The Caveman Bucket List: 20 Peak Experiences for a Priceless Life

That’s just an awful selfie.
I mean, with all of Japan’s beautiful architecture and stunning mountain-top views, why would zen master Hakuin, known to have travelled far and wide in his search for enlightenment, choose to depict himself with gramma slippers and a feather duster, seated in his simple zen seat, the place he spent the majority of his day-to-day life? Boring! Everybody knows this image would have earned WAY more likes and follows if he’d struck a pose in front of the Yellow River, panning some duck face and flashing the “shocker.” At least put on some sweet new kicks, bro-friend!
Did the poet HanShan exclaim “yolo” as he left civilization for the hermitage on Cold Mountain? Was anyone there to tweet about it if he did?
With all that long-winded poetry about well, just sitting around doing nothing, why didn’t the mystic Rumi ever write about what was on his bucket list? Or did he?
And, why did Henry David Thoreau continue to sit around boring Walden pond day-in, day-out, once he’d crossed off #32 build a shack and # 43 grow some beans? – AND written a whole book about it to humble brag to the Concord elite?
These days, everyone is into “Paleo” diets and “caveman” fitness, convinced that we humans evolved to live, eat and exert ourselves in a certain way, and that despite all their backwards lack of airconditioning, our ancestors just might have known SOMETHING about how to be human. Why does nobody ever wonder what was on the Caveman’s bucketlist?
Ecologists say each species has its own Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the niche in which they evolved, and in that place, their evolved actions, habits and instincts make sense! But if you remove a species from its EEA, it continues its evolved patterns, but they may no longer fit, and the species may in essence, act insane! Rather than argue over what our most human ancestors ate and drank, why not ask what the cavewoman LIVED FOR and how she LIVED? 

For tens of thousands of years (and probably much, much longer) our ancestors went about living their lives, creating memories, discovering untold secrets, having adventures, building life-long deep relationships and romances, busting through personal limits, dancing with gods and goddesses, communing with the raw forces of the universe… often without ever even leaving their own villages. Instead, most of our human cultures marked their lives with journeys into dark, mysterious places, found the empty core of the universe in eachother’s souls, deconstructed the very meaning of life and put it back together in the form of something spectacular, achieved stunning magnificience in ritual and rite. Somewhere way back in your family tree was a shaman great, great, great, great grandmother who dreamt of YOU and her fondest wish for your life was that you would learn to feel the heady power of the sacred grove as she did, that over the chasm of great time and distance you and she would resonate in one-ness there together.

These subtle yet profound life experiences our ancestors lived for are all but forgotten today. We ask: If a tree falls in the woods, but nobody posted it to IG, did it really happen? Did all our human ancestors up to the advent of the zipline and iPhone 5 lead dull, meaningless, unfulfilling lives?

Or in contrast, would Henry David Thoreau look upon the jet-setting, world-travelling elite of modern Concord, and still flee their “lives of quiet desperation” in search of his hut in the woods?

In my life I’ve been privileged to travel further than 99.999% of the humans that ever lived, spoken to people in 9 different languages in their own countries, sold original works of art, music and poetry, played in a punk-rock band, sung Opera on professional stages in Europe, starred in plays (good ones!) and movies (terrible ones!) written 3 novels (yup) slept in a castle, played in a marching band, visited some of the great gardens, art and architecture of the world…

But these are not among the most profound moments, experiences and lessons of my life. Nor do they mean that I have “lived” more than those who haven’t had these luxuries. Sure, I’ve had some profound experiences while visiting exotic places, but the profound parts could have just as likely (probably MORE likely) happened without ever leaving the house. And what one discovers on a real adventure is found inside, and has little to do with the scenery.

None of the following fundamental human experiences require belief, none require drugs, none of it requires meeting the Dalai Lama or attending expensive beach-side retreats in the tropics with world-renown “spiritual teachers.” These are not things to be bought at any prices. And these are experiences that are found in all traditions, and are open to anyone, from Christians, to Pagans, to Muslims, to Buddhists, and Atheists. I can fully believe in these fundamental human “spiritual” experiences without having to believe in anything supernatural. In fact, most of the experiences on my list come from “atheistic” spiritual traditions.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not kicking the bucket list idea entirely. At its best, the bucket idea taught a generation of Americans to live their lives, to value experiences over buying stuff, and being adventurers over being consumers. Rad. But at its worst, it makes us into consumers of our own lives, looking to buy experiences, approval and wisdom from others.

So here’s a new section for MY bucket: the vital human experience, the Caveman list, aspirations most of our human ancestors likely shared in. I really don’t ever need another selfie sipping umbrella drinks on an exotic beach, and neither did Captain Caveman. I want to journey to far darker, more mysterious, more hidden places: the room of the wolf-mother wallpaper, the room where the antler carved the drum… and shit. I’ve personally visited enough of these places to know that they are real, and well worth the price of admission. But I’m not gonna put a big checkmark next to them to show off, because they’re the sort of things you build a truly fulfilling life upon, not the kind you cross off once you’ve got the bragging rights.


1. Being still enough long enough that the “world rolls in ecstasy at my feet,” as Kafka said. This is a fundamental experience, sought after in all the world’s mystic traditions, because it is both a profound experience in itself, but also something that is said to deepen the every other potential experience. When one can quiet the mind, it is said we can experience our lives more directly, instead of having to squint to see reality through the tint of our own rose-colored glasses, and we can hear the song of the world without struggling over the noise of our own mental chatter. This is an experience that can be had both alone and with company, such as in the Japanese tea ceremony, or participating in contemplative arts.

