The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Urban Homesteading in a Rental House: Late Winter/Spring Updates! March 5, 2017

Last year, I explored the idea of “growing where you are planted.” At this stage in my journey, I am working towards living my spiritual principles through permaculture practice within the bounds of a rental house within walkable distance to my workplace. Last year, I shared some general tips for how to do this kind of work, as it is a situation that so many of us find ourselves in at the present time. Even with seemingly “limited” options as befitting a renter, much opportunity abounds! I thought I’d share a few of the projects I’ve been working on in the last few months and give a general “update” about where things are. (Note: next week I’ll return to the conclusion of the “Slowing down” series!)

 

Food Forest Project: Planning and Soil Preparation

This year, I’m undertaking a new gardening adventure with a good friend of mine to start a food forest using permaculture principles on some land she has access to. This land is about 5 minutes out of our town and is on old pasture land. We expect this to be an “incubator” project for a larger project we are starting to plan for the coming months and years. But for now, we are engaging in some serious work to grow plants and design a welcoming and sacred space.

Some of our plans for the space...

Some of our plans for the space…

We are using permaculture design principles for the entire project, and we are designing not for the short term, but to bring healthy soil fertility and to engage in people care, earth care, and fair share. At this point, we’ve done our basemapping and planning the food forest over the last few months, and now we are in the process of starting seeds and preparing the soil. I hope to share some of that garden planning/basemapping work on the blog as we work to develop this site further.

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil...

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil…

On the matter of soil preparation, we are incredibly lucky to have access to animals at the farm, specifically, a pig. We put Saavik, the pig, along with her goat and chicken friends in the area where we will be planting. Saavik is doing an incredible job in turning the soil and digging up the roots. This is a very large area, and we weren’t sure how we were going to get the whole thing done in time to plant (we have a grand vision!) But giving the animals a go at the land over the last part of winter and early spring means that they will have done most of the work for us, tilling it up, eating the grasses and roots and grubs, and creating beautiful manure. I have never seen a pig at work before–she is absolutely incredible.  The entire pasture will have no grass and we will have the opportunity to rake up whatever is left, put in our paths, use a garden fork to address any soil compaction, and plant.

Go pig, go!

Go Saavik, go!

Seed Starting for Gardens

This past weekend, my friend and I recently started the first of the annual seeds for the food forest. We are up splitting the seeds that we need to start–I’m working on all of the herbs and she’s working on the veggies; most of the perennials will need to be purchased or sourced some other way. We are using my light system, and my friend also is working to setup her own light system modeled after mine.  We hope the two light systems will allow us to have enough plants both for my refugia garden as well as for our project here. I can’t tell you how much I love starting and caring for seeds! Already, the little sprouts are beginning to show. You can start seeds in just about any space if you have soil and light. The key is figuring out where to plant them afterward!

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Maple / Hickory / Walnut Trees and Syrup

There is something about the magic of the early spring that is truly unlike any other period of time. One of my favorite activities has been, for years, to tap maple trees and make maple syrup. The problem was that I didn’t have the evaporating system like the group of us had in Michigan nor did I have access to abundant trees. But, in permaculture design, the problem is the solution, and I started looking around to see what I could do…and so I decided to pursue “urban” maple sugaring.

A tree tapped in my backyard!

A tree tapped in my backyard!

It began with a single maple tree in my backyard, which I tapped a few weeks ago in early February. I wanted to drink the sap from the tree, which is nutritious, delicious, and very rejuvenating. A careful review of my lease showed no violation if I tapped them (I mean, do landlords really think about whether or not you can tap a tree? Likely not!) I tapped one of the trees and made an offering and the sap just started dripping out! All that wassailing we did is already paying off!

 

I inquired about tapping a few walnut and hickory trees at the garden site and we decided to do so. Then I tapped a second maple in the yard and the tree offered a half gallon or more of sap most days….this was getting to be a little too much to drink!

 

I realized that doing a “mini” sugaring setup would not be too difficult on my porch (you can’t evaporate that much maple sap indoors or everything will get sticky). I had purchased a very high-quality burner for a different project at a yard sale last summer for $3. I poured the sap into a large stainless steel pot and checked it every hour.  In one weekend, I manged to boil down 4 gallons of maple sap, adding more as the pot began getting down further until all four gallons were reduced in the pot.  Yes, it is true.  You can make small amounts of maple syrup in a rental house!

Turning sap into sugar!

Turning sap into sugar!

What I found is that with this small of a scale, I really needed to pay close attention to the syrup as it gets near finishing.  I burned the first batch (so sad) but the 2nd batch came out just beautifully!

Finishing off Maple Syrup

Finishing off Maple Syrup

A Triad of Composting

I am delighted to have a triad of composting activity happening at my rental house, which is allowing me to re-use a good deal of the waste I would otherwise produce. The first thing I have, where the bulk of my food scraps go, is my outdoor compost tumbler. I brought the tumbler with me from my homestead. For brown matter, I typically add fall leaves or shredded up newspaper–it works like a charm, even if it gets only afternoon light. At this point, I’ve produced about 20 or so gallons of finished compost that has mostly gone to my refugia garden and to my friend’s land.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.  One composts down while one is filled.

The second method I’m using to compost is my vermicompost bin. After messing around with a prototype five-gallon bucket vermicompost system for about 9 months now (which went through several iterations), I am back to the tried and true bin system. I had hoped the bucket system would take up less space, but what I found is that the five-gallon buckets couldn’t handle much compost at all,  because the worm population was small, it took longer, and the worms didn’t seem as happy.

Vermicompost bin system

Vermicompost bin system

The third method, which I shared a few months ago, is the compost toilet. that is, composting my own human waste and urine. This is working out splendidly, and I’m delighted to no longer need to flush the toilet (it has become a nice book stand!).  I’ve really started to enjoy “making deposits” and cycling my nutrients.  I’ve been experimenting with different materials, and am finding that a combination of sawdust, mulch (free from tree work), and shredded office paper and/or leaves are the perfect combination to hold in liquids and cover up solid waste. All of these materials are fairly easy to come by and are yet another way to turn waste into a resource!

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Growing Community

My friend and I are also starting to bring permaculture into the community by starting the Indiana PA Permaculture Guild.  I’m very excited to see how this new endeavor goes, and if it has anything like the success of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup, we will be able to do a lot of good in our community. Our first meeting is just around the Spring Equinox–a good time to begin anew. The goal of this project is to bring people together to learn about permaculture, teach each other new skills, and grow as a community.  I’ll share more as this initiative gets further underway 🙂

 

Refugia Garden and Seed Scattering

I started a refugia garden a year ago on my parents’ land and shared some of my earlier plans and results. Last year, this garden allowed me to grow some herbs for healing purposes as well as start a “seed bank” for healing the wild lands and bringing back key native medicinals to our ecosystem here. I’ve delighted in doing this work, and have created seed balls from a number of the seeds in this garden and have given them to many friends to help spread.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

One of the kind of humorous challenges of last year was that the refugia garden was “squashed”; my parents had thrown compost in the spot the year before, and the squash seeds sprouted at some point in June. I live about an hour from my parents, and I was travelling for a few weeks and didn’t make it out to check on the garden. I came back to find my garden literally covered in squash I hadn’t planted! The squash were doing well, so I tried cutting back the leaves to make sure the other plants had gotten light, and then I just let them be. Most of my medicinal plants did fine, but I lost a few key ones as part of the garden being squashed.  And so I am starting those plants from seed again this year (and enjoying a number of squash dishes this winter!)

Squash happens...

Squash happens…

A few weekends ago, my parents and I were driving past many of the abandoned strip mines and boney dumps in this area. As we drove and stopped in various places, I threw out a number of seed balls and spread other kinds of native wildflower seeds to help those lands heal. The mining companies are required to replant the landscape, but their idea of replanting is some basic grasses, vetches, and red pines.  And there is very little actual soil–most of it is slate and refuse from the dumps. I hope the seed balls themselves will allow for some new plants to take root and the compost and clay help build topsoil. We’ll see!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Magic seed balls ready for tossing!

The Walking Commute

I must say that I really enjoy walking everywhere–especially when my car is recently giving me trouble or during the big snowstorms.  Walking allows me to slow down, to take in nature on my walk.  For example, there is a bramble patch, several wild hedges, and a small stream on my walk to campus. It also allows me time for slowing down and decompressing at the end of the day on campus. This is one of the main benefits to living in town–the ability to walk to the bank, to get some tea, to hang out or see a jazz band, to visit friends, and more.  I didn’t realize how much I depended on my car until I could set it aside!

