I love giving tours of the ecovillage to students of environmental studies. This week, I gave a tour to Stephanie Mullen, who wanted to take photos for an assignment at Portland State University. I showed her many of our sustainable experiments, including the solar panels, rainwater catchment, recycling and composting.
At the end of the tour, she asked what we were doing to show our ideas to the greater community so that other apartment complexes and communities could replicate what we were doing. I had to admit that while we were busy doing our own experiments, so far we hadn't done much to facilitate events to share our knowledge. She gave me some ideas for partnering with other organizations that could help us produce an event.
This question got me thinking about my role in the ecovillage. I have always wanted to do more with community outreach; I create a lot of videos and photos to share on the web, but I would love to do more. I think the idea of partnering with another organization is a great one! I hope to create this event soon.
So, you've been wanting to travel, get hands-on, and down and dirty? You want to get connected with other kindred spirits, learn how to be self-sustaining, and grow your own food, among many other irreplaceable life skills? Do you have little to no experience with any of these things, or just want to brush up on forgotten, old, or outdated skills? Whichever of these you find yourself resonating with, there is no reason to fret.
WWOOFusa could be your answer—one that could lead you to endless inspiration and many other lifelong possibilities and opportunities. It is quite a revolutionary organization that brings an unexplainable meaning to everyone involved. WWOOF started in the UK in 1971, under the name "Working Weekends on Organic Farms." According to the WWOOFusa.org website, "The intention was to provide people living in London with an opportunity to participate in the organic farming movement occurring in the countryside." The idea of using the work-trade system to get involved with local food systems exploded! Since the original establishment of WWOOF in the UK, the program has expanded to "Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms." This expansion now branches out to 100 countries in the world! Through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, farmers with establishments of all types are able to put out the word that they are in need of help with maintenance of their property—whether it be a market vegetable garden, livestock farming operation, permaculture practicing eco-center, flower farm, etc. (the possibilities are vast, and most times, synchronistic). People looking to work on farms, otherwise known as "WWOOFers," are able to respond to these calls for farm help using a very easy and straightforward website that allows access to every farm registered in the WWOOF system. WWOOF is an international organization, allowing interested farmers and WWOOFers to access the sites in the aforementioned 100 different countries.
I personally had a chance to take part in this amazing opportunity for the 2015 growing season. With a growing interest in organic farming practices and sustainability, bringing life into the world and being connected to my food (and a burning desire to travel as much as I could), I decided to research how to get more involved in this. WWOOFusa.org was the website I landed on. I found myself being amazed at the possibilities of which state I'd like to explore, thinking about the experiences I could have, the information I could learn, the skills I could develop—needless to say, I was excited.
After looking through quite a few different farms (all looked wonderful and full of life), I ended up contacting a farm in McMinnville, Oregon. (Hey, I'd always wanted to see the Pacific Northwest. I was an East Coast girl, born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. You grow up dreaming about that 3,000-mile cross-country road trip, stopping to camp, hike, and marvel at each state's national park scenery along the way, or at least I did.) I had worked on farms before in North Carolina, and knew that I felt some sparks there, some inspiration—some truths. The decision to WWOOF in Oregon solidified these feelings, ignited these sparks, turned them into passions and flames.
Through my experience WWOOFing in McMinnville, I was able to understand the cycle of plants through crop rotations, just by being a part of the entire process—from sowing a seed to harvesting and processing veggies for markets or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares. All growing practices were organic, no-spray, and environmentally responsible. After returning to Maryland at the end of the 2015 growing season, I felt like I had more purpose, more understanding. The ability to connect with the natural world, to feel the dirt in your fingernails, to cook and get full of food that you once tended to as a tiny baby seed—this inspired me more than anything. I desired to feel that connection, to be that change, to motivate myself to do more and be more responsible for my footprint here on this planet.
This beyond-meaningful experience through WWOOFing has led me to many incredible places, meeting incredible people—a life, after completing a bachelor's degree in college, that I wasn't quite sure how to make real and possible for myself. Working hard in exchange for living quarters, food, and irreplaceable knowledge is one of the most satisfying feelings in life—realizing that there is a lot more to being human and being alive than working 40 hours a week at a desk job that the kid version of you would call totally lame, and ask you what in the "H–E–double hockey sticks" you're doing at a place like that, when all you knew you were destined to do was be a spaceman!
