Monthly Archives: August 2009

A day’s harvest

A day's harvestEven with the troubles I’ve had with this year’s garden I’m still pulling in a nice harvest. I planted at least five varieties of all the following: summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, basil as well as several winter squash and melons. Most are producing at least something, some more than others. If I can continue to keep the rabbits out I should have a decent harvest of greens this fall and will be planting a good bit in the greenhouse.

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Permaculture Workshop Series

Are you interested in learning the skills needed to live a more self-sufficient and sustainable life? Concerned about the economy, climate change, and peak oil? Ready to get your hands dirty?

Come for an introductory workshop to our permaculture homestead! The workshop will include a discussion of the basics of permaculture to be followed by a tour of our site for a first hand view of how the principles look when implemented. We’ll see and discuss:

  • Rainwater harvesting with swales and barrels
  • Recognizing and using all the contributions and yields of animals: chickens, guineas and more
  • Creating complex food forest systems: medicine, food, and fiber

  • The design and benefits of a greenhouse-chicken coop

Some of the principles of permaculture design that will be discussed:

  • Integrated Systems
    • cooperation rather than competition
    • each element serves many functions
    • each function supported by many elements

  • Small scale, self replicating systems
    • use of local resources
    • maximum use of minimum resources

  • Energy Storage
    • natural storage in water, soil, and trees
    • storage in buildings and infrastructure

  • Recycling of Materials

Time and space permitting we may also watch a couple of short videos. Bring a sack lunch. If there is an interest in learning more beyond this introduction we may setup a series of workshops.

When: Saturday, September 12th, 10am-3pm

Location: 6 miles north of Fredericktown, we’ll give you directions when you sign up!

Cost: Free!

If you are interested in learning more or would like to reserve a spot leave a comment or email geekinthegarden at gmail dot com

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Learning from Nature with Sheet Mulching

This is the fifth 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 my last article I discussed relationships as they exist in garden guilds and in town communities such as Fredericktown. Much of permaculture is about how we design relationships into a site so that things such as plants, animals and buildings work better together and so require less energy input from us. This week I thought I’d focus on a very practical hands on task that, while seeming very simple to us, enables complex natural processes which increase the health and diversity of our garden soil: sheet mulching.

Walk out into any mature Missouri woodland of diverse trees and dig our hands down into the soil and you will find fantastic fertility. At any moment woodland soil is full of organic matter in the process of decay. Fungi and soil microbes are constantly breaking down leaves, sticks and any other “dead” matter that has fallen to the forest floor. According to Jack Kittredge in the Spring 2002 issue of The Natural Farmer:

… it is hard to overestimate the importance of mushrooms in forest life. Their mycelia form a complex forking network of interwoven strands of cells that grow beyond the immediate tree’s root zone, extending, in extreme cases, over many acres. The mycelial content of topsoil in a Pacific Northwestern Douglas Fir forest has been estimated to be as much as 10% of biomass! Each mycelium gives off
enzymes which unlock organic compounds in the surrounding matrix, releasing carbon, nitrogen, and other elements that are then absorbed and concentrated directly into the network.

Modern agriculture, as it has grown from small family farms to massive acreage industrial farms, has taken an approach which relies on fossil fuel-based chemicals for fertilization and the removal of “pests”. It is an approach which has decimated the natural fertility of complex soil ecosystems. Even small scale vegetable gardening is most often accomplished with tilling which greatly disrupts the natural microbial layers found in the soil. Opening up the bare soil to the direct sun and wind is not only destructive but is an open invitation to weeds and the need for more work or the use of chemicals.

The no-till method of gardening using heavy layers to form a thick sheet mulch creating conditions very similar to a forest floor: carbon rich, shaded, cool and moist. Pull back a section of sheet mulch which has set for six months or more and you will find a great abundance of earthworms, far more than were there before the mulch. A close examination of the newspaper or cardboard will also reveal many patches of intricate white threads, the mycelium of soil fungi which have been busy breaking down the carbon. The soil is so thoroughly tilled by the earthworms and the crumb structure improved that you will usually be able to easily push your fingers deep into the ground with little effort.

