Been thinking about that slope: will the soil support what we ultimately want to plant there, and how do we best prepare it?

This south-west facing slope, relatively sunny – somewhat shaded from the southeast and northwest, more so as you go further down the slope – will be a fruit orchard: we’ll plant blackberries and blueberries on top, and currants, gooseberries and elderberries further down. We’d also like to stick some semi-dwarf fruit trees in there if we can (cf. Garden Plans for 2013 and Beyond). We’ll coordinate all these in guilds, of course, at least at first so the guild can nurse them to maturity.

Michael Phillips’ basic recommendations for the rhizosphere (root-sphere) of an orchard are:

  1. pH in 6.3-6.7 range
  2. Calcium (Ca) between 2000-3000 lbs/acre, phopshate (P2O5) and potash (KO2) both at least 200 lbs/acre
  3. carbon-rich, fungal, porous
  4. organic matter (OM) a minimum of 3%, better 5% and above

In 2009 we had a soil test done of the soil in the vegetable patch before any plants went in. The situation in the veg garden has changed quite a bit, I should hope, and a new test is planned. We never really tested the soil on the slope, which is mainly subsoil dumped during the work on the septic system before we bought the house.  When we terraced it we added brought-in loam and spread quite a bit of compost (for the strawberries), but it wasn’t as intensively taken care of as the veg garden soil. The soil in the broad path didn’t even get that. There especially the erosion continued. So, another soil test is in order before we begin on that slope. But while waiting for the soil to defrost and dry out, I’d like to play around with the old test results and practice my “soil detective” skills.

In the following I rely heavily on Phillips’ incomparable study in Holistic Orchard (p.61-74). I also refer the undaunted reader to my Calcium in the Soil Series, a very long but (I think) valuable explanation of soil test results and some of the soil chemistry that is relevant here.  That series starts here.

  • pH and CEC

The pH at 6.4 – 6.5 looks good. But, as Michael Phillips writes, it’s the cation exchange capacity (CEC) and percent base saturation that are truly indicative (cf. Part 2 of the calcium series).

The CEC of a soil indicates how porous a soil is nutrient-wise. Our soil is 15.6 MEG/100g. That means that, in every 100 grams of our soil, 15.6 meq of soil can hold onto the goodies, both basic and acidic: calcium (Ca), potassium (K) and magnesium (Mg), that come along in the soil water, as well as hydrogen (H), and sodium (Na ) and aluminum (Al), which are not plant nutrients.  All this also indicates a fine-textured loam to clay soil and that figures with our observations of our soil.

According to Calcium in the Soil, Part 6, the percent base saturation data mean that, of the 15.6 meq that can hold on to cations, 7.9 meq is occupied, or saturated, by calcium (50.6% of 15.6 = 7.9), 1.65 meq by magnesium and 0.64 meq by potassium. So 10.19 meq/100g of soil, or 65.3% of the CEC, is saturated by bases. That leaves 35.3% of the CEC (*) for the acidic cations (hydrogen and aluminum). That explains the pH and indicates a fertile, slightly acidic soil. Acidic soils (3.5-6.0) are low in fertility because too much of the CEC is occupied by hydrogen or aluminum. Alkaline soils (8.0-9.0) are oversaturated with calcium and/or magnesium.

The fertility of this soil can be increased by adding organic matter. My soil test didn’t include an organic matter measurement, but it must be low. In any case, before contemplating this, there are more mineral considerations to be had:

  • Ratios of Ca:Mg:K

Magnesium pulls soil closer together, while calcium spreads the particles further apart. Clay soils require higher levels of calcium to improve porosity, thus drainage and aeration. The Ca:Mg ratio for us is 50.6:10, or 5:1. A clay soil that is porous enough and that is balanced (so that enough of each cation is available for plants, not tied up) should have a ratio of 7 or higher to 1.  A 5:1 ratio more resembles the nutrient holding capacity of sandy soil. Something is off here. Now enter potassium (K). According to Phillips, a good  Ca:Mg:K  ratio for clay soils  is 76:10:4-5. Ours is 50.6:10:4.1. The ratio between magnesium to potassium is spot-on for clay soils, but the main player, calcium, again throws it off.

