words and photography Isaac Bailey
Pulling up to the unassuming home of Agriscaping entrepreneur Justin Rohner it’s hard to see anything different from any of the neighbors. Yes, the yard is full of plants, but they don’t look especially unique. This is surprising to me because Justin is well known for having unusual landscaping sensibilities. Walking into the backyard I was impressed with how attractive the landscaping was, but my first impression was “Looks like a nice place to entertain with plenty of room for the kids to play.” I had expected to say “Holy cow, there’s a farm back here!” Just goes to show, first impressions are not always lasting ones.
Justin showed up sporting a shirt that said “Kale Yeah!” He was fit, lean, compact and oozing energy. Justin had one of those very real smiles that says “I love what I do, ask me about it.” So I asked him to show me around the yard. He explained that the pool shaped lawn in the middle of the yard was like a lake and the hills and berms around were like islands. He described planting trees in the backyard with a variety of heights so that the eye would be fooled into believing the yard was deeper than it was. I could see the illusion in effect. I was thinking “All very nice, but where’s the produce?” The entire yard was covered with plants of every imaginable hue, but they just seemed to be fairly typical early spring blooms and ground cover.
Of course, now and then he would stoop down and pick something and hand it to me and say “Here, this is totally ripe and ready to eat.” Slow as I can be, the nature of the place began to dawn on me. “Everything here is edible?” I asked Justin. He said, “Most things are, and what’s not, is either highly sustainable or useful for something.”
“This plant is used to make bowstrings. This one here is good for PMS, but don’t you take it, because it lowers testosterone. These will get rid of headaches; this winter kale will produce all year long.” On and on Justin extolled the virtue of his “Farmacy.” Meanwhile, I munched on a sweet hot chili that reminded me of the best Thai food.
One wall is lined with irrigated planter boxes full of herbs. Standing next to the planters, I said to Justin, “Your water bill must be insane.” He said “It’s less than my neighbor’s. We use our grey water. It’s a very Chilean thing to do.” He went on to explain about a part of Chile that gets almost no rain and where the people think that putting shower water down the drain instead of into the garden is just crazy. “In fact, this is just the sort of thing we train our clients to do. We have students who are bringing produce from their yards to market and turning a profit.”
“We teach our students to tear out unproductive landscape plants and replace them with edible ones that are just as beautiful; we are growing things that improve our health, we’re growing sustainable self-reliance, we’re growing purpose. We see our yard’s true potential as a productive asset. We call it Agriscaping.”
While walking by a trampoline set into the ground, I noticed a set of stairs going down to the pit below. I asked what was down there? Justin said, “That’s our subterranean garden for growing low light plants.” It turns out this is one of Justin’s specialties.
He told me he just finished building one that is a giant rectangle and they hung hammocks under it. When I went down under the trampoline, I could stand up completely. It had to be 10 degrees cooler under there than on the surface, and it smelled earthy, damp and green. “It’s a jungle in there in the summer,” Justin told me. I knew if I were under there with kids jumping above sipping lemonade in June, I would never want to leave. And with an abundance of food all around for the picking I probably would never need to.