Tree of Life is a retreat center in Patagonia, Arizona, founded by Gabriel Cousens. They offer programs in healing, disease reversal, conscious gardening, and spiritual growth. Tree of Life has two acres of gardens that take their inspiration from veganic agriculture and Japanese Nature Farming.
The produce from the gardens is used in Tree of Life’s rawfood vegan cafe, which prepares meals for the center’s guests, employees, and workshop participants. In the summer the garden provides up to 75% of the cafe’s produce, and in the winter they supply the cafe with greens and sprouts.
Tree of Life’s gardening practices are largely influenced by Japanese Nature Farming. Like veganic agriculture, they do not apply animal products to the soil. Though contrary to most veganic farms, they also do not practice crop rotation. They leave the plants in one place, with the idea that the soil will become specific to that type of plant. Their relationship with the plants is spiritual in nature, and they express their gratitude to the plants when harvesting.
To maintain fertility on the land, they use cover cropping, sheet composting, straw mulch, Effective Microorganisms (EM), bokashi, and fermented plant extracts. Sudangrass and cowpeas are used as cover crops in the summer, and in the winter they use a soil builder mix from Peaceful Valley. For composting, they previously composted in piles, and have recently switched to sheet mulching directly on the fields. They place layers of kitchen scraps and straw on the beds, and these decompose in place within a month. They find that this is simpler than maintaining the compost piles.
Tree of Life’s other fertility techniques—Effective Microorganisms (EM), bokashi, and plant extracts—involve making fermented substances. Tree of Life teaches these processes in their Concious Gardening courses. In their gardens they use EM5, and they find it aids with insect and disease resistance. Bokashi is an alternative to composting, where scraps are fermented in anaerobic conditions (much like natural pickling) and added to the soil. Due to the acidic nature of bokashi it can only be applied in small quantities. Tree of Life also makes plant extracts, by fermenting weeds with Effective Microorganisms (EM) to extract the nutrients from the plants. Extracts of garlic and mustard can be used as insect repellents, and clover extract is high in nitrogen. They make extracts based on the plants they have available, and also to address certain needs in the garden.
Tree of Life practices plant-based farming because they are a vegan community, and veganic gardening is consistent with their ethical views toward animals and the environment. Tree of Life has encountered some challenges when gardening due to the imbalanced ecosystem in their region. The mesquite trees in the surrounding area were previously cleared by miners, leaving an arid grassland. Grasshoppers thrive in this region that is now largely devoid of native bird species. Tree of Life’s philosophy is that they would happily concede a portion of the harvest to insects, though the grasshoppers were eating the majority of the crop. Tree of Life made the decision to bring Guinea fowl onto the land to lessen the impact of the grasshoppers. While they are aware that their gardens would not qualify for veganic certification with the use of Guinea fowl, they strive to maintain a plant-based system in the other aspects of their agricultural practices.
The climate in Patagonia adds challenges when practicing agriculture. Located in the desert, they receive about 20 inches of rainfall per year, though this is mostly during the monsoon season in July and August. The gardens are irrigated from a well on the Tree of Life property, though the water has high salinity so they counteract this by adding gypsum. The temperatures in the desert change considerably from daytime to nighttime, with temperature swings of up to 60F in the same 24 hour period. They focus on growing cold-tolerant plants, and plants that can handle swings in temperature. The plants receive large amounts of sunlight, and in the summer the gardeners set up shade houses to provide 50% shade to the plants when growing delicate crops like greens.
Tree of Life has a solar dome greenhouse in which they grow tropical fruits like papayas and lemons, and also herbs, basil and ginger for the cafe. Two larger greenhouses are used primarily for tomatoes and cucumbers, two staples at the Tree of Life cafe. In their sprout house they grow a steady supply of sprouts year round.
Tree of Life offers week long courses in Conscious Gardening, where participants learn the basics of plant-based growing, and do hands-on activities like making batches of Effective Microorganisms (EM) and bokashi. They also have a SEVA program for people who are committed to doing voluntary service in the gardens for three months. Tree of Life has full-time employees who manage the gardens and coordinate the Seva volunteers.