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Permaculture expert may educate, but is a slow read
Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier, with contributions from Jonathan Bates
c.2013, Chelsea Green
$19.95/$22.95 Canada
248 pages

You’ve been plotting this caper for months. It’s taken careful planning, but you think you know how you’ll pull it off. You’ll do it in broad daylight, and you don’t care who witnesses what you’re about to do.

There will be no poison, no sharp weapons, just your bare hands and maybe a hoe. Your garden will thank you for planting well and for killing all those weeds. You can’t wait to see what grows there.
That’s what author Eric Toensmeier thought, too. When he and his friend Jonathan Bates found a small lot in a small Massachusetts town, they wanted to do something extraordinary, and in Paradise Lot, they describe it.

Eric Toensmeier decided he wasn’t going to go to college. At age 10, his curiosity was sparked by a children’s nature program and he knew then he wanted to work in the natural world. Flowers, insects, plants – they all captivated him. Years later, that led to an interest in the permaculture movement, and Toensmeier immersed himself in it.

Permaculture brings together traditional land management, ecological design, nature and sustainable practices, focusing largely on native species including livestock and tying them all together in a natural ecosystem. Smitten with ideas, Toensmeier began to read everything he could find on the subject in order to teach himself and others.

When it became obvious his dream was too big for one man, he asked his student, Jonathan Bates, to help on a first, rented endeavor. As their garden grew, so did their friendship, and they started looking for land more permanent.

They found it in Holyoke, Mass. The grass-and-asphalt lot was raggedy, but it was an empty slate with a duplex in front that was inhabitable. For a year, the men plotted their plot, learning where sunlight fell and plants might thrive.

They set goals, bought trees and seeds, mulched and fertilized. They weeded, constructed, transplanted, assessed and raised plants and animals. They broke laws, learned lessons, found love and finally put down roots of a different sort.

I’ve never encountered any gardener that couldn’t go on for hours about his or her passion. Paradise Lot is no exception, but there are a few things the average gardener should know about this book before tackling it.

First of all, unless you’re deep into permaculture, you’ll indeed be tackling this book. Author Eric Toensmeier writes with such fervor about creating and nurturing his urban paradise that his words may very well go over the heads of a less ardent, soon-overwhelmed audience.

Yes, I loved Toensmeier’s enthusiasm. His methodology and ideas are fascinating, his harvests sound downright yummy and his passages can be very Zen-like, but his lapses into expert territory are often relentless, especially in blow-by-blow details that – like a bumper crop of zucchini – can be too much to handle.

This isn’t a bad book. No, it’s really rather charming and could lead to a brand-new hobby for anyone so inclined. For most backyard gardeners, though, I think Paradise Lot is a lot to grasp.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Readers with questions or comments may write to Terri in care of this publication.