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Starting a Successful Front Yard Garden and Avoiding Legal Trouble: Interview with Linda Jackson of Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Original design for Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Six years ago, I shared about Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a front-yard garden located in the Detroit metro area. When I shared this post, Linda was in her first year of gardening in this new location, and was regularly selling her produce at a local farmer’s market and engaging with her community.  Here are links to my first two posts about her incredible garden that discusses the original process, design: Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm and Return to Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.

A few weeks ago, when I was visiting Linda, I shared some photos of her garden to my social media, and many people responded by saying “she must not have a homeowners association”, “ how did she not get in legal trouble?”, or “my township would make me tear that down!” The questions and comments of this nature just kept rolling in. In fact, Linda is now in her sixth year of her front yard garden with no issues or complaints from neighbors, etc. Thus, I thought it would be useful to interview Linda and learn from her about how she was able to have this incredible front-yard garden in a suburban area, explore some strategies that she used, and share those strategies with others.  If more of us can do the kind of thing Linda is doing—converting lawns that consume resources to gardens that provide food for people and wildlife, nectary sources for insects, and so much more, we can really begin to make positive change in this world and vision a brighter future.

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm - August 2021

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm – August 2021

Dana: Tell me about your vision for Nature’s Permauclture Urban Farm.

Linda: As I’m seeing it evolve, the word permaculture plays an integral role.  Because we need to build community, protect the environment, and people can also learn how to make a sustainable future, sustainable income, and way of sharing knowledge with others.  That’s why I wanted to convert my lawn.  I wasn’t only about food but about cultivating good habits and activities.

Dana:  You were originally an organic farmer farming 10 acres, right?

Linda:  Yes, so when I moved here, I moved from 10 acres to a 50×50 growing space. I brought a lot of what I knew but here, because it was so visible, I wanted to make it aesthetically pleasing.  I wanted to make it “landscapey” but not a traditional landscape.  But I knew it had to be very visually appealing to the eye.

Dana:  You are on the edge of a small town in suburbia, in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.  And you have this front yard garden that everybody can see.  So, tell me about your garden.

Linda:  When I came to the place, I was just thinking that I needed a place to put my hands in the soil. I stood out in the middle of the road and I said, what can I do with this? Its only 50×50.  So I said to myself, “Ok, I’m going to create a garden. But it can’t be a boring square garden.”  I’m not into lines, I’m into curves.  The earth isn’t straight, its curvy.  So, it was something where I said—I need food, my community needs food, I want wildlife comfortable here: insects, frogs, snakes, dragonflies, etc. So when I created the garden, I was thinking about both wildlife and people and their needs. And really, I wanted to be happy in nature when I walked out of my front door, rather than seeing the lawn.

Dana: So you essentially transformed this lawn, plain grass, into this amazing garden.  Do you have a sense of how much food you are producing?

Linda:  On average, enough to feed 20 or 30 people from the greens each week, thousands of pounds of produce per year. So for the first five years, every week, I was going to the farmer’s market.  And I had more than enough for that capability out of this garden. Now, I’m doing the market every other week.

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Dana: So you are literally able to go to the farmer’s market each week and sell just from this 50×50 square foot space?  This really tells readers just how much you are able to produce here.

 

Linda:  I do French intensive agriculture methods, which includes succession planting and companion planting.  While I can’t be certified organic here, I use all natural methods for pest control.  These include using yellow and blue sticky plates for bug control, neem oil, cayenne pepper for slugs, dog hair to keep out rabbits, and much more.

We do have 4000 acres of wild lands behind this neighborhood, but the protocols that I use here keep the deer away.  I use onions lining every bed and herbs (sage, thyme, and lavender) lining the garden.  I don’t have any fencing, because that would detract from the beauty of it. I can sell and give the herbs away too, and they keep away the deer, and they also provide food for pollinators.

Dana: Obviously there’s a lot of people out there in similar circumstances to what you are in: they live in suburbia. They have a very small space, maybe 50×50 or even smaller.  And they are looking at this lawn and saying “this isn’t sustainable” and they are looking to grow some food and cultivate some habitat. But at the same time, in this region, we have several examples of families that have put in a front yard garden only to have their township make them bulldoze it.  Can you talk us through the steps that you did to come to this place where you had a very successful front yard garden that is welcomed by your community?  Specifically, how did you navigate the laws, ordinances, and neighborhood requirements?

