Creating a Homestead in the Heart of New JerseyMarch 31, 2020
The Small House is a 12-part blog series that will share the vision, architectural challenges, and construction effort involved in building a new house, one that defies conventional home design by integrating the environment in a rigorous, locally unprecedented and beneficial way.
Deborah’s blog is based on conversations between Deborah, Jason, Rob DeStefano, Landscape Architect and Owner, GreenCraft Associates, and Adam Dusen, Permaculture Design Expert and Owner, Hundred Fruit Farm | May 22, 2020
During the initial design discussions for our new home, we told Bill Kaufman, Owner and Principal Architect at WESKetch Architecture + Construction, that we would be using Permaculture design principles to inform the landscape for our property. He seemed both intrigued and, perhaps, a bit surprised. Having been a pioneer of sustainable design for decades, finding a client willing to take the next step into a more holistic approach and extend beyond just energy efficiency, renewable energy systems, environmental impact and clean air interior environments was both shocking and refreshing to him.
In our part of New Jersey—as agrarian as the immediate area is—this kind of “landscaping” remains uncommon, but for us, it was just as important a part of what we wanted for our lives in the country as the environmentally responsible Small House itself. Jason and I were intent on leaving this gorgeous 43-acre parcel of land in better condition than when we found it. Certain aspects of doing this would be fairly simple. There were 30-acres of woods and wetlands that needed little more than allowing them to remain in their natural state, removing some dead trees and invasive species and planting a more varied selection of native trees and shrubs that would support greater biodiversity.
The remaining, roughly thirteen acres of farmland was then divided into two parts—eleven acres that would continue to be cultivated as crops, and two acres comprising the area on which our home would sit along with the land immediately surrounding it—our homestead.
For our traditional crops, we would continue working with an experienced farmer. Unfortunately, the very talented farmer who had been working our land for many years and who we like very much was unwilling to work organically. Some people believe that synthetic fertilizers and herbicides (e.g., glyphosate) do not harm wildlife, people, and the environment. Jason and I disagree.
Following an extensive search, we were fortunate to partner with two young, local farmers, Jay and Case Vogelaar of River Bend Farms, who were as excited about converting our farm to organic, regenerative agriculture as we were and for the first time in many decades, 2020’s crop of oats and crimson clover will be grown without any synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.
Sprouts in April 2020 of the first crop that will be grown at the Small House in over 50-years without the use of synthetic fertilizer or herbicides.
Now that we found our farmers, we began planning the area immediately surrounding our house and barn—a place that is typically landscaped with a traditional mix of ornamental plantings, perhaps a small vegetable garden, and a good amount of lawn. As visually gorgeous as some of these landscapes can be, usually they are ecological deserts created with little or no regard to how what is planted there affects the wider web of living things surrounding them.
Jason and I believe that we have an obligation to do more and be far more responsible for the land around our home and for these reasons, we asked much more of our landscape design team. In simple, practical terms, we wanted the landscape around our home not only to be beautiful but also to provide a vibrant, healthy, bio-diverse natural habitat for wildlife and be a source of healthy and varied organic food—all while requiring less effort and expense to maintain than a more conventional landscape design.
The science of Permaculture
Permaculture is the system of applied ecological design that we would employ to achieve these seemingly disparate goals. As the components of the name—permanent and agriculture—suggest, successful Permaculture integrates the mindful stewardship of the land with our daily way of living. It is about marrying the way the land will be planted and used by the people living there while also benefiting and supporting the wider array of creatures with whom we must responsibly share it in a sustainable, integrated, holistic, and cost-effective manner.
Why just plant a ground cover when you can plant alpine strawberries, so that not only can you see something beautiful when walking between the house and barn, but you can also munch on a handful of fresh, organic fruit? Planting trees is great for the environment, but if we planted chestnuts, hickories, apples, cherries and mulberries, they would not only be beautiful when they flower but provide fruits and nuts for both us and the wildlife in the area.
When engineering how the runoff from rain will be handled, instead of the methods used in traditional construction, we can utilize an interconnected system of ponds, cisterns and bioretention basins that recharge our aquifer, direct water away from our house to support water-loving plantings like cranberries, elderberry, and paw-paw, provide a habitat for fish that eat mosquito larvae and store enough water to irrigate our vegetable garden.
More about Permaculture and the Small House
The science behind Permaculture involves figuring out how to integrate rather than segregate different elements in the design that support each other over time. The architectural team began with a rough sketch of some of the environmental aspects of the site including the path of the sun and direction of the prevailing winds during the winter and summer. These elements would drive a much deeper discussion of the physical siting of the home which would have solar panels, and therefore, require ample southern roof exposure.
In addition to an abundance of food-bearing plants and trees, we will also have a few chickens. Utilizing mobile fencing, chickens can move around the homestead. They not only provide a source of fresh eggs, but they also eat fallen fruits and are adept at pest control too, which will help reduce the amount of yard maintenance that we need to do ourselves, and they provide great fertilizer wherever they go!
Typically, growing fruit trees in New Jersey is challenging because of the humidity. Choosing to place the “orchard” in the northern and upland area of our homestead will help with frost issues and will provide the trees with more airflow. Also, we will plant varieties that flourish without synthetic sprays and regarding the choice of varieties, for example, we will plant sour cherries rather than sweet because they are far less likely to be eaten by birds. It will be a balancing act, for sure.
Our property also has riparian zones—land areas that border rivers or other bodies of water. Riparian zones have their own unique set of challenges, but northern pecans, native willows, or river birch trees would be perfect candidates for planting in the wetland areas.
Alfredo enjoying his “forest” in his favorite Permaculture Zone of all, Zone 0—INSIDE the house!
Finally, all of these components needed to be brought together in a cohesive easily managed way that would ensure that as Jason and I get older, the things that we need and use most or that require the most care and attention are easily accessible. Adam and Rob have planned our landscape using distinct zones. Permaculture Zones place things like herb and vegetable gardens that we will access almost every day in season, very close to the house (in Zone 1). Our “Food Forest,” containing our fruit and nut trees, chickens and beehives could be a bit farther afield as they do not need to be accessed or cared for as often and so they were planned to be at the outer edges of the homestead (in Zone 2). The last of our food growing will occur in Zone 3—the plot that the Vogelaars will be farming for us. Zones 4 and 5 are very minimally accessed (e.g., to collect firewood or forage for things like mushrooms) or left entirely untouched and wild, and with 43-acres, we will most certainly be designating a lot of our property as Zone 4 or 5!