At the Sivananda Yoga Farm, a winter full of precipitation ushers in bright green hillsides dotted with multicolored wildflowers. However, Spring also brings lots of new weeds in our garden and greenhouse. Not all weeds are bad though, in fact most of them have a use. While invasive annual grasses are an unwelcome guest our garden, there are many weeds that we leave in place for their benefits.
According to permaculture, every time you pull a weed, you create a disturbed soil condition ideal for more weeds to germinate. Some weeds beneficial, as they provide medicine, attract insects, protect the soil, and even increase fertility.
We try to employ the philosophy of leaving as many plants in the ground as is practical. The weeds listed below definitely make our “leave it in the ground” list.
Chickweed is an edible green herb that also makes a great groundcover, meaning it will creep along the ground and cover an entire spot. It has small white flowers that attract pollinators, and it also a healthy salad green or soup addition!
It has medicinal properties as well, be but beware not to confuse chickweed with its poisonous lookalike, scarlet pimpernel. Caution: it can be hard to tell the two apart without their flowers. Only eat wild plants you when have a positive identification from an expert!
2. Yellow Dock
Yellow dock is a common weed that grows in old orchards, around trees, and often near waterways. It is an edible green high in minerals that is best eaten cooked. The plant can also be used medicinally as a laxative, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and diuretic.
Dock is also a mineral accumulator and may help fertilize the soil around it with iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus if you chop and drop the leaves. Plant it around your fruit trees for helpful companion plant with many uses.
This spectacular weed is in the brassica family, the same class of plants as broccoli, cabbage and kale. Likewise, it is full of good-for-you nutrients such as Vitamin C, glucosinolates (which remove carciongens from the body), and beta-carotene.
The sweet and bitter green will grow in USDA hardiness zones 4-8, and will commonly volunteer itself in gardens, pathways and untended lawns. It can be eaten raw or cooked, and used as a garnish or as an excellent addition to salads.
Mullein is an essential herb for any herbal first aid kit. It is easy to identify with its fuzzy leaves. It is a biennial plant, meaning it has two-year life cycle. In its second year, it grows a 2-8 foot tall stalk with yellow flowers.
Mullein is an effective medicine for most lung related conditions including asthma, allergies, cough, bronchitis, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and more. It is also used to treat flu symptoms, cold, migraines, joint pain, gout, colic, diarrhea and a myriad of other symptoms.
We find the herb especially useful in California during the fire season, because it helps to cleanse the lungs. The dried and fresh leaf can both be used, and will store for a long time if dried. Mullein is a very common herb and can grow in poor, dry and compacted soil conditions.
While the leaves are the most commonly used part, the flower can be made into a tincture to treat swelling and ear infections. The root is used to treat nerve and muscle pain.
Last but certainly not least, we have dandelion, the word-famous lawn weed. Most manicured lawn-lovers hate this common weed, yet it is loved by herbalists, permaculturists and naturalists alike.
This powerful bitter herb has so many uses. The entire part of the plant is both edible and medicinal. The young tender greens in early spring make a great salad addition. Dandelion’s yellow flowers are also edible and have a sweet taste. More mature greens are intensely bitter and taste better when cooked.
The root can be roasted and made into a tea that is used a coffee substitute. Its bitter quality gives it liver cleansing and detoxifying properties, which is especially important in the spring time when the body is waking up and getting rid of winter weight. Research shows that dandelion can also be used to reduce inflammation and even treat cancer and diabetes.
Dandelion thrives in poor, compacted soils because of its strong taproot. It is one of the first weeds to show up in order to remediate tilled, damaged or compacted soil. The plant also provides joy for adults and children alike, because people enjoy blowing its mature seeds into the wind.
Weeds Are Your Friends
I always tell people, there’s no such thing as a bad plant. There are only plants that humans don’t want in certain places. Sometimes we feel the need to remove weeds to beautify spaces, increase crop production or take out overly invasive weeds. However, when done in excess, constant weeding can create imbalance on the land and then we miss out on the viable medicine and food they provide.