Linda:  This garden is now six years old and I’ve never had a problem with neighbors complaining or the township.  Basically, when I stood out and looked at my new home, I had about a month to get everything in the ground before winter came.  I realized that I was the new person on the block, so I had to introduce myself to the neighbors.  And some way or another, I had to tell them what I was planning on doing. I had the vision in my mind, and I knew what it was, but I needed them on board. So I took them cookies. I took them lavender lemon shortbread cookies and I opened up a conversation with them.  I told them I was planning on making a garden in my front yard.

Bean arch in front pathway

Bean arch in front pathway

I also drove around the town to see if there was anyone who was doing something similar in my town.  I saw 2 or 3 places where someone was doing something like this in their front yard, but more landscaped. But I noticed that these didn’t have a focal point, or a flow. It wasn’t beautiful enough. It was choppy. I had to think about the long term: the shade, the rain, the sun, the water, the wind, but also the people and how they perceive it in all of the different seasons.

I next went to the township and I asked them, I’m thinking of putting an edible garden landscape in my front yard.  I didn’t call it a garden, I called it an “edible landscape” which may have helped. I spoke to the head guy in zoning, he says,  you can do that as long as there are no weeds growing. He gave me a piece of paper with the ordinances and I took it home and read it. It said anytime you put more than 5 yards of soil down, you have to have approval.  But soil is not compost. Soil has rock that’s broken down, minerals, etc. Compost is leaves, plants, and brush that is all organic matter.  So, if I put compost down and not soil, I can get away with it.

Dana:  So it was kind of a technicality but it worked.

Linda:  It was a technicality but I could win on it if anyone wanted to challenge me. So once I got the OK from the neighbors (because they could turn me in anytime they wanted) and I got the OK from the township, I went for it.

When I moved in, the front yard had one large and two small ornamental trees. I had these taken down and mulched so I could use the mulch in the gardens and in the paths. In other words, all of that organic matter was put right back on the property.

But back to the landscape. I knew that if this was going to be successful, I had to make something extremely visually pleasing so that the neighbors won’t complain. I decided against raised beds like I did in the past because that’s too constrictive and it’s something they are used to seeing and it may look too much like a garden. I saw how my elevation mattered. The two houses on either side of me were higher, so I was in a low area. And so I had to make it contour.  I did a combination of curves and wood chips, that way if I had heavy rains, I wouldn’t have any issues and the water would be able to soak right in.

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

But when things started happening, people were walking by. They would stand and stare.  Little kids would come, and they wanted to play. The paths were like an energy run for them.  They just wanted to run thorough those curvy paths.

 

What I have found out is that people think its work.  But little children see it a form of play, they want to play and help.  So that makes it fun for them.

 

Dana:  I want to focus on the aesthetically pleasing aspects because these seem to be one of the key aspects that can really help you do this.  It’s not just about growing vegetables and replacing the lawn.  It’s about inhabiting a space in a way that makes it truly beautiful. When people stop, rather than say “look at this garden that looks like an eyesore” they say “wow!”  Can you say more about that?  How do you create that?

Linda:  It’s a good question, because in my previous farm, I had 10 acres that was far from neighbors.  And my farm there was very constricted.  They were square with lines. And I realized that that’s easy because its farming. A lot of arms are really functional, but not necessary aesthetically pleasing.

And so I drew upon some of the things that people would do to a typical lawn and typical front yard.  But to not have it visually dead with lines.  I needed something that would come alive, that the eye would move through the space, just like a nice piece of artwork.   There’s something about the eye enjoying flow, the curve.

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

For example, my feeling was, to have flowers in the front, so when I looked out my window I could see insects and bugs and they would be beautiful next to the house. Flowers with long bloom times so that something was always blooming during the summer.

Dana:  Yeah, you really can see that when you walk up to your garden—your Yarden.  It does take you in.  The waves and the curves really take you in.

