Monthly Archives: July 2009

Return to the Local

This is the second article in an ongoing series that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In a recent article I defined permaculture as permanent agriculture or permanent culture which puts forth a system of designing food producing ecosystems which produce more food but require less energy. Permaculturalsystems, as sustainable systems, are designed to be largely self-contained in that once set up they do not require inputs of energy from outside systems. These concepts of self-reliance or self-contained sustainability are also aspects of our town and the surrounding region.

Let me offer two examples: honey and eggs. On our permaculture homestead we’ll be setting up bee hives as well as a chicken coop. Not only will we benefit from the main products of honey and eggs but we will also see many other benefits from this more complete ecosystem. For example, our bees will increase the pollination of our fruit trees and garden plants resulting in more produce and we’ll have beeswax for making candles. The chickens will increase the productivity of our garden and orchard with their manure as well as their control of insects that might otherwise eat our produce.

We’ll likely have more eggs and honey than we can eat which means we’ll be able to share or sell to family, friends, and neighbors. They benefit from fresher food produced with no chemicals and harvested ripe with no need for preservatives. We all benefit in that local energy and resources are being used for production and consumption within our community. This is opposite of the oil-based global economy which places no importance on keeping production and consumption local. When we go to Wal-Mart or other big box stores for our food not only are we are sending our money out of our community, we are allowing ourselves to become dependent on others for our most basic survival needs.

With every day we increasingly see the dangers of this system. Produce which is harvested before it is fully ripe so that it can be shipped across country before it rots is not as tasty or healthful as produce which is harvested at full ripeness and eaten two hours later. Even worse, food produced by large scale industrial agribusiness is tainted with a variety of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, insecticides, waxes and recently, sometimes bacterial contaminates such as salmonella.

The problem is not just our food production. We hear about banks and businesses which are too large to fail and yet they are failing, bringing the entire global economy into a depression. Such a system is not sustainable and the more energy and money we spend trying to prop it up, the less energy and money we will have to develop our local alternatives which we control directly. It is a problem perpetuated not only by government bailouts but by us as well. We failed to maintain our ability to take care of ourselves and one another in our communities. In the last century we chose a way of life that emphasized good deals on gizmos and hyper consumption which was based on cheaper production in China and elsewhere which meant jobs lost in the U.S. Even worse, this entire global economy is based on cheap fossil fuels, primarily coal and oil. We have likely reached a peak in production of oil and are now realizing that never-ending economic growth is impossible. The ponzi schemes of Wall Street created the illusion of growing wealth throughout the past 20 years but we know now that it was an illusion and it is now collapsing before our eyes.

While we may not have any control of the global economic system we can work to build our local economy which we can control. Everyone reading these words can grow some of their own food. In the summertime we can buy local food at the farmers markets which we can eat fresh and preserve for winter meals. Every single tomato grown and consumed locally adds value to the health and vitality of our community. Taking greater control of our lives and building a more secure, sustainable future starts with me and with you.

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Permaculture and Community

This is the first in an ongoing series of articles that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In May 2008 I made a decision to take hold of a long held dream and grow it into reality: a permaculture homestead. Now, I suspect that many folk have not heard the term permaculture so I plan to get to that in just a bit. First, let me say that I spent most of my childhood summers visiting my grandparents who lived on a bit of land with a small lake just a few miles north of town. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that some of the best childhood memories are those days of fishing with dad or grandpa. Little did I know that catching and cleaning fish for food would one day be more than just a fun weekend treat, but a part of a deliberate effort to “live off the land.”

After graduating high school I went off to college and then moved to Memphis, Tennessee. In those years I was rarely able to visit my grandparents and the lake except the odd summer weekend and holidays. The memories of my adventures in the woods and around the lake remained and the fondness I’d developed for the natural world during those early years had greatly affected my outlook on life. In my years in Memphis I was an avid gardener of organic vegetables and native wildflowers. I helped create a housing cooperative where residents not only grew some of their food but also taught workshops to neighbors who were interested in gardening. We installed wood burning stoves and systems to collect rain water and gray water for use in the garden. We reached into our community and helped to set up a food co-op, bicycle co-op, and media co-op.

After 12 years I left Memphis because I wanted to reconnect with my family and, as it turns out, the landscape of my childhood. It is now official that the U.S. has been in a recession for the past year but most folks don’t need an official declaration to know that times are getting very difficult. We’re even beginning to hear predictions of another great depression. It is times such as these that living in community is most important. I’ve long felt that community life is the foundation of democracy and liberty. It is in community relationships that we act as citizens to govern ourselves and aid one another.

