Grow Lights

IMG_7239For several years I have been trying to decide whether to buy indoor growing lights for seed starting. The reasons that I didn’t want to buy them included not wanting to purchase stuff in general because of the energy and resources used in manufacturing and shipping goods, as well as the use of energy to run the lights. The reason I did want them is because my sad little seedlings kept stretching out too far and dying. Last year I had good success with outdoor “winter sowing” in milk jugs and salad containers as well as using the cold frame for seedlings and bringing them indoors at night initially. But I always want to start more seeds than I have room for, and bringing things in and out is too labor intensive.   Continue reading

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Snow

Jan. 2016. Three of the compost bins after the first snowstorm of the season.
Jan. 2016. Three of the compost bins after the first snowstorm of the season.

Yesterday afternoon I headed outside to shovel and play in the snow with the kids. Jordan had already been out for a few hours earlier with my husband and they cleared off most of the driveway with a snow blower and hand-shoveled the front walk. More snow had fallen since then, and Jordan was ready to tackle the driveway again, but I suggested hopefully that Jordan could help me shovel the path to the compost bins.

The previous year we did not keep up on the paths to the compost bins so after a few cumulative snowstorms, the outdoor composting was sort of written off for a couple of months. This year I would like to keep the outdoor one going because they can handle a much larger volume of material than our indoor worm bin.  Continue reading

Sweet Potato Fun

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In October we harvested sweet potatoes that we grew in a pot on the patio. The plant was started from an organic sweet potato that sprouted in the pantry around February.

The sweet potato plant wilted with the first frost in mid-October so we decided it was time to harvest. The kids turned the pot over onto a tarp so they could search for the tuberous roots. There were so many roots cramped into that tiny pot that it completely held together even after attempts to smash it up.

Continue reading

The Terraces

April 2013. Newly constructed terraces, a blank canvas
April 2013. Newly constructed steps and terraces, a blank canvas

When you go out a back door onto our patio, you are in an alley between the house and a wall of rock. On each end is a retaining wall and then the land slopes upward. Its a beautiful and cozy patio with dramatic views. When we moved in, to get from there to the rest of the property you had to either scale a retaining wall or go to the front of the house and around and then very carefully navigate up a slippery hillside to get up to the woods.

2013. As I mentioned in the first of this series of catch-up posts describing what we’ve done over the past three years, one of our first projects was to hire a stonemason crew to build a set of stone steps from the patio up to the top of the hill and terraces for gardens up the hillside.

Double digging begins
April 2013. Compacted soil in the new terrace gardens.

Then we began transforming the terraced area into a garden. This was a very challenging area! On the north side of the house and partly shaded by Continue reading

A Little Less Lawn

When we moved up to Connecticut, I had hoped we would get a big lawn so I could convert it to an amazing permaculture-inspired food forest. We ended up in a house that had almost no lawn at all. Directly behind our house is a huge boulder outcropping and woods. Most of the front “yard” is wetlands and driveway. There was just a small strip of muddy, mossy, struggling lawn bordered by shrubs along the top of a retaining wall, ending in a triangle by the driveway.

Front Yard
May 2013. The “before” shot.

I had heard the phrase “Food not lawns” a few times and thought it was a cool message, but had not realized it was the name of a book and a non-profit organization. I also did not know at that time that a whopping 20% of all the land in Connecticut is lawn, the largest “crop” grown in the state. I didn’t even know that more herbicides and pesticides are used on lawns than on farms that grow food! But I did know that lawns take a lot of maintenance, that lawn is equivalent to a desert in its ability to support wildlife, that this particular strip was too shady for a lawn, and that I didn’t want to waste any space growing something that I couldn’t eat. While I didn’t have a lot of lawn to replace, I was excited to take this small lawn and turn it into something awesome.

May 2013. The first apple tree gets planted in the lawn.
May 2013. The first apple tree gets planted in the lawn.

That first Spring, my son and I planted an heirloom apple tree and three blueberry bushes right into the lawn. We didn’t mow. We just let it grow to see what would come up.  White Clover started popping up so I encouraged that by pulling out clumps of grass to make room. I wanted the clover because it takes nitrogen from the air and adds it to the soil and helps other plants grow.

