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.

Monday, April 18, 2016


Wabi Sabi Grove is a small homestead on 2.5 acres in Goffstown, New Hampshire.

Since spring 2014, we've used permaculture principles to design and implement a fruitful, low-maintenance system that gives us food, entertainment, exercise, and hopefully a surplus for trade.  We grow a combination of perennial, annual, and self-seeding annual plants and have a small flock of Rhode Island Red and New Hampshire Red laying hens.

Wabi Sabi:
A world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection - beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete".