We have a Design!

And then…  after taking a design class, after writing a synthesis document, after getting to know our land, and making time, and going through the Process …. we have a Design, a paper version of our vision!  It is very exciting!

Here is the drawing of it:

Big Foot Food Forest Gardens – Final design


In the front of the house, we will expand the existing shady wood garden with mostly New England plants.  These provide a long season of different shapes and shades of green, and a succession of flowers from diminutive purple violets to tall, showy spikes of white flowers on the Black Cohosh (white – black? funny naming).   The left of the house is also shady, and here we’ll plant paw-paw trees (circles with “pw”).  Paw-paw is a native fruit that tastes like a mix of mango and pineapple!  I can’t wait.  Under the paw-paw trees, we’ll have an understory of ramps, ferns, solomon seal, ginseng, mitsuba, all edible, and some nitrogen fixing herbs.  This is also where we hope to have the shiitake logs.  Next to the house (big X), we’ll put a large water collector, where we can also put a bathtub for dunking the shiitake logs to make them fruit.

In the back by the deck, we will keep our lovely semi-circle of grass for parties, surrounded by a flower bed that starts in March with the crocus and ends in October with the asters.

Behind that, we’re going to have three different groves — a small group of chestnut and almonds; three rows of mixed fruit trees; and behind that, also going up the hill in the back, a grove of hazelnut rows.  On the east side, we will plant two walnut trees, which need a special selection of plants that tolerate the juglone secreted by walnut roots.  The swoopy paths will go around a little pond, with a pergola next to it, covered in hardy kiwi.  All the groves will have nitrogen-fixing trees or shrubs mixed in.  There will be some open pasture — for the mini sheep and chickens! we hope! — and some places to try out grains — rice, and a plot for the Native American three sisters (corn, beans, squash).

Each of these groves will have its own understory mix of perennial herbs that do at least one of the following tasks: bring up minerals from deep in the soil, confuse pests with their aroma, attract beneficial insects, provide pollination and nectar, provide food or medicine for people.  Most of them do more than one of these things.

Ah!…..  It is both exciting and terrifying to have this design.  I had a big dip when it was done — are we really going to do this?  It’s a bit nuts.

Well, that was all a while ago and much has happened since, and it looks like yes, we’re really going to do this!  Step by step by step.

Mark’s curvy paths

Have you ever seen a drawing of a garden design?  The swoop-y paths, and the green circles that mean “this is where you put X”.  How do they get there?   I don’t know how others do it, but I can tell you about our process: how the design grew slowly bit by bit in many iterations, with lots of looking things up, how we hit a road-block, and how it all came together.

In the first version of the design, I basically said, OK, we like the front part of the yard, so we’ll just put the food forest in the back half, plop, in three rows of trees.  This of course, is not very elegant.  No swoop-y paths here.   Plus, no room for the mini-sheep.  However, it did rationalize the walk to the bikes, and this solution remained in later versions.

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Very first design – just adding some fruit tree rows to the back of the garden.

I kept at it, taking out my pencil and the tracing paper, putting a new blank piece of tracing paper over an old design and tweaking it here and there, then putting new tracing paper over that drawing.  Knowing our land and our goals really helped.  So did the 1″x1″ grid, and plant books with information about space, soil, water, and light needs of my plants. Gradually, one part after the other came into focus – an area for growing hazelnuts; an area for regular fruit trees; a spot for walnut trees to be able to grow into their huge selves (after I’m dead and gone); a shed and pasture for the mini-sheep.   Then, at last!  I had a Design.  It wasn’t perfect – it had straight paths going from front to back which were not the greatest – but it had all the plants in the right places, and it met all of our goals. I proudly shared it with Mark.  He said, “that looks really lovely, I like this and that, but …”  very gently “… wouldn’t it be nicer if the paths were sort of – curvy?”

Grrr!!!  I knew it!  Never share your Design with anybody!  All they do is mess it up and say it’s Not Right!   I was frustrated.  I drew 20 deep breaths.  Then, I said to myself, why don’t you try letting go of all that information and thinking and planning, and just kind of let the pencil do where it wants to do?  And that’s what I did.  And five minutes later – there was an outline of a new design, with swoop-y paths, very pretty, and after I filled it all in with the individual plantings … it worked!  More on the final design in the next post.

Hello Land, good to meet you!

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Aerial view of our site/yard. Photo credit Max Wils.

The Synthesis Document is a kind of getting to know yourself; the other side of this is getting to know your Land – or site analysis.  I learned about site analysis from the Permaculture Design Course I took last year, discussed in an earlier blog.    In a site analysis, you measure and then analyze your space — so you know how much you have to work with, and where you have problems and opportunities.  At first, the site analysis did not seem that exciting to me – compared to designing, planting, or harvesting – but it does give everything that follows a critical foundation.  It’s the bedrock, as it were.

