Permaculture means “meeting human needs through ecological and regenerative design” (Practical Permaculture, Bloom and Boehnlein). Bob Chambers gave a brief and comprehensive overview of his journey and experience with permaculture on his 76 acre property in South Frontenac Township. Bob outlined the ethics and principles of permaculture, then described how he has applied these on his property. He outlined what he has planted, the growing techniques and approaches he uses, and harvesting and storage. He also gave a brief overview of the livestock on his property.  Finally, he shared some lessons learned and his ongoing approach to permaculture. Your questions are summarized below the recap of Bob’s talk followed by lists of the fruit and nut trees and the berries Bob is growing on his property.

Bob’s story

Bob describes himself as starting out with little to no gardening experience. (He helped out with planting, weeding and building square foot gardening beds). Encouraged by his wife, he began to learn about permaculture. He took his first course in 2011/12 in Perth with Bonita Ford of Permaculture Eastern Ontario followed by further training in Agroforestry and Keyline design with Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm in Wisconsin.

Over the course of the first few years, he established a business partnership with Adrien Lapointe and was one of the founding members of Kingston Permaculture. In 2013, he ploughed his fields, installing swales and berms based on the Keyline design principles he had learned.  In the spring of 2014, he planted the first of several hundred trees and he continues to replace and plant new trees across the project. He also has three solar panels to collect energy which he sells back to grid.

Bob is a pioneer in the permaculture movement in the Kingston area. Over the past 7 years, he has honed his skills on his own property. He has also partnered with and supported others as interest in this approach grows.

The ethics and principles of permaculture

The guiding tenets of permaculture are (1) to take care of people and our planet, and (2) to return surplus (fair share). Its twelve principles are as follows:

  • Observe and interact with nature
  • Catch and store energy
  • Obtain a yield
  • Apply self-regulation and feedback
  • Use and value renewables
  • Produce no waste
  • Design from patterns to details
  • Integrate don’t segregate
  • Use small, slow solutions – start small
  • Use and value diversity – mix it up
  • Use edges and value the marginal
  • Creatively use and respond to change

What’s happening on Bob’s farm

 Agriculture

Cash crops

Garlic: Garlic was one of Bob’s first cash crops. He currently grows 3000 head of garlic annually (mostly red varieties); uses 250 for his household and sells the rest. Proceeds of the sales go back into buying a diverse selection of fruit and nut trees and berry bushes.

Maple Syrup: There are three zones of maple trees on Bob’s property. He collects 200 to 250 ½ liters of maple syrup a year from 100 taps. Taps are rotated to avoid continuous tapping of the same trees and the syrup is made simply using buckets on trees and a wood fire evaporator. No lines or defoamers are used.

Other crops

Mushrooms: Fresh or dry mushrooms are sold or traded for items not produced on Bob’s farm. Some are also kept for his household use. He also gives annual mushroom growing workshops (Shiitake Mushrooms). Below is a crash course:

  • Logs are inoculated with mycelium
  • It takes a year to produce mushrooms
  • Logs can be soaked once annually in cold water or “shocked” to encourage mushroom production (soaking too frequently will reduce the production capacity of the log) A regular mushroom log can last for about 5 years (Sugar Maple logs last 3 years)
  • Five or six pounds of mushrooms can be harvested off a log
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mushrooms.png

Seed Saving: Bob provides space on his property for The Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI)  to grow crops for seed collection. He rotates crops annually and takes care to prevent cross pollination.

Trees and shrubs

Fruit trees: Bob grows multiple varieties of fruit trees, some in orchard style and some mixed into the Keyline design field. Currently, they are not producing enough to sell or trade. Fruit harvested are put into preserves, and some is used to make various ciders.

Nut Trees: The multiple varieties of nut trees planted throughout the system will take many years (20) to produce a crop. The upper canopy trees take some time to establish themselves in a food forest.

Berries: There are multiple varieties of berries growing almost all over the property; through the Keyline design, in berms, in the hügelkultur beds and around the house. Most are processed into preserves for the family.

New Planting and Grafting

  • Bob adds to the trees and other plants on his property through various methods including buying new trees, growing from seed and grafting scion wood to root stock. Some are grafted in the field and others in pots in the greenhouse. He recently learned how to cleft graft and has 60% to 75% success with this method. Root stock can be re-grafted if an initial attempt is unsuccessful.
  • All extra trees in the nursery are planted around the periphery of the property including Black Locust,  American Mountain Ash, Oak trees and Mulberries.
  • Lavender cuttings are transplanted in the garden once started. They attract pollinators and can deter some less desirable critters.
  • Current cuttings are put in pots and, once rooted out, planted wherever there is a space on the property.

Growing Techniques Used

  • Square foot gardening: Bartholomew describes this as “an approach to growing food that incorporates companion planting, intensive spacing, and getting the most food possible out of a small space” . Raised beds no wider than two feet across are built and divided into square foot grids for planting. Seeds/seedlings are then planted based on space, water and light needs.
  • No till gardening allows you to create a bed by laying down cardboard or newspaper to suppress growth of existing plants and adding compost and hay. Over time, the hay can be moved aside to plant directly into the bed.
  • Traditional style semi raised beds for garlic and beans.
  • Hügelkultur is described by Miles of the permaculture research institute  as a technique often employed in permaculture systems, allowing gardeners and farmers to mimic the nutrient cycling found in a natural woodland. Woody debris (and other detritus) that falls to the forest floor can readily become sponge-like, soaking up rainfall and releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil, thus making  this moisture available to nearby plants. Miles notes that a hügelkultur garden bed (and hügelkultur ditches and swales) help retain moisture on site, build soil fertility and improve drainage. In his first year Bob planted 1000 garlic plants in a 75ft by 3ft by 4ft hügelkultur and had a very successful harvest.
  • A greenhouse is used to extend the limits of the growing season on each end starting in March early April and continuing to mid-November. The location and orientation of the greenhouse was based on observations of sun, wind and rain on the property. It was built facing south with large, recycled windows. The foundation is made of stone, which acts as a heat sink. The roof is poly-carbon and allows 92% UV penetration (important for plant growth). This year, Bob had to open the doors and windows to manage the heat. The greenhouse is used for propagation and to grow microgreens throughout the year such as radish, peas and broccoli.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is hothouse.png
  • Guild planting (mini food forest) . Small guilds are planted around the property. Bob gave an example of a cherry tree. Initially planted alone, it was then heavily mulched using the lasagna technique including layers of manure and black earth. Companion plants, including black currants,  gooseberry bushes and Nasturtiums (edible flowers), were added. Next season, Bob plans to add Comfrey. Comfrey is used to enriched the soil (a dynamic accumulator).
  • Keyline design is a landscaping technique where swales, berms and ponds are developed taking into account the natural water runoff and slope of the land. Its purpose is to capture water and direct its flow to ensure fields are evenly watered. Swales and berms are laid out on contour across the entire field using an optical level, then cut with a bulldozer, and ponds are mechanically dug. Trees are planted on top of the berms. During a major rain event, water flows into the design and slowly sheets its way across the field.  On Bob’s property, the swales and berms are 50 ft apart and cover the entire field at the Edible Forest Farm. Trees have been growing in this field for 6 years, and it is currently planted with over 700 trees and shrubs. More are added each year. The field looks like an agroforestry project, and in 7 to 10 years, production of fruit, nuts and berries will greatly increase.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is keyline1.png
  • Other Water Capture techniques include 3, ‘thousand liter totes’, and two ‘55 gallon drums’. Rain water collection is regarded as a priority.
  • A variety of composting systems are used to build healthy soil. Bob has 3 compost bins (new compost can be added as older compost decomposes), a rotary composter from Lee Valley (for kitchen scraps) and a small bin to make Comfrey tea. Comfrey leaves are soaked for six weeks and then the liquid is diluted in a 10 to 1 ratio to fertilize plants. Bob indicated that he is currently unable to produce sufficient compost for his needs.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is compost.png

Harvesting and Storing Produce.

