Learning about Permaculture with Sylvain Clavieres

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Consider the Permaculture way

For several years, we have worked hard getting our gardens ready for each of the planting seasons.  Does this sound familiar?  Pulling up the last crop, tilling the dirt, adding all of the bags of manure, mushroom soil, compost, new garden soil and before you are able to put in a single plant, pulling up weeds.  Then while your beautiful plants are growing, making sure they are watered even if it’s in the heat of the day; staking up the tall growing plants; and the weeds and grass are so invasive!

What if you only had to do some of the hard work one time and be able to enjoy your beautiful gardens for years to come with only maintenance?

We didn’t know – – what we didn’t know…

My West Texas husband and I have many friends who make their living off the land. They are cotton and grain farmers. They work their land, provide for their families, and have hundreds and hundreds of acres of fields full of cotton, milo, wheat and more. They often work after dark during growing season and their wives change heavy irrigation pipe to water the rows of crops that stretch off out of sight. I love talking to the farmers. They are salt of the earth people.

After moving to the San Antonio area, and becoming familiar with the farm-to-table movement where small farmers grow delicious healthy foods in their own plots, in their backyards and front yards, and some in their neighbor’s yards, I am amazed that they too make their living off the land just as those farmers who have hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres. Some of these smaller farm-to-table farmers might surprise you as some of them make six figure incomes off their 1+ acre very specialized farms.  The secret:  They grow what sells.

Don’t let the size of their farms fool you. By using a technique known as permaculture, their yields are very good and the soil is regenerated and the farms and crops remain sustainable year after year.

These farm-to-table farmers use both modern and time-tested techniques such as permaculture, sprouting, and hydroponics and sell directly from their small farms to individuals and local restaurants. Some of these small farmers also have beef cattle, chickens, and swine and humanely provide the very best cuts of meat to the public.

And they make a living for themselves and their families without much interaction by a middleman.

One day I was speaking with my mentor Chef Stephen Paprocki, and he mentioned that he wanted to introduce me to a friend of his, Sylvain Clavieres.

Chef Stephen Paprocki is the founder of Texas Black Gold Garlic and Chef’s Cooperative.  He’s helping me so much with my cookbook all about Texas Black Gold Garlic, and he knows everyone!  He’s introducing me to so many exciting and interesting people.

Sylvain teaches all about Permaculture.  When I met Sylvain, he had such an interesting story and way of gardening that I had to learn all I could so I could share with our readers.

Sylvain believes that gardening in harmony with nature (Permaculture) you will have beautiful healthy gardens without all the hard work.  The idea of gardening with nature is to use what nature provides, not store bought expensive additives. You don’t have to tear down your garden before replanting.  You can also allow companion plants to keep away the pests.

By creating a worm farm and draining its juice byproduct he uses this as a natural fertilizer.  The worms also create worm castings which is a wonderful natural fertilizer because the worms digest the compost and the output is full of microorganisms.  Sylvain also believes in letting worms aerate the soil while providing excellent fertilizers.

I have an extensive interview with a worm farmer with articles and videos.  Click on this link and learn all about the benefits of Worms

A good lesson is to stop wasting a lot of your food scraps, but let them compost and feed your garden!  He has even made his own composter out of a barrel.  Sustainable agriculture makes the soil richer, uses less water, and preserves the land for future generations.

Sylvain has a very interesting story of how he made it to Texas.

Sarah and Sylvain first met in Thailand where Sylvain, a native of France, was learning and teaching farming techniques and Sarah, a Texan, was teaching English. Sylvain spent years learning the intricacies of permaculture farming techniques. They moved back to Texas to Sarah’s home town of San Antonio and planted their own roots.

I sat down one afternoon At Talking Tree Farm and had a great conversation with Sylvain and learned so much more about his sustainable farming techniques which are designed to save water, replenish the soil, and provide the very freshest and healthiest foods to others.  You can really get to know Sylvain through my video interview.

He also shares his knowledge through interactive classes with hands-on demonstrations of permaculture techniques on-site at Talking Tree Farm to spread the word of the many benefits of the farm-to-table farmer.

