The permanent wave

Permaculture Northern Nevada exchanges seeds and wisdom

Pictured from left, Rachael Murphy, Ruth Flack, Carolyn Irwin and Shelley Brant prepare seed balls at a Permaculture Northern Nevada workshop.

Pictured from left, Rachael Murphy, Ruth Flack, Carolyn Irwin and Shelley Brant prepare seed balls at a Permaculture Northern Nevada workshop.


Permaculture Northern Nevada meets the first Wednesday of every month from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and the following Saturday, usually around 10 a.m. The next meeting is March 4 and is held at the Unitarian Universalist church, 780 Del Monte Lane. For more information and updates, visit their Web site.

For an extreme example of using permaculture in a dry place, watch the video “Greening the Desert” on YouTube.

Suggested reading: Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway and Earth Users Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Marrow.

A group of women are forming balls of what appears to be cookie dough on Rachael Murphy’s kitchen counter. However, the ingredients in these balls are sifted clay, vermicast, compost and a helter-skelter mixture of seeds—poppies, cilantro, butterfly flower, basil, rudbeckia.

The women are part of Permaculture Northern Nevada, and they are making seed balls and exchanging seeds for their monthly workshop. The seed balls will be or tossed randomly into gardens to attract butterflies, bees and provide a more natural look to backyards. (They’re also handy for guerilla gardeners to launch into ugly, abandoned plots.)

Permaculture means “permanent agriculture.” More than just organic gardening, it’s a way of creating a self-sustaining system that provides food and life for people and other living things. Permaculture features specific design principles that include capturing rainwater and growing plants—especially vegetables—that also help birds, bees, beneficial insects and, yes, even the nibbling rabbits.

“What we’re looking at is what can you do in Nevada?” says member Shelley Brant. “What can you do in a suburban environment? What can you do with 2,200 square feet in a CC&R- [covenant, conditions and restrictions] controlled environment?” One of PNN’s long-term goals is to help the city and county incorporate permaculture into their landscaping.

The group consists of beginners as well as master gardeners, though only one member, Neil Bertrando, is a certified permaculturist. They formed about a year ago and have since provided much of the labor for the West Street community demo garden, as well as helped clean out a member’s barn, had a mason bee presentation, participated in a cob oven workshop at the River School and a sheet mulching project. Future workshop ideas include how to prune, grow mushrooms and orchards.

Saturday workshops are preceded by Wednesday night meetings, during which they discuss group business as well as have an educational component. During a recent Wednesday, Leslie Allen of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension led an informal talk about the difference among heirloom, hybrid and genetically modified seeds. Jim Henry provided a good deal of additional input, based on his more than 60 years of gardening experience. This is a man who has gotten peanuts and sweet potatoes to grow in Washoe Valley, all using sustainable methods.

Throughout both meetings, people ask questions: “Can you grow lemons from seed?” asks one. “What can I do with earwigs?” asks another.

This sort of exchange is one of the handiest elements of the group, especially in Northern Nevada, which is rarely the focus of helpful gardening guides. With this group, you may go to a seed ball workshop and come out having learned how to save seeds, which eggplants are most productive here (Apple Green, according to Henry), which tomatoes produce early (Yellow Taxis, for one) and about sustainable agriculture events, resources and projects happening in the area.

And you get to hear gardening advice like this, from Henry: “You’ve gotta do it every day. It takes discipline and a love of plants. And a plant can’t have weeds. I don’t care what it is. It’s not really hard work, you just have to do it consistently.”