Gardener uses permaculture to teach sustainable farming
Carlyn Syvanen of Sequim enjoys the abundant raspberries growing without irrigation or chemical additives on Paul Gautschi's farm near Gardiner. -- Photo by Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News
By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News
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Paul Gautschi, when giving a tour of his garden, wants you to graze and taste your way through it all. These are Mother Nature's gifts, thriving without irrigation or chemicals.
That last bit, along with the flavors of the fruits and vegetables, recently amazed a small group of Sequim visitors to Gautschi's 5 acres.
This has been a dry summer, but Gautschi hasn't worried. Nor has he watered. Instead of irrigating, he mimics the natural system that, after all, has worked beautifully on the Olympic Peninsula since the dawn of time.
"Look at that. Look at that!" Gautschi said as he slips a hand into the soil beneath his fruit trees.
His guests -- ecology professor Don Wilkin, George and Jolie Will, Carlyn Syvanen and Ruth Marcus -- are interested in sustainable gardening: growing food with less resource depletion and less work.
Gautschi lets the soil tell the tale. It's dark, soft and fragrant, and he urges his visitors to sniff for themselves.
"Mmm," said those who obeyed.
"You're smelling minerals," Gautschi said. They're what make his soil rich and his produce nutritious.
But how can this be, if he hasn't used fertilizer?
Simple: Years ago Gautschi, an arborist, laid down a thick carpet of wood chips -- broken branches, leaves and needles, no bark -- much like the layer that lies on any natural forest floor. This form of compost, as Gautschi calls it, feeds the soil and keeps it from drying out into hardpan.
Guiding his visitors from orchard to vegetable rows to herb garden, Gautschi emphasized that he's not selling anything, except maybe the wild idea that nature knows best how to grow food.
Gautschi, 60, came to the North Olympic Peninsula 30 years ago from California after deciding he didn't want to raise his seven children in the Los Angeles area. Through his work, he had access to plenty of wood chips from tree-service firms. He learned that layering with compost -- instead of watering -- saves him a lot of labor.
"I've got a few weeds," he said, then found one by itself in the orchard and easily pulled it out of the soft soil. He feeds the weeds to his chickens, and sometimes lets them munch on the Russian kale in his garden.
This diet, Gautschi said, makes their eggs "the perfect, whole food" -- and delicious.
Some slugs and bugs can also be found here, but Gautschi doesn't worry about them. People, produce and insects have coexisted for thousands of years, he said, adding that if a pest bites into one of his apples, it'll drown in the juice. The fruit is so full of water, Gautschi said, that it helps keep the branches bent low enough for children to come picking. He also prunes his trees so that they stay hunkered; that way he doesn't have to keep moving a ladder from tree to tree.
Gautschi's herb garden is another showcase for his methods.
"This space has never seen a water hose," he said. The horseradish is chest high and the fennel close to that, and the blueberry bushes are so productive, even Gautschi's extended family hasn't been able to pick all the fruit.
"I've never seen anything like that horseradish," Wilkin marveled.
Gautschi next pulled one of his potato plants up from the ground, revealing a plentiful crop of fingerlings. He gave them all to the guests save one, which he tucked back under the soil.
"I've just planted my garden for next year," Gautschi said.
All of this, he added, is what's known as sustainable permaculture.
Permaculture, a farming system that follows nature's rules -- rainfall instead of irrigation, wood chips instead of fertilizer -- frees growers from dependence on industrial products. It's a lot less work than conventional farming, Gautschi said.
"My favorite line," he said, "is when the Creator designed the landscape project for the entire Earth, he was so genius that he designed it so he would never have to show up to work."
A stand of giant Sequoia trees bordering Gautschi's property provides another illustration: The trees drop needles, which carpet the ground and keep the soil from drying out. They decompose, enriching the soil, which in turn keeps the trees well-fed.
Wilkin, who leads discussion groups in Sequim on voluntary simplicity and sustainable living, called Gautschi's farm an example of how much can be done on a relatively small piece of property.
"Food production is going to have to become more local, more common and more personal," he said, adding that turning the average lawn into a vegetable garden is a move in this direction.
A disruption of the system of importing food onto the Peninsula, Wilkin added, "would find Paul and his neighbors still perfectly well-fed from his few acres. His approach is well worth learning from and trying to emulate. Paul may not have all the answers, but I'll wager he is a lot closer than most."
Marcus, who has a small house and yard near downtown Sequim, asked him where to get wood chips.
He replied that local tree services as well as the Lazy J Christmas tree farm on Gehrke Road just east of Port Angeles, have the stuff.
"I am so inspired," Marcus said, "to think I can actually grow something" without a lot of watering, fertilizing and spraying.
The field trip to Gautschi's garden was one of the monthly get-togethers for participants in Wilkin's recent discussion courses.
He'd like to start another and said it takes about eight to 14 people to make a good group.
He welcomes e-mail inquiries at wilkin@ olympus.net.
"By visiting Paul," Wilkin said finally, "we are looking at our future."
Sequim-Dungeness Valley reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at diane.urbani@peninsula dailynews.com.
Last modified: August 02. 2009 8:52PM