Last week, I shared some inspiring words about permaculture design, and how it can give us a path forward and an active, regenerative response to the many challenges we face. I wanted to take some time this week to share a more extended example that is near and dear to my heart—and this will likely be the last post on my Michigan homestead, a “celebratory” post of the good work that was able to be done there on the land in terms of regeneration. I’ve already written about the energetic healing work on the land earlier–this is about the physical space. My homestead in Michigan was recently sold to an incredible human being who will continue her own regenerative work on the land—and for that I’m grateful!
When I came to my homestead, the need for regeneration of the landscape–and myself–was obvious to me in some ways, and not so obvious in others. So here’s a look at my homestead and the healing work through permaculture design that was done there. So this post is an example of what one determined person (with help from dear friends and her community) can do over a five-year period to regenerate soil and bring abundance and fertility to the land.
Site Analysis and Assessment: The Challenges
When I purchased my homestead in Michigan in 2010, much healing and regeneration needed to be done. Its no surprise that permaculturists often select sites that are in the most need of healing—the tools work, and they work well, and we like a challenge. This land was no exception. The landscape was just covered in trash, chemicals, and more. Here’s what I found when I purchased the property:
The Lawn and Mowing: First, there was the typical damage of the lawn: no water retention, chemically poisoned, extremely compacted soil, very low-nutrient soil, shallow root mass, lack of biological diversity, no habitat or food in the grass for just about anything. A full 2 acres were being constantly mowed—pretty much anything that could be mowed was being mowed. The grass wasn’t healthy, the soil was so hard you couldn’t even get a shovel into it.
Burn piles, trash piles, and garbage everywhere. The previous owners had decided not to pay for garbage service but continued to produce a copious amounts of garbage, so their solution for years was to burn it each week, spread it in random places in the yard, and dump it in the back of the property. In these burn piles, I found everything from nail polish bottles exploded by the heat to lumps of melted plastic, metal coils, and chunks of rubber. The land beneath these piles, of course, had all the chemicals leeching in. All along the edges of the property was a ring of trash—from old bedsprings to plastic containers, for YEARS I found more and more trash along the edges where the trees stood! There was also a full metal bus, which my neighbor was willing to remove and scrap.
Scary fluids in metal bins. There were several scary metal drums, stored about 20 feet above the pond in the brush. I looked at them for a good month, trying to decide what to do about them. Finally, my neighbor helped me sort it out—it was hydraulic fluid, and he offered to take it from me since he could use it. Luckily there didn’t appear to be any leakage into the pond.
Deforestation. A one-acre section of cedar and white pine trees had been cut about two years prior to my moving in—the google map view still had the trees, but they were all found in the back of the property. A neighbor told me the owners “didn’t like the trees” so they had them cut and dumped. The wood was not used and the land still bore the scars of that event.
Alkali and degraded soil. Early soil tests from around the property revealed soil somewhere between PH 8.1 – 8.3 with almost no potassium to speak of and little to no organic matter. This kind of soil is a challenge—the high PH means that iron, phosphorus, and manganese are less available and may get locked up. I was, like many in my area, living on what had been old potato fields and the soil had been abused quite a bit in those days. You can learn a lot from the soil by the plants that were growing there—one of the few plants I had in the back of the property growing was Ox-Eye daisy; these are indicator species that grows in very poor soil conditions when little else can grow.
Water runoff issues. Additionally, the water runoff issues, especially down the driveway, put all the driveway runoff into a shallow ditch that went across the road and into the wetland.
Buried shingles everywhere. Someone thought it was a good idea to suppress weeds with toxic asphalt shingles—I found great layers of them under pine trees, down a pathway, in the barn.
Massive Garbage/Wood piles in back of property. When the previous owners had cut down all of the cedars and pines in the center of the property, they dumped them in the back, in the woods, and piled garbage on top.
Energetic issues. I wrote pretty extensively about energetic healing in my “about the land” page—I’m not going to be talking much about this here, but this is also a critically important issue. When something is mistreated, it closes off and curls up in a ball—that’s essentially what was happening to this land.
Site Analysis and Assessment: The Opportunities
Despite the degradation present, the site presented a host of wonderful opportunities to enact permaculture design—“the problem is the solution” as Bill Mollison would say. The site included:
- Nearly 1/3 acre of full sun, including a north-facing line of trees that created a heat trap
- ¾ acre pond (not well placed from a permaculture standpoint for regeneration, but in healthy condition minus the garbage floating in it). Indicator species, like spotted leopard frog, suggested the pond was ecologically healthy.
- A pole barn and detached garage
- A variety of microclimates: full shade, full sun, part shade, protected, high ground, slopes, and so on.
- A lot of established hardwood and nut trees: maples (for tapping, 3 tapable maples on property); several hickories, many oaks, wild cherry for medicine
- Protective, biodiverse hedges of trees, shrubs, and berry bushes surrounding the property on three sides where neighbors and the road were (these helped deflect noise, protect from pollution, offer food and forage to all life, and provide privacy)
- A big pile of logs dumped in the back of the property ready to be used
- A bunch of other supplies, like posts and fencing, dumped into the sides of the property ready to be used
- Land energetically ready for healing!
The Design and Restoration
In the first year, I spent most of my time doing the physical clean up of the land and observing the site. The trash cleanup took up most of my time on the land: picking up the burn piles, picking up the trash, fishing more trash out of the pond, picking up pieces of glass, dealing with scary materials in metal bins, and so on. I also sheet mulched three 4’ x 20’ beds in the area that I had the most solar gain and sheet mulched a rocky, gravelly area to turn that into soil. The winter came, and I began researching plants and thinking about the overall site design.
Looking back, I think the project evolved as my knowledge of permauclture design and organic farming grew. I wanted to regenerate the soil, to grow a wide variety of annuals and perennials (with a special emphasis on fruit trees, herbs, and biodiversity), to encourage pollinators, and to create a sacred space. My goals evolved as I learned more!
Soil Regeneration. Because of the state of the soil, my big goals for the property was soil regeneration using multiple strategies. As I mentioned above, ox-eye daisy was growing abundantly all through the property, and I was told when speaking to some people from our state extension office that I needed to chemically manage it—advice I chose wisely to ignore.
In my first year on the land, I sowed quite a bit of red and white clover in all the areas of the lawn that I knew I wasn’t going to do anything with for a period of time. Dandelion and burdock also popped up in those areas, breaking up compacted soil. I spread these as much as I could around the property (much to the dismay of my neighbors, I’m sure!) Dandelion and Burdock have deep tap roots and are dynamic accumulators of nutrients, so they are breaking up compacted soil and healing the land with their very presence.
Rather than mowing the whole thing and further compacting the soil, I chose to mow paths in the back 2/3 of the property and continued to mow the front lawn (especially after some legal troubles when I stopped one summer). The clover and dandelions (and other plants I later added, like boneset and new England aster) also provided valuable forage for pollinators. Looking back, being more intentional about this and sowing native grasses with deep root masses would have helped to build soil as well!
A second strategy for soil regeneration was bringing in chickens. A good number of permaculturists are using animals and specified grazing techniques to build better soil—my goal was similar. These grazing techniques basically suggest that we can sequester carbon by allowing grasses to get tall, then in allowing an intensive foraging by animals to reduce them to the roots. The roots get smaller when the leafy mass is gone, shedding carbon and building organic matter. As the plants regrow, new roots form and the cycle can begin again. My chickens ate bugs, pooped, and built nitrogen with their good work on the land. I also used them when they were in their run to compost materials rapidly and I was able to spread that compost into the soil. I spread manure from a friend’s alpaca farm, then let the chickens come in and scratch it up looking for bugs.
I also used soil amendments when I had the opportunity—I made compost teas and spread them in all perennial and annual beds as well as my field. Because of the high alkali soil, wood ash was out (which was a shame, since I had so much of it), but I did spread chicken compost as well as sourced some free seaweed and spread that. A friend had some leftover granite dust, so I used that as well as rock phosphate.