There were long metal strips marking off the lawn from flower beds. These had probably been in the ground about fifteen years. I decided to move them to enlarge the garden beds and mark a path down the center, thus eliminating the lawn entirely.

Moving those metal strips was probably one of the hardest jobs I’ve done in a long time! It surely did not help that I was a few months pregnant. This job took several full weekends as Jordan and I were not strong enough to move them without help from my husband, Chuck.

lawn to path conversion
June 2013. Cardboard layer under wood chips to form a path.

The “lawn” was more Indian Strawberry and moss than actual grass, so we laid down cardboard right on top the surface. Then we brought in wood chips for the path and layered up soil outside the path. The soil came from a drainage ditch on our property. We were told by a contractor that we were supposed to remove built up soil from the drainage area periodically so it wouldn’t go up higher than the drain pipe. This soil was a bit anaerobic (smelly and lacking oxygen) but we planned to give it time to improve. Most of the wood chips were moved by my son via toy dump truck and me using a wheelbarrow. But some of the other physical labor was done by Graham, who we hired to help out.

That summer we brought some Spearmint and Obedient Plant from our old house and put them in the lawn area, too. We also put in rhubarb, Arnica Montana, cabbages, a few cultivated strawberry plants, and a Chocolate Mint plant from a local organic nursery.

There was a funny moment that summer. I was out in the “lawn” doing something, probably pulling out grass. A neighbor drove in to the driveway and said hello. This was unusual. He was friendly but then commented that I’d need to be mowing the lawn soon. I tried to explain that I was trying to get rid of the grass. When he left I had the feeling that we were speaking two different languages to each other. It was also my first indication that in this neighborhood, I was going to have to raise the bar a little. My “wildflower meadow” approach was not meeting approval of the neighbors–or even my husband although he was being as nice as possible about it.  The rest of the summer and fall of 2013, as my pregnancy progressed, I was limited in my gardening capacity, and I put most of my efforts into the main garden at the top of the hill, so the front lawn did not get much more attention that season.

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April 2014

In Spring of 2014, things started coming together in many parts of the yard but not much was happening in the front “lawn” because I didn’t yet have a clear vision of where to go with it. Other things that had more clarity were taking all my time. I no longer had a huge belly to work around, but I did have an infant to care for. I planted a few cabbages around the daffodils, and the strawberries and mint were spreading as expected. But the blueberries looked like they were dying, and the apple tree was not doing much of anything.

We put in a few Hyacinths along the path to brighten things up a bit. This was Jordan’s idea. I was a bit overly focused on plants that were edible or medicinal perennials. The guys in the family that want flowers. I’m glad they push for them because of course it makes everything look so much prettier with flowers mixed in, and it gives the bees much-needed pollen.

The next step was to put down a nice thick layer of straw mulch to prevent evaporation and suppress the Indian Strawberry and lawn grass, and leave a blank slate for planting edible perennials, medicinal plants, and other plants to support pollinators and other beneficial insects.

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April 2014. Trial and error.

I had been reading The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips. So after planting the apple tree in the lawn, and other trees in other parts of the yard, we mulched them with wood chips. According to Phillips, I also needed some white rocks to put around the tree trunk to discourage mice, decomposers, and other plants from growing too closely. Luckily during the winter, a neighbor’s snow plow driver had sent many white rocks from their driveway onto our side of the road. We swept some of the rocks back to the driveway but we gathered enough by hand from the ground to circle about eight inches around each of the tiny tree trunks.

We bought some potted daffodils and planted them in a circle around the apple tree. We thought it would look pretty, but I also had the idea to throw deer off from the scent of the presumably delicious apple sapling. We put in some stepping stones to prevent our feet from compacting the soil more than it already was.

At this point Graham taught me that the yellowing leaves with spots on some of our Boxwoods were signs of Boxwood Blight, a horrible plant disease that was killing Boxwoods all around town. I jumped on what I saw as an opportunity to get rid of them. My husband was reluctant to remove any of the mature landscape plantings. I could understand his perspective because they did create a grounding and structure for the space, but I was looking at those square feet as valuable real estate. These boxwoods were big! I could put a lot of other things there.

Boxwoods out!
May 2014. Two large Boxwoods removed.

