Making Space

Time seems to move so quickly. As we approach our 5th month living on the farm, it still feels like just yesterday we were rolling up the wild, overgrown driveway with a hundred project plans, dreams and wishes.

It is a special feeling to look out across the farm and see the subtle handprint of our work, the ways the land has changed since we arrived. It is satisfying to see the land rise up new again, after the blanket of invasive overgrowth has been stripped away.

There are 15 acres of land for us to restore – 15 acres of fields, gardens, orchards, woods, and riparian zones. While we could have taken our tools and chopped down everything overgrown or inconvenient, we knew that we did not want to do that. Part of our objective in environmental restoration of the farm is to consider the landscape beyond ourselves – many critters and other plant species have found home here with the absence of people. Our plan is to be intentional in how we interact with the landscape – we are working the land in segments to minimize impact to wildlife and trying to remove invasive species so that native plants can proliferate.

When we arrived on the farm, our first big project was to open up a space for general living. Blackberries and bamboo had encroached all the way onto the road, and it was difficult to find a suitable space for a tent, much less a few chairs.

Blackberries had gone wild, growing up onto the outbuildings and completely consuming the garden. Bamboo, so pretty in the wind, had grown into the road and in front of the triple-bay garage. We knew that the project of the clearing out this area was going to be a big job – not just because of the sheer amount of overgrowth, but also because of how tenacious these two species are. The only way to truly remove them from an area was to dig out the root crowns – a project that at times felt backbreaking under the hot summer sun.

As a side note, the farm has its own well. However, during our first few weeks the well was broken – it had not worked for many years. At this point, we were waiting on a well technician to come out and assess/fix the well, but it was still going to be several weeks before the water situation was fixed. Since we did not have any potable water on the farm, every few days we drove to a nearby lake’s recreation area to fill up plastic gallon jugs. Taking anything remotely like shower was basically not possible, as campgrounds were closed due to COVID. I am sure you can imagine how stinky we were, working in the summer heat.

The first step in the project was to take out the weedwhacker and cut down the overgrowth. We checked to make sure that the bird species on the land were not still nesting, and then Pat strapped on the chaps, ear protection and goggles and got to work. Since it was high summer, the blackberry bushes were fruiting and as the blade of the weedwhacker bit into them, the berries sprayed purple-black juice all over Pat. By the end of the day, he looked like he had been dipped into a dye pot.

To protect ourselves from ticks and blackberry thorns, we completely covered up with long pants, long sleeves, boots and with our hair tucked away. All of our clothes were treated with permethrin. Though it was a bit brutal with summer temperatures between 80-100 degrees, it was worth it to be protected.

Cutting down the overgrowth in front of the outbuildings took about a few days. It was the easy part of the project! Now all of the cut plant material was tangled on the ground. We had to rake it up and haul it into a gigantic pile for temporary containment. As it was midsummer, it was very dry and there were the usual burn bans. The pile was going to have to wait until we could either get it hauled out or burned in the fall.

Finally, we began to clear out the area by hand – digging out each individual blackberry root crown and following each root through the earth. Pulling them up became almost meditative. At first we used a pitchfork to loosen them and then just our hands, but Pat found the perfect tool via research – a Mattock. This tool has a pick on one end and a long rectangular wedge on the other, making it the perfect tool for prying up deep roots. It weighs 5 lbs, making it easy to swing down into the soil.

Pat also worked on removing the overgrown Bamboo. The roots of this plant are very intense and heavy – I was not strong enough to pull them up out of the soil. The root that Pat is holding in the above photo was easily 30+ lbs.

Clearing out this area took many, many weeks. After the initial clear-out, we then had to root up the next round of small blackberries – the growth of roots still in the soil. Blackberries are a pretty incredible plant species in how tenacious they are.

Finally, it was a clear space – down to the soil. We then seeded it with grass to help hold the soil during the Fall and winter.

Watching (and waiting for) the grass to grow was so exciting – I was completely surprised! I always thought that lawns were silly. But checking each morning to see if there was new grass was intrinsically exciting to me, I guess. I think it was because we got to watch a space be completely transformed from massive overgrowth to an area that now has potential for native plants. Larger wildlife can also move through this area now – lately most mornings there have been deer cruising through the grass.

It’s also a great place to play with Penny now 🙂

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