Now, let’s get down to the how-to. Sheet mulching is incredibly easy but may require a bit of planning to save or collect the materials needed. You’ll need lots of newspaper, cardboard, or both. Nothing with waxy coatings and bright colors such as many of the advertisement sections of the paper. We want basic newsprint and basic brown cardboard. Ask around the businesses in town and they are often glad to have someone take it away. The amount needed is determined by the size of garden space. The other ingredient is something like straw, leaves or wood chip mulch. Straw works very well because it will last a full year, won’t blow around and looks pretty nice. Wood chip mulch also works well but cedar and pine may increase the acidity of the soil avoid those woods as well as anything which is treated. Leaves tend to blow around and don’t look as nice. If you have lots of leaves use them but top off with straw or wood mulch for a tidier appearance. Aged manure or compost can also be used and will speed the process up a bit but are not essential ingredients.

Step one is to water the area to be mulched. I often plan to do it the day after a rain. Basically, the ground just needs a good watering as you might do if you were watering a garden or lawn. If you have compost or manure spread it over the area to be mulched in a layer three inches or less. Next comes the cardboard or newspaper which should be laid down so that it overlaps a couple inches on each side. Don’t spread too thin. If using newspaper open it at the fold then lay it down. If the layer is too thin it will break down more quickly and may not last a full year which is the goal. Follow the cardboard/newspaper layer with straw, leaves, or wood chip mulch which should be laid down in a layer of about three inches. Give this layer a light watering. Done.

Laying the mulch should be done in spring, summer or fall. I think spring or early summer is best. You can mulch directly over hard compacted grass without mowing or any other preparation but this area won’t be ready for planting right away. In areas which have been mulched for at least 4 to 5 months the soil is often improved enough to plant in fairly easily. This spring I’ve been working in a bed which was mulch last summer and the soil is greatly improved. The cardboard is very well rotted and can be easily pushed through with a small hand shovel for putting in plants and seed potatoes. For direct planting of seeds I can easily clear away a row or area with hoe or hand shovel.

When we sheet mulch not only are we using “waste” materials such as newspaper and cardboard, we will find that the need to water and weed are greatly reduced. Not only are we more efficiently using resources and saving ourselves time but we are greatly improving the stability and health of our soil.

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Permaculture and critters

knock knockSomething I’ve been noticing and thinking about recently is the natural movement and roles of critters in our evolving permaculture landscape. The homestead is starting to feel a bit like an ecosystem. By that I mean that after being here more than a year I’m starting to feel more at home. I’ve had time to settle in, observe, think, and participate. As I slowly design and work the site I continue to learn not just about the energy flows such as water, wind and sun but also the energy and work of the critters as they do their thing.

The chickens have been here for four or so months and now that I’m down to 15 in the main flock they are much more manageable. Three more (fairly aggressive roosters) are currently in a chicken tractor and will remain until we butcher them. The main flock is released to mostly free range from noon till sunset. I have a few strategically placed fences that don’t enclose them but encourage them to stay in certain areas and out of others. By 5 or 6 pm they have moved beyond my barriers and can be found anywhere and everywhere. Once the main chicken run has had time to recover I’ll put them in there 3-4 days a week. But I prefer to have them integrated. I want integration. I like to look out and see them taking a drink from the little water garden. The squash they tend to get into also happens to be free of squash bugs whereas the other patch has had gobs of squash bugs. It’s a balance.
As I’ve commented before the guineas are my favorite. While I may not get many eggs from them they are constantly on bug patrol and while doing so they leave their manure but NEVER disrupt mulch or my plants. If it works out that I can keep track of their eggs then that will be a great bonus.

We’ve also got a Canadian Goose that has been visiting most of the day for the past week or so. She’s made herself right at home with the chickens and seems to enjoy hanging out by the water garden and around my cabin. Fine by me! She eats alot of grass and when she’s not eating she’s preening herself which means she’s leaving little feathers here and there as well as a bit of manure. As with all of the above, she belongs here. She fits. She does her work and leaves behind her nitrogen rich soil amendments. It’s got me thinking about the possibilities of keeping ducks or geese. Will need to investigate that a bit further.

PetuniaLast but not least is Petunia who has gotten her freedom this week. She comes and goes as she pleases and is being weaned off of the bottle this and next week. It has only been a couple days but she seems comfortable as she cautiously explores the area a few hours at a time. Before long she’ll be spending more time away than here and eventually I expect that her visits will become the exception to the rule. Having raised her I feel pretty confident that I can take care of a goat or two and will be doing a good bit of further research on that. One thing I want to get started on a year in advance of any goat keeping would be planning proper goat forage. As with the chickens it makes more sense to grow the food on site rather than spend money and waste energy importing it from feed stores. Actually, that’s something I’ll need to work on for the chickens as well. I’ve got a list of things I want to get planted, mostly perennials that should help out. We’ve also got gobs of honey locust trees so I’ll be harvesting those seed pods soon and will be feeding that as a supplement over the winter.