Sylvain and Sarah operate Talking Tree Farm near Converse in the San Antonio, Texas area. It’s 3 acres with pasture raised chickens, more squash varieties than you can count on one hand and rows upon rows of heirloom tomatoes.  They are building a food forest, transforming the land into a small permaculture project, solar powered and totally organic.  The mindset with a permaculture project is to not fight nature, but to work with it.  Sylvain has a mission to share his knowledge and leave the world a better place for all. He and Sarah and continue to provide fresh vegetables, organic pasture raised eggs and information about a sustainable lifestyle as much as they possibly can.

Sylvain also follows the natural farming methods of permaculture inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka, the late Bill Mollison, Goeff Lawton, Curtis Stone (Urban Farmer), and Jean-Martin Fortier, author of The Market Gardener. The focus of permaculture is regenerative or sustainable farming, improving the land through planting crops that compliment each other and the soil.

It’s also a lifestyle for many of those who follow the practices of permaculture.

Permaculture can also be applied to our smaller scale backyard edible gardens.  David and I are adapting what we have learned from Sylvain and are really enjoying our gardens so much more.  It’s a lot of work in the beginning, but we have seen how our gardening techniques are really benefiting us.

This year we are starting with our Tomato Garden.  David has built me a raised bed so I don’t have to bend over at all.

He researched a raised bed that will outlast our gardening days, and at the same time is beautiful.  Building a raised bed using the permaculture technique is time consuming, but with little cost because you are using materials that are ready available and you’ll be surprised what you already have on hand. This doesn’t include the bed frame, but you won’t be replacing rotting wood each year.

David found this design online and he used all recycled materials.  Scrap corrugated sheet metal and wood that we have collected from other projects.  You can take a look at how to build this really sturdy frame.

Sylvain uses the Hügelkultur planting method that replicates the natural process of decomposition that occurs on forest floors.  He builds the beds with layered wood, soil and compost, which provide a natural weed barrier.  As time passes, the wood decomposes, acting like a sponge, soaking up water and producing fungi and nutrients for the plants.  He never pulls the dying plants from the bed, but instead allows them to decompose and the bed becomes naturally nutrient rich.  With companion planting this is a natural way to deal with pests.  It also allows all open space to provide several different vegetables maximizing the space.

In our frame, we laid old logs.  Layered filling up all the space in the bottom of the bed.  Then filling in the spaces with bark from dead trees.

As they decompose, they will hold water and the plant roots will always be moist even in the hottest of days.  The rotting wood is full of organic material, nutrients and provides space for your plants roots.  It’s the best looking tomato bed we have ever planted!  And so good for the plants.  I also added companion plants as per Sylvain’s suggestions.

Adding decomposing leaves and the dirt around the leaves, which is also loaded with organic material and nutrients will make this bed productive for many growing seasons.  

Carbon rich leaves balance hot compost.  We add chicken manure from our chicken pen, and we can add fresh instead of having to wait a year.  the chicken manure is a layer down from the root systems so it will not burn.

Leaves also provide insulation for tender roots and can extend your growing season.

Next add cardboard.  You can add the leaves, compost, and cardboard in layers.

The cardboard smothers any growth, like weeds.   It also feeds worms and keeps moisture in the soil and provides the microorganisms that are needed to keep everything decomposing.


Continue to fill the raised bed with leaves and dirt approximately 3/4 of the way full.

Think of this as cleaning up your yard!  Instead of having to burn the old leaves, or hauling off dead branches and leaves, you can put them all to good use and allow mother nature to get rid of them.

The rewards will be delicious, nutritious vegetables and a clean neat yard.

Next you will fill the bed with good soil.  If you are limited to your backyard, you may not have extra soil you can dig up.  Unless you are planting trees and can use the soil from your holes.  But most of us don’t have these two big projects going on at the same time.

We purchase a trailer load which is a cubic yard, from a soil place.  This runs anywhere from $45 – $65 and for a little more you can have them deliver it.

You really want to make sure you get the garden soil that has been freed of weed seeds or you’ll be adding a headache that you have eliminated by adding all the layers of cardboard.

We’ve added drip irrigation to our bed.  There is nothing worse in the Texas heat to have to stand in the gardens and have to water.  There are plenty of other chores that need to be kept up and I know my time in the heat is limited.  I have been known to pass out in the heat…..

It’s so easy to just have to reach down and turn on a valve.  I like to water in the late afternoon until dark, when we go to lock up the chickens.  This gives the roots a little cool drink in the heat and since it’s a very slow drip, the water doesn’t evaporate in the heat.

