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Carel Struycken has long been interested in the principle of “permaculture,” not only as it relates to growing fruits and vegetables, but also because of the perspective, it gives him on most human activities. (“Permaculture” is a coined term meaning “permanent agriculture.”)

Struycken, who currently lives in Altadena, California, is the actor who played “Lurch” in the Addams Family feature films, as well as in “The Addams Family” television series. He also took on roles in “Star Trek,” the movies Men in Black and Witches of Eastwick and many others. He was born in Holland, grew up in Curaçao in the Caribbean and moved back to Holland at age 15.

He and I met at his former Pasadena home to discuss his efforts at home food production and permaculture.

Carel Struycken examines a few of the olives on a branch of an olive tree.

PERMACULTURE

Carel Struycken explained that traditional self-sustaining gardening methods are today often referred to as “permaculture.” He showed me the “bible” of permaculture, Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers Manual, which details a way in which we can grow food and live with the land in accord with nature’s principles.

“The whole idea of permaculture is to put in as little work as possible and allow nature to find its balance,” said Struycken, who produced all the vegetables for a family of five for many years using these principles.

“I’m also a big fan of Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution. If I had the time, I would love to go to Japan and work on his natural farm and learn about his methods,” he said.

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Both Mollison and Fukuoka were advocates of natural gardening and farming, which means planting what is appropriate for the area, tilling as little as possible, letting all the leaves and old plants serve as fertilizer for the new plants, and using natural methods for insect control.

Carel Struycken reaches for a fig on a backyard tree.

Carel Struycken reaches for a fig on a backyard tree.

STRUYCKEN’S LOW-MAINTENANCE GARDEN

Using permaculture methods, Carel Struycken grew lots of Asian greens; mostly those members of the cabbage or mustard family that had the highest nutritional value. He grew herbs, tomatoes, yardlong beans and 14 fruit trees.

His yard was terraced with cement rubble—pieces of old cement walkways that had been neatly stacked to form impressive and long-lasting walls using a material that is normally discarded. He also experimented with raised beds, because the soil in his garden area was so bad.

Wall made f discarded concrete

The patio of Carel Struycken’s former Pasadena home demonstrates how discarded concrete was used to build up the walls.

The smaller the plot, the harder it is to practice permaculture methods. Still, Struycken never raked up and discarded leaves. Under his avocado tree, he allowed the leaves to accumulate into a thick layer of mulch.

“The layer of avocado leaves is well over a foot thick, and when you look into the bottom of the pile, it is all naturally producing rich soil,” he said.

What To Grow

Carel Struycken’s favorite plant family is the mustard family, which is the healthiest, has the most nutrients and is easy to grow. He prefers Asian greens. Here are some of his favorites:

Tatsoi (Chinese Flat Cabbage)

Tatsoi (Chinese Flat Cabbage)

Mizuna Mei qing choi

Bok choy (or pak choi): This is a type of Chinese cabbage. These varieties do not form heads; instead, they have smooth, dark-green leaf blades that form a cluster reminiscent of mustard or celery.

Tatsoi (also called “Chinese flat cabbage” or “rosette pak choi.”): Tatsoi contains high levels of vitamin C, carotenoids, folic acid, calcium and potassium.

Tyfon Holland green: This is a hybrid between Chinese cabbage and stubble turnip. It is easy to grow and one of Struycken’s top choices. It was introduced into China from Holland in the 16th century.

Yardlong beans: These beans are quite prolific.

Tomatoes: Struycken advises growing the smaller ones. They don’t need as much work to grow or harvest, and you don’t need to do any staking—as you would with heavy beefsteak tomatoes.

Seed Sources:

Nichols Garden Nursery
(541) 928-9280 

Johnny’s Selected Seeds
(877) 564-6697 


He composted all his kitchen scraps in many compost heaps, and he worked at cultivating the earthworms that naturally occurred in his yard so they would do the tilling that farmers ordinarily do.

He purchased ladybugs years ago because they eat the “bad” insects, and he found that the ladybugs like the fennel plants.

“So, the secret to keeping ladybugs around is to grow fennel,” explained Struycken with a smile.

Permaculture does not involve raking away leaves or garden scraps but using them for the next generation of fertilizer.

Carel Struycken inspects a yucca plant in his sustainable garden.

Yucca plants are useful and drought tolerant.

Although Carel Struycken tried to produce all of his fertilizer from his own backyard, he found the need to occasionally bring in chicken and horse manure for his crops. (“I stopped using the horse manure, though,” he said, “[because] I found that it produced too many weeds.”)

“I was always amazed that I never had to do anything to my lettuce, and it was always perfect. The ecosystem took care of itself.”

Struycken pointed out that although there were many spiders and insects in the garden, the insects that usually ate his lettuce got eaten by some other insect. This is one of the basic principles of permaculture: that nature, largely left alone, will find its own balance.

