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Eatin' the Outdoors

Whole Systems Design creates scenery you can chew on


Published May 1, 2007 at 7:22 p.m.

There's nothing like eating just-plucked kiwi still warm from the summer sun. Or sitting under a persimmon tree and slurping up the fruit's slippery, electric-orange flesh. In just a few years, Vermonters will be able to do both right here at home.

Will we have global warming to thank for these newfound edibles? Not necessarily. Thanks to the pioneering work of Moretown-based Whole Systems Design, LLC, at least a few Vermont locales will boast balmy "microclimates" that support crops not known to thrive in the Green Mountains. Clever landscaping and new forms of gardening will bring us these fruits, whether or not the climate does the warming for us.

WSD specializes in "edible landscaping." It sounds simple enough: Instead of growing plants that are merely ornamental, landowners can beautify their properties with plants that also produce comestibles. The company's director, 29-year-old Ben Falk, works with a team of eco-warriors and consultants from across the globe. A couple of key players: Michael Blazewicz, who specializes in aquatic ecosystems, and Chris Shanks, an ethnobotanist and horticulturalist.

The "whole systems" part of the equation has to do with the holistic nature of the WSD team's approach. As the website explains, "We aim to design places so that lines between the 'human' and the 'natural' disappear . . . Our approach synthesizes ecology, landscape architecture, site development, construction, farming, education and other disciplines." WSD designs buildings that are fueled by renewable resources, and gardens - both traditional and nontraditional - that fuel the people who live and work in those buildings.

The company's projects have included several residential properties, an outdoor sauna and an elementary school kitchen garden. But WSD's biggest challenge - and most visible showcase - is the Teal Farm in Huntington. With 1296 acres, a seemingly limitless budget and a 100-year timeline, it's a landscape designer's dream. The land, on the western side of the Green Mountains, encompasses a wide range of ecosystems - wetlands, forests and fields. According to WSD's plans, in a few years every one of them will be contributing to a living, food-bearing, regenerative landscape.

Teal Farm is owned by Melissa Hoffman, director of LivingFuture, a nonprofit that aims to "create ecologically intelligent food, energy and building systems that . . . perpetually enhance the environment." The farm, which is also Hoffman's residence, will serve as a prototype of a healthy agricultural system. Falk predicts that the farm will be "one of the most diverse, cold-climate foods systems to be implemented in the world."

WSD staff have been working with Hoffman on the site design for the past two years. The massive document they've created together includes a 100-year plan for the farm, a list of hundreds of plant species the land will harbor, and detailed maps of the property's different microclimates. Last week, they moved from planning to planting. Nut-bearing pines and baby plum trees now dot the landscape. Tubing protects them from nibbling animals.

The farm already features a house that's being renovated to run on power from the sun and the wind, and an "energy barn." Falk and his team are using intensive gardening and land-management techniques to make the property not just "sustainable" but "regenerative," as he puts it.

Falk explains that ecologists historically have viewed human beings as a negative and "unnatural" force. Sustainable agriculture seeks to raise food in a way that doesn't cause erosion or harm to the landscape. "Regenerative" agriculture, on the other hand, is based on the premise that humans can use their knowledge to improve the environment. It's important to remember, notes Shanks, that "We're part of the eco-system; we're not separate from it."

In the worldview of the WSD team, every part of the landscape has the potential to become a food-producing resource. Teal Farm's wetlands will harbor wild rice, fish and cranberries. The thousand-acre forest that makes up most of the property will produce ginseng, wild leeks, fiddlehead ferns and a variety of fungi, such as oyster mushrooms, reishi, hen of the woods and maitaki.

Today's Vermont forest supports only a few of the species that thrived there a few hundred years ago, says Falk. Given the number of crops that can be grown in the woods, Falk, Blazewicz and Shanks are frustrated by the practice of setting aside acres of forest land to be "conserved" and "preserved." In their view, leaving the "natural" landscape untouched is often not the best choice. When European settlers arrived, Shanks explains, "They didn't see crops in straight lines," so they didn't think the land was being managed. "But really," he adds, "it was so much more sophisticated." Thoughtful planting inside the forests could provide more food for animals that are being displaced by urban sprawl, and for humans.

