Monthly Archives: July 2008

Weekly Update: We have produce!

I’m happy to say that I’ve eaten the first produce from the garden. In the past week I’ve eaten the first bell pepper, swiss chard and lettuce. This week I’ll also be eating the first tomatoes and early next week I should have the first yellow squash and cucumbers! The zucchinis are in full bloom and will also be producing soon and some of the basil is also close to harvest.

I spent four days last week hauling water from the lake for the weekly watering of the 17 fruit trees as well as the daily watering of the new beds of lettuce, chard and broccoli. Eventually those little seedlings will be large enough to shade their surrounding soil and won’t need as much watering.

I’ve also started an experiment with the very nutrient rich lake muck for watering. Another one of those aha! moments and something I probably should have been doing weeks ago. Just a few shovelfuls of the watery muck which I’m getting at the water’s edge should be an excellent source of nutrients for the garden plants. My guess is that it would be very similar to composted manure. I do not know what the exact nutrient breakdown is so I’m going easy and only using it on two tomatoes, two peppers, a patch of basil and a patch of beets. Will use it again this week on the same plants and see how it goes.

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Improvised shade for energy conservation

Improvised Shade
I had another one of those aha!! moments that is almost embarrasing because it was so long coming. As I’ve written recently I’m not using air conditioning as a part of my effort to reduce my personal impact on the climate. I’m also living in a cabin which is not completely finished on the inside. The ceiling is finished and well insulated with a ceiling fan installed. I’ve still got two walls that need the electrical wiring finished, insulation on two walls still to be installed and then pine bead board for all of the inside walls.

Much of my cabin is shaded at various times of day but it does get hit with a good bit of direct sun. About half of the east facing side gets full sun from about 9am to noon. I made it a point to insulate about half of this wall a few weeks back but a good bit of heat still makes it through. I would have done the whole wall but I have a good bit of temporary shelving nailed up to the other half and it is fully stocked with food so I stopped at the half way point.

Three weeks ago Greg brought down a truck load of used 2×4, 2×6, and 2×8 wood to be re-used for a variety of future projects. We stacked it into a neat pile where it has been sitting ever since. Meanwhile I’ve been working, observing and thinking about the design elements of the site and future projects. I decided very early on that I’d be putting a series of eight or so raised rain collection barrels along the back/east side of the cabin and that I’d put a lattice or similar structure on it for some sort of perennial fruit vine or an annual bean/squash vine to provide food and shade. I may also plant a couple fruit trees back there. But those projects won’t be completed until early spring of next year.

Now, for that aha! moment. It’s hot and humid outside. I’m hot. My dog is hot. My unfinished walls are getting direct sunlight and heating up outside and inside. Why not lean all those neatly stacked boards up against the east side of my cabin? So simple and obvious!! In ten minutes I’ve provided a solid wall of deep shade that should easily give me another hour or two of inside coolness. I’ll be doing the same thing along the south side of the cabin which gets direct sun from about 3pm to 5pm.

Greg will be back down around the third weekend of August and we’ll get the inside walls finished off but I’ll be leaving those boards up until they no longer get the direct sun or until outside temperatures cool down, probably the middle of September.

It always amazes me how many people do not shade their houses with trees, bushes or vines. I suppose that the combination of cheap energy, air conditioning and fairly well insulated homes combined make it easy for folks to ignore or not realize just how much direct sunlight on exterior walls can heat a home. As energy becomes increasingly expensive and eventually as shortages occur I expect these details will become more important to more people.

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Forest Gardening

A week or so ago I ordered Patrick Whitefield’s “How to Make a Forest Garden” and have been reading it now for the past couple of days. It’s an excellent book which serves as both an introduction to the concept of forest gardening as well as a detailed explanation for those that are ready to get their hands in the soil. While forest gardening is not technically permaculture it can be an excellent component in a larger permaculture design which is how I am planning to use it.

