Lay of the Land

We had a beautiful weekend, so I took the chance to take some pictures that give an overview of my yard. I’m now on spring vacation from work, and I’m full of ambition and chomping at the bit to get out and start prepping the various parts of my yard to become a proper forest garden. Naturally, after a month of warmish temps it has started snowing and is forecast to do so for the indefinite future. Good thing I have a long vacation.

In permaculture and forest garden design there’s a heavy emphasis on the concept of zones, and laying out your garden so that the things you eat or that need the most attention are located in the zone closest to your house, thus requiring the least amount of effort to harvest or otherwise maintain. Most of the books and other resources I have encountered are working on a much larger scale than I am (about 1/10 acre), so even my most distant zones are about a 30-second walk out my front door. In that sense, I’m not too concerned about zones — everything will be within easy reach. Nevertheless, there are several distinct regions of my yard that likely represent micro-climates, and I continue to spend time figuring out what plants will go best in each area.

Here’s an overview of my front yard, which represents the largest area of my yard. This is all south-facing so it gets loads of sun. Our land is all clay, so last spring I had several dump trucks worth of good soil delivered, and then several more. I think I chronicled that endeavour on this blog if you want go back and have a look. So I have plenty of good dirt on hand that I need to shuffle around. Last summer this part of the yard was full of vegetables, and you can see a few daikon radishes that I need to dispatch before I can really have at the land. As it stands, the only perennial plants are three blackberry bushes against the fence, a pear sapling, an apple sapling, and a small Japanese maple tree. I’ll explain the water feature in a bit.

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Focusing on the upper part of the yard, my plan is to plant two or three largish nitrogen-fixing trees in front of the porch (the black area). These will serve to improve the soil, shade the porch, and provide habitat for wildlife, and depending on what trees I settle on, perhaps food or other materials for us. Beneath them, I’m aiming to concoct several guilds with plants to attract beneficial insects, deter bad insects, improve soil, and provide food. I’m not close to settling on what exact combination of plants to use yet.

In front of the trees, I’ll plant several shrubs/smaller trees with guilds around them that serve similar functions to those that I described above. I have some ideas, but everything is in flux at the moment.

The red area represents a large keyhole garden that I will use to grow the bulk of my vegetables.

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And about that pond-like thing… By design, my yard slopes towards the street so water flows away from the house. But it was also taking with it lots of soil, and why let all that water run away when I could collect and use it? Last summer I was bored one afternoon so I decided to excavate a small pond area to collect the runoff and hopefully create another micro-climate. I didn’t line the pond with anything, as I envisioned it being more of a wetland that would dry out when there isn’t rain. However, I did plant some cattails, necessitating that it at least remains moist most of the time. This winter it hasn’t been a problem, but I may need to add water regularly during the summer. I’m hoping that as the cattails propagate and create more shade, water will linger longer, though it remains to be seen if they’ll even survive the winter. In the meantime, I covered the bottom of the pond in leaves, hoping that has they degrade it’ll create a kind of nutrient-rich sludge that will help retain water. I’ve also thought of planting something that will grow and cover the surface of the water (like a lily pad) and discourage evaporation. If my plan works, it will offer a great environment for frogs, birds, and other insect devouring critters to hang out in.

To the side of the pond, I’m thinking of relocating the pear tree and creating a guild around its base. Or I could plant some sort of privacy hedge. Again, lots of flux in my foggy plans.

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To the right of the walkway leading to my front door there is another area. There is a row of six blueberry bushes separating it from the lawn (three different varieties, no clue what they are at this point). My plan for this area is plant a nitrogen-fixing tree in front of the blueberries that will also offer some shade for the lawn and the beer-swilling beefcakes who inhabit it. In the middle of this area I’m considering a smaller keyhole garden for veggies, and a few other food-producing/soil amending/wildlife-encouraging shrubs.

I have a lot of different trees and plants in mind, but I haven’t settled on anything quite yet, so I’ll give more specifics about those when I have more specifics to give.

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Next we have the recreation zone. This area gets a lot of afternoon sun and it’s hot in the summer. My goal is that the large trees I plant will provide enough shade to enable us to use this space comfortable a little earlier in the day. You may notice the two-tone grass. I planted the bulk of the lawn last spring, then decided I wanted to extend it towards the end of summer. The sod I planted at that time wasn’t taking to my liking, so I threw down some seed that was a different, much greener variety.

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On the corner of my property I have a sliver of hillside that represents a unique environment. It’s very shaded in the summer, so naturally I’m looking to set up some shiitake logs there. At the base is my massive compost pile that needs to be reined in. There’s a depression at the base of the hill, and I’m thinking of moving some of the good soil there and experimenting with some less sun-loving veggies and other plants.

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Finally, on the west side of the house I have a small strip of land with limited potential. This is where all of the municipal water pipes and other drainage runs about a meter below the surface, so I can’t plant anything that sets its roots to deep. Right now I have some garlic and onions growing, and I really haven’t figured out what I’m going to do here. That said, it can definitely be a productive sector of the yard for the right set of plants. But for now I’m much more focused on figuring out the larger, more central portions of the yard.

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So there it is…a complete blank slate. I started grading down the vegetable beds in the front yard over the weekend, reminding me how much dirt I actually had delivered. I’ve contemplated installing some swales in the front yard because the pond does tend to overflow, but I think I’ve settled on building the keyhole garden as a kind of barrier that will absorb the bulk of runoff from the top half of the yard. Again, everything is subject to change at this point. It’s going to take some hours and lots of labor to get it all moved around, and in the midst of all that I may hit upon a better design. Or perhaps while I’m waiting for all this snow to melt…

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