Weeds are mother nature’s warriors and healers. They come into action when land has been disturbed, in order to improve soil conditions and protect it from erosion. In the same way that certain weeds heal the Earth, many weeds are also medicinal herbs and can be used to heal people as well. Next time before thinking about pulling a plant out of the earth or spraying it with a pesticide, try to identify it first. Maybe it is there for a good reason.
Colin Eldridge (Krishna Das)
Krishna Das teaches and helps coordinate Yoga, permaculture and outdoors programs at the Sivananda Yoga Farm.
There are so many benefits of gardening, such as helping combat depression and making you feel more grounded. It’s especially important in the wintertime to do activities that uplift your mind and give you prana.
When leaves fall off trees and snow falls from the sky, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the growing season is over. Here are five simple ways to continue enjoying your garden in the cold winter months, so you can stay active and connected with nature.
If used properly, mulch can help to increase fertility, water retention, protect the soil from erosion, and suppress unwanted weeds. If you are going to clear a garden bed for the winter, the bare minimum you would want to do is cover the bed with mulch.
For annual vegetable beds, covering with a mixture of straw mulch and composted manure will protect the soil over winter months and break down into a nutrient rich compost for spring planting.
For perennial plants such as trees, bushes and shrubs, surrounding the base of the plant with a ring of composted woodchip, shredded leaf, or straw mulch can help protect the roots from winter freeze-thaw cycle.
Composted mulch is key, because fresh mulch will take much longer to break down and temporarily rob the soil of nutrients. If you have fresh mulch, you can make a seperate pile of mixed with manure or other nitrogen rich material such as pond algae, grass clippings, coffee grounds, or whatever else you may have available. Let the pile break down over a season and you will end up with rich composted mulch ready for use in the garden.
Keep in mind that if your winter months are cold and wet, too much mulch can be a storehouse for pathogens (i.e fungi and bacteria that harm your crops). Never pile your mulch directly on the trunks, stems or roots of plants; allow some space for the plant to breathe.
You don’t have to be limited by the first frost when it comes to growing vegetables. A greenhouse can help you greatly increase your growing season and extend into it into winter months.
If you have enough land, big greenhouses or hoop houses are great for lots of production. However, you can make one even in the tiniest garden bed with a DIY cold frame.
Click here for an easy DIY raised bed hoop house using only metal brackets, PVC pipe, and greenhouse plastic.
3. Grow Hardy Vegetables
There are many plants that will continue to grow well past Autumn and into the first frost. Examples include kale, beets, broccoli, Brussels, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, leafy lettuces, mustard greens, rutabaga, spinach, chard, peas, bak choi and more.
Depending on your climate, there are perennial plants that can be harvested in late fall or early winter, such as Jerusalem Artichoke. Fall is also a great time to plant flowers that will bloom in late winter or early spring.
4. Move Indoors or to a Sunnier Spot
At the Sivananda Yoga Farm, our garden plot is great for hot summer months when the sun is high in the sky. In the winter, however, the nearby trees shade out much of the garden and make it difficult to grow large amounts of vegetables.
There is a corner of the garden, however, that gets lots of sunshine even in the winter. We sometimes consolidate pots of hardy vegetables and herbs in that sunny corner.
Since winters are a bit too cold here in Grass Valley for citrus, we move our potted lemon trees indoors during the winter. They make a beautiful addition to our dining hall, which also happens to be a sun room.
5. Cover Crop Mix
Cover crops are used to cover the soil, protecting it from erosion, increasing fertility, and keeping the soil healthy when you are not growing your main crop.
At the Yoga Farm we use a cover crop seed mix that consists of winter peas, hairy vetch, clover, raddish, winter rye and few other species. It is full of nitrogen fixers (plants that add nitrogen to the soil), organic matter accumulators, and deep roots that help break up compacted soil.
Cover crops can also be edible plants, although it is recommended to chop down the crops before they go to seed and till them back into the soil. If you practice no-till in your garden, you can plant your cover crop using “seed bombs”, or little balls of seeds, compost and clay. Before the cover crop goes to seed, you can simply “chop and drop” the plants and then sheet mulch on top of them.
There’s five simple ways to extend your growing season into the winter, or even all the way through until spring. We hope you enjoy these simple tips. Happy gardening!
Colin Eldridge (Krishna Das)
Krishna Das teaches and helps coordinate Yoga, permaculture and outdoors programs at the Sivananda Yoga Farm.
What is the role of permaculture in a yoga community based on 86 acres of agricultural land? Below is an excerpt from an online article published by Permaculture Magazine.
At the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California, daily life can be an interesting and exacting experience. For one, things are done differently than the ‘status quo’ and strict yogic guidelines are followed. We follow a vegetarian diet and stick to a disciplined schedule that involves daily meditation and yoga.
Spiritual community is at the core of the lifestyle at the Yoga Farm. The primary focus and mission of the Sivananda organization is the dissemination and propagation of classical yoga. We teach yoga from a holistic perspective and it is a way of life rather than solely physical exercise.
Our director and head teacher Swami Sitaramananda often jokes that the Yoga Farm ‘grows yogis’. For a long time, that statement was exclusively true. Until relatively recently, the Yoga Farm didn’t produce crops for harvest, despite the fact that the 35 hectare (86 acre) property is designated as agricultural land to the U.S. government.
Developing the Farm
The Yoga Farm was established in 1971 and the first garden was planted in the early ’90s. Since then we’ve expanded our garden, added a greenhouse, llama/alpaca/goat pen, solar panels, orchards and lavender fields. These projects and more were possible because of the dedication of our volunteers. It is the spirit of volunteerism that allows the community to flourish.
Everyone who lives at the Ashram, even the director, is a volunteer. And to be honest, we are often short handed. For this reason, it can be a challenge to see certain projects come to fruition – especially permaculture projects.
We’ve implemented small and slow solutions where we can: struggling fruit tree guilds here and there, dappled hugelkultur and sheet mulching in the garden, experiments with polycultures, composting, no-till methods in the lavender fields, fertilizing with on-site pond algae and llama manure … the list goes on. Often, projects are started and then fall apart until somebody comes along and revamps it.
Despite these challenges, community continues to present itself as the most valuable resource. As many permaculturists and gardeners know, many hands makes light work. Many hands also makes that work more enjoyable.
As somebody who wants to see permaculture projects thrive, I’ve learned that collaboration is vital. Guided by permaculture principles, below are some practical ways that we’ve expanded our permaculture department with the help of our community.
Observe and Interact
Interestingly, the Sanskrit word ‘Śuśrūsate’ translates to ‘the desire to listen to’ and ‘to serve’. The two meanings go hand in hand. For me, that is an indispensable lesson. When I first arrived at the Yoga Farm, I wasn’t good at listening. One could say I was overzealous in wanting to implement permaculture.
I got frustrated because there wasn’t enough time or people to do it at the scale I wanted. My ego got in the way and I started criticizing everything around me for not being ‘permaculture-y enough’. The longer I stayed, watching and participating in the community, I realized that my narrow ideas of ‘how it should be’ were limiting my capacity to see ‘what could be’.
Once my mind and emotions calmed down, I was able to take a step back and really listen. I was able to surrender and let go of my preconceived notions and judgements. I learned that before trying to change a system, it’s best to learn how it works.
I learned that the primary driving force behind the community was yoga and selfless service, not permaculture. Although permaculture was valued and desired, it was seen as a means to an end. It was only one of many methods to reach the organization’s mission of inner and outer peace.
