Saturday, May 14, 2016


This year I am expanding the garden.  The place is really starting to feel like a farm. Our front yard is about a 1/4 acre and the long term goal is have a mix of perennials and annual food producing plants.  I want to have it look like an English cottage garden and be a beautiful place to spend my time.

Now that it is mid May we have lots of projects underway.   Mulching is a big part of the work.   Our soil is very sandy and full of grass and the mulch should reduce the weeds and watering. We are using wood chips over cardboard around our woody perennials. The annual beds are getting a layer of compost and mulched with grass clippings or mulch hay we got from a friend last year.
  There are a lovage, 2 rose bushes and 7 blueberries that need better weed protection and the cardboard and wood chips should make a big difference.  Our town transfer station has free wood chips so when Alec has time he picks up a load of them for me.  

This bed still needs a bunch of clean up.  It is my favorite part of  the garden.  From May to October it is full of flowers.  The ditch has a bunch of cardboard mulch that the chickens shredded for me last fall.  They love to destroy mulch.   The ditch is one of our swales  that  catches water from the driveway and waters my flowers and apple trees.  It will also get yard waste and mulch to make compost for us.

Kitchen herb and veggie garden (new in 2016!) right outside our front door.  Planted with snap peas, arugula, spinach, romaine lettuce.   Cooking herbs, kale, and other crops will be planted as the leafy greens mature and get harvested.  

When we dug the swales we put a big rock here for a nice place to sit and enjoy the garden view.

This bed up front with daffodils, iris, walking onions, strawberries, and comfrey is new - we made it late last fall while re-digging the pond.

Rhubarb, planted 2 years ago.  Pond in the background (along with the 4-in-1 pear tree and garlic bed).  My rhubarb is finally big enough to start harvesting from.  

Our 4-in-1 apple tree is blossoming for the first time.

Cold frames and cardboard in the background. (I did mention that I have lots of projects to finish...) We've been using the trailer and wheelbarrow to get free wood chips from the town dump.

Perennial flower swale from another point of view. The bed behind it will have some of my tomatoes, basil, and carrots.  I am hoping to get it planted next week.

The Baldwin apple tree.  Baldwin is a 276 year old multi-purpose variety that's good for fresh-eating, pies, and cider.  It's also more pest resistant than larger apples like Macintosh, and can be grown without chemicals (as we plan to).

I planted approximately 90 cloves of Music Garlic last fall.  The smaller green plants sprouting on the left side are potato onions.  The are an older style of bulb onions that form  a cluster of bulbs under ground.  the onions should range form 3/4" to 4" in diameter each.   

Perennial herb bed with egyptian walking onions, catnip, an edible crab-apple tree (too small to see), high bush cranberries, strawberries, aronia berries, bee balm, oregano, lavender, fever few, sages, thyme, mint, roman chamomile and a few other things I can't recall. There is way too much grass in this bed.  I will be digging the clumps out and adding more herbs to fill the holes. 

Our two newest beds in the annual part of the garden.  We split an old bed that was too wide; we'll eventually turn 5 very wide beds into 8 or 9 beds that are far more manageable.

40 crowns of asparagus planted this year in a new bed, and mostly mulched with grass clippings.  With luck we'll be getting as much asparagus as I can eat for many years out of this bed. 

The line of berry shrubs.  We're using cardboard (shown earlier) and woodchips to protect these plants from grass competition.  Some have been growing here for two years and are still small due to the grass.

View facing uphill (west) over the whole front yard garden.  The wood is from sumac that we cleared last fall to let in more light; we'll be giving it to our neighbor for bonfires.

Free wood chips from the dump.  This is about 2-3 yards; I can fit ~0.6 yards in our little trailer and do one run every ~30 minutes (so I'm still looking for more efficient ways to move it).

King George and the girls.  We switched feeders a few weeks ago to reduce food waste (the new feeders make it harder for them to knock the food they don't like to the ground).  I think it's working but I don't have great measurements yet.

Pak choi in our Kitchen garden.

Our original asparagus bed from 2 years ago that we thought the deer wiped out.  Some made it, so we mulched them with grass clippings.  Grass clippings are more work to collect (I estimate 10-12 times as much labor as free wood chips) with a walk-behind mower, but there are certain uses like this where you need the nitrogen and lack of weed seeds.  Angelica is on the right.

Peach tree, daffodils, garlic that didn't get harvested last year, and crab grass (ugh!)

Fruit tree swale.  We have 2 peaches, 2 plums, 1 apricot, 2 cherry trees, and a sweet crab apple tree.  It also has blueberry bushes (arranged in order of harvest date from front to back), cherry shrubs, and more.

Fenced in back yard garden next to the bee hives.  We used a 16'x20' 16 mil tarp to kill the grass last fall, and it worked great.  We're trying to use a lighter weight clear tarp to kill more grass behind it, but it's not as effective.

The same 16x20' heavy weight tarp, killing a new section of grass for us.  This will get planted with flower bulbs for the bees - a good use of space over the leech field that we don't want to disturb too much.

Our "immobile" chicken tractor.  After 2 years in the sun and cold, the tires are shot.  We've cleaned it out and will put the new hens in it when they have finished feathering out next week.

Bee hives.  We got the two taller hives in 2015 (they're Italian bees), and the shorter ones last week (Russians).  We're slowly adjusting the position and orientation of the hive on the garden cart - it will end up on those concrete pavers with the opening facing East.

Bees coming and going from one of the new hives.

Bees in flight outside an old hive.

Chicken run and rainwater harvesting.  The two IBC totes give us 550 gallons of water storage.  The birdbath in the foreground has rocks for the bees to land on so they can drink without drowning.  We installed little red & black solar powered flashing-red-LED "NiteGuard" modules after seeing a bobcat in the back yard.  We haven't lost any chickens to predators yet, but a lot of that is probably luck.

Bird bath being used by bees.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

More Bees

We're getting our second batch of bees tomorrow!

We wanted bees for several reasons: because they pollinate the plants in our garden to help us get fruit (although we have plenty of wild pollinators here so we would have been fine without them), and to get honey, and because we think they're really neat.

Kate does almost all of the bee-keeping; she took a local bee-keeping class and ordered our first bees in January 2015 for May pick up that year.  She wanted Carniolan bees because they're supposedly the easiest for people who have never done bee-keeping before, but they were sold out, so we got two hives of Italians instead.  Italian bees are also good for new bee keepers.

They came in two 3-pound boxes that looked like this:
Forgot to photograph!  These aren't our actual bees.
 and each had their own queen.

We made level bases from old patio pavers, and set up the hives with the entrances facing East so they'd wake up earlier and access the flowers during peak nectar flow.

Kate did all the work of setting up the hives, including spraying the bees with sugar-water to calm them down (the bee-equivalent of Thanksgiving Dinner) and pouring them into their respective hives.

We got medium-frame boxes because they're lighter than deep-frames.  A box with 10 deep frames can weigh 80+ pounds, and 60 pounds of that is honey.  Mediums are only 2/3 as heavy.

We put them up off the ground so small animals (like skunks) that might try to eat the bees would have to reach up and expose their bellies to bee stings.  We really need to protect them better against bears, though.
Our medium frame hives sitting on re-purposed patio pavers.
The bee population grew rapidly, and in June, Kate found queen cells in both hives.  Worker bees create special cells to incubate queens in preparation to swarm.  For 1-month old hives, this generally isn't a good thing.  She got two nuc boxes just like the one below, moved frames with queen cells to the new hives, and killed all the queen cells in the original hives to prevent them from swarming.

Nuc boxes are a nice way to split hives, because they only hold 4 frames, so it's easier for the bees to regulate their temperature with fewer of them.  When they grew enough, Kate moved them from the nucs into full-size boxes that hold 10 frames apiece.
Nuc boxes just like the two we have.

Unfortunately splitting the hives didn't work, and July 4th weekend I was outside doing yard work and noticed thousands of bees flying around.  They were swarming - in pretty much the worst month of the year for bees to swarm.

Our backyard looked like this:
Forgot to photograph!  From Wikipedia:
After 30-45 minutes of flying around, they piled up on a branch 30 feet off the ground in a tree being strangled by poison ivy . . . so I declined to try to catch them.

We knew they'd be looking for a new place to live, so we put out a box in the hopes they'd move in, but unfortunately they wandered off and we never saw them again.

July is a bad time to swarm because it's right before a 'dearth' of flowering, so bees who swarm then have very little chance of establishing a new hive and making it strong enough to get through winter.

We realized after the swarm that it most likely happened because their population grew faster than we expected, and they ran out of room.  The countermeasures we took (splitting the hives) probably still weren't enough to alleviate crowding, or we missed one of the queen cells and she grew to maturity and the old queen left with the swarm. Thankfully only one of our two hives swarmed, so we probably only lost 30% of the bees.

