A Farm by Design

When we moved to this property in late February, what we found were four acres of land that had not been tended to in many years. Dense woodland covered most of the property, but it was not what I would consider a healthy forest. It hadn’t been managed well. In summer we found that the rampant stinging nettles (they grow over 5 feet tall) and thick stands of thorny bushes prevented us from even walking through that part of the property. Several of the trees were dead or dying, saplings were spindly and not thriving well. I’m sure given a few more decades Nature would fully reclaim these woods and turn it into a healthy, balanced ecosystem. But in the meantime we were faced with land that was basically useless to us.

Our initial idea was pretty simple: we’d clear most of the land, leaving a handful of mature maples and cedars, and turn it into pasture. We wanted to open up the southern exposure to bring in sunlight, views, and provide us with a place to grow food or have animals, or just enjoy the lovely sight of “fields and fencelines”. We started by clearing a section of land on the northwest part of the property, beside the house, to bring some much-needed direct sunlight to the house, and to visually open up the space around us. Summer brought an end to land-clearing work as the heat made it uncomfortable to wear proper protection, and the explosion of plant growth tripled the work involved. Our plan was to get going with more land-clearing when fall arrived, but I spent that time digging my new vegetable garden. With Spring not far away (it comes early here) it’s time to decide what projects will be tackled first, and how best to go about them.

I admit that there are some things about having wooded property that I don’t like. I crave light (living in a north-facing apartment a few years ago really depressed me) and I like open views. While I absolutely love the forest, and spend as much time in it as I can, I don’t want to live in the middle of one. Part of me was really looking forward to clearing the bottom acres so that we could have more sunlight and a lovely view of the valley below us. But then again, part of me was feeling a bit conflicted about ripping up this woodland. Healthy and useable or not, it is home to many lovely birds and I can see various habitats within it: seasonal small ponds, rotting logs that provide food and shelter for wildlife, dense leaf-fall that enriches the soil. We do have 160 acres of forest right next door to us, but it is a different kind of woodland, not the young transitory wood that we have onsite filled with alder, maples, and few evergreens.

Last week, Husband and I watched a BBC documentary called A Farm for the Future. In it, filmmaker Rebecca Hosking ponders the future of her family’s small Devon farm (UK) in the context of a world where fossil fuels may no longer be cheap and easy to come by. As she looks for solutions she stumbles upon the concept of permaculture and, skeptical at first, goes about interviewing and visiting with farmers who are putting the principles of permaculture into action to produce sustainable small farms from which they can make a living. This movie seemed to really resonate with my dear Husband, and I eagerly agreed to join him in further exploring permaculture as a design strategy for our own homestead.

While I was familiar with the word “permaculture” I didn’t really understand what it meant. I had picked up a gardening book some time ago, and all I’d gotten from it was a system of designing gardens around trees. I didn’t see the point, and I didn’t see the relevance to our situation. This movie made me realize that permaculture is much more than gardening, it’s basically an idea and a set of principles that one then uses to design systems based on one’s own unique situation. One concept that really appealed to Husband was the idea of a Forest Farm. It’s essentially a managed woodland in which edible plants are mixed in with other plant species that provide different roles: soil nourishers, nitrogen fixers, shade providers, leaf (mulch) providers, structural elements, medicinal plants, etc. In short, it was a whole new way to grow food: instead of using plots and rows and isolating the veggie patch from the rest of the property, these veggies (and fruits and nuts and herbs…) were integrated into the whole system, spread throughout the property based on their unique inputs, needs, and outputs. In this way one small property can have a lovely little forested woodland, open spaces for pasture animals, and beautiful garden spaces with all these systems working together.

For me, the immediate appeal of this idea was realizing that we didn’t have to tear down our woodland, reduce it to only a few trees, in order to enjoy our property. Permaculture could give us a system for designing our property so that we can have the things we want (some open spaces, sunlight, pasture for animals) without having to fight against Nature (weeding, tilling, drilling new wells or running miles of pipes underground) or destroying what we already have (which, while not useful at this point in time, nevertheless has taken several decades to get where it is today). So I very enthusiastically agreed with Husband to pursue the topic further, to learn everything we can about permaculture, and use that knowledge to design a homestead where all elements work together (water harvesting and flow through the land, animals, plants, wildlife).

We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface, watching all the permaculture movies we can get our hands on, ordering books from the library, etc. Our immediate goal is to create a design for our farm, a detailed site map of what we want this place to ultimately look like, and all the projects that will require. Only then can we set out on a lovely winter day, tools in hand, dog at our side, to wander over our land and perform the work necessary to achieve those goals, one step at a time. It’s likely that we will end up hiring a consultant to aid us in the design process, as there is just so much to learn and understand about all the systems involved (gardening, microclimates, water flow, greywater recycling, plant selection, plant grouping, etc). But before we do that we’re going to educate ourselves as much as possible so we can participate as much as possible in the design process. Hopefully, we will end up with a detailed site plan and a list of all projects necessary to complete the plan. It won’t all happen at once, and that is very okay. We’ll take each project as it comes, as budgets and time allow. I’m excited that we have found an approach to farm design that fits in with our values. And I’m even more excited that implementing the plan will be a process, a journey, one that cannot be rushed, one that can be enjoyed in stages. I can’t wait to see what our final plan will look like; in the meantime I’m creating a lot of lists!


6 responses to this post.

  1. wow, this is so exciting. my dear parents send me information about permaculture frequently and i am still unclear on the concept. thanks for lightening it up for me a bit more! i will be watching with interest. we don’t own our property, but i’m happy to experiment. my biggest concern with mixing things up (which i did in a cottage garden style in london) is that the rabbits and the deer will take everything before i can get to it. how would permaculture address this, i wonder? are your children interested in any of this? x! elisa


  2. Posted by Tricia on January 27, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    Back on your blog again after you posted the link. I’m rather involved in the permaculture community in Vancouver and getting to be more so this year as we create a permaculture design course in Vancouver. There might be some in your area, too. If you are ever in town you are welcome to borrow some of my books on the topic – I love Gaia’s Garden for smaller properties.


    • Posted by FreeLearners on January 27, 2011 at 7:19 pm

      Hi Tricia! I didn’t know you were into permaculture, though of course it makes sense. There is a design course offered close by us, but it’s $1600 and I don’t need the certification part so we thought hiring a consultant would be less expensive. However, I haven’t quite made up my mind. 😉


  3. […] endeavours would be enough for us in terms of protein. But what about plants? Well, thanks to our discovering permaculture, we’ve learned that we can obtain high yields of food with relatively little maintenance. The […]


  4. […] shortages of fossil fuels, for example. We only have 4 acres and we wanted to make the most of it. The philosophy of permaculture appealed to us enormously as a way to maximize productivity while healing the land and increasing biodiversity, but in […]


  5. […] a priority right now) but I would like to grow much more of our own produce in the future and build up a permaculture system here, of which the gardens are an integral […]


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