“Terra firma” is the solid ground upon which we walk and plant our gardens. Driving around the Cape this summer, it’s hard not to notice two distinct philosophies on gardening and lawn-watering.
One camp adheres to the belief that our severe drought condition is to be taken seriously and we should not use more water than absolutely necessary, hence the brittle brown lawns that frequent many of our neighborhoods. The other line of thinking, with their verdant green lawns, have sprinklers set on automatic timers, assured that the condition is temporary and even if it isn’t, their lawn watering amounts to a “drop in the bucket” to alleviating the problem.
Should you drive further down the Cape, you might notice some lush gardens and lawns in the vicinity of Orleans without a sprinkler or hose in sight! You have stumbled upon the impressive gardens of Peter Jensen, the Cape’s own (and perhaps only) Regenerative Agroecologist.
Out of his Peace Corps experience in the late ‘80s, Peter learned and honed his skills of water management in Ethiopia. He eventually created his own company, Terra Firma International, and began working internationally in drought-stricken African countries, developing, and educating locals in water-conservation methods to aid in their agricultural security and ecological resilience.
Bringing Terra Firma International Back to the Cape
When the Covid pandemic struck in 2020, it brought Peter back home to the Cape, where his roots grow deep. In his absence, he realized the ecosystem of the Cape was changing, making the availability of water an issue here as well. His return home also brought personal changes and he married his old high school friend, horticulturalist, and realtor Lynn Van Norman. Lynn brought her love and knowledge of the Cape flora to their business, creating beautiful perennial landscapes to complement his water-conservation designs. As a team, they combine beauty and utility to create awe-inspiring, low-maintenance landscapes that flourish in drought conditions.
One of their first projects together was purchasing and renovating an antique 1790s cape, overlooking Pilgrim Lake in Orleans. The property had suffered years of continual road runoff from clogged storm drains, resulting in water eroding the driveway and yard. With their knowledge of time-tested irrigation methods, they have been able to redirect the road runoff, carefully creating runoff pathways of gravel and stones to slowly guide the water into their rain gardens. In this way, they have created lush, verdant gardens and lawns that are art forms themselves.
Cracking the Code to Water Management
Using hillside swales, hugel terracing and downspout keyhole gardens, Jensen is helping to crack the code to a very important part of our water conservation problems. The Hugel method, which means mound in German, calls for the deep application of logs, wood chip and compost deep in the soil. When created on the contour of a slope, this allows for the formation of a level terrace through runoff is forced to pass through. This porous barrier filters the toxins and captures the excess nutrients before they can continue on to the waterways and aquifer. He likes to call this new method of using water management to nourish our lawns and gardens “landshaping.”
Jensen has used his varied methods successfully guiding water to create beautiful landscapes for many homeowners on the Cape. Being an educator at heart, he has also freely given his time to help educate the public on the opportunities that we have to control this water, giving lectures and opening his property to tours.
Celebrating Our Waters and Finding Answers
After experiencing one of the driest summers on the Cape, which saw Yarmouth banning lawn irrigation and well levels slipping below the 10th percentile in Dennis, Yarmouth, and Wellfleet, many of us are looking for other answers. To help us find some answers, Peter and Lynn will be opening their gardens and sharing their combined skills during the Orleans Pond Coalition’s “Celebrate Our Waters” weekend September 16-18, 2022. This Terra Firma Water Walk will be on the last day, Sunday from 2-3:30, serving as the cap note to an exciting array of water related activities across town. No preregistration required.
With our climate continually changing and weather patterns becoming more unpredictable, we need to learn new and creative ways to guide and store the rainwater as it comes and help lessen our dependence on the six finite “water lenses,” our shared watershed on the Cape. Diverting the road runoff into our yards and gardens can also prevent many dangerous chemicals and toxins from directly entering our fragile coastal ecosystem. Following Jensen’s lead, we can all do our part at our own homes to preserve the beauty of the Cape and its pristine waters for future generations.