Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It's Easier When You Listen

When I was growing up with my strict Southern Baptist family, we got spanked a lot. And each spanking continued until there was an audible "breaking of our will," some enigmatic signal in our crying. Needless to say, all of us experimented and practiced these changes in tone to get the spanking over with sooner (but not too soon or they'd know it was fake!), but I can't remember one single time that getting spanked ever changed my worldview.

The day that the gravity of permaculture hit me I finally had such a worldview shift. Since then I've had several smaller, but very important adaptations to the world that permaculture had informed me of originally, and yesterday I had another one of those.

The key player in this revelation was the 8 mature sugarberry trees surrounding the back of our lot. You see, sugarberry leaf fall is allelopathic to other plants, much as the juglone secreted from the roots of walnut trees inhibits the growth of competitors. (Sugarberry leaf fall can actually neutralize this juglone to allow greater biodiversity to flower around walnuts! But that's later in the story...) So, when I first started designing our site I just knew I needed to have those massive trees removed, at great expense, in order for our system to be productive. I fenced the goat paddock at the back of our lot to allow a 10 foot open stretch down each side where I could plant more fruit trees along the property lines with the understanding that the sugarberries would have to be removed by a tree service before I could plant the new stuff.

Yesterday I cleared out a couple of tons of dropped trees and branches that I had fed the goat since we got here, and once cleared out, I sat around in the now-wide open paddock to admire my work for a while while everyone else took a nap. I had become increasingly concerned that the paddock was going to be really hot without that dappled canopy shade once the sugarberries were gone, but I figured we'd just deal with it until the fruit trees got big enough to remedy that. But what I noticed was that our goat spent a good portion of her time cruising around munching on sugarberry leaves, and that the leaves had been falling steadily all summer. Surely converting allelopathic leaf fall to goat manure was neutralizing the toxins that stunt grass growth! And here was this super abundant food source, free of charge, raining down on the goat paddock constantly. Why on earth would I want to pay someone big bucks to remove free food? So I could pay even more to import offsite feed? So I could make the paddock sweltering hot during the summer, stressing the livestock, and causing a need to use more water? So I could force the system to grow fruit instead of goat? There's room elsewhere for fruit. And sugarberries do grow with other plants, plants we could probably find close cousins of that might also produce something for the humans in the system.

Turns out that my subsequent research confirmed that what I had planted back there already, and what I was planning on adding, was exactly what I needed! Toby Hemenway's permaculture book suggests that the walnuts I mentioned earlier are a required part of the "guild," necessary for neutralizing the sugarberry's allelopathy, so I'll add a couple of English or black walnuts (haven't decided, maybe both) around the edges soon. But the other plants - mulberry, goji, elderberry, and goumi - are already there, or on the list for adding next season! Occasionally things register in my brain when I read them!;o) The other species he mentions is more marginal, but I might try once the walnuts get established - currants. They need about 1000 chill hours to fruit and we only get 600. Pretty fall color though, fruit or not, and who knows where the climate might be headed. He also says that this poison-squelching assemblage might be a good spot to try tomatoes and peppers!

So the "A-ha moment" for me was really just one more case of listening to what Nature had to say instead of forcing the system to conform to my preconceived notions, as is typically the case with high-energy agricultural systems. As a bonus from that low-energy process I reap goat meat, turkey, chicken, eggs, blackberries, elderberries, goji and goumi, walnuts, mulberries, and potentially currants, tomatoes, and peppers! All on about 3000 square feet!

The more experienced permaculturists say that we should go into our designs with the understanding that our ideas are probably wrong. Of course I don't think I'm going to be wrong any more than anyone else thinks they are, but I saved a LOT of hard physical labor, a LOT of money, kept a LOT of valuable shade, and slashed my future feeding chores, by careful observation and an open mind.

That's rare enough for me to consider this an important breakthough! (And I'm obviously always happy to share such moments, whether they're important to anyone else or not!!)

1 comment:

  1. I so love the concept of the site! I first learned of you over at CFN ( Kunstler)and really am glad I can follow your progress!