Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Permaculture Design Part 1 - Goals & Site Assessment

"In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation."  
"Practice thoughtful and protracted observation, not thoughtless and protracted labor."  
"Use small and slow solutions."

These patient permaculture principles are difficult to keep in mind as the growing season approaches and the sun shines on bare ground. Timing is crucial in gardening (so the book says.)  The past couple of weeks snowathon has given me a slight reprieve.  I would like to break the cycle of haste, fear, and panic which (my anonymous sources tell me) has often overtaken the HDT cottage project, but I have to admit I'm feeling the suction.

Perhaps you are just joining us?  I was recently asked in an email, "Could you explain to me what permaculture is?"  I replied: "The idea of permaculture is that of an edible ecosystem. Instead of monoculture field cropping, you garden like the forest, that is, you have a diverse ecosystem with many mutually supporting species of plants and animals, so that it produces multiple yields with little maintenance. The idea is to be more knowledge-intensive and less energy-intensive than conventional agriculture. (I think the wikipedia article on it is pretty good.) I could go on. It's trying to address the problem that we are putting more fossil energy into agriculture to make fertilizer than we are getting out again as food, which is clearly unsustainable. The trick is to do it without having to go back to a drudgerous peasant lifestyle, you know, field cropping by hand. As far as I know P/C has not been practiced on a very large scale, and in order to really work well it takes some lead time - about as long as it takes to grow a nut-bearing tree...  Also I might mention that agroforestry, and organic or biointensive gardening are related concepts to permaculture. I think Permaculture is more encompassing as it involves applying ecosystem-inspired design principles to the home- or farm-stead as well."

I recommend Permaculture in a Nutshell, by Patrick Whitefield as an excellent concise introduction.

Heros of Permaculture - and their books
Masanobu Fukuoka - The One-Straw Revolution, The Natural Way of Farming
Bill Mollison - Introduction to Permaculture,  Permaculture:  A Designer's Manual
David Holmgren - Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability
Robert Hart - first temperate-forest-gardener, zone 8
Charlie Headington - zone 8 forest-gardener
Martin Crawford - zone 9 forest-gardener
David Jacke & Eric Toensmeier - Edible Forest Gardens, Vol I & II.

Let's proceed with our Site Assessment and Client Interview:

Size: 43,500 square feet (1 acre, 0.4 hectare)
Location: Pine River, Minnesota
Planted:  not yet
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3b, going on 4a I believe (-35 to -25 F)
Growing season: 111 to 131 days.
Latitude: 46.7 degrees North
Longitude: 94.1 degrees West
Rainfall: 23-27 inches/year, with about 40% occurring in the growing season.  It may be becoming less consistent during growing season.

Figure 1.  Aerial photo, wide shot, North is up.

The area inside the red line was purchased by its present stewards in 2003.  The site under discussion here is near the Happy Dancing Turtle Cottage, which is marked by the small orange rectangle in the lower middle.  The cottage was constructed late 2006 through early 2008.  Roughly speaking, the one-acre L-shaped design area extends from the cottage south and west, across the open ground, to the tree lines.  There is also an attached south-facing greenhouse about 7 feet deep by 45 long.  The greenhouse roof is opaque, as are its small east and west walls.  The cottage is superinsulated and designed to use solar water heat for both domestic hot water and space heating, through an in-floor radiant system, although the plumbing is not yet completed.  Water is supplied by a well pump.

In previous posts I have touched on some issues with Zone Zero, the house itself.  I will return to that, but here I want to start with the broader context and then move toward the house.

Overview and history of the broader site

Note the open ground in the south and east.  Thirty years ago, all of it was corn field, and the road did not bend through it but ran straight east-west along the south edge.  The area in the south, east of the driveway, is now bisected by County Road 2 and has been lying fallow for an unknown number of years.  In the northeast there is an even-aged stand of mostly red pine, about forty-five years old.  In the northwest is a more natural wooded area.  In the southwest there is a sizable pond, probably spring-fed, bordered by a marshy area.  Note how only part of the pond is within the property.  The legal implications as to water rights I do not know as of this writing.

