In the summer of 2018, I was on a field trip studying Indigenous farming practices and had the pleasure of visiting Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute. Located in northern New Mexico in the Santa Clara Pueblo, Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute is a 30-year-old food forest that is on an ⅛ of an acre. While I waited for the tour to begin, I admired the vast differences of the cultivated landscape of the permaculture institute to the scenic high desert that surrounded it. On the outside of the miniature food forest, the harsh summer sun heated the earth. Vegetation was sparse, which exposed the compacted soil and ants crawled about.
As soon as I stepped into the food forest, I felt immediate relief under the cool shade. Vegetation exploded in every direction as I navigated along trees of varying sizes, mossy boulders, shrubs, flowers, and vines. At the center of the food forest is a hand built sustainable adobe house, with grape vines crawling up the walls. Shamelessly, our tour group stretched our necks out like giraffes and nibbled the sweet grapes off the wall of the home. We felt immersed in the environment and giggled with child-like joy at what the mini food forest had to offer.
Directly surrounding the home are fruit orchards and a small bamboo forest. Bamboo is not native to New Mexico but over the 30 years of growing, the forest has progressed into a cool, shaded, and moist habitat for naturally thriving bamboo.
This lush and diverse forest started with the practice of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), observation, and the deliberate placement of a boulder onto the site. The boulder slows down the flow of water to allow it to saturate the soil and provides a nurse habitat for initial seedlings. Retaining water in the soil is critical, especially since the primary water source for the food forest is dependent on the finite rain and snowfall. In addition, these seedlings have to survive intense sunlight, and endure withering winds and freezing winter temperatures. The boulder will provide some protection from these elements while the seedlings establish themselves.
This microclimate design was replicated throughout the property. More rocks brought in and more vegetation planted. Within 8 years into the permaculture project, over 500 species were recorded on the ⅛ of an acre plot (Hemenway, 2009). Over time, a rich loamy topsoil developed, becoming dense with nutrients from decomposed leaf litter and other organic matter. At the time of my visit, the topsoil was at least 6 inches in height compared to the neighboring sites.
The food forest has been maintained throughout the years while it continues to grow. Trees were initially harvested to help trim the forest and heat the home during the winter. Now the forest produces more lumber than what is needed on the homesite.
And leading this sustainable force is the president of Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, Roxanne Swentzell. Over 30 years ago, she experimented with TEK and permaculture practices to bring this food forest to fruition.
As I reminisce on my visit to Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, I continued to be inspired. I know that this is a practical and sustainable action plan for climate change and food security. This Indigenous woman-led approach on permaculture design in the Southwest is something I am now sharing within my own communities.
Now as we end this field trip, there is plenty more to share about Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute. The institute featured a film called Pueblo Food Experience, and I highly recommend it for anyone exploring the diets of their ancestors. Sign up for the newsletter to stay informed on the latest projects and community workshops. In addition to the food forest site in Santa Clara Pueblo, Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute manages multiple locations that include a greenhouse, seedbank, women’s house, beekeeping, a nature retreat…the list continues! Lastly, please consider monetary contributions to show your support for the tenacious work that is being done. Donate directly to Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, all donations are tax deductible.
Pueblo Food Experience: https://player.vimeo.com/video/82926771
Hemenway, T. (2009). Gaia’s garden. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.