Grow wild

Paul Wheaton's at the forefront of a permaculture revolution

by Erika Fredrickson

Missoula Independent July 2012


In 1993, Paul Wheaton planted a garden in his Missoula yardbut everything died. At the time, Wheaton was making money writing computer software, pre-internet explosion. But after his garden withered, he couldn't stop thinking about it. He started going to the Missoula Public Library and checking out gardening books, which he consumed. "That summer my software was doing great," he recalls. "I should have paid attention to that, but instead I was obsessed with gardening."

His garden got better and better. In 1996, he took a master gardener class at the University of Montana. Since then, Wheaton's become one of the most knowledgeable people in the U.S. about permaculture, a branch of ecological design that creates human settlements and agriculture by modeling them from ecosystems. In fact, he's not really a fan of conventional growing methods, mainly because, historically, agriculture has not struck a good balance with the natural world.

"I used to explain permaculture with the story of the Sahara," Wheaton says. "The Sahara used to be jungle and savannah. Then people learned about this new, hip thing. ... It's called agriculture. And you just pull the seeds out of your food and stick them in the ground right next to your house and then, boing! The food leaps out of the ground. And that's so much closer than walking out to the woods."

But, in time, the cleared soil loses nutrients. So they cut down more trees. "And then the rain doesn't fall as much. And what the hell? It was falling great last year. Why isn't it falling great this year? And the rain falls less and less and less, and then—desertification. And permaculture is the reversal of that."

If you ask Wheaton what permaculture is exactly, he says, "Permaculture is a more symbiotic relationship with nature so that I can be even lazier."


He's not really joking. Permaculture is all about letting nature take the reins. And one of its most important principles is no irrigation—which, in a place like the West, where water is a major source of contention, has enormous implications.

How can humans meet their basic needs for food, warmth and shelter while preserving nature's riches, such as forest cover, good topsoil and clean water? A food forest. You can make a jungle that mimics woodland ecosystems by putting together plant and tree species selected for edible and medicinal properties, plus plants that provide benefits to those plants. The goal is often a no-till, no-irrigation grove of diverse, abundant species—trees, bushes, ground cover, flowers, vegetables, fruits, insects, birds—that provide benefits to humans but don't require damaging inputs such as synthetic fertilizers or pesticides or fossil fuels. It's a wild Eden.

Wheaton is a big personality within the permaculture world. He's a tall, large bear of a guy who always wears overalls. ("Except when I sleep and shower.") He loves pie. He has a mad-scientist look: a salt-and-pepper beard with bushy dark eyebrows. He also has a kind smile. Don't let that fool you. Wheaton's sharp-witted and sarcastic. He's opinionated about the way the world works and especially about permaculture. And sometimes he sounds a little crazy. He likes to give this example: Suppose you're a farmer and Wheaton tells you that you should have plants in your pasture that are poisonous to your livestock. Wouldn't you think he was crazy?

"But have you noticed that deer don't die even though they have access to mountains of poisonous plants?" he says. "Because, think about it. If I take a piece of rotting roadkill and hold it up to your face, does your instinct say, 'Yum, put that in my mouth'? No, your instinct says, 'Take that away from my face, definitely don't put it in my mouth; in fact, I think I have to puke a little bit.' You're not designed to eat it. Animals have that instinct also, but it's far more sensitive."

Still, why would you put poisonous plants in a pasture even if the animals know not to eat them?

"This day comes along, and your animal's stomach's not feeling good," he continues. He's talking about livestock. "Suddenly, that plant, which yesterday was poison, today is, you know, 'I want to eat a little bit of that and I don't really know why.' And it turns out to be their medicine." He smiles. "So now, it started out crazy and it ended up making sense, didn't it?"

Wheaton's obsession with the magic of ecosystems has turned into an empire. He now runs the largest internet forum on permaculture,, which offers discussion on topics such as energy, building, "growies," critters and homesteading. Its tagline is "goofballs that are nuts about permaculture." His other site,, houses podcasts about everything from organic lawn care to bees, raw milk, tree bogs, knapweed and rocket mass heaters.

