Tag Archives: homestead

Forest Regeneration at the Druid’s Garden Homestead: Forest Hugelkultur, Replanting and More!

 

Red Elder – helping the forest recover

The property was almost perfect: in the right location, a natural spring as a water source, a small and nice house with a huge hearth, areas for chickens and gardens, a small pond and a stream bordering the edge of the property….pretty much everything was exactly what we hoped.  Except for one thing: right before selling the property, the previous owners did some logging for profit, taking out most of the mature overstory of trees on 3 of the 5 acres. This left the forest in a very damaged place: cut down trees, lots of smaller limbs and brush, often piled up more than 5-8 feet high in places. I remember when I went to look at the property and started walking the land and just saying, “Why would they do this?”  It hurt my heart. Could I live here, seeing what had so recently been done?  But I’ve always been led to such places as part of my spiritual path, particularly places that have been logged.

 

A continual theme of this blog is land healing.  In some recent posts,  I have been sharing some details about physical land healing: what to do, how to do it, what ecological succession is and how that matters and also why you might take up the path of the land healer as a spiritual practice. In today’s post, I’m going to put these pieces together and share a specific example from the forest regeneration work we are doing at the Druid’s Garden Homestead. In the last two years, we have been developing methods to help support the ecosystem and foster ecological succession. With careful choices, ecological succession can be done faster and more effectively, helping shift our land to a mature ecological sanctuary for life. This is by no means a complete project but does offer a glimpse into what we are doing, some of the choices we made, and hopefully, after some time passes, I can offer some updates!  The goal then is to offer you a model and ideas for work that you can do to heal in your own ecosystem from a physical land healing standpoint.

 

One of the questions that sometimes come up for people interested in land regeneration is this-if nature already knows how to heal herself, why would any person want to intervene? Why do the work of healing an ecosystem if nature can just do it herself on a slower scale?  Most of the answers to these questions I shared in my earlier post on land healing as a spiritual practice.  But I will share my reasoning for this specific piece of land: I feel the need to use things like permauclture to help the land regenerate because of the broader challenges we are facing environmentally and the importance of peacemaking with the spirits of the land.  Given our situation here, it would take anywhere from approximately 50-100 years for this land to fully heal.  But there is a question if it could ever fully heal due to the loss of certain woodland species from our immediate ecosystem–species that belong here like ramps, trillium, American ginseng, and more are not easily spread and may take hundreds of years to return, if at all.  Further, our intervention could provide faster healing of this land and could build critical ecosystems and create a sanctuary for life in a time when it’s definitely needed.  Our land here is a small patch of woods surrounded by many farmlands growing corn, soy, and cabbage.  We are our own refugia here, and so, bringing this land back into a healthy place ecologically means that this can be a better refuge for life and support more animal, insect, bird, amphibian, reptile and plant lives.  Also, by using the grove of renewal strategy (which I developed as part of this work), we can radiate this healing energy out to the broader landscape–where it is sorely needed.

 

Observing, Interacting, and Deep Listening

Observation and interaction led to the discovery of this choked out sassafras grove

Each landscape is unique.  If you are coming into a new land or working with land you’ve known for years, the first step is to observe, interact, and practice some deep listening. Observation and interaction are just as they sound–this is a principle from permauclture that says in order to work to regenerate land, you have to come at that work from a place of knowledge and wisdom.  In order to know that land, you need to study that land–observe the land in different seasons and in different times of day, interact with the land, be present there always, seeing what there is to see, and coming to know it deeply. Understand what is already growing there, if it’s native or opportunistic (I don’t like the word “invasive), who lives there, what the ecosystems surrounding your land look like, what pollution and other pressures there might be, and more.

 

With so much of our land subject to logging, we spent some time observing, interacting, and in connection with the spirits.  What did the land spirits want us to do? What could we do that would be respectful to the land, that would help and not hurt further?  The general sense we had was that to respond to this situation, we knew that there were places we were going to let nature heal in her own way, but there were also plenty of places that we could help heal faster by applying permaculture techniques. Observation and interaction is the physical component of this and deep listening is the spiritual component to this practice. But I also want to share here that observation, interaction, and deep listening is a continual process. As you work a piece of land, you will keep working with it. What the land may ask you to do changes as you complete earlier work.  So keep on listening, every chance you get. I’ll now consider each in turn.

 

Observation and Interaction: The Lay of the Land

Being on the land after moving in was honestly overwhelming. Much of the land was impassible due to the huge amounts of leftover treetops, branches, and brush. The loggers had just bulldozed brush into large piles, taking much of the forest floor with it.  The first thing we did, even to begin to observe and interact, was to re-establish paths by moving brush so we could walk and be present on the land. Since this was so-called “sustainable logging” what we ended up with was most of the largest trees being taken and a smattering of mature trees left–some oaks, hickories, maples and black cherries. Thus, we have some mature trees.  But many of the mature trees that find themselves exposed to wind are experiencing secondary loss, where they lose their crowns.  These trees grew up in a mature forest with close crowns, without the protection of other trees, they are very susceptible to wind damage.  This is one of the things we are observing now–losing a lot of the remaining crowns of the largest trees, which is very sad.  We also have a good understory of hickory, oak, sugar maple, cherry, and a bit of sassafras–these trees will eventually be our new overstory, I think, once the secondary loss of the larger trees concludes.

 

The amount of brush also made it harder for smaller trees to grow and come up in a healthy way, and the brush is covering the trunks of many of the existing trees that were not logged, creating wet spots that can cause the trees’ bark to rot.  The forest floor wasn’t very abundant–we weren’t seeing a lot of the plants that should be growing here, particularly woodland medicinal species.

