Permaculture Projects

Living the Homesteading Dream – Part 4

Life on and off the Mountain

Buck looks the part. In his mid-70s, he carries the grin and rotundness of a man who has been enjoying bountiful harvests for a lifetime. Normally, it’s contained in a pair of fresh overalls, not a stain on them, and he has an affinity for a particular brand of hiking boot which supports his weak ankles. Buck has a white beard trimmed neatly, wire-rimmed glasses, and a beguiling vocabulary that somehow mixes country charm with British pretension. For all intents and purposes, he has become something of mentor. Buck is, in fact, my boss.

Together, along with a couple of other misfits, we are caretakers for a handful of summer properties owned by people with enough wealth to hire a staff of four to look after homes which might get occupied a month out of the year.  To be honest, it’s not the sort of place I’d ever imagined working, being diametrically opposed to anyone having such stashes of cash, but I met Buck, he offered me a job, and in truth, I kind of love it.

Buck has been working “on the mountain” for nearly 40 years. He’d been sent with a letter of recommendation as a skilled carpenter, which he is but wasn’t needed at the time, so he lied about being experienced at pruning apple trees. He says he went home that afternoon and read all he could find on how to do it, and he’s been on the mountain ever since. At this point, most people on the mountain know Buck by name, and it’s worth noting that this is a summertime golf resort so quietly prestigious I’m not allowed to outright identify it for fear that common people may learn of its whereabouts.

He is recognised as a fantastic gardener, especially of corn and tomatoes, and he cared for a somewhat famous flower garden for three-and-a-half decades. Amongst our other duties, we keep up the outward and inward appearance of the homes, maintain lawns and fences, cultivate gardens of all sorts, and plant a lot of trees, which can’t be all bad even if they are mostly ornamental. This spring we put in a host of large Norwegian spruce, over two meters each, for visual barriers to block empty porches from peeking at each other.

In the three years I’ve been working with Buck, noting my interest in gardening and his elevation in age, he has been grooming me to take on a larger role, be a young Buck so to speak. For the most part, Buck does it all organically, save the occasional troubled plants, e.g. boxwoods and hemlocks, that owners insist on growing despite their being caught in the midst of serious and unstoppable plagues here in North Carolina. He also daydreams of the death of a poison-resistant mole that has continually fouled the stepping stones at one of the houses, all the while defying sonic mole repellers stabbed haphazardly all around the spot.

Buck knows more about these homes, some of which have been “in the family” for decades, than the owners. He knows the peculiarities of the drainage from laundry rooms added to a home built in the 1930s, one that he used to look after but doesn’t anymore. He knows when the gutters will start to clog, who planted the flower bulbs that pop up in the yard every spring (even if it wasn’t him), and where every poorly conceived light switch is located. Buck knows these homes as well as his own, perhaps better.

Image provided by author

Emma and I have started our homestead with piles upon piles of stuff. I once heard that was the way a permaculturalist could readily recognise a permaculture property: the piles. We have piles of reclaimed wood from old buildings we’ve taken down, much of which has gone into building our new cabin. We have piles of rocks from old chimneys. We have stacks of scavenged firewood, window frames, and soil. And, most of the rest of what is piled up around the property—we swear we are getting through it all—is from my job with Buck.

Reclaimed Wood
Image by author

We go through familiar routines on the mountain each year. In the winter, when homeowners aren’t around to be disturbed by chainsaws, trees get trimmed, limbed, of felled, and we split the wood, with “ugly” logs up for grabs. I’m known for taking any tree limb bigger than a twig, stuff we definitely wouldn’t or couldn’t split but that Emma and I are more than pleased to burn. In February alone, our woodshed went from empty to fully stocked. Half or more of that was from work.

Spring involves a lot of clean up. The last of the leaves that were swept by winter windstorms into corners, flowerbeds, and fence lines provide us a huge pile of mulch at the homestead. On the mountain, the garden beds get weeded before being dressed with bailed pine needles, those weeds starting the year’s compost piles off the mountain. Landscaped woodlands are raked (a la Donald Trump) so as to remove any windfall detritus…more mulch, more compost. Some of it goes directly to our garden beds; other times it gets hooped in scraps of fencing, most likely that was left over from projects up the mountain, to await a prestigious fate. We worship mulch!

Compost Pile
Image by author

The summer is a constant supply of weeds from the vegetable gardens, not to mention vegetables from the vegetable gardens. I bring home piles because, when no one is there to eat them, the crops still have to be harvested and the gardens kept clean. In short, at times it looks a lot like getting paid to grow myself organic vegetables. Last year, I started bringing home flower bouquets regularly on days when the cut-flower gardens got pruned. When I weed whack the fields too steep for the mower, I go back and collect grass clippings. On the rare day when the truck bed isn’t filled with trash from work, I visit the nearby dumping site where the tree trimmers (for the same community) dump woodchips.

In September, I begin to take the spent vegetable plants home, and October is a relentless onslaught of leaves and pine needles. I stuff the back of the truck, then climb into it to compress the leaves, add more, repeat, and finally top it off with a couple of tarps tied full of leaves, precariously strapped down to hold it all in place. This happens nearly every day for well over a month. The loads, rich in pine needles, go to the berry patches that surround our staple garden, and the leaves get distributed to garden beds where they break down over winter.

