I am so honored to introduce to you Blake Cothron and Peaceful Heritage Permaculture Nursery! Seriously, I wanted to hug him after reading the responses to the interview. That may seem like a little much to some of you but it is not often that we run into someone up here in western ND who is so passionate about ethical growing practices and and how they affect the people they touch and the planet we all share.
I was smiling the entire time I read through the interview. It is very evident that he is sincere in everything that he says. I'm so excited to do business with him and his nursery. I'm absolutely confident that I will be purchasing the best of the best grown and handled with the uter most care every step of the way. And he has so generously offered my readers a 5% discount good for the next 30 days (from January 9th) with code save5%! So read this interview and see how awesome he is for yourself and learn some helpful tips along the way. He's so insightful and endearing. Then head over to their website at www.peacefulheritage.com and get yourself some wonderful trees, bushes, natives....!
Peaceful Heritage Permaculture Nursery
Without further delay, everyone meet Blake.
Blake, you have many years of experience and research (over 17)! Only true passion can spur such commitment and drive. What started your passion for growing fruit trees and other plants?
Yes, you are quite right. My passion for plants started at a young age; I remember being around 7 or 8 years old (early 1990s), in a drugstore with my mom and I saw tomato plants for sale and was intrigued. I didn’t know anything about vegetables or plants but was magnetically drawn to the concept of growing things. I planted those tomatoes in a little unused, concrete walled raised bed garden attached to my family’s house. I didn’t know any better at the time and dumped lots of Miracle Gro on the tomatoes, and they got huge. I gave away all the tomatoes and remember my dad eating some. They seemed so huge to me at the time; maybe they actually were! This gardening interest continued every season. Sometimes things grew randomly from discarded seeds in tossed out produce. One year I watched an entire cantaloupe plant sprout, grow, vine, flower and set fruit, and then rot. I had no idea what it was! You must note I grew up in the suburbs in Louisville, KY and no one in my immediate family had any knowledge of or interest in gardening or plants, and we all lived artificially and ate a very artificial diet of processed and fast foods. So, what I was doing was quite radical. When I started to better educate myself at 14 years old (2000), via library books and books on health and gardening that my mom bought for me at Goodwill, I learned that there was a difference between organic fertilizers and chemical fertilizers. This was a big moment for me, and I felt intrinsically that organic fertilizer must be better because it was natural and from the Earth. So, I vowed to only use organic fertilizers, which for me were mainly derived from a friendly neighbor’s compost pile and manure from his pet rabbit operation. That sure got my garden growing good! So, every winter I would spend my time studying and reading as many organic gardening books, such as Rodale’s books, as possible. Then come spring I would trial all the things I learned; double digging beds, composting, seed starting, etc. Slowly over my teen years I grew in my skill base and gradually became quite adept by the time I was in college. At that point I was also very interested in fruit trees and growing fruit. So, I inquired with some friendly neighbors if I might clean up and care for their derelict concord grape vines in their woodsy backyard. They were amused and allowed me access to their huge, wildly overgrown vines. I pruned them back to near perfection, applied compost and also sprayed them with organic anti-fungal sprays all summer. To my delight, they fruited and got perfect, huge, quarter-sized grapes, which I gave to the owners. I had a few and they were very sweet. I also took over my grandparent’s home orchard and cleaned up their apple and pear trees. From an elderly gardening neighbor, I got some grape cuttings and started those and planted the vines. Three years later I was rewarded with very tasty little pink seedless grapes (Reliance variety). Interesting to note is that at the time all this was going on, there were many thousands of WWII veterans in Louisville, mostly of German and Scotts-Irish decent. They had amazing backyard gardens that were all very similar. They grew a wide variety of vegetables and plants, at least 8-10 different things, including your standard vegetables but also things like rhubarb, grapes, fruit trees, asparagus and blackberries. Their gardens were immaculate, orderly and extremely productive, though not always organic. These men had been gardening for 60-70 years! They basically turned their large Louisvillian backyards (often ½ acre or more) into highly productive mini-homesteads that echoed their distant farm-boy pasts. A big part of my heritage with gardening and farming is based on observing these very slow-paced elderly men putter around their properties, masterfully yet silently and extremely humbly turning the rich alluvial Louisville soil into a reliable abundance that kept them fed all year. Many of them saved their own seeds for decades and grew rare heirlooms. Those men are almost all dead now and those that are left are too old to garden and will be gone soon. I subsequently and sadly watched their abandoned gardens get rapidly reclaimed by the suburban grass lawn. All that is left now is the ghostly faint squares in the lawns of young families, whispering of the former borders of their gardens, and my extremely fond memories of them as I continue their heritage of love of nature, giving, and gardening.
