The Plant Manager

The desert is too dry, too hot, 
too rocky to grow food naturally. Isn’t it?

Ellen Alperstein Restaurants

Thomas Horner harvests basil from his permaculture garden.

111 East


A forest is primeval. A forest is lush. A forest is enchanted. A forest is not desert.

But on a half-acre lot in a quiet residential neighborhood in Rancho Mirage, a forest has taken root and is starting to thrive. It’s not a woodland wilderness filled with tall, creaking trees filtering angled sunlight through densely sprouted arms with nymphs and sprites flitting about the underbrush.

But there are fish.

This plant place is carefully designed and lovingly tended by Thomas Horner and his family to cultivate crops into, as he says, a “long-term food forest.” Just about a year old, the Horner spread employs an earth-friendly approach to growing and sustaining produce that belongs in and to the desert, year-round.

Neighboring yards sport the familiar faces of yucca, palo verde, ocotillo, and diminishing expanses of green lawn. The Horner corner looks, feels, and smells different. It’s exemplary of permaculture, a method that relies only on available resources, and ensures longevity. It’s a moral code almost as much as a way to grow food. As Horner explains, permaculture has “three principles: Take care of the Earth; take care of people; share the abundance.”

On this late spring night, Horner is taking care of people by preparing and sharing abundant amounts of mostly self-raised fare. A dinner invitation to the Horners’ is a blessing, not only because Horner’s a professional cook (he’s executive chef of the JW Marriott resort in Palm Desert), but because he and his family have fun in the process of making a meal whose ingredients they raised.

A permaculture garden is about re-use and sustainability. A tilapia tank sends nutrient-rich water into the stepped gardens.

Their rambling, overstuffed home once was owned by local restaurateur Patricia Hook, and its patio is native habitat for a chef — an outdoor kitchen with wood-fire oven, grill, and several smokers. It’s adjacent to a border garden that on this day presents basil, fennel, celery, shallots, cucumber, kale, and several kinds of lettuce, a seasonally changing cast of edible characters Horner defines as the “daily” zone (one of three across the property) because some of its yield is harvested for frequent consumption. Pepper and tomato plants also populate the yard.

As evening slides into night, the aproned Horner moves between the counter and the dance floor-sized table to the sounds of David Bowie, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, and Talking Heads. The scent of basil wafts across the patio, mingled into the woody aroma from the pizza oven. The neighbors must be jealous.

Horner pours a 2000 Gaja Sperss red to pair with several kinds of cheese he thoughtfully IDs in chalk on a slate board for his guests — gorgonzola, emmenthaler, creamy Vermont … It’s the first act in a serial production of dishes leisurely consumed over four hours by his bantering, convivial guests.

(Clockwise): A tilapia tank sends nutrient-rich water into the stepped gardens. Mature fish are harvested and replaced. Ella chooses a Meyer lemon. It’s good to be chef … and farmer. Four fowl supply eggs daily and a modicum of entertainment.Thomas stokes the pizza oven in the outdoor kitchen.

The Horners’ three children, Zach, 13, Ella, 11, and Mazi, 7, come and go from the table, sampling what looks good, then, when interest flags, running off to feed scraps to the chickens or cuddle Lottie, the parking-lot rescue cat.

Horner and his wife, Naomi, began to cultivate the notion of a food forest when they lived in Seattle, whose climate resembles the Coachella Valley like the art of Michelangelo resembles that of Andy Warhol. But they know that turning the sustainability theory into practice is a matter of assessing what you have, what it needs to thrive, and supplying it.

Thomas and Naomi are serious students who watch hundreds of hours of video instruction about permaculture design and its “godfather,” Australian Bill Mollison, who took his cues from Aboriginal tribes on their dry continent. In their permaculture infancy, the Horners are gradually turning their sandy land into rich, loamy soil, courtesy of mulch and plants that don’t yield food but do pump sugars and starches into the ground. They also rely on aquaponics, a system for cycling nutrient-rich water to plant beds, and back again. The two methods of feeding the earth so that it can feed people obviate the pest control, tilling, and weeding required in traditional farming. A permaculture garden, Horner explains, “is a balance between nitrogen-fixing and food-producing plants,” so that the soil is nourished as it produces.

Half the yard remains relatively wild; it hosts mature fruit-bearing lemon, grapefruit, lime, fig, mango, and nectarine trees, as well as a chicken coop. So far, two zones are established within the acreage. The daily zone garden relies on drip irrigation, mulch, and deep wood chip ground cover to minimize water use, and the multilevel aquaponics zone irrigates with water from a tank in which fish swim and excrete, fertilizing the plants.

Tomatoes are cultivated via aquaponics.

The latter grow two to three times faster than traditional farming, and food produced by permaculture typically uses less water than ornamentals grown on comparable real estate.