This means one of three things: 1. either our soil lacks the calcium to make it porous, or 2. the levels of magnesium and potassium ares too high, cancelling out the effect of the calcium, or 3. both.  We’ll have to take a closer look at the absolute numbers, which we’ll do below.

  • Recommended absolute levels for macro-nutrients

Phillips’ recommendations for good orchard soil indicate optimal lbs/acre, but my soil test gives me those numbers but in ppm (parts per million). Luckily Phillips addresses this in a footnote (chapter 3, footnote 47 in case you’re curious).  The conversion formula (called the Cornell equivalent) is (Ca in ppm x 0.75) x 2 = Ca in lbs./acre.

CALCIUM. Calcium benefits the fruit’s skin and cell strength, which leads to lower bruising susceptibility, better keeping ability and better pathogenic fungi resistance. Phillips’ bare minimum total Ca for an orchard = 2,000 lbs/acre for a lower-CEC-value soil (below 25 CEC). Ours is 1548 ppm, so 2322 lbs./acre [(1548 ppm x 0.75) x 2].  Our calcium level is good. (The ppm bar chart on the soil test say it is too high – actually, off the charts – but this interpretation was for vegetable garden soil, not for orchards.)

NITROGEN. Phillips explains this so well. Most nitrogen in any soil is locked up in organic form (as protein) and needs to be converted into mineral nitrogen that can be taken up by plants. This conversion start with the protein form of nitrogen being ammonified, and a portion of the ammonified nitrogen can then be nitrified. This is done by bacteria and fungi who constantly immobilize (take up) mineralize (release) it by digesting it and the other soil microorganisms who have absorbed it. In a soil dominated by bacteria, nitrifying bacteria rapidly convert the ammonified nitrogen into nitrates. However, in a fungally dominated soil, the acidic enzymes produced by the fungi will lower the pH, making it unfavorable to nitrifying bacteria.  More of the ammonium therefore remains available. It is this kind of nitrogen (ammonified, not nitrified) that is preferred by woody perennials like berries and fruit trees. Too much soluble nitrogen causes problems with calcium and other mineral uptake. High levels of nitrogen, particularly as nitrate, encourages fungal diseases like powdery mildew and rust, as well as bacterial diseases. That our soil is fungal is indicated by the low level of nitrate (NO3-N) on the soil test, but…

PHOSPHORUS (P).   The right amount of phosphorus determines the nutrient density (Brix) of the fruit as well as root development. Phosphorus too is  a very fungal affair. It is made available by fungi that feed and then die and decompose and delivered to the plant by mycorrhizae. In biologically managed soils, potassium is constantly replenished by the decomposition of organic matter. Phillips recommends phosphate (P2O5) to be at 200 lbs/acre, or P levels at 43 ppm. Our P is only 12 ppm, a marked deficiency in phosphorus. This indicates something wrong with the “fungal machine”  in my soil, no doubt because it was at the time of the test so disturbed and eroded. Phillips writes that getting this phosphate system working is challenging. You kind of have to already have in order to get it. The trick here seems to be organic matter: a good quantity of that with a good population of beneficial fungi in balance with bacteria (brought in by enough, not too much nitrogen) should do the trick. Ha! I will have to do some more research here. Maybe now, after several years of non-disturbance and checked erosion, the phosphate levels are up again?

POTASSIUM (K). Phillips recommends 20o lbs/acre of potash (KO2) or P levels at 83 ppm. Our potassium level is very high at a whopping 243 ppm. As we saw, potassium plays a large role in the cation balancing act. Our high levels of K  are which is reflected in the skewed  Ca:K ratio and the recommended 1:1 to 1:2  ratio for P:K  is also well off.

