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The Problem is the Solution: Stewarding a Small piece of Property with a Permaculture Approach

“Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be” ~David Holmgren

Buying an old house (C.1790’s) on a very small lot (0.17 acres) wasn’t the plan, until it was. When we were renters, we had a tendency of turning every flat piece of ground into a homestead scale garden. Our property, while old, has very little of the original hardscaping and landscaping that many of the other homes in our neighborhood have. So now we are starting from scratch. While my background is rooted in garden and farm systems for annual food production, my partner’s landscape gardening background and my permaculture education are coming in handy as we try to imagine this new space. We have been working on articulating our goals for house and landscape project management through a permaculture lens. Going from being renters to owners has slowed things down, changed our focus. I thought I’d share a few of the Permaculture principles that have been guiding us through our first year living with our new home.

Observe and Interact

This principle informs every decision and action that we take. Throughout the course of this first year, taking the time to notice what’s already happening on the property has been equal parts enlightening and frustrating. Holding the vision with the realities can be challenging, the patience required to slow things down and see what is already happening on our site can be hard.

Here are some examples of what we’ve been trying to understand about our property:


  • How does the water move through the landscape? Where does it collect? Where do we need to slow it down? Where can we divert it? Where can we capture it?


  • Where does the sun shine at the different times of the day? Where might we want more shade?


  • What are the landform and slope aspects?


  • What plants are existing on site? Which ones seem to be thriving and where? What kind of invasives are present?

  • Who lives here? Who moves through the property? (Wildlife/Pests)

  • What spaces do we find ourselves drawn to at different times, for what reasons? What is the function of our different spaces right now- how might these change over time with our plans? *In Permaculture language this might be called the “Zones of Use” *

Making these observations and just living into our space has shaped our projects and future plans. It is incredible the difference between what we set out to accomplish from the beginning to what we have actually prioritized, and which things we have decided we don’t have enough information about yet to inform appropriate design. I’d love to give specifics, but honestly we are still working so many things out, very little “hard” changes have happened yet. We have spent a lot of time drawing pictures and making plant lists at the dinner table, also gathering materials like stone and loam in piles around the house. The pace of change is sort of running in rhythm with the pace of our understanding.

Integrate Rather than Segregate

As a permaculture principle, integration is part of any thoughtful design. This can also be described as “stacking functions”. In other words, being able to design elements that complement each other as well as perform multiple functions in the same space. This creates resiliency and long-term sustainability of the system. This is where having a picture of your goals is helpful, so you can begin to see where different projects and plans can work together:


  • Attract pollinators in a variety of ways (wildflower meadow and pollinator habitat on our leach field & perennial fruit crops)

  • Create zones of use within this small space, integrate the natural boundaries that are already existing (our property abuts a natural wetland and small brook)

  • Erosion control through water management (Capturing & Storing)

  • Use hardscaping and hand-laid walls to terrace different areas (also erosion control), particularly a steep southern facing slope adjacent to our leach field for fruit tree plantings

  • Soil health improvements (sheet mulching and working to establish roots systems instead of bare earth) *we are failing at establishing a lawn, fingers crossed for understanding neighbors who will see the value in our other projects as time goes by! *

So knowing all of these things brings us to a “now what” moment. Where to start? These principles lead us from the planning to implementation. Plugging away at long term projects one small step at a time – without knowing for sure how it will all look in the end, is a big experiment. We are working from the ground up, using what we have on hand, seeking advice and looking for inspirations in unusual places. The size is definitely a challenge, but we are excited by the potential of the smallness and the blank canvas. It requires creativity and quite a lot of problem solving, as we have to knit together the physical areas with the specific needs. But when it works: beautiful. I know that it is a privilege to own this property and I am grateful to be able to build a different kind of relationship with our landscape and how we steward it, hopefully leaving it better than we found it.

Permaculture Resources:

Written by: Sara Powell

CCCD Associate Board Member



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