Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Coming together

Cabin Kitchen

Well, the cabin is very nearly finished. As of early November the kitchen was finished with re-used/recycled sink and cabinets. The sink drains gray water to a woodland water garden. No running water just yet, that will come in the springtime. Until then I'll be carrying it from the well and storing it in water coolers which I don't mind. In fact, using the coolers has really gotten me into the habit of very careful water conservation. I've been averaging about 4 gallons a day. I also do not have hot water nor do
I plan to. I can heat water up on the wood stove in the winter if I really need it but generally don't. In the summer I can use the sun to heat water.

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The right way to burn wood

An excellent site for those that use wood as a primary source of heat. Actually, good for anyone using a wood burning stove but especially important for those that burn alot. Wood provides all the details for burning wood most efficiently. If you're concerned about climate change and I hope you are this is a site worth reading through.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

This small town

I spent many days every summer at the lake. When we weren't fishing or in the woods we would sometimes take a ride into Fredericktown. Not my hometown but I feel connected to it more than any other Missouri town. Now that I've moved to the lake I'm making new memories that blur and blend with those of my childhood. This past spring I went back to the Dairy Bar and had a vanilla cone, the first I'd had from that place in more than 20 years and it was delicious. Each trip into town reminds me of my grandpa and our trips into town together. I can still hear his voice and picture him waving to the many people he seemed to know.

It's strange, though I did not grow up here, did not go to school here or spend most of my time here, this town is the constant. Other towns or cities have come and gone at different times, but not this one. This is the town that I've known my whole life. I see no reason that I would leave my cabin on the lake. For the first time in my life I feel at home and so I hope that I'll begin to develop a deeper connection to this town that lives so strongly in my memories. As I connect to the town and its people today I look forward to learning more about its history which I imagine to be very interesting.

This past summer I made quite a few treks into town and not just for the vanilla ice cream cones. Jimmy Thal's hardware store is the best hardware store I've ever set foot in and the prices are great. The Madison County Farm Supply is my steady source of straw bales and staffed with very friendly folk. The locally owned "Town and Country" grocery store has everything I need outside of the other shops so I won't need to set foot in Wal-Mart. The little garden park just east of the town square is a great place to sit and eat the above mentioned ice cream. There are two farmers markets in town, one on Saturday morning and another on Tuesday evenings.

This past fall I discovered Cowboy Coffee which quickly became one of my all time favorite coffee shops. The folks working there are very friendly as are the customers that visit. Thus far I've only bought coffee and brownies, both are very good. I don't usually eat out so I've not tried any of the food though the pies sitting on the counter tempt me every time I visit. It's a very comfortable place, decorated with bits of history, photographs and crafts along the walls. Sitting on the counter in the coffee shop I discovered a new community newspaper, The Madison County Crier.

After a few trips into the coffee shop and reading through this little newspaper I realized that I'd found something I had not expected. In the newspaper I was finding articles about the importance of supporting (and growing) the local food system, recycling, and the details of the goings on in the town council as well as a calendar of local events. In the coffee shop I was seeing the familiar signs of community life and connection that I was a part of when I lived in Memphis. Lots of folk on a first name basis, a meeting of the board of the farmers market, even a few folks sharing an impromptu dance lesson. I can't help but think that locally owned coffee shops are, universally, community building blocks. They offer public space necessary for the development of the relationships that form the foundation of community and civic life.

I'm really just beginning to get a sense of this wonderful little town but I know that there is no place I'd rather be in times like these. A small town with locally supplied and supported farmers markets, thriving local businesses, an active citizenry, not to mention a pride and self-awareness of its history, is a great place to call home.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Quiet days

Still here. Enjoying the still days of early winter. The wood stove is now burning every day. The lake is beginning to freeze over in places. The full moon shown through before the clouds rolled in last night and it was beautiful. There is nothing better than the calm of the woods in the winter.

Last week I hauled up a bunch of moss covered rocks to border the mulched pathway in front of the cabin. I've got two Paw Paw trees to plant in the forest garden. It's supposed to warm up to 50 or so on Sunday so I'll plant them then. I've also got 5 or 6 basil plants going in a pot in the south facing window. Nice.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Understanding the Greater Depression

Want to get a better foundational understanding of the Greater Depression that we have now entered? Here are a few blogs I'd suggest you read every day or at least a few times a week.

Sites which focus on the economic system specifically:
Chris Martenson
The Automatic Earth
The Market Ticker

Sites which discuss a broader range of issues (peak oil, self reliance, homesteading, climate change, suburbia...) related to the current collapse and what will follow:
Casaubon's Book
The Archdruid Report
Club Orlov
James Kunstler

Here's a little sample from November 7 post from
The Automatic Earth: Debt Rattle: Hocus Focus:
Obama's chief of staff is a former Freddie Mac board member and fervent supporter of the invasion of Iraq. Many of the 'experts' are, or have been, Goldman and Citigroup execs. These people like the power and the money they have gathered while driving the economy into the ground. They're not going to give that up just to build a financial system that would better serve the people. They’ll build one that best serves them.

Sure, some loose ends will be tweaked, but mostly they'll spend the nation into a depression by attempting to salvage corporations that would have long since died if it were not for America's 21st century version of Mussolini's corporate fascism, and the unlimited access to the public trough it provides.

The broke man in the street will be broker, until he's broken, until he lives in the street, his last hard earned penny squeezed from his hands and dumped into banks, insurers and carmakers that have zero chance of ever turning a profit again.

