Paul Wheaton: Building A Better World In Your Backyard

An unusual by-product of the global pandemic was that a lot more people ended up becoming gardeners – one study estimated that over 18 million Americans discovered gardening while spending more time at home. This week on Sea Change Radio, we revisit our 2020 discussion with author and sustainability expert Paul Wheaton about his book, Building A Better World In Your Backyard. Wheaton provides us with some innovative ideas on gardening and permaculture while outlining the many benefits of Hugelkultur techniques. We also look at some home efficiency solutions, including warming up our bodies rather than the air in our homes, and the advantages of using a rocket mass heater.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability.

00:15 Paul Wheaton (PW) – If you’ve got an amazing chef, they will find the weeds to be more valuable than your garden plants. And so a chef with a potato and carrots and corn and whatever else is in your regular garden, it seems like they could only go so far with that. But you give them those weeds and you will have something far more amazing to eat.

00:43 Narrator – An unusual by-product of the global pandemic was that a lot more people ended up becoming gardeners – one study estimated that over 18 million Americans discovered gardening while spending more time at home. This week on Sea Change Radio, we revisit our 2020 discussion with author and sustainability expert Paul Wheaton about his book, Building A Better World In Your Backyard. Wheaton provides us with some innovative ideas on gardening and permaculture while outlining the many benefits of Hugelkultur techniques. We also look at some home efficiency solutions, including warming up our bodies rather than the air in our homes, and the advantages of using a rocket mass heater.

01:47 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Paul Wheaton. He’s an author and a permaculture expert, and his new book is called Building a Better World in Your Backyard – Instead of Being Angry at Bad Guys.” Paul, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

02:01 Paul Wheaton (PW) – Alex, thanks for having me.

02:03 Alex Wise (AW) – Well, this is a pleasure. You are informally known as the Duke of Permaculture. You and your co-author Sean Klassen-Koop have penned a book about maximizing your little space to make a better world. So the opening quote you use in the book is from Frank Zappa – “without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” So what kind of progress do you hope to achieve with this book?

02:32 Paul Wheaton (PW) – I hope that I can solve most of the world’s biggest problems and so by deviating from the norm. Of course, as Frank put it so well, I kind of feel like it’s a long list of things and and a lot of my frustration, which led to writing. The book came from watching An Inconvenient Truth more than a decade ago, and then Al Gore got to the end of the movie. I mean, he starts the movie off by saying, “ohh man, we’re in trouble. Here’s the problem.” And at the end of the movie, it’s like, “here’s what you can do, you know, check your tire pressure, buy this light bulb, things of that nature.” And I kind of felt like that stuff is really, really weak. Then later out came another book by Derek Jensen – “Fifty Ways to Stay in Denial as the World Burns,” and he said if all of the United States, if everybody in America did all the things that Al Gore suggested in his book, it would cut 22% off of our collective carbon footprint and at the same time. We gain our footprint, our collective carbon footprint grows 2% each year. So in 11 years, it would be a wash. That really bothered me also and of course Derrick Jensen goes off in a completely different direction. But those two pieces combined made me feel like we need a better list of recipes we need something that’s going to make it so that if people want to make a change at home that it makes 10-20 times more change than that simple recipe book. So we could at least. Begin and then combine that with how a lot of that stuff was about sacrifice – you know, turn your heat down and it’s like you end up being more miserable and I kind of feel like if this is going to take off and make real change, I can only list things in my book of recipes that are going to be things that make your life more luxuriant or put more money in your pocket or both. And so I think that I’ve done a really good job of traveling this much narrower path. And I think that the book is jam packed with recipes. One person can reduce their carbon footprint, their petroleum footprint and their toxic footprint enough to cover for many people.

05:07 AW – Why don’t you give us a little bit more on your background. How did you come to the sustainability space and you’re based right outside of Missoula, Montana, correct?

05:16 PW – That is.

05:17 AW – How long have you been there?

05:19 PW – I moved to Missoula in 1988 and it was in 1994 that I tried to grow a garden and failed and and then I became really obsessed with gardening. And then that led me to permaculture and I think most people who are keen on permaculture came into it from gardening.

05:43 AW – If you can maybe define permaculture and and how it is different from gardening in your mind.

05:49 PW – Permaculture is a more symbiotic relationship with nature so that I can be even lazier. I think that there’s a lot of explanations for permaculture that seem very detailed and I don’t even fully understand it and I’m supposed to be a bit of an authority on permaculture.

