Evening is getting near and I venture out into the garden, what has again become a daily ritual over the last month or more. Recently, I watched a video in which Geoff Lawton expressed his effort to eat the leaves from 20 different plants every day, and we are clocking in at around ten to fifteen without a sweat to get there.
I start with the herb garden, collecting lemon balm, garlic chives, parsley, wild arugula, chicory, and green onions. I move into the vegetable gardens where a mix of flowering cold-weather crops survived winter. There I collect mustard, kale, collards, purple Cherokee lettuce, buttercrunch lettuce, radish greens, and cabbage leaves. The chickweed and cress have given way to warmth, but violets and wild sorrel are still available in abundance, sprouting freely at the edges of the garden beds. I venture into the food forest for the first pickings of horseradish and bergamot that grow between the young fruit and nut trees.
Though most people we know have yet to plant their gardens this year, we are eating from ours daily. It might not be those bountiful summer harvests, but tonight’s dinner is a heaping salad composed of freshly harvested leaves from over fifteen different plants. It’s still April, early spring here. That feels like a worthy accomplishment.
But, I’m upset because I’m cooking potatoes with onions, garlic, and tempeh to go on the greens. And, while I’ve tossed in a few spears of asparagus from the garden (three years of waiting for that!), our supply of homegrown garlic and potatoes ran out months ago, and we’ve yet to successfully grow bulb onions or enough legumes or grains to make our own tempeh.
At some point, there is the realisation that permaculture is not magic. The work still must go in, and time does not stand still while that happens. There is only so much time in a day, a season, and a year, which means we can only accomplish limited amounts each cycle that rolls around, even if growing everything and building everything and fostering everything is an aspiration.
A big salad is nothing to scoff at.
I think of hobbies. I think of learning guitar, the pain of picking out chords in the early days, my fingers failing to hold all the strings down as they must, the tendency to mute strings that aren’t meant to be touched. The humility of playing the same few tunes, pieces of tunes, again and again and again. But, suddenly, a few guitar chords turn into a song, a few songs turn into a campfire show, and 100 songs later and some years down the road, struggling over the simple switch between a G and C escapes memory.
As each new piece of our puzzle goes into place, Emma and I both find ourselves stopping to acknowledge and appreciate it. We find that we have to learn to use the pieces—keep the solar going, stock the wood shed with firewood, cook on the wood-burning stove, manage the buckets and barrels for the composting toilet. It was in February or March that our fruit trees got pruned for the first time.
All the while new projects get underway, and there’s one more ball to juggle. Staying on balance gets easier, then, by the time we are pulling tricks and feeling confident, another ball goes in the air and the routine becomes all the more challenging if not impressive. The base melody marches on, but the sound is even fuller with add-ons and flashes of newfound competence.
It’s easy to forget the process of evolution when beginning a permaculture site. It’s easy to get lost in dreams of grandeur and YouTube videos of sites 20 years down the road. It’s easy to design into the future as if time doesn’t exist and supplies are already endless. But, we are not twenty years down the road, and it’s just as easy to feel like a failure.
Sure, the asparagus is popping up on schedule, and the rhubarb already seems expansive, promising an abundance we won’t keep up with. The strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries have put out flowers enough to suggest a more extensive harvest this year. Seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, okra, and so on are coming on in pots that litter the windowsills. I’ve spent a couple of afternoons getting peas, carrots, leeks, and potatoes on their merry way out in the double-reach garden rows.
And, when I put it like that, the harvest ongoing and the harvest to come seems something worthy of note. It’s more than most people ever consider growing at home. But, it doesn’t even occupy a quarter of the land we are cultivating. Therein lies the rub: These days, with a cabin built enough to live in, vegetable gardens teeming with life, and berry patches establishing a stronghold, there is still an overwhelming feeling of not even being close to there.
We moved on site in December after having spent the better part of 16 months building a home. For six-plus months prior to that, Emma and I would spend one or two days a week dismantling dilapidated 100-year-old homes to repurpose the lumber. Then, we slowly transferred all that lumber, one Ford Ranger truckload at a time, to our place and put it to use.
What we built, it turns out, looks something like a pioneer home (with solar panels, no less) and not exactly how we ever envisioned our permaculture pad when sketching out those theoretical designs for half-a-decade. It just came to be from what we had to work with, as should be the case.
Our gardens are also full alterations from those original drawings, morphed in ways that we saw might make them more efficient or enjoyable or fit the materials we had to work with at the time. We’ve yet to live here during a growing season. Despite that, we’ve pieced together vegetable gardens, an herb garden right off the back porch, and the food forest is in its infancy.
