investing in or updating hard engineering, like storm sewers?

A bioswale in action next to our office, on Divison St. 

A bioswale in action next to our office, on Divison St. 

  • Storm sewers play an important role in our community - however, it is an negative feedback loop - allowing sewage to pollute our rivers and expelling otherwise beneficial waste to an ‘out of sight out of mind mentality’. Green infrastructure is an important next step for investment - incorporating a closed-loop system - benefiting both people and planet. With green infrastructure such as rain gardens, infiltrating water onsite or cisterns that gather rainfall for reuse in landscape irrigation or indoor plumbing, work by capturing and treating water where it falls. Although a learning curve for civic-engagement and for fiscally responsible gov’t is with a short-term lens, green infrastructure is a tested and safe long-term investment benefiting both people and planet. With green infrastructure (community food forests, bioswales, rain gardens, green roofs) - social engagement, equity, and fewer needs for cash investment (or expensive infrastructure like fewer sewers), these systems can greatly improve life of all forms. It “...improves air quality, increases habitat and green space, enhances human health, and reduces flooding.”

4. Studies show that impervious land coverage greater than 10% degrades watershed conditions. In Portland, 49% of the land area is impervious. Name some specific ways that the impact of impervious area could be reduced?

  • Pervious driveways - replacing hard pack (re-using this for building material) and replacing with spaced-stone - allowing water to percolate through the surface rather than pooling up, becoming toxic and returning to our rivers.

  • Street Bioswales - adapting to urban street waterways and capturing at places of build-up, creating natural habitat and encouraging tree growth for passive solar mitigation.

  • Fewer vehicular streets! - for cars and more natural pathways (for foot traffic) in addition to trees/shrubs/habitat etc.

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5. What are some ways you could incorporate stormwater into a site in an aesthetically pleasing way?

Constructing a 1200 gallon IBC tote (painted to reduce UV damage) wrapped with a wooden lattice and trained jasmine, grapes or kiwis for passive cooling in summer and warming in winter; keeping gambusia (mosquito fish); Overflow to a wildlife pond and then overflow into a drainage ditch / rain garden. Downhill side of rain garden planted with water-loving plants such as elderberry, willow, sedges, and camas. Bridge over pond for viewing and for shade/safe habitat for amphibians. 

Finally, take a look at Brad Lancaster's groovy demo: 

Interested in water management?

We can walk you through and design a resilient and abundant waste water program for your home or organization -

get in touch!

Winter Homestead Tasks: Mend, gather, sleep and feast...and sleep!


Some years ago during my apprenticeship with the master permaculturalist Zev Friedman (here and here), I was exposed to this rich document named, "The Forest Gardener's Year" - it was a season-by-season task list for any land-based dweller, gardener, farmer or permie. Adapted from his own learnings, Zev collaborated on this document with another bad-ass, Natalie Bogwalker, who has become a priestess leader in the original skills world and natural building community. You can find her work here.  This is from Natalie's organization, Wild Abundance, most recent post:

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If you're interested in more of these types of updates, you can sign up for their newsletter here.

When you receive a permaculture design from us here at Witch Hazel, we typically include an edited version for our PNW climate - aptly called "The Oregon Forest Gardener's Year". 

For Life,


Grasses: Living Legacy Landscapes

"Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have joints when cops aren't around."

Despite what many permaculturalists may preach, grasses are, in fact, useful - sure, not the typical Bermuda grass found rhizomatically (and systematically) taking over land everywhere; nor even the acres upon acres of cultivated grass seed right here in the Willamette Valley - rather the life-giving legacy of this truly remarkable and maligned plant.

Seeing the Woods, a blog by The Rachel Carson Center, highlights the glory of grass by following the patterns noticed within the deeply beautiful and ancient cultures of central Asia:

[grasses] represent the co-evolution of humans and nature over thousands of years where nomadic pastoralism has been the dominant form of land management and way of life...

They go on to mention the importance and value of pastoralism (free range grazing and land management) as an integral role in our society's ecologies:

Pastoralism is a “quiet” system where the subtleties associated with management are inextricably linked to local knowledge of an extensive ecological and social network over time and place. The rhythm of the grasslands is connected to seasonal change and cycles of life and death no less dynamic than the virtual world.
The grasslands of Mongolia – these living legacy landscapes – have been molded by pastoralists and climate over thousands of years. This is the central question to consider as we face the increasing decline of pastoralism across the globe – the known and unknown contributions that grasslands and these specific livelihoods provide to the global commons of a healthy environment.

We love using grasses in our permaculture designs! From food to fiber, these old plants have endless benefits to any living landscape. Sometimes folks mention 'grasses' when referring to all different types of plants - a good way of remembering this is: Sedges have edges, Rushes are round, Grasses have joints when cops aren't around. 

1. Sedges (have edges) - a great erosion control plant, boundary species and bioswale companion

2. Rushes (are round) - Rain garden species, bio-filtration plant and habitat for native insects

3. Grasses (have joints when cops aren't around) - From bamboo which is a wonderful food, shade and building material to corn, the food of life - all effective foods and ecological guild members. 

Medlars - the art of bletting


Medlars are a unique fruit - under loved by some but revered by others - this tasty custard apple-like tree has become a new love for me. Unique and under appreciated foods tend to find their way into my life actually ;). 

This most recent harvest back in early December was from Portland Community College Rock Creek - where I'll be attending the winter sessions on Environmental Landscape Management

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Cultivated in southern Europe - in parts of Bulgaria and modern day Turkey, the Medlar is harvested around the same time as the persimmon and, instead of being deliciously edible right off the tree, Medlars need to go through a process of ripening called bletting

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Bletting is similar to letting fruit ripen - like a banana or an avocado - and with Medlar, the longer ya wait, the better they get. Simply harvest the fruit when dark and firm (first picture above) and store in a typical cool, dark place. You know they're done when soft and developing a rich dark skin. I preferred cooking them up with butter...lots of butter, maple syrup and some nutmeg. 


Goat Butchering


This past weekend I had the pleasure of joining my dear friend Adam, from GeerCrest Farm, in one of their many seasonal goat harvests.

In Hawaiian, I'm told, a kumu is a teacher - Adam is my (and others) kumu; A patient, wise and goofy brother who, when he was younger, was a devout vegetarian. Through a wild incident of accidentally killing a rabbit with an oversized cucumber, Adam embarked on a path of reconnecting to his omnivorous side. Through a meat processing center, being a farmer, and working as a massage therapist, Adam has now gained a termendous amount of experience (and reverence) for raising and harvesting his own meat. 

The kill was well tended and fast - Adam with a quick draw of the knife around the neck after the goat (hazel) had succumbed to his pressure of being on the ground. We hung her by the Achilles heel, removed the hooves, and skinned her gorgeous hide. Once removed, Adam walked us through a gorgeous anatomy lesson from mussel to organ and from fascia to bones - step by step, meticulously paying tribute and honoring every single inch of hazel's body. 


For those of us who've not spent a significant amount of time around harvesting our own meat, these experiences can be life changing - it was for me - and although butchering has been part of my past, you can learn something new every time. More info on goat butchering here.