The Druid's Garden

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

The Druid’s Garden: Principles of Sacred Gardening March 10, 2019

Part of my own Druid's Garden!

Part of my own Druid’s Garden!

One of the greatest blessings of gardening and growing things is the deep energetic connections that you can develop with plants. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February, where I tend it and keep it sheltered from the winter weather, to the planting and mulching of that small pepper in late May. This relationship continues as I nurture it into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and the actual peppers start to emerge. I monitor that pepper plant for insects and disease and do what I can to ensure its success. Finally, I watch the peppers grow large and fat in the heat of the summer. At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that pepper plant. When I eat the pepper in late August, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it. When I save the seed from that pepper for next season, the relationship becomes even stronger. The pepper will not be casually wasted, given how much energy has been put into it. We are connected; that connection is sacred. The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence that I create with the plants. This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing and preserving some of my own food and in dedicating myself to gardening as a sacred practice. You wouldn’t know the difference between a factory farmed pepper or your home-grown pepper if the factory farmed pepper is all you’ve ever eaten. Someone growing up in a non-industrialized culture from birth would learn to recognize and nurture that sacred connection between the human and the soil, and the codependency that connection provides. However, for people growing up in western industrialized cultures, not only do we not have the connection—we don’t’ even realize one is missing.

 

Whether we are growing in pots on our porch or in a big garden, all gardens offer us opportunity for these connections. It is in these gardens that we can begin to cultivate and to understand the sacred: a sacred awareness of the plants and their cycles; a sacred awareness of the magic of the seed and the soil; and a sacred awareness of our relationship to the growing things, the mystery of life.

And yet, conventional ‘gardening wisdom’ is often full of things that aren’t that healthy for cultivating natural relationships.  I had hoped, a few years ago, to get a Master Gardener certification–once I saw the amount of pesticides and non-organic methods they taught, I went the permaculture design route instead.  I think a lot of the conventional wisdom about gardening, whether its importing non-natural additives, spraying, etc, taks us further from a sacred relationship with the living earth.  Given that, in this post, as I’m excited to start gardening again soon and have been starting many seeds, I wanted to share some ideas and ideas for a true “Druid’s Garden!”

Sacred Gardening: Wheel of Principles

In order to think about sacred gardening, druid gardening, I’ve developed a “wheel of principles” that help me make decisions about my garden. Some of these are rooted in permaculture design, others are more druidical in nature, still others are insights I’ve gained over the years of living and working with this approach.  Think of the wheel of principles like general ideas to think about or guidelines; ways of ensuring a sacred experience while you are starting to tend your plants for the coming year.

 

Working on the Inner and the Outer

Working with Spirit and Matter

Working with Spirit and Matter (an original painting I did a few years back!)

This basic magical principle, derived from hermetic magical practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on the physical. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. In the disenchanted world we live in, the non-physical, spiritual aspects to various activities are simply not considered—gardening is no exception. We’ll be working with this principle in every chapter of this book—it is cornerstone to sacred gardening. 

 

Harmony with nature

Nature provides us an incredible amount of lessons and patterns to work with—by studying nature, we learn all we need to know about how to live regeneratively.  This was the basic practice that allowed permaculture design to develop, and its similarly the basic understanding that drives our actions.  A big part of the challenge with harmony with nature is that a lot of people don’t know how to live harmoniously any longer, and many of the other principles in this chapter and this book give clear guidance in how to do so.

 

The most basic principle to sacred gardening is to create a landscape that is in harmony with nature, rather opposed to it, and to create a landscape that produces yields beyond food for the human being. Yes, you read that might—sacred gardening is about much more than vegetables, and embraces the permaculture ethical principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. This requires us to question everything we know, or think we know about growing plants, to reject the urge to consume, and to throw out a good deal of the “conventional” wisdom that has been ported into our heads in the name of consumerism. This is because most conventional wisdom has a price tag attached, and rarely is anything you purchase to put in your garden from a big box store is healthy to you or to the land.

 

We think of a “yield” from a garden, the amount of vegetables, fruits, and herbs you can harvest is likely the first (and possibly only) thing that comes to mind. But if we are thinking about gardening as a regenerative practice for our lands, earth care also is critical. This means that our yield can also be habitat, nectar, improved soil fertility, improved biodiversity, better water retention, beauty, community, a place for meditation and prayer, and so many other things. In other words, if we extend our idea of what a yield from the garden looks like, then we can yield as much for the land as four ourselves.