Linda:  Yeah! I kept playing around with these designs and the garden evolved.  I tried different angles, to figure out how it would look good from the side, from behind, from within it. The goal was to make it good from all of these different angles and offer a visual experience.

Dana:  That’s really important to people. Because for your neighbors, they don’t want to feel like their home values are being degraded because of someone’s front yard garden or an unruly yard. So, from what you are saying, if you are going to do this work, you have to do it in a way that is very visually appealing to people.

Linda: Yes.  You are right because one of my siblings, when I was planning this, she said to me ‘Linda you are going to have to tear this apart because nobody is going to like it.” So she was a naysayer before I started it. Once it was done, and the curves were there, dark black compost flowing around, and the contrast of the paths, then she said “Well, we’ll see what happens in the spring.”  And then, my neighbors were asking, what’s going to happen in the spring?  And the lady across the street said, “Just watch.”

So the overall design is this: the flowers next to the house are the accent point. The greens are flowing with the paths. You get a lot of eye entertainment.  And I don’t have your typical landscape flowers: there are no lilies, Hostas, etc. That seems to be the go-around for everyone’s yard around here.  I said, Hollyhock! The old-fashioned stuff, pollinator friendly, things that they haven’t seen before.

Dana:  How do you continue to engage in a dialogue with your neighbors about this garden?  We were out there just a little while ago and one of your neighbors stopped by, and talked to you when we were out there!

View from driveway

View from driveway

Linda:  I’ll tell you what.  That was the part I didn’t mentally think about when I started doing this. I started doing this for my own gratification, to keep my energy flowing, and to get my hands in the soil, for my exercise and health. But then the neighbors started asking, “hey, can I have some of your produce?”  For example, one of my neighbors stopped by last night for kale and salad greens. My other neighbor is pregnant and loves cucumbers; I make sure she gets them.  The neighbor girls on the other side here love eating raw cucumbers. So, it was a just a matter of putting it out there. Recently I had some organic farming students from Oakland University come to learn here. East River Organics wanted a design done, which I worked on, and they brought the person who was going to implement the design out to take a look at my garden, because this is what they wanted to do for a new project to do garden outreach to differently abled people.

So I’m at that step now, where, after five years, I know it’s happening and its ok.  And it’s starting to really bring people in! Someone asked me, why am I not in the newspaper? I don’t know! I’m not quite ready for that.

Dana: Well at this point, if you were going to get in trouble for the garden, it would have already happened. And, I think what’s key here, is that you engaged in a dialogue with the right people early on, and you continued to have a positive relationship with your neighbors.  But it sounds like if you want to be successful at doing this, it’s about doing that ongoing engagement work first and foremost, rather than just doing it on your own. You live in a community and you have to engage in that community as you are planning and implementing your garden.

Linda:  Yes exactly.  One the big comments I get is about how much work it is. A lot of my neighbors work and say “I don’t have the time to do this.”  It’s hard, the word “work”.  I don’t really see this as work.

Dana:  Can you talk a bit about the backyard? I know you have a food forest going back there.

Linda:  I have a space about 25×50 back there and its evolving.  I have a sugar maple overstory.  I have three paw paw trees, raspberries, black cohosh, strawberry, sweetgrass, other understory plants.  I have ramps, from you, thank you.  I share how to harvest them with the kids—just take a piece of the leaf.  These are things you don’t see at the store.  When the pawpaw come into fruit, which should be next year, it will be a wonderful chance to educate the kids.

Dana:  It sounds like you have more annual sun agriculture in the front and shaded perennial agriculture in the backyard.  And you’ve gotten rid of almost all of the lawn.

Linda:  Yes, just enough to have some paths or for someone to park their car if necessary.  But there’s no reason for more lawn—I am converting every bit of it into something that benefits nature and the community.

Dana: I know you are transitioning away from the farmer’s market and working to make this more of an educational space in the future. Can you share more about that?

Dana and Linda

Dana and Linda

Linda:  Yes, that’s where I will be needing to do more promotion.  I’ve already connected with many people in my area who are interested in organic practices. The garden is also a big draw to children; children see vegetables in the grocery store, but I’m growing some different things that are really exciting to them. Like the Asian long bean, it’s over a foot long. The kids come up, I give them a bean, and they walk away happy. It’s like candy to them!