A good example of the “clearing” work to do–if we don’t remove this brush, it will rot out the trunk of this mature tree. There are several black elder in here that can also use some room to expand and grow.

 

At present, after logging, the dominant plant that has grown up on our landscape is the Rubus allegheniensis, the common blackberry, native to this area of our land.  We now have large thickets of blackberry. We also have Devil’s walking stick, wild cherry, elderberry, spicebush, and beaked hazels growing up in very dense thickets.  We also have a lot of poison ivy, as it thrives on disturbance. These plants have quickly come into the spaces left by large trees to fill the void.  But if we want to support ecological succession, we’d work to plant and foster the hardwood trees as much as possible and help cultivate them towards adulthood along with supporting a rich understory of shrubs and woodland plants of more diversity than the opportunistic species that are present.

 

Our land is on the eastern side of a small mountain, so we get good morning/early afternoon light and get more shade in the evenings.  The soil is wet and fertile. The bottom of our property borders Penn Run, a stream that is clean and flowing where we live, but most, unfortunately, less than 1/4 mile from where we live downstream, we have acid mine drainage causing serious pollution. Thus, cultivating the health of our stream is of utmost concern as it fosters habitat that is degraded further down.

 

Deep Listening: The Will of the Spirits of the Land

The second part of this equation is deep listening. For generations, this land been the object of someone else’s desire–in the sense that whatever humans wanted to do to the land, they simply did, with no consideration of the will of the spirits of the land. As druids, we recognize that the land has agency–it has a voice, and we listen. Thus, part two of the observation and interaction is simply finding out what the spirits of the land want and desire–and following that will.  I really believe this is one of the most critical parts of land healing and any other spiritual work we do–and failing to do this part means we are no different than others who have come and did whatever they wanted.  For the last two years, we haven’t done much beyond our gardens, chicken coops, and infrastructure (fencing for garden, etc). We wanted to listen to what the spirits of the land wanted for the healing of the rest of the property, especially the forested sections.  Over time, a clear message emerged–certain areas to let “rewild” without any intervention and without any human interaction, while other places on the property places for spiritual activity, replanting, and active regeneration. The spirits gave us a map of the land and how they wanted us to proceed–and we listen.

 

 

Goals and Interventions

Most people who are working on conservation, permaculture design, forestry, and so on recommend developing clear goals that help you decide how to create a plan moving forward and make sure your actions align with that plan. I also think this is a really good idea. To replant our land and heal the forest, we started by identifying clear goals for our forested areas and for ourselves.  These goals include:

  1. Honor nature in our actions and in our intentions and work with nature as a partner in the regeneration process.
  2. Support ecological succession to help re-establish an overstory of hardwood nut trees and sugar maples in 3 acres of forest. This will include supporting a diverse ecosystem, modeled after old-growth ecosystems of the “Northern Hardwood Forest” type.
  3. Maximize habitat and food sources for wildlife and humans (including amble supplies of wild berries and nuts) focusing on perennial agriculture
  4. Establish a sanctuary for endangered woodland medicinal species in our 3 acres of forests in the understory (American ginseng, black cohosh, blue cohosh, trillium, bloodroot, ramps, etc, as established by the United Plant Savers)
  5. Designate “wild areas” (zone 5 areas, to use the term from permaculture design) that are untouched can regenerate in whatever direction spirits will.
  6. All human-focused and agriculturally-focused areas will be designed and enacted based on working with nature using permaculture design.  Human focused areas have the emphasis of people care, earth care, and fair share. Spiritual areas are designated for our grove and spiritual community.
  7. Learn how to support riparian and wetland ecosystems. We have a special emphasis on wetland areas and riparian zones, since our land contains both a small spring-fed pond and a clean stream.
  8. Learn how to use all of the materials on our land so that nothing is wasted. We have a lot of secondary tree loss right now, and we don’t want to add to the brush on the ground.  Thus, when a tree drops, we are doing our best to use it in some way, either for woodworking/arts/crafts, for natural building projects, or for firewood or hugels (see below).
  9. Build resiliency for ourselves, our domestic animals, and all life on our property.

 

These goals are evolving as time passes, but they represent our general desire to be good stewards of this land, allow for us to live here in harmony with life, and support more diversity of plant, bird, animal, and insect life.

 

 

Ecological Succession Support and Forest Restoration

The following are some of the main strategies we are using at present for regeneration.  We are still very much in the early stages here of this regeneration project, but we’ve got good momentum and are making progress!

 

Tree Replanting and Cultivation. We’ve been working to replant as much of the understory as possible so that we can establish, in time, a healthy and diverse overstory.  This included planting 25 American hybrid chestnut trees (blight resistant, 95% American chestnut genetics), to plant oaks and hickory nuts throughout the areas we could access, as well as establish a paw-paw understory.  There were very specific reasons for these choices: according to my own historical research, chestnut used to comprise about 30% of our forests here in PA and PawPaw were quite common.  The logging gave me a chance to try to establish a mature chestnut overstory in the long run. These trees are still small, but we are keeping them clear of brush and debris and doing our best to make sure they are established.

