Applied Permaculture Lesson

One of the things I am really excited about this Spring is another class  – Applied Permaculture with David Homa near Portland Maine.  This course is eight Saturdays, once a month, going out to sites and doing real work – pruning, grafting, planting, soil building – all the practical skills one needs for building and maintaining a food forest.  Where my first permaculture course last year was a lot of really good and useful classroom learning, this one is all about learning by doing.

David is well-organized and energetic. He welcomes us into his cozy dining room, where he has laid out white folders of materials with every participants’ name on them and set up a white board with the day’s schedule, as well as a table full of cool-looking pruning tools.   Wow!   Class starts with introductions.  This is a group with some experience, including a number of professional gardeners and homestead farmers.  I feel kind of proud to be part of this group, and again, as in other permaculture or farming meet ups, take a liking to the folks.    Our in-house lesson is on tool safety – always wear good gloves and eye protection so you don’t lose any fingers or eyes; make sure your first aid kit is well-supplied; and take care of tools – always clean them, and put them away dry.

Our first practical lesson is in espalier pruning – we tackle a small espalier at a friend’s (who mainly grows mushrooms) down the road.  David talks a mile a minute, snips here and snips there, and poof! the branch looks great.  He points out the difference between spur and tip bearing apples, which look exactly the same to me, no matter how much I squint.  Then he sets all us novices off in pairs to prune the rest of the espalier.  Boy, David’s friend must be an easy-going guy!   We prune the branches back short, to little spurs, like with grapes, so the trees look quite sparse when we’re all done.

David’s friend’s espalier after we have done pruning it.

After a good lunch, our next lesson is in a small orchard, where there are proper trees.  Here, we leave most of the branches on, we just take out the three D’s (dead, damaged, or ??); growth near the trunk; growth going up or down; and sometimes we tip branches to “stiffen them up”.  My partner, Nicole, and I take on our first tree; we snip, cut, talk, snip, saw, talk, snip. It’s a very clean-looking tree when we are all done. When David comes over to check, his eyes just about pop out of his head – oops, I guess we snipped too much!  We try to be a little more selective on our next tree…

Mark asks me what I learned when I come home.  I say “I learned tree pruning is really hard, and I don’t know the first thing about it!”, but I am totally satisfied and happy.

Three of my applied permaculture classmates having fun pruning – Nicole, Erin and Richard

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!

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.