This brings me back to permaculture. Permaculture, a phrase created by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, means permanent agriculture or permanent culture. It is a system of designing and maintaining food producing ecosystems which are stable and resilient. What makes permaculture different from common small scale gardening is the careful arrangement of diverse groupings of plants using no till methods and heavy mulching so that energy input is greatly reduced even as productivity is increased. More than that, permaculture is not just about food. People also need shelter and energy so permaculture design considers these needs as well. Energy flows such as sunlight and rainwater are harvested by the buildings and the landscape. The efficiency of permaculture designs makes life easier even as it saves us money and reduces our negative impact on the environment.

On our permaculture homestead we are using methods that are sustainable and which produce a surplus beyond our needs so that we can help feed others in the community. Anyone, in town or in country, can use the same principles and techniques of permaculture design to become more self-reliant and, by doing so, increase the food security of our region. Whatever our future may bring, growing some of our own food can only be a good thing.

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Living the life…

The permaculture life that is. Most of my thoughts this past year have been centered on permaculture and how I can use it in my life here. I’ve read through various permie books and am working through the Designer’s Manual now. Next on the list would be the two volume Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier. I’ve also spent a good many hours watching permie related video and browsing through ooddles of permie websites and many beautiful flickr sets. All of these have been very inspiring and full of useful information. I don’t have a PDC (Permaculture Design Certificate) and am not sure if I ever will though I certainly would like to. Actually let me come back to this subject in a minute.

I’ve been acquiring the information and have been working to put to use. I’ve got a long way to go but I’m pretty happy with what we have done thus far. As I commented in the last post the food forests are steadily coming together though I’m still experimenting, learning and thinking about guild design as well as arrangement around buildings and a variety of permaculture design principles. I suppose that is to be expected as this is, no doubt, a never ending process.

The newest additions arrived this past Wednesday and are all in the ground. Two paw paws and three juneberries right around my cabin to fill in the fairly large sunny spots on the north, east and southwest side of the cabin providing me with food and eventually a good bit of summertime shade. They won’t actually shade much of the building itself as it is already mostly shaded, but they will shade the area all around and should provide a good bit of overall cooling. They’ll also get the benefit of a small swale system fed by the hill and my rain barrel run-off.

For those that my not be familiar, pawpaws are in the custard apple family and have an oblong yellowish banana flavored fruit with the consistency of custard. I have yet to meet a fruit I don’t like and I’m sure I’ll love these. Very pretty too. The juneberry is one of the earliest to bloom in the spring and apparently has fantastic fall color. Most importantly these large bushes (one of the two varieties I’ve got is 12-15 feet tall, the other 8-10 feet) have berries very similar to blueberries. I don’t know how much fruit they get but if is as much as a standard blueberry that will make me happy. I did get three more blueberries which will be planted in the blueberry patch in the main food forest and brings us up to 8. Between those and the Juneberries think we’ve got a good start on that particular flavor of berry!

One other note about this new area of food forest around my cabin. I made a simple a-frame level and have marked off the contour for a swale to collect water from the rain barrel overflow. Right now it is just a single barrel but I now have six barrels and will be picking up the pvc I need to plumb it all together soon. The overflow will go to this swale on the north side of the cabin and will take the water away from the house and slowly down the hill towards the juneberries. I’ll also be putting in a swale 10 or so feet higher up on the hill to collect water before it gets to the pawpaws.

Now, back to the PDC. I have mixed feelings about this. Essentially it is a certificate that requires a course of 10-15 days. I thought about doing it 10 or so years ago but didn’t. I’m thinking about it again. But I can’t quite justify the cost. I have little doubt that I’d learn something in the experience as a good teacher will very likely offer insights that are not always clear in the text. But I don’t know that I’d ever actually use the PDC in the sense of charging someone for a consultation or garden design. Maybe I would but that is not my primary interest. My primary interest is in learning for the development of our site as well as to share the information in my community. In my view permaculture is something that may prove essential not only to the survival of our species, but also to our ability to begin undoing the damage we have done. Charging people to help them implement or use permaculture isn’t something I’d feel comfortable doing.

Sharon Astyk, one of my favorites, wrote an excellent article regarding permaculture, specifically the presentation of it to the public. There are many pages of responses of folks that are also thinking about how permaculture is shared (or sold) with (to) the public. Until now it has been an “alternative” to what is mainstream, both in terms of content as well as the culture of those practicing and advocating. But if it is to become the new way of designing and organizing our homes and communities there are a few barriers that will likely need to be addressed by the current permie movement.

