May 10, 2012


Strawberries in Bloom

The process of transforming the central part of the hillside we live on, that I like to refer to as the courtyard, into a perennial food producing ecosystem, is one that I think illustrates well several perspectives that are integral to Windward's philosophy. The recent improvements that we have been making in this space this spring provide me with a good opportunity to both report on the changes as well as discuss the broader process and its relevance to community.

When I came to Windward, I knew that I would be focusing on increasing Windward's production of perennial crops (such as fruit and nut trees, bushes, vines and ground covers). While my experience with orchards and background in environmental science prepared me relatively well to take on such a task, for the most part my knowledge was general and my experiential understanding was specific to a landscape 3,000 miles away. I also had never been the primary person involved in transforming a physical landscape from idea conception to literal fruition. These last few years have been humbling indeed, but I wouldn't want it any other way.

Developing Permaculture Designs within a Community Context

People in the world of permaculture seem to get really excited by design. And while I agree that designing a system as best one can to match its desired function is incredibly important, it is also essential to remember that more often than not what serves as our baseline, our starting point, is far from a blank slate. Instead, it is a living, evolving ecosystem with its own dynamic processes already in place.

Woodchip-lined Paths and Rockwall Terraces in the Courtyard
This is ever more true when working within a community context. As time passes, people naturally grow attached to the way things currently are and, in addition, some folks develop visions for how certain portions of the property will develop in the future. So introducing new ideas, a new function and use for any given place, is a process that needs to be knowledgeable and respectful of both the existing natural processes of and the community relationship to any given space.

One way to go about this is to introduce new ideas for space-use slowly. This allows one to

  1. spend the necessary time with the land to observe its processes in real time and thus be able to create and adjust the visions accordingly and
  2. understand what, if any, ideas or desires exist for future space-use to be able to evaluate compatibility of visions.

In my observations, people have a tendency to respond better to change when it takes place in steps, as opposed to all at once. This way they can see where something is heading and draw their own conclusions as opposed to being asked to believe in something that is just a figment of someone's imagination. Given the nature of landscaping large pieces of land by hand and the growth rate of perennial plants, slow transformation is not all that difficult to achieve.

Alfalfa planted this March

To give an example: When I first arrived, the central hillside contained about ten fruit trees all individually fenced in to protect them from the free-range cows that visit us each fall. With this pattern of planting and fencing, the impression the space gave was: there are several fruit trees in this general area between the kitchen and the main garden.

Over the past few years, as I have increased the number of food-bearing trees on the hillside to about 30, adding in raspberry patches and strawberry beds, I incrementally expanded the fencing to surround clumps of trees. The expansion of the fenced area had three primary motivations

  1. to improve protection for the trees because the existing fencing no longer prevented the cows from grazing
  2. to use fencing efficiently (at a certain point it uses less fencing to make a few larger circles than it does to make several small ones and
  3. to slowly enable people to adjust to seeing the whole central hillside as an area dedicated to food production.

About 18 months ago, we took the took the step to adjust the fencing yet another time, to fence in about one and a half acres between the kitchen and the main garden. There are a few more significant steps to go (such as finishing the construction of the greenhouse, the integrated aquaponics facility-the Pearl, and re-routing the road) before we can establish what I would consider the final fenceline, but we have reached a resting point where we will stay for a few years.

Alfalfa planted last Spring

This new fenceline establishes the entire central hillside, that I have come to refer to as the courtyard as it will come to be surrounded by the village infrastructure, as a food production zone and enables significantly more flexibility in landscaping and planting patterns. Now if I had rather immediately shifted from those 10 individually fenced trees to fencing in more than an acre of this central hillside, I would have likely created a lot of unnecessary confusion, wrinkles and general discontent.

Being Flexible:
Taking Advantage of New Insights and Learning from Mistakes

A corollary of this concept of slow transformation is being able to maintain an overall vision for a landscape project while allowing for organic evolution of specific processes, steps and details. In each step you often learn something, figure out a better way to do it, or see something more clearly. So taking smaller steps allows for the overall project to benefit from this learning process.

Another example. The nature of living on a sloped hill means that water runs down hill. Since we already have a seasonal drought in the summer, encouraging the soil to retain as much moisture as possible for as long as possible, benefits the plant life. Two years ago, inspired by the concepts of hugelkultur and swales, we created experimental swales around a handful of trees, in an attempt to increase moisture retention. With a few people, it was an afternoon's worth of work. However, its good that we did it as an experiment with a half a dozen trees as opposed to all the trees, because the swales did not make any notable difference. It became clear that if we want to impact water flow on the hillside, more substantial landscaping was necessary.

Plum tree in full bloom...note the pollinators

This brings me to a portion of the work we have been doing this spring: creating terraces in the courtyard. In an ideal world, such landscaping would be done prior to planting any perennials. However, as I mentioned above, rarely do you encounter a blank slate upon which you can impose your ideal design. Since the terracing work needs to be rather precise so as to not disturb any existing trees, we are doing it by hand. And much appreciation goes to the strong backs of Jeff, Justin, Ruben and Andrew for helping to make this happen. The visual effect of the terraces is substantial. And the terraces, combined with the paths we have created throughout the courtyard, help to further transform the way a person sees the space. It is much more evident now that everywhere that is not a path is a growing space.

Since the overall vision is a multi-layered, perennial food producing ecosystem, it is important that we think beyond just food bearing trees. Just as a forest is more than trees growing in close proximity, a true agro-forestry system will have ground covers, fungi, herbs, grasses, bushes and vines. The trees are essential in creating the micro-climates that will enable other plants to become well established. And now that we have paths, we are better positioned to start this process.

The most significant step we've made this season towards creating the many layers of food production is in attempting to establish alfalfa-a nitrogen producing legume that is great fodder for the animals, forage for the bees and fertilizer for the soil. It still remains to be seen how the alfalfa will fair through the summer months, without irrigation. In addition to the alfalfa, I have also planted comfrey (medicinal, nutrient accumulator, animal feed) which I propagated last fall around some of the fruit trees, and hope to establish borage (bee nectar, medicinal) and California Poppy (native medicinal) near the trees as well.

Comfrey planted near a young quince tree
Working Towards a Collaborative Vision

Finally, Andrew's recent article on hedges and the work he is doing to build the rock walls that hold the terraces in place, is a perfect example of the most rewarding and beneficial outcome of this process of slow transformation: other people can take co-ownership of the vision and true collaboration can be established. If a project is clearly top down, design imposed, everything is said to be already figured out (which is rarely ever the case with multi-step, compelex tasks) then there is little incentive for other people to really invest themselves and their creative capacities, as it is always someone else's vision they are working towards. And a project such as creating a perennial food producing system is a task large enough and complex enough that it requires a team in order for it to be done well. The same can be said for Windward as a whole.