 

Parts to the Whole

This principle is derived from permaculture design, and it can be easily illustrated in any forest. Our culture currently encourages metaphors that suggest that things are not related to the other, when in reality, what affects one thing affects many. So this principle asks us to consider how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together as a system, rather than in isolation.  In specific garden terms, this might be practicing integrated pest management, working to plant guilds and do companion planting, and understand how your garden ties to–and supports–other kinds of life.  Perhaps you grow sunflowers and amaranth and leave them out all winter to provide forage for hungry sparrows!  Gardens shouldn’t be in competition with nature, but rather, support

 

Layered Purposes

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

This principle is also derived from permaculture design.  It suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations.  When we engage in sacred action, we can use this principle to help us find activities that allow us to address more than one purpose.

 

Think about what you are planting and its relationship to everything else. Permaculture design asks us to de-compartmentalize our thinking and realize that everything is connected.  Many plants do well with certain companion plants (as epitomized in the book title Carrots Love Tomatoes) but not necessarily with others. Certain herbs and plants, like chives, lavender, nasturtium, and garlic, can ward away pests and critters, eliminating the need for chemical deterrents. A garden hedge of wildflowers that bloom different times can provide beneficial insects homes and food—these insects help keep the pests down in your garden. Even within a home, thinking about these principles can be used to create systems that require little inputs—home aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow tons of fresh vegetables—just feed the fish! Composting not only reduces food waste and what goes into a landfill, it provides incredible finished compost for use in the soil. We see here the idea of both embracing diversity and building an ecosystem and making sure each plant in that ecosystem is chosen carefully to have multiple functions when possible.

 

Embrace Renewables

Stemming from the idea of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. The truth is, we have finite resources on this planet; things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy) are better than those that are not (like coal for energy). This principle is derived from permaculture design, but it also can be found in many other places.

 

Support diversity

This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs. We might think about this in terms of polycultures rather than monocultures.  A perennial garden is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield.

 

Monocultures refer to a single plant (like a field of soybeans) while polycultures refer to many plants sharing the same space. Polycultures are found all throughout nature; monocultures generally are not. Polycultures can work together, where different plants accumulate nutrients (dynamic accumulators), fix nitrogen, provide forage and nectar for insects, provide food for the gardener, and so on. Monocultures do not regenerate the soil, they do not provide a healthy or balanced ecosystem, and they encourage explosions of certain kinds of pest populations due to the concentration of many of the same plant in an area. The largest monocrop grown in the USA is the lawn; but many other monocrops are also present (wheat, corn, soy, etc). Mimicking nature and using nature as our guide, we can shift from cultivating monocrops to polycultures.

 

Perennials always come back!

Perennials always come back!

Along with this, we might carefully consider what that we plant and those plants’ relationship with the land. Annual agriculture (that is, your typical plants like tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans, and so on) require the yearly work of bed prep, weeding, sowing, seed starting, and harvesting—this disrupts soil ecology and causes extra work. Shifting to use at least some perennials in your growing means that the plant is planted once—and only once—and then the soil is not disrupted again and the plant can grow and be abundant. Most of our most balanced ecosystems occurring in nature have more perennials or self-sowing annuals than the tender annuals we typically use as food crops. Entire books are written on this subject (see resources, Appendix A), so I won’t go into too much depth here. But if we are thinking about building an ecosystem, we should consider the role of our perennial crops—herbs, nuts, fruits, berries—in that garden.

 

Reflect and Revise

Reflective activity, when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions, is a cornerstone of sacred action and its used in nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Quite contemplation (through discursive meditation, discussed in Exercise 1 below, or simply sitting quietly and pondering), is critical for this kind of work. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

A sacred, sustainable garden is not a fast process. The soil takes years to establish, the seeds take time to grow, perennials, trees and shrubs take time to bear fruit, compost takes time to make, all these stress time and patience. Just as importantly, we have to grow our knowledge to really achieve the kind of relationship with the land that we want to have. The idea that we’ll have a perfect garden in one season is simply not realistic. Like the tree that takes years to bear fruit, we must also realize that gardening, like other forms of growth, takes patience and time. Even growing sprouts on your counter, which is about the easiest way of growing anything, requires patience and time (in days, rather than weeks, months, or years). Understand that sacred gardening is a learning process and the best way to learn is to constantly educate yourself.  Take classes, help friends, visit farms, read books, watch videos—anything that will give you new perspectives on growing food. You can see a complete list of books to get you started in the appendix.

 

Reclaim Waste

Excellent compost bins! Bins in various stages

Excellent compost bins!