Campus after my "birthday" snow :)

Campus after my “birthday” snow 🙂

So these are some of the current practices I’ve got going on and some of the plans for this year.  I’m hoping to hear from some of you–tell me what you are planning, dreaming, and working to bring forth this year!

 

I hope this demonstrates that you really can “grow where you are planted” and even if that growth doesn’t include land of your own, there are still a lot of wonderful things you can do to live in line with the earth.  The best thing of all is that everything I’ve outlined above is manageable and enjoyable!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

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The Giving Garden: A Permaculture Design Site in the Making October 9, 2016

“We grow where we are planted.” This is the theme of a conversation on an earlier post from this year. All of us have the opportunity to do regenerative work in the world, in the spaces and places we already inhabit.  I want to offer examples of “growing where we are planted” when I am able–and today, I have an inspirational story of a new permaculture site in the making in my hometown.  We can see the permaculture principles at work, which makes a great continuation last week’s post.  Further, this post also will provide some additional ideas and suggestions for those who find themselves practicing sustainable living in apartments, cities, or other urban settings.

 

The Dust Settles: Opportunities for Transformation and Growth

I met a friend who recently moved into a building in in the downtown area of Indiana, PA. Trinity has owned this building for some time, but only recently began living there due to some challenging and changing life circumstances. Despite being in the building for only several months, she is already doing great work in terms of urban permaculture. Trinity’s long-term goals include the creation of a space to go, learn, create, and learn, both bardic arts as well as regenerative living.

 

Trinity is the second woman I’ve featured on this blog that has had major life changes lead to a new permaculture design site. Its interesting how some of the best things in life happen when we are overturned, unsettled, or otherwise stirred up from our comfortable places of being and inhabiting.  I’ve certainly understood that feeling well myself, especially in the last few years.  To use the metaphor from the Tarot, the tower crashes down, and once the dust settles, we can clear the rubble and build something new and better. Who wants a tower anyways? What about a rooftop or front yard garden? What about a giving tree?

 

This principle–of letting go and rebuilding–is a powerful lesson about the interplay between the power of doing good in the world and that of alchemy and personal transformation.  Our lives rarely go as we expect, and sometimes, a lot of difficult things happen to us in a very short period of time. We are left responding in whatever way we can–often, that means, physically moving somewhere new, leaving the beautiful homesteads and farms behind, and finding places to heal. What amazes me is the power of the human spirit to overcome personal difficulty and use it as a creative and regenerative force for good.  There is a powerful lesson in this for all of us–one, in my opinion, of the most important ones I know.  That we will face tragedy and challenge is part of being human.  What we do with that, how we transform it, what we build and grow from it, is what makes us shine.  So let’s spend some time with the bright light that is Trinity, and the space she is creating!

 

The Giving Garden: Use the Edges, Engage the Community

Trinity has no access to soil; rather, her building is on a main street, shares walls with adjacent buildings, and has concrete or brick on all four sides. Despite these challenges, she has rose to the occasion, “greening” the concrete, growing vegetables in nooks and crannies, and beginning many transformations. I’m excited to follow her journey here and see how her space develops. I think that her work can be inspirational to many of use who are living in very limited circumstances, be those financial, space-wise, and more.

 

One of the first things Trinity wanted to do was to bring a sanctuary space to the otherwise barren concrete of our downtown area. Earlier in this year, most of the trees on main street were cut down to do some road work, and the downtown has been looking very sad and sparse since.  Truthfully, I don’t even like walking downtown any longer since so many of the trees are gone. Trinity still does have a tree near her building on her street, but the adjacent street is completely barren.

 

Trinity has brought nature beautifully back into the space with the “Giving Garden.” Suddenly, as you walk, along the street is a burst of flowers, beauty, greenery; a space to sit, to enjoy some veggies, and to respond on a chalkboard to a regularly changing prompt.  We’ll first take a stroll through the giving garden, exploring it through photographs and exploring the different permaculture principles as well as common sense principles.

View from 6th Street!

View from 6th Street!

One of the keys to successfully creating publicly visible spaces (front lawn gardens, etc) is making sure they are beautiful, interesting, and pleasing to the eye. I wrote about this extensively in my discussion of Linda’s Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.  It doesn’t matter how functional it is–if people can see it, it needs to “look nice” and not be “overgrown” as that is associated with distending.  (This whole issue deserves its own treatment at some point–> the cultural assumption is that if we let nature grow unchecked, it is assumed that we no longer care for it!)  And so, Trinity has done a smart thing with not only growing some vegetables and herbs, but doing so in  way that draws people in.  Trinity has put a lovely invitation on the wall, letting people know how the space can be used and shared.

Invitation to share the space

Invitation to share the space

Trinity’s 30′ or so of frontage offers just sidewalk; and so to grow things, Trinity had to bring in soil, create beds, and build the space from scratch. Part of her design includes made many little “niches” in the space, creating a variety of different ways for passerby to interact. Here’s one such niche–a set of vines growing from foraged forest sticks as trellises.  This is not only visually pleasing but also offers free food (squash and beans) and enacts the permaculture principles of layered purposes and using the edges and valuing the margins.  Trinity is growing the vines out of tasteful planters.

Beautiful and bountiful vines!

Beautiful and bountiful vines!

Another small “niche” she has designed is the sitting area, which shows up just after the squash and beans. This is a close up of the sitting area, where there is a blackboard where Trinity regularly updates the question that people can answer (and people do!) The sitting area invites people to come, be for a while, and simply to enjoy the space.  She’s asking people to observe, interact and intuit in this space.

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Moving along the front, the next niche is the giving tree itself.  People can take and leave vegetables, gifts, and trinkets. Children come here and leave and take small toys, for example.  Again, there are a few principles happening here: stacking functions (visually pleasing, growing food, offering gifts), functional interconnection (seeing how the parts work together with the whole). There is very creative use of the edge space and margins (in this case, the otherwise unused edge of the building).  This space is also working on multiple levels: in this case, the social/community as well as the ecological.

Giving Tree area

Giving Tree area

Finally, there are the areas near the stairs and leading up to the actual building that have more vegetables, flowers for pollinators, and more.  Trinity is obtaining a yield with her herbs and veggies and also working to redistribute surplus and engage in people care and fair share.

Herbs and veg in front edge space

Herbs and veg in front edge space

 

Front edge spaces

Front edge spaces from another angle.

One of the things you can see here is how she used rocks and built a bed to build soil. The other thing she did (which I’ll describe in more detail below) is use old feed bags, straw, and small amounts of soil to grow a real vegetables! This is embracing renewables and freely available resources.

And finally, after walking past this delightful space, you feel welcomed as you enter the building.

Welcome to the building!

Welcome!

What I like about this as a permaculture demonstration site is that it is intensive, functional, and engaging.  Each day, it brightens the downtown area and community, while clearly demonstrating many of the principles that can help us live more rengeneratively. This is a wonderful example of how people in urban settings can do so much!

 

The Rooftop Garden: Obtain A Yield

The other outdoor space that Trinity is intensively working is the only space where she has full solar gain–the rooftop.  She has a serious start to a lovely rooftop garden, even getting her vegetables in late (late June) due to her recent move.  Recently, when I visited with her, she fed me celery and tomatoes from this very rooftop garden!

Obtain a yield- yeah!

Obtain a yield- yeah!

Trinity has re-used old feed bags as planters. They hold water, are extremely light (to not put undue stress on the building roof), and are otherwise using waste as a resource.  Essentially what she did is use the “strawbale garden” technique in feed bags instead–planting her veggies in a small amount of soil in the center of the bed, but growing primarily in straw as the growing media.  This technique does require the plants to be watered fairly frequently, but it works well (and Trinity and I have talked about the possibility of drip irrigation for her garden next year).

Here is a nice view of the low-soil, lightweight beds. Onions are doing fine!

Here is a nice view of the low-soil, lightweight beds. Onions are doing fine!

Here is a nice view from the rooftop garden–again, the green is an incredible contrast to the urban concrete and buildings.  This rooftop garden could be expanded quite a bit to grow tons of food.  The light colored roof will also help reflect the heat and keep the veggies cooler in the hottest months.  Trinity is consulting with an engineer to see the possibilities long-term for the garden in terms of weight, etc.