To put it simply, forest gardening uses fruit trees as the base in a layered design modeled after forest or woodland ecosystems. The fruit trees serve as the canopy with other layers of food such as soft fruit bushes such as Gooseberry which comprise the shrub layer and then an herbaceous layer of perennial herbs and vegetables. Annuals can be used but forest gardening places great importance on using perennials. By modeling our forest garden on nature we will see a variety of benefits such as less work (once the system is initially established) and more over-all production of a greater diversity of food in a smaller space thanks to the more efficient use of vertical space and time.

Think of it as an fruit orchard with a bonus. Rather than just apples, peaches, plums and pears why not also grow gooseberries, blueberries, currants, juneberry, ligonberry, pawpaw, and even kiwi all in the same space using a layered approach? Add to that a variety of herbs, perennial and annual vegetables along the outer edges and your orchard is now far more interesting, productive and less work. Less work? Yup. Remember an orchard either has lots of grass which is often cut and mulched to keep it from competing with the fruit trees. The forest garden’s layers of berries and vegetables not only provide food but they help to mulch by shading out the grass. You may still need to mulch a bit but it should be significantly less than if you were just growing the fruit trees by themselves.

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Living without an air conditioner and the end of the world

I wrote the other day about not using a refrigerator as a part of my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint. I’d mentioned that if we in the U.S. are going to lower our our carbon footprint to a level which is equitable and closer to sustainable that we would need to lower our emissions by about 90%. Ninety. Percent. That is a drastic reduction. Ponder it for a moment. Hell, ponder it for the rest of the day if you’d like.

I came across that particular percentage will reading through this post by DJ at the excellent blog, Asymptotic Life:

Listening to Radio West yesterday, I heard a guest make an interesting point: if we tell poor people around the globe that they can’t live the way we do, we’re trying to prevent global warming by forcing people to continue to live in poverty. That is, for most of us, morally unacceptable.

Our current attitude seems to be that we can afford to buy all that energy and emit that CO2, and “they” can’t. Too bad, but bully for us…

What would it look like to create an equitable and sustainable per-capita CO2 emissions policy? Assuming everyone emitted the same amount of CO2, how much could we all emit without frying the planet (and all of us with it)?

Let’s assume that, to keep CO2 concentrations low enough to avoid catastrophe, we limit CO2 concentration to 350 ppm— down from today’s 385 ppm. That means cutting CO2 emissions by 50% of their current levels. At 2004 levels, the world generated 27 billion metric tons of CO2— more than 20% of that by the U.S. alone. That means we’d need to reduce to about 13.5 million metric tons worldwide.

The world population is currently 6.8 billion people. That means each person would be allowed to emit 2 tons of CO2 per year. For 88 countries in the world, that’s a step up— more than they currently produce per capita. But for we priviledged few in the U.S., that means cutting our per capita emissions (currently over 20 tons per person per year) by 90%.

One of the largest energy hogs in any household is the air conditioner. Others at the top of the list are whole house forced air heating systems, hot water heaters, refrigerators, freezers, and plasma tvs. In addition to not having a refrigerator I’ve decided I will not use an A/C. I do have a small window A/C but only run it at the request of visiting guests. When it is just me and Talula we get hot, damn hot. We cool off with lots of water, we slow down and sit in the shade. We’ll survive just like many of other billions of humans who survive everyday in hot climates with no A/C. It’s not easy, not fun (well, actually swimming is fun), not comfortable but it is possible.

Before I move on let me quote another of DJ’s excellent posts, What Two Tons Means to Me:

Last week, I calculated that a sustainable and equitable rate of CO2 emissions would be about 2 tons per person per year.  Currently, the U.S. emits just over 20 tons of CO2 per person annually.  Of this, according to EPA, 20% (4 tons) is caused by household energy use and about 27% (5.5 tons) is caused by four-wheeled passenger vehicles.  The remainder, about 11 tons, is generated by the economy on our behalf, including manufacturing, agriculture, cement and steel production, and transportation of goods both for us and for export.