06:06 AW – How would you explain that evolution? When were you permaculturist and not gardening?

06:12 PW – It was in 2001 where, when I had like 80 acres and I was, you know, expanding all of my gardening ideas and a much, much more. And a neighbor came by and observed what I was doing. And he said, “oh, that’s permaculture.” That’s the first time I ever heard the word permaculture. So I got a bunch of books and I started pouring through the books and I realized that a lot of the things that are being advocated in these books are things that I thought I had invented and then there’s a bunch of stuff in there. Also that I’d never thought of it’s like “wow, that is a great idea.” So I became bonkers about permaculture and I started consuming every speck of every permaculture thing I could find. But to answer the question about how is permaculture different from gardening, I think that there’s a lot of gardening techniques from permaculture, but then permaculture also tends to include things like natural building and alternative energy and things of that nature and community. And so it’s kind of like I I feel like it’s a gardener’s approach to how we use energy or a gardeners approach to how we might build a house. Things of that nature before I started using the word permaculture, I called what I did a full farm ecosystem or systems feed systems feed systems. And permaculture is way easier to say.

07:46 AW – So Paul, let’s dive into some of the lowest hanging fruit, if you will, of how to reduce home energy usage.

So you live in a cold climate up in Montana. How do you go about trying to reduce your energy bill? What are some of the most effective ways that people can do something to change their heating habits?

08:11 PW – I would say that for those people that are living in a colder climate where heat is an enormous energy expense, I, if I remember correctly, the national average for energy consumption, for home energy consumption, I believe it’s 66% is spent for. And here in Montana, it’s oftentimes more than 75% of your energy costs are for heat and I wish to strongly advocate. In fact, I I wish for you rather than like “ohh man. I kind of feel chilly.” It’s 72 and people are saying put on a sweater. It’s kind of like. No, no, I want you to be crazy luxuriant, what is the most luxuriant thing heat-wise in the winter time? And I want to advocate for a path rather than a path of sacrifice.

09:11 AW – So you have a clever recipe for more luxuriant living at half the cost. What is that recipe?

09:16 PW – Well, let’s talk about somebody who is renting in San Francisco and when we could do Montana too. And so you’re not going to be able to build a rocket mass heater, which it seems to be the thing that is the big take away from the book that a lot of people are jumping towards is the rocket mass heater. And we can talk about that. In a moment, but a lot of people who live in San Francisco are going to say we’re not allowed to build anything like that in the city limits. And so it’s like, OK. Let’s move on to something that you can do and we call it micro heaters. So an example would be, if you’re going to be sitting at your desk and working at your desk, then you could put something at your feet. That’s a dog bed heater. And so they use about 15 watts per hour. And so it warms right up and and it’s like, well, that’s not much and it’s it’s like, so we’re going to move along. The next thing is, is that an incandescent light bulb, an old school incandescent light bulb has been banned by the government because it’s an inefficient form of light. The trade off is, is that, of course. It’s like, well, you know, they’re inefficient because 96% of the energy that it consumes just goes out as heat. But the funny thing is, is that most Americans heat their homes with convective heat, so they heat the air and then the air heats them. So they heat all the air of the whole house and that heats them. But that’s the least efficient form of heat of the remaining two types of heat, there is radiant heat, which is going to be what the light bulb gives you, and then there’s conductive heat, which is what the dog bed heater gives you conductive heat is the most efficient form of heat. Radiant Heat is in the middle, so the incandescent light is actually using radiant heat, which is a very efficient form of heat. So let’s add a couple of things in so we’ve got, we’ve got the dog bed heater at our feet using conductive heat, the most efficient we’ve got an incandescent light bulb mounted in one of those swinging arm lamps, so it’s kind of a little bit above your head and fairly close. So a 40 Watt bulb is warming you with radiant heat, a quite efficient form of heat, and then you might have a mat under your keyboard and mouse that offers up heat that is a dominantly conductive form of heat. As your hand rests upon the mouse, then your hand is warmed by this conduct. So let’s get all that set up and turned on. We had a 40 Watt light bulb plus 15 watts in the dog bed heater and maybe 5 watts from this mat. The key is that what I just mapped out is about 60 watts.

12:22 AW – By kind of focusing more on localized heat in your home, rather than trying to heat the entire home like where are you hanging out?

