Jessi Bloom is a model of self-sufficiency, following her own path to permaculture success. And her lectures transcend gardening, taking on a contemporary ecologic ethos.
JESSI BLOOM LOOKS OUT over her 2½-acre permaculture homestead-to-be and ponders how many turkeys to add to the menagerie. She and her sons moved to what she calls “Old Woodinville, with small houses and big lots,” last summer. Already, chickens and ducks rustle through the shrubbery, and a chubby goat works the hillside above the horse barn. When I visit, she is wearing turquoise, knee-high rubber boots. Bloom, a serious weightlifter, is nursing a sore foot, having dropped a barbell on it.
A former Rat City Rollergirl and current darling of the ecological gardening movement, Bloom is having a moment. At 36, this fiercely tattooed, divorced mother of two is poised on the brink of . . . well, what exactly?
Bloom is a new and quite spectacularly successful author whose influential books have catapulted her onto a lecture platform far beyond the garden-club circuit. She is a lifelong learner, an educator who uses her blonde charisma and years of study to deliver passionate messages on an increasingly large range of topics. She is an award-winning designer of gardens and the owner of a landscape company booming with projects.
She is permaculture’s rock star.
In April, Bloom spent five days in Florida at Epcot Center’s International Flower & Garden Festival preaching the gospel of chickens and permaculture. Her sons traveled with her, gratis of Disney. She’s headlining Mother Earth News fairs across the country, speaking to more than 1,000 people a pop, mostly homesteaders and folks interested in sustainable living. Her lectures transcend gardening, taking on a contemporary ecologic ethos.
“It’s all kind of surreal,” Bloom says. “I manage the travel by planning ahead and meditating on airplanes.”
SO, WHAT IS PERMACULTURE, exactly, and why is Bloom its shiny new apostle? At its core, permaculture is about seeking self-sufficiency by living and gardening in harmony with nature. It calls for creating sustainable, regenerative gardens by mimicking natural ecosystems. This means creating as many relationships as possible, stacking functions in space and time.
“Jessi is the perfect voice for this movement with her ability to decode the more technical language of permaculture to give people practical design advice,” says Juree Sondker, Bloom’s editor at Portland’s Timber Press.
Bloom’s first book, “Free-Range Chicken Gardens,” about the joys of letting chickens run loose, has sold more than 70,000 copies. Bloom co-authored a second book, published this spring, that’s already a big hit. The title, “Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth,” is indicative of how Bloom thinks holistically, and big.
Bloom embodies the permaculture movement in every project she takes on, from planting an organic vegetable garden at the Redmond gym where she lifts weights to her fascination with the spiritual properties of plants.
“A Family’s Little Farm In the City,” the garden she designed for the 2010 Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle, swept nearly every award that year. Her landscape company, N.W. Bloom, is getting bigger even as she strives to keep the company small enough to maintain relationships with clients.
She lights up talking about current projects.
“Look, you can have a chicken coop in the garden, the most adorable little structure, then stack it with four more functions,” she says. “Add a tool-storage shed, collect water off the roof, store wood along one side and build a little greenhouse off the other end. And a drying rack for herbs in the greenhouse.” That’s five.
She’s busy transforming a lacrosse field into a food garden and bird habitat for one client. Depending on the site, she might add an herbal spiral, labyrinth, native plants, rain garden, and, of course, chicken coops. “I like clients who are willing to push the norm, who believe in concepts,” she says.
That would describe a client in Kirkland who is having Bloom convert his suburban lot into a model of sustainability and food production.
“I didn’t realize it was as much of an experiment as it was,” says the property owner, who is clearly delighted with his slightly wild-looking back garden. “The idea is minimal maintenance, we can just let it go.”
Shy of an acre, the property features a mow-free, drought-tolerant clover lawn to attract bees. Bloom built rain gardens as part of the stormwater management system required by the city of Kirkland. The swaths of water-loving plants run nearly the length of the property, creating habitat and diverse ecosystems. Perennial crops such as frost peaches are espaliered against the house, with kiwi and hops growing on arbors, and berries everywhere. Raised beds hold flowers and vegetables.
“We look out the window and see a habitat,” the owner says. And plenty of food to share with the rabbits and birds.
BLOOM — AND YES, that’s her parent-given name — was shocked into cultural awareness early. Her family moved from Marysville to Bellevue when she was 10 years old.
“I grew up with a farm life, Marysville was really rural,” says Bloom. “I had a tough transition and never fit into Bellevue.”
Those formative Bellevue years hardened Bloom against consumer society, strengthening her early interest in self-sufficiency.
Right out of high school, Bloom pursued a certificate in environmental horticulture at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, where she also didn’t fit in. She remembers being kicked out of a field trip, told to go sit on the bus because she called out a farmer for his polluting ways. She was appalled at industry standards for pesticide and herbicide use. “I was searching for something more ecology-based,” she says.
