I didn’t expect to be back in south Louisiana in the dead of summer. The itinerary that Brittney and I planned last year kept us far away from heat and humidity—we should be almost to Canada at this point. But, living on the road, you learn to become adaptive, accepting what may come and making quick yet thoughtful decisions.
After spending nearly six months in the western U.S., from Colorado to California, we made the decision to head home, back east. Our choice was pretty easy, considering what we've witnessed. Being from the South, we're used to rain and humidity, but having been out West many times before to hike and backpack, we understood how arid the area is. However, traveling the region and analyzing it through the lens of a farmer, not an outdoor enthusiast, unveiled the scale of what it takes to obtain water to grow food there. And that shocked us.
No matter where we were, the theme was the same: folks were always keeping a watchful eye on the region’s most precious—and rarest—resource. How much water will farmers take upstream? How much snow did the mountains get this year? When will it rain? With climate change looming overhead, threatening to dry up already dwindling water supplies, these questions keep farmers up at night, consumes morning conversations around cups of coffee. It’s on everyone’s mind.
It takes a lot of work, from irrigation ditches to water rights, to make even the smallest operation run smoothly. In New Mexico, one of our hosts explained how centuries old irrigation ditches in the area, called acequias, were in danger of running dry. Saving his community’s water rights consumed him—and rightly so. It takes resourceful and involved people to grow food in such a dry and harsh environment. I can say without a doubt I appreciate those folks more than most. Needless to say, as first-time farmers, I don’t think either of us were prepared for the challenges of starting a farm in a place that has so little access to water.
Like I said, life on the road demands adaptability. It’s a quality I’ve come to embrace. We were eventually able to plan more work trades on the East Coast. For six weeks, we’ll be helping out on a biodynamic farm in my adopted home and Brittney’s home state of Tennessee, smack between Chattanooga, Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains. That’s ultimately where we’ve decided we’d like to settle. We concluded it’s got the perfect mix of everything we’re looking for: affordable land, ample natural springs, plenty of rainfall and a long growing season. Now all that’s left is finding a parcel of property.
Aside from having free reign to boudin and crawfish, being back in Louisiana for a spell offered the chance to work in my parents’ backyard garden. Within a day, we had made plans to double it, planting more purple hull peas, snap beans and plenty of okra to last throughout the summer. As we were preparing the beds, we spotted a pile of bricks leftover from when the house was built nearly 25 years ago, not having moved since. The idea clicked—we’d make a spiral herb garden, too.
Brittney has studied permaculture extensively, listening to hours upon hours of lectures by the legendary Bill Mollison. Her knowledge has thankfully rubbed off on me, intertwining in many of our decisions we make. Our idea was to use permaculture principles to create the herb spiral, which, due to its design, saves spaces, creates micro-climates by offering more sun on some spaces and more shade on others, and allows for different soil content for each plant. As a bonus, it’s a great aesthetic piece in the yard.
Start off by choosing your herbs. Some like less sun than others, so you’ll have to choose where to put those while designing. Smaller, more fragile herbs can be positioned on lower tiers, protecting them from wind. For ours, we chose stevia, chamomile, basil, chives, cilantro, lemon thyme and rosemary. The spaces that get most sun, we planted rosemary, basil and chamomile—the latter was planted at the top, which will provide afternoon shade to cilantro nearby. Each have different watering necessities, so we created a chart that lists the plants’ requirements.
Nearly all of these herbs can be stepped for tea, which was our primary purpose of the spiral. We wanted it built close to the door in Zone 1 (closest to the house), since it’ll be used often. As Mollison has said, “Put your flannel night gown on and put your fluffy slippers on, and if you have to get your slippers wet it’s too far from the door.”
We took the sod off the soil first but didn’t toss it—it’ll be used in the compost. We layered the ground with newspaper as a sheet mulch, then started with the bricks in a spiral, slowly raising higher as we went along to about 3 feet, with the base 6 feet wide. Mollison said this gives about 58 running feet of herbs. We filled the spiral with a mix of garden soil, compost and coconut coir, then topped that with mulch. While we opted not to, there is an option to build a small pond near the mouth of the spiral, providing a place for lizards and frogs, even fish.
Despite the heat, our stay in Louisiana has been a good one. We’ve eaten wild blackberries and freshly caught crawfish, even setting up my parents with a couple of chickens. It’s always good to be home for a while, especially a place as cultural rich as south Louisiana—mosquitos and all.
Photos by Jonathan Olivier
Jonathan Olivier is traveling throughout 2018 with his partner, Brittney, with the goal of learning everything they can about farming. He is a freelance journalist, having covered the environment and outdoors for Outside, Backpacker, REI, Louisiana Sportsman, and a host of other publications. In 2016, he published his debut novel, Between the Levees. Follow Jonathan on his website and Instagram.
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