This new-found clarity helped me collaborate with others without agitating the community structure. To do that, I had to stop trying to assert my own structure. As soon as I aligned with the systems already in place, the next steps became obvious.
This video is for anyone who wants an introduction to the details of permaculture, how important it actually is, and the impact it can have on a local level, on a local climate, through coming together as a community and using our shovels.
We don’t have to wait for all of our governments to get together and sign agreements to reduce our carbon emissions. There are things we can do as communities to bring stability to what is happening on the planet. That is the big message of permaculture.
Permaculture is a design system based on connections and relationships. The idea was put forth by two Australians: Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. They met in a university setting and their joint conclusion about the problem with academia was that it was all very compartmentalized.
They agreed that people could be thinking more interdisciplinarily, looking at relationships and how actions interacted with other fields instead of staying isolated. As their model, they saw the forest as the epitome of this system where things are all connected.
The Forest as a Design Model
If you think about it, the forest doesn’t need to go to the nursery to buy any mulch or any plants. It does not need anything to be hauled away to bags on the curb, or to have anything brought to the dump.
The forest is a self-sustaining system where it provides everything that it needs, and it utilizes and enhances every piece of everything that is given to it i.e through the rain, nutrients and sun. The forests are responsible for why we have moisture and more plant life further inland on continents.
The first pieces of understanding permaculture are the permaculture ethics. There are many ecological design systems that similarly related in their connections, resilience, and self-sustaining nature. Permaculture puts everything into ethics: what are we here to do? We are here to take care of the Earth: to repair, conserve and regenerate.
Designing for Society
We are here to take care of people: we cannot have a healthy planet if we don’t have healthy people and vice versa. To seek peace, to guard human rights everywhere, to love everybody’s children no matter what political persuasion, what country they live in, or how many resources they use.
People care guides to all love and respect each other, see each other, and honor each other from where we are right now. Recognizing that today is a new day and we can all make a new choice, no matter what our past actions. At the end of the day, we all want our children to have a beautiful and healthy place to live.
Share the Abundance
The third ethic is fair share: investing all capital, intelligence, labor and resources to ensure the future of the previous two ends – people and earth care. These ethics outline our mission, right now on the planet, which is getting more and more important every day.
Permaculture also has a set of principles, such as working with nature not against, making greatest change through least effect, and indicators of sustainability that are drawn of self-sustaining, natural systems.
You could spend days or weeks spending time looking into the principles. The principles are filters for design and decision making – is this an intelligent, ecologically and socially responsible thing to do?
If you want to learn more, you can look up “The 12 Permaculture Principles”. Eric Ohlsen of the Permaculture Skills Center in California, has some great videos on these principles.
Permaculture for Resilience
Permaculture helps us build resilience, so when we come into periods of stress, crisis and emergency, we have a default of ethics and principles to follow on the path to rebuilding and healing the planet. In this way, we come to have more security, resources, and resilience without having to steal from others or ravage the planet.
Listen to the full video above for more on the details of permaculture.
Over the last year, the Sivananda Yoga Farm has been making efforts to implement permaculture in our community, little by little. Through our various courses and Permaculture Service Days, our wonderful volunteers and guests have been helping us reach our goals.
One of the permaculture principles is to use small, slow solutions. Because of limited hands on the farm, that is a principles that we have been putting into practice.
We put in small, concentrated efforts when we can in order to serve the bigger picture of sustainability. We also come together when we need to get bigger projects done, because many hands makes little work.
1. Tree Guilds
Adding plants around the base of a fruit trees is called a “Tree Guild,” and helps to create a miniature ecosystem for the tree. We have been slowly adding plants and mulch to our orchard. The goal is to improve the health of the trees and conserve water.
2. Sheet Mulching in the Garden
Sheet mulching is when you layer different types of carbon and nitrogen rich organic materials on top of each other. It has several benefits such as improved water retention, soil fertility, weed suppression and more.