Despite Chuck’s hesitation, the two big boxwoods came out from the front bordering the triangle of lawn. The empty spaces were quickly filled with American Beautyberry purchased through Etsy, Monarda from a local nursery, and some Echinacea from my friend Lindsay. Around the front border I transplanted a few of the Wild Violets I found along the roadsides while going for walks with the baby.

Most importantly, Chuck liked the openness created by the absence of the two big Boxwoods. So at that moment I realized it was time to suggest we get rid of the shrubs that were the remaining tall plants in the border. I had tried to identify these without success, but they didn’t seem to be anything useful. They hadn’t flowered and didn’t have any other evident uses. They were also casting shade on one of the only fairly sunny spots on the property. So Chuck agreed reluctantly. Again, once they were gone, Chuck was really pleased with the openness and being able to see the house from the street. I promptly planted two plum trees that had been waiting in 5 gallon buckets since the previous spring. Then we moved the struggling blueberries out of the lawn into the border, and bought another one for good measure. Then Jordan planted some pumpkin seeds. A couple of pumpkin vines grew but the conditions were so poor that they produced only a few blossoms.

In progress shot of the lawn replacement project which became a replacement of all the border landscaping as well.
May 2015. Tall shrubs cut down to stubs. Testing the new path idea

Things were still a bit of a hodge-podge and I was not happy with it. I worried I was making people think my methods were messy and ugly. Then, my garden gave me a good idea. Strawberries that I’d planted in the back along the stone steps the previous summer, a gift from my friend Monica, were starting to send out runners to form new plants. I needed to find a place to transplant them. Well! Creating a uniform bed of strawberries in the “lawn” would satisfy the many functions that I wanted this area to perform. I wanted it to look nice because it was the front entrance to our home. I wanted it to be filled with edibles and easily enjoyed by my children. I wanted it to be easy to protect from wildlife during times of harvest, which meant all the plants needed to be the same height.  I wanted it to be easy to maintain. I also wanted it to look good enough to be an inspiration to other people to reduce their lawns and grow some of their own food.

I gave up on the apple tree, which was dead above the graft line, and cut it down. I removed all the white stones. I moved the stepping stones to begin a solid path that would provide easy footing for a toddler to walk along and pick strawberries. I transplanted the daffodils and chocolate mint to other spots. Then I brought the strawberry plants from the backyard and put them densely to join the others. In the fall, I mulched them well with straw and waited.

July 2015 progress on Belgian Block path
July 2015 progress on Belgian Block path to match existing driveway border.

In the Spring of 2015, I decided that the Chocolate Mint was going to become troublesome among the strawberries due to its spreading habit, so I moved it to a section along the walkway, replacing some of the abundant Lemon Balm. I purchased twenty tiny strawberry plants from the Greenwich Garden Education Center to fill in gaps. I also decided to upgrade the cheap stepping stones that I had been using, and went to a professional masonry supply and purchased Belgian Blocks that would match the stonework all around in the driveway and the front steps. These were expensive investments but would make the work look professional and match the existing hardscaping.

These Belgian Blocks were much heavier than I expected. All the stone work I’ve done before had been with recycled bricks or small pavers or local stones. It was slow going so the amount of time I had only allowed me to do about two stones every few days.

The photo to the right shows the Spearmint is growing very well and would need to be moved for the second path and strawberry bed.

As this was coming along, I was thinking that I needed to order more wood chips to replenish the path. I was also thinking about how I wanted this landscaping to be low-maintenance to appeal to any potential buyers in the future if we move, and that most people would not want to be bringing in loads of wood chips annually to replenish the path. Besides that as they wood chips were decomposing they were greatly improving the soil–which was causing a lot of plants to want to grow in the path. I certainly did not want to create a situation that required constant weeding! So I came up with the idea of making the walkway out of Bluestone pavers that would match the existing sidewalk. Then I would fill in the spaces between the stones with thyme or some other very low-laying plants that would not require much maintenance, and ideally, serve some additional purpose as well, perhaps food or medicinal plants for teas, or at least a mosquito repellent.

Bluestone path in progress
August 2015. Bluestone pavers laid down to create a path.

