The scene: winter 2008-09. The economy is in trouble. I have two children under the age of two, my mortgage is higher than my house is worth, and I’m working for a newspaper that is about to declare bankruptcy.
One of my favorite blogs at the time, Snarkmarket, posts about a project they’d like to do called The New Liberal Arts. The premise, basically: what should we learn / should we have learned in college to thrive in the world, now? I post a comment about how I wish I knew how to bake bread and grow my own food.
That comment turned into a chapter of the book, which was printed and also released as a PDF. The New Liberal Arts project inspired me to start a blog, The New Home Economics, which I have faithfully maintained ever since.
Ten years later, my life is pretty different. After leaving the newspaper industry and working for a long while in the arts non-profit world, I’m now in the health insurance industry as of this spring. My kids are in middle school. I grew from a gardening newbie to an extension master gardener volunteer and native plants enthusiast.
In wanting to teach our kids about the world, my partner and I became students. We learned the names of common and uncommon Minnesota birds and insects. We raised and released hundreds of monarch butterflies. We learned about edible wild plants and the fermenting, culturing, and preserving of the bounty we were starting to harvest from our own yard. All of this is so ingrained in my life now; I have to remind myself I knew almost none of it ten years ago.
I’m changing the name of my blog because my primary passion is truly (and has always truly been) gardening. I’ve written about little else for several years now. Ten years ago, making my own sauerkraut or homemade yogurt seemed novel. Now it’s not only normal, it’s popular, and many other bloggers are doing a much better job of documenting it than I ever did.
The Stacking Functions Garden
So where did the name Stacking Functions Garden come from? I did not invent the term “stacking functions”–it’s a permaculture term that I first read about in the excellent book Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway.
The main gist of stacking functions is that we need to make our gardens (and homes) work harder for us by making sure each element can perform more than one task or function, and that we have backup systems in place in case of a system failure. If you make your own compost, it’s not a big deal if the nursery runs out.
The best way to describe how I like to stack functions when choosing plants for my yard is with an example. Consider two different spring flowers that you could choose to grow in your yard: tulip and bloodroot.
I’m Dutch so I love tulips, with their simple elegance and bright colors. But let’s stack up the functions (and costs) of a tulip. It has an aesthetic function; it can fill a niche under a deciduous shade tree (since it does most of its growing before trees leaf out). That’s basically one function. Tulip costs: buying the bulbs, occasional fertilization, and maintaining ugly, dying foliage so that the bulb can shore up energy for next year (some professional landscapers replace the bulb every year).
Contrast the tulip with another beautiful spring flower, the North American native bloodroot. Its functions include early spring pollinator support, weed suppression via its crazy root system, free plants because it slowly spreads into a clump, a red dye that can be made from its roots. That’s four so far. It thrives in part to deep shade and poor soil, it fills two different aesthetic niches (first with its cheery white daisy-like flowers, later with its fairy umbrella-like leaves). Its costs: only the startup cost of purchasing the plant. Note: if you find a native plants enthusiast in your area you could likely get it for free, like I did.
The Stacking Functions concept can be applied to so much more than plants. We built a swingset for our kids when they were little. Over the years it has performed the following functions in addition to being a swingset: support for an outdoor movie screen, trellis for a grape vine, one end for a clothesline that we put up in the summer, and (recently) support for a hammock chair instead of swings.
Because we designed and built a structure that was flexible enough to serve all these purposes, it saved us money and effort in the long run. That’s a big part of my gardening and landscape design philosophy: flexibility, sustainability, and making my life richer while somehow simultaneously making it simpler. Wait, richer AND simpler? Yes. It’s possible.
I hope you’ll stick with me—I plan to roll out a series of articles in the coming months featuring my favorite function-stacking garden projects and plants.
A housekeeping note: some links within the blog may be broken due to the name change. Please bear with me while I get everything updated over the next few weeks.