I invite you to share in my journey of creating a farm with the intention to help rejuvenate a landscape and a culture.
During my first visit to the site (with the intent to farm it as opposed to tracking/hiking/skiing/etc.), I was graced with the presence of the red fox. For me, fox represents the spirit of observation, connection, adaptation and partnership, all qualities that are echoed in the core principles of permaculture design.
I was first introduced to the site by Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm (Peconic Land Trust). I explained to him that I wasn’t necessarily looking for “farmland” and that I would welcome any land, regardless of slope, vegetation, soils, etc. He knew just the place.
The site is bordered to the north by protected land owned by the Peconic Land Trust and to the south by private land maintained mostly as an open lawn.
I applied for and obtained a lease on this beautiful acre, mostly consisting of open field with some edge areas of mixed autumn olive and red cedar. The topography is mostly mildly sloping with some areas with a bit more pitch, and not anything anyone would want to farm in the traditional sense.
So many thanks to Mike Bottini, a true partner in many endeavors who really helped me initiate this project. Without his support, I would probably still be tinkering around, waiting for the right moment to jump in and create my dream project. I also would’t have nearly as unique a chicken house without his design and construction know-how. I also have Emma Woodward to thank for helping me get the ball rolling on the initial construction of the hen house. Of course, there are many more to thank for their support/help/etc. during this process, and I will need to save that for another post…
Above is the final chicken house design. A simple salt-box shape effectively catches rainwater for my many water needs as there is no access to a well or public water source on-site.
Once a few contours were marked out, the dirt time began. Here is a trench for my first hugelkultur bed which will soon become a home for my first tree and shrub plantings. Special thanks to Mark Gutzmer for several hours of digging assistance!
Hugelkultur is a garden bed design utilizing wood, branches, leaves and other organic matter that are buried in order to break down over time, providing food for plants that grow there. The buried material also helps absorb and store water in the soil, which can be especially helpful in times of drought, which are seeming to be more common in our-changing climate.
My method of creating this particular hugelkultur bed:
1) Mark out a line of equal elevation (I used small bamboo stakes and orange flagging) which will indicate the higher edge of the “swale and mound” or “berm and basin.” I realized later that the flags of equal elevation should actually represent the downhill edge of the earthwork. I think my design should be ok, considering I’m not dealing with super steep slopes or heavy drainage, but we’ll have to wait and see how it holds up.
2) Using a hoe, break and pull away the layer of grass and roots, exposing the soil beneath in a four-foot wide area along the contour. Pile the grass/soil chunks downhill of your exposed soil area.
3) Dig a trench in the lower half of the exposed soil area (about 2 feet wide). I began just using a shovel, but a later I found that a pick axe-type tool worked well to loosen the soil/rocks first before shoveling it out (Thanks, Mike!). Separate the larger rocks out (especially if you want to use them for something later), and pile the excavated soil on the uphill edge (preferably on top of the remaining exposed soil so it is easier to move later.
4) Fill the trench with as much organic matter as you can get your hands on (logs, sticks, branches, leaves – the more rotten the better). Pack it in densely and make sure you have enough to rise at least slightly above the ground level – this will help give you the mound effect without having to add more soil from another source on your site.
5) Place the grass/soil chunks on top of the wood and sticks, covering it completely and as evenly as possible and pack that down. (Jumping on top of it provides a fun, trampoline effect.)
6) Pile the remaining excavated soil on top and even it out as best you can. In this case, my shallow swale uphill of the mound did not come out as wide as I imagined, but it should do the trick
7) Finish it off by seeding a mix of cover crops on and in the immediate area surrounding your earthwork. Now we’ll wait for the next big rain event to see how it handles the runoff. If I had a tractor or some kind of small machinery to do any step of this process, I probably would have taken advantage of that to speed up the process. However, I wasn’t in a particular rush to get this done, and earthworks by hand are a great way to strengthen your physical body as well as your connection with the earth. Sometimes its just fun to get dirty!
My neighbor to the South has his lawn mowed once a week, leaving heaps of grass clippings scattered about, only to be raked and tossed into the woods nearby. I offered to help rake and take some of it off their hands for use in my chicken coop. Grass clippings make a wonderful bedding material for the floor of the hen house as well as inside their nest boxes. Some of the grass clippings are also being used for additional mulch in creating some experimental “cardboard lasagna” to help convert some areas of grass to planting beds.
I’ll be posting upcoming community work days soon, so you all can have a chance to visit, meet other folks, lend a hand and learn more about the site, projects and permaculture in general. I am feeling more grateful every day to be blessed with such a beautiful piece of land that already has so much to offer this early on in the process.
Thank you all for your support!
PS: I am still working on a name for the farm, and I am open to suggestions. Please let me know your ideas!