It took three car trips to bring home the Bluestone pavers and three more for the Belgian Blocks. The kids liked watching the big loaders and forklifts so it was a bit of an adventure! We were very lucky that the distance between the two metal edgers was exactly wide enough for the standard size Bluestone pavers. This is why planning ahead is so important… and I need to improve in that respect as I won’t always be so lucky!

Laying down the Bluestones was pretty easy as the path was already prepared and there was no new digging needed, just a little smoothing. With my husband’s help we got the stones down in about fifteen minutes after each car load (this was spread over about a week.) Strawberries are filling in nicely on the left side of the path.

On the retaining wall side of the path, I asked my husband to thin out some of the landscaping bushes. Earlier this summer I purchased a carload of native edible shrubs through Greenwich Audubon. By the end of August, I still had a few that were not planted. One bush had already died so I felt it was urgent to get the rest in the ground. I had three Highbush Bluebery bushes remaining that needed enough time to settle in before winter. I also had three currant bushes that were given to me by my friend Dennis who I met through our Community Garden. This was a good opportunity to take out some of the non-edible, non-useful, ornamental landscaping plants which were now considered problematic as they were becoming naturalized in the region.

Two symmetrical paths allow access to harvest the strawberries
Mid Sept 2015. The Belgian Block path is completed

I had wanted to replace this row of Wayfaring Viburnum and Morrow’s Honeysuckle since we bought the place, in order to have room for really useful and wildlife-friendly plants that I wanted, but taking them all out at once felt too drastic. So, taking out a few each year seemed like a good plan for us. This ended up being a bit of a challenge due to some yellow jackets, which I will write about in a future post. But it did get accomplished and it feels like a big improvement.

I purchased more strawberry plants from the GEC and I also potted up a bunch of the runners that were coming from the established strawberry plants to take root, to fill in the space created by the spearmint removal. But they were languishing in pots because getting the path in was taking too long. I wanted to get the path finished so I could plant the strawberries with enough time for their roots to get established before winter. The Belgian Blocks were too heavy for the kids to be able to help me. It had taken me weeks to complete the smaller semi-circle and the larger one was going to take even longer. I was going to have to get some professional help. Graham, who had worked for me in previous years was no longer available.

Nov 2015. Progress on the pathway.
Nov 2015. Progress on the pathway.

Luckily just at that time, I met Dylan, who was interested in permaculture and organic gardening, and has a new organic landscaping business that he is starting up, and he had some time available. He knocked out the second path in a few hours. Jordan got right in there and helped. I helped a little. But mostly I kept Lauren out of the way. It turned out great. Dylan moved the Spearmint and Obedient Plants to the garden on the other side of the driveway (the story of that area’s transformation will be coming in a future post). After that I was able to plant the whole bed with strawberries and mulch around them –with straw, of course. I can’t wait to see how this area looks in the spring!

Last week, I put in smaller Belgian Blocks at the bottom of the path where it was too steep and odd-shaped for a bluestone paver. I will have to do a similar project and add more bluestones at the back end of the path but that will have to wait until Spring.

Nov 2015. Stone wall repairs ongoing.
Nov 2015. Stone wall repairs ongoing.

I was very pleased with Dylan’s work and I then thought of a hundred other projects I wanted him to do. But the most urgent was to repair the retaining wall all along this front area. Yellow Forsythia and Porcelainberry were growing out of the wall and some of the stones had fallen down. Sometimes we walked on the wall to avoid compacting the soil, so this was becoming a safety issue. This was a project that we’d been avoiding dealing with, but it really needs to be done, and it needs to be done before planting out the area. I’m really glad Dylan is taking this on.

As of right now, Dylan has replaced the stones in the front part of the wall where the damage was the worst and started cementing them. Its coming together great and I’ll post another update of that when its finished.

So, that is the entire backstory of my lawn replacement project so far. It was fun writing about this to review how much we have done. I’ll be filling in the history on other areas of our property in the next few posts.

In the meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you if you have reduced or replaced your lawn. What did you grow and how well is it working?

The top of the hill

With our new stone stairs giving easy access to the back of our property, we were finally able to take a good look around and start making plans for our new property.

Oak, beech, and birch woods dominate the thin-soiled woodland at the top of the hill.
Oak trees dominate the thin-soiled conservation area at the top of the hill.

