EcoLandscape Principles get Real – A Concept Plan in 10 Steps

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Walking the new Shelburne Property

We are waist-deep in the design of our new Shelburne, VT property and we’ve been thinking about how we can share our design process with others. We would like to demonstrate how we move from Principles of Ecological Landscaping and Sustainable Agriculture to the actual application, and how a similar design process could be applied to other properties.  The model could help others visualize what Ecological Landscape Design means in the context of their daily lives, and then be tailored to help achieve site specific goals.

The design process starts with drafting a concept plan.  First we look at the existing property on Google Earth or Bing Maps.  Here’s what our property looks like now:

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15 acre property before applying concepts

Here’s what it looks like after I draw in the landscape concept “bubbles”:

3 Ecological Site Plan EcoLandscape Principles get Real   A Concept Plan in 10 Steps

Ecological Landscape Concept Plan for 15-acre Shelburne VT Property

Each bubble is numbered and encompasses an area that represents an individual biotope (habitat), or human use such as agriculture or housing.  I will list here what our goals are for each area.  (Many of this year’s blog posts will focus on these 10 different goals, our strategies for accomplishing them in the Champlain Valley and how we can incorporate them into properties of all sizes in the Northeast US).

Here they are:

1) Protect Rare and Uncommon Species

2) Connect Habitat Blocks with Corridors

3) Protect Water with Buffers

4) Keep Forest Areas Forested

5) Preserve High Quality Agricultural Lands while Protecting Grassland Habitat

6) Site New Structures for Least Disturbance (houses, barns, driveways)

7) Allow Old Fields to Succeed into Shrubland

8) Create Pollinator Meadows

9) Plan the Landscape of the Home Zone to be Beautiful and Functional

10) Create a Habitat Trail

Moving forward I will draw two additional sample concept plans for smaller typical residential parcels in the Champlain Valley - a 2-acre parcel and a 1/2-acre parcel. I’ve selected the smaller two parcels at random, but one thing all three parcels have in common is that they are all in Shelburne, VT and have open space that was probably once farmland and is currently being mowed.  Here’s what they look like:

2 acre lot EcoLandscape Principles get Real   A Concept Plan in 10 Steps

2 acre parcel

half acre lot EcoLandscape Principles get Real   A Concept Plan in 10 Steps

Randomly selected 1/2-Acre Parcel in Shelburne VT

Once I complete the sample plans I will use all three in presentations both to individual clients but also to different groups (Rotary, garden clubs, conferences, schools, etc.) to illustrate how we can achieve typical aesthetic landscape goals while providing ecosystem services (water quality protection, habitat for wildlife, carbon footprint reduction, etc.).  Let me know if you are interested in hearing the presentation and I’ll add you to the list.  Time to get back to the drawing board!



Heartbreak and Hope – When you Lose a Beehive

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The dead hive opened

On a walk past the bee yard the other day I paused to put my ear to the hive, something I do regularly throughout the winter.  I discovered that only one of our two hives was making its normal faint buzzing sound.  It was a warm (45 degree) sunny day so I opened the silent hive and found it full of dead bees, many of them near the top but also many with their noses deep in the comb, a sign of starvation.

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our hives under snow

I felt terrible – I thought I had left them enough honey for the winter, but maybe not?  On closer inspection I found a few frames of capped honey not far from the cluster of bees.  The upper entrance showed evidence of cleansing flights and there were quite a few dead bees outside on the ground in the snow – had they been sick or was it just too cold?  Each hive had an insulated winter cover with plenty of air flow to keep them dry.

I tried not to get teary, but instead stomped around the bee yard in frustration.  Like any new parent I was plagued with doubt  and guilt – what did I do wrong?  Plenty, I’m sure, but how do I make sure I don’t make the same mistakes again?

Our adventure with bees began three years ago at the Burlington screening of the award-winning documentary film “Queen of the Sun: What Bees are Telling Us”.  I then took Ross Conrad’s Organic Beekeeping course and passed the exam given by the Vermont Beekeeper’s Association.

Our two hives did fairly well the first year, but to be safe we didn’t extract any honey.  They came through the winter very strong, so strong that I missed preventing one of the hives from swarming, leaving it mostly empty with a Queen cell.  I’m afraid I did something to interrupt the acceptance of the new queen or she didn’t return from her mating flight, because after 6 weeks there were no new eggs.

