Permaculture and dark horses in Colorado

Welcome to my latest attempt to share my writings on this blog! Big gaps of time seem to elapse with this space acting as little more than a holding pen for the articles I’ve written this past year for SocialCoast. But that era has come to an end (thanks to the SocialCoast team for all the wonderful work they did in the community!). So I need a new impetus to write. And I figured spending five weeks visiting permaculture teachers and demonstration sites, intentional communities, organic farms and cooperatives was a darn good reason to fire it up again. If for no other reason than to remember this stuff when I’m 64!

Kat Zimmer picBut if you’re reading this too, thanks for following me on my latest journey. I hope you will find some intriguing threads weaving through my permaculture tour of the USA. A bit of backstory: I’m doing my MA research about permaculture in higher education. So this fall I’m interviewing professors and permaculture teachers who have offered permaculture design courses (henceforth called the PDC) at universities and colleges, and students who have taken those courses. It was really important to me to meet the people and connect with the places in person, because permaculture is very much about the relationships, the connections to place and community, and the sensual/experiential dimension of one’s presence in nature, garden and landscape.

I feel like I hit the jackpot, because I get to spend two years learning and researching about one of my big passions – permaculture. And I get to connect with people who are doing things that inspire me and that create big yields in their communities. Oh, and I’m also shooting footage to produce a mini-video about permaculture in higher education! But beyond that, my ulterior motives are to see what “permies” (permaculture folk) are up to in different bioregions across North America. How do they live? What choices do they make and how do they design their own spaces? There is much here for me to learn and apply at my own urban micro-homestead and in my life. So this blog series – which will be shared in several parts – is not about what I find in my research (stay tuned for that!) but about the experiences I encounter in my travels.

So without further ado, here’s Part I: Colorado.

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Boulder sunset


My flight into Denver set the tone. All it took was an awkward shuffle into my window seat and a quick “So, are you guys from Denver?” They were. Well, actually he was from Guinea in West Africa, a master teacher of African dance and drumming. She was a young charter school teacher from Phoenix. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know each other at all. Two hours of hysterical laughing and breathless storytelling later, we were best friends. This was followed by the Boulder taxi driver, who engaged me in a heartfelt conversation about the possibilities of migration to Greenland, and the folks who jumped in the cab and paid for my ride. But they were one-upped by the Boulder bus drivers. One stocked me up with bonus transfers; another pulled over his bus full of passengers who sat waiting while he called in to make sure there were still buses running where I wanted to go, and another who got off and walked me to my transfer stop to make sure I didn’t get lost. Everyone was startlingly friendly.

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Pearl Street, downtown Boulder

So it wasn’t a surprise when my couchsurfing host, Corey, turned out to be dripping with hospitality. We (mostly he) practiced Spanish over strong Boulder microbrew and homemade grape and pear pizza. A videographer, he primed me for my first experience filming interviews. We went on an epic cycling tour along the city’s marvelous bike paths beside Boulder Creek (yes, it is quite bouldery). It’s a very bike-friendly city, but it still felt weird not to be wearing a helmet for once!   I also accompanied Corey to one of his favourite stores, a shop that sells medicinal herbs the way only a Colorado store can. It was a surreal experience for the first five seconds – until I got kicked out for not having my passport. I felt like I was getting busted for underage drinking, even though I wasn’t there to buy anything.

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Starbuds dispensary

The first schools on my itinerary were University of Colorado Boulder and Naropa University. While CU Boulder is only just starting to offer permaculture education, Naropa has apparently been at it for a few decades. This is pretty unusual. Then again, Naropa is a tiny private university with flagship programs like the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the BA in Traditional Eastern Arts. So fitting the mold doesn’t seem to be their thing.

It’s also the only school I’ve found that makes Introduction to Permaculture a requirement for all Environmental Studies majors. In my conversations at the school’s geodesic dome greenhouse, I wondered whether requiring students to learn about permaculture – or any environmental topic, for that matter – is a good idea. The idea of making any kind of education mandatory seems a bit draconian. Then again, compared to a lot of other “mandatory graduation requirements”, it’s my very biased opinion that permaculture and sustainability would rank higher in importance.


It was time for a little excursion to the mountains. I rented a Honda Accord through RelayRides, a peer-to-peer car rental network in the US. Canada is so far behind in this realm!  It’s a lot more affordable and flexible than renting from a company, and I love that it involves a connection with another human being through the share economy – like Couchsurfing or AirBnB.

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The river in downtown Salida

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Public art created by Sandy’s friend

From the flat sprawl of Denver, the highway cuts briefly through steep foothills cut with jagged edges, then abruptly twists upward into the Rockies leading toward high plateau farm and ranchland. At 7,000 feet, Salida is a tiny town with startling taste. It’s a historical mining town that has seen a surge in cultural and artistic regeneration in the past decade. Street after street downtown, refurbished buildings painted in bright, funky hues are filled end to end with art galleries, bookstores, cafes, curiosity shops, and stores selling local and handmade products. There are public works of art on every block. The experience reminded me of driving into the Rockies from Alberta and making a B-line to Nelson.

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But of course, I was mainly there to talk about permaculture. I was visiting Sandy Cruz and her gracious host of a husband, Gene, who moved to Salida a few years ago and started a high altitude food forest just outside of town. Sandy was practicing and teaching about high altitude permaculture long before its popularity began to spread. Though the winters are long and cold and frosts are frequent even in the warmer months, the sun is persistent in Salida and Sandy is growing a wide variety of useful perennials including peaches, apples, berries, asparagus, sunchokes, comfrey and other medicinal herbs.

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Sandy in her garden

We visited her good friend across the road who is growing similar polycultures in the forest gardens surrounding her beautiful straw bale house. Even though it was late in the season, her greenhouse was in full production with little winter seedlings. There is so much more you can do in cold climates than people generally believe is possible!

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High altitude forest gardening


Back in Denver, I visited the GrowHaus, an urban farm in the northeast corner of the city. The neighbourhood is a forgotten area of decaying infrastructure surrounded by meat packing plants, factories, and freeways. A lot of undocumented workers live there, and the poverty is starkly apparent. The GrowHaus provides fresh organic produce at affordable sliding scale prices. They distribute low-cost weekly food boxes of local produce with a goal of providing 150 local residents access to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. They also offer cooking classes where residents can learn how to prepare the food box veggies and share in a community meal. The space is a hub for permaculture design courses, youth leadership programs and farm education internships.

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Aquaponics at the GrowHaus

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Hydroponic greenhouse production

Adam Brock, the operations manager, gave me a tour. The GrowHaus was converted from a crumbling flower greenhouse into a welcoming space with the financial help of a developer interested in local food production.   The massive aquaponics facility grows thousands of food plants at a time in a closed loop system with freshwater fish. Tilapia and bass eat the waste greens, and the fish poo fertilizes the veggies. It’s a no-waste system that uses only 10% of the water used in regular farming. Solar thermal equipment and gravity-fed water systems radically reduce the energy footprint. The newest growing edge of the facility is a mushroom cultivation enterprise. There are multiple independent businesses onsite but the spirit is all about collaboration and a focus on social justice and food access. It’s a really successful example of what can happen when people with a permaculture background set their intentions toward responding to the unique needs and yields of their own community.

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New curbside fruit tree guilds at the GrowHaus

My last Colorado stop was couchsurfing with Aram, a marvelously skilled woodworker and student of philosophy. Over local brews, margaritas and delicious Mexican ceviche, Aram and I shared about the books that have shaped our ways of thinking, talking at length about the opposing forces of apathy/cynicism and solutions-oriented action, and the prospects and problems of trying to create a more sustainable existence. We spent the day wandering downtown Denver, a vibrant city that reminds me of Vancouver with its cycling paths and riverside parks surrounded by hardcore gentrification.

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Aram by the river

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Pallet Fest

We visited Pallet Fest, a new free festival celebrating upcycling and the many uses of, well, pallets. There was a pallet parkour course, a giant pallet maze, even a pallet pirate ship under construction. On the pallet fashion runway, local artisans showcased quirky clothing and creative wares made from recycled materials. I love that this is a cause for celebration these days!

Aram was kind enough to drive me to the airport for my late night red-eye flight. I said goodbye to Colorado in the dark, just as I had arrived. Perhaps appropriately, my last glimpse was of Blucifer, the famous red-eyed horse of the Denver airport, maniacally waving farewell.



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