We’ve repaired the old dam that had been drained when we bought the place and lifted a broken-down bridge across the stream. We’ve put up fencing around the vegetable gardens then put a perimeter fence around the combination of food forest, fedge, and medicinal/tea garden. We also built a wood shed and fire ring. We’ve even made trails—the start of mushroom logs and beds along them—that loop through the 3.5 acres of natural-growth forest on the property.
Such a laundry list of accomplishments would seemingly satiate our worker-bee like mentalities, but weirdly, at times, they only serve as reminders as to what we’ve not done. Looking out the window, the wispy fruit trees seem so far from yielding bushels of peaches, apples, cherries, figs, and plums. The hazelnut shrubs are scarcely more than ragged sticks stuck in the ground, just a handful of leaves dangling here and there. The chinquapins (kind of like miniature chestnuts) are even spindlier, barely a foot high and yet to convince us of a future in tiny chestnuts.
That’s not to say we are discouraged, only to say that we dream big. We envision a cob pizza oven and campsites and a work shed and a cut flower garden and steps in those steep spots of the trails, basic foot bridges for the stream crossings. And more! A small greenhouse built with repurposed windows, a root cellar with a living roof, a tiny cabin tucked in the woods…There are places and plans for all of these things. There is time ticking away, and the need to find a balance between enjoying what we’ve done and chasing down the other parts of the dream.
This year we added a lot to the food forest. We found a local nursery that specializes in native trees and had a host of food-producers, such as crabapples, serviceberries, pawpaws, American persimmons, elderberries, and honey locusts. We planted some of these in the confines of the food forest, others on the edges of property where the forest opens a little: a marshy spot down front, the right-of-way beneath some powerlines that run through the woods, the ring around the sediment pond we added to keep the dam clearer. Honey locusts are meant to eventually replace our fencing with living fencing. We take walks and delight in the young saplings showing their first leaves as the weather warms.
Going through it all helps. It reminds us that the past two-and-a-half years—it took us exactly a year to get building permits in order—haven’t been for naught. To write it all down in, oh, say, about 1500 words, makes the whole fact that this year there will be no apples or peaches or cherries sting a little less. We can maybe deal with the fact that the trails aren’t kept pristinely, the creek crossings made “mom friendly”. We haven’t even attempted the rice paddy yet. The spillway waterfall needs some attention, again. For everything checked off the list, or better put, started on the list, there is double that amount—starting from nothing more than earth—left to do.
I cook dinner on the porch, something we’ve been doing for the last month or more, as soon as the temperature was tolerable enough to enjoy even if it took fuzzy slippers and sweaters. I’ve had breakfasts and coffees there while watching a happy wood duck couple swimming around in the pond. We’ve slowly been moving construction materials away from the outdoor kitchen and installing creature comforts like breakfast bars, half-walls, and hooks for hanging the cast iron cookware.
Lately, as the afternoon sun begins to filter through the forest canopy west of the homestead, the draw to sit with a cool beverage and relax has proven too great. If we never stop to enjoy what we’ve already built, to see that these systems reach their full potential, then we are doomed/destined to push too far too fast. The process, however impatient we may become, however unfulfilled we may feel, is a necessary good.
Sifting through the colander of greens I’ve harvested, I sort them by plant. Soon there will be more. Lamb’s quarters has already started sprouting around the garden. We are hoping the nasturtium—a beautiful, sprawling success from last year—reseeded itself. We’ve only just started sneaking mint into these leafy amalgamations, and we’ve got something like four or five different “mints” (not mint family) growing as an understory groundcover in the fedge (and crawling out beyond its edges in grassy pathways as mint will do). The summer herbs are coming.
Geoff’s claim may not have been a challenge. It may not have been a measuring stick of validation. But, it’s fun to use it that way. It’s fun to feel like that section of the puzzle might be somewhere close. Sure, we’ll add more leaves to the mix, but without doing so, we’ve got 20 different plants a day walking away. We can ride on that.
We can celebrate the porch from our rocking chairs. We can rest comfortably in that there is a shed full of firewood seasoning for next winter’s needs. We finally moved the last of that stack of rocks—salvaged from the chimneys of the century-old houses—we’ve saved for making the plinth of our cob oven, built a dry-stacked base from them. We are not making pizza or bread yet, but it’s something.
Just being here is something. Being engaged in this process is really something. It’s something people notice right off when they visit our home, incomplete as it may be. We are doing it.