12:30 PW – Right, let’s bring those heat-adding modes to you. By trying to heat the individual instead of heating the whole house, plus also focusing on more efficient forms of heat, radiant heat plus conductive heat. And of course the star of the show is that incandescent light bulb. And did I not just if I saved you $1000 on your heat bill? Did I save $1000 worth of energy? And does that mean that the incandescent light bulb? Actually saved more energy than the LED. I mean, a lot of people can debate about that, but I think it’s, I think if nothing else, it’s plausible now if I can cut your energy dramatically, then of course I think we’ve lowered your carbon footprint and we’ve lowered your toxic footprint.Maybe, depending on where you get your energy from or what kind of energy you’re using for heat, maybe even your petroleum footprint. Now here’s a critically important thing why, and we’re going to look at your carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint as an American adult is 30 tons per year. And when we start talking about this, the light bulb stuff is, like, so teeny tiny. It doesn’t even register on that 30 tons. A lot of people start getting the idea of getting a Tesla, getting an electric car instead of their gasoline vehicle, and so. That change would reduce your carbon footprint on average, by two tons per year. But I gotta say that for people in Montana, if you switch from electric heat to a rocket mass heater, that would reduce your carbon footprint by 27 tons per year.

14:33 AW – So what is a rocket mass heater?

14:35 PW – A rocket mass heater is a wood burning device. That will heat your home all winter using nothing but the twigs and branches that naturally fall off your trees in your yard. It burns in a different way and it burns far more efficiently than a conventional wood stove. You would think that if it if it heats your home with 110th of the wood, that you eat your with 1/10th of the wood of conventional woods of you would think that it would produce 1/10th of the smoke, but since it uses the smoke as a fuel it produces about 1/1000th of the smoke. It’s its smoke generation is about that the same as a candle. And so imagine if all of San Francisco heated with a rocket mass heater. Would you notice any difference in the environment in San Francisco? I think that probably not. And I also imagine that in San Francisco, I’m going to guess that you have a green bin, is that right?

15:43 AW – Yes, we all have composting here.

15:47 PW – And so then it’s kind of like, oh, great. Well, you got twigs in your yard. You’re probably just pitched them into the green bin. And so what I’m saying is like, no, hang on to those and you’ll heat your home all winter with that.

16:22 (Music Break)

17:11 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Paul Wheaton. His new book is called Building a “Better World in Your Backyard.” Let’s say you took me to a garden store right now and I said “yeah, I don’t want to spend more than, let’s say, a hundred $200.00, but I want to make my garden something I’m proud of and that is also productive, useful. And it has a minimal carbon footprint.”

17:39 PW – OK, so before we go to the store, let’s build what’s called a Hugelkultur. And so this is soil on wood. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to lay some wood on the ground and put some soil on it. We’ll put some more wood, some more soil, some more wood, some more soil until it’s about 7 feet tall. And we might even shape it so that it’s a bit of a sun scoop, so it’s open to the South. That will help to extend our season and we’ll be able to grow more there. Then we’re going to go to the seed store and this is the part that you’re excited about. Like we have 1 to $200.00 that we get to spend at the store for seeds and and whatever else and. I think what we want to do is we want to start off with our nitrogen fixers. We just made this this new soil on wood thing and we need a lot of Webby roots, a lot of carbon and nitrogen in the soil in order to make a really magnificent soil. And we just sneeze seeds onto this. They’ll all leap out and produce mountains of food. But to do that, we need rich, wonderful soil. So I want to start off. With the nitrogen fixture. So this is going to be peas and beans. Are your most obvious nitrogen fixers, but I want to mix in some lupins in there. If we can, I’d really like to find some alfalfa, and so I’m going to get all these nitrogen fixers and soil builders and plant them around one of the seeds that I like to use is a perennial rye that Sepp Holzer over in Austria, he has bred them for 50 years and they grow 8 1/2 feet tall and it just really builds soil and in really awful conditions. So now here’s all my soil builders. And then of course I want to mix in a few things I might want to, you know, eat this year, some squashes, and personally I always like to plant some rhubarb and so I’ll put a few rhubarb Combs in there and I think an important one for a lot of Hugelkultur is going to be sunchokes. It’s a bit like a perennial potato in a way. And the great thing is about Sunchokes is that they produce more calories per acre than any other known crop, and they tolerate awful conditions. They don’t need irrigation and since they’re perennial, they just pump out food. Year after year after year with no further effort. The next thing I want to do is it’s like, let’s go ahead and go buy some of your favorite fruit. Let’s go buy a few apples, maybe a few apricots and some plums. And we’ll eat those and then we’ll take the seeds from those and we will put those into the Hugelkultur bed. And so, lots of diversity and we’re going to scatter it around willy nilly. And then there’s a lot of people that find that the this particular polyculture aesthetic. They’re going to look at it and they’re going to say it looks like it’s just a bunch of weeds. And my response to that is well, first, I know it’s beautiful, right? But what we’re trying to do, in a way is make it so that all of the weeds that grow here are food. They’re all recognizable foods.

