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Hello all! My name's John and I've finally got the land to start a permaculture homestead. My wife and I began our lives together in a roach apartment, followed by a boiler room apartment, then a tin-can trailer with no heat or hot water (in NJ), then a house that became infested with rats after Hurricane Sandy. We lived on relatives' couches and went bankrupt under medical bills. Finally, we saved enough money to buy our true home in Freehold, NJ. It is a 100 year old farmhouse that was owned by an 80 year old widow. Her husband was born in the house and died in it and the property was in his family for three generations. When I submitted the bid for the house which sat on about 1 acre, I wrote a heartfelt note telling her about how I dreamed of raising my 4 children on this land. She was moved by the letter and she decided to throw in an adjacent, 1.5 acre lot, for free.

I now have a spacious home for my family and 2.5 acres to build the homestead I've been dreaming of for years (and a big fat mortgage). It's a dream.

In my previous home I had a vegetable garden and raised some backyard chickens. That's the extend of my experience. However I've done quite a bit of reading on permaculture, intensive agriculture, soil biology, botany, etc. I'm also committed to building a lifestyle that is not at odds with the environment.

I've been referencing this forum for years as I've researched and never joined because I didn't have a place of my own to cultivate. I finally joined and I'm so happy to be part of the community. I am going to need all the help I can get because I don't have any direct experience with most of what I want to do.  I'd like to share my nascent plans with you all and would be very thankful for your advice!

My property:

Currently my property has a number of trees that were planted by the previous owner. Most of them, as far as I know, have no real utility and are just there for aesthetics. However, my knowledge of all things tree-related is very limited and is one of the next areas that I want to learn a lot more about. The lot is not wooded per-se, but is significantly shaded by trees in most areas at some part of the day. I don't actually know what most of the trees are. There are quite a few pines, spruce and other conifers of various sizes. There are 5 large pines in the SE end of the property that create a lot of shade. The S border of the SE lot up about halfway up the lot is covered in a lot of garlic mustard, short grass and brambles which I believe are wine berries and blackberries. The understory is fairly sparse and compact.

As you move further North up the property, the trees thin out and there is mostly thick grass with a patch of shrubs and some sparse trees. The elevation also increases slightly. The NE and N border of the property, along a main road, is more thickly bordered with trees. The elevation dips steeply about 3-5 feet toward the street.

Having 4 kids, I'd like to keep a large area dedicated to recreation, mainly close to the house, but also with another patch farther out in the property.

I'd also like to dedicate a pretty large portion to annual vegetable crops to start producing food as soon as possible, while the food forest and perennials get established.

I'm struggling on a few fronts. I don't have experience felling trees and I don't have money to have someone do it for me. I'm definitely willing to learn to do it myself but obviously want to be extremely careful and take my time. The ground is also pretty compact and covered in vegetation. I don't have a tractor or equipment to do an initial tilling of the land on the scale that would produce significant food for my large family. I'd like to create a large pond, but again don't have the equipment to quickly dig it, though I'm more than willing to just use a shovel if that will get the job done. I also need to figure out how to keep the pond sustainably full of water by choosing where to best place the pond, how to size it and how to alter the surrounding earth to feed water to it. I don't have a lot of hands-on experience analyzing soil, and will post photos, but from what I can tell it seems to drain pretty poorly and be of a high clay nature, mainly in the S, while the soil moving N seems to improve.

My thought is that in the first year, I will:
Clear as many unwanted trees as I can.
Research, select and plant as many desired trees as I can, to get them established and bearing nuts and fruit ASAP.
Research, select and plant as many perennials as I can and determine ultimate patches, perhaps planting cover crops in areas where I will not yet be able to plant desired perennials.
Bring animals such as pigs, goats and chickens on to the property and intensively graze them to clear the land. My hope is to get an appropriate number and concentration of animals to have the land cleared within the first year.
Focus on a limited crop of annual vegetables in the first year, expanding to more in the second year as land is cleared.
Dig the pond, performing necessary earthworks to keep it fed with water, and get some vegetation established.

After year one I'd like to:
Expand the vegetable plots to an area that can provide at least half of my family's vegetable needs.
Determine the appropriate adjusted number of animals and set up appropriate fencing for them. This might be permanent perimeters or movable fences for rotated grazing; I will need to decide.
Plant the remainder of the perennial patches.

Here is my a graphic of my initial and incomplete plan. It's not very detailed and very rudimentary. I'm sure there are glaring inefficiencies and errors that are obvious to more experienced designers and I'd love to know what they are!