The field started out all in ox-eye daisy, heavily compacted soil. In a period of 5 years, few ox-eye daisies remain, and now there are a host of beneficial plants, berry bushes, and more. Where Autumn Olives grew up, I cut them back in the early spring before they leafed out, forcing them to deposit a lot of their nitrogen and carbon in the roots into the soil. This created a more fertile, less alkali soil, which eventually allowed me to create other things.
The last technique, one that I did only a little before moving, was to make and bury biochar to help fix carbon and build soil quality. My garden (covered below) received many more amendments (copious amounts of chicken-composted leaves, organic matter, etc).
Now a lot of these techniques were initially focused just in my garden—and that was a mistake. My garden was about people care—but the whole landscape needed to be cared for. Later in my time at the homestead, I started building soil not just for the garden and perennial gardens but throughout the whole property.
Biodiversity and Perennial Plants and Trees. I really wanted to showcase perennial fruit and nut crops as well as perennial herbs for medicine. To do this, I created different small perennial beds: an traditional medicine wheel herb bed in the front, a small orchard of fruit trees with mini-swales behind the barn, a second row of fruit trees with guilds of beneficial plants along the driveway, a butterfly garden, and a mini food forest (there weren’t trees, but there were trellises and large bushes). These spaces were designed and implemented individually.
In permaculture, we think about “stacking functions” where a single plant has many uses – the cover, for example, fixes nitrogen, provides good groundcover that doesn’t require mowing, and creates a fantastic nectar source for bees. Many herbs and perennials have these kinds of multiple functions.
Pollinator Haven. In my third year, I really focused on pollinators. I added many more milkweeds, spreading them throughout the property. I planted and managed two perennial pollenator gardens with long-blooming plants. I added other blooming plants, especially mid-to-late season blooming plants like oregano, bee balm, boneset, joe pye weed, New England aster, and goldenrod. The goal here was to provide nectar sources well beyond the spring flows. I had my property certified as a wildlife sanctuary and monarch waystation.
And, of course, I added the two beehives. I paid close attention to what the honeybees vs. bumble bees and other native bees liked, and I made sure that all of those things were present on the landscape. Clovers, ground ivy, brambles, so many things the bees like!
Signage, Education, and Outreach
As I mentioned above, after some difficulty with my township about my rather wild front yard, I registered the site as a Certified Monarch Waystation and Certified Wildlife Habitat. I did this mainly for education of those driving by my house—the signage showed people that something different, something regenerative, was happening here.
A final piece of the design of this site was using the site as a place for others to come, to grow, to learn, and to heal. This took on a lot of different forms: I had 9 other people, at various times, with plots in my garden. Many others learned about various garden techniques like sheet mulching, front-lawn conversion, beekeeping, perennial plants, herbalism, and more. Throughout my time at the site, over 150 people, many through our Permaculture meetup, came through and saw what was going on, and learned about it. I hosted many monthly meetups as well as hosted three permablitzes so that people could come and learn.
Others came, when they were in need, to use the land as a quiet retreat for healing or integrative work. Still others came to celebrate the wheel of the seasons in the druid tradition. These spiritual and healing aspects were as important to the regeneration of the land as the physical ones!
Here’s a final map of everything that was planted and where! Thanks for reading :).
Wow! I had no idea the previous owners of your house treated the land so badly. The first owners of my house also used the back of the property as a trash dump, but that was in the 1930’s (a bit more forgivable). Also, their “trash” was things like colored glass medicine bottles, chipped China, and ornate (but tarnished or broken) silverware. As a kid I used to hunt for their “trash” back there, clean it up, and decorate my room with it lol
And burying shingles to suppress weeds?! Is that a thing that people do? It’s like they were going out of their way to harm the land. Pure insanity.