The taxpayer will be taxed, and will be forced to pay until (s)he can pay no more, if need be at the barrel of a gun, until (s)he no longer has a job, a home, dignity or a future. And then the growth machine will spit her out. Whoever can't produce or consume is a write-off.

We’ve spent too much, and now we're broke. Let's spend more, and lots more, ‘cause then we will be whole again. Double or nothing, it's all we know.

The dice will come up nothing.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Climate change, global depression and consumption

Apparently there is talk that Al Gore might be head of the EPA in the Obama administration and just over a week ago Gore wrote up a dream list which was published in the New York Times.

One of my current favorite authors, Sharon Astyk, in her post A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change wonders why there is no mention of lowering consumption. This is something I've written about before. Earlier this year I wrote that, in fact, a global economic recession was exactly what was needed as a way of forcing the lowering of consumption and thus a lowering of climate impact. From Sharon's blog:

Quick - what’s not on this list?  I bet you noticed, too - there’s no mention of consumption, either as an economic issue or at the personal level. Rather like coming out of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ we’re left with the message that there’s nothing for us to do other than lobby our fearless leaders.

What’s wrong with that?  Addressing climate change manifestly requires policy solutions - but again we see ourselves trapped in the false dichotomy I discuss in _Depletion and Abundance_ between public and private.  There is no question in the world that consumption is a policy issue - 70% of our economy depends on consumer spending and personal consumption.  Yet again we are being told that ‘personal action’ is something you do in the dark that makes no difference, while the really important stuff happens at the government tables.

In fact, in reality, we know differently. At US government tables we’ve seen exactly 0 major policy shifts so far - yes, we had the worst president imaginable, but that doesn’t change the fact that under Clinton, when Gore was vice-president, we saw the same zippo.  At the same time, as consumers have slowed their spending, we’ve seen projections of world oil use fall dramatically - for the first time in decades, we are expecting an actual contraction in the use of oil.  Earlier this year, actual driving miles fell dramatically - as much as 6% year over year.  Now these things were in reaction to high prices - but they were consumption decisions made by private households that in the aggregate made more real difference in the impact of our emissions than all the treaties we’ve violated or refused to sign.

The assumption, of course, is that we make changes for economic reasons, but that we’d never make them for ecological reasons.  My answer to that is simply this - no one has tried asking Americans to make major shifts in their lifestyle for the good of their country and their ecology in 30 years.  We assume we know that this would never succeed - in practice, we don’t have the slightest idea what would happen. 

Consumption is not simply accidentally left off the table by people who underestimate its power or prefer only to focus on legislation, it is left off because thinking about consumption undermines some of the presumptions of wholly technical and policy solutions. In fact, if we addressed consumption, we might have to change our basic assumptions about what we can accomplish.

 Think about Gore’s list above in relation to consumption.  The first thing, of course, that jumps out at you is the claim we have to bail out the car companies, even though, as Deutsche Bank announced, GM is worth nothing - its stock is worth absolutely nothing.  Think about that one for a second, and consider what has to underly our presumptions that we should bail out a car company - underlying it is the assumption that we will all be buying cars again fairly soon - shiny new electric ones. 

That is, underlying the assumptions of a Gore-style New Deal is the idea that we can do temporary bail outs because our consumption is going to go back up - only this time we’ll be consuming green products, including our electric cars.  There are several problems with this - the obvious one being that it isn’t clear what will fund our ability to buy these new cars in the coming years.  The assumption is that the new green jobs will do so - and perhaps that’s true, but there’s a ‘turtles all the way down’ quality to this analysis - the new deal will give us the ability to make these shifts, and the money will then only be spent for good (despite the fact that historically, the more we spend, the more we consume)….I’m not convinced anyone knows how that might happen.

Sharon offers many details in her thought provoking analysis of the energy input vs return in the massive renewable energy program that the Gore approach entails. I encourage you toread her post in it's entirety.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Homesteading Self-reliance

Thanks to the folks at Irreguar Times for their mention of our permaculture project. Something I wanted to respond to was this excellent point:

Most of us will choose not to move to the woods like Denny (and given the size of our population, most of us can’t), but we can try to apply his lessons wherever we are in the world and in our life course as we brace for the human impact of a looming economic catastrophe. I encourage you to read his account and ask yourself what you can do.

For those that will not or cannot move into a rural area there is plenty they can do in an urban or suburban setting. In fact, most of what we are doing is on less than an acre. The main limitation for those on a smaller bit of land would be the number of fruit trees but even a few of those can be planted.

house2.jpgBack in 1998 I helped co-found the deCleyre Co-op in Memphis, TN and the intent was almost identical. We wanted to create an example of, and resource for, those interested in living sustainably and cooperatively in an urban setting. We dug up our front yard and planted a vegetable garden, raspberries, and blueberries. We also put in two small ponds and many native plants for habitat.

We typically housed 6-9 folks who participated in a weekly house meeting and several shared meals a week. We also sponsored monthly community potlucks, workshops, study groups, and more. Living in a co-op lowers monthly living costs dramatically and provides a sense of connection, comfort, and security. I would not hesitate to recommend this kind of living, especially in the greater depression we are now entering. The importance of pooled resources, skills, and the comfort of community cannot be overstated in times such as these.

Even if you choose to live in a more traditional setting, practically any home or apartment provides the opportunity to grow food. Any south facing area with full sun or light shade, even an apartment with a balcony, can be place to grow food. With good design using both horizontal and vertical space it is often possible to grow more food than you may realize.

Another aspect of simple and efficient living is the wise use of money. Don't waste it dining out!! During spring and summer months it is often possible to buy fresh produce at farmers markets for much less than grocery store prices. If you come upon a good deal buy extra and learn how to can it for later use. Many foods can also be easily dehydrated using a home made solar dehydrator made for less than $10. For many just learning how to cook at home is the starting point. Very healthy meals are easy to make and will save you both time and money. A meal for 2-4 people can be made for $2-4 and often takes less than 30 minutes. Compare that to a fast-food or regular restaurant meal that will cost $5-30 and requires time to drive to and wait for the meal which will likely be less healthy than what you make at home.

My suggestion is to stock up on 4-6 months (more if you are able) worth of canned goods and learn how to use them. With times as they are food prices are going up constantly so a nice supply of food bought today at $500 will likely cost $600 just a couple months from now. The same food purchased six months later may have gone up to $700, possibly much more. Given the state of the economy and the growing possibility of a dollar collapse investing in non-perishable food with a shelf life of 2-4 years may be the best investment you can make. If the economy stabilizes (it won't) then you have not wasted a penny because the food is there ready to cook.

Here's a sample of what I have stocked (1 person):
Mixed Veggies 50 cans
Corn 30 cans
Green beans 30 cans
Peaches 15 cans
Pinto beans 20 cans
Garbonzo beans 20 cans
Crushed tomatoes 20 cans (28 oz)
Diced tomatoes 20 cans (28 oz)
4-6 boxes macaroni (48 oz)
6-8 boxes spaghetti (48 oz)
1-2 5 lb bag bread flour
1-2 5 lb bag whole wheat flour
5-8 48 oz tub of rolled oats
5-10 lbs of brown rice
10-15 lbs of various beans, dry: black, black-eye pea, garbonzo, etc.
several pounds sugar and brown sugar
several tubs of salt
1-2 gallons canola oil
LOTS of onions and garlic
10 lbs of regular and sweet potatoes
5-10 lbs of apples

I only have to go shopping once, maybe twice a month to replace used stock rotating the old to the front. I buy as much as I can afford each trip to limit my time in the store which is a place I prefer not to be. Now that the garden is better established I'm hoping to can much more of my food supply in the future.

The above list can fairly easily be cooked, often with little to no prep time. Breakfast of rolled oats with sugar and cinnamon can be made in 1-2 minutes three to four times a week. I alternate that with eggs and fried potatoes which takes 30 minutes or so. A tub of rolled oats is $2.75 to $3 so a big bowl of that with sugar and cinnamon is a pretty cheap breakfast at about twenty cents. Pancakes with a bit of fruit topping are also pretty cheap and healthy if you mix in a bit of whole wheat flour, maybe some nuts too.

For other meals I usually make soup, beans and rice, or pasta. Red sauce is easy. Start with a sautéed onion and garlic then add a large can of crushed tomatoes, 2-3 tablespoons of sugar, salt to taste, basil and oregano and you have a yummy red sauce. In the summer months sautéed yellow squash, zucchini, or eggplant with your onions for added nutrition and yumminess. Soup is very easy to make using a can or two of mixed veggies, potatoes, onion, garlic mixed in with crushed tomatoes and macaroni. Use whatever cheap veggies you can get at the farmers market to supplement the canned veggies. A nice fall variation of the above tomato-based soup uses pumpkin instead of tomato. Cut up and cube a pumpkin and boil for 30 minutes. Blend the cooked cubes and use that as a base rather than the tomato. Add in coconut milk, cinnamon, salt, curry and cayenne pepper for a super tasty and spicy soup. One medium pumpkin makes a pretty large pot of soup. You can bake the seeds on a cookie sheet or low heat on a covered frying pan with a bit of oil and season salt for a snack.

Soup, pasta, beans and rice... all these are fairly easy dishes to experiment with. Try different seasonings and mixtures or get recipes... I generally prefer to make up my own.

My favorite sites for learning the skills necessary for homesteading and self-reliance:
Sharon Astyk
Homegrown Evolution
Rachel's Tiny Farm
Red State Green

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Living with a wood burning stove

Woodburning stove!Now that it has gotten colder I've started to use the wood burning stove a bit. My general rule of thumb is to only use it when I must which means nights at or below 40 followed by days with a high of 55 or less. If I can I'd rather not use it and just bundle up with extra layers thus saving the wood for another day and minimizing my carbon output. But, on the days that I do use it I have to say that it is a real pleasure! There's nothing like the blended smell of a wood burning stove and coffee or fried potatoes or home made bread. In such a small space (my cabin is 192 square feet) the aroma of cooking food blends perfectly with that of burning wood. There is also the great benefit of having a warm surface to warm up left over food or coffee without using the propane.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Forest Garden Update

IMG_2131This is the second food forest which is just 60 feet from my front door. Trees and bushes planted thus far: 1 peach, 2 plums, 2 red currants, 2 black currants, and 2 gooseberries. Also planted a few native bee balm. Next spring I'll be expanding it with an apple and a couple paw paws as well as perennial and annuals such as Good King Henry, chives, and nasturtiums.

I've just about finished putting in a path using various half rotted logs and branches for the border. For the bottom of the path I'm using big chunks and strips of bark that I've been gathering from downed trees as well as the wood I'm chopping up for firewood. Bark does not burn too well so I think using it as a pathway is a much better use. Not only will it decay and add organic matter to the soil but the lizards and frogs love to eat the insects that the bark attracts... you can never have too many lizards and frogs!!

The outdoor shower you see in the back right corner will be moved soon and we'll be putting in an arbor with hardy kiwi, grapes, and wisteria, possibly a few other vines as well.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Autumn Olive Update

Autumn BerriesBack in early September I discovered that we had Autumn Olives on the land and wrote about it. Since then they have ripened up a good bit so I've been eating several handfuls a day for the past couple weeks. I harvested about 1.5 pints of Autumn Olive berries in about 5 minutes from one bush, the largest I've found, which still has at least another 50 pints of berries on it. I'll be experimenting with different uses. They taste great and are highly nutritious.

Plants for a Future, an excellent plant database, has an entry for Autumn Olive.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Peeling the Onion: What’s Behind the Financial Mess?

Sharon Astyk has peeled back the layers of the current economic collapse... an excellent essay worth checking out.:
What is reducing the amount of productive work accomplished, and moving the money increasingly only into a few pockets?  It is the high price of food.  And what is the root cause of the high price of food?  Well, the single biggest factor, according to a number of studies, including the UN studies, has been the move to food based biofuels.  So if we peel back the onion one more layer, what we find is that one of the major factors slowing the economy has been, well, oil.  The rush to biofuels is a response to tightening oil supplies and rising costs, and the aggregate effect has been to push up food prices all over the world, while doing pretty much nothing to increase energy security, reduce greenhouse gasses or do much of anything else useful.

I’m no economist, and I don’t pretend to be.  But I wonder, when we peel back the layers of the onion later, and look at the history of this Depression, I wonder if we’ll see that in fact, what happened was that we squeezed out the lifeblood of the very thing we’d built our economy upon - new workers/consumers who could be counted on to grow the economy outwards and upwards.  We could have forseen this - but we chose not to - we chose, as we struggled to keep our lifestyle intact on the backs of the world’s poor, not to see that we stand on their backs, and it is people…all the way down.  In killing them, we killed ourselves. It may be that besides the tragedy of starving millions of poor people, we may also have brought down our own system, simply because we did not see, did not realize that the poor matter more to us than we like to admit.

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The Greatest Looting Operation in History

As of now we all know that the bailout did not pass though it could still happen. Chris Martenson on the government bailout:The Greatest Looting Operation in History:
Here we must face the hard truth that merely transferring the failed loans from the insolvent banks to an insolvent nation will do nothing but forestall the problem until a slightly later date (when it will be larger and more severe, by the way). The fact that both candidates for president are openly supporting the bailout says that reality has not yet penetrated the inner beltway.

So the first challenge will be recognizing that it really is not possible for an insolvent nation to bail out an insolvent financial system by borrowing more money. This is an absurd notion, and in total it really is no more and no less complicated than that. One cannot solve a crisis rooted in debt by issuing more debt.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Garden and Harvest Update

I've been enjoying a continuous stream of tomatoes, yellow squash, lettuce, arugula and cucumbers since early August. I've also had a few zucchini but not nearly as many as I would have liked. The same goes for bell peppers... I've gotten a few of those, maybe 10 or so but not as many as I would hope for. I've also been getting a good bit of basil for pesto and will be drying some too. Today I harvested black-eye peas, probably a half pound or so. My first attempt with those and a bit of an experiment planted very late so I'm very happy to get a crop. Next year I'll definitely be planting them again but in much greater number and much earlier. I've also harvesting a small handful of potatoes, also an experiment. Many, many more of those will be planted next year.

I've also been foraging a couple of handfuls of kinda ripe Autumn Olive berries and eating them fresh every day for the past week. They are getting sweeter and are probably about ripe now... very tastey indeed! I may try to harvest a bucket of them for preserves or maybe pancake syrup.

Comfrey!!! I was disappointed that the packet of seeds (12 or so seeds) I planted only produced one plant but that one plant did very well this summer. A couple weeks back I harvested about half the leaves and put them in a bucket of water which yielded a nice, stinky bucket of tea which I've just applied to the remaining garden plants. Waiting to let it go to seed and then will harvest the remaining leaves. I'll definitely be putting in comfrey clusters around the kitchen garden and forest gardens. A great plant!!

I'd have to say that I'm fairly happy with the garden given the lack of prep time and lateness of planting. I'm very happy with the results of the straw/cardboard sheet mulching. I should have a great compost pile (or 2 or 3) this fall and lots of leaves left over for more sheet mulching. Combined with the addition of chickens and many more comfrey plants next year I think we're on our way to improved soil fertility.

Gas/oil used? Not much. We used the tiller for maybe 20 minutes and against my better judgement. I thought it would help us get the soil quickly loosened up for the tomatoes. Lots of rocks! I've never used a tiller until this year and I've confirmed that as a good decision. I finished the job by hand with a pitch fork and was much happier with the results. All future garden space will be prepared in advance using sheet mulch.

Cardboard and straw certainly require energy to obtain and the straw costs money. Most trips to get those ingredients involved the need to get other supplies as well so at least they were not special trips. Next year I'd like to try replacing all or part of the straw layer with leaves though I I'm not sure how well that will work out. Leaves are not so neat and tend to move around. I may use leaves as the bulk of cover and then a much thinner layer of straw on top just to tidy it up and keep the leaves in place. We'll see.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Injustice of an Absurd Bailout

Vermont's Independent Senator Bernie Sanders:
While the middle class collapses, the richest people in this country have made out like bandits and have not had it so good since the 1920s. The top 0.1 percent now earn more money than the bottom 50 percent of Americans, and the top 1 percent own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The wealthiest 400 people in our country saw their wealth increase by $670 billion while Bush has been president. In the midst of all of this, Bush lowered taxes on the very rich so that they are paying lower income tax rates than teachers, police officers or nurses.