It is an Oak woodland at the top of the hill, with some Birch trees on the edges of the rocky slopes. Around the edges, there are a few Witch Hazel trees and Maple Leaf Vibernum, and Devil’s Walking Stick, and some struggling Mountain Laurel. There are also hundreds of Black Huckleberry bushes.  Most of the top of the hill is preserved under a conservation easement, which means it cannot be developed. The only part that is not protected by the conservation easement is along the side of the property which contains the septic drain field and then a steep hill, almost a cliff really, down to the neighbor’s house.

Our site is not one of those neat little rectangles they always show in the landscape design books. Instead of four corners, we have 11. There is even an arc instead of a straight line between two of them! Complicating things further, steep slopes make it hard to see where the borders are even when we found corner points.

I wanted to make a scale drawing of existing structures, vegetation, and topography to use for drawing different ideas and plans onto, as recommended in Gaia’s Garden and other permaculture design books. But I was a bit stumped not knowing where the borders were.

The site of our future forest garden, as seen from the back facing the house.
The site of our future forest garden, as seen from the back facing the house. Early Spring 2013

The search for our property lines eventually took nearly two years, the purchase of a metal detector, testing our map-reading skills beyond insanity, and eventually giving up and hiring a professional survey team.

But that first Spring in our new home, being newly pregnant and feeling excited about creating a veggie garden for my son and the baby, I just wanted to get started. There was only one place where we could put in an actual garden. It had to be squeezed in a narrow strip with the conservation area on one side and the cliff on the other, with the front at the top of the stairs and bordered on the back by the septic drain field. There was not enough sun for a standard vegetable garden, but it was a fine site for a forest garden.

We started with some clean up– making a pile of several old Christmas trees that had been dumped in the woods and a lot of broken branches from Superstorm Sandy, There was not a lot of vegetation, which I now know was due to poor soil fertility, but I blamed the deer. There were several plant species I knew well: Mugwort, Lady’s Thumb, and Wood Sorrel. My friend Rebecca came to visit us with her daughter, and they introduced us to several more of the plant species growing in our planned garden area: delicious Garlic Mustard, Greater Celandine which can be used for dye, and others.

Zone MapPermaculture design uses a Zone Map for planning a site. Zone 1 is the closest area outside of the doors of your home where you go the most, and each zone is farther away and less convenient to access, until you reach Zone 5, which is left as a wild area for wildlife and insects- maybe used for foraging but not cultivated. Our property has a lot of Zone 5 due to the geography and ecology. Our garden site was not ideal being in Zone 3 and up a steep set of stairs- but with no better option we would have to make the best of it.

My husband bought us a solar-powered electrical fence setup to create a movable deer barrier. We put this fence up around our intended garden area and began planning out garden beds.

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Spring 2013

I thought doing a layout with keyhole gardens or mimicking the shape of a leaf (with leaf veins as paths) would be fun and I drew out a few designs for these. Then I realized that having a wood chip path around the perimeter of the garden would help prevent plants from growing under the electrical fence and would eliminate frequent weeding work. Once we started digging around we discovered that huge rocks would dictate where we could put in beds.

We began laying out the garden beds using pieces of branches and then spread a load of wood chips for paths. This is one of the earliest photos of the beginning of the garden. As my pregnant belly grew, I got slower and slower but we continued to make progress throughout the spring, summer, and early fall of 2013. Though I was committed to the idea of no-till gardening, it was clear that we would have to start by digging out the garden beds once, especially to remove big rocks. We used the rocks to make mini retaining walls and borders for the garden beds. At Permies.com I learned of Paul Wheaton’s recommendation to build a pile of rocks to create snake habitat for slug control. I certainly had plenty of slugs and plenty of rocks, so I piled up the rocks hopefully.

One of the first things we planted in this forest garden was an heirloom Bali Cherry tree. We really should not have bought any trees that first spring, but there was a lot of enthusiasm about the new house and new garden, so we rushed in a little. You can see a homemade “cage” protecting the cherry tree in the photo above, as it was put in the ground prior to the electric fence being installed, and we were also not sure if it would be sufficient protection that first year.