 

Forest Hugels cleared from the Sassafras grove area

Tree tending and thinning.  When there are dense thickets of small trees regrowing, only the strongest or fastest-growing will survive.  We have identified different patches of regrowing trees and are trying to cultivate those which will contribute most to a mature oak-hickory overstory and a wide diversity of trees.  One of the most recent projects was clearing the brush (through hugelkultur techniques, see below).  We cleared brush from a large patch of sassafras trees (the only on the property) and making sure they had room to grow. We have been thinning the dense thickets of the weakest trees to ensure more rapid growth, especially of the beaked hazels, which grow very, very quickly and can overpower our slower-growing hickories, oaks, and chestnuts.  This process of tending and thinning has created a lot of branch and pole material we can use for garden stakes and other spiritual building and crafting projects.  And doing some thinning like this helps tend the ecosystem. We never cut anything back without permission–and listen carefully to what the spirits of the land and forest ask.

 

Clearing brush and turning “waste” into a resource. Perhaps the most intensive of the work we are doing right now is clearing areas of the downed trees and brush.  As long as we have piles of 8′ brush, it makes it very hard to plant young trees, allow the small seedlings to grow, or replant the forest floor with woodland medicinals.  The brush has also been piled near living larger trees, which can create rot at the roots and cause more secondary tree loss.  We have selected several areas to target, being led by the spirits of the land, and have intentionally done minimal work in others, only enough to ensure that small seedlings aren’t trapped and that roots and trunks aren’t covered in downed wood debris. This involves primarily a lot of chainsaw work. We are using primarily battery-powered power tools and some hand tools; the battery-powered tools are charged by our solar panels, reducing our fossil fuel consumption.

 

We go into a brushy area where the brush is, and start clearing.  What we can take as firewood we will take as firewood. Its been two years since the logging, but because a lot of the wood is off the ground, we have a surprising amount of wood still to harvest for firewood.  For wood that is past firewood stage, we have been building forest hugelkultur beds (see next entry). Once the forest floor has the brush mostly clear, we can then plant other kinds of forest medicinals and plants.

 

Forest Hugels two months later as spring sets in

Forest Hugelkultur Beds. Hugelkultur, which basically means “mound culture” is an old-world technique popular in Germany that adds woody matter to create raised “mounds” that can be grown in.  This is a fantastic technique for us to employ here because we have an over-abundance of partially rotting wood and brush that we want to find a productive use for.  By making the hugelkultur beds, we take areas that are currently prevented from effectively regrowing due to the nature of the bush, clear the brush, and end up with a valuable resource–a new bed that we can plant. Most of ours hugels are in part-shade forest edges where we will plant shrubs and other shade-loving perennials to increase our capacity for food production for ourselves and wildlife: gooseberry, fiddlehead ferns, alpine strawberry, black and red currants, etc.

 

To build a hugel, you decide your location.  You can also decide at this point if you want to sink it into the ground (like a traditional garden bed where you’d dig down) or put it on top of the ground. We are doing above ground hugels primarily because our ground is so rocky and digging it out is almost impossible.  Once you have your location, you start with the largest pieces of wood and begin making a very dense pile of wood the size you want your bed to be (at least a few feet long and a few feet wide, realistically).  As you pile them up, usually to 3-4′ tall, you vary the thickness of the wood, such that the thickest wood should be on the bottom and inside the middle, and thinner sticks, etc, should be on the outside.  After you have your pile, you can add whatever other organic matter you have around–we clean out our chicken/guinea, duck, and goose coops regularly and are using all the straw bedding as another layer.  Stuff that material into any of the holes between the logs.  Finally, we top it with more layers of organic matter (leaves, compost, etc) and top it off with at least 4″ of finished compost.  The final layer is a layer of straw.  These layers, we allow to “season” for at least six months to a year.  By the second year, the hugels have settled enough that you can patch any holes with additional compost and then plant right in them.  Each year, as they season more and more, they grow more abundant.  We have some hugels we did dig down and create as part of our medicinal herb garden and they are incredibly productive and resilient after only two years! The goal here is that the hugels will edge our deeper parts of our forest and provide abundant food and forage for wildlife and humans.

 

I will also say that this kind of hugel building work in the way we are doing it is dark half of the year work.  If you clear in the winter, you don’t disrupt the soil or perennials that are going to come up in the summer months.  For us here, we can do this work from Samhain to somewhere close to Beltane–then we shift our emphasis on other things for the summer months and come back to clearing and hugelkultur work in the winter months.

 

Mayapple in a regenerating portion of the land

Seed scattering and re-establishing forest medicinal species.  We are working to model our regenerated forest after what an old-growth forest would have looked like, as our goals above suggest.  Thus, we have been replanting many lost forest medicinal and keystone woodland species that are native to our area.  This includes scattering about 1000 ramp seeds, planting over 50 American ginseng roots and planting more wild ginseng seeds, bringing in bloodroot, black cohosh, trout lily and other plants that are adapted particularly for our damp hillside.  We are still pretty early in this process (we have to get the downed wood brush cleared first) but are making good progress and have already scattered and planting the ginseng and ramps.

 

Overstory management.  As I mentioned above,  one of the saddest things happening now deal with the loss of the remaining trees still standing in the forest–we are observing these trees and seeing how many of them can make it. But we also recognize the value of standing dead timber, and since we have a nice woodpecker community (at least four different species, including the rarer Pileated Woodpecker), we are leaving all of the standing dead timber that is safe to leave–which thankfully, is nearly all of it.  For some trees, however, particularly those that may be in a place that if they dropped would cause damage to other trees or the house/structures, we are dropping them and using them for natural building, firewood, and other projects.

What about the inner/energetic work?

Reading all of this, you might notice that I’ve primarily talked about physical regeneration in today’s post.  Yes, I have.  As you might recall from my earlier work, I really see land healing as both inner and outer work.  Because I have the power to do something physical, I think its really important that those things are done.  On the spiritual side, I’m working on the grove of renewal here on the land as well as ongoing land blessing and land healing work.  While we do the physical work, the energetic work is always present.  The two work together, and each strengthens the other.

