Bearing Fruit: 8 Years of Farm Planning

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.


25 Responses to “Bearing Fruit: 8 Years of Farm Planning”

  1. EJon 26 Feb 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Yes, its is often a good idea to do “nothing” the first year. And talk to former owners and neighbors.

  2. Greenpaon 26 Feb 2009 at 1:40 pm

    A lovely journey, and useful to us all; thanks.

    I did, though, find myself reminded; just a bit, of one of my relatives, and I’m hoping the similarity is not extensive.

    He led an active life; many accomplishments. But- a big part of that was: whatever he had; at the moment- was not “enough”.

    I know for a fact there were many times when he spent celebrations in a bad mood; because some one thing was out of place.

    I know you’re not that bad! I just want to encourage to to say “this is enough- let’s relax and enjoy it” – frequently.


    Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still plant trees!

  3. billon 26 Feb 2009 at 1:46 pm

    have you ever thought of renting out your extra space for week-long retreats sharon-style?

    i’d pay good money to come learn from you for a week or two…

  4. plcdestinyon 26 Feb 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Reading this post I am reminded of the opening paragraph of a favorite Thomas Merton essay, “Hoping for Results?”.

    “Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.
    As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

    People, Place and Providence… works for me.

  5. robinon 26 Feb 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I really love this post.

  6. Anna in NYCon 26 Feb 2009 at 3:10 pm

    This is a lovely piece. Thank you :)

  7. Amyon 26 Feb 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Sniff, I loved it too.

  8. Susan in NJon 26 Feb 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Very lyrical.

  9. ChristyACBon 26 Feb 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Hey, Bill has a good idea. Since it may be that one of your children winds up being the perfect homestead-mate in the future, (with wife and children in tow!), maybe short working vacation type sharing is a good thing. I mean, people, and I’m included in this, can read and forge ahead, but generally do better after seeing it in action first. Might be a good opportunity to give while still getting what you need.

    Nice story there and good post. Excellent reminder to us all to try to see the progress instead of just the projects not yet done. I think I’ll do that today when I go home….and then get back to reality and pick up my shovel! LOL…spring is coming, digging must be done.


  10. sealanderon 26 Feb 2009 at 4:16 pm

    I know how what you need from a place can change with time. We bought my current place intending to do it up, sell it at a profit and buy a place in the country. But we planted fruit trees anyway, because we liked them. A lot of what we planted did not survive – wrong location, wrong climate, or just a victim of the changing tastes of a changing household, but 12 years on I’m still here, and reaping the harvest of pears, plums, persimmons, grapes and nuts.
    I’m onto a second husband though, and a third lemon tree – I just keep killing them, the lemon trees that is, not the men ;)

  11. kerrieon 26 Feb 2009 at 5:14 pm

    you are a fine writer. i hope you don’t ever stop. i imagine there are quite a few of us who would pay to stay with you and learn the’d probably have to hold a lottery to contend with all the applicants.

  12. Studenton 27 Feb 2009 at 9:34 am

    Sharon, thank you for this. Your writing has made me laugh and made me cry. I’ve read it aloud to family, emailed it to friends and recommended it to others – women especially.

    I’d like to share something special with you and others here – an online live broadcast on Sunday on “The Age of Women.” Please watch and listen if you have a chance, and reserve judgment on the source until you hear the message. It is wise beyond belief, and tells us what I believe we all suspect already – that the changes that are coming will need women and their special gifts. Men will be needed, as well, but this particular presentation speaks to women.

    I would love to discuss this with you and your readers after. Here are the particulars:

    “The Age of Women” Live Broadcast from Boulder, CO

    “The Age of Women” is part of a series of revelations on urgent world-wide issues that are broadcast each month from the Greater Community Sanctuary in Boulder, CO. Marshall Vian Summers, the recipient of these revelations, will introduce this new teaching on the important role of women, especially in these challenging times and in the difficult times ahead.

    Watch and listen live online at

    March 1, 2009, 11am MT (GMT – 7) 10 Pacific, 12 Central, 1:00 Eastern

    Thank you again, Sharon, for all you do, and for your inspiration.

