HOLYOKE, Mass. — It was the build-it-and-they-will-come principle that inspired two self-described plant geeks to buy a soulless duplex on a barren lot in this industrial city 10 years ago and turn it into their own version of the Garden of Eden. Their Eves, they figured, would show up sooner or later.
“Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City,” by Eric Toensmeier, with contributions from Jonathan Bates, tells the story of how it happened. Published by Chelsea Green this month, it’s just in time for armchair gardening — and Valentine’s Day.
It’s a love story intertwined with the tale of how a small, barren backyard shaded by Norway maples, with an asphalt driveway in front, became a place that could sustain about 160 kinds of edible plants, including pawpaws, persimmons, Asian pears, gooseberries, strawberries, blueberries and rarities like goumi (tiny berries with a sour cherry zing).
Dwarf kiwi vines now climb up mimosa trees, with a lush carpet of shade-loving crops like currants, jostaberries (a cross between black currants and gooseberries), edible hostas, Solomon’s seal and May apples.
Ramps, that wild leek so coveted by foodies that it’s being stripped from eastern forests, thrive beneath the pawpaw trees, and so does giant fuki (Petasites japonicus Giganteus), with its four-foot-wide leaves. And fuki is not just a beautiful leaf that lends a tropical look to the landscape; like rhubarb’s, its stalks are edible.
“You can already see the flower buds, here and here,” Mr. Toensmeier, 41, told me one freezing day about two weeks ago.
He fingered the little bumps emerging from the frozen-looking ground, picturing a spring still invisible to the eye.
“It’s our first flower as soon as the snow is gone in March,” he said. “We eat the leaf stalk” — boiled and peeled, he explains in the book, then marinated in raspberry vinegar, shredded ginger and tamari — “it’s like weird-flavored celery.”
At the moment, however, this paradise is an icy landscape of bare trees, stumps and limp leaves, with sprigs of water celery peeking out of the frozen pool. In the summer, water lotus blooms here, but after last week’s storm, it’s under two feet of snow.
Marikler Giron Toensmeier reached down to pick a bit of water celery emerging from the frozen pond. It was about the size of a snowflake, but it was green and tasted like celery. “And look, praying mantises,” she said, touching one of the wrinkled egg cases stuck here and there among the dried grasses and twigs of the sleeping garden.
Ms. Toensmeier, 38, a native of Guatemala, is one of the Eves.
Seven years ago, Marikler Giron Ramirez, as she was known then, appeared in Mr. Toensmeier’s life when he was managing a farm program for Nuestras Raíces, a nonprofit grass-roots organization that runs 10 community gardens in the city. She was working as an educator and fund-raiser for Heifer International, an international nonprofit group that donates farm animals to poor families to help them become self-sufficient and has a demonstration farm in Rutland, Mass.
As Mr. Toensmeier describes the moment in his book: “A woman with brown eyes and the most beautiful dark hair I had ever seen walked into the room. I spent the next half-hour trying to see if she was wearing a wedding ring.”
She wasn’t immune, either. “I saw this spark in his eyes, and I say to myself, ‘Uh-oh, Marikler, you are here to work. No way, no way,’ ” she said.
The next weekend, the two were thrown together at a seed-saving workshop, and Mr. Toensmeier got a cram course on the Spanish words for stamen, pollen, pistil and the like.
The two began dating, even though Ms. Ramirez, who was planning to go back to Guatemala, was reluctant. “My experiences with men hadn’t been particularly great,” she said.
So she made a long list of “what I would look for in a guy,” she said. “One of the big things was respect, because in my country, a lot of macho men, they don’t hear you as a woman, they don’t help, they don’t say, ‘Do you have any needs?’ ”
Mr. Toensmeier apparently got a lot of check marks. The garden came with the package.
“To tell the truth, I didn’t know what they were doing,” she said. “I just remember coming into the house and smelling mint.”
And tasting some fruits she didn’t recognize. “He handed me this little kiwi,” she said. “And it was so sweet and good.”
But it wasn’t so much the plants as the peace and quiet of the place.
“You go out there and you see a praying mantis and it’s just walking around like this,” she said, moving her arms in slow motion, the way the insect moves on a leaf. “Just turning her head like this, and looks at you, and stays so still.”
After spending childhood summers on her great-grandfather’s farm in the Guatemalan highlands, Ms. Toensmeier is tuned into animals and insects. With praying mantises, she can even tell male from female. “The males are smaller,” she said. “The females get big, strong, especially after they eat the male.”
