Backyard Abundance – Reconnecting People to Nature

Backyard Abundance visitors tour Jason Taylor’s yard, which contains a large garden bed of native prairie. Photo: Backyard Abundance

Fred Meyer isn’t a man who lets a problem stop him — not even when the problem covers the entire planet.

“Most everyone feels a desire to improve the health of our environment, but when faced with our monumental environmental problems, the task seems too large — understanding how to proceed can feel overwhelming,” Meyer writes at BackyardAbundance.org.

Because Meyer understood that feeling of powerlessness and frustration, he wanted to do something about it — not only for himself, but to help others as well.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Meyer, a fellow Iowa Citian, to tell us about Backyard Abundance, the nonprofit he modeled on the principles of permaculture. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


MEYER: I started Backyard Abundance because I saw a need in our community for a holistic view of how we could improve the health of our environment. I have always been a big tree hugger. I had been hugging the trees, picking up roadways, planting plants, and doing all that for years — even in high school.

After a while, I had to take a step back and see if what I was doing was actually making a difference. When I did, I saw that the environment was continuing to crumble all around me.

Fred Meyer, founder of Backyard Abundance, speaks to participants at a workshop. Photo: Backyard Abundance

As I researched into this more, I saw millions of people and organizations doing the exact same things that I was doing; but despite how organized and passionate we were, the environment continued to deteriorate. At best, we were slowing the acceleration of our environmental problems. But we certainly were not fixing them or reversing them.

BPGL: That must have been a pretty depressing revelation. Many people might just give up. What was your response?

MEYER: At that point, I became really frustrated. All my efforts didn’t appear to actually be doing anything. So I started talking to a lot of people. I took some classes. I read a ton of books. And I learned that one of the fundamental problems we have — one of the fundamental causes of our environmental problems — is that we are disconnected from the natural world.

If you look at enough books, and read enough articles about this problem, that pattern comes up over and over and over again. We think we’re not a part of nature. We think we’re beside it. We think we’re above it. At best, we think we are stewards of the land.

Because we don’t think we’re a part of it, we don’t think we’re a part of its cycles and its processes. We don’t think we need nature for our survival. And because we don’t think we need it, we tend to abuse it.

BPGL: How did you plan to change people’s thinking on that?

MEYER: The thing that I set about doing is trying to get a better understanding of how I personally could get a better connection to nature — to make myself feel like I’m actually part of the process.

If you ask most people if they’re an animal, they’ll probably respond, “No.” But if we’re not animals, and we’re not plants, what are we?

We are animals. We’re just like any other animal on the planet, but we have special characteristics that other animals don’t.

So I set out to understand how I could feel like I was a more integrated part of nature. I was reading a lot of books, taking a lot of classes, and, at that time, I was really getting into gardening. I ran across a concept called permaculture, which is a contraction of permanent and agriculture; or, sometimes it’s referred to as permanent culture.

BPGL: What is the philosophy behind permaculture?

MEYER: The whole idea of permaculture is to create resilient communities or resilient agriculture that is modeled after healthy ecosystems. And within it, it has several ethics: Care of people. Care of earth. Return the surplus.

Fred Meyer uses a level to find the contour of a hill for a rain garden.

Permaculture has a lot of principles and patterns that are rooted in the natural world. I started applying those principles in my own garden, just experimenting with things in my own backyard. Initially, what I was trying to do was use less water on my garden, because I didn’t want to tap our water sources to water my garden.

And through that, I started learning how to create a mini ecosystem in my backyard that was self-maintaining and provided habitat for local insects and other visiting wildlife, like birds. I love to attract birds. I created this little, resilient ecosystem in my backyard, and I started seeing that I was helping the environment — actually, directly helping it in my backyard.

BPGL: What do you mean, you were “helping the environment”?

MEYER: For example, every drop of water that falls on my property stays on my property. Most of the time, people take the water that falls on their roof, and the first thing they try to do is get it away from the house, get it out on the street as soon as possible. And that causes a lot of problems and flash flooding. That’s why the stream banks of urban streets are so undercut. The water goes up, and then it goes down, and it fluctuates really fast, undercutting the banks.

