If you're craving green and a little inspiration for the growing season ahead, then my video today is for you. In it, I give you a tour of our food forest. Even though we live in a cold climate, it doesn't mean that we can't grow a lot of edible perennials in our yards. With 9 fruit trees, multiple berry bushes and a variety of other edible perennials and herbs, our food forest has turned into a very productive space in just 5 growing seasons.
What I love about permaculture and gardening is the opportunity to turn degraded landscapes into edible paradises of food, fertility, medicine, and wildlife habitat. When we bought our 3/4 acre property back in December of 2012, the back of the lot was just grass, with a Siberian Pea Shrub hedge defining the north property line and a large pile of garbage and organic matter piled up in one area. Having been a rental for several years before our purchase, not much attention had been paid to the outdoor landscape.
Through the method of sheet mulching, we added yards and yards of straw, woodchip, leaves, compost, and manure. Along with planting bare root fruit trees and shrubs and seeding annual crops, we eliminated roughly 8000 square feet of lawn and turned the area into a lush, edible landscape that has become the home for birds, bees, butterflies, dragonflies, earthworms and other microscopic life that dwells in the soil.
So check out the video below to get a tour of the forest! Then, I would love to hear from you. Are you growing fruit trees and berry bushes in your yard? If not, would you like to? Share your successes and challenges in the comments below!
Every day, we are faced with ecological crises, natural disasters, conflict, war, and global epidemics. It's often difficult to remain positive in the face of overwhelming problems. But what if there was a concrete and simple way for you to be part of the solution?
The video below is a talk I gave entitled, The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Design It: Permaculture and Climate Change, at the Bozeman Public Library. In the talk, I explain how permaculture thinking can solve some of the most pressing ecological issues of our time. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
I talked in my last blog post about how our directive, in the global north, should not only be to grow our own food but to look for other ways to reduce our energy consumption. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that 35% of our household energy use goes towards lighting, appliances and refrigeration. Therefore, anything we can do to reduce the energy we use in the kitchen can help out significantly in terms of saving money and fossil fuels.
That's why I'm excited to share this video with you. In it, I talk about a simple and easy five-minute project that you can make, likely with existing materials in your home, that can immediately reduce your energy use. Not only do I talk about that project, but I cover other appropriate technologies with regards to cooking and food storage. These are strategies that you could think about implementing, over time, as you work toward a more energy-efficient, self-reliant lifestyle. Don't know what appropriate technology is? Check out my article here.
This video is actually a sneak peek into the Appropriate Technology Module that I am teaching in the Women's Online Permaculture Design Course that starts April 1st!
I am one of 40 women from 13 countries who have crafted a comprehensive online course for a global community.
The video below is one of dozens of videos, resources, and handouts that you will receive when you sign up for the course. This is a phenomenal opportunity to get an in-depth education, not only about appropriate technology, but about all aspects of permaculture design. If you're ready for a life-transforming journey, then join us!
Plus, if you sign-up through my link, you'll receive 3 hours of private tutoring with me (either in person or via skype/phone) and $200 worth of extra bonuses! To learn more about the course, click here.
For the first two weeks of January, I was fortunate to be hired by Guatemala Village Health (GVH) to help them develop an up and coming permaculture demonstration site, which will be an expansion of their current programs.
Since 2010, Guatemala Village Health has worked with targeted rural villages throughout eastern Guatemala to help families move towards a healthier life through programs in health, education and economic development. The villages that GVH serves are rural, with a predominantly Mayan indigenous population. They usually have limited access to consistent basic services such as local markets, health-care, electricity, and public transportation.
GVH is now expanding its impact by building a permaculture demonstration site and sustainable training center. Its goal is to address the root causes of many of the health issues that they encounter, which are very often connected to poor nutrition and poor sanitation.
In addition to the more traditional healthcare training, the site will provide nutrition, horticulture and permaculture training for villagers seeking to improve their standard of living through better designed houses (casas mejoradas), waste treatment systems (e.g. composting toilets and greywater), and permaculture gardens. The permaculture gardens will showcase a variety of culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables, food that would provide the much needed macro and micro nutrients that GVH has seen lacking in many villagers’ diets.
