It started with a garden that proved surprisingly easy to make both beautiful and welcoming to all sorts of birds and insects, in sharp contrast to the barren lawns on all sides. It has grown into a farm where John Peterson and Jeremi Carroll have set out to demonstrate the practical side of permaculture.
On a former pasture in the hills of Dundee, they are planting what they call the Dundee Hills Food Forest; a working farm using nature’s principles to produce plentiful amounts of food for people, while also welcoming wildlife.
Well, most wildlife. While birds, snakes, frogs, bats and bugs are welcomed with open arms, even courted, deer have been politely asked — via a 10-foot fence — to stay out of certain areas, such as the vegetable garden.
Currently, the farm sells herbs and annual vegetables, but Peterson and Carroll hope to expand their offerings over time to include a variety of products such as medicinal herbs. They also hope to eventually begin offering community classes in gardening and garden design.
Peterson has always loved gardening, while Carroll’s family grew and preserved at least some of their own food, so growing a vegetable garden while living in a rental house in Beaverton was a natural step for the pair.
Two books convinced them to move beyond gardening: Toby Hemenway’s “Gaia’s Garden,” which bills itself as “a guide to home-scale permaculture,” and Barry Estabrook’s “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.” The book examines the history of tomatoes and agribusiness, including abuse of Latino field workers on Florida tomato farms.
That one, Carroll and Peterson said, made it clear that growing their own food mattered in more ways than simply enjoying a hobby, while “Gaia’s Garden” inspired them to want to work in tandem with nature. Their own burgeoning 400-square-foot garden, with its visiting hummingbirds and colorful blooms, made them want to expand their ideas with a larger property.
In 2012, they bought a two and a half acre parcel in Dundee and set about transforming it.
Permaculture principles espouse mimicking how forests develop and mature, in order to minimize conflicts with weeds, wildlife and weather.
“You’re essentially trying to mimic a young forest, focusing on plants that are useful to humans,” Peterson said.
Practicality encompasses more than just food, he said; plants may also be selected for medicine, building materials, cut flowers or playing some role in enhancing or protecting other plants, such as flowers that attract beneficial insects.
In turn, those insects draw birds, which help to keep harmful insects under control. “Each plant has a place in the ecosystem,” Peterson said, and frequently, more than one use. For instance, a medicinal herb may provide a harvest, attract insects, and extend deep roots that pull nutrients from lower levels in the soil. When the plant decomposes, those nutrients are returned to the upper layers of the soil. The taller plants also help shade the trunk of the fruit tree from sunburn, he said.
“You don’t need to have a separate vegetable garden over here, a flower garden here, an herb garden here, and apple tree here; you can combine them and get much better results,” Peterson said.
With that goal in mind, they combine trees, shrubs, flowers and herbs in borders, and even the annual vegetable garden is surrounded by a border of perennials. In a patch of lawn they maintain, clover is interplanted with the grass to provide nitrogen, replacing fertilizer applications.
“Grass isn’t inherently bad, but maybe we could manage it differently,” Peterson said. When Peterson and Carroll purchased the property in 2012, it was a former pasture poor with soil. They spent the first year removing many of the evergreens and some disappointing fruit trees, although many of the stumps were left for birds and insects.
The pair put down 10 tons of organic wheat straw annually, to begin rebuilding the soil, installed rock retaining walls and gravel paths, built an arbor and a deer fence, and then set about planting: fruit trees and shrubs, a wide variety of herbs, native plants, vines, cutting flowers and vegetables. They have added some 600 species of perennials so far, and installed 30 nesting boxes and 15 bird feeders, along with bat boxes.
Plant diversity is key to their strategy, they said: the more varieties of plant species they have in place, the more wildlife will be attracted to the property, and that’s all to the good: Birds, bats, snakes, frogs and insects all help to maintain balance, by providing pollination, fertilization and pest control.
Part of the idea is to reduce the amount of labor needed, but “it’s not that it’s no work,” Peterson said.
“You’re working with nature’s system, so it changes the nature of the work you’re doing, but it’s still work,” Carroll said.
For more information, visit the website, at www.dhfoodforest.com.