The soil is sandy and believed to be low in organic matter and soil life. Your correspondent dug three small pits south of the cottage; the topsoil thickness varied from two to ten inches. The subsoil is like beach sand, to a depth of fifteen feet or more, we believe. A hardpan layer was discovered at a depth of 7 feet, on the cottage site during the placement of the underground temperature sensors. These were inserted by hydraulic drilling with a garden hose. The eastern fallow field, where the windmill is, on the other side of the main driveway, still contains many identifiable bits of corn stalk. Some pieces have lichen growing on them, but others are just weathering on the surface. For the time being, this fallow field is being left to find its own successional pathway, sort of as a control plot. Right now it seems to mainly support moss, grasses (big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass), goldenrod, and young pine trees.

This whole region is prone to deer-tick borne diseases, Lyme's and human anaplasmidosis, or something like that. The local economy is heavily fortified by summer and fall tourism (hunting and fishing). There are large signs displaying the fire danger level, frequently updated year round.  

The ecological classification of the region is Pine Moraines and Outwash Plains, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.  The natural native vegetation climax situation for this bioregion is a fire-dependent woodland, class FDc23, which presumably means that the vegetation depends on how long it has been since the last fire.  

The 300 by 500 foot rectangular South Field, where the cottage now stands, was used for an unknown number of years as a sawdust dump.  At the time of purchase, the sawdust was about a foot deep over the whole field.

Recent interventions

Figure 2.  The South Field.  Area pictured about 635 by 475 feet.  The cottage is in green.  The area under design consideration surrounds the cottage and is bounded by the trees to the south, the trees to the west, the crater and driveway to the north, and the septic line on the east.  

Here are the views looking outward from the cottage.  The site is generally quite flat and open.

Looking South:  This area must remain clear of large trees to maintain the solar resource for the cottage.  The berm is 130 feet away, and the septic drainfield is in front of the berm.

Looking Southwest:

Looking west:
There is only a single row of tall trees to the west.  They show wind stress, with leaning trunks and few branches on the upwind side.  The trees are 110 feet away.  This area has been used as a parking lot because the side door is on this side.  I think it would be better to garden here and park elsewhere.  The ground is compacted and is one of three patches that were graveled during construction.  There is a pile of at least thirty large moldy straw bales.  They are 30x32x84 inches, and, if these are the 600 pounders, there are nine tons of flax straw over there.  They were being used to try and insulate the drain line from freezing.  Pigpen spent quite a while driving the Cat around to stack them over there.  I'd like to use them for mulch or turn them into charcoal.

Looking Northwest:
The crater, born as a screwup, is the only thing besides the sawdust berm which makes any variation in the landform and microclimate.  I am kind of starting to like it.  I say not so fast on filling it in.  For a forest garden, "pits and mounds" is a desirable feature and "site too flat" is a problem.

Looking North:
The building in front of the trees is Old Main.  The ground in front of Old Main slopes gently down and away - this is the site of a partially-implemented Permaculture design.

Looking Northeast:
There's the even-aged red pine grove.

Looking East

Looking Southeast:
I took a walk through these trees.  It is mostly jack pines but there are some small oaks, birches, and aspens as well.  There is quite a bit of deadfall, dead standing, and dead leaning on live.

In July 2006 the South Field sawdust was treated with several hundred pounds of urea, and then bulldozed into an east-west berm at the south edge of the field.  Some topsoil went along for the ride.  The idea was to achieve the proper nitrogen-carbon balance so that the sawdust would compost.  This berm is about six feet high, twenty feet wide at the base, and 400 feet long.  I think it is somewhat questionable whether enough oxygen is getting to the microbes doing the composting, even if they did survive the urea shock treatment.  The berm has grown a fine crop of quackgrass, a "vigorous, rhizomatous weed."  This may have a tendency to invade the flat area north of the berm.  It could be a nuisance if it gets beyond the septic drainfield.  It may be possible to use it for mulch or compost.

A three-tank septic system was installed in the middle of the field, with the drain field running about 300 feet east-west just north of the berm.  The flat open area along the west side was at that time planned to be a campground, and in late August 2006 was seeded with a mix of low-mow grass and white clover.  In October, to provide three raised areas for building, and to cover the drain lines from the building sites to the septic tanks, a pit was excavated northwest of the cottage site.  The building site "pads" are broad flat mounds of barren subsoil about two feet high, and the resulting oval-shaped crater is about 60 by 140 feet, and ten feet deep at its lowest point.  The water table is only a few feet lower.  The sides of the crater are barren and currently undergoing mass wasting.  A trench was dug from the driveway to the southeast corner of the crater.  The logic escapes me, as it is eroding into a serious gully.  Lamentably, the drain lines to the septic tanks tend to freeze.  This was a problem for the house trailer, a temporary office which occupied one of the other building sites from Fall 2006 through Spring 2008, and for the cottage also this spring.

The following March (2007), the drain field looked to remain free of disturbance, and needed to remain free of large trees whose roots would clog the lines.  The drain field was therefore seeded with native prairie perennial grass mix, which has not (yet) taken.  In the eastern half of the South Field, a program of broad-scale soil building was begun.  The field was disced and planted, a little late, in sections with 2 or 3 different prairie seed mixes.  Weeds came up instead.  The winter of 2006-2007 was low on snow, and the summer of 2007 was crispy-dry.  In September the field was disced again and 80 yards of composted cow manure was applied, and the area was cover-cropped with fall rye and vetch.  By October this had grown six inches high.  It was then heavily browsed by deer.  A hoof-print could be seen every six inches say, over the whole thing.  The main garden area in front of Old Main however, was not bothered by deer.  Perhaps this is because it's much closer to where Shadow lives.  Shadow is the resident very large German Shepherd.  He is gentle to properly-introduced humans, tough on deer.

On the west side, construction of the cottage continued throughout 2007.  The driveway and utility lines approach the cabin from the northeast.  As a result of the cabin construction, the ground within fifty feet or so is believed to be heavily compacted.  It was also pretty much scraped clean of vegetation.  Add to that the debris piles left over from construction and the place really looks like hell.  Because more roof work needs to be done this season, most of the ground within thirty feet of the cabin will be traveled by heavy equipment, and thus is still not available for gardening. Even plantings for soil building or beautification may be trashed.  

Client profile

Your correspondent is the sole occupant of the dwelling but does not own it, nor the grounds. He will be living here at least one year.   He is an engineering scientist by training.  He has some experience of suburban yardwork, that is to say, lawn care, and the pruning and weeding of ornamental trees and perennial flowerbeds.  He has virtually no experience of gardening, farming, or orchards, and little knowledge of plants, but did recently obtain a certificate in Permaculture.  He is more-or-less able-bodied depending on recent carousing levels.  He has up to about 8 hours per week available for maintaining the property.  The landowners are financially independent and the budget for implementation is potentially large, for a convincing design.

The flagship program on campus is the design/development of an Agricultural Resilient Community, comprising buildings and neighborhoods which heat themselves (in Minnesota), produce no sewage, and are conducive to growing your own food.  About two-thirds of the cottage's greenhouse is slated for heat storage water tanks and plant beds for greywater processing.  A hope for the cottage is that with both a composting toilet and a greywater system, the septic system eventually won't be needed.