Harvesting occurs at various times during the growing season. Produce not eaten fresh is made into jellies and jams, dehydrated, fermented, or pickled. Haskap berries make good jellies and jams and can also be eaten fresh with cereal (adds a tart flavor). Cucumbers are pickled. Garlic is cut, dehydrated and ground into garlic powder. Shiitake mushrooms are dehydrated and jarred. Garlic, cabbage and carrots can be fermented. Butternut squash is harvested late in the year, cured, and stored in the basement. It keeps into February/March of the following year.

Livestock

Chickens are year-round livestock raised for eggs and poultry. Pigs are brought in and raised as feeders. They are also helpful in fixing leaky ponds in dry clay soil. He describes pigs as fun and entertaining animals. With regard to raising the animals you eat, a mindset Bob has found helpful is that the pigs have a great life at the edge of the forest and woods and then have one bad day they don’t remember.

Going Forward

Bob describes his permaculture journey as one of continual learning. For example, he describes how his first attempts at building a hügelkultur did not make the best use of the hill slope to retain water. He built his mounds sloping down rather than across the slope. Five beds later, he feels much more confident. He also noted how during times of bad drought, he lost a number of trees which he has subsequently replanted. He was surprised when some of those “dead” trees regenerated. He now has two trees planted where there was one and has decided to allow both to grow and to continue to observe them. He has also observed that grafting onto rootstock that was grown from seed on his property is much more successful than trees purchased from a nursery. He recommends growing and grafting your own trees.

Success at permaculture requires ongoing observation, monitoring and learning to adjust and problem solve as required. Bob keeps working and planting and hoping.

Questions and Answers

Have your attempted to grow pawpaw trees?

Bob has tried twice growing trees from nuts, but during their second year, they died. He hopes to try again starting with more mature trees.

There is a grower in Gananoque who is now successfully producing fruit every year. He hand pollinates with a brush to ensure fruit production. This is necessary as he only has one variety of pawpaw. There are also some growing in the Peterborough area. Trees can be purchased from Aurora farm, and a friend has had some success with these. (They are now 3 to 4 feet tall and will produce fruit in 7 years).

Joyce planted some two-year-old pawpaw tees from Whiffle Tree Nursery in her Kingston garden that are now 5 years old and looking healthy. She also used seeds from Gananoque to successfully grow 10 pawpaw seedlings which were planted in Lakeside Community Garden this year. Joyce noted that papaws need filtered shade when young. This can be established by, for example, using orange snow fencing. The fruit does not have a good shelf life (4 to 5 days), but can be made into ice-cream and frozen.

How do you deal with deer, rabbits and other critters?

Bob’s perspective is to see these animals as part of the ecosystem and part of a complex food chain. Rather than trying to remove animals, when he plants, he factors in a 10% “loss” for the local animals. Birds eat the berries, so he just plants more. Nuts are stolen by the chipmunks, but he is prepared to take a loss. Hawks may eat a chicken, and this is to be expected. (He noted that usually when a hawk takes a chicken, it’s a marauding hawk rather than one local to his property).

Bob does, however, protect young trees from deer, rabbits, porcupines and voles. Rabbits will gnaw down young trees in the winter. Deer tend to browse around the outside edges of young new growth and will gnaw a young tree right down. For older trees, they are no longer a problem; they just nibble a few branches. To manage these challenges, barriers and dissuasive techniques can be used. For example, two by four foot fencing can be erected around young trees, and plastic wraps (that break down over time) can be installed to protect the lower part of the tree. To repair open sores on a tree, he uses bark replacement products. Rubbing Comfrey into the open sore will also help heal the tree.

Bob noted that grass can also be a problem for young trees. He mulches with woodchips.

How do you store butternut squash?