 

Conclusion

Whew!  That’s a lot going on at the Druid’s Garden homestead.  Its good work to do, especially now with the pandemic. We don’t want to leave the land much, so we are turning in earnest to our projects here that will help regenerate and heal this beautiful landscape.  I’ll work to provide periodic updates on these projects and how they are going.  In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a nice spring and thinking about their own healing projects.  I would love to hear what things you are working on or the plans you have!

Permaculture in Action – Five Year Regeneration Model Site (My 3 Acre Homestead)

Last week, I shared some inspiring words about permaculture design, and how it can give us a path forward and an active, regenerative response to the many challenges we face. I wanted to take some time this week to share a more extended example that is near and dear to my heart—and this will likely be the last post on my Michigan homestead, a “celebratory” post of the good work that was able to be done there on the land in terms of regeneration.  I’ve already written about the energetic healing work on the land earlier–this is about the physical space. My homestead in Michigan was recently sold to an incredible human being who will continue her own regenerative work on the land—and for that I’m grateful!

When I came to my homestead, the need for regeneration of the landscape–and myself–was obvious to me in some ways, and not so obvious in others. So here’s a look at my homestead and the healing work through permaculture design that was done there.  So this post is an example of what one determined person (with help from dear friends and her community) can do over a five-year period to regenerate soil and bring abundance and fertility to the land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Challenges

Zones and Sectors, Analysis - 5 year mark

Zones and Sectors, Ongoing Challenges after 5 Years

When I purchased my homestead in Michigan in 2010, much healing and regeneration needed to be done. Its no surprise that permaculturists often select sites that are in the most need of healing—the tools work, and they work well, and we like a challenge. This land was no exception. The landscape was just covered in trash, chemicals, and more. Here’s what I found when I purchased the property:

 

The Lawn and Mowing: First, there was the typical damage of the lawn: no water retention, chemically poisoned, extremely compacted soil, very low-nutrient soil, shallow root mass, lack of biological diversity, no habitat or food in the grass for just about anything. A full 2 acres were being constantly mowed—pretty much anything that could be mowed was being mowed. The grass wasn’t healthy, the soil was so hard you couldn’t even get a shovel into it.

 

Burn piles, trash piles, and garbage everywhere. The previous owners had decided not to pay for garbage service but continued to produce a copious amounts of garbage, so their solution for years was to burn it each week, spread it in random places in the yard, and dump it in the back of the property. In these burn piles, I found everything from nail polish bottles exploded by the heat to lumps of melted plastic, metal coils, and chunks of rubber. The land beneath these piles, of course, had all the chemicals leeching in. All along the edges of the property was a ring of trash—from old bedsprings to plastic containers, for YEARS I found more and more trash along the edges where the trees stood! There was also a full metal bus, which my neighbor was willing to remove and scrap.

 

Scary fluids in metal bins. There were several scary metal drums, stored about 20 feet above the pond in the brush. I looked at them for a good month, trying to decide what to do about them. Finally, my neighbor helped me sort it out—it was hydraulic fluid, and he offered to take it from me since he could use it. Luckily there didn’t appear to be any leakage into the pond.

 

Deforestation. A one-acre section of cedar and white pine trees had been cut about two years prior to my moving in—the google map view still had the trees, but they were all found in the back of the property. A neighbor told me the owners “didn’t like the trees” so they had them cut and dumped. The wood was not used and the land still bore the scars of that event.

 

Ox-eye daisy my first year

Ox-eye daisy my first year at the homestead

Alkali and degraded soil. Early soil tests from around the property revealed soil somewhere between PH 8.1 – 8.3 with almost no potassium to speak of and little to no organic matter. This kind of soil is a challenge—the high PH means that iron, phosphorus, and manganese are less available and may get locked up. I was, like many in my area, living on what had been old potato fields and the soil had been abused quite a bit in those days. You can learn a lot from the soil by the plants that were growing there—one of the few plants I had in the back of the property growing was Ox-Eye daisy; these are indicator species that grows in very poor soil conditions when little else can grow.

 

Water runoff issues. Additionally, the water runoff issues, especially down the driveway, put all the driveway runoff into a shallow ditch that went across the road and into the wetland.

 

Buried shingles everywhere. Someone thought it was a good idea to suppress weeds with toxic asphalt shingles—I found great layers of them under pine trees, down a pathway, in the barn.

 

Massive Garbage/Wood piles in back of property. When the previous owners had cut down all of the cedars and pines in the center of the property, they dumped them in the back, in the woods, and piled garbage on top.

 

Energetic issues. I wrote pretty extensively about energetic healing in my “about the land” page—I’m not going to be talking much about this here, but this is also a critically important issue. When something is mistreated, it closes off and curls up in a ball—that’s essentially what was happening to this land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Opportunities

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Despite the degradation present, the site presented a host of wonderful opportunities to enact permaculture design—“the problem is the solution” as Bill Mollison would say. The site included:

 

  • Nearly 1/3 acre of full sun, including a north-facing line of trees that created a heat trap
  • ¾ acre pond (not well placed from a permaculture standpoint for regeneration, but in healthy condition minus the garbage floating in it). Indicator species, like spotted leopard frog, suggested the pond was ecologically healthy.
  • A pole barn and detached garage
  • A variety of microclimates: full shade, full sun, part shade, protected, high ground, slopes, and so on.
  • A lot of established hardwood and nut trees: maples (for tapping, 3 tapable maples on property); several hickories, many oaks, wild cherry for medicine
  • Protective, biodiverse hedges of trees, shrubs, and berry bushes surrounding the property on three sides where neighbors and the road were (these helped deflect noise, protect from pollution, offer food and forage to all life, and provide privacy)
  • A big pile of logs dumped in the back of the property ready to be used
  • A bunch of other supplies, like posts and fencing, dumped into the sides of the property ready to be used
  • Land energetically ready for healing!