  • Photo courtesy of Krista Miller

  • Caleb Larson uses rotten and un-usable wood from his sawmill in the construction of a hugelkultur bed in 2011. After 2–3 years, when the woody and biomass materials begin to break down, hugelkultur beds will grow food crops without any irrigation.

After his initial immersion in Missoula gardening but before he'd ever heard the term "permaculture," Wheaton moved to Mount Spokane, just outside of Spokane, which is where he started really experimenting with farming techniques. He had 80 acres to play with: trees, gardens, pigs, fish, chickens, cows—even bamboo. He raised earthworms and meal worms in the winter to feed the chickens. Chickens' ancestors, Wheaton says, are "from the jungle and if you're raising them here, what are you feeding them to replace that? That's their natural food, and it's like, if you're going to keep them in a cage and they can't get out, then don't you take on the responsibility of making their life at least as good as if they were in nature, in the jungle?"

His farm system was a loop. When he harvested chickens, the parts he didn't eat went to the pigs. And then, when the pigs were harvested, the extra hog parts went to the chickens. He was also recycling crop waste. One day, someone told him what he was doing was called permaculture. "He brought me the big black book and I looked through it and thought, 'There's a lot of stuff in here that I'm doing and there's a lot of stuff I didn't even know existed.'"

  • Photo by Chad Harder

  • Michael Billington uses a badminton racket to collect algae from a pond, dispersing it on nearby plants as fertilizer.

The black book is the original bible of permaculture, Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual. Mollison dubbed the practice "permaculture," but there are pioneers who had been practicing it before it had the name. Masanobu Fukuoka, a farmer who wrote the book The One Straw Revolution, experimented with his south Japan farm to the point where he needed no chemicals and no machines and did very little weeding, but his yields were as high as other Japanese farmers'. Fukuoka learned, for instance, to sow his rice seeds in the fall rather than the spring to let them germinate naturally over time. He used white clover to keep out weeds and barley straw for mulch. He let plants and animals do their thing, which meant he did very little work to maintain his design other than to harvest.

Other pioneers and big names in permaculture include Sepp Holzer in Austria; Ben Law, who works specifically with woodlands and rewilding; and Geoff Lawton, who is most famous for his work greening the desert in Jordan. All of them seem to have their own specialties and take different routes to get to the same goal.

Wheaton returned to Missoula in 2009because, he says, it's the best place in the world to live. Ironically, he's living in a place with no spot for gardening. Meanwhile, he's consulting on other people's gardens, making his podcasts and taking video of special permaculture-esque projects.

He's not always easy on people. He's mostly given up on consulting for those who don't know him and who might be offended when he shows up at their houses and give them his speech. "I call the speech the 'crushing your dreams speech,'" he explains. "You go to somebody's house and they've got their garden and they want me to say their garden is awesome. Or they're raising chickens and they want me to say, 'Wow, you're doing such a great job.' That's what they want. If you ask me to come by, I'm going to tell you how you're doing it all wrong. And I'll tell you why. And when I leave, you'll know I'm right. But what it means is you'll have to undo all the work you've done over the last five years, and that's just hard for people. They're going to feel like puking."

Bone sauce

A road trip with Paul Wheaton is anything but boring. On a recent Sunday, he packs four of us plus himself into his little green RAV4 and we head to Dayton, on the west side of the Flathead near Big Arm, to see one of the biggest permaculture experiments in the United States. On the drive to the property, there's no 20 Questions or other road-trip games among the group of permaculture enthusiasts, no small talk about the weather or about summer plans. The group talks instead about something called "bone sauce." The way Wheaton describes it, you start with a cast iron kettle and bury it in the ground a little and put a cup of water in the bottom. Then you fill another kettle with bones, put a screen over it and put the bone kettle upside down on the first kettle. You pack clay around the edges to make a good seal. You pile up some dirt and build a blazing fire over the whole thing. "Keep the fire going for an hour or two and then let it sit for a day," Wheaton says. "Then collect the nasty gunk from the bottom. Apparently, this smells awful. Smear a little of this around the trunk of any tree."