Thanks so much for any advice or clarifying questions that you have.
Posts: 131
Location: SW Tennessee Zone 7a average rainfall 52"
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Hi John! Welcome!

We're about 2 years into developing our 13.5 acres in TN. Like you, we don't have any heavy equipment and are doing most of the work by hand. A couple of ideas, based on our experiences ...

Build your gardens up, rather than trying to dig down. You can make raised beds right on top of your current soil without removing anything. A layer of cardboard or newspaper helps, and then just start piling organic matter on top of that. Find out if someone around you can set you up with some loads of manure. Root crops will be iffy the first year (plant them anyway!) if you can't get the bed really deep, but the soil will start to break down and things will improve year after year. We've never used a tiller, and our beds produce pretty well.

Don't take out a tree unless it's in your way. Those young fruit and nut trees will often do better the first year or two with a little shade, and you can take the unwanted tree out as the more desirable one takes hold. Mature trees, even if they are a "junk" species, add a lot of value to your land in terms of water management, temp control, etc. Certainly don't take out trees faster than you can replace them unless you really need to open an area up.

Big equipment ... and even smaller equipment ... is usually available for rent. There's a place in our town that rents things like weed whackers, chainsaws, tillers, chippers, etc. for about $20 a day. A place farther out rents dozers, etc. If you plan the project well, you may be able to make a significant amount of progress with a one day rental.

Good neighbors are worth their weight in gold. Mine will let me borrow anything he has ... this is how I'm avoiding spending money on a chainsaw ... and we often collaborate on projects. Cultivate relationships with the same care you cultivate your land.

Congrats on getting your place, and welcome to the adventure!
Posts: 4791
Location: West Tennessee
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Dude I'm impressed! Congrats! Sounds like you have put a lot of thought into this and have a plan. Having a plan is half of it. Felling trees is not difficult, especially if they're slightly listing and already inclined to go one direction. Getting a leaning tree to go a slightly different direction is another matter, can be done, but there are limits. Maybe a neighbor has felled a few in the past and can hang out and guide you along one day. Since you're already thinking about getting your fruit trees and such put in, I would like to suggest you do that this fall when they've just gone dormant. Tree roots are active in the winter while everything above ground is dormant. In the meantime, I highly recommend getting a soil test done, and retesting annually so you can observe the changes and progress you've made managing your soil. With fresh soil test data this spring, you can prepare the orchard area this spring and summer, maybe making pH adjustments and mineral additions in anticipation for the trees coming this fall, which if ya think about it, is just a short 6 months away.

While you're felling trees, maybe of the deciduous variety, make hugelkulturs! And in addition, those deciduous tree branches 2 inches in diameter and smaller, chip those up making ramial mulch, and apply that mulch nice and thick where the fruit trees are going. And pitch some of that mulch in the compost pile. And if you're still up to your eyeballs in wood chips, toss them into a pile (bigger the better) somewhere off in the corner of the yard and come 5 years from know you'll have a much smaller pile of black gold. Those trees you're going to cut down have a ton of value and potential.

I hope this is helpful! Have fun with your new homestead!
John Natoli
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Ferne, thanks so much for your advice. I hadn't considered any of what you said about leaving the existing trees in for a while, that's really helpful. I think much of my ideas come from some impatience.
I'd really like to avoid tilling as much as I can, but am also don't have any ready compost or good soil to fill raised beds. That's where your suggestions on building relationships comes in I guess! I have a neighbor with 2 small ponies and I'll be there with my 8-year old son shoveling manure as soon as possible. I suppose I'll see if he has a wheel barrow while we're at it!

James, thanks! I'm a planner, but I also do bite off more than I can chew sometimes! Great advice on planting time for trees. Like I said, I know nothing about trees, so that's much appreciated. Considering the amount of trees I plan to remove over time, I have been thinking about purchasing a mulcher. In my previous garden, I sheet mulched just paper bags and woodchips from a local tree service, no compost, and had great results:

John Natoli
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Hi all, I've created a 10 minute video walkthrough of the property. I hope to improve the quality and content of these a LOT and I have a bit of video editing experience, so I will — but I just wanted to get something started and have an excuse to go outside on this icy day. I'd really appreciate you taking a look if you have time and letting me know your thoughts. I know there's not a whole lot of substance in the video to work with yet, but any thoughts are welcome!

John Natoli
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So I thought I would post an update on my progress (or lack thereof) and where I'm planning to go from here.

Since this original post, it's warmed up and we're approaching late summer.

I decided to focus my efforts primarily on digging a pond and raising some chickens and pigs. Having just moved here last October, I don't have enough knowledge of the soil and the systems here to be comfortable making perennial or tree plantings. I also just love raising chickens.