When did Peaceful Heritage Nursery open?
Our nursery business in spirit started when I was in college and still living at home. Next door to one of the just mentioned and now deceased elderly WWII veterans (Percy Lashley) was an abandoned property. Trespassing on that property as a teen I discovered a strange plant that made edible berries that I took a strong liking to. I learned it was black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) which grows wild in Kentucky. I learned how to propagate and divide the plant and planted the starts in my parent’s large ¼ acre backyard. They really took off and I was impressed by them, so I started to market and sell the starts every spring, which I sold bare-root to locals who found me on Craigslist. I’ll never forget the time my (now deceased) father saw me at the front door, handing over a box of tiny plants to an eager customer, who then handed me back a crisp $100 bill! My father’s eyes just bugged out! He couldn’t believe I was making money with this. So I like to think that is the start of the nursery. I ended up working in other nurseries over the years, from the totally conventional, heavily spraying ones to the very nitty-gritty in the forest permaculture style ones, and I knew this was a viable option for me. I started several small nurseries over the years, selling casually. Once I knew I wanted to settle down and start a farm, I knew a nursery would be a great asset. So in 2014 the nursery officially started and got State Licensed. For a time we also grew large amounts of organic produce and did a CSA and farmer’s market, but now we have phased that out and 95% of our income is made through the nursery business, which is absolutely thriving.
Your nursery is Certified Organic. Growing organically is something I’m very passionate about and I know that you at Peaceful Heritage Nursery take great care in as well. Can you tell us why it is so important to you to use organic methods?
Utilizing organic methods in farming is simply the only natural option and sustainable long-term approach to agriculture. There’s no doubt about it. We are organic beings in an organic universe, on an organic planet. We therefore respond best and can best utilize organic nutrients and products. Chemicals synthesized and created in factories definitely can be used to manipulate nature and make things happen. You can feed a plant chemical NPK nutrients and it will definitely grow and get large and may produce a lot of food. But looking much closer, what is the actual nutritional quality and quantity in produce grown with chemicals? What is the long-term effect of dumping chemicals on the soil? How does that affect the micro-life, earthworms, soil structure, and water table? We know by now that the answer is negatively. Very negatively. Chemicals kill soil life, decimate earthworm populations, burn up soil organic matter and leach toxins into the drinking water supply. That’s all very, very bad. We can test soil nutrients in produce very easily. If you test fresh organic produce grown well on healthy soil and then test conventional produce grown on fumigated, heavily chemically saturated land, there’s a huge difference. The produce grown on healthy soil will almost always come out far ahead in micronutrient levels, sugars, vitamins, etc. Your tongue can tell you that much rather quickly. And, I have not even mentioned synthetic pesticides and sprays that are a tremendous source of pollution and toxins in our environment. Just look at how Monsanto is being sued now and losing court cases to people who have gotten cancer from using their products like Roundup, which they deceived the public about for decades saying they were totally safe. I never believed them. This is serious. Organic is not a trend or fad. It is people waking up to the fact that what we eat and drink and what we do to the earth matters, and matters a lot actually. Organic methods are not perfect but they are a huge leap forward in the right direction. There’s a lot of opposition to organics right now by those that are very out of tune with the earth and think that chemicals are the answer to humanity’s challenges. I believe in an intelligent Universe created with unfathomable intelligence and design and that all problems can be solved working with natural means. Any problems that cannot are generally based on forcing a system onto the Earth that it cannot sustain, such as 500 acre monocultures of one species; it’s just too far removed from nature to be viable long-term. We’re starting to see the breakdown of the beliefs that this type of agriculture can be sustained indefinitely. Even the mega-farm guys and chemical companies quietly understand this, and that’s why the Universities in the USA are putting more and more emphasis on organic production and sustainability, even though it does not receive adequate funding usually. That being said, ever since I learned about organic agriculture, I always have been completely die-hard about it’s importance. I pursued Organic Certification simply to validate and display these values to my customers in a tangible form. I’ll always grow organically, and I have amazing success because I’m not trying to force an extremely artificial paradigm onto nature; I listen to nature and am always adapting to what the system is telling me works or needs shifted. I mimic natural systems. That’s the secret.
We have not had the greatest success with potted fruit trees. Recently a friend with an orchard told us it is best to purchase bare root trees. I noticed on your website that you find that bare root trees are more successful as well. Can you share with us why this is?