It sounds like something straight from the gruesome cauldron of the Macbeth witches, but it turns out it's down to earth: The natural mixture deters animals from eating your fruit trees.

Wheaton got that recipe from Sepp Holzer, the Austrian farmer who's one of the biggest names in permaculture. Holzer's 45-hectare spread of forest gardens and ponds is said to be the best model of permaculture in the world. He's created pondshe has 70 now—that reflect sunlight and provide heat. He's created micro-climates with rock outcrops that actually change the climate from one area of the property to the next so that even in Ramingstein, a place with a latitude and altitude similar to Montana's, he can grow oranges and other tropical foods.

Holzer grew up working his parents' land. "His childhood was a bit Mozart-eque," says Wheaton. "At the age of 7, he was doing a lot of agriculture and gardening that was very different from the norm. He was given the crappiest soil on the steepest slopes and he worked among lots and lots of rocks."

  • Photo by Chad Harder

  • Small rocky waterfalls at Place of Gathering provide oxygen to the running water and keep the ponds from overcrowding with algae.

Holzer gets some criticism because he has so much land to work with, and so people say, "Well, of course he's doing something great. He got the land for free and other people have to go out and buy land." But Wheaton says that when Holzer inherited his parents' land, it was mortgaged beyond its value. "That's one of the reasons his dad was forced to give it to Sepp, because he had gambling debts. Sepp considered walking away and starting over. But he didn't. Sepp started pretty much where we all had to start."

Holzer has been called a rebel farmer because he's been fined and threatened with prison for practices such as not pruning his fruit trees.

"He told us how he first went to school for agriculture and learned all these techniques and then he applied these techniques and everything died up there," says Katharina Hirsch, who owns the Dayton permaculture site we were going to visit, Place of Gathering. "He went through a real crisis. He was like every other kid—growing up trying to learn, trying to be good, trying to make it. And then, throughout that experience, he had to make a decision of whom he was going to believe: himself and his experience or what is being taught at the university. He's a fierce believer that the main important thing is to observe and listen."

Because so many people pay to come to Holzer's land and drink the water (it's like a pilgrimage to a fountain of youth), he makes a lot of money. The fines he accrues from breaking land laws are a drop in the bucket compared to his wealth.

Holzer recently visited Place of Gathering, a 90-some-acre plot. Hirsch invited him there, in May, to put on a permaculture seminar and help get the Dayton permaculture experiment off the ground. Hirsch, who works in the healing arts, was intrigued by Holzer's spiritual outlook when it comes to water.

Holzer considers water dead or alive. Hirsch had noticed how stagnant her land was and knew—like her patients who need to get their energy flowing again—that the ecosystem needed to be revived. "There was an energy block," she says. "But I have nothing to substantiate this other than a feeling."

The first day, Holzer came and looked at the land. The second and third days, he led the seminar for 90-some people. He spent the next few days planting seeds and helping to design a food jungle. It wasn't drama free—like Wheaton, Holzer has a strong personality. At one point he zealously broke apart a supermarket fruit tree that had been packed in sawdust, yelling in frustration that the tree was so dead it might as well be used for kindling. In the end, though, he built the foundation for a massive permaculture project.

One thing neither Holzer nor Wheaton are afraid to talk about is money. Permaculture attracts people who dismiss making money as a focus. But Holzer has a farm in Austria that has so many people willing to pay to see the place and drink the water and meet with him that he pays the equivalent of a quarter million dollars in taxes.

During Holzer's seminar, Wheaton asked if a student of Holzer's could earn half a million dollars a year on these 94 Dayton acres. Holzer said, "At least."