Rooftop garden beds!

Rooftop garden beds!

Trinity’s tomatoes are trellised on some old antenna cables and wiring–also repurposed. As you can see, she is certainly getting a great yield out of this garden!  And this is only the beginning–I can’t wait to see what she continues to do next year :).

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

This is just a small slice of some of the outdoor things that Trinity has been doing in her new abode–I’m excited to see where she goes next.

Gift Exchanges and Sharing: People Care and Fair Share

Another fun thing that Trinity recently did to engage the community and encourage alternative narratives surrounding sharing and “stuff.”  A few weeks ago, our town hosted the Northern Appalachian Folk Festival; it includes music, food, vendors, and a variety of classes (I offered a vermicomposting class, for example). Trinity put out a whole “free” spread in front of her building that encouraged people to take anything they like, leave anything they like, and make a donation.  Many people didn’t know what to think of this (it is so far outside of mainstream capitalism today!) but caught on and joined in on the fun!

Part of the Gift Economy Display at the Folk Festival

Part of the Gift Economy Display at the Folk Festival

On the broader scale, this kind of action links with the gift economy movement. Gift economies and circles are springing up all over the USA, and certainly, have been in place in many parts of the world.  It functions entirely different set of assumptions: it is about care and support, not exchange. I linked above to Charles Eisenstein’s discussion of the Gift Economy, which I think is a good place to understand this philosophy better.

 

Growing Where We are Planted

Trinity is embracing the idea of “growing where she is planted.”  Every space we inhabit has its limitations–in the case of Trinity, she has no soil.  Instead, she has turned the problem into a solution by capializing on what she does have: frontage, visability, and a beautiful roof with solar gain.  Trinity literally grows where she is planted on many levels. Its a beautiful representation of the three permaculture ethics: earth care (growing things, pollinator plants, bringing greenery back into concrete); people care (offering free food, sitting space, beauty, community), and fair share (giving to others any surplus).  I hope you have found her work to be inspirational on your own paths, especially for those of you in limited living circumstances. I will continue to follow her on this blog as the space develops and grows!

 

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!

 

Wildtending, Earth Healing, and Gathering and Sowing the Seeds January 2, 2016

Calling all land regenerators, earth walkers, and friends of the weeds!  You can help heal our lands, today, with the resources you have and the love you have to give.  What if, instead of doing less harm or less baad, we could do good?  We could work to heal?  In this post, I’m going to talk about the process of gathering, scattering, and sowing seeds, nuts, and roots in regenerating our lands. This perspective is of the wildtender, the seed scatterer, the weed wise wo(man). This is four-part series on Wildtending that I’ll be presenting over the next month–the first giving the “how to” and philosophy (this post) spiraling from my earlier writings throughout this year. So, grab a handful of seeds, nuts, and roots and let’s get started.

 

The Man Who Planted Trees

I recently came across a story called “The Man who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness” by Jean Giono. His story talks about the actions of one man, Elzéard Bouffier, who planted trees in a barren plane, and over a period of years, planted a huge forest on the barren landscape where he lived–the forest brought back water, people, and abundant life. One man’s small mission ended up transforming the lives of so many. Before you continue reading my post, I really, really, really suggest you stop and read his story.  (A PDF of the full story is here: The Man Who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness; A Youtube Animated Video is here.)  This story is empowering–it shows us that the actions of one person, determined, over time, can really regenerate a whole ecosystem.

 

Wild crafting and wild tending

I talk a lot about wildcrafting on this blog, both in terms of wild food foraging and healing medicine. And I firmly believe that gathering from the land is important. Wildcrafting is the half of the equation that gets people into the woods or into a field of weeds–going off to find wild mushrooms or berries, reconnecting to nature, and taking nature within ourselves. Its the half that encourages people to help protect wild lands and places.  Its the half that allows nature to heal us through her mere presence and through her medicine. Its the half that helps people appreciate nature and her bounty–but its only half of the equation and that’s an important piece to understand.

When you forage in lands that are abundant and healthy, you can’t see the need for doing anything but being present and thankful, maybe taking a handful of the seeds from what you are harvesting and scattering them a little further as a sign of thanks. However, when the plants that you found in abundance in one area are non-existent in another, you start to see patterns of problems that emerge. In fact, it was my wildcrafting practice in PA, in such damaged and pillaged lands, that has led me to this line of thinking and understanding.

Stories like “The Man Who Planted Trees” remind me of the importance of balance, a principle resonated in the ying-yang, or the sun-moon, or any other balanced pairing.  This is that wildcrafting (that is, ethically harvesting from  from nature) must be balanced with wildtending (that is, returning to or giving to nature). Our lands desperately need wildtending.

 

A Partner in Healing the Land

The web of life

The web of life

The most important thing to understand about wildtending is this: Nature already knows how to heal herself.  All we have to do is to help setup the right conditions for healing. We need to literally sow the seeds and help the soil–and nature will do the rest!

 

The problem we face today is simple: nature doesn’t always have the seeds or resources she needs to heal. We have a tremendous loss of biodiversity (both plant and animal life) caused by severe damage to our lands, from clear-cutting or logging forests, to creating of monocrop industrialized agriculture and lawns, to spraying and toxins. Mines and factories are polluting our rivers. Our topsoils are being eroded at an alarming rate. On top of this, our infrastructure (roads, fields, cities) and human activities prevent the natural spread of seeds and roots; further, the decline in bird populations and wildlife that would spread the seeds mean that less seeds are spread. At literally every point in our ecosystem–something is causing damage.

 

Finally, humans themselves, who used to tend the land and spread seed regularly, no longer engage in this practice.  We don’t know how, for one, and most of us are afraid to do so, for fear of causing more harm.  Even for those who see the land as sacred, who hear the land’s call–we are so afraid to do anything that might harm her further.

 

And yet, the need is great. Most of our forests and lands–even those that *appear* healthy when you walk into them, are currently devoid of may major medicinals and botanicals that once grew abundantly there.  Many critically endangered plants don’t thrive on disturbance like their weedy cousins–rather, they thrive in areas that are undisturbed.  And what forest or field has remained undisturbed in the last few hundred years, at least in the USA? Very, very few. This means we have a situation where its harder for nature to heal because she lacks the seed stores and biological diversity to do so.

 

I’ll give you an direct example here of what I mean–in the forest below my parents’ house, almost 90% of it has been repeatedly logged–except for about a 5 acre section which, for whatever reason, has been largely spared.  This section is perfect for growing certain wet and dark-loving forest plants due to its wet conditions and small early-year springs.  Abundant ramps, along with blue cohosh, white and red trillium, may apples, and trout lilies are all over this small piece of land. Everything I’ve listed, with the exception of trout lilies, show up on one of the United Plant Saver’s “at risk” or “to watch” lists–endangered medicinal and key species of plants, now disappearing from our lands. An invisible line is present in that forest–as soon as you step into the areas that have been logged within the last 30 years, the forest floor is no longer carpeted with these spring plants–instead, its mostly bare on the forest floor. Now to be clear–nothing else appears to be changed–the forest canopy is still there, the larger trees grow around.  Only knowing the history of this land, and where has been disturbed, and where hasn’t been, allows me to understand the dividing line between ecological sanctuary and ecological wasteland.

 

A carpet of magical plants...this is the area that hasn't been logged recently

A carpet of magical plants…this is the area that hasn’t been logged recently

There are lots of spaces just like this forest–spaces that used to have important plants and biodiversity, and due to various human activities, no longer do.  Only knowing what once grew there can help us bring it back. The practice of wild tending and seed scattering is putting the tools–the plants–back in nature’s hands for healing work.

 

 

Principles of Wildtending: What to Do?

Wildtending can take many different approaches, but the one we’ll talk about today is the magic of the seed. The magic of the seed is something that each of us can know. A simple practice is to start a seed on a paper towel and to simply watch it grow.  The lessons within the seed are profound. You get this same experience when you watch sprouts on your counter–that magical seed breaks forth from its casing and sends roots down and a shoot up.  Some seeds are so special that they pull moisture towards themselves and retain it for earlier and easier sprouting. It is embracing this magic of the seed where we can start our work.

 

How do I know what do do?  The first big question in wildtending is this–how do I know what to sow? How do I know it will be beneficial and not harmful? The two keys are the act of careful observation and second is ecological knowledge.

 

Into the forest...

Into the forest…

Careful observation. As I grow more and more deeply into my herbalist practice, it has given me perspective on the number and abundance of plants of many different kinds. Where you can find calamus (sweet flag), skullcap, or lobelia; how rare plants like goldenseal or even black cohosh are to see.  As a permaculture designer, I also know how to look at ecosystems and understand their needs–how they function, the different roles of plants, and how to encourage ecological succession and healing.  These two perspectives, I think, help me answer this question.

 

This question must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depend on what they are lacking, and you figuring out what that might be.  There are, however, a few places to begin. I want to draw your attention to an organization that has been around since the 1970’s, started by Rosemary Gladstar called The United Plant Savers.  They have a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings.

 

I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been reseeded with native plants that you can go visit and learn from? These are good places to look.  For example, a set of local books (nearly all older) helped me fill in the gaps.  About six months ago, I found key information on what PA’s forests had been like prior to clear cutting in an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to logging.  I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 20% of our forests!  I don’t think this was by accident, but by careful tending on the part of the Native Americans who lived here and tended the wilds).

 

How do I know I won’t do more harm than good? I also want to speak here about fear.  A lot of people don’t want to do this kind of thing cause they are afraid of screwing up nature, planting something “wrong.” Let me tell you–so many people are doing things wrong right now, and very little of it has anything to do with wanting to be of service and help.

 

I suggest using your mind and your heart.  In terms of using your mind,  As long as you research carefully,stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), its hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil–pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with (milkweed or pleurisy root are great first time plants for my bioregion) and start there. Its also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Principles of Wildtending: How do I know what to plant?

 

Different ecosystems require different kinds of seeds and approaches. I have divided up my efforts here based on the ecosystem and immediate need. Let’s start by examining the concept of a “plant guild” in Permaculture and then move into some specific approaches based on different ecosystems.

 

Understanding Plant Communities (Guilds): If you know enough about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work together (I think about the spring ephemeral plants in the patch of forest I discussed earlier–ramps, dutchman’s breeches, trillium, mayflowers, and blue cohosh along with woodland nettles, all under maples, oaks, and cherries primarily).  Our goal, as land tenders, should be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (the horizon). For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, patrtidgeberry); vining (ground nut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers. (For more on this in a home gardening/home ecosystem context, look at material found here and in the really great free PDF here.).

 

Likewise, permaculture recognizes that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere else is not a monocrop but a set of plants that often work in conjunction (that’s not to say there isn’t competition, but there is also a lot of collaboration). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” These could include nitrogen fixers (most legumes), nutrient accumulators/dyanmic accumulators (those that pull up nutrients from deep in the soil, like burdock or comfrey); nectary plants (pollen and nectar plants), biomass plants (those that create carbon-rich soil; like leaves from the fall); along with any edible or medicinal qualities. Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

A field of milkweed--a rare sight today.

A field of milkweed–a rare sight today.

 

As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what seeds to scatter:

  1. The height of the plant and growth habits
  2. The plant’s own needs for light and water
  3. What the plant does and offers (consider for many herbs bloom times and nectar)
  4. The plant’s endangered status more broadly or population locally
  5. The distinct context you are planting; considering long-term growth and other people’s actions

I haven’t given you specific lists of plants here because my lists would not be the same as your lists–this is work that each of us needs to do.  I can share my lists, and  I hope that others can share theirs as well!  I will be sharing some of my typical lists below.  I’d also recommend for those really serious to this work to check out Dave Jackie’s Edible Forest Gardens books–they contain the most detailed information on plant guilds for more cultivated plants (although I am generally distrustful of the herbal information in their books, they are otherwise really fantastic).

 

Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Places Nobody Cares About

James Howard Kunsler talks at length about the places and spaces that “nobody cares about” in relationship to urban planning and architecture.   I believe we can apply this same principle to our lands. The strip of bare earth behind a strip mall; the insipid moncrops along our highways; the recent construction site stripped bare of its soil; even the logged forest quickly regrowing.  These places, places that have been exploited and stripped, are prime areas for us to begin our wildtending work.  Why? They are places that nobody cares about, that nobody is tending–and those are the places that need wildtenders the most.

 

Bare Earth, Damaged Soil.  Sometimes you come across a place that has no topsoil and is simply exposed bare earth. These kind of situations, from my perspective, are “triage” situations–and this is where the plants that many call “invasives” thrive (after the soil is re-established, these plants almost always disappear and ecological succession continues). Road construction is a good example; when they are done, they maybe will scatter some seeds or plant some grass, but really, a lot of it just sits bare.  Another good choice is a bare area where logging occurred and its having difficulty coming back.  Or, one that I’ve been studying quite a bit since returning home–a “boney dump” where mine refuse (primary shale, still bare after 50-100 years) was piled up in huge piles and left to sit (I’ll write about these at length one of these days).  Or when the utility company comes through and digs something up, then leaves without planting anything.  There are lots of “bare earth” places in our landscape, and usually they are neglected.  These are *perfect* opportunities to begin our work as land tenders!

 

In these kinds of situations, think really carefully about how far along the ecological succession line you want to encourage this piece of ground to grow.  If its under power lines, planting a bunch of oaks is not the wisest course of action because in 20 years, they will be cut down.  Instead, here, I’d encourage a herbaceous and groundcover plants would work well or shrubbery that won’t get that high and that will provide good nutrition or forage or nitrogen fixing or whatever it is you want to provide. The combinations of plants that I’ve used on these kind of situation are:  butterfly weed (pluresy root) being one of my favorites and on the endangered list, milkweeds, along with burdock, Echinacea (mid-season bloom), New England Aster (for late blooms), Mullein (medicinal), and Alfalfa (nitrgoen fixer, mid-season bloom).  These plants thrive in full sun kinds of situations and once established, are perennial.  Not to mention that if there isn’t spraying happening, you can come back at some point, gather more seeds, and maybe even some medicine if the conditions are ok for it :).

 

Places no one cares about...

Places no one cares about…

The Monocrop. Along our highways in many parts of the USA, we see the monocrop.  Driving to visit friends and observing the highways in different seasons of the year was actually one of the inspirations for this whole line of thinking and practice–I was thinking to myself how many millions of acres are along highways and how so few of them grow anything beneficial to the land. These are also, in James Howard Kunsler’s terms, spaces that nobody cares about.

 

In the case of many of our highways in PA, they only mow the very edges, and many of them are on un-mowable hillsides.  Usually after road construction, bridge building, etc, the highway has been replanted with crown vetch or grass….essentially, a monocrop.  The thinking here is not about the ecosystem at all but about keeping something on the surface to prevent drainage and erosion. But, dear friends, we can do better.  I actually like some of the same mix for this that I shared above–in this case, my focus is really on nectar-producing plants to help our pollinators along.  My other focus is on making sure there are pockets of plants that can function like “arcs” to spread ones that we need more of along. For these spaces, I use seed balls (see my upcoming 3rd post in the series) which can easily be lobbed from a car when nobody is looking or late at night!

 

Another place that’s good for this is along train tracks–again, places nobody cares about.  You can cultivate really incredible and diverse ecosystems here on these edge spaces.

 

The Nooks and Crannies: There are lots of little nooks and crannies, small patches of land without much growing on them.  They are really all over the place–just open your eyes and see what you can add :).

 

Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Established Ecosystems

The strips of bare land are only one kind of wildtending that can be done.  After nature begins her own process of healing, you’ll find a beautiful tangle or thicket of wild plants, although, depending on the area, you might not find diversity.  Here, our mission is a bit different–simply to bring more biodiversity and help support waning plant populations.

 

The Recovering Edge of Land. You’ll come across the wild patch that was once barren and has sprung up again–this collection of beautiful plants (not weeds) often comes forth from whatever was there before in the soil and remained or whatever was wind-blown or bird-dropped into that small space.  In my area, these small patches are usually full of goldenrod and late-blooming white aster, maybe some brambles or staghorn sumac.  I like to add a bit of diversity to these small patches and encourage the spread of certain kinds of plants–milkweed is a favorite of mine for these spaces, and if its a little damp, I also like to add st. john’s wort, blue vervain and echinacea.  I also like to plant hardwoods here to help encourage ecological succession long-term.

