Grow wild 

Paul Wheaton's at the forefront of a permaculture revolution

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Wheaton says he often advises people to water the first year, though it's not the advice Holzer gives. But Wheaton also notes that it's complicated: The first years are critical for permaculture. If you do irrigate, the plants could get used to being watered rather than soaking up moisture naturally from the rotting wood, and some permaculturists believe that creates an ongoing dependence on irrigation.

Around one corner of a hugelbed is a little cove with a reflecting pond. The model is based on Holzer's micro-climate design. The small area is guarded on three sides by tall hugelbeds to keep the moisture from being whisked away. Growing there are pawpaws, a fruit found mostly in humid climates such as the eastern and southern U.S. that has odiferous leaves that act as a natural pesticide. The entire wall is covered in currants and there's an Asian pear sticking out of the hugelbed. There are creeping cranberries growing around the edges. The warm pockets have lots of potential.

"Can you imagine somebody growing an orange tree in Missoula?" says Wheaton. "There's a broad collection of techniques to use, and one is to make a sun scoop. You'll have a hugelkultur bed that's basically scooped for the sun... Whatever sits in the middle of it acts like a parabola and collects a lot more heat. You add in a reflecting pool on the south side, so that way, when the sun is low in the winter, the sun reflects off of the water and you get double penetration of sunlight for your limited short days."

Russell Osborn, another Place of Gathering farm hand, is taking the experimentation on a different track. A wanderer who never jibed with schooling and says he always responded to situations rather than created them, Osborn sees permaculture as the perfect way to respond to nature. His interest has been in creating places where people can be a part of the landscape. He's built a sod couch—a giant grassy perch that's tall enough to make you feel like a little kid dangling from a seat. "Your garden is like an outdoor room," he says. "It's a place you should spend time in, not something separate where you just come by to pick things. I make spaces habitable for humans because a lot of spaces have been made uninhabitable by humans."

Farther away from the the hugelkultur beds are running streams for which they've created rocky waterfalls, so that the water gets oxygen and keeps the ponds from overcrowding with algae. There's a frog pond. A meadow of edible flowers. There's a slope on which Billington has been experimenting with different types of grasses to see which are hardiest.

click to enlarge Katharina Hirsch invited permaculture master Sepp Holzer to her Dayton property to help turn the landscape from gravel to jungle. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Katharina Hirsch invited permaculture master Sepp Holzer to her Dayton property to help turn the landscape from gravel to jungle.

"I lost my father when I was 16," says Billington. "I realized life is more important than the subtle distractions we get caught up in. So I asked myself, what is the greatest thing I can contribute while enjoying myself as much as possible? I realized it's arranging animals and plants to form holistic symbiosis ... and this place is the ultimate canvas for that. When you're following your bliss, everything will fall into place."

Not your bitch

On the way back from Dayton, we stop in Polson to meet Kelly Ware, a deep tissue massage therapist. Her six-bedroom, two-living room, custom-built home is also where she's been sharing her business with her chiropractor husband. Ware is an exuberant woman, lithe and strong, and her sunny personality is reflected in the colorful house that's painted in rich oranges and greens and is surrounded by a jungle of plants and fruit trees.

Ware and her husband have been trying to sell this place so they can take care of their farm in Bigfork. Her backyard garden, with its hugelkultur beds and mass of shrubs and other plants, has been neglected all summer. No water. No weeding. Apparently, no need. There's been just enough rain, and the hugelbeds have done their job of staying moist.

Ware pulls out a serrated Japanese sickle, a "comma tool," and begins to chop some black medic—usually considered a weed—and lets it fall to the ground, where she leaves it as mulch. This is what permaculturists call the "chop and drop" method. "I have friends who come and they worry about how big and wild my garden is," she says. "Or people might say, 'Oh, that's black medic. It's so terrible.' But it's a good nitrogen fixer. And these leaves are great. You can eat them when they're small or you can do the chop-and-drop."

Weeds are of course anything you don't want in your garden, but there's also the assumption that certain plants are weeds no matter what. One of those is dandelions. "I tell people that my progression to permaculture from normal gardening is that now I end up transplanting my dandelions," says Ware. "I tell my kids they can go ahead and blow the dandelion [tops]. I'm not worried about it."

