There is a lot that goes into gaining perspective. In this section,
- We look at how we might test our solutions
- We examine feedback loops and what they can tell us about our – and nature’s – ability to self-regulate
- We talk about hindsight: What have we learned? What worked, what didn’t, and what would we do differently?
- And lastly, we think about where we go from here — what is our path forward?
Testing Our Solutions
In the beginning, we had a vision, we set in motion a plan of action, and now have come to a place of reflection to determine whether our course needs adjustment. By looking to our origins, we can better understand how far we have come. We can drive a stake in the ground to give a point of reference for the future. But realistically, how do we know it is working? My approach is to look at the project from three perspectives: 1) the three ethics promulgated by Bill Mollison, 2) our original goals, and 3) personal observations.
First and foremost: is what we have done in alignment with the Three Ethics: Care of the Earth, Care of People, and Care of the Future?
Will seven generations from now look at what we have done and thank us? Our prime directive: “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children,”* and the only way to do that, of course, is to take care of the earth that supports us.
Secondly, how does our project support our original goals?
- Support pollinators through diversity & pollen/nectar plants throughout the year
- Encourage wildlife (birds, bats, pollinators, reptiles, other beneficial creatures) through native plants, habitats, housing, etc.
- Optimize gardens through intensive plantings of niche species; stack functions in time & space; create guilds
- Build resiliency through diversity & connections
- Build the soil (manures, mulch, fungal communities, diversity)
- Obtain a yield: honey/wax, seeds, herbs, willows, food, crafts, wood, home-based income
- Minimize our ecological footprint by reducing waste & consumption, harvesting energy, & cycling resources; increase self-sufficiency
- Include art & places for both gatherings and solitude
- Reach out: share knowledge; share the surplus
Each of these is still a work in progress, but we are moving in the right direction!
And lastly, Observation: a return to our primary way of learning about our environment.
Direct measures are, after all, sometimes of what is – and sometimes of what is not. We look for
- Increased efficiencies – in our daily tasks, in the way things function
- Increased resiliency – do the plants and animals weather through seasonal extremes?
- Leaks – in energy, in efficiencies, in the system
- Diversity – in plants, animals, inputs, outputs
- Balance – e.g., do the insect cycles resolve on their own?
- Abundance – more to share and to return to the earth!
- Options – multiple income streams, different ways of doing things, back-up systems
- Reduced ecological footprint – less need to buy stuff, more re-use and upcycling, less waste, self-produced power, reduced consumption.
Our mistakes are opportunities for learning. When things are going right is also an opportunity for learning, not that we can necessarily take credit for the success. If we take the time to observe and interact with Nature, she will teach us, but we also must accept that nature is so complex, we can never fully understand all the intricacies of the various interactions.
So how can we know if something is working?
We can measure our yields, but that is only one facet of what is going on. Success in terms of our ability to measure a profit is a shallow way of thinking.
We can also look for balances. Nature always seeks a homeostatic equilibrium, which is the idea behind the Gaia principle developed by James Lovelock. If something gets out of balance, nature will self-correct and return to that equilibrium. Mankind may destroy the Earth to the point where it will not support his existence; however, in the aftermath, the Earth will still adjust. The water is level, no matter the angle of the glass that holds it. One can think of different cycles and ups and downs over time as the various components sloshing around in the ecosystem jar, finding that level. It is an ability to adapt and change – sometimes to die, sometimes to thrive, according to circumstances. If an insect colony eats all of its food supply, it cannot thrive. If it attracts hungry predators that keep the population in check, the “pest” might still survive. If something grows too large for the system that supports it, it dies back. Left on its own, nature will continue to build fertility, and throughout this balancing act, the system as a whole will grow and evolve.
We can watch for feedback loops, accelerate that evolution, and plan for succession. How can we assist?
By creating a design that gives us immediate returns but also builds for the long-term. This is essentially a combination of all three primary ethics: Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share, which can also be stated as Care of the Future, or as Mollison put it, “Setting Limits to Population and Consumption,” and in the process, Giving Back. Throughout our design, we must follow the basic design principles:
- Work with nature, rather than against it
- Recognize that the problem is often the solution
- Make the least change for the greatest possible effect
- Understand that the yield of a system is theoretically unlimited
- Appreciate (and use to our advantage) how everything gardens.
In light of these concepts, there are practical, hands-on things we can do:
- Build the soil. It is the number 1 thing.
- Increase diversity.
- Grow more perennials, which are less taxing on the system and contribute to the overall health of the environment (compared with greedy annuals, whose sole purpose is to consume, grow as rapidly as possible, reproduce, and die).
- Grow native plants – they are self-sufficient, acclimated to the local conditions, and support the natural wildlife, which have survived with them in developed mutual beneficial relationships over the millennia
- Reduce our intervention wherever possible. For example, bees do not need to be micromanaged. We can find ways to be supportive without interfering with ways they already know are best. So it is, too, with the plant world.