Let’s assume that DJ’s figures are correct. Even with my limited use of electricity I am averaging 25 Kwh a week, about 100 a month. That’s for one person in a small cabin of 192 square feet. On a typical day I use: 1 compact fluorescent light, a ceiling fan, a window fan, and a laptop computer. Other appliances that draw power on occasion: water well pump, battery charger, external hard drive, computer speakers, and phone charger. That’s it and it still adds up to 100 Kwh a month. The average U.S. household uses just under 900 Kwh a month, just in electricity. Imagine the difficulty of cutting that by 60-80%!

Want to try something interesting? Take a weekend and power down everything in your house. Go through room by room and unplug everything on Friday evening. Over dinner discuss the adventure and what it means. Experience Friday night and Saturday without power. Use the time to discuss and evaluate your needs. Define the difference between needs and wants, needs and comforts. Make an effort to understand your needs and usage as they relate to the needs and usage of the vast majority of families around the planet that use far less. Sunday morning or afternoon begin the process of slowly and thoughtfully plugging things back in based Saturday’s discussion.

Remember, we’re not even considering the carbon that is emitted by personal transportation, emissions that would need to be cut by 80% or more. Then there are carbon emissions related to consumption of food and consumer goods.

This is why the governmental “solutions” put forth by congress and presidents (or the current crop of presidential candidates) are a sad joke. These folks are not even CLOSE to realistic. The same goes for the myriad “100 things you can do to save the planet lists” that we see put forth by media and mainstream environmental groups. Sure, we should all do the easy things that are on those lists but the reality is that if we are serious about slowing climate change we are going to have to make drastic changes to the way we live. I’m all for it, I think we absolutely should go all out. I think we should sacrifice, should do whatever it takes. But my guess is that most folks would laugh at the idea. Frankly, I don’t think that today’s Americans have the strength of character the task requires. We’ve been far too spoiled for far too long.

When it comes down to it most folks in western “civilized” nations will only change when it is forced on them when resources are no longer available at prices they can afford. We’re already seeing that people are driving less in the U.S. now that gas is averaging $4/gallon, imagine gas at $6, $7, or $8 a gallon. Imagine utility rates doubling or tripling. Those things are coming sooner than later and I for one welcome them. Yes, they will bring hardship and suffering and around the world billions are already suffering as they are already effected by price increases. Regardless of what reality is about to force upon us, it is probably too late in terms of the climate. What we have set in motion will not be easily undone, most likely we will hardly slow the process at all.

Michael Stipe said it best: It’s the end of the world as we know it.

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Days of gardening

A run-down of the past few days. Wednesday, finished preparing the second keyhole bed near my cabin and planted a mix of Butter Crunch lettuce, a Mesclun mix, and Ruby Red lettuce. I also dug up a few old t-posts for our garden fence and harvested another quart of wild black berries.

On Thursday I started a row of Black-eye Peas on the outside of the garden along the fence. Would have preferred to put it inside the garden but there’s not enough room for the path and more food, so it is on the outside and hopefully the rabbits won’t eat it. Also watered the new fruit trees on Thursday as well as anything else that needed it. It’s been in the 90’s with no rain for several days so things have dried up a bit. I also did a bit of trimming of the lower branches of the Brandywine tomatoes.

Friday was a short day as my cousin Lynn was visiting and I’ve not seen her since 2002. Did a few things done in the morning. Watered and finished the row of Black-eye Peas. I’ve been getting boxes, lots and lots of boxes, from Tom who works at a local shoe distributor. They are perfect for sheet mulching but need to have the tape removed from the seams so I worked on the last batch of boxes and moved them over to the area where our corn bed will be next spring. Watered in the evening.

