Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
- Robert Frost
I've had that Robert Frost poem memorized since 8th grade, when we read The Outsiders in English class. Even back then, I remember being struck by its literal and metaphorical meaning.
Since becoming a gardener, that poem has resonated with me even more. I find myself reciting it fairly often as the growing season wanes. From the first flush of green in the spring, to the hum of the garden in the summer, to the stunning fall colors, our gardens ebb and flow, reminding us that they are dynamic living systems that experience life and death on a predictable basis.
As I was cutting back my tomatoes a week and a half ago, I shot this video (below) in order to give you a little tour of the annual garden and to go over some of my end of season garden tips.
Shooting the video, I now recognize, was also a way of stalling. I always hold off on cutting down my tomatoes and other warm season crops until I am absolutely positive that it is time. I can feel myself delaying the process on the day that I do it. I uncover the frost cloths and blankets first, then find other things to do in the garden. Inevitably, I double check that it's actually going to get as cold as predicted. Then, I start cutting back a few plants, but only those that are looking haggard, the ones that I would cut down anyway. Without fail, I continue to find other projects to do in the garden (like shooting videos!) for another little while. Convinced that the weather must have changed, I look back at the week-long nighttime forecast to see whether it's miraculously decided to be in the high 40s for the next 10 days. Then finally, after several hours have passed, I do cut down all the warm season crops.
Having done this now for years, I realize that it is a pattern, it's my process of saying goodbye to the growing season, of accepting the changing season and surrendering to the coming winter.
So check out my video below to see the tour. Do you have an end of season pattern or process? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!
In the video, I mention my Fall Garden Checklist which you can download here.
The growing season is in full swing and the garden is now in production mode. These are the days you really appreciate as a gardener, where you can wander and graze in your garden, in the early morning, and come back to your kitchen with a bowl full of garden goodness.
This is the time of summer crops like green beans, basil, zucchini, yellow squash, the occasional ripe tomato and one of my personal favorites, fava beans. I'm partial to fava beans, not only because they are delicious but because I think the plant itself, with its black and white flowers, is beautiful. Plus, this particular vegetable offers so many other benefits that I cover in my video.
So check out my video below to understand why growing this multifunctional crop is good for you and your garden!
Next to dealing with late frosts in June, there's nothing more frustrating as a gardener than having your plants munched on by critters. After the effort of babying those seedlings throughout the spring and meticulously planting them in nicely amended soil, it's disheartening to wake up one day to flea beetles boring small holes in your potato leaves, green juicy cabbage loopers taking chunks out of your broccoli leaves, or aphids attacking your pepper plants.
But as an organic gardener, you know that the last thing I'd recommend is grabbing a bottle of pesticide. Pesticides not only kill beneficial insects and soil microorganisms, they only treat the symptom and not the cause of the pest. So what options do we have instead?
In my video today, I talk about some general pest and weed management strategies that you can adopt in your garden. Rather than going to war with the pests, this approach encourages you to add life to your garden. Click on the video below to learn more!
What pest and weed management strategies do you use? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below!
As more and more people move to urban areas, it's become increasingly important to learn how to garden in small spaces. Though we're fortunate in Montana to still have a lot of land and open spaces, our cities are expanding, especially Bozeman! The more savvy we can get with urban garden designs, the more possibilities we provide ourselves for growing a resilient city which is more food secure.
Though I have ample space to grow on our 3/4 acre lot, many of my client's have much smaller urban yards. It's interesting to contrast the approach that I take to each space. What I like about small spaces, is the ability to be more innovative in your approach. Space limitations often allow for more creative solutions.
In my short video today, I give you a tour of a client's property where, in under 200 square feet, we've managed to pack in quite an array of both annual and perennial food. From elderberries to gooseberries to raspberries to Brussels sprouts, corn, leeks and cauliflower, it just goes to show that you don't need a huge space to grow a lot of food.
In fact, even if we used just one of her raised beds, with season extension techniques and trellises, the bed could be producing a lot of food from early April to at least mid-October.
So if you have a small space, don't let it stop you from growing. Check out the video below to get some inspiration and ideas!
Since I've now moved from planting to maintenance mode in my garden, it's now time to think about fertilizing my crops. Remember that the reason our garden grown veggies are so delicious is because they are drawing nutrients out of the soil. While compost is a good spring amendment and encouraging microbial life in your soil is key to a healthy garden, sometimes our heavy feeder crops like tomatoes, squash, and corn need that extra boost.
So how do you do this without having to buy natural fertilizers every year? In my video today, I show you the basics steps of making comfrey tea, a liquid fertilizer that you can add to your crops throughout the growing season. With about 5 minutes of work and a little bit of wait time, you can make a nutrient rich cocktail for your plants. The cool bonus? You plant comfrey once and it provides fertility for your garden for the rest of your life! Not to mention the other benefits comfrey provides, which I mention in the video.
