A glimpse at East Wind’s gardens and the manager behind them
In Ozark County, where many enjoy gardening, there is no shortage of green thumbs. But the passion and skill for growing food stands out especially bright in local resident Richard Goerwitz, the garden manager at East Wind.
An intentional community in Tecumseh, East Wind boasts a population of around 70 residents at any given time, often accented with several visitors, who live together and regularly share communal meals.
Most, if not all of those who live there, find an importance in locally-sourced, healthy food. That means the community’s gardens and orchards, along with its other food production elements, which include dairy and beef cattle, pigs and chickens, are important parts of daily life at East Wind.
A lifelong love for growing things
Richard moved to East Wind in 2008 when he was 22 years old, but his love for growing things began much earlier in life.
“I’ve been a plant person for as long as I can remember. I started growing plants as a child. I grew some small plants in pots in window sills when my family lived in a small apartment without a yard to grow anything in the ground,” Richard told the Times. “Later on, we moved into a house with room in the yard for a small garden.”
He said it was that interest in horticulture that led him to making his home within the 1,000-plus acres of East Wind.
“One of the main reasons I came and stayed here was that the gardens needed attention. I also was attracted to the landscape of the Ozarks and the many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in the area. I’ve managed the gardens here for the majority of the time since then.”
He’s found inspiration from a variety of techniques including traditional organic gardening, permaculture and, more recently, landrace gardening, a concept recently brought to light by Joseph Lofthouse in which seeds are saved from the most rigorous crops grown in a specific locale, often after cross pollination with different varieties.
“I don’t rigidly follow any of these [techniques]. Reading about what works for others gives me ideas, but the real test is how well they actually work in the ground with the soil, climate and ecosystem here. Nobody works with exactly the same conditions as any other gardener. So, I’ve found flexibility and being open to feedback from my own experience with land is vital to having the best successes,” he said.
Richard says his work at East Wind is rewarding, and he enjoys his daily tasks, as well as long-term garden planning.
“Growing food gives me a chance to work intensively with the land in a way that is regenerative and gives the benefits of a variety of tasty, nutrient-dense foods for those of us eating them,” he said. “It also gives us more resilience, more reliance on ourselves and networking with others that we know face-to-face and reduces our dependence on multinational corporations and fragile supply lines.”
East Wind’s gardens and orchards
East Wind’s growing space is divided into two main areas, which collectively encompass about three acres. It is planted in a variety of produce, along with various culinary and medicinal herbs.
“The upper garden is smaller but more centrally-located. It consists of four separate fenced-in garden plots, as well as an herb garden and perennial plantings around the edges,” Richard said.
Most of the upper garden is managed in raised bed systems, which allows less compacted soil, better drainage and earlier warming in the spring.
“I only raise the beds slightly above the pathways, enough to make it clear where the bed is and where the path is, so the soil on the bed won’t be walked on and compacted… also heavy rains won’t flow across the bed. With our well-drained soil, I’ve found that raising the beds up too much in counterproductive because it makes them dry out,” he said.
The other space, often referred to as the “lower garden,” is enclosed by a tall fence to keep deer and other critters from enjoying the bounty.
A gazebo, herb garden, blueberry patch and orchard stands near that growing space.
“The parts with the best soil are used for annual produce,” Richard said, referring to things like fresh peppers, tomatoes, okra, melons, green beans, summer squash, cucumbers, greens and root crops, all of which have been planted at different times this year. “These are cultivated periodically with a tractor, and often the crops that need more space are grown here.”
One particularly interesting crop project Richard has focused on since he began his work at East Wind is corn.
“I’ve been saving seeds of corn for longer than any other crop. I have two corn-breeding projects going now, one of them began over 10 years ago and has involved crossing four similar varieties of grain-corn, and then selecting those which yield the best, are more resistant to molding and are easier to hand-process, along with other traits,” he said. “We use a lot of it to make homemade tortillas and grits.”
Along with staples he plants each year, Richard likes to play around with growing new foods occasionally. This year he’s planted two new crops, tamarillos and achira, he says. Tamarillos are related to tomatoes but grow on larger, more sturdy plants and take longer to mature. Achira is a root crop from South America with a tall interesting tropical appearance.