Butternut squash store well. After harvesting, Bob lays them on his deck for several days, until the skin is hard (cured). He then loosely stacks them in milk crates which he stores in his basement where there is good temperature control. It’s important that the skin is cured and that they don’t get damp.

How do you plant apricot trees?

Know your climate zone and select your tree accordingly. Bob is in zone 5/5b and on the cusp of zone 6 in some areas. He suggests that for this area, your apricot tree should be at least a zone 4. It is also possible to establish a microclimate where you may plant a zone 6 apricot tree successfully. Apricot trees are self-pollinating, so you could plant just one. He has a number of 5-year-old trees, but they have not yet flowered. One died, but he is unsure why, possibly a vole. He takes his losses in stride and just plants more.

Fertilizing with urine/humane waste?

Urine, if fresh, is clean and beneficial to your soil. Humanure, on the other hand, is more complex to manage and should be used with care. At this time, Bob does not have expertise in this area, but cautions against using it without adequate knowledge.

Below is a table which lists human urine as a nitrogen supply to sustain cropping and provides dilution ratios.

Credit: Martin Crawford, Creating a Forest Garden

How do you build a hügelkultur?

If you are working on a flat landscape, you can build in any direction. On a slope, it should run across rather than with the slope to capture as much water as possible. Dig down 6 to 8 inches (to allow for good water percolation), then lay down logs and brush and cover with soil. A hügel can also be built directly on the ground without any digging.

How do you set up a microclimate?

Bob gave some examples from his property. All berms are south facing, as the soil is warmer and plants that prefer heat grow better. Tomatoes love heat, so they can be planted near rocky areas which absorb the heat. Bob has a greenhouse with a stone foundation (a heat sink) which raises the heat in the surrounding area. Lettuce, on the other hand, does not like heat. It can be planted so that it is shaded in the hotter summer months.

Snow used to drift onto Bob’s driveway every winter, requiring a neighbor to cut groves in his field to prevent this. Introducing his Keyline design and planting his fields resolved the problem. The landscape changes altered the wind flow across the field allowing the snow to build away from the laneway.

Continual monitoring is important when altering microclimates. At times, your efforts may be successful, but at others, the changes you make may have the opposite effect.

Lists of trees and berries on the farm

Fruit trees

Pear3 or 4 varieties. Asian, European and North American, and some wild.
Apple10 plus varieties. 30 or 40  trees across the property. Each year try to graft up to 10 new apple trees to plant.
MulberryMultiple varieties showing up everywhere on property. Some we planted, some birds planted. Usually leave trees where they grow and plan how to plant around them.
Plums 
PeachStruggling but still alive. Have flowers but no peaches yet.
ApricotYoung
NectarineYoung
CherryMostly sour cherries

Berries

HaskapsMultiple varieties
BlackberriesChester variety. Slow to produce. Produces on 2nd year canes. Had one good crop.
RaspberriesRed, black, yellow and purple. The purple are very thorny.
GrapesIn last few years use in jellies.
Elderberry 
GooseberryPlanted last year.
Northern Kiwi.Planted last year. Have built arbor to grow on. Have two kiwis on two year old plant now.
Sea BuckthornGood and nutritious
CurrantsVarieites including Titania (from Silver Creek Nursery). They grow all over  the property. Collect for self and put into preserves.

Nut trees

Red and White Oak 
Hazelnut 
HickoryVery productive
Butternut 
WalnutBlack and English
ChestnutHybrid
Northern PecanThe first year after planted they died off as a result of a drought. They  came back following season. Not sure how they will do.

Other

WatermelonsSiberian variety. Orange fleshed. Grew well on hügel bed. They require lots of water to grow.

The Rideau Thousand Island Master Gardener site has a list of local nurseries.

Upcoming events

If you’re not already registered, join our next Master Gardener Zoom Q & A on Eventbrite

Happy gardening!

Reporting by Colette McKinnon, Master Gardener in Training,
Rideau 1000 Island Master Gardeners