Featured Business of the Month - July 2018
Providing Permaculture Land Care and Design on Nova Scotia's South Shore.
An interview with founder Caitlin Doucette
“We are all about checks and balances. The tool that guides all of our business decisions is: Is it good for people, is it good for the planet and are we taking more than our fair share.”
Phone Interview with Amy Floyd - Permaculture Atlantic Network, June 29, 2018
What inspired you to start a permaculture business?
Caitlin has a passion for permaculture and nature has always had a big role in her life. Permaculture practice helps Caitlin to create sustainable patterns in her gardens and in her life. Throughout her life, working with nature has played a key role in Caitlin’s healing journey throughout both mental and physical health challenges. Permaculture design informs Caitlin’s pursuit of a sustainable, balanced life where she and her family can thrive despite disability. Earthshine Gardens was born from a desire to share the joy of working with nature that is so close to Caitlin’s heart.
Caitlin’s interest in permaculture also includes a focus on community food security. She believes that all people have a right to good food and participation in their food system. For her, community gardens are an important pillar of food security that connect directly with Earthshine Gardens’ mission to reconnect people to the land. In the future, Caitlin hopes to grow Earthshine Gardens into a social enterprise model that can support community garden projects in rural and small town Nova Scotia.
From 2012-2014 Caitlin was the coordinator of a food bank community garden project in Toronto. At the time, she and her husband (Guy) were also coordinating an ecological urban herb farm based in a series of Toronto backyards, called Sage Rising. When Caitlin and Guy moved to Nova Scotia they felt the economic pressure that most Maritimers do, which is a lack of opportunity for meaningful employment in rural areas. They decided it was time to use their green thumbs to start a gardening business. Looking at the industry, Caitlin observed that there are several landscaping businesses in the area, but very few ecological options available within the budgets of every-day Nova Scotians. She also saw a gap in the market for a small, flexible company working on small and medium scale land care projects. There seemed to be the perfect niche for Earthshine to start in human-scale, ecological land care, creation and design.
Your team offers a really diverse range of services. How were you able to pull this great crew together?
Initially the idea was for Caitlin and her husband to take on the work themselves. Caitlin was able to get support from the government of Nova Scotia’s Self-Self-Employment Business Program. Through the skill building opportunities and financial support this program offered, Caitlin was able to hire two additional employees in her first season. In hindsight, she says this was really valuable as it would have been too much for two people to take on. So far the employees have all been found locally through existing friend and community networks. Creating a team of skilled friends has resulted in a high level of trust on the team, which Caitlin says is a key to the success of Earthshine Gardens’ business model.
Caitlin feels that she has a great skilled labor force to draw from.
“People here may not always have certifications behind their name, but rural people are very much connected to the water and land. For example, lots of local folks already have chainsaw and sustainable forest care skills developed through a lifetime of living on the land.”
You say that you like to start with soil health first, can you explain a bit more about that?
“We might only have fifty years of established soil science, but we have thousands of years of traditional soil-building knowledge that we can rediscover and continue to develop.”
The whole-systems ecological approach just cannot work without healthy soil. “Conventional” farming causes so much damage – erosion, compaction, desertification, you name it. Earthshine Gardens is rooted in the idea that soil is a complex, living ecosystem. Ecological gardening is much more than just sticking plants into the ground. It’s about the whole system. Moving to Nova Scotia has allowed Caitlin to further develop her soil-building knowledge in a place with rocky, acidic soil complicated by coastal erosion and climate change. This was a big transition from the fertile drumlins of her Southern Ontario homeland.
Caitlin says that as an ecologically-minded business owner it takes some work to strike a balance as to what will be best for clients as well as for the land. Some clients are ready for a long-term permaculture plan that builds soil over the course of years. Other project need to be completed more quickly, in which case Caitlin brings in materials (soil, mulch, compost, etc.) from local suppliers. For example, Earthshine Gardens works with Bear Cove Resources, a local sustainable seaweed compost producer, when soil fertility needs to be built quickly. Earthshine Gardens aims to work with clients at all levels of ecological understanding, providing personalized education along the way to build their clients’ capacity to reconnect with their land.
Caitlin says that one of the quotes that she references often in her life is “If you’ve built a few inches of soil in your lifetime, then that’s been a good life’s work.” (source unknown). She lives by the rule of her permaculture teacher, Gregoire Lamoreaux: mulch everywhere with everything!. Using lasagna/ sheet mulch beds which comprise of unwanted organic biomass from client’s properties, Caitlin and Guy have been able to build an inch of soil-depth per year, which sounds small but is really a remarkable feat compared to the natural rate of soil building combined with erosive forces.
One of the most unique services that you offer is shoreline care. This is so significant in Atlantic Canada. Can you tell me a bit more about that? If you were to do work the Fundy Coastline what might that look like?
