Category Archives: Soil Building

Using Gravity in Place of Electricity [You can’t do that without… Pt 2]

20130526_IMG_8184When you’re farming 12 acres without the use of electricity or running water, it’s essential your water systems are as operating efficiently. At the farm, we have limited access to water. Regulations prevent us from harvesting water from the two streams running through the property, but allow for access at a point along a half-mile long diversion stream created approximately hundred years earlier.

Historically, this diversion stream was used to drive a large water wheel that powered everything from saws and drills, to an electric bulb in the kitchen of the farmhouse. From there, the stream moves beneath the road to the lower barn, where a milk-house was constructed. The cool water from the stream flowed through concrete storage tanks, chilling the stored milk. From there, it traversed the slab to a retention pond, where the dairy herd could drink.

Today, the diversion stream represents our only source of “running” water, generating a unique set of challenges for which permaculture offers solutions.

Fortunately, the market garden resides at a lower elevation than the stream, so watering the garden is a simple, gravity fed system involving salvaged pip discovered in the barn, buckets, and the bucket brigade (children and friends). The orchard, however, presents a greater opportunity for invention. And adding more water isn’t the obvious solution.

Healthy soil equates to good moisture retention. Planting the orchard on contour, building swales and hugelkultur beds to capture run-off in the more arid areas of the orchard, and building soil/guilds around the trees is a long-term solution to limited access to water at the site. In the beginning, as this process unfolds, water will need to be hauled in buckets via wagon transport to the guilds, but this is a small sacrifice compared with the long-term benefits supplied by our efforts.

No running water? No problem. And with all that hauling, no gym membership necessary either.

“You can’t do that without a tractor!” and other things people tell us… [Part One]

We hear this a lot, “How can you do that without a tractor?”

Tractors make great trellises.

It helps that we don’t till and manage the farm in a manner consistent with Permaculture’s ‘slow and steady’ principle. But the question remains, how do you deal with a large swath of land that requires working? We’ve run into one such stretch of pasture that was heavily tilled and sprayed for a few years. What remains is a rocky, sandy, depleted soil with several varieties of pioneer plants putting down deep tap roots to mine for nutrients and to gain traction in a heavily eroded landscape.

How can we alter this stretch without a tractor?  Our answer: Time, livestock, poop, and seeds.

Pioneers, the first to appear after the soil has suffered enough tillage, are plants often detested by the traditional farmer/gardener. They’re designed to survive in harsh, arid soils. Some even secrete a growth-suppressing hormone from their roots, keeping other plants from competing for the limited nutrients available. Additional tilling, which throws nutrients into the air, will generate an ideal habitat for these plants, preventing what we’d like to grow from growing (unless we rely on biocides to kill them, then soak the ground with synthesized NPK).

Instead, we approach the land with an integrative thought process. How can we work with what’s here and what we have to improve soil and get a yield of some kind out of the process? That yield might come in the form of fodder for animals, or food for humans (or both).

The land mentioned above, once a GMO-cornfield, is being transformed into a productive grazing pasture for our sheep. We first let it grow undisturbed for a full year (in a few more years, the microbial life there prior to conventional approaches will return), while installing fence-posts.

Taking advantage of a gentle slope, we’ll graze the sheep, who expel some of the richest pelleted manures of any livestock, in the upper portion, supplementing their feed with hay. During this process, as it rains, they’ll fertilized the upper portion of the field and allow for water to carry some of the nutrients to the lower half.

The Tengelitsch-Graves kids plant fence posts for the future sheep pasture last summer.
The Tengelitsch-Graves kids plant fence posts for the future sheep pasture last summer.

The pioneer plants, which congregate in the lower portion of the field, will now serve as a food source for meat-chickens. Using a chicken tractor (instead of a petrol-driven tractor), we’ll move the chickens daily and where they’ve eaten away the vegetation, they’ll leave a rich manure in its place. After each move, we’ll sew grasses and a limited supply of clover (a great nitrogen fixing legume).

By next year, we’ll reverse the process, allowing the sheep to graze the lower pasture, continuing to fertilize as they eat, and run the chickens across the upper portion, seeding as we go. Out of this, we get yields of meat from our chickens, fodder for the livestock, and fiber off the sheep. No tilling (and no tractors) necessary.

Building a new foundation

The land has a way of talking.

Yesterday, while unpacking the first shipment of apple trees, we discovered something. The roots had been packed in shredded paper, what looked like old files. I wasn’t paying attention to any of the writing, my eyes were trained on the varying colors of bark and form of each tree, but at one point Chris stopped me.

“Do you know what these are?” he asked.

“Shredded receipts or something from the co-op?”

“Look again.”

I picked up one of the file tabs, still visible. It read: “Radiation Oncology.”

