My friend Heike sent out this inspiring essay about learning to grow food and permaculture via email a few months ago, and she’s agreed to let me re-post it here. Don’t let the length intimidate you – focus for ten minutes and read the whole thing (for the folks in the PNW, there are some hella good gardening tips in here, too). Without further adieu…
Seattle, September 20th, 2009
Today, I tasted our first ripe fig from a small, 2-foot Desert King tree planted last year on our sidewalk strip. Never having had fresh figs before, I couldn’t stop raving about its texture, sweetness, and fleeting hint of “green”. I’m not sure why I was so surprised, I guess I expected a chewy bland fruit with tough skin. Then Terry brought home a $3 pint of hardy kiwis – grape sized kiwis with a smooth green skin. Never had those either. They tasted less acidic than hairy kiwis, and conveniently didn’t require peeling. I was elated – this spring, we had taken a leap of faith and planted a male and female hardy kiwi. Plants are cool creatures – all the better, if they’re also edible and taste great.
These new tastes gave me cause for interrupting my urban food-growing activity of the day to collect a few thoughts and observations about two years of learning how to grow food. I wish I would have kept a journal about this evolution from food growing idiot to someone who’s grown oddly respectful of edible plants. I’m not exactly sure why I felt the need to learn how grow food but am happy to rationalize it in retrospect. My Grandma had an enormous food growing operation but she had household help, too. My Mom had a smaller garden, and I had none. Knowledge was getting lost. The locavore movement may have touched me with invisible tentacles. Petroleum dependent agribusiness may have stopped making sense. Perhaps I got tired of having no choice but to pay increasingly higher prices for organic, locally grown, fresh food. Luckily, Terry decided to take a six month long permaculture class. This added the framework I was missing: if my practices at home did not aim for sustainability, or rather regeneration, then how could I expect my greater environment to regenerate itself out of the current unsustainable status quo?
Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimics the relationships found in natural ecologies. This introductory definition from wikipedia hints at a potentially life-long learning task: a deep understanding of natural patterns and dynamics to guide food gardening activities. Over time, I started to realize how a contemplative, conscious, visceral engagement with the plant kingdom naturally and logically can lead to an affirmation of permaculture’s design principles. Armed with a sprinkling of theory and not much else, I set out to discover how to create what sustains me: food.
At first, we dabbled around in a partly shady backyard. The need for more sunlight hours was apparent, so we attacked the very sunny but otherwise pitiful expanse of grass and weeds in front of the house. We built a retainer wall, laid down meandering paths, trucked in compost, and had a fence and trellis built to support raspberries, tomatoes, kiwis, giant sunflowers, beans, and grapes. A year later, the landscape is transformed and packed with a great variety of edible plants. Throughout the process of building soil, raising seedlings, creating an edible garden, harvesting and collecting seeds, preserving foods, and all associated learning experiences, my emotional landscape ran the gamut from total frustration and bewilderment to intense elation and peaceful bliss. I started out knowing nothing about the importance of soil or how to build good soil. I looked for a plant’s seeds at the wrong time and in the wrong places. I couldn’t distinguish weeds from seedlings. I had no clue when or how to seed, transplant, prune, or fertilize. All plants were the same to me, even if they looked different. Reading gardening blogs on the internet, I had my first lightbulb moment: food growing advice from growers outside of my climate zone was not what I needed. I found Steve Solomon’s “Gardening in the Pacific Northwest” but was more confused than ever. This food growing business was complicated. According to Steve Solomon, even a compost heap seemed to entail more complexity than my high tech internet job.
Assimilating an enormous amount of sometimes contradictory information and focusing it on my level of experience, my site specific needs, my resources, or goals for how to deal with resources such as time, money, or sunlight hours, was a confusing journey at times. Observation was an entertaining way out of this confusion. Two years later, I have the impression that I learned more from the plants themselves than from various food growing books, the plethora of internet offerings, and local sources of expertise such as Seattle Tilth, the Master Gardener Association, or the Washington State University agricultural research department. For example, I discovered, bug-eyed with amazement, that a compost pile is a decidedly weird voracious organism with an astounding power for transformation. Yard waste, kitchen compostables, and coffe shop coffee grounds attracted hundreds of worms who turned the whole skanky mess into fluffy, nutrient-rich soil. I used to consider mulching an overrated method for cuddling plants that should be able to do well without it. I thought I was saving myself time and effort and got a good laugh out of being so wrong. Without mulching, I observed, the rain compacts the soil (-duh-). Seeds wash into depressions (meaning I had to re-seed bare areas), seedlings have a harder time developing roots and growing up fast (and I lost more of them to insects and dry spells), the soil dries out too easily (so I had to get the hose out and pay for watering), and weeds come up more easily (requiring my time to remove). The permaculture principle of observing your creations is not just good strategy for growing food – it’s not a bad basis for how to go about doing anything.