“Well, each site is so unique. I mainly work on the South Shore. If I were to go to the North Shore of Nova Scotia I would have to get to understand the soil and environment there before starting work.” The concept is to build biomass and add native plantings in order to mitigate erosion, add fertility, and give natural succession a helping hand. Erosion is a natural process, but it has been sped up by human processes that remove natural vegetation from our shorelines.
The Earthshine Gardens approach is quite different from the typical approach locally, which is to make large boulder walls in an attempt to protect banks. What happens with these hard boulders surfaces is that the wave action hits the wall and returns to the ocean with even more force, increasing erosion. “You could think about it like a tennis ball being thrown against a brick wall.” Earthshine Gardens’ method focuses on the adding soft surfaces to rock walls and shorelines using log terraces, organic biomass and native coastline plants. These pockets start to act like a sponge of living matter. This slows down the water on contact and gives it an opportunity to infiltrate down into the soil, reducing overland flow and subsequent erosion.
“Japanese knotweed has been a challenge in this area as it creates a monoculture that doesn’t allow native plants to grow, worsening erosion and decreasing biodiversity”. There is a tremendous fear around this plant in Nova Scotia because of its invasive nature. Folks are often afraid to touch it and resort to roundup or other herbicides that are extremely damaging to aquatic ecosystems. Through experimentation, Earthshine Gardens has found is that land can be cleared of Knotweed organically if the area is covered with a tarp for at least one year, rhizomes (root system) are pulled out of the ground by hand monthly. This must be followed by thick sheet mulch and hardy native plantings to fill the niche and ensure the knotweed doesn’t return. The knotweed tops that have been pulled up can be cut away from the rhizome and used as mulch because they will not re-sprout. Presently the rhizomes are being sent to landfill in black garbage bags, but Caitlin and her team are experimenting with other ways to process these so as to keep them out of landfills but also prevent the plant from spreading.
You offer design consultation work as a service. Most people with a permaculture background see the value in good design, but how do people who are new to the concept receive it? How does it change their relationship with their land/ space?
Many of Earthshine Gardens’ clients chose the company because they care about the environment and are looking for an ecological land care option. These clients are excited to engage and learn through consultation and design. “There are some clients who come to me looking for a long-term, ecological land care strategy and we can do a full permaculture plan with them. Some clients need a plan but are not willing/ able to invest in a whole design. For these clients, I offer a design consultation, which is a more casual process that still offers us a vision and plan to work from.”
Caitlin has observed that clients who invest in the complete design process typically become very committed to and excited about implementing their design over time. Caitlin encourages people to use the first permaculture principle “observe and Interact”, and to share their learning with her. She asks as many questions as possible in order to utilize the client’s knowledge of their own land in the design process. “We know it is ideal for a permaculture designer to spend a year observing and interacting with their land before making a plan, but that isn’t usually possible from a business perspective. Instead, I work with the property owner to co-create their own plan. They know the patterns better than I do - how the water moves, where the deer paths are, which are the sunny spots, etc. Each client is the expert on their own land, and sharing in their experiences and observations of the land helps me to create a more sustainable and personalized design.”
You are based on the South Shore. Where else do you work? Could someone in Halifax or Saint John call you in for work?
“We are based in Bridgewater and tend to work mostly in Lunenberg, Queens and Kings Counties. I have done some consultation and design work in the Halifax Regional Municipality, but our primary focus is local. It doesn’t make ecological sense for us to move trucks and equipment long distances for work. That said, consultation and design work can happen anywhere. I am definitely open to design and consultation work throughout the Maritimes and beyond. In those cases, I would hope to find a local partner who shares our ecological values and can complete the project once the design is created.
What is your greatest hope for Atlantic Canada?
“My hope is for us to create resilient, interconnected communities in Atlantic Canada. Community building and resilience would be my hope. Resilience is the ability to adapt and thrive in the face of change. Given that change is the only constant in life; we can expect it around every corner. Our communities are losing resiliency by way of globalization and the way to reclaim that resilience is share local knowledge, skills and resources. We can use nature as a model for how to go beyond sustainability to create the local resilience we need for the future. “
Caitlin believes that understanding permaculture plays a key role in making this much-needed shift to local resilience. Unlike so many other causes in environmental movements, permaculture provides a positive focus with accessible methods that allows individuals and communities to create the needed changes. Starting from where we are to create local networks of business, non-profits, institutions and community members working together for resilience is a necessary foundation for this change. Change can be hard but it can also be joyful, productive and healthy. Permaculture doesn’t focus on deficits. Rather, it is a can-do/ positive practice that can lead us to produce more of our own food, fiber, medicines, wood products, knowledge, skills etc., which will all lend to resiliency.
Caitlin is always happy to connect. Please feel encouraged to contact her with your permaculture queries and ideas. (902) 298-1205 or email@example.com. Learn more about Earthshine Gardens at www.earthshinegardens.com. Join the conversation on the Earthshine Gardens Facebook Page or @EarthshineGardens on Instagram and Twitter.