Winter, as in 0°F, has descended upon our little valley. Thanksgiving weekend left us a foot of snow. I tend the critters, a much easier task now that the hens have been installed in the hoophouse. The goats’ shed is functioning well enough, and we gave them a piece of plywood that we flip up at night to block the wind, and down each morning to give them a snow-free sunning patio. Carb-load them with extra grain before bed and they are doing just fine. But until we start pruning and training trees in late winter, it’s time for indoor work.
I declared (to myself) that this winter opens study session on permaculture, food forests and small-scale agriculture. I want to go from a fuzzy vision to a well-crafted (and budgeted!) planting scheme for the new orchard. The ideal outcome is rich in diversity, well-stocked with soil microbes, water retentive, pest resistant and low maintenance. How to get there from a weedy former alfalfa patch? The our answer lies in mimicking nature with a managed succession of plants, earthworks, and some livestock. If it doesn’t work, at least we’ll know something about our land. But some of it will, almost certainly.
Permaculture uses a forest model to combine perennial plants an a system that creates topsoil, supports pollinators and other wildlife AND produces abundant food. I have been studying it for a while, mostly books and websites targeted toward converting suburban homes to edible landscapes. There is a certain fantasy aspect of scampering outside the front door into your personal food forests, through a dense collection of plants and plucking your harvest that sounds lovely, and wholly unpractical on a large scale. I plan to harvest apples for 9,000 gallons of juice and I don’t want to be tripping over grapevines. I certainly don’t want any paid labor or paying customers taking a tumble. It seemed one should be able to integrate the permaculture concepts into a sustainable, but commercial, operation, but I didn’t have a vision of what it would look like. And there is a hard deadline to getting that vision together: 500 trees are coming in April. Then I saw this video-it was worth 9 minutes of my life. Actually 30, because I’ve watched it three times!):
Stefan Sobkowiak has figured out how to meld a u-pick operation (many not-so-careful visitors) onto a functioning food forest. A food forest with rows, not scattered clumps of randomly distributed crops. He uses a grocery aisle concept: stuff that comes into season at the same time is grown together, so the harvest is constrained to one or two rows at a time. If he can do it, so can we. Ours won’t look the same—we have to fit the model to our climate. I can’t wait to get our DVD of a documentary on his project.
Stefan farms in Quebec, colder, but our season is probably shorter and drier. We might use pinon instead of the chestnuts I desire. Elderberries, not blueberries. There are so many crops that haven’t been tried here (hazelnuts, hardy pecans, goumi berries), the new orchard going to be part laboratory, part cider orchard, part bee playground. So many options, I had to start a spreadsheet to track candidates for companion trees and plants. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.
When I ask myself “where to start?” too many times, I know it’s time to go back to the basics. In this case, it’s Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Design Manual, and the two volume set Edible Forest Gardens by David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier. Mollison’s book is the Bible of the permaculture paradigm. The Jacke and Toensmeier book was written for eastern temperate North Americans. Getting through all three books is my main study goal for winter. Since each one has the heft, density and cost of an academic textbook, that’s not a trivial, sit-by-the-fire-with-a-mug-of-cocoa task. So one other thing I did was quit lurking on permies.com forum. I have been reading a lot of back threads, posting there a bit, and proposed a reading group to go through the Permaculture tome, a chapter a week starting January 1, 2014. The read-along idea seems to have some traction, so join in if you are interested.
That said, Permaculture: A Design Manual isn’t the first book I’d read on the topic. Gaia’s Garden is a faster read and much easier introduction with loads of practical ideas to get started. And I can’t wait to get my hands on Restoration Agriculture, a book about scaling up permaculture to farm-sized systems. But I figure you can’t go wrong with studying the classics in any subject when you are ready to delve in deeply.
If I do my homework, by spring I should have a planting map, some seedlings, a list of things to do a mile long. Winter is for dreaming, learning and planning. What’s on your book list this year?