We kept the two new small hives through the summer and into fall, but they weren't growing fast enough or putting away enough honey to make it through the winter, so Kate moved the worker bees into the big hives so more of them would make it through the winter.

Here are our hives in mid-winter:
Our two hives wrapped in insulation for winter.  The platform to the left of each hive is where the smaller hives used to be.
Thankfully we had a mild winter in 2015-2016 and both hives appear to be thriving.

We borrowed our friends' honey extractor (which I converted from manual to motor-driven using an Arduino, a 12V power supply, and a variable-speed motor controller), and got about 10-12 pounds of honey from 5 mostly-full medium frames.

Here's the extractor before I added a 13.5:1 gear reduction to keep the motor from overheating:
The frames we emptied still have most of the wax intact, so it will be less work for the bees to rebuild them and add more honey.  The first batch of frames we extracted are already back in the hive.

Today we assembled new frames because we didn't have enough for the new hives.  The wax foundation already has the honeycomb pattern, and is molded from actual beeswax (which bees apparently like better than the plastic ones).
The frames come partially assembled.  We add grommets, wire, and sheets of wired wax foundation.
Tomorrow Kate will drive to Vermont and pick up the Russian Bees.  These bees originated from Far Eastern Russia, slightly farther north than we are in New Hampshire.  They're more resistant to varroa mites than other bee races, so we hope they'll give us better survival rates in future winters.

The guy we bought them from raises them without chemicals and overwinters them in Vermont before selling them, so they're far more likely to be adjusted to our climate by the time we get them.  We tried to get them last year but they were back-ordered.


Transporting the new bees and getting them situated went smoothly.  The two hives came in a single deep box with a divider between them, and two entrances (facing 180° from each other).  One hive (4 deep frames) uses each entrance.

Kate assembled two hives, each made of two medium boxes stacked on top of each other (to provide enough room for the deep frames, which are taller than mediums).  She put 4 deep frames (filled with brood from the new hives) in each box, and added 6 mediums to fill out the space.  This leaves extra space below the frames where the bees would eventually build comb (which we don't want), but she's hoping to cycle all of the deep frames out of the hives before they get around to that.

Her strategy is to put the deep frames on the outside, because the queen likes to lay eggs in the middle of the hive.  As all of the existing brood hatches from the deep frames, she'll pull and replace each frame with a medium.  When all the deeps are out, she can remove the extra medium box (since it's only there to make space for the deeps).

Unfortunately it was drizzly the morning after she got the bees, but they were low on food, so she had to move them into their new boxes and set up feeders, and they weren't happy about it (bees do not like having their hive opened up on cold, cloudy days).

They're doing fine now, though, and she's steadily adjusting the orientation of one of the hives to face East like the others.  An East-facing entrance wakes the bees up earlier in the day when nectar flow is higher, but with the 2 hives facing 180° apart, she had to face one of them west.  She's moving it in small increments to avoid excessive disruption to their navigation - if you move a hive too much, the bees get lost and die.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


After doing the earthworks in May 2014, we didn't install any fencing for the first couple of months.

This was a mistake.

We discovered the most obvious damage after returning from a week's vacation in June to find that all the tomatoes in our annual beds had been pruned down to within a foot of the ground.  We even found a sunflower with a big deer-shaped bite out of it (see photo here).

The less obvious damage was even worse: the deer were pruning all the fresh growth off of the dozen fruit trees we'd planted, and trampling the asparagus bed.  The chickens were doing their part too, by removing all the mulch from the asparagus and exposing bare soil.

To combat the obvious damage, we installed 5' steel t-posts around the annual beds and wrapped it with black plastic net fencing.  This deterred the deer and chickens from getting into the annual beds, which was nice, but we really should have fenced off the fruit trees and asparagus too.

Also 5' t-posts are too short to be very effective.  The first 1' goes into the ground, leaving you with 4' above ground, which, to a deer, is about as challenging to jump as stepping over a 36" wide raised bed is for you or me.  If they have other things to eat in the area, and the ground inside the fenced area is uneven, then it will deter them, but if they really want to get in it won't stop them.  I now prefer 8' t-posts, which leave 7' sticking out of the ground, and are about as high as I can reach with the post-slammer without using a ladder (I'm 5'10").

Since the fencing we had was 7' wide, we tried fastening bamboo extensions to the posts to make the fence taller, but they kept falling over.  I'd definitely recommend longer posts.

