A Permaculture Oasis: Visiting the Bullock’s Family Homestead

root cellar with wooden door

There’s something very special about the San Juan Islands in Washington State, and it’s no accident that it’s also where the Bullock family has chosen to call home. The Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island is evidence that human beings are capable of great things.

My husband and I love new experiences, so we chose to spend our 5-year anniversary on their farm. Doug and Sam Bullock, along with a gaggle of their interns welcomed us into their vibrant community. We worked alongside them. We shared meals with them. And we learned with and from them. There was an unspoken mutual understanding that each of us is on a personal journey, and that we are all simply learning and experimenting with this life. There was also a general acceptance that none of us has all the answers, and that we must look to each other for support, guidance and inspiration in order to make the greatest possible contribution.

For more than 30 years, the Bullocks’ have been conscious stewards of the earth, making deliberate decisions about how they interact with their surroundings. Each year, they and their resident interns engage in the seasonal dance of planning, planting, harvesting, and preserving the yields.

The homestead doesn’t look like any traditional garden you’ve ever seen. The entire property is a giant garden. Everywhere you turn, there is a purpose intertwined with a lesson in placement, function and design. In fact, there are multiple reasons behind every element.

One of the most impressive features of the property is an adjacent water inlet that has become an oasis for birds, frogs, insects, fish, sea otters, ducks and other wildlife. Permaculture regards nature as a teacher and seeks to emulate its processes to achieve the greatest good. Using nature as a guide, this area that once supported just a few species is now a thriving ecosystem. And it’s nothing short of rejuvinating to the human spirit. Its beauty was breathtaking.

Throughout our visit, we were jolted out of our thoughts and tasks by the powerful force of flapping wings as flocks of birds took air. Chickens and ducks sang contently and frogs chimed in with background acoustics occasionally while we worked carefully to prepare areas of the garden for the next stage in the cycle. Our task for the day was to winterize the nursery stock and protect it from dipping temperatures and wintry winds.

Another of my favorite features was the root cellar. Not only was it extraordinarily beautiful, but it also serves the essential function of preserving food after the plentiful yields of summer have come to an end. Boxes of apples and canned vegetables filled the shelves of the well-sealed structure.

Craftsmanship is clearly an important value for the Bullocks. From the carefully engineered wood-fired shower and sauna to the numerous life-sustaining back-up systems, it was a reminder that design and function are inseparable.

While we mostly interacted with the food-producing areas of the farm, Doug also provided us with a tour of his personal homestead and garden. This is by no means a hobby farm; it’s a true style of living and a reflection of the family’s values. Doug’s woodworking and blacksmithing skills were stunning, to say the least.

Careful thought has been given to every aspect of this property.

Along with the abundance of biodiversity, sattire and humor were ubiquitous as well. It was both surprising and refreshing to be able to laugh and learn at the same time. The Bullocks turned every task and interaction into a learning opportunity. Questions filled the air, “Does anyone know why we’re mulching around the potted plants?” And answers followed spontaneously, filling in the blanks.

Even after decades of caring for this homestead, enthusiasm and passion have not waned. At one point as we were nestling nursery plants into their new cozy winter home, Sam asked the group, “Has anyone found a plant that they just want to wrap their arms around and hug?!?” He was serious. Several times, we took breaks to listen to Sam’s stories or enjoy a snack – or simply take pride in the job we had just finished. There was a definite sense of balance in our work, both physically and emotionally. Frequently, I felt my cheeks bulge into a smile when someone cracked a permaculture infused joke or made a clever observation.

Observation is a core skill for permaculture design, and fortunately, one that can be learned. Working as part of a group reminded me that we often learn the most by simply watching and listening to one another. Several times, I altered the way I was using my shovel or rake just by watching someone else’s often much more effective technique.

Real food is king at the Bullock’s homestead. Every task and decision revolves around supporting the growth and sustainability of every life there. There is abundance to be shared. My biggest lesson? While each life depends on the resiliency of a system for survival, each life is also responsible for they system’s stability.

Permaculture is a design tool that was developed by Bill Mollison and his student, David Holmgren in the 70’s. Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison is a great primer text if you want to learn more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *