The Ecology of the Aquarium – And How It Led Me to Permaculture

“…my fish tanks were essentially wastelands!”

I have had an aquarium (or two) in continuous operation since 2004 – a large goldfish tank and a small betta tank. However, between 2004 and 2010, my aquariums were really “fish tanks” by advanced aquarium hobbyists’ standards – meaning that they were focused on fish, with an artificial, decorative environment. Plastic and silk plants, plastic gravel substrate, and heavy mechanical and chemical (activated carbon) filtration were all in play in my tanks, even if I did use the occasional decorative natural stone or gravel. The “artificial, decorative environment” is a very common setup that is condoned by pet stores, aquarium stores, common knowledge and popular culture.

Goldfish aquarium

About the closest I got to an “ecology” in my fish tanks was to utilize – as all aquariums and fish tanks do – biological filtration via nitrogen-cycling bacteria as part of my filtration system (converting harmful ammonia from the fish’s waste to less-harmful nitrate). Also, various volunteer species of algae would spontaneously appear over the years, which I usually scrubbed off the glass and fake plants in order to keep the tank “clean.” These fish tanks were fairly high-maintenance, in that they required weekly water changes, monthly algae eradication, and frequent cleaning of the filter media and moving parts – all standard recommendations for aquarium maintenance. But from an ecological and biodiversity standpoint, my fish tanks were essentially wastelands!    Continue reading “The Ecology of the Aquarium – And How It Led Me to Permaculture”

Plant ID Walk: Table Rock (mesa)

My husband and I took a walk one day in early summer up to the top of a mesa on his parents’ land near Colorado Springs, Colorado called Table Rock.  The environment on top of the mesa is very dry, very rocky, and very windy, and as a result much of the flora hugs the ground closely.  It is the first place on the ~80-acre parcel of land to dry out in the summer.  There are small caves and splits in the rock at the top that create wildlife habitat and microclimates.  A lot of wildlife calls Table Rock home, including mountain lions, bats, deer, foxes, raccoons, hawks, and falcons.  In a permaculture design, the marginal land on top of Table Rock and its steep sides would be best left to nature as Zone 5.

Here is a sampling of some of the plants found on Table Rock:

Stonecrop (Sedum stenopetalum):

Stonecrop (Sedum stenopetalum)

Continue reading “Plant ID Walk: Table Rock (mesa)”

What Edibles Do People Grow in Colorado?

Garden plot on the high plains of Colorado
One of the best ways to gather information about what grows in your area is to speak with longtime residents who know the whims of the climate and who have gardened in your area for many years.  My father-in-law, Mike, has lived and gardened at 7,300’ elevation near Colorado Springs, Colorado for over 25 years.  As we toured his annual garden plot on the summer solstice, he shared some of his observations and notes on growing vegetables on the high plains of eastern Colorado.

Continue reading “What Edibles Do People Grow in Colorado?”

Plant ID Walk: Around the Pasture

My husband’s parents raise Scottish Highland cattle on the high plains of Colorado.  Besides the grasses that the cattle eat, there are many interesting “weeds” and other plants growing in the pastures.  In this hot and dry year, as spring officially became summer in June, the pasture grasses had already gotten too sparse for the Highlands to be able to feed themselves, they are now being fed with hay and off the pasture so that it can recover.  Meanwhile, most of the native (and non-native) “weeds” in the pasture, more drought-tolerant than the grasses, are still thriving.

Here is a sampling of some of the plants found in an example pastureland on the high plains of Colorado:

Miner’s candle (Cryptantha virgata):

Miner's candle (Cryptantha virgata)

Continue reading “Plant ID Walk: Around the Pasture”

Internet Resources for Identifying Plants

This post is made by one of our students as part of her PDC Home Correspondence Course.

Here is a list of Internet databases and other resources that I’ve found helpful in identifying plants and their potential uses in permaculture designs.


North American native plants

Continue reading “Internet Resources for Identifying Plants”

Identifying and Using Pineapple Weed

Sarah is a Midwest Permaculture PDC Graduate.

Recently my mother-in-law, curious about a low-growing wild plant that she had observed around her horse barn, picked one of the small, petal-less flower heads and crushed it between her fingers to see what it smelled like.  Fascinated that it gave off a very sweet and distinctive fragrance, she brought the flower to me and we put our heads together to identify the plant.  I recognized this plant by sight, having seen it a lot growing up in Southern and Central California, but I didn’t know what it was or anything about it.

My first thought was that our little flower head reminded me of dried flower heads in loose chamomile tea, and that the fragrance – though far too sweet – was vaguely reminiscent of chamomile.  My second thought (or hope, rather) was that our sweet, fragrant flower might make a good wildcrafted tea itself.

Continue reading “Identifying and Using Pineapple Weed”

Midwest Permaculture Training Applicable in Africa

Permaculture Training Applicable Around the Globe

The brilliance of Bill Mollison’s PDC course is the universality of it.  Students of a Midwest Permaculture PDC Course can take this educational experience and apply it to any location or climate on the planet. The PDC is about learning how to design; learning how to see different situations and the landscape through a permaculture way of seeing the world.  

