Sharon February 26th, 2009
In June, we’ll have lived here at Gleanings Farm for eight years. As the garden design class winds up, I thought it might be useful to think about how our planning and design goals have changed over the years. What we want and are working towards now is somewhat different than what we began working towards – for us, as for everyone, design is an ongoing process. Each year, we begin planning again in the spring, and each year, we find in our planning that what we don’t do, or how our plans have changed is as revealing as what we intend.
If you’ve ever seen the farm designs from John Seymour’s excellent _The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It_, you can probably imagine what I was planning when I moved to 27 acres in rural, upstate NY. The cow would go here, the sheep (for the yarn I would hand spin) would go here, we’d have every kind of poultry and every creature under the sun. The garden would be at least an acre, the orchard 2 or 3…. I had it laid out on paper, and boy, was it beautiful .
But reality kicked in. We added three more kids in the first five years we were here. Our first gardens were so successful that in a moment of delirium, we started a CSA, which ran for four years, so most of that time was spent with me pregnant and/or recovering from pregnancy, while building up and expanding our CSA, which eventually got to 20 members. Oh, and while I was having babies and we were doing our CSA, we also built the addition onto the house, had Eric’s grandparents moved in, and cared for them at the end of their lives. We held our breaths and ran, with time only for the essentials.
We put in a very small orchard’s worth of fruit trees the first two years – and lost a lot of them due to not understanding our property. We moved in at the end of a drought, and so we didn’t realize that the area where we planted many of our trees would flood, and kill them during the spring. Another was taken out by a plow when we underestimated the snow load here up in the hills. A few had to be removed when the original plan for Eric’s grandparents (a small cottage of their own) got changed over to building onto the house, and we needed land for the addition. Some of them survived, but it didn’t look like an orchard. We started again, knowing our place better.
The garden started out small, got big with the CSA, and shrunk again when I became a writer and ended the CSA for lack of time. I eventually became tired of the design errors we made at the beginning, and after a while of being just tired of them, finally got excited about starting anew. We started selling eggs, expanded to keep our CSA customers in eggs, and are now considering going back to egg sales. The kids got big enough to have opinions about what we should grow, I got more interested in grain and tree crops and subsistence agriculture. I decided I really didn’t want to spin all my own yarn, although I like my wheel just fine. I met Elaine, she of the sheep, and bartered our pasture for meat and wool, and met Jamey and Carol, they of the teeny weeny goats, and got seduced from my cow dreams (which still linger).
Inge and Cyril (Eric’s grandparents) passed away, and we found ourselves with a huge house, and more space than we needed. We mourned them and then we began again, redesigning how our home works. Now we look for housemates to share our land and space and imagine trying again.
After the loss of Eric’s grandparents, their garage was now ours for storing tools and such, and we saw in the old one a solution to our dislike for hauling 50lb sacks of feed up a steep, icy hillside to the old stable. The garage became a barn, and we discovered the need to fence the chickens and goats (who were now nice and close to the house, and would like to come visit) out of the garden beds on the lawn.
Inge and Cyril’s garden became my courtyard garden, the ornamentals replaced with fruit trees and tender plants that otherwise couldn’t grow here, mixed with the flowers they loved. The landscape bloomed with apricots and quinces, too tender for this place, now warmed by the addition walls and flourishing.
The front yard acquired a fence when it became clear that our autistic eldest would roam otherwise, and now vines twine the fence I never dreamed of until it was necessary. The kids demanded more strawberries and more raspberries. Nature provided the latter, growing wild raspberries abundantly undr the front yard spruce trees without my intervention – and I planted more strawberries. The forest encroached, and got pushed back in some places and let it grow in others, the lawn evolved from a grassy monoculture to a weedy mess that we rather like.
I learned where the hawkweed and yarrow grow, and when the wild strawberries bloomed. We found the perfect place for watching tadpoles and the climbing trees. I found the old apple orchard back in the woods, across the creek, that went with the property of old, and where the burn piles had begun. I found where the yellow warbler made her nest, where the barn swallows lived in the rafters and where the owls nested in the spruce. We now have spots where beloved pets are buried, and spots we know will be home to wild things, if we don’t brush against them too hard, try too hard to bend our space to our will.
