Bolinas gardeners sharpen cutting edge of sustainable technique

David Briggs
John Glavis, who focuses on biodiversity and community sustainability at his Bolinas research garden, talks with veteran gardener Steve Quirt.
04/25/2013

A library of seeds, not books. A microbial solution made from rice and water that can loosen a gardener’s dependence on chemical fertilizer. A “food forest” of plants for eating and steeping, where sage and kohlrabi sit side by side in the earth because, as the Regenerative Design Institute’s Penny Livingston-Stark says, “plants like to snuggle.”

These are some of the sustainable gardening efforts showcased at the Bolinas Community Center’s recent weekend fundraiser, which highlighted how the town serves as a hub of local-food production in the face of modern industrial agriculture.

It’s vital to “get money and oil out of our food,” said John Glavis, who runs BoTierra Biodiversity Research Center, at the weekend’s inaugural talk on Friday evening.

Mr. Glavis spoke about his own storied history in food activism and the importance of local farming, for both the health of the earth and to recover a sense of ceremony around food that he has observed in travels to East Africa and South America.

After a screening of a short documentary about rural schoolchildren who have learned how to grow a diverse set of indigenous crops in Peru, Mr. Glavis pointed to what he called our “monoworld”—monoculture and even perhaps monotheism—as problematic. “Nature uses diversity as a strategy for survival,” he said. “We can’t do the mono thing.” The crowd piped up and added Monsanto and monogamy to his list.  

Marin’s climate is similar to the Andes region, and Mr. Glavis has been able to grow South American crops at BoTierra like quinoa— a high protein, nutrient-rich crop that he sees as crucial to his dream that the region rely solely on locally produced food. “I’m calling it Andean Marin these days,” he said during a phone interview.  

Because knowledge of sustainable farming and diverse crop production has largely dissipated in recent generations with the advent of industrial farming, Mr. Glavis has studied how indigenous cultures worked with the earth to sustain themselves. “The Incans had enough food to feed people for seven years” before the Spanish destroyed their stores, he said.

But, he said optimistically on Friday, “Things are 
changing.”

Mr. Glavis cited growing enthusiasm for the local-food movement, especially among young people. He noted the California Homemade Food Act, a law that went into effect in January that allows individuals to sell food made at home under certain conditions, as one recent success for local-food advocates. And his group is working with Bolinas-Stinson Beach School to create a food garden, too.

There was no shortage of learning opportunities last weekend for those interested in practicing sustainable gardening. The head of S.P.R.O.U.T Seed Library, a nonprofit that has collected about 200 types of seeds, held a talk on how to save seeds from home gardens. Medea Leone sees the library as a way to for the community to easily grow many of its favorite foods, as well a way to “create our own mythology and our own stories” about the community’s seeds.

But she also called seed-saving “a radical act of 
resistance.”

“This is the only way Monsanto is going to become irrelevant,” she told the Light, in reference to the multinational corporation that sells herbicides and seeds, many of which are genetically
 modified.
Ms. Leone pointed out the hazards of the unplanned garden. Swiss chard and beets, for instance, are technically the same species, beta bulgaris; one has been selected for its leaves and the other for its root.

Saving the seeds after accidentally cross-pollinating the two could result in coarse kale and lackluster beets. “You’re really kind of entering a relationship with the plant,” getting to know their habits and idiosyncrasies, she said.

To ensure keeping your harvest “true to type,” as it’s called, Ms. Leone recommended coordinating crops with neighbors or growing plants like beets and chard at different times in the season to avoid propagating mysterious hybrids.

But she encourages people to shake off their hesitancy towards engaging with the soil. “If I could speak for the
plant, they’re very accommodating,” she told the Light. “They’re not going to start a feudal war with you if some of them die. They’re just happy you’re trying.”

The seed library (currently low in lettuces and herbs, she noted) houses mostly food and medicinal plants. People are instructed to take only what they will use and to bring back one type of seed from future gardens. Anyone interested in taking seeds can get them at the Book Exchange on Brighton Road. (For more information, email sproutreach@gmail.com.)

Ms. Leone said that it would be a significant boost to the library if even half of the library’s users brought back seeds, and she is extending an open invitation for new members.

But once you have the seeds, you have to know what to do with them—and how to get them to spring up into something you might want to eat. Dennis Dierks, who runs Fresh Fun Farm, offered an informative session on nutrient cycling, an alternative to chemical fertilizers.

Home gardeners “use ten times as much chemicals as commercial farms” to fertilize their plants, Mr. Dierks said, and those fertilizers are “basically killing microbial populations of soil” that naturally produce essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, thereby cementing a reliance on them.

Nutrient cycling can reinvigorate soil with microbes, eliminating the need for chemicals. He called it a process of “helping nature to produce more.”

Mr. Dierks explained how to prepare a low-cost microbial solution that could replenish the soil with indigenous microorganisms. If one pours non-chlorinated water through white rice, the water will turn into a carbohydrate solution. Cover this carb-filled water with cheesecloth and let it ferment for about 10 days, allowing microbes to enter (and probably create an odor).

Add milk, which contains more microbes, and after another 10 days the milk fat will rise and the active microbial solution will sit on the bottom and can be siphoned out. This solution will last at least a year refrigerated and years if fed with molasses, as sugar is food for the organisms, according to Mr. Dierks. It can be diluted with more nonchlorinated 
water.

These kinds of microbial solutions, along with compost and other additions, such as kelp and fish remains, are part and parcel of sustainable gardening and farming efforts that can wean food producers from chemical fertilizers.

Mr. Dierks emphasized his belief that people “must learn from nature, not dominate it,” a theme that ran throughout the weekend.

Penny Livingston-Stark has been running the 35-year-old Regenerative Design Institute, a model of permaculture in Bolinas, for eight years. The institute’s garden, which has a vast variety of food, herbal tea and medicinal plants, has a “wild organization to it,” she said. Plants like fennel, geranium, sage and chamomile—all watered from a nearby spring—grow throughout the garden, lining the rough walking paths and clustered about the land, while cow parsnip crawls up the hilly sides of the canyon the in which the garden offers up its bounty.

Ms. Livingston-Stark says her goal is to create a food forest and a model garden for others to learn from, as well as teaching people “how to live harmoniously with the earth” through courses on identifying herbal and medicinal plants, animal tracking, permaculture and more.

She sees home gardening as vital because, she said, food in supermarkets is both “nutritionally impaired” and expensive. “There’s no reason why people can’t grow a portion of [their own] food,” even in a small yard, she said. “You can pack a lot into a little zone… Plants like to snuggle.”

Every plant in the garden has a purpose. Blue borage, Ms. Livingston-Stark pointed out, is a non-animal source of omega-3 fatty acids. “I think they taste like oysters,” she said. Raspberry leaves, curly dock, lemon balm and nettles are just a few of the plants nestled in the garden that Ms. Livingston-Stark said can provide a host of health benefits. (People should research any herb or root they intend to consume or brew into tea for side effects.)

Some plants can be difficult to tell apart, such as angelica and poison hemlock. It’s pretty crucial to discern the two, but while they look the same, their smells distinguish them. “The cool thing about smells is that they’re directly connected to memory,” Ms. Livingston-Stark said.