One exciting way to expand the number of local species is to fashion microclimates in which the prevailing temperature is different from that of surrounding areas. Creating windbreaks of nut-bearing trees and using passive solar landscape design - where water and rocks capture the sun's rays and pass the warmth to the ground - are two options. "It can be 70 degrees [in one small area] when it's 40 degrees elsewhere," Falk says. "In one acre you can have several climates." And plants that flourish in temperatures just a few degrees warmer than those of Vermont become options.

Teal Farm aims to be self-sufficient and produce no waste. Outside the human purview, its planners point out, there is no such thing as "garbage." A tree limb broken in a storm becomes a haven for insects and fungi, and eventually turns into soil. Dead animals decay and help nourish future growth. "Are prunings an abundance, or are they a nuisance?" asks Shanks. "There's not waste - just different kinds of resources."

Teal Farm seems like a perfect place to put the idea of edible landscaping to the test. But advocates of nontraditional gardening believe the practice is also a possibility for those who don't own thousand-acre land parcels or their own nonprofit foundations. One good place to start is to replace the traditional lawn - which wastes gallons of water and can produce tons of pollution through chemical run-off and power-mower emissions - with diverse plantings that provide food for humans and other species. Even people who don't have much land have plenty of options. Trellises can turn a sunny porch into a miniature grape arbor. Container gardening can make fresh salsa a reality for city dwellers. A small parcel of underused pasture can be transformed into abundant orchards.

One person experimenting with small-scale edible landscaping is Anne Burling of Warren, who served in the Vermont Legislature as Anne Just. She's working with WSD on the six acres that surround her second home in Warren. "The land around is just a field, so it's ready to be transformed . . . They transplanted some plum trees I already had and added some pear trees," Burling says. Future plans for her property include nut trees, berry bushes and medicinal plants.

"The whole systems design approach isn't changing drastically what we do and know," Burling suggests. "It's just refocusing our intentions."

As Shanks puts it, "To leave the landscape in better condition than you found it is a mitzvah.


In the "zones" at Teal Farm

Shelterbelts/Windbreaks: 5-7 acres

Purpose: Help build soil, hold snow and divert damaging winds. Trees that make up the windbreak are also a source of sustenance.

Products: Nuts, fruits, wood

Orchards: 25 acres

Purpose: Provide human food, livestock forage.

Products: Nuts, fruits

Forest Gardens: 1000+ acres

Purpose: Increase health and diversity of forests; provide value for humans and wildlife.

Products: Wood, maple syrup, mushrooms, other wild edibles

Intensive Annual and Perennial Gardens: 1-2 acres

Purpose: Model a super-efficient food production suited to the northern temperate regions of the world. Use only fertilizers and inputs from the farm itself.

Products: Fruits, vegetables

Field-Based Grain Polyculture: 10-20 acres

Purpose: Grow grains for human and animal use.

Products: Grains and grasses

Pond-Wetland-Riparian Farm: 2-3 acres

Purpose: Restore the wetland ecosystem. Grow edible and medicinal species.

Products: Berries, wild rice, edible wetland plants, fish

Pasture/Forage: 20-50 acres

Purpose: To provide animals with nourishment. Protect animals from predation.

Products: Chickens, geese, pigs, beef, dairy

Nursery/Seed Bank: 2-5 acres

Purpose: Move Teal Farm toward the goal of becoming a sustainable operation. Share species with other farms and home-scale growers.

Products: Plant seeds and seedlings, nursery stock

Summarized from the Teal Farm Land Plan + Preliminary Site Design


in Year 5

A day's menu from foods to be grown and processed at Teal Farm


Frittata with hen of the woods mushrooms, lion's mane mushrooms, Tarentaise cheese, chives and thyme

Creamy Carola potatoes


Granola made from rolled oats, pumpkin seeds, maple syrup, dried blueberries and apples

Fresh persimmons

Teas made from fresh and dried herbs


Salsify cream soup garnished with lovage and pumpkin seed oil

Mixed salad of miner's lettuce, watercress, salad burnette and baby spinach

Maple mustard vinaigrette dressing


Seared venison with sweet onion confit, in a juniper and elderberry wine reduction

Wheat and rye pilaf

Roasted chestnuts


Applewood smoked brook trout

Oven-roasted American groundnut "potatoes"



Rhubarb wine


Paw-paw and goat cheese tart with hazelnut crust

Ice cream and blueberries

Summarized from the Teal Farm Land Plan + Preliminary Site Design

Speaking of Food



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