In Transition and Permaculture circles we’re constantly talking about putting systems in place for when, that is, before, they’re needed. When I headed up the Solarize program in Wayland in 2012, this was my main motivation: lots of individual solar arrays on roofs so we have at least a basis for clean and decentralized electricity in times of emergency, if (when) the big grid goes down. It’s also part of my motivation for much of what we do here at the homestead: chickens, bees, garden, solar PV, solar hot water, rainwater harvest, etc. It’s not just a matter of physically building and installing and test -driving and improving these systems, but also of training oneself to build them getting the experience to get a yield from them, and then to be able to teach the skills to others.

The problem though is this: most of these systems are not yet needed. With any luck, they won’t for a long time, maybe not even in our own life time. Once an “element” is built – a favorite phase involving family and friends and fun problem solving – it needs to be maintained even though there are still much more convenient ways of getting the yield.

For instance, I could much more easily get eggs and veggies from the farmers market than having to deal with lame hens that need nursing and garden beds that need weeding. The water still comes out of the tap, so why am I scrubbing the algae from the water totes and struggling with low water pressure? There is still oil in our tanks or money to buy it, so why am I cold with the thermostat at 59F and why should I get up in the middle of the night to feed the wood stove? Why can’t I go on a long holiday without having to arrange hen and garden sitting? Why am I canning so much apple sauce! Often, the systems I like the most are those that don’t need maintenance, like the solar machines. Yes, I admit it, the living systems are often a drag.

It’s yet another skill, of course, and perhaps the one that most needs learning and practicing: to persevere in a difficult thing and to not give in to comfort and convenience just because we can buy it, or just because society still supplies it. It’s a skill to not turn a blind eye to the real costs of that comfort and convenience and to live a principled life, now and here.

I often talk about making our own place into a model. At this year’s Earth Day, for instance, we’re doing Open Houses all over town, and ours is one of them. We’ll show the PV and solar hot water system (which they’re putting in as I write this), the compost, veg and perennial garden, bees, chickens and rain water catchment. We’ll also show plans and hopefully the foundations of the Hugelswale system, the fish pond and the orchard, which won’t be established yet. Most of all, we’ll show how it all fits together, how they’re all elements in a wholesome and open system, along with the line-drying, the solar cookers, the eclectic library, the cabinet full of homemade medicine…

But this talk of models and modeling doesn’t seem right. Not because of arrogance – I’m a firm believer now in Jenkinson’s observation, that you have to risk arrogance because, you know, we have a huge amount of hard work to do. No, it’s more about what it would mean for us to live in a “model house”. It would stop being the refuge that we want it to be (for us, our family and friends, the community), thus also stop being a model of what we really want people to see: a refuge. Long argument short: you can’t model a refuge.

I’d still want people to come, but not to come and see, not to find a demonstration for them to observe, pen and paper in hand.  They’d come to participate – which means, of course, to work. Not looking in at “life” behind a glass partition, but immersion.

One of the projects I am working on is an ecological food garden for the new Hannah Williams Playground in my town.

The playground and park were revamped last year and early this year, and the Department Of Public Works set aside a sunny patch of roughly 45′ x 20′  bordered by a more shaded strip of 60′ x 10′  for an educational food garden. I volunteered last year to design it and also to round up the troops to plant the thing.  When word came (last week) that Wayland Beautification generously donated funds for plants, our window opened and it was a short one: planting should happen no later than the end beginning of June.

So though I had researched and planned in my head, I had to rush to the drawing board, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. So far I’ve designed the strip, which will be shade-tolerant bushes like currants (Ribes, golden and red) and elders (Sambucus), with an herbaceous under story of nutrient mining (dynamic accumulator) strawberries and nitrogen-fixing clover.  There will be two fruit trees, one semi-dwarf apricot and one semi-dwarf peach, in guilds with comfrey, licrorice, bulbs, chicory, etc. (more details to follow). I still need to fill in most of the guilds and the sunny spots in between.


Everything in this garden will be edible and perennial. Every niche will be filled, making it a stable system. Every element will fulfill two or more functions and every function will be fulfilled by at least two elements, making it a resilient and low-maintenance system. Besides being a delight for the senses (taste and smell), this garden will open people’s eyes and, hopefully, minds, to what food is, what it means to grow it, and how it can fit in an ecological context.

The possibilities for education are enormous, and I hope there will be some funding for informational plaques, name tags, and garden tours. I have to stop myself from writing treatises on permaculture, ecology, botany, entomology, etc. You see where this is going! First let’s get the garden in, then let’s explain it and praise it in song!