The way I observe plantings around the city has changed as well: even in well-landscaped neighborhoods, I now mostly see a waste of soil, lack of plant variety, too few edibles, and too much grass. It would be so easy to plant great pollinator attractors like marjoram or lavender and have an endless supply of herbs for the dinner table and surprise pedestrians with harmonizing scents. Why buy artichokes when they are so easy to grow, beautiful, and prolific (my most mature plant makes over 30 artichokes a year)? And in the fall, simply cut down all the old stems – far more convenient than pruning most ornamentals. In permaculture driven designs, each element is designed to fulfill multiple functions. I began to wonder why “edible” is so rarely an aspect of public and residential landscaping design.
I haven’t bought any lettuce since we started growing food in the fall of 2008. We’ve grown various greens throughout the winter, through the snowfalls, and the following season. There is no good reason why people in this area should have to buy organic lettuce greens for $3 per tiny bunch. Moreover, for someone like me, it’s incredibly convenient to be able to cut some greens whenever I want them for dinner – far too many store-bought greens have rotted away in my fridge because my schedule or tastes couldn’t fit them in. My personal favorite is corn salad: it’s more buttery than butter lettuce, hardy through frosts, grows like weed (because it is), and makes buckets of seeds. And you can’t seem buy this delicacy in a store or at a farmer’s market in Seattle. One of permaculture’s design principles is to make the least change for the greatest effect. Lettuce, like the artichoke, is so easy to grow that it seems like an obvious choice for reducing one’s carbon footprint, save money, and eat better.
Annual edibles turned out to be a fascinating, occasionally worrisome category of plants. Their rapid development cycles, precise timing mechanisms, and horrendous production of must-harvest-now goodness amazes me to no end. All of a sudden, there are buckets of zucchinis, loads of cucumbers, too many peppers, or a mountain of tomatoes to deal with. I rediscovered Grandma’s rum pot and canning recipes, enhanced by more “modern” USDA canning advice, and concocted some stuff on my own, like an addictive salsa that beats any salsa I can buy. The permaculture attitude of ‘The biggest limit to abundance is lack of creativity’ became my mantra. Both generating and dealing with abundance requires creativity.
I must admit that initially I felt somewhat possessive about the fruits of my labor. But faced with far “too much” abundance, I quickly became deeply grateful to any neighbor or friend who took food off my hands. This then, unexpectedly, resulted in reciprocal sharing of bags of fruits, wild mushrooms, and vegetables – a welcome expansion of variety. The back of my neck began to tingle. Maybe Bill Mollison, the co-originator of permaculture, was not too far off in saying that permaculture’s goal of self-reliance is inherently dangerous to capitalism by undermining its rules for exchange. The difference between self-reliance and self-sufficiency became much more clear to me.
Perennial edibles, such as rhubarb, artichokes, asparagus, herbs, fruit trees, and berries are on a less acerbic schedule and therefore a great relief. For the same reason, I also appreciate potatoes, quinoa, all the slow growers like leeks, kales, chards, onions, pumpkins or kohlrabi, and any overwintering variety. Any food that stores for months outside with the plant such as slow-growing leeks, kales, or potatoes does not need to go into the fridge. If I let zucchinis grow a little larger than what I would be able to buy in a store, they develop a crunchy, tasty skin that preserves them for weeks indoors without refrigeration. I began to wonder about the post-harvest energy consumption levels of produce as it sits in cold storage at a farm, is trucked to distribution centers, spends more time in cold storage, and finally makes to my own fridge. We recently acquired a pear variety from a permaculture farm whose fruits supposedly store for six months without refrigeration (can that be true?). Incidentally, we sailed this tree from Orcas back to Seattle … in order to not taint its magic aura of sustainability, I like to imagine.