Now, having mismanaged the economy for eight years as well as having lied about our situation by continually insisting, 'The fundamentals of our economy are strong,' the Bush administration, six weeks before an election, wants the middle class of this country to spend many hundreds of billions on a bailout. The wealthiest people, who have benefited from Bush's policies and are in the best position to pay, are being asked for no sacrifice at all. This is absurd. This is the most extreme example that I can recall of socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.

Via Chris Martenson who had this to say:
This looks like the old populist message that has been so long dormant/suppressed in this country. Should that animal spirit re-awaken, social unrest will follow. Hell hath no fury...

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Food Forests

Currants and GooseberriesAs the summer has begins to move into fall I continue to learn about forest gardening, permaculture, and ecological gardening. Reading a variety of books and websites as well as hands on work in our own gardens, I'm developing a much better understanding of these ideas. I'm no newbie to gardening and have been doing so for the past 20 years, but there's no doubt that in these past few months I've learned a great deal not only about permaculture design but also about the natural processes and systems that our design is meant to mimic.

The folks over at Edible Forest Gardens offer this somewhat philosophical description of Forest Gardening:
As Masanobu Fukuoka once said, 'The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.' How we garden reflects our worldview. The ultimate goal of forest gardening is not only the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of new ways of seeing, of thinking, and of acting in the world. Forest gardening gives us a visceral experience of ecology in action, teaching us how the planet works and changing our self-perceptions. Forest gardening helps us take our rightful place as part of nature doing nature's work, rather than as separate entities intervening in and dominating the natural world.

The author of Gaia's Garden,Toby Hemenway, has this fantastic description of the encounter of western observers of the original food forests:
Until the late 20th century, western anthropologists studying both ancient and current tropical cultures viewed equatorial agriculture as primitive and inefficient. Archeologists thought the methods were incapable of supporting many people, and so believed Central and South America before Columbus—outside of the major civilizations like the Aztec, Maya, and Inca—held only small, scattered villages. Modern anthropologists scouted tropical settlements for crop fields—the supposed hallmark of a sophisticated culture—and, noting them largely absent, pronounced the societies ‘hunter gatherer, with primitive agriculture.’ How ironic that these scientists were making their disdainful judgements while shaded by brilliantly complex food forests crammed with several hundred carefully tended species of multifunctional plants, a system perfectly adapted to permanent settlement in the tropics. It just looks like jungle to the naive eye.


The managed forests of the Huastec Maya in northeastern Mexico are packed with up to 300 plant species, including 81 species for food, 33 for construction materials, 200 with medicinal value, and 65 with other uses (the numbers add up to more than 300 since these are multifunctional plants). In these forests, Maya farmers often create different subpatches that concentrate specific guilds of domestic species (such as coffee guilds) amid a background of natives. And all the while, they are tucking small gardens of bananas, chiles, manioc, and other edibles into any clearings. The managed-forest stage may last for 10 to 30 years. Then the cycle begins anew. Since the whole process is rotational, any given area will hold swiddens and fallows at all different phases. This complexity would understandably delude a cornfield-programmed anthropologist into thinking he was looking at raw jungle.

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Monday, September 15, 2008


I finally have a chainsaw that works thanks to a my dad who has loaned me his. It really works. It does not stop running every 2 minutes and with a sharp blade/chain it cuts through logs like soft butter.

Anybody that knows me or anyone who has read this blog for awhile knows how I feel about peak oil and climate change. People that know me personally also know just how much I detest the unnecessary use of gas, especially in lawnmowers, weed eaters, air blowers, etc. These machines are loud, stinky and unnecessarily used to impose order where order is not meant to be. But let me tell you about the chainsaw.

Yes, the chainsaw is also loud, stinky, and equally as polluting. But it is one gas-powered tool I will use because it is a smarter use of the fuel and unlike the others listed above, it serves a very real purpose: winter survival. While the other devices are about trying to force nature into something it is not, aesthetically ordered and neatly groomed, the chainsaw is a tool that will help me keep warm in the winter.

I've never used them much because I've always had other sources of heat. I've never been very fond of them because I do love trees and would rather they be planted and left standing rather than cut. We need more trees on our planet, not less. That said, I do understand that sometimes they do need to be cut down and sometimes they are blown down and need to be moved. In both cases one possible use of a downed tree is to cut it up for firewood. Yes it is possible to use a hand saw and I actually have used one quite a bit this summer for smaller branches. But for cutting through tree trunks a chainsaw is orders of magnitude faster and it is one of the very few times I have thought to use such a tool because I think it is a much wiser use of the energy.

My goal here is to build a homestead based upon the principles of permaculture which, greatly simplified, means a life which is sustainable. There's no room in such a life for the wasteful use of resources. All of my gardening is done with hand tools, most of it is no-dig. Any area that I determine must be cleared of grass is cleared via sheet mulching or hand tools and a gass-less reel mower. My point is that the use of gas-powered tools is the exception to the rule and is a last resort.

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The Crash Course

Want to know more about the current economic situation and coming Depression? Check out the Crash Course by Chirs Martenson. This is a fantastic series of flash video/slide presentations that explains money, inflation, and the economy. Watch it and share it. This guy does a really excellent job of presenting the history and the current situation... everyone should watch this at least once. It is... STUNNING.

Pass it on.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Autumn Olive!!

Autumn Olive?Very cool! We've got Autumn Olives (Elaeagnus umbellata) all around here. The downside is that they can be invasive. The upside is that they are an incredibly good bush to have. The red berries are great tasting and highly nutritious consumed raw or cooked. They are nitrogen fixers as well which is, of course, a great contribution to the forest garden. I'm glad I am in the habit of not cutting plants and bushes down until I've identified them. I discovered long ago that far too many plants are likely to be useful and that cutting them down without knowing is usually a mistake. My forest gardens just got better and I didn't have to do a thing!

