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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

Gardening is For the Bees: An Interview with Pollinator Parkways

Gardening is For the Bees: An Interview with Pollinator Parkways

Recently, I had the pleasure of walking through the Montavilla neighborhood with Sherrie Pelsma of Pollinator Parkways. For anyone who hasn’t heard of Sherrie’s group, Pollinator Parkways is dedicated to supporting our pollinating friends, specifically native bees, by creating a sustainable urban habitat. Sherrie tells me that the idea of Pollinator Parkways came to her, literally,… Continue Reading

Spring Sale: 20% Off 2-Gallon Ollas!

Spring Sale: 20% Off 2-Gallon Ollas!

Here in the Pacific Northwest it’s almost time to start gardening. The sun is peeking out today, and the ground is warming (and drying) up. That’s good news for anyone who wants to grow their own vegetables or nurture the bees. Here at Plug and Play Gardens, we’re doing our part by offering our 2-gallon Olla… Continue Reading

Win This Book: Gardening with Less Water

Win This Book: Gardening with Less Water

I’d like to introduce you to David Bainbridge. David has been involved in desert restoration and sustainable agriculture projects for more than 30 years. Back in the 1980’s he was working at The Drylands Research Institute at the University of California, Riverside when he stumbled across a reference to clay pot irrigation. Here’s the intriguing part… Continue Reading

Ollas at the Mother Earth News Fair

Ollas at the Mother Earth News Fair

I will be at the Mother Earth News Fair in a few weeks, talking about Ollas (and selling them too!). For those of you who don’t know about the Mother Earth News Fair…it’s an amazing garden/homesteading show where you can learn about sustainable practices for your home and garden. Whether you are interested in growing organic… Continue Reading

Mason Bees in My Garden

Mason Bees in My Garden

By now, if you’re a gardener, you’ve read about those industrious little orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria). Native, wild bees—like the mason bee—don’t live in hives and they don’t make honey. They pretty much do only one thing, and they do it exceptionally well. They pollinate fruiting trees and plants. In fact, according to Crown… Continue Reading

Multnomah County’s Urban Farm

Multnomah County’s Urban Farm

Ok, I’ve been totally remiss about posting to my blog…but my mea culpa aside… I’ve still been busy meeting with gardeners and introducing them to the idea of using Ollas for garden irrigation. A few weeks ago I had a chance to meet with Jerry Hunter of the Multnomah County CROPS program. CROPS, which stands… Continue Reading

Easy Irrigation for Transitions School Garden

Last week I had the opportunity to work with a school garden at the Community Transition Program, which is part of the Beaverton school district. School gardens are often touted as a great complementary learning tool. They give students practical demonstrations of botany, provide opportunities to talk about nutritious food, and offer a calming respite… Continue Reading

Field Trip! My Introduction to Oregon’s School Gardens

Field trip! Do you remember your school days—and especially those trips you took with your classmates to the zoo or museum? Well I recently had a chance to indulge in a little nostalgia by taking a field trip out to Tigard, Oregon to visit the Woodward Gardens at Mary Woodward Elementary School. Although I must… Continue Reading