So click below and find out how you can grow fertility and make your own fertilizer!
Like I mention in the video, making comfrey tea is easy, but stinky! While the method I describe in the video is the most effective, here are a couple other options for making a liquid fertilizer:
1) Cut the fresh comfrey leaves into smaller pieces and add one gallon of water for every quart of comfrey. Leave it to sit for three days and stir daily. Since this is a much weaker tea, use it at full strength.
2) Air dry or dehydrate your comfrey leaves. Add an ounce of powdered leaves to a quart of boiling water. Once cool, cover and steep for 4 hours. Dilute with one gallon of water.
Remember that we are always trying to create closed loop cycles in our gardens and food forests. The fewer resources that you have to import onto your property year after year, the more regenerative and self-sustaining your garden, not to mention the money you save in the process.
What other ways do you boost fertility in your garden? Please share in the comments below!
The veggie garden is planted, my food forest is chugging away and now it's time to sit back, relax (kind of!) and let my garden ecosystem do the work. Of course, one of the most important elements to our success as gardeners are pollinators. Without them, a vegetable garden and a perennial food forest are not possible. In fact, nearly 75% of the flowering plants on Earth rely on pollinators to set seed or fruit. It’s no wonder that attracting them to your garden is such an important task.
Not only that, but attracting pollinators can be a fun and creative process, bringing beauty, art and productivity to your garden. So click on the video below to learn more.
Want even more information and detailed species lists of what to plant in our climate? Click here to download my 3 Steps to Attracting Pollinators Guide!
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!
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!
If you participated in any of my workshops this year, then you know that in April, Alpine Greenhouses installed one of their greenhouses on our property. I’ve been pretty excited about it as it’s going to allow me to extend the growing season into November, with minimal inputs of electricity. I’ll also be able to start growing as early as February next year.
This is the main garden bed in the greenhouse which is 5 feet by 10 feet by 14 inches high. These can be custom built to the size specification that you would like. I wanted to maximize my growing space in the greenhouse so I made the bed as big as I could. There is a stepping stone in the middle of the bed so I can access everything easily.
In permaculture, one of the twelve principles is, ‘Obtain a Yield’. In other words, we aim to design our properties in such a way that we obtain a yield of something, whether that’s fruits, veggies, medicinal plants, pollinators, fertility etc. With this new greenhouse, I’ll not only be able to obtain a yield but I’m now able to extend that yield in time and in space.
What do I mean by that? Especially in a cold climate, we are looking for ways to have more of a harvest over a longer period of time. In addition, we want to maximize the growing space that we have and take full advantage of it.
In this short video, I give you a mini tour of what I have growing in my greenhouse and how I’ve maximized the growing space. So click on the video below to check it out! If you have any questions about greenhouse growing or experiences that you have had, I'd love it if you shared it in the comments below!
Happy Spring! With the mild weather we’ve been having, I’m sure many of you have already been out in your garden, getting things ready for planting season. By now, you likely have at least a vague idea of what you want to grow. Now, a good question to ask yourself, if you haven’t already, is how much you should plant.
Having a garden usually means an abundance of vegetables (zucchini anyone?). And while it’s true that nothing in natural systems really goes to waste i.e. the veggies that you don’t harvest go to flower, attract beneficial insects, and ultimately get recycled back into the soil, a little bit of attention paid to how much you grow, might minimize any wasted time, effort, and water.
The question of how much you should plant, however, is a difficult one to answer. Like so many things in gardening, the answer is, “It depends.” It depends on what your family likes to eat, whether you just want summer vegetables or want enough for the entire year, how much space you have, how good your soil is and how much of a yield you can expect. In other words, there is no easy answer. However, here are some recommendations of where to get started.
If you have a smaller garden, I would recommend growing more of the higher value crops. For example, tomatoes, lettuce mix, spinach, peppers, garlic, basil and other herbs. To buy these, organic, at a grocery store, can be quite expensive. In addition, many of these items spoil quickly so having these fresh from your garden is a better idea.
In contrast, vegetables like carrots, parsnips, onions, winter squash, and potatoes are fairly inexpensive to buy from local growers. Here in Montana, for example, we can actually get local organic storage crops for our farmers, well into the winter. In addition, these crops typically take up a lot of space. If you have a limited growing area, I would plant less of these and more of the higher value veggies that I mentioned.
Also, it goes without saying that you should grow more of what you like to eat. In my family, we love fresh tomatoes and also use them in salsas and sauces. I love preserving tomatoes for the fall and winter too, a tasty reminder of the garden when there are 10 inches of snow on the ground. Because of this, we plant between 40 and 60 tomato plants. We also eat a lot of broccoli and greens so these take up a lot of real estate in the garden too. Think about what you shop for on a weekly basis and multiply that by 52 weeks to see how much you might need.
If you have any recommendations to share, I would love it if you posted them in the comments below!