June 29, 2017

Chop and Drop

This year, I've been volunteering at a gardening club in an old age home called Beit Protea Village. This is not a standard club where people gather to talk about their begonias. This is a serious permaculture club. Under the guidance of the volunteer coach Ellen, who comes every Thursday morning, we've been learning about the wonderful world of permaculture.

Basically permaculture holds by these three tenets: make no waste; use renewable resources; and mulch, mulch, mulch! The beauty is that is it self sustaining.

The club gathers in a greenhouse tucked behind a popular coffee shop near the seniors’ residences. The members shuffle in each Thursday with walking sticks or zoom in with an electric cart. 

They then sit down for a short lesson about permaculture before setting out to work. They learn about soil and composting, butterflies and wild flowers. They make herbal teas, bake bread and go on field trips to food forests.

For me, this place is a quiet haven where every plant is given utmost respect. It smells of rich soil. The roof is covered by a pomegranate vine that offers a shaded canopy. The periphery is stacked with tables of vegetables and herbs. There are shelves of pots in all sizes, and a worm farm tended lovingly by one of the residents. 

Outside is a hillside of trees and plants. In the spring it is covered with white flowering beans and in the summer, it is a pumpkin patch. There is compost in various stages of decomposition. 


Here, nothing is thrown out. People bring their vegetable cuttings, egg cartons and old papers. The cafe brings its coffee grinds and they all offer this 'waste' to the heap that turns into a rick black soil within no time.
The hydroponics project - basil flourishing.

The latest and most ambitious project is a hydroponics garden. The more technical, handy members bought the tubing and pump and put it all together. They are learning about the pH of plants and nutrients such as alkaline electrolyte agents that must go in the water.  It is very impressive for people to take on this new technology with such excitement. Right now, it looks like basil is the hydroponics winner. 

There is a lovely sense of community in this small corner of the old age home. One member called in sick yesterday and the others quickly prepared him a large container of chives as a get well gift. 

Ellen also arranges for school groups to visit so they can learn how to respect the land. The seniors work in tandem with the school kids, showing them how sustainable gardening works. The students put down their smartphones and pick up hoes: this is an electronic device free zone.

The club is always searching for new members and often invites other residents to drop by, but many people who wander through don’t ‘get it,’ finding the place dirty. Guess that's because soil is, well, everywhere. It is the essence of the garden. 

One woman shuffled by as we were potting basil cuttings and said she would never want her hands to get dirty. We laughed and dug our hands into the rich soil with renewed vigor. 

The professional gardeners hired by  Beit Protea also do not ‘get it.’ They have been programmed to tidy the beds, pull out the weeds and leaf blow the smithereens out of the gardens. They know little else and have been told countless times to stay away from this little piece of permaculture paradise. 

Yet they can't help themselves and often barge onto the hillside and 'prettify' it. I was once given the task to remulch this hill after the 'gardeners’ had stripped the soil of its precious nutrients and much needed canopy of dead leaves with their leaf blowers.

Just yesterday we went out to the hill to chop-and-drop. This is a permaculture principle where you pull weeds and throw them back down. When they decompose, they enrich the soil and add much needed nitrogen to it. No fertilizer or pesticides are needed here as nature does the job.

Nature also dictates the order here. There are no straight, rigid rows and no clean borders. When plants flower, we take the dried seeds and ‘broadcast’ them across the beds.

This is a lovely oasis where people work in harmony with nature, the land and with each other. The big lesson learned is that the less we tamper with nature, the more it produces.

In Israel, permaculture is slowly taking off. In Ra’anana, a city that is bursting with colorful flowers all planted in neat rows, there are now areas with edible plants. There is even a community garden page on the Ra'anana city website. If only the city  gardeners would lay down their nasty leaf blowers!

People in Israel are starting to grow food forests, returning the land to its natural form.

Come for a visit. There's always a steaming lemon verbena tea waiting for you – straight from the garden!