- Provide food, water, light, and shelter, when necessary. We are caregivers.
…all these will strengthen the overall system, build fertility, and increase productivity. But if it grows too fast, it might be like the green shoot in early spring that is vulnerable to late frosts. Slow solutions give time for everything to catch up and come back into balance. In everything, we must work with nature.
How resilient is our system? If we get a particularly cold winter, an unexpected late frost, a hot, dry streak that leaves the hillsides parched – does our system recover?
We return to the question: How do we know whether something is working? We go back to Step 1: Observation.
The following are four specific examples at Barbolian Fields that have been feedback indicators of Nature at work:
- Caterpillar Infestations: The tent caterpillars in 2014 were threatening to take over the entire orchard and many of the shrubs in other areas of the garden. According to locals, it was a particularly bad infestation in our region this year – and apparently, it’s a cyclical thing. In some areas, they covered the roads so thickly, they actually made cars skid! Our infestation, although alarming, was relatively mild. At first, I thought the birds would take care of them. Not so! I opened the nests for easy access, but the caterpillars were not a preferred food. I thought predatory insects would take care of them. We grow a lot of umbelliferae plants that encourage them to live here. Again, not enough to make a dent. It was a serious dilemma. Should I let nature take its course? Was I willing to let the stress on our old trees continue and significantly reduce our apple harvest? Was it telling me that our trees were not strong enough to withstand pest infestations on their own? Did I need to increase the fertility in the soil? (always, yes). Was this population explosion because I had applied a lot of mulch around the trees that encouraged them to winter over? Where did they come from? I did not have all the answers. In fact, I didn’t have any answers. In the end, I cut most of them out and drowned them. It was a difficult job. I believe everything has a purpose, though I may not understand it. Most of the nests were on the eastern side where they could get the first rays of the morning sun. In the fall, those sides of the trees were almost devoid of fruit. The trees survived; we still got plenty of fruit; and I am sure the caterpillars will live to another season.
- Other Insect Populations: Be careful what you wish for! When we set out to build a garden for our pollinator friends, we had no idea just how many and all the different kinds it would attract! We were thinking fuzzy bumblebees. Next thing we knew, we were surrounded by more creatures than I could identify in a lifetime. The willow room came alive with birds! Snakes slithered into the grasses when I walked the paths. Frogs sang to us in the evenings. And all around, the scampering, buzzing, and scurrying about of spiders, hoverflies, beetles, earwigs, giant mounds of ants, wasps, yellowjackets, and last but certainly not least, bald-faced hornets. These unusual looking insects have a beautiful black and white mosaic design on their heads and hind ends. I was down on the ground, looking at them close-up with my camera, not realizing they were the multiple-stinging, quick-to-anger hornet they are known to be. Curiously, they seemed to be all over this black slimy stuff on the ground around the willows – and on closer inspection, it appeared to be residue from the aphids, which I now noticed were so thick around the willow stems, they looked to be part of the bark! Friend or foe? There were thousands of the hornets – and I do mean thousands. You could hear their buzzing from quite a distance. I worried for my grandchildren, who like to play in the Willow Room. Get rid of the aphids, and I could get rid of the hornets, I reasoned. I could spray the aphids with water, but only in the very early morning, and at this point, that would not eliminate them. I was not willing to use soap or neem oil or any of the “organic” insect repellants that could also harm the multitude of other beneficial creatures out there. Interestingly, I could not find a hornet hive – and I do believe it was because in the center of the dome, I had hung a willow-sculpture ball, which they mistook for someone else’s nest. They are very territorial that way. Without a nest to defend, they were not aggressive. Plus, they did not appear to be interested at all in the honeybee hives. So, for a couple of months in late summer, they took over the Willow Room, and we let them. When the cooler weather hit on the 1st of October, everyone was gone.
- Weeds: Grass, thistle, morning glory (aka bindweed): these three thugs, in particular, are serious threats to the vitality of every plant in our garden. We live in the middle of a centuries-old pasture. Nothing stops them, not cardboard, wood, concrete, carpet, black plastic, nor heavy layers of mulch. Past use of tillers have helped them divide and multiply. Chemicals, concentrated vinegar, and boiling water are not options, with respect to others living in the soil. Vigilance and persistence are my only weapons. At the same time, I understand these plants have useful properties. The bees and goldfinches love the thistles. It is somewhat ironic that I found myself planting milk thistle for the monarch butterflies. Even bindweed has some medicinal value, and I have often wondered whether their vining roots could be used for tying or weaving. Grass cuttings make a good high-nitrogen mulch. There are many other invasives. Dandelions are welcome to deepen their roots, which they do in great numbers – the honeybees love them in early spring, and their roots are a nutritional powerhouse. Who would have thought we would be able to order their seed from catalogs? Cleavers, burdock, and wild carrot, the latter of which is threatening local seed crops, tend to be sporadically rampant in certain areas. I am sure the wild carrot supports many beneficial insects, and the medicinal property of burdock, despite its Velcro-like burrs, are legendary. But more importantly, what is their presence telling me? Along with other invasives, such as wormwood and mugwort, they are generally pioneer species to degraded soil. The deep roots of curly dock penetrate deep into hard clay. The purple deadnettle that carpets in early spring is a real godsend to the bumblebees. The quick groundcover of chickweed makes a great addition to our salads. Where I have built the soil, the invasives are much easier to pull out or cut at the stem. There is no point in trying to eradicate them; I only work at keeping them from gaining control. While I weed, I be sure to have along some nutritious groundcover seed – such as clovers – to plant in their place.
