Aaron von Frank is the cofounder and CEO of GrowJourney, a USDA certified organic Seeds of the Month Club. GrowJourney members get new and interesting varieties of organic heirloom seeds each month, plus exclusive access to the company’s online educational resources that help them learn how to grow each seed variety using organic/permaculture methods. Aaron and his wife, Susan, co-founded the company in June 2014, and it now has members in nearly every US state, Canada and Puerto Rico. They are organic gardening teachers, published garden writers and also have a popular gardening blog Tyrant Farms, named affectionately after Susan since she can be a bit bossy sometimes (hence her nickname “The Tyrant”).
In This Interview You Will Find:
- the important conversation about permaculture
- why kids make amazing gardeners
- growing heirlooms – more than just amazing taste
- why you just don’t need poison and chemicals if you know the right people
- the awesome concept of your very own “food forest”
- what we can do about putting a halt to the anthropocene extinction
- the intense nutrition profile of the white oak acorn
- important gardening resources that you might have missed!
- Are you a VIP yet? Join the BackToMyGarden VIP Club and receive special bonuses, free stuff, and advanced notice on all the fun things happening at BTMG!
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How did you discover gardening?
Some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories are eating fruits and veggies out of my grandfather’s organic garden when I was 4-5 years old. He read a lot of J.I. Rodale’s publications, which had a big impact on him. Rodale is considered the “founder” of organic agriculture in the US, and the Rodale Institute is named after him. My parents always had an organic garden too, so gardening is deeply rooted in my family and my self-identity. My wife’s background is in Biology, so when we got married and got a yard, it didn’t take long for us to start growing. We got into heirloom seeds when we went over to a friend’s house for dinner (she’s an amazing organic gardener) and ate ground cherries and fresh-pulled heirloom carrots for the first time. That was a profound, revelatory experience.
In your mind, what was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome as a gardener?
Overcoming our own ignorance and/or preconceptions we had about what gardening entailed. As we learned more about permaculture, we had a big knowledge shift. As such, we haven’t ploughed our soil in 5 years, we don’t need to weed, and we don’t have to water except when our plants are young or we’re in drought conditions. Before that, I had this mental image that gardening inevitably entailed ploughing, pulling weeds, and other unpleasant activities. Once you start to understand a bit more about ecology and the soil food web, you realize that we’ve actually been doing things wrong since the dawn of agriculture and have never really questioned those foundational assumptions. Ploughing is one of the worst things you can do for your soil health—it’s like a hurricane hitting a living city every single growing season.
Describe the circumstances that led to this challenge.
We’re kind of geeks in that we love reading scientific research and learning as much as we can about this subject. We feel like if we’re going to have strong opinions about a topic (which we do), that we also have a responsibility to make those opinions well-informed. I’m not sure where or when we first started having that change in thinking away from old ways of doing things, but it was more likely a gradual, continual shift. People like microbiologist Dr. Laura Ingham, permaculture writers like Toby Hemenway, and farmers like Mark Shepard certainly aided in that process.
How have you overcome it?
By matching our growing practices with our evolving knowledge. It’s fun actually eating the efficacy of the information you learn, constantly experimenting and learning more (and thus eating more).
What were your lessons that you discovered from it?
Nature is profoundly complex at an order of magnitude beyond my comprehension. We haven’t really scratched the surface in understanding nature’s systems—even though we’re quite adept at disrupting them. At this point, my biggest goal in my professional life is to be a small part of the shift that needs to take place in human civilization; a shift away from simply trying to “sustain” bad ways of doing things, towards doing things in a regenerative way. And since the biggest, most destructive upstream problem is the way we grow our food, that’s the area that has captured my imagination and focus. If we (human beings) can do it well, we can easily feed everyone on earth, preserve rich local cultures, stabilize the atmosphere, produce clean air and water, and even put a halt to the anthropocene extinction. That’s not my opinion, there is tons of research out there to support these statements, and one of the most fascinating to me is the Rodale Institute’s 30 year side-by-side growing trials comparing the impacts and outcomes of organic crop production versus conventional crop production (it was produced in collaboration with the USDA and the University of Pennsylvania so it’s not just a propaganda/advocacy piece for organic production). That’s a report we want everybody out there to read and understand: click here to read it.
What do you love most about gardening?
The educational aspects of it. A close second would have to be the quality and variety of foods we’re able to eat out of yard and from foraging out in the woods. We eat very, very well, and much of what we eat you’ll never see in a grocery store.
How has your life changed because of gardening?
As mentioned, we certainly eat much better than we ever did before. Also, there’s sort of a mental dichotomy that’s set in for us: on one hand, we feel incredibly excited and optimistic because we get a “taste” of how great things could be for earth-dwelling organisms including humans, while on the other hand, we sometimes get angry and pessimistic because we deeply understand just how much we’re screwing things up right now.
What is your garden like today?
It’s a little under half acre edible landscape, designed as a food forest. We have a few patches of grass for walking paths, but most of our yard contains edible/beneficial plants with stacked functions. We also back up to a forest with a very steep drop-off going down to a creek, so the area has never been logged. As such, there are some beautiful old-growth trees back there. We go there to observe and to forage wild fungi like chanterelles, bi-color boletes, etc..
What would you love to experiment with next year?
Two things, personally: 1) I want to get a much deeper knowledge of making and using composts and compost teas. I also want to do much more mushroom cultivation. Some of our friends run Mushroom Mountain, so we can buy spawn to grow an amazing variety of delicious, medicinal mushrooms on logs and wood chips.
If you were only allowed to grow 1 thing next year, what would you grow and why?
Jeez, that’s a tough one. For practical purposes, I’d say our white oak acorns, since they provide the most balanced macronutrient profile of proteins, carbs and fats (once we leach the tannins out). But my taste buds would say either ground cherries or cape gooseberries because they’re just so delicious.
What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
Don’t plough your soil and keep your soil covered at all times.
If you had just 2 websites to share with a beginner, what would they be?
- We want people to go ahead and start learning and growing based on what the future of farming and gardening needs to look like, so we’d recommend this site to go ahead and get them there as quickly as possible: http://www.
- Yes, I’m biased, but I think we have some very valuable stuff for beginners on our garden blog, especially under the “Getting Started” category (http://www.tyrantfarms.com/
What’s the best gardening book you can suggest?
What’s the most hilarious mistake you’ve ever made in your garden?
When we were first getting started, we got one of those seed starting kits with the little plastic moisture lid on it. We followed the instructions precisely, but all of our seedlings died from damping off and we got very discouraged. Then we actually learned how to grow from seed correctly (with help from a friend and learning from some good online resources) and we’ve had incredible success growing from seed ever since. That experience was actually one of the reasons we wanted to start GrowJourney: there is so much bad advice out there it blows the mind. If people follow bad advice, they’re more likely to have bad results. If they have bad results, they’re more likely to give up or say “it’s just not worth it.” With GrowJourney, we want to teach people the most time and cost-effective ways to do things while using methods that are also regenerative to the health of their yard/garden ecosystem. If every lawn in America could do that, what a country we’d have!