My eyes followed the littered paper now strewn across the garage floor, heaped over roots of the future orchard we’ve so long dreamed of planting. An orchard inspired by my own experience with cancer, rooted in the very nature of changing convention to reduce human exposure to chemical compounds linked to the disease. And all these files, closed and shredded, now protected the roots of the trees.

I like to find poetry in the mundane. But sometimes it finds me and leaves me wondering if something so simple as mulch can carry so beautiful a message. That there is hope.


Permaculture Design Intensives

During each of these three hour intensives, participants will cover the core permaculture ethics, principles, and design process. All HTF classes are free and open to the public.

Permaculture Design Intensives will be held:Butterflies_wallpapers_313

  • February 23rd, 10a (FULL) 
  • March 16th, 10a (FULL)
  • March 23rd, 10a (FULL)

For directions and to register, please email:

Permaculture Design Intensives Added!

Due to the unanticipated popularity of the PDI offerings, we’ve added more! Intensives last about three hours and cover the core permaculture ethics, principles, and design process. All HTF classes are free and open to the public.

Permaculture Design Intensives will be held:

  • February 23rd, 10a (FULL) 
  • March 16th, 10a
  • March 23rd, 10a

For directions and to register, please email:

Permaculture Design Intensive and Three-part Course Offerings

ImagePermaculture Design Intensives offered this Winter Sunday, February 23rd and March 16th, 10a

Interested in learning about permaculture design principles, but no time for the longer series? This intensive will delve into the core principles and ethics, and will get you started asking the right questions to begin your design process.

This is part of our annual class cycle and is a great way to get a core understanding of the basic core principles, ethics, and design philosophy. During the PDI, we’ll work with real site designs and the issues that arise, covering everything from zoning and ordinance issues to building greater efficiency within the garden and within our lives. For more information on this and other class offerings, please see our course offerings page.

All Healing Tree Farm classes are free and open to the public. For more information or to register, please email

I am Pioneering

barnlight“I’m new to this livestock thing,” I said to the 30-year feed store veteran, after asking him whether straw shortages are common.

Hearing this thought out loud brought out an awareness that in piecing together this farm, we are far-extended into new territory. Pioneers born out of a generation gap in the how-tos of farming before machinery and electricity, running water.

This year alone, we’ve learned how to raise chickens and ducks, how to kill and butcher, how to shear sheep, wash fleeces, card wool, hand spin, how to store salted meat, have tasted milk from nearly every animal producing it off our neighboring farms, made butter, knitted cat fur (to prove a point), discovered the essential characteristics and differences between a mule and a donkey, found out oxen are just cows and that Jerseys are smaller and produce creamier milk, keylining and subsoiling, contouring, the history of the NRCS, the Yellow Sweeting is the oldest variety of named apples in the United States, grant-writing skills, that sheep produce pelleted nitrogen that is nearly double the concentration of horse and cow manure combined, uses for common “invasives,” that rye is like candy to chickens, and what a stoat is. The list goes on and continues to grow each day.

It’s intimidating, it’s enthralling, it’s an education born out of necessity. And it takes unadulterated commitment. Commitment to be willing to try and fail, to trust your own ideas, to trust the ideas of others, to re-learn what worked in the past, no matter how much work it entails in the present, to build community, to ask for help, to cross into new territory with a kind of unabashed curiosity. To know your own boundaries and to push them constantly.

This is new and sometimes painful growth. It is growth that comes on in the flush of a sudden rainfall, post drought. So many ideas curled up into one Bing cherry, pushing the flesh until it nearly cracks open. We have come to this place and have been careful to follow the subtle messages the land affords us: Carrots will grow well here, whisper the Queen Anne’s lace; Plant your asparagus there, say the reseeded brassicas.

Ghosts of old farmers are with us everywhere, in the old nails dug up as we begin planting posts for new grazing lands, a paint brush uncovered, a license “farm” plate from the 1950s, a playing card that frightens me with its taboo lineage, flowers planted in the 1940s still blooming with the story of the woman who tended them, the old apple tree with its graft grown through producing once again. My child wanders up to the chicken coop and I feel an urgency to close the door, but the door slams ahead of him and stays put. Likely wind, but I call aloud, “Thank you, Louis!” The way we were told DeYoung’s wife used to call for him, the latter part of his name affording a shrill upward slant from the start – “Lou-eee!”

We are both observing and interacting, weaving in intricate dance between the knowing and the showing. Building a foundation whose form is made from fitted stone, rather than the simple configuration of brick on brick. The community, the history, the farm life acting as a blueprint that is ever-shifting into greater efficiency. Solid, yet fluid. Hungry, yet satisfied.

So, that when I say, “I’m new to this,” I  do not mean I am naive, but rather on new territory. I am not fledgeling, I am pioneering.