From Forest to Farm: Daisy Hill Farm in the Making: Changing the Landscape

I cut down trees.  Many trees.  Climate change is real and I cut down trees. Don’t judge.  I cut down trees to build a small farm, so there are still lots of plants to take in CO2!

Daisy Hill Farm is a micro-farm, nestled into a one acre parcel of land at the end of a dead-end street in the center Acton, Massachusetts-45 minutes outside of Boston.  It is my ever-growing space for growing and living and I love it.

Where there once was a small patch of forest, home to deer, rabbits, mice, chipmunks, poison ivy and a stand of conifers and hardwoods, there now is a 100 foot x 100 foot fenced growing space, home to tomatoes, beans, carrots, chard, raspberries, apple trees, asparagus, and hundreds of other varieties of edible plants, along with chipmunks, mice and, yes, occasional poison ivy.

Outside of the fence there are still hardwoods, conifers, and now apple trees, grape vines, blueberry bushes, cranberries, lignonberries, herb and flower gardens. We have a very small flock of chickens- (4 currently) and eat the most delicious eggs ever. Especially when the chickens roam the farm all day eating clover, worms, bugs (and hopefully ticks).

Here are some before and after pictures of the farm.

Before (Fall 2015)

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After: (Spring , Summer 2016)

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Spring 2017:

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Summer 2017:

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History of Daisy Hill:

Moving.

My family moved 2 years ago to Acton, a fairly small town right outside of the Boston suburbs.  We didn’t really see it coming:  in fact we searched for years for the perfect house and land in the (town now city) Framingham where we had lived for the last 14 years.  It was where I taught, where the kids went to school, where we had build a network of friends and neighbors over the years.  I had built a lovely garden, but there was a significant amount of shade.  We were looking for a space with more sun to expand the garden, and a spot with less traffic.

We searched for years, but it didn’t pan out, we couldn’t find the house. So, instead, we expanded our search and began thinking of what life might be like in a new place, with new schools, new land, new commutes. And we found a great place–the second to last house on a quiet dead end road in a much smaller town, with a great school system, about 35 minutes north of our old house.  We bought the house, put our house on the market and moved in the summer of 2015.  

The “new” house (which of course, has become home) is in the historical center of town, ½ a mile from the beautiful public library and 200 feet away from 65 acres of conservation land with well-kept trails.  Although we had been looking for a smaller, older house with a bit more charm, we opted for a place with less maintenance to do inside- it is new, about 25 years old, with lots of windows and light.  

Most importantly, however, is the land.  For those of you who are real farmers, we have a whopping acre.  To my friends in the city or suburbs- an ENTIRE ACRE!  Everything, of course,  depends on context. 

When we were searching for houses, I would walk the land first, while the rest of the open house goers went inside.  I was the weird lady who brought a shovel to the inspection to test the soil.  I used Google Earth and Bing to look at the property at different times of day to see where the tree shadows would fall.  I mapped sewage systems and wetlands to make sure that I could build a growing space without restrictions.  After visiting 40ish houses, we finally found one that worked!

Planning and Researching

We moved at the beginning of August and there was no vegetable garden.  The former owner had worked hard on some pretty spectacular perennial flower gardens, but there was no space to grow food.  I needed to grow food.  So, I desperately drove to a nursery, bought their last lettuce, chard and herbs of the season and planted them in pots on the porch. I cleared out groundcover from a flower garden and put in potatoes.  And then I started to plan.

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Container garden Fall 2015, Notice forested area in background.

Our house is next to 65 acres of conservation land, so there are many more animals to contend with here compared to our previous much more suburban house.  For example, deer.  Deer are graceful, beautiful creatures.  Until they eat all of your lettuce, tulips, hostas, kale, etc.  Then they become big hoofed-pests.  There were herds of deer that moved across the back side of the property almost daily, so I tried to figure out how I would keep them out of the garden.  I asked at local nurseries, I talked to a farmer in Framingham, I read articles on the internet.  Oh, the internet.

There were no easy solutions.  I heard about coyote urine, but it washes away when it rains, hanging a light deer fence around the plants, but I knew from experience that other determined animals would bust right through it.  An electric fence.  But then I imagined electrifying my kids.  Admittedly very tempting on some days, but really a bad idea overall.  

And the worst thing I heard from people, that there was no solution and that I should give up on the idea of the garden.  Of course, upon hearing that, I became more determined than ever.  I’m like that.   So I went to find the answer in a place that has all of the answers.   The internet?  No!   The library!  Did I mention that our new house is a ½ mile walk to our beautiful town library?  Glorious for all of the book lovers in the home.  

Solving Deer Problems was the  book taught me what I needed to know.  The only way to keep deer out is to build a high fence.  8 feet high.  I am 5 feet + 1 + ½ inches tall.  8 feet high is very high.  I was so sad because an 8 foot fence is not very pretty, is hard to build and is not cheap.  But the garden demanded it, so we traded back in the graduate degree from Harvard to pay for the damn fence.  Just kidding.  Maybe.  I actually really wish I could do that.  I wouldn’t trade in Wesleyan, just Harvard.  But I digress.  

After realizing I needed such a big fence, I realized that the garden should be even bigger- and maybe it would be big enough to stop calling it a garden.  A farm.  My dream. I was still teaching at the time but I thought maybe I could swing both, and gardening had been my respite for the stress of the job for so long I thought if it was bigger then it would be even better!  

