In the densely packed urban environment of NYC, land is at a premium. It can be difficult to acquire the space to create an effective Permaculture demonstration site. Thus it becomes essential to develop relations with other established cultural institutions whose missions align with Permaculture principles. At the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, I’ve been able to push a Permaculture agenda based upon the historic sustainability and self-sufficiency of local agrarian life from the 17th Century through the early 20th Century. Over the last three years we have reconstructed the farm landscape and developed an active Community Demonstration Garden program. Similarly, Claudia Joseph has recently started a relationship and a garden at the Old Stone House, another historic house museum in Brooklyn. This sort of programming at historic sites may prove a valuable model in other communities.
Located amidst a vibrant Caribbean neighborhood and an industrial zone, the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House (circa 1652), is the oldest structure in New York City and a National Historic Landmark. The Wyckoffs farmed the 75 acres surrounding the house for nine generations, until 1901. Thanks to great soil left by a glacial stream during the last ice age, Brooklyn (historically Kings County) contained some of the best farmland in the United States. As late as 1880, Kings County ranked second nationally in production of agricultural goods; adjacent Queens County ranked first. By 1940, however, urban Brooklyn had expanded to cover the last sizeable tracts of productive farmland. As the most significant remaining artifact of this proud but neglected agrarian history, the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum and its 1.3 acre park serve today as a uniquely powerful tool to reconnect Brooklyn to an era when it was a vital part of the local food system.
The reconstructed landscape of Wyckoff House Park and its Community Demonstration Garden are not intended as a simple historic recreation, but as a dynamic community center for sustainable living. I had the good fortune to assist Landscape Architect Rachel Kramer of NYC’s Parks Department in designing the Landscape Reconstruction project installed last year. The park now includes an apple orchard of historic varieties, an extensive berry garden hedgerow, and a kitchen garden featuring heirloom vegetables and fifty varieties of historic herbs. This year’s 7000 SF Community Demonstration Garden, appearing as the fields of the Wyckoff Farm, serves as both market and demonstration garden. A variety of sustainable techniques are employed, including sheetmulching, polycultures, and water harvesting. The breadth of locally viable crops are also demonstrated to inspire the local community to grow more of their own food. Over 40 different vegetable crops and 10 herb crops are grown in the garden and sold at a Sunday farmstand, along with additional fruit and vegetables from a pair of upstate farms. Access to fresh produce is very significant in a community that has no other vendor of local or organic foods or any other community gardens. Three local high school students are involved with the project as paid interns, learning gardening and entrepreneurial skills in the process. The garden also hosts a series of free community workshops, eleven this season, on topics from cooking to composting.
Although the Wyckoff Farmhouse landscape, limited by historic considerations, does not include a typical forest garden or other standard features of Permaculture demonstration sites, Permaculture principles have guided my hand in the development of the site since the day of my arrival. One small indicator of the success of this endeavor has been the change in the avian life in the park. I don’t believe I saw any birds other than pigeons, starlings, and an occasional seagull in my first year here. Now we have a resident pair of mourning doves, masses of housefinches, and a wide variety of migratory birds. I believe we are making similar progress in making the Wyckoff Farmhouse an oasis of sustainability and permanent culture in its present day context of highly urbanized Brooklyn.