Horner, who became smitten with food preparation when he was given a frying pan at the age of 5, tosses some red leaf lettuce with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and Parmesan/Reggiano cheese. “In a forest, plants grow at different levels: ground cover, bushes, small trees, large trees … That’s true whether it’s a tropical or desert forest. … Planting layers creates shade.” Like water, shade is a precious desert commodity, and plants that grow properly shaded require less water. Traditional agriculture does not follow the multilevel natural growth pattern; its plants are cultivated in rows for ease of harvest, which is about more, not best.

When you follow nature’s lead, you don’t necessarily get more, but you do get best. Visitors to the Horner home not only eat copiously well, they notice how much cooler the Horner yard feels than their own.

Steaming bowls of fettucine are passed down the table. Horner made the pasta with Caputo flour from Naples and eggs laid by Rapunzel, Goldie, Funky, and Punky, the family’s fowl, who right now are free-ranging under the fruit trees. He dresses the pasta modestly with basil, olive oil, roma tomatoes, Parmesan/Reggiano, and garlic. We are halfway through a bodacious meal that one day will include the Horners’ farm fresh fish — tilapia.

The aquaponics system, designed by Chris Ferrera and Artie Guerrero of Palm Springs Aquaponics, was established in early May. The piped water hydrates several gardens through lava rock, serving the dual purpose of amending the soil with the fish waste, which breaks down into nitrates. The only water loss is through evaporation and plant transpiration, and the only input is fish food. “It’s a closed-loop system,” Ferrera explains. As the fish mature and are harvested for food, they’re replaced with small fry.

Rapunzel struts 
her stuff among 
the compost.

Rock is also important in desert irrigation. Lava rock filtering nutrient-rich water in lieu of soil keeps pests like caterpillars searching for residence elsewhere. The Horners also have installed a rock swale, a common sustainability feature to collect water and return it to the soil. Properly designed, a swale directs the moisture where it’s needed in a garden or for subsurface collection.

Horner extracts a variety of pizzas fresh from the oven, chattering about how permaculture acknowledges the role of invasive plants in nurturing desert natives. Lantana, commonly seen along Highway 111, he notes, is not native, but its presence signifies something useful: Soil prep for plants that do yield benefits. The edges of property where such pioneers establish themselves tend to be more productive than their centers because lantana is “creating a layer to protect the ground from the harsh sun,” Horner points out. “It’s trying to take back the land and reforest the valley.”

The fruit tree side of the Horners’ property is gradually being prepared with soil amendment and water retention measures to ensure its shade-grown plants thrive. “Where’s the sun?” Horner asks. “Where’s the shade? You have to understand [the natural cycle],” he says, to manage your resources. It’s like crop rotation, only driven by nature instead of agribusiness.

Every day somebody collects eggs from the Rhode Island Red, Buff Orpington, and two Polish chickens. The latter breed is characterized by a feathery bouffant of black and white feathers that look more like a household cleaning device than a place where brains are housed.

We munch on pizzas made from “doppio zero” (double zero) flour, whose high gluten content renders the stretchy dough pizza makers love. Some of the pies host ricotta or mozzarella (which Horner makes, as he does bacon and sausage, but not tonight), basil, tomato sauce, spinach, buffalo or Abruzzese sausage. My favorite — sausage and spinach topped by a brightly yolked egg laid that morning — is so delicious I tell Ella I want to lick the residue off the plate.

Ella monitors Thomas snipping basil from a wood-mulch bed.

“Go ahead,” she says, “we don’t judge.”

Horner collects the leftover morsels of pizza to feed to the chickens. By now, they have settled into their coop for the night. Except one of the black hens is missing. Apparently, Polish chickens have far more fashion than common sense. “They’re really stupid,” Horner says simply, and who knew that there was an intellectual pecking order among chicken breeds? He finds the errant bird roosting on a wooden beam, locked inside a fenced garden. He gathers her and puts her to bed in the coop.

It’s getting late, we’re all stuffed, and no one has room for dessert. Then Naomi, the quiet, steady eye of the family whirlwind powered by smart, curious children and a spouse who lacks an “off” switch, mentions the words “s’mores,” “pizza oven,” and “Ghirardelli.” Within minutes we’re wiping gooey marshmallow, shortbread cookie crumbs, and dark chocolate off our faces. These are “s’mores” like prosciutto is bologna.

Like the perfect denouement to a story well told, the evening at the Horners ends with a cup of Joshua Tree Coffee, which Horner prefers for its careful, state-of-the art roasting treatment. That the company also uses only sustainably produced beans is just more proof that the best food is the kindest food. And that even in the harsh desert climate, you can — and should — celebrate both. Enchanted forest, indeed.