CONCLUSION. If the new test on the soil on the slope comes back looking like this, then it seems like we will need to bring the Mg and the K down, the P up. The Ca and pH can remain the same.

One recommendation I found was to add gypsum to leach out the excess potassium and magnesium. Gypsum (calcium sulfate) would also up the calcium without changing the pH (which is fine).  It also helps slow the nitrate release of decomposing organic matter. However, Phillips warns that the calcium cation saturation needs to be over 60% before adding gypsum  to lower excess magnesium, otherwise the sulfur in the gypsum will take out the calcium first. Mmm. Then the potassium will need to be increased. Wood ash seems a possible candidate for this: it is 20-30% calcium, with 4% potassium, but only 2%  phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum and sodium. It may, however, increase the pH, and also, because of its potassium content it should be applied only when active growth has engaged, so wood ash could be my liming agent after planting…

A new soil test is in order, because these numbers are just too out of whack for me to make sense of. One thing I know for sure, though: we will also want to add lots of organic matter. That’s where the hugelswales come in. And that’s another post.

Back to patterns! Having a plan for the slope has re-opened my mind for the immediate front: the balcony, the level stretch of garden up top, the top of the driveway. This is what it looks like right now:



I already analyzed one of the more general  problems: the negativity of this space. There are some more specific patterns that can be applied, or rather, actualized here to address that. Let’s start with the patterns that apply to approaching, entering, arriving and leaving. Alexander write: “The process of arriving in a house, and leaving it, is fundamental to our daily lives” (p.554). The first pattern is this:

 110. Main Entrance: Place the main entrance of the building at a point where it can be seen immediately from the main avenues of approach and give it a bold, visible shape which stands out in front of the building.

At our place the problem is not so much the lack of an obvious entrance, but a confusion between two entrances. At the moment there is only one way to approach our house, which is the driveway, and upon that approach you see the mudroom door and the “official” front door on the “balcony”.


As the “official” front door leads straight into the living room, we prefer to use the mudroom door when it is cold, rains or snows. The mudroom has room for boots, umbrellas and coats and acts like a sluice, keeping the cold out. But when it’s warm we usually leave the front door open, with a screened door that allows light into the dark corner of the living room. Needless to say, in all but the situation when there is uncleared snow on the path and the balcony steps (as in the picture), visitors are confused: which door to use? Idea:  make it so that in summer and fair weather the “official” front door seems the way to go, and that in all other situations the visitor is directed to the mudroom.

But first, what to do with each of these entrances?  I’d like to apply to them the following three patterns:


112. Entrance Transition: Make a transition space between the street and the front door. Bring the path which connects street and entrance through this transition space, and mark it with a change of light, of sound, of direction, a change of surface, of level, perhaps by gateways which make a change of enclosure, and above all with a change of view.  

130. Entrance Room: Arriving in a building, or leaving it, you need a room to pass through, both inside the building and outside it. This is the entrance room.

160. Building Edge: A building is most often thought of as something which turns inward- towards its rooms. People do not often think of a building as something which must also be oriented toward the outside. But unless the building is oriented towards the outside, which surrounds it, as carefully and positively as towards its inside, the space around the building will be socially isolated, because you have to cross a no-man’s land to get to it. Make sure that you treat the edge of the building as a “thing”, a “place”, a zone with volume to it, not a line or interface which has no thickness. Crenelate the edge of buildings with places that invite people to stop. Make places that have depth and a covering, places to site, lean, and walk, especially at those points along the perimeter which look onto interesting outdoor life.

The mudroom fully embodies the Entrance Room pattern: it is inside the house but also feel like outside, as it is unheated and full of outdoorsy things. The visitor can’t see this, however, from the outside. In order to draw him with the promise of a Transition to the inside, we could place a trellis above the door and grow a vine on it. This would also nail Building Edge, change that transition from a mere line into a place.