I've been given a written list of  Campus-Wide Overall Purposes of Landscaping and Gardening:
  • Food production, long term, fruit trees etc - want to see focus here.
  • Food production, short term, just to eat right away.
  • Soil building
  • Water management
  • Beautification
  • Experimentation and research - proof of Permaculture or other types of creation of healthy soils
  • Education
  • Cut down on dust
I fully support these goals, assuming they are listed in order of importance (as opposed to urgency.)  The only change I would urge is to raise the importance of experimentation and research a notch.  This is because of both need and opportunity:
  • The campus is often called a 'research campus'.
  • I am a research-oriented individual.
  • The need for research on perennial polyculture in this cold climate has been highlighted by at least one experienced regional practitioner and by an international expert.
  • The challenges of this (rural) site are typical of suburbia in the region, namely thin sandy topsoil and relentless chomping by deer.  Lessons learned could be broadly useful.
  • The site is large and empty enough to try some different things.  For example there appear to be two different approaches to organic food growing - one is organic or biological farming, which uses annual crops, and the other is perennial or forest gardening.  We could compare these, or we could try different site preparations for forest gardening, such as trees first or cover cropping first.  It would be nice if we could think of some permacultural solution to the damn deer tick diseases.
I don't want to get too much into design here yet, but at this point I am quite interested in nuts, tubers, and mushrooms.  Pine nuts and acorns seem like appropriate tree crops for this biome.

The quandary here is that the spirit is willing but the brain cells are weak, or let's say, empty.  I, as a Potential Practitioner of Perennial Polyculture (PPPP) am a beginner and can only work on it part time.  I would love to design an instant succession, but I just don't know enough.  I would love to design a worthwhile experiment, but if one wishes to advance the state of the art, one ought to know about what the state of the art is.  

However, if I am considered part of the design, then my inexperience could also be viewed as typical and as a realistic challenge.  In other words, if the art we are talking about is not just forest gardening, but also the cultivation of forest gardeners, then voila, we are at the state of the art, and the experiment has begun. :)

As I mentioned above, the central idea of permaculture is the edible ecosystem.  It turns out that ecosystems are like, complicated? So, designing one is a complex and subtle business.  As with anything new, there are two basic ways to go about learning it:  book larnin', and hard knocks.  I am struggling to find the right balance here.

Fortunately, a couple of ecologists wrote a book about it.  David Jacke and  Eric Toensmeier, in Edible Forest Gardens, make a serious attempt to write down everything that anyone ever learned about the subject.  This book is a thousand pages long.  As of now I'm about forty percent of the way into it.  The thing about an ecosystem, as I'm understanding so far, is that in addition to Plants and Animals, there are three or four whole other Kingdoms of life in your yard.  Most of the species are microscopic.  All these creatures are trying to make a living any which way they can.  It seems like every strategy of Machiavelli, Napoleon, and Gandhi was already invented by gnats and such a hundred million years ago.  

J&T's book is very organized and systematic, but the sheer weight of information is a bit daunting.  It's like, in order to engage in an intelligent conversation about ecosystem design, you should know:
  • The eight levels of permanence in the landscape,
  • The five elements of forest architecture,
  • The four major categories of plant nutrients,
  • The six layers of soil structure,
  • The three primary life strategies of plants,
  • The five major kinds of soil life,
  • The six primary nutrient containers of terrestrial ecosystems,
  • The four models of vegetation succession,
and in addition, the size, shape, rooting structure, uses and niche requirements of a hundred edible or medicinal plants, or more.  Boy.

At times like these I try to remind myself, anything worth doing is worth doing badly at first.

Flora is the resident permaculture designer on campus.  She is very knowledgeable about plants and gardening.  I had another interesting conversation with her the other day, and she reminded me about the school of hard knocks:

ME:  I'm working my way through this book.  I feel like I could get to where I might be able to design a planting, but I'm not there yet.
F:  Books are only going to get you so far.  You have to engage with the landscape.
ME:  I suppose it's like auto mechanics or anything else, until you get hands-on, you've got no feel, don't know all the tiny little details that matter.
F:  Only with gardening its even more so.
ME:  Because it's...alive?
F: Right, that puts it on a whole other level.  

I walked away thinking, "and life has its own agenda."  So forest gardening is more like...coaching a team, or...raising a family, than it is like architecture or machine design.  People write books about coaching and child-rearing too, but you wouldn't consider yourself any kind of expert just from the books.  