So for me, the next step is working less on the market gardening and more on educating, promoting, teaching others how to do this.  If someone wants to break up their landscape, there are so many things that they can do that will still look visually appealing and move them away from the lawn.  For example, blueberries.

Dana:  Let’s return to this idea of work and a garden being “too much work.” So tell me about the work of this?

Linda:  Well, you don’t have to mow your lawn if there is no lawn to mow! And I get plenty of exercise and have no need for a gym membership. This garden is my workout.  It is physical, but rather than lifting weights, I’m lifting soil or compost! Mulch! Especially as I get older, it’s also a way for me to stay healthy and strong.  I also see it as meditation.  I am out in the sun and getting my Vitamin D.  I am keeping myself moving, I’m not rickety or creaky. I can move 10 yards of compost, even in my late 60s!

Dana:  It does seem like there are so many benefits: food you are producing,  an income, the exercise, educating people, not having a consumptive lawn, meditation, health benefits,  providing a vision for the future.  Showing all of this in a way that demonstrates that it can be sustaining, and joyful!  There just seems like there are no reasons not to do this!

Linda:  Yeah! I love the way you presented that thought. That’s what it is all about for me.  I am so happy that this garden is such a place for joy. I have a tendency to be modest, but I do think that the front yard garden speaks for itself. I am speaking through the language of my garden.

Dana:  Well, thank you so much for your time and expertise, Linda!

To conclude, Linda’s garden is really a source of joy for all who visit it.  And somehow, she has found a “magical formula” to living in a suburban area with hosing restrictions, codes, and township laws—through cookies, through making it visually appealing, and through always thinking about the needs of her community.

Lawn Regeneration: Return to Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

Front yard view, mid September

Front yard view, mid September 2015

As I’ve mentioned on this blog many times before–the spaces where we live and work each day are prime places to begin the regenerative work and rebuild our relationship sacred connection with nature. For many, the land nearest to us happens to be a lawn, one small part of the 40 million acres of lawn in the USA; currently the largest crop currently grown. And the lawn is a great place to start, for so many reasons.  Back in April, I wrote about Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, a project of my dear friend Linda.  Linda is a woman with deep spiritual connections to the land, and she knew she had to make a radical change to turn the lawn of her newly purchased home into something more in line with her principles. In my initial post, I shared Linda’s work in taking the initial steps in converting her entire 50′ x 50′ front lawn into a vegetable garden and showed some early plantings.  In this post, I wanted to check in with Linda to provide some updates and see how the season has gone for her.  Did she get in trouble with her town?  Did her project work? What happened throughout the season this year?  How did the veggies grow?

In Permaculture Design, one of the basic principles is to “obtain a yield” but the concept of “yield” is much more broad than just the fruit or vegetables.  So in this post, we’ll be looking at the many “yields’ that converting a lawn can give us,  including the vegetables themselves, community building, mindset shifting, education, exercise, meditation, health, habitat, and more. What Linda and her community have found through this process is that the yield of this garden goes far beyond  just the vegetables.

Community Building and Education

Linda began the process of converting her lawn to vegetables on October 2014, so her farm is now officially a year old. When I asked her how the last year has been, she said, “Its the best medicine I could have ever asked for. I didn’t know what to expect if I did this, if I was going to be called out or reprimanded. But everything went beyond my expectations.”

 

I want to start with the community aspects with Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, because for a project like this to be successful and embraced, the community is probably the most important factor. Building good relationships with local government and neighbors is part of how a project becomes successful rather than finding itself in legal trouble. Linda has not had any legal issues at all surrounding her farm–and its now been in place, very visibly, for over a year.

 

In talking to others who *have* gotten in trouble for lawn conversions, the problem seems to stem from a few places. First, not being aware of the laws or working within the laws (which may have ordinances about things like “weed” height, etc). Linda spoke with officials in her town government prior to converting her lawn last year, and they verbally gave her the “go ahead as long as there aren’t any weeds.”  Second, trouble happens when you are not engaging with the neighbors in a positive direction; Linda says that lavender-lemon shortbread cookies and fresh vegetables get you far!  Third, trouble happens when the garden looks unmanaged, wild, or unattractive to neighbors. If you can address these three aspects: laws, neighbors, and beauty, you will have success in converting your lawn.  So let’s take a look at a few ways that Linda was able to engage her community.