My time living and working in Guatemala in the early 2000s, in the human rights field, very much informed my later interest in permaculture and local food (see more about that here). Going back to Guatemala, in a different capacity, after so many years away, was a great opportunity.
However, it’s tricky to work on permaculture projects in a different country. I cringe at the notion that we, as Westerners from the developed world, somehow have something to teach those who have lived and worked on the land for decades, if not centuries. That is the challenge of permaculture and any sort of development work; broadening and deepening your understanding of the site as well as the culture and the context that you are in.
Do I have a role to play in this project? Perhaps, but not without a strong sense of the resources and knowledge that already exist, the cultural and historical context of the site and the country, and a significant dose of humility.
This initial visit involved seeing the land GVH will develop for the demonstration site, touring three great permaculture sites in the country, in addition to assessing the current situation in the villages with regards to food cultivation.
Our trip began with an initial assessment of what will be the permaculture demonstration site. Sloped and at 6500 ft above sea level, the 1.5 acre piece of land is quite challenging but with a lot of potential. With a warm and temperate climate, the site has an existing house as well as a 40 foot heirloom avocado tree, 15 foot poinsettia shrubs, a handful of orange trees and other herbaceous perennials. In addition, it receives 53 inches of rainfall from May to October. Large scale pea cultivation is common in the surrounding area and the soils are typically fertile. Surveying to create a topographic map is currently underway which will go a long way towards helping with the design.
After spending a couple days at the site, we ventured off with the founder of GVH and two of the GVH Guatemalan staff, Vladimir and Samuel, to tour other permaculture projects in the country.
Our first stop was Caoba Farms in Antigua, Guatemala. Caoba is a fascinating and thriving example of a permaculture farm and income-generating business. This farm is connected to an outdoor restaurant. Patrons sit among fruit trees with rows of lettuce greens and herbs growing 20 feet away. Most of the produce is sourced from that farm or a partner farm only a few miles away.
On Saturdays, they hold a farmers market with locally produced goods. Though I absolutely love the Bozeman Winter Farmer’s Market, I have to say that being able to buy local cacao and coffee is pretty great!
Our next stop was the Mesomerican Institute of Permaculture (IMAP), located on the beautiful Lake Atitlan. Founded by Ronaldo Eleazar Lec, who is Mayan indigenous, the institute promotes permaculture techniques, local biodiversity conservation, production of organic food, and houses a seed bank that strives to reconstruct the Mayan seed heritage. They are instrumental in organizing the upcoming 6th Continental Seed Freedom Summit that will take place in Guatemala this Spring. The purpose of this project is to ensure food and seed sovereignty by increasing the availability, exchange, production and use of native seeds in Guatemala and the Americas. IMAP was an incredible site with great examples of kitchen gardens, greywater capture, composting toilets, and community involvement.
Our last site was Atitlan Organics, an inspiring permaculture farm with a focus on the production and distribution of diverse local products from salad greens to eggs, honey, goat cheese, and coffee. With only 2.2 acres, they have managed to create a diversified production farm with intensive vegetable cultivation, goat and chicken animal systems as well as a food forest with integrated wetlands.
The tours of the permaculture sites gave me a good idea of what could be possible for the GVH site. Though climate can vary quite significantly due to the altitude, the milder climate, proximity to the equator, and abundant rainfall during certain parts of year help widen the possibility of what can be grown. On these tours we saw some of the usual recognizable plants that are grown in our climate but added dozens of potential plants to the repertoire including mangos, avocados, bananas, cacao, coffee, malanga (a root vegetable native to South America), chia, sweet potato and chaya (aka as tree spinach, it's a large, fast-growing leafy perennial shrub ). Just to name a few. It was great to see examples of food forests in these milder climates.
For the second half of the trip, we headed to eastern Guatemala, to visit some of the villages that might benefit from such a project.