2. The breakdown of perception of time. Mystics across many traditions wrote about this experience and modern science is confirming the possibility. Some highlight destinations in the travelogues of mystic literature: “to see my own face before my father was born,” to spend a “few eternities” as the god of the sea as the Buddha did, and to finally understand that line in Revelations about “a time, times and half a time.” Seriously, wtf?
3. Sympathetic joy. To experience the joy of others opens us up to a whole world of joy! Infinite joy! It also defends us from the boring grumpiness of jealousy when our friend gets a promotion. It can even deaden the sting of enmity and hate. But it is also said this deep form of compassion is the basis for experiencing the arts more fully. Imagine feeling what the great painters felt as they put the final touches on their masterpieces? Can you feel whatVonnegut  felt when he finally put God Bless you Mister Roosewater to sleep?
4. To co-evolve in my own forest garden. This is another fundamental human experience, intimately connected to spiritual traditions and religious rites in many cultures. It’s an amazing thing to grow inside such a system… like “the Doctor and her TARDIS,” or Doc Brown and his DIY time machine! I believe, as new evidence suggests, that this is how we evolved, as tenders of the wild, long before we returned to the life and death thrill of the hunt.

5. I am my ecology. My ecology is me. Sacred connection with nature. This is something far more profound than the common new-agey version: “We’re all one, we’re all like connected, man!” This is an experience born of both insight and deep understanding..
6. The care of magical creatures. One of the lies we tell oureslves in our culture is that “animals” are not the same as us, they do not feel, do not have their own romances and adventures, hopes and dreams. And so we de-vitalize them. It takes a sort of renunciation (renouncing this lie) to begin to see our non-human animals as the vital, living, amazing creatures they actually are. Once we do, we’re surrounded by magical creatures more magnificient than anything in Harry Potter.
7. Deep, life-long relationships such as those formed in folk societies and horticultural villages. It would be amazing to share a cup of coffee with a friend over 50 years of time.
8. The Epicurean Life: Self-reliance, living with friends, Contemplation. Epicurus wanted to learn what made the ultimate human life. His bucket list was real simple, yet so profound that ideas about the good life still bear his name today!
9. Getting un-carved: A right view of a simple life as described by Raymond Larose in his Siji-Tsu. In it, he describes the simple, daily life of a daoist sage in his village. Daoists call this simple condition “the Uncarved Block.” It is a beautiful, profound take on life. To get up, stretch, breathe, eat while reading a few lines of a book for inspiration, mindfully practice some kind of useful, simple work, take a meal with friends, spend some time in quiet contemplation, walk in the garden….
10. Life in “Dunbar’s village.” The Dunbar Group researches relationships in horticultural societies and folk villages. They describe the kind of relational landscape humans evolved having and it is again, beautiful, profound and simple. It would be an amazing accomplishment to get to experience that! For most of us, this will mean getting creative about how we engage in village building and community organizing.
11. A life-long path of spiritual development. It’s said these tools can be sharpened over a lifetime of use, polished into sublime states of refinement and radiance. What an opportunity!
12. Freedom from possessions. Hard work in the modern age, yet quite a worthy accomplishment! This might take me some time to fully get to. But I hope to work towards this the rest of my life, making a goal to own less, and less and less, to make room in my life for what’s really valuable.
13. The freedom of self -reliance. To grow my own food, grow my own medicine, be able to live off the land, to be as trusting and care free as the “lilies of the goddamn field.”

14. To stop trying to control the world, to stop “aspiring” to exert “power” over others and over society, and instead lead by example. To fully “let go” into life and “trust” the world. That sentence has a bunch of worlds with a bunch of quotation marks, because our society has all sorts of bad ideas about these things. I’ve come to think that what I was taught was “power” is actually a complex of delusion, agression and insecurity. “Aspiration” as we use it too often lacks any genuine self-knowledge, which leaves it as nothing more than settling for conformity to a sick society. Finding what it means to “trust” humans in such a sick society is its own challenging quest.
15. Deep trust and true love. Awe, I’m a romantic like that. But I’m also not limited by conventional ideas about what any of that means.
16. The Djanas. These are the states of concentration the word “zen” is derived from, and they’ve often been compared to mind-blowing orgasm, but timeless and infinite, and subtle. While this word comes from the Buddhist world, one can find similar descriptions of states of deep concentration and contemplation across many of the world’s mystic traditions.
17. The outright ecstasy of creative, artistic revelry, to “lose myself” in song and dance. The great experiences of life lie along the extremes of the spectrum of “pleasures subtle and gross.” According to the great mystics, it is the experiences at the “sublte” end, found through renunciation, that are the greatest experiences a human is capable of. Such as djana. To experience them, we must quiet the roar of our own minds, our own emotions, our own senses, and even our own senses of our senses. “What am I when I’m no longer here?” But, surely there’s something to be said for “gross” bold, hedonistic overwhelming pleasures, too! And at the far end of that spectrum, the mystics, philosophers and poets of the ages place the intense emotional physical experience of losing oneself in song and dance, or revelry.
18. To commit to and follow a culturally relevant spiritual tradition. Tough for a skeptic like me. But I wish to be more than a consumer of spiritual products. I wish to experience that fundamental of following a spiritual path. Many paths lead to the top of the mountain. Only one moon shows in the sky.
19. To eat really, really good just-picked fruit at that magical moment before the sugar starts converting to starch and the complexity of flavor is so profound you literally see technicolor. Or at least I do.
20. Lucid dreaming.

