In 2015 we were inspired by the short-film Homegrown Revolution, featuring the Dervaes family. The short film shared the story of one man’s path to freedom for himself and his family by building a self-sufficient farm on 1/5th acre in the suburbs of Pasadena, CA. That story sparked a flood of new dreams and ideas for my family. A new journey had begun!
With more ideas, than time and money to support the ideas, we struggled with where to start. After watching the movie Back to Eden, we decided job #1 in building a restorative relationship with the natural world needed to be rebuilding our soil. Our lawn had died off previously in 2 of our 4 yards, leaving us with a fair amount of exposed ground.
Uncovered ground is both a symptom and a contributing factor to dying soil. The part of our yards that still had growth were covered with English Ivy and other invasive species, which is also a clear sign to the condition of the soil health (or lack of) underneath.
In the spring/summer of 2015, we arranged for a local tree trimming service to deliver 2 truckloads of wood chips and used them as mulch in garden areas we assessed they would be the most beneficial.
Then we heavily seeded the rest of the property with a cover crop. Next to the primary veggie garden area, we set up a composting station in the yard to help grow fertile soil amendments and encourage the return of worms back onto our property.
Last, we bought chickens and in the fall rabbits to partner with us in our soil building efforts. The rabbits put out a steady stream of ready to use ‘organic fertilizer’ and chickens provided needed disturbance and aeration to the soil.
The result was the next spring we had this…and we were delighted how much more fertile our yard was becoming. Yet we still had a long way to go.
Slow. Stop. Sink.
The same chickens that were a godsend the year before, were little destroyers of our growing efforts in 2016. They pecked and scratched the land bare, exposing the soil again by the end of the growing season.
To compound problems, it was a hot summer and our food forest area is on a slope. What little rain that did fall during the 2016 growing season didn’t seep into the soil in the same way it did in flatter areas.
As we observed the area we selected to develop into a perennial food forest, it became apparent that we needed to improve the hydration to the area by increased mulching and building a hugelkultur mound around the perimeter.
We wanted to prime the area to slow, stop, and sink rain water into the soil.
Food Forest Project
As we cleared the last of the invasive overgrowth and brush from another area of the property, we used the larger pieces of green waste to built an animal deterrent around the food forest area.
Our plan was to let the sticks and small logs dry out and they would serve as the foundation of our hugelktur mounds for the 2017 growing season. We heavily mulched the area every time we cleaned the rabbit hutches and we seeded the area in the late fall with a nitrogen fixing cover crop mix.
As the snow melted, we started to fill in the gaps of the hugelkultur mounds with small pieces of organic matter and compost. In early March we planted a spring nitrogen fixing cover crop on the mounds themselves.
In April when we moved the chickens into their new enclosure, we built a keyhole garden for our annuals where the old coops used to be right outside the hugelkultur mound.
We also took out 2 trees that didn’t survive the winter. We replaced them with 2 peach trees to accompany the pear and 4 apple trees already in the forest area. Last we added 2 hazelnut trees, gooseberry and boysenberry bushes, and a bunch of perineal flowering plants to round out the layers of the food forest.
Beyond 30:1 Carbon Nitrogen Ratio
In the last 2 years we have learned so much about building soil. One of our favorite teachers has been Dr. Elaine Ingham and we have watched every video of hers we could get our hands on. We encourage all growth, including edible ‘weeds’, to keep our soil covered and healing.
On Fruit Hill Farm we consider building the soil job #1. Every garden area that we have approached with soil building as our goal has given generously during the growing season.