 

The Recovering Fields.  Then there are the fields that were once farmed, and for whatever reason, are no longer farmed and are slowly returning to forest.  I have a two-pronged approach for this–one is to encourage plant diversity during ecological succession (and my favorite for this are the plants mentioned above as well as berry crops like wild black raspberry), but my longer goal here is to spread hardwood species of trees that are very rare.  My particular selection of trees is based on the context of Western PA–these are the trees that don’t recover well after logging and/or were intentionally cut: oak (especially white oak), chestnut (blight resistant), slippery elm (endangered), hickory (of all kinds, especially shagbark), butternut, and walnut.  I also think about the understory trees and the need for other kinds of fruit, and plant hawthorn and apple trees (and pawpaw, especially, if I can get my hands on seeds).

 

Woodlands. Just because you see a mature woodland doesn’t mean the species growing there are necessarily all the species that once did.  For regenerating this kind of space, I focus my energies on targeted endangered species that need to be re-introduced to our woodlands.  I do this carefully though, depending on the kind of forest I’m in.

In Pennsylvania at least, this land was almost entirely stripped to the bare earth during the logging boom that started in the 19th and carried through till the early 20th century.  Even since then, logging of much of PA continues.  While many of our lands repopulated (as nature has a way of doing that), delicate species may not have repopulated with them.  Delicate species, often those having high medicinal value or having slow propagation times (or both) have never recovered.

Scattering New England Aster seeds....

Scattering New England Aster seeds….

 

Sites that will not be logged again– This is typically where I focus my energies in forests currently.  These are sites that may be actively protected (State Forests or local forests) or other lands that are private but owned by people who won’t cut them. After the devastation of logging 100 years ago, a lot of forests around here are now 2nd or 3rd growth forests.  The 500 acre patch of land here that I often visit here in my town is like that–you can find remnants of buildings and foundations in there, and there are fracking wells in there, but largely, the land has regrown. Its primarily a tulip-chestnut oak-red oak-maple forest, with a lot of birch and a few beeches as well.  Its a healthy forest in terms of trees, but there isn’t a lot of forest floor plants.  So my focus in this area is twofold.  First, I work to bring back chestnuts, which once comprised upwards of 15-20% of our forests.  I do this by planting chestnuts in areas where there is a “gap” with the hopes that they might make it–e.g. a large tree has fallen, allowing a patch for something new to grow up.  I also plant understory trees that can make it–paw paw here is my favorite of these.  Second, I work to bring back woodland medicinals currently under severe threat: goldenseal, ginseng, and black cohosh. There are others, but these are the three I’m learning to grow and cultivate, both in terms of how to help them grow and also in the specific ecosystems they like.

 

Sites that will be logged again – I don’t always do much with these sites in terms of planting new medicine or trees, as I’m still learning which plants can recover from this kind of abuse. Right now, most of my work with forests in the logging rotation is energetic healing work (more on this in later posts, some of this is also here).  I think this will change as I discover which plants can survive and which can help a forest recover quickly.  As a simple example of this, I return to the patch of forest behind my parents’ house.  I see what the logging does to those critical woodland species, and I’m not sure trying to bring them back in the face of more logging makes any sense. My point is that sites that have ongoing ecological devastation might not be the best for this kind of work–but there’s still much we can do.

 

Wildtending as Everyday Practice

Now that we’ve talked about what to plant, where to plant it, and all of that, its time to talk about how to build this into your practice.  It can actually be really simple and all it takes is a little extra preparation.  If you are already in the business of going outside fairly often, have some seeds or nuts with you that are appropriate for the areas where you’ll be planting. Seeds are resilient–even if they are planted at the wrong season, they can often survive in the wild and come back up the following spring.  The very first and best thing you can do is start scattering seeds that are appropriate, popping nuts in the ground, and go from there.  If you see small seedling trees coming up that won’t make it where they are sprouting, dig them up and take them somewhere where they will thrive.  This work is simple, and can be built into your existing forays into this great, beautiful planet.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve outlined a number of different ways you might work to be a wildtender as much as a wildcrafter.  I hope you’ll take up the call! Look for the plants that we need in more abundance that benefit our ecosystem, that heal our bodies, that encourage health and forage.  Start with the list on United Plant Savers, and also consider trees that are in need of more planting in your bioregion. These plants and trees…let’s sow them–everywhere.  Scatter them far and wide.  Gather their seeds and spill them out of our skirts and pockets.  Throw seed balls (I’ll talk about these in an upcoming post) into recently grated highway dirt piles, “waste land” or stripped soil. Let’s work with our plant allies to put down the deep roots and begin the healing process.

 

Sacred Gardening through the Three Druid Elements – Designing Sacred Spaces and Planting Rituals December 5, 2015

A representation of the 3 druid elements

A representation of the 3 druid elements

A number of people have asked me for ceremonies and activities that help facilitate sacred work on the land in various ways. Why would we want such ceremonies? Quite simply, because we can get the most effect by combining actions out in the world with ritual and other forms of magical practice on the inner worlds. For many years, I’ve been using my  druidic practices to help my work with plants and gardens. So in addition to the practical work of growing my own food on my homestead, practicing permaculture, regenerating lawns, and building a healthy ecosystem, I designin with the elements in mind, performing land healing and garden rituals, and engage in other sacred practices.  These two parts form a cohesive whole that unifies spiritual practices with everyday living.

 

Today, I’d like to share the first of a series of  posts on principles from the druid tradition that can be used both for designing sacred garden spaces and for simple rituals and sacred activities that can be used with gardening. And because I’ve decided to spend some extra time in my art studio in the winter months, so I’ve done my best to provide some illustrations for this post :).

 

The Three Druid Elements: Nwyfre, Calas, and Gwyar

In order to craft effective ceremonies to support sustainable activities, we need an underlying theory that helps us work with various flows of energy.  The Druid Revival has a set of three elements (we like to do things in threes) that are quite useful to understanding and enacting some sacred space rituals and building sacred spaces. A lot of current pagan and earth-centered practices use four elements, and there is so much out there about the four elements already, that I don’t really need to say a lot about those (and they are effective and useful for sacred gardening practice–see my elemental tree planting ritual here, for one such example).

 

The three elements are worth considering as an alternative or used in conjunction with the four elements, especially in regards to nature spiritual practices surrounding the land.  These three terms use Welsh words and pronunciations (like many other things coming out of Revival Druidry). They do not cleanly map onto the four elements, so don’t try to see them that way. See them, instead, as an alternative elemental system that emphasizes different properties of the world–all elemental systems do that, generally–they serve as an archetype of things that we can see or experience or know.  They are three archtypes, three ways of representing the inner and outer worlds of our experience.

A second representation of the three druid elements

A second representation of the three druid elements

Nwyfre (NOOiv-ruh): This first druid element is represents the life force and consciousness within each living being.  It is associated with the sky and the heavens; it represents the spirit of things; the mind.  The term means “sky” or “heaven” in the Welsh language.

 

Nwyfre in a gardening/growing/land healing context refers to the spirit of life flowing through each of the plants. This is the spark of life that encourages a seed to grow; it is the magic within the plant; and in some forms of herbalism, this would be the spiritual energy of the plant and the plant spirit itself. Nwyfre is not a physical thing (like Gwyar or Calas, see below); it is the spirit behind the physical thing. Nwyfre is often what we refer to when we talk about things unseen, “energies” of spaces and people.

 

Nwyfre is also the mental processes associated with gardening–its the design work, the thoughtfulness, the planning and careful consideration.  Its the feeling you get when you enter the garden; its the awareness that is awakened with a sacred connection to the plants.

 

Gwyar (GOO-yar) – This druid element represents the principle of flow, of movement, and of change. It is associated with the energy of the water (although is not limited to it); it represents the change that is inherent in all living things. The term means “flow” or “fluidity” in the Welsh language and we can refer to it as energy flows (in physical manifestation) of all kinds.

 

Gwyar is responsible for the change we see in the plants across the season; its the growth of the seed from spout to adult plant and finally into decay; its the flow of the seasons moving ever forward. Gwyar is the flow of the sap in the maple trees that first signals spring; its the growth of the plants; the budding and leafing of the trees; the ripening of the fruit; and the eventual composting and decay at the end of the season. Gwyar is the flows of nutrients in the great soil web of all life.  It is the principle of Gwyar we see in photosynthesis, the conversion of light into energy and oxygen by plants. For homebrewers, it is gwyar that allows the physical fermentation and transformation of grains or fruit into alcohol. It is this principle of flow in herbalism, also, that allows the medicine to move from the plant matter into a menstra (for tea, tinctures, etc). When permaculture designers talk about “catch and store energy” we are referring to harnessing the Gwyar in the land for common good (through rain barrels, swales, solar power, and so on).

 

Calas (CAH-lass) – The final druid element is Calas, representing solidity or substance. Calas is that which is the physical manifestation of things within the world: their form, their substance, and their features that help distinguish them. This is the welsh word for “hard” or “stability.”

 

Calas is the physical being of the plants in the garden, the soil, the microbial life.  It is Calas you feel when you pick up the rich soil and run it through your fingers. It is Calas that is the feeling of your tools in your hand (although its Gwyar that makes those tools work!). Its Calas that is in the vegetables sitting in your harvest basket and ready for your plate. All of the physical manifestations of your garden; the solidity of the pathways, the size of the beds, the physical structure of the plants; the weight of the stones–these are Calas.

 

Mapping the Elements onto the World

You can map these elements onto another triad in the druid path–the triad of earth (calas), sea (gwyar), and sky (nwyfre).  If you are interested in working with these three elements, I would start by suggesting that you spend time meditating on each of them and also spend time examining these principles at work in the world.

 

For example, as I look down my street, I see the Calas in the pavement, in the trunks of the strong trees, in the physical body of the people walking there.  I see Gwyar in the rain falling on the street, in the movement of the branches in the air, in the swinging of the hands and walking of the people.  I see the spark of Nwyfre in the laughter of the children crossing the street holding hands in the rain.

 

Sacred Bee

The bee embodying the three druid elements

As a second example, we can think about the honeybee.  The honeybee’s physical body (legs, wings, abdomen, exoskeleton, eyes, tongue, and so on) represent Calas.  The honeybee’s flight and movement in the hive represent Gwyar.  The magic alchemical process that allows eggs in the hive to have the spark of life, the magical process where nectar is transformed into honey, and the blessing the bees bring to the land all can be represented in Nwyfre.

 

I would suggest that if you want to use these three principles in your sacred gardening work, magical practice, or daily life, you spend time with each of them.  Spend time focusing on one, meditating on one, writing about it, maybe sketching it or creating a song, and observing it in everyday life.  Do the same with the other two–while these three elements are simple on the surface, profound understanding can be found with dedicated study and work with these elements. Now that we have some understanding of the principles behind the three druid elements, we can consider how they can be put to work in a sacred garden space.

 

Using Nwyfre, Gwyar, and Calas in Garden Designs

The other way you can use these elements is by considering their role in the garden design process and think about integrating them physically into our spaces.  Let’s look at two such garden designs where these three elements can play a prominent role.

 

1. The Herb Spiral

The herb spiral is probably the most quintessential design from permaculture; the spiral is built up so that the top of the spiral is above the earth by several feet, making it drier, and as the spiral goes down, it has various small microclimates.  Some spiral designs (including mine here) include a water feature at the bottom.  I like the herb spiral a lot, as its simple to implement, encourages us to think about the plants and their microclimate needs, and looks great.

 

From a magical perspective, we can apply the three druid elements easily into this design: the spiral itself representing nwyfre; the stones, earth, and plants representing calas; and the flow of water and areas of wetness and dryness as well as the encouraged growth habits based on placement through gwyar.  There’s also a really good reason to put a standing stone at the very top, buried 1/3 of the way into the soil–stay tuned for my next post for more on the inclusion of the standing stone.

The Sacred Herb Spiral, complete with standing stone and sacred pool

The Sacred Herb Spiral, complete with standing stone and sacred pool

You’ll notice in this design drawing I’ve included a number of different herbs, many of them both magical and medicinal.  The top of the design starts with the herbs that like it hot and dry–rosemary and white sage being at the top of that list, perhaps with a bit of accompanying garden sage or clary sage.  From there we move into thyme and dill, who can handle it a bit dryer, along with echinacea (purple cone flower), a wonderful medicinal.  Basil or lovage, too, would work wonderfully around this spot.  Chives, chamomile, and calendula (along with others, like New England Aster) fill out the bottom.  Next, we get to the pool’s edge.  Mountain mint and boneset are two water loving plants that would like that spot, as would any other mint.  Finally, the pool itself can contain horsetail (especially if you are using sand in your pool) or calamus, two rooted and water loving plants.  This design can be modified to your own herbal interest and specific ecosystem.

 

2. A Larger Sacred Garden Spiral

We can expand the idea of the herb spiral to create a larger sacred spiral garden in which things more than just herbs grow.  Here’s a simple design for one that honors these three elements as well as recognizes the importance of an 8-fold wheel.

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

This design is flat, and the stone walking pathways (or mulched paths, etc) form the basis of the design.  I’d keep the beds in the spiral no more than 3′ across; its harder to manage a bed wider than that (I speak from hard-learned experience!)  The center of the garden offers a standing stone (more on that in my upcoming post) as well as a sacred pool with calamus and horsetail.  The edge, like the design above, is for water-loving plants, and then any herbs you want to grow work their way outward from the spiral.  The outer edges (which can continue on, beyond what I drew) can be home to perennial berry bushes, brambles, etc, as well as rotating annual vegetable crops.  I really liked the nettles there, at the entrance, serving as guardians….so many of our forests have those kinds of protectors, and stinging nettle is not only a great guardian of spaces but an incredible medicinal and tasty food!

 

So now that we’ve looked at the three elements in design work, let’s see how we can use them for prayer and planting.

 

A Garden/Land Altar Using The Three Elements

Setting up a sacred space and acknowledging the presence of the elements is an important step; its a way to encourage us away from the strictly practical and into the sacred.  Another way of doing this in an existing garden space is to setup an altar for the three elements.  You can use a flat stone or stump, and on it, place a stone for calas, for example; a bowl of water for gwyar, and some representation of nwyfre (a symbol like a spiral or an awen or else some herbs/incense (sage, mugwort, or lavender are my favorites, but you can also use any blend of herbs that have a strong connection with planes beyond the physical).

 

An alternative is to create a living altar, where you can use three plants to represent them: an earthy or rooty plant for calas (burdock, comfrey, dandelion, or any garden mushroom or mushroom log would be perfect here), a water plant like calamus, horsetail, boneset, mountain mint, arrow root, and so-on for gwyar, and a plant associated with the spirit realm (sweetgrass, sage) or strongly with the sky  (a climbing vine like nasturtium) for nwyfre.

 

A good way to choose symbolism for your altar is to meditate on each of the three elements and/or do a free association with them in order to come to a deeper understanding.

 

Three Element Daily Prayer

A daily prayer at your three element altar can be simple and yet effective. I might come into the garden and say this prayer at morning’s first light or before I begin to work in the garden.

“Calas, the form and the shape
Gwyar, the flow and the change
Nwyfre, the spark of life
Sacred elements spiraling
Bless this [garden’s/land’s/place’s] growing”

As you say the prayer, pause after each line.  You can touch the elemental representation on the altar as you pause.  Then, for Calas and Gwyar use your 5 senses closely to see how that element is manifesting in the garden at each moment. Nywfre will require your inner senses, but it too can be sensed in various ways.

 

A Simple Prayer for Growing Things – A Three Element Blessing

This prayer, or another like it, can be used to encourage many things to grow, anything from sprouts on your counter or seeds you have started to the planting of a new garden.  I use this prayer this after planting my first sets of seeds in the fertile earth, transplanting seedlings, or putting in new trees or shrubs.

Say: “May the essence of the earth support you in strength.”
Action: Pour a small bit of earth or finished compost over the growing plant/seed/tree. Alternatively, if you are planting seeds, plant them at this time.  As you are sprinkling the earth or planting the seeds, chant “Calas” three times and envision the seed’s deep roots and the fertile earth supporting it.

 

Say: “May the flows of the land transmute you in harmony.”
Pour a small bit of water near the roots of the growing plant/seed.  As you are pouring, chant “Gywar” three times and envision the waters flowing to the seed and the seed’s growth and change.
Say: “May the spirit of life bless you in wisdom.”
Smudge the plant with a bit of herbal incense (I like sage, mugwort, rosemary, or lavender for this purpose; see my post on smudge sticks for more ideas).  As you are smudging, chant “Nwfre” three times and imagine a spark of life shining outward from the center of the seed to facilitate its growth.


Say:
“May the triune essence of Calas, Gwyar, and Nwyfre bless infuse you with blessing and abundance.” and chant “Awen” (Ah-oh-en) three times to close out the ceremony.

