Garden Learning, A Permaculture Design Course Reflection [Guest Post]

Guest Post by Julia Herring, current Santa Cruz Permaculture Design Certificate Course Participant

Oregon Eclipse Festival: the start of my permaculture journey

My journey with permaculture started in an unexpected way. In August of last year my sister and I packed up her Subaru Outback to set off for Prineville, to watch the total solar eclipse at the Oregon Eclipse festival. 12 hours of waiting in line at the gate, 6 days without a shower, 6 hours of extra drive time on the way home, and still an absolutely incredible experience. At the festival I expected music, dancing, interactions with awesome strangers and an awe-inspiring total solar eclipse, but didn’t expect to be enamored by and drawn to an area of the festival called the Permaculture Plaza.

Tent at a festival with signs reading Permaculture Plaza
Sunflower and vegetables growing alongside a tent with domes in the background.August 2017 The Permaculture Plaza at the Oregon Eclipse festival.
Photo Credit: Ficus Temple

At the Plaza I attended a talk about reclaiming public space with Mark Lakeman of the City Repair Project in Portland, a discussion about ecovillage living with Stephen Brooks from the Punta Mona Center in Costa Rica, and more. I left the festival with a sense of hope for the future of the world and a voracious desire to learn more about permaculture. After a quick Google search, I found myself enrolled in the Santa Cruz Permaculture Design Course just two months after coming home to San Francisco.

It’s now January, and we’ve just finished the fourth of six weekends in our course. I’ve come out of our classes so far with many key takeaways, but one in particular that has surprised me, inspired me, and that I feel called to share.

Gardens need love in the winter, too.

In November, our permaculture class had the opportunity to “turn over” the winter garden at the NEST, our class site in the Santa Cruz mountains. Under the direction of our course instructor David, we plucked dried corn stalks from the earth, removed toppled, overladen tomato vines, took out handfuls of mullen, and over the course of about 30 minutes with 20 pairs of hands at work, we exposed the bare earth below once again. My assumption was that we would leave the garden this way, ready for replanting come March.

I’d always thought of gardens as seasonal – we plant crops in the spring, watch our produce reach ripeness in the summer, and celebrate the harvest in the fall. We uproot the dutiful plants who served their purpose and gave us bounty, then leave a blank slate over winter until planting again next spring. Right?

Not so! After we lovingly removed last season’s plants, David instructed us on how to sprinkle on a “soil builder” seed mix and place fava bean seeds 6 inches apart along the length of the now empty beds, then cover the exposed soil with straw. I would guess that seeding a winter crop would deplete the soil by using up nutrients year round. Turns out, it’s very important to keep soil covered during the winter to protect the topsoil from washing away during rainstorms, and seeding a winter crop after removing summer plants is a great way to achieve this.

Legumes as winter cover crop

Legumes in particular are also nitrogen fixers, which means they absorb atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a readily available form of nitrogen called ammonia that most plants need in order to grow. Because of this process, the roots of fava bean plants actually restore the nitrogen content of the soil, improving the conditions for crops to come in the spring.

The straw we laid down would protect the fava bean seeds from hungry birds and prevent topsoil erosion until the beans had a chance to grow, and to top it all off, the vegetation grown from the soil builder seed mix can be composted, and fava beans produce a winter crop that can also be harvested and enjoyed. A win-win-win.

By planting the right kind of winter crop, we are able to improve the health of our soil and create even better conditions for next year’s crop! This teaching in particular has opened my eyes to the beautiful relationship that plants have to each other and to the soil.

People standing and working in a garden, with trees in the background.11/11/17 The garden at the NEST at the start of the work day.

People walking and pushing wheelbarrows in garden with straw-covered beds.11/11/17 After we removed last season’s crops, planted seeds and covered them with straw.

Garden covered in straw with green plants.1/14/18 The garden two months later, with garlic, fava beans, and soil builder mix crop cover.

Spreading these teachings to loved ones

My parents own an acre of land in Durham, a tiny farming town in Northern California. They have a few raised soil beds where my dad enthusiastically grows tomatoes, cucumbers and squash each summer. Next weekend I plan to pay a visit to give their soil the fava bean and straw bale treatment to spread a little topsoil love. What excites me most about all the knowledge I’ve gained through this PDC is the idea of spreading these teachings to loved ones, and the ability to give back go the soil wherever I go.

If you have any questions or want to know more about what it’s been like to take the Santa Cruz Permaculture Design Course, feel free to send me an email at

Peace and Seedlings,

Register for our next Permaculture Design Certificate Course by visiting the website. Our early bird pricing ends soon; register in February and save!

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