Wheaton digs out his video camera and asks her to say something short and bumper-stickerish about dandelions for his website. "I've got video of eight different people saying something profound about dandelions," he tells her. "So what you do is, you're going to say, 'I don't fear dandelions' or 'Dandelions will save the world,' and then you're going to blow the seeds off the top of one."

Ware smiles at the camera. "I don't fear dandelions anymore," she says. "In fact, it's a mulch producer. Every part of the dandelion is edible whether it's for humans or worms or animals." She points toward the bottom of a large dandelion she holds in her hand. "This is one of the most tasty spots between the root and the very beginning of it. You can make dandelion wine. Now I want them to take over. I chop-and-drop and I might even transplant them. And they're good for smoothies. Do you know you have to pay $3.50 a bunch at the store for these things?" she asks, tapping at one of the big leaves. "If you want to, add them to your carrot juice. It makes them so nice and spicy."

Wheaton looks at her and grins. "You have no idea what a bumper sticker is, do you?" he asks, teasing her.

Inside her home, Ware feeds us a salad of greens from her garden and venison steaks, plus some locally brewed beer. Her young son is dying to light off firecrackers for the Fourth of July, and for a moment permaculture is forgotten because we're talking about explosives. But then Ware tells a story about finding a dead rabbit in her backyard. And as we're eating, she describes putting the rabbit in a garbage bin and discovering it later, covered in maggots. Instead of disposing of it, Ware started thinking about permaculture. Could she farm maggots from the rabbit's body in order to feed her chickens? It might not be a bad idea.

After dinner, we go outside and check out the front yard of her house. It's wild with comfrey, which is a stellar nitrogen fixer but also has many medicinal uses. At the side of her yard, a pear tree shades huge stalks of comfrey.

click to enlarge Permaculture enthusiast Kelly Ware stands amid her Jerusalem artichoke patch. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Permaculture enthusiast Kelly Ware stands amid her Jerusalem artichoke patch.

And then Ware suddenly yells, "Oh my God! LOOK AT THIS BURDOCK! This is burdock and it's the tallest burdock I've ever seen. You can dig it up and have an amazing burdock soup or stew."

The excitement of permaculture is that you never know what you'll find when you let nature do its thing. In honor of that idea, Wheaton pulls out some T-shirts to give out. One of them says: "Weeds: Because Mother Nature is Not Your Bitch."

Cowboy toilet paper

Krista Miller and Caleb Larson live 15 miles from Missoula toward Frenchtown in what, to the untrained eye, might look like a wasteland. The view from their three-and-a-quarter-acre property is beautiful, but the property itself—a former gravel pit and small logging mill—looks more industrial than homey. Larson's family has owned the property since 1989 and passed the working mill down to him. Before that, it was a state-run gravel pit. The result is three acres of dusty slopes and a spread of compacted, gravely, rocky dirt that has been manipulated by machinery for years and that stays dry as bone because of the wind. When the rain comes through, it's mud, but there isn't much in between to make it a place where life might grow. There's knapweed on the slopes and bits of green grass or random plants—mostly what would be considered weeds—growing here and there.

"If someone were to think of common societal things," says Miller, "you've got to have a green lawn, you can't have any weeds, no dandelions, certainly not knapweed or any other invasive noxious species—for someone like that to come here, it looks like like a wasteland. And it really is, because it has been abused. It's not natural."

Miller and Larson thought for a long time about what they could do to make the site look better. They didn't really have the money or the desire to spray herbicides on so much land. So they started looking up alternatives online, and they discovered Paul Wheaton, who was giving free talks almost every week at the Missoula Public Library. The prospect of transforming their land suddenly seemed less like a chore and more like part of a movement.

They already had the creative sensibility. Miller is a photographer and web developer. Larson works at The Axmen, an alternative energy and ranch and farm store, installing alternative energy units—water heaters and solar panels—for local businesses. He also runs his own business through the mill—a green building company called Rugged Traditions.

In a corner of the land behind the mill and the slope where their house sits, they began to try a few things. Larson wanted to build a little rocky pool to catch water. It wasn't really ideal, Miller says. "It's super small-scale. ... We tried all kinds of different things from natural to semi-natural to hold the water back, and it just wasn't very practical." But it was eye-opening.

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