Plants for a Future, an excellent plant database, has an entry for Autumn Olive.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Alone in the Woods

Well, not entirely alone. I do have the world's best dog with me. I also get almost daily visits from various relatives that live about a mile away and visit them as well. I'd say that since moving down here (May 23) I've averaged 2 hours a day (during the week) with nearby humans. I've also had ten or so weekend visits from my sister and her family as well as a visit from my brother but more than half of the weekends have been just me. So, not entirely alone but mostly alone.

But not lonely. I'm fairly certain that I'm a good fit for this kind of life. It's not that I like being by myself, just that I don't mind it... am not freaked out by it as many seem to be. I've been single since 2003 and have felt no great need to seek a relationship. I made a decision long ago that I would not have children and I suppose that decision removes one reason for needing a relationship. That said, there certainly are times when I would not mind having a daily partner in life and in some ways I think life would feel more complete or whole that way. But I don't feel that I need it.

Back around 1990 I read a book, Thinking Like the Mountain, which had a profound effect on my perception of self. I tend to think of self as more than just this body (which is itself more than one organism) or even this named person that has evolved a personality. Self is in flux both physically and mentally. We don't exist alone. Ever. Alone is a false condition or state of the mind... an emotional feeling. We are in a constant state of physical exchange and connection when we breath, eat, sweat, pee, and poop.

More than that, we have our senses that are tools, with the mind, that enable us to be aware of all the life that surrounds us. As I type this I hear several birds outside my door at various distances and with various songs which are really conversations. I hear a constant song of crickets as a background music. A step out into the garden and I would most likely hear the various bees as they buzz from flower to flower. These sounds are constant and always changing in the spring, summer, and much of the fall. In the winter it grows still but even then the sounds of the wind and chirping of the birds at meal time are steady reminder's of our planet's energy and life force.

In addition to the constantly changing conversations coming into my ears I can see what my neighbors are up to. I can watch the orchard spider weave its web or catch its lunch. I can watch the butterfly nectaring from a group of asters. When I walk into my garden I see small frogs and lizards busy in their food search. When I turn the compost I can observe the goings on of crickets, millipedes, centipedes, fungi, earthworms, spiders and countless others. In addition to the animal life I can see the wildflowers, fruit trees, and garden plants as they intertwine with one another and surrounding structures.

Of course it doesn't stop with hearing and seeing. I can smell and taste too. There is the blended smell of country fresh air full of invisible pollen which is wonderful but hard to describe. There are the specific smells of the various herbs in the spiral garden: mint, thyme, oregano, sage and more. In the woods there are the specific scents of wild rose, sweet william and bee balm among many others. Then of course there is the eating! Wild and garden alike, there are peppery nasturtiums, lemony tart wood sorrel, nutty arugala, sweet bell pepper, juicy peaches... I can harvest and within seconds plop leaves and fruits into my mouth. The energy of the sun and the minerals of the soil synthesized into plants full of vitamins and enzymes enter my body which instantly begins the process of digestion. Of course these foods taste fantastic and often the scent blends with the taste as with the distinctive aroma of living tomato vines and their fruit.

As I forage through the woods and garden I am distinctly aware that not only am I not lonely, I am not alone at all. I am surrounded by life and am a part of it. We humans seem to have forgotten that we are animals too. Homo sapiens are but another species on this planet and to remember that we are animals is to also remember that we belong on this earth, evolved from it and are nurtured by it. We are of it in millions of years of ongoing evolutionary process as well as daily life processes. Our bodies are earth and the connection is inseparable.

Alone in the woods? Not at all. I am alive in the woods.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Permaculture Guilds

Parasitic Wasp on Garlic Chives

As the summer begins to move into autumn I continue to harvest a variety of vegetables. I also set up a new keyhole bed near the cabin, the third in a series and planted it with cabbage and kohlrabi. Next on the list is to order a few berry bushes, probably currants and gooseberries to be planted as the shrub layer in the forest garden south of my cabin.

I'm also reading through a variety of books: Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden, Patrick Whitefield's
How to Make A Forest Garden and Permaculture: A Designers' Manual by Bill Mollison.

It is often recommended in permaculture texts that chives as well as a variety of plants that have umbrella type flowers be planted under fruit trees so that the parasitic wasps have habitat and will more likely be around to control fruit tree pests. Pictured here is a parasitic wasp on the garlic chives in my spiral herb bed. Next spring I'll be planting chives and dill as a part of the fruit tree centered guilds in the forest garden. I'm also leaving many pockets of native grasses and wildflowers such as Queen Anne's Lace which grows everywhere around here and which provide fantastic insect habitat.

One Straw Revolution has an excellent Primer on Permaculture Guilds::
Guilding is one of the coolest gardening aspects of Permaculture theory. In Nature plants are grouped in small, reoccurring but loosely defined communities that are often referred to as guilds. A full guild can be said to have seven layers-each specifically designed to use one aspect of both the sun and root strata. On top will be the Large Trees, followed by the low trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, groundcovers, and finally ‘root’ plants. But Gaia is subtle, and the coordination goes far deeper than resource use. Each participant in the guild brings a wealth of diversity to the table. The tall tree may house small animals that distribute seeds for them, and the shrub layer may provide feed for birds that use the low trees for nesting habitat and feed on insects that prey on the large trees. Plants in the herb layer may fix nitrogen for all to use, and the ‘root’ plants may seek out pockets of nutrients in the soil that are made available to others in the guild as their foliage decomposes. Some plants will attract pollinators, others predatory insects. Some will act as mulch plants by creating excess biomass that regenerates the soil, while their neighbors may act as fortress plants protecting the entire guild from the encroachment of outside species. The inter-connectivity is how nature works-nice tidy systems that sufficiently supply the community with all of its needs given water and sunlight and a proper climate.

