for those who have read thoreau’s walden, you will recall that he had a couple of acres of bean rows, reaching seven miles in length when put end to end.  i don’t recall  reading how these rows were originally plowed but whether by hand or with horse and plow, 7 miles is a lot of rows.  i’ve thought a lot about thoreau and his time spent out at walden as i have been working at Willow Hermitage.  the bean rows came to mind as i began to dig the initial 18 garden rows at WH.  i’m turning the earth with a shovel and then using a hand cultivator to break up the big blocks of earth.  each row is three feet wide and a two foot wide walkway separates each row. the total length of this initial set of garden rows is going to be about 1500 ft, hardly 7 miles.  below is a picture of the first few rows.

here the first two rows are in.  the first has the grass cuttings from the second covering it.  these will breakdown and provide nutrients to the soil.  the second doesn’t have the grass cuttings yet but has been cultivated.  the third row has been marked and is ready for digging and cultivation.

the quality of the soil is not great.  here in north carolina we are known for our gorgeous blue skies and heavy red clay soil.  Willow Hermitage is no exception.  i will complete the rows by the end of september, in time to put in a nice cover crop.  i am probably going to do a mix of winter rye and hairy vetch.  i will follow this with another cover crop before transitioning to legumes.  growing these cover crops has several benefits.  first, they hold the ground in place.  second, they prevent giving weeds free range over the  garden rows.  third, they have deep roots which help to break up the soil and also bring nutrients from deep in the soil closer to the surface.  finally, they create a lot of organic matter which can be turned into the soil to make it light and rich with nutrients.

after the cover crops i am going to plant all the rows with beans.  beans, along with all other legumes, are unique plants in that they take nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil.  nitrogen is one of the key ingredients for healthy living soil, which is key for plant development.  when you buy a bag of fertilizer at the store there are generally three number on it, such as 10-10-10.  these numbers represent the percent of nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium in the bag.  i will probably do black valentine beans.  these are a bush variety that did really well for me at home this year.  the great thing about these beans is that you can eat them as snap beans or you can leave them on the vine and harvest for dry beans.  i will admit, there are few things i like better than a good black bean soup help me stay warm on a winter’s day.

after the beans are harvested and turned into the soil we will evaluate the soil and determine if we are ready to start our vegetable crop rotation.  if the soil isn’t ready then we will do another round of cover crops.

as i said at the outset of this entry i have been thinking a lot of the naturalist of the romantic period, specifically thoreau.  and while i considered trying to pen an homage to one of the great american naturalist i decided i should leave this to the poets.  i will carry on his legacy as i dig my own ‘bean rows’.  below is a poem by william butler yeats, written, in part, in memory of thoreau and his time at walden.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree – William Butler Yeats

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.


while i didn’t appreciate it at the time, i remember fondly driving through the countryside and my mother pointing out the homes of my great aunts and uncles, built with their own hands and the hands of their brothers and sisters.  i remember seeing the small church, started and built by my grandfather along with his close friends and relatives.  i remember Pa’s front porch, built with family hands, where afternoons meandered by while we relaxed on a squeaky swing and a few rocking chairs.  this heritage, this art, this craft of building ones own home has passed through the generations of my family with many of my uncles and cousins and even my sister jenny living in homes built in whole or in part by themselves and their loved ones.

as i recently drove the country roads out to willow hermitage, i thought of those who have stitched this land together with hammers, nails and the sweat of their brow.  i thought of how much my generation has lost as we have outsourced this process and in so doing, have severed the moorings that have bound family and friends for so long.  i am fortunate to have witnessed these strong ties in my own family and heritage affirms that julia and i are on the right path.  it is with great anticipation that i look to the day when the call goes out for family and friends to join us in building our home at willow hermitage.  for the real benefit will not be a collection of straw bales, wood beams and 16 penny nails; but rather, the true gift, will have been the time spent and memories made with those who care enough to help us build our dream.

it is my hope that you will enjoy and appreciate the irony of this post as it follows on the heels of an entry espousing the benefits of planning and forethought.

the first project at WH was to reroute the runoff from a culvert that drains several acres above us.  initially, the runoff followed a ditch that ran half way from the road to the creek but then would meander onto some lower land creating a marsh of sorts after any significant rainfall.  since this is otherwise great land that will eventually be used for orchards, fields or grazing we decided that we should reroute the runoff so it ran all the way to the creek.

as a first project it seemed fairly straightforward.  i decided to create a dry creek bed where the drainage ditch petered out and started draining onto the lower land.  and so, over the course of a few days i dug a channel that was approximately three feet wide by one foot deep that ran the 65 ft from the end of the drainage ditch to the creek.  i laid down some weed fabric and filled in with river pebbles.  below are a couple of pictures of the finished product.

i must admit i was quite proud of our accomplishment, especially after it had rained a few times and the rock had held in place.  i had started planning a bridge to cross the creek bed and landscaping along the sides to make it a very attractive space.

a week or so later i met my neighbor who owned the land across the street.  he is an extremely nice gentleman who has lived in the area all his life.  we talked for a while sharing plans for our respective parcels.  it came as no surprise when, a few days later i noticed that a gravel drive had been put in on his property.  some grading had to be done along the embankment but it looked as if some seeding had been done so i didn’t think much of it.  here is a picture of his property.

when i visited the land a week later i walked over to the dry creek bed and found quite a surprise.  there had apparently been a huge storm and much of the mud from my neighbors land ran through the culvert and drained onto my land. the force of the mud and water was so strong that it not only washed the gravel from our dry creek bed into the creek but also washed it twenty to thirty feet down the creek.  here are a couple “after” pictures of the dry creek bed.

needless to say this project will have to be revisited.  next time around i will look for some larger rocks to mix in with the smaller gravel, although i am not sure that would have made much of a difference in this scenario.  i did manage to find a silver lining as i surveyed the affected area.  where the culvert drained onto WH the ditch was six to eight feet  below the culvert which was several feet below the natural lay of the land, forming quite a deep ditch that i would have to have filled in at some point.  the ditch is now filled in all the way up to the culvert saving me a considerable bit of digging and hauling.

i suppose i have learned that indeed, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.  however, i do not think that this means we should not plan.  only that we should be willing to adapt as our plans change or are occasionally, changed for us =)

i don’t know where i heard this phrase but for some reason it has anchored itself in my mind and has become engrained in my approach to willow hermitage.  having spent much of my recent time at WH trenching, mowing and preparing for the upcoming shed raising, i decided to spend a few hours today just enjoying the land, developing a vision for the land and plotting a course for turning that vision into a reality.

we are fortunate to be starting with such a clean slate.  it allows one a great deal of latitude with the design which is an advantage when one must try and imagine work flow on a 6 acre farm years into the future. items to consider are vehicle access, walkways, food production and storage, water collection and redistribution, orientation of the land for passive and active solar gain with future buildings, and how much of the existing trees we want to use or keep standing, to mention a few.

with these ideas in mind i sat down to develop a plan for the next year that will help us arrive at our goal of a sustainable life.  this is a visual representation of what i hope to accomplish in the next year.

we started out with a small drainage ditch that needed to be rerouted so it drained to the creek rather than onto the lower part of the property.   we have now moved onto some clearing where we will put our fruit trees and berry orchards.  then we will put up a tool shed later this summer.

during the fall and winter we will dig out our garden rows and enrich them with some organic matter from the property.  this will mainly consist of autumn leaves and the grass cuttings from mowing.  we will also clear the bottom portion of the land of small saplings and tall grasses.  while we have a vague idea of what we are going to do with this part of the land we don’t want to let it grow up any more than it already is.  while clearing this portion of the land we will outline a walking path which will give us access to that part of the property next year for further projects.

with the warming of spring we will start our orchards and our berry patch.  we will have fig, asian pear, apple and cherry trees.  we will start out with strawberries and blueberries in our berry patch though we will probably add blackberries and a few raspberries later.  while i would like to find a local nursery that will be able to provide all of the above plants, though i have had no luck so far.  i did find an online nursery located in georgia.  willis orchard company seems to have all of the varieties i am looking for and they are relatively close geographically so the climate adjustment for the plants will not be too drastic.

the early part of the summer will see us filling in the garden rows.  we will probably do beans in order to build up nitrogen in the soil.  after the harvest we will work the plants into the rows to increase organic matter and then do a nice diverse cool season crop.  the next project will the biggest so far.  we will construct a bee shed that will be approximately 400 sq feet and will provide us a place where we can do the following:  store bee equipment, process honey, make soap, give us a place where we can stay on the property overnight.  last and certainly not least, the bee shed will give us our first front porch with the requisite swing and rocking chairs.

we will provide more details for each of these projects as we undertake each but for now it looks like i need to get back to work!