The journey to eastern Guatemala is a slow descent from Guatemala City into the tropics. Along the way, I was reminded that the same effects of globalization that first got me involved in permaculture are even more prevalent today. We passed at least a half dozen large Chiquita banana trucks belching diesel fumes as they traveled up to the capital. As we neared the city of El Estor, we caught glimpses of a banana plantation that likely supplied some of those trucks. It went on forever, as far as the eye could see. I have never seen such a vast and unbroken expanse of an export crop monoculture. Rubber and palm oil plantations were visible too, rows and rows of one kind of plant with no diversity in sight. In the 28 mile stretch between Rio Dulce and El Estor, our Guatemalan friends informed us that all of that land, on both sides of the highway, was owned by just seven landowners.
The level of injustice in terms of land ownership in Guatemala is mind-boggling, but it is an injustice that fuels an export economy that allows you and me to buy bananas and avocados at our grocery store. It is this injustice that pushed me towards permaculture so many years ago, and motivated me to grow my own food. It is why I try to rely as little as I can on a global economy that destroys our soils, monocrops our landscapes, and concentrates wealth into the hands of very few.
After visiting four of the villages where GVH works, it’s no surprise that we don’t have much to teach the Guatemalans. It’s all just a matter of access to resources and information. Accustomed to growing in a temperate climate, a common mistake we make is to assume that because there are no visible vegetable gardens, people are growing very little in their yards in the tropics or subtropics. And yet, a little more investigation will reveal that many people in these villages have some version of a mini tropical food forest in their yards. This often involves mandarin, lime, banana, papaya, malanga, pineapple and coffee plants along with huisquil, a native squash plant. This is in addition to their staple crops of corn and beans that they cultivate on a tract of land nearby. Still others grow cardamom or pineapples to sell at the market. Like most gardeners, they struggle with disease and fertility problems as well as animals (e.g. chickens and pigs) destroying their crops. Basically, similar issues that you and I have in the garden but without access to books, google, or local gardeners to help them out!
There are certainly additional strategies and techniques that could be used in these villages in terms of building better fertility in the food forest systems and capturing water so it is not as erosive on the landscape. But the foundation is there, it's simply a question of access to more knowledge and more plants - plants that boost both fertility (e.g. pigeon pea, ice cream bean, comfrey) and nutrition (e.g. moringa, chia, sweet potato, and amaranth).
After visiting one house, perched on the side of a hill, overlooking an incredible lush green landscape, with banana and papaya trees gently blowing in the wind, I was again reminded of the tragic reality of what we define as ‘progress’. The life in these villages is one I aspire to, connected with the land, without cell phones or computers, with no traffic because there are barely any cars. I am not trying to romanticize poverty, don’t get me wrong. Better nutrition, better built houses, clean water and access to education and healthcare are absolutely needed and should be everyone’s right. But I think it further reinforced for me the fallacy of our Western culture and the detrimental effect it has had on other countries and cultures. To climb from the tranquil villages of these isolated tropical regions into the traffic, pollution and violence of Guatemala City is jarring. To go from the simplicity of cornfields and tropical food forests to the strip malls of the city with big box stores encouraging the rising Guatemalan middle class to consume stuff they don’t need is not progress and development in my eyes.
Progress for me is clean water, healthy soils, nutritious food, and access to land and education in the global south. It's reducing our consumption in the global north and it's more and more people growing their own food across the world.
Guatemala is a country of extreme contrasts, contrasts between the haves and have nots, between the upper class Guatemalans who live in their gated communities and the rural populations who don’t have clean water or enough to eat, between the breathtaking beauty of the landscape and its people and the ugliness of a 36-year civil war that would lay waste to the rich culture of the Mayan people.
In permaculture, we talk about everything being connected; our vegetable gardens don't operate in isolation from the rest of our yard, from that tree or hedge or pond. Yet permaculture is also about being connected to the rest of this planet, to the people who live in other countries, who often grow the food we eat, who sew the clothes we wear, or mine the minerals that built this computer on which I type. With the climate changing and 'natural disasters' seeming more prevalent, it is undeniable that this living and breathing planet is connected and responds to everything we do, to the daily choices we make, to the way we grow our food. When you plant seeds in the ground this season or buy from our local farmers, know that you are defining a new type of progress that is long overdue.
I look forward to my ongoing involvement in this project and stay tuned for more updates as this site progresses over the next few years! Scroll through the pictures below to take more of a tour. If you have any thoughts or questions about the project, I'd love it if you shared them in the comments below!