She giggled. Mr. Toensmeier gave her a loopy look. The two were married in the garden in 2007 and now have a 14-month-old named Daniel.
“Eric is so nice,” Ms. Toensmeier said. “I’m in grad school now and he makes me sleep, he takes care of Daniel at night, he gets up in the morning, lets me sleep some more. You know that’s not something I would get from a man back home.”
As for Mr. Bates, he was pursued on the dance floor of a club in Northampton, Mass., by a woman who had spurned him years before.
“I always liked Jonathan, there was something about him” said Megan Barber, 38, who grew up on a farm in upstate New York. “We’d go out for ice cream, do things here and there. One day we sat down on a bench in Northampton and he asked if I would like to date. And I said, ‘Uh, I just want to be friends.’ ”
Mr. Bates, who is now 39, had heard that before. “I never called back,” he said.
Ms. Barber, a musician, went off to Mexico to teach violin and find a macho man. It didn’t work out. “I e-mailed you a couple of times,” she said, “but you never wrote back.”
He replied, his dark eyes twinkling: “I was busy with the ladies.”
Ms. Barber came back to Boston to earn an M.B.A. in nonprofit management at Brandeis University. A girlfriend dragged her to a club, where she spotted Mr. Bates, she said. “I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Are you Jonathan?’ ”
Mr. Bates said he couldn’t remember her name. “I was probably embarrassed and shocked a little bit,” he explained. “I had to go home and look up her name in an old calendar.”
She called him and they met for lunch. She had a list, too, she said. “The funny thing is, at the bottom of my list, I said, ‘Whoever it is, it’s definitely not anyone I know.’ ”
Both women were attracted to the communal life.
“I grew up with a lot of extended family on the same road, walking between my grandparents’ house and aunts and uncles, people were always in and out,” Ms. Barber said. “The garden was definitely an added bonus.”
But as Ms. Toensmeier pointed out: “A garden can come and go. If you don’t have what you’re looking for in the person. …”
Then it’s all over, like the praying mantis.
But Ms. Barber had found what she was looking for, and she moved into the house in 2007, a month after the Toensmeiers were married. “I told Jonathan, ‘If I move in, I’m not planning to move out,’ ” she said. (These two were married in the garden in 2009; their son, Jesse, was born five months ago.)
It was the women, who had both grown up with chickens, who suggested adding poultry to the mix, and they soon began cooking from the riches in the garden. Left to their own devices, Mr. Toensmeier said, the men “would eat stuff raw, or heat up a can of Progresso soup and throw in some veggies.”
They were busy thinking about carbon sequestration and which vines would grow up which tree. And weighing the edibles in their forest garden: by 2010, Mr. Bates recorded a total of 400 pounds of fruits and vegetables in the space of six months. And that’s not counting cultivated crops like tomatoes and eggplants.
Permaculture, which is short for permanent agriculture, mimics forest ecosystems in which plants form mutually beneficial relationships. Think of the ground covers, vines, shrubs and trees that make up the forest, then imagine the mushrooms, beetles, grubs and fungi in rotting logs and leaves, the insects and pollinators drawn to flowering plants and fruits.
The term was coined in the mid-1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Australians who were experimenting with these concepts on the degraded soils of Tasmania. Reading their book, “Permaculture One,” Mr. Toensmeier writes, “set the course for the rest of my life.” He and Mr. Bates had struck up a friendship in 2000 at the Institute for Social Ecology, where their mutual interests converged much like plants in the forest. Mr. Toensmeier was working on a bachelor’s degree, restoring old apple orchards using permaculture principles and compiling a list of little-known, cold-hardy edible perennials and their attributes. Mr. Bates, an engineer who had left a career designing aquaculture systems, was studying the potential of municipal-scale compost toilets, and cleaning gray water with plants, for his master’s thesis.
The two eventually rented an old farmhouse in Southampton, Mass., and started a mail-order seed company for unusual edible plants — ones that were not only tasty, but also improved soil fertility or attracted beneficial insects.
There was only one problem, Mr. Toensmeier said. “It was only 20 minutes from here, but man, it was really, uh. …”
Mr. Bates jumped in: “Out in the middle of nowhere.” (Like a lot of longtime couples, they tend to finish each other’s sentences.)
A big night out was hiking to White Loaf Ridge to collect wild mushrooms in the woods, Mr. Toensmeier said. “Where we were more likely to meet a bear, than — ”
Mr. Bates said: “Babes.”
