The black dot in the background is our 21 acre property. A postage stamp of biological diversity and abundance in a sea of pesticide laden mono-crop Agricide. You can’t imagine the affect this kind of bleakness has when you’re just starting to regenerate a property. We filled out the form but never thought we would win the award.

Back in early 2013, just as we began seriously practicing permaculture on this property, we were involved in helping a local small town (they’re all small) put together a community garden. As part of that project we were looking for grants to help them get started. Grants are a pain in the ass and I love them. While searching for one that would be a good fit I came across the Espoma Award co-sponsored by the National Gardening Association. They were asking private land owners to fill out an extensive form and tell them why they should win $2000.

We did. We won.

Three parts here: The Article, the application, our response.

Espoma and the National Gardening Association Announce The Espoma Environmental Stewardship Home Gardener Award Winners

By: Julie Parker-Dickerson

 Do you remember when you planted your first pumpkin seed — that almost magical transformation of a small seed into a large, sprawling plant that produced in turn large fruits for carving and pie making? From such a simple and satisfying experience comes a life-long love of gardening for many. William Kearns began his love affair with nature and growing things as a teenager with a handful of pumpkin seeds in an unkempt corner of his parent’s yard. From that first small harvest, his gardens grew each year to ultimately become the catalyst for his strong belief in conservation and environmental stewardship.

At their home in rural Ritzville, Washington, William and his partner, Sheila, have turned a once forgotten orchard, sickly cottonwood trees, and an expansive lawn into a bountiful oasis. They have created a self-sustaining Eden by propagating cuttings from local shrubs and trees to create additional plantings and dramatically reduced their lawn space, bringing new life into the landscape and ultimately improving the overall health of their surrounding environment. After years of effort, William and Sheila are nearing their goal of creating ″a diverse multi-layered food forest that takes advantage of structures for shade, wind protection and water catchment.″

Sheila Grace & William Kearns

As we at NGA read William Kearns’ application and those of nearly 200 other gardeners from 34 states across the country, we were impressed not only with the commitment and passion of these gardeners to the betterment of the environment, but to their inventiveness and resourcefulness in coming up with ways to conserve water, encourage wildlife and pollinators, protect the watershed, and so much more. In recognition of their efforts, the National Gardening Association and Espoma are proud to present the second annual Espoma Environmental Stewardship Awards for Home Gardeners.

First Place Award: $2,000
Sheila Grace & William Kearns…Ritzville, Washington

William Kearns and Shelia Grace, the first place winners of this year’s Espoma Environmental Stewardship Award, remind us that gardening is a meditation, ″an immersion in the most basic and important aspects of life: the intertwined dance of air-water-soil with growing plants.″ Their garden oasis includes raised beds with hoop houses that produce a plentiful supply of fruits and vegetables. They have made bioswales to redirect runoff from the gravel driveway and erected various types of fencing, including stacked straw bales, for windbreaks and shade. The trees and grapes, already established but neglected on their property, not only survived but flourished and help to increase the kinds and numbers of songbirds, pheasant, and quail that visit. A majority of the lawn was replaced with wildflower mix and cover crops to attract bees and other native pollinators.

Sheila Grace & William Kearns

To increase the health and productivity of the soil, Sheila began collecting coffee grounds from the local Starbucks and was rewarded with nearly one and a half tons of ″black-gold″ in 2012. Mulching in wider areas has also helped to hasten the process of reconstructing the health of the soil. Adding to the overall sustainability of their yard and home, the couple installed gutters and downspouts connected to storage tanks to increase their water supply. During non-winter months, gray water is routed to the orchard as irrigation. Working with their neighbors, they have set up a system to compost yard waste and are jointly building wildlife habitat areas.

The couple uses no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, choosing instead to concentrate on building the soil and encouraging healthy plants and beneficial insects. They are careful to use all septic-safe cleaners and soap in the home. With the award money the couple plans to purchase tree and shrub stock and seeds to grow and offer to the neighborhood gardeners and to expand their contributions of plantings and their time to their neighborhood community garden.

William and Sheila have elected to receive gift certificates to Plants of the in Tekoa, WA and Miller Nurseries in Canandaigua, NY.

Here are the application questions:

Who is eligible to apply?

