Struggle, patience, peace

More snow fall on March 22 in Needham, second day of Spring

Early in March, Land of Plenty came and cleared the Norway Maples to make room for the food forest shrubs and trees.  Charlotte, Ruby and I spent a couple of days making permaculture piles of branches and duff.  The stickies on the scrum board were moving from the “Planned”, to the “Ongoing”, to the “DONE” column.   Things were happening!  It was so exciting!

Then, we had a big snowstorm.  A week later, another one.  And a week after that, one more (small one).  Everything is buried in snow.  There is nothing we can do outside (aside from shovel – with the appropriate technology, of course).   Today, nearly three weeks later, we have made no progress at all.  It has been absolutely maddening.  I have stomped my feet.    I have sworn never to spend another March in Boston ever again.  I have spent days obsessively checking the weather app on my phone, wanting to make the snow forecast disappear through over-exposure.   One day, I was so desperate, I took the wheelbarrow and tried to wheel it around in the snow, thinking this might work, we could put down wood chips.  But it doesn’t work.  The only thing that could be done was: practice patience.

It’s true that at the beginning of the month, I was feeling completely overwhelmed.   It seemed like the TODO list with all the things I am doing — Big Foot being just one of them — was getting longer and longer, and even daily routines like making the bed and playing some violin were getting lost in the fray.     With all the snow, I figured I had better just start going down that list.   Ruby helped, one day putting up shelves that I’d been meaning to get to for months.  I finalized the Big Foot business plan.  Got our taxes prepared.  Played the violin daily and got a little better at the Kreisler and Beethoven pieces I’m working on.   Spent some time with Josephine in a relaxed way.   Did some work for the Education Commission (my still-client from the career I am ending to go into food production).   Finished some Neighbor Spotlights for Green Needham;  made a cashflow sheet for Simply Circus to fulfill my treasurer duties. Until, quite by surprise, the other day, I realized I was no longer stressed.  The TODO list had been whittled down to a few items.  The weeks of not working outside had given me enough time to catch up.   Instead of struggling, I felt peace.  It was pretty nice.

Scrum board

The scrum board is a tool to help a team go through a project efficiently and effectively, with flexibility and while having fun.   Often, in projects, people make a huge project spreadsheet with rows of tasks, organized in order, and time, in weeks or days, going across the top. They fill in the week or days for each task, one following the other, so you get this nice cascade of going down your task list over time.  This is called a Gantt chart.  The problem is it never works out as planned.

I learned about the scrum board from my very own in-house project coach, Mark.   There are many ways to use Scrum, but I am going to tell you about our very own awesome approach.

First, you make the Story Board.  This is a list of all the tasks that will need to get done in your project.  Rather than by time, tasks are organized in chunks – the top level has very big themes called “epics”, within epics you have “stories”, and within stories you have the detailed tasks, “sub-stories”.  So I have an epic called “Get site prepared” and within that there are stories like “Be able to amend the soil”, and “Be able to plant trees, shrubs, herbs”. The epic and stories are about things you are going to be able to do, about achievements.   Finally, within the stories are the tasks (sub-stories) like “Dig samples of the soil”, “Send samples to UMass for soil testing”, and “Get the amendments recommended by UMass” all of which end up with me being “able to amend the soil”.   I worked out three epics, which will take me from February through May, one for each month.  Here they are:

  • February epic: Get site prepared
  • March epic: Make the groves
  • April epic: Build stuff
  • May epic: Catch up, build stuff, water

Now, to organize how you will finish those epics you put a scrum board on the wall.  Yes, right on the kitchen wall, or wherever, in a high-traffic area where you will be reminded of it!   Put your Story Board right up on the scrum board.   Make colored stickies for a bunch of the upcoming sub-stories (tasks, remember?) – I made yellow stickies for February and blue ones for March.   Those stickies are going to be moved around so that you always know what you’re working on and what is done.   I made three columns on the wall and on one of the kitchen doors where the broom hangs (which is a handy divider between two columns), and made headings with pieces of cardboard.   Looks pretty good, don’t you think?

Big Foot Scrum Board – beginning of first week.