The front door satisfies none of these patterns.  You walk  through and you abruptly find yourself in  the living room. This is the case in many ranches, and I don’t understand why any architect or homeowner thinks this is appropriate. It’s disconcerting for everyone!  The line between inside and outside here is filter thin, not a place at all. The tiny balcony and the roof above it are not deep enough to create volume.

This is an area that has fantastic potential!

First let’s deepen the balcony. Alexander points out that any balcony that is less than six feet deep will not be used (Pattern 167. Six-foot balcony), and here we have an example if that. It is a mere 2 1/2 feet deep and no one ever wants to sit there. Let’s knock away the surrounding brick wall and add another five feet to the surface. Depending on what material we use, we can make it straight or rounded (think adobe!). We can forego a wall altogether and make it accessible by a step or two, all around.

But this place would be too hot in the Summer, as it’s south. So let’s make it into an Outdoor Room.

patt163163. Outdoor Room. Build a place outdoors which has so much enclosure round it, that it takes on the feeling of a room, even though it is open to the sky. To do this, define it at the corners with columns, perhaps roof it partially with trellis or a sliding canvas roof, create “walls” around it, with fences, sitting walls, screens, hedges, or the exterior walls of the building itself.

Let’s add a wooden pillar and beam structure around and over it, on which we grow grapes and other deciduous vines. The bare vines will allow the much needed sunlight to enter the living room in winter but the leafy canopy will shade the balcony in summer. And they grow food too (permaculture: stack functions)! The rest of the enclosure will be done with potted figs and other plants, benches, a hammock. Let’s fill this new space with all manner of places to sit, sleep, work and play in the sun, in the shade.

This will also bring to life Pattern 168, which to me is one of the most important patterns:

168. Connection to the Earth. A house feels isolated from the nature around it, unless its floors are interleaved directly with the earth that is around the house. Connect the building to the earth around it by building a series of paths and terraces and steps around the edge. Place them deliberately to make the boundary ambiguous.


This will draw us outside, to the blueberry patch, the espaliered pear tree, the path to the vegetable garden and the apiary to the right. To the left it will draw us to the pond and the dwarf orchard. To the front it will draw us to the slope with its berry bushes and trees. This is really only possible if we get that slope planted: there can be glimpses of conviviality from the street, but there must also be privacy. And even in winter it will draw us out by the eye. When standing in front of the big living room picture window, we won’t be stopped short. One more bonus: that continuation on the same level outside it will make the living room seem bigger and, depending on the material we use, it will absorb the light and heat of the sun in winter and reflect that into the living room.



Back to our original question: how to decide the visitor’s question which door to choose? When we’re done both will stand out and look inviting? I don’t have an answer yet. Maybe it will come when we look through the  patterns at the next area: the driveway and the car place.

It cannot wait to get started in the garden, in particular to start the big Soil and Water Works. I want to plant stakes and dig dirt and maneuver wheelbarrows and roll rotten logs downhill. I even want to roll some of them uphill, that’s how desperate I am to get started. For today I figured out how to tackle our slope. Not the bottom part of the pit (yet), but that will follow naturally once we get that slope under control.

The slope is too steep and was filled in with bad soil after septic works before we bought the house. Because it is too steep it erodes from the excess roof and hilltop run-off. This makes planting anything on it or adding good soil difficult. We terraced it three years ago. But the “path” was too broad and, because unchanged, still too steep, so it kept on eroding. Because it is so steep it is hard to mow, and the weeds overtook what grass was not washed away. Result: the path is unused and the beds off to its sides are inaccessible and untended.

The solution? Hugelswales!


Hugelswales are on-contour swales filled with wood. The swales (trenches, ditches) intercept runoff and store it while releasing it to the soil underneath (video of a swale plume). If you fill them with scrap wood (of which we have a lot, in all stages of rot), turning them into a Hugelkultur, that wood will break down and the cellulose will create an even better sponge, releasing not just the water but also all the nutrients from the wood.  It’s only strange to call this a Hugelkultur (“Hugel” means mound) if you can’t imagine the mound turned upside down.