Instead of sending 100% of our cardboard to the recycling center, we utilize large amounts of it on the land for the bottom layer. After that, we’ve added water hyacinth from the pond, animal manure and used straw bedding from our animal pen, raked leaves, wood chips and other plant clippings.
A peach fruit tree guild.
3. Sheet Mulching in the Lavender Fields
We’ve converted our lavender fields from a till system to a no-till system. That means instead of using a tractor and fossil fuels to turn the soil, we lay down sheet mulch to hold the soil in place. It is a method of weed suppression that doesn’t require constantly disturbing the land.
Tilling, when done carelessly, contributes to topsoil loss, nutrients and fertility decreases, and waterways are polluted with agricultural runoff. We didn’t want to contribute to that problem, and also didn’t want to rely on fossil fuels to manage our lavender fields.
4. Continued Food Production
Every year we grow produce in our greenhouse and gardens. Food production continued this year, with a bountiful harvest of greens in the greenhouse last winter.
Because of limited hands, we produced a modest amount of squash and different vegetables in our garden over the summer and fall.
5. Greenhouse Maintenance
We’ve made several repairs and maintenance to our greenhouse, including clearing out Bermuda grass, repairing damaged siding, and making it pest-proof.
Sorry, no programs exist here.
Our greenhouse was full of life in the middle of winter 2018.
6. Seed Ball Making
Seed balls are little balls of clay, compost and seeds. They can be used for no-till gardening. We made several seed balls throughout our Permaculture Service Days and used them in the garden to plant a cover crop mixture of clover, mustard, reddish, oats, vetch, and more.
7. Tea Making
We started a small tea making project using herbs and crops completely grown at the Yoga Farm including lavender, rosemary, mint, lemon balm, and apple. We temporarily halted production over the dry summer months, but plan to start again when possible.
Our doors are always open for tree services to dump their excess wood chips here for use in our orchards, garden and grounds. We put that chip to good use to mulch our trees and build organic matter on our soil. That’s one way we turn waste into a resource.
“Permaculture land-use ethics invite us to protect intact ecosystems where they remain and, where ecosystems have been destroyed, to help restore them.” ― Juliana Birnbaum Fox
The Yoga Farm continues composting 100% of our food scraps as we have for the past several years. This year, we temporarily transitioned into feeding our food scraps to the neighbor’s pigs. We hope to harvest an abundance of manure to fertilize our garden soon!
10. Permaculture Work Parties
Or, more accurately stated, karma yoga parties. Starting this December, every Wednesday we invite all the staff at the Yoga Farm to come together for 1-2 hour karma yoga parties in our garden, greenhouse and/or orchards.
Over the summer months, we’ve occasionally been bringing our morning Satsang groups into the lavender fields for peaceful contemplation and light field service.
Sorry, no programs exist here.
Spencer Nielsen teaching his “Ayurvedic Herbs in the Garden” workshop.
11. Engagement in the Permaculture and Farming Communities
We’ve sent representatives from the Yoga Farm to attend the Building Resilient Permaculture Convergence in Hopland as well as the Sustainable Food & Farming Conference in Grass Valley, CA. At the conferences we offered volunteer hours and workshops. We plan to continue community outreach in 2019.
12. More Permaculture Programs!
2017 was our first year doing Permaculture Service Days. In 2018 we started having more Permaculture weekends and courses, which have drawn a lot of interest from the community.
Here’s what we offered in 2018:
Monthly Permaculture Service Days
Social Permaculture Weekend w/ Ryan Rising
Ayurvedic Agroforestry w/ Spencer Nielsen
Yoga of Permaculture w/ Colin Eldridge (Krishna Das)
Intro to Permaculture w/ Colin Eldridge (Krishna Das)
As always, we couldn’t have accomplished these minor feats without the help of our dedicated volunteers and guests. If learning more about permaculture is something you are interested in, or you simply want to join the community in getting your hands dirty, we have multiple short-term and long-term opportunities.