This is another principle derived from permaculture design. Waste is a resource that has not been given a proper place—we can think about “waste” in new ways. Human waste and urine, for example, can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling!

 

When it comes to growing things, we want to make sure that everything that we grow does not go to waste and whatever nutrients are in the soil go back if at all possible. I am always saddened when I go out for bags of leaves in the fall and find whole bags of plants ripped up from someone’s garden in the brown “compost” bags they place on the curb. After spending a whole season with the plants, my neighbors would rather send them “away” than make a compost pile and add those nutrients back into the soil. These same people then go to the store and buy bags of compost and fertilizer (again, demonstrating the consumer mindset of consumeà throw awayàconsumeà throw away). I think this practice demonstrates how little modern people really understand about growing our food from a permaculture-informed and ethical perspective.

 

Consider any waste streams that can be integrated into a gardening system, like composting. Even for those growing food inside their homes, a worm composting system combined with container gardens can make use and re-use of many nutrients. For those on the more radical side, humanure (that is, composting your own waste) is always an option! Even when I’m growing sprouts on my counter, I save the water from rinsing to water my other house plants—again, turning “waste” water into something needed.

 

 

Spiraling Changes

Strawberry Spiral - Freshly Planted

Strawberry Spiral – Freshly Planted

Rather than starting big and going all out, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks. Unexpected issues—and opportunities—can arise as part of the climb.  With each step you get further along and deeper into the practice. The other way of climbing is kind of moving along, bit by bit, and then suddenly looking out and realizing you are way higher than you thought! Shifting to regenerative practices are really no different: when we begin the ascent, we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we also have to take our time and make sure what we are enacting is permanent and self-sustaining or our efforts are in vain. Or, we might find that in our many daily meanderings, we are doing more than we realize. Both are valuable insights!

 

One of the biggest mistakes that new and enthusiastic gardeners and sacred activists do is to go crazy, convert a huge portion of their land to various gardens in one or two seasons, and then be overwhelmed with the maintenance of those gardens. This is exactly what happened to me on my homestead—within three years, I had all but eliminated an acre of lawn and replaced it with perennials, an annual vegetable garden, herb gardens, fruit trees, and more. And while it was incredible and diverse and all of the things I’m writing about in this section—it was also way too much for me to manage. This example nicely illustrates the concept of spiraling changes: start small, work slow, and allow things to naturally unfold. See how it is managing a small garden (maybe 2 4×10’ beds) and build accordingly. Consider perennials for less intensive management over time as well.

 

Living in Gratitude

Gratitude is something missing from our everyday lives in industrialized culture, and bringing gratitude back into our actions is useful in all cases, and certainly, in a garden.  Gratitude practices for me include developing shrines to honor nature and her spirits, making regular offerings, respecting the plants and life itself with respectful planting, harvesting, and so on.

 

These are some–of many principles–that I try to live and grow by with my own relationship to the living earth.  I hope you find something in here worth taking with you–and gardening with this year!  I’d love to hear from you on other principles for sacred gardening that you use!

 

Walking Meditation Garden with Hugelkultur Beds June 24, 2018

As a practitioner of permaculture and as a druid, I am always looking for ways to work with the land to create sacred and ecologically healthy spaces.  That is, to create self-sustaining ecosystems that produce a varitey of yields: create habitat, offer nectar and pollen, systems that retain water and nutrients, offer medicine and food, create beauty and magic.  But conventional gardens, even sheet mulched gardens, can falter in water scarce conditions.  So building gardens long-term for resiliency and with a variety of climate challenges in mind is key.  At the same time, I am also looking to create sacred gardens, that is, not just places to grow food (which is simple enough) but to develop sacred relationships and deepen my connection with the living earth. Given all of this, I developed a design for a butterfly-shaped garden that would use hugelkultur raised beds and allow for a space for walking meditation and ritual.

 

Meditation Garden

Meditation Garden

When I came to the new homestead late last year, one thing was clear–any gardening was going to be rough going with the acidic, heavy clay soil full of rocks.  Digging down into the sunny part of the yard that was once excavated for a pool revealed virtually topsoil or humus content–basically, I was going to have to grow on clay subsoil.  A soil test revealed practically no phosphorous either.  Becuase I also have abundant wood on the property, digging down and creating some hugelkutur beds seemed like a great idea.

 

Hugelkutur beds were popularized by Sepp Holzer and discussed in his book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture. They are used widely around the world as a way to create beds that are enormously productive due to their ability to create vibrant soil biology and hold copious amounts of water. The key to these beds is sinking a good amount of wood–large pieces–that slowly rots down over time. As the wood rots, it becomes a spongy mass ready to hold water.