 

Child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Neighborhood child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Linda has been amazed by how much the community has embraced her front yard farm. She says “this is the happiest I’ve ever been, especially in getting affirmations from the children in the neighborhood wanted to come and help harvest. They would come help and then take home fresh food.” Linda describes several children who were regular visitors to the garden, learning from her, wanting to do the work in the garden. This kind of interaction can only happen when you are out in the open, in a community, in a neighborhood, where people can easily find you.  But more importantly, Linda is teaching neighborhood children a powerful lesson about nurturing our relationship with the living earth and learning about where food really comes from.

Kids packing up produce!

Neighborhood kids packing up produce!

Linda describes another story where a neighbor was walking with her grandson down the street, and they came to the garden.  The boy ran over to the garden and came inside and didn’t want to leave the garden because he was so happy to be there.  Gardens like these powerfully attract children, who haven’t yet lost the wonder of being in such a sacred space. Children, certainly, can sense the difference.

 

In a third story, Linda describes how an older man was walking down the street and came to the front of the garden and sat on one of the stumps Linda had placed there. He sat on the stump for a good 20 minutes, just observing the garden. Linda said, “It kind of reminded me of The Giving Tree. That’s why I put those stumps there, so people could come by and take it all in.” In each of these cases, we see people of all ages being attracted to the garden–attracted to this welcoming and sacred space that Linda has created.

A place to sit....

A place to sit….

In terms of what kind of an impact she’s having on surrounding lawns, Linda’s newest neighbors are planning on converting their lawn next spring, and other neighbors have likewise expressed interest in doing away with their lawns.  Linda expects that in a few years, more and more gardens will be appearing!

 

Now that Linda has experienced such a positive response from her community and has “tested the waters,” she plans to do more direct educational and outreach events this year and in the coming season. The first event she’s planning is a fall harvest festival, where she invites all of the neighbors to the garden to come harvest the last of the vegetables before the winter. At this event, she will share recipes and food cooked from the garden so that people get a sense of how to eat locally and sustainably. In the spring, she plans on offering more classes on lawn conversion and organic vegetable gardening.

Beans on the trellis near the house!

Asian long beans hanging from the trellis near the house.

 

Growth and Harvest

Linda is an organic farmer with over 30 years experience, and it shows in her work and yields. Linda focused her farm this year on specialty greens: spinach, kale, minzua, arugula, tatsoi, salad mixes and lettuce as well as beans, herbs, potatoes, and cut flowers. Her farm has produced beyond her wildest expectations. When I asked her how her season went, she said “It was the best season I had ever had. Even better than my 10 acre farm.” In her front yard farm, she’s farming approximately 1000 square feet; her previous farm had about 6000 square feet in cultivation. We talked for a bit to try to understand what the difference was, how this small front yard garden was outperforming her previous farm, and she has no way to explain it. Others, too are trying to solve the mystery–she’s had visitors from the MSU State Extension office and other local farmers come to try to figure out how her small farm is producing so much, to test her soil, and so on.

 

Of course, I have an explanation that one can’t measure with scientific equipment: Linda poured her love into this land in a way she never was able to with her former land. Yes, she’s a fabulous farmer and knows how to grow good food–but in this case, she was growing more than food, she was growing community.  She was regenerating soil, she was regenerating her community’s relationship with its food and the land–and I think it was this interconnectedness that makes the difference.  This is a sacred space, a space that has grown care in the community in the same way it has grown vegetables.

The flower garden...

