All posts by jesse

Why set goals?

The first step in any good design process is to clearly define our goals for the project.  A clear grasp of goals helps us to hold a vision, make design and implementation decisions and strategically allocate limited resources.  The goal helps us orient our actions in the right direction.  This way we can distinguish between which elements are the right fit for the right place or which actions take us toward our goal versus away from it.  A good goal consists of a couple sentences that clearly articulate a statement of purpose.  This is different from an element or list of elements that might go into the system.

Here’s an example: if i ask you what your goal is and you say “i want to grow apples,” this is a good start but we’re not quite there yet.  Apples would be an element in the system and the system overall would be oriented to some larger goal.  So i might ask you “why do you want to grow apples?”  After you think about it you might say that apples are a good fruit crop for our climate and you like to eat apples.  Underneath the desire for apples we get closer to the goal, which is why i might ask “why?” a few times.  In this case you want to grow apples because you want to grow your own food in a manner that is a good fit for our climate.  So a couple goals we can infer are 1) to grow your own food and 2) to adapt to the existing climate.
Goals can be summarized into a few sentences like in a holistic goal statement or they can be summarized in a list of bullet points.  If it’s in a list of bullet points it’s important to remain focused on the deeper desires for why we want to do a thing rather than list out a bunch of elements.  A wish list is also a useful exercise, but it’s best to separate that list from the goals.  A clear understanding of goals help us to decide whether an element on a wish list is really necessary or if we can come up with a different solution to some design challenge.

Another example might be where a client says to me that they really want hugelkultur beds.  Hugelkultur is a great way to turn rotting waste wood into viable garden beds, but it is a fairly significant construction project.  After a discussion about why they landed on the element of hugelkultur we discover that the underlying desire is to manage water, make use of waste wood and turn it into an asset like growing space.  Once we discover that the primary goal is to manage water, we may decide that it makes more sense to cut swales based on site conditions, soil types, volume of water and financial resources.

Clear vision and goals helps us make strategic decisions, allocate limited resources, and pivot to the most appropriate design solution.  A focus on goals allows us to remain somewhat non-attached to specific elements so that we can focus instead on solving design challenges with the most appropriate strategies based on site conditions and other constraints.
IMG_2014 copy

Woodland terraces Fall 2016

This was an earthworks project in the back woods of Waldo county.  The design process for this project started with a concept sketch for the client whose goal is to develop this piece of land into an agroforestry farm with a focus on chestnuts.  The design challenge in this case was the topography and the process of transitioning the species composition of an existing forest.  We got called to consult on the project after the logging operation had been done.

DC design 02 smThe consult led to this cursory design sketch which we then used as the starting point for construction.  We began with a ridge access road to build the first few terraces at the height of land near the northern border of this parcel, highlighted in yellow.  In this case the client was keen to begin construction of water conserving earthworks on this hillside as they had already purchased the chestnuts and wanted to get them planted as soon as possible.  Another challenge to the project was that while the client lives nearby, it is not the current residence, but likely will be for the client’s “next act.”  So establishment of this system may involve challenges of periodic neglect because there are no permanent residents living on site yet.

IMG_7555 IMG_7558The recent logging operation left quite a bit of slash across the landscape which presented a challenge for us to work around.  The slash made layout of the terraces in the landscape especially hard because we couldn’t see the surface of the ground as readily as we would have liked.

IMG_7576We used a water level to find our contour lines and make adjustments for BFRs, BFSs and between-row tree spacing.  I’ve been assured that BFR stands for “Big Fat Rock” and that BFS stands for “Bid Fat Stump.”  The spacing of the terraces was based on the mature crown diameter of chestnuts which we assumed to be about 40 feet in diameter given the forested conditions.  Normally in a field or pasture setting, i would plan on a chestnut growing a canopy of 50 feet or more.  The client’s stated goal was for a closed canopy chestnut grove so that meant we could space our terraces somewhat close together.  The in-row spacing will also be tight to encourage a fast, upright growth habit.