So first the pond. I dug the whole thing out with a small shovel. It's about 35'x35' and 3' deep in the middle. I elevated it with a berm around the border and used a large liner.

Here it is when I finally got it all dug out.

You can tell it took a while because the grass grew back on the sides by the time I finished!

Liner and water in:

Mulched and ducks a-swimming:

Note the cattails floating around. I dug up some cattails locally and stuck them in plastic pots with clay. That was a stupid thing to do as the clay just dissipated and the cattails floated away. I also did not make the shelf of the pond level enough and the pots try to tip over. I'll need to figure out a way to get potted plants to stay put. Any suggestions? Stick rocks in the bottom?

I was super geekily excited to see and hear treefrogs breeding in the pond. I've never seen them, or much of any other wildlife here in NJ before.

Video: https://goo.gl/photos/Gh37shENnQLxxiWT6

So, now my big challenge with the pond is to get tons of vegetation into it without compromising the liner. I want to try to keep that duck poo filtering and the water oxygenated naturally.



At the same time as the pond, I worked on putting up a deer fence around the whole back property which is roughly 1000ft perimeter. After looking at lots of costly options I decided to go with heavy duty (almost the heaviest available) 7' deer fence on 6.5' T-posts. The T-posts dig in about a foot so the fence attaches to that and then I lay the bottom of the fence skirted along the ground outside the fence. This will hopefully prevent some critters from digging in though of course I know it's not foolproof. I hope it will also prevent chickens from going under.

Before the fence was completely up it already got its first test by a deer. I had it about 3/4 done, but a big doe found her way in anyway. When I walked back there she spooked and tried to escape but of course, in her panic, couldn't find her way out. She slammed herself against the fence in multiple places and ultimately, to my surprise, ended up shimmying her way under the fence and out. Upon inspecting the fence afterwards the damage was no worse than a few torn zip-ties here and there.

Not bad looking:

Pretty heavy-duty stuff:



Man, these chickens have been quite a struggle. I bought myself a prebuilt coop from Tractor Supply and I'm pretty happy with it. I started out with 14 day-old chicks. They were happy to hang out in the coop and I put up a temporary fence around it about 400 sq ft. They scratched that to hell but were still content. Ultimately, one night, somehow about half the chickens got into the coop at sun-down, but the door closed on the other half. By the time I got out there to shut them in, the outdoor half had figured out that they could jump on top of the coop and roost there. I didn't want to rustle them up because I knew they would end up jumping off and over the fence if I did. Now apparently they far preferred this roosting place, because early every evening, that's where they would end up and it was a struggle to try to get them to go into the coop. Eventually some of them made their way into the tree overhanging the coop and the rest of the gang followed. In short order they realized they could jump out of this tree and over the fence. So, from that point I had free-range chickens, which didn't seem like much of a problem, until the fox showed up.

I have this problem with underestimating the wildlife in NJ. I grew up in a small suburban plot and never saw anything more than squirrels. To my disappointment I one day I found nothing but a puff of feathers where my dear young rooster should have been; this only the day after I had explained to my wife, Heather, that I don't think I'm going to be able to ever kill that guy, as I'd grown pretty attached to him. He and a hen were a couple weeks younger than the others and had been henpecked by the rest of the flock. The Rhode Island Red rooster always valiantly protected his Easter Egger hen from the rest of the flock and it was lovely to see them sticking together until they reached the same size as the rest of the flock. Even at that point they remained quite attached like a young married couple. I imagine that this gentleman threw himself into the fox's mouth to save his hen.

The young couple:

From that point, in the span of about two weeks, my flock was winnowed down to 5 hens and I never caught sight of the predator, though I suspected fox. Mind you, the only fox I've ever seen was a mangy, sick fellow staggering about in my in-laws' backyard some years ago. Finally one day as I was walking to the shed I saw about 100 yards away what looked like a big orange cat, until the slightest of movements gave away its canine form and I knew. It was stalking my flock. Barely did I twitch that it somehow sensed my presence, turned and fled. After it I ran, leaping over my gate and through the tall grass, but of course it had disappeared. The next day I was finally able to get the remainder of the flock into the coop and shut them in. They are not happy about it, though I'm not sure they would mind if their chicken brains could comprehend the dangerous situation in which they were living.

But I have to say, that creature was beautiful. In the single-digit-seconds that I watched it across the yard, its deep burnt orange fur glistened in the sunlight and it's slender legs ever so quietly crept. Fleeing me, it turned, fluid as an expert brushstroke from nose to tail and vanished. Of course it's no secret how it became so big and healthy, having feasted on 9 of my chickens.