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The two hives after splitting and new Queen

So I split the strong hive and introduced a new Russian Queen.  I made notes on which boxes had nectar, eggs, and capped brood.  Throughout the rest of summer they seemed very strong, I added supers as they needed them, and then we extracted honey in early September.

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extracting honey

We took 3.5 gallons total from the two hives, leaving a full shallow on each, and an empty shallow for the bees to fill during the goldenrod flow.  In October one of the two hives seemed weaker and hadn’t filled their second super, so I did a mite count using my IPM board and they both had a fairly heavy infestation, so I fed the hive, adding BeeHealthy, and treated them both for mites with ApiVar.  There was no evidence of Nosema or Foulbrood.   We did have some pretty cold weather this winter, but I’m questioning how much honey I left them, and plan to leave them more next year.

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Bee inspection in September

So what’s my plan for my dead hive?  First I’m going to clean it out and do some more investigating.  Here’s my plan - Take out the frames one by one and brush off the dead bees and vacuum out the ones still in cells.  Scrape of any bridge or burr comb and propolis from the frames and inspect the comb to see if any frames need replacing.  Do the same with the hive bodies, cleaning off the frame rests etc. where the propolis really gets in the way.  Then I’ll work my way down to the bottom board getting everything cleaned up.  It might be a while before the new bee package arrives so I’ll store the empty hive in the barn (where it’s still freezing) in a plastic bag until it warms up outside and then air it out in the greenhouse so it doesn’t mildew.

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installing new bees with Gabbie

I have to decide soon if I’m going to order a new package of bees with a new Russian Queen or try to raise a new queen from the overwintered hive, and split it in June.  The advantage of splitting an overwintered hive is that hopefully some of the genetic material of the bees that survived can be passed to the new hive, breeding tougher, more resistant bees.  This is the approach of both Ross Conrad and Kirk Webster, a well-known Vermont honeybee queen breeder, who didn’t use chemicals at all when tracheal mites were first discovered in the state in the late 1980s. He lost 95 percent of his bees the first year, but by breeding the survivors, now has a resistant stock.  I would love one of his queens but there’s a two-year wait-list.  Knowing how busy we are in spring, I’ll probably start with a fresh box of bees in early May.

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zombie bee

Losing hives is fairly common now (30% is the average) – honey bee colonies are overrun with difficulties (Colony Collapse Disorder, Nosema, and now Zombie bees.  Our wild bees are almost extinct (the national Academy of Science reported a 96% decline in the four abundant species), and it’s now being shown that wild and domesticated bees are passing diseases to each other.

To make matters worse the U.S. market is being flooded with cheap honey from China (laundered through other Asian countries – see this article on Honey laundering) and this honey is often contaminated with banned antibiotics and diluted with corn syrup, yuck.  The flood of cheap foreign honey is reducing demand for local honey = fewer hives = fewer pollinators = less local food.

So, yes if we want to keep eating healthy food we need to become advocates for healthy bees and local raw honey.  Let’s all cross our fingers, and say a prayer for a warm spring full of blossoms and healthy bees.



BioChar – a Critical Soil Ingredient

biochar 300x225 BioChar   a Critical Soil Ingredient


Biochar is a great example of an ancient technique turned modern superhero.  It’s a carbon-enriched additive to soils that can help:

  • enhance soil fertility,
  • reduce nutrient leaching and ground water contamination,
  • increase soil microbial activity,
  • increase water retention,
  • stimulate plant growth, and
  • reduce disease and insect susceptibility.

Many organizations from around the world are researching, using and promoting biochar – probably the most well known is the International Biochar Initiative.

I first heard about it in 2011 through Peter Hirst from New England Biochar at the Ecological Landscaping Alliance conference where he was demonstrating the process of making biochar.  Peter makes biochar using a Burner to heat wood chips in the absence of oxygen.

Biochar is a physically stable but chemically reactive humus, which increases cation exchange capacity and buffers acidic soil.  As a soil amendment for agricultural purposes biochar can prevent the leaching of nutrients out of the soil, partly because it absorbs and immobilizes them and that’s why biochar is ideally first soaked in compost tea.  The nutrients as well as the microbiota from the compost tea are held in reserve and made available to plants over a longer period of time than if the compost tea is spread alone.  Biochar also has the ability to improve water quality (think Brita filter), reduce soil emissions of green house gases, reduce leaching of nutrients, and reduce irrigation and fertilizer requirements.

In the last year we have seen Biochar start to pop up in products and services everywhere, and you’ll probably hear mention of it at some local garden centers.  Bartlett Tree Experts now uses it in their urban street tree plantings and other challenging sites.  Our native plant plug supplier North Creek Nurseries is now using it in their soil mixes.  We will start broadcast spreading it into our planting holes this spring as well, as we join the effort to “get the planet back in the black”!

If you are in Vermont and want to buy it from a local producer check out Vermont Biochar (Michael Low at Green Fire Farm) out of West Danville, VT.  Their product is called GreenFireChar, and is available in a 4-lb. bag or bulk at the farm.

Prune Now for Beautiful Blooms and Fruit

apple pruning 300x225 Prune Now for Beautiful Blooms and FruitA sunny day in late February or early March is usually when we prune the apple and plum trees here at Linden Farm and on our clients properties.
Here’s a quick overview of the process:

1) Prune every year.  Why? To encourage more fruiting spurs and to create a supporting framework as the tree grows.  Removing branches thins out the canopy and increases light to maximize annual flower production, fruit growth and quality.

2) Remove 4 types of branches - Dead or Damaged, then Water Sprouts, then Weak drooping Wood, then Crossing-over branches.

3) Pick a Method - There are two systems that are popular in the northeast – the Modified Central Leader and the Slender Spindle.  The central leader is the classic method used by most orchards in VT and NY since the 1800s, and the only disadvantage is the amount of space each mature tree needs. The slender spindle is a method that was developed in Holland and now many orchards are transitioning to this method because it produces more pounds of fruit per acre.  We are particularly interested in Spindle pruning for the backyard orchard because with dwarf trees spaced every 4′ on a trellis you can have 5 varieties in a 20′ row -  and with disease resistant varieties you can practice organic methods and still get fruit you can eat!

There are tons of videos online explaining how to approach a tangled mature tree – this one is a good one from WikiHow:

Good Luck and enjoy some garden time outside with a pair of pruners!

10 Years on the L.A.N.D. and 60 Things We’ve Learned

2013 10 19 09.14.46 e1393004531238 1024x671 10 Years on the L.A.N.D. and 60 Things Weve Learned

The New Year brought the classic moment of looking back to look forward – and I realized that in September we will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of our business, designing and building landscapes here in the Champlain Valley of VT.  We have experienced significant growth and change during that time and I am very grateful for Tim’s infinite patience, as well as the extreme hard work performed by Tim and the crew, and the faith of our clients as we have evolved our design process and methods.

Looking back at some of our first designs I admit it’s a bit like looking at photos of myself in the 80′s and wondering how I could possibly have thought shoulder pads were a good idea.  Thankfully, we’ve learned along the way, and continue to do so, and we have found ways to successfully integrate our interests in ecology, agriculture, and landscapes.  Recently I was giving a particularly interactive lecture to some UVM students about Ecological Design and the discussion turned to whether I thought they should go to grad school in order to secure a job.  I told them that “it depends”, but that no matter where their path takes them I believe that education is continual beyond any formal school setting, and needs to be a part of daily life.  We choose to be Learners and our identify morphs with our constantly evolving body of knowledge.  I am not the same gardener-designer-farmer-wife-mother that I was yesterday or 10 years ago, and it’s the process of sharing those experiences that has proved more valuable than any piece of paper.

So yes, research is important but so is hands-on experience, and most importantly, learning from each others’ hands-on experiences.  With this in mind I have assembled an index of the topics that I’ve written about in the last three years to share with you – think of it as a distillation of our recent experiences.  I write about 20 posts per year, so there are 60 articles here organized by topic for you to pick through and hopefully find something useful.  Be sure to sign up for our newsletter if you would enjoy getting our happy rantings each month.  Have fun and please share your thoughts.