 

The Design and Restoration:

In the first year, I spent most of my time doing the physical clean up of the land and observing the site. The trash cleanup took up most of my time on the land: picking up the burn piles, picking up the trash, fishing more trash out of the pond, picking up pieces of glass, dealing with scary materials in metal bins, and so on. I also sheet mulched three 4’ x 20’ beds in the area that I had the most solar gain and sheet mulched a rocky, gravelly area to turn that into soil. The winter came, and I began researching plants and thinking about the overall site design.

Looking back, I think the project evolved as my knowledge of permauclture design and organic farming grew. I wanted to regenerate the soil, to grow a wide variety of annuals and perennials (with a special emphasis on fruit trees, herbs, and biodiversity), to encourage pollinators, and to create a sacred space. My goals evolved as I learned more!

 

Soil Regeneration. Because of the state of the soil, my big goals for the property was soil regeneration using multiple strategies. As I mentioned above, ox-eye daisy was growing abundantly all through the property, and I was told when speaking to some people from our state extension office that I needed to chemically manage it—advice I chose wisely to ignore.

 

Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

In my first year on the land, I sowed quite a bit of red and white clover in all the areas of the lawn that I knew I wasn’t going to do anything with for a period of time. Dandelion and burdock also popped up in those areas, breaking up compacted soil. I spread these as much as I could around the property (much to the dismay of my neighbors, I’m sure!) Dandelion and Burdock have deep tap roots and are dynamic accumulators of nutrients, so they are breaking up compacted soil and healing the land with their very presence.

 

Rather than mowing the whole thing and further compacting the soil, I chose to mow paths in the back 2/3 of the property and continued to mow the front lawn (especially after some legal troubles when I stopped one summer). The clover and dandelions (and other plants I later added, like boneset and new England aster) also provided valuable forage for pollinators. Looking back, being more intentional about this and sowing native grasses with deep root masses would have helped to build soil as well!

 

A second strategy for soil regeneration was bringing in chickens. A good number of permaculturists are using animals and specified grazing techniques to build better soil—my goal was similar. These grazing techniques basically suggest that we can sequester carbon by allowing grasses to get tall, then in allowing an intensive foraging by animals to reduce them to the roots. The roots get smaller when the leafy mass is gone, shedding carbon and building organic matter. As the plants regrow, new roots form and the cycle can begin again. My chickens ate bugs, pooped, and built nitrogen with their good work on the land. I also used them when they were in their run to compost materials rapidly and I was able to spread that compost into the soil. I spread manure from a friend’s alpaca farm, then let the chickens come in and scratch it up looking for bugs.

 

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

I also used soil amendments when I had the opportunity—I made compost teas and spread them in all perennial and annual beds as well as my field. Because of the high alkali soil, wood ash was out (which was a shame, since I had so much of it), but I did spread chicken compost as well as sourced some free seaweed and spread that. A friend had some leftover granite dust, so I used that as well as rock phosphate.

 

The field started out all in ox-eye daisy, heavily compacted soil. In a period of 5 years, few ox-eye daisies remain, and now there are a host of beneficial plants, berry bushes, and more. Where Autumn Olives grew up, I cut them back in the early spring before they leafed out, forcing them to deposit a lot of their nitrogen and carbon in the roots into the soil. This created a more fertile, less alkali soil, which eventually allowed me to create other things.

 

The last technique, one that I did only a little before moving, was to make and bury biochar to help fix carbon and build soil quality. My garden (covered below) received many more amendments (copious amounts of chicken-composted leaves, organic matter, etc).

 

Now a lot of these techniques were initially focused just in my garden—and that was a mistake. My garden was about people care—but the whole landscape needed to be cared for. Later in my time at the homestead, I started building soil not just for the garden and perennial gardens but throughout the whole property.

 

Serviceberry - first harvest!

Serviceberry – first harvest!

Biodiversity and Perennial Plants and Trees. I really wanted to showcase perennial fruit and nut crops as well as perennial herbs for medicine. To do this, I created different small perennial beds: an traditional medicine wheel herb bed in the front, a small orchard of fruit trees with mini-swales behind the barn, a second row of fruit trees with guilds of beneficial plants along the driveway, a butterfly garden, and a mini food forest (there weren’t trees, but there were trellises and large bushes). These spaces were designed and implemented individually.

 

In permaculture, we think about “stacking functions” where a single plant has many uses – the cover, for example, fixes nitrogen, provides good groundcover that doesn’t require mowing, and creates a fantastic nectar source for bees. Many herbs and perennials have these kinds of multiple functions.

 

Butterfly garden, year 2

Butterfly garden, year 2

Pollinator Haven. In my third year, I really focused on pollinators. I added many more milkweeds, spreading them throughout the property. I planted and managed two perennial pollenator gardens with long-blooming plants. I added other blooming plants, especially mid-to-late season blooming plants like oregano, bee balm, boneset, joe pye weed, New England aster, and goldenrod. The goal here was to provide nectar sources well beyond the spring flows. I had my property certified as a wildlife sanctuary and monarch waystation.

 

And, of course, I added the two beehives. I paid close attention to what the honeybees vs. bumble bees and other native bees liked, and I made sure that all of those things were present on the landscape. Clovers, ground ivy, brambles, so many things the bees like!