“Nothing beats the taste of homegrown food grown in healthy soil.”
An ‘agroforest’ of chestnut trees
Outside of the garden spaces, Richard also manages trees and other perennials, which return year after year without annual planting.
“In the past few years, I’ve been working on an agroforestry area, a patch of woods where I’ve thinned out the tree cover and planted edible and useful species. So far, mainly tree crops…”
He says trees are a passion of his, although he’s found that traditional fruit trees are particularly difficult to grow here with late spring frosts, various diseases and a long list of pests waiting to dine on the fruit.
“The tree crop that I’ve focused on the most is the chestnut. Chestnuts are widely eaten in parts of Europe and Asia, and they used to be better known in America until the chestnut-blight wiped out most of the native trees in the early 20th century, including the Ozark Chinquapin, which is the species of chestnut native to this area,” he said, clarifying that it is unrelated to the Chinquapin Oak that is native to the Ozarks.
“Luckily, there are chestnuts that are resistant to the blight, mostly Chinese chestnuts or hybrids that include parentage from multiple species.”
Richard says that chestnuts have become popular at East Wind and are loved for not only their favorable taste but also the fact that they are, nutritionally, closer to a potato or grain than other nuts.
“They have the potential to be a staple food that grows on a tree,” he said. “I’ve planted chestnuts from a variety of sources with different genetics to see what does the best here and saving seed to grow more trees from the ones that do well.”
Gardening as a community effort
Richard has served as the garden manager most of the time he’s lived at East Wind, sometimes by himself and sometimes in conjunction with a co-manager. But others in the community pitch in and help work the gardens throughout the season in different ways.
“Some people take on certain crops for the season or certain tasks for the garden, like mowing main paths. Others just help at certain times when it’s needed,” Richard explained.
Other East Winders who manage the beef ranch and dairy cattle sometimes work in coordination with Richard and the gardens.
“…Occasionally, we’ll have the dairy cows eat a large patch of lush cover crop in the lower garden,” he said as an example. “And importantly for the garden, we utilize animal manure to enrich the soil.”
“The produce from the gardens is available for use by members of East Wind Community. Most of it ends up in community meals, generally lunches and dinners in which someone, or more commonly several people, prepare a meal in which everyone living or visiting here is invited,” Richard explained. “Some of the produce ends up in members’ personal cooking as well.”
Richard says one of his main overarching goals with the gardens is to fashion them into a “low input” system, meaning able to grow well without the use of heavy additives including fertilizers, pesticides and other natural- and chemical-amendments.
“For what inputs we do use, we focus on those that are already here on the farm... compost made from food scraps and animal manures, as well as growing cover crops during times when no crop in that particular area is growing.
“Saving seed from landrace methods has been particularly helpful in this regard, and I’ve been using an increasing amount of seed that I have saved myself over the last few years,” he said.
Saving his own seed has not only benefited the gardens and community by saving money, it’s also allowed Richard to select seeds from plants that grew particularly well with the conditions at East Wind.
Advice for other growers
When asked if he has any advice for other gardeners, Richard said he wants to encourage local growers to save their own seed from their gardens.
“Plant breeding doesn’t need to be left to the experts. If you save seed, you’re engaging in plant breeding whether intentional or not. Even if your goal is to keep the variety exactly as it is, that still involves selecting for plants that are true to type. Landracing opens up many new possibilities to grow things better adapted to your conditions than any outside source is able to be.”
Richard says he’s found that saving seed in the landrace mindset has allowed him to see opportunity even when there’s a year that a particular crop doesn’t do well.
“As long as there isn’t a complete failure and a few plants did well, those can be the ones that seed is saved from to lead to increased resilience in future generations of the crop to whatever adverse conditions led to the overall sub-optimal yield that year.”
Plus, saving seed as a landrace brings an interesting element to growing when the luster of simply growing the same crops year after year wears off.
“I have a particular fondness for trees because I can watch them grow larger and hopefully more productive year after year. It isn’t as much repetition. Landracing annual crops turns them into a project more akin to watching a tree grow. The individual plants may not last long, but the breeding project builds upon itself, changing and adapting year after year.”
To find out more about the East Wind Community, visit Eastwind.org.