Carel Struycken, who has been in the movie business for about 35 years, wants to do a series of documentaries that show sustainable communities throughout the world so the principles can be preserved for others to learn from.

“The Amish are the most successful sustainable farmers, and they are using early-18th-century technologies,” he pointed out.

Permaculture does not involve raking away leaves or garden scraps but using them for the next generation of fertilizer.

Gear, Supplies, Techniques

Drip irrigation: Struycken is a big fan of drip irrigation. He uses a half-inch Netafim brand line, with little holes every 12 inches where the water comes out (which is where he plants his produce).

Tools: Struycken uses two less-common garden tools. One is a broadfork. Put your foot on the bar and rotate the tool about 45 degrees to loosen the soil—but not turn it over. It is not a tiller, which would turn over the soil. 

According to the Red Pig Garden Tools website, “Broadforks are two-handled forks with long, widely spaced  tines. They are used to loosen soil deeply without inverting it. Doing so maintains the existing soil structure and minimizes disruption of bacterial life while providing aeration that enhances water and nutrient penetration, [and] root spread. It also serves to counteract the compaction caused by water, gravity and other causes.

To wield a broadfork, you force the tines straight down into the earth while holding the handles at arm’s length. You then pull the handles back and rock them, [thereby] breaking, loosening and crumbling the soil.”

Carel Struycken uses a broadfork to loosen the soil.

Carel Struycken uses a broadfork to loosen the soil.

The second tool looks like a heavy-duty rake with the tines bent, but this one is actually a kind of tiller that takes a lot of punishment.

“I use this one mainly when I am prepping a new bed that needs to get minerals—like greens and and rock phosphate, compost and fertilizer—mixed in,” Struycken said.

Garden Beds

Raised beds make it easier to water less, because you can fill the bed with absorbent compost and mulch. According to Struycken, the biggest advantage of raised beds is that there is much less evaporation.

Where possible, use bricks or rocks to build up the walls of your raised bed.

Do not use conventional pressure-treated wood. That wood might not rot, but it can leach toxins into your garden.

Keep your beds fewer than 3 feet wide so you can easily reach any plant.

Mulch

Any mulch helps hold in moisture, resulting in the need for less watering. It also promotes the growth of
earthworms and helps plant roots go deeper.

Although many people use wood chips as mulch, Struycken’s research shows that wood chips can be problematic,
because they draw nitrogen from the soil as they decompose. Leaves or straw are better. (“I would only use wood chips after putting down a layer of fertilizer,” Carel Struycken suggested.)

Leave all dropped leaves and garden scraps on the garden floor as mulch.

Carel Struycken planted white clover as a cover crop in any bare gardening areas. He suggested sprouting the clover separately and then planting it. The clover spreads as a mulch and helps to fix nitrogen in the soil. (“I only use white clover in vegetable beds. The white clover is seeded, and once it is established, you plant the vegetable seedlings. I used clover, vetch and buckwheat on soil I wanted to improve for later planting.”)

Plant comfrey. It has deep roots, and when the leaves dry and decay, they add nutrients to the soil. Comfrey works well between fruit trees.


EMBRACING OUR PALEOLITHIC AND NEOLITHIC ROOTS

Struycken paused to explain the difference between “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic” in order to make a point.
“Humanoids have been around for at least a million years, and modern humans have been here maybe 500,000 years. The Paleolithics were hunter/gatherers; the Neolithics were those who were settled in one place and who began agriculture. When we settled, we had to make the effort to force ourselves into the new mindset, but our true nature is Paleolithic.”

A Mizuna plant

A Mizuna plant

CAREL STRUYCKEN ON THE BENEFITS OF A SIMPLER EXISTENCE

He then shared a few comparisons to make his point.

“The Paleolithics lived in the here and now, and they would be considered more primitive by our standards, but they controlled their populations, had fewer taboos and laws, had [fewer] possessions and managed to live on what the forest provided.” He cited the Bushmen of the Kalahari as an example.

“The whole idea of permaculture is to put in as little work as possible and allow nature to find its balance… ”

“Now, when you had agricultural and cow-raising people who lived adjacent to the primitive people, the Bushmen would rarely die of hunger, although the agricultural people would…. This is because the agricultural people learned to rely on, and expect, much more. When cattle died due to drought, for example, the agricultural people suffered far more than the Bushmen. The farmers also had to work a lot harder, usually seven days a week, whereas hunter/gatherers worked maybe three days a week.”

Carel Struycken cited the Bushmen and many others to illustrate that one of our “problems” is that we are so advanced, we have lost our primal Paleolithic nature. According to Struycken, today’s systems for gardening, farming, commerce, building, etc. are all essentially Neolithic—and therefore, unsustainable into the future.

In this sense, he believes that the details of our very survival can be gleaned by looking to the past at the details of sustainable societies. Carel Struycken is optimistic and idealistic and believes the solution to our problems is to properly understand the living principles of (so-called) primitive peoples.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.