Eventually, the heroic annuals as well as the more civilized perennials create, of course, hundreds of seeds packed with extraordinary technology for propagation. My seed saving efforts and their use in the next cycle is not just a money saving measure (the average seed packet contains maybe 50 seeds for $2 to $4) but also a poetic gesture of respect to the mother plant. It is also tremendously satisfying to throw out your own seeds by the handful instead of carefully doling out meager seed packet contents with poor germination rates, of which only some seedlings will do well or generate quality vegetables. I felt cheated when I found out that seed produced for agricultural businesses is of much higher quality. Given any plant’s abundant propagation methods, and the opportunity to select from vigorous plants that produced excellent results, it stopped making sense to buy seed off the rack or via seed catalogs. I started looking for a seed exchange and give-away system with a community of urban growers as a much more useful alternative to the high-priced, meager, low-quality products offered by seed industry. It turns out that the permaculture approach to generating resources on-site is not some idealistic method endorsed by purists impassioned beyond reason with the concept of self-reliance – it simply makes sense.
Gardening stores and nurseries are fun. They offer a myriad of products such as stakes, fertilizers, soil, seedlings, or tools – albeit, at very high prices. It’s worth investigating how to avoid visits to the gardening store. Cottonseed meal is a great fertilizer sold in feed stores at $20-25 for a 50 lb bag (feed stores are a little hard to find in urban areas – luckily, we don’t live too far away from the one in Burien). I’m done buying bamboo stakes and will plant my own bamboo for this purpose. With a little bit of space and tolerance for somewhat unsightly heaps of stuff, I can make far better soil than I can buy. I’ve asked friends for seeds, or chicken and horse owners for manure. Fall is a great time to get good deals on used tools. Lack of money is not a limitation to growing food. Time is. Here too, one can turn to permaculture design principles: start small and take it slow.
The other day, I almost made a two-year old cry by saying that there are good butterflies and bad ones. I added quickly that the bad ones only pretend to be butterflies. Just as I’m incensed by the sight of one of those pretty, white, brassica-annihilating moths, I curse heartily at the sight of an apple maggot fly taking off after a long egg laying session in an otherwise perfect apple. I am bummed out that our cherries will generally have worms (if I harvest them early enough the worms are too small to see – out of sight, out of mind I say). I have a new-found appreciation for wasps, as they love to eat away at various infestations. Squirrels and crows start eating fruits when they’re a week or two away from harvesting ripeness. I decided to use netting and reflective tape that supposedly makes birds think that the tree’s on fire. Sure, they can have everything on the ground – but they don’t seem to appreciate rotten fruit (go figure). Since the days of grass and weeds in the front yard, the variety and numbers of beneficial insects in the garden have greatly increased. I’m curious how my understanding of pest “management” will evolve as I learn more about plant symbiosis (say comfrey, garlic, and the all powerful nettle), timing of plant and insect cycles, and the general micro-ecology dynamics of my system and my neighbors’ habits (do they pick up maggot infested fruit?). Pulling nylon socks over my apples is highly effective – but also too labor-intensive for a sustainable solution. Ultimately, the concept of pest has no place in healthy ecologies. In the meantime, I tried to pass a big bag of cinnamon for 2 bucks from Pacific Food Imports to my neighbor in the hopes that he’d stop using chemicals to kill ants. Community, in many ways, is an important aspect of growing food.
Yesterday two women walked by the house. Picking strawberries, I overheard one of them rave about the transformation of the front yard. To my astonishment, she makes a point of walking down our street on her way to the park (presumably to enjoy the jungle-like abundance and variety of plants, colors, smells, and sight of edibles occupying space everywhere, …). Other people walking by stop to look at plants and strike up a conversation. Many express how much they love “all the plants” or “what you did with your garden” or “how things are coming along”. Even the pizza delivery man is appreciative of our progress – partly, I’m sure, because he doesn’t have to walk through mud anymore to get to the front door. Abundance and variety seems to give people joy. Seeing edible plants in a garden-like setting clearly fascinates people. Strangers turn into inspired participants. And somehow we all feel more connected. Permaculture designs often include an element intended to enhance community. For example, a street intersection designed with permaculture principles might have a small shelter for gathering, exchange (books, information, for-sale/free-stuff/wanted notes, harvests, …), or simply to take a break and sit down for a moment. I’ve wondered what would happen if I created some form of a break-time inducing structure and set out cherry tomatoes, berries, figs, or apples for snacking. Maybe some Agua de Pepino on hot summer weekends.