 

Certification and Signage

As I mentioned above, after some difficulty with my township about my rather wild front yard, I registered the site as a Certified Monarch Waystation and Certified Wildlife Habitat. I did this mainly for education of those driving by my house—the signage showed people that something different, something regenerative, was happening here.

 

Pond regrown - beneficial bushes and groundcover

Pond regrown – beneficial bushes and groundcover

 Education, Outreach, and Healing

A final piece of the design of this site was using the site as a place for others to come, to grow, to learn, and to heal. This took on a lot of different forms: I had 9 other people, at various times, with plots in my garden. Many others learned about various garden techniques like sheet mulching, front-lawn conversion, beekeeping, perennial plants, herbalism, and more. Throughout my time at the site, over 150 people, many through our Permaculture meetup, came through and saw what was going on, and learned about it. I hosted many monthly meetups as well as hosted three permablitzes so that people could come and learn.

 

Others came, when they were in need, to use the land as a quiet retreat for healing or integrative work.   Still others came to celebrate the wheel of the seasons in the druid tradition. These spiritual and healing aspects were as important to the regeneration of the land as the physical ones!

 

Here’s a final map of everything that was planted and where! Thanks for reading :).

 

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

On Letting Go of Your Land and Leaving Your Homestead: Lamentations, Joys, and the Way Forward

A scene from the land...

A scene from the land…

I’m in the midst of a major life transition. After six years of living in South-East Michigan (with five of those here on my homestead), I have made a big life decision to take a new job at a new university and return to my beloved mountains and forests in rural Western Pennsylvania. The pull to return to my homeland, to my family and beloved forests, has been growing stronger each year I’ve been gone, and was part of my decision to return. When I left Western PA at the age of 22 to go to graduate school, I had no idea if I’d ever return.  Now I’m 34, and 12 years have passed. In those 12 years, the landscape of my homeland has been desecrated with extensive amounts of fracking and logging, in addition to the mills and mines which were already so prevalent and destructive. I’ll be moving deep in the heart of fracking territory in Western PA. The fracked lands are my home lands, the soil where my ancestors lay, the trees that taught me this path, and I will not abandon them. My future work on every level: professional, homesteading/personal, spiritual, artistic, herbal, community building lay among these beautiful Appalachian mountains.  And so, I now face the difficult challenge of letting go of my land here in Michigan.

 

This post is part lament, part joyful, and part how to let go.  I’m sharing my process with you, dear readers, because you also at some point may have a decision to make, land to leave, a new path to follow.

 

On being one with the land.

The longer you are with a patch of  land–the more that you become reflections of each other. As I built sacred spaces, butterfly gardens, brought bees and chickens, established a huge garden, and began to do incredible amounts of reskilling, I was undergoing inner transformations and initiations at the same time. As I healed the land and transformed it, the land transformed me. I wrote about this blending of inner and outer work extensively two years ago–one thing it really taught me was that one can live in a sacred manner always, that each action and interaction can be sacred.  It taught me that we can set aside sacred time, build sacred space, and be one with our setting.

 

The same scene in the wintertime....

The same scene in the wintertime….

When you live on the land in the way that I have, there’s an exchange of energy that is difficult to put into words. When I started obtaining a yield from my land, eating what is grown on it, I began to take the land and its nutrients into myself.  My physical health and vitality improved as well. The land physically sustained me in the same way that the physical earth allows me to walk upon it. And I brought nutrients back to the land each season. When I made medicine from the land, the medicine healed me, becames part of me. When I toiled on the land, and I dripped sweat, the soft earth drank it up and my sweat become part of it. When I cried next to the pond upon making my decision to leave, my tears dripped into the water and became part of it. When I breathed out carbon dioxide, the plants breath it in and gave me life-giving oxygen. Every interaction, every action has a response, even if its not visible to the naked eye. The process of homesteading, of herbalism, of spiritual practices, of  inhabiting a landscape that you depend upon for survival ties you so innately and closely to the land that you feel like one entity. This is what I experienced in the five years on my beloved homestead. The question becomes–how can one possibly let go?

 

On the Power of Ritual in Decision Making

Imbolc Spiral

Imbolc Spiral this year on the pond.

What I have found through this process, and other vision quests and vigils that I have done as part of my spiritual path, is that decisions like this cannot be made in our “normal space” and time, where the demands of life press deeply and urgently upon us and cloud our inner vision. In “normal space” we are in a certain frame of mind, and that is often the mindset of immediate action and reaction rather than contemplation and mindfulness. In order to make such a monumental and life-changing decision, we must set aside sacred space, healing space, space to simply be, reflect, think, cry, feel, breathe….space that allows us to have a new perspective on the decision at hand. For those that study the tarot, the Hanged Man card (or in my tarot deck, the Inverted Tree) exemplifies this–hanging oneself upside down is a sure way to gain a new perspective.  And since ritual can provide us with that altered perspective through the use of ceremonial actions and intention, it served the purpose I needed it to–that of creating a space to ask the land about my decision.

 

Since Imbolc is the time of renewal and the first holiday of spring and occurred right at the time I needed to make the decision, I decided to use the ceremony to help me figure out the way forward. I walked the spiral that we had created as part of our ceremony out on the pond with some fellow druids, and thought much about the land, the beautiful land, woven into my soul. As I walked the winding spiral, I recounted about the gifts the land had given me, the tremendous gifts. As I lay in the middle, I opened myself to the land, asked its permission to go, let it feel deeply my feelings, know my thoughts. As I walked the slow walk out, I recognized the peace and blessing the land was sending me–and how the work is never done, and others will continue it here in Michigan, in their own way.