The more I think about it the more I realize that what I’m doing here is trying to create a natural forage system for all of us that live on the site. I suppose that’s the whole point isn’t it? To create a perennial system that feels and functions like a natural ecosystem. Such a system, once “established,” does not require gardening so much as harvesting which means less input of time, energy and money.

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Thinking about food forest design

Okay, I’m fairly certain that I’ve become obsessed with this. I suppose I should not be surprised… what kind of geek asks for pear trees for his thirteenth birthday? This kind of geek. Anyway, I’ve been observing, thinking, and reading alot. I really need to get my hands on Jacke and Toensmeier’s books. At the moment I’ve been taking inventory and transplanting a variety of things which we have on site. I’ve mostly focused on the area around my cabin, planting yarrow, self-heal, oregano, chives, comfrey and coneflowers at various places around the juneberries and pawpaws. My thoughts are to have a nice mix of food, accumulators, and medicinals in there. Still to propagate and plant (probably next year) would be bee balm, lemon balm, golden seal, good king henry, strawberry, thyme and sage are just a few on the list.

We’ve got gobs and gobs of Yarrow, self-heal and lots of other medicinals and nutrient accumulators growing around here. I try to mow as little as possible which allows a nice mix to grow up in the field/orchard south of the garden. I spend a good deal of time walking around with my Peterson field guide to medicinal plants and herbs taking inventory. One recent discovery, Small-Flowered Agrimony, seems like a candidate for harvesting and transplanting. If not I at least know I have it and have added it to the database.

I continue to be amazed at the useful food and medicinal plants growing all around me. Another is Lady’s Thumb or Heart’s ease which grows 10 feet outside my front door in and amongst all the other “weeds”. What a ridiculous word. Sad that so many useful plants get labeled a weed because we fail to take the time to learn their names and uses and role in the ecosystem.

The new swale has been mulched on the sides and the berm planted with comfrey and a mix of greens and radishes. Soon I’ll be putting a big patch of rhubarb in it thanks to a gift from my uncle Joe and aunt Sue.

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The Biomass of the Tree

I’ve been slowly working my way through Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Designer’s Manual and really, it is an amazing book. Lots to take in so I’m taking my time and really relishing it. From Chapter 6:

A tree is, broadly speaking, many biomass zones. These are the stem and crown (the visible tree), the detritus and humus (the tree at the soil surface boundary) and the roots and root associates (the underground tree).

Like all living things, a tree has shed its weight many times over to earth and air, and has built much of the soil it stands in. Not only the crown, but also the roots, die and shed their wastes to earth. The living tree stands in a zone of decomposition, much of it transferred, reborn, transported, or reincarnated into grasses, bacteria, fungus, insect life, birds, and mammals.

Many of these tree-lives “belong with” the tree, and still function as part of it. When a blue jay, currawong, or squirrel buries an acorn (and usually recovers only 80% as a result of divine forgetfulness), it acts as the agent of the oak. When the squirrel or wallaby digs up the columella of the fungal tree root associates, guided to these by a garlic-like smell, they swallow the spores, activate them enzymatically, and deposit them again to invest the roots of another tree or sapling with its energy translator.

The root fungi intercede with water, soil, and atmosphere to manufacture cell nutrients for the tree, while myriad insects carry out summer pruning, decompose the surplus leaves and activate essential soil bacteria for the tree to use for nutrient flow. The rain of insect faeces may be crucial to forest and prairie health.

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Thoughts on the garden

This year’s garden, the second year in this location, has been a bit of a disappointment. On a positive note there is the soil improvement. While soil building does not happen over night especially when high nitrogen manures are not added, I’m definitely seeing improvement thanks to the cardboard and straw. There’s no doubt that the earthworm population has greatly increased as has the overall abundance of fungi and microbial life. Now that I’ll be adding in a bit more nitrogen thanks to the chickens and lots of comfrey that starting to establish well I should be able to give it a bit of a boost next year.

The downside of this years garden has been the actual harvest. I started off with a huge mistake which was fencing that was not rabbit proof. The little shits spent the spring eating my greens and onion tops. So, no real onion harvest to speak of and the greens eventually came on to provide an okay crop. I’ve since gotten the fence to about 90% rabbit proofness though they can still get in. Will have to add a bit more of the chicken wire to the last bit of fence that only has up to 12″. They can jump over that 12″ and through the welded wire though it is pretty obvious that my rabbit visitations are greatly reduced. Lesson learned and next year’s production should be much better.