At the start of each week, you sit down with your team and select a bunch of stickies which are going to go into Column 1: “Active this week” (this week the “team” was just me). The act of physically taking the little pieces of paper and moving them weirdly makes you feel like you have already gotten something done.  The tactile effect of the slight release when you pull the stickie off and then a second tactile effect as you smooth it onto the wall or door in a new spot sends a little release to the brain: you did something, yeah!    When you start to work on a task, you take that sticky note (you did something, yeah!) and put into Column 2: “Ongoing” and go do your task.  Finally, when it is done, you take that sticky note again and paste it into Column 3: “DONE” (now you really did something).   Ideally, on Monday, you start with a bunch of stickies in “Active” and at the end of the week, they are all in “DONE”.   The whole process is so transparent and fun.  And guess what: it worked!  Look at the board below — at the end of the week!

You can also use Story Board to keep track of how much time you thought each task would take and how much time it actually took, and have some space to jot down notes.  At the end of the week, the team sits down, and looks over what got done, and the time, and the notes, and reflect on how it went and if you can do anything better.   As I’m by myself this week my reflection is in the next blog post.

Scrum board end of the week: look at all that DONE stuff!

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.

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!




Learning to share – again

When we are very young, our parents and our teachers teach us to share.  Increasingly, modern social sciences tell us that humans are, by and large, naturally inclined to be cooperative and collaborative, so the nudges given to us as preschoolers have fertile ground to work with.  Our parents and teachers also encourage us to be independent and take initiatives.  I took this to heart.  My parents tell me that one of my very first utterances as a two-year old was “sef do!” — I want to do it myself.  No tales exist of any precocious sharing capacity, so perhaps this story is a case of “never too old to learn”.

This farming project is mine, I mean, I am the one who is doing it.  But it is also going to take place in the house and in the yard that I share with Mark, and his income is going to pay for the running costs – for a few years at least.  So maybe I was feeling a bit defensive.

MY Project!

In any case, what happened is that I would talk about plans — “we’ll put a row of fruit trees here, and a pond there, and chickens over in that place” — and Mark would offer some suggestions or ask questions, like “Do those trees grow here?” or “Where will we put snow piles?” and then I would get mad and tell him not to micro-manage MY Project.

Instead of getting mad back, Mark said, “Yeah, it’s your project, but I’d like to be a little part of it.  Can we find a role for me?”  This led us to identify what expertise Mark has that compliments mine.   Mark has a lot of experience coaching colleagues and organizations – helping them define project goals, tasks, and challenges; and figuring out a process to get where they want to go.   We decided to use this in the farming project.   On a couple of walks and evenings by the fire we used his frameworks for planning.  This led us to develop a very useful Project Goals document, and a Resource Need document (more about those next).   But the best part of it is that instead of doing it myself, by sharing I have found my very first farm partner.  And I like it!

Making time and space

One thing about making a big change in your life is that there is still all this old stuff.  While I’d like to spend most of my time on my terrific new forest garden project, things get in the way.  There are house projects that I promised myself (and Mark, my spouse) to finish.  There is winding down my previous consulting business.  There are the usual household tasks, friends and kids to see, exercise to be had, and the violin to practice.  When I was planning the coming months out, it all fell neatly into place: November and December for painting the house, January for planning the garden, February for ordering plants …. hm.   In reality, things jumble up together; new tasks and plans come up; and everything takes longer than I thought it would.

I try not to get frustrated, to tell myself it is what it is, and to trust that a continuity of little steps will go somewhere.  After detours, I do keep coming back to the projects that I have set out to do.  It’s a bit like my hopscotch camino: there is something of a storyline, but it’s definitely not linear.  I’m not like the happiness guru Gretchen Rubin, who can make a list of things to do and do them.  In order!  (I read her book The Happiness Project a few years ago and found it quite fun, if impossible to mimic).

Sometimes though, serendipity happens.  On Sunday, Mark and his friend Chris were hosting a fancy dinner at our house for 11 Olin students as part of a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser.  They had paid a four-figure amount for this dinner so I felt some pressure to make things look clean and nice – oh dear, one of those unexpected tasks that takes the entire day!  Our living and dining rooms turned into clean-up jumbles.

Living room in a clean-up jumble

But, cleaning up led to identifying a number of things we could get rid, including a big TV screen that had been taking up the desk in the living room.  Once the screen was gone, voilà, there was a clean and wonderful new space we could dedicate to my design and planning work!  So, in the end, the unexpected task led to unexpected progress!

My new desk with the most recent Big Foot planning sketch.