Final site drawing – with the gas line! Measurements given by the grid.

The measuring is done with a very long tape – we bought a 50 foot one for a few dollars.  It’s way easier and more fun with two people.  Mark and I worked together.   There is probably a professional way to do this, but we winged it pretty well – getting the perimeter and the location and exact size of the buildings, existing plants – the lawn, the flower bed(s), the trees and bushes — and other useful stuff like the laundry line.  We found out that, wow, we have 15,800 square feet to work with!    We initially forgot an important detail, namely, the underground gas line.  Oops!  I also drew a 1″x1″ grid for a scale of 1″=1 feet, and we used tracing paper.

Next, we made drawings of specific topics – layers.  What is the water situation; where is the sun; what are the elevations; are there different types of soil; what are frequent paths you walk on your site.  Our soil is all sandy loam, and our site is flat except for a steep 13 foot rise in the back, so I did not draw that.  I did draw a sun analysis, a water analysis, and a walking analysis.  From this I learned we have an awkward bike shed location: oh, we’ll want to fix that. We have a bunch of shady spots and one large wet area, which we can integrate into the design, or try to remediate.   When it was finished, I felt like I had had a good introduction to our Land – and it was great to meet you!

Project Synthesis Document


After we had agreed that we would work together, Mark said the first thing we should do would be create a Synthesis Document with all the jobs and functions that this project will need to fulfill.   This document will help guide the design – because we will be able to look at the design and check off how all the jobs and functions are going to be met.

You can be flexible about your process and what you put into this document.  We decided that we would give each function or job an importance rating: 1 is “nice to have” to 5 is “can’t to the project without this”.  We would rate each function according to how well we are doing it already: 0 is “not doing this at all” to 5 “wow, we are doing a bang-up job, don’t mess it up!”  We would add little notes to ourselves with details or relations to other stuff, and our meetings would be in ad hoc locations.

We quickly made Big List of Functions with some cool, exciting stuff like: Grow Food; Enjoy the garden; Demonstrate the site to others; Increase biodiversity; Capture carbon; Build a hugelkultur; Sleep outside; Handy garden tool storage.  But because we were trying to capture all the functions of the food forest/ our back yard we also included mundane functions like: Storage for wood, bikes, the emergency generator; Drying laundry.  Mark wanted to be very sure we dedicated Room for Shoveled Snow, having bad memories of the 2015 Snowmageddon with four consecutive blizzards and piles as high as a grown person next to our driveway.

Next, we went through each item on the list and talked about them all over the course of a few walks in the woods and car rides.   We went back and forth between the cool, exciting functions and the more humdrum stuff in order to keep the conversation going.  Notes from the walks were quickly scribbled down at home, and in the end, Babette made up a synthesis document with the most important functions at the top.  It is very useful to have and it was pretty fun to do!

Here is the Synthesis Document: Click here to see it!




First official step: a class

I have been dabbling in growing food for many years.  Our yard, which is about 1/3 of an acre, has been gradually converted into a motley collection of fruit and vegetables.  There’s the ramps, fiddleheads, and mushrooms back in the “woods”; the bees under the flowering cherry; the strawberries, currants, apples, sour cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and grapes.  From May to October, we can go out on most days and munch on some fruit or green.   It’s fun and rewarding, but I know that our production is just a fraction of what it could be.  Reading lots of books and experimenting have not turned me into a master gardener – I felt I needed to go back to class.

The fact is, farming, or more broadly growing food, is not so simple.   To do it well, it just seems to me there are an overwhelming number of factors you have to keep track of – soil structure, Ph, different nutrients for different plants, plant companionship, handling an array of pests and diseases, prune, tie up, cut down.  Have you ever spoken with the farmers at your farmer’s market?  Have you noticed they are all really pretty smart?  That’s because farming is quite complex and to do it well takes a lot of intelligence and knowledge.  The more different plants you have, the more complex it gets.  Some people seem to have a natural knack for this, and some people have grown up around a farm acquiring skills; I have neither.  But, people like me can go to farm school.

Village Roots Permaculture Class

For permaculture, that starts with a Permaculture Design Course, 100 hours of instruction, which gives you the basic principles, some design experience and a certification.  I went to Village Roots in New Hampshire in Spring-Summer 2017.  It was wonderful!  The weekends there were a restorative tonic for me – I felt connected to the teachers and my fellow class-mates and our shared visions – and soaked up the information like a sponge (although a lot of it seeped back out again… so it goes!).  We learned about ecology, soil structure, water management, niche analysis, pruning, herbalism, biochar; and design skills like basic site mapping and program development.  In the end, we presented a preliminary design for a site of our choice.  Below are three of my drawings.

Niche analyses for mini sheep and chickens
Permaculture guild with fruit trees, herbs, accumulator plants, and animals
Final PDC design for our site based on simple mapping, niche analyses, basic programming.