FAQ – Nutrient Dense Foods Gardening and Farming


Over the last few months, I’ve been getting a LOT of questions about “nutrient dense foods,” “bionutrients,” BRIX and the “Albrecht method.” All of these refer more or less to a similar set or practices, professional consultation services and amendment products. Because people trust Lillie House as an honest source of research and information, some have asked what my take is, whether it’s a research-based approach, or whether it makes economic sense for farmers or gardeners. Others have asked why it is that we don’t use rock dust, or micronutrient amendments, or advocate for nutrient dense foods.

These are all good honest questions, but I’ve been reluctant to answer them beyond saying that Kim and I looked into it a decade or so back, initially found it very compelling, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for us. The adhearants of the “Nutrient Dense Food Movement” are very passionate, and I’d rather find myself in a debate against Monsanto and industrial Ag than people who just want to heal their land and provide better food.

But, what if the claims are true? What if we have some ethical obligation to “remineralize the earth?” What if these techniques really are the key to eliminiating diseases, healing ecosystems, reducing pesticide use, growing more food on less land? Given the boldness of the claims, I can see why adherents are so passionate! And, if these claims are true, then growers (like me) who aren’t doing this program are arguably negligent to both their land and customers! And if these claims are true, I would be negligent to not be advising my own students and design clients to follow this kind of program! So, with such dramatic claims on the table, I feel I must do my “due dilligence” and look into whether or not they are true.

(As a summary, I believe that there is not good evidence to support these claims. These techniques are just not necessary for regenerating the land or growing healthy, nutrient dense food. I do not believe these techniques (including rock dusts or micronutrient fertilizers) are sustainable, that they increase carbon sequestration, or that they are a reliable or economically viable way to increase micronutrient or “bionutrient” density of foods, or that they increase crop health or productivity. Instead, I propose a set of affordable research-based techniques that can help for those who are interested in increasing the nutrition of their produce.)

The High Brix Claims

The Brix movement and its consultants make a number of claims that fit together neatly in an attractive logical syllogism (this is one of the reasons I initially found it so compelling). So, let’s first lay out some of those general claims, then we’ll go through and see what science and research says about them.

1. Depleted soils (usually said to be depleted due to agricultural use) are a root cause of global illnesses, both in humans, and in our crop plants (and animals.) Nutrient-depleted soils mean nutrient-depleted plants mean nutrient-depleted humans. Logical! The focus is on micronutrients, rather than the macronutrients emphasized by scientific horticulture.

2. Special soil amendments can “remineralize agricultural soils” to provide missing micronutrients, or in some cases to provide a special “ideal” or “balanced” soil micronutrient profile. These amendments may include special micronutrient fertilizers, and rock dusts, and sometimes “humic acids,” “humates” or biochar. Sometimes these are said to create “soil vitality.”

Sometimes additional practices such as seed size or specially named tilling tools are recommended. (We’ll look at a couple of these.)

3. This causes improved yields and resistance to crop pests and diseases.

4. And it causes “nutrient dense foods, or foods “loaded with bionutrients.”

5. Such foods taste better to humans and ensure improved marketability.

6. A refractometer of other tools can be used to measure “brix,” which can be used as a measure of nutrient density, “bionutrients” and crop quality/taste.

7. This can be the basis of a “Regenerative Agriculture” or the way to set up “Regenerative Agriculture Systems.”

As an argument it seems to make sense! It’s certainly true and well-known that agriculture depletes soil macronutrients, which is why fertilizers are necessary. And since we don’t generally fertilize with micronutrients, perhaps these get depleted, too? It’s also true that food nutrition such as protein content has been declining over recent centuries and decades. We also know it’s true that deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc, copper, or iron can have well-known human health impacts, and that deficiencies in soils have historically been the cause of regional health impacts, such as with iodine and goiter.

Assessing the Claims

So, let’s look at the specific claims and see what researchers have to say.

1. Are our soils deficient in micronutrients and are micronutrient-deficient soils causing human illness? Multiple studies have directly evaluated this claim and found that, no, levels of micronutrients in foods are not generally declining so much as a few key nutrients like protein. [Mineral nutrient composition of vegetables, fruits and grains, Robin J.Marles] And soil micronutrient deficiencies are not the cause of those declines. Plant selection, lower soil organic matter, and use of nitrogen fertilizer (in addition to greater carbon in the atmosphere) have been found to cause lower nutrient levels in food. Furthermore, in many temperate soils, micronutrient deficiencies are very rare. [Secondary and Micro-nutrients for Vegetable and Field Crops, M.L. Vitosh] While this paper is on Michigan soils, this is true throughout the Great Lakes region as well as generally throughout temperate climates where parent materials were very recently ground into “rock dust” by glaciers just around 9,000 years ago. If you look through this list of micronutrients, you’ll see in the cases where there are problems this is usually due either to a lack of bio-available nutrients, or from an imbalance of the sort that is corrected through compost and increasing soil biological activity.