After WWOOFing, I decided to get my Permaculture Design Certification at Midwest Permaculture in Illinois, which then led to a job and work-trade position at the same place, being an Intern Coordinator and Garden Project Leader for the summer of 2016. Through my work-trade, I was able to pay for a Permaculture Teacher's Training Certification Course. I obtained both of these certifications, and while I was living and working in Illinois, I had the pleasure of being a part of a team that got to build a clay slip and straw earth home on the MWP community property site. After all of this, I have found myself back in Oregon, living with four other amazing people I'd met and worked with at the farm in McMinnville (currently working on our own backyard garden). These people have become my family— ne of them has become an amazing partner, and the other three are some of my closest friends.
The WWOOFing program changed my life. I speak highly of it, and recommend it to anyone willing to listen! It has taught me that anything is possible, and that you can grow your world sustainably and without toxic additives, just as you can with plants.
Three years ago, we showed up on a doorstep on Gabriola Island, British Columbia. Two friendly strangers welcomed us into their home—or in this case, their spare RV—and started teaching us the very basics of permaculture farming. Over the next ten days, we planted, mulched, composted, fed chickens, herded sheep, and socialized with pigs for five to six hours a day in exchange for food and lodging. We'd never spent that much time on a farm, and really had no idea what we were getting into, but after this first farm, we were hooked!
We found our first farm hosts, and many others after that, through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). WWOOFing originated in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s, and over the past 45 years, has expanded to over 50 programs on six continents. The program matches organic farmers with willing volunteers, and emphasizes a learning experience as well as a shared cultural exchange. In other words, "WWOOFers" (as we're called) are not just free manual labor—we are treated as students, and are considered part of the family during their stay.
With so many different farms participating all around the world, there truly is something for everyone!
Like organic winemaking, the old-fashioned way, in the Czech Republic...
And organic winemaking, the modern way, in Perth, Australia...
Those were definitely fun.
And yes, we learned how to grow vegetables.
We also learned about soil composition, composting best practices, planting schedules, organic fertilizers, and safe methods for pest control. We learned about bamboo, strawbale, and mud brick construction techniques, the many ways to recycle pallets, and the never-ending process of fence-mending.
And let's not forget the animals! In addition to meeting dozens of farm cats and dogs, we learned the basics of dealing with silly sheep, funny kunekune pigs, beautiful bison, shy horses, entertaining chickens, and adorable goats in Canada.
Our WWOOF Australia experiences exposed us to more sheep and chickens around the country, as well as buzzing bees at an apiary in Darwin.
Granted, WWOOFing is certainly not everyone's ideal way to spend their vacation! Farm work can be tedious, weather doesn't always cooperate, hosts can cancel on you at the last minute, and finding the right opportunity can be time-consuming (and does not always work out how you think it will).
While we can honestly say that we came out of each WWOOFing gigs bruised, blistered, and sore, we were also grinning ear to ear. We've kept in touch with all of our hosts, who treated us like family and taught us so much, whether we were there for four days or forty. Not only did we learn, we sometimes taught, too—sharing tips from previous WWOOF stays with other hosts. And our hosts always insisted that we take time to enjoy local beauty and culture, too.
We opted to maximize our WWOOF experiences during our travels, and walked away with new farming skills and new friends around the world. We also saved a lot of money, which helped us turn our one-year travel adventure into three years. Most importantly, we learned enough that we've decided to pursue farming for our next phase of life. Each WWOOF gig reinforced that we wanted to be more thoughtful about the "things" we acquired, the food we ate every day, and how we spent our work days and our free time, when our adventure was over. Because this "time of our lives" that we had for the last few years? It doesn't have to end just because we're back in Oregon.
Since the 1970s, permaculture (“permanent agriculture”) has been defined in numerous ways – some more complicated than others. It’s a fascinating land management strategy with principles and ethics. There’s a diploma program; in-depth curriculums have also been designed around it. And of course there are many (many, many) Facebook groups devoted to sharing permaculture ideas and best practices.
