Urban Permaculture in Cincinnati, OH, USA

Despite its very conservative base, there is quite a green wave starting to hit the Queen City.   In comparison to a place like Portland, Oregon, Cincinnati is way behind on Sustainability issues but there is definitely a mounting movement that can no longer be ignored by city officials, suburban landowners and local businesses alike.  So, how does an infant find its way in the concrete jungle?  It is a question we are trying to solve here in the Cincinnati Permaculture Guild and the greater sustainability initiative of the tri-state region of Southeast Indiana, Southwest Ohio, and Northern Kentucky.

Mapping the Green Ecosystem in Cincinnati

To be a helping hand to this unfolding process, we have begun to do a necessary step for collaboration, cooperation and documentation:  Mapping the Green Ecosystem of Cincinnati.  This document, using the mind map technology called VUE, is aiding in the identification of stakeholders and players within the eco-game.  This will lead to a community wide meeting where we will practically apply Permaculture principles to the sustainability scene in the city.  This happens through having players at the table like the Civic Garden Center, then we facilitate a functional analysis examination of this business just like we do with a chicken: Needs, Outputs/behaviors, and intrinsic characteristics.  The idea behind doing this exercise and using a mapping layout for the documentation is to see who is interacting with who, where are the missing links(functional interconnections) and how to collaborate rather than compete.  Furthermore once we then identify who is involved with say the various community gardens, then we can begin to document them using social media such as blogs.  This simple technology has the ability to demonstrate the community outreach potential of a blighted urban abandoned lot turning into a food production island and green oasis.  When individuals, business owners, and politicians can access the existence and tremendous social benefit of these projects, they will be more apt to contribute to the local food production movement.

That’s sort of the theory behind what is happening in Cincinnati and we are trying to manifest a working document so it doesn’t just stay as talk but rather manifests into more projects.  The Cincy PC guild is one of the critical players in that web and we continue to be contacted more and more about how to set up systems of sustainability.  Thus as a guild we are helping to put the rubber to the road and not just talk about what we can do.  One of these instances is the Design that we created for the East End Urban orchard project.  Near the banks of the Ohio River and adjacent to River East Academy, a Cincinnati Public School, there lie several oddly shaped rectangular plots that are a peak into the past of the urban development.  Similar to in Amsterdam, Cincinnati would build long and upwards instead of sprawling out in squares.  So when these buildings are torn down and the lots remain vacant, it is hard to develop because of the oddity of the lot size and configuration.

Google Earth of several plots involved in East End Urban Project

So the city has decided to allocate some of these lots that are impractical to develop to urban food production.  In the East End, there already exist a community garden and school garden and now there will be several lots put into Urban Orchard.  We designed these systems for low maintenance and long and short-term yield.   Fruits, nuts and berry fruits will be planted in  conjunction will Nitrogen fixing plants for an integrated approach.  Chestnuts, Pecans, Apples, and raspberries will enrich this local community soon as the design was approved and will come into fruition this year in conjunction with the Civic Garden Center.

East End Urban Orchard Plan View
East End Urban Orchard Project Section View

The Permaculture Guild has also been offering its expertise in garden layout for the urban agriculture and community garden scene.  One such space is the Camp Washington community garden just down the street from the Camp Washington Recreation Center.  At the Rec center we helped to design a rain garden but they are also looking for a space to have the kids interact with a garden space for after school programs and the summer time.  So the community garden will truly be a community effort with the space somewhat divided in four: two for the kids, one for local church and one for the local mosque.  The mosque is in the neighboring building which is a huge plus for this particular plot.  The mosque is willing to have water caught off their roof and also hoses available for summer irrigation.

Garden spaces are quite often better laid out when down on the ground rather than paper.  So we employed both models for the development of this property.  During the first site visit we interviewed the clients and examined the infrastructure at the site.  We meet members of the community, the mosque and several leaders of the children’s program who where there.  We began to toss around features of kids gardens that would make them functional and fun for kids to be in.  We want to maximize production while consciously designing for nooks and colors and textures and flavors that will inspire these children to continue to take part in food production.  Bean tepees, gourd and luffa tunnels, raspberry hedges, and flowers galore where some of the ideas that were immediately thrown out.