And, are widespread micronutrient deficiencies responsible for human illness? No, many such deficiencies are well-understood and easily diagnosed. Instead, current research is looking at exposure to plastics and toxins, over-reliance on grains and meats, and lack of microbial biodiversity as factors in the “diseases of civilization.”

2. The next set of common claims are that certain amendments can improve soil micronutrient levels compared to regular organic growing and use of compost. First, this has been evaluated by researchers, in many studies and found to be lacking, except in depleted tropical “old” soils. But because Albecrecht method consultants have long claimed a broad conspiracy against their teacher among scientists, I also included this video of high quality citizen science, where a youtube gardener tested rock dusts and compared them to local fall leaves. The leaves contained more macronutrients, and more bioavailable micronutrients than the rock dust. Unsurprisingly, the leaves also had more of the micronutrients most necessary for healthy plant growth, in the amounts they are necessary for healthy plant tissues. As long asserted by Rodale research, compost, tree leaves and organic mulches provide all the micronutrients that plants need.

3. There’s an “ideal” or “balanced” micronutrient profile for optimum growth and nutrient density. This was a key idea of the Alberecht method, which has been thoroughly discredited by soil scientists. But it is also directly opposed to theory and research on both ecology and terroir. Plants evolved to fill different niches, including different soil micronutrient profiles. For an obvious example, desert or mediterranean soils would be considered deficient from an Albrecht perspective. Yet, they would be far more ideal to growing crops like prickly pear cactus, or culinary herbs like oregano or lavender. Research has found that culinary herbs actually have a HIGHER nutrient density when grown on depleted soils, rather than those which hold water better. Indeed amending the soil to create an “ideal” soil, would mean decreasing both the health and nutrient density of these crops. The same has been found to be true of tree crops, and fruits including grapes and tomatoes. This is part of the explanation for why soil characteristics have been proven to be a part of the special regional taste qualities known as “terroir,” which means “soil.” [Soil-related terroir factors: A review,Van Leeuwen] “Correcting” the nutrient profiles of such famous terroir soils to make them “ideal” would mean eliminating the thing that makes them special and ideal for their famous crops!

4. Humates can add to nutrient density. There is no such thing as humates. Researchers have discovered that they were making humates in the experiments where they were measuring them, and that they do not actually exist in soil. Humates are just expensive brands of regular compost, often with lower levels of active macronutrients.

5. Biochar can add to nutrient density. Researchers have found that in temperate climates and soils, biochar (even “activated biochar”) does not have an effect on garden performance.  [Biochar boosts tropical but not temperate crop yields, Jeffery] I will say instead that they do not have a RELIABLE effect, and that it is not well understood yet. So it’s not surprising that this Youtube gardener found the same in his experiment. However, activated biochar, when produced as a byproduct, does sequester soil carbon to help mitigate climate change. And it may indeed be worth experimenting with to improve garden performance, especially on poor soils. But I wouldn’t expect it to be a guaranteed approach.

6. All this creates “soil vitality.” This is just a marketing term and does not have a scientific definition. It appears to be used to say these techniques will create special soil qualities that aren’t measurable with scientific methods. I would be skeptical.

7. Seed selection (usually larger or “more vital looking” seed) has an impact on growth. This has been found in multiple studies to not be true. [Effects of the size of sown seed on growth and yield of common bean cultivars of different seed sizes. Lima] Since there are no reliable results, seed selection is not considered a good way to increase garden ROI, and only increases costs and time inputs.

8. These techniques increase the nutrient density of foods. Researchers have tested this and found that they cannot measure any increases in nutrient density by using these methods. Again, it’s not surprising that our Youtuber had the same outcome when he tested the theory in his garden and found no difference in nutrient density between test, biochar, and rock dust.

9. A refractometer can be used to measure and demonstrate nutrient density. This has again been tested by researchers and proven to be false. While some measures of nutrition do correlate with brix, others do not. Brix measures solids, mostly sugars, and does not reliably correlate with the nutrition or healthfulness of a food. There are other factors which are more likely correlated with the healthfulness of food.

10. These nutrient dense foods taste better to humans. While we’ve already seen that these techniques do not correlate with increased nutrient density, it’s also untrue that nutrient dense foods taste better to people. While this has been assessed scientifically, it’s also just as easy to understand without the science. Many of our crops are specifically grown to avoid “nutrient density.” For example, lettuces, which taste crispier and sweeter with more water and less “nutrients,” and tend to get bitter and tough as they develop more “nutrient density.” The same may be true of cucumbers, pungent vegetables, mustards and other leafy greens which are more tender and less bitter with a higher water content.

“But, I tasted the difference myself!” Often, this is demonstrated by comparing a garden-grown tomato or fruit to a grocery store variety. Of course the home-grown tastes better and has a higher brix reading. Case closed! But the grocery store version was picked green, before it had the opportunity to develop its full sugar content (brix) and ripened after shipping. Meanwhile, your home-grown was probably kept on the vine to peak ripeness, allowing it to develop more sugars, better taste, and a higher brix.