Walking through Place of Gathering now, just a few months after it's been planted with seeds, is a strange, Candy Land-like experience, except the candy is all manner of vegetables and fruits and medicinal plants. Though they haven't quite popped up yet, there's a forest of mycelium—oyster mushrooms and other earthy fungi growing in lasagna layers of mulch. Next comes a little orchard of new fruit trees, only the variety and staggering of the trees makes it less like an orchard.

"In permaculture, there are food forests, not orchards, because orchards are a mono crop," says Wheaton. "In Sepp's book, he writes about how he'd go around visiting farmers and give them advice and the people who are the most painful to talk to are the people who have an existing, standing orchard, because basically, in order to convert to permaculture, you're going to have to take out 90 percent of the trees in order to de-mono crop it. With food forests, you're going to have diversity of species and you'll not have more than 10 percent of any one thing."

  • Photo by Chad Harder

  • Lettuce, garlic, milkweed, beets, peas, carrots and more make their home in a huegelbed at Place of Gathering.

Michael Billington, who worked with Holzer on Place of Gathering and has taken the reins since Holzer's departure, got his training through the University of Montana. Billington was in the Wilderness and Civilization Program, which helped him start thinking about the intersection between civilization and the wild, which led him to permaculture. He's not a farmer so much as a conductor—he'll keep an eye on how everything falls into place, making some tweaks here and there but keeping the wild chaos alive and well.

"There will be a high degree of variance between the height and width of everything," Billington says of the food forest. "I didn't put so much of an emphasis on a path with this one. I wanted it to feel more like a forest that you kind of have to tromp through." If all goes well, it will be a forest of cherries, apples, Asian pears, elderberries, golden currants, red currants, gumis and honeyberries.

The rings around each tree look like volcanoes of soil and are trimmed with gravel to provide mineral content. Beneath the trees grows a meadow of edibles. "We have a mixture of mustards and clovers; strawberries will form a mat around the base of the trees and tons of other different things," Billington explains. "The emphasis is breaking up the soil, and the mustards' fibrous roots are good for that."

The most prominent parts of Place of Gathering's landscape are the hugelkultur beds—mounds of soil and organic matter 6 feet high that snake along the ground. There's something reminiscent of crop circles here; the earthwork designs seem both beautiful and otherworldly. The beds look more like a wild hillside than anything resembling a food garden. There are no carefully cultivated rows. No metal hoops to prop up tomato plants or peas. Nothing, really, that feels too much like human touch. It's a stunning sight, but even more stunning when you realize the diversity of design here.

Billington points out all the new growth. There's raspberry and comfrey, horseradish, hisop, white clover, mustard, radishes, turnips, rutabagas, peas, kale, onion, dill, carrots, lupine, currants and hosta berries, and then a bunch of natives: wild rose, columbine, willows, dog bane, angelica. On the tops of the beds, reaching toward the sky, are sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes.

Another part of permaculture is observing the way in which wildlife is mutually beneficial to the process. "The bugs cruising throughout here—the sheer amount—is unbelievable, because there's so much habitat," Billington says. "And the mice are starting to move in here as a result of the bugs, starting to burrow in here. And then the amount of raptors that are coming here because of the increase in mice is evident."

Most hugelbeds use a rotting-wood process to irrigate. You place wet wood inside the beds, and as the wood slowly rots, it produces moisture for the plants. Ideally, the wood will take 50-some years to completely turn to soil. The beds Holzer helped Place of Gathering build are using mostly pond organic material to stay moist. But they've also planted potatoes, some of which will be harvested while others will rot and produce more moist organic material for the hugelbeds. That still doesn't guarantee the perfect amount of moisture, however. While cutting out irrigation is the plan, Hirsch and Billington are going to water some for the first year or so. The project is so big that losing it in its beginning stages would be devastating. They can't risk it.

