Looking back on the first year

Midway review, March 2013

One striking aspect of the observation stage was the richness of observations when observing in the forest garden group and also in the community observation and visioning sessions. Many more observations were gathered in this way compared to why I might have gathered alone. Further by visioning in a group, I believe we have come to a vision based on what the site was showing us, rather than imposing an individual vision upon a place.

Observing with Hans-Guenther, the biodynamic agriculture teacher and gardener, brought in many levels of observation, which I aim to explore further. He was also the most encouraging ‘elder’, who emphasised that we were doing something new, that belongs to the future and we should not listen too much to the experienced gardeners and critical voices as we are part of the new consciousness and will create something of great worth.

As we began to go from the observation stage to the analysis stage, we became clearer about our vision and our boundaries in consultation and interaction with the community and on site.

As this is a group and community project, I am not the only designer. The design is based on the observations and wishes of the group and the community as they create the project. As a designer, I can guide or facilitate, but not determine the design. This is a great learning opportunity in observing and interacting and creatively responding to change. This resonates for me in all design work with regard to working with the observations rather than imposing a vision on a site and especially in the teaching and learning pathway, with the teacher as guide, facilitator and fellow learner, rather than all-knowing deliverer. I found a role within the group as coordinator, administrator, fundraiser, designer and gardener. Because of time contraints I have done a lot of paperwork and I am aiming to focus more on being in the forest garden this coming year.

The implementation of the structural aspects of the design were taken on by other members of the group. The paths were laid out and mown regularly. We put on an educational and launch event in one focused on straw bale building, a great example of stacking in functions of implementation of our design, learning as a group, education, community building and dissemination. We have had complaints to the planning authorities and are now putting in a retrospective planning application for the structure for use as “an agricultural community shelter, meeting and education point for the benefit of Hoathly Hill Community.” The wrangling over permission for the structure within the community and now with authorities has been very challenging in terms of group dynamics within our family, the forest garden group and the community as people have had different ideas of what is proper process as well as the fundamental lack of support and trust as a general issue within the community┬ámanifesting in this particular project.

The horticultural aspect of the design was a challenge as I had very little experience in that field. Working with others was the solution! I had design support from permaculture teachers, went on a forest gardening course, volunteered in a local garden, found encouragement and reassurance from others with little experience as we realised we are all experimenting and have the skills to learn and manage ups and downs.

Martin Crawford’s design process made designing the site simple with its clear steps. I added in the community aspect to the design process I began to question less and value more the clarity and simplicity of SADI (survey, analysis, design and implementation), coming to terms with it being a framework which helps you know where you are and realising you can jump from phase to phase and go round the cycle more than once.

We were very luckily to receive funding to finance tree protection. We had planted a windbreak hedge and a couple of trees in the first winter on site, but these had received severe damage from deer resulting in some plants dying. The tree layer planting then went ahead with the resources to mulch each tree and give each tree protection from deer. We were very lucky to have a biodynamic expert on site who facilitated planting the trees with a root paste to give nourishment to the trees. That together with the ‘permaculture’ mulch, has given the trees a good start and indeed they had a good first year. The mulch prevented competition from the grass and held back most weeds, so that we only weeded twice in the first year. We also planted a few fruit canes and bushes as well as created a nursery bed for some ground cover raspberries, which were again eaten by deer. The scything course gave community members skills to continue scything, although we did leave the grass to grow on the advice that it will build the soil with only one or two cuts per year. A long community consultation process on the virtues of having a deer fence will culminate in a deer fence around the community’s growing areas, ie the West Paddock (comprising the community allotments, the CSA scheme and the Forest Garden)! After this we will proceed to implement the shrub layer by creating plant communities as a group, a community and in courses. The tree layer and grass layer need relatively little input, now that most of the tree planting has been completed. We will be adding some more trees this winter. Low input at this stage has been very good for this project as we have also put a lot of energy into the community and educational aspect of the project. The aim is that as the land needs more input, so too will the practical engagement with the project.

In all, this is a project that depends on the advice of experts as well as the hands of volunteers. Our forest garden group has some skill and we are very motivated and active in implementing all stages of the project, however the implementation depends to a certain extent on a wider community. The design decision to focus on the people and the land as fully integrated was an essential approach for the success of the project and continues to need nurturing.

The highlights so far have been:

  • to observe a piece of land and feel its magic
  • to create a productive garden based on a forest system
  • to work and celebrate creatively with others towards realising a positive vision