Clarence Fountain’s garden is only two years old, but it’s already a pretty big production.
There’s a handmade greenhouse built from salvaged materials, berry bushes and the beginnings of a small grape arbor. A vegetable garden teems with kale, pumpkins, squash, asparagus, onions, leeks and tomatoes.
“This year I had a salad with kale and fresh tomatoes for just about every meal,” Fountain said. “I’ve always enjoyed pumpkin pie. Last year I was having between two and three pumpkin pies a week.” His goal, he said, is to garden year round — growing plants in his home during the colder months, and then moving them into the greenhouse and garden outside when it starts to warm up.
Fountain lives on Kings Road in Schenectady, and on a street filled with neatly kept lawns his fruit-and-vegetable filled backyard stands out. But he isn’t alone in his commitment to growing as much of his food as possible, or in his overall philosophy, which emphasizes moving away from fossil fuels and mass production and toward a localized economy that can provide for basic needs, such as energy and food.
Fountain is a member of Transition Schenectady, an environmental/social group that formed last January with the goal of working together to create a more sustainable community. The group holds two meetings a month, one of which involves discussion and teaching, and the other of which involves a hands-on project, such as planting a garden.
“People share ideas and try to see how to support each other,” Fountain said.
Transition Schenectady grew out of the Capital District Transition Network, which brought local residents together to talk about how to live more sustainably. Two other groups formed at the same time: Transition Troy and Transition Albany. The groups’ main concerns are climate change and peak oil — the idea that the Earth’s oil will begin running out, and that the price of oil will skyrocket as a result.
Preparing for shocks
“We’re trying to make food and other resources as locally accessible as possible in preparation for any shocks that might come in the future,” Fountain said. “Each locality should figure out what works best for them. … The Schenectady group is trying to get to know each other as a community, to see what people’s skills are.”
The Transition movement is international in scope.
It got its start in England, when permaculture instructor Rob Hopkins and his students developed a plan for making the town of Kinsale, in Ireland, more sustainable by working toward energy independence and growing their own food. Hopkins returned to his hometown, Totnes, and set about implementing his ideas, which include building community gardens and creating a local system of currency. His model quickly spread, and today there are over 400 communities officially recognized as Transition Towns by the Transition Network. Albany, Schenectady and Troy are recognized as “mullers” — meaning that they are mulling it over.
Transition Schenectady was founded by Scotia resident Michael Cellini, who was active in the Capital District Transition Network and a Troy-based group called Simple Living before that. He said the Transition group is much broader in focus than Simple Living, which encouraged people to simplify their lifestyles by buying less, consuming less energy and generating as much food and power as they possibly could.
“To me, the Transition movement is about looking at our local community and saying ‘Where do we want to be in 30 years?’ ” Cellini said.
Cellini’s interest in sustainable living inspired him to convert his home into a zero-energy residence, meaning that it produces 100 percent of the energy it consumes. He also left his job as director of marketing for Tribune Media Services and started Allura Solar, a full-service solar design and installation company.
Like other members of Transition Schenectady, Fountain tries to follow the basic principles of permaculture.
Though definition of permaculture varies from source to source — “If you ask seven people what permaculture is, you’ll get seven different answers,” Cellini said — most resources describe it as a design system that integrates human activity with nature, with the goal of creating efficient, self-contained ecosystems. Most Transition members talked about permaculture in the context of gardening, but the basic concepts can guide other projects, such as the building of natural homes and the keeping of poultry and backyard animals.
Gentle on land
Rexford resident Nancy White does not belong to the Transition group, but she is an avid gardener who teaches courses in gardening, herbs and permaculture out of her house, which she has dubbed “The Healing Garden.”
With permaculture, “you want to respect the Earth and the plants by cultivating in a way that’s similar to what nature does,” White said. “You’re concerned about the health of the soil and the relationship between the plants. The person isn’t the center of the garden. Most flower gardens are designed to be pretty to the eye. When you base your garden on permaculture, you have more of a partnership with the land than dominion over the land.” White said she allows the plants in her garden to “grow wherever they decide to grow.”
