When walking the site I looked at contours, and hollows. This helped me find where most of the top soil had gathered in a concave key point on the land. I also dug many test holes. The sub soil was free draining and not water logged and there were grasses and other plants that were indicating that it was an acid soil. (for example: sheeps sorrel)
The rocks became our resources gathered so kindly by the previous workers on this land. We would make stone walls with them to create shelter, habitats and retain heat. We had start up funds for the project and hoped to bring in more income from courses. So we bought in chicken wire and willow rods. These would be regularly harvested when larger to create a renewable resource for the farm. We had plenty of bracken ferns dried and easy enough to gather to use as mulch in the garden. Under the bracken areas the soil was darker and richer after the cycle of many years. In fact bracken slows down succession inhibiting other growth until this process has built soil. There is an old Irish saying about assessing the quality of soil. "Under bracken there is gold, under gorse silver but under heather only poverty." We would use our rich bracken soil to obtain our first yield some annual vegetables. See the gallery for our results!
The garden would need fencing as there was ample evidence of rabbits on site. Some research was needed to find out how to make a fence that would stop them!
I learned that chicken wire 3ft high with an attached 2ft outward lying ground level that would grass over in time would do it.
In order to choosing the site for the annual vegetable garden, I explored all areas in all weather conditions and noted places with good shelter, and aspect. However, the deciding factor was the soil. Much of the field we had aquired was stoney. There were even buried piles of stones which we learned from a neighbour (91 year old Molly) were due to the surrounding fields having been cleared many years back. Molly and her husband had once owned the land and she visited in our first season and was amazed to see so much growing. She said, "if my husband were alive he'd be so surprised we cleared rocks into this field and let a ram run in it but never knew you could grow so much in it." We told her we were busy finding those rock every time we dug a hole!
As the garden was to be a teaching place, aesthics and demonstration were an important consideration in the design. It was hoped that the site would become a hub for people to meet each other and learn about permaculture and find new pathways towards living sustainably. Therefore, I chose a wheel pattern for the main garden and a labyrinth for the central hub of the wheel. Labryrinths, unlike mazes, have been used to symbolize finding inspiration and a true path.
I also made the main path that intersects the garden between two gates to be on a north/south axis as it would serve the dual function of helping me in the early years keep the suns paths in my awareness when planting and as a point of reference for students and visitors when we discussed aspect. I decided to plant a fedge (fence+hedge) for shelter.
All these elements could be made to be mulit-functional. In this early phase of development we were piloting courses and chose topics often when we needed to learn a new skills, such as living willow fedging.
The garden was an unusual shape, necessitating curved fences, beds and walls. The overall aesthic was worth the slight increased challenge in implementing these forms. The willow fedge grew fast in some areas and did poorly in others due to low moisture retention in the soil. This had the effect of curbing its growth which was an important consideration as it would otherwise rob too much nutrient from the vegetable beds. It did extent some roots into outer beds. Otherwise the garden has worked very well as a productive space and a real hit when teaching.
We added a duck house and duck inside the garden in later years as the fence provided security and the duck provided slug patrol. The fedge was replaced in some areas where it didn't take well with new willow rods and it sometimes wasn't maintained for a year or two leaving some high growth that was then cut down and used as rods for fill ins and new structures. The roots did come into outer beds but were managed within regular cultviation cycles of the beds.