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A Drop in the Bucket of Change

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

The three Rs of my childhood: "reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic”, evolved eventually into the three Rs of my early adulthood: “reduce, reuse, and recycle”.

In the language of permaculture, "the problem is the solution'. Collect drips in a bucket and use the water for good.

Today, in the middle of the third deadly heatwave of the summer, as the morning sun rises through a thickening sheet of rose-hued smoke from the hundreds and hundreds of wildfires raging to the east, north and south of us across the Canada-US border, and as I contemplate the recent Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) report, I lean heavily on: “responsibility, rebellion, and resilience”.

On August 9, 2021, the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, the IPCC, released its scientific findings with respect to observed changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system. Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.

So what can we do? What can you do? What can I do?

Dig it up. According to the EPA, residential lawns consume up to nine billion gallons of water per day.

I suggest that we take responsibility, embrace passive and proactive rebellion, and incorporate resilience. These three ideas define my days, my thoughts, my actions, and my dreams. They do, in my humble opinion, invite, inform and inspire a way forward for the masses as we contemplate the realities of climate change.

I am not an environmental scientist, historian, or meteorologist, but I am a permaculture designer, environmentalist, mother, and longtime student of nature and culinary anthropology. It is abundantly clear to me that every thing and everyone on the planet is intimately and inextricably connected, and each one of us has an important role to play in saving the planet.

We cannot reverse climate change; the IPCC report makes that abundantly clear, but we can halt the devastation, meet (hopefully exceed) global targets for reaching net zero CO2 emissions, and mitigate damage done over the next many hundreds and thousands of years. Yes, hundreds. And thousands.

Tiny, fairylike fungi hidden beneath a sugar baby watermelon plant, indicate soil health.

The work I do today will benefit my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on. I am planting trees with the knowledge and acceptance that I will not benefit from their shade.

As a contributor to the world on fire, I must do the right thing and I must do it now. And so must you. If we do otherwise, the world as we know it will perish. This is not my opinion, it is the opinion of 195 member governments of the IPCC. Further: 234 authors from 66 countries; 31 coordinating authors; 167 lead authors; 36 review editors; 517 contributing authors; 14,000 cited references; 78,007 expert and government review comments. No conspiracy theorists or PAC funded politicians.

To learn more about the IPCC and the report, visit the website and follow them on social media. In the interim, consider a few highlights from their published report:


“Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways. The changes we experience will increase with additional warming,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Panmao Zhai.

The report projects that in the coming decades climate changes will increase in all regions. For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health, the report shows.

But it is not just about temperature. Climate change is bringing multiple different changes in different regions – which will all increase with further warming. These include changes to wetness and dryness, to winds, snow and ice, coastal areas and oceans. For example:

  • Climate change is intensifying the water cycle. This brings more intense rainfall and associated flooding, as well as more intense drought in many regions.

  • Climate change is affecting rainfall patterns. In high latitudes, precipitation is likely to increase, while it is projected to decrease over large parts of the subtropics. Changes to monsoon precipitation are expected, which will vary by region.

  • Coastal areas will see continued sea level rise throughout the 21st century, contributing to more frequent and severe coastal flooding in low-lying areas and coastal erosion. Extreme sea level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century.

  • Further warming will amplify permafrost thawing, and the loss of seasonal snow cover, melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and loss of summer Arctic sea ice.

  • Changes to the ocean, including warming, more frequent marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, and reduced oxygen levels have been clearly linked to human influence. These changes affect both ocean ecosystems and the people that rely on them, and they will continue throughout at least the rest of this century.

  • For cities, some aspects of climate change may be amplified, including heat (since urban areas are usually warmer than their surroundings), flooding from heavy precipitation events and sea level rise in coastal cities.

“It has been clear for decades that the Earth’s climate is changing, and the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte. Yet the new report also reflects major advances in the science of attribution – understanding the role of climate change in intensifying specific weather and climate events such as extreme heat waves and heavy rainfall events.

The report also shows that human actions still have the potential to determine the future course of climate. The evidence is clear that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main driver of climate change, even as other greenhouse gases and air pollutants also affect the climate.

“Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions. Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate,” said Zhai.

(end of excerpt)


Diverse and productive food planting of watermelon, white eggplant, spicy slice peppers, and golden pearl.

Most of us are not able or equipped to fight the big fight, to lobby governments for a living, pilot anti-whaling ships, or chain ourselves to old-growth trees, but we can all affect meaningful change. We can do this from the relative comfort of our homes and our places of work, play, and study. We can do this when we shop, when we housekeep, when we vote, when we worship, when we play, and most of all when we garden.