The boys grew bigger and ate more, the parents embarked on occasional attempts to eat less, we lost Eric’s grandparents, we got older, the boys stopped eating dirt and started digging in it. Our life cycled – and it will cycle more. Will we adopt more children? Finally find the perfect homestead housemates and reshape the landscape around their needs? Need to work smarter as we age? Perhaps all of the above – we do not know.
Will we need to survive on our garden and farm produce alone? Will we need to find new employment and make more money from what we produce? Will I write more or grow more? In what season? In what time? What will our boys want to do on the farm, as they grow to manhood, if anything? These things we cannot know – and even when we do know them, when we have a moment of transient certainty, things may change yet again. One thing we can all promise ourselves in the coming years is change, sometimes wild and startling.
Our dreams have changed too – after a few years of CSA farming, writing books seemed exciting and new. Now I’m wondering if I’d rather go back to the CSA – and thinking of a whole new model, a winter only CSA that might go well with the books. At first, we thought we’d never butcher our own livestock – now we are accustomed to the cycle of life and death on our farm. I dream of bees for the first time, and geese again. I wonder if I want my own sheep, or simply to keep the fruitful partnership we’ve begun with a friend. I wonder…and wonder.
Planning is a constant process. Design is eternal. The dreams that one has one day are not the dreams of tomorrow, the realities we face shift over time. Today our gardens are our hobbies or pleasures, hedges against perhaps coming disaster, tomorrow they may be real hedges – or something different. The meaning shifts as much as our intent – what was “home” once stops being home when the children grow and it becomes a burden, or when the bank forecloses. What was once temporary becomes permanent when the times change and the realities shift. We may never move from a spot, but what that spot means to us may change and shift a dozen times – and so our dreams for it.
One morning, I rise up and I see only the weeds, the projects left undone, the things I have no yet accomplished stand out – I wonder what I was doing all these eight years, that I’ve still let the drainage and the cistern go. On the next morning, I rise up and the weeds are still there, getting taller, and the failures still evident in the unfinished projects, but what I see is different – I see how much we have accomplished in eight short years, the new barn, the addition, the growing boys, the fruiting trees. I see abundance and insufficiency alternately in the same landscape, depending on who I am that morning, and what I choose. Sometimes design is about redesigning myself, and who I choose I will be – the optimist who appreciates what I have done, the dark pessimist who deplores my failures and laxities. Perhaps the first place to redesign is myself.
Neither my husband nor I come from a family that has roots in one place – oh, in regions, yes, but not in houses. We moved and moved. It made me a person who always wonders whether somewhere else might be better, and Eric into someone who takes root hard, and fights any attempt to dig him out of his place. I am mint, opportunistically travelling into new spaces whenever they appear, he is burdock, so deep rooted you can never dig him out. I dream of starting anew – whether in my place or in another, he dreams of continuity and consistency. Both dreams transform our landscape – his certainty that this is the place for us and our posterity, my occasional uncertainty and dreamy reading of real estate listings.
But there is no stability in this life – even generations in the same place do not see or experience it the same way. The woods that your great-grandfather cut back to make a farm, that surrounded him in endless miles of forest, are now interstate and suburb, and your woodlot is to be nurtured into life, protected by its difference from the surrounding landscape.
Because there is no stability does not mean there is no reason to plan, nor moments of completion. The plans will change – but each set of plans teaches us something, something about what who we are now, and something about what we dream of. And in the summer, when the garden is at its fullest and the cherries fall ripe from the trees, at the moment of harvest when all your combined work and dreams are embodied in the perfect, dripping tomato, when the first hen lays or the first babies of spring are born, when the tree leafs out anew or the wild birds fledge, when the bumblebees mumble their summer song or when the snow covers your plantings, tucked in for winter, and only the spinach in the cold frame survives, these moments are fullnesses, times when the design is complete. The garden in these moments is done – it is here, it is realized, it is perfect. Its imperfections are its perfections, because you have taken life, transcribed a dream to paper and back again, and made it bear fruit.