The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Permaculture in Action – Five Year Regeneration Model Site (My 3 Acre Homestead) August 1, 2015

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)

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January Garden Updates January 13, 2013

I really love January. The bitter cold, the winds, the snow–there’s something so magical about being out in a snowstorm.  Where most people lament for the sun and hot summer months, I welcome all of the cold, the wind, the ice, the snow.  It stirrs something within me–it says, “embrace the darkness of this time, go into hibernation, rest, and when the time is right, emerge into the light!”  The latter part of December and January brought the wonderful snow storms and cold.  We had about 8″ here on the ground for several weeks. Unfortunately, the cold has broken and the snows have melted. Its January 13th.  More winter must come.

But since the last few days have been warmer, I was able to open up the hoop houses and take some photos of what’s going on in the garden.  Its amazing to see that we still have so much produce available, even in the midst of the harshest of the winter months.  Here are some photos from yesterday (Jan 12th).  Zone 6, South-East Michigan.

Lima Bean eats Rye

Lima Bean eats Rye

The chickens continue to enjoy the winter rye I planted as a green manure/cover crop.  Its a great crop for them to get their greens all winter long–since little else stays green, they are often at the rye when its not covered with snow.

Lentil digs worms.

Lentil digs worms.

The chickens continue to forage the land every chance they are able. They’ve been out in our pole barn during the heavy snows (they don’t like walking on it) and so when the weather cleared up a bit, they were so happy to be out to peck and scratch again.  And have a clean coop, since I was unable to open their back door that had frozen shut to clean it for a few weeks!

Hoop House!

Hoop House!

Second hoop house!

Second hoop house!

Here are photos of my two hoop houses.  They are doing amazingly well for it being January.  The first hoop house has minzua (which has fared less well than the rest of the greens), arugula, spinach, and kale.  This one was planted later than the first–in late September–so the spinach is still pretty small, but its good.  The tricky thing about hoop house gardening is anticipating how long you can get crops to the “harvest” state, that is, when they are ready to harvest and keep them there.  This is important because hoop houses in the coldest months of the year extend the *harvest* season and not the *growing* season.   If they go dormant before they are too large, then you have small greens to eat.

The second hoop house was planted earlier in the year–mid August–so it has nice sized kale, a few leeks (which were planted in May), cabbages, and more spinach.  My rooster, Anasazi, is checking out the cabbage :).

Here are some close-up photos of the lovely veggies still growing in the hoop house.

Leeks

Leeks

Kale (outside of hoop house)

Kale (outside of hoop house)

Cabbage

Cabbage

Baby spinach

Baby spinach

Arugula

Arugula

I’ll leave you, dear blog readers, with some photos of what winter is *supposed* to look like!  These were taken last year.  I didn’t get shots of the snowstorm here because I was in PA visiting my family.

View from backyard

View from backyard

Snowy Oak Tree

Snowy Oak Tree

Our front road

Our front road

Embrace the cold and snow, my friends!

 

Growing Amaranth for Food and Beauty December 9, 2012

Awesome Amaranth in full bloom!

Awesome Amaranth in full bloom!

Amaranth is a wonderful plant to grow for a variety of purposes. First of all, many varieties of amaranth are absolutely beautiful.  I grew Hopi Red Dye Amaranth this year, and as you can see from the photos, its stunning.The “red dye” part of this variety refers to the Hopi Indians who would grind it in with their cornmeal to produce a reddish cornbread.  Amaranth has been grown in Mexico by the Mayans and other Mexican and South American indigenous peoples for its nutritional qualities.

 

Nutritional Qualities: Nutritionally speaking, the seeds/grains of amaranth are one of only a few grains that has a full protein, so when you eat amaranth, you are eating a very healthy grain with excellent nutritional value.  It has lots of iron, fiber, lysine (a critical amino acid) and calcium in addition to the protein! You can also eat the leaves, which taste a bit like spinach, and they make an excellent addition to salad. I really think Amaranth is a super-food, especially for someone who is vegan/vegetarian or wants to reduce their meat consumption and balance their food intake.