My soil is also very compacted, and I’m afraid it will be difficult to remedy in my situation. The neighbors are very fussy about the height of people’s lawns, and there is a city ordinance that prohibits grass or weeds from being 6” or taller. Oh, and I can’t keep any fowl or bees under local ordinances either. I’ll have to read up on all the tools available in the Permaculture toolkit and I’ll probably have to get creative…
Donovan, it won’t be difficult to remedy your situation. What is your goal for the land? 🙂
1. I want to eliminate most of the lawn in the backyard, replacing it with gardens and mulched paths.
2. Rehab the very small woodlot that we have. (For some reason it has almost no undergrowth at all.)
3. Replace half of the front lawn. (I’m thinking of converting the shaded part into a shade garden with native wildflowers.)
4. Build a chimney swift tower, since we’ll have to evict them from the actual chimney.
5. Find a way to sanctify certain sites (e.g. the ash stump, the stone circle in the woods, my old cat’s grave, etc.)
In the near term, I’ll be focusing primarily on research and planning. There are a few things that I’ll probably do between now and winter, but most of the projects will probably not happen until 2016 (if I’m still here).
Awesome. When you are more settled in, let’s talk through it if you’d like! Eliminating the yard is great….:)
Reblogged this on sylvaingrandcerf.
Your thorough approach to recounting the permaculturation of your old homestead is really interesting. I am enjoying following this and find it very useful. It must have been difficult to leave this place but it must be exciting to begin the healing of another patch of the Earth.
It was difficult to leave, but sometimes the universe has a way of moving you on to where you need to be. I very much feel I do need to be here in PA, where I am now, and that’s a good feeling :). Thanks for your comment!
Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
A step-by-step inspirational and true tale by Willowcrow. Thank you for all you do and are! A powerful and healing Druid, indeed. 🙂
Loved reading this! Not sure how much I can apply in my own garden as it’s in the Netherlands (different climate/native plants/soil) etc, and the dutch plantnames. Back to work now 🙂 thanks for sharing.
You can apply the principles of permaculture to any space–maybe not the specific plants in all cases, but the principles are sound. People care, earth care, fair share are the ethics. The principles can be found here: http://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/
I know the principles, it’s just that I can’t blindly copy this plan – I’ll need to invest some time for that, but I lack time. I do have some ideas for the garden, like a natural swimming pool. The kids are still young so that is something to realize in 10 years or so. For now, I just occasionally plant things and let things grow with an occasional mowing of the first part as the children play there. The grass in the back can grow a bit more freely, and the grass along the hedges can do as it pleases. Some fruit trees in between, some vegetables… but I haven’t really checked the soil. It’s trial and error: if it grows, it grows. If it doesn’t, then i’ll try something else.
Ah, I see :). Start with small, slow solutions, right? I prioritized by getting my trees in the ground first and doing a little earthworking. Smaller stuff…that happened as I had time!
There is a group called the Apios Institute. They have forums where people share working guilds of plants–they might be super helpful for you!
Love the cover!!!
I’m inspired by your newsletters, thanks for sharing so generously. I’ve just embarked on a similar journey in Detroit. Do you have any thoughts or feelings on land that sits on demolition debris? The dense housing of Detroit was pushed into basements and buried. I’m doing some sheet mulching over the grass and hope to build-up soil over the years. I hand dig holes for trees and I’m hoping their roots are strong enough to make it through the debris and take hold. It’s an often frustrating but fascinating process.
I used to live in the Detroit metro area, and I’ve met and gardened some of the urban farmers there who had very similar circumstances. For annual crops, the consensus was to do raised bed style gardening–import soil on top of whatever was beneath it. Do you know where the old house stood? I wonder if you can do raise beds where it was and then plant trees around the perimeter. Wherever you plant, however, nature will take hold! Nature will always find a way to grow. Another thought I hve is about the specific kinds of trees you are planting–I wonder if trees that are good for regenerating the landscape, like what I call ‘First responder” trees might be better than say, oaks, apples, etc. I’m thinking of trees like Black Locust, Birch and Staghorn sumac–fast growing, short-lived trees that are part of ecological succession and prepare the soil for pinnacle species like oak.
I would also encourage you to do some networking with others who are doing urban farming in Detroit! There are so many good things going on there and I know other folks are doing similar work! 🙂