Permaculture revelation

The reason permaculture isn’t “clicking” for me in my current location is that the space I live in is already a forest. That’s as perma as it gets. You don’t design a forest garden in a forest the same way you design when you’re starting with a degraded, eroded open field.

Must think about this in a different way…


Permaculture thoughts

As I look out the window through the forest to the fen, I see oaks, hickories, cattails, and herds of deer.

To a resident of this ridge 400 years ago, that’s a damn grocery store. I think our next step toward local eating is to develop a taste for these foods – adapt ourselves to this environment at least as much as we try to adapt it to us by gardening.

State of the Homestead: Permaculture

Second in the State of the Homestead series

Permaculture. I attended a workshop by Toby Hemmenway a couple weeks ago, and I think permaculture guilds are my/our next big yard project. Permaculture is the art of planting groups of compatible plants, layered like a natural woodland ecosystem, to provide shade, food, fuel, and wildlife habitat. The goal is to pull together plantings that more or less feed and weed themselves.

We can’t really plant anything until next spring, but that will give us time to assess the yard a bit and fiddle with plans. Thoughts so far include:

  • A horseshoe-shaped fruit grove in the NE corner of the property. It’ll have about 7 medium-sized trees (cider apples, black locust, and other fruits) with shrubs underneath (bush cherries, hazelnuts, etc.) and an understory of compost plants. The inside of the grove will still be grass, and I hope to have enough of a border to keep it looking somewhat neat. I did scavenge a couple bushels of nodding wild onion, spiderwort, and wild strawberries from a local medical center that’s replacing its prairie with grass; those are in temporary locations and will make great groundcover-layer plants as they spread.
  • A grove of taller nut trees in the front yard. Our beautiful flowering crabapple trees must be 20+ years old, and flowering crabs only live 30 years or so. By starting the nut trees now, there will be something in place when the crabs start to come down.
  • Coppice groves. We planted a baker’s dozen red oaks this spring in a closely-packed circle. The idea is to let them get 4-5″ in diameter, then coppice them. We also plan to plant a willow hedge and harvest withes for shredding into mulch and possibly for weaving into fences, root cellar bins, and the like. We’ve also got a fair bit of black locust on the property, which is good firewood (careful of the thorns…) and coppices really well. So, lots of wood regeneration projects lining up in the “possible next projects” queue.

New Directions at Preserving Traditions

After three years and something over 50 workshops, I am stepping down from heading Preserving Traditions. The last two last workshops currently planned are July 23 (Intro to pickling) and  Aug 27 (Intro to Canning), both at the Chelsea Library from 7-8pm.

What’s next for PT? I’m glad you asked, because the answer is largely up to you! The Pittsfield Grange is very interested in seeing Preserving Traditions continue, and has expressed strong support for the project. But what form should it take? Should PT retain its focus on food, or expand to other traditions, such as handicrafts like spinning, weaving, sewing, carving, soapmaking, etc.? How should PT relate to groups such as the Grange’s Junior Makers program (where kids learn basics of woodworking, electronics, and carpentry) and the ReSkilling Festival (which teaches all sorts of “people-powered” crafts from canning to beekeeping to permaculture)? How often should events be held? Should we do more demos, or more work days? What kinds of online resources would be helpful?

And perhaps most importantly – who will keep the group going? I tended to take a “do all the organizing and most of the teaching” approach, but it need not continue on that way.  There will probably be room for a number of volunteers and time commitments ranging from a few hours on one day to jobs spread out over seasons.

If you would like to be part of the discussion, please contact Joan Hellmann c/o the Pittsfield Grange Facebook page, or via e-mail ( There will be a one-time strategy and planning meeting to brainstorm ideas for moving forward. Coming to the meeting doesn’t commit you to any further participation, though of course we’d love to have people volunteer to teach, organize, or otherwise support Preserving Traditions with time.

