I first came across the concept of permaculture nearly 8 years ago but had not delved deeply into its principles and applications until this past winter. My foray was kickstarted by this excellent video, a portrayal of Mark Shepherd’s farm in Wisconsin that’s based on the principles of permaculture and restorative agriculture. I wanted to do this, not in 5, 10 or 20 years but starting immediately. The practice and principles made so much sense. Why doesn’t everyone do this? Why plant ornamentals when you can plant things that give you food? Why wouldn’t you want to create a self-maintaining system that can withstand all kinds of negative externalities, requires minimal inputs and almost always yields a result? What’s not to like? I had purchased 2 acres of land in January 2020 and had started construction on a home that summer. It was now my intention to make that home and property as a whole, a site that could be mutually beneficial system based on permaculture principles, providing beneficial yields for me as well as other organisms within this ecosystem.
The thing that most inspired me was the concept of the food forest. The idea being that trees are an integral part of many ecosystems, are perennials and can withstand many hardships. By mixing the ideas of a natural forest, perennials and a garden, I could create a multi-layered forest that provides a variety of outputs and functions within this environment. This environment, being Fairbanks, Alaska, is limited compared to that of other places, like Viola, Wisconsin (location in the video linked above). Our hardiness zone is 2 down in the lowlands and 3 up on the hills. I reside slightly above the lowlands and may be classified as 2+. Nonetheless, the cold temperatures and permafrost that underlays the soil make for a tricky environment in which to design a system. There aren’t many plants that can grow here and I would be limited by this lack of diversity.
I intended to try my hand at the food forest by clearing roughly half an acre of land. The initial founders of the principles of Permaculture, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, mention how one shouldn’t clear-cut areas to provide the principles as there have already been plenty of trees removed from our environment. Instead, one is best off looking for dilapidated or already cleared land in the surrounding area and rehabilitating that. Sound counsel and one that I do not disagree with. However, I already owned the land and didn’t have the means to pursue other options. The environment and the plant matter in the boreal forest are not very conducive to consumption by the human species. As a result, there are situations like Alaska, where 99% of the food consumed in this state is imported from elsewhere. I aim to try to lower that number.
A lot of Permaculture is based on strategy and the idea of working with the land rather than against it. Work with the land instead of dictating what you want it to do results in less inputs as the land is now helping you. One way this is best exemplified is through watering practices. In traditional monocrop farms, trees are cleared, ponds and marshes are filled in, fields are plowed and soil is tilled. The result is fields that need constant watering, new rounds of fertilizer each year as the top layer erodes away and crops that are very susceptible to droughts. It doesn’t have to be this way. The alternative is that you can begin with natural water catchment, storage and distribution in mind, letting the land do the work for you. Plants can be planted together in mutually beneficial ways. Nitrogen fixing shrubs, like alder can be planted next to nitrogen loving plants, eliminating the need for fertilizer.
I sought to achieve my watering through building swales, level trenches running the width of the field, that would store water and distribute it to the lower regions. After clearing the area, I traded some concrete work with my friend Jake for some time in his skid steer to remove the top moss layer and remaining stumps. To start a new system, some type of disruptor is necessary. In the boreal forest, this disruptor is traditionally fire. Without the skills or equipment to pursue this route, I opted for the clear-cut and ground disturbance method. He moved the moss and stumps to the side, making new wind barriers and hugelkultr like mounds to plant in for the years ahead. It was early summer, but there were still pockets of frozen ground. I donned my Xtra Tuff boots and waded through the muck, using the laser level and marking out a level path for the trenches. I then went to work, digging into the semi frozen loamy soil, and making mounds on the uphill side.
With the swales complete, I was ready to plant. I first set out to plant a cover crop, a mix of red clover, Siberian rye and Siberian Alf Alfa. These three plants would fix nitrogen to the soil, take out some of the moisture in the ground and help prepare the way for the main round of plants. During the spring, I had ordered a variety of different seeds and seedlings to plant in the field. Trees like Siberian Pine, Korean Pine, Swiss Stone Pine, a variety of apple trees, hazelnuts, Manchurian Black Walnuts and chokecherries. Also shrubs like Nanking Cherries, low bush blueberry, high bush blueberry, red currant, service berry, bog blueberry, and red raspberry. In addition to the grasses, I would plant low bush cranberry and Jerusalem Artichoke on the ground layer. I decided to wait until the field dried out a little more to plant, so that the seeds and seedlings wouldn’t drown in the field. Then once the field dried, I decided to wait for the next rain. I waited and waited. Waiting about 5 weeks before there was any precipitation whatsoever. I planted one row out of 6 in early August, but within a couple days of planting the temperature plunged, hovering and going below freezing for the first time since spring. We then experienced a deluge of rain, 5 inches in the last three weeks of August, saturating the fields once more. Luck was not on my side.
I eventually was able to plant 5 of 6 rows after the rains stopped and things warmed up again. Most of the saplings appeared to take into the ground. As I write this, most of the hazelnut trees hold on to their leaves even after more than 2 weeks of subfreezing nights and an inch of snow on the ground. Next summer will be the first marker point, the chance to see if any of the seeds/saplings took hold and will grow. If not, I will replace any dead ones, continuing and experimenting until we find what works. This is a long-term game, with the trees not being able to produce a harvest for at least 5 years, likely 7. All of these plants and trees can grow here. It’s a matter of figuring out how to best arrange them to allow them to do just that. Most of these permaculture practices do not exist on a large or long-term scale within the United States and even much less so in Alaska. I know of no project that incorporates these ideas at scale within the state. Much of this is still experimentation as to what works and what will offer the best results. It’s a continual learning process and I’m excited to see what next summer has in store.