The swale will be packed with wood too rotten to burn, twigs, and everything in between.  While packing it in, we’ll fill in the gaps with wood chips, soil, compost, leaves and all the nitrogen rich stuff we can get our hands on (find some neighbor who mow their grass and don’t use chemicals). On top we’ll put wood chips that our neighbor is happy to supply us with. The swale will thus become an on-contour, level path, about three feet wide. As the wood breaks down these paths will settle and sink, so we’ll simply keep filling them with more woody debris.

The soil from these trenches will be moved downhill to form a small bump up, then a gentle slope down toward the next swale. I’m guessing these will come to about 5 to 7 feet in width. I might add a bit of wood at the bottom of these as well, but considering that we’ll eventually plant perennials here I wouldn’t want too much settling here since we won’t be able to keep topping it up. We might have to bring in soil for this, since we know the dirt on the slope is rocky and none too good, though the soil in the terraces should be in better shape by now.

This is a 2009 image. Some of the trees have been cut down in the meantime (marked by red X-s).  I wish I were a little more savvy with the visuals, but you get the idea.


On the top right you see the pond we’re planning to dig into the slope there. The idea is for the top swale, if it overflows, to overflow into the pond (so that swale will have to line up above the pond) and for the pond to overflow into the second swale (which will be underneath it). I’ll have to think of a way to connect the swale paths on the sides.

What to plant in this massive Hugelkultur? This will be a woodsy (carbon-rich, fungal, acidic) environment, so woody perennials is the way to go. A mix of blackberries, blueberries  and elderberries in the top two beds and a mix of currants, gooseberries and elderberries in the bottom bed. These latter three are shallow rooted, a must because we’re close to the septic leach field at that point. And in between, some small fruit trees, perhaps? Most of these will be for 2014, however, since this system will need settling and the soil will need work. We’ll start with cover crops and woody mulches.

I can’t wait to build me an A-frame and get digging. It’s going to be -4 F tonight, though (-20 C), and all of the town’s  ice skating rinks are in business, so I’ll bet the ground’s a bit too frozen right now. But this is what it looks like in Plangarden, which is very un-permaculture straight.




Can’t call it ginger soda anymore. “Ginger champagne” is more like it, as it’s definitely alcoholic and tastes a little like champagne. Foams like it too! To your health!

{Update 1/17} I immediately put all the bottles out on the porch, where it has hovered around freezing. That immediately squashed the fermentation. When I open them now, immediately after bringing them in, they are perfectly carbonated. No geisers! And the taste is superb. I’ve started a new bug so we will have ginger beer ready when this batch is finished.

A friend asked me to bring her a couple. I declined and said she’d have to come and drink it here. I’m not driving around with these projectiles in my car!


DH’s buckets with the wine grapes had company: my ginger soda carboy. The trouble in our house is that there is no place where the temperature remains constantly warm enough. My 1 gallon carboy was being moved from next to the wood stove, to next to the radiator, to next to the gap between fridge and wall, to a spot in the sun with a black t-shirt thrown over it. But as our thermostat is set at 60F, and as the solar gain nowadays gets us to 62F, the heat doesn’t come on, and it’s only when we fall below 62F in the evenings that we get the wood stove going. We keep it going till we go to bed, and in the early morning the heating comes on perhaps once to keep the cooling house to 60F.

Anyone who bakes bread knows that yeast is fussy about temperature, and my poor yeasties were not happy with the cold gaps and the temperature swings. My ginger bug died on me the day I made the wort (bug? wort? read all about it here), so I cheated and spiked it with bread yeast. It was bubbling away within an hour and I added it to the wort in the carboy, along with the juice of an orange.  Five days now I’ve been trying to keep it going, by moving it around and stirring it to aerate it to prevent it from turning alcoholic, and it remained a sluggish one.  The longer you wait to bottle your ginger beer, the more chance there is that it becomes alcoholic, but you also want to make sure the fungi have done enough of their thing that they don’t go berserk in your bottles, over-carbornate and then explode them (it happens!).