Camp Washington Community Garden with bricks defining the beds

So how to arrange all that to make it practical and aesthetically pleasing?  Well we each took out a piece of paper, drew the long rectangular plot, and began to play with serpentine pathways and keyhole beds.  It was a very good start and we decided that the process should continue in a couple of weeks with bricks from a local building that was being torn down.  They would be our design tool, easy to move and easy to facilitate with large groups of people rather than on paper.

One of our helpers from the community, Diamond, exploring the wildlife of the garden

On a brilliant spring equinox morning, we met up again to lay the beds out.  So we had three piles of bricks and we began by placing our central features, the bean tipi and the luffa tunnel.  From there we laid out the pathways using the bricks as a way to designate the flow of traffic.  We conceptually placed another couple of trees and compost pile, a bench, and worm bins.  We combined keyhole garden bed thinking with a few traditional straight row beds on diagonal to maximize the planting space and reduce the pathway space.  However in the main artery we kept it wide as we are designing for a space for kids to explore and connect with nature not just eek out production of every square inch in the space of 125 ft by 30 ft.  Once we had it laid out we began to dig the pathways and create the raised beds.

Another front that the guild is working on is Suburban Food Forest/ Edible Landscaping Projects.  After a sleepy winter, the swale at the Parkwalk Permaculture Project woke up to the spring thaw and intense rains.  Because of the underlying geology and high water table on the site, a limestone pathway was placed on the downhill side of the swale.  This greatly improves the access and the rocks are a local resource discarded at the edge of the forest by the development firms who were responsible for developing this former forest.


A guerilla forestry site is being developed slowly at Parkwalk as well.  Behind the neighboring houses, to the east there is a thin scrubby patch of forest that has been invaded quite extensively by Bush Honeysuckle.  Rather than viewing it as a problem, it is helping now to serve a function, which will propel it out of this low level of succession with little Diversity and complexity.  All of the houses that have an edge with the forest, simply and irresponsibly pipe their roof water to the forest edge and it erodes the topsoil quite extensively.  Because of this, Honeysuckle, persist where the soil is constantly being bombarded with excess flows.  To help prevent this and to encourage more diversity we have begun to chop the vast majority of the honeysuckle down and piling it along the contour to slow the water down and capture the organic matter that is running down the hill.

Contour Brush pile in the making using Bush Honeysuckle

These piles will soon become home to mycelium, which will chew on this wood and their net like structure and glue like apparatus will hold the soil in place.  So thanks Bush Honeysuckle for growing so well in our forests.  I believe in planting after cutting so to fill that gap so we have planted paw paws and to bring back our native woodland herbaceous plants there is now ramps, goldenseal, bloodroot, and dogbane to start.

Ramp, foreground, Amanda Nash Background planting goldenseal for Native woodlands forest species rehabilitation

Several people from the guild came over to help with the planting of the swale and a few other beds the at PPP.  It was a fun day of planting trees down below the swale again guerilla style as the open grassland there is quickly turning into scrubby forest.  Lots of diversity of berries and herbs went on the swale mound and now some vines to further screen the house from the intense summer sun went in.  There is lots of room in between the perennials for annuals, which is how we will be doing time stacking.  While the Blueberries and Paw Paw’s grow slowly we can still take advantage of this prepared garden space by planting broccoli or potatoes.

Romain, Deepak, and Dave planting out the swale

Also out at Doug’s grandparents’ land that has lots of acreage we have begun to plant a nut orchard.  It long term thinking as the trees are all seedlings but top grafting might be an option in the future.  Nut trees have long taproots to mine nutrients and water to produce this complex protein source for humans and wildlife.  Thus these trees still have that precious resource in tact as when one buys grafted nut trees, the tap roots have been cut for ease of shipping and potting.  The trees were planted easily in the rich, Kentucky loam soil and mulched heavily as these trees will have very little to no care or maintenance.  Hopefully they survive and we get the summer rains that make Cincinnati such a lush place.