My partner and I spent a large portion of the last three years WWOOFing around the world (including the birthplace of permaculture, Tasmania). Thanks to hundreds of hours of hands-on work as well as many conversations and books on the topic, we are a bit closer in our understanding of permaculture... But just a bit!
The basic idea is to design a given landscape in a way that creates sustainable harmony between humans and nature. Actual implementations differ vastly, and can be quite technical, too. From what I’ve learned, at times permaculture can feel overly complex and overly designed, and while the basic concepts are universal, it also seems like everyone applies them differently.
Our brains are still processing how to apply some of the more technical ideas and whether we would even want to apply some of the more technical ideas. But we have seen the basic concepts in action, and we’re keen to share what we’ve learned. To that end, here are a few common permaculture themes and ideas that we’ve gleaned from our WWOOF experiences over the last few years. Hopefully they will pique your interest as you start to think about the upcoming garden season...
First up—chickens rule! Most of our WWOOF farms had chickens, and we never doubted their merits. These ladies are really good at controlling bugs in gardens, replacing valuable nutrients in the land through their poop, and loosening the ground before planting.
Chickens require little space, and generally don't wreck the space you give them (we're talking to you, adorable-but-destructive goat friends). Chickens eat your food scraps, and in return, they give you delicious eggs.
And? THEY ARE SO CUTE.
On the downside, chickens are also good at harming tender tree roots and vegetable beds with their scratchy little feet. They do require daily (albeit low) maintenance. And you might want to consider a dog to keep foxes, hawks, and other predators away. But these are small trade-offs for the benefits that chooks provide.
Second—plan before you build. Okay, this one isn't rocket science, but in permaculture, you think about what will work best for and with the land. The permaculture design is based on "zones" 0-5, with Zone 0 being your residence, Zone 1 being the vegetable garden, and so on until Zone 5, which is the outlying forest area. Things get wilder and less maintained as you progress through the zones. A little forethought about these zones alongside the natural topography of the landscape can go a long way.
For those who do have the luxury of designing their property layout, animal pens at the top of a hill allow the soil to replenish as their manure washes downhill; slanted land means building terraced gardens; swales around the downhill "zones" filter graywater as it moves down the property… All good things to consider.
The zones don’t just apply when purchasing a blank canvas of land, though—they can apply to established plots and even urban homeowners. For example, if you can see your veggie garden from your most inhabited room (be it the kitchen, living room, or whatever), you're more likely to care for it properly and actually eat what comes out of it—hence the veggie garden in Zone 1. Our farmstay in rural Thailand was a good example of this; we could see the organic garden from the house’s common area where the family spent most of their time.
And while you may not want certain animals in your garden, most serve a purpose in your local ecosystem, and you can design the land so that they don't disappear completely. One of our Tasmania hosts addressed this by piling cut weeds outside the fence around the property; this kept the wallabies satisfied so they didn’t invade the vegetable garden, while still maintaining the natural balance of the ecosystem. Another farmer built a fence to keep possums out of his vegetable garden, but the bush at the back of his property (Zone 5, that is) still provided them with food and protection from the weather and predators.
A third consideration—trees are worth their weight in gold. A permaculture design includes trees, with the outermost "zone" being the most tree-heavy. Trees make great natural borders, provide shade and habitat for animals, and make fuel for your wood-burning stove and timber for your fences.
Food-bearing trees are even better. One book we read suggested that it was a wiser investment to plant a nut tree than to put your money into a 401K, because in 20 years you'd have enough nuts to make a fortune. I’m not sure we agree with this 100%, but having an abundant supply of protein-rich, healthy-fat, free nuts at our disposal, like our Czech Republic hosts did, is definitely very appealing.
Fruit trees are really good, too, but might require an extra freezer or two for winter storage!
Number four is the importance of soil management. Also not rocket science—we've all heard stories about overplanted corn fields or giant cow pastures that have been completely depleted of nutrients and now grow nothing. Basic principles like crop rotation, cover crops, and proper undergrowth replenish the land naturally, preventing the need for fertilizers (organic or otherwise).
Planting native flora instead of foreign plants also helps the soil heal. It probably goes without saying, but native flora keeps your local bee population happy, too. And the best native flora is edible—these flowers were delicious in our daily salad back in Australia!