We have had students from just about every part of the globe take our trainings and all of them leave with the knowledge of how to apply permaculture thinking and design to their own environment and circumstance.

Even though Grant Shadden took his PDC with us in Illinois, his education has allowed him to be of service in Africa.  We are now delighted to have Paige Shadden joining us in an upcoming PDC course.

Bill Wilson – Midwest Permaculture 

 My husband, Grant, and I are gardening nerds.  We both have childhood memories of gardening with our families (his more fond than mine!).  Even more now we enjoy it as adults as we discover the realities of pesticides, the high prices of organic produce and how destructive our industrial agriculture system is. 

Grant and Paige Shadden – Volunteer Permaculture Work in Africa

Chicago Honey Co-op

A Visit to the… Chicago Honey Co-op… July/07

Just as Chicago became one of the largest urban ‘melting pots’ as people from around the world flocked into the cities, so did flowering weeds as trains, trucks and people crossed this bustling city.  As a result, the bees in the city have hundreds of varieties of flowering plants (some called ‘weeds’) to visit in their search for nectar and pollen. The result is some of the most unique tasting and rare honeys available on the market today. The honey from this Chicago Co-op is considered a premium honey…! Who would have thought?

Michael Thompson in one of the inspirational people behind the Chicago Honey Co-op.
The vision of the Co-op is to train the under-employed and support community gardening/agriculture.


We have to remind ourselves, we are in a solid urban environment. That’s the Sears Tower in the background.


On this once industrial lot, Michael and the others have placed up to 100 hives. With tens of thousands of bees happily employed, they are producing gallons of honey per day.


Around the grounds are several tanks of water with wine corks floating on the surface. Why?
The bees need lots of water. The corks give the bees something to land on while they drink.


Michael harvested these tomatoes early because they were starting to crack or split due to a recent rain. They will redden just fine on the counter or windowsill at home.


Michael and I sat down for some lunch together. I bet there wasn’t a healthier meal in all of Chicago.


Half of the old industrial lot is either the concrete slab or this soil, laden with gravel, broken glass and cinders.


To compensate for the poor condition of the soil, Michael (the garden co-op’s farm manager) and the others have accepted generous offers of truck loads of horse-stable bedding which they let red worms break down into a rich growing medium. They then pile it high on the ground in rows and plant directly into it. Works Great…!


There are now about a dozen families and/or individuals that are using part of the space
to grow their own vegetables. 


Neva here is a first time gardener. She, along with other new gardeners are learning as they go with the help of the more experienced in the co-op. This is the beauty of a co-operative, where community support and the sharing of experience and skills is woven right into the venture.


Most everything in the garden looked really good to me. Okra anyone?


An interesting twist emerged as the truck loads of stable bedding began to pile up on the concrete. Volunteer weeds began to grow in it. Michael and others thought, ‘why not put things in it that we would like to grow?’. They did.


Today, growing on 18 inch high piles of this broken-down bedding are squash, peppers, lettuce, flowers…


…okra, sunflowers, pumpkin and many other varieties of plants.
One of the big successes are the sweet potatoes. Michael said, “You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to harvest them. We basically just loosen the soil a bit and then pull the entire plant out of the ground by hand.”
For all of us who have harvested sweet potatoes before… this is a miracle!


It’s hard to remember sometimes that Michael is standing in the middle of the city of Chicago…!!!
Another reminder of what inspiration and change just a few individuals can make.
Thank you Michael.

Here is the link to the Chicago Honey Co-op
which will give you a list of where you can find their delicious honey to purchase.

The Rare & Genuine, Chicago Honey…!!!

Above Pictures and Text by Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture

Burning Wood to “Cool” an Entire Lodge

Arbor Day’s Lied Lodge:
It is Air Conditioned with Current Sunlight
(i.e. Scrap Wood)

Becky at the Fuelwood Energy Plant, one of the places we'll be touring during the {a href=""} March PDC{/a}.


In our last post we talked about thermal mass rocket stoves and the great benefit they held by being able to heat our homes using current sunlight in the form of firewood.  (The sunlight energy stored in coal, oil and natural gas is millions of years old.) With these stoves we consume as little as 1/4 the amount of firewood it would take to heat the same amount of space with a traditional wood stove.  This is a huge savings in energy consumed for the same results.

Last February, Becky and I visited Lied Lodge and were surprised to discover that they not only heated their water and the Lodge with scrap-chipped wood, but they also air-condition the entire Lodge using the same fires…!!!   How can this be? Continue reading “Burning Wood to “Cool” an Entire Lodge”

Picture Summary of 2008 California PDC Training

Last November, Wayne and I headed to Grass Valley, California to deliver a permaculture certification course at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm. It was a great training and we have been invited back to repeat the training and continue the design project of the Farm.

Check out the pictures from our 2009 course.