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Designing Ecological Backyard Gardens: An Interview with Jessi Bloom

Jessi Bloom at Mother Earth News Fair 
Jessi Bloom, author of Free Range Chicken Gardens, explains how to get the most out of a small garden with low-maintenance edibles and chickens
at the 2013 Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington.

When Jessi Bloom set out to design lush gardens for people who wanted to water less and keep their gardens pesticide-free, there wasn’t a lot of encouragement to be found. “I was told I was crazy. I was an extremist for being anti-pesticide,” she says. “Other landscape companies would scoff at the idea that I wanted to use native plants or edibles because there wasn’t a resale component. They would say things like, ‘Irrigation is the bread and butter of my business. Why would I want to create drought-tolerant gardens?’”

But Bloom persisted, vision intact. In 2000, she started a small business, N.W. Bloom, and began gardening—weeding, more or less—for others. She kept up her home garden experiments, too, emulating natural ecosystems and letting her chickens roam. “It was my dream to live sustainably, to be able to grow as much food as I could,” she says. Bloom was introduced to permaculture at that time, but for all the talk surrounding the beyond-organic method of gardening, mimicking nature seemed like common sense to her. 

For instance, Bloom is big on low-maintenance edibles, also known as perennials. “Plants you can put in the ground once and slowly but surely, year after year, you get more and more out of it.” Trees, nuts, fruit, leaves, shrubs. They’re disease and pest resistant, and they offer a nutritious alternative to the monocrops on offer through industrial agriculture. “Not only are they easy, but they’re really good for us,” she says.

Bloom’s vision and persistence paid off. Over the years, she found herself doing more design and construction as N.W. Bloom grew steadily, if slowly. Then, at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in 2006, her practical, ecologically-minded design outshone the extravagant, high-maintenance contenders for a gold medal. Attention from local media ensued.

At a more recent show, Bloom designed an urban homestead complete with goats, a chicken, tractor, cob oven, solar panel, and water catchment. “Everything I’m about was in this little garden,” she says. The design won seven out of eight awards at the show. Afterward, Timber Press offered her a book deal on gardening with chickens. Though she hadn’t been fully aware of how rare her chicken-friendly gardens were, she agreed. The result was Free Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard.

The book seeks to make both gardeners and their chickens happy. “We can utilize [chickens] for much more than their eggs or their meat,” says Bloom. “Garden help like pest control, fertilization. We just need to set up our gardens as a system so they can do what they’re doing without destroying their gardens. […] We need to be mimicking nature and creating ecosystems.”

I caught Bloom at her booth at the 2013 Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington, to talk about gardening with chickens, planting perennial foods, and garden ecosystems.