 

Concluding Thoughts

As you can see, the three elements of the druid tradition represent a wonderful opportunity to work on a sacred level, creating sacred gardening practices.  These kinds of practices truly contribute to a “druid’s garden!”

 

Converting Lawns to Gardens: Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Urban Farm April 24, 2015

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm – Beautiful, biointensive, productive.

Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit of coverage about lawn issues, as I really do believe that the lawn can be one of the primary sites of transformation and change for ordinary Americans and others in the Western industrialized world. Not only can the lawn be transformed from a consumptive space to a productive one for growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers to benefit humans and other life, but it can be a site of personal reconnection and healing with our landscape.

 

This is because the lawn is the single piece of nature that the bulk of people, living outside of big cities, encounter on a daily or weekly basis. If we can transform the lawn, we can transform ourselves.

 

This is why I am so excited about this post–through the example of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a new creation of my dear friend, Linda Jackson, I will provide an introduction to how to convert a front yard to a vegetable garden using permaculture design principles. This is Linda’s story, but she’s asked me to report on it for you here to get the word out. I’ll also say that I’m only telling part of the story now–I’ll provide more updates later in the year and talk about what she planted and how its all doing–and more responses from the community.

 

Impetus for Change

Linda was a certified organic farmer, a farmer’s market board member, a board member of a state-level organic farming rganization, and a horticulture teacher for many years. Last summer, through some trying life circumstances, she was displaced from her farm and ended up in a small home in a suburban area in a town called Lake Orion (in South-East Michigan). Linda moved from 10 acres to a tiny 100×200′ plot (with a 50′ x 50′ growing area in the front yard; back yard is full shade). Linda used her background in farming and permaculture design to convert her plain, everyday lawn into not only a place to grow some great vegetables, but also a place of community change and empowerment. Here’s how she did it.

Linda - Before and After

Linda – Before and After

 

Getting Legal

Before one begins to convert one’s yard, the legal aspects must be considered and weighed. As my own run ins with township ordinances have attested, and as protections of small urban farms have been removed in Michigan in the last 12 months (and the legal battles everywhere raging about front-yard farming), Linda decided to take no chances with her plan. She went directly to the township supervisor and spoke with him about her design and plan for her front yard. He told her that as long as she wasn’t growing “weeds” it wasn’t a problem.  She also read through the township ordinances thoroughly to learn what could and couldn’t be done. We are still crossing our fingers that, now that she’s gotten the garden installed, that this will hold true. But so far, so good!

 

For those of you thinking about converting your own yards–do keep legal ordinances (and homeowner’s associations) in mind. They can really sink (and fine, and bulldoze) your hard-earned efforts.  And even a statement like “don’t grow weeds” is tricky–my township, for example, designates common milkweed as a noxious weed (when its a beneficial native plant).

 

Linda at her new farm

Linda at her new farm getting ready to plant some radishes!

Goals for the Urban Permaculture Farm

Before Linda designed her farm and set into action, she created a list of goals to help guide her efforts. She knew farming her front yard in the urban setting was going to be quite different than farming her quiet ten acres in the country. Given this, her goals were as follows:

 

  • Do away with mowing, herbicides, pesticides, traditional lawn maintenance
  • Build a balanced farm ecosystem using permaculture design
  • Grow quick annuals and perennial fruits, herbs, flowers
  • Allow farm to turn a profit by selling produce and farm goods a farmer’s market every two weeks
  • Grow biointensively and organically; use small space gardening and vertical gardening to maximize yield
  • Use my plot as an educational site for community
  • Generate curiosity and excitement in the community
  • Create an aesthetically pleasing, unique space

 

Her triple bottom line was: ecological, social and economic sustainability.

 

Design and Observations

Linda examined her specific site over a period of weeks (she could have waited and observed longer as permaculture design principles suggest, but winter was coming fast and she wanted to get her hands in the soil and start growing first thing in the spring). So waiting a year wasn’t an option!

Plans for the Farm - Overhead view

Plans for the Farm – Overhead view

During these observations, she created a plan of action. In observing her site, she paid attention to the light (recognizing the need to take out several trees); the rainfall (including where water pooled and where it was dry) and the slope of the land and elevation changes.  She also noted the microclimates near her house, where the sun reflected from the house siding and onto the soil, keeping it dryer and warmer than other areas.

 

Preparing the Site

Front Yard Before

Front Yard Before

Two ornamental fruit trees (that did not produce fruit) and a silver maple were first removed to produce full sun on the site. These produced 15 yards of chipped mulch, which Linda put to good use as pathways in her garden. After the trees were removed, Linda also ordered 10 yards of compost from a local compost company and set to work (and she worked full days, 4-5 days a week, for 5 weeks to finish her site).

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Linda knew she wanted her farm to be aesthetically pleasing and mimic patterns in nature (another permaculture design principle). To do this, she used a hose and the natural contour of the land and laid out her beds and pathways.  She had the idea of “flow” in her mind as she designed, creating a series of soft waves.

Natural contours--shaped with the hose!

Natural contours–shaped with the hose!

After this, Linda laid down brown recycled paper to create a weed barrier (similar to the sheet mulch techniques I shared several years ago on this blog).  Then she laid down her thick mulchled pathways (about 6″ of mulch) and added more weed barrier compost for the beds themselves (eventually making it to 10″ after a neighbor blew leaves all over her farm and she laid down a second layer!). Here are some photos of the transformation as it took place.

Mulched paths established....

Mulched paths established….

Starting to add compost over weed barrier....

Starting to add compost over weed barrier….

Lots of progress being made!

Lots of progress being made!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Many beds now established!

Many beds now established!

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Complete as of October 2014!

Nearly complete as of October 2014–the front area there is a rock garden and rain garden since water pools there often.

 

Some Spring Planting

After the snow melted and the temperatures warmed up this spring, Linda installed drip irrigation lines and began her finishing touches on the garden and the soil composition before planting. I visited her this past week, and together, we planted kale, radishes, and chard: the first of the spring crops able to go into the ground. Linda impressed me with her organic pest control techniques: each kale seedling got a healthy spoonful of cayenne pepper and each chard seedling was popped into a toilet paper tube to protect it from rodents, slugs, and possible frost damage (and this was a good thing, since its really chilled down recently). Here are some shots of the current garden. I was also impressed that we planted nearly 80 kale seedlings in her space, with plenty of room for many other delights! I think she’ll have no problem having plenty of product to take to the farmer’s market and to put on her plate.

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Linda plants radish

Linda plants radish

Chard in protective tubes

Chard in protective tubes

Me planting some chard!

Me planting some chard!

 

Promoting a Positive Image in the Community

As Linda put her garden in in the fall and as the weeks passed, the neighbors watched the yard’s transformation and anticipation in the community grew substantially.  Here was someone doing something unique, different, groundbreaking, and exciting. The important thing to understand about this kind of public growing space is that people will talk. They will ask questions, they will be curious, and interest (of several kinds) can take place. I experienced this firsthand when we were planting kale, chard, and radishes this past week.  Multiple people stopped by, took a look, asked what we were up to. We cheerfully told them and they smiled and said they were thinking about doing it themselves.  So far, Linda has been lucky as the response in her community has been incredibly positive. Several people have asked her to put in gardens for them–but Linda wants to empower them to do their own work, not do it for them.

 

Given the above, Linda decided to be proactive about promoting her space, and in addition to talking to the township prior to starting, she decided to create some marketing materials. She went to my friends at Roots to Fruits for some snazzy graphics to share and feedback on her designs. I also helped her create a Powerpoint presentation that she shared in over the winter at a few local and regional events.  I also worked with her to create a brochure that she can give to people who are passing by that explains both the purpose of the garden and resources to get started. The brochure will be housed in a “take one” box on her mailbox so anyone who comes by can learn more about the site.  I’m including the brochure in jpg format here as well (you can click on it to see it full size).

Brochure page 1

Brochure page 1

Brochure, page 2

Brochure, page 2

I think the proactive approach to marketing and community engagement is really the key to a successful front-yard garden, especially one that will stand the test of time.  As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ll be checking in with Linda later in the summer on a visit back to Michigan to see how things are going!

 

Conclusion

In many ways, the typical lawn is a reflection of our own strained relationship with nature. Its poisoned and modified (as is much of the food we eat), it is unsustainable (as much of our lifestyles are), it has an appetite for chemicals and fossil fuels (as many of us do), and its generally barren with little activity or diversity of life (as nightly TV addictions can attest). Transform the lawn, and in the process, we can transform ourselves, our communities, our world.

