Sustainable Contra Costa permaculture workshops
at Rodgers Ranch in Pleasant Hill
By Lou Fancher
With seeds and soil, a person can feed a family -- or maybe, a neighborhood.
Teach enough people to grow their own food, a community's sense of security rises, crime rates fall and people laugh more often, says Master Gardener Marian Woodard.
The Pleasant Hill urban farmer will spread her earth-centered practices in an eight-week series, "Grow More Food in Harmony with Nature -- Permaculture Workshops," presented Jan. 30-March 19, by Sustainable Contra Costa in partnership with Rodgers Ranch Heritage Center.
The Saturday morning series includes information on growing zones and weather conditions, selecting the best plants for specific locations, managing pests and weeds, using sustainable materials and more. Students will "graduate" with action plans for their yards or plant-growing spaces.
"Permaculture is going out and observing what works in nature and mimicking it," says Woodard. "It's way more than gardening, but gardening is the best metaphor for observing the natural cycle. Spring crops start with seed, land, water."
Woodard has put her philosophies into practice since 2009, when she discovered an inner urge to grow her own food. Townhouse living dictated earthboxes for her homegrown edibles, but after earning her Master Gardener certificate in 2011, she branched out to start a 3,000-foot community garden at Rodgers Ranch.
Her efforts to introduce more people to urban farming expanded with a culinary arts course at Diablo Valley College, "From the Farm to Table," and frequent local workshops.
"Everyone should grow their own food. It connects them to what is real," she says. "Everyone should experience growing something less than 10 feet from their kitchen that they can pick and consume."
Woodard says "nature doesn't grow in rows" and people who live in apartments with western-facing windowsills can practice "pot to plot" farming or simply grow herbs and other small-space items. Her outlook stems from a deep belief that "Big Ag won't save us" from food insecurity and hunger.
"It will be backyards, the neighborhood gardens that will mean we do right by the Earth," she says.
Students in the workshops will learn techniques to restore the nutritive energy in soil so that future growing cycles are enhanced. Plants that serve multiple functions will be identified.
Both subjects emphasize permaculture's focus on maintaining human well-being while also protecting the environment and preserving natural resources.
Comfrey is an example of a classic multifunction plant.
"It's a bio accumulator. It will send roots down 10 feet and bring up nutrients through the leaves that make a great mulch. Bees love comfrey flowers, you can make tea out of it, and you can wrap a leaf around a broken bone to make it heel faster," Woodard claims.
Adobe clay and sandstone in many East Bay backyard gardens is a constant challenge that can be overcome by altering soil structure instead of tilling, another example of information the series will address. A combination of composting and mulching and combining plants with different root depths and maturity rates in the same plot can keep soil healthy.
Additional Sustainable workshops in 2016 address a host of subjects from bee- and chicken-keeping to creating natural body products to home canning and managing fruit trees. Project administrator Tyler Snortum-Phelps says chicken and bee workshops often fill up quickly. Requests for "next level" courses that include how to raise chicks or butcher chickens are increasing and may lead to future courses.
He's confident that the group's ongoing water conservation workshops, even with recent rains, will continue to draw participants.
"I've heard a number of people say that they understand we can't count on an El Niño winter every year and we have to adjust to a "new normal" of increased conservation and drought-tolerant gardening," he says.