If you are not able to turn water on in the afternoon, then you can turn the drip system on in the evening and let drip all night.  Depending on how hot it is and how your bed is holding it’s moisture will determine how often you will need to water.  A good way to tell if it’s time to water, is to stick your finger in the soil and if it’s moist about two knuckles deep, it’s still ok.  Roots don’t like to be kept soggy, but vegetables like tomatoes need moisture to develop the meat of the tomato.  If the soil is too dry, you’ll think you are getting a nice tomato until you slice into it and it’s pale and dry.

Our first raised bed using this technique is our tomato bed.  While David has been preparing the bed, I had already started my tomatoes by seed in little seed starters.

I have a whole section on Growing Delicious Roma Tomatoes I have changed my technique of growing my tomatoes once I plant them in the bed.  I no longer stake them, but I use a new technique Sylvain taught us where I twirl them with Tomato Twine.

To twirl the tomatoes with the Tomato Twine (this is a coated nylon twine which is gentle on the tender tomato plant) (it’s on Amazon) is so much easier and less time consuming than staking and having to use electrical ties.

It’s so much fun right after a rain to go out and twirl the plants.  It seems like they grow and shoot up 6″ at a time!


Here is a perfect video on how to twirl your tomatoes.

To make sure there is plenty of air flow, which keeps diseases away, I keep all the lower leaves trimmed.  Don’t throw away your trimmings, put them in your compost pile!

It’s not necessary to have tons of leaves on the tomato plant.  In fact the more leaves the weaker the plant is.  Too many leaves take food away from the tomato.

I remove the lower leaves to allow air flow under the plants and thin some of the leaves that get crowded between the plants. Plus, while doing this, I check for those awful looking tomato hornworms.  Ugh!

While I’m twirling the tomato plants, I pinch any leaves that are diseased or dying.  If they have pests, clip those too, making sure to put in the compost pile away from the healthy plants.

So what do you do with all of that extra space under your tomato plants?  I’m so glad you asked!

Remember when I told you that I’ve learned so much from Sylvain about companion planting?  This is also a way to make the most of your space in your raised garden bed.

Companion Planting not only utilizes the space, but also helps keep pests from your tomato plants.  I have planted Pinto Beans in between my tomato plants and twirl them too. In front of the Pinto Bean plants (the roots grow nodules which are nitrogen), I have basil plants (all different varieties), and in between the basil plants and the wall of the raised bed, bunching onions (pests and animals don’t like the smell).  And in the center, between the 2 rows of tomato plants, there is lettuce (different varieties).

When all of these plants grow up, this will fill in the space and my garden won’t waste any growing space.

The last piece of advice I have for your luscious raised bed garden, is bird netting.  I thought the squirrels were taking big chunks out of my tomatoes and one day after trapping several squirrels and relocating them, I watched a Woodpecker pecking at a tomato like it was a tree.  He was eating my tomato!  But not only was he pecking at one, but he would see another tomato and start pecking at it!  The only bad thing about bird netting is that it’s hard to see and if you have dogs, believe me they will get tangled in it.  We have our garden fenced to keep the chickens out, and whenever I’m in the garden, I have to keep the gate closed so the dogs won’t follow me and then get stuck in the bird netting.  It took me a while to keep reminding David about the bird netting too! lol

David bent PVC piping over the entire garden, tall enough so we could walk under it and wide enough so we could walk around the entire garden.  He used rebar driven into the ground with about 12″ sticking out of the ground.  The open PVC fits over the rebar.  Then we draped the bird netting over the top and tied it in several spots to keep it intact.

Cutting a slit into the bird netting and having 2 PVC pieces close together, created a doorway.

I just have to lift a PVC pipe off of the rebar and walk into the area.

It’s so easy to get into my tomato bed area, and with having a walk around space it really makes it easy to work on the tomatoes and other plants.

I have never had so many luscious healthy tomato plants and beautiful tomatoes….there are several on each plant and not pecked!  This year we’ll have several different varieties too.

We try to learn as much as possible from experienced gardeners and Sylvain has been so gracious with his knowledge and experience.  He also teaches classes on some of his techniques at least once a month.  Go to TalkingTreeFarm and see how they are coming with their website and when the next class is.

Also, Sylvain does custom consulting on your garden and landscape.  Sarah is an artist and they work together in creating fantastic edible landscapes and beds you can enjoy year ’round.

I’m Ramona Werst out in the backyard garden….

Ready for the Texas heat with beautiful homegrown food