But they moved to Holyoke for other reasons as well, mainly to work in an urban environment where their ideas might spread to other yards. And this impoverished old paper mill town in the Massachusetts Rust Belt, which had high rates of unemployment, drug use, diabetes and obesity, seemed a good place to start. Its population was also half Latino (mostly Puerto Rican), and Nuestras Raíces had developed quite an urban gardening tradition here.
The men spent the first year here analyzing their site: the way the sun moved across the lot in all seasons, where buildings and trees shaded ground, which corners were sheltered from the wind or basked in the collected heat of a south-facing wall — factors that are crucial in intensive production. Friends helped them sheet-mulch, a quick no-till method of planting that involves covering the ground with layers of cardboard and compost, and putting plants right into the soil. And they reassembled the old greenhouse kit they had used at their farmhouse.
The 12-by-16-foot unheated plastic house helped extend the growing season, but after the October snowstorm of 2011 sent a tree crashing into it, Mr. Bates began to design a better one.
The new structure is 20 feet on each side and 11 ½ feet tall, to maximize exposure to the winter sun on the south side; the north side is a heavily insulated wall. Around the perimeter, a wall of insulation four inches thick extends one foot underground to keep the soil beneath the house from freezing. “These beds haven’t dropped below 45 degrees all winter,” Mr. Bates said.
Three large black water tanks collect heat on a sunny day, and radiate it back into the house at night. “It was 40 degrees in here last night, when it was 20 outside,” he said.
That morning, it was a toasty 80 degrees inside, but just 31 outside.
But the tanks are more than heat collectors. They form an aquaponics system Mr. Bates is working on. The first tank will contain tilapia fish, whose waste will be pumped into another tank full of freshwater lobsters and clams, which are filter feeders. That water will then flow into a tank where watercress and willows feed on the nitrates in the waste water, cleansing and aerating it with their roots. The clean water then flows back to the fish tank.
It’s one more piece of the permaculture puzzle, whose possibilities on this tenth of an acre seem limitless — for the plants and their people.
Mr. Bates and Ms. Barber now run a mail-order nursery, Food Forest Farm, which offers dozens of edible plants tested on Paradise Lot. And one of these days, they may start farming upstate, on Ms. Barber’s family land.
Mr. Toensmeier travels all over the world, helping communities plant forest gardens that are appropriate for their climate and site.
And Ms. Toensmeier, who thinks of Heifer International as part of her family, imagines moving to their headquarters, in Little Rock, Ark., where it’s warmer.
So Paradise Lot won’t last forever.
“It’s more interesting to be in love than to have plants,” Mr. Toensmeier said. “And you can move plants to a new place. But it’ll be sad.”
No one seems to be in a hurry, though. As Ms. Barber said: “Things are going so well here. We really love our life.”
Unknown, Cold Hardy and Good Tasting
Eric Toensmeier has spent about 20 years coming up with a list of perennial vegetables that can stand the conditions and climate of the Northeast, and actually taste good, too. Yet few people grow them, or even know about them.
His 2007 book, “Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to ‘Zuiki’ Taro, a Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles,” explores the art of combining them in mutually beneficial polycultures. More plants and deeper explanations are in “Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture,” by Dave Jacke, with Mr. Toensmeier. The two-volume bible includes an extensive list of cold-hardy perennial plants for various climates and conditions.
Many stars have emerged in Holyoke, Mass., where Mr. Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates have conducted their own permaculture experiment. Among them is Caucasian spinach, which produces edible shoots in early spring, “like a skinny asparagus with tender leaves,” Mr. Toensmeier writes in his latest book, “Paradise Lot.” Its leaves may be eaten raw well into June.
Groundnuts, which make nitrogen readily available to plants, produce tubers high in protein. Relatives of the bean family, they taste good not only boiled, but mashed up with chile spices and cheese, like refried beans.
Sweet cicely is a perennial that scatters its seeds all over the garden, so be forewarned. But its lacy white flowers attract beneficial insects, and its large seeds taste like licorice when they’re green.
Skirret is a perennial that tastes like a cross between a potato and a parsnip; it’s sweet and filling.
And walking onions are perennial scallions that spread, and thrive with Hidcote Blue comfrey, which has blue nodding flowers. Chickens love the calcium-rich, dark green leaves, and its roots improve the soil.
A version of this article appeared in print on February 14, 2013, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Their Trip to Bountiful.