Yesterday was another day of odd jobs. I had a few empty gaps in my chard and lettuce plantings so I planted some of the Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard which arrived from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds as well as some Ruby Red lettuce to fill in the space. I finished off the last few boxes for the corn bed. Last but not least, I harvested some of the previously mentioned aquatic plants from the lake and started the corn bed by creating three layers: aquatic plants, cardboard, and straw. I’m fairly certain that the combination of aquatic plants, with the roots attached and a bit of lake muck and water too, are an excellent source of nutrients such as nitrogen which are needed for sheet mulching. I probably did about 1/3 of the bed. As an experiment I think I’ll add horse manure into the layers of the next 1/3 section I do and then perhaps the last 1/3 I’ll only use horse manure, cardboard, and straw. Would be interesting to see the difference in the results.

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The great eggsperiment

I’ve mentioned before that a part of our plan here is to have chickens which are, of course, an essential ingredient in almost any permaculture design. Not only do they provide eggs and meat (not for me!), but also manure, warmth for plants in an attached greenhouse, feathers, and they help weed/till the garden as they eat insects and food wastes. In short, chickens rock. I cannot wait to get our coop built and the chickens moved in. For now I’ll content myself with eggs which are raised by someone else in their backyard. What’s great about home raised eggs is that I can request that they not be washed. You may not know this but eggs have a protective layer which keeps them perfectly edible for up to three weeks without being refrigerated. Neat, eh? This is especially important for me because I do not have, or plan to get, a refrigerator. Let me explain.

One of the primary principles of permaculture is earth care which means, in part, reducing our carbon footprint. For those of us in the U.S. this means a drastic reduction of about 90% (I’ll discuss that figure in another entry to be posted soon) if we are to have an equal share with the rest of our fellow humans. In addition to earth care there is of course the added reality of peak oil/coal/energy (peak everything really but that’s also another post for another day!).

What this means for me in my day-to-day life is that I have made a choice to not have the typical electrical appliances that most people in the U.S. take for granted as necessary for life. This brings me back to the refrigerator. Because I don’t a refrigerator I have to adapt, I have to think differently about how I use and store food. I have to make sure that the eggs I get have not been washed so that I can keep them at everyday temperatures. I no longer drink soy milk which I only really used as a creamer for coffee. Also, no cheese which I don’t miss much since I rarely ate it. It means that I have to be careful when I cook so that I’m not cooking too much. If I do have left overs I can usually keep them in a small cooler with a bit of very cold well water and eat them the next day with no ill effects.

I’ve been living without a refrigerator for nearly two months and I’m still very healthy. It has required a few modifications to my diet but nothing drastic. It’s just one step towards a smaller carbon footprint and a way of life that will likely be a fact for most of us in a future with fewer fossil fuel resources.

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Aquatic plants in the compost and mulch in the garden

Aquatic Plants for MulchingOne of the problems I’ve run into is the need for manure or compost for the garden. Given how rushed the past three months have been I suppose I should be happy that the garden is doing as well as it is but I know it would be better had I gotten manure. I did get about a 30 gallon can worth of compost from my previous pile but that’s not much. I have a source of horse manure about a mile away, I’ve just been waiting to hear that they have a pile and then I can arrange to go get some.

A couple days ago I had one of those AHA!! moments. Why not harvest and use some of the aquatic plants growing in the lake just 100 yards away? There’s gobs of the stuff and it gets thicker each week. I’m fairly certain it would make a perfect high nitrogen compost and mulch material. So, the next major project will be harvesting many wheelbarrows of it and then set it out as the first layer in a mulch/compost bed for next year’s corn plot. The bonus is that I can take care of this with no need for gas. I’ll certainly get and use manure when I can, especially when the source is just a mile away, but if these fast growing aquatic plants work well then I expect they may serve as the primary nitrogen supplement for the garden and compost.

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Foraging and Gardening

The past couple of days have been very nice. Yesterday mom and I went into town to have an ice cream and pick up some straw for the garden. We also stopped in to check out the small community garden in town. When we went to Madison Farm Supply for the straw we also browsed through the farmer’s market and picked up some produce, home made bread and were lucky enough to be there to catch the cooking class. It seems to me that the Farm Supply is an informal community hub and important resource. While at the farmer’s market I met a very interesting woman who is in a similar position in terms of setting up a homestead/garden. She mentioned getting together a meeting/gathering/study group for like-minded folks interested in learning from each other so I’m excited about that.