Another problem was the start. We had such a wet spring that I started lots of stuff too late. Squash, melons, cukes, corn and a few others. Those things that did get in were so flooded that they struggled. The sugar peas died and many of the tomatoes barely made it. The potatoes and sweet potatoes have done very little. The cukes, which have looked okay and have had quite a few flowers, have, thus far produced only one fruit. Same spot as last year where they produced gobs. Even with the late start the various squashes have produced… not great but they are producing. More coming from them I’m sure. The melons have fruit though they are slow. The corn was demolished by rabbits and next year will be well fenced. Lots more squash bugs this year, probably due to the greatly increased number of squash plants!

The peppers have fruit on though they were late to the game. Probably due to the late start and very cool July?

Pests such as tomato hornworm and flea beetles have been a huge problem. The flea beetles turned the eggplants leaves into a network of holes and something else finished them off, not sure what. The hornworms have been all over the tomatoes since early July and have decimated them. Even so I’ve gotten quite a few tomatoes but not enough to can which is a shame because I had well over 60 plants out there. I certainly got my money’s worth in terms of the $8 spent on the five varieties of heirloom seed but probably only 10 or 20% of the crop I would have had without the hornworms. I’ve also had a bit of blight or bacterial wilt, not sure which.

The four varieties of basil have been fantastic and the zinnias and cosmos filled out pretty well. I’m going to have to plant lots more color and scent next year to better camouflage the tomatoes. This year I used the fence as a trellis and am thinking that was a part of the hornworm problem. If I use the fence again next year I’ll be certain to have plenty of flowers along the outer side of the fence which is the plan regardless. I’m transplanting lots of sweet coneflower that is coming up everywhere to the outside of the fence and will be transplanting purple coneflower as well. The gaps will be filled in my basil, zinnia and cosmos. I’d like to have twice the flowers next year.

So, yeah, not the best year for the kitchen garden. I feel pretty confident though that the soil improvements will start to show and of course the rabbit proof fencing will make a huge difference next year. Really though, the garden is too big for one person. My keyhole beds by the cabin are enough to feed me, at least in terms of leafy greens and probably even peppers and tomatoes. Will try a few things differently next year. Looking forward to the fall garden and trying out the greenhouse for a bit of season extension and winter greens. The tomatoes in the greenhouse are thick and green, so far untouched by hornworms though also not producing many blooms or fruit. Not sure why? Wondering if those free windows have some sort of uv glaze that is inhibiting fruit production? Will be curious to see how the greens do in there.

Living and learning…

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Communities and Guilds

This is the fourth 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 my last article I discussed the importance of connections between the structures,organisms, and landscape in a design that captures energy flow such as rainwater formore efficient use. I also applied that kind of observation and design principle to ourtown to show that energy and resources which are currently thrown away or not capturedat all can be used to our immediate benefit.

This time around I thought we might explore another aspect of this thinking with adiscussion of building guilds on our site and community in our town. We’ll start with theidea of a guild. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary one definition of guildis “an association of people for mutual aid or the pursuit of a common goal” which appliesvery well if you think of our town or most towns. In the context of a permaculture site aguild is an assembly of plants which are, in a variety of ways, mutually beneficial. In sucha guild we might combine medicinal and cooking herbs, pollinator attracting flowers, a foodcrop, and soil building plants. Such a guild will not only be beneficial to the plants but also toour needs for food and medicine. Let’s have a look at an example which I’m using at my ownsite.

Unlike many gardens which are rows upon rows of annual vegetables and occasionallyplanted with a border of flowers, my site is modeled after the surrounding natural ecosystem. Ihave fruit trees planted in guild arrangements which include annual food crops layered into thesun facing sides of each group. Each guild is centered on a fruit tree such as apple, plum, peach,pear, or paw paw. Around the trees from the trunk to several feet out, are a mix of nasturtiums,chives, garlic chives, fava beans, bee balm, yarrow, and comfrey.

Just outside this ring which is formed by the drip line of the branches are a mix of gooseberries,red currant, and black currant fruit bushes. The south facing side is planted with sundemanding annuals such as squash. This guild requires little to no watering thanks to the thicklayer of cardboard and straw mulch.

