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!
The beginning of a new year is always a time for making plans and resolutions, whether it's planning your garden for next season or bigger life projects related to work, family or community.
But before you forge ahead into 2017, I want you to take a moment, if you haven't done so already, to acknowledge all that you accomplished in 2016. Don't just do this in your head, put it down on paper. Take a full blank sheet of paper and write down everything that you did. Whether it has to do with your work, your garden, your kids, your house projects, or volunteer work, write it down, and fill up the page.
If you're like me, this isn't an easy exercise. It's especially tempting to follow up that list with everything that you didn't do, isn't it? The regrets, the failures? But now is not the time to dwell on what you may or may not have done, now is the time to acknowledge and congratulate yourself on what you did.
Now why would I have you do this?
In ecological terms, we can't hope for a plant to grow and thrive if we don't feed it with nutrients and replenish the soil year after year. The same goes for human beings; we can't continue being healthy and doing good work if we don't acknowledge and feed ourselves with gratitude and an awareness of everything that we have done each year. The list that you make serves as your own 'nutrient' bank, as fertilizer to feed yourself and to motivate you to move forward in the year ahead.
As gardeners, we are constantly looking for ways to grow fertility on our land and to hold it in the soil. As human beings, we need to look for the ways in which we can replenish ourselves in the same way. So in addition to writing your list, remember to participate in what feeds you, gives you energy and motivates you this year.
So make a list and let me know how it goes in the comments below. When you sit down and give this exercise the time it deserves, you may be surprised at everything you accomplished!
Here's to a happy and healthy 2017 where we continue to regenerate land, plant gardens, create resilient local economies, foster hope, and build community.
My very best to you,
We all know that gardening in a cold climate isn't for the faint of heart. With the threat of a frost as early as the beginning of September, we have to look for techniques to extend our growing season as much as possible, especially if we have unripe tomatoes or peppers in the ground.
To that end, I have two videos for you today: my first video shows how I keep harvesting peppers off of the vines long after the first hard frost hits and my second video shows you my double layer system of covers that helps beat a hard frost.
Enjoy the videos and then let me know (in the comments below) what successes or failures you have had with season extension in the fall!
My family loves garlic, from soups to stir-fries to pasta dishes, we use it all the time in our cooking. Not only that but garlic has great health benefits like boosting the immune system and reducing blood pressure. There was a time when I would shock my friends and relatives by swallowing whole cloves when I felt a cold coming on. Sure enough, it was quite effective, though not good for my social life!
For all of these reasons, I'm always sure to plant an abundance of garlic in the fall. In my short video today, I go over how to plant garlic. Here in Montana, the best time to plant it is in the fall, giving us an extra jump start on the season come early spring. Indeed, garlic sprouts are one of the first flashes of green in the garden after such a long winter.
Enjoy the video and if you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below! And if you like this video, please share it with your friends!
Water is life - this has been a common theme over the past few months and one that we understand inherently as growers of food. Catching and Storing Energy is one of the principles of permaculture and setting up systems on our property that can catch and store water are some of the most important design choices that we can make.
With the rain that we've been having, I took this quick video to show you one of our rainwater harvesting systems in action. The system itself is still unfinished but it gives you a good idea of how to harness this precious and important resource.
How do you harvest rainwater on your property? I would love it if you shared the techniques you use in the comments below or if you have any questions about our system, please let me know!
In a video from this past winter, I talked about my Top Ten Tips for Gardening on a Budget. One of those tips is saving seeds. In addition to saving you money, saving seeds allows you to set up more of a closed loop system on your property, working towards less and less inputs that you need to buy or bring onto your site year after year. Just like you want to grow and build fertility on your site so you don't have to import manure and compost, you also want to figure out strategies where you are buying less seed and saving more from the plants that you grow. This not only sets you up to be more food secure but saving seed allows you to start selecting for varieties of vegetables that are uniquely adapted to your environment.
Of course, you may curse me for adding yet another task to your fall garden checklist :-) ; I completely understand that it's a busy time of year. At first glance, seed saving can seem like a daunting endeavor. So, as always, I suggest starting small. Don't try to save the seeds from every single type of vegetable you are growing. Instead, choose a couple to begin with and grow your seed saving operation from there, as your skills and interest increases.
Some seeds are easier to save than others too. So what better way to start seed saving than by making up a batch of fresh salsa (a favorite in our household). While cutting up the ingredients for your salsa, you can save the seeds of two of the easier seed saving plants: tomatoes and peppers. Making a batch of fresh salsa = saving seeds for future batches of fresh salsa. Win, win. In permaculture, this would be called 'stacking functions', in other words, getting multiple yields from one task or element. In this case, making salsa gives you delicious food while at the same time allowing you to save seed.
Ideally you are saving the seeds from some of the first tomatoes to ripen.This means that you will progressively be selecting for earlier ripening tomatoes. If that's not possible, still select those that have a good shape and taste. Also, be sure to only save seeds from open-pollinated and/or heirloom varieties as opposed to hybrid varieties.
While you're cutting your tomatoes (be sure they are all from the same variety), just take the seeds that are left on the cutting board and put them into a small glass. Add a small amount of water to that glass and let the seeds ferment for about 4 days, stirring each day. This fermentation process protects against seedborne bacterial canker. After the fermentation process, wash your seeds and dry them on a piece of paper for a couple weeks.
I recently heard from one of the foremost seed saving experts, Cheryl Moore Gough (co-author of the Complete Guide to Saving Seeds), that though recommended, she finds that this fermentation process is not even necessary. Cheryl just takes the seeds out and dries them on a paper towl and that's it.
Again, as you're cutting up the ripe peppers for that delicious salsa, set aside the seeds that you already have to scrape out of there. Spread them on a piece of paper to dry. Once dry, they are ready for storage. Pepper seeds are viable for 2 years whereas tomato seeds are viable for 4.
With all seeds, remember that cool, dry and dark is best for seed storage. I store my seeds in our basement, for example, in reused seed packets and label accordingly. This is a good short-term storage option, especially because we have such a dry climate. For longer term storage, moisture-proof sealed containers are better such as glass jars (e.g. mason jars) or freezer bags.
If you want to get more involved with seed saving, I highly recommend the book, The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds by Bob Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough. Cheryl is a local Bozemanite and a fountain of knowledge on seed saving.
For those of us who have vegetable gardens, I think we all dream of low maintenance, high-yielding beautiful gardens that require very little water and barely any work. Sound about right? Especially in permaculture, we strive to design systems that are as self-maintaining and self-perpetuating as possible. In my video today, I share how I get perpetual greens, year after year from a patch that I never plant, barely water and only weed occasionally. Too good to be true?
Click on the video below to learn more!