In Tune – A conversation with permaculturist Barb Mueser
By Judy Bandstra
Our future depends on learning to listen to the harmony of nature and live in tune with the earth, according to local activist Barb Mueser. Her lifelong love affair with plants has inspired her to devote her life to creating a kinship between man and nature.
Today Mueser is active in the local Boulder, Colo. community raising awareness about the dangers of genetically modified organisms, the importance of organic farming and the relocalization movement. She is a master gardener, a permaculture instructor and runs a permaculture design business called Garden Muse. On her homestead in Boulder, she is surrounded by her plants, bees and fruit forest. Her love of nature compels her to reach out beyond the boundaries of her refuge and fight for change.
What does permaculture mean to you?
Permaculture to me is a whole way of living in concert with nature and in concert with the wisdom of the ecology. It has a lot of value to me as a culture, to kind of reunite us, and also to be more sustainable and live in concert with our natural systems.
Do you consider yourself a permaculture activist?
I guess I would say that I did come to permaculture through activism. I have always had that desire to make a change in the way we are living on the planet and the way we are living in community, so when I came to permaculture, I was more of an activist in relocalization, which wasbringing things into our local communities: agriculture, businesses doing business locally, keeping our money local. And that’s when I discovered permaculture. It embraced so much of my values.
Tell me a little bit about what you’ve been doing in the local community and why it’s so important.
I think when we look at our food supply and how important and how critical it is to our everyday life, our health,and we also look at the amount of energy that’s used in our food supply – that it’s important to address any issues that come up such as, you know; how far does our food have to travel? How is it grown? Is it grown in an industrial fashion with a lot of fertilizer? How are our seeds available? Seeds are so critical for us to have a supply of food. One of the things with our local farming was to really support local farmers who actually grow their own seed. When they grow their own seed it’s locally adapted.
I don’t know that there is anything more critical than our food system and our water system. I think that those two go very closely together, and what has become even more of a concern to me is our water in Colorado, cause without a supply of water, we can’t have local agriculture.
Has your focus changed from food security to water conservation?
I think so.We’re moving in a positive direction. The governor in May signed the graywater bill. So I think that graywater will be another way to augment our needs for water. We can use that for trees and shrubs. But there’s still a great deal of grass being grown, there’s still a great deal of water being used for unnecessary purposes. What’s happening is that the water that we need is being bought up by cities. Thornton has bought water from the Poudre River that would normally go to farms, and they bought it from farmers. It’s more valuable for a farmer to sell his water, than to grow crops with it.We’re already diverting water across the Divide, from the Colorado River. Sixty percent of our water comes from the Colorado. We’re consuming far more than is available locally. If we’re looking at local agriculture, we have to look at our local water supply.
Does a lack of available water make it more important for people to grow food on their own land?
Yes. It makes it more important… to build your soil to where it’s more of a sponge and to familiarize yourself with how to conserve water, reuse water. We need to learn how to do that, and I think the governor has started in the right direction. But rainwater catchment will also be important. [It] will eventually come,it’s just that we’re the headwaters. But a lot of studies have shown that anything [water] that’s on the property, only three percent of it actually makes it back to a stream.
Having learned as a classic gardener, how did permaculture change the way you garden?
It has given me a great deal of insight into how plants form communities, and how nature will put a plant somewhere and that plant will flourish, and I put it somewhere and it might die. It’s trusting in permaculture, looking at the natural system and the evolution of the system, and allowing it to just demonstrate itself. So permaculture has opened my eyes to how plant communities actually can tell you a lot more about growing and the soils.
Tilling is not permaculture because it disturbs too much life. I used to till and after I became a permaculturist I stopped. You get more weeds… and you destroy all of that fungal network in your soil. The worms, all of their habitat.I always thought that it was interesting that I would get this huge flush of growth every time I tilled, the garden was just incredible, and it was all because of the decomposition of all the life that had been killed from the tilling, and that really disturbed me. So now I just layer stuff on top generally.
Tell me a little about your homestead.
Well, we have over 50 fruit trees. We had quite a bountiful harvest last year, and so I have a farm table here and I just put it out front next to the gate, in the shade of the tree, and I would just, every day I would just pick whatever fruit was ripe, and put it out there. With the fruit trees, and I have a lot of fruiting [plants]… like currents, gooseberries,… raspberries.We had a lot of variety of fruit over the entire season last year. This year we didn’t because we had some light frost. From one year to the next it can be very different.
What other farming practices do you use?
I haven’t used any tilling or any pesticides at all, or anything that’s a chemical fertilizer on them since probably 2004. So, it’s pretty organic now. We have a lot of stuff on drip irrigation, and I think drip is the only way to do it. Otherwise there is a lot of evaporation and waste. And what else do we have, we have a pasture that I want to regenerate with native grasses and bring it back, so I’m working on that.
You were a gardener long before you ever found permaculture.
I think it’s genetic. My grandfather was a farmer and I think it just all came to me as a result of just following my passion. I’m just smitten with the plants.
photo by Judy Bandstra