Here are the survivors, begrudgingly cooped up:

So, what am I going to do with these chickens? I considered getting an LGD so that I can continue to free-range them, which is truly what I want to do. But the idea of raising and training a puppy to do this work is daunting. This leaves me researching and contemplating predator-proof enclosure options. Any suggestions?



Yeah, so you all weren't kidding when you said that ducks are messy. I purchased 5 ducklings and initially kept them in a big plastic tote bedded with pine shavings in the garage. It quickly became obvious that the maintenance of such a setup would be so frequent that I had better figure something else out. In the backyard, I created a small circular enclosure of chicken wire into which I placed a small kiddie pool. This is where I kept the ducklings during the day, then back in the tote in the garage at night. This seemed to work out well. Ultimately my laziness got the better of me. For all the stink and mess, my oh my are ducklings cute. I'm not generally one to be enamored with the cuteness of any animals (other than human babies, of course), but their fuzzy big-footed clumsiness had me giggling "pool-side" through my lunch breaks.

One night, I decided to simply turn the big tote over on top of them within the enclosure. quietly sleeping under a big plastic tote surrounded by chicken wire, what could go wrong? Well, the next morning everything appeared to be just as I left it, until I turned over the tote and only 3 out of 5 chicks remained. I'll never really know what happened to them; there was no sign of disturbance whatsoever.

Now the ducks live in the new pond and seem to be doing fine. From the advice I've read throughout this forum though, I see that even 3 ducks will soon turn this pond into a sh*t-fest; further necessitating my quest to plant-populate this pond and quick.

Does anyone think that this pond is just not going to be suitable for even 3 ducks? What alternative setup would be best?



I made the big fat decision to raise a couple pigs in April, though it took about a month of calling around just to find piglets to purchase. I ended up driving 2 hours into upstate NY to purchase these ones. You know what? I don't have a whole lot to say about it. It was a rash decision that I jumped into. I built a pretty shitty pen for them which is holding up just fine despite its ragged appearance. The entire enclosure was covered in poison ivy and vegetation at the time I put them in there and within a week or so it was all gone. I continue to feed them grass clippings and all the vegetation cut from yardwork as well as kitchen scraps, but they mostly eat standard pig feed.

They are actually really easy to raise, and I find them quite pleasant. The problem, as you know, is that they smell absolutely terrible. I've come to the conclusion that if I could just keep the pen dry and heavily mulched, it would eliminate much of the smell, however, I don't think I'm up for the task or expense of building a roof over the whole thing anytime soon. I had planned to let them get to about 300lbs each, which would be around December–January, but I think I'm going to get them in the freezer within the next few weeks and try again next year with a vastly improved pen.

The other potential option is setting up rotating pasture with electric fence. However, I'm extremely nervous that they will escape, since I live in a suburban neighborhood. Also, with only 2.5 acres, I don't know if I really have enough land to pasture them without sacrificing too much space. Any thoughts on the best way to house pigs and minimize smell? I've been viewing these and thinking I might try to create a similar setup:

As you can see from my photos, I've made an attempt with the logs and woodchips, but without the roof it all gets wet and smelly and the woodchips get stomped into the mud.



I've done zero planting except for one bed of veggies for the kids. I plan to mow down a field of tall grass, mulch with woodchips and plant in winter peas, winter lettuce, forage radish and oats as a cover crop then use it for chicken and/or pig feed next year and create beds for annual veggies. I'd like to avoid tilling it but I'm concerned about the cover crop seeds competing with the grass that's there now.

What I have found is that the soil is extremely clayey and heavy here. I'm hoping that the addition of woodchips plus chop and drop cover crops, pig and chicken manure and bedding will get me started toward improving it.

Found a free source of woodchips:

I would like to grow the most calorie and nutrient dense foods possible.
jerusalem artichoke
hardy peanuts
sweet potatoes

What other suggestions do you have for calorie dense staple foods? Perennials would be great too of course.


Trees and Shrubs

In this category I face a dilemma. I am not sure for how long I will live on this property. I love it, but I don't really like living in NJ with the living expenses, lack of land and all the development. So, with that ambiguity, I'm reluctant to plant trees that will take 5–10 years to produce nuts. But, with that aside, I believe these would be the ones I would want to plant.
pine nut
white oak
chestnut oak

Any suggestions?


Well, I know that was a lot; I appreciate it if you made it to the end! As always I'd love your suggestions about any part of this or stuff I didn't mention. Thanks!
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