Overstory #5 - Start Small...and Expand on Successes
First you make your habits; then, your habits make you. - Old saying
The first few months of a new planting form the foundation of the entire project. The more effort and attention that can be invested in doing things right in this crucial phase, the more smoothly things will go from there on. Even with large projects, we follow the rule: Start small.
We have found the "start small" guideline can be applied to all aspects of our projects including home gardens, orchards, forestry plantings, animal systems, tree nurseries, and even community development projects. It can be applied to brand new plantings, as well as projects that are being diversified. Start small and do it as well as possible. When an area we started in feels like it is going well and no longer requires much attention, THEN we are ready to expand to a new area.
Why does it work to start small?
Starting small enables you to:
Do it right. At the outset, you will have your hands full with planting, management of weeds, water, fertility, and much more... this is no time to be spread too thin! Once one area feels handled and isn't taking up all your time, then you are ready to move on to the next area.
Develop effective habits. You will have to decide how and when to weed, water, fertilize, mulch, and more in the first month or two of the planting. On a small scale, you have the time and physical capability to handle everything appropriately, and learn by observation what is the most effective thing to do and when.
Innovate and improve. You will gain great ideas and innovations from the experience of planting the first increment. If you installed the entire planting at once, how will you be able to benefit from what you have learned? Each increment will be better and easier if you started small.
Learn from mistakes. It is a lot more fun to say, "Next time I'll know..." when there is going to BE a next time. Mistakes are inevitable; on a small scale, they are also reparable. Even a huge mistake is not a big deal, if you started small. (For example, we once heard about a person who planted her first forestry trees upside-down. Luckily, she started small!)
Create a realistic time-line. If you started small, you will have an idea what kind of time and resources it takes to nurse your plantings through the early stage, and so you'll know how big you can make your next increments. Maybe you can handle three times the work of your first increment; maybe only half. But at least you will know what is involved!
Trial species. Some people do a giant planting of a new species they think has commercial value, only to discover that the species does not seem to thrive on their site. You can learn about this painlessly if you start small, which is much better than trying to struggle with poor growth and a poor investment for 20 years! If you trial a number of species at the outset, you may also discover a unique niche for yourself and your property.
Know your limits. You may reach a point when you realize that your resources are fully occupied maintaining what you have. For example, you may have planned to develop five hectares, but after developing three you realize that's all you can handle for now, time-wise, physically, or financially. Great! Leave the rest to nature, and manage what you have wisely.
As an example, when we started a tree nursery ten years ago, we got one small table tray, and started working with one species. Admittedly, we were tempted to do a lot more. We laugh now when we think how intensely and seriously we managed that tiny tray. But it was all new to us then, and things that are now routine were once skills and habits we had to teach ourselves back then. We held back until we were really comfortable with that one species and that tiny area. Then we added a few more tables, a few more species, and expanded in increments. Six years later, we have tens of thousands of plants going at once, and can grow over 100 different species. We likely would not have been successful had we started that way.
Bill Mollison's excellent Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future, a comprehensive guide to permaculture in all climatic zones, published by Ten Speed Press and available from many bookstores.
Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay's Introduction to Permaculture, is a very complete introduction and is essential reading for starting a sustainable project, published by Ten Speed Press.
Bill Mollison, "Phases of Abundance," Permaculture International Journal #40. Can be ordered through Permaculture International Journal.
Mail-Order Sources for Books
AgAccess, P.O. Box 2008, Davis, CA 95617 (916) 756-7177, FAX (916) 756-7188.
Good Earth Publications, P.O. Box 898, Shelburne, Vermont 05482, Phone/Fax: 802-425-3201
The Permaculture Activist, P.O. Box 1209, Black Mountain, NC 28711.
About the Authors
Kim M. Wilkinson is the Education Director for Permanent Agriculture Resources and editor of The Overstory. She has B.A. degrees in Anthropology and Ecology from Emory University.
Craig R. Elevitch is an agroforestry specialist with more than ten years of public and private sector experience in tropical agroforest and forest management. He has a M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering (Dynamical Systems) from Cornell University.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #72--Microenvironments (Part 1)
- The Overstory #64--Tropical Homegardens
- The Overstory #51--Protecting and Expanding Traditional Agroforests in the Pacific
- The Overstory #31--Tree Domestication
- The Overstory #25--Fast Food (Part 1 of 2)
- The Overstory #17--Microcatchment
- The Overstory #15--Cultivating Connections with Other Farmers