11. “These techniques are the basis for a Regenerative Agriculture” or “Permaculture.” There’s no certification or legal definition of Regenerative Agriculture, so I suppose it’s fair to make that claim. But generally, what people mean by “Regenerative” is that it is “beyond sustainable,” a system that actually grows better over time. For that reason, most systems of Regenerative Agriculture make use of natural systems, ecological succession, syntropy, and other features that use “syntropy” to get grow in diversity, embodied energy and biomass over time. Taken alone, none of the techniques above will have an impact on the measurable health of an ecosystem. In fact, in most cases, the mining, soil testing and preparation methods in nutrient dense growing are not even sustainable, let alone regenerative.

So, it appears there’s not a lot of research basis for these claims.

And while there’s certainly a risk they will hurt your soil by causing micronutrient imbalances or contaminating your growing area with dangerous heavy metals, these risks are probably low. However, I still do not personally recommend it, because of the unsustainable mining sourcing of many of the products sold by nutrient density experts. And because it’s simply not a very good investment, either for improving garden value or healing the earth or people.

In the end, there’s no shortcut to replacing the value of a healthy diverse ecosystem, good soil organic matter, good old fashioned skill and knowledgeable growing.

An Alternative Program for High Nutrient Produce

So, if growing more nutrient dense food is your primary goal, are there steps we can take with a proven effect? Yes. When it comes to creating REAL nutrient dense food that’s more resistant to disease and pest issues, these are often the keys to a research-based approach.

1. Keep and use heirloom selections. Heirloom varieties have been found to be more nutritious in multiple studies than modern varieties cultivated for wide distribution. Some heirlooms, such as dark colored varieties may contain more nutrients.

2. Save seeds: Your own locally adapted seeds will be better at thriving in your biome. This is certainly of higher value than a vendor claiming to have “more vital looking” seeds.

3. Mulch heavily with organic mulches, including tree leaves, and increase soil organic matter content and biological activity, such as by using compost. In addition to creating a more optimal environment for nutrient uptake and water availability, this is a more research-based method for increasing soil biological/microbial activity than things like expensive seed inoculations.

4. Avoid nitrogen fertilizers, which have been demonstrated to reduce crop nutrition in multiple studies. Eliminate pesticide use, which reduces the healthfulness of foods. Reduce and minimize use of agricultural plastics where possible, as these too have been found to decrease the healthfulness of foods.

5. Invest in biodiversity through polyculture and guilds, and through installations like hedgerows, diversity strips, and forest gardens as a research-based ways to reduce pest and disease pressures. This is also a theoretically valid way to really increase the healthfulness of food, which has a research basis in the diversity/resiliency principle and the hygiene-theory of immunology. While the relationship is still being proven, doctors are already putting this science to work to heal their patients in several novel treatments.

6. Avoid tilling, even with tools like a “tilther” or horrow.

7. Study smart Biointensive or French Intensive gardening as an old-fashioned, research-based approach to growing a complete high-nutrition diet, that’s economically viable and also sustainable. This includes learning good organic horticulture, such as putting the right plant in the right place (lavender in sandy soil) and appropriately feeding and watering crops (like not overwatering or overfertilizing those tomatoes or tree fruits.)

8. For large properties, smart Permaculture zone analysis combining economically feasible agroforestry systems with GrowBiointensive business models are probably the best bet for profitible management.

These aren’t a magic silver bullet, just good old fashioned clever growing. But they are steps that are proven to have a better Return on Investment both financially and ecologically.

The Simple Path to a High Value Garden – Transformative Gardening, Part 2


(While this article stands alone, it is part 2 of a series. Read part 1 here:Why Completely Failing at Gardening is a Sign You’re Probably a Great Gardener)

The crux of our puzzle: with our completely destructive, expensive and unhealthy food system more people want and need to participate in growing food for themselves and their communities.  YET, the economics and realities of doing so rarely work out the way we envision.


Our corporate food system is so heavily subsidized by taxes, exploited labor, and ecosystem destruction that we have to be really clever to complete with it on a small scale. Just look at this:

$2 for a chicken
A $2 chicken.

That’s a whole chicken, processed, shipped, stored, marinated, roasted, conveniently packaged and kept warm for $2. A bag of chicken feed costs $30, not to mention housing, etc. Difficult for a small operation to compete with that! And there’s this:

img_9091 Companies putting “Paywalls” between us and our own produce. Pay $100+ to replace the sun, soil, fertility, and disease-resistance provided FREE by nature, with polluting energy, wasteful materials, and unsustainable resources.

img_9094And look at that. $500+ dollars for a garden that will grow $50 of food. If you like the look, go for it. But I routinely hear from new gardeners who think it’s necessary to have some expensive raised beds to start gardening, and it’s not. It certainly won’t add to the value (or traditional aesthetics) of your garden.

If we’re investing time and money in unnecessary costs, it’s hard for our gardens to give us a return on our investment, especially in today’s economic environment.

The situation’s even worse for farmers looking to earn an income, especially if they’ve bought one of the “profitable farming” models based on expensive specialized materials, soil testing, tools, machinery, and training.

But we CAN have high value gardens, and food-producing systems that pay for themselves. We’ve just got to be honest and smart about it. In Part 1, we discussed why a lot of people feel the conventional techniques don’t work for them.

Now we’ll lay out the curriculum we’ve developed for creating gardens, farms and landscapes that actually provide real, measurable return on investment.


Let’s start with a few basic tips for high value gardening:

Don’t worry, these aren’t sacred principles to commit to memory or follow to a T to have a high value garden. These are just guidelines that have helped us, so maybe they’re worth a quick review. You be the judge.

