As of May, we’ve become stewards of 36 acres of traditional Shakori-Saponi lands in Silk Hope, NC (Haw River watershed). Having a home base for Heartward Sanctuary is a huge blessing, and blessings don’t often come without growing pains: we face a whole new set of opportunities and challenges.
The owners before us tended the land meticulously and with lots of love, but in a style that demanded heavy inputs. The expansive lawn has been used to getting aeration, lime and fertilizer, not to mention regular mowings. A lush green carpet of grass is an asset, providing lots of open space for community events and rituals—but it’s also something of a problem. We don’t want to be addicted to any more petroleum inputs than necessary; we don’t want fertilizer run-off getting in the creek; and, fun as riding the mowing monster may be at moments, we don’t really want to spend hour after hour cutting the grass every ten days. There has to be a more sustainable way.
Converting a patch of lawn to garden is a start. Permaculture’s toolkit offered a handy way of doing so while solving other problems: the huge number of cardboard boxes left over from the move, the old musty straw clogging up the hayloft, the mass of rotten firewood in a poorly-covered woodpile. All this organic matter was ready to be put to work, first in a sheet mulch a.k.a. lasagna garden:
The cardboard layer keeps grass and weeds from poking up through the mulch. The compost (the one purchased input, a whopping five yards of it from local outfit Brooks Compost) adds fertility, of course, and will help break the cardboard down once it’s done its grass-smothering job. The straw will remain in place as mulch. We’ll create defined beds inside this lasagna parabola, but after a couple seasons of decomposition, planting into it could be as simple as parting the straw and poking in bulbs or seeds.
But I was eager to do some planting sooner, and we had all that rotting firewood to dispose of, so…
These “hugelkultur” or mound-gardens are a German technique that’s been adopted by permacultists—I mean culturalists. The top layers of soil and compost can be planted into immediately, while the wood underneath will break down slowly to create a bank of fertility for years to come. These mounds are great for growing vines like squash and cucumbers; next season I’ll try bean pole teepees above to shade some tenderer veggies underneath; and in a couple of years we may just plant them to blueberries, which should love the rotting wood situation.
Julia and I are not master gardeners or permaculture experts by any means, and all this is all somewhat of an experiment. Thankfully, one of the main pieces of advice we took away from our permaculture consult with our friends Liane Salgado and Matthew Watersong was not to try to do too much too soon. They encouraged us to spend the first year in close observation of the land. So we’re trying to pay close attention to the ways water moves through the landscape, the ways people and animals move, to the places that could use shade, the places that feel like natural gathering points, and so on. Part of coming back into relation with the spirits of the land is learning to slow down, not rushing at things with an agenda but instead allowing for unfoldings beyond what we could scheme up on our own. It’s humbling; we’re like children in this endeavor of coming back into deep relation and partnering with spirit. Little by little we’re re-learning how to listen.