Wheaton says he often advises people to water the first year, though it's not the advice Holzer gives. But Wheaton also notes that it's complicated: The first years are critical for permaculture. If you do irrigate, the plants could get used to being watered rather than soaking up moisture naturally from the rotting wood, and some permaculturists believe that creates an ongoing dependence on irrigation.

Around one corner of a hugelbed is a little cove with a reflecting pond. The model is based on Holzer's micro-climate design. The small area is guarded on three sides by tall hugelbeds to keep the moisture from being whisked away. Growing there are pawpaws, a fruit found mostly in humid climates such as the eastern and southern U.S. that has odiferous leaves that act as a natural pesticide. The entire wall is covered in currants and there's an Asian pear sticking out of the hugelbed. There are creeping cranberries growing around the edges. The warm pockets have lots of potential.

"Can you imagine somebody growing an orange tree in Missoula?" says Wheaton. "There's a broad collection of techniques to use, and one is to make a sun scoop. You'll have a hugelkultur bed that's basically scooped for the sun... Whatever sits in the middle of it acts like a parabola and collects a lot more heat. You add in a reflecting pool on the south side, so that way, when the sun is low in the winter, the sun reflects off of the water and you get double penetration of sunlight for your limited short days."

Russell Osborn, another Place of Gathering farm hand, is taking the experimentation on a different track. A wanderer who never jibed with schooling and says he always responded to situations rather than created them, Osborn sees permaculture as the perfect way to respond to nature. His interest has been in creating places where people can be a part of the landscape. He's built a sod couch—a giant grassy perch that's tall enough to make you feel like a little kid dangling from a seat. "Your garden is like an outdoor room," he says. "It's a place you should spend time in, not something separate where you just come by to pick things. I make spaces habitable for humans because a lot of spaces have been made uninhabitable by humans."

Farther away from the the hugelkultur beds are running streams for which they've created rocky waterfalls, so that the water gets oxygen and keeps the ponds from overcrowding with algae. There's a frog pond. A meadow of edible flowers. There's a slope on which Billington has been experimenting with different types of grasses to see which are hardiest.

  • Photo by Chad Harder

  • Katharina Hirsch invited permaculture master Sepp Holzer to her Dayton property to help turn the landscape from gravel to jungle.

"I lost my father when I was 16," says Billington. "I realized life is more important than the subtle distractions we get caught up in. So I asked myself, what is the greatest thing I can contribute while enjoying myself as much as possible? I realized it's arranging animals and plants to form holistic symbiosis ... and this place is the ultimate canvas for that. When you're following your bliss, everything will fall into place."

Not your bitch

On the way back from Dayton, we stop in Polson to meet Kelly Ware, a deep tissue massage therapist. Her six-bedroom, two-living room, custom-built home is also where she's been sharing her business with her chiropractor husband. Ware is an exuberant woman, lithe and strong, and her sunny personality is reflected in the colorful house that's painted in rich oranges and greens and is surrounded by a jungle of plants and fruit trees.

Ware and her husband have been trying to sell this place so they can take care of their farm in Bigfork. Her backyard garden, with its hugelkultur beds and mass of shrubs and other plants, has been neglected all summer. No water. No weeding. Apparently, no need. There's been just enough rain, and the hugelbeds have done their job of staying moist.

Ware pulls out a serrated Japanese sickle, a "comma tool," and begins to chop some black medic—usually considered a weed—and lets it fall to the ground, where she leaves it as mulch. This is what permaculturists call the "chop and drop" method. "I have friends who come and they worry about how big and wild my garden is," she says. "Or people might say, 'Oh, that's black medic. It's so terrible.' But it's a good nitrogen fixer. And these leaves are great. You can eat them when they're small or you can do the chop-and-drop."

Weeds are of course anything you don't want in your garden, but there's also the assumption that certain plants are weeds no matter what. One of those is dandelions. "I tell people that my progression to permaculture from normal gardening is that now I end up transplanting my dandelions," says Ware. "I tell my kids they can go ahead and blow the dandelion [tops]. I'm not worried about it."

Wheaton digs out his video camera and asks her to say something short and bumper-stickerish about dandelions for his website. "I've got video of eight different people saying something profound about dandelions," he tells her. "So what you do is, you're going to say, 'I don't fear dandelions' or 'Dandelions will save the world,' and then you're going to blow the seeds off the top of one."

Ware smiles at the camera. "I don't fear dandelions anymore," she says. "In fact, it's a mulch producer. Every part of the dandelion is edible whether it's for humans or worms or animals." She points toward the bottom of a large dandelion she holds in her hand. "This is one of the most tasty spots between the root and the very beginning of it. You can make dandelion wine. Now I want them to take over. I chop-and-drop and I might even transplant them. And they're good for smoothies. Do you know you have to pay $3.50 a bunch at the store for these things?" she asks, tapping at one of the big leaves. "If you want to, add them to your carrot juice. It makes them so nice and spicy."

Wheaton looks at her and grins. "You have no idea what a bumper sticker is, do you?" he asks, teasing her.

Inside her home, Ware feeds us a salad of greens from her garden and venison steaks, plus some locally brewed beer. Her young son is dying to light off firecrackers for the Fourth of July, and for a moment permaculture is forgotten because we're talking about explosives. But then Ware tells a story about finding a dead rabbit in her backyard. And as we're eating, she describes putting the rabbit in a garbage bin and discovering it later, covered in maggots. Instead of disposing of it, Ware started thinking about permaculture. Could she farm maggots from the rabbit's body in order to feed her chickens? It might not be a bad idea.

After dinner, we go outside and check out the front yard of her house. It's wild with comfrey, which is a stellar nitrogen fixer but also has many medicinal uses. At the side of her yard, a pear tree shades huge stalks of comfrey.

  • Photo by Chad Harder

  • Permaculture enthusiast Kelly Ware stands amid her Jerusalem artichoke patch.

And then Ware suddenly yells, "Oh my God! LOOK AT THIS BURDOCK! This is burdock and it's the tallest burdock I've ever seen. You can dig it up and have an amazing burdock soup or stew."

The excitement of permaculture is that you never know what you'll find when you let nature do its thing. In honor of that idea, Wheaton pulls out some T-shirts to give out. One of them says: "Weeds: Because Mother Nature is Not Your Bitch."

Cowboy toilet paper

Krista Miller and Caleb Larson live 15 miles from Missoula toward Frenchtown in what, to the untrained eye, might look like a wasteland. The view from their three-and-a-quarter-acre property is beautiful, but the property itself—a former gravel pit and small logging mill—looks more industrial than homey. Larson's family has owned the property since 1989 and passed the working mill down to him. Before that, it was a state-run gravel pit. The result is three acres of dusty slopes and a spread of compacted, gravely, rocky dirt that has been manipulated by machinery for years and that stays dry as bone because of the wind. When the rain comes through, it's mud, but there isn't much in between to make it a place where life might grow. There's knapweed on the slopes and bits of green grass or random plants—mostly what would be considered weeds—growing here and there.

"If someone were to think of common societal things," says Miller, "you've got to have a green lawn, you can't have any weeds, no dandelions, certainly not knapweed or any other invasive noxious species—for someone like that to come here, it looks like like a wasteland. And it really is, because it has been abused. It's not natural."

Miller and Larson thought for a long time about what they could do to make the site look better. They didn't really have the money or the desire to spray herbicides on so much land. So they started looking up alternatives online, and they discovered Paul Wheaton, who was giving free talks almost every week at the Missoula Public Library. The prospect of transforming their land suddenly seemed less like a chore and more like part of a movement.

They already had the creative sensibility. Miller is a photographer and web developer. Larson works at The Axmen, an alternative energy and ranch and farm store, installing alternative energy units—water heaters and solar panels—for local businesses. He also runs his own business through the mill—a green building company called Rugged Traditions.

