While spinning some of the oatmeal Shetland fiber the other day, a wisp of brown became twisted in the first ply. I watched the contrasting colors whirl as they inched closer to the spool; an imperfection so eloquently represented. I wondered whether the two sheep who produced these colors were close pasture mates. Maybe they looked out for one another the way sheep do, or perhaps they were mortal sheep enemies. It’s hard to tell with sheep.
Regardless of their sheep preferences, here in this place of quiet meditation, with the steady hum of the drive wheel and the clinking of the hook, they have blended to create a thing of beauty; differences erased with a twist.
It is the twist that makes the yarn strong. And in the twist that morning, I discovered a subtle metaphor for family or community. Some of the fibers are short and crimped with high luster, others are long and straight. Combed, they blend into handsome roving and strengthened when brought together by the cyclical power of the wheel. We are all made more beautiful when we offer up a little of ourselves to the greater good. Especially when we don’t let our differences define us, but compliment the uniqueness in others. We are all subtle variations in hue and luster made stronger by the twist we share in common.
People utilize permaculture principles selectively. It’s in our nature and there are 12. And honestly, it took me a few years before I really, fully, truly understood all 12. That’s part of what makes permaculture a great compliment to nature; it’s natural pace.
Often permaculturalists are asked to rush designs to accommodate what people would like to see, which means bulldozing past quite a few key elements that will make a design thrive. Yes, those plantings may yield after some time of their fight against opportunistic plants better suited for poorer soils, but the time and energy needed is crudely invested.
That said, there are often may outside, human influences rushing the process. We like to see results and for humans these days, that’s something akin to the immediate gratification of seeing plants in the ground. But more and more, I find myself questioning these methods as they fail to reiterate that key principle, Slow and Steady Solutions.
What makes this principle so critical? For one, it allows room for the first principle of Observation, which if practiced alone would save the average gardener years worth of toil. Secondly, working closely with the land at a slower pace allows for a gradual accumulation of new microbes well-suited your soil, it affords valuable time for soil-building and cover cropping in which carbon and nitrogen cycles have time to sufficiently stabilize, and as those changes unfold, creates smaller feedback loops permitting more time to observe changes and adapt.
Where we fail to apply this principle, we find thriving opportunistic plants, decreased yields of desired plants, and if plants suffer, an increase in pests and disease, resulting in a poor demonstration of permaculture and a weary grower. That’s not to say that every permaculturalist who fails to yield to this principle is going to suffer. If done correctly, it is possible to establish a fairly productive system mimicking the longer-duration process, with the right elements in place and with, at the very least, time allotted for observation.
That said, please slow down. Take time to get to know the land. Have a picnic in your future garden space and see experience the wind and sun, the insects, birds, and neighboring plants. As with any relationship, don’t rush it; savor it. Grow with it.
I carry the trees, slung over my shoulder in bundles, and walk the trail to the open meadowland of the north field. There, the golden rye has fallen and given way to an undulating current inherent in soil. As I dig, the sweet smell of earth fills the air. I find myself talking to each tree as I bury its roots; little tidbits of encouragement; the promise of the caretaker.
The work is hard, but only so much that you feel your muscles by the end of the day and are assured a solid night’s rest. I am glad we didn’t hire the digging by machine. I am grateful to plant each tree by hand. This arrangement between the trees and me has become something of a practice in gratitude. I am here. I am able to smell the earth and carry each tree to its place in the orchard. And perhaps this is how it should be: An act of co-creation between the land, the trees, and me.
I used to tell people I’m living on borrowed time. Cancer makes you rethink the obvious. We’re all going to die, but getting sick at 28 inspired me to forgo the usual worries of aging for the savory act of living. Here I am, near the anniversary of the founding of Healing Tree, in the orchard that I hope will showcase a new way of growing fruit trees, celebrating not only all this farm represents, but also elating in the fortunate circumstances that allow me to witness and participate in this project.
The shovel is used for digging, but when I bury the roots of each tree, I do it by hand. Carefully, with intention. And with gratitude. Occasionally, I find cherry wood beneath the soil; ghosts of the old orchard. A reminder of the changes between then and now. My daughter traverses the orchard, tree to tree, talking excitedly about what the apples will taste like and how it will be to harvest them when she’s older. For her, the future is boundless. And the remnants of the cherry trees bares no relevance. For me, they whisper of what was and what will be. They give warning, the give blessing. They are giving in to the earth and will feed the roots of new trees. For them, the future is boundless.
I used to tell people I’m living on borrowed time, but I’ve stopped that after this week of planting. The trees assure me it is irrelevant whether I live to 100 or die at 28. What matters is the quiet moments of fulfillment, of rest between simple tasks, when I am able to look up and see this dream realized. And know the future is boundless.