Fall 2013
Fall 2013

We planted some seeds and starts in the new garden that first year– but there was almost complete failure due to shade, insects and slugs, and poor soil. It definitely dampened everyone’s enthusiasm. Still, we continued to work diligently at removing rocks to establish the beds. Jordan and I must have spent dozens of hours digging out rocks.

We had some help from friends, including Rob, who I had met through a NYC-based Meetup group for traditional foods cooking I’d started several years prior. Rob’s a MovNat leader and wanted to get some natural exercise digging out rocks with us. We also had some paid help. Through a recommendation from a friend and gardening mentor Alan Gorkin, I hired Graham who did some valuable heavy lifting carrying wood chips up the hill from the driveway, digging out rocks, and other projects.

The photo to the left was taken about a week before Lauren was born. I had been working at uncovering this rock for hours, and finally had to ask Chuck to come up to finish pulling it out of the ground and roll it away.

Lauren was born in mid-November and that was the end of gardening until the following Spring.

Spring 2014
April 2014

While harvesting rocks was our theme for 2013, the following year’s theme was probably “Too busy to garden because of baby.” However, we did move forward slowly with establishing the structure of the garden and beginning to heal and build the soil. We made two of the beds into hugelkultures, brought in a dump truck load of compost which had to be carried up two sets of steps from the driveway in buckets, and then mulched everything Ruth Stout style with a thick layer of straw to protect the compost. Graham and his friend Jordan were instrumental to making this happen as I was doing all my gardening with Lauren in a baby carrier and in limited bursts of time.

my forest garden Fall 2014
September 2014

Through the summer we planted more perennial greens and herbs, and a couple of berry bushes. For the most part the emphasis in the Forest Garden was on soil building and making sure the kids were safe and happy. We added a plastic mesh fencing to the electrical fencing for added barrier for smaller animals and to keep Lauren safer. By fall of 2014, the garden had a clear structure but there was not a lot of food production. Morale was a little low but winter came and by spring I was ready to push forward.

This year, 2015, it was a little easier to get out in the garden, as Lauren was able to walk and play and dig in the dirt. She enjoyed her time outdoors. I spent a lot of time sitting on a rock in the garden nursing her, which was good planning and reflecting time. We planted a Chicago Hardy Fig tree and a native Persimmon tree in the garden, more edible perennials, and made a valiant effort with some annuals. 2015 was the United Nations’ Year of the Soil, and we sure worked on building our soil by bringing in organic materials, creating compost, mulching, and growing cover crops, while removing allelopathic plants like Garlic Mustard.

my forest garden in August 2015
August 2015

Now we are completing our third autumn here, and I think our forest garden is finally starting to look like a garden. The soil still needs a lot of improvement and we need more plants. It is going to be an ongoing effort. I’m pleased with the progress we made this year given the time constraints of caring for a toddler, and I am really excited to see how everything looks in the Spring!

I’ll write a few more “three year history” catch up posts for each general area of the property. Then, through the winter I’ll write with more details about some of the more interesting projects from this year or maybe older ones, and then in the Spring I’ll be ready to blog about things as they are happening. My next post will be about my lawn elimination!

If you have any ideas, questions, or requests for things you want me to write about, please post a comment below. Thanks for reading!

The beginning

It would have been great if I’d started blogging about my garden when I first moved here three years ago, but since I didn’t, I will take the first few posts of this new blog to catch up on what its taken to get where I am now, so that my future posts about current projects will have some context.

I live in a suburban neighborhood with one and two-acre homes in southwestern Connecticut. We moved from Queens, NY where we had a tiny but awesome garden that had been gardened lovingly for over 50 years by others before us, and by my family for five years. There were fruit trees, a grape arbor, perennial herbs and flowers, and space for annual production, surrounding a lawn just big enough for parties, all in about 400 square feet. Besides that, we had a wonderful neighbor gardener to share our garden produce with each other.

It was hard to leave that garden behind, but we were excited to come up to Connecticut to be surrounded by green, and start a new and bigger garden.

When we were looking at homes to buy, I wanted a nice big lawn that I could convert into a permaculture-inspired food forest, while my husband wanted a fairly new, contemporary-style home. We didn’t find anything in our price range that had both, but I was anxious to leave New York City and address my nature deficit, and this house met all my husband’s wants. I was happy to get many of the items on my checklist including: a vernal pool with frogs, woods, location near a nature preserve and a pond, and on a low-traffic street. There was however, no ideal area for a garden.