But, I was able to now hold all of that water on my property.

I did it first by pointing all my gutters into the yard, rather than into the driveway. Next, I put in swales — which are similar to rain gardens — to hold onto that water and allow it to infiltrate into the soil. This improves the health of urban streams, helps clean our groundwater, and waters my garden.

Then, I planted a lot of plants to attract birds and insects, especially bees. I started recognizing that when those insects visited my yard and fed from the nectar or the seeds that I was providing, they didn’t need to go as far to get food for themselves. That created a stronger hive or a stronger flock, and that was helping nature in some small way.

BPGL: So your mini ecosystem helps the larger ecosystem. That makes sense.

MEYER: I recognized that I was helping nature and doing this in my own backyard, and it felt really good — and empowering. I could actually help the environment in my backyard.

Liz Maas teaches people about rain gardens at a Backyard Abundance yard tour. Photo: Backyard Abundance

But the biggest thing it did for me is that I started seeing ways that I could actually improve the health of our environment in much larger ways. The patterns and principles that are rooted in nature and in permaculture scale to just about any size. So, they’ll work in a person’s backyard, but they’ll also scale to an entire park, or an entire neighborhood, or an entire city.

And those principles, because they’ve been tested for billions of years, are pretty rock solid. One of those principles is don’t pollute. Don’t create any waste that is not reused. If we did that as a society, if we composted everything — or made sure that, for everything we created, when its time span ended, it could be fed back into another process — we wouldn’t need landfills anymore.

“The Story of Stuff” is a little 20-minute video that basically shows how our entire economy is geared toward taking natural resources, processing them to create stuff, and sending them straight to the landfill. Our homes are just holding places for the stuff along its journey. Just about 95 percent of everything we create ends up in a landfill. I think, at the Johnson County [Iowa] landfill, half of everything that goes out there can be composted: wood or paper or whatever. If we just did that, it would be a phenomenal improvement. But what we have to learn to do is not allow anything to go to waste and reuse everything.

So that’s just one example of a principle that permaculture promotes. By applying those principles not just in my backyard, but city wide or country wide or community wide, I started to see ways that I could really be effective in my community at helping the environment. And it made me feel really empowered. How often does an environmentalist feel empowered when they’re faced with all these environmental problems?

Our environmental efforts have been so mediocre that we have lowered the bar to the point where we are just happy to do less harm. I learned that every plant and animal on the planet — in some way or another — creates abundance. When we follow those principles, we can go way beyond “sustainability” and create beautiful, resilient, abundant communities.

I was feeling really good, and I wanted to share this with other people. I went around in the community and talked with a lot of environmental groups. I said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea that I think is kind of intriguing.” They helped me refine it, and that’s how Backyard Abundance was born.

BPGL: What does Backyard Abundance do?

MEYER: Backyard Abundance’s mission is to connect people to the natural world by teaching them ecological skills that enable them to create beautiful, resilient communities and landscapes.

It’s not just landscapes we’re creating here, although it’s one of the things permaculture is good at. These patterns and principles apply to communities as well.

Pete Flynn teaches people how to start a new garden bed at a Backyard Abundance workshop. Photo: Backyard Abundance

All these things are modeled after healthy ecosystems. And when we look at a healthy ecosystem, it doesn’t have a landfill sitting off to the side. It doesn’t import chemical fertilizers and pesticides to take care of itself. It doesn’t need to dig up fossil fuels to provide energy for itself.

Someway, somehow, these healthy ecosystems, and these billions of organisms that provide habitat for them, have been doing so for millions of years, all just on the energy of the sun. So when we model our communities and our agricultural practices after those same processes, we will yield the same benefits with much less energy.

BPGL: What types of workshops do you offer?