Fall Harvest on the Farm

view from porch1 300x253 Fall Harvest on the FarmIt was a big harvest year for us – we had four weeks of clear warm sunshine in a row in September/early October and we spent every weekend filling the cupboards and freezers. It was also our first year extracting honey – such a rich reward for the last two summers with our hives.  Here are some photos of the bounty.

pantry games Fall Harvest on the Farm

The anti-hunger games

Linden Farm Summer 2013

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July sunset



The summer goes by so quickly – there’s always something going on here at the farm before the landscape crew heads out, after they get home, and with our family on weekends.  Planting, harvesting, weeding, haying, herding – the list never ends.  Here are a few images of the homestead in summer.

Protecting Your Edibles from Disease and Pests Organically

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potato beetle

Protecting your plants from pests and diseases starts with understanding the relationship between the pests and your garden.  Pests and diseases have favorite environments, the better you understand them, the better you can work around them.  If you analyze your growing conditions it can help you understand which pests you are likely to attract and then you can make a plan to defend your garden, both by selecting varieties that are resistant to the diseases you are prone to attract and also which organic methods/products can be used to provide further protection.  This applies to all plants, both ornamental and edible. Continue reading

Sunrise Farm Tour

Yesterday it was 90 degrees, hot and humid, and today promises the same.  I woke up early and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I crept out of a silent house and walked around the farm.  An altered perspective – stumbling upon sheep still asleep in the pasture, dew suspended.  The Rooster and hens come tumbling out of the coop when I open the door and look at me as if I was a stranger.  Mist and geese rise off the lake, the tree frogs chirp, the pair of Orioles call to each other from their nest in the Silver Maple.  The sun gains strength and so does everything else, rising with the arms of a golden conductor.  Makes me realize how much life is here, and how it carries on without me each day when I’m not looking.  I’m grateful to be a part of it.

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Raising Broilers on the Homestead

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a day-old Freedom Ranger Chick

We have been raising chickens for meat since we came to the farm about 13 years ago.  Some years we have raised as many as 150 but have since tempered our enthusiasm down to a more reasonable number of 50.  The economy of scale means that the 50 birds cost more per pound, but less stress and only growing what our family needs is worth its weight in gold.  In the beginning we raised Jumbo Cornish x but found that the leg problems and lack of grazing instinct made them a poor choice for our farm.  We purchase very healthy “Freedom Rangers” from a  hatchery in PA and they mail them as day-old chicks.  They reach a slaughter weight of 5 pounds dressed at 10-11 weeks, and my goal each year is to secure a slaughter date and be done with them by the 4th of July  (the smell of chicken manure in hot weather is mucho disgusto).  The chicks stay in the winter coop for the first 4 weeks (it’s available now since the laying hens have moved out to pasture in the Eggmobile)  are protected and kept snug in a brooder made from hay bales and a heat lamp.  chicks 300x225 Raising Broilers on the HomesteadAt 4 weeks we open the door and they discover the large grassy run and still have access to the indoors when they want it for shade, food and water.  For years we would transfer them into movable pens that we would drag around the pasture twice a day which was quite labor intensive but necessary for batches larger than 50.  Since we switched to smaller batches of Freedom Rangers they seem to be more motivated to seek the outdoors on their own and aren’t as addicted to the feeders so the coop and run work just fine.  We also used to be slaves to manually filling water founts but now use Little Giant auto water founts (sold by Stromberg’s) for both the layers and the meat birds, and the gadgets are worth the investment.

I have made feeding a science – here’s the chart for how many pounds of grain they get each day. Brooder schedule ’13 The Freedom Rangers don’t eat as much grain per day as the Cornish birds do, but they take an extra week to gain weight.  Last year we lost a few birds so we raised a total of 191 lbs of meat (whole birds).  Here’s how the costs breakdown:

50 chicks @1.95 + shipping = $97.50

Grain – 16 bags (50 lbs. Homestead natural grain 20% protein) @ $18 ea. = $288

Slaughter (we use a small family mobile processing company called VT Country Meats) = $267

Total cost (nothing for labor included) for 190.85 lbs. = $652.50 or $3.42/lb.

If you consider something for labor then call it $4.50/lb – not the least expensive chicken but we know exactly how it was raised, with fresh grass to run around on, fresh air to breathe, healthy grain to eat, and bugs to chase, and our girls gain the invaluable experience of learning how to care for other living creatures and where their food comes from.  All in all, a pretty good deal.