Please consider contributing to a permaculture demonstration orchard at the Leelanau Conservancy-owned DeYoung Farm property. Thank you kindly!
Since childhood, there has never been a day that I wanted anything more than to work with the land. Inspired in part from the magic of a childhood spent looking into long rows of cherry trees, where space seemed to disappear in the distance, swallowed whole by the vastness of the orchard. The bright red cherries looked like sparkling candy mid-July and the airplanes that flew overhead, dropped clouds that fell gently, and whined their way past the vanishing point of the horizon. I would wait and listen for the revving of engines as the planes banked out of site for a return swoop.
I knew nothing of the practice of farming; only the art.
In high school, I worked on farms and in college, lived in a beautiful farmhouse atop a hill dotted with cherry trees, apples, pears, peaches. Tractors wound their way through the straight, even rows, chugging those familiar billowing clouds peacock-fanned-tail-style. My knowledge of the pesticides made me weary of standing too near, though I looked on still in reflection of my youth.
It was about that time that someone asked, “What is your idea of paradise like?”
I didn’t hesitate, “An orchard. The culmination of nature and human c0-inspired thing of beauty.”
Not long after, I began working on an organic farm just a few miles down the road. It was the first in a series of experiences that would lead me to discover a new way of farming. A method more in line with not only with my own philosophy, but one interwoven into the very fabric of ecology.
I went on to study biodynamics, and discovered permaculture nearly by accident, when my mentor suggested we plant a small orchard atop a knoll on her property. A thoughtful seed was planted.
By this time, I had begun to experiment with farming practices in my own backyard, a property not much over an acre. The soil had once supported an apple orchard, and lines were still drawn in the soil from years of tilling. Only a few trees remained.
It was 2004. Studies were emerging supporting a correlation between ag practices and the increased incidence in lymphomas in farming families. I was working for a share of food each week, and following the story in the local papers about a young woman running for Cherry Queen while battling diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
When this brave young woman died in January of 2005, I began researching the link between lymphomas and the use of organochlorines and organophosphates on cherry orchards in Peninsula Township, Grand Traverse Co. Michigan. In September, 2006, I was diagnosed with aggressive form of the cancer.
During that time I struggled with how to move forward. The mother to three young children, my life had been turned upsidedown. The way forward no longer seemed as clear as it once had. Or perhaps for the first time, I was examining life with enormous clarity.
A thought had sprouted in my imagination – a vision of the orchard as a living being, a healing place. The thought was what moved me through those dark, dark hours contemplating the outcome of the treatments. I needed to find a way to heal the old orchards. To bring about change, I couldn’t sit around and hope someone else would do it; I needed to be the change.
Healing Tree was born. A small-acreage experiment in growing fruit trees without the use of biocides. It has transitioned through some significant life changes. And today is taking root at the Conservancy-owned DeYoung property.
But the path was not so obvious. And the source of inspiration? Well, that was something quite out of the ordinary…
DeYoung has long been at the forefront of horticultural and civic innovation. We are excited to be a part of continuing that legacy of innovation with the installation of a fully-implemented permaculture apple orchard at the site.
This eight-acre orchard will be home to fruit-tree centered guilds made up of many other food-yielding plants. The remaining acreage will support livestock and a tree and guild plant nursery with a portion being dedicated to a market garden.
We are trilled to be working with the Leelanau Conservancy in pursuit of inspiring a love of the outdoors, and an appreciation for those diverse and thriving ecosystems that make up this unique farm property. Moreover, we will continue to offer (free) educational courses in permaculture design, workshops, and work-bees in pursuit of solutions to issues that impact regional farmers.
Please join us in support of our mission to foster a holistic approach to growing fruit trees. Contributions of ideas, wisdom, and inspiration are always welcome!
We gathered the kids together in the living room for some advice. In creating a five-year plan for the farm, we wanted some input from those members of our family not so limited by the confines of practicality, for inspiration, and to include them in the planning process as an educational component.
We were not disappointed.
While listing options for livestock, our eight year old suggested raising unicorns. “We could sell them for a lot of money,” she said. With a smirk, the eleven year old chimed in, “They also have healing powers.”