While we didn't get it right the first year, we fixed it in 2015.

We got 8' t-posts and fenced in the entire front yard (including the lower two swales and the hole-in-the-ground-that-will-someday-be-a-pond), not just the annual beds.  We used 16' cattle panels for the lower 4' and two strings of galvanized 14ga steel wire for a total height of 7' - then we wrapped the bottom 2' with chicken wire to keep our birds out.  While this certainly wouldn't be tall enough to keep deer trapped inside, it seems to be effective in keeping them out.

We also sunk 4x4 pressure treated posts into concrete and installed 2 fence gates.  Our gates came with chain-style latches that wrap around the post and lock into a notch back in the gate, but they're annoying to use one-handed if you're carrying something (which I usually am), so I want to upgrade them to gate fork latches, which should be easier to use one-handed.

A note on concrete for fence posts: after trying a few methods, I like to dig the hole, set the post, pour dry concrete mix directly into the hole, sprinkle water on top, and re-check the post with a level.  It's less work than mixing the concrete with water in a bucket, and you're less likely to add too much water and weaken the concrete.

We moved the black plastic fencing to the long swale and protected the whole thing from deer and chickens.  Here you can see two of our fruit trees (a plum and a cherry I think) that are smaller than they should be after losing most of their first year's growth to the deer.

In hindsight:

We would have spent the time and money to fence in everything the first year (especially once we realized how much deer-pressure we had).  It doesn't make sense to spend money on 1-2 year old fruit trees and then fail to spend money protecting them.

I'm not sure if the plastic fencing or the steel fencing is a better deal.  The plastic claims it's UV protected and will last for years instead of rusting, but our galvanized steel fencing still looks great a year after installation.  The steel is more modular, so we can easily remove a panel to get a vehicle in to drop off straw or compost.  We took down the plastic fence last winter and put it up again in the spring (the theory being that snow loads would shred it to pieces if we left it up), which made it much more labor-intensive than a metal fence that doesn't need maintenance.  This coming winter we're taking the Darwin approach to fencing: if the plastic fence ($0.61 per linear foot) dies, we'll replace it with metal ($2.00 per foot), but if it doesn't, we'll leave it.

If we do go with metal for the next round of fencing, we'll use 'variegated height hog panels' instead of cattle panels.  While they're shorter at 34" instead of 48" (which means we'll need a 3rd string of wire above them, the wires are close enough together near the ground to keep chickens from jumping through them.

Lastly, before putting up any fence, I'd ask what animals it needs to stop.  We care about keeping deer and chickens out - if we want to eventually get pigs, the plastic fencing will be useless, and the steel fencing will need reinforcements (i.e. more t-posts spaced 5-8' apart, not just 16' apart).  Foxes, bob-cats, and other predators will be able to climb the steel to get to our chickens, but probably not the plastic.  We have zero protection right now against things that dig under fences (because it's a heck of a lot of work).

Friday, April 22, 2016


We rented an excavator and dug up our yard in mid-May, 2014.
I'll cover what we did in more detail below, but first, why on earth would you do this?

Earthworks provide several benefits for food production, including:

  • Disturbance management
  • Water management
  • Microclimates suited for different plants and beneficial insects

Disturbance can be a good thing.
Grasses grow well in partial and full sun, but they're difficult to eat, and they compete with other plants for water, sunlight, and nutrients.  If you dig a hole in the lawn and plant a fruit sapling but do nothing to fight the grass, the tree will either die or be severely stunted - either way you'll be waiting longer for fruit.

Disturbing the ground and then planting trees or seedlings and mulching gives your food-producing plants a fighting chance at competing with grass.  Disturbance can convert compacted soil into lighter, better aerated soil that plant roots can penetrate, and also makes more nutrients bio-available to help your plants grow (that's the reason plants see a boost in growth after tilling).

Digging and tilling are a lot of work, and there's another downside too: the nutrients that suddenly become bio-available also become easier to wash away, so tilling the same plot year after year reduces the Soil Organic Matter (SOM) percentage, making it harder and harder for your plants to thrive.  Gabe Brown, a farmer in North Dakota, bought farmland that had been mono-cropped and tilled intensively for 17 years, and when he did soil tests, here's the contrast he found between undisturbed forest soil and nearby field soil on the same property (chocolate cake good, chocolate mousse bad):
Brown has an excellent 58-minute presentation (and a shorter 2-1/2 minute version) on how he restored that field soil and tripled his SOM over 20 years with cover crops, grazing animals, and NOT tilling.

