Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: Case Study D

Here are my highly personal notes on the last of the four case studies, Case Study D: Radical Roots Farm, Harrisonburg, VA, USA, in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.


“[Mad botanist Alan]  Kapuler took a global view of plant diversity and advocated assembling gardens that brought together representatives of as many plant families as possible. … ‘The legume family is very old,’ Dave told me, ‘and these gardens [based on Kapuler’s ideas] showed plants from the oldest layers of the family in a continuum to the most recently evolved. You could stand there in the middle of millions of years of evolutionary biology and read the story with your eyes, seeing the emergence of new structures, new flower forms. It was a remarkable education.’” — Dave O’Neill and Peter Bane 


This small rural property — less than 5 acres — lies five miles east of Harrisonburg, near Massanutten Mountain in Virginia’s Shendandoah Valley, in climate zone 6b-7a, with an elevation of 1,450 feet. The soil originally was eroded clay with rock outcroppings. A couple — husband Dave and wife Lee — with two young children work the land with a few interns in the growing season. They sell vegetables, salad greens, eggs, chicken, and nursery plants at weekly farmers’ markets; Dave consults and teaches permaculture design.

When they bought the property in 2003, the “place was an open slate — grass and a few walnut trees along the road. We began by doing a one-foot contour map with an urgent need to determine how to place the [bought] greenhouse.”

Elements of the property include:

  • a 16-by-28-foot straw bale and pole farm center building with apartment, an enameled metal roof for collecting rainwater, and radiant floor heating; an energy-efficient solar home;
  • “the packout,” an open area under roof for processing harvested vegetables for delivery to markets and CSA customers;
  • a barn, which has tool storage and a small open-air loft;
  • a pond and swales;
  • a forest garden with over 200 trees;
  • chickens;
  • pigs (at times)
farm center building and pack-out space (photos: Keith Johnson)

Dave talks about the orchard and the interplanting of nitrogen fixers and mulch material:

“‘[A]pples are interplanted with goumi, Siberian pea shrub and baptisia, which are all nitrogen-fixers that will support the fruits. We can coppice the fertility plants to pump nitrogen into the soil. I am all about design for management,’ he explained. ‘For example, those apples over there are next to alders (a nitrogen-fixing tree). We can mow the alders and rake the resulting mulch onto the apples. That releases nitrogen from the roots of the alders to fertilize the apples, and at the same time gives us a mulch that breaks down in about a year to make very black soil.'”

The walkability of the property is a plus, Dave says, noting that their choice of power systems was influences by Eliot Coleman, who gardens with Barbara Damrosch at Four Season Farm in coastal Harborside, Maine:

“‘Of course we have a pickup truck and use it for trips to town and to move large volumes of material around the farm sometimes, but our main power source is a BCS walk-behind tractor. … The BCS is a beautiful machine, rugged and well-built, and it comes with a range of implements including a rototiller (which we use only sparingly), a rotary plow and even a subsoiler. The rotary plow will fold in a waist-high cover crop, and I have discovered that it works like a dream to prepare terrace beds in between the swales. The machine even has a pull-behind cart that will carry half a yard of material (about three wheelbarrows worth), and you can ride it around.'”

BCS tractor (photo: Peter Bane}

Plans include transitioning “‘the market garden into permanent “synergistic,” deep-mulch raised beds, the way Emilia Hazelip demonstrated,'” as well as moving away from selling at farmers’ markets and toward more CSA customers to cut down on travel costs and time, and also producing some “value-added” products such as applesauce, sun-dried tomatoes, salsa, sauerkraut, etc.


Featured image: overview of Radical Roots farm. (Photo: Norm Shafer; all photos from Bane’s book.)

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