Me: “Sounds like they might be costly to purchase?”
Eight year old: “But they only eat grass.”
So, unicorns made the list, though in the end, they were voted down due to initial expense and size. Chickens made it to the top of the list, followed by Southdown sheep and a llama. Pigs and the cow went the way of the unicorn.
We then spent time working with the kids on examining structures on the property that might house chickens, food sources that are already growing/or will be grown there, costs of supplemental food sources, bedding, and what kind of egg production we might see out of which breeds. Our eldest began researching the number of chickens we could keep at two of the existing structures, based on square footage. She then calculated the approximate number of eggs they might produce per week, and estimated profits based on those figures.
Next, we looked at preparing for the first, second and third growing season. The girls drew site maps, noting soil types and proximity to water. We talked about elevations, using topographical maps to show low-lying areas where frost might make growing fruit trees more of an issue.
The eight year old made up a worksheet of questions to be answered, like “Why does the stream have fish?” and a question that was rather pertinent, “How did the river get here?”
One of the streams, we explained, was naturally occurring, but the other was created when the farmer long ago created a trench to reach his livestock at the barn.
In the end, the planning had less to do with how to do what, when, and where, and more to do with engaging this next generation in exploring a landscape, its ecosystem, history, and future. Making decisions based on the constraints of budget, landscape, utility corridors, soil types, etc. And without knowing it, they received a great lesson in the permaculture design process and without rolling their eyes even once.
Healing Tree Farm is announcing our Permaculture Orchard Design Course slated for January and February, with a follow-up class in applied orchard design anticipated in March. If you are interested in participating in the class, please contact Samantha Graves.
This four-part course will examine the usefulness and effectiveness of edible forest garden design when applied to the back-yard growing space.
Tentative dates for the course: 6 Jan, 13 Jan, 27 Jan, 3 Feb. Times and location TBD. All HTF courses are free and open to the public.
I must find a man who still loves the soil
Walk by his side unseen, pour in his mind
What I loved when I lived until he builds
Sows, reaps, and covers these hill pastures here
With sheep and cattle, mows the meadowland
Grafts the old orchard again, makes it bear again
Knowing that we are lost if the land does not yield.
-Jeanne Robert Foster
Up an old farm road, some ways out of town, there’s a place that grows ideas. It’s a little unconventional (thankfully), and as the woman who owns the property has always said, “If you make it up the hill, you were meant to arrive.”
I could drive it, and sometimes I do, but mostly I prefer to park at the base of the hill and trace the two-track up through the still of the forest. A few days ago made the trek on foot and met up with a deer, all the while contemplating the juxtaposition between the system and game that is played in surviving via a new set of rules, versus the simplicity of rules laid out by nature. How one system deprives us of purpose, while the other feeds it to us in abundance.
The hill is my transition in and out. A time for me to process what I have learned, or while ascending, consider all that I have learned that has lead to my return. This farm is where I got my start in permaculture. It’s the place where I was given information, shown how to grow food, how to build soil, how to live and think outside of the melancholy of the free-market system.
A biodynamic farm. What happens here is dynamic, from how we build thematrix of the food web from that which we eat, to that which eats what we eat, to the larger picture of how we relate to the plants, each other, our place within this universe. This is where I first heard the universe described as “one voice, one song.”
And that word “dynamic” – I love how it feels to say it. How it opens my throat like a yawn. How intrinsic a vocal movement meets definition is this word, dynamic.
We have been asked here to help an old friend restore her vineyard, planted 25 years earlier on a bluff over the bay. The vines are still bearing, though many other plants have joined them and there is much to learn about the ever-increasing intricacies of this now self-regulating ecosystem.
And in returning, we are visiting the ghosts of our past. Walking past echos of ideas still standing. Thoughts pending. Heartbeats rendered through the undulating landscape where milkweed, vetch, and valerian have replaced annuals in the fertile soil. This is a living memory. And to think I felt sadness when I first looked upon it! When it has so thoughtfully produced in our absence! Lifted the roof off the greenhouse, and blanketed the orchard in a cloak of yarrow and gentle green grasses.