Home gardeners 18 years and older living within the Continental United States are eligible to apply. Applicants should be actively engaged in environmentally conscious practices within their own garden. Below are six (6) categories of environmental-friendly practices common to home gardens. Applicants will be asked on their application to select from these categories and describe examples of environmental stewardship practices used in their home gardens and landscapes that relate to these categories:

  1. Protecting the Watershed
    • Use porous pavements, gravel grass, etc.; limit impervious surfaces to reduce runoff
    • Protect and restore wetlands and vegetative buffers along waterways
    • Install a green roof
    • Install rain garden, bioswales
    • Use sustainable lawn care practices
    • Maintain home septic systems; manage pet waste properly
  2. Landscaping for Energy Conservation
    • Plant trees and shrubs for windbreaks, buffers; install fencing to block wind
    • Plant trees and shrubs for solar shading or to direct cooling breezes
    • Minimize heat-reflecting hard surfaces near house; use plantings to shade and cool the ground
    • Use urban area plantings to reduce urban heat island effects
  3. Reducing Garden’s Carbon Footprint
    • Minimize carbon inputs
      • avoid synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
      • use people powered rather than gasoline powered tools and equipment
      • install energy efficient lighting
      • minimize the use of soil amendments such as mined minerals, peat, bagged organic fertilizers whose harvesting, mining, manufacture, and transport use energy, release carbon, or disrupt the environment
    • Plant trees and shrubs well-adapted to region to take up carbon
    • Recycle organic waste as compost
    • Choose landscaping materials with a low carbon footprint – local; salvaged; wood from non- threatened species; alternatives to concrete
    • Generate your own energy – solar power, wind power, hydro power
    • Grow your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs
    • Use cover crops and mulch to cover bare soil to prevent carbon loss and soil erosion
    • Minimize use of and recycle garden plastics (mulch, pots, etc.)
    • Minimize lawn areas; use sustainable lawn care practices
  4. Designing a Healthy Ecosystem
    • Welcome wildlife
    • Encourage pollinators and beneficial insects
    • Use native plants and plants adapted to regional conditions; protect existing native vegetation; plant a biodiverse landscape
    • Remove invasive plants
    • Limit lawn size and use sustainable lawn care practices; consider lawn alternatives
    • Reduce light pollution
    • Limit use of pesticides and herbicides
    • Provide safe spaces for recreation, exercise, relaxation, contemplation, connection to nature
    • Protect soil and existing plants during construction projects
    • Incorporate animals in the garden/landscape sustainably (e.g. chickens, bees, aquaponics)
    • Design and use systems to reclaim urban land for growing plants (e.g. urban gardening, roof gardens, vacant lot plantings)
  5. Using Water Efficiently
    • Use alternatives to potable water – rain barrels, cisterns, gray water
    • Water wisely – drip irrigation, soaker hoses, timers
    • Choose water thrifty plantings adapted to local conditions
    • Use mulch to conserve soil moisture
    • Water only when and as much as needed based on plant needs
  6. Building and Maintaining Healthy Soil
    • Use mulch, cover crops to prevent soil erosion
    • Prevent soil compaction
    • Use organic matter, cover crops, green manures to enrich soil
    • Test soil before adding fertilizers
    • Limit disruption of soil ecosystems from excessive physical disruption, garden chemicals, compaction, etc.
    • Limit the use of topsoil imported from off-site


Here is our response:

When we found this contest we became so excited! I read my first Mother Earth News at 16 then spent a life behind the corporate desk for the next 30 years dreaming about finding my own place to create a garden. Sheila has always loved animals, nature and plants and received a BS in Natural Resources but spent 30 years in the restaurant business. In pursuit of these goals, I became a Certified Permaculture Designer in 2007. Now we are here together, in one of the harsher environments on the planet creating pure healthy abundance for all.


Protecting the Watershed

Water is our most precious resource in Eastern Washington.  Our dwindling ancient aquifers have reached crisis proportions. Wells are being driven deeper and deeper (some now reach 1200’) while our average rain fall is around 10” annually.

  • The drive ways are gravel. To eliminate run off we use the present driveway to our home to feed water to a system of bioswales capable of watering the wildlife-positive native trees and shrubs that we are planting in the yard around the house.
  • No weed/feed products are used, we harvest the grass and weeds for composting. The lawn itself is unwatered.
  • We make sure we maintain the septic system three ways:

No toxic chemicals or bleach ever enter the water system

During the summer, the gray water line is used to “feed” the orchard

During the winter we are careful to reduce the amount of water entering the septic system

Landscaping for Energy Conservation

We live in one of the harsher environments in the world (semi arid shrub steppe). Other BSK (Köppen) environments are found in Patagonia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and western Mongolia.

105o in summer, 20o in winter, 16% humidity in summer, 40o temperature swings in a single day, 1800’ elevation, average spring and summer winds of 35-50 miles per hour and 10” of annual rain.

