A tour of the island’s edible landscapes

There are no neat rows in Chuck Estin’s vegetable garden, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a complex system at work.

“It’s a big gimish, I know,” Estin said, pointing to the sprawling mass of green near his front door. Resembling a forest floor more than a vegetable garden, the dozen plants in the 30-square-foot plot were chosen for their ability to cooperate while producing food.

A Japanese fuki plant produces edible stems and broad leaves that fall, decay and enrich the soil for quince and pawpaw, a Kentucky transplant with a custard-like fruit. Strong-smelling mint repels unwanted insects and ground cover of alpine strawberries holds weeds at bay. Yellow calendula flowers dotting the plot attract pollinating bees that help the mini-ecosystem thrive.

The rest of Estin’s Lynwood Center yard, which amounts to about a fifth of an acre, is layered with 108 different kinds of food and flower-producers.

“We get pretty much all the vegetables and fruit we eat from right here,” he said.

Estin and his wife Judy Katilus will open their yard to the public on Saturday for Bainbridge Island’s third-annual Edible Garden Tour. Sponsored by the Natural Landscapes Project, the Bainbridge Watershed Council and Sustainable Bainbridge, the three-garden tour is aimed at inspiring people to turn idle lawns into food producers.

Estin’s garden was designed using the principals of permaculture, a food-growing system that mimics the interrelationships found in nature.

Developed in Australia almost 30 years ago, many permaculture techniques have been practiced by farmers in Southeast Asia for over a thousand years.

“It seems like we’re doing something new, but we’re just plagiarizing something that’s very old,” said Katilus.

When Estin and Katilus moved to their Lytle Road home 24 years ago, it didn’t wasn’t exactly the picture of fertility.

“It was a sand lot with nothing but buried garbage in it,” Katilus said.

The property now features a variety of fruit trees, native plants and berries. Tucked in almost every corner are edible oddities from around the world, including Chilean guava, Ukrainian honeyberry and Chinese yams. A community garden plot down the street grows the family’s tomatoes and other sun-loving foods.

Estin, a former high school science teacher, recently made his passion for backyard transformations his career. His Bios Design company helps create “edible food forests” for homeowners.

Once in place, permaculture gardens require less maintenance and money than the typical row-cropped variety. Estin does not till his gardens, preferring to let the soil’s complex mix of chemicals and bacteria be.

He enriches his soil with a mulch developed by his nine feathered garden partners.

“We have no compost pile,” he said. “We just let our chickens cluck through all our scraps, and they make a rich composted mulch.”

The chickens not only lay the morning’s breakfast, they gently aerate garden soil and eat garden pests.
Would-be gardeners can achieve some of permaculture’s benefits without transforming their entire yard or garden goals.

“This isn’t a religion,” Katilus said. “You can incorporate what you want.”

That’s also the point of the tour’s other gardens, which also incorporate composting and organic growing techniques.

While the goal of the tour is to promote edible landscapes, Katilus said gardeners don’t have to trade the ornamental for the practical.

“Just look at this plum,” she said, pointing at a deep purple-leafed tree. “It’s a flowering plum but it’s also a very productive as a plum producer, so you can have food and beauty too.”

Backyard bounty
The Bainbridge Edible Garden Tour is Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. Because space is limited on the tour’s buses, organizers are asking that participants reserve a spot by calling (206) 842-4439. Tickets are $5.

Chuck Estin will give free tours of his permaculture garden on Sunday at 1 p.m. in case the tour on Saturday sells out. Call (206) 842-4280 for more information.