In our first few years here at Beacon Springs we have taken on the challenge of shaping and restoring to health the several acres surrounding the house. We created berms and swales as a framework on which to plant 60 fruit trees, 30 hazelnut trees and 80 berry bushes. We spread yards and yards and yards of woodchips and planted cover crop everywhere (white clover, hairy vetch and perennial rye). We enlarged the pond at the east end of the house and dug two more ponds plus a substantial rain garden. The berms and swales and ponds and groundcover work in synchrony to hold water on the land, stop erosion and rebuild soil.

With that project underway, we tackled the jumble of plants in the entry courtyard and around the rim of the south terrace. Countless Canadian thistles, poison ivy vines and garden-variety weeds consorted freely with the carefully chosen native perennials. What a task to sort through it all, removing the uninvited and re-organizing the desired!

Both projects would have been impossible – or at least would have taken far longer – without the help of Patrick Cox, our strong, smart, willing farmhand. We’ll be sorry to see him leave for college in January. Well, of course, we’re delighted for him, and sad for our “loss.”

Maintaining what we’ve accomplished is a full-time task – and we feel ready to expand our engagement to the rest of our 30 acres (we purchased the adjoining fifteen acres to the south a couple of years ago). The question is, what to do with it?

Old-field succession ­– the known progression of nature across abandoned agricultural land – is evident here: first the growth of annual plants, then biennials and perennials, then shrubby plants, then trees. We expect our fields will eventually become forested. Throughout this succession, the land welcomes more insects, birds and animals, and soil is restored to health – good outcomes, all.

As we continue to read and learn, we see other possibilities. Before European settlement, the land around us was hickory-oak savannah: groves of trees surrounded by open fields and shrubland, maintained in that state by large grazing animals. Could we mimic this in some small way without animals, perhaps simply by selective mowing?

The step to bringing in animals seems a large one – though the current pandemic removes some of the “we couldn’t travel” hesitancy. Applying the method at Knepp Wildland of leaving livestock largely to their own devices might be a good solution. Grazing animals maintain the open areas, allowing for growth of the most robust trees, and their waste and trampling enrich the soil. The question then would be which animals – sheep, goats, cattle, pigs.

Aside from the old field succession question, plenty 0f room remains for further shaping of land to collect and manage water. Areas we’ve currently “tamed” (i.e. planted and mowed the cover crop) cry out for populating with judiciously chosen trees and shrubs.

As summer turns to fall and fall gives way to cold and snow, we have plenty consider, by a toasty fire, reference books and websites at hand. Settling into this land is suiting us well, keeping us active and challenging us to learn new things as we do what we can to protect and care for our earth.

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