Add all of this to the ever-growing list of general organic farming tips we've learned—start small, use as much reclaimed material as possible, invest in good tools, and build it yourself, but make sure you allow time and budget to do so.
But perhaps the biggest unspoken lesson from our permaculture experience (and all of our WWOOF experiences to date) is the fifth: if it works for you, run with it!
Look, there are twenty bazillion different organic ways to make compost, plant potatoes, build a fence, feed a chicken, mulch a tree, prep a garden bed, create an environmentally friendly home, apply any one of the permaculture design principles noted above, etc. I’m pretty sure we didn’t see one consistent practice across any of the farms where we WWOOFed, yet each practice worked for that farmer, and it was all done with a consideration toward sustainability. Consider your location, interests, skills, time, and budget—and then just do it.
Welcome to what we'll be thinking about for the next six months as we venture into the world of farming... What are some permaculture basics that you’ve successfully implemented?
By Brad Andrews
Like most things, building a healthy garden starts with a solid foundation. Gardens cannot succeed without the benefit of a great foundation of high quality soil. But what makes soil “good” and how can you improve the foundation of your garden?
There are three major facets to consider about garden soil: structure, pH balance, and nutrients.
When we talk about soil structure we are talking about the particles that make up the construction of the soil and its capacity to hold water, “breathe”, and provide support for root formation. The major soil textures are sand, silt, clay, and loam.
Sand consists of small particles, is gritty to the touch, and does not hold water or nutrients very well.
Silt is a heavier material than sand, is soft and dusty to the touch, and has better water retention capabilities then sand.
Clay is the heaviest of the soil types, has the largest particles and is smooth when dry and sticky when wet. Clay has excellent nutrition holding properties, but is too heavy to let water and air circulate well.
Loam is a combination of the three texture types in more or less equal proportions and is full of organic matter. Laom is rich and dark, crumbles easily and has good water holding and aeration characteristics. Laom can be created by mixing equal portions of river sand, clay, and silt. All of these can be obtained from your local gardening store.
Soil pH Balance
If you remember your chemistry lessons from school, the pH scale measures the level of acidity of a substance. The scale ranges from 1 to 14 with 7 being neutral. Numbers lower than 7 are considered acidic and pH readings above 7 are considered alkaline. Most plants prefer a soil that is slightly acidic so a pH reading between 6.5 and 7 should be obtained. However if you are growing just one kind of plant, consult the internet for the optimal pH balance for your plant type.
The pH balance of your soil can be tested using a commercial tester available at your garden store. Once your soil’s pH balance is understood, it can be adjusted by adding lime to the soil to raise the pH level or sulfur can be added to decrease the pH balance so you can find the correct level for your garden.
When people think of good soil, nutrients normally spring to mind. While there are a large assortment of nutrients that plants (like animals) need, the three primary ones of concern to the gardener are Potassium (K), Nitrogen (N), and Phosphorus (P), often referred to as NPK. One of the best organic sources of these elements is compost, both commercially produced and homemade (for more about DIY composting see this article on Greener Good). Compost adds valuable organic material to the soil as well as a range of nutrients including the vital NPK. The nutrient content of the compost varies by age of the compost and its composition, but plant based composts tend to have lower levels of salt and are better for plants.
So there you have it! Building good soil is a matter of getting a good loamy structure, the correct pH balance for your plants, and proper nutrition through the use of compost and other organic fertilizers. If this sounds like a lot of work, it can be, but the reward is far worth the effort. With some effort, planning, and a little science, you can build a good foundation for your garden that will go a long way in helping you grow nutritious foods for you and others to enjoy.