Guidelines to wise gardening:

1.  Prune things that aren’t working: That includes expensive products (even organic ones) heavy weeding, irrigation systems, fancy fencing, machinery… Most of these investments are usually unsustainable, rarely pay for themselves, and don’t help us meet our real goals. Our path is to keep pruning costs that don’t work for us until we arrive at a system that does.

2. Know what our real, holistic goals are and do things that will help us meet them. Write our goals down so we’re clear about them. What do you want out of your garden?

3. Keep it simple, stupid (avoid complex solutions.) The key to profitability for big corporate farms is to make money off a complex scheme of tax subsides, insurance and land speculation – even if the produce is sold at a loss. The key to increasing value for us home gardeners is to maximize value per unit, by reducing costs and labor. Natural Farmer Masanobu Fukuoka said “look for what you can quit doing (or buying) rather than looking for new things to do (or buy.)”

4. Follow the Pareto curve. With most of the work we do in the garden we get 80% of our returns for 20% of our investment (of time, or $.) Research has demonstrated this with weeding, irrigation, fencing, tilling, pest-prevention, etc. Yet in our eco-cidal culture, we try to push all the way to 100% because green things should respect our authority!!!, and plus extra likes on Youtube and IG. But unless we have free labor to exploit, the quest for 100% purity in all things is killing our ROI, and our joy, and not providing any measurable benefit.


5. Invest in long-term, durable, HOLISTIC systems: Instead of spending our money and time fighting nature, a holistic approach is about making smart investments in long-term ecosystem health, soil, biodiversity, and stability, in ways that naturally reduce pest, weeds, watering and disease problems over time. This catches and stores your labor and pays it back for years to come. And it’s less stressful and feels better to see nature as an ally to be nurtured, rather than an enemy to be monitored and controlled.

6. Right scale for ROI. Too small is a waste of time and too large becomes unmanageable. Once we put on our boots, get our tools, and figure out a plan, we can manage 1000 SF of well-designed garden in about the same time (and $) as the standard 50 SF community garden bed, but we’ll get MORE than 20 times the yield for the same investment. One person can probably manage up to 10,000 SF. Beyond that, we’ll go past the “Pareto point” and start to get diminishing returns, so eventually we’ll either need machines ($), additional labor ($), or to find ways to get nature to do more work. Which is why:

7. Finally, every HIGH VALUE landscape, especially productive ones, need to balance “intensive management” vs. “extensive management.” Intensive, means we put in more energy to hopefully get more return, and extensive means we rely more on nature to do the work – we may get less yield, but we might put 0 time or money in for what we do get.

Think of this like a dimmer switch for your garden.”

Intensive systems include our annual vegetable garden beds.

In extensive systems nature does most of the maintenance work. These include hedgerows, wild “forest gardens,” and other self-organizing foraging systems that require very little time or inputs.

Every high-value garden needs both.

Every sustainable society needs both, too. Some ecologists call this concept the “intensification spectrum” and all sustainable, long-lasting societies have a pracitcal balance where the extensive systems “pay” for the intensive production through their natural regeneration.

Key Insight: Every kind of regenerative agriculture, alternative farming, and natural gardening are all essentially about returning that state of balance. 

This balance gives the landscape the important quality of flexible adaptability to meet our needs – it has a built in dimmer switch that allows us to switch from low-maintenance mode to high-maintenance mode. If we’re busy, we can let nature do more work, but still get a yield.  If we find ourselves with more time or money to invest, we can quickly scale up our yields. If we take a month off the garden, we won’t lose the whole thing to weeds and pests and have to start over from scratch next season. Now, we’ve got a practical garden that really works with the modern lifestyle.

To sum: simplicity, ease, balance.

With those guidelines, here’s a basic, simple path of learning adventures for beginners or advanced gardeners, that will help us create a garden that is really worth our time:

Learning Adventure 1: Study foraging. Foraging is the ultimate high ROI production activity, where we get a good yield with NO investment of time or money. Plus, we harvest recreation, healthy activity, and education. It puts us in a position to observe what such high ROI systems look like, and how nature mangages the land. Perhaps more importantly, it teaches that many of the “enemies” we see as “weeds” are actually friends.

Learning Adventure 2: Create an Extensive garden. In this adventure, we take what we learn foraging, and imitate it. Because we’re usually dealing with hardy perennial plants, this is a great way for beginners to build fundamental skills with more reliable results, than with traditional annual vegetables, plants that are fussier and more prone to problems. And, because inputs are so low, and yield extended over many years, there’s no minimum size for an extensive garden.

This kind of garden teaches us how to work with nature, think in systems, minimize our inputs, and maximize our ROI. This is the teacher garden. It is also the supporter garden, as these systems can actually provide extra fertility to fuel the veg garden, and biodiversity that helps reduce pests and increase plant health. It provides the “low maintenance” mode for the garden dimmer switch we talked about. And it’s also the kind of garden that has the biggest impact on the beauty and sustainability of our landscape, too.

For many home landscapes, the first extensive gardens could be developed around an existing fruit tree, in part of an existing vegetable garden, or even in some flower beds or ornamental border.

If you’d like to learn more about these extensive gardening and landscape systems, and you’d like to support our work, consider taking one of our online correspondence courses.