In a corner of the land behind the mill and the slope where their house sits, they began to try a few things. Larson wanted to build a little rocky pool to catch water. It wasn't really ideal, Miller says. "It's super small-scale. ... We tried all kinds of different things from natural to semi-natural to hold the water back, and it just wasn't very practical." But it was eye-opening.

"It was a project that was manageable by hand, and the only thing it cost us was our time," she says. And it got them thinking about other things they could do.

The area where the pool is had once been a stand of pines. They'd cut them down after the trees had been infested by pine bark beetles, and the loss created a new climate in that one area. "Once we cut those trees out and it stopped being a pine forest area where nothing grew, it really changed the climate," Miller says. "We didn't have that constant addition of pine needles to the soil, which also hinders growth. We lost our canopy. It's huge, it's open—and so we started planting the fruit trees." They put in Hollywood plums, pears and a cherry tree.

Their property is a bigger puzzle than most. It's not boxy like a yard and it's not flat. "It's a weird shape, so you have to just kind of stand on it and think and be creative," Miller says.

The area isn't really an example of permaculture. Rather, it's an example of the kind of thinking and light-bulb moments that lead to permaculture.

"We didn't really know enough at the time of what we were doing to do what Paul would consider permaculture," says Miller. "Of course, Paul Wheaton's eco-scale—I mean, as far as he's concerned, we're at 2 or 1, if not negative, because we're in a gravel pit and because there's high potential for contamination of the soil. ... And because we don't have soil to get started, we have to do so much work. So we definitely are looking into bringing in materials—which is not a permaculture thing to do."

After spending time with Wheaton and listening to his podcasts, the couple began to build their hugelkultur beds alongside their more conventional garden. The excess logs from the mill were perfect for construction of the beds. They brought in straw and manure to make their own compost. The three hugelkultur beds are solid. One of them is too wide and the others could have been built higher, says Miller. But they're full of life, like a green oasis amongst the rest of the gravelly land. They've planted a mixture of radishes, peas, tomatoes and potatoes. Other interesting volunteers have shown up, including Russian pigweed, which is a grain that can be used to brew gluten-free beer. Types of wheatgrass and barley are appearing, and with some of those, Miller hopes to transplant the grass and slowly let them create some diversity in areas now dominated by knapweed.

The biggest pride and joy for them might be the mullena plant thought of as a weed but which has medicinal properties. The giant plant grows easily on the sides of roads. "It's known to grow out of anything," says Miller. "You find it in disturbed soil, most roadsides, and I think Paul even found one growing out of asphalt. So it's not totally amazing that we can grow them, it's just pretty how huge they are—more than anything a sign of encouragement that it's growing here."

And these mullen are impressive at 7 feet tall, with a stalk another foot taller. It's known as cowboy toilet paper for its long, fuzzy leaves that can actually be used as toilet paper. The fuzzy factor keeps sun from eating away its moisture. You can also use the leaves in tea to help with respiratory problems and the flowers can be plucked and infused in olive oil with garlic and used as drops to soothe earaches.

Even beyond the hugelbeds, Miller and Larson are seeing signs of life that give them hope. Out of the gravel they've seen lamb's quarters, an edible weed.

"Most people come here and they're completely discouraged," says Miller. "The only thing growing here is weeds, very little grass. Well, there actually is life here. ... Anything that's growing here is a good success for us for now, which is not necessarily the permaculture way, but that's what helps get us closer to it."

  • Photo by Chad Harder

  • “Conductor” Michael Billington scatters seeds between huegelbeds at the Place of Gathering in Dayton.

Wheaton has taken the couple under his wing. And even though the process is slow, Miller says they've learned a great deal from him. "Paul's message is to get more and do less," Miller says. "And that means you've got to be really smart and you've got to set it up right. It's one thing for Paul to come here and tell us, 'This is what you need to do.' It's quite another for us to learn what we need to do."