In the tradition of good food and good friends,


Spring chores

Yesterday was a gift.  The one day of the week when we had a break in the “45 and spitting rain” weather pattern, and I was working from home.  And my apple trees were delivered.  The message could not be more clear if Pomona had sent me a postcard saying “PLANT TODAY!”

It’s been hard getting everything done this spring.  Not sure if it’s worse than usual, but a lot of unfinished projects have been hanging over me: the orchard bed on the north side of the garage, the new permaculture guild to be sheet mulched, and now it looks like the weeds are taking over the storage garden to such a degree that I really need to box it in with raised beds.  And I’m going out of town for ten days in early May, and though my sweetie will help with stuff if I’m there to direct, it would be cruel to ask him to do it while I’m gone.  So there’s a bit of time pressure to get it all done before I go…and a bit of “don’t wanna” pressure when Saturday mornings dawn cold and drizzly.

So yesterday, between not having to commute and taking a “coffee” break in the afternoon, I was able to:

  • Plant about 2/3 of the hundred daffodil bulbs I bought in the fall and never got around to
  • Plant 25 of the 75 raspberry plants that have been languishing in the breezeway since mid-March
  • Plant 3 bush cherries that have been waiting nearly that long
  • Plant 5 apple trees and a peach tree that arrived yesterday afternoon
  • Plant onions and ramps

There’s still a lot to do, but having three solid hours of sunshine and warmish temps let me make such a big dent in the spring list, it was a huge relief.

For about two hours; then I started thinking about everything ELSE that needs doing. *sigh* Maybe I need to take vacation days to garden in April as much as I need to take them in September to can…

Now accepting donations

Several people have commented recently on my vegetarian recipes pages (by far my most-viewed pages) that if I wrote a cookbook, they would buy it. I’m afraid two solid months of recipes is all I have in me at the moment – but I thought hey, if people would buy a fancy-schmancy cookbook for $20, would they perhaps be willing to chip in $5 for the existing 40+ recipes on the site? And what about all the equipment experiments I’ve done? Would anyone be moved to chip in a dollar or two to defray those costs?

I’ve weighed the possibility of asking for donations for a long time, and generally come down on the side of “that’s kinda tacky.” Then I thought no, advertising would be tacky.  This is just giving folks the opportunity to send a couple bucks my way if they are so moved.  I’ve done that many times on other people’s sites, and I generally feel it’s a perfectly reasonable way to defray costs.  Direct micro-funding, in a way.

The impetus to do this now is that I have some big ideas for homestead expansion this year – namely a home permaculture orchard of four apple trees, at least four hazelnut bushes, bush cherries, raspberries, and perhaps hardy pecan and peach trees. Not to mention a passel of false indigo plants for nitrogen-fixing and an understory of strawberries and wintergreen (if it’ll grow here).  I’m starting to add up the tally, and it’s going to cost a pretty penny. I also want to buy a Harvest Kitchen half-share this summer to feed me while I’m teaching Preserving Traditions classes, doing my own gardening and food preservation, and helping a few neighbors with theirs.  It will cost even more than the trees, but will be worth it to keep me fed and rested during the busy season.

So, I humbly hang out my secure PayPal donation button and say: There it is.  If you feel so moved, many, many thanks.   And if sending a donation doesn’t grab you, no worries at all.

Donate via PayPal

Davebilt bulk nutcracker

If you’re into permaculture in the US, I bet you’ve planted hazelnut bushes.  Great understory crop – tasty nuts – hardy and fairly disease- and pest-resistant.  Have you started harvesting any yet?  Have you started cracking any yet?  If you’re like me, you probably are looking at shrubs just starting to produce and thinking “What on earth am I going to do with all those hazelnuts? Hell…how am I gonna get them out of the shells??”