Learning Adventure 3: Intensive “natural” gardening: With this adventure, we’ll create an “intensive” vegetable garden. For the purpose of our learning, it’s not necessary to make a big study over what’s ideal, just to choose a style that works well for us. For beginners, I recommend BioIntensive Gardening, as explained in John Jeavon’s book How to Grow More Vegetables. Some beginners may like Square Foot Gardening, though it requires buying soil and boxes. For more advanced gardeners, BioIntensive Gardening can transition naturally into French Intensive Gardening, which will provide the highest sustainable yields.

Over time, what we learn in the extensive garden will teach us tricks for the Intensive garden, and most gardeners will start to adapte “natural” methods like appropriate mulches, polycultures, self-sown crops and guilds. Here’s our article on French Intensive Gardening from a Permaculture Perspective. This is the style we do at Lillie House.

These three adventures can be pursued independently, in sequence, or altogether at once. We can do separate gardens, or integrate Intensive and Extensive together into one installation, as we often do with our clients.

Permaculture Edible Border Design Sketch
A sketch of an edible/ornamental border integrating Intensive beds into an Extensive system , Designed to trick the eye into looking more “maintained” than it is.

What we’ve seen over the years is that together, these three adventures consistently transform our personal food systems, our landscapes, and our gardening, if not our entire world view.

Without making a big fuss, these adventures create landscapes that look like the best Permaculture designs. They’re virtually guaranteed to help us arrive at a gardening system that has high value, both financially and holistically. And they’re the best training system available for learning the skills of truly advanced gardening. After completing these, more adventures await to teach us advanced skills, habitat creation, smart food storage and preparation, making our medicines and fertilizers, or full Permaculture Design. But these three give us the 20% solid foundation of knowledge and experience to build upon for years to come.

Why Completely Failing at Gardening is a Sure Sign of a Great Gardener – Transformative Gardening, Part 1

A Late Summer Permaculture Harvest at Lillie HouseWhenever there’s a completely failed, overgrown weedy tangle of an abandoned garden, I know I’ve discovered a gifted high value gardener with true natural intelligence, just waiting to flower.

It’s the surest sign there is.

As I am a natural gardening teacher and Permaculture designer, these poor discouraged gardeners frequently seek me out at social gatherings for a sort of gardening confession and penance.

If you listen carefully, you can hear keen insights and clever observations through their exasperated sighs, gnashing of teeth, wails of garden guilt:

“It’s been two seasons since my last confession…”

“I just couldn’t keep up with it… it was too much work…”

“I got sick/went on vacation/had a wedding to plan and everything just got overrun with weeds and pests.”

“It’s just too expensive for me right now.”

“I just never figure out how to get enough produce.”

“I just don’t have a green thumb…”

You see the wisdom yet?

And if one commiserates and presses further even greater insights emerge: guilty stories of accidentally injured wildlife in the battle against nature, discomfort over weeding, how family members wouldn’t help, the perception that it’s all too complicated, each crop, pest and weed requiring some specific bit of knowledge, the right tool, the right product to buy, and it all just takes too much work and the yields are never worth it.

All their garden dreams have never lived up to reality.

Dream vs. Reality
The tectonic friction between dreams and reality, paraphrasing author Richard Grant’s Tex and Molly

The plain but hidden truth these “failed” gardeners have intuited is that those conventional gardening systems are not designed to work well for the gardener.

Like many things in the era of hyper commodification, conventional gardening is no longer a thing we do, it’s something we’re supposed to consume: products from Home Despot, expert services, trademarked corporate seeds, chemicals, fertilizers, plastics, and industrial materials.

Thus in every failed garden consumer who’s given up on this gardening edition of the rat race, there’s a naturalist genius who has intuited this key piece of eternal wisdom, in the words of my stepdad:

“That don’t make no sense.”

And it’s why one gardener, after doing “everything right” and tracking his inputs and outputs, discovered his home-grown tomatoes cost $30 a piece.

Another wise grower! (This is so common I got this message while writing this post!)

On top of that whole industry trying to erect as many paywalls between you and your own tomato as possible, the whole paradigm is geared towards gross productivity, no matter the costs. Why? Because historically, that was measurable, and thus salable.

These conventional systems and techniques are optimized for giant commercial farms using whatever vast amounts of tax-subsidized energy, corporate products, resources, plastics, low-cost labor, and chemicals necessary in order to maximize yields – even at a loss (often, 400 calories of inputs for every 1 calorie it produces!) But they just don’t work well on a more human scale, and they cost too much: Increased exposure to toxins, exploited land, increased pollution, stress, wasted time, resources, and income….

“That don’t make no sense!”

For any gardener or farmer who isn’t being subsidized by tax payers, exploited labor and land, “gross productivity” is usually counter-productive to their real goals and dreams that do make sense. These are usually things like: saving or even making money, living sustainability, growing healthy food, relaxing with nature, teaching the kids about growing food, etc.

The first step in the adventure of wise gardening is to intuit these problems, and let go of the things that aren’t working to meet our actual goals! The second is to refocus on our own goals, more holistic goals that actually make sense. In addition to the things above, the most important goal for most growers who aren’t industrial farms is Return on Investment, or ROI. It’s not how much we can max out production, it’s about getting as much food as we can actually use back for as little time and cost as possible.

And so, a whole movement of “alternative” farming and gardening methods and techniques has grown up to help provide better paths. At their best, these focus on this issue of ROI, better meeting needs. Of course – careful! – these can easily be over-commodified, and centralized too.