So we used disturbance to convert lawn into swales, ponds, and raised beds, but we want to avoid doing it on a recurring basis.  That's why put in earthworks immediately before trying to grow anything: if we put it off until later, then we'd disturb the food-producing plants we put in and miss out on a great deal of potential growth.

Water management is key to drought-resilience.
Even though we live in a mild climate that rarely suffers long periods without rain, we knew how critical water is to sustaining life and erred on the side of caution: we put in 3 swales to increase snow-melt- and rainwater- infiltration and catch soil particles that might have washed off the property.

This has already come in handy, as we had a dry spring in 2015, and when we finally did get heavy rains (3"+ in 24 hours), the swales helped prevent or slow surface run-off.  We've seen our middle-swale fill to about 6-8" deep and be nearly empty an hour later.

Part of our water management plan was to dig a pond uphill from the annual vegetable garden: we'd store water in it during rainy April & May, then use it to gravity-irrigate as needed in dryer August and September.  Unfortunately the clay content of our soil is too low (30%+ is ideal) for the pond to seal on its own, so it's still not holding water 2 years after we dug it.  When money permits, we'll get an EPDM liner.

Microclimates help biodiversity (which makes our food production more resilient).
Raised beds and other contoured features impact the amount of sunlight, wind and airflow each spot of ground sees.  The south side of a berm can host plants and beneficial insects that thrive with more sun and heat, while the north side hosts those that do better with less.

We're hoping dragonflies will move in near the pond (and eat lots of insects that would eat our food) when we finally get it to hold water.  The pond itself will reduce temperature swings near it; we're also hoping we get a nice warm microclimate just south of the house (where it will be protected from wind and get light that reflects off our white siding), which is also just north of the pond.  With luck this will let us grow things that usually only grow in Zone 6 or warmer.

Preparing for Earthworks

We had some idea what we were doing by helping build raised garden beds with a backhoe at a friends' house the year before.  I even wrote up notes immediately after that with ideas for process improvements.  With a couple dozen people and a piece of machinery to work with, we knew that preparing during the week before the rental was key.

We made an A-frame level and marked off the swale contours with flags.  Since we'd noticed our driveway got wet during the first winter, we added a 2° slope to the front half of this first swale to drain water away from the wet spot and toward the dryer backyard.
We used the same flags to mark off the pond and raised annual beds.  Unfortunately we didn't mark the annual beds well enough and ended up with a smaller number of very wide beds that we can't reach the middle of.  We're slowly re-shaping them now, but it's a lot more work with a hand-shovel than an excavator.

One of our friends had already built hugelkultur beds in his garden, so when he found out we were building them, he offered to truck in a bunch of scrap wood cut from a nearby park that he volunteered to maintain.  He delivered this before the earthworks party.

The key to getting the most out of soil disturbance is immediately planting something in it after you're done disturbing it, so Kate spent a good part of late winter and early spring growing many flats of seedlings.
She also stocked up on straw (for mulch) and cover crop seeds to sow in the disturbed soil.  In retrospect we could have used a lot more mulch to save on weeding later on.

Earthworks Preparation Summary:

  • Measure your site.
  • Plan what you want and where you're putting it all.
  • Mark it clearly.
  • Get seeds, seedlings, soil amendments, and mulch all prepped.
  • Make diagrams and written instructions that describe the plan to all of your helpers.
  • Invite friends to help.

Dig In!

We had nice sunny weather (after a couple of days of rain) for our earthworks party, and about 25 people show up (including 3 high school students from our robotics team that I bribed with the promise to let them operate the excavator).

This is the top swale right after excavating (it's essentially the same spot shown above with flags).  In retrospect we made this much bigger (about 15' from edge to edge) than necessary.  A swale needs to be big enough to hold the largest rainfall you expect to see while accounting for the uphill catchment area and water-retention capacity of the ground (deep-rooted trees hold more water than paved surfaces, for example).  This could have been half as wide and still worked fine.  We made the next two narrower.
After excavating we prepped the berm for cover crops by manually flipping the clods of grass (which I now think is about as effective as an umbrella in a hurricane: it might help, but not much).

Then we put down cover crop seeds and mulched.  The left part of the photo below is all seeded and mulched - the right part got planted with asparagus and mulched later.  Unfortunately the chickens and deer pretty much killed it (more on that later in a post about fencing).
Here's what it looked like 35 days after construction:

Constructing 500' of swale, a small (~20x30') pond, and ~250' of annual garden beds in a weekend was easy with the excavator.  We used the 25 people (mostly just on Saturday) to flip the clods of grass, shape the beds, and do seeding and mulching.

Ideas for next time:

  • More mulch after disturbing soil -> less weeding later
  • Plastic mulch (tarps and black strips staked to the ground) is very effective in killing grass
  • Make sure you have more than enough cover-crop seeds - if you run out and leave soil bare for a week, you'll have more erosion and competition from grass.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Topic Ideas

This is a list of ideas for topics to cover in more detail in future blog posts.  Feel free to comment with questions or suggested posts.


We got 15 hens and 1 rooster our first year.  We did fence-shifting for a couple months before giving up and free-ranging them.  They've provided all of the eggs we could eat (at least until the 2nd winter when their production dropped by 2/3).  We've used them to clean up the annual garden beds (gleaning produce and eating eggs of pest insects).  They'll also eat seedlings and spread mulch everywhere you don't want it, if you let them.  They eat lots of ticks and poop everywhere.
No losses to predators in 2 years (but 4 hens lost to indigestion, disease, or stupidity).


We got bees in our 2nd year - mostly for their pollination work, but the honey is nice too.  I'm motorizing a honey extractor borrowed from a friend.


We've noticed a sizable increase in the number of wild birds in the area since we moved in and started planting things.  We see bluejays, crows, hawks, cardinals, wild turkeys (22!), humming birds, woodpeckers, orioles and many small birds.


We didn't have enough clay in our soil for the pond to seal, so I knew we'd need a liner.  I reshaped the smaller, deeper pond to fit a 30x50' liner and have a large shallow area for aquatic plants to filter the water for swimming.  I will definitely take pictures when we put the liner in (which we haven't done yet).


In September 2013 we took a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in Vermont.
In October we found our new home, and in December we bought it and moved in.
That winter we made plans.

Our high-level goal:
Build a low-maintenance, beautiful outdoor space that provides more food than the two of us can eat while relying on minimal off-site inputs once established.

This breaks down into specific sub-goals:
  1. Plant perennials (fruits, nuts, berries, etc) because they provide far more food for far less work than annual crops that need to be re-planted, rotated, and intensively managed to avoid soil depletion.
  2. Plant annuals (tomatoes and other fruits & veggies) to start getting food in the first year, and for exercise & aesthetics.
  3. Keep animals to manage pests and produce proteins, fats, & fertilizer onsite.
  4. Plan ahead . . . but still adapt as we go.  We want to maximize what we get from the money and time we're able to invest.
We chose this property because it has good solar aspect, is close to work and friends, and at 2.5 acres is manageable but has plenty of space to grow food for 2 people.

The southern half was almost all lawn when we bought it.  It slopes mostly East, but also South.  In our climate (43°N latitude and USDA Zone 5b), southern exposure is best for the extra sunlight and higher temperatures.  Eastern exposure is the next best, because ground that sees sunlight earlier in the day warms up earlier.  Since low temperatures typically happen right before first light, this gives smaller temperature swings (both high and low) than ground with afternoon light.

The northern half is covered in trees and shrubs - some of which we'll keep (the maples, oaks, and autumn olive), but much of which will eventually get upgraded to more productive alternatives.

We're focusing on just the lawn for the first few years to save the work of clearing trees and brush, and because it's flatter and has better solar aspect.

We decided to put raised beds for an annual veggie garden in the front yard, dig a nice garden pond, and install 3 swales (ditches on contour) to manage water flow.
The idea of a swale is to hold surface water long enough to let it soak into the ground, and to catch any topsoil that might be suspended in it (from, say, erosion due to heavy rain).  They're not as critical in a mild climate like ours (which gets even precipitation throughout the year) as they are in a desert, but still serve valuable functions.  They're great for planting trees.

We decided to put a hand full of fruit trees in the uphill-most (and longest) swale, and a few in the front yard as well.  The middle swale has perennial flowers, and the lower one has perennial herbs.

Since I was lucky enough to find a detailed topographical map of the land (2' contour intervals) and I use CAD software for my day-job, I built a 3D model that we've been using for planning.

After deciding what we wanted and where to put it, we chose to do the earth works first (digging swales, the pond, and raised beds), and to rent an excavator.

While we could have dug beds and more-than-adequate swales by hand, we knew we'd get a lot more done in the first year if we rented machinery and put everything in with help from friends over a weekend.