“Most people who are interested in permaculture are interested in producing their own food,” White said. In her classes, “I encourage other people to be a little more gentle with the land,” she said.
White and other permaculture gardeners eschew pesticides and turning the soil; instead they put down compost and mulch. The compost serves as fertilizer, while the mulch conserves moisture, suppresses weeds and improves the fertility and health of the soil. Among the materials used for mulch are leaves, hay, manure and sawdust; Fountain’s garden, for example, is topped by a layer of wood chips.
White said that rather than growing plants of the same species together, in a monoculture, she mixes her plants, which helps keep pests away. She collects water in rain barrels for irrigation purposes rather than using water from the house, and she practices vermicomposting, which uses worms to break down organic matter such as kitchen scraps into high-quality compost. “The worms eat their way through the organic matter and excrete it, and these castings are rich in nitrogen, which is important for plant growth,” she explained.
White, a longtime gardener, said she became more interested in the permaculture approach when her children were small. Her husband didn’t like dirty hands, and she decided to keep the soil heavily mulched rather than turn it. “I became an observer,” she said.
Oksana Musienko, 40, is a banker who lives in Rotterdam and writes a blog, called Green in Rotterdam, about her environmentally conscious lifestyle. She said she and her husband were drawn to the local Transition movement because she wanted to eat organic and local, promote local agriculture and produce less pollution. “We are gardeners,” she said. “We garden a lot. We like sharing ideas. We like to see what other people are doing.”
Bees and chickens
In addition to her garden, Musienko has honeybees, “two little baby chickens who lay me eggs,” fruit trees and berry bushes, and she recently created an aquaponics system that makes use of the small pond and stream in her yard. Aquaponics combines raising aquatic animals such as fish with hydroponics, which involves growing plants in water; the by-products from the aquaculture system provide nutrients for the plants. Musienko said she has koi fish in her pond, and that she is growing flowers, tomatoes and cucumbers in the stream.
Jerry Byrd, his wife and son were drawn to Transition Schenectady out of a desire to create stronger communities, where people support each other and help prepare for a future that will require less energy. “We like the idea of paying it forward,” he said. “I’ve been studying the world situation for a while. It’s in an ominous state. The Earth has had enough of us, and it’s time to start paying attention to that a little.”
The three live in Schenectady’s Bellevue neighborhood, and recently started a small garden that includes a miniature greenhouse tunnel, constructed from the remains of an old trampoline, for growing plants in cold weather. “This is my first garden in many years,” said Byrd, 62, who recently retired from his job as a mail handler for the Postal Service. “When I first got married, I gardened, but as I worked more, I let stuff go.”
Byrd said gardening according to the permaculture precepts has been successful.
“It’s a lot easier,” he said. “It requires less work. Our bounty is much more.” He said that the family has also started hanging out their laundry and has become “meticulous about recycling.” Home improvements, such as the construction of a new bathroom and the installation of a hardwood floor, have been done using salvaged materials. “We needed a stove and a refrigerator, and we went down to Habitat for Humanity and bought them for peanuts,” he said.
The Transition Albany group has more of a discussion/education focus than the Transition Schenectady group, with its emphasis on hands-on activity. One project the Albany group recently launched involves looking at the feasibility of creating a local currency. The idea is not quite as radical as it might initially appear. Other communities have created their own currencies; in the Berkshires, more than 400 businesses accept a local currency called BerkShares.
Sandy Steubing, who coordinates Transition Albany, said a local currency would encourage people to spend locally, and make for a robust local economy.
“A significant amount of capital leaves the Capital District,” she said. “We buy a lot of stuff online. We don’t buy local enough.”
Fountain has taken other steps to live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. He installed a wood stove last year, and is in the process of trying to create a water storage system using a large plastic tank.
He said that he loves gardening.
“People say, ‘Isn’t it so much work?’ But what else would I be doing — sitting in front of the TV?”
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