The mounds of material I bring home are ceaseless. I’ve often felt sheepish about it, wondering if my co-workers think perhaps it’s too much. Everyone has taken to emptying their lawn bags into my truck bed, all of us working under the assumption that if it’s organic it has a second home with Emma and me. And, it does. As I hacked up small branches after an ice storm this winter, Buck reassured me, I’m glad you use it. If I take it off the mountain, we don’t have to find somewhere to discard it all, unsightly as it is, on the mountain.

Truck Bed
Image by author

Leaves were one of the first things Buck and I bonded over in terms of gardening. He’s a leaf fanatic. Though he’s an annual tiller and bed tread-er, two practices I try to avoid, a signature garden for him is caked in thick mats of leaves, from the paths to the plant stems. In terms of nutrients, we toss a spoon of Epsom salt, lime, manure, and/or a specific brand of organic fertiliser (the secret to his success, he once told me) into the holes when we plant something. That’s it for the season.

Last year, after having played second fiddle to Buck’s stand-up bass (He’s also an Old Time Music bassist), he loosened the strings a little. The gardens have become as much my domain as his, and I take their success as personally as he does. We’ve bonded over this, too, and it’s something that he’s remarked upon as easing his mind. Our work compatriots are dispassionate as to what happens beyond a paycheck, but Buck and I would probably grow those gardens for free if people weren’t insisting on paying us. All said, we are happy to take the money.

I knew things were shifting last year when he entrusted me on several occasions to tie the tomato plants, a task he had pridefully handled himself until then. The process involves pruning the plants, using a bit to jute twine to loop them onto bamboo stakes, and checking the plants over for caterpillars and hornworms. I used to cut the string for him and clean up with discarded suckers, and my eyes were decidedly better for spotting the pest, which—being a vegan—I refused to kill and would transport elsewhere. Another shift I noticed is when, during serious infestation, he stood next to me picking off little green caterpillars and sparing their lives without me ever bringing up the issue.

In the thick of the pandemic lockdown, his granddaughter was staying with him, and he preferred time with her to time at the office. He even brought her up the mountain, teaching her the ropes (familiar as they were) of how to string up his patented green bean trellises and the art of prepping the soil for planting corn. She helped him with his garden at home, too, and wowed him with card tricks in the afternoons. Sometimes Emma and I would visit for a round of croquet, a game of horse, or frisbee to help disperse some energy.

I’ve only known Buck for three years now. We met him through friends, whom we’d barely known longer. Now, he is doing his best to associate my name with the gardens he has cultivated on the mountain for four decades. He has begun to defer credit to me for the fruit of our work, setting in motion what will soon enough be a transition from one gardener to another. Periodically, he and Judy, our other friend and his wife, show up at our homestead with a six-pack of beer to share, and we give them a tour before sitting around a campfire for the evening.

Looking out over a vast expanse of mint Emma and I have planted and let run wild, much of which originated with cuttings of mint from on the mountain, I joked with Buck about the untidiness of it. We maintain an impeccable three foot by five foot raised bed of mint so that one owner can, on rare occasion, make mint juleps for guests. Last year, after a check-up, that owner was sworn off of whisky by his doctor. Nevertheless, we keep the raised bed tip-top. With a steady eye on our tangle of herbs, Buck replied, “I think it’s cool as hell.”

Raking Leaves
Image provided by author

One of the conclusions Emma and I reached early on in the quest to become homesteaders, a goal we are only just beginning to achieve, is that we didn’t want to put pressure on the farm to provide an income. It was a hard point to get across to people, as if the only reason to go to such lengths—earthworks, trees, garden beds, composting toilets, an off-grid home, etc.—were to turn a profit. I’d accumulated a small but consistent income from writing online, and Emma could teach English online. We wanted to grow food successfully for ourselves before we even considered growing stuff to sell.

It’s not to say we don’t daydream here and there: a nursery for edible landscaping, a homespun collection of loose-leaf tea for sale, maybe some specialty products… I enjoy making rustic reclaimed wood furniture. We’ve talked about workshops or internships down the road, assuming we do manage to get these young fruit trees into maturity and ease these garden beds into mounds of rich humus. We’ve kicked around putting in a couple of campsites. But, it’s hard to beat getting paid to grow food and flowers for people on the mountain. I work there three days a week, from nine to two, and double what I earn from writing these days.

And, it’s fun to hang out with Buck when he feels like making the trip up the mountain. Less and less these days is he inclined to make the drive, one he has calculated having done over 10,000 times. He’s finally recognising that his footing has become too shaky on the sloped landscape, his vertigo kicks in, or he just plain doesn’t feel like it. He spent several dozen hours this winter building a banjo for his granddaughter. He’s driving to Pennsylvania to see her this week, skipping out on any work that needs doing. That’s a good thing.

But, he did grant me permission to put hardwood mulch on his account at the hardware store while he’s gone. He knows I want to start mulching the gardens up the mountain. And, last year I started making my own to-do list, lingering on the mountain when the rest of the crew bailed out around noon. I walked the property boundaries—each several acres—to make sure drainage ditches were functioning, tree limbs weren’t causing issue, and a general tidy aura was wafted in with mountain breezes.

The local gentry originally choose the place as a weekend escape from the summer heat down below in town, but the collection of million-dollar estates is now mostly frequented by folks further afield for a handful of weekends a year. I like to note that, about three times a week, I eat a picnic in front of a million-dollar view. It’s all in a half-day’s work. It’s enough to make you learn to prune apple trees in a hurry, and I might add, cool as hell.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button