After our trip into town we picked about a quart of blackberries behind grandpa’s garage. Not a lot but I’m fairly certain that I’ll be able to get another two quarts from the patch as it ripens over the next week or two. Last night dad and I went fishing and ended up with a six pound bass. I cooked half the blackberries this morning as a topping for pancakes and four of us ate the bass for lunch.

I also finished off the planting of the last three fruit trees, 2 plums and a peach which are 60 feet from my front door near to the site of our future arbor. In the garden I added a new bed and planted broccoli and a mix of salad greens. Last but not least, I put in my first order of seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Calabrese Green Sprouting (An Italian heirloom broccoli brought to America in the 1880s), Russian Red Kale, Arugula, Five Color Silverbeet (Rainbow Chard), Merlo Nero (Italian Spinach). My plan is to do most of my future seed buying from these folks who are based in Missouri and not too far away. From here on out I’ll only be buying seed that I know I can save for future planting.

So many projects, so little time!!

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A Busy Week!!

Forest garden and orchardIt’s been a very busy week since my last post! In anticipation that I might be adding to the orchard over the weekend I spent last Friday creating paths through the brush and grass. My sister and brother-in-law visited with their kids for the weekend and she stayed with the kids for another couple of days. On Saturday Greg got the electrical work in the cabin finished and on Sunday the two of us put in the ceiling (insulation, tongue and groove pine boards, and a ceiling fan). They also brought down another 10 fruit trees for the orchard which makes a total of 17 trees! On Monday I put in three Golden Delicious apple trees and since Mondays are my set day to water the fruit trees I also hauled up four buckets of lake water for those that are already planted. I got three buckets from the rain barrel which is nice since it is so much closer. On Tuesday I put in the last Golden Delicious and cleared more paths as well as put up insulation on one of the walls in the cabin. On Wednesday I put up more insulation and planted a peach tree. Today I put in another two peach trees, so, seven planted and three more to go. I should have the remaining trees put in this evening or tomorrow.

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Inch by inch…

At least that’s what it feels like around here! I’m making progress but it never seems like enough. I’ve recently come to realize that since I’ve been down here I’m not really taking any time to just BE. Most of my waking hours are spent working in the garden, non-garden chores, reading (mostly at night), or thinking/observing/visualizing the future development of the site.

It has been raining today so I’m taking time to read and write a bit. Thoughts on the garden thus far is that I’m glad it is started and at the same time frustrated with the late start. Things are growing and some seem to be doing very well. But the carrots and beets are SLOW. I’d always thought of them as a spring and cool weather crop but had recently seen others say that they can be sown in mid-summer. It’s obvious they don’t like the heat. The chard is coming along at a slightly quicker pace. The Black-seeded Simpson Lettuce that I put in just 2 weeks ago is doing the best of them all and is coming along very nicely. The squash, cukes, and zucchini are doing great. The potatoes I planted last week are starting to sprout up some green. The peppers and tomatoes are coming along very slowly and may be the biggest disappointment. A couple of the tomatoes have really filled in well and will produce well I think but many of the first to get blooms are just looking very leggy with sparse growth. I think I may have overwatered a bit and certainly the soil here is not the best. I’ve added a little compost dressing around all the plants but I did not have much and spread it thin. So, not much compost and no manure yet and those are likely the key missing ingredients.

I try to remind myself that this is a rushed first year garden and that next year’s will, no doubt, be greatly improved. We’ll have a little greenhouse which will allow me to get the tomatoes, peppers, and others started much earlier and of course the compost pile I have going now will be perfect by then and at least one or two other piles will be underway. We do have seven fruit trees planted with two more coming down tomorrow so nine fruit trees is a good start and I’m happy about that. I suppose that I’m just impatient which is probably related to what I see going on in the world. We’re much, much closer to the collapse than I realized and our little project is just getting started. So much to do, so little time.

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