With our sense of pleasure, we are equipped with a rather simple tool for learning how to regenerate our environment and improve the design of green spaces, urban areas, structures or buildings, as well as less tangible landscapes such as social arenas and communities. We are instinctively drawn to variety, harmony, abundance, and sharing – not monotony, imbalance, extinction, and stockpiling (no pun intended). Growing food has the potential to regenerate us with the appreciation of these concepts, which in turn may inform at least some of our choices in favor of a sustainable urban environment and planet.
With any gardening activity in the dry Pacific Northwest summers, water becomes a factor that demands some problem solving. Our summer water bills are too high for my taste and I’m looking for a sensible solution revolving around grey water recycling. If we can reuse just our washer and shower water, we wouldn’t have to pay a cent for watering plants. The design of domestic water consumption doesn’t fit my needs anymore, nor is using drinking quality water for watering plants an energy efficient system city-wide. The problem becomes the solution. The circle widens.
Permaculture principles, I discovered, are ideally common sense, known, low-cost, low-effort solutions to the demands of nature. Not understanding these demands and interfering with natural patterns invariably leads to non-sensical, high cost, and high effort practices that are unsustainable over longer periods over time. Permaculture design strategies, I learned, are sound tools for rediscovering how to build or restore an ecology that sustains itself (including community, work practices, and solution design). Engaging more deeply with natural systems shows me where or when my thinking and actions de-couple from the laws of nature and therefore lead me down a path of unsustainable results. While I feel plenty informed about global and local sustainability issues on an intellectual level, my edible garden activity over the last year has made this understanding visceral, undeniable, and unavoidable. Rather than just consuming nature via hiking, camping, or sailing, I started to become a small contributor in building healthier ecologies.
To re-couple with nature seems to require an investigation and elimination of actions and practices in one’s life where consumption and its associated byproducts of waste, pollution, and lack of sharing abundance perpetuates unsustainable patterns in our environment. In my garden, there can be no waste because nature does not produce waste. If I am to live intelligently on this planet, there can be no waste in my daily living experience in general. This year’s gardening activity must internally sustain next year’s growth via seed harvesting, composting and other soil fertility measures, and smart pest management. Growing your own food according to permaculture and/or biodynamic principles could be viewed as a political act that in small ways undermines today’s unsustainable agricultural practices and the businesses that profit from this system.
Growing food is satisfying on a primordial level but also literally: nothing you can buy in a store or even at a farmer’s market will have the same level of nutrients than your own freshly harvested edibles. There’s recently been a slurry of news articles based on questionable research that denies this difference, potentially in an effort to legitimize unsustainable agricultural practices. My taste buds and quickly satiated stomach tells me otherwise. This summer alone, I’ve taken hundreds of my dollars out of the agribusiness system. By participating less in systems I find disagreeable and by adopting workable alternatives I am not changing the world – but I take away a sense of empowerment, freedom, and vague excitement. If the food crisis in Cuba and subsequent food growing strategies can teach us any lessons, it also gives me hope that the days of unsustainable agribusiness are numbered if enough people start growing some of their own food.
I sometimes hear the argument that you can’t grow food if you don’t own a house, or that the investment of time and money into an edible landscape is not worth it if you rent a house. Or that there is no space to grow food in an apartment or that the yard’s too shady. So many fruit trees in the city are not harvested. All it takes is a win-win agreement with the tree owner. Sidewalk strips often go unused. Guerilla gardeners throw seedballs over the fence onto empty, unused properties. If the soil in your area is too polluted, detoxify the soil with mycelium plantings. In Seattle, the Urban Land Army set up a web site to connect people who own gardening space with people who want to use gardening space. Sign up for a p-patch spot or help create new community garden spaces. Vancouver, B.C. has a P-Patch in the middle of downtown. More than any park or other downtown structure I’ve ever seen, it invites pedestrians to stop, look, point, and talk. Regenerating our natural resources, reinventing systems for exchange, and revitalizing communities starts with re-imagining limitations as the beginning of a solution.
Well, if you read all the way to the end, I hope I didn’t bore you more than necessary. So thanks for reading and by doing so, participating in this journey.