The question Sharon asks (I’m paraphrasing) is, is permaculture to remain largely in the domain of alternative subcultures? I’m pretty sure that she is speaking of the historical tendency of practitioners seeming to be hippy-punk-green-anarcho leftish, dreadlocked, barefooted, vegans. There are a variety of ways that the folks practicing and advocating permaculture might be perceived as being different from the mainstream and for some that perception of alternative identity might be an impediment to acceptance. Although it does seem silly, or even a bit bizarre, I suppose that in the context of a workshop or class, if one were surrounded by folks that seemed noticeably “different” it might be a barrier.

Another barrier that I would add (not one of Sharon’s points but brought up as a point in several of the comments to her article) concerns the high priced PDCs. While I see the value of the PDC to ensure that those specifically selling design services are indeed qualified, I do think anyone should be able to use the word to describe what they are doing if they are not specifically selling their time as permaculture designers. I don’t think anyone making a real effort to follow the practices in their personal work or even those coming together to share in larger community projects should hesitate to use the term. I’ve been writing a series of articles for the Madison County Crier about permaculture and how we are using it at our homestead as a specific example of how the design principles translate in real life application. (Actually I’ve been meaning to post those here for quite some time and will start today.)

The basic point is that there is a bit of confusion about who and how the word “Permaculture” may be used by those that don’t have a PDC but who practice it and would like to share it with others. I suppose what it comes down to is common sense communication. In addition to the above mentioned articles, later this summer or early fall I plan to do a series of workshops for interested local folk. I’ll be having them out to our site so that I can discuss, share and illustrate (teach) permaculture using what we’ve done as an example. I won’t be charging anyone nor will I be presenting myself as a “certified” permaculturist. Rather, I’ll make a book list available as well as recommended websites. We’ll probably watch a few videos and then spend a few hours relating the books to the implementation they can see.

The times we are in require that folks learn and transition to a new reality. Permaculture, whether it is called ecological gardening or forest gardening or whatever is an important part of this transition and should be available to anyone. If I can help spread the word I will.

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Still here… midsummer update

Food forest and cabinIt’s been a month or so since my last post! I’ve only been on the internet once or twice a week with gobs to read and download during those times. Anyway, hows about a few updates?

Petunia continues to do very well. As you’d expect she’s getting bigger everyday and has had a good deal of space to stretch out her legs in the fenced chicken range for three or so weeks. She loves to run and play, especially on the cool days. She gets along swimmingly with her feathered neighbors.

Food forest and cabinsSpeaking of feathered neighbors… the chickens have been good and bad. First the bad: too many roosters doing what roosters do. We have five which is far too many for a flock of 23 hens. We’ve separated three out too a chicken tractor which has quieted the flock tremendously and the hens seem far more relaxed these days. The future eating of these roosters has caused quite a good deal of ruckus with the three children who, unfortunately see them as pets rather than livestock. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem encouraging a relationship with the chickens. I talk to them and watch them everyday. But it is not practical to keep so many roosters. In any case, that has been an issue.

Food ForestAnother issue is the flock size. I’d initially planned for 10 chickens and five guineas and I think that was a good plan. Twenty eight chickens, can cause a great deal of damage when they free range outside of the designated chicken forage (a good sized area of about 25 by 40 feet). We keep the fence closed but there are always 8-10 hens ranging around at any given moment. I can’t possibly fence off every plant or planted area and these girls seem to have a nack for finding MY plants. I think the planned flock size of 10 would have worked better because their range would be greener and they would be happier and more likely to stay inside the fence.

The other issue is eggs. When they all start laying we will have too many and not really enough to sell for any kind of profit really. Just enough to take up more time driving in for feed and to deliver eggs. I see it as a coordination nightmare. I’d rather just have 10 hens and enough eggs for me and family. I’d still get the benefit of better compost as well as a flock that could be more easily controlled in the garden. The whole experience certainly has me thinking more about chickens, gardens, “problems,” “solutions,” and permaculture design.

The garden is okay. No more rabbits which is great but the chickens have taken over there and done a bit of damage. Nothing terrible but damage nonetheless. The basil has been fantastic. I’ve harvested the garlic which was a pretty good crop. Been eating a good bit of lettuce as it recovers from the bunnies. The eggplants, while surviving, have not looked very good thanks primarily to constant flea beetle attack. The peppers, as always were very slow to get going but those that survived the insects and bunnies are starting to fruit.

The fruit trees are mostly doing well as is the comfrey. I’m pretty happy with the food forests generally. Will be ordering more pawpaw as well as June Berries fairly soon and those will go around the east and north side of my cabin with a few low growing fruits such as blueberry.

The building of Kerry and Greg’s cabin is delayed a bit but will probably get started before too long. All in all I’m pretty happy with the way the project is developing.

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