I'm fairly happy with the progress I've made in the first three months of our permaculture project. Of course it is just the beginning and we have just scratched the surface but given the economic and energy situation I'm glad to have gotten started. I see no reason for optimism in regards to energy or economy anytime in the near future. I don't dwell on it though. I'm happy to be living here and happy to be doing the work that I'm doing. I know it is just a small effort but it is what I can do so I'll do it.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Weekly Garden Update

I've been harvesting lots of produce from the kitchen garden: chard, lettuce, tomatoes, yellow summer squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. The basil will be ready soon as will bell peppers. I've also got lots of greens that should be ready for harvest in a couple weeks: arugula, kale and a few others. Other fall crops that were just planted: broccoli, spinach, radishes, and sugar snap peas. I've just ordered garlic and onions which will be planted soon.

I've also started the fall phase of the forest garden with cardboard and straw mulch. In September I'll be planting a variety of berry bushes for the shrub layer: currants, gooseberries and a few others.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Cabin Progress

Cabin InteriorWe made a bit more progress with the cabin this past weekend. Specifically I finished putting up the insulation and Greg put up the interior paneling and most of the trim. Next on the list is finishing the trim and then a sleeping loft and shelving. I've also got to decide if I want to stain, paint, or clear coat the walls which are plywood beadboard. I've seen some paint/glaze effects that look nice on beadboard. I had not planned on painting it but I'm not sure that I like the look of this wood.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Books for self reliance

Interested in books about gardening and self reliance? Here's a list to get you started:

The Encyclopedia of Country Living - Carla Emory
How to grow more vegetables - John Jeavons
The Soul of Soil - Grace Gershuny
Gaia's Garden - Toby Hemenway and John Todd
How to Make A Forest Garden - Patrick Whitefield
Permaculture in a Nutshell - Patrick Whitefield
Peterson Field Guides Medicinal Plants and Herbs
Permaculture: A Designers' Manual - Bill Mollison
Perennial Vegetables - Eric Toensmeier
Edible Forest Gardens - Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier

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Zucchini and Cukes!!

I moved into the cabin on May 23rd, so as of tomorrow 11 weeks. I started the garden on the 24th. It's been slow going in the garden as I've only added a fairly small bit of compost and most plants and seeds were put in a bit later than normal. If I'd gotten it going three weeks earlier I have no doubt that I'd be much further along in the harvest. That said, I'm now harvesting tomatoes, yellow squash, and as of tomorrow my first zucchini as well as the first cucumber. I should also be harvesting the first basil and cilantro soon. The pumpkins are also getting blooms now so hopefully they'll produce a few fruit. The black-eye peas are coming along and I may get a bit of harvest there as well. Better late than never, eh?

I've taken a peak beneath the cardboard/straw mulch that I laid out early on and it looks like the earthworms have been busy! This fall or early spring I'll be adding a new layer of manure or compost as well as more cardboard and straw to continue the process into next summer. The compost pile is doing well and should be ready to use very soon. Given the soil improvements and better timing I have little doubt that next year's garden will be much more productive!

I'll also be planting far more plants as well as more varieties of both veggies and herbs. I can probably triple or quadruple the amount grown in this current space. While I'm currently growing around 15 different veggies and herbs (not including the herbs in the spiral bed) next year I plan to have at least 50 - 70 different species in this kitchen garden area including lots of flowers. Not only will this provide a greater variety of food but the mix of colors and scents should help confuse insect pests. We'll also be adding more varieties to the forest garden, more on that later.

A note about pests. I'm definitely seeing a bit of damage but so far it's not been too bad. Japanese beetles of course and they seem to be hanging around the plums and apples. I've been catching them into a bowl and then squish! I've also found stink bugs on the tomatoes and am taking care of them by hand. Last, I've found a few clusters of squash bug eggs and squash bugs on the yellow squash. I've taken care of those by hand as well. I've probably missed a few things but it really has been pretty minimal. I've got clusters of rocks scattered here and there for lizard habitat. In June I found several lizard egg clusters in the garden and have seen plenty of young northern fence lizards in the past week. Also lots of frogs in the garden. My hope is that these critters will help with the pests. So far no rabbit or deer damage!

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Growing into tomorrow

Over the years I've spent countless hours reading, learning and speculating about the future of humanity and the planet we call earth. In my first years of college in 1988-1990 I first started learning about the human rights movement, alternative agriculture, and the budding american Green movement. I founded a Green local in my college town, Kirksville, MO and I began to identify myself as an activist. Between my time away from family as well as this fundamental shift in my identity I began to notice a crack which became a gulf in how I related to my fellow humans and they to me.

Looking back I've come to realize that the "activist" is actually a strange phenomena. In a participatory democracy, there would not be a need for "activists" which are really just citizens which are involved in the community process of self-government. In a participatory democracy all citizens are active. The republic that we have today is, of course, a far, far cry from a real democracy. To suggest that it is democratic is to twist and pervert the word to such a degree that it no longer resembles its original meaning. (It was never a participatory democracy at all, but a republic that was supposedly controlled by citizens via representatives via "democratic" elections. But really, the differences, while important, are another topic for another time.)

