Great Basin Permaculture Takes on Challenge of Growing Sustainably in Arid Nevada Environment
April 3, 2013 | Nicola Kerslake
When Las Vegas-based sustainable agriculture enthusiast Jessica Penrod decided to begin learning about permaculture, she sought out local study courses in vain. Permaculture is the branch of sustainable agriculture that reaches back to pre-industrial times for inspiration as to sustainable uses of land; it combines horticulture, design, architecture and engineering in a philosophy which encourages followers to treat each landscape as a waste-minimizing ecology. As such, it’s well suited to Nevada’s desert environment, where water and soil are inherently scarce resources.
Eventually, Penrod and her friend and fellow gardener Tiffany Whisenant met local flower store owner Peter Frigeri at a First Friday, a monthly cornucopia of art, people watching, and food trucks that has become a staple of the thriving downtown Las Vegas scene. They began to exchange permaculture books: “we started a book club of three!” Penrod laughs.
Over time, the group decided to put their learning into practice, founding a non-profit, Great Basin Permaculture, and partnered on a 5,300 ft2 parcel of land inside the four acre Vegas Roots Community Garden, based near downtown Las Vegas. “It was your classic abandoned lot,” Penrod notes. Like most new non-profits, Great Basin lacked much in the way of funding, so supplies were scavenged and donated; for instance, manure was donated by members of the community.
The farm’s first plants were mesquite trees, primarily for the coverage that they provide, but also for the oft-neglected beans, which they grind into a flour “so good it tastes like chocolate” according to Penrod. Over time, they’ve been joined by many other crops including artichokes, herbs, beans, corn, squash, date palms, and nut trees. Most are edible, but even those planted for forage or ground cover have found other uses. A Mexican visitor pointed out that dry birdhouse gourds, originally grown as ground cover, can be filled with alcohol, which then cures to create a tonic for internal bleeding.
The group takes a novel approach to their farm, brainstorming ideas that might work in the challenging arid environment. Permaculture allows for a wide variety of disciplines, with some members interested in design, while others focus on vermiculture. Penrod’s day job is as a flight attendant, and she finds inspiration in her travels; “I try to find a permaculture garden in whichever city I’m in, whether it’s Buenos Aires or Little Rock.” Donations are always welcome, whether in the form of fruit trees or compost, and the team will often build a project around these. “We’ll always find a place for a new plant,” Penrod notes.
One particular triumph has been water conservation. “Our bills have never risen above $15 per month, even in the summer,” Penrod says. That’s a few dollars less than the average residential water bill in the city. This has been achieved by using water-retaining sunken beds, watering only at night, and installing drip irrigation for some crops, but Penrod’s biggest tip is Christmas tree mulch, spread as widely as possible; “it does a great job of keeping moisture in the soil.”
Funded by various in-kind donations, such as one from the Native Seeds Search in the form of heirloom seeds, the “core group” of Great Basin is only around five people, but they’re supplemented by a large revolving group of volunteers. The group encourages volunteers to donate as much or as little time as works for their schedule, and offers a variety of events to engage them, from monthly meetings and lectures from knowledgeable speakers to Saturday morning ‘work bees’.
This coming weekend – April 5th through 7th – the organization is hosting the third annual “Madre Tierra” Permaculture Conference, offering a combination of instruction from experienced permaculturist Larry Santoyo, founder of EarthFlow Design Works, and hands-on activities. True to the spirit of the organization, part of the weekend will be spent installing wicking beds – a method that allows more food growth with less water and waste – at local art gallery Blackbird Studios; “it’s an experiment that we’ve wanted to try for a while” Penrod notes.
When I ask about Great Basin’s vision for the future, they describe their mission as “to inspire sustainable choices for our dry land community through education and action.” Penrod’s goals for the Permaculture Learning Garden are clear; “ultimately, we’d like to create a sustainable food forest that duplicates the patterns found in nature, here in the desert.”
More information about this weekend’s conference can be found at the Great Basin Permaculture website; tickets are still available.