 

The Hugelkultur beds certainly take some sweat equity, but they will pay out dividends in the long run. Each year that passes, more and more moisture will be held in the bed from the wood.  Microbial life will flourish in this wonderful, undisturbed system of nutrients and roots. Each year with the hugels is more abundant and productive than the last as the underlying soil structure grows more connected and diverse.

 

Choices for Hugels

One of the challenges with Hugelkultur is doing it without heavy equipment or fossil fuels. I’ve seen people make amazing hugels using a backhoe, tractor with an attachment, etc. They dig a big hole then use the machinery to pile up even more wood, making these enormous hugels. I don’t have knowledge of how to operate such machinery, so I was going to do mine on a smaller scale by hand. The question is–what can we do by hand, given these conditions?  Can we still make abundant and productive hugels on a smaller scale?

 

One of the key conditions for us was the heavy clay soil–when it rained, the water pooled in the space.  I thought that if we dug down, then the water would pool in there a bit, being able to be sucked up by the rotting wood.  After digging out the hugels (but before wood was added) this proved to be true–the water literally just laid in the heavy clay, forming pools that took days to dry out.  Yes!

 

Others, however, may find it more beneficial to go up rather than down–the key is to get the wood in it and get some layers of compost and such on top.  Your own conditions beyond that determine a lot of how you want to create your beds.  Here’s how I created mine!

 

Choices for Garden Design

In permaculture, one of the principles is “stacking functions.”  The idea behind this is that you should try to get as many different functions out of a single space as you can.  For example,  the greenhouse offers not only a great growing space for fall and spring crops, it offers shelter from frost for seedlings, and it offers a wonderful place to hang out when its 35 out and you want some sun.  Its multiple purposes, then, contribute to the overall goal of the greenhouse.  In the case of desginging a garden itself, this is also critical. The title of this blog is, after all, the “druid’s garden”–implying not only a garden but a sacred space.

 

The Lawn and Potential Space

The Lawn and Potential Space

And so, I think it is really important to consider the role of the sacredness and design in a garden space.  It’s not just a space to grow things in, to serve the pollenators and create ecosystems….but also a place of sacredness, where the act of gardening is sacred work and considered sacred practice. As is the act of being in the garden for non-gardening purposes, such as meditation and ritual.  To me, making garden spaces that can “stack functions” in this way is an important part not only of gardening, but of living a sacred life more generally and building connection and communion with nature.

 

So for this garden, I had a limited 2/3 circle space after putting in the greenhouse.  I toyed around with a large number of designs before settling on a tree of life theme.  As the garden developed, I realized I didn’t just want a set of “branches” but rather a space to do walking meditation like a labrynth, so the tree transformed more into a moth/butterfly design.

 

Building a Hugelkultur Walking Meditation Garden

Now that we’ve talked through both the mundane and sacred aspects of this particular garden design, let’s take a look at how to build one of these gardens!

 

Step 1: Observe, Interact, and Create a Design

I already had a good sense of the sunniest part of the land that was near the house and easy to access; this, was where the old owners had once had a pool.  It was here that I decided to place both the greenhouse and the walking meditation herb garden.  I observed this space in rain and sun, and also measured it out, thought about how I wanted to move among the garden, how big the beds should be, and so on.  To do this most effectively, you can get some garden stakes or sticks and then string–actually map out the location of your beds, see how it will be as you walk it, etc.  If you don’t have this, some old flour also works, just pour the flour down where you want the beds to be in lines, so that you are essentially “drawing” with flour.

Once I had a plan and was ready to proceed, I called out some friends to help get me started.

 

Step 2: Dig Down

I was blessed with some serious help from friends one weekend just after I moved in to help dig out the hugels.  First we had to remove a burn pit the previous owners left.  Then, we dug them down about a foot and a half–as far as we could go. The clay will be used for a cob wall project(more on that later in the year) that will go in the back of the greenhouse. This doesn’t look like much, but it was literally about 5 hours of work by six people!  Clay is heavy and doesn’t play nice.

Clay garden beds dug down

Clay garden beds dug down

 

 

Step 3: Add Wood

The next step is to add wood to your hugel bed. A lot of it.  As much as you can fit in it.  Here you can see me completing one half of one of the hugels. I used a lot of medium sized logs, some sticks, and also large huge logs along the bottom (not all of which you can see in the photo). The bigger logs will take much longer to break down, but that’s ok!

