News - Intro


 Famed permaculturist directs Dayton project



Sepp Holzer takes time to discuss the project with the participants. Holzer speaks German, and his interpreters translate for him


Berl Tiskus

• Wed, Jun 13, 2012

Valley Journal


DAYTON — Sepp Holzer is one of the gods of permaculture. The Austrian farmer and teacher raises fruit trees, vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, fish, pork, poultry, bushes, shrubs and vines, even lemon trees, at about 5,000 feet above sea level in the Austrian Alps. His family farm is the called the Krameterhof, in the Lungau, sometimes called the “Austrian Siberia.” There the Holzer’s highly productive farm thrives, self-sustaining, without irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides or weeding.
Holzer has spent a lifetime farming and had been farming for 20 years or so before he realized he was a permaculturist. He calls his method Holzer permaculture.
Holzer was in Montana at the behest of Katharina Hirsch, who purchased some land near Dayton about 2 years ago. After meditating on what to do with the land, she researched land use, liked what she read about Holzer’s methods and contacted him when she was in Europe.
Holzer agreed to come to Montana from May 3-14.
On her website,, Hirsch said, “Our objective in these 11 days is to create a permaculture design plan for the land, but first and foremost we are recreating the wetlands that are here on the property and bring back the natural lake that was part of the land originally.”
Ask any of the 90 or so participants who paid to come work the land with Holzer, and each will focus on a different area of permaculture.
According to many websites, permaculture is basically living sustainably, working with nature instead of against her, adapting to whatever sort of land is available, using no fertilizers or tilling, allowing trees to grow with no pruning, planting a variety of vegetables, fruits, flowers, animals and trees, including poisonous varieties, developing ponds or other sources of water and making hugelkultur beds.
Joshua McCoy from northern California said, “Sepp is an absolute legend, the quintessential farmer.”
McCoy, who worked in his bare feet, said he and his wife have land with challenges, such as changes in elevation and rocks, so he came to study and work with Holzer.
“Sepp said plants grow better with rocks,” McCoy said with a grin, a dandelion jauntily stuck behind his ear.
Some farmers use lots of chemicals, make straight rows and take out the rocks.
“Sepp said it’s stupid, although he is big into heavy machinery,” he remembered.
Holzer doesn’t believe in chemicals, not even fertilizer, and he doesn’t prune fruit trees. They naturally bend down so you can pick the fruit, McCoy said.
“He’s very smart about his labor,” McCoy added. “No busy work.”
Hugelkultur beds are a good example of no busy work. They are raised bed gardens, so food can be harvested without stooping and without weeding and fertilizing. Holzer’s plan for Hirsch’s land was a large area of these beds.
As Jason Moore, seminar participant explained, Holzer first had his class make a small hugelkultur bed by digging a ditch from 3 to 5 feet deep, filling it with rotting logs or trees, or even green ones, covering with branches, pine needles, leaves, compost, horse manure (or cow manure or whatever is available) and other organic material. All this material was covered with dirt and topsoil. Holzer recommends hugelkultur beds be at least 5 feet high with steep sides, 45 degrees or better, Moore said.
The hugelkultur beds the group constructed on Hirsch’s property were even taller. An excavator was called on to add the dirt. The mounds snaked around the area, and the gardeners laid branches on the sides, anchoring them with “y” branches. As soon as the beds are constructed, Holzer had everyone planting.
On top went plants with long roots, such as sunchokes or sunflowers, according to Heidi LeHong, one of the participants. Since the soil is not compacted, the plants can establish themselves and open up the dirt for plants with shallower roots.
The sides are planted with raspberries, blackberries, red currants, etc., with potatoes interspersed. They shade plants lower on the bed. At the bottom of the steep beds, where it’s shadier, are strawberries, white clover, herbs or vetch.
One lady likes wildfowers because they attract bees.
In the soil between the berries, potatoes and other plants, Holzer sows a mixture of seeds. In Dayton, the mix was peas and beans. These plants are ground cover and get ahead of the grasses and weeds, as well as being fresh and tasty.
Livia Blaszak, Portland, Ore., and her husband grow their own fresh food — berries, vegetables and fruit — much of which they sell. Blaszak grew up on her grandparents’ homestead in Romania and has been a farmer all her life. She came to Montana to learn from Holzer.
Although it’s not a farm yet, Linda and George McCoy of New York City bought rural land in the Putnam Valley. They want to do something. After researching Holzer’s methods, they took a month off and drove out here.
“Regular farming is just not right for us,” Linda said.
New Jersey resident Dan Palmieri lives in suburbia. He wants to buy some land, “land I can sculpt, and I want to know what to do.”
He’s interested in Holzer’s vertical gardens, which are a good way to garden when there isn’t much space. Palmieri said after Hirsch’s project, Holzer will traveling to Detroit to work with low-income urban dwellers, who want gardens and access to fresh, healthy food, but don’t have land. Palmieri also mentioned Holzer’s method of growing kiwis with the vines spreading down apartment building walls.
Neil Bertrando works at R.T. Permaculture in Reno, Nev. A fan of the keyline plough, an Australian technique developed in the 1950s, he said the method focused on building water retentive landscapes and rainwater gravity fed irrigation leading to rapid topsoil development for small-scale homestead. The keyline plough was a foundation of permaculture.
“Sepp created his own system using similar methods and principles, building an edible ecology and farming with nature,” Bertrando said, pushing a wheelbarrow full of young trees to plant.
LeHong, also a project participant, gave her understanding of the key concepts of permaculture — no land is unproductive, hugelkultur beds are a large part of permaculture and all parts of agriculture should work together. It should be joyous work,too.
“All plants grow together,” she said, cutting seed potatoes so they could be planted. “From a lifetime of observation, Sepp knows what food grows well together.”
“It’s hard to get over the traditional (farming) paradigm,” she added.

Sepp has 200 projects all over the world and is a consultant to the United Nations, governments and people all over the world, LeHong added. Projects include growing tomatoes in Siberia, growing food in sand in the Ukraine andvegetables in garbage dumps.
“He’s saving the world,” Moore said, “by showing people what to do.”