  • We do everything we can to nurture the trees we have planted and the ones planted before us.
  • To help reduce the crazy wind we get here we have planted wind break trees, put up snow fences, created “living” berms, stacked straw and used hoop houses in our raised beds.
  • When the instructions on the back of the vegetable seed packets say “full sun” they don’t mean Ritzville!  In July when temps are 109o and 18% humidity we are grateful for every tree & shrub we have planted and every one we are going to plant this year.

Reducing Garden’s Carbon Footprint

  • No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides have been used on this property for over six years.
  • We spent years in the gym trying to stay fit. Now we dig ditches  and have never felt better! & We don’t spend time in the car driving 140 miles round trip to buy organic produce in Spokane.
  • Installed solar path & accent lighting in patio area, multiple LED lighting features inside the house.
  • We use ALL local soil amendments. We have a relationship with Starbucks and collect 1.5 Tons of coffee grounds every year!  Local landscapers give us all of their downed trees & limbs, leaves and local wheat farmers give us their rotten straw by the ton.
  • Everything we have planted must: be draught resistant, cold & heat tolerant and if possible nitrogen fixing. Locust, service berry,choke cherry, mock orange, box elder etc

ALL organic materials (not waste!) are composted … the nearby town sees most organic materials (clippings, cuttings, lawn, prunings, etc) taken to the transfer station for ultimate trucking into the adjacent state of Oregon for deposit into a landfill.  Our work includes collection and transport of any/all organic materials to our property for composting, Hugelkultur, and wildlife habitat. All our kitchen scaps (no meat) go into our compost.

  • Installed two arrays of solar panels (40 panels) that produce 8,400 watts total.
  • black locust, pine, Douglas fir are local non-threatened species.  Plentiful basalt stones for edgings, dry-stack and mortared walls, experimental talus garland dry-stack wall, rock mulch.  Use old salvaged pallets for compost enclosures
  • We now have 20 fruit trees and plan to buy 5 more this spring. We also have 14 raised beds and last year provided all the vegetables we needed for ourselves and gave the extra to others. 13 raised beds on-site plus seven “mound” beds are being expanded this year to add interplantings around existing trees, vineyard, and new orchard trees to “stack functions” by providing mulch/watering/shade/wind breaks to benefit both beds and trees
  • We work with a green business in town, who own a farm and grow old world mustard organically as a crop (Camelina oil). They give us seeds to use as cover crops. We already have Alfalfa.
  • We have reduced the size of the original lawn area by 75% and mulch as much as 1 foot deep in the orchard and wild tree area.
  • We never throw out even a single plastic pot.
  • Since purchasing the property we have reduced the size of the lawn by 75% and what lawn is left is used as “biomass” after cutting and placed in the compost. The last 25% is gradually being replaced by annual vegetables and edible perennials and cover crops like organic alfalfa, clover and camolina mustard.

Designing a Healthy Ecosystem

We have a picture of a local mule deer in our driveway getting ready to drink out of our small fish pond. This year we plan to plant more “deer friendly” trees as a way of sharing what’s growing. By dropping massive piles of tree limbs from town, we now have resident Pheasant and Chukar breeding on our property.

We have multiple photos of two species of praying mantis, burying beetles, lady bugs, sphinx moths and native wild bees.

  • provide habitat for deer, porcupine, rabbits, pheasant, quail, chukar, badger, coyote and many species of songbirds with nesting boxes, watering holes, brush piles, fruit & berries shrub/tree layered plantings, cover crops, winter feed stations,
  • strive for early and full-season flowering around the property and interplant flowers with veggies
  • We asked our utility company to come out and remove the bright street light that was here. We have an amazing view of the stars without glaring yard lights. definitely!  The dark and spectacular view of the milky way, planets, and starry night are breathtaking!
  • no pesticides or herbicides are used on this property

Our entire property is a habitat for contemplation in our quest to understand our place in the universe.


Using Water Efficiently

  • We do all of this! Every single thing on this list! It is truly incredible how many trees, plants & animals thrive and grow here with only 10” of rainfall per year! greywater is diverted from the septic system to the orchard in non-winter months, gutters and metal roofing is in progress tied to capture tanks … currently have two roofs feeding ~11000 gallons of cistern/tank
  • We’ve teamed up with wonderful local people who have helped us build the soil (C-Grow – live microbes from sea kelp and worm castings tea) and now have mushrooms In The Desert!

One of our 40’ pine trees fell over in a 70mph wind and we pulled it back up, secured it, added c-grow and water from the cistern and it’s still alive and doing well!  That was one year ago.

  • We have already outfitted three buildings with water catchment systems that empty into storage tanks and can be routed to our underground cistern. Using gravity siphons and solar pumps to water the gardens, we can save nearly 11,000 gallons of well water per year.
  • inventors of the Xeri-Hugel-Berm
  • we live and die by mulch!
  • metered drip irrigation