After two weeks of virtually no blogging, it’s lists like these that can get me going again. Yesterday I listed this week’s goals, today I’m looking at the Big Homesteading Plans for 2010. There is some sort of order here, but don’t ask me which.

  1. Chicken coop (cob? attached to greenhouse? moat?) and 6 (?) chickens
  2. Bee school and beehive
  3. New patio and garden path, and small lawn in the back
  4. Remove asbestos tiles in basement and create root cellar there
  5. Plant bushes and small fruit and nut trees
  6. Better fence around veg garden, and gates
  7. Better, bigger compost system
  8. Small garden/storage shed in veg garden
  9. Start on permaculture flower garden up front
  10. Front drainage and filtration “creek” ending in wetland/pond
  11. Solar thermal collector/glass greenhouse (attached to front balcony)
  12. Woodworking shop/pottery studio: this is a big one because it means demolishing our rotting shed, pouring concrete over a larger footprint, and putting up a frame. In our town we are not allowed to do those things ourselves. Also, it would cost a lot of money (this problem could possibly be solved by no. 17)
  13. Earth oven for baking bread, pizza and drying firewood
  14. Pottery wheel from the engine of our old dryer
  15. Double our food self-sufficiency
  16. Get serious about our emergency supplies
  17. Finish novel, find agent, get published
  18. Get serious about Transition in my town


To do this week:

  1. plan Spring and Summer garden
  2. inventorize left-over and saved seeds
  3. read all the gorgeous seed catalogs that arrived while we were gone
  4. order new seeds
  5. figure out a better seedling “hotbox” – buy seed mats?
  6. enroll in bee school, chicken class, and pottery

The plants under row cover in the hoop house have stopped growing, but they are all alive and well, just waiting it out. I am planning to get some fresh horse manure from my neighbor and creating a small “hotbed” in the hoop house for some early spinach. It would be interesting to compare the growth of those plants to the ones under the row cover, and to what extent the decomposing horse manure heats up the hoop house.

I am out there twice a day to clear the snow off and away from the hoop house so light can penetrate and the structure isn’t too stressed. I am happy to report that the hoop house has withstood heaps of snow and  gusts of wind, so our reinforcement of the top connectors seems to be working.

I managed to finish both volumes of Edible Forest Gardens when I was in Belgium and my first project will be to thoroughly re-assess our property. Digging holes and staking out areas will have to wait until the two-foot-thick blanket of snow has gone, but I will have to eyeball some of it and decide on some bushes and small trees.

It’s great to see the juncos play in the fluffy snow and vie for a place at the feeder with the cardinals and the passerines.


I’m reading Edible Forest Gardens (EFG) again, alongside Holmgrens’ Permaculture. I’m underlining and taking notes in the books and making summaries on a quadrille pad. I’m on volume 2 of EFG, which is the most practical volume of the two, and I foresee a lot of drawing up of plans as I come across passages that apply to my homestead. I’ll let you look in over my shoulder as I “make my mistakes on paper” (the best place to make them).

I’m also looking around for a Permaculture course, preferably online, or a local one spread out over nights and weekends, as I can’t afford, time and money-wise, the three-week intensive in Bolivia, or even in Cape Cod. I found an online course given by Dan and Cynthia Hemenway via Barking Frog Permaculture, which I could even monitor at minimal cost. But I missed the entry date. Next year maybe?


I’m excited  but apprehensive at the same time. I hope my turning to permaculture again won’t turn me away from Transition. I know the latter came out of the former. Rob Hopkins, the “founder” of Transition, is a permaculture teacher. And he advises that at least one member of a Transition Initiative facilitating or initiator group take a permaculture course for a good reason: the principles of permaculture and Transition are the same, only their domains differ.

Edible forest gardening is one part of permaculture, which applies its basic  principles to the agricultural domain, and which in turn then nestles inside the vast ambition of Transition. It is exactly for that reason that I fear I might lose track of Transition. Permaculture, especially when studied with such selfish motivations as my own (I want to make my homestead a permaculture site), could easily blind me to the larger challenge of Transition.

I feel I need to work on my own place – as a base, as a model – before or while I work on the place that surrounds me. And so my vision contracts and expands, expands and contracts. But when focusing on the ground right in front of my feet, I might lose track of the path. Then when I look up to find it again – or because it calls me – my suddenly telescoping vision might make me dizzy, overwhelmed, and I might turn away again.

I know myself. I am aware, and wary. This is one of the reasons why fellow initiators in my town would be so valuable: to keep me balanced!