In these fruit tree centered guilds plants, arranged to take best advantage of vertical spaceunder the trees perform a variety of functions and maximize the collection of sunlight. Theyattract a diversity of pollinating insects including predatory wasps that will aid in the controlof insects that can damage our plants. The fava beans will add nitrogen to the soil and thecomfrey provides fantastic, nutrient rich leaves that can be used as mulch material at thebase of the fruit trees or anywhere in the garden. Each circular guild connects to the next and,taken all together, form a larger “food forest.”

Villages, towns, and cities might also be viewed as a series of connecting and overlappingcommunities. As with our permaculture site, beneficial relationships between people ina town are the foundation of those communities. Just as any ecosystem’s health is based uponits diversity, our community’s health and stability are increased by the variety of personalities,characteristics, and skills our people. We all have something to offer which makes the wholework better and a part of the process of living in a community is developing connections andrelationships so that our offering fits in.

But something seems to have gone wrong in recent years and the health of our communitiesand the relationships that bind them together seems to be rapidly failing. After World War IIAmerica engaged in a steady and very rapid build out of suburbia, a living arrangement not basedon community relationships and local economics. In many towns and cities the familiar relationshipsof the local gave way to anonymous shopping experiences in sprawling malls and hugebig-box stores. As real community faded away the “Friends” on television were pushed into ourliving rooms to fill the void.

I’d like to propose that an important part of the solution to our many social and economic problems isthat we get back to the basics of family and community relationships. By becoming more aware of theserelationships and potential relationships we can nurture and expand them so that they are more usefulto us as individuals as well as the over-all community. Like the bees in my food forest, the people ofour town wake up everyday and get to the business of living. We have a variety of social and economicinstitutions and networks that we use to organize the work that we do, ranging from family to schools to small businesses to local and regional government. Building and maintaining a healthy community, like a garden, takes a great commitment and willingness to share our time and energy.

It is not an understatement to suggest that it is in the context of community that we can live our livesto their fullest potential. It is in our community that we might become better people by learning andteaching one another. Our relationships help define who we are and who we might become. The beautyof community is that, at its best, it is a place in which we co-create one another. It’s not difficult to come to the conclusion that it is the quality of our community and the relationships we have within it that largely determine the quality of life we will live.

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Worth reading…

It’s been awhile since I pointed folks to any of my favorite blogs and when I came across this quote over at the Automatic Earth I thought I’d remedy that. First, from this post at the above mentioned site:

Joe Bageant has something to add to that picture:

Speaking of motives, there are those who worry about an American
authoritarian police state one day rounding folks up, shuffling them off to
geographically remote camps, such as the Department of Homeland
Security’s scattered FEMA Camps. But physical geography isn’t the only
geography. There is geography of the mind too, where another kind of
hellish internment may be conducted.

One without razor wire or sirens but surely as confining and in its own
way, as soul chilling as any concentration camp. One with plenty to eat
and filled with distractions and diversions enough to drown out the
alarms and sirens that go off inside free men at the scent of
tyranny. If a round up of Americans is real, then it began years ago. And as far as I can tell, everyone went peacefully, each one alone, like
children, whose greatest concern on that day when the gates were closed,
was the absence of Ranch flavored Pringles.

As someone who has spent most of the past 18 years outside of the american mainstream I can say that Bageant nailed that perfectly. Chomsky called it the manufacturing of consent in his analysis of the media which has served over the past 60 years or so as the primary tool used to control the public. In any case, do check the Automatic Earth for a fantastic daily post which offers what I think is the best take on the current economic collapse. The format of each post usually consists of a page of introductory thoughts based on a huge buffet of stories which follow. I never have the time to read those so I read the intro and skim the headlines below and then skim the comments.

Next on the list would be Sharon Astyk. While she often offers her take are various aspects of our current economic and environmental predicaments, most of her writing is geared towards helping folks actually prepare for a different kind of life. In particular she offers folks the detailed, practical information for becoming more self reliant in terms of growing, preparing and storing food as well as taking care of other necessities of daily life. She ranges from thoughts on medicine to raising kids to what food to grow and where to get the seeds. She’s a very inspirational read with fantastic posts on the importance of family and community and the general need to be connected as we work through this mess.

More I’d like to add but I don’t have much time so I’ll post this as is and add more later!


Guineas in the gardenI’m really loving these guineas! Not only are they beautiful birds but they are fantastic in the garden. In the mornings they follow me into the fenced kitchen garden and spend the day in there eating bugs. Unlike our chickens the guineas do no damage to the plants nor do they throw mulch everywhere. They just putter around eating bugs. I’m fairly certain that I’ll be adding another five or ten to the flock next summer.

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