 

Most wood is fine to use with hugels, but you want to avoid a few kinds.  First, don’t use any woods that have chemicals that prevent the growing of other plants (black locust, walnut and alanthus come to mind). You also want to avoid rot resistant woods (cedar, black locust) as the point is to get it rotting down quickly. My beds primarily consisted of maple, cherry, and oak, as that was what was available.

Adding wood

Adding wood

Step 4: Add Additional Soil-Building Materials

The next stage is to cover the wood with anything else you can–any non-weedy garden waste, leaves, fresh or finished compost, manure, and so on. I threw some old pumpkins that were rotting in there, coffee grounds, a good pile of leaves, mulched grass, horse manure, and more.

 

In traditional hugel building, you would replace the topsoil upside down on top of the logs and keep adding more materials.  The issue I have with that is that I have 100% clay, and I don’t want to have any additional clay in my beds.  So I instead removed it for another project.

Adding leaves and materials

Adding leaves and materials

Step 5: Add Borders (optional)

A lot of people make hugel mounds and don’t add borders, but I find that the borders are really helpful to get them higher, especially with the design I was using (which consisted of fairly small beds.  Also, the borders give a clear demarkation line bewteen what your path is and what a bed is–and for good garden design, this is critical.  Paths determine garden space, after all.

 

After seeing my two friends who made a cool hugel garden with uprightlogs as borders, I thought I could do something similar.  In fact, this does not work:

I put the logs upright and then sunk them in the clay.  But…frost heaving in the winter knocked them all down.  I couldn’t dig down far enough to get them firmly in the soil without some kind of auger…. So I scrapped this idea and went to shorter beds with a rock linked edge.

This looks cool, but won't survive the winter!

This looks cool, but won’t survive the winter!

Since there is copious amounts of stone on the property (I just have to go digging and searching for it) and so I instead spent a lot of time hunting for stone on the property and moving stone for these beds.  It is empowering work!

Stone is quite heavy and moving it is a very good workout!

Moving stone is a very good workout!

 

Leaves and Stone

Leaves and Stone – I lined the beds with stone before adding the final layer. I packed the stone in with clay.

 

Step 6: Top with Finished Compost

The final step for the bed creation to top the bed with finished compost–I added about 5-6″ of compost over everything and then let it rain and settle, then added more.  This gives the plants you plant some room for growing. The beds, being so young, are otherwise difficult for the plants to take root.  Even so, the first year of the hugels as things are just starting to rot down can be not as abundant for plants.  You also want to suppliment with nitrogen–as carbon starts to break down (which is what most of your woody material is) it does suck the nitrogen out of the soil.  The most readily available form of nitrogen is, of course, liquid gold!

Adding finished compost to the bed

Adding finished compost to the bed

Step 7: Establish Paths

Becuase I wanted this to be a walking meditation garden, I needed to also think about the paths between the beds and creating them with something that would last.  I have done a lot of paths in the past at my old homestead with cardboard and wood chips; they are excellent choices, especially for a vegetable garden. Eventually, the wood chips and cardboard breaks down, and you end up with great soil you can move into your beds, then add another layer in.  However, these kinds of paths require regular yearly or at least every-other year maintenance and the paths quickly get lost.

 

But for this garden, which was more permanent and meant to also be a sacred space, I chose to use landscape fabric (which has a 20-25 year life and is breathable) and pea gravel from a local supplier. You could do a lot of things here for paths: brick work, stone work, other kinds of gravel, cardboard and wood chips, etc.  The key is to create something that you like and that fits the vibe of the garden.

 

So I laid the landscape fabric down and used steel pins to pin it in place. This fabric allows water to permeate but will not allow grass or other plants to grow.

 

Laying out the landscape fabric

Laying out the landscape fabric

Finally, I topped this with a 2-3″ layer of pea gravel (locally sourced) for walking paths.

Pea gravel going in

Pea gravel going in

 

Step 7: Plant!

The hugels can have both annual and perennial plants, trees, shrubs, etc.  I opted for this garden as a walking meditation garden filled with healing plants and some food plants.  There are three inlets and you can walk a figure eight or a loop in the garden and commune with the perennial plants.  The garden is planted with a variety of perennials and a few annuals: calendula, yarrow, horseradish, basil, thyme, new england aster, wood betony, garlic, chives, tomatoes, chamomile, rue, echninacea, St. John’s wort, and much more!