MEYER: This will be our fifth year. Our mainstay event has been yard tours. We find people in the community who have consciously designed their yards to benefit not only themselves, but the environment. Then we open up that yard to the public for a couple of hours and allow them to funnel through, get ideas, talk with the homeowners. And we typically invite experts to talk about the features of the yard. We usually hold anywhere from four to six yard tours every year. They have been very popular — between 50–100 people show up at each event.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been gradually moving from this passive education to more direct education — how to actually implement the features that we see in these yards. We held a workshop to show people how to plant a prairie garden and have a patch of water-cleaning, insect-feeding prairie in their yard. We held an event to teach people about rain gardens and rain barrels. We taught people how to easily start a new garden bed. And, just last summer, we showed people how to look at a landscape and figure out how to design it based on their goals and the characteristics of the landscape.

BPGL: What classes do you have coming in the near future?

MEYER: 2010 represents a defining moment in our history. We’re becoming more of an education organization. So we’re going to launch a series of six classes called “Create Abundant Landscapes.” Classes will begin in April and will be held on the weekends. We’ll teach people how to implement really resilient, beautiful landscapes that require very little energy, are self maintaining, and help the environment as well as the people who are managing them.

Molly Martlin teaches people how to design a garden beds to be self-maintaining. Photo: Backyard Abundance

Two things make these classes unique. First, we will be using the people’s personal landscapes as examples throughout all the activities and classes. The classes won’t be abstract. Participants will actually be using their own landscapes so that they will have something to take home and put to use right away.

The other thing that makes it really unique — and this is the thing that excites me the most — is it’s not just about landscaping; it’s about learning about nature and feeling like we’re a beneficial part of the natural world. When we design these landscapes, we design them with that connection in mind.

We are a working, functioning part of the system that we’re designing. We’re not just putting a patio in the backyard or planting a tree.

We’re not creating garden beds that mimic our industrialized agriculture system, which requires massive amounts of physical and fossil fuel energy to maintain it. We’re creating a healthy ecological systems of which we are a functional part. As people go through this process, they’ll start learning that they are a part of the natural world, because they’re designing a landscape that makes them feel connected to nature.

And as I pointed out when I started talking about this, that is one of the fundamental difficulties in solving our environmental problems: We don’t think we’re a part of nature. By showing people that we’re a part of the natural world, we inherently start solving that problem. We not only see that we need healthy ecosystems to survive, but we also see that nature provides solutions to many other problems our culture experiences.

In “Create Abundant Landscapes,” we’ll learn how to work with nature, rather than against it. We’ll learn these patterns and see how to upwardly scale them to create resilient communities that are run off the power of the sun and produce no waste. And we’ll find fulfillment in the beneficial connections we experience with nature and with our community because we will see the beneficial role our landscape and our efforts play in a much larger whole.

BPGL: What other activities do you have planned for your launch?

MEYER: We’re going to launch “Create Abundant Landscapes” in April. We have invited nationally acclaimed ecological designer Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens, to give a presentation and a workshop in Iowa City March 12–14.

Jacke’s book contains pretty much everything I’ve been talking about. It’s a how-to manual: how to create resilient communities and landscapes that are modeled off of healthy ecosystems.

Leading up to that, we’re holding a series of events called “The Seeds of Sustainability.” There will be two or three events every month starting next week until the mid March event. Film screenings, presentations, a book reading, a seed swap — it will be a lot of fun.

These events will talk about exactly what we’re doing in the “Create Abundant Landscapes” curriculum. It’s a lead-up to the kick off our classes.

Backyard Abundance screens a film and provides an educational session about choosing environmentally-friendly plants. Photo: Backyard Abundance

BPGL: What do you see as the greatest benefit of the new curriculum?

MEYER: A lot of people feel very helpless, not only in helping our environment, but just improving our culture. We have an economy that doesn’t seem to be working for us, an agriculture that requires tons of energy, a transportation system that pollutes everything, and an environment that is crumbling. People do not feel like they can help any of those problems.

Our classes are focused on showing folks how they can help those larger problems by learning the patterns and principles in nature and by applying them in their own backyards. It’s really about feeling empowered, feeling like we’re a part of our community, a part of something larger than ourselves.

For More Information

The calendar pages on the Backyard Abundance website provide a complete listing of upcoming Backyard Abundance events.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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