The Problem is the Solution

Creative thinking for an interconnected plan of slope, water and light

As I wrote last time, I hope to plant an orchard, sustainably maintain a century-old forest and grow vegetables. In the second part of this series, I’d like to go into more detail on two design considerations for the long-term plans for this land.

The Problem is the Solution - Slope & Water

A major problem on this property is that it’s all sloped downhill. Everywhere except the foundation of the cabin has a downward 15 degree western slope. I also heard that the prior owner was unable to build a septic system because the clay soil holds too much water. Bummer, right?

Well, a principle of permaculture to view every problem as a potential solution. I’ve carefully considered the advantages of being perched on this hillside and having this heavy clay soil beneath my feet.

A solution I see is to build a network of small ponds to hold water high in the landscape. Then gravity will move water through the whole landscape passively. The mantra of designing for water flow is to slow it, sink it, spread it. The water flows in channels, slowly lower, only to collect it again in another pond. All the while it soaks into the soil and feeds the aquifers.

New York gets an average of 33 inches of rain each year. On 15 acres, that means over 3 million gallons of water move through the property annually. Yes, I did the math!

By leveraging this slope, some clever design and a lot of sweat, I should have little need to water the orchard and garden except in a year of extreme drought. This year, my plan is to dig some test holes to test seasonal water retention. Also, to add rainwater collection onto the roof of the shed and the cabin to help water plants.

Want some more inspiration about designing for water flow? Check out this video. Yeah, this is what I spend my time watching these days.

Clearing A Garden View

Another principle incorporated into this plan is called integration over separation. Basically, each element in a design should serve multiple purposes. The measure of the strength of a system is not its crop yield but how interconnected all the parts of the plan are.

A part of this planning is aesthetic. The most beautiful views on this land are looking south towards the lake and west out of the windows of the cabin. In keeping those views clear, I’ll need to remove some trees and shrubs. I’ll use that material for firewood, mushroom logs and to build hugel mounds.

That clearing will also open a tremendous amount of sunlight onto the forest floor. I plan to plant gardens and an orchard there. My thinking is that apple trees are typically around 20 feet tall, whereas oaks and maples regularly grow over 100 feet. So choosing to put an orchard and garden in those spots will preserve the views of the lake.

The material that comes out of the clearings goes into building the soil. Nothing is wasted. The clearings let in light and eventually produce much of the food near the ground or in shorter fruit trees. Together, this plan keeps the views, shines light into the forest and grows food, with all elements working together.

A Dream

I believe our words create our reality. That’s a major reason this newsletter exists. It’s an exercise in articulation. In dream building. So imagine with me:

Years from now, we’re sitting on the porch by the cabin overlooking the sunset, eating a delicious homegrown meal. Mushroom risotto with fresh herbs, maybe. The sunset is casting honeyed light into the cabin, and we can see the glimmer of the sun on the lake through the clearing.

The bees in the orchard made the honey in this bottle of mead and the water comes from a well that is kept fed by these little ponds. For dessert, we’re having apple pie from the orchard.

Is it possible for life to be this beautiful? I think so. That’s what I’m working towards at least.


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 the lessons I'm learning and update you along the way.

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