Author and public speaker Rick Austin is sharing his sustainability secrets to help more American develop an enhanced self-reliance skill set. Austin’s extremely detailed and easy to read new release, Secret Garden of Survival – How to Grow a Food Forest, harkens back to days of old. Rick as spent his adult life perfecting sustainable gardening and off-grid living techniques.
The renowned public speaker did not reinvent the wheel, he merely listened to the wisdom of our ancestors and expanded upon their efficient crop growing process. Although Austin’s book focuses on gardening, he is also an expert on off-grid living. He took the skills he learned as a young lad, infused them with green-living advancements, and built multiple solar-powered homes.
The lesson that “sharing is good” we were all taught in kindergarten was definitely not lost on Rick Austin. Sure, he wants to make a living selling his books and addressing crowds, but he is first and foremost a man on a mission. Folks who are interested living a more self-reliant or earth-friendly lifestyle will very likely find reading the Secret Garden of Survival – How to Grow a Food Forest or listening to Austin speak, extremely useful.
IQ – You have spent three decades studying permaculture gardening, solar, and off-grid living techniques. What prompted you to embark on such a journey?
Rick Austin – I learned to be self-reliant by growing up as a New Englander, where the winters are hard, and people’s mindset was always one of self-sufficiency. I learned to live with hardship, and often with the loss of power, heat, and access to the grocery store, for a week at a time. In that environment, you therefore learn to cook and heat with wood, preserve food in different ways, and find ways to keep from freezing to death in zero degree weather.
I learned about solar building techniques because when I was a kid, my Dad was a plumbing and heating contractor, whose claim to fame was probably that he installed more solar hot water and heating systems than anyone else in New England back in the 1970’s. I worked for him as a teenager and learned to appreciate the value of passive-solar, and green energy. For me it was not so much about saving the planet- per se, but more about saving myself, and money. I always figured that if the sun can heat your home and your water for free, why would you pay some utility to do it, especially, when the utility can’t be counted on during snow and ice storms?
I have built and lived in 5 solar homes since then, and each one has been more efficient and better designed that the last. Some of that is due to new technologies, like spray-in foam insulation, and super-efficient, argon filled windows, that allow for solar heat gain, and keep the cold out. As part of this self-sufficient mindset, I looked at ways to incorporate the entire landscape into my self-sufficiency plans. I wanted my home to work with the environment, and I wanted my environment to provide me with food.
IQ – Secret Garden of Survival – How to Grow a Camouflaged Food Forest has appealed both to those involved in the sustainable living and prepper communities. The book teaches readers how to grow food in an organic manner while keeping the crops out of common view. Why are both practices so important?
Rick Austin – Studies of native indigenous people around the world, people who have lived off the land for generations without electricity, without refrigeration, without commercial agriculture, and without pesticides and insecticides, showed that these people have lived primarily on perennials as opposed to annuals such as your typical grocery store vegetables. In a future world where there is potentially no electricity, no refrigeration, no super markets, no seed stores, no fertilizers, no pesticides and no feed stores for domestic farm animals, it makes sense to look at people who have managed to live successfully for generations without these conveniences.
Furthermore, these people are simply hunter/gatherers, so instead of spending their time planting and tending crops, these people spend the majority of their time harvesting their food, without all the “work” that you would typically think of with traditional gardening. These people don’t plant in rows, they don’t plant year after year, they don’t weed, they don’t fertilize, and they don’t water plants in order for the plants to survive long enough to bear fruit. Yet they have managed to survive for hundreds, if not thousands of years this way.
IQ – You took a half-acre piece of red clay ground in North Carolina and turned it into a “food forest” in one growing season. Is such a feat possible for newbie gardeners?
Rick Austin – Not only is it possible for “newbie-gardeners”, they may be more successful than people who have been traditional gardeners, simply because the newbies don’t have ingrained, set notions about what gardening is supposed to be. That’s why I wrote the book. I wanted to teach people what it took me 30 years to learn by making terrible mistakes after following the “expert advice” of commercial farmers, and the agriculture petro chemical business, and then after looking for alternative methods of farming, by reading countless texts, and through trial and error.
