The Growth of Subnivean Farm

Submitted on Thursday, 12/14/2023 - 1:17 pm

An idea as small as a seed 

Seven years ago, an idea as small as a seed was planted, quite literally, just outside the east side of William Roper Hull School (WRHS) on our SW campus.  

That seed sprouted into a passive solar greenhouse and at first thought you may think that’s really cool for a school to have a greenhouse – how unique it must be for the students to have access to a space that grows fruits and vegetables year-round and that’s it– but the greenhouse was just the beginning of something that’s grown so much bigger here at Hull. And it started as a class assignment, coincidentally, by a teacher who was taking a permaculture design course. 

Permaculture is an approach to land management and settlement design derived from various arrangements observed in natural ecosystems that are flourishing. It includes a set of design principles adopted using whole-systems thinking. Think of each component of a garden space as different systems, for example, a greenhouse and a garden, working together to be as efficient as possible. Meaning easier ways to water, handle pests, harvesting, etc.  

He was developing a permaculture design plan for the course — and that’s when his idea as small as a seed was planted just outside WRHS where there was another school teacher who happened to be quite interested in permaculture himself. 

Vaden Somers is an Educational Child and Youth Care Counsellor who has been working at WRHS for over 20 years — he worked alongside his colleague to develop the plan. And it was just that for a while – words on a piece of paper – just a class assignment. But it was a document with real potential and Somers had the final copy in hand. 

“We ended up with the documents, which, I mean, we had zero, basically zero, intention of ever implementing it, because we had no money,” said Somers.  

But that was about to change. 

Flourishing community partners 

Faith beholds, Somers was in the right place at the right time and was given the opportunity to present his plan to a long-standing community partner of Hull, Fluor.  

“It was going to cost more money than they had, but they just went to Fluor’s VP at the time, Mark Brown,” says Somers. “He was very supportive and said, ‘Yeah, let’s make it happen’ and then the money started trickling in. We knew ballpark how much money we needed for materials. And we fundraised up to that point for the greenhouse.” 

“Fluor came just randomly on a tour,” says Somers. “And Fluor has been a huge part of the last 25 years of Hull, they’ve been involved here for a long time, and they continually check in and see what’s happening. I got to sit down with them and say, ‘Oh, you know, as matter of fact, here’s a permaculture design plan that we’ve done for the site out here’ and we went out and took a look.” 

Taking that look was more like talking and visualizing the contents within the actual space. Somers credits having that document in hand with the beginning footwork completed as one of the reasons Fluor was so impacted and eager to support.    

The plan was then brought to Fluor’s Emerging Leaders Group (ELG) — a team of leaders who oversee a fund to develop projects within the community. They were specifically interested in developing the passive solar greenhouse within the permaculture plan – but only had a budget of roughly $5,000.   

“It was going to cost more money than they had, but they just went to Fluor’s VP at the time, Mark Brown,” says Somers. “He was very supportive and said, ‘Yeah, let’s make it happen’ and then the money started trickling in. We knew ballpark how much money we needed for materials. And we fundraised up to that point for the greenhouse.” 

The greenhouse cost roughly $60,000 and that was just the construction. Thanks to Somers’ continuous mentors, Rob Avis and his wife Michelle Avis – engineers and founders of Verge Permaculture — we were able to custom design the greenhouse for zero cost. Rob and Michelle are not only permaculture specialists but also engineers; Somers was able to give stamped drawings to Fluor that were designed specifically for our space and zone. The greenhouse was officially completed in September of 2017. 

And not all passive solar greenhouses are the same. Hull’s greenhouse has subsoil access which means the roots of the plants have complete access to earth’s soil beneath. This allows us to grow fruit like grapes that aren’t hindered by limited access to dirt. This is something our young people find super cool. 

The first expansion 

The greenhouse has been such as success with not only growing vegetables all year long, but also for the young people we support. Somers says he was happy with the greenhouse and if that’s where this project ended – he would have been more than satisfied. But it didn’t. Soon came along the next part of the permaculture design – an outside garden.  

Outside the greenhouse sits three huge gardens that year over year have grown a vast verity of fruits and vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, corn, pumpkins, sunflowers, radishes, herds, broccoli, cauliflower, and so much more. 

As our permaculture design unraveled more and more and Somers mastered each system – additions kept popping up. Its growth has flourished to the point where our greenhouse and garden have had such great therapeutic benefits to our young people, it’s become an enhancement program offered to them. And programs need names. 

The growth of Subnivean Farm 

I’d like to introduce you to Subnivean Farm.

The term subnivean is reflective of what our greenhouse and garden experience a lot of – being covered in snow.

“The subnivean layer is the layer that exists underneath the snow around six inches down below – it’s an insulated pocket of air that’s heated from the earth,” echos Somers. “When you see foxes or coyotes doing that jump where they dive into the snow that’s them breaking into the subnivean layer to harvest voles and mice and all this stuff.”

Our garden and greenhouse are in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Zone 3 – which isn’t a very high score.  

“We’re a highly productive system, considering the weather that’s attributed to this place,” says Somers. “The greenhouse is a highly productive system all through the winter. So that was the notion of the name is that we’re a cold weather productive farm growing in USDA Zone 3, which is a horrible place. We only have 100 days of frost-free weather.”  

But weather has never hindered the growth of Subnivean Farm – in fact, an expansion is well on its way.  

This past spring over 400 trees and bushes were planted around the area for tree succession and an edible forest. This past fall – a pond was built. Following soon will be an outdoor kitchen, specifically tailored to the harvesting needs of Subnivean Farm. 

And this again all thanks to our community partner, Fluor. They are the reason all the contents of that permaculture plan are coming to life along with the identified needs Somers has targeted throughout the years, like the outdoor kitchen. Fluor truly puts the “fluor” in flourishing and we are so incredibly grateful for them. In the short-term future, Somers would love to see animals like goats and chickens integrated into Subnivean Farm. In the long-term – Vaden would love to template Subnivean Farm that others in the community can purchase. 

“I want to collect data so I can say we harvested 10,000 pounds, or whatever the number is, and then template the system and say, ‘Hey, this is a really cool little system that can be attached to any community center or school,” says Somers. “And here’s it is, and this is how you set it up. This is how much it’s going to cost you annually to run it in USDA Zone 3, for example.” 

Thriving generations 

But when you get to the root as to why this project has been so successful and impactful – it’s because of what is has been doing for the young people and families we support, our community, and our culture.  

Dr. Bruce Perry, who developed the Neurosequential Model (NM), has said that the majority of therapeutic experiences are provided outside of the context of conventional therapy. Gardening is a highly-regulating, sensory-rich and therapeutic activity that ties into the neuroscience that guides us. Which is exactly what our garden and greenhouse provide for the young people we support. It’s not just a fun hobby for our young people to participate in – it supports their brain development; both the young people and plants grow, thrive and flourish right alongside each other.

Along with programming, the food harvested is also given to our Patch program to support vulnerable community members in need of good, nutritious food. Young people from WRHS are also welcome to take home bundles to their families.  

Other teachers at WRHS have also taken permaculture courses to support Vaden and Subnivean Farm’s expansion. It’s become a part of the culture at Hull. You see young people and teachers out there together tending the garden and maybe sneaking a fresh veggie or two – or admin staff stopping in and getting a head of lettuce and some garlic for dinner.  

To think of the roots Subnivean Farm has established with just one small seed these past seven years creates so much excitement for the growth that will happen in seven more.