  13. Shandyon 27 Feb 2009 at 10:38 am

    Great post, and I totally understand how, in your head, the fantasy of “The Self-Sufficient Life” looks so wonderful and perfect. Mine certainly does.

    And then I go back to trying to keep two small-yet-demonic chickens out of my sad little garden boxes with the plants that never quite grow big enough or fruit after blooming and wondering what the heck I’m going to do to solve all these problems. Oh well.

  14. Lanceon 27 Feb 2009 at 10:41 am

    It’s a GORGEOUS post, Sharon :-) and thanks plcdestiny for the Merton quote… these are memes that need to be spread more fully. I have been facing somethings, and this post helped keep my tipping point secure. I hope you don’t mind that I excerpted a little from it at my Once and Future Druid blog, because truth and hope are inconstant companions these days… I want to help keep “bringing in the sheaves” and your words are like seed for the hungry birds.

  15. Carolynon 27 Feb 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing . . .

  16. Turn, Turn, Turn « This Ringing Bellon 27 Feb 2009 at 4:34 pm

    [...] Turn, Turn Sharon Astyk has a great post chronicling the changes that have taken place over the years on her ho….  It’s really great to read about her journey, as someone who hopes to embark on a similar [...]

  17. risa bon 27 Feb 2009 at 6:32 pm

    +1 for loving this post. We’re still trying for Seymour at our place, but his artists are better than our hands! ;)

  18. Rebeccaon 01 Mar 2009 at 9:51 am

    This is a great post, Sharon.

  19. Kation 01 Mar 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Beautiful post, Sharon!

  20. Karenon 01 Mar 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  21. RCon 01 Mar 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Soon you will be assisted by the grandchildren, you’ll see, it will happen in just a matter of weeks. And the longer you are at that farm, the faster the time will go. Years become months, months become weeks, there is hardly a week anymore, just the same day you thought was yesterday, but it is a week later. Routines begin to work you like a task, you awake and the action carries itself,
    sure there are variations on these themes, but you begin to recognize the themes that go with every day of the year, every type of cloud and wind has it’s own aria that you’ve heard before and are happy to hear again and as the adventure
    progresses, down the many years, you are less and less aware of any particular moment and more aware of the awe alive in each of them. In short, it is over all too soon: breathe deep and occupy it as much as possible as it will slip away and take you with it one day just like today. Eight years go by very quickly and eighty years go by even faster.

  22. Elenaon 02 Mar 2009 at 12:21 am

    Having similar thoughts, not as many kids (and my kids have gone away)… I always had this image of a large farm/spread in which the kids had a role as grown ups… did not happen… but anyhow, My thoughts have turned to planting again and a friend sent me this lovely blog..

    what I needed to be reminded that we are who we are , we are not right or wrong, we are dreamers and doers or both and it is all fine.

    I am getting re acquainted with the suns daily cycles, as I get up and play with plants and my dogs each morning. the more I plant, the more the days quicken and start spinning faster… how much nicer to be in a garden than driving a car!.

  23. Barbaraon 02 Mar 2009 at 10:31 am

    Light the corners of my mind
    Misty water-colored memories
    Of the way we were
    Scattered pictures,
    Of the smiles we left behind
    Smiles we gave to one another
    For the way we were
    Can it be that it was all so simple then?
    Or has time re-written every line?
    If we had the chance to do it all again
    Tell me, would we? Could we?
    Mem’ries, may be beautiful and yet
    What’s too painful to remember
    We simply choose to forget
    So it’s the laughter
    We will remember
    Whenever we remember…
    The way we were…
    the way we were…

  24. Neighbor Nancyon 03 Mar 2009 at 12:23 am

    Lovely adventure.
    Is there anything better for homestead day dreaming than a John Seymour book?
    I wonder if he ever knew how many people he has inspired.
    I just loose myself in “The Self-Sufficient Gardener” and the mentioned AND the one about tools.

  25. Anonymouson 04 Oct 2009 at 4:32 am

    I came across your web site while looking for a reason why my lemon tree did not bear fruit found it very entertaining ..I have also planted 100.s of trees and never got to see them grown as we have moved round so many times in our 45yrs of marriage…Linda Bezuidenhout…SEDGEFIELD …SOUTH AFRICA

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