having just finished bill bryson’s book, A Short History of  Everything , i have been keenly aware of the scale and scope of the universe in which we live.  bryson’s imperative work explores not only the vastness of the universe “out there” but also the remarkable number of tiny organisms that are all around us right here.  with these thoughts lighting upon my subconscious i have been aware and amazed at the myriad creatures i have happened upon while working at willow hermitage.  i have seen, of course, the usual deer, wild turkey, hawks and numerous song birds that one would expect to see.  but what has been such a pleasant surprise has been the little creatures; the insects that seem to be anywhere and everywhere i choose to walk, sit, dig or mow.  here are a couple of pictures i was lucky enough to get recently.

i came across this mother wolf spider carrying her young while i was clearing an area for a  tool shed that we will be putting up in the next couple of weeks.  i have seen numerous spiders scurrying around this area while i have been working but nothing like this.  having seen several spiders with egg sacks in my garden at home i assumed the bulge on this spider’s back was simply an unusual egg sack.  it wasn’t until i did some research that i realized that those are baby spiders she is carrying on her back.  here is a link with more information on wolf spiders.

this is a bald-faced hornet sticking it’s head out of its nest.  i came across this nest when i was mowing the open area at the front of willow hermitage.  i was glad that i was using a scythe to mow rather than a mechanical mower.  as i got close to nest the rustling of the grass disturbed the wasps and they came out to protect their home.  because i was moving slowly and didn’t have a loud combustion engine running  i was able to  back away from hive quickly.  they soon returned to their nest and i mowed around the nest.  bald-faced hornets normally use their nests for one season so i will have this small stand of grass with a nest until winter.  at this point i will be able to remove the nest as most are abandoned and not reused.  here is  a link for those wanting more information on bald-faced hornets.

i will continue to share any surprises that come my way as i explore the way that life abounds at willow hermitage!

as my vision of what i want Willow Hermitage (WH) to become continues to take shape and form, there are certain guiding principles that are  abundantly clear.  these principles will guide not only what WH will become but also how it will become whatever it is meant to be.  one of these principles is sustainability.  for me, sustainability is embracing tools and methods of maintaining a homestead which minimizes the disruption to the micro and macro climates and provides a maximum return on every dollar invested in the ongoing operations.

this principle recently helped us find a solution to our first challenge of preparing and maintaining a homestead.  when we purchased WH in the early spring the front acre of the property was covered in grass that was no more than ankle high.  in the ensuing months this ankle high grass has grown to more than 5ft tall making it difficult to walk through the property.  as we discussed how to remedy this issue the solutions were predictable.  we would either hire someone to bush hog the area or we would buy the truck, trailer and tractor to bush hog it ourselves.  however, neither of these options set well with me.  i didn’t want to pay someone else to do something we were capable of doing and we weren’t ready to make the financial commitment required by the other option.  finally, i hoped to find a solution that avoided the consumption of fossil fuels.

i recalled seeing videos of people using scythes for mowing and clearing land on i did some research and decided to purchase a scythe with a ditch blade from Scythe Supply.  when i shared my idea with my wife and my family it got mixed reviews at best.  my dear Julia was convinced I would unintentionally remove a major appendage and most of the rest of my family were not sure I was prepared for the level of work involved or just thought it was a goofy idea.  having now finished 95% of the clearing and having become very comfortable using this remarkable piece of old world technology, I can happily say I have made the right decision.  we have found a way to keep the land cleared without making a large investment in fossil fuel based technology while helping to preserve the pristine environment of our new homestead.

the wise man once said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  and so it is, that i and my belove julia have taken ours.  having recently purchased six acres in the foothills of north carolina, we have begun our journey of a thousand miles.  the truth about such a journey is that the only thing you know is where you are when you take that first step.  while you may have a map and a destination in mind there is no way of knowing where you will end up nor how you will get there.  if you are lucky, you will have someone with whom you can share the journey.  with that in mind, i take this first step filled with anxious anticipation.

i have dubbed our recent purchase willow hermitage.  not sure where the name came from but i like the imagery.  i’ve long been of the opinion that willow trees do not take themselves too seriously and that a hermitage was a place where one can be alone in the company of all that one holds dear, so long as one only holds dear those things which one should.  so in short i hope for willow hermitage to be a place where i can casually live and commune with those for whom i hold a special place in my heart.

much of what you will read here will overlap with my dear julia’s blogs,  you may also see some overlap with her bee blog which can be found at she is no doubt a much more gifted writer than i and you are likely to enjoy both her style and wit.