So, at Lillie House, we feel like the next stage of development, of ecological succession for a saner food system, is to get very precise about helping people set their goals and really getting good at helping people to meet them themselves. For the last few years, we’ve been working and consulting with some of the most inspiring natural gardeners, farmers and Permaculturists to figure out how to do that.

In part 2, we’re going to lay out our curriculum for truly high value, transformative gardening, a path that frees the intuition, and helps us learn the things that will really help us accomplish our gardening (and living) goals.

Learning from Herbs: Adventures in Home Herbalism

Adventures in Home Herbalism Flyer, Class at Lillie House

I’m extremely proud to announce that we’re running this beautiful program again this year, which we created with our dear friend, student, teacher, and inspiration, Hanna Read of Art of Health Massage. This year, we even have a few new tricks and ideas in store!

When you apply good Permaculture design to the garden, you get a garden that nurtures you back holistically, that’s easier, makes sense in your life, and also cares for the world around you. 
So what we wanted to find out was: What do you get when you apply that same design process to home herbalism?
The answer: This program, a course of learning adventures to build knowledge, build your own valuable home apothecary, start a collection of medicinal plants that work for your own situation, and establish a real meaningingful practice of things you will actually USE. 
Adventures? Each interactive class is organized around a series of of them. Every session, we’ll go foraging for the best locally-available herbs, do a tea tastings, learn about seasonal herb-gardening in our diverse herb garden, and create some herbal remedies, which you’ll take home. 
Swag? Of course! In Permaculture terms, our goal is always to go beyond education to help you invest in “regenerative assets,” actual items of value. In this program, you’ll take home seeds from many medicinal species (when you need to plant them,) medicinal plants, and remedies including herbal teas, oils, vinegars, salves, bitters, recpies, and even our own herb-infused lotion we’re very proud of.
(Well, *cool apothecary cabinet not included)
Each class will contain a component on research-based plant knowledge, foraging, gardening, sourcing, and processing. We’ll start with strong basic foundations, break down the material into accessible chunks, and build up over time, with each class building on what we learned the previous session. For example, over the course we’ll dry herbs that will go into an oil, that we’ll use for a salve, that we’ll use to make a lotion, so you’ll practice the basic skills that build up to more advanced processing! 
Here’s a basic schedule of our curriculum, including notes on he processing topics, which leads you through what we consider the most common and important uses:
May: Introduction, Foundations and Spring Cleaning (Tonics, pestos, drying, teas, infusions and decoctions.)
June: “Let food by thy medicine.” Cooking with herbs, oils, vinegars, bitters, foraged superfoods.
July: Wounds and Healing: Electuaries, salves, poultices, etc.
August: Skin, hair, beauty. Balms, butters, creams, lotions, etc.
Sept: Winter wellness. Fermenting, more tincturing. 
And of course, the whole adventure takes place in our garden, with hundres of species of plants, inspired by the medieval Jardin de Cure, a traditional form of holistic herb garden or physic garden, which we think is a pretty cool place to learn about herbalism. 

Register now by visiting our store!

2019 "CSA," Community Supported Permaculture

Permaculture Garden at Lillie House 200 +Species of edible and medicinal plants
Our front garden at Lillie House

This is my favorite way to do Permaculture.

I do design/installation jobs for people who want to get a fast-forward on their projects without years of in-depth study of Permculture and forest gardening ecology, but I really do think the best way to transform your landscape is this class where we walk through the whole process together, with a group of other forest gardeners for support.

And it’s a class that doubles as an advanced foraging class, covering many of Michigan’s most valuable wild gems available throughout the growing season, which are often excellent additions to the forest garden or Permaculture landscape.

Classes run 3rd Saturdays from 9 – noon from May – November.

There are three different ways to be involved, depending on your needs. All three come with some seeds and plants, lots of advice, and an online version via media-rich emails and interactive online classes.

Class Alone: $400 ($50/class, includes samples, a few rare plants and seeds.)

Class Plus: $700. Includes a larger number of plants to start a nice Permaculture collection, and includes a basic consultation.

Home Garden Membership: ($1,000) COVERS CLASS TUITION FOR 2 ADULTS. Includes $350 worth of rare, specially recommended plants, a mushroom kit, a written site Permaculture consultation and more:

If you’d like to discuss your options or other details, please give an email at

Hope you’ll consider joining us!

2019 A Season of Transformative Adventures

Transformative Adventures: Foraging, gardening, natural farming, Permaculture

Announcing our 2019 season schedule of Transformative Adventures! 
This season, we’re offering 4 major courses, along with a few online programs, additional classes, and some free foraging walks. 
2019 Programs:
1. Community Supported Permaculture Program: Our innovative program on forest gardening/natural gardening, including seeds, plants, consultation and a full season of classes. (3rd Saturdays, May- November.)…/
2. Adventures in Home Herbalism (with Art of Health):
five classes, monthy foraging, gardening and preparation techniques, packaged with seeds, plants, and a collection of medicines including lotions, salves, oils, vinegars, tinctures and more. (2nd Saturdays, May – September.)…/learning-from-herbs-adventures-in-ev…
3. Season-long MODULAR Permaculture Design Certificate Course.…/
4. PDC Modual for students who have completed our gardening program.…/permaculture-design-certificate-cour…