As editor-in-chief of Natural Home magazine (now Natural Home & Garden), I spent a lot of time in amazing homes and gardens. Now that Mother’s Day has passed and I can plant without fear of frost, I’m thinking a lot about those inspiring landscapes and all the great ideas I’ve picked up from organic gardeners and permaculturists. Here are five of my favorites.
Photo by Paul Bousquet
James and Penny Stark’s Permaculture Garden
Point Reyes, California
I had read about permaculture before I visited James Stark and Penny Livingston-Stark’s TK-acre gardens in Point Reyes, California, more than a decade ago. Spending a couple of days in their lush oasis where fruit trees beckon wild birds, chickens feed on bugs and fertilize the soil, and ducks play on the pond just a stone’s throw from a straw bale cottage really brought the concept alive for me. Introduced in the mid-1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture addresses the relationships between sustainable agriculture, architecture, forestry, and animal husbandry—all with the goal of self-sufficiency. In James and Penny’s garden, everything has at least three functions. “A tree can help shade the west side of the house, provide food and habitat for wildlife, and, if it’s deciduous, build the soil,” Penny explains. Tree stumps can become garden seats that also provide moisture sinks for the plants. They also have learned to let others do the work. Worms recycle food scraps and keep the soil aerated and healthy’ bees pollinate, provide honey and feed the channel catfish; chickens weed, fertilize, rototill, eat insects and give eggs.
James and Penny ran the Permaculture Institute of Northern California on the land for many years before they changed the name to the Regenerative Design Institute and moved to Bolinas, California. I’m dying to see their new digs.
Photo by Nigel Valdez
Brad Lancaster’s Water-Wise Desert Garden
Brad Lancaster, permaculture teacher and author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands: How to Welcome Rain into your Life and Landscape, irrigates his lush garden near downtown Tucson, Arizona, entirely with harvested rainwater and graywater. He transformed a barren yard on a blistering city block into an award-winning showcase for sustainable home horticulture through simple, inexpensive, low-tech strategies that can be effectively applied anywhere. His philosophy—“just get the rainwater into the soil”—incorporates basins, swales, berms, sunken beds, raised pathways and other water-harvesting earthworks. Brad and his brother Rodd harvest more than 100,000 gallons of rainwater a year on their one-eighth-acre urban lot and adjoining right-of-way.
Photo by Diane Guthrie
Jim Wilson’s Cottage Garden
Jim Wilson, author of 14 garden books and former cohost of the PBS show “Victory Garden,” created Friendship Farm, a meticulously landscaped cottage garden on 15 acres in Columbia, Missouri, with his partner, Janie Lynn Mandel. Jim and Janie divided their 1,000-square-foot cottage garden into handy mini-gardens that they easily can plant, harvest and then rotate into the next succession crop. Once lettuces, chard, spinach and sweet peas are harvested, they’re replaced with summer squash and cucumbers, then fall crops of collards, lettuce, spinach and turnips. A giant, well-aged compost pile is the key to the gardeners’ success—and also provides a nice warm place to start young tomato plants crown the pile. Jim fertilizes with homemade compost tea, an aerated, water-based compost solution of live microbes that suppresses diseases and pests, increases nutrients available to the plant, and speeds the breakdown of toxins. “Healthier soil means healthier food and more productive plants,” he says.
Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison
Asian Impressionist Garden
In Boulder, Colorado, a couple of intrepid gardeners created this lush, serene garden on a plot that was once a patch of grass with some overgrown shrubs, sliced by an irrigation ditch. The contemplative garden gently nods to Asian style while embracing European impressionism. It combines items popular in Japanese gardens--water, rocks, expanses of greenery and winding paths—with a bridge reminiscent of artist Claude Monet’s famous garden in Giverny, France. The gardeners lined the irrigation ditch with sandstone rocksalongside a bed of river rocks and draped the edges with daylilies, Siberian and Japanese irises, and ornamental grasses. The gardeners built mounds, or berms, from garden soil, imitating nature’s undulating, uneven landscape and providing quick drainage for plants that might never take hold without humus and gravel.
Photo by Paul Bardagjy
Jill Nokes’s Neighborly Garden Wall
Landscape designer Jill Nokes’s garden in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood is suitably spectacular, but the stone wall encircling her garden is the big draw for me. I could walk around examining this piece of folk-art-in-progress for hours. Jill built the wall at leaning height to attract leaners (who tend to talk). It’s encrusted with fossils, shells, religious medals and bits of old jewelry that she’s collected for years. Ledges in the wall invite neighbors to contribute; an old pocket dictionary, a small antique medicine bottle and a set of false teeth have appeared and disappeared over the years. Jill’s garden wall has taken on a life of its own, even inspiring other vernacular walls in public pocket parks and schools. “I love that kind of handmade contagious enterprise,” Jill says. “The ‘trinket swap’ just keeps expanding—we leave little toys and knickknacks out there that the neighborhood kids take and also contribute to—just like the knot hole in the tree in front of Boo Radley’s house.”