Gardening for the Good Life: A Northern California Sustainable, Permaculture Garden

A lush, bountiful garden in Northern California proves that sustainable living is rich with rewards.

| September/October 2006

  • John and Nancy’s favorite summertime getaway is in the wisteria-covered grotto, where they share the natural spring with ferns, ginger and frogs.
    Photos by Barbara Bourne
  • Tules poke their way up though the edges of the pond.
  • Gaura and New Zealand flax thrive in Hopland’s extreme summer heat.
  • John and Nancy’s friend, Matt Johansen, who helped build “Chez Poulets,” meets with two of his contented, clucking clients.
  • Cosmos, dahlias and sunflowers line the pathway from the house to one of the five ponds.
  • “What a blessing to eat the bounty from our garden!” John Schaeffer says of the late summer harvest.
  • A permaculture class designed and built an “herb spiral” during a Real Goods Solar Living Institute workshop in 2004.
  • The table is set by the pond for a fresh, organic lunch from the gardens less than 50 feet away. Nancy, Matt Johansen and John toast the harvest with a little local flavor.
  • Interns from the Real Goods Solar Living Center work in the garden.

When Nancy and John Schaeffer bought their 320-acre northern California property in 1998, it was wild and untamed. They found rolling views of the Hopland valley, wide meadows, a natural spring, a seasonal stream and wooded groves. Seven types of oak trees thrived there, along with manzanita and numerous wildflowers. Eagles, mountain lions and bobcats roamed freely; they even spotted a bear.

For the couple, the challenge was not how to conquer or clear this land, but how to live in harmony with all its natural glory. Their plans were big: First they built an off-the-grid house (see “Spirit of the Sun,” November/December 2004). Then they surrounded it with abundant, organic vegetable gardens that enhance the ecosystem rather than competing with it. Most important, they invited their students to participate in the effort so that the principles of sustainability would be perpetuated elsewhere, especially in the next generation.

John is no stranger to large-scale endeavors. By the time he embarked on this one, he had founded two forward-thinking green enterprises. In 1978 he started Real Goods (now Gaiam Real Goods), a retail business specializing in renewable energy and sustainable products for the home that has provided more solar energy to U.S. residential homes than any other company. Then, in 1998, he founded the Solar Living Institute (SLI), a nonprofit organization that promotes eco-friendly lifestyles through environmental education.

Sustaining the earth has always been John’s central focus, and this project was no exception. In fact, it literally began with the land. “We planned the landscape before the building,” John says. “Too many people do landscaping and gardening as an afterthought, then blow their budgets on the house building.”



Orchards and a grotto

John called on landscape designers Chris and Stephanie Tebbutt, who had worked on the acreage surrounding SLI’s Solar Living Center in Hopland, to create a master plan for the property. Chris and Stephanie designed a pond area planted with water lilies, lotus and native carex sedges to capture water from rainfall and natural springs. The five ponds are landscaped with trees—redwoods, maples, alders and willows—that thrive in the locale and attract wildlife. Chaparral (a scrubby brush native to California), along with desert sages, lavenders and gaura (bee blossom) fill in the groves.



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