We have been charged with more than the responsibility of salvaging a vineyard for harvest.
That is too one-dimensional and careless a thought. We have been shown a path that will lead to wisdom gleaned from the harvest or from the goal of harvest. And what better way to begin, than to learn about a vine? A vine that is so careful to root itself in depth and breadth before reaching out to others for support.
We will not be saving a vineyard; we will be saving ourselves.
We’re not your average farmers- eagerly awaiting a small infestation of aphids, so that we might experiment with solutions to eliminate them from our fruit trees, but there we found ourselves- eager at the sight of them to experiment with more traditional remedies. To prove more to ourselves than anyone else, that we can grow an orchard without chemical salts, fertilizers, and biocides- grow a food forest as nature might.
While nature doesn’t supply us with aphid spray (natural or otherwise), it does supply us with observable phenomena and if we apply this knowledge, rather than change the underlying structure, we can adapt and respond quickly; ensuring successful results.
We noticed not long ago that the tree suffering with curly leaf aphids was showing signs of stress. It had suckered on two occasions, and appeared thirsty. Within days, the aphids arrived.
People often look at aphids as the source of the problem with a plant, much as they might accuse the hungry woodpecker of destroying a tree. However, there are often underlying issues (and thankfully issues more easily resolved if noticed early on), that lead to infestations and disease.
Much as the overworked human might fall ill without rest and proper nutrition, and the tree, death by dismemberment, due to infestations of insects that attract woodpeckers, our trees will also suffer the consequences of illness, if not paired with good soil and adequate water.
Simply put, healthy trees stave off their own health issues. And trees interplanted with habitat for predatory insects that might feast on aphids, are at a huge advantage.
So apart from spraying a solution of peppermint oil, a soil conditioner, plus water (completely non-toxic), I also spent some extra time watering this particular tree and will interplant with some chives and comfrey in the next few days for added mulch and resistance to other aphid populations.
Normally, these trees would have been planted in an ideal mix of soil, mulched properly, and interplanted to start, however time constraints prevented us from first achieving the ideal conditions. What we hope to harvest from these trees, apart from eagerly anticipated apples and pears, is knowledge that may be applied in conventional orchards to replace costly and dangerous biocides.
“In teaching, there is healing; and in healing, we teach.”
I grew up in a sturdy four square house nestled in the middle of a cherry orchard that spanned every horizon. The only tall trees I knew as a child were the two lone maples that framed the face of the house. Their canopies provided the shade that was my summer fort, where I could gaze into the hallowed depths of those infinite rows.
On the occasion, beautiful children wove their way between trees, while their parents worked, speaking in a language that was foreign and magical, picking cherries, and dropping them into buckets. How I longed to run amongst those children, but so foreign were they, I do believe, I thought them imagined.
Though I wasn’t supposed to wander from the yard, the dwarf trees ripe with red, sparkling cherries, standing in neat, tidy rows, were an irresistible attraction to my four-year-old curiosity. I ran down the rows until I could only barely make out the broad arches of the maple trees, and then back home again.
In May, the planes would come, dipping low from their perch in the sky, blanketing the orchards in a fine mist. On these days, my mother would lift me from where I played in the yard, and take me back into the house. From the front window, I watched the planes disappear over the horizon, listening to their motors rev and whine as they looped and lifted for a return pass. The air tasted strange, but the sight gripped at me and held me to the window.
My mother wandered the house, closing windows and cursing the men in the planes.
Later, before the cancer had settled into my blood, whenever someone asked me my idea of heaven, I explained to them the tidy lines of trees; my idea of heaven was the farm. What a perfect place; the natural pallet painted by the hands of humans and machines. It was the beginning of a life-long love of farming. There has never been a period of time when, like most of us who live in the greater Grand Traverse region, I have not in some way been connected with a farm.
At 26, I saw a photograph of a young woman in the newspaper. She was battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the blood while running for Cherry Queen. Something in her smile radiated out from the page. I sat with her photo for some time. Behind her, cherry blossoms clouded their branches. There, the neat rows beckoned.
