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

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John and Nancy’s favorite summertime getaway is in the wisteria-covered grotto, where they share the natural spring with ferns, ginger and frogs.
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Tules poke their way up though the edges of the pond.
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Gaura and New Zealand flax thrive in Hopland’s extreme summer heat.
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John and Nancy’s friend, Matt Johansen, who helped build “Chez Poulets,” meets with two of his contented, clucking clients.
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Cosmos, dahlias and sunflowers line the pathway from the house to one of the five ponds.
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“What a blessing to eat the bounty from our garden!” John Schaeffer says of the late summer harvest.
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A permaculture class designed and built an “herb spiral” during a Real Goods Solar Living Institute workshop in 2004.
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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.
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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.

The designers planted cherries, figs, mulberries, five varieties of apples, Asian pears, peaches, pluots, apricots and plums and established an olive grove. The small orchards supply food for the Schaeffers plus a little extra for the local community, eliminating long-distance transportation of fresh produce. The land also serves as a laboratory for sustainable agricultural practices.

Chris came up with the idea for a grotto to be “carved” out of the end of the pond system, a place of cool sanctuary from temperatures that can reach 110 degrees. Concrete chutes direct pond flow over a sculpted recycled-timber roof and semicircular wall into the lush grotto, where a waterfall gurgles and wisteria dangles over lotus blossoms, mosses, ferns and papyrus. John says the grotto is a treasured respite. “I especially love canoeing across the pond on hot summer days when the irises and lavender are blooming.” He’s not the only one who enjoys the grotto’s refuge: Frogs, insects, hummingbirds and spiders are some of the company he entertains.

A community effort

John and Nancy married in the gardens on their property in 2001, and together they selected the home site for its ideal location in the thriving landscape. Once the house site was established, John called upon permaculture experts Kat Steele and Benjamin Fahrer, along with a class of students and SLI interns, to design and plant the vegetable and herb gardens in an accessible location.  (See “What is Permaculture?” on page 66) Just steps away from the grill, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, strawberries, arugula and salad greens–all superbly adapted to the regional climate–border the stone wall to the south of the house.

Fourteen artichoke plants form a pleasing hedge between the house and the lower pond, and also serve as a transition from one permaculture zone to the next. The SLI instructors and students built and established composting systems that provide natural fertilizer, including vermiculture bins for beneficial worms and compost tea receptacles to strain nutrients.

The garden continues to evolve each year, flourishing at every turn. John and Nancy now have a lavender labyrinth, 100 feet in diameter, modeled after a labyrinth at a 14th-century French cathedral. They have planted blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and ollalaberries. Recently, they also established a thousand-tree, organic olive orchard and their first small vineyard; they hope to market organic olive oil, lavender and wine in their retirement. To supplement the food supply, control insects and provide rich manure for fertilizer, the Schaeffers keep chickens. Friend Matt Johansen constructed a charming coop with a gypsy-wagon aesthetic that’s fondly dubbed “Chez Poulets.”

Reaping the bounty

Although the property is constantly evolving, John and Nancy have been enjoying the fruits of their labor for several years. John rattles off a list of favorite places in addition to the grotto: “Lying on the grass between the ponds and watching the blooming wisteria in the late springtime. Working in the vegetable garden anytime–except the first weeding of the spring! The gorgeous view above the lavender labyrinth. Grazing on strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries when they’re ripe.” Then he adds, “Any evening picking vegetables for dinner.”

The natural ecosystems still flourish. Swallows arrive every year in March, John says, “like clockwork.” The gardens are home to numerous creatures, both wild and domestic. Yet to John and Nancy, the garden is more than just a testament to nature’s beauty. It’s a place for communing with family and friends. They love to hang out with the kids there, picking vegetables and herbs. Dinner from the harvest is a culinary treat, and there’s so much food, John says, “there’s plenty to give to and trade with neighbors.”

Even the interns, who often share in the hard work of cultivation, get rewarded, shuttling up to the ponds in summer for refreshing swims. All these simple luxuries reinforce John’s founding convictions, proving that sustainable living is not only achievable, but also rich with rewards. As he planned, the students carry their profound experiences, along with their knowledge, to new places where they’ll be implemented and shared.

Many sow on the Schaeffer property, but many more reap the benefits. “It’s a testament to many hands making light work–and to the practical power of loving intentions,” Nancy says. “And now, those hands are scattered around the planet, working magic.”   

The Solar Living Institute

In the decade since John Schaeffer founded the Solar Living Institute in Hopland, California, more than a million people have visited the 12-acre demonstration site. The nonprofit organization, which promotes sustainable living through inspirational environmental education, also has served more than 25,000 students. Hands-on classes teach the fundamentals of various sustainable concepts: renewable energy systems, such as solar, hydroelectric and biodiesel; alternative construction techniques using straw bale, cob and bamboo; and agricultural systems, such as organic gardening, permaculture and chicken husbandry.

Workshops are open to the public. For more information, visit or call (707) 744-2017.

What Is Permaculture?

The word “permaculture” is derived from “permanent culture.” The system is intended to provide food, shelter and other basic human needs through methods that don’t negatively compete with natural ecosystems. Although indigenous peoples have lived this way for millennia, the origin of modern permaculture philosophy in the 1970s is generally attributed to two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

Most permaculture practices embrace three core philosophies: Care for the earth, care for people and return the surplus. While the term refers to a complete lifestyle, the fundamentals are most often applied to small agricultural systems and gardening techniques. Ideally, as little land as possible is used to produce high edible yields in close proximity to those who will consume them. Permaculture methods also eschew the use of fossil fuels and artificial fertilizers, pesticides or other controls. All “waste” is returned to the earth from where it came.
One popular permaculture landscaping method, used in the Schaeffer gardens, is to implement zones that mimic natural ecosystems and provide ideal microclimates for a variety of plant life. For example, tall vegetables can provide shade, cooler temperatures and an annual mulch supply in the form of fallen leaves for shorter, cool-weather vegetables that grow in their shadow. The shade also prevents evaporation and raises the humidity level. Permaculture microclimates imitate natural ecosystems and raise productivity.

For more information, consult these resources:

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green, 2001).
• Urban Permaculture Guild: A group that educates and inspires communities and individuals to creatively transform how and where they live.

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