We just left New York where we spent two weeks at Root ‘n Roost Farm in White Sulphur Springs NY, just 10 miles from the site of the original Woodstock festival. All hail the iconic milieu of aged hippies and summer camps, vacationing Hassids and tie-dyed peace sign schwag. It is beautiful country though with great stands of giant trees, rolling hills of the greenest grass and picturesque babbling brooks at every turn. I can only imagine how strange my eyes will feel when we are back in the dry faun color of late Fall in SoCal. Each farm we visit is truly a world unto itself.
Root ‘n Roost Farm is run by Sean Zigmund and his fiancée, Cheyenne Miller. They are currently operating on just 2.25 acres and it’s remarkable what they’ve been able to do with that relatively small space. This is truly a human scale operation and it runs without a single tractor. They are raising a wide range of vegetables, a few young fruit trees and a rather sizeable pack of fowl and hogs. Several permaculture concepts are at work here, including water catchment ponds and animal rotation; with Spring and Summer plantings sown in the fertile plots recently vacated by the animals. It is a dense, robust system that supplies produce and eggs for a weekly CSA, a farmers market and a farm stand. Sean and Cheyenne also sell chicken, hogs, turkey and duck and they do a rather brisk business giving farm tours. Oh, and they also have a band and sing at a local open mic night every Tuesday. And Sean works a 9-5, M-F. Um, yeah, sounds like a lot to handle. Luckily, they have a lot of help!
We arrived last Saturday night in the midst of a sizable dinner at a set of picnic tables behind the main house. Surprisingly, we discovered that all nine diners were working on the farm! We’ve had a chance to get to know an intern here and there on other farms – almost all of whom have been terribly nice and warm-hearted folks – but this international experiment in community has been wonderful and unique. It is heartening to know that there are so many young people who are interested in farming and raising animals and canning and fermenting and permaculture and sustainability. And who continue to find the physical labor and time-consuming work rewarding. There is hope for this world yet!
A few days ago, Cheyenne asked me to clear out and plant a patch of garden close to the house and said, “Do whatever you want”. What a terrific opportunity to practice some permaculture!
Let’s begin with a little primer on the topic:
Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, and environmental design that develops sustainable architecture and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems. The core tenets of permaculture are:
- Care of the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
- Care of the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
- Return of Surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.
More simply put, permaculture strives to use nature as a model for human settlements and to create food production systems that are focused on reducing human labor and unsustainable inputs (eg, petroleum) to their barest minimums. It is a revolutionary practice, driven by the interplay of literally dozens of fields of study including biology, architecture, landscape design, agriculture, horticulture, and ecology. I recently finished reading Permaculture 1 and Permaculture 2 by Bill Mollison who is considered the god father of permaculture. In fact, he coined the term and has been writing about and developing permaculture techniques with David Holgren for more than 20 years from his home base in Australia. These books are terrific morsels to whet the appetite. For a heartier dose, get your hands on a copy of his Designers’ Manual. For those interested in a lighter approach, you might try Gaia’s Garden or Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture. While I didn’t understand about a third of what Mollison was talking about, the ideas and concepts I did digest burst open my mind to a completely new way of approaching gardening and building. I was so excited after the second book, I wanted to get started on our retreat center right away! JC managed to talk me into completing our WWOOF year, but ever since then I’ve been day dream doodling about the how to lay out the retreat center’s gardens, houses and outbuildings.
The most compelling garden design I’ve seen so far is called the Mandala Garden. It relies mainly on circular forms rather than straight lines, which feels more nurturing than straight lines. How often do you find straight lines in nature? And if you don’t have to worry about gigantic tractors or calculating crop acreage, why stick with them? The Mandala design utilizes keyhole beds which make it possible to sit in one spot and harvest around yourself instead of moving on down a row. As described by Mollison, it also employs principles of companion planting and a dense, strategic crop arrangement; plants that you harvest frequently like greens, carrots, etc are planted closest to the path, with less frequently harvested crops a few rows in and crops you harvest only once or twice per year all the way in the back. This allows you to plant a very wide bed while minimizing the amount of time you would need to stand in it. This design maximizes acreage, allowing you to plant a higher percentage of land than if you had made straight rows.
In common use, mandala has become a generic term for any plan, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe from an enlightened perspective.
For our retreat center, I think its important to have gardens that are both beautiful and functional, to create places where guests can enjoy time alone amongst the leaves. The Mandala design satisfies in so many ways. I envision a Mandala garden with a platform or a gazebo in the very center so that you can relax in a hammock amidst the plants. In true permaculture form, this structure would also provide a perch for birds and an attractive habitat for frogs and other ground creatures who eat bugs. And of course, it will only be created if the design works for the site.
At Root ‘n Roost, the plot I was given had several existing plants – echinacea, sunflowers, oregano and lemon balm, which is a fragrant mint. I allowed these plants and shapes to guide the placement of beds and paths. This farm sees quite a lot of water and most plants need to be on high ground to avoid being drowned when it rains. I used top soil from the paths to create raised beds for the plants. I planted the shortest growing varieities of the seeds I was given in the front of the bed and the taller plants around the sides and back corner. If I was staying true to the Mandala bed design, I would have interplanted all four species throughout each bed section and made the paths even smaller for wider beds. However, this bed is meant to be tended by Sean’s mother who needs a fairly straightforward arrangement with easy access to the far reaches. Furthermore, I’m not sure that kale, spinach, dill and Persian cress would do any better mixed together than with the patch cropping. I can’t wait to see it when all the seeds have sprouted and the lemon balm I harvested has grown in a bit!
While JC has ventured out with some of the crew to local parties and concerts, I’ve stayed on the farm. Partially, because I am rather an introvert and partially because I came down with a cold, fever and all. It’s strange how one’s perception shifts after 10 days in a place like this. My world has become so small, shrunken down to the winding paths and hoop house alleys of these two and a quarter acres. My rhythms had synched to the work and schedule of the farm and its inhabitants so deeply that I had almost forgotten that we were due to leave in the future. Somehow, at some point, this farmstay had become my Life. Was it because I had some how managed to start living fully in the present? Or, was Root ‘n Roost like that crazy house in You Cant Take It With You, where everyone who visits, seems to take up residence in lieu of returning to their normal life? Perhaps I am simply ready for a world comprised of a few acres with the ebbs and flows of human beings washing regularly or irregularly upon its shores.
I have seen farm women who avoid electronic screens like a disease and who are loathe to even pick up the phone when it rings, preferring instead to spend their hours in the fields. Their highest priority is their children and the sheer energy that they devote to raising them outshines everything else by lightyears. They operate on time from a parallel universe. They are far removed from me, deeply grounded and at times, easily unnerved. I can’t believe that I will ever become that detached from the wider world and its digital web. Still, they seem so happy, so mysteriously at peace. Right now, I long to be on our land, studying the flows of water, insects and plants throughout our little microcosm. Identifying where we will build, where we will plant, how best to “make the water walk”. To design our own small universe and become immersed in building it, evolving it. Our new world, our home.