Later that winter, I learned that the young woman had died. I ran a query for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer about which I knew nothing. Lauren had died of diffuse large b-cell lymphoma, an aggressive form of the cancer, dubbed “the pesticide cancer” for its prevalence among agricultural families.
Before long, I was knee-deep in research into the links between the increased incidence of NHL and the use of organochlorines and -phosphates on cherry orchards. I studied DEQ maps of water samples taken in Peninsula Township, where Lauren had grown up, spoke with the Old Mission school that neighbors an active orchard, where the branches of trees overlap the playground, questioned residents, learned of the prevalence of NHL and leukemia among families living on or near the orchards, and suddenly the sweetness of those beautiful, perfect orchards had soured.
Two years later, at 28, with three young children, I began having dreams that I was dying. In each dream, I was on a ship in the Straits of Mackinac. In the dreams, my girls stood on the deck reaching out for me, but I was leaving them. My heart ached as I turned each time and walked into the light afforded by sun filtering through spray forming off the bow.
In a final dream, I looked down upon a body resting in a bed on the second story of a house. The house didn’t have any walls and large, fierce animals were trying to get at the body to eat it. The body was naked, and an intense light emanated from the right armpit. The light was so bright, you couldn’t look directly at it. I fought off the animals, to protect the body, and awoke shaken and crying. That morning, July 19th, 2006, while in the shower, I discovered a large lump within my right armpit. The lump felt dense and smooth and it sickened me to feel it.
In September, I was diagnosed with diffuse large b-cell lymphoma, the same cancer that had killed Lauren. My treatments began immediately.
Fighting cancer involves the poisoning of the body to destroy the cancer, while managing the extreme side-effects in a simultaneous battle to keep the body alive. Over the winter, I began chemotherapy combined with immunotherapy. I met with my darkest fears about dying. I accepted it might happen, but chose instead to focus on my babies. By the time farmers were gearing up to spray their orchards, I was completing my radiation treatments, and feeling a renewed commitment to farming.
In 2007, we established Healing Tree Farm in response to concerns over the use of chemicals on our food-supply. So began an adventure in farming using the principles of permaculture, a method of farming that mimics natural forest succession, in urban and country settings. Since then, we’ve helped build school gardens, began the first permaculture courses taught at NMC, and have held free workshops to educate and inspire people to question the system and make changes according to the lesson book nature has provided.
Today, divorce has uprooted the farm, but seeds have been planted in three different counties, and we will never stop helping others achieve their goals of growing food without chemicals. This year, Healing Tree hopes to locate land to plant an orchard. This orchard we hope will represent the future of growing methods, using innovative thinking, rather than relying on biocides to solve problems, and growing food that is truly healthful, not only to those who eat what the land provides, but for those who work the soil and live nearby.
It is our hope to heal the old orchards, to restore magic to a place I have loved for as long as I can remember. This is what is meant by our name Healing Tree. In teaching, we are healing, and in healing, we hope to inspire.
By definition, a weed is any plant that crowds out cultivated plants. In nature, plants will only crowd out other plants when the environment is altered and one plant is deprived of some nutrient or gained by another. While we tend to think of forests as stationary ecosystems, they’re always moving. As we see in succession, when one layer of pioneer plants has amassed enough biomass to sustain a perennial herb layer, the grasses move in and “crowd out” the pioneers. As more biomass is generated at the top-soil layer by the bundled root-systems of the perennial grasses, the shrub layer encroaches followed by the shorter, then taller trees. With each step, we see a more complex ecosystem unfolding until the web of biodiversity is strong enough to sustain minor alterations.
“Weeds” or those plants we have labeled weeds, contribute to biomass, cultivation, offer a food source for beneficial insects and play a part in the development of the ecosystem. And in many cases, those plants we’ve labeled “weeds” are far more beneficial than the plants we’ve cultivated. Dandelions, for example, are completely edible, hold nutrients from the soil and redistribute these nutrients at the end of the life-cycle, are insectary, and offer humans some medicinal value. Grass, on the other hand, prevents erosion and provides biomass, but otherwise, isn’t very useful to humans, doesn’t attract beneficial insects and takes in more nutrients than it contributes.