IMG_7584The excavator moved earth, rocks, stumps and large logs while the hand crew arranged slash on contour and constructed our hugel berms.  The terrace itself will serve as vehicle access, pasture and grazing lanes.  The chestnut trees themselves will be planted on or below the hugel berms, functioning as tree planting beds.

IMG_7636For this landscape we laid out the terraces from the middle and worked our way outward toward the ridges.  Since we are working with contour, you can see that the middle of the terraces are the closest points together and then flare out toward the ridge.  Since the middle is the pinch point we had to space our terraces from one another starting from this middle point.  It was a balancing act: we wanted to space the terraces at least 35 feet to allow for full crown expression of the mature chestnuts, but since the excavator was on the small side for this job, we also had to avoid big stumps and great big rocks.  We pulled small to medium stumps, but we wanted to avoid the larger pine stumps.  The result was a between-row spacing of between 30-40 feet.  It was the best compromise given all the other obstacles in the landscape we were designing around.  IMG_7650We did a final grading of these terraces by hand, and so we needed to remove any prominent debris.  Once the grading and construction of the downhill berm was complete we mulched the beds heavily with old round bales of hay we got from the dairy farm down the road.  The seeds present in the hay will introduce pasture species of grasses and forbs into the forest soil seedbank.  We also recommended sowing a pasture mix of seed or something like a deer forage seed mix.

IMG_76522016 was a year of drought in Maine, and while that made it easy for us to do our earthworks it also suggested another issue regarding establishment: irrigation.  I had put an irrigation tank at height of land in the cursory design, but there was no plan just yet for installing it.  I emphasized to the client the need for an irrigation plan given the changing and variable climate.  Under normal climatic regimes you wouldn’t need supplemental irrigation to get the chestnuts established.  But since we’re off the map now regarding climate, it seems critical to provide irrigation to the investment of nut trees.  Fortunately, the client does have a plan now for a gravity feed irrigation tank at the top of the hill.  They will use two 250 gallon IBC tanks placed at height of land to provide irrigation water.  Periodically the tanks will be topped off with a sump pump placed in a nearby dug well.

In the meantime, the chestnut trees got heeled in a temporary garden bed for the winter.  They will get planted out in the spring into the berms on the downslope side of the terraces.  IMG_7690We learned that a concept sketch is good for small residential garden construction projects, however a farm is much more complicated and involves more planning between the concept, construction, establishment, maintenance and how all of that fits into the overall business plans for the farm.  We were able to make this project work because no matter the business plan or the ultimate composition of trees and livestock, this hillside will need access.  We were able to provide that with a ridge path leading to all the terraces we built.

The client learned that starting the design from the tree or vegetation layer can cause problems of retrofitting a landscape design around that vegetation element.  We usually recommend starting with goals first, then topography, water, and access before moving on to designing the vegetation layer, in alignment with the Regrarians platform.  Even though you may read on the internet that permaculture is focused on planting trees early in the establishment of a project, that only applies if your earthworks, access (roads) and irrigation plans are all sorted out first.  And while all of that might be easy for a home residence situation where you already have a residential structure, electricity and plumbing; when developing a site without those assets, the phases of construction should be carefully considered with close attention to goals.

A tighter attention to goals rather than elements makes for an easier decision making process.  In this case most of our decisions were focused on keeping the chestnut trees alive because they had been purchased in the spring before the logging operation had been done.  The client jumped down the hierarchy of design and skipped to thinking about vegetation and trees without consideration of access, water or geography, all of which are higher in the hierarchy of design.  During the drought this year, water proved to be an especially important limiting factor for this design.

IMG_7691There is some distortion in this shot because it’s a panoramic photo, but on the right you can see the ridge road that provides access to all the terraces.  IMG_7701Here are the finished terraces showing the slope we were working with and the lay of the contour lines on the hillside.  The hugel berms are also visible and will provide the chestnut seedlings their planting beds.  Width, size, lineal distance.








Invasive species or invasive culture?

Look, i clearly understand that there are invasive and noxious weeds that can have negative consequences on ecosystems, but we have to grok that this is a consequence of living in the Anthropocene. There are complex dynamics afoot in the “invasive” species debate that include ecology, economics, ethics and psychology. Our European ancestors are responsible for much of the introduced species. Some good, some bad. While purple loosestrife is problematic, can the same be said for the honeybee or apple tree or earthworm? And over a long enough time span, don’t ecosystems eventually find balance after a disturbance? Ecologically speaking it seems that the effects of “invasive species” are a mixed bag usually coming down to semantics and whether or not a new introduction is labeled with the epithet.

While ecological disturbance is a problem, we can’t blame it all on “invasive species.” How about this: if you want to blame ecosystem damage on one simplistic thing, blame it on “invasive culture” which is more to the point. You can’t demonize plants for reproducing themselves in the ways they evolved. They just happen to be in new places where (often) people of European descent introduced them by building their conception of society.

So while there is ecology involved with the disturbing effects of opportunistic and aggressive species, so too are economics. It’s big business to try and eradicate these plants and “restore” the “native” ecosystem. But the concept of restoring a native ecosystem is flawed because it starts at an arbitrary point in history (before Columbus) and then presumes that that “pristine” ecosystem was somehow static. But we all know that ecosystems are constantly changing and evolving and species move all over, sometimes with the help of humans and sometimes not.

In eradication efforts, while mechanical and hand removal labor costs add up over time, herbicides wind up looking like the cheaper option to land managers (government, conservation groups, land trusts, farmers, etc). So a beneficiary of the concept of invasive eradication is herbicide companies like Monsanto. That’s an economic consideration in this debate, which then yields a feedback loop to exaggerated ecological and economic damage in order to justify large orders of herbicides. The cozy relationships between big business and universities is no secret.

An ethical component comes down to the question of who controls ecosystems? Or what is our duty of care if we introduce species that disturb ecosystems? In order to answer those questions you have to ask the larger philosophical question of what is our role or place or position in nature? Should we be humble or authoritarian in our answers? Should we seek to control nature or find some other kind of balance?

As far as the psychological dimension, we would be foolish to overlook the grief and guilt associated with the disturbance that nuisance species create. In some ways i think we project the drama and tragedy of the process of colonization onto the ecological dynamics here. Where the demonized “invaders” are wiping out the preferred “natives.” In order to protect the natives we must wage war on the invaders, and the resulting efforts are somehow a sideways (if white savior) attempt at a collective reconciliation for the genocide of Native American peoples. While this might not be front and center for most people in the invasive species debate, i think it is a part of it.

Here is a book review that covers some of this nuance. It’s important to emphasize again that all of these dynamics are present in the debate with different amounts of weight behind them, depending on who is doing the talking.

This article takes a deeper dive into the psychological dynamics of guilt, fear and disgust with invasive species and new introductions.  There is a short ideological bridge from invasive species to xenophobia and racism.



Forest Garden tour this weekend!

This Saturday, April 29 we will be hosting a forest garden walk and talk.

We’ve been foraging in the forest garden just about every day this week!  This is a great time of year for perennial vegetables because they start yielding so early.  We’ll make a gluten free fritatta as a snack for the garden tour this Saturday with ingredients sourced from the garden.  One of my favorite spring greens is stinging nettles.  They’re a little challenging to harvest, but once you cook them up, they are positively gourmet!

Here’s a quick reminder about some upcoming events:

Spring Permaculture Garden tour – this Saturday April 29, 10-1.  Free to all.  You’re invited to a garden tour of our homestead where we’ll talk about the goals for our site, the design, some of the challenges and successes we’ve seen over the years.  Feel free to bring a gluten free snack to share, but not required.  Kids are welcome, dogs are not.  We’ve been dividing and potting up some of our plants and we’ll have a selection of perennial vegetables and ecosystem plants for sale.  It’s still on the early side for a garden tour, so we may repeat this event in a few weeks.  Send us an email if you’d like to come so we know how many to expect.

Intro to Permaculture on Hurricane Island.  May 13-14.  Don’t forget about the Intro to Permaculture course coming up on Hurricane Island in May!  It will be a great way to get an in-depth introduction to the permaculture design method in an off-grid setting for the weekend on a beautiful island in Penobscot Bay.  Check out this flyer for that as well, and you can register for that class here:

Looking forward to it!


Hurricane flyer-2017

Construction of terraces July 2010

This was the first terrace construction project at my house where i felt compelled to use an excavator to move as much earth as i needed.  This is on a hillside site in Rockland, ME with southeast facing aspect and fine sandy loam soil that drains readily.  The goals for this project are to catch and store water and biomass, establish perennial polyculture gardens and integrate small livestock.

Austrian permaculture farmer Sepp Holzer was very inspirational to me with this construction project.  At first the slope was the primary design challenge.  After watching Holzer’s video “Farming with Nature” it all clicked.  By using the contour lines to my advantage, i could create a series of terraces and ponds.  I had to adapt the patterns of path design to something that would work on a hillside.  My wife wanted mandala gardens with concentric rings of paths and beds.  At first I did too, and it would have been nice, but i learned that that sort of ornate path geometry works best on flat ground.  Sure, you can draw the paths on paper, but when you go to marry the paper design to the real world, that’s when things get ‘ground-truthed’.  So in this case where initially i wanted nested concentric rings as the garden path pattern, i had to adapt it instead to more of a branching pattern.  Larger arterial paths for carts connected to smaller keyhole-style footpaths.  We’ll show a detail of the path geometry in a future article.

IMG_2729This was the height of the verge before i started.  Former lawn that we let revert to meadow.  My daughter is for scale. She’s 2’3″, exactly half my height…give or take…  The first order of business was to cut the tall biomass and set it aside so that we could see the ground and mark out our contour lines.  The verge was separated into herbaceous biomass to be used as mulch and woody biomass to be used as the base of the hugelkultur.

IMG_2736The verge was cut into windrows with the scythe for ease of collection. I used a tarp to pile up herbaceous biomass and move the whole pile.
IMG_2742I had to cut this black locust so i could get the machine down the northern property line.  It yielded some nice logs to use as fence posts, some firewood, and lots of material to use as the hugelkulture base for a couple terraces.
IMG_2761This gives a little better perspective on the slope we’re working with.

IMG_2764This is the lowest-most terrace, the place i started so i could get used to working the controls.  I used a Kubota KX121 rented from Union Farm. I rented it for 12 hours, clocked 14 and burned probably 100 energy slaves (that’s a guess!). The wonders of internal combustion engines and hydraulic pistons! 14 hours and a machine or 10-12 guys and a month of hard labor?  It had a 24″ bucket with 6′ wide blade that could lift, pivot and tilt. Talk about tractor envy!  The thing was so new it still smelled like a new car.
One thing i discovered while learning the controls on the machine was that sometimes there is plumbing below ground!  Luckily it was just a perforated foundation drain pipe, and was easily repaired.  I’m just glad it wasn’t a piece of rigid PVC pipe headed to the septic tank!  I only tore up two sections of foundation drain. The valuable lesson here was that there was subterranean infrastructure.
IMG_2768Here we’re placing large rocks in the retaining wall.  The elevation drop between each terrace is only between 24-36″.  For the 36″ drop i decided to use the big rocks i found in the earth to use as a retaining wall.  For the other terraces, the angle of repose is close to 1:1 which is self-stable and doesn’t need reinforcement.

IMG_2776By now i was calibrated to the controls of the machine that i could scrape off only sod. Probably the top 2-3″ of earth and no deeper. The septic tank was only about 8″ under the surface.
IMG_2777While the load of an excavator is distributed evenly across the tracks, i didn’t want to risk driving over the septic tank, so for this terrace i had to scrape and move earth from either side of the tank.  The advantage of a tracked vehicle is that even weight distribution, as opposed to a wheeled vehicle which has point loads on the bottom of each wheel.  On balance, i think of this as a wise use of remaining petrol resources. These earthworks may well be here for generations, catching all rain runoff and recharging groundwater. The underground water lens will be used to feed an edible landscape.

IMG_2784Once i was past any more underground pipes i could relax and dig a little deeper and go a little faster.  I rented the machine for a long weekend (which meant 12 hours). I clocked 14.

IMG_2787The terraces are not so much dead level as they are slightly pitched backward into the hillside. This way, the terrace can settle and become more level. In the meantime, all rain that falls is caught right where it falls and percolates into the earth.  In the foreground you can see woody debris partially buried. By burying the woody debris from the trees, i turned a waste product into an asset. This buried wood will hold moisture, support the terrace, provide habitat for mycelium and other life, and slowly give up nutrient as it decomposes. I left this part of the terrace slightly high, anticipating some settling over the years.



Raised Beds from 2012

This was a fun project from back in 2012.  The client had a sloping piece of yard they wanted to make into garden beds.  At first, judging by eyeball, i figured we could build more or less rectangular beds, given the slope and how we would cut steps or small pads into the hillside to hold the raised beds.

It’s always fascinating to see how the final product has to change to fit into the landform though.  Because the piece of hillside was functionally a “micro-ridge” it sloped downhill in three different planes.  So when i cut the earthen pads that the raised cedar beds were going to rest upon, i had to modify the shape of the wooden boxes to fit that new shape.  So the raised beds wound up taking on an interesting trapezoidal shape.

IMG_4703- copyIt was an interesting exercise in design-by-constraint where the constraining factors here were landform and access.  The landform sloped away in multiple planes and we had to make sure to provide wide path access, allowing for lush growth in the raised beds that would impinge on the walkway.   In the above photo, you can see that we sheet mulched the level pads before placing the wooden boxes on top.

IMG_4705- copyHere’s a view from downhill, and while it’s hard to see, the ridge slopes downhill (toward the camera angle) to the right and to the left.  So in finding the contour shapes using the A-frame level you can see in the background, we discovered that rectangular beds weren’t going to fit.  Good thing we leveled the earthen pads before we built the boxes!

IMG_4709- copyHere the raised beds are finished an sitting level, nested into the slope.  This serves as an example of changing a “problem” of using sloping land into a solution of raised vegetable beds.

IMG_4710- copyThe hillside perennial garden system is young, and you can see how the raised beds above fit nicely into the hillside.

IMG_4713- copyThis is a view from the deck that we built the year before showing the finished trapezoidal shape of the raised beds and wood chip mulched garden paths.  Last year (2016) in the triangular bed, the clients grew sunflowers that topped out at 16 feet tall!


Spring 2017 Hurricane Island course

Check out the details for this upcoming 12 hour Intro to Permaculture course on Hurricane Island!  We will engage the eyes, ears and hands in this dynamic course to give participants and in-depth introduction to permaculture design and how to apply it to garden and small farm design.  We are bringing permaculture to island communities by teaming up with Hurricane Island Foundation and bringing it to that island.  We will live in an off-grid community while studying the design of resilient biological and technical systems.  Help spread the word and register today!

Hurricane flyer-2017



Winter 2017 Announcements

Mid Winter Greetings everyone!

As we pour over seed catalogs huddled next to the stove, now is a good time to begin dreaming and scheming for our gardens this coming year.  And the best way to begin the garden is with good design.  The way to do that is to first consider the goals for the year and any adjustments you might make to design and management.  Of course, sustainability and resilience is on everyone’s mind these days, and permaculture offers a unique approach to design to achieve just that.

If you’ve been wondering how permaculture might be able to help with your landscape’s design challenge, now is the perfect time of year to contact us for consultations and design projects!  Remember that “well begun is half done.”  So before you go and buy lots of trees and shrubs make sure to do a thorough goal setting and design process, site preparations and earthworks.  To ensure the success of your investments in plant stock you’ll want to “plan, prepare, then plant.”

With that, here are a number of permaculture related events of interest.  Some are here in the Midcoast and some are elsewhere.  Some are free and some have fees.  Take a look, tell us what you think, and keep in touch!

Food Sovereignty vote in Rockland January 9 6p.  6-6:15 is reserved for public comments (limited to 5 minutes each) so you can come and voice your support.

Free Presentations
Blue Hill Grange talk Jan 18, 6p
Brunswick land trust presentation Jan 29 2p
Vose library presentation in Union. Mar 9 7p

Upcoming Permaculture Classes600_282251032
Boston winter PDC (one weekend a month, starts Jan 14-15).  $250 deposit to hold your spot. We have space for 1-2 more people so tell your Boston friends to act quick and register before this course sells out!

Introduction to Permaculture lecture series.  Camden adult ed.  4 week course starts Jan 25, $35.

Hurricane island Intro Course May 13-14.  More details soon.
Summer PDC Freeport.  Details here or here
Farm-scale PDC details forthcoming (likely next fall-winter)

Here are some testimonials from our past courses.

Also, save the date for the Permaculture Association of the Northeast winter retreat at D Acres Feb 24-26



Autumn 2016 events

Autumn Greetings!2016-Fair-Web-Banner-760px

This weekend is the Common Ground Fair at the MOFGA fairgrounds, and we wanted to invite you to connect with us during this 25K+ person/day event!  (A lofty goal, i know).

I’ll be volunteering with Maine-Wabanaki REACH at their table in the Social and Political Action area.  I’ll be helping them set up and will be there Friday morning. Come say hi and learn about indigenous solidarity projects in Maine. See their website for more:

We’ll be presenting Saturday and Sunday at noon both days at the Hayloft tent by the Fedco table. Saturday will be on Earthworks and Water Management, Sunday will be on Perennial Polyculture Design. We’re excited to try an analog format with handouts (instead of a slideshow that no one can see on account of the bright day). We’ll try painting pictures in your mind rather than showing you images on a screen.  Come check us out and say hi!

As we enter Fall and Winter, these are the seasons for designing and planning.  If you have considered getting a consultation and doing a design, now is the time to do it.  Don’t put it off till next Spring or it might be too late.  And don’t forget that in permaculture design, the MidCoastPerm LogoColorlast thing we design into the system is plants.  So beware of the Spring itch to buy a ton of plants without knowing where they’ll go.  (Although to be completely honest, it’s something we all do on occasion…)

We also have two courses coming up this winter in the Boston area.  If you know anyone who might be interested, pass this along!
Basic Permaculture Design Certificate course (starts in Jan ’17):
Advanced PDC offered to all who have completed a Basic course (starts in Nov ’16):

See you at the Fair!




Intro to Permaculture half day workshop September 3

Saturday September 3th 2016, Permaculture Workshop at the Deer Isle Hostel.

Learn how to design ecological and edible landscapes and resilient home sites using whole system planning and patterns from nature. In this Introduction to Permaculture workshop we will discuss the history, principles and benefits of permaculture. We will go over a permaculture site design process and introduce some concepts and practices around site analysis and assessment. The day will be part theory, part practice, with an observation exercise around the homestead and a mapping exercise.

MidCoastPerm LogoColorJesse Watson operates Midcoast Permaculture Design. He has been doing permaculture land planning and installation for residential and farm clients since 2009. He has been teaching summer Permaculture Design Certification classes at MOFGA since 2012 with the Resilience Hub. 10am-3pm.

This event is hosted by the Deer Isle Hostel in Deer Isle, ME.  Lunch included. $50. Early registration recommended. Scholarships available. Sponsored by MOFGA. All participants are welcome, and encouraged, to stay at the Hostel the night prior to the workshop.  To register, please contact Anneli at the Deer Isle Hostel