Permaculture at White Eagle Village

The Crestone Eagle, November 2002:

by Roni S. Chernin

The leaking pool at the White Eagle and the courtyard surrounding it had been a liability—closed and off limits to the public for many years. Owner JoAnne Duncan wanted to make the courtyard accessible again. She was thinking of filling it in, but hadn’t quite decided what to do with it.

Enter Gary Olsen (the younger of two in Crestone). A student of permaculture, studying at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, Gary came across a plan for a gray water system using layers of plants, soil and rocks, with water cycling through, and proposed setting up a garden of this type in the pool. JoAnne thought the plan was pretty awesome. She used to have an organic herb farm and has always been a gardener. She appreciated the synchronicity of Gary showing up when she was trying to decide what to do.

Gary was raised on a farm, where his mother gave him a love for gardening. “I was eating dirty carrots at 3 or 4.” For several years he has been doing massage and energy work, relating to the healing aspect of earth energy. He started with some small projects at the Heart of Manitou B&B in Manitou Springs, and also built a greenhouse and garden in Sedona. There was also a project in Cottonwood Arizona which involved a senior center and teaching children about natural farming techniques.

One definition of Permaculture is what works well in a climate and is of the highest mutual benefit for all. Examples of this include corn or grain crops, not necessarily only perennials. It also includes understanding the best spot for each plant, finding its niche, taking into consideration microclimate, sun requirements, drainage and other needs.

Gary sees Permaculture as a basis for healing people and their relationship to the planet, and creating community around it. He has been studying Permaculture on his own for four years, studying projects like Solviva and the work of Bill Mollison. Mollison is generally recognized as one of the leading experts in Permaculture. Gary refers to the story of the guy with a snail problem. Mollison’s oft-quoted response, “You don’t have a snail excess, you have a duck shortage,” illustrates his approach to turning a problem into its own solution.

Gary was hiking and visiting the Haidakhandi Universal ashram in Crestone. He spent some time in the greenhouse there and, feeling the design coming, started tossing some small rocks into the sand. They fell into the heart shape. The pathway through the White Eagle garden takes the shape of a heart. The center of the heart contains a fountain. (The metaphor for water at the heart of all life.) The garden is at the building’s heart. The garden is named “The Heart of the White Eagle”.

Gary didn’t quite realize the extent of what he was getting into. The pool at the White Eagle measures 20 by 40 feet, and is over 9 feet deep at one end. Starting in late July, Gary and his helpers hand carried rocks and soil into the space, because there is no access for vehicles or machinery and no other way to take the loads of rock and soil through the part of the hotel used by guests. It took over a month of continuous hauling to fill the pool with the rocks and dirt. Gary originally thought the project would take three weeks. The first stage of building the garden took over two months to complete, but the garden is a living thing that will continue to change, evolve and grow each year.

Gary’s approach to the selection of plants had him “using forest garden design, working different layers together, mixing trees, shrubs, lower level ground cover, vines, edibles—most of the plants are edible and/or medicinal.” Some of the plants include comfrey, yarrow, thyme, lemon balm, currents, and elderberry, with plans for fruit trees next spring.

The design on the north end of the garden calls for using taller trees, and placing shorter plants against the walls. One nice thing about this garden is that being enclosed by buildings, some of the larger garden predators, like deer, raccoons and bears will be unable to gain entry. That allows for the ability to grow food plants with considerably less defensive strategy.

A lot of attention was given to nitrogen fixing. This is the process by which plants pull nitrogen from the air and “fix it” into the root systems. Plants that do this especially effectively include clover, Siberian pea shrub, indigo, and buffalo berry. When the plant is cut back, it releases its stored nitrogen, which strengthens and replenishes the soil and provides nutrients for neighboring plants. It is a more sophisticated and advanced version of companion planting. Ideally, the concept is to plant in a way that works to the mutual benefit of the plants—examples include “nitrogen fixers next to anything, Siberian pea next to elderberry”.

In planning the soil for the garden, the choice was made “to build the soil from the top layer down—that’s how nature does it”, adding organic matter and mulch for the soil as a way to replicate grass lands or simulate the leaf fall in a forest. The goal is to create a soil structure capable of holding moisture which allows for microorganisms, worms and insects to flourish, encouraging the environmental cycle that allows the plants to feed on the minerals of their castings and refuse.

Gary sees Permaculture as having the potential to “provide the majority of our needs on small, integrated intensive systems”—as one of the ways a society can meet most of its needs on the smallest possible area of land, so that more of the land can be left for nature to heal. He views animal systems like chicken and goats, that don’t take up large amounts of space and use waste from the garden, as preferable to cattle ranching, which uses a lot of land and can damage soil. Gary strongly believes that “Most of our waste is highly viable if we make the effort to find the right use for it.”

The Heart of the White Eagle garden will continue to develop. Currently it is spending the winter months under a warm blanket of straw mulch. Plans for next year include flagstone over the concrete, and maybe a two-story greenhouse on the west facing wall. JoAnne would love to be able to grow food for herself and the restaurant. Right now, she is enjoying just sitting out in the sun, listening to the fountain.

Gary is currently looking at land in the Grants for a home and garden. His company, Eco Design, is available for consultation and all phases of design through implementation.