Today after the wood stove heat  got the bubbles going again I tasted the decoction and to my surprise found it already too alcoholic, so it was time to bottle.


Not having a siphon, I strained out the “lees” or sediment (ginger and dead yeast) through several layers of cheesecloth. My 1 gallon carboy yielded eight 12oz. bottles. I found that capper at the give-and-take at my town’s transfer station: thank you! The bottles are from root and ginger beer that I’ve saved up over the past year.

As for that plastic bottle, a great trick is to keep some soda into a plastic bottle, so you can squeeze it to check on how tight it’s getting in there. This plastic bottle, the same volume as my glass ones, will see good use because I never buy plastic bottles (except for, painfully, milk containers). I’d rather be thirsty than buy one. Yet, I learned my lesson the last time when I opened a bottle of soda. And for that reason, as an extra precaution, this is where the capped bottles went:


In a wooden case with a sheet of plexiglass in front of it. I then turned it and placed the plexiglass side up against a cupboard. If any explodes, it’ll be a mess, but a contained mess.

Other happening ferments: I am baking bread again, using the BreadMan that we got for our wedding (12 years ago), and a friend is growing a kombucha mother SCOBY for me. I’ll go pick her up next week.

Discovered over the last couple of months:

  1. neighbor who can help me identify wild edible mushrooms
  2. neighbor who can help me dispatch a chicken to my freezer once the time comes
  3. neighbor who can darn the holes in my favorite ten-year-old sweater
  4. neighbors with whom to share seeds and gardening schedules
  5. neighbor who can take care of all kinds of wild creatures
  6. neighbor who can identify birds
  7. neighbor who can knit
  8. neighbor who makes her own colloidal silver
  9. neighbor who knows trees and how to drop them


Yesterday evening we took the next step in making our wine. We picked up the grapes in early December. They’re from Behm Vineyard in California and get shipped here as part of a wine club. We got a Cabernet Franc and a Merlot.  The grapes come crushed – so with skins and pips – and frozen in five gallon buckets. You thaw them out and once they’re warm enough you add  a packet of wine yeast. That and the yeasts already present on the grapes will get to work and after a few days you can smell that yeasty smell. To keep the yeasts invigorated you need to stir the bucket once or twice a day.

A month later (that was yesterday) this primary fermentation is finished and it’s time to get rid of the pips and skins by pressing the grapes. We simply used part of my honey extractor: a five gallon bucket with holes at the bottom. A lot of juice just pours out and then you put some pressure on the grapes to squeeze out more. Each five gallon bucket of grapes yielded a little more than a 3 gallon carboy of juice. Every carboy got a handful of oak wood chips and was inoculated with a batch of malolactic acid bacteria to convert the stronger tasting malic acid into lactic acid. In a month we’ll rack or siphon the wine to get rid of the sediment, and then it’ll sit in the carboys till September, when we bottle and either drink or let the wine age in the bottles. We’ll get 30 bottles of wine out of this.


The must. The bucket in front has a plate covering the big hole where my honey spinner’s axle fits.


The first juice pours out easily and is clear.


Then there is still some juice trapped in the grapes. This you have to press through the sieve.


That pressed juice has a lot of sediment so isn’t that clear. It’ll settle in the carboy and will be left after racking.


The cake of skins and pips that’s left over. Compost!


Malolactic bacteria go in.


Special French oak chips, medium toast!



Two times three gallons and a little leftover for topping off the carboys after racking. Airlocks to keep oxygen out.