Though we’re still more than a month away from the official start of winter, it seems to have arrived in Montana and with it, the end of the gardening season. I do still have greens chugging away slowly in the greenhouse but the rest of my garden has been put to bed and it’s time to retreat indoors. Activity gives way to dormancy, both in the garden and in my life. While it’s true that electricity, televisions, computers and cell phones have allowed us to live somewhat of an artificial existence, we can not deny the changing of the seasons. Winter invites us to quiet the mind and still the soul.
For me, winter has always marked a time to cozy up, to read, reflect, and to write, rather than the more "productive" action mode of the spring and summer. It’s actually quite liberating to look outside during the winter and not think of twenty things that I should be doing in the garden!
So in the spirit of some inward reflection, I am excited to share my latest video with you today. This is a little different from my past videos because it’s a webinar and conversation between me and my friend, Jennifer Williams. In the webinar, we discuss how ecological principles can be applied to our human relationships and invite you to reflect on how these principles play themselves out in your life.
Jennifer is the founder of Heartmanity, a center whose mission is to empower and heal relationships while arming people and businesses with the skills they need to thrive. Though she deals with the dynamics between people and I deal in the realm of plants, we kept on coming up with parallels between the ways in which we garden and the strategies we can use in our personal relationships.
In fact, there are so many similarities between creating healthy ecosystems in our gardens and creating healthy relationships in our lives. Using five ecological principles that create healthy ecosystems, we delve deep into how these principles can be brought into the social realm, helping us cultivate thriving relationships with ourselves, our spouses, children and in our community.
Though it’s a webinar, you can also just listen to the audio. In it, we refer to a downloadable pdf that is available here. Listen to this webinar and transform your inner and outer landscape!
Then, I would love it if you shared what you thought in the comments below. Does this way of looking at relationships resonate with you?
Remember to download the worksheet here if you want to follow along with us!
Chickens are one of the easier and more useful animals to have in your backyard gardens. In permaculture, they are often the example of 'each element performing multiple functions.' In other words, having chickens as part of your backyard ecosystem accomplishes several functions at once. Not only can they provide you with eggs and meat but their manure acts as fertilizer for your garden, their feathers and egg shells can be added to your compost piles, and they can help clean up your garden beds.
In our yard we have both a permanent coop and a chicken tractor that I move around the yard. In cold climates, just having a chicken tractor wouldn't be sufficient enough protection and insulation for the birds during the winter. Our permanent coop, on the other hand, is insulated and in an area of our yard that is quite protected. I find I am only adding supplemental heat to the coop for the few days every winter when it dips below -20 degrees. Conscious of zoning in permaculture (i.e. putting things that need your daily attention closer to the house), I also placed the permanent coop roughly 50 feet from the backdoor for ease of feeding them every day. When you're making a trip out to the coop twice a day in the snow, you want to make that journey as short as possible!
Though I would love to have the chickens roam free around the yard, if they did so, they would destroy the growing garden fairly quickly and decisively. Instead, I've opted for letting them move around in the yard and garden in a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is a moveable coop on wheels. The tractor that we built houses two to three chickens at a time. Since we have five chickens, I switch out the ones that go in the tractor. Oftentimes, it's the naughty chickens...or the ones that I can manage to catch! There is a roosting bar and two nesting boxes in the tractor so the chickens are able to stay in there for days at a time.
Having this tractor allows me to pick and choose the areas of my annual garden beds where my chickens can scratch up and fertilize. I use the tractor in the spring and fall in my annual garden beds and place it in other areas of the yard during the summer. Check out my video below where you can see the tractor (and chickens) in action!
Do you have chickens or a chicken tractor? Please share in the comments below how you use them in your yard and garden!
With the majority of the US population living in urban areas, there has been a growing interest in urban agriculture and the ability to grow food in small spaces. From rooftop farms, to balcony gardens, to living walls, and vertical growing towers, there is no end to the innovation. Especially in concrete jungles, designing green, lush areas of productivity and life are not only beneficial in terms of mitigating urban heat, but they serve to feed both body and spirit. In addition, producing more food in an urban area cuts down on the transportation miles from farm to table, one of the most significant ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint.
