Valley Bounty: Broadfork Permaculture
Published April 23rd in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Jacob Nelson
FOR THE GAZETTE
In our farms, forests, yards, and everything in between, we say we grow things. Plants, animals, and fungi mostly. But do we grow them, or do they grow themselves?
People help of course, by putting pieces in the right places, and creating nurturing relationships between the different parts of nature’s whole. That’s part of Sara-Evelyn Lane’s philosophy.
Lane is the owner of Broadfork Permaculture, based in Greenfield, and works with landowners to design and install ecological and edible landscapes. She also supports them in caring for these landscapes as they – and the landowner’s understanding of them – evolve.
What this looks like is different in every case, but begins by connecting with clients where they are. “For some folks I just say I’m a landscaper,” Lane says. “For others I add that I focus on native and edible plants. And sometimes, I explain that I work with people to build their ecological literacy, inviting plants and natural ecology back into landscapes that were disrupted by society.”
“Permaculture” is one modern term that describes this way of interacting with plants, people, and the land. Yet these ideas and practices are far older, rooted in Indigenous cultures around the globe. Lane describes permaculture as merely a translation of this knowledge into language better understood by white settlers, which almost all her clients are.
“I am grateful for that translation,” she says, “because it packages the information for new audiences.” The potential harm lies in forgetting the true origin of these practices by erasing the cultures that developed them.
Lane has always been curious about her own place on the land, exploring it though school, personal learning, and work as an outdoor educator, orchardist, and now designer for almost 10 years. “Russell Braen, owner of Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton, where I’ve worked the last few winters, has been great mentor,” she says. “So has Lillian Jackman, a designer who owns Wilder Hill Gardens in Conway.”
Her approach at Broadfork Permaculture is different than traditional landscape designers. It’s not just the plants she uses and expertise she draws on, but also that she prioritizes her clients’ growth and learning alongside physical outcomes like a completed garden. To do this, she involves clients in the design process as much as is practical, often observing their land with them several times throughout the seasons before final decisions are made.
The first step in design “is learning how to see,” says Lane. “What plants are already there? What is the slope of the land? Where will cold air or moisture gather? Once you develop that understanding, then you can settle on what to invite in.”
Not every project starts with just waiting and watching. “Some smaller projects we can do right away,” she says, “and bigger projects we can begin small pieces of, like clearing an area or building a bed.” Yet Lane maintains the benefits of a methodical approach and good preparation.
“One of my favorite permaculture principles is to start small and build on success,” she says. “This flies in the face of society’s urgency, but I find that a slow, steady, phased approach works best for most people. Then they can sense how things are progressing, and whether new plants are settled enough to turn their attention elsewhere.”
Lane prefers to plant trees and install gardens in the spring, but to prepare the location with her clients the fall beforehand. The main task is sheet mulching – covering the area with deep layers of organic material like leaves, compost, straw, and cardboard. These break down and release nutrients to feed the surrounding soil life and plants for years to come. As Lane puts it, “it’s like building the nursery before the baby comes home.” After planting, Lane returns to counsel clients on next steps, from future plantings to seasonal care and pruning.
Working with a professional is helpful, but any landowner can start treating their land like this now. As a first step, Lane has three words of advice:
“Just slow down.”
The first step of creating, she reminds us, is listening. “Get to know your land first before you add anything,” she advises. “Take one plant and visit it each week. Maybe sketch it. Once you know a plant’s name it will pop out, instead of the woods just looking like a wall of green.”
Another way to understand any site’s potential is observing patterns of sun and shade. “One of my favorite tools is an app called Sun Seeker, which shows you the path of sun in any spot throughout the seasons,” she says. When it’s time to explore adding new plants, she says the Native Plant Trust’s plant finder website is a very helpful tool for that.
Between improving soil health, supporting pollinators and native species, growing more food, and potentially sequestering carbon, there are many cases out there for why people with the resources might manage their land like this. But Lane says, “I don’t build cases. There’s no one destination I’m pushing my clients towards, and I don’t tell anyone to do something because ‘it’s the right thing.’”
Instead, “do it if you think it’s fun,” she says. “Do it because it brings you joy to tap back into relationships with the ecology around you.”
For Lane, that joyful curiosity with the world around her, coupled with her faith (she also works one day a week at Temple Israel Greenfield) is what set her on this path in the first place, and continues to fuel her now.
“In Jewish tradition,” she shares, “God makes the water, land, plants, and animals first, before he makes humans, and humans are made in the image of these beings that came before us. All these beings are our ancestors. On a deeper, personal level, I want to explore how we can reestablish relationships with these ancestors and invite them back onto our land and into our lives.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local landscapers, designers, and garden centers near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.