Tucked into a one-acre lot enveloped by mature hardwoods, her home is a true representation of Atlanta’s moniker as a “City in the Forest.” Unlike the conventionally managed and exclusively ornamental landscapes nearby, Elizabeth is determined to improve upon and preserve her woodland property through functional, regenerative design and management.
But, like so many other clients with whom we work, she spent years unable to execute her ideal vision by battling her landscape through conventional methods. It wasn’t until a chance conversation at her sons’ end-of-year preschool party that she found the solution—permaculture.
“One of the mothers, who was working for Shades of Green at the time, asked me what I did for landscaping,” Elizabeth begins as she recounts the conversation. “I laughed and admitted that I was knee-deep in a battle and that ‘landscaping’ wasn’t even close to what I was doing.” When asked if she had heard about permaculture, Elizabeth replied that she hadn’t.
The pair of then-preschool moms kept talking, and Elizabeth’s interest was piqued. They agreed to meet for coffee to continue the conversation. “Once we met I was hooked!” she exclaimed. “So many people had told me it was impossible to do much of anything with so much shade, but I wasn’t satisfied with that answer. Nor was I equipped to do it on my own. [She] described to me what I had been searching for and had no idea how to articulate, let alone implement.”
Elizabeth has come a long way since that preschool party conversation and coffee. Soon after her introduction to permaculture and Shades of Green, she began immersing herself in all things regenerative landscaping. Driven to do the work herself, Elizabeth started by taking one of the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) courses I taught (this was before I’d created my own residential permaculture course, The Regenerative Backyard Blueprint). Since drafting the initial design plan for her property, she’s been on what she describes as a “revolutionary three-year journey” to implement her vision.
To jumpstart the next phase of her property’s transformation, Elizabeth recently joined our Caretaking program. Our team couldn’t be more excited to support her vision through continued education and collaborative, hands-on assistance with landscape maintenance. I got a firsthand look at what she’s accomplished on her own during a recent visit to her home, and it was beyond-inspiring.
Since beginning her permaculture journey, she has converted a large, steeply sloped and erosion-prone space along the drive near the entrance of her property from a formerly barren ‘lawn’ into a diverse meadow full of wildflowers, medicinal plants and grasses that serve to create habitat and food for pollinators, prevent erosion and infiltrate water. Both volunteer and planted saplings line the drive and exterior of the space, and include some of her favorite species like pawpaw, sycamore and redbud. Towards the top of the hill, brilliantly colored beautyberries warmly beckon visitors to the parking area and entrance.
During our visit, Elizabeth and the Caretaking crew were focused on transplanting a variety of pre-existing ornamental evergreen shrubs—the perfect activity for a rainy fall day! Near the garage, they removed a distylium hedge to make way for a kitchen herb garden. From numerous other locations on the property, they dug poorly placed camellia. Together, they repurposed this plant material to create a hedge at the crest of a hill near the border of her neighbor’s property. Although privacy is a plus, the primary intent behind the hedge is actually to create a buffer to prevent chemical drift from nearby spraying from reaching her bees. An avid beekeeper (yes, she does that too!), Elizabeth has had multiple hives die in the past after toxic mosquito fog has traveled across her property. In addition to relocating the hives, she’s hoping the additional vegetation will limit and redirect the drift.
As I accompanied Elizabeth around the back of her home, I began to understand what she meant when she said her one-acre property really felt like 20. Her lot backs up to a forested and steeply sloped watershed which offers additional natural space that she adores. In fact, this undevelopable creekside woodland is precisely why her family chose to make their home here 10 years ago. And it’s one of the things that motivates her most. Combined with the presence of ample beech and tulip poplar trees, the large leaves of deciduous magnolia in the distance denote a rich cove environment. We dreamt for a bit about all the species that could flourish there if it weren’t for all the English ivy.
As we progressed further into her property, Elizabeth made gleeful note of shrubs and saplings she had saved during native plant rescues with the Georgia Native Plant Society as well as special plants she purchased at Trees Atlanta sales gone by (I swooned over a young basswood tree!). Inspired by her ongoing studies with renowned southeastern herbalist Patricia Howell through the Botanologos School of Herbal Studies, Elizabeth also expressed her desire to cultivate a multitude of woodland medicinals.
Next, we strolled by the bee hives in their new location adjacent to the second-year wildflower meadow she’s been building as part of her original permaculture landscape design. She’s been full steam ahead since receiving her beekeepers certification from the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association. And, after replacing the colonies she lost from toxic chemical drift and successfully capturing her first swarm this past season, Elizabeth’s bees are thriving.
After learning about her saddening experience with the effects of chemical spray from a nearby neighbor, I asked what other neighbors thought of her unconventional pursuit of permaculture. She explained that, despite one instance of negativity from a neighbor who expressed dismay at the brief initial aesthetics of the cardboard she’d laid for sheet mulching, she has received overwhelming support. Neighbors now eagerly provide Elizabeth with wood chips from tree work and cardboard from packaging. She even planted a row of olive trees as a functional screen along the fence for one neighbor who likes evergreens.
In addition to the fantastic example she sets for her neighbors, Elizabeth’s family is sharing in the joy of her regenerative landscaping journey, too. Her eldest son now eagerly gives tours and performs plant identification walks for guests, she said. As they continue to grow the footprint of the vegetable gardens that surround their home and look forward to the fruit her trees will soon produce, her family has enjoyed taking part in the process.
My heart can’t help but feel full about Elizabeth’s story. She started as someone utterly unfamiliar with permaculture and has blossomed into a regenerative landscaping aficionado with more passion than most people I know. Not only is she a lovely client, but she is fast becoming a friend for the entire Shades of Green team. “She is an ideal client,” said Roxy Drew, our Shades of Green Caretaking Manager. “She took the initiative to go through a PDC, she follows her design and she makes it her own. Her passion and excitement for the land she is cultivating and her overall thoughtfulness is inspiring for us to work with as we continue to both teach and learn from her.”
Thank you for setting such an excellent example for us all, Elizabeth! We are so grateful to have the opportunity to work with people like you.