 

On Letting Go.

The one thing that has given me great peace through this process is this: I am leaving this land in such better condition than I found it. I am leaving it as a nurturing, healing, and bountiful place where many have come to seek rest, rejuvenation, and connection. Where the trees literally sing in the wind, where the stones hold the energies of the space, where the bees and butterflies thrive and grow. I’ve had multiple friends tell me that when they drive up my driveway, they didn’t feel like they were in Michigan anymore–they were somewhere else, somewhere sacred. I realize that this is such a gift, creating and honoring the land in a sacred way. When I arrived, as I detailed in this post, I found heaps of trash, pollution, and general disregard for all life on this property. But now, there are fruit trees, sanctuaries, abundance, fertility….and we’ve honored the land with ceremonies recognizing the passing of the wheel of the year.

 

I realize that this land has imprinted itself on me, that my very body has been nourished from its nutrients.  That even when I leave, I will leave a piece of myself always here in this land.  The land will remember me long after I am gone.  And I, too, will always remember this land–and it will still be here, long after I pass beyond the veil.  So I take comfort, in understanding while my years here were short, they were certainly meaningful.

 

I will miss this place so much!

My amazing garden….

And now, this beautiful homestead is ready for someone else to learn and grow–and they have a great start to doing so, since I’ve laid the foundation, preparing the rich soil, planting many trees, awakening it in a spiritual sense, and loving this land as best as I could. I am eagerly awaiting meeting the new caretakers of this land, whoever they may be, and sharing the secrets of the soil.

 

Realizing there is somewhere new, waiting

I know that out there, somewhere in Western PA, new land is waiting for me. I have been feeling its pull for several years, and now, it is pulling even more strongly by the day. Michigan is not my home–it is not where my ancestors are buried, it is not the land that birthed me, nor where I first heard the voices of the trees. I realize now that Michigan was meant to be a place where I would learn some of the deep mysteries of inhabiting the land, of being tied to the soil, and hearing its whispered secrets in the wind. It was meant to be a place where I had so much opportunity: to learn from some wonderful teachers and mentors in organic farming, natural building, herbalism, food preservation, permaculture design, and much more.

 

And the knowledge I have and the experiences I’ve gained are not common or much established where I am going…so I will have knowledge to share, knowledge that is wanted and needed. I’ve learned so much while being immersed in a great community here and living on my homestead. I’ve already been asked to share my knowledge of herbs and plants and have been told by many they are excited to have me come–and I expect so many opportunities will emerge in the coming years to share what Michigan has blessed me with.

 

Sacred Land, Unsacred Times

A friend who lives about 10 miles from here is also selling her property–she is getting older, and the property is getting too much for her husband and her to maintain.  Like me, she has worked spiritually with the land, hosted rituals, even built a kiva on her property for ceremony.  And so, like me, she has sacred, awakened land.  We had a long conversation about it–how does one sell sacred land?  How can one make sure the right people buy it, honor it, and love it?  This is the challenge we face–but there are many tools to make this happen.  My inner senses tell me that it will work out perfectly for both of our properties, but there is still the worry and concern.

 

How I will miss you, dear homestead!

How I will miss you, dear homestead!

The Way Forward…

Now that I’m leaving, I’m trying to spend as much time as I can out on the land, appreciating it, observing it, taking in these final memories before the property is sold and I am off on my next adventure. While I had felt, on some level, this transition coming for a number of years, I had no idea when it would actually arrive, and I realize that I’m working through some serious grief and feelings of loss.  As much as I have grief about moving, I’m also excited for the new opportunities this process brings–and the new experiences and energies that will be present. My home will be on the market and officially for sale in the next week, and I am already in the middle of making the transition to PA.

 

So, part of this journey and the upcoming focus of my blog will be my transition from a 3-acre homestead to renting again (and what sustainable and spiritual activities can be done in that situation) And part of the story will be finding that new land to call my own, and the story of my work on that land, deep within the heart of the Appalachian mountains.
And so I hope, dear readers, that these upcoming journeys are as rich as my last six years in Michigan have been. Thank you for walking by my side, for learning about this land…and for your companionship on the journey that still is to come.

Garden and Homesteading Update – March 31, 2014

The Spring Equinox was a mere week and a half ago, and today, for the first time, it felt like spring.  The snows are melting and the warmth is coming.  I think its been a long, hard winter for many of us, and not just because of the weather.  It was a dark time for many, myself included, and I am very happy to see the sun and feel the warmth again. This post provides an overview of the garden in its current state (March 31st) as well as the surrounding landscape.  I’ll conclude the post with some of the things I plan on covering on the blog in the coming year.

 

The Broader Landscape

 

The snows are not yet melted, and the lakes and ponds are still frozen over.  Here’s an image of the spiral labyrinth I’ve been walking on my pond all winter–its still there, and the ice is still quite thick.

Imbolc Spiral

Imbolc Spiral

I visited Lake Huron with a few friends yesterday, and likewise, the Great Lakes are still encrusted with ice.  Here’s a shot from yesterday at White Rock, on the Southwestern edge of Lake Huron.

Altar by the Lake

Altar by the Lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake (March 30, the garden shots below are from March 31!)

Even with all of this ice, however, the land and lakes are slowly thawing.

 

The Garden and its Magic

 

Today I spent time out in the garden in the afternoon, and it was a really welcome and nurturing time.  I can’t believe how much healing one can gain with only a few hours in the sun and with the plants and soil!

