The company retreat

Harvesting the abundance from the garden is one of the great joys of life. The fruits of your labor in a harvest basket. Lettuce and salad greens, greens for a super food smoothie, tomatoes for a sandwich, potatoes for soup or fruit for a salad.

A feeling of accomplishment and wholeness ensues and sharing this with family, neighbors and friends is the unavoidable benefit. I recently had my friend Eric over for lunch and most of the ingredients for our soup came right from the garden. I also had my 90 year old dad who has Alzheimer’s disease over for lunch and he enjoyed the omelet made with fresh eggs from my hens. A great way to share the joy of the harvest with my dear old dad.


Okay, so you get my point, the joy of the harvest is an unexpected fruit of our labor and makes all the work worthwhile. This is one reason why the design science of Permaculture admonishes us to obtain a yield from our designs regardless of whether it is a garden, a business or an art project.

I mention this because although it wasn’t a traditional garden harvest there was a very similar feeling present at a recent Terra Nova company retreat. The harvest was of our collective brilliance. We took the opportunity as a company to hold a retreat where we had the time to listen to each other and speak about the things that we thought would help the company thrive. Spending this time together we are doing our best to live up to our stated vision which is that, “We are proud to be a triple bottom line company. We achieve our goals of financial profit as we care for our people and our planet.” Steven Covey’s time matrix from his book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ is a good reference point to see why this kind of time together is so beneficial. The opportunity to find commonality and a bond as a company falls into the surprisingly important second quadrant of the Time Matrix. This is time spent on important but not urgent tasks like designing, strategizing and planning. Sometimes these activities seem like a waste of time yet without this kind of focus we revert to crisis management simply because we did not think ahead. The saying, “planning is best done in advance” becomes well heeded advice.

Here is the Time Matrix.

So there we are at the retreat and our primary exercise in the four hour retreat and lunch was for each person to present three ideas that would further the company as a whole. Ideas that would help us create the ideal company, where we are doing exciting work, we are paid what we are worth, we are serving the community and making a difference.

So there we are at the retreat...

Everyone presented their three ideas and then we were going to vote on five ideas that we collectively thought were the highest priority. The goal was to walk away with action items that we would pursue together and individually to further the company. When everyone had presented their ideas and we discussed them together we discovered that most of our ideas fell into three categories…Accountability, Mission and Marketing. So without voting we came away with three ideas and action items that we could work on as a company. We had lunch together and took a company photo for prosperity.

Terra Nova Crew: Ken Foster, Rupert Poole, Kate Brovarney, Kyle Sanders, John Kostoff, Zeya Schindler and Kory Mc Adam - March 29th, 2012

Quality time together produced a yield that the company will benefit from for months or even years. The experience had me drawing parallels between garden design and business design. Mission, focus and commitment produces a yield.

We held a similar yet more intensive company retreat years earlier in 2003. At this two day retreat we had an unexpected yield that benefited the company long term. We called this retreat a Collaboratory.  The first day of our Collaboratory we invited members of the community to join company staff for a brainstorming session. Our financial advisor present that day offered a piece of advice: he said we should install a garden at the San Francisco Flower Show and win first place! Well as it turned out a landscape designer, Susan Wyche who was at the retreat and heard the advice came to me a few days later saying that she wanted to have a garden at the San Francisco Flower Show and she wanted us to join her in the project. Together we designed a garden and it was accepted for the show. We planned and prepared for months and at the show our garden won Sunset Magazine’s “Western Living Award” which is considered the “best of show” award. A year later our garden was featured in two full pages of Sunset Magazine.

Sunset Magazine's "Western Living Award"
Terra Nova garden at the SF Flower and Garden Show 2004.

This is the kind of yield I’m talking about. The kind of yield that is a permanent shining feature of a business portfolio. Regardless of whether it is a “best of show” award or a beautiful purple cauliflower, when time is spent on important but not urgent concerns the yield is bound to be beneficial.

Ken Foster


A Worthy Vessel for the Garden

The musician and record producer Brian Eno once said that, “Landscape gardening is a very underrated form of sculpture.” He observed that it was not just a static art form but that it changed and evolved over time, it is a sophisticated form of art that has a close relationship with time just like music has with its “time signatures”.

Terra Nova T shirt

Hence landscape gardening takes on new proportions as living musical art and the gardener becomes a kind of conductor. My orientation to the landscape has been with designing or composing the “softscape” including the plantings, soil and mulch. The plant softscape has been for me a profound form of art with a wonderfully diverse palette. As my plant knowledge has grown the combinations of these colors, forms and textures have spilled onto the musical score of the garden. From this perspective the wood and nails and the rock and sand are used to hold and support the garden. Now the challenge is to design and build the landscape infrustructure to match this living, colorful sculpture.


Cob bench (On site clay, sand and straw)

Using these materials offers a platform to present the wonders of horticulture and make a worthy vessel for the garden. These landscape elements might take the form of a pathway to navigate around the garden, a fountain to contain the element of water, a deck or patio, a raised bed for vegetables, a grape arbor, a cob oven, a BBQ for food preparation or a picnic table on which to enjoy the harvest. Add in the green approach to building the landscape and it becomes a creative endeavor of the highest order. The green approach adds to the design palette a wide array of materials from which to choose like on-site and recycled materials.

Made from sustainably harvested lumber
Planter made from pallets by Branch Out Farm

Incorporating these materials not only allows the uniqueness of a garden to shine, their use highlights and even encourages the ecologically balanced landscape garden. A common thread with these materials is that they are low impact. When using on-site materials for example there is a low carbon footprint because there is no transport needed. With repurposed or recycled materials the embodied energy of the original product is captured and reused.

Garden art made from junk

“Embodied energy” is a term to describe all of the energy that goes into the production of a product including the manufacture, acquisition of natural resources, mining, transport, office administration and all other aspects of producing a product.

Here are more examples of low impact landscape elements and hardscape materials that are worthy of the ecological landscape garden:


Re-used concrete also called "Urbanite" pathway
Flow Form water fountain
Garden beds made from sustainably harvested lumber
Made with sustainably harvested lumber
Retaining wall made with throw away rocks and concrete blocks

Worm bin made from salvaged trex lumber


Patio with re-used concrete. (urbanite)

Reuse of building materials commonly saves about 95% of the embodied energy that would otherwise be wasted.

The adventure of hunting through the urban waste stream to source reusable materials is half the fun and thinking outside the urban box is an important part of the process. Reused, repurposed and recycled materials offer the perfect way to soften the hard-scape while leaving a lower impact on the planet.

Ken Foster