I was planning on writing about willow water today, but found a great article from Deep Green Permaculture on the subject already. Rooting hormone can be purchased at the store, but a natural method of collecting indolebutyric acid and salicylic acid involves a couple of seriously simple steps. Click here to check out the how and why willows are a great alternative to store-bought rooting hormone.
Apple trees do not suffer in silence. The other day, my husband called from the farm to tell me one of our apples had been badly damaged by rodents. Before asking, I was certain I knew which tree. Last summer, when selling our house, I had transplanted three healthy apples out of dormancy (a horticultural and pomological no-no).
Two of the trees went into healthy soil, and suffered very little. The third tree, my personal favorite, I planted at a point that represents the entrance to the future orchard. The soil in that spot had been tilled and was badly depleted, but I nursed the tree along with high hopes. I pinned this hope on the fact that the tree was a highly disease-resistant Liberty on standard root-stock.
It was. The sweet disease-resistant apple had taken yet another hit from an impressive rodent population living at the farm. Having already suffered through intense winter cold and heavy snowfall, it was no surprise that the tree had attracted the attention of some common orchard grazers. I knew this, not because I understood the science, but because it’s a pattern repeated in nature. Even predatory animals hunt the weaker of the herd.
The Science Behind the Pattern
It turns out, the scientific community has long been interested in the phenomenon of trees and plants putting out distress signals. A more recent study conducted by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology concluded plants and trees emit an odor that attracts predatory insects and birds to help ward off infestation or future attacks long enough for the tree to heal.
According to the journal article published in Ecology Letters, scientists examined apple trees specifically, and found that damaged or insect-ravaged trees attracted more birds than their healthy neighbors.
The journal article abstract concludes:
Birds were attracted to infested trees, even when they could not see the larvae or their feeding damage. We furthermore show that infested and uninfested trees differ in volatile emissions and visual characteristics. Finally, we show, for the first time, that birds smell which tree is infested with their prey based on differences in volatile profiles emitted by infested and uninfested trees. Volatiles emitted by plants in response to herbivory by lepidopteran larvae thus not only attract predatory insects but also vertebrate predators.
Scientists hope to apply their research to developing better (and natural) pest management strategies in commercial orchards.
In the meantime, I’ve treated the tree with a small amount of honey, some cinnamon (a natural insect and deer deterrent), and wax tape, affording the Liberty a little time to heal and a good bit of hope.
We hear this a lot, “How can you do that without a tractor?”
It helps that we don’t till and manage the farm in a manner consistent with Permaculture’s ‘slow and steady’ principle. But the question remains, how do you deal with a large swath of land that requires working? We’ve run into one such stretch of pasture that was heavily tilled and sprayed for a few years. What remains is a rocky, sandy, depleted soil with several varieties of pioneer plants putting down deep tap roots to mine for nutrients and to gain traction in a heavily eroded landscape.
How can we alter this stretch without a tractor? Our answer: Time, livestock, poop, and seeds.
Pioneers, the first to appear after the soil has suffered enough tillage, are plants often detested by the traditional farmer/gardener. They’re designed to survive in harsh, arid soils. Some even secrete a growth-suppressing hormone from their roots, keeping other plants from competing for the limited nutrients available. Additional tilling, which throws nutrients into the air, will generate an ideal habitat for these plants, preventing what we’d like to grow from growing (unless we rely on biocides to kill them, then soak the ground with synthesized NPK).
Instead, we approach the land with an integrative thought process. How can we work with what’s here and what we have to improve soil and get a yield of some kind out of the process? That yield might come in the form of fodder for animals, or food for humans (or both).
The land mentioned above, once a GMO-cornfield, is being transformed into a productive grazing pasture for our sheep. We first let it grow undisturbed for a full year (in a few more years, the microbial life there prior to conventional approaches will return), while installing fence-posts.
Taking advantage of a gentle slope, we’ll graze the sheep, who expel some of the richest pelleted manures of any livestock, in the upper portion, supplementing their feed with hay. During this process, as it rains, they’ll fertilized the upper portion of the field and allow for water to carry some of the nutrients to the lower half.
The pioneer plants, which congregate in the lower portion of the field, will now serve as a food source for meat-chickens. Using a chicken tractor (instead of a petrol-driven tractor), we’ll move the chickens daily and where they’ve eaten away the vegetation, they’ll leave a rich manure in its place. After each move, we’ll sew grasses and a limited supply of clover (a great nitrogen fixing legume).
By next year, we’ll reverse the process, allowing the sheep to graze the lower pasture, continuing to fertilize as they eat, and run the chickens across the upper portion, seeding as we go. Out of this, we get yields of meat from our chickens, fodder for the livestock, and fiber off the sheep. No tilling (and no tractors) necessary.
Participants following the third design held March 23rd. It’s always exciting to see what new projects are emerging within and outside our bioregion. Thank you to all who continue to work toward healing the land and connecting its people.