Food for the Soul: The Himalayan Institute’s Greenhouse and Garden Has Plenty

Text | Erin Vanderberg

Just past the town of Bethany, PA, a sweeping view of rolling hills marks the entrance to the Himalayan Institute in  Honesdale, PA, the area’s foremost authority on yoga practice and ayurvedic health.  It is easy to understand why people come from around the world seeking peace and respite here.  Their land comprises 400 acres surrounded by state forest, easy walking trails intersect the topography, gazebos and flower gardens dot the landscape, a calm energy pervades the air, and people from all walks of life come to visit on a daily basis.

While the yoga coursework nourishes their souls, there is a large garden under cultivation from early spring to the first frost that grows the fresh, organic produce to nourish their bodies.  On any given day there are about 80-plus people are visiting the Institute, so feeding them is no small task.  But the crops grown in the greenhouse and the 2-acre garden yield more than enough produce to feed the community and their guests from May through early November.

“It’s not unusual to bring 2 to 300 pounds of produce in a day,” says Tom Woodson, the garden manager at the Institute who came from tending a 40-acre organic market garden in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  A diligent record-keeper, last year Woodson recorded 17,000 pounds of produce brought into the kitchen, not including the produce that was picked directly from the garden by community members.

They grow a little bit of everything in their gardens, but heirloom tomatoes are one of Tom’s favorites.  Last year he grew 20 varieties of tomatoes, 17 of them heirlooms for eating fresh of the vine.  “Peach, cherry, orange, red, yellow, striped… Each one tastes a little bit different.  In some cases, we are eating tomatoes that are over 100 year old varieties,” he says.

Since greens are critical to the vegetarian diet, they grow large quantities of kale, mustard greens, collard greens, and lettuces.  Lettuce is the first thing planted in the early spring.  One May, Tom recorded that he had already grown 200 pounds of lettuce in the greenhouse before most people had even planted their gardens.  Woodson works closely with the head chef on meal planning so that exactly what is needed is picked – ensuring freshness and minimal waste.

The greenhouse structure is simple and durable.  Double-wall plastic comprises the walls which generally withstand Pennsylvania’s weather.  Gravel flooring acts a passive solar heat source.  The only energy costs associated to the greenhouse are to run the ventilation system, to heat the germination table, and to occasionally fire up the propane heater in a cold snap.  The sun does the rest for free.

With an organic farming strategy of building up healthy soil, cover-cropping, and using a 4-year rotation, the method seems to facilitate the high yield of produce.  Tom mixes a super light, nutrient-rich potting soil in the greenhouse and improves the soil in the fields with homemade compost and soil amendments: peat moss, used mushroom soil, rock powders, humates, and worm castings are a few of the ingredients.  Covering the fields with alfalfa, vetch, and broad beans over the winter and then incorporating them in come spring enriches the soil.  They also follow the biodynamic method, planting crops according to a complicated astronomical calendar and using prescribed soil preparations.  It is an esoteric practice, explains Tom, that “changes the garden energetically.”  But it works.

Apart from the greenhouse and good soil, the other essential to their productive garden is a productive gardener and Tom is that.  “I can be working 12 hours a day and still not get everything done,” he bemoans.  But he enlists plenty of help and has a summer intern.  He admits that starting the lettuces early in the spring when snow surrounds the greenhouse and allowing folks to come in a cut them for salads is his recruiting tool.  “Once people start tasting the things coming out of the garden, there is real interest in working in the garden.”

Adjacent to the greenhouse is a large enclosure where a male and female peacock observe the daily rituals of the garden.  The national bird of India, they are living symbols of the Institute’s philosophical origins.  Perhaps these guardians are the real secret to the gardens success.  The formula then is simple:  amended soil, organic methods, universally coordinated plantings, nettle tea, many hands working hard and peacocks and you too can have 17,000 pounds of veggies every year.

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