Recently, John Trask, a permaculture enthusiast, moved onto their land in an RV with his dog, to help them out. Trask had gone to Holzer's seminar and then spent time with Wheaton. He quit his job at Lockheed Martin in Seattle and moved to Montana to get involved. That's the kind of big action Wheaton inspires.

"Paul has a personality and he is one in permaculture," Miller says. "He's the biggest resource for information. He also pretty much devoted his entire life to spreading the word about permaculture. And he does take the hard stance. Because somebody has to."

Give me the M

Wheaton has his dissenters. Recently, he made a statement on about the criticism he gets. Some of it is silly, like people saying he's fat. And some of it is in reaction to his hard-line take on permaculture, that he's arrogant. And maybe he is sometimes. But he's never uninterested in new ideas, if he thinks they're good. "The great thing about the internet is I'll post this stuff and then other authorities will share their stuff," he says. "And they'll be like, 'Okay, you're right about this, but I want to question this part of what you said."

The internet trolls he gets could be corporate instigators from the agri-business giant Monsanto, as he suspects. (In fact, on this point, Wheaton is paranoid enough that he won't give his age for this story or even specify the part of Missoula he lives in, because he's so fearful of big oil and big ag corporations trying to thwart permaculture.) But the trolls also could be the same garden-variety online provocateurs who plague many other kinds of sites. Whoever they are, Wheaton has no patience for them. Where other sites bend over backward to accommodate free speech in comments, Wheaton just calls them on their crap and boots them off. "And then they're gone," he says. "And now we get people coming by and they really know their shit."

As with all groups, there's in-fighting within the permaculture community. Some people say you shouldn't make money off of it. Wheaton disagrees. Native plant proponents don't always like the idea of permaculture embracing edibles that aren't native in an area, like Place of Gathering's pawpaw patch. There might be some permaculture people who say no to all lawns, just because lawns are generally a non-edible monoculture that require lots of water—the antithesis of permaculture. But Wheaton, as hardcore as he is, believes a lawn has its place. In his article on called "Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy," he talks about how to have a lawn without all the bad parts. You plant a certain kind of grass, you have soil that's 18 inches deep and you mow high, so that the roots stay long in the soil and collect moisture better. "With just those things right there you can have a green lawn all summer long and not water it," he says.

  • Photo by Chad Harder

  • This "guild"—or grouping of plants, animals and bacteria that work well together—contains a fruit tree, flowers, food and more. All rely solely on roof water for irrigation.

That's just the bare minimum. What you can do, says Wheaton, is improve your lawn beyond what you'd imagined it could be. You can plant edible flowers and crocuses so that your lawn is blooming early in the season. If you plant low-growing chamomile, every time you mow it smells like green apples. Yarrow will make your lawn spongy and soft, perfect for rolling in. "So there's all kinds of fun things you can grow in your yard," he says.

For his next project, Wheaton is hoping to meet up with Holzer in Siberia. The project Holzer hopes to achieve is massive: They'd be dealing with 25,000 acres to which 10,000 families would be moving to occupy a 2.5 acre plot apiece. "The idea is that 2.5 acres should supply all of that family's food and they'll have zero money," Wheaton says. "This acreage is totally barren and useless; it's a wasteland right now. So it's like, okay, what if we have zero money and a handful of seeds?"

Meanwhile, with the help of John Trask, Wheaton is currently searching for 200 acres of land to make his own permaculture paradise. When I ask him what he's looking for, he very unjokingly mentions that he would love to have Mount Sentinel, where the M marks the slope. "Give me Mount Sentinel and I will turn it into a jungle," he says. "I think that'd be cool, but boy would that ever be a political nightmare."

So he's looking for something with a south-facing slope and a lot of trees, though his time is eaten up by all the people who keep stopping by his website and calling to ask him how they can make permaculture part of their lives.

"At some point these guys are going to learn I'm just some giant doofus in overalls and they'll stop listening to me," he says, smiling. "And then I can look for land."