The Awakening

New Sedum growth


Not the spring awakening, which is slowly happening up here in the north, but my awakening to a new way of gardening…Ever since I started reading Colette O’Neill’s Bealtaine Cottage blog, it’s as though a curtain has been lifted from my eyes.  I’m not sure what combination of things coalesced to activate this awakening — the right frame of mind, the perfect, green lushness and tranquility of the photos from Bealtaine, and/or my maturing as a gardener (heading into my 5th season) — but now when I look out into the expanse of my acreage, although beautiful, I see so much more potential.  


While a year ago I would have been planning and planting informal, cottage garden “rooms” around the property, now I see spaces to plant permaculture guilds. Guilds, as used in permaculture vernacular, are nothing more than harmonious grouping of plants (trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals) that will work together to ensure their health and productivity.   Guilds can also incorporate animals, wild or not (placement near a chicken coop, bird feeders or pond, for instance).

Guilds allow you to work in conjunction with nature, rather than battling her.  I’m now looking with fresh eyes at the young orchard and thinking about how I can inter-plant black currants, “insectary” plants (such as yarrow, lavender, bee balm, etc.) and mulch plants (such as comfrey or borage) that will work in concert to attract beneficial insects, feed the soil, feed the birds, butterflies and bees, and feed the humans, all preferably with less daily pest hunting (the voracious Japanese beetles love the fruit trees, especially the plums).  

Last year’s herb bed: yarrow, Echinacea, bee balm, origanum, lavender, tarragon, thyme, sage, parsley, chives, marjoram, mint and some cosmos tossed in late season to add more attractors — many of these are “insectary” plants

Where I once would have considered a formal hedge of yew or holly to create a new garden space, now I’m going to plant willow, which will thrive in the moist soil of the location I have in mind much more so than any other shrub.  Not only will this create a living fence that provides shelter for wildlife, but I will also be able to use it for plant support structures around the garden, as well as basket-weaving. 

This is the type of multi-function, coordination with nature that permaculture represents.  It’s magnificent, and I can’t wait to try out the wealth of ideas that have been swirling around my head for the past few weeks.

…on a totally different and depressing note, it snowed yesterday afternoon into the overnight and we have 3″ or so on the ground.  Sigh.

Permaculture Defined

Permaculture – the term combines the words permanent, agriculture and culture. I’ve only recently begun reading on this topic, but based on what we have created at Sleepy Dog Farm over the past 5 years, it would seem I share many of the same concerns with the folks who have deliberately followed permaculture principles.

Permaculture is as much a philosophy – a way of living that promotes sustainability, caring for our ailing planet, and encouraging and restoring a balance between humans and the rest of the natural world – as a collection of techniques.  I’m not an engineer and in the past, when I’ve tried to read books on permaculture, I’ve become discouraged with the focus on techniques, as well as with the sheer volume of changes that seemed to be required.  Once again I have to tout Colette O’Neill’s blog, Bealtaine Cottage, as a game changer for me.  She made the permaculture way seem eminently do-able for someone not trained as a landscape designer or engineer.  Her focus on simply planting trees, shrubs, and perennials and rebuilding the health of the soil through composting and organic growing is exactly what I have been trying to do here (although Bealtaine looks so much better).

crab apple

The primary precepts of permaculture fit in perfectly with the concept of wildlife gardening (in case you were wondering how I was going to link the two).  The precepts are:

  • Caring for the planet – taking action to maintain and encourage biodiversity, restore damaged and mistreated land, and use natural resources in an ethical and responsible fashion; and
  • Caring for people – the system must also meet the needs of people, including using the least amount of space to grow a surplus of food.  The fact that a landscape designed in a permaculture fashion can be aesthetically pleasing as well certainly doesn’t hurt.
As I head into my 5th gardening season here in North Country, I want to re-think some of my methods.  Certain permaculture techniques have already been adopted, including gardening organically, composting as much as possible, creating wildlife friendly environs, and no-till gardening (at least in the potager).  But I feel I can do more.  I’m looking into having rain gutters installed so I can capture rain water in barrels to use in the gardens.  In addition, even though we have 130 acres of forest in our backyard, I want to continue to plant more trees and shrubs near the house (within zones 1 and 2 in permaculture speak), and to plant in a more “condensed” manner to grow even more food.  I want an agricultural system that is more in sync with the land and nature.

Bealtaine Cottage, Ireland

I want to share a blog Nora discovered and shared with me a few weeks ago called “Bealtaine Cottage.”  The author of the blog is Colette O’Neill, and she and her delightful property and cottage are located in Ireland.

One of the first things that struck me when I started to peruse her blog was her comfortable, homey writing style, but also the wonderful photos of her property.  Everything looked so green and lush –humming with vibrant life.  As I read more, and looked at the before and after photos, I was simply awestruck by the transformation.  She took three acres of boggy, rush-ridden and otherwise barren property, and with the use of the principles of permaculture, transformed it over the course of 12 years into a wooded paradise which now supports abundant wildlife and where she grows her own food, herbs and a huge assortment of plants. 

I’m so enamored with all she has accomplished that I can’t wait for spring to arrive so I can begin to implement some of what I’ve learned from reading her blog and delving into a couple of permaculture books.  For anyone interested in gardening in a way that is more attuned to nature and the local ecology, I recommend a visit to her blog.  For anyone interested in seeing what one determined, dedicated person can accomplish, I recommend  the same.