Like the millions of single drops of water that fill a bucket, we have untold and unimaginable collective strength. Permaculture teaches us that the problem is the solution, always, though it sometimes requires some imagination.

Place a bucket under the leaky faucet, collect the water, and use it for good. Together we can put out fires and make a big green and beautiful dent in the universe.

A baby centre-cut squash appears between wild strawberries and romanesco zucchini.

Planting trees, planting cover crops, and planting food and pollinator gardens are among the simplest, most effective and responsible acts of passive rebellion that individuals can undertake easily and inexpensively, to help create a more resilient environment, and allow the planet to heal.

Just six weeks ago, when an entire town located very close to where I live was totally decimated by a heatwave-triggered wildfire, I was devastated. I was overcome by the seeming hopelessness of climate change. I wrote about it, and for sure I cried about it, but what I did about it was healing, transformative, informative, and instructive.

Inspired by the works and service of ecosystem designer Zack Loeks, I set about creating an edible ecosystem from a small patch of ornamental and unproductive grass. It took two days of hard work - more therapy than labour - and buckets of hydration, but few projects have delivered greater physical, emotional, or spiritual reward.

In just six weeks, a mini food forest and edible ecosystem where once there was lawn.

Anyone with a small and sunny or part-sun patch of grass, or a bare strip of earth, can create an edible ecosystem. In no time, permaculture principles take root and begin working their magic to nourish and nurture a living system that produces food and habitat for humans, animals and pollinators, helps cool the earth, and sequesters carbon. How great is that?

Ideal spots for consideration are those grassy strips between the sidewalk and private property, or along the sides of a pathway or driveway, often along a fence. Builders almost always create token corner gardens planted with non-productive ornamental shrubs; these are ideal for conversion. Check first with your municipality to secure permission to plant in common areas, and ensure that plantings that don’t interfere with utilities, roadways and mobility, or otherwise present potential liability.

Step by Step Edible Ecosystem

As described by Zack Loeks (abridged): “With as little as 25 square feet of land, transition a garden plot into a place of edible abundance and an edible biodiversity hot spot, living laboratory, and a source point for transitioning and transforming community and culture. Utilizing appropriate plants for insects, wildlife, and food production”

I started with an irregular wedge-shape patch of grass on the inside curve of our driveway. The wedge had been separated from the front boulevard by previous owners, by a 30 foot stretch of laurel hedge. The remnant grassy patch wasn’t good for much other than occasional overflow parking, and storage of items coming in and out of the car.

Days one and two, then three weeks later (bottom right). Mimic nature and she will reward you quickly.

The hedge, plus tall trees in our sideyard prevented full sun across the wedge, but allowed for about six hours per day at one end, and about eight hours at the other. Stone pavers collected and held solar heat during the day. The hedge blocks any cold northerly wind coming down off the mountains, but the open sides of the space allow for good air circulation otherwise.

The resulting micro-climate proved beneficial in establishing a flourishing mini food forest, quickly. The area receives water from existing in-ground lawn sprinklers on mid-night timers; a situation which, while more efficient than using manual sprinklers, is far from ideal. I plan to convert to drip irrigation in the fall, when I integrate rain barrels into the system.

My equipment list:

  • Lawn edger (optional, flat spade works also, to cut through grass sod)

  • Small flat spade to lift sod

  • Used brown cardboard - enough to cover up-turned sod, with three inch overlaps

  • Enough green garden waste, straw, small branches, spent soil, untreated wood chips, and other compostable materials, to build a two to three foot high mound

  • Brown compostable garden clipping bags - enough to wrap entire soil-covered mound, with 12 inch skirt to tuck under all around

  • Enough composted (or best possible quality) garden soil to cover mound with a six inch deep layer of soil for planting (one square foot of surface area requires 1/54th (.019) of a cubic yard of soil - or about three shovels full. **Good to know: my wheelbarrow holds 27 shovels full of soil, comfortably. One cubic foot of soil = five to six shovels full)

Small wonder spaghetti squash, happy next to jalapenos, eggplant, pollinator flowers, and black beauty watermelon.

My random but companionable list of plantings appropriate for insects, wildlife, and food production:

  • 1 potted fuyu persimmon tree that required a new home due to a sudden abundance of shade

  • 12 small pollinator-friendly perennial flowers that had been gifted by a wholesale nursery

  • +25 small vegetable and herb seedlings; a random collection, grown from seed by me

  • 4 drought-struck thornless blackberry plants, propagated and rescued locally

  • 2 goji berry plants retrieved from the ‘wilted and un-sellable’ bench at my local nursery

  • 2 wild strawberry plants that didn’t fit in my dad’s old tiered strawberry planter

  • 3 each nasturtiums and French marigolds to attract aphids and deter whiteflies, cucumber beetles, squash beetles, and other insects. These were already under-planted with the persimmon tree, which worked out perfectly, given its new neighbours.