- Mole and vole damage: Every time a plant is watered, the ground attracts worms and insects looking for water, which, in turn, attracts moles and voles looking for worms and insects. Result: a massive network of underground tunnels that leave the roots of expensive plants bare and dry. If I find them quickly enough, I can step around the plant and reduce the damage, but in the process, I am compacting the light soil I work so hard to establish. The varmints particularly like a heavy layer of mulch, which must be a real pleasure to dig through. One day, I will see a new shrub reaching for the sun; the next, it can be drooping in sadness. I know 99% of the time who is to blame. There will be a gaping hole where once a lush chard plant stood. I have seen a row of carrots disappear overnight. Planting my potatoes in straw is pure folly. The dog ignores them (get a different dog?). When our cat died, out of love for birds, we did not replace him – but he didn’t go underground for his prey anyway. So far, my solution has been to propagate and plant more plants and acknowledge that a certain percentage won’t make it. If I can get them past the baby stage, their roots will grow deep enough that they can withstand a certain level of surface damage – which is another reason to plant more perennials. The small mammals are, after all, for the most part, beneficial. They aerate the soil, consume bugs, and leave droppings. Other solutions: set up some owl houses. It is a winter building project.
Hindsight – and What Changes Would We Make on a Do-Over?
- Start with a small Zone-1 space, optimize that garden, and then build on that success. Without a question, our biggest problem was doing too much, too quickly, over too large an area. We invested a lot of money in canopy plants that we spread out according to eventual size; however, a lot of these plants would take years to get there, so in the meantime, they needed a lot of temporary plants, understory perennials, groundcovers, and mulch between them. The weeds got the best of us before we could get anything established. It has been a bit overwhelming. My goal is to eventually get it self-sustaining enough that I will have more time for other things, but in the meantime, life has a way of throwing wrenches, and baby plants need lots of care….
- It would be wonderful to start with a blank slate. Yet our situation is probably not unlike that of many others. We are converting what is already an established, more-or-less traditional garden and orchard into more of a food-forest ecosystem. Because I had already developed a huge garden area over which I rotated approximately 1500 bulbs of garlic (23 varieties) around 6 different plots, my garden was very spread out. As I filled it in with more and more perennials, I had to find new places for the garlic, and so I expanded even further. Finally, I realized a commercial-scale garlic business was not complementary to the principles of permaculture – at least not the way I was doing it. I needed to scale back and rethink how things worked (or not).
- Similarly, a traditional orchard (perhaps 100 years old?) growing in field grass is not easy to covert to a diversified polyculture, stacking-function type ecosystem. It would require semi-truckloads (plural) of woodchips to cover the ground a la “Garden of Eden,” and these are no longer free in our area. The grass grows through layers (plural) of cardboard and several inches of mulch in one season. We can start small and expand slowly, but I won’t live long enough to see it completed. The lesson here is to stop. Look around. Appreciate the progress made. And then get back out there and plant more plants that fill the right niches. Eventually it will fill in to being not just an orchard with a bunch of other plants stuck in there, but a true food forest, cooperating together.
- Let go of the notion of perfection and accept the idea that nature is already perfect. This one is relatively easy for me. However, a lot of people in our area pride themselves in a highly manicured aesthetic garden, and they pay money to tour elaborate gardens that promote this way of thinking. Some of these gardens are indeed spectacular, but they come at a price – and that price is often to the demise of honeybees. I am leery of gardens without weeds. I shudder when I see well-meaning landscapers in town with backpack sprayers pointed at dandelions growing along the sidewalks. But in showing people what we are trying to create, I found myself apologizing for the messiness. I am comfortable with a fair amount of bedlam. And although I realize the chaos of my garden is not for everyone, it is most certainly for birds and bees. As it evolves, as the perennials grow tall and shade out the scrappy weeds (which will eventually go find themselves some new depleted cow pasture to seed in), the prominent plants will stand out.