 

Magical Qualities: Amaranth has a long magical history. It was used in the ancient rituals of Central and South America as part of an offering.   The Aztecs saw it as the most sacred grain, sacred even above corn.  Zuni legends suggest that this plant was brought over from the otherworld.  Wreaths made of Amaranth flowers are said to have healing properties.  The plant is also said to aid in spirits the crossing to the otherworld.

 

Amaranth in Early August

Amaranth in Early August

Growing Amaranth: Amaranth should be started from seed after the last danger of frost has passed (for me in Zone 6 South East Michigan, this is late May). When I grew Amaranth this past year, I found it very pest-resistant and incredibly easy to grow. I had it in my main garden, so I don’t know about its resistance to deer or other small animals (I will test this out next year).   I gave it fertile soil and watered it a bit because of our drought, but that’s really all I did and it just bloomed and was a beautiful centerpiece of my garden.  Next year, I plan on growing the Red Dye version again as well as some Golden Giant (which I am told has a greater yield of grain).  The Amaranth was beautiful through most of the summer, but really became vibrant in August.  It was amazing to see–my green garden was all around, and in the very center, there is this vibrant spot of pink where the amaranth was growing.  Everyone who visited the garden was impressed with it!  The photo below shows Amaranth about a month before harvest.  Notice how the stalks start green then go to pink then vibrant pink? So amazing, Amaranth is!

 

Wildlife Benefit: If you aren’t into grains or greens, the local wildlife will be, so you can leave it on the stalk and after it dries out, finches and sparrows will have a nice meal of it.  I also noticed that many predatory wasps were often flying among the amaranth stalks (and these are excellent bug/pest control, so you want to attract them). My chickens also enjoyed eating some of it (and my cockatiel, but he’s hardly “wildlife.”)

 

Harvesting Amaranth.   Later into August, the plants started falling over.  When they were nearly touching the ground and had started to dry out, I took scissors and cut them off near the head.  I added the stalks to my compost pile.  This left me with a big bin of amaranth heads.   Since I knew the seeds fall out easier once the plant is dry, I laid them out on a tarp  in my covered porch for a few weeks.  The heads dried and grew very prickly.  When you are handling the dried amaranth, you REALLY need to wear garden gloves!

 

So after the amaranth stalks were dry, I found a stainless steel bowl and then a little strainer (also stainless steel) that I fit into the bowl.  In a well-ventilated area (because this process produces dust), I took each piece of amaranth and I rubbed it in the bowl.  My cockatiel, Ziggy bird, oversaw the operation.

Amaranth Threshing

Amaranth Threshing

After I finished, I was left with a big bowl of Amaranth seed and seed pods. The darker stuff in the photo is the actual Amaranth; the lighter stuff is the dried seed pod.

Pre-Chaffing

Pre-Chaffing

 

I was also left with a bunch of amaranth refuse, which I added to my compost pile (I saved a bit to try in papermaking in the spring!)

Amaranth Chaff

Amaranth Chaff

The last step in preparing your Amaranth for eating is getting rid of the chaff (although those seed pods themselves are edible, so if you end up with a few still inside your grains, its ok).  To do this, I went outside and I shook my bowl so that the seed pods surfaced. Then I gently blew into the bowl–the seeds themselves stayed in the bowl as long as I didn’t blow to hard, but the seed pods, which were lighter, blew away.  My chickens flocked around and ate the chaff as it fell.  I did this for about 15 minutes, and I was left with beautiful, mostly clean, Amaranth seeds. Some will be for planting, but most will be for eating!

Almost complete amaranth!

Almost complete amaranth!

So I really encourage you to experiment with amaranth! Its a wonderful plant to grow!

 

Gardening into December: Hoop House Updates, Chickens, Composting, and More! November 17, 2012

I wanted to post another update about the progress of the hoop houses and other gardening activities in mid-November in my Zone 6 climate in South East Michigan.  As I wrote about in earlier blog posts, I have been experimenting with hoop houses for season extension.  I posted a picture of my mid-April harvest in my earlier post; now I’m going to show you what is going on in the hoop houses in late November.  Most of these crops would have gotten zapped by a 20 degree evening about two weeks ago, but they are going strong in the hoop houses!  So here are some photos from today (its a bit warm today, so I lifted up the hoop houses to see what is growing inside).

Cabbage, kale, and spinach...oh my!

Cabbage, kale, and spinach…oh my!

Most of the veggies in these photos were planted in late August (except the Kale and Leeks, which have been going since spring).  Next year, I think I’m going to start them even sooner, as once the weather gets cold they don’t really grow.  Hoop house gardening extends the harvest season moreso than the growing season.  Here are a few more photos.

Arugula, Minzua, and more spinach!

Spinach is amazing this time of year!

These are a little small...I planted them too late, I think!

These cabbages are still a little small…I planted them too late, I think!

So yes, there will be fresh greens through December. I will be serving a salad at our Thanksgiving meal next week, and even with me picking some greens every few days for a meal, I should have enough greens to last till Yule!  The hoop houses last year made it till New Years (when I stupidly forgot to close them and the arugula and spinach I was growing got zapped).  We had such a mild winter that I wonder if they could have lasted longer.  This year I will do more experimenting and find out!

A family that I am friends with asked for some garden space, so we also got their garden established this fall.  They’ve planted winter wheat in part of it as well as some garlic. We are also in the process of laying down some newspaper and cardboard as weed suppression for the rows.

Winter wheat!

I also have some winter rye growing as a cover crop in part of the garden (one one of my newer beds to help establish the soil).  I’m going to get my chickens to till it under in the spring for me :).  The chickens enjoy nibbling on it this time of year.

Winter Rye - chickens love it!

Winter Rye – chickens love it!

A lot of what I’ve been doing in the last two months, especially now that the leaves have dropped, is composting and preparing my beds for next season.  I drive around the neighborhood and pick up as many bags of leaves as I can.  Most of these go directly into the garden, but I also save some for projects I know I have planned for next year (since fall leaves happen but once a year).  Fall is an excellent time to collect yard “waste” (and its anything but waste to a gardener).  My neighbors are always so kind to bag it up for me, stick it on the curb for me to pick up, and sometimes, even mulch it.  This year I collected about 40 bags of leaves as well as raked up a massive pile of my own.  These will all be used before next fall–for mulch, for sheet mulched beds, etc.

Garden beds with layers of compost and shredded leaves--ready for next season!

Garden beds with layers of compost and shredded leaves–ready for next season!

Lots of composting happening!

Lots of composting happening!  The pile to the right is my main pile for next year; it has coffee grounds, leaves, yard waste, food waste, etc.  Its about 5′ high now.

I’m also just about finished establishing a few new beds and tree planting.  Fall, again, is a great time for this because of all of the copious amounts of material for your new beds.  Trees that are planted in fall can have time to establish their root systems over winter before the hot, dry days of summer come back.  I’m also doing some experiments with other kinds of garden beds, such as the hugelkultur bed.

Hugelkulture bed in progress

Hugelkulture bed in progress, complete with chicken inspection.

New trees planted, protected, and mulched (mulch will be planted with beneficial plants like comfrey, mints, in the spring)

New trees planted, protected, and mulched (mulch will be planted with beneficial plants to help the tree, like comfrey, mints, false indigo, in the spring)

I also do a bit of indoor gardening, mainly for plants that can’t handle being outside in Michigan winters.  Here are my three citrus trees (one has oranges, very tart!) and a lemon-scented geranium.  The geranium I found at the bottom of a big bag of leaves, along with some other plants on the curb.  Fall is also a great time for what I call compost diving.  In addition to neighbors putting out leaves,  I find all sorts of stuff, and surprisingly, a lot of live plants :).

Citrus in south-facing window

Citrus in south-facing window

Lemon-scented geranium

Lemon-scented geranium

The chickens enjoy free-ranging every chance they get (which is anytime that either I or my husband are at home).  They are now all grown up (hatched mid-July).  We also took in a stray rooster who was kicked out of a neighbor’s flock.  I’ve had hens before, but never a roster.  But for free ranging chickens, the rooster is a great protector of the flock, not to mention being beautiful to look at, and I’m happy to have him with the girls!

Lentil and Pinto pecking and scratching

Lentil and Pinto pecking and scratching

Chickens near their chicken tractor/coop

Chickens near their chicken tractor/coop

Anasazi, our stray rooster that is now part of the flock

Anasazi, our stray rooster that is now part of the flock