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Community and Resilience in the Garden

Community and Resilience in the Garden

Just a few days ago, I spent a bright, sunny summer afternoon with Marisha Auerbach in her garden.

Theo and MarishaA brief introduction is in order: Marisha is a teacher who shares her knowledge of plants and permaculture design with…well, with just about anyone willing to learn.

Visit her Website,, and you’ll see what I mean. She teaches permaculture design at Oregon State University (online), Portland Community College and Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize.   Marisha also conducts how-to seminars at People’s Coop for anyone who wants to grow their own produce. (

The Best Laid Plans

I’ll be honest. I arrived at Marisha’s with an agenda. I wanted to glean some strategies and get plant recommendations for my own garden. Marisha has always been generous with information and advice and this encounter was no different. But she also shared some deeply held beliefs and life-affirming philosophies that made our visit resonate in ways I could not have anticipated.

Since this was as much an interview as a chat, I started our discussion by asking Marisha how she became interested in permaculture design. “You that ethic of ‘always make it better than how you found it’? That was something that stuck with me from childhood I grew up in Cleveland, and was seriously affected by watching the forest go away, and strip malls go in. I couldn’t understand why my family would choose to support Starbucks over the local coffee person. [That was] before I even knew why that should bother me. And so I decided I wanted to work in positive environmental futures, that’s what I called it back then. And that ended up being development Issues, because I was interested in traveling and other cultures. It was once I found out what permaculture was, that really made everything come together.”

When Marisha says that “permaculture…made everything come together” she’s talking about something much larger than a farming technique or a particular approach to landscape design. In her words, “The three primary ethics [of permaculture] are care of the earth, care of people and redistribute the surplus. That’s powerful.” Marisha’s garden exemplifies that philosophy.

Care of the Earth

Marisha and I were comfortably seated in a shady area of the backyard. But anyone who lives in or near Portland knows that this summer has been exceptionally hot and dry. So I asked Marisha how her garden copes with temps in the high 90’s and low 100’s. Her answer focused on resilience.

Lettuce seedsSo while most people assume that her intensively planted garden requires lots of water, the truth is that “…having lots of organic matter in the soil helps to keep the soil moist.” She typically waters only every 3rd day, because over time she has increased the water storing capacity of her soil.

Resilience was a recurring theme of our conversation. Plants for example have been chosen because they serve multiple functions. The plants might be edible or medicinal, enrich the soil or attract beneficial pollinators.

Plant placement is also done with conscious intent. Right now, for example, Marisha has planted the seedlings for her cool season crops in the shade of existing, more established plants. This successional planting allows the ripening tomatoes to shield the young brassicas from the heat of the sun.


Two different setups for seed starting

These are the kind of synergies that push the garden toward self-sufficiency. As Marisha said, “ I think people should realize that I don’t spend that much time out here tending to [the garden]. People see this landscape and think that there is so much work I need to do, but it is the design and the connection between elements that [allows the garden] to manage itself.”

Marisha at the tomato wall


Care of People

The second tenant of permaculture design is care of people. And while we didn’t explicitly address this, it’s clear that Marisha garden is built around and for people. Her design—what she calls “inward facing” and “outward facing” elements—are evident throughout the yard.

Half-barrel planterWhen she and Zane, her partner, designed the garden they created sector maps. Anyone familiar with permaculture design will have encountered this planning technique that maps the outside influences affecting the garden. In addition to the sun and wind sector maps, Marisha and Zane produced a pedestrian sector map. Boundaries don’t need to be hard, as in a locked fence. Instead the design can discourage visitors from the more private backyard and welcome visitors to the front yard. So the public area in front of the house is filled with plants that are “abundant and prolific”; plants that allow Marisha to share the bounty of her garden with her neighbors.

Abundance and Surplus

Parsnip plant in seedOne look at the photos here should be sufficient proof of the abundance found in Marisha’s garden. I, of course, asked her about crops she thinks are great, but that wouldn’t occur to most home gardeners. I was fully expecting her to talk about perennial vegetables (something that is quite trendy in gardening circles at the moment). Instead she points out several volunteer plants, self-seeders, that provide sustenance with little effort.

First among them is parsnip. “A lot of people don’t think about growing parsnips. And that is one of our key staple crops, I never plant them. They self seed all over the place

And again, when I mention that I tried perennial spinach but didn’t like the taste, Marisha points to a beautiful stand of Gai Lon, or Asian sprouting broccoli, as a better option. This plant isn’t perennial, but it does (sometimes) self-seed. I wonder if the plants that self-seed and show up in unexpected places are in conflict with her design goals. I loved her answer, because it ties back into the idea of resilience in the garden.

Asian Sprouting Broccoli

“No, I want to design for allowing that to happen. Because that’s resilience, right? It’s like you never really know what’s going to happen in your life. Maybe I need to travel back home to Cleveland, and when I come back I’m still going to have a food system. And so when things come back year after year, then that’s insuring that I have a resilient food system for the future. [The garden] might look like some sort of organized chaos, but by … letting these plants have their own self expression, that’s what leads to abundance.”

Couldn’t have said it better!

To learn more about Marisha’s work, garden and teaching schedule visit

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