 

First, the most important discovery–plants under my hoop houses survived.  I added an additional layer to their shelter, something called “remay” which is a spun fiber.  I added this in early December, after the cold really set in.  It goes under the main hoop and above the plants and helps give them one additional layer of protection.  This still typically only protects the plants to 5 or 10 degrees or so, however.  With the cold winter, and the evenings of -15 and -17, I thought there was no hope for my little hoops.

 

And yet…look what I found today.  You’ll notice in the first picture that the spinach only in the center survived–that’s because the ground freezes from the edges inward.  But I realized, as my hoops were covered with over 2′ of snow, that that snow itself must have provided a buffer for the spinach.  This likely means that my other zone 6 plants (like my pecan tree back by the circle) had a chance of survival.

Spinach Survived!

Spinach Survived! (And see all that snow, still?)

Hope returns to the world!

Hope returns to the world!

A small radish survivor!

A small radish survivor!

I can’t really describe to you the feeling of opening up that hoop house and seeing those living spinach and radish plants.  I had given up on them as the hoops had mostly caved in under the heavy snow and ice that I wasn’t able to remove, as the darkness set in.  I have always seen the garden as a metaphor for myself, and I’ve had so many cold, dark, barren months recently.  Seeing those spinach and radish plants renewed the promise of spring within me….something survived, and soon, it will be giving me further nourishment and strength.  It was a profound moment, there in the garden.

 

All of the fall garden preparation has paid off–the early spring beds are just filled with wonderful soil.  I am so pleased to see it, as I have spent years making this soil the best it can be. I moved my 2nd hoop house (the one that wasn’t protecting anything), prepped a bed of lettuce and carrots, direct seeded them, and covered them back up.

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

One of the other things I wanted to report back on was the effect of the cover crops.  With 2+ feet of snow and ice on the ground, all of the soil in the beds is very compacted–its probably 4″ lower than it was in the fall.  It appears the red clover died off completely….but the winter rye is the hardiest of plants, and it, of course, survived.  Not only did it survive, but it kept my beds covered in it mostly spongy and nice, instead of compacted.  The beds with the winter rye are a full 2-3″ higher than those with bare soil or just straw.

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

I began turning the winter rye under today–it requires a full two weeks of wait time before planting after you turn it under.  I’ll work to turn all of it under in the next few weeks–this is a laborious job and one that could be done with petrochemicals, but after the rather lazy winter months, I don’t mind the hard work :).   I also like to add some brown matter to the soil to help the bacteria break down the rye–I added some composted leaves (leaf mulch) as I turned.  A simple garden fork does this work beautifully (much better than a shovel, which I used to use before I discovered the fork).

Turning under the rye

Turning under the rye

Peas germinate at 40 degrees or higher and don’t mind cold soils.  I used the garden fork to aerate the garden bed, and reduce soil compaction. I just stuck it into the bed and tilted it a bit to loosen the soil.  Then I planted my first succession of peas (Early Alaska, saved from last year) and will plant another succession every two weeks for the next 6 weeks.  This will ensure a continual harvest into the early summer.  You can see my homemade trellises here as well (they move easily enough to the new bed).

Planting peas

Planting peas

I checked on the garlic I planted in the fall.  No sign of sprouting yet!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

The last thing I did today was make a new, large compost pile.  I had the pile started in the fall, but I pulled out all of the food waste I had stored in my tumbler over the winter, added it to the big pile, and added several layers of leaves, some of the old straw from the garden, etc.  The pile is now almost 5′ high and 8′ wide and 4′ long, so it should break down nicely as the weather warms.

Looking Ahead

To conclude this post, I wanted to share a few more of the things that I’m planning on doing more this year:

  • Bees! Perhaps the most important news is that this year I am going to be a beekeeper for the first time :).  I have the hives, the bees ordered, and the rest of my supplies (suit, foundation, etc) are on their way! I’ve read every book on the subject I can find, joined a beekeeping association, found a bee mentor, have a friend who wants to learn as well, and feel I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.  I’ll have a blog post (or three) on the bees soon.
  • Garden expansion: I’m adding about 700 square feet of growing space (plus pathways, etc) to the garden this year to accommodate new vegetable and plant varieties.  In the fall, I added in numerous additional herb gardens in the front yard, and have seeds started for many new herbs.  The big job here will be fencing, and since fencing has been a struggle, I will share some of my experiences!
  • Herbalism course. I’m starting Jim McDonald’s four season herbal intensive course this upcoming weekend–expect even more posts on herbalism in the coming months.
  • Fermentation and foods: I plan to make my own miso, make more dandelion wine, make other kinds of krauts and fermented foods, and share those processes with you this year.
  • Sacred Trees: I’ll keep posting regularly on my research on sacred trees native/naturalized to the Midwest/Great Lakes area.  I think this is important work, and I am certainly learning a lot more about the trees as part of this series.
  • And lots more! I expect to engage in more natural building, foraging, and many other wonderful sustainable and spiritual activities this year–and I’m excited to share them with you.

 

I also have some very tragic news on the homesteading front.

  • Chooks. In late December, when I was out of town for the holidays, all of my hens passed on to their next life; they made a good meal or two for a hungry raccoon.  My beloved rooster, Anasazi, did survive (he has many lives, clearly) and is living at a friend’s house till I can raise more hens.  This was a combination of an ice storm, insecure living arrangement, loss of electricity, impassible roads, and a bunch of other things.  I have mourned their loss and miss them terribly.  But, I look forward to new hens later this year.

 

I hope that everyone has a wonderful spring–I’d love to hear about how you are enjoying the warmer weather and melting snows and what plans you have for projects this year.