Crestone Eagle, November 2002:
Permaculture at White Eagle Village
by Roni S. Chernin
leaking pool at the White Eagle and the courtyard surrounding
it had been a liability—closed and off limits to the
public for many years. Owner JoAnne Duncan wanted to make
the courtyard accessible again. She was thinking of filling
it in, but hadn’t quite decided what to do with it.
Enter Gary Olsen (the younger of two in Crestone). A student
of permaculture, studying at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture
Institute in Basalt, Gary came across a plan for a gray water
system using layers of plants, soil and rocks, with water
cycling through, and proposed setting up a garden of this
type in the pool. JoAnne thought the plan was pretty awesome.
She used to have an organic herb farm and has always been
a gardener. She appreciated the synchronicity of Gary showing
up when she was trying to decide what to do.
Gary was raised on a farm, where his mother gave him a love
for gardening. “I was eating dirty carrots at 3 or 4.”
For several years he has been doing massage and energy work,
relating to the healing aspect of earth energy. He started
with some small projects at the Heart of Manitou B&B in
Manitou Springs, and also built a greenhouse and garden in
Sedona. There was also a project in Cottonwood Arizona which
involved a senior center and teaching children about natural
One definition of Permaculture is what works well in a climate
and is of the highest mutual benefit for all. Examples of
this include corn or grain crops, not necessarily only perennials.
It also includes understanding the best spot for each plant,
finding its niche, taking into consideration microclimate,
sun requirements, drainage and other needs.
Gary sees Permaculture as a basis for healing people and
their relationship to the planet, and creating community around
it. He has been studying Permaculture on his own for four
years, studying projects like Solviva and the work of Bill
Mollison. Mollison is generally recognized as one of the leading
experts in Permaculture. Gary refers to the story of the guy
with a snail problem. Mollison’s oft-quoted response,
“You don’t have a snail excess, you have a duck
shortage,” illustrates his approach to turning a problem
into its own solution.
Gary was hiking and visiting the Haidakhandi Universal ashram
in Crestone. He spent some time in the greenhouse there and,
feeling the design coming, started tossing some small rocks
into the sand. They fell into the heart shape. The pathway
through the White Eagle garden takes the shape of a heart.
The center of the heart contains a fountain. (The metaphor
for water at the heart of all life.) The garden is at the
building’s heart. The garden is named “The Heart
of the White Eagle”.
Gary didn’t quite realize the extent of what he was
getting into. The pool at the White Eagle measures 20 by 40
feet, and is over 9 feet deep at one end. Starting in late
July, Gary and his helpers hand carried rocks and soil into
the space, because there is no access for vehicles or machinery
and no other way to take the loads of rock and soil through
the part of the hotel used by guests. It took over a month
of continuous hauling to fill the pool with the rocks and
dirt. Gary originally thought the project would take three
weeks. The first stage of building the garden took over two
months to complete, but the garden is a living thing that
will continue to change, evolve and grow each year.
Gary’s approach to the selection of plants had him
“using forest garden design, working different layers
together, mixing trees, shrubs, lower level ground cover,
vines, edibles—most of the plants are edible and/or
medicinal.” Some of the plants include comfrey, yarrow,
thyme, lemon balm, currents, and elderberry, with plans for
fruit trees next spring.
The design on the north end of the garden calls for using
taller trees, and placing shorter plants against the walls.
One nice thing about this garden is that being enclosed by
buildings, some of the larger garden predators, like deer,
raccoons and bears will be unable to gain entry. That allows
for the ability to grow food plants with considerably less
A lot of attention was given to nitrogen fixing. This is
the process by which plants pull nitrogen from the air and
“fix it” into the root systems. Plants that do
this especially effectively include clover, Siberian pea shrub,
indigo, and buffalo berry. When the plant is cut back, it
releases its stored nitrogen, which strengthens and replenishes
the soil and provides nutrients for neighboring plants. It
is a more sophisticated and advanced version of companion
planting. Ideally, the concept is to plant in a way that works
to the mutual benefit of the plants—examples include
“nitrogen fixers next to anything, Siberian pea next
In planning the soil for the garden, the choice was made
“to build the soil from the top layer down—that’s
how nature does it”, adding organic matter and mulch
for the soil as a way to replicate grass lands or simulate
the leaf fall in a forest. The goal is to create a soil structure
capable of holding moisture which allows for microorganisms,
worms and insects to flourish, encouraging the environmental
cycle that allows the plants to feed on the minerals of their
castings and refuse.
Gary sees Permaculture as having the potential to “provide
the majority of our needs on small, integrated intensive systems”—as
one of the ways a society can meet most of its needs on the
smallest possible area of land, so that more of the land can
be left for nature to heal. He views animal systems like chicken
and goats, that don’t take up large amounts of space
and use waste from the garden, as preferable to cattle ranching,
which uses a lot of land and can damage soil. Gary strongly
believes that “Most of our waste is highly viable if
we make the effort to find the right use for it.”
The Heart of the White Eagle garden will continue to develop.
Currently it is spending the winter months under a warm blanket
of straw mulch. Plans for next year include flagstone over
the concrete, and maybe a two-story greenhouse on the west
facing wall. JoAnne would love to be able to grow food for
herself and the restaurant. Right now, she is enjoying just
sitting out in the sun, listening to the fountain.
Gary is currently looking at land in the Grants for a home
and garden. His company, Eco Design, is available for consultation
and all phases of design through implementation.
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