Louisa Lenz-Porter's tall, slender frame belies the strength evident in her handshake.

Louisa Lenz-Porter's tall, slender frame belies the strength evident in her handshake.

Even with a gentle grip, the muscles communicate an unusual vigor. These hands are powerful from 30 years of gardening — bio-intensive gardening. The name says a lot about its character, and one look at her hillside garden confirms it. Plenty of work has been done.

Lenz-Porter found bio-intensive when seeking ways to increase yield for a California garden restaurant. Convinced after reading "How to Grow More Vegetables," she became a student of its author, John Jeavons.

After years of study and practice growing on other people's land, Lenz-Porter and her family came to the Applegate valley, looking for their own place. Little flat land was available in 2000 that suited their purposes, so they purchased a hillside clear-cut and began transforming.

"It's all a labor of love. We love being here," Lenz-Porter says. "We had no idea we were moving into such a supportive community."

She began improving the soil and building beds about five years ago, taking out rocks and tree roots and planting cover crops. "It's been fun watching my soil develop," she says. Now, Lenz-Porter's soil has that coveted quality — tilth. It holds moisture, drains well, holds its structure so air can penetrate. It's soft, and when she plunges her planting fork in, the soil easily gives way. Roots love it.

In late March, the cover crops are just beginning to shoot up to their eventual height of 4 to 5 feet. No afterthought, cover-cropping is an integral part of bio-intensive gardening, establishing organic matter and soil life. Although Lenz-Porter uses animal manure from the family leghorn chickens and pet rabbit, Daphne, the system works without animal manure. Her favorite planting mix contains cereal rye, wheat, vetch and fava beans.

In early spring, the beds are filled with cool-weather starts. To get the plants into her 5-foot-wide beds, she lays a planting board — a thin, 4-by-5-foot plywood sheet — across the row and sits on it. Rows are staggered, and each plant is precisely placed to maximize yield. In the potato bed, whole, egg-sized Red LaSoda potatoes are planted, each 9 inches deep and 9 inches apart; Golden Ace and Ruby cabbage starts are set 12 inches apart.

In order to rest and nourish the planting beds, flowers and manure crops follow the vegetables.

"Whatever I plant, I plant with a purpose: food for me, the birds or to keep other animals out," says Lenz-Porter. "Even if you have really good soil, you have to keep it up by adding organic matter and cover-cropping."

She grows the food her family loves to eat, starting all the vegetables in a hoop house.

"I know we will eat 5 to 10 pounds of potatoes a week," she says, so about 250 square feet is needed for potatoes in spring. Raspberries, strawberries, leeks, garlic, onions, lettuce, broccoli and tomatoes fill out the garden.

She dries, cans and freezes, so the family has garden produce all year. "There's nothing better than working your own soil and eating your own fresh, healthy food."

The bio-intensive process maximizes what she can grow with her limited water supply, which keeps her garden between 3,000 and 4,000 square feet. Every day, each 100-square-foot bed gets between eight and 10 gallons.

"With bio-intensive gardening, once the soil is established, you end up using fewer resources," she says.

A proponent of the method, Lenz-Porter teaches through the seasons both in her garden and at North Mountain Nature Center in Ashland.

"My whole goal is to teach people to grow their own food," she says.

Still, the garden is not all business. A feisty leghorn stands in front of forget-me-nots to greet visitors at the driveway. Benevolent sentry at the entrance to the garden, a Buddha head sits near a small bird bath and a planter filled with succulents. At the bottom of the slope, a flying frog soars from a rustic arbor. A teepee of hops hosts her children's tea parties while she gardens.

Standing at the top of the garden, one listens to chimes rung by a soft breeze. The garden appears sculpted from the hillside, crafted just as carefully as any of its produce, a product of strong hands.