While we still have a lot of elbow room and open land in Montana, not everyone has a backyard or land on which to grow. Joining a community garden, helping friends with their gardens or simply buying from local farmers are all great options for the apartment/condo dweller. However, if you still want the experience of growing some of your own food, even if on a small scale, there are so many options with container gardening.
In my video today, I give you a tour of a balcony garden at a client's place. This is a project that we started in 2013 and has evolved into a beautiful and productive growing space.
Back in 2013, the balcony was a stark, uninspiring, hot, south-facing area. Needless to say, it was not a very pleasant place to relax, especially during the summer.
Now it has become a pleasant and productive example of what’s possible in a small space. Not only is my client able to grow annuals like peas, greens, herbs, carrots, tomatoes, and edible flowers, we have also been successful with growing grapes and blueberries in containers, even here in Montana.
So click on the video below to get more of an up close tour! Let me know if you have any questions by posting in the comments below. Or, if you have any experience with container gardening, I would love it if you shared your successes, challenges and photos!
Artichokes have never been high on my list of vegetables to grow here in Montana. Because they prefer a much longer growing season, the effort to grow them to maturity has often outweighed the novelty of enjoying them out of my garden. In fact, California's Monterey region grows almost 100% of the U.S. grown artichokes in this country. In addition, the plant itself takes up a lot of room, real estate I'm often unwilling to give up for a plant that may yield very little.
However, last year, when there were three small artichoke seedlings left over from a client, I decided to throw them in my garden to see what would happen. Lo and behold, they produced, and I had finally found one vegetable that my niece was willing to eat (likely because it was slathered with butter).
Despite their challenges, artichokes are a fun vegetable to grow and have in your garden. The globe artichoke is actually a variety of thistle. Essentially, you're growing a giant thistle that pops out these beautiful edible flowerheads that later transform into gorgeous purple flowers if they aren't harvested.
In our climate, it is best to plant artichokes as seedlings but often you'll still get only two or three flowerheads by the end of the season. But, in my short video below, I show you what happens when your artichoke plant overwinters and gets a jumpstart on the growing season. I didn't think artichokes could survive our harsh winters but now that I know it's possible, I think I will be intentional about mulching them well at the end of the season to see if they will come back again next Spring. So check out the video and let me know if you'd had success with growing artichokes!
This past May, Broken Ground partnered with Blunderbuss for an Edible Backyard Blitz - an afternoon makeover of a yard into an ecological and edible garden.
I first heard the term backyard blitz or permablitz when I visited Australia back in 2006. I had traveled to that part of the world, first to take a Permaculture Design Course in New Zealand, and then to work on organic and permaculture farms both in New Zealand and Australia. On that trip, I met Dan Palmer. At the time, Dan hadn't yet founded his company, Very Edible Gardens, in Melbourne, but he had co-founded the permablitz movement.
Permablitz is a contraction of the words permaculture and blitz. According to the Permablitz Melbourne website, it typically involves a day in which a group of people come together to "create or add to edible gardens, share skills related to permaculture and sustainable living, build community, and have fun." Since then, the permablitz movement has grown into a worldwide phenomenon, transforming lawns into edible ecosystems, one yard at a time.
Together with Blunderbuss, we decided to host our own version of a blitz here in Bozeman. Blunderbuss is a house dedicated to creating a work environment for artists, makers, entrepreneurs, activists, and project-goers. Adding more perennial food into their backyard, which already had a couple of raised beds, seemed like a natural next step in this experiment in community living.
Over the course of the morning, I gave a brief lecture about permaculture and the concept of ecological gardens and then we got to work transforming the yard. We planted a plum tree, a currant and gooseberry shrub, honeyberries, and installed another annual bed for squash to be trellised up along the fence. The 'herb layer' of the mini food forest was planted later and will continue to be built out next Spring.
So check out the short video along with the photos to get a sense of the day and the steps involved in creating an edible ecosystem. Thanks to Tate Chamberlin from Blunderbuss for hosting the event, Ben Johnson for taking photos and Jusup Sandoval for the great video! Special thanks to all of those who participated!