Over the years (most notably beginning after WWII and the rise of suburbia) the people of United States have been taught that life is about the American Dream. It is about being happy which comes with certain material possessions as well as a neatly defined nuclear family of husband, wife, and kids. Of course the American Dream is open-ended and the list of material possessions grows and grows and is never completed. In accepting the American Dream as our way of life we gave up citizenship and became consumers who were no longer concerned with the serious responsibilities of being involved in government. In allowing ourselves be redefined we gave up power to those who did the redefining: the wealthy upper-class which controlled corporate capitalism and the state.

The role of "activist" came about because there are still citizens that strive to be actively engaged. I've come to realize that the disdain and outright hostility that I've faced as an activist is a fairly common experience and is related, at least in part, to the psychological and life investments made by the majority of people in the U.S. People went along for the ride. They were offered a way of life and they took it. They may not have even realized what was happening. My parents are a good example. They were a product of their socialization and they accepted what was put before them as the normal way of life. The development of suburbia and a shift to consumerism were the next steps to be taken after the Great Depression and the emergence of the U.S. as a world power after WWII. My parents got their jobs, bought their car and home then started having children. They moved, kept their jobs, bought another car and continued to raise their kids. They invested their lifetimes in this way of life. They believed in this way of life. My two siblings followed suit with their own families, jobs, homes, cars, pools and kids.

Imagine the emotional response of having that way of life criticized. By definition an activist (active citizen) is critical and vocal. The role of the citizen is to strive towards informed and ethical decision making for the community good. It is an unfortunate fact that to be an active citizen in our society often leads to separation from the majority in thought and behavior in part because we are often considered to be "judgmental" which, of course, we are. We do "judge" in the sense that we form opinions and conclusions regarding the everyday life around us. Being an active citizen is a never ending process of responsibility which leaves no stone unturned. It means looking at how we get things done: transport, growing of food, production of material goods, etc. and making determinations of how those actions and systems are working or not working.

In the 20 or so years that I've considered myself an active citizen I have consistently been met with resistance. Most people are not open to the idea that their way of life requires the suffering of others. It's not comfortable or convenient because it implies a sense of guilt about both the system and the people who are a part of it. If a way of life is implicitly unfair and unsustainable and we willingly participate in it what does that say about us?

With the arrival of peak oil, climate change, and serious economic crisis all at the same time, many people are seeing the cracks in the way of life that they have taken as a given. As the cracks begin to expand and the system crumbles the whole gamut of emotional and mental states will run its course through the "consumers" of this nation. I suspect that anger, fear and confusion will dominate. The process is already well under way and if we're lucky it will continue to unwind slowly. If that is the case then perhaps panic and violence will give way to community-based movements of cooperation. I don't hold out much hope for this. The shift in our way of life is going to be monumental. Every aspect of how we live is about to change as the cultural, political and ecological repercussions of the past 60+ years step onto the stage. Perhaps the two most significant differences between the Great Depression of the last century and this "Long Emergency" (as James Kunstler refers to it) are the planet's population of 6.5 billion people and dwindling fossil fuel resources.

Eleutheros of the excellent blog How Many Miles from Babylon describes it as a
shift in paradigm :

Facing the realities of our immediate future calls for a shift in the paradigm, a shift in thinking, a shift in the mindset.

We are mentally conditioned to think that we would be happier, more comfortable, in a larger over heated and over cooled house. We think prepackaged food is vastly easier to prepare. We think a food processor is a hundred times easier than a knife. Of course this farmstead is on the lunatic fringe. We have experimented with cutting all the firewood we need for heating and cooling with hand tools. It's some more work, to be sure, but not much. Yet in the imagination of the uninitiated, a chainsaw is many hundreds of times less work.

On this farmstead 85% of our food involves zero food-miles and almost all the rest is bought bulk, we use very little electricity and no commercial gas or other fuels. We wear used clothing. We drive bottom feeder vehicles and those only very rarely. Yet how much do we impact global energy and resource use? None, negligible at any rate. The random motion of molecules accounts for more fuel savings that we do in the scheme of things. What we represent is not some quantified amount of energy and resources saved, but rather a complete paradigm shift from the consumerist world.

I've said many times before that I think it is far too late to stop what is coming. It is a done deal. The question is how will we handle ourselves as this amazing shift in our way of life occurs. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we learn and share the skills necessary for survival? Will we step out of our air-conditioned lives and do the work that is now required? Billions of people on planet earth deal directly with survival issues every single day. They know hunger, thirst, extreme cold and heat... for them, survival is not a reality television show but a fact of everyday life.

When fossil fuel based agriculture fails and the shelves remain empty will we eat the drywall of our over-sized homes or will we learn to grow and preserve food the way our ancestors did? I wonder how many people have a basic understanding of how to garden and preserve food? How many have actually tried it and thus have an awareness of how much can actually be grown on any given amount of land or how much time is required? What about growing from seeds and saving seeds for the next season? Will they have access to gasoline and a tiller to prepare the soil or will they double dig by hand or sheet mulch with cardboard? Do they know about squash bugs or japanese beetles? What will they do about water during times of drought? Will a nation of people used to consuming fast food and microwaveable box dinners even know what to do with the vegetables that they've grown? How long will it take them to learn to enjoy real, whole and healthy food?

As individual people we have a lot of growing to do. As individuals that inhabit rural roads or streets in towns and cities, we'll need to develop better relationships with neighbors which can then be grown into communities.

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Sunday, July 27, 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 2x4, 2x6, and 2x8 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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Thursday, July 24, 2008

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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