Ah, it’s 2 degrees out, but bright and sunny and in between running out to swap out the chickens’ frozen water I am dreaming of the garden. My goal for 2013 is to do more work on the homestead, because I realized what an opportunity we have here, to build a place that is a model of resilience. This it can only be if it is integrated into the community, and that it can only be if I do do a better job of balancing my community work and my role as a homesteader.

One important facet of the integration of my garden into the wider context is its place in the food shed. Our 2012 CSA just ended, and we have to wait until March 20, when our new, 48-week farm share starts (at Siena Farms). I want to grow food here with that in mind. The CSA box  is always packed with lettuces, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, squashes and fennel, more than a family of three needs. But it is low on some favorite foods, proteins and carbs, and has no fruits. Those will be mine to grow then! But first…

Irrigate – irrigate – irrigate!

I shamefully admit that the failure of much of my garden and especially the tomatoes and peppers in my hoop house last year was due to my neglect in watering. It is especially shameful because we had a small irrigation system sitting in the shed. All we had to do was assemble it and hook it up. This year we’ll invest in more tubing as well as in the 275 gallon ICB toters that I have been meaning to buy. The idea is to irrigate the entire vegetable garden, the elder, currant and gooseberry bushes in the back, as well as all the new plants, bushes and trees that are going in. Two additional parts of the water catchment system will be swales and a pond with an overflow.

I also need to put in a good water solution for my bees. Some of my neighbors had too many winged visitors to their bird baths.

And fence – fence – fence!

The chicken wire fence we put around the veg garden needs to be replaced with a fence that is stabler (read: posts sunk in properly), higher and sturdier (needs food growing on it). This fence could be more chicken wire or it could be something natural – only we don’t have enough materials here on the property to do that… I would love to learn how to build a brick or stone wall – preferably brick, for trapping the sun’s heat.


I can’t tell you how happy I am with my chickens.  The four hens are still laying three eggs a day, on average. What more could I ask for? Two more hens, of course! The idea is to add two new chickens every day and in year three to start culling two. We”ll also up the learning curve and the fun by hatching our own as of now. Extra eggs will be used for bartering with friends and neighbors.

Seems like the only reason I go to the grocery store nowadays is milk. It hurts to have to buy it in plastic jugs too. Two tiny goats would do it. I’ve got room for them. DH is warming to the idea, but I doubt it’ll happen in 2013. Still, doesn’t hurt to research.

We have always wanted to put in a pond to catch the significant run-off from our roof after the rain barrels have filled, and because the presence of water is soothing and inspiring. But ponds can also mean FOOD: edible water plants and fish, of course. This year we’ll work on putting the pond in and establishing  the plants, getting the hang of that, and researching fish for 2014.

Starches, beans, grains

The CSA is short on some of the foods I really love, like potatoes. Once in a while there are some fingerlings, but never enough for a family of three that includes one potato-lover. So I, the Integrated Homesteader, might make the radical decision  to grow NO TOMATOES, ONLY POTATOES. Due to them being the same family and sharing the same very bad  blights, it’s not a good idea to grow both of them in a small garden anyway. Also entirely missing in the box are dry beans and drying peas. I’ll grow many of those.

As for grains, I’d like to grow corn again. I tried it last year but they went in too late. Nevertheless they are very interesting plants to grow. Maybe a bed or two of corn would be a worthy experiment? As for other grains, like wheat, I know we don’t have the space, though I could possibly plant a whole patch in our town’s Community Gardens?

Spring and Fall gardens

I have that wonderful hoop house and have as yet to really utilize it to have grow outside of the season. Task one: add doors! Then, grow cold weather crops – lettuce, spinach, and even plant some peas in there.  Outside the hoop house I’m planning a big crop of  fava beans and peas. As for Fall, thanks to my CSA, I’m no longer afraid of parsnips and turnips. I love them roasted or mashed and they are such good keepers. I also want to give carrots another go, as well as the brassicas (broccoli especially).