21:26 AW – Like mint is a weed, for example, right?

21:30 PW – Mint is indeed a weed, yeah, and it’ll take over areas when given a chance. And in fact, the dandelion itself, the poster child for weeds, actually came to the United States as a food crop. So every part of the dandelion is edible. Although I want to I personally choose to not eat the stems and we could talk about that for an hour. But some people love to eat the stems. They make kind of a spaghetti out of it, but every part of the dandelion is edible, and it was introduced as a food group. People used to bring their favorite varieties of dandelion with them when they came to the United States. And so some people would swap seeds for dandelion to get a better tasting dandelion. So it’s a, it’s a food crop. It’s a big food crop, and if you turn animals loose in a pasture, dandelions are generally one of the first things that they eat. Now I would say that the blossoms taste quite good. The greens, to me, are a bit on the better side, but if you so I would, I might mix them into some things and I wouldn’t use just dandelion greens. But if you cook them with oils, it tends to take a lot of that bitter out. And so in fact, I kind of feel like if you’ve got an amazing. They will find the weeds to be more valuable than your garden plants. And so a chef with a a potato and carrots and corn and whatever else is in your regular garden. It seems like they could only go so far with that, but you give them those weeds and you will have something far more amazing to eat.

23:24 AW – So a lot of the gardening that is with your school of permaculture, it focuses more on on food production than the aesthetics of a garden, is that fair to say?

23:36 PW – I’m gonna say, yeah, I I do think that there are a lot of beautiful flowering plants that I include in my permaculture gardens, and usually those beautiful flowering. Science brings something else to the table. I love to plant with a lot of crocuses because when early spring is coming around and everything still looks so desolate, the crocus comes up first, and I could have thousands of flowers while everybody else is still under ice. And there’s been, and there’s no life yet on their gardens. So I just feel the urge to plant lots and lots of crocuses. I also plant a lot of lupins because the lupins really helped to build soil a lot, and of course they’re a beautiful flower. It’s a soil building flower which makes it different than, let’s say, roses. And a tomato plant, for example, also has a flower almost, you know, all of our plants. All of our food plants have a flower. I mean a squash plant that has huge, glorious flower.

24:55 AW – Do you have any recommendations on irrigation? You mentioned that’s one of the limitations that everybody encounters regardless of their climate. I just recently created with a friend and neighbor a grey water system here for our backyard where we take our washing machine spills over and it and it gets pumped up into our backyard. What are some other ways that people can maximize their water usage?

25:22 PW – I think that the number one thing that a person could do, like if if you’re going to do only one thing to minimize the use of water for irrigation in your garden. I would say the one thing would have to be mulch. So and mulch can be so many different things. I would say that the best mulch there’s ever been has been hay. Unfortunately, almost all the hay that you can find or buy now has basically been poisoned. And so if you put it on your garden, it would kill your garden now. Whereas 50 years ago there was like nothing better to put on your garden than hay. I would say that another one that is a lot of people don’t understand is rocks. I mean the wonderful thing about using rocks as a mulch is that they all last for hundreds of years, you know, but just if you could just, you know, put rocks next to your plants on the ground, it’s amazing how much it helps as a mulch. Many of your kitchen scraps can be used as a kind of a mulch, maybe some sawdust and wood chips on top of your kitchen scraps out in the garden. The Ruth Stout technique is what I prefer when moving kitchen scraps out to a garden. But it’s amazing how you’ll put some of that kitchen scraps out there and put a little sawdust over it, and you come back next year and that’s the spot that’s just loaded with earthworms. And it’s just such a black soil and any seed that comes anywhere near there is going to do so great. So really concentrating on your soil is just as important if or maybe more important than where you access your water and how much water you use when you’re when you’re irrigating. If you have great soil your need for irrigation might be reduced by a factor of 10. A good mulch might reduce your need for irrigation by 80%. I would I think that a lot of places, the cost of water for irrigation has become extremely expensive. And other people want to use less water for the sake of the environment.

27:54 AW – His book is called “Building a Better World in Your Backyard.” Paul Wheaton – Paul, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 PW – Thanks for having me.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Herbie Hancock and Bill Fay. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.