Local permaculturist creates sustainable food forest in Ypsilanti Township

To the untrained eye, Zeal Chen’s yard might look overgrown and unkempt. But ask her about any plant on her property and she’ll tell you what it is and how you can use it.

What Chen does is called permaculture, which comes from the idea of “permanent agriculture.” By working with nature, rather than manipulating it, Chen has planted a low-maintenance and sustainable forest of edible and medicinal plants throughout her property.

Chen’s plants include familiar garden fare like peppers, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs, as well as plants you won’t find in most conventional gardens: gooseberries, lovage, balloon flower, comfrey, Jerusalem artichoke and much, much more.

But when she moved into her house on Mansfield Street in Ypsilanti Township five years ago, she had a regular grass lawn. Originally, she didn’t think she could do much else because there are four very large trees on her property, shading much of the land.

“My husband and I looked into cutting one of the trees down but they told us it would be between $1,500 and $3,000 to do that,” Chen said. “And then to carry the wood out would be an extra charge.”

So she decided to look to permaculture, which is all about using what you already have.

“Instead of using a lot of energy to improve the area, we could do something else,” she said. “So I started to just observe to see what nature already does on its own.”

Chen comes from Taiwan, with a background in business. Before she had her house, she lived in apartments with little space to garden. Her interest in medicinal and edible plants grew from time she spent hiking through mountains in Taiwan- she wanted to know what plants to avoid and what she could eat, as a survival skill.

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