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.

2013-05-21 15.31.51 (1)
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 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!


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