What if you could make a raised garden bed that uses fewer resources and labor for building and maintaining (almost no irrigation needed!), provides nutrition for your plants for 10-15 years (at least!), improves your soil overall, creates a habitat for crucial soil microfauna, helps with global warming, AND also takes care of that pile of woody plant debris in the corner of the yard that is just too big for your pretty little compost pile?? You would do it, right?! Of course you would! Well, you can and it’s called (drum roll, please)….HUGELKULTUR! Ok, I know I used a lot of exclamation marks in that first paragraph, but that’s because I am so excited about all the benefits that this centuries-old technique has to offer, especially to the urban gardener. Hugelkultur (pronounced something like hoo-gull-culture….I think) is a German word meaning, roughly, “mound culture” or “hill farm”. It makes so much sense that I am surprised it’s not done more often. It basically mimics the natural decomposition process on the forest floor by combining both the compost pile and the veggie garden bed. I’m not going to go into depth about how to actually make hugelkultur beds, because it’s a pretty simple concept and easy to find elsewhere on the internet (see links at the end of article), but I do want to explain a little bit about why it’s so awesome. Let’s call it a Hugelkultur sales pitch. For the average home gardener, every spring means preparing the perfect beds to grow your own food. You go out to buy bags of fertilizer, fresh new topsoil for your beds, and maybe some compost (if you don’t make your own). Then you need to go till the old, compact, nutrient-leached soil and work in all the good stuff you just bought. All before you can put in your plants, which need constant irrigation and probably some more fertilizer for good measure. And then next year you get to do it all over again!
In nature healthy soil is a complex, self-sustaining universe filled with decomposing plant material which releases important nutrients into the soil for the next generation of plants to use. Plus, in every acre of soil there are 2 or more tons of tiny organisms that are part of breaking down organic nutrients into the form that plants can actually use. I’m not just talking earthworms here folks. There are some seriously amazing microorganisms (mycelium for example), which you should go google immediately. These microorganisms also aerate the soil and create the kind of aggregated structure necessary to avoid compaction and poor drainage which lead to anaerobic environments. This is one reason why constant tilling or removal of the topsoil can be so harmful to the health of the soil. You are basically disrupting an entire micro eco-system designed to support life. To get an extreme idea of the effects of this imagine that brown, bone-dry patch of cracked dirt (or mud pile on a rainy day) alongside the city sidewalk. Nothing can grow there without a ton of amendments. Basically traditional urban gardening techniques rely on those tons of amendments to make that dead soil (aka dirt) grow life.
The idea of permaculture in general is to use techniques that are more sustainable, efficient, and similar to Nature (the best gardener!). Hugelkultur is a good way to try this in a small space because you can build them up as high as you want and basically create more surface area for more plants, but you could also make them ground level (by mounding in trenches) for a more traditional look. In simple terms, it’s covering mounds of woody sticks and logs with other plant matter, compost, soil, straw, and your plants stuck in last. It’s sort of like a long-lasting, awesome lasagna. As the wood decomposes (thanks to the help of the great microbes you are now feeding) it continuously releases nutrients, provides air pockets necessary for healthy soil, and acts like a sponge by holding water. This water-holding capacity is especially cool because it means you don’t need to irrigate as often, maybe even not at all, which is going to be more and more crucial in the face of global warming and lack of water.
Oh, yeah, and that reminds me that because these mounds of plant material and soil aren’t being constantly dug up or rotting away in the open air, they are acting as carbon sinks. Carbon sequestration is the process of storing carbon in soils and plants instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. We all know we don’t need more of that in the air right now. In nature undisturbed soil keeps the nutrients and chemicals in the places where they should be, available to the flora and fauna, instead of out messing around with the ozone. Is anyone else thinking everyone should get on the hugelkultur boat right now? I definitely am.
I could keep going, but you probably would stop reading. So, I’m going to conclude this sales pitch by emphasizing that not only does hugelkultur have all these benefits, but it also will cut down on your labor because these things last for years. Leave behind the days of lugging around bags of store-bought soil amendments year after year, just trying to get a quick fix for another season of veggie growing. It’s great to “grow food not lawns”, but let’s go a step further and think how we can do even that more sustainably. Hugelkultur has long-term benefits, so you leave behind a healthier soil overall instead of just raised beds filled with dirt, at the same time it provides you nutrient-rich food right now. It’s a win-win in my opinion. Plus it gets us thinking not just about “going green” in terms of the plants we fill our city/neighborhood/yard with, but also in terms of the health of the soil, which is pretty much the foundation for… well… everything!!
Links for more info (because I’m all about more information, especially from more experienced sources!):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sso4UWObxXg (awesome, informative you-tube video for those less reading-inclined)
http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/are-fungi-earths-natural-internet (and this one is not about hugelkultur, but about one of the most amazing things in the soil)