The Design using PowerPoint software

We planted the trees along the Northern edge of the property, which is always a great place to plant nut trees because of their large size.  They cast their shadow to the north which is the neighbors property and thus to the south you can plant successfully smaller plants to capture as much of the sunlight energy that is possible.  And where did we find the mulch for the trees- the edge- the net and sieve for energy.  We used leaves that were trapped along the edge between mowed grass and herbaceous plant layer that grew underneath the thin belt of fencerow trees.  The herbaceous stalks hold the leaves down which was held down by rotting branches that had laid beneath the older trees.

English walnut planted with Scotch Broom in same hole to supply Nitrogen and also thick layer of diverse mulch

Lastly the Permaculture Guild has just put on another successful Weekend PDC.  To accomodate the urban lifestyle, the guild utilizes this format to reach a greater audience.  Braden Trauth hosts the courses with local experts coming in to deliver sections on a particular topic they have a passion for.  This makes for a dynamic course that stays fresh and energized throughout.  The guild strongly believes in getting more and more people involved in this growing scene and the PDC is a great format for doing so.  Another format is the guild meeting which is held regularly every month and then also special chance times for working bees.  If you would like to contact the guild, feel free to do so at the following:

Sam Dunlap:  sam_dunlap@yahoo.com

Braden Trauth: bradentrauth@yahoo.com

A few of our newest graduates with the sheet mulch project at OM Valley Permaculture site at the weekend PDC

In the late winter of 2011, we are hosting a weekend PDC which has 15 students in it right now.  It’s a really great group and with the format I am able to continue design and implement pC gardens around the city.  In Northside, which is one of the hotspots for community and PC in Cincinnati, I recently helped do a garden redesign in a small urban plot.  The plot is long and narrow, just like the houses that rise two or three stories in that old fashioned European style that is so prominent in places like Amsterdam.  The backyard was the space that was being designed as the landlord was hoping to grow gardens for herself and her young daughter.  The garden was at one time four large raised garden beds.  It was deconstructed by the previous tenants and they actually took the soil with them that they had been building for years.  With the boards gone the owner had played with some different designs but asked me to come in and help finish that off.


Having already conducted the client interview and some site observations on the previous trip the site we jumped in on this unusually warm winters day.  I kept saying to the client “least change for the greatest affect”. This is because where the garden beds had been there was remnants of high organic matter soil.  Being in the city there is the worry of heavy metal contamination which was one of the owners concerns as well.  With that and the fact that there was gravel on top of weed mat where the paths had been and a square gravel patch on the lower right of the pictures for a patio area, I decided to go back to the previous land users design.   We wanted to be able to use the fence as a trellis but I wanted to keep access open to a certain degree.  So I just started moving the rocks around with these different factors in mind.

in the middle

As the rocks were placed I looked for way to lessen the square look but maximize the bed space to path space.  This is easy to lay out with rocks as they are just so easily arranged for design purposes.  That is the key behind the Keyhole gardening.  The owner had a huge pile of leaves leftover from the fall that we used for the mulch.  Some of the leaves also went to the black compost bin that will be a part of our fertility as well.  We will try to meet this important function with another element of the worm bin when we have our next design session.  The leaves should begin to break down over the coming months as we plan to build soil through cover cropping as well this spring and then plant in the summer.    Overall it was a great little project to contribute to and the best part might have been the fact that I rode my bike to get there.

Final Keyhole design with back circle set aside for a future herb spiral

4 Comments on “Urban Permaculture in Cincinnati, OH, USA

  1. hey guys.
    just wondering what advice you can give someone working with a high water table.
    all the work i have done so far has been on storing lost water.
    not sure how to approach this new potential community dilema.

    btw. YAY! for all your projects down south. power to the permies!

  2. Hello Friends,

    Am permaculture in Brazil, we work in an ecovillage (www.ecoviladalagoa.com.br), I’m passing through Amsterdam and would like to know the work in permaculture people do around the world, and if precice help can also help. Our ecovillage is focused on green buildings also can show our work in pictures.



  3. I was just curious how I can get involved in helping with permaculture? I am very interested in learning more and donating time to help in this project any way that I can be helpful. I am anxious in developing more knowledge within this field. I would love to be a part of your Ecovillage. Thank you!

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