The flower garden

Linda is still calculating her exact harvest numbers for the season, but said she harvested between 1500-2000 lbs of food this season, mostly in greens. She said she was pulling out 30 bags (3oz each) of spinach and salad greens, 15-20 bunches of kale per week, even getting other farmers and friends to harvest as well. And still, the food keeps on coming! I want to note that greens are not a heavy crop, and the idea that anyone could pull almost 2000 lbs of greens out of one 50′ x 50′ space in one season is just incredible.  Its doubly incredible considering that Linda is also doing very low carbon farming–she uses no power tools of any kind–everything is

 

Linda used various pest methods and did not have difficulty with rabbits or deer.  She lined the garden in various alliums (shallots, onions, garlic, chives) and also used herbs (lavender and rosemary). She tucked in bits of dog fur, procured for free from a local dog groomer, around the edges. She said she saw a few rabbits come in, but they went back out quickly and wouldn’t stay around to eat. The deer didn’t enter the garden.

Sunflowers!

Linda reaching up to the sunflowers!

And yet, birds and beneficial insects flock to the garden. The sunflowers are now providing good seed for the birds, the plants, even this far into October, are still producing nectar and pollen for the bees. She described seeing numerous beneficial insects such as honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, and even dragonflies–all in this space that was once almost entirely devoid of life.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Although we had a wet summer, Linda did use drip irrigation as an additional aid for the garden soil.  In her drip irrigation lines she added fish emulsion and kelp meal for regular nutrition to the plants.  These are ways of getting more direct nutrition right to the roots of the soil.

One of the benefits of a front-yard garden compared to a traditional farm (which Linda was on prior to this) is proximity, or what permaculture designers call a zone. In Linda’s previous farm, all of her vegetables that she was tending were fairly far from the house, some beds quite far from the house (Zones 2 – 4). In her front yard, they are there right where she lives, where she parks her car, when she gets her mail, as soon as she steps outside (Zone 1). This, and this alone, makes the urban farm quite distinct from its rural counterpart–its not “away”, rather its “right here.”

 

Healing and Regeneration

As I mentioned in my first post on Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, Linda had left a very bad personal situation, and she came to this new land hurt and in need of healing. Her land, likewise, was hurt and in need of healing in the way that so many modern lawns need healing: it had soil compaction, it was chemically ridden, and it was devoid of any habitat or life beyond the grass. Linda and her land came together for their mutual healing, and through that healing, have grown together to create the most sacred of spaces.

 

Linda describes her activity in the garden not as work but as meditation.  Certainly within druidry, we recognize different kinds of meditation, including movement meditation.  This movement meditation is one that brings Linda to the garden each day, and allows her to see her interaction with the garden not as “work” but as peaceful and engaged living.  I too, have experienced this movement meditation through the practice of gardening–sowing seeds, moving compost, raking leaves, weeding–all of these quiet, repetitive movements allow for deeper thoughts and introspection.

 

Linda also talks about the garden as her place of healing: it allows her to be outdoors, it provides her with exercise, it gives her interaction with her community, it provides her with vitamin D, it gives her nutritious food (food is medicine) and of course, continues her healing work.

A beautiful shot of the farm

A beautiful shot of the farm

 

Next Steps

In addition to the community education plans, I spoke to Linda about her fall preparation in the garden.  She explained that she’s going to add in more perennial crops this upcoming season (like blueberries, if she can get the soil PH low enough–its quite high in South-East Michigan) and start planning her crops for next year.  She plans on adding layers of leaves, pine needles (to help the soil PH) and another 5 yards of finished compost to her beds in preparation to the spring.

Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

 

Converting Your Lawn?

If you are considering converting your lawn or part of the lawn, a good place to begin is to examine the laws in your town.  Some people choose to defy the law to plant their vegetables, just be aware of the laws prior to beginning your journey so you understand the ramifications of your choices.  Second, have a plan going in of what you want it to look like and what you want to grow.  Third, start doing some sheet mulching! This is how Linda, and many others, convert lawns easily: layering organic matter with a weed suppression barrier.  Fall is a perfect time to do this as organic matter (in the form of leaves) is easily accessible and in large amounts.  Fourth, I’d suggest starting small.  Linda is a very experienced farmer–for someone who hasn’t grown much, consider converting a portion of the lawn and building up to a full lawn conversion over a period of years.  I, too, learned the lesson that bigger isn’t always better and smaller is more manageable as you are learning.  Above all–have fun in the work of regeneration!