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One of the early plans

I imagined rambling pathways, space for gathering groups of people for teaching, a small berry patch, a small orchard, grape arbors, permanent trellising, herb beds, and of course rows upon rows of vegetables.  A chicken coop, a small outbuilding for tools, a greenhouse, a composting area, an area dedicated to native plant species.  Did I mention chickens?   I would finally get those fresh eggs I had been dreaming about for years.

I watched the sun.  I took pictures of the property at various times of the day and compared them to the pictures I had taken in June, in order to determine the sunniest spot.  I drew diagrams to try and figure out where the sun would be throughout the year. The back yard was perfect- flat and sunny- except the house has a septic system on the sunniest spot.  Couldn’t build there, (though I am eyeing it for a few raised beds soon…..)

Notice the way that the grass ends in the background and is next to trees?  It slopes down to the trees, and that forested area behind the softball players is where the fenced portion of the farm is now.  Notice how at the time, it is shaded and full of trees.

The sloping back corner of the yard had an overgrown perennial bed, tons of poison ivy and a small forest.  Well, not really a forest, but a swath of hardwoods and conifers at the lower corner of the yard. Which was the best space for the micro-farm.  While it wasn’t the sunniest spot (yet), it was the most promising space, and it was begging for a transformation.  Well, not really, but it is so fun to anthropomorphize.

The only way I could figure out how to maximize light and space together was to cut down trees, remove large boulders, smooth out the earth and remove the rampant poison ivy.  I like to do things on my own, but for this I needed help.  

I called a bunch of tree experts, landscapers and contractors; had some interesting conversations about all of the tree removal possibilities (from the most minimal solution–chainsaws and ropes to huge cranes–the heavy artillery solution).  One guy wanted to remove every single tree in the backyard, move our existing shed and then build a road on the side of our property.  He was very intense and reminded me of Matthew McConaughey, but 2 feet shorter, with a shinier face and on speed.  McC was not hired.

Destruction and Construction

I finally found a local landscaper who was able to do the entire job start to finish- all the way from tree and stump removal, boulder moving, import of soil to fence and gate building.  He contracted out for tree work and was able to keep the overhead as low as possible.  He and his crew began in October of 2015 and finished the project up about 6 weeks later.  They interspersed the work they had going in other places with the work they were doing here, so it took longer than it could have, but it was fall and he was able to get the garden and fencing done before the snow hit, and I was so excited.  

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First trees and shrubs come down- notice guy with hardhat on right and bobcat on left.

Each day when we came home from school, we would watch as more and more trees were removed and hauled away.

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A view from the bottom up the slope toward the house with bobcats and stumps

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Bobcat, stumps and roots

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Large rocks (boulders?) and roots that would have made digging here a bit difficult…

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The space is almost all clear here, piles of trees, roots and rocks still to be removed.

I should have counted the number of trees we took down.  It was a lot.  Maybe 30-40, with a couple of beautiful old maples and oaks that I felt tremendously guilty saying goodbye to.  A pretty powerful consolation was that I was going to build a sustainable food-production plot to feed my family, neighbors and customers.  I feel like I will trade in my green-karma and help teach people how to grow food in whatever space they can, from containers on a balcony to raised beds to a permacultrually-sound garden within the landscape.  

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This picture is a bit fuzzy because I took it through a window screen in the house.  The large space of soil in the middle used to be covered with trees.

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Fence construction:  posts spaced approximately every 16 feet and stabilized with cement at the corners and next to the 2 gates.

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Before the soil was brought in, I spent hours trying to figure out how to lay out the space- and ended up sprinkling diatomaceous earth to mark the paths and beds that would be built (see faint white lines in background)  Because this corner of the garden gets more shade, I planned on putting the raspberry patch there.

Planning the garden layout was both fun and daunting.  It often feels easier to make decisions when there are fewer choices, like ordering from a one-page menu versus Cheesecake Factory menu.

So, I started with the boundary of the garden, imagined the small orchard that I wanted and went from there, originally modeling the rows on my previous 2 gardens, which I built using Eliot Coleman’s methods.  BUT, I had to change things a bit, and so the plans changed (as you can sort of see on the papers above- couldn’t fine all of the original plans for the post despite my pack-rattiness nature, but figured these would give you a bit of an idea).

Here is the current plan:

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Current map-still working on building!

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Fence construction continues and soil for beds is brought in.  2 spigots were installed, irrigation lines were attached to the pre-existing lawn irrigation system.  One spigot is at the top of the hill, next to a gate.  The second spigot went next to the shed at the bottom of the hill.

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View of the bottom half of the fenced in area:  The opening in the fence to the right is just wide enough for a shed.  The shed has 2 doors on opposite walls to function as a third entry point to the garden.  The fence has 2 layers:  8 feet of horse fence and then a few feet of hex chicken wire at the bottom to keep out smaller critters.  The fence is also buried about 16 inches underground to prevent groundhogs from burrowing under (so far, so good).

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Completion!  Just waiting for the shed to be built at the right.  This was in November 2015 I put up a low tunnel and coldframe (left end of the garden) to plant a small winter garden.

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And so, now I can farm about .2 acres within the fenced in area and am continuing to expand the area outside the fence every season (much to my husband’s disbelief). For example,  this past April I planted a bunch of blueberry bushes, more apple trees and cranberry bushes.

There are currently over 70 raised beds of varying sizes, with more to be built as summer marches on.  I always feel like I am running to catch up in this space because of some time restraints (other job, kids, starting a business) and unforeseen problems (drainage issues on the sloped space, poor subsoil, chickens running away to the neighbors yard, etc).

I intend to write additional posts in the future about the specifics of the raised bed system I use as well as irrigation, crop rotation, etc.  But for now, here are some pictures of the initial building of Daisy Hill:

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