Farm Planning, Part 2: How Can I Feed My Land?

Mapping areas of different use as well as various flows on your land will help you coordinate needs and resources to create connections beneficial to all.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Roberto Trombetta/Flickr

Once you figure out the areas of your life that farm projects will enrich (as discovered in Farm Planning, Part 1), next you can apply those dreams to the space where you get to play. Ideally, by paying attention to the natural qualities that the land offers and working with the flow of resources, your efforts should be reduced each growing season. Look forward to working less as your land thrives more easily. To get started, you could hire a landscape architect or a permaculture specialist, or simply follow these steps for a DIY approach to knowing your land and what it needs.

Map Your Zones

Permaculture provides an intuitive and common-sense way to assess the land and how you interact with it: thinking in zones. Starting with the core, Zone 0 is where you live, work or study daily. Each concentric ring represents a space that you engage at a reducing frequency or intensity. Zone 1 includes the adjacent area to Zone 0, outdoor spaces you see regularly, probably the best place for herbs that you harvest fresh for meals. Zone 2 might be your kitchen garden. Or, if that’s included in Zone 1, then Zone 2 could be the place you grow crops for selling at market. Zone 3 might be pastures for grazing livestock, or larger fruit and nut trees. Zone 4 could include managed wildlands for hunting or timber. Zone 5 is unmanaged, wild spaces that you visit for spiritual renewal and allow to support wildlife on its own terms.

Starting with a base map of your property’s boundaries and infrastructure, sketch your zones. You could do this lightly in pencil and erase as you make adjustments, or stack a few transparency sheets and use dry-erase markers. A higher tech option is to use Photoshop or another software application with layers that you can turn on and off. The zones won’t be in perfect circles radiating out, but they should somewhat resemble a bull’s-eye. This is simply to mark major areas to differentiate the purpose of each one. Details will come later.

In this example, a small, urban school on two acres of land started with a plat. You could also download an image of your property from Google Earth. The image above shows the visible infrastructure: impermeable surfaces, fences, buildings, utility poles and power lines. Topographic lines are included on this plat, but that might require a little extra research. You can also use a leveling device to discover the subtle or dramatic contours of your farm and make a plan for creating swales.

Note: It is also very important to contact your local utilities and make sure you know where gas, electric, cable and sewer lines are located before you get too far along in your plans, and definitely before you start digging.

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This image is loosely colored to represent Zones 0 to 5, and it uses corresponding colors of the spectrum, from red to violet. Seeing the impact visually, rather than just knowing about it, helps you make more realistic plans for how you’ll move through the space on a daily basis and where you’ll place the elements that need your attention.

Map Your Flows

After you locate the things you can’t move, and you have a sense for what your own patterns of movement are, then notice what happens effortlessly in the environment. Start with what you observe today, and continue adding information as you interact with your land, season after season. This requires using all your senses—sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. If possible, sketch separate layers for each aspect that you observe, such as sun, wind and sounds as three different layers that overlap. Create symbols or colors that indicate what you notice.

Here are some observable prompts to get you started:

  • Where does water flow and pool?
  • What direction are the prevailing winds?
  • Where are your microclimates, such as the sunny walls that become heat sinks, or the shady side of a barn where moss grows? Where is the first place for snow to melt, and the spots that stay icy the longest?
  • What is the path of the sun throughout the day, and during different times of year?
  • Where do standing trees cast their shade? Which trees lose their leaves in the winter?
  • Watch all types of wildlife. Where do they find shelter, food and water?

This version of the school’s map shows layers with colors to indicate shady spots (gray), warm microclimates along asphalt and next to buildings (brown), and the paths that water flows when it rains (blue).

Consider your neighbors or the lack of neighbors. What flows to you from beyond your property, such as from Zones 5 and farther? Sounds, substances in the air, surface water and groundwater migrate with no regard for fences or property lines. What flows out from your land that will impact those downstream?

Another important step is to find areas on your property that just feel good. Exercise your sixth sense, your intuition, in mapping out your favorite spots. Mark places such as your favorite tree to read under, the best sunny napping spot, a little corner where you might someday bury your beloved pet, or other meaningful sites.

What Feeds the Land?

Next, exercise your imagination. Looking back at your most important desires for your farm, imagine where they would most naturally and gracefully fit on your land. If you have lots of ideas, include them all, yet hold them loosely as you shift through the variables. Ultimately, allow the place to help you decide what projects will integrate well with the existing elements and start there.

Above is a sketch by organic farmer Dylan Kennedy, who has considered how all the elements in his farm plan support each other. As he plans his crop rotation, he finds resources generated directly from his own plots, which he’ll incorporate to feed the soil and keep nutrients on the site. This closed-loop system is an example that answers the question we started with: How can I feed my land?

Similarly, the students at the school added layers to their map that connect all the elements. They show where different elements will be placed, how they relate to each other, and how they work with the land and zones. The purple lines indicate the path of pollinators, specifically the route between the honeybee hive (black and yellow box) and the blackberry trellis (parallel bars with purple dots) and the rain gardens (dark blue with purple dots). The green lines trace the flow of fertilizer directed to the vegetable garden (dark green and gray circle) that comes from the woods next to the school property, the compost bins (small yellow boxes) and the chicken run (orange rectangle). The yellow lines include the flow of waste from the school kitchen to the compost bins and to the chicken run.

Get creative with your farm plan and keep it grounded in what you value and what will feed you. Be resourceful and pay attention to what is already within reach. Move waste to areas that need nutrients. Notice connections and share the surplus. Give wildlife its space too. Remember, as with our own bodies, the Earth will be a supportive partner of our dreams, as long as we take it easy on her.

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