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Salida couple uses permaculture to raise food, rehabilitate land, reduce water use

April 10, 2012
by Ryan Lockwood

Permaculturist Sandy Cruz visits a ponderosa pine seedling that will eventually bolster the area's living windbreak. <br />Main page photo and below: Cruz and her partner, Gene Tkatschenko, use schematics to visualize long-term project goals.Do beavers make great teachers?

According to high-altitude gardening guru Sandy Cruz, they certainly do. Not because they show others how to fell trees or build dams, but because they demonstrate a fundamental behavioral trait: they are driven to create an environment that is better for themselves and their neighbors.

On a two-acre site a few miles northwest of Salida, Colo., Cruz and her partner, Gene Tkatschenko, have spent the past year working their land using the principles of an increasingly popular practice called permaculture design. Their ultimate goals include providing sustainable food and shade and conserving water for the benefit of themselves, their neighbors and the arid local environment.

“We’re looking to regenerate a disturbed area so that it’s healthy and thriving,” Cruz said.

The art and science of permaculture

Cruz and Tkatschenko readily compare permaculture practitioners to beavers because of the mammals’ vital role in streamside ecosystems. When beavers chomp down trees and dam up streams, their efforts benefit themselves and the many other organisms around them through habitat alteration and increased food availability. Cruz says that the beaver’s role demonstrates that co-existence and cooperation are more important in a natural setting than Darwinian competition.

“Permaculture design shows us how we can put together communities where everyone is cooperating, not competing,” Cruz said. With permaculture, various plants, animals, fungi and other organisms are encouraged to work together with humans for the mutual benefit of all.

Permaculture originated in Australia in the 1970s. The word is derived from blending “permanent” and “agriculture,” though Cruz says “perennial agriculture” is a more apt description. The practice requires imitating nature to achieve a level of sustainable self-reliance. Specific principles guide the permaculture process, such as producing no waste, using renewable resources, minimizing water loss and obtaining a crop yield. Cruz says that the no-till, eco-friendly system is gaining ground not only in Colorado, but throughout the world.

From large concepts to small-scale food production

“The practice applies larger ecosystem concepts and processes to small-scale food production, which can be a great tool for educating the public about how interrelated our actions are with changes in our environment,” said Megan Sweeney, forester at the Colorado State Forest Service Salida District.

Over the past year, Sweeney has helped Cruz select and purchase more than 300 CSFS seedling trees and shrubs for use in her permaculture garden. Planted between two parallel fencerows surrounding Cruz’s property are CSFS trees and shrubs that grow well at 7,200 feet. In addition to providing food, the eventual living fence will block wind and enhance wildlife habitat.

Cruz has spent the last four decades learning firsthand about strategies for high-elevation permaculture. Before moving to Salida in 2011, she rebuilt a cabin west of Boulder and created the original demonstration site for High Altitude Permaculture – an organization she founded to teach courses on the practice. That site, located 2,000 feet higher in elevation than Salida, has thrived over the past few decades. Despite several years of neglect, it recently has been yielding what Cruz calls “bumper crops” of Nanking cherries and chokecherries. Her new Salida property will now serve as a second demonstration site for teaching others about permaculture.

Although starting up a permaculture project may seem daunting, many resources are available for assistance. Cruz teaches workshops and eight-month design courses in Boulder and Salida.

Visit the web for information on high-altitude permaculture.

  Still time to purchase seedlings for 2012

The CSFS seedling tree program is designed to encourage Colorado farmers, ranchers and rural landowners to plant seedling trees for conservation purposes. About 5,000 Coloradans plant CSFS seedling trees each year to create windbreaks, reforest after wildfire, enhance wildlife habitat, protect livestock and achieve other conservation goals. The CSFS Nursery, located in Fort Collins, currently sells more than 40 species of tree and shrub seedlings.  

Colorado landowners may still have time to purchase seedlings before the CSFS makes springtime deliveries to 17 districts around the state, but deadlines vary by district. Seedling orders also are available for pick-up year-round at the Fort Collins Nursery.

Landowners interested in purchasing the seedlings should contact their local CSFS district office or the CSFS Nursery at (970) 491-8429.