When you drive past Jan Spencer’s house off River Road, you might just miss it. Only the crevices of a metal roof and the leaves of a palm tree peek out behind a tall wall of berries.
Walking through a small gap between the greenery, visitors eventually find themselves on the steps of Spencer’s pale blue 1970s ranch-style house. But the property looks more like a jungle than a suburban home. Butterflies and bees buzz around a giant lemon tree and heads of cabbage.
After 17 years of planting and building, almost completely on his own, Spencer, 64, has created a suburban permaculture that he said is unlike anything else in Eugene.
“This is a small part of what a very different kind of culture and economic system would look like,” Spencer said. “It’s about, how can we take what’s already been here and rework it in a positive way?”
Permaculture, a term coined in 1972 at the University of Tasmania, is agriculture that produced crops in harmony with nature, not against it.
Suburban permaculture takes this idea and brings it home, into the front yard and backyard gardens. Instead of tending to a patch of lawn, suburban neighbors are encouraged to grow food — a step beyond buying locally to producing food right at home, thus reducing their carbon footprint.
“Sustainability is living within our ecological means,” Spencer said. “We’re not taking more from the planet than the planet can sustain.”
Spencer bought his house in the River Road neighborhood in 2000, intending to create a sustainable eco-space. He replaced all the grass with fruit and nut trees and berry canes.
He installed a metal roof to catch rainwater so it could be recycled for irrigation. He has solar hot water heaters on his roof, and he renovated a room as a solarium to heat the rest of the house in the winter.
Seventeen years later, and Spencer has something growing in every corner of his property, nearly all of it edible. He said that neighbors come by to pick berries from his front yard. And he shares lemons with the neighborhood when they ripen in January. (Yes, January.)
Spencer said it doesn’t take as much as you’d think to live the way that he does.
“It depends on how you do it,” said Spencer, who did nearly all of the landscaping himself. “One of the most important ingredients is just how we prioritize our time. I choose to do this. I’d rather put a metal roof on my house than buy a new stereo.”
Now the ecoculture advocate said he is working to bring his message to a larger audience, through a series of planned public events through September.
On Tuesday, Spencer is scheduled to launch his Green and Resilient Neighborhood Initiative. Working with the River Road Neighborhood Association, he will encourage city neighborhood programs to incorporate green and sustainable living into their platforms.
Spencer said programs such as neighborhood watches would benefit from encouraging front yard gardens. If people spend more time tending their front yards, they’d see more of what’s going on in the street and the houses around them, he said.
Suburban permaculture can do more than help preserve our planet, Spencer said: It could help put the neighbor back in neighborhood.
“One of the main reasons these programs are so important is they give neighbors a safe way to approach other neighbors,” Spencer said. “Once the neighbors meet each other, they can do whatever they want. They can take their fences down — literally and figuratively.”
Spencer’s neighborhood in north Eugene is scattered with solar-powered panels and lawns that look like Japanese gardens. He said that there are 20 other suburban permacultures within biking distance of his house.
One street over, Ravi Logan and Michelle Renee host Sunday meditation sessions on a fully sustainable studio they built on about an acre of land. The fences between the houses behind them have been torn down, and Logan roams freely around his neighbors’ yards.
The couple, whose property will be featured in a site tour Spencer is leading on Saturday, have solar water heaters, more than 100 edible crops and even composting toilets, where waste becomes fertilizer for their garden.
Neighbors come and use their yoga studio for movie nights and meditation. In their wooded acreage, scattered with picnic tables, there are potluck meals and Fourth of July celebrations.
“What we’re hoping for is not an intentional community, but an intentional neighborhood where there’s just a flowing in and out of stuff,” Renee said.
Spencer said that the key concept of permaculture is to make choices that have lots of positive outcomes.
“This is healthy, you’re out in the fresh air, and you get to know your neighbors a little bit better.”
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“Sustainability is living within our ecological means.”
— Jan Spencer, Eugene