In permaculture class, they taught us to learn both from books and directly from the land, using all our senses as well as instruments.  They also taught that you can do a lot of design and preplanning without encyclopedic knowledge of plants.  It seems to me at this point, that preplanning works the best with the built environment.  

The value of the books is as a bit of a shortcut.  If we are quite patient, need not do anything at all.  If we have a large enough piece of land, and leave it alone, nature should see to it that it yields abundantly, in time.  Trouble is, that might take a thousand years.  To speed up the process, we can observe the land and tinker with interventions, learn all of it the hard way, the work of some generations.  To give ourselves the best chance, we can hit the books and try to climb on the shoulders of giants, avoid some pitfalls, have some idea of what to look for, when we engage with the landscape.

I've digressed a bit into the philosophical, let me wrap that up and put it in the context of site assessment.  We are talking about Zone 1 here, the grounds just outside the cottage.  At this point I see the main challenges for Zone 1 as follows:
  • Thin sandy topsoil
  • Heavy browsing by deer
  • Increasingly droughty weather in the growing season - plant stress and fire danger
  • A thicket of startup dilemmas several of which are tied to my limitations:
  1. The wisdom of starting small versus the large area of land in need of healing.
  2. The time needed for planning, and assessment such as soil testing, versus the seasonal window of opportunity.
  3. Book learning versus action and learning from the landscape.
  4. The long-term nature of agroforestry versus my short-term contract.
  5. Obtaining a yield sooner versus obtaining a yield later.  
  6. Beautification versus heavy equipment access.
There is also some short-term need for cleanup about the cottage:
  • Wood, wire, roofing & pipe N of drain line, East side
  • Dirt pile SE of crater
  • Crate, hose, & roofing NW of cottage
  • Firebricks NW of cottage
  • Band saw SW of cottage
  • Outside compost pile and sawdust pile
  • Tires and sandpile S of cottage
  • Sand and dirt piles by S door
  • Pipe and dirt pile SE of cottage
  • Propane tank
  • Rolloff container
If any of these piles are clay, I want to save a couple buckets to make seedballs.

There are a number of other issues that need to be addressed, such as parking, snow removal, mud-free walkways, and some opportunities to make the place more pleasant.  More later.

Let me conclude this post with a review and update on Zone Zero, the cottage itself.  In rough order of priority, the cottage is in need of:
  • A composting toilet (work in progress)
  • Completion of the solar water heat system (work in progress)
  • Storage (outside shed, medicine cabinet, root cellar.)
  • Improved air sealing (I recommend blower door test before corrective action.)
  • Greywater processing (work in progress)
  • Reduced dependence on grid electricity especially for water pumping and hydronic circulation. (I suggest upstairs indoor water tank, and solar/hand pumping options.)
  • Growing edibles or propagating nursery plants in the greenhouse.
Again, there are some other things that popped up on the brainstorming list, but those are the highlights for now.


Cosmic Monkey said...

Excellent post. I think all of your work will be invaluable to those of us who are also learning and trying to design permaculture environment.

I have been reading the Permaculture Designers Manual (PDM) and Edible Forest Gardens (EFG) since 2006 now and I feel like I may be getting some small inkling of what they have to offer. When it come to my own site designs, I am working with limited funds, and so I gravitate toward Forest Garden Pattern #32. Nuclei that Merge. I am undertaking establishing perennial polyculture patches with the idea that they will grow into larger gardens as funds grow and time elapses.

I really think Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman has a lot of interesting ideas, especially for this cold climate. My main permaculture project is in zone 3b as well, and I want to focus on expanding food production into early spring and late fall, as this will be one of our primary struggles in the coming decades.

I think one of the best things you could be doing on the HDT site is to research the speed and effort of creating a sustainable food production system on a barren and compacted land, with minimal help by large machinery, as bobcats are not usually available at any time for most folks. But to see what you can do with a couple people and sincere effort, that is what I am really interested in.

Check out my own efforts at when I get it up and running. Good luck!

Paul said...

Great post!