A Plan Beyond The Cabin

Planting a biodiverse orchard, making maple syrup and growing mushrooms

So far, I’ve written mostly about the cabin. That project is just one part of these 15 acres of land. Today, I’d like to start to show you my plans for the land over the next decade or so.

This is the first in a series of posts that go into more detail on the design for the land. Mostly, I hope to share some of the ideas and frameworks behind my designs.

I hope to plant an orchard, to sustainably maintain a century-old forest and to grow food. I wrote about some of this work in my goals for 2021 but here’s two specific projects in my long term vision for this land.

First… About Monoculture 🌽👎

The conventional agriculture model is a monoculture. Growing up in the Midwest, the best example I saw is acres and acres of corn. Planting a monoculture means cutting down all the trees and planting a field of entirely one crop, usually corn or soybeans. Yes, it is food for humans but that doesn’t mean it’s ecologically sound.

Monoculture is not how nature works at all! As a result of breaking with nature, monocultures create a lot of new work to fight back against what nature naturally wants to do.

You need heavy equipment to do that work. Growing food in a large scale monoculture requires spraying pesticides, applying herbicides and adding synthetic fertilizers each year. I’d rather do things more naturally.

Polycultures & Biodiversity 🌳👍

A natural pattern I see on this land is that nature tends towards a complex forest. There’s a upper story of trees, below it is a layer of bushes, then herbaceous ground cover and roots below ground the soil. I hope to replicate this in the orchard.

This pattern is called a polyculture, where many diverse plants all grow together in many interconnected layers.

Design One: A Polyculture Orchard 🍎🌿🍐

After clearing the orchard area and building up living soil, I’ll plant cover crops, thorny berries and then fruit trees. I plan to inter-plant different types of heirloom fruit trees with nitrogen-fixing plants to naturally maintain soil fertility.

The diversity of planting prevents pests that prefer apples, for example, from jumping tree to tree and decimating the entire crop. It also creates a better habitat for the predators of those pests. Once mature and balanced, this type of orchard should require less intensive work each season.

This plan leverages time. As the trees grow, they are protected from deer by thorny blackberry and raspberry plants. Eventually the fruit trees become tall enough to shade out the berries, which are sun-loving.

As this transition unfolds, there will be different overlapping fruits each summer and fall. All the while, a ground level of comfrey and radish work to develop the soil. This symbiotic relationship among a few plants works with their nature instead of against it.

This year I plan to cut the clearing and plant cover crops to get this process started.

Design Two: Maple Sugaring & Mushrooms 🍁🍄

Most of this property is wooded and I want to preserve that. Luckily, the majority of trees are mature maples. I want to start maple sugaring eventually and to eat some pancakes with homemade syrup. I just read the chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass about maple sugaring. It takes 40 gallons of maple water to make 1 gallon of syrup!

That project will start small once I can be there in the winter and early spring. It’ll require taps, sap collection, firewood gathering, building a sugar shack, and boiling sap into syrup. All in due time.

In the shade of those trees I also plan on growing culinary mushrooms like shiitake, oyster, wine cap and hen of the woods. Inoculating logs with mushroom spores is a sustainable way to grow food in the shade of a mature forest. Cornell University has some in-depth resources that are freely available online.

Together, this system preserves the forest and produces food. After the first flush, mushroom logs tend to produce for multiple years, which could be sold at a farmers market. I’d love to add ducks into the mix too to keep slugs off the mushroom logs.

One final note on climate change. Increased temperatures will put pressure onto maple trees in the next 25-100 years. So I will observe that pressure and plan to transition to other trees while using that wood for firewood and mushrooms.

A complete presentation

If you want to see my entire final project presentation in video form, I recorded my final presentation for my Permaculture Design Certificate. It’s 30 minutes long, so I don’t actually expect you to watch it all.

Here’s some highlights with timestamps.

Lastly, if you want to learn more about permaculture in general, I suggest you rent/buy/watch The Biggest Little Farm. It’s a good high level overview and an inspiring story.

Hey! If you’re new here, this is West Bluff Food Forest. I'm building a permaculture orchard and home in the Finger Lakes region of New York. I write about my plans, the lessons I'm learning and update you along the way.

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