What I found is that if you let nature do what nature naturally does, things work together and are in balance, and crops planted in this way grow better together than they do in mono-crop and traditional row planting. When I started on my permaculture Secret Garden of Survival, I took a leap of faith and did a lot of planning. And I built it literally from the ground up. I started with red clay, created infrastructure with terraces and berms, and then created good soil by applying decomposed mulch and planting nitrogen fixing plants to hold the soil in place and to put nutrients into the soil, naturally.
IQ – During droughts, your food forest garden remained healthy while your peers with traditional gardens struggled to keep their crops alive. Why did your secret garden respond so well to climate fluctuations?
Rick Austin – When we first laid out the garden, we created terraces/ swales on our downhill sloping property to keep rain from just washing down the hill and taking away nutrients from the soil. These terraces/swales have small berms on the edges that stop the flow of water and allow it to seep into the ground on the terraces. The water actually forms a lens shaped pool under the berm, that plants roots can reach. And since the best place to store water is underground, this kept our crops watered, when neighboring crops were dying of drought.
We also use micro-climates to help promote growth and create a longer growing season. By keeping large rocks exposed on the soil, and planting more sensitive plants around them, we can grow plants sooner in the spring and later in the fall, because the rocks heat up in the sun during the day and give off heat at night. This creates a pocket of warmth around the rock that protects plants from early and late frosts.
IQ – You have traveled the country as a guest speaker at agricultural, architectural, sustainable buildings, and survival conferences. What have you noticed about crowd size and focus in recent years?
Rick Austin – The crowds are getting bigger and far more people are interested in being self-reliant than I have seen since the 1950s. I think people see homesteading, organic gardening, and prepping, as taking care of themselves, because they have seen the results of relying on the “system” and the government in catastrophes like Katrina and Sandy. People want to know how to take care of themselves, and they are hungry for knowledge on how to do it. Just a short 150 years ago, the vast majority of people made their living as farmers, and grew their own food. They knew how to be self-reliant, and they knew how to preserve their own food for a year without refrigeration and electricity, until the next harvest could come in.
As a society of consumers, we have lost that knowledge and those skills, and most of the people in our society today, can’t even recognize what plants look like in the field, never mind being able to grow them. If we had a long term catastrophe today, 80+ percent of the population would starve to death, simply because they wouldn’t know how to grow or prepare food, that wasn’t already pre-packaged or microwaveable.
A good measure of the trends in the minds of the people is to look at what is selling at Wal-Mart. When you see an entire aisle at Wal-Mart devoted to preserving food by canning, you know that there is interest in this among the consuming public. Another way to see what is happening in people’s minds is to note what is playing on TV. When shows like Doomsday Preppers are in their third season and are the most popular show the network has ever had in its history, you know that prepping and homesteading are becoming more main-stream.
IQ – When appearing as a guest speaker, do you have to alter the scope of your topic to match a particular group’s desires or are their shared interests among the preppers and green living crowds?
Rick Austin – I think that preppers and the green living crowds are becoming homogenous. People are just simply looking for ways to be self-sufficient, and the ideals of what was once the purview of “tree hugging hippies” is now becoming all about simply taking care of yourself.
IQ – Building a food forest appears to be a very feasible task for folks in rural and even some suburban areas. What options do urban dwellers have to growing their own food in a discreet manner?
Rick Austin – You can use permaculture concepts everywhere. Of course you need sunlight, and some land to grow on, but I’ve seen examples of it on roof-tops in cities. You just plant in “guilds” as we outlined above, instead of in rows, or mono-crops. The important thing is the interrelationships of plants and the symbiotic nature of using plants that do better together, than they do by themselves. You can also use the Secret Garden of Survival techniques to disguise your plants by growing so much together, that no one can distinguish the plants until they look very closely. And you can shield your garden from prying eyes, by growing bamboo or blackberries around your perimeter. They make the area practically impenetrable (have you ever tried to get through a blackberry patch?) and in many cases, invisible to passers-by.