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Another view of the garden

Another view of the garden

It is amazing to see how far this beautiful garden has come from the green, consumptive lawn.  It will now produce food, medicine, habitat, nectar, beauty, and a wonderful space for ritual and meditation work. This is just one variation–of countless others–to combine solid permaculture design techniques with sacred gardening.

 

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!

 

Garden/Homestead Updates – June 2013 June 12, 2013

I wanted to spend a bit of time on my garden updates–its been a while since I showed progress.  So here’s what’s happening at the Druid’s Garden (zone 6a, South-East Michigan, USA). Photos were taken about 4 days ago.

Chickens

I’ve had some setbacks in the realm of chickens–two (my two smallest ones, bantams, were killed by hawks while free ranging, and this happened while people were home and around).  When my family kept chickens in PA when I was growing up, we did not have such large amounts of hawks.  My land is also missing tree cover where they usually roamed, so I can see how this happened. So, because of this, and because they were tearing up my mulch and perennial beds, I decided to pen them up.  Two of my friends helped me build this outdoor coop area, attached to the original chicken tractor.  What I like best about the coop is that, aside from the netting, nails, and staples that we used to put it together, all the other materials came from the property–they are mostly cedar posts that we pulled out of the back of the property from the pile that had been cut (discussed in my post here).

New Chook Pen - all repurposed materials

New Chook Pen – all repurposed materials

I was also gifted two wonderful new peeps to make up for my lost ones.  Here they are (pics from about a week ago–they grow so fast)!

Peeper in the hand!

Peeper in the hand!

New Peeps!

New Peeps!

Perennials

This year, I’ve been working to expand my perennials, both in number and kind.  I am finding that this work is as important as seed saving, especially as I move to more perennials in my yard, but also because, from an economic standpoint, perennials are much more expensive, and lots of people want to start gardens using permaculture techniques but don’t have the money for all of them.   A good friend of mine gave me some gooseberry and currant bushes, I also have more raspberries (golden), fennel and other plants from our permaculture meetup’s plant exchange, an expanded strawberry patch, and more.  I’ve been working to develop guilds around each of my fruit trees also!

Strawberry Spiral with Fresh Mulch!

Strawberry Spiral with Fresh Mulch!

Ripening Strawberry!

Ripening Strawberry!

Apparently my rhubarb plant is the largest one most people have seen.  I’m thinking that part of it is because I placed it next to a gutter and also because it has shelter and lots of light from being next to my porch.  And composted horse manure.  Anyways, I’ll be canning some rhubarb preserves quite soon!

Monster-rhubarb

Monster-rhubarb

The comfrey patch is doing really well.  I should post on what comfrey does soon–its an amazing plant for gardens and medicine alike!  In the meantime, here’s the comfrey patch–I’ve given a ton of this away, and it keeps on going!

Comfrey patch with extra tomato seedlings

Comfrey patch with extra tomato seedlings

Annual Garden Beds

With the help of friends and family, I created two new large garden beds this spring.  I am also helping another family garden behind my main garden–they are doing so well!

Amaranth sprouts in one of the new beds!

Amaranth sprouts in one of the new beds!

Unfortunately, we’ve had a really cold spring.  With snow in late April and a storm that tore open my small hoop houses and knocked over my small greenhouse to a May 30th frost, it has not been an easy season.  My main garden was planted around May 20th.  Then we had a near-frost around the 30th (and had I looked forward in the biodynamic calendar I’m now using, I should have known that…)  Most of the plants lived, however, save some basil which I had extras of.

I’m taking more of a vertical gardening approach this year, which I think will serve me well.  I’ve been building trellises of all sorts, and finding interesting materials to use as trellises (more on that in an upcoming post)–all repurposed and found!

Here are some shots of the garden.

Potatoes, Garlic, and Kale.

Potatoes, Garlic, and Kale.

Lots of veggies in the garden!

Lots of veggies in the garden!

Working on new mulched pathways to keep out unwanted plants.

Working on new mulched pathways to keep out unwanted plants.

Mulch!

I have been in desperate need of mulch for some time.  My good friend knew this, and saw a tree service in the area at my neighbor’s house last week.  He asked them to bring the mulch over, which they did, and now I have a mulch mountain.  I’m mulching all of my perennial beds as well as the paths in my annual garden.  I am going to see how much is left, and if I have enough, I’m going to move forward with my plan to build a labyrinth this summer :).

Mulch Mountain!

Mulch Mountain!

I think that’s the end of the garden/homestead updates for now.  We have a number of exciting projects planned for this summer, including the outdoor kitchen and possible labyrinth.  Stay tuned!