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.
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.
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.
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.
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?