 

I’ve seen this transformation in my friend Linda, who left a very difficult situation scarred and wounded. Through installing this front-yard farm, Linda was transformed and healed. And now this lawn, transformed, is transforming the community. Linda tells me of two neighbors on her street that are considering converting their front-yards to veggies and fruits as well, and I suspect that many more will follow the trend in the years to come. Since she’ll be selling veggies at the farmer’s market, she will inspire so many more who might not walk or drive down her street with her story, and most importantly, her delightful edible goodies.

 

Other Sites: The Hotel Belmar Garden (Organic, Biointensive, Incredible) April 11, 2015

Once in a while, you encounter something that is truly extraordinary. Something created by a unity of human effort and ingenuity and natural processes that is a sacred and inspirational place. I want to share one of those places with you today–both because its a wonderful opportunity to learn, but also to see so many sustainable living activities in action.  I’ve written about sacred gardens before–and this is truly such a place.

 

While I was in Costa Rica, my friend and I literally stumbled across this amazing organic vegetable garden behind the Hotel Belmar in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Roberto Mairena is the sole farmer of this land, and he works with joy in his heart and s smile always on his face. Although he spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, we learned a great deal from him, seeing so many of the principles that we were working to learn and enact in the USA at play in his garden–all in one place. Truthfully, this was the most inspirational and incredible garden I have ever visited (and I have certainly visited my fair share!)  What was so inspirational is that Roberto was literally doing everything himself and doing everything right and was, with the exception of imported chicken manure and a few bioferment ingredients, a closed loop system (that is, the garden largely sustains itself rather than taking nutrients and materials from other places).

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

You read about this kind of garden in books, and a lot of people are “working toward” this kind of thing–but here it is, all in one place, with so many things going on and so many little features that add up to an incredible whole. My friend Linda, a 30+ year experienced organic farmer and agricultural educator herself, was blown away with this place.  She and I spent over an hour exploring and photographing and documenting everything (so that we could learn), and then we spent almost an hour talking with Roberto and communicating in the language of plants with lots of excited pointing.

 

Robertos garden was also fully integrated into the hotel, which also is important to recognize (I have never seen a hotel in the US that had such a practice–much of the food served at the hotel came from the garden, less than 100 feet away). I am going to give you a virtual tour of his garden, and talk about some of the exciting features and what we can learn from his approach. I will say that this blog post is going to be a bit long and full of photos–but if you want to learn how to garden in a really sustainable, sacred way, its worth following along!

 

Size and Shape of the plot

We estimated that Roberto was farming about 5000-6000 square feet, and had over a 1/4 acre plot in cultivation in total–and he was able to grow amazing amounts of food and cultivate an amazing amount of diversity in that small space. Our Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask Roberto how many hours he worked in the garden each week, but from the love and care and attention to detail, we think that its likely a full time position (or close to it). We know this approach could be replicated on a smaller scale with effect.

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

One of the key features of this garden is how it uses the landscape, and the slope of the landscape, to effect. You can see the paths winding upwards, the slope catching the southern sun. The garden also has this wonderful, whimsical quality that is hard to put into words. There is a lot of joy growing here!

 

All Organic and Biointensive

Roberto was growing using only organic methods. This means no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, nothing that would harm the ecosystem or ourselves. He’s also employing nearly all of the methods used for biointensive farming, so we would classify his approach as organic and biointensive.

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

There’s always discussion among permies, gardeners, and farmers about how to best prep your beds for planting annual veggies (perennials are another matter). Do you double dig it (using a biointensive method) or sheet mulch it?  Roberto favors the double dig method, and let’s just say his soil is the most beautiful, spongy, amazing thing, so that’s winning some points in my book!

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

The garden was refreshing, in part, because so much of it was using local materials in its construction and maintenance. You may have noticed the old tree posts used to hold up the frame in the above pictures. All of the terraces were also made using locally milled boards (this is done when any tree is cut or falls down; we also saw this at work on the farm we stayed at) and using sticks to hold them in place.  Here’s an example:

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Trellises were also made largely from repurposed materials.  Here’s one such example:

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

Increasing Soil Fertility with Manure, Compost, Biofermentation, and more

Because Roberto isn’t using any chemical fertilizers, he instead uses a balanced series of soil amendments, most of which he makes on site:

1) Chicken manure from a local farm (one of few imports into the garden)

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

2) Additions of Eggshells and Ash. The soil of Costa Rica is quite acidic (as evidenced from the stunning blue hydrangeas growing all over the countryside). To counter this, Roberto uses substantial amounts of wood ash (which adds potash and trace nutrients and is highly alkali). Crushed eggshells add long-term calcium back into the soil.

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

3) Worm castings (red wiggler worms eating compost from the hotel; break down mangoes and some limited veggies). Roberto used some repurposed plastic trays and had stacks and stacks of the worms in the trays.  They made short work of the mangoes; the pits went back into the regular compost.

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

4) Rich compost from the hotel (more about this below)

5) Bioferments of various kinds (again, more below).

Compost

Roberto has a few tricks up his sleeve to make really amazing compost.  First, he uses four different bins, plus worm composting, to break down material as fast as he can.  After the worms have eaten the flesh of some fruits and veggies, he throws the harder bits right into the main compost bin.  Then, as it fills, he uses a series of repurposed PVC tubes with many holes drilled in them to provide aeration without having to turn it (this is just brilliant!).  Finally, he makes compost removal easy with a series of removable flat boards, so once the compost is ready, he can simply remove the boards and rake it into the middle of his work area (you can see this in the photo below).  Frankly, learning about these methods alone were enough to make the entire trip to Costa Rica worthwhile!

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

I’ve made bioferments with just comfrey, but Roberto was taking this to an entirely new level.  He’s using bioferments to add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity to his already beautiful, living soil.

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure.  We didn’t figure out how he made it.

We asked Roberto for his Bioferment recipe, which he was happy to give us, and we translated the last bits with help from blog readers!  I plan on making some of this quite soon.

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

  • Water – 200 liters
  • Molasses – 5 liters
  • Whey – 20 liters
  • Ash – 4 kilos
  • Cow Manure 50 kilos
  • Mineral salt – 1/2 kilo
  • Calcium Carbonate – 1 kilo
  • Rock Phosphate – 1 kilo
  • Mountain Microorganisms (inoculum fermented for compost and other organic fertilizers; prevents odors and prevents disease) – 5 liters
  • Yeast – 500 grams
  • Yogurt – 500 grams

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

Roberto also uses his edges and margins wisely (a principle from Permaculture Design).  On each edge of the garden bed, he has herbs to encourage certain kinds of beneficial insects and keep away pests and problematic insects.  He also uses trap cropping throughout the garden (where one plant will be grown as essentially the sacrifice for the pests so that the other crops are left alone).

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

Border herbs and more trap crops – lavender, parsley, chives.  Hardware cloth keeps out small critters but doesn’t take away from the look of the garden.

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

Roberto favored smaller, shorter rows with lots of companion planting.  Strawberries were planted in many rows (also in white bags, you can see this in the photo above, to reflect the heat and keep them from spreading).

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

He also used the metal roof of his shed to catch rainwater and send it into a cistern for watering.  Drip irrigation lines and a simple pump moved the water where it needed to go up or down the hillside and into the beds.

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

Part of the biointensive method is cultivating less area but always having something growing in that area.  Roberto is doing this quite effectively–when we arrived, he was clearing out beds of old and dying tomato plants, prepping the soil, and immediately putting in lettuce and spinach seedlings.  This continual crop rotation (much easier in a climate like his, but still do-able anywhere!) means that there is always something growing (often more than one something using companion planting methods) and the harvest is staggered over the season.

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

Another key aspect of Roberto’s approach was to integrate annuals and perennials, especially on the edges of the bed.  Although many of the plants we grow as “annual” are perennial in Costa Rica, he also integrated treecrops and agroforestry along the edges of the garden for even more growing power.

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

To conclude, every part of this garden, from its use of the natural features of the landscape to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams”, is carefully thought out and beautifully executed. I know there is a lot more going on here than I can share, but as you can see, its really a sacred space. I can only hope that one day, my gardens will be half as sustainable as Roberto’s were!  It was truly a delight to stumble upon this gem in the heart of Monteverde–I am inspired and amazed!

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!