It is important to note that in a 25 square foot edible ecosystem, one needs but one small fruit or nut tree, one or two small shrubs (the tiniest will do to start), one or two pollinator-friendly perennial flowers, a perennial herb or two, and some living mulch or ground cover. Healthy soil biology, adequate sun and shade, good air circulation, and sufficient water and nutrients are must-haves.

Side elevation shows heat-loving melons self-circling sun-warmed pavers and pathway surrounding the mound.

Edible ecosystems mimic nature, and are built using layers and guilds. Healthy forests have layers of large and small trees, bushes, shrubs, climbing plants and vines, ground covers, fungi, and diverse animal and insect life. Thriving systems are self-sufficient and self-regulating to a large extent.

I encourage you to learn about growing biodiversity in your own or borrowed small space, even a large planter box. For the passionate, there is much to learn about environment, plant varieties, soil building and biology, microorganisms, natural habitats, hydrology, and more.

For most of us though, keep it simple. Spend some time online or visit your local library. There is plenty of information available for the asking, and those of us who are deep into it are typically happy to answer.

My process, step-by-step:

  • I measured a six foot wide strip of grass, running edge to edge through the 30 foot long wedge, and marked it with used plant markers.

  • Using the spade, I cut down into the sod (about half the length of the spade deep), on the ‘outside’ edges of the strip, along the imaginary lines. I wanted a good chunk of soil attached to the sod. I laid the sod chunks on a tarp on the driveway.

  • Brown cardboard from various sources was laid over-top of the intact strip of grass, with a ‘flap’ along the edges, to bend down and cover the exposed edges. The cardboard was overlapped by at least three inches all around, to prevent grass growing up and into the new bed.

  • The sod pieces were laid ‘soil up’ on the cardboard, stepping back by about one foot all around, to create a step for organics to sit on top, and for soil to rest naturally on the completed mound.

  • Small branches left over from pruning a magnolia tree, assorted other small branches, all kinds of green and brown garden trimmings, spent straw mulch, grass clippings, kitchen compost, worm castings, seed starting soil, coffee grounds, and other compostables were added to the pile to create a mound of approximately three feet in height.

  • The entire mound was ‘wrapped’ in compostable brown garden clipping bags, and then watered well until soaked. I let it settle and marinate for three days, watering to keep damp but not soaked.

  • I added at least six inches of composted soil to the wrapped mound, shaping and smoothing uneven divets and pockets as I went.

  • I cut a large hold in the centre of the mound for the persimmon tree, re-lining the sides of the hole with wet brown paper bags, before planting the tree and back-filling the space with composted soil.

  • I planted the seedlings and plants according to height and preference for sun and moisture, adding a few stone pavers for footholds, and then watered it all in.

Nasturtium doing its job attracting (baiting) aphids while an aphid-free melon self-trellises the persimmon tree behind.

In just three weeks the ecosystem found its feet and grew quickly. At six weeks it is flourishing. Already we have harvested white eggplants, golden pearl fruit, blackberries, four varieties of hot peppers, and oddly, a few potatoes that somehow snuck in along the way. The squash and melon plants set fruit and are loving the radiant heat of the pavers.

I have no expectation that we will harvest melons this season, but it matters not at all. My goal for this season was to plant the mound, and establish a mycelial network below ground to act as a super highway of sorts to support future generations of plants, and transport nutrients to and from the microorganisms that will live in the new edible ecosystem.

Morning sun lights up part of the edible ecosystem, creating a unique microclimate suited to melons and peppers.

Already, tiny mushrooms (the above ground fruiting bodies of fungi) are popping up everywhere. I am thrilled to know that the seemingly random assortment of organics in, above, and below ground are working their magic. They knew just what to do, nature always does.

For sure, our new edible ecosystem/food forest is a work in progress and will require nips and tucks, amendments and adjustments, to flourish. But that's okay, because just six weeks ago we had a patch of unproductive and water-hungry grass, and a large and random collection of unhappy homeless potted plants.

Imagine what we could do collectively, with our small patches of grass, and our spare plants and seeds. We could connect our homes, neighborhoods and communities together, one edible ecosystem at a time, and in the doing of it produce food and habitat for humans, animals and pollinators, help cool the earth, sequesters carbon, and make one big green and beautiful dent in the universe. If I can do it, you can! I’m here to help.

Until next week, happy gardening!

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