A pretty vernal pool was one of the features I loved about our new house.
A pretty vernal pool was one of the features I loved about our new house.

The property is just a touch over an acre on a steep slope facing east, with wetlands on much of the bottom third of the property, and woodland protected by a conservation easement on much of the top third of the property. The middle third is mostly filled with the house and driveway, rock outcroppings, and steep slopes. Many areas have less than six inches of soil on top of solid rock. But still, there was a lot more to work with than our tiny yard in Queens. I took it as a personal challenge to turn this space into a food forest.

For my readers who are new to permaculture, its a whole-system design process for ecological regeneration which is frequently used to design gardens and farm homesteads. Its difficult to define briefly so I’ll refer you to read all about it here.

snow on our patio
The first winter we observed a large accumulation of snow.

When we moved in, it was December, so there was not much to do other than observe the snow falling (and shovel a lot of it) and begin to meet the neighbors. In February we found out we would be expecting our second child in the fall.

I knew that spending one full year to observe your site through all seasons was recommended by David Holmgren, the co-originator of permaculture. It makes perfect sense to do so. Having a complete picture of the site prevents costly and time-consuming mistakes. I even had the perfect scenario to be patient and observe the new property for a year, because what better reason than pregnancy to kick back and become introspective?

Despite everything aligning in support of waiting, I have to admit that I completely failed to spend a full year observing. Perhaps it was the hormones from the new pregnancy to blame. Or more likely just my impatience. I really could not imagine myself *not* getting my hands dirty in my new yard for a full year.

We discovered that some of our stone walls and the stone outdoor fireplace were in need of repair, so we hired a stonemason through a neighbor’s referral. I began thinking about how difficult it was for me and my five-year-old son to access the top third of our property without climbing up steep dangerous paths including scaling a four-foot tall retaining wall, and that this was going to become increasingly more difficult with my growing belly–and later another child. So, I made a decision to have stairs put in so we could have safe and easy access to the top of the property. Then, since the workers were already here and working in the area, I had them put terraces into the hillside next to the stairs so we could start our garden.

stone stairs and terraces
With stairs from the patio to the top of the retaining wall and up the hill, it became possible to access the top of the property much more safely.

The stairs and terraces were built, and they completely transformed the usability of our land. I’ll never know what wild or cultivated plants may have been growing on the hillside before we jumped in and changed it into terraces, but I see it as a small loss for having a full extra year to build our soil and experiment with the terrace garden.

Once we had access to the top of the property, we continued our neglect in waiting a full year for observation, and got started right away cleaning up the area, digging out beds, and even planting trees in the small area that was neither conservation land nor septic drain field at the top of the new stairs.

Mugwort Meadow
The septic drain field (aka Mugwort Meadow)

I’ll tell you more about that next time.

An acquaintance who is an official permaculture designer, Sam Billings, walked my property with me that summer and told me something that really resonated with me. His advice was that a flat square property can be very difficult to design because a blank slate has infinite options, but a complex site like mine tells you what it needs. Remembering this makes me feel ok about not spending that year observing and then mapping and planning out the entire site before jumping in because I believe my site is revealing to me what it needs in stages as I’m able to handle them.

I’d love to know how much time you spent observing your property before getting started with a new garden. Did you observe a full year as recommended by permaculture design teachers? If so, what benefits did you gain through that year? Am I the only one with insufficient patience?

Hello world!

This blog is just sprouting.
This blog is just sprouting.

Hi there. I’ve decided to start a blog after years of being encouraged to document and share the work I’ve been doing in my garden and community. I’m passionate about many issues including the environment and social justice.

I became an environmental activist as a teen. In college I was plunged into the labor movement and went on to become an organizer for various unions for the next decade. Now I’m raising my children and soaking in everything I can about ecological living. I’m excited about natural childbirth, natural parenting, composting, permaculture, regenerative agriculture, herbalism, edible landscaping, community interdependence, radical homemaking, and much more.

I really hope that readers will comment and interact so that we can learn from each other.