- If I were to do it over, however, I would start with a more definitive plan on how to make it happen. I would identify patterns in the beginning; I would create obvious paths with fluid forms; and I would work out an efficient way to get water where it is needed. Perhaps I would create a mandala or a labyrinth or the veins of a leaf – I love spirals, fractals, honeycombs, and neural networks, and I once created a garden sun with beds of rays. However, although I recognize aesthetics are important, the primary consideration for me is practicality: how do I get from point A to B, can I get a wheelbarrow down the path without spending a lot of time going in circles, and is there an efficient way to water all this? Of course, as a beginner, I wanted it all and I wanted everything at once. I purchased a bunch of plants, figured out their growth requirements, defined our garden “rooms,” and spaced them appropriately. I had a “wildlife corridor,” some dryland areas, some damp shade, an old orchard, and several plots that had been used for garlic, each in themselves large enough to be a complete garden. But it wasn’t yet cohesive. It needed more time to come together. Again, starting out small would have been better.
- As for working through the details of the permaculture design course, there were three main things that were a struggle for me – the huge amount of information, mapping and drawing, and cost estimates. Reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Design Manual – a nearly 600 page encyclopedia of knowledge with dense information on every single page – was a daunting task! I have seen very few PDCs with this requirement, but I am very thankful I persevered and finished reading this life-changing seminal work that will always be a resource. I have read several other books on permaculture, each enlightening in their own ways. The subject of how we live in connection with the earth – how we function as not the supreme being, but rather as just one other element in the bigger scheme of the ecosystem – and how we might contemplate, and unlike other creatures, have the gift of the ability to purposely make changes to this planet – whether for better or for worse, however that be defined – is vast. I am humbled. I returned to our little polka-dot plot on the planet and wondered how I could possibly make a difference.
- I spent a huge amount of time (and extra expense) trying to figure out what software would be best for drawing detailed maps. I got too hung up on the details. I spent a lot of unnecessary time downloading various maps from Google, USGS, and other sites to try to get a better idea of the property and topographic contours (our property is basically flat – but of course, it is not truly flat – and in the end, it would have been quicker and more accurate to spend time mapping out subtle undulations by hand with an A-frame). Obviously, I lacked perspective. Drawings would have been much easier to do with colored pencils and paper. Uploading pictures in different formats to a website is another level of complication. There was a strong learning curve involved in all this.
- Once I got the ideas down on paper, I realized I was out of my element when it came to costing a project. Things like solar panels, what might be appropriate for our area, wind energy systems, house retrofits, cob building, solar rooms, greenhouses, aquaponics – all fantastic ideas – and each something one could spend a lifetime on. So my estimates are based on talking with a few experts to get the rough idea, doing a lot of research, and then factoring in a DIY discount. How realistic they are will be good to find out. Again, I wanted it all. And again, it is good to start out small.
We are at the midpoint of making this happen. In the near-term, it will be fun to fill in the gaps and assist the garden in getting more established. We will be concentrating on Zone 1 and Zone 2, piling on the mulch to build the soil, and adding herbaceous plants and groundcovers. It will just get better and better. I will be adding details to my database of plants (now topping 300 grown here at Barbolian Fields!), their growing requirements, uses, and the niches they fill.
The next phases present some of the greatest changes (and challenges!) in infrastructure: making the home and lifestyle more self-sufficient. Eventually, my vision is that this small backyard apiary of a half dozen hives, a garden full of herbs, flowers, nuts, and fruits, and the living and working systems that respect and nurture the environment, will be an inspiration to others. My website is my portal to sharing information and art, making connections, raising awareness – and is also a venue for income streams. I look forward to being involved in community events, writing about bees and permaculture gardening, and conducting workshops to help others build their own backyard sanctuaries.
It has never been more important to support pollinators, and everyone can help, even if they are not in a position to keep hives. When I tell people about all the things we grow here – whether for bees or for food or tools, fiber, dyes, medicine – or the many other creative things we can do and create from our own backyards – people are amazed. I intend to share that. And as water becomes ever more important, I intend to show the many ways we can create a jungle on what many consider “semi-desert.” I hope to do demonstration tours when the system is more mature and share the beauty of natural “controlled” chaos and the incredible abundance – and wonder – it can provide.
No, it can’t happen overnight. Still, to see what we have been able to accomplish in such a short time is surprising. The point is, anybody can do this — And everyone should at some level. This is my passion that I want to share, and even though we are but a polka dot on the planet, it is a beginning – and perhaps it will grow to be a grand example, which might inspire another, who inspires another, who in turn, another. We are six degrees of separation compounded over seven generations, and then some.
So yes, we CAN save this planet, one small garden – one greener way of living – one small regenerative ecosystem at a time, if we remember to take care of the earth, take care of each other, and take care of our future by taking only what we really need and giving back the rest.*
*Mollison, Bill. (1988). “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual” Tagari publications, Australia.