It took years for Bloom to find her place in the industry.
“I was laughed at and called naive,” she says. “I was quoted in a magazine as being an extremist for refusing to use chemicals.” All the jobs she tried for required pesticide work, including one at a rose nursery where she lasted about a week. “I wanted to learn how to make landscapes that reflected the balance between ecosystems, not destroy it.”
After graduation, Bloom worked for Cedar Grove when the company was in its infancy.
“God, I stank!” she says of shoveling all that rich, fertile, mucky compost.
Bloom worked with wetland plants and coordinated volunteers for the King County Conservation District. She wore waders to work every day to monitor salmon and amphibians. “That job influenced my thinking on ecosystems and taught me to see nature for its potential,” says Bloom.
She earned a professional certificate in the wetland science program at the University of Washington and became a leading advocate and builder of rain gardens.
Bloom is filled with curiosity about the natural world. In recent years she has taken an advanced teacher training course at Cascadia Permaculture in Cottage Grove, Ore., and earned a permaculture design certificate online from “phenomenal teachers” at Oregon State University. She studies beekeeping and takes stacks of books with her everywhere she goes.
Bloom delights in mentoring women in the industry, passing on all this expertise she’s earned one landscape, course and degree at a time. She serves as the national sustainability chairwoman for the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, and volunteers at a local elementary school, setting up an outdoor learning center and helping to plant a food forest. She works for local water districts and municipalities, training professionals in stormwater management and sustainable design.
But back in 1999, when Bloom was in her early 20s, she didn’t see a place for herself in the horticulture industry. She launched N.W. Bloom, where she mostly weeded for clients. She remembers being teased at Pacific Topsoil for shoveling weeds, eight months pregnant, out of the back of her little black pickup truck. Other companies pulled up in big dump trucks and pushed a button to unload.
“Now my crew all drive dump trucks,” Bloom says.
BLOOM’S OWN GARDEN is on the cusp of a transformation. She’s starting out by watching the environment, figuring out where the sun shines, the water runs, where wildlife passes through. She’s studying the biology of her soil. She’s trying to adjust to the ornamental trees and shrubs she never would have chosen to plant.
New fences will keep the deer out and her animals safe from coyotes. She’s laying down sheet mulch, hauling in straw bales for growing vegetables, building hoop houses, restoring woodlands and zoning out the acreage for perennial and annual crops.
The mostly rescued or re-homed animals all have jobs. The chickens, 18 of them, produce eggs and weed the gardens. The pygmy goat, Panda, chases away coyotes and is a companion for Willow, the horse. The ducks eat slugs and lay eggs, and all the creatures contribute manure to improve the soil. Bloom is considering borrowing a pig from a friend to help prepare areas for planting. This is definitely a new model of gardening.
Indoors, as well as out, Bloom follows permaculture tenets by stacking functions. As soon as she moved into the new house, she transformed a bedroom into a health room. There are weights, a sauna, and a punching bag for the boys, a yoga platform for stretching and meditation.
“This room isn’t just a gym, it’s for our well-being,” she says.
Physical well-being is another of Bloom’s passions.
She was invited in 2005 by a friend to referee a Rat City Rollergirls event, but Bloom wanted to skate, attracted to roller derby by the community of strong women and intense physical exercise.
“I liked that the women weren’t afraid to be themselves,” she says. As the sport grew, it took too much time away from her family, and she kept getting injured. She quit the rink in 2008.
After an illness and her subsequent 2012 divorce, Bloom focused on rebuilding her strength.
“Weight training came into my life at the right time,” Bloom says. As per her usual intensity level, Bloom is into Olympic-style weightlifting, a more technical sport than powerlifting, featuring two competitions — snatch, and clean and jerk. She delights in her newfound community of strong women as much as she does her own increased strength. She’s mentoring roller derby buddies new to lifting; they’re working through their old skating injuries together.
“Lifting is all about being centered and focused, challenging the energy to move through your body,” says Bloom. “Roller-derby skating was chaotic, fast-paced, and you never knew what would happen next. In lifting, you rely on yourself.”
Bloom lifts with elite athletes, sharing a coach with 2008 Olympian Melanie Roach.
“The embodiment piece is pretty big,” says Bloom, “You can’t do this work unless you’re grounded and know how to breathe.”
She credits lifting not only with calming her thoughts and nervous system, but also for improving other physical pursuits — long-distance biking, running, horseback riding and snowboarding.
“I need to stay strong,” says Bloom. “There’s so much labor in moving mulch, hay, and plants, even with a little help from my kids.”
Perhaps what Bloom has accomplished and continues to seek in her writing, landscapes, study and teaching is simply the bedrock tenet of permaculture: The stacking of functions and creating of relationships is all about building resiliency.