When Toby Hemenway first entered Roxanne Swentzell's garden in New Mexico, he was blown away. There the desert was transformed into a lush, green marvelous place. "It felt like nature had come alive," recalls Toby. "It was screaming with life, like walking into an old growth forest." For Toby, who had been a research scientist and was currently working for a biotech company, it was a life-changing experience. He and his wife, also disenchanted with her corporate life, bought 10 acres in southwest Oregon, and Toby began learning all he could about permaculture -- the ecological approach to gardening that Roxanne had used to create her oasis. Now he teaches and conducts workshops all around the U.S. He helps even more gardeners incorporate these design ideas through his recent book, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, and through the quarterly publication, Permaculture Activist, where he is associate editor.
"Ecological gardening connects the pieces of a garden together," says Toby. A conventional landscape has distinct areas, such as a vegetable garden, a lawn, shade trees, a perennial garden. But an ecological design connects these elements, not only visually but also in how they interact. "Nature always does more than one thing," he says. "A tree produces leaf litter, pulls dust out of the air, purifies air and water, provides habitat for wildlife. Try to think of all the possible functions of things. If you think you need a fence, think of what else it can do. Can it be a hedge that provides food for you or for wildlife?"
Ecological gardening incorporates many approaches to planning a garden that are gleaned from observing nature. The seven-story garden idea, for example, suggests planning a garden with multiple layers in mind: the tall-tree layer, the low-tree layer, the shrub layer, the herb layer, the ground cover layer, the vine layer, and the root layer. Each one is interconnected and each supports the needs of the gardener and of wildlife.
"You could think of an ecological garden as edible landscape meets wildlife gardening," Toby explains. "A lot of people grab hold of the idea of multifunctional plants and then they start to see that they can painlessly do something for the environment and at the same time please themselves.
"Toby grew up helping out in the backyard vegetable garden - where digging in the soil might just as likely turn up an ancient Indian arrowhead as a potato. He still uses only a shovel to turn the soil because tilling is disruptive to earthworms and other soil creatures, and it quickly exhausts the organic matter in the soil. Natural mulches keep down weeds and replenish the soil at the same time. He scrounges for organic matter from the horse stables, from sawmills, even from the local Starbucks (mix the high-nitrogen coffee grounds with leaves or hay).
With western Oregon's four months of desert climate in mind, Toby catches rainwater off his roof during the rainy season and stores it in a 5,000-gallon cistern that's mostly buried underground. To make it multipurpose, he built a deck over the cistern, complete with grape arbors to provide welcome shade and tasty fruit.
Toby admits he took on way too much in the beginning. He planted walnut trees, 30 different kinds of apple trees, and more than he could manage. "Then when everything started failing I pulled back and remembered, 'Start at your doorstep,'" says Toby. "Think about how often the plant needs you and how often you need it, and put the ones you use the most closest to you. As each small part of the garden becomes successful, then expand it further and further away.
"Within 15 feet from his door are salad greens, leeks, snapdragons, yarrow, a passionflower covering a trellis, and more. "We used to have a garden further away," he says. "That was my daily commute; I'd put on my work boots, grab my tools, and wave goodbye to my wife. Now it's so close by that nothing gets out of control. I don't go out to the garden to work, I go out to play.
To learn more about Toby's book, visit www.chelseagreen.com/Garden/GaiasGarden.htm. To learn more about permaculture, visit www.permacultureactivist.net/
Article published on September 9, 2004.