So I’ve been looking for a high-quality nutcracker that cracks more than one nut at a time, and I think I finally found it. (You can buy it here or here or if you’re in New Zealand, try this version.) First, you set the width of the plates using a selection of washers of varying thicknesses (included). When the space is just barely too tight to allow a nut to fall through, you’ve got the right size of opening.  You pour nuts into the hopper and turn (or really, “rock”) the handle. It’ll take hazelnuts, pecans, English walnuts, almonds, and apparently also acorns.

It arrived recently, and I just put it through its paces with 2.75 lb of Oregon filberts that were a gift from a friend.  These were probably size-graded nuts; I can’t imagine anything straight from the tree would be this uniform.  If more than a handful had dropped through whole, I could reset the machine to a narrower setting and run them through – but for this tiny pile, I’d just do them by hand.

The final result: a little over a pound (quart) of clean, mostly whole nutmeats cracked in around 5-7 minutes, and separated from their shells over the next 15-20.  I was able to set the machine up, crack the nuts, and separate shells from nuts in half an hour.

Cracking hazelnuts

1+ lb of nuts, a handful of uncracked nuts, and 1.5+ lb shells. Half an hour to crack and separate.

Things I learned:

  • It’s loud!
  • It works really well when the nuts are dry enough to rattle inside the shells.  See the individual nut between the bowls – there is space between the nut and shell, which allows for a clean crack.
  • The nuts aren’t crushed at all. A few split in half.
  • A couple shell shards went flying, but the vast majority just dropped into the bucket with the nuts.
  • The thing is built like a tank.  I’m not worried it’s going to fall apart before I do.
  • Now I can buy cheap bulk nuts in Nov/Dec and actually get enough nuts to use in recipes.  Pecans are next on my list, to go in my new pumpkin-pecan-pie-waffles.
  • Definitely better than cracking them by hand.

This is the kind of thing each neighborhood needs one of.  You could do your whole harvest in an afternoon, or use it once a month to get a month’s supply of cracked nuts…and then let someone else use it.

Here’s a video of the nutcracker in action. Warning – LOUD.

Fruit tree guild plans

I’ve been battering my brains for a couple months trying to come up with a micro-orchard plan that felt right.  I’ve got a 50’x50′ space in my back yard that’s screaming to be something other than lawn…but I just can’t wrap my brain around it.  Too much space, maybe. Just a big blank square, a totally blank slate.  And I have essentially zero experience with fruit trees.  Going from 2500sf of blank ground to…what? Permaculture guild? Something more like formal landscaping? Groups of trees just to fill up the space?  Something totally whimsical and pretty?  I can’t even settle on a concept for the space, let alone a plan.

So I more or less shelved the idea of doing anything with that space this coming spring. I was sure I wanted to put in a stand of willow on the north side of our garage, so I started working on that. I love Rob’s description of pit-and-mound gardening – it’s got aspects of hugelkultur, permaculture, and soil-building – and knowing willows love moisture, I decided to add a wood chip-filled trench under the drip line of the garage roof.  This will catch the water off the roof and hold it, feeding helpful fungi and microcritters and releasing nutrient-rich water to the willows slowly, instead of just running off.

Then I stepped back and realized that the runoff from the house comes in essentially the same direction, flowing north across the pavement right in front of the garage, over the edge of the pavement, and into what is now full-sun lawn.  I measured the space between the end of the willow bed and the turn-around/parking space bumping out the side of the driveway…24′ east/west, and easily 12-15′ north/south.  What if I aimed to capture the water running off the driveway (captured from about half our total roof space) and directed it into a small orchard guild? How many trees could I fit in there?

Note: south is at the top, north is at the bottom. (Click to enlarge)Fruit tree guild

Five, I think, with some bush cherries scattered in between.  Each dwarf tree will get 10-12′ tall; the semi-dwarfs on bottom (north) side will be 12′-15′, I think. By planting the roots at the corners of the bed, I can still get about 12′ between the trunks of the larger trees.  The trees will be accessible from all sides, though I’ll have to go under branches (eventually) to get to the bush cherries.  Permaculture tells me if I prune the trees properly, enough light will get in to let the bush cherries grow. They should top out around 6′ tall.