That’s a great question and is very simple once you think about it like this. Bare-root trees are first planted and grown in the soil. They are then grown for 1-2 season and then dug up carefully. Thus they have been allowed to produce a robust, natural root system. These trees are then sold by the nursery that grew them, often to other nurseries. These bare-root trees are then either 1) sold immediately as bare-root trees to customers or 2) not sold right away and “planted” into plastic pots with peat-based potting mix as soil. Often many roots must be cut so the trees fits into the plastic pot. These (now potted) trees are kept in a severely restrained situation (the plastic pot), and drip fed water and chemicals so they stay green, just like an IV drip on a hospital patient. They may stay like this for 6 months or even several years. Customers see a nice looking, 5, 6, 7 foot tall tree with green leaves, and they buy it at a high price. Once planted, these artificially restrained and chemically fed trees usually fail to thrive for very long. The reason being that the tree has gotten very far out of balance and the root system has been severely abused and restrained, and sometimes grows into a knot. They often show weak growth, poor anchorage (falling over in storms), and often simply perish in a season or two. That’s basically what happens. There is propaganda on the Internet by unscrupulous nurseries that claim potted is always better, but it rarely is actually better. If a bare-root tree was grown and handled well by a good nursery and you plant it promptly and properly with care, it will out perform a potted tree 9 times out of 10. That being said, we do sell some potted plants and trees. The difference is that we plant small plants in large pots, up pot them into larger pots seasonally, feed them organically, and aim to sell them as fast as possible. Anything that appears distressed or in poor condition is discarded and never sold to our customers. For instance, we’ve found that potted, well grown pawpaws do great, because pawpaws have very delicate root systems that can get damaged by handling them bare-rooted. The key to bare-root tree success is proper planting of well-grown and well-handled stock. Both the nursery and the final customer have to do a good job. Some online nurseries do crazy things with bare-root plants, like shipping them in translucent plastic bags with no moist material around their roots. The plants get to you half or totally dead and dried up. Thus the customer often begins to think there’s something wrong with bare-root trees, because they fail to grow. It’s not the bare-root tree that’s the issue; it’s the poor nursery practices and lack of ethics of the business that’s failing you. I don’t know how these places stay in business!
Food forests and permaculture landscapes are becoming more and more popular. Tell us a little bit about permaculture. Ha ha, I know there can be quite a lot to it, but can you give my readers who may not be familiar with it, the main idea behind it?
The main idea behind permaculture is that humans can actually live in harmony with the Earth and create systems to get their needs met without ripping off the environment and destroying it. That’s permaculture in a nutshell. It just makes sense and is a noble ideal. We all know there must be a better way. Permaculture offers some amazing concepts, theories and prototypes for how to pull this off. Some of it is a little complicated and permaculture has become watered down somewhat. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and some really whacky theories. So, if you want to understand permaculture and put it into practice, simply read Bill Mollison’s Designers Manual. For me it’s about designing things to be low impact and low input and highly productive. I’m always trying to reduce resource use, while getting a better product or yield, and I use permaculture concepts to do that. Again, a lot of it is mimicking nature, creating biodiversity, and getting as many yields and uses out of landscape as possible. For instance, a chemical corn farm gets one yield per season: corn. It uses a lot of energy and resources to get that yield, and a low profit. On our permaculture farm we raise about 50-60 species, from berries to vegetables to bees and goats. That gives not only a tremendous amount of potential yields and viable products, but also a huge safety net. If some years 1 or 2 or even 10 crops fail, we’d likely still do fine because we have so many things going. If our nursery only produced 1 product, such as apple trees, and we had a terrible apple tree season, we could be in major trouble. That’s why so many farms are failing all over the country. When the price of beef or milk or whatever drops due to the artificial globalized market, and that’s the only product you raise, then you lose the farm or lose your mind, or both. That system of farming is very artificial, very recent in the whole span of agricultural history, and is simply not wise, because it’s not mimicking nature. Nature is always abundant, extremely diverse and is the model we need to follow in all respects.
You have many, many varieties of fruiting trees and bushes, and also herbs, seeds, and native plants. Really everything you need for an edible food forest! A common practice in permaculture is to use the permaculture trio. Can you tell us a little bit about this? I’m sure this is something my readers may want to consider when planning and making a purchase.
Yes, I think what you are referring to is also called “stacking functions”. Again, it’s mimicking nature. When you go into a forest, what is present before you? Is there only one species of tree in the forest? Are there only trees in the forest? Of course not, there are dozens of species, hundreds, thousands. For instance, there are mushrooms and moss at ground level, then ferns and herbs, then shrubs and brambles, then small trees, then large trees. There’s lichens, moss, birds and other animals living in the trees. There’s rabbits, mice, chipmunks, wildcats and deer on the ground level. That’s only above ground! Below ground are dozens or hundreds of additional and crucial species. They all work together and are not in competition when it’s in balance. Likewise, a resilient landscape mimics that. You can start with ground level things like comfrey, clover, mint, herbs, violets, etc. Then there are the smaller shrubs and trees like hazelnuts, berry vines, honeyberry, pawpaws. Then there is the larger levels like apples, pears, chestnuts, pecans, etc. However, designing things to look and feel like a forest is better done and more functional in the tropics than in the temperate USA. Small plants like herbs and comfrey grow great under fruit trees. But trying to interplant apples and pawpaws under chestnuts and pecans won’t work here. They each need full sun exposure and lots of space or they’ll all start to compete and shade each other out. Shade ruins fruit and nut trees. So plan things out like a traditional orchard, with wide spacing, rows, and structure. It has to be spaced well for good sun exposure but make it as diverse as possible and plant lots of ground covers (legumes, mint, herbs, comfrey, shade tolerant vegetables). Make sure the plants are acclimated to your region and are good cultivars and species for your area.
One difficulty I have had is finding varieties that are suited for my zone 3 climate. Do you have any recommendations for those of us who live in climates with shorter growing seasons and harsher winters?
Yes, several things. First, investigate what grows in your region by contacting local farms and orchards and gardening clubs. See what other gardeners are growing successfully and join online gardening forums. Don’t theorize and speculate; investigate. Contact your local agricultural extension office and get information from them. Any old timers in your area that garden will certainly have acclimated plants and often would love to share them with an interested person. And, if you find something doing great, such as a random pear tree in a field, or an apple on the side of the road, see if you can propagate it. The adventure is in finding unknown but hardy varieties and species, and you may never have heard of many of them. Don’t try to bend nature to fit your concepts, make your concepts fit into nature. For instance, people want Bartlett pears because that’s what they sell at the grocery store. Bartlett pears are disease prone, especially to fireblight, and will not grow in Kentucky for long. Instead of trying to force Bartlett pears to grow in Kentucky because you like that variety, investigate what actually does well and plant that. You’ll usually find you have a whole plethora of choices you had no idea about. In zone 3 many nice fruits will grow: gooseberries, currants, serviceberries, honeyberry, certain apples and pears; I think some plums might do well and there’s a lot more. There’s a book called The Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory and it’s a great place to start. We’re not featured in that book, but hopefully in the next edition we will be.
What is your favorite thing to grow?
My favorite thing to grow is an integrated and highly diverse agro-forest system. In that system I have a special affinity for pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and think they are a super rad species, extremely lovely to behold and the fruit is just incredible.
Do you have any new varieties that you are working to introduce in the future?
Yes, one of my main goals with the nursery is to regularly be discovering, finding and propagating superior fruiting plants that are hardy and resilient. I currently am collecting and propagating promising mulberries, hazelnuts and also pawpaws. I am planting out many superior pawpaw seedlings to try to identify superior seedlings for future nursery production
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Peaceful Heritage Nursery?
We’re simply a small, honest business that cares about the Earth, people, and growing food for good health. We strive to produce, source and sell only the highest quality products. There’s unfortunately a lot of very dishonest and low-quality nurseries selling plants online. We want to help improve the mail-order plant nursery business image by showing people that you can actually get hard to find, great quality plants shipped right to your door at an affordable price. Your support of our business also supports our other endeavors such as tree planting, reforestation and community service.
Don't you love his story! And such a knowledgable man! Blake would like me to mention that his wonderful wife Rachel is also very involved in running their nursery and he could not do it without her. It looks like he their littlest assistant is going to grow to be an excellent help too.
They have a Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiDEIfC2LhWMLOOZlFVcw3Q
You will want to check this out. It is a newer channel and there aren't many videos yet but you will find very helpful info. I took over a page of notes on the first Urban Food Forest video. I think I might actually understand how to prune fruit trees now. He explains it so clearly. Way better than any book I've ever read!
Here is their website again www.peacefulheritage.com head over there before they sell out for the season! Don't forget to use code save5% when you check out.
Lovely friends, let me kow what you pick out over at Peaceful Heritage Nursery. I have quite the growing wish list! I will let you know what I get as well.
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Hello, I'm Jaci. I look forward to sharing my gardening and homestead adventures to help you reach your gardening goals! If you have any questions then don't be shy, I'd love to hear from you. Send me a message and I will be glad to help!