West Michigan has been the new home for Peter Bane and Keith Johnson for the last few years. Formerly of Indiana, the two now live just outside of Montague, in northern Muskegon County in an intriguing 10-acre setting. There they’ve planted a sizeable garden, rows of fruit trees, and other edible plantings, and constructed an artistic “stick” fence, welcome sign, and other useful items for their small farm.

The two share a very specific purpose: to live guided by the principles of “permaculture,” a sophisticated “back to nature” lifestyle. Permaculture (derived from “permanent” and “agriculture”) focuses on designing economic, ecological and social systems to meet our needs without causing pollution or injustice. Permaculture can include growing an organic garden in your backyard, designing energy-efficient buildings, using and repurposing waste materials, establishing local barter systems and more.

Peter and Keith have facilitated over 100 educational courses, and published books and magazines on how to implement permaculture. Peter is the author of The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country. A few years ago, the two visited the White Lake area and taught a four-day workshop on permaculture. They loved the area and left their well designed plot of land in Indiana and settled in Montague, citing friendships, a beautiful and “welcoming community,” and a growing local interest in permaculture.

I attended the workshop and was delighted to meet Keith and Peter, and learn about this new and promising approach to more sustainable living. Since then, I visit occasionally, to see what’s going on at their unique location.

The last year has been remarkably productive, according to the two men. An office/instruction/ living quarters building is underway, and will be operable next year. The gardens have been expanded, and the two raised “meat birds,” which was difficult, but the manure helped to improve the soil. White pines were planted along a property line, as a natural border. The two were very grateful for help from a group of bicyclists, traveling from New York City to Seattle, whose members did a huge amount of work in exchange for a place to camp in their forest. Rabbits and Japanese beetles were problems and dealt with. Blackberries did well, but tomatoes not so much. Keith has taken some of the produce to the Montague Farmers Market this summer, selling flowers, seeds, and specialties like purple cauliflower.

It will soon be fall, and Peter and Keith are busy planting cover crops, turning fallen logs from their forest property into wood for heating, improving trails as they work, and preparing for winter. They have some advice for those who want to get started using permaculture to guide their home and garden planning.

“September is a good month to prepare soil for the coming seasons,” according to Peter. He recommends a layered mulch, using newspaper or cardboard, covered by leaves, woodchips, or straw to hold the paper in place. This will suppress grass and weeds without digging. He says to be sure to water the layers as you put them down. “A little manure underneath the first layers is a great inducement to worms, who will come and starting building soil for you,” he says. This will reduce grass growing and weeds. “Winter snows will just help this process,” he advises.

Easy fall projects include planting rooted perennials, trees, and shrubs, which will then grow their roots throughout the fall and be ready to take off next spring. Keith says continue watering until a freeze – this is needed in our sandy zone.

There are also things to do in winter to advance a permaculture lifestyle. “Besides planning the spring garden and reviewing catalogs,” Peter says, “Fall-into-winter is a good time to consolidate the harvest. We often freeze tomatoes in fall when they are abundant and it’s still warm, then can them or make sauce after cool weather sets in and the work schedule slows down. Other surpluses frozen, such as berries, can be made into jam and juice.” The two also save seeds, and gather the final harvest from the herb garden. “Winter is a great time for planning projects to come, for making up soups and other material for the freezer, and for telling stories about the successes of the past year,” according to Keith. “We hope to offer a permaculture course here at the farm next summer.”

Watch for announcements at www.permacultureactivist.net. Contact the farm at (231) 292-1460, and visit Keith’s booth at the Montague Farmers Market, Saturdays through October.

Tanya Cabala is a lifelong resident of the White Lake area in Muskegon County, and has been an environmental and community activist for over 25 years, working to restore White Lake and aiding efforts to protect the Great Lakes. She is also an elected city council member, freelance writer, and consultant. Readers are encouraged to contact her via www.tanyacabala.com.

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