Some veggies that will make a comeback: LOTS of  escarole (for cannellini bean and escarole soup), tromboncino squash (which is turning out to be a great keeper), our favorite haricots verts, celery, chard, and perhaps 2013 will be the year I conquer spinach.


But this year I mainly want to make work of fruits. Grocery shopping is for milk and fruits (I buy local and in season as much as possible): that is just a clear indication of what we need to grow here. Also, most of my canning is of fruit: jams, jellies, sauces. Last season’s blueberry jam and peach butter, apple sauce and peaches-in-syrup are finished already. Time to start doing something about this.

We already have lots of berry bushes in the ground  – hundreds of strawberries gone wild all over, 5 gooseberries, 4 elders, 5 red and 5 white currants, 1 highbush blueberry, 1 jostaberry,  2 serviceberries, 4 roses (for rosehips), 6 grapes. But almost none of them are doing well. The currants, elders and gooseberries in the back need more water and are defoliated every year by I-don’t-know-what. Even last year, when I covered them in remay, they were eaten. This will be their third Fall in my garden and I feel it needs to be a good one for them to survive. All the other bushes – along with the witch hazel – will need to be moved to better spots, yet to be determined. I also need to find way to protect them from defoliators and chipmunks stealing all of the harvest.

The sour cherry tree has not grown very much since it moved in. It needs a good pruning and a guild around it (around all of them, really), with 90% nitrogen fixers and dynamic accumulators. I have four hazels, two of which are doing marvelous, two of them not so (need moving), and each year all of them get defoliated as well. The raspberries can stay put in their patch, but need pruning.  (I got this pruning book, by the way). My two female kiwis are going absolutely berserk. No flowers or  fruits yet, but any year now. They very much need pruning!  The male kiwi, however, which is needed to pollinate the females, needs to be moved to a better spot and also given a planter. The grapes too need to be pruned, moved and trained. In pots I have two figs, which will need pruning, and two paw paws, which can be transplanted into the garden.

Once we’ve cleared the last of the downed tree trunks for firewood, we will have a lot of room for more trees and berries. That was our promise: for every tree we took down, we’d plant another one. I am also going to devote some beds where veggies won’t grow for fruit trees and bushes. I might buy and plant some of these this year ((*) in the list), though for some others the timing probably won’t be right and we’ll take a year, first, to work on the clearing and the soil first and then plant in 2014. So far, my general shopping list is for:

2 pears: 1 to espalier against our house facade (*), 1 next to driveway (*)

2 apples: next to driveway (*)

2 peaches: north side of veg garden (*)

2 plums: next to driveway (*)

2 Asian pears, 1 quince, aronia bushes, blackberries, honeyberries (also called hascaps)…

I’d also like to start learning the craft of taking whips, cuttings, and grafting.


So far, I was never able to grow sunflowers, for munching seed and seed butter. Chipmunks would behead them even before they flowered, let alone made seed. This year, though, I want to try again, maybe put some protection around them. I have a lot of perennial medicinal flowers going already, some of which (in the large medicinal herb bed up front) I’ll have to move, cut and divide. I want to add more pollinator flowers for my bees.

Trees for firewood and tools (coppicing)

I’m also starting to research trees for coppicing for stake and other materials, including hardwood for tool handles. I’ve been recommended the black locust, mulberry and hickory: all hard and fast growing. They also burn really hot, and firewood too is on our minds. If we are careful and the climate cooperates (cough!), we have enough fuel (firewood and two tanks of oil) for three years. We’ll need to do more clearing up front to plant the larger orchard and the biomass trees, and that might give us another year worth of wood…

Outdoor living and working

If we’re going to make this place work as a model of resilience, abundance of food, life both human and other, we’re going to have to spend more time outside.  Hence the recent obsession with the Pattern Language for redesigning the front of the house on top of the hill. One of the larger parts of this project that we want to accomplish is the extension of our front balcony, about which in a later post.

Seems feasible, no?