Sustenance and the city

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2008 - 2:41 PM

Permaculture, a growing international design movement, inspired a St. Paul gardener to transform her small, urban lot into a multifunctional mini-farm.

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ary Rose O'Reilley's small city garden is only a few months old, but it's already laden with enough ripening edibles to stock a farmer's market stand.

Squash, kale, radishes, eggplant, radicchio, cauliflower, peppers and herbs flourish in large washtub containers, while bunches of plump heirloom tomatoes descend from hanging buckets. Her new winter-hardy cherry and apple trees are thriving, her blueberry bushes are yielding fruit and a few volunteer cornstalks have sprung up along the stone walkway that she laid herself.

"I've been eating my own produce all summer. My goal is to grow everything I eat," O'Reilley said. "It's just a baby garden, but it's fantastic for being in its first year."

What's her secret? Permaculture, a growing philosophy of land use that emphasizes sustainability, species diversity and the interconnectedness of human, animal and plant systems.

O'Reilley's fruit trees, for example, are planted in mounded "guilds" -- surrounded by companion plants chosen to support their growth. (Some plants attract bees, some pull up calcium and magnesium from deep in the earth, some are "nitrogen fixers.") Her veggies and flowers aren't in separate beds, but are packed together in tubs filled with soil on top of a thick layer of sphagnum peat moss, to retain water. Three rain barrels feed the soaking hoses that wind through the garden. She composts religiously, everything from kitchen scraps to weeds, and fertilizes with worm tea, produced by her basement worm colony.

She keeps an angora rabbit, Angelo ("a retired stud bunny"), harvesting his fur for spinning and his waste for the compost pile. "Everything has to do two things," O'Reilley said.

That includes her tea house, built from salvaged materials, where O'Reilley, a certified spiritual director, works with ministers and writes every morning. She also spends a lot of time observing, noting what plants like and what they don't, and tweaking things accordingly.

"One of the great surprises has been how densely plant systems want to live together," she said. "They want to cuddle up. When they're close, they grow better."

Organic roots

Although her permaculture garden is new, O'Reilley is no rookie. A poet, potter and retired University of St. Thomas professor, she's been tending the same ground in St. Paul for more than three decades. She's always been green-minded, favoring organic methods and alternative landscapes.

"When I first came to this neighborhood, people thought I was crazy: 'She's tearing up her grass!'" O'Reilley recalled. "Now they're asking me, 'How can I get rid of my grass?'"

But when disease claimed several of her trees, including two huge boulevard elms, she was forced to rethink her garden, which had been dominated by shade-tolerant native plants.

"After I lost my trees, I was bereft," she said. Inspired by conversations with some of her former students, she decided it was an opportunity to try something new: turning her land into a sustainable urban agriculture project. "I'm trying to see how self-sufficient a homestead I can establish," she said.

O'Reilley hired Paula Westmoreland of Ecological Gardens (www in Minneapolis to help with the design, which incorporated O'Reilley's existing patios and trees, but added berms and swales to vary the topography and support a wider array of plants.

"She suggested species of [fruit] trees and where to put them," O'Reilley said.

O'Reilley already had a solid foundation: good, fertile soil, nourished by years of care. "Living in a northern climate, soil is critical," Westmoreland said. Many of her clients, especially those in suburban areas, have highly compacted soil with very little topsoil -- "just enough for sod" -- so she treats them with compost tea.

Westmoreland usually does garden installation as well as design, but O'Reilley preferred to get her own hands dirty. "Mary Rose is unusual in that she took the design and implemented it herself," Westmoreland said.

Trial and error gardening

In O'Reilley's view, hands-on trial-and-error is part of the permaculture process. "Everything here is experimental," she said. Some of her experiments have been successful, such as her unorthodox decision to plant tomatoes on her sloping front yard. (She sheet-composted first, laying down a thick layer of newspaper, covered with compost and hay, then laid lattice atop the hay to hold it in place, placed a cup of soil in each lattice square and planted tomato seeds.)

Other experiments have failed. "Last year, I thought, 'Why shouldn't strawberries be in a container all winter?' Well, of course, they died. I just try all kinds of weird stuff and see what works -- and if it doesn't work, stick a hosta on it."

The jury is still out on her efforts to grow fruit trees without pesticides. "People think fruit trees are chemically dependent, but that might not be true," she said. "Herbicides and pesticides are not nourishing the soil."

So O'Reilley takes a laissez-faire approach to garden intruders. "People ask how I control pests. I've never really had any -- but I'm really tolerant," she said with a laugh. "The sunflowers bring in wasps, which doesn't sound good, but they eat the worms that eat the cauliflower."

Putting in her new garden this year was time-consuming, she said, but day-to-day maintenance chores are not. "I weed very little. I have no grass to mow. I spend 15 minutes watering. It's a lot less work than my old garden."

And doing her bit to nourish the planet while nourishing herself is deeply satisfying.

"It keeps me from feeling environmental despair," she said. "I don't think people should preach. Some people take the moral high ground in a way that's obnoxious. I just try to live my life -- and create beauty and food. Just do what makes you happy. This makes me happy. I literally cannot wait to get up in the morning. The sun comes up, and I think, 'Now I can go outside!'"

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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  • Mary Rose O'Reilley with Angelo

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