Other details: There is a slight slope from south to north, but the site is nearly flat.  I’m in zone 5b, but a cold and exposed microclimate, so I chose varieties that bloom late and have a good track record holding their own against late frosts. I’m buying a pig in a poke as far as taste is concerned; I know I like Northern Spy apples, and Nova Spies are supposed to taste like them, but I have no idea what the other fruits taste like. I do like tart cherries, even for fresh eating, and I picked the apricot and peach varieties recommended for my area that also had some raves about taste.  The apples are good keepers, and the apricots and peaches are both good for canning and “high dessert quality.” The apricots are also good for drying.  Which is good, because there’s no way I could eat 2 trees’ worth of apricots, but you need 2 for pollination!

It was odd…as I looked at variety descriptions, Gurney’s “semi-dwarf” peaches should be planted 12-14 feet apart, but the ones from Grandpa’s Orchard (on a “standard” root) has a spread of only 8-12 feet. And Grandpa’s apricots, though all on “standard” roots, have a big variety in spreads. So I really had to read the fine print. In the end, it looks like I’ll get all my trees from Grandpa’s Orchard, which is in SW Michigan about 130 miles from here.  Should be cheaper than Gurney’s, too

Well, anyway…this bed is half built already, and the willow bed is ready, mulch trench and all, just waiting to be planted in the spring.  Thus begins my foray into tree crops!  This feels so much more manageable than the swathe at the back.  Just goes to show that if things aren’t falling into place, you might just be barking up the wrong tree. 🙂

Coppicing ash: the first cutting

Stand of ash trees three years after cutting back to "stools" 3" in diameter and 6" tall.

Three years ago, we cut down some ash trees that were both under a power line and likely to be destroyed by emerald ash borers. The stumps resprouted vigorously, and I started to think seriously about the potential of coppiced ash to both provide firewood, and perhaps even to resist the ash borer.

Time for an update. There are many pictures in this post, so I’ve put them behind the break. The upshot: in three years, the 3″ diameter “stools” have each sprouted one or two shoots 3″ in diameter at the base and 12 feet tall. They also produced a dozen or so 1″ poles – very straight and useful as bean poles, fencing supports, etc.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bur oak guild: selection and installation

After months (or has it been years?) of planning, I installed my first “permaculture guild” this weekend. It is not, strictly speaking, a Toby Hemenway-style “food forest” guild, because only one item (the oak) is even marginally edible. However, I followed many of his basic principles and added one other: all the species are native to my area or are slightly aesthetically-selected varietals of local species. Here’s the result. Or perhaps the beginning, since this will really take 50 years to get into shape. 🙂

Bur oak guild

Bur oak guild

When planning a guild, you need to think in layers and functions. Here’s how I’ve addressed them in this guild, which draws on the Oak Openings found in SE lower Michigan and NE Ohio:

  • Overstory layer: Oak tree
  • Shrub layer: White and blue false indigo – will get up to 3′ tall and wide
  • Groundcover layer: Canada anemone and Pennsylvania sedge
  • Nitrogen fixers: White and blue false indigo and non-native Dutch white clover (seed not sprouted yet)
  • Insect feeders: Butterfly weed
  • Biomass: I did plant some non-native seeds (flax and borage, which are also good for insects), though I’m sort of wishing I hadn’t now. I will plant mullein seed in a few weeks when it becomes available – the first mulleins are just starting to bloom now.

Because this planting is so small, I don’t have an understory (small tree) layer or a vine layer. Eventually, I expect this guild to expand to this entire corner of the yard, and I’ll add serviceberries, New Jersey Tea shrubs, maybe buffalo berries, and some more flowers (blazing star, culver’s root, and thimbleweed).

Close-up of bur oak guild

« Older entries

%d bloggers like this: