Gardeners know too well the feeling of overwhelm when facing a new landscape. The seemingly infinite possibilities brings up the question, “Where do I start?”. Fortunately, there is a process we can use to answer that, it’s called permaculture design.
From Food Forest to Farming Dreams
Some of you might remember a special place in Holyoke Massachusetts called Paradise Lot. This garden is still one of my favourite places in the world! That’s right, Paradise Lot continues to attract visitors who enjoy the explosion of perennial vegetables, rare and unusual fruits, a unique story, and backyard scale permaculture in action.
Along with Eric Toensmeier, and many other friends, Paradise Lot was my first big garden design challenge. The question of “Where to start” defined our early process. Thank goodness, at the time, Eric and Dave Jacke were writing a book called “Edible Forest Gardens”, and our garden became the case study. The garden is where I learned many key design strategies: The Problem is the Solution; Constraints Focus the Design; What Was, Plus What Is, Could Be; Watch Out for the Red Gazebo and many other principles.
I lived, breathed and ate that garden for thirteen years. During that time a new thought seed was planted. The beginnings of a vision of what a garden like this could be beyond one-tenth of an acre. This idea didn’t hold my thoughts very strongly, but it did take root. Then, by around 2012, when my wife was pregnant, and we enjoyed the bounty and success of a thriving food forest, global climate change impacted our lives.
At the end of the previous October, or what the media called “Snowtober”, an early and rare Nor’ Easter catapulted 20 inches of heavy wet snow into our neighbourhood. Thousands of trees were damaged, the lights were out for a week, and our greenhouse was smashed by the neighbours tree. That storm, along with a never before seen local EF3 tornado the summer before, helped me focus on the carbon sequestering potential of the garden, and that these ideas needed to be applied at larger scales. Soon I learned that, in other areas of the world, agroforestry, a climate mitigation tool, is what we were doing.
Going Beyond The Backyard
One of the toughest decisions I had to make so far in life was leaving Paradise Lot. I didn’t leave to get away, but to move towards opportunity. New York became the place for that early thought seed to grow into a seedling with strong potential. With a passionate hunger to understand agroforestry, we moved onto a friends’ multi-species, multi-enterprise farm. Shelterbelt Farm, where Erica Frenays’ motto is, “food for your soul, with love from our soil”, became a wonderful place to experience more broad-acre farming and gardening techniques. With a large fruit tree orchard, diverse landscapes, and a thriving sheep and cattle silvopasture system, I immersed myself.
I brought some of Paradise Lot with me in the form of ideas, and also plants. A new food forest was designed and installed within one of the small pastures near the homestead gardens. Next to one of the farms’ high-tunnels, this garden has become an experimental station, where a diverse array of edible and multi-functional plants are grown. While the garden developed, I was also becoming a flerder (flock/herder). It became clear there was an opportunity to insert my plants into the silvopasture system. I decided to start “gardening in the fields”.
“second summer nursery food forest”. Photograph By Jonathan Bates @ FoodForestFarm.com
Farms Can Be Big Gardens
The question “Where to start” reared its head once again. All this space on the farm, so many opportunities. With my permaculture design tools in my pocket I got to work. I worked with what plants and knowledge and goals I had, read the landscape, and picked a small place to start.
From my research of silvopasture for the Northeast USA, I knew of a handful of plants that grew well, could compete in pasture, and which ruminants might like to eat. I planted some of those species first, in Ericas’ intensive rotational grazing system. I observed these early plantings for a year, including grazing pressure, before expanding to more areas. Now, almost three years later, there’s a half dozen new species we’ve inserted into Ericas’ original design. The slow and steady approach seems to be working. Patterns are emerging. One pattern that has a lot of potential is the “Round Bale Nursery”
In winter, the flerd eat one hundred, 500lb (227kg) round bales dispersed throughout the pastures. This is a multi-functional approach, as it brings the food to the animals rather than confinement in a barn. It distributes important soil building organic matter where it belongs, and as the bale is eaten down, the remaining poop, pee and hay mulches the ground, opening up a niche for new seeds or plants.
Round bale feeder in winter silvopasture with sheep and cattle. Look at all that luscious poop! Photograph by Jonathan Bates
While observing this pattern I saw an opportunity to use the bales as nurseries for establishing new, valuable, pasture adapted plants. The early tests show promise, at the very least, with good flerd rotation design, eventually something will take, and new eco-agricultural relationships will occur. These relationships will be good for pollinators, farm animals, the soil, and the farmers bottom line.
I mention bottom line because unlike backyard gardeners, working farms have taxes, labour and other expenses to pay. Profit is a layer most farms need to consider when creating or shifting the farm design. In this particular case, I have embedded myself into the experimental layer, and come as a low cost collaborator, using my curiosity, knowledge and own business goals. I help drive the farm innovation towards growing more diverse in-field feeds that are carbon sequestering, insect attracting, appropriately placed and mostly native.
One of the challenges of establishing agroforestry is balancing costs and yields. The model I’m suggesting here is slower, but it spreads the cost out over time, allows for experimentation and mistakes, with the outcome of showing which yields work well for our particular situation and site, thus potentially saving money down the line. As these “Farm Gardens” expand and become nodes that merge, I envision entire fields fully planted, feeding the soil, wildlife, farm animals, and us. I look forward to continuing to share this experience with you as the process unfolds.