Monday, September 21, 2009

Fertility in progress...

Shelf fungi in the food forestThis has been my first summer garden with chickens and those that have followed along know the various issues I've had ranging from the size of the flock being too large as well as issues with free ranging chickens doing a bit too much damage to seedlings. Throughout this summer I've been experimenting, observing and thinking. Things improved greatly when we cut the flock size down from 25 to 15, the latter being much closer to my original plan. As of a month or so ago I started free ranging the smaller flock with just a bit of fencing to encourage them to stay in one area for most of the day. By evening the range down to the rest of the garden and other areas but by now the original forage area has had time to recover and I've also planted white and red clover which is growing nicely. With the expanded forage area they do less damage wherever they are and the positive benefit of the work they do tilling and turning is more of a positive then a negative.

This photo of Irene's detailing protection from chickens using a grill made from chestnuts branches is a perfect example of one improvised method for adapting to free range chickens and funnily enough I started doing something similar using sticks poked into the ground and big chunks of bark that I gather after splitting wood for winter heating. My food forest looks... how shall I put it? More interesting? Below you'll see a recent image of the food forest with yarrow, self heal and little purple coneflowers planted around the paw paws and june berries. Also three rhubarbs and three comfrey are planted and growing well. Last, clover and various greens planted in the berm are all doing well.

Food Forest
I look around and I see so much organic matter: straw, wood chips, sticks, bark as well as growing fertility such as comfrey, chickory, autumn olives and clover. Then there are the many animal contributions: chickens, guineas, a goose and a deer pooping and scratching and leaving nitrogen rich feathers everywhere. I have little doubt that the fertility of the soil all around the homestead is being greatly increased with all of the new ingredients and activities. Mushrooms and shelf fungi are also sprouting up everywhere which is a good indicator.

I've also started the second block in our humanure composting grid. Each block gets one year's worth of humanure and then sits for an additional 2 years (a total of 3 years) for complete composting. Eventually that compost will be used on the blueberries, juneberries and whatever other fruit bushes and trees we've got. My guess is that we could use it sooner but I'm not in any hurry.

It's been a slow process of fertility building as I never brought in any manure. All of the on site fertility is still in the process of either growing or breaking down from cardboard, newspaper, straw and wood chips. The soil in areas which have had mulch in place since last year are looking greatly improved. As of next spring we will have something like 35 comfrey plants going into their second year which means they'll be producing quite a bit of fertility.




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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Loretta

You were saying?I'm not sure how to say this. I think I'm in love with a goose. Is that strange?

I kid. Really though, she is quite a sweet goose and I am very fond of her. She started hanging out here in early August and has been here every day since. I started calling her Loretta the second or third day she was here. It somehow seemed to fit. She leaves every night to sleep somewhere else, not sure where but she flies off towards the lake and I lose sight of her so my guess is she's fairly close by. I don't know where geese prefer to sleep. In any case, she is here most of the day and the little darling has stolen my heart. She follows me around when I'm out doing chores. When I bend over towards her and say her name she smiles. I kid you not. Well, not exactly a smile but she opens her mouth sticks out her tongue and squeeks. And no, this is definitely not the defensive hiss that geese use when threatened. This is something else and it is entirely adorable. She also has decided that I am edible and will nibble on my legs, ankles, toes, etc which tickles unless she get's carried away and starts pulling hair or a grabs a bit too hard on a toe or two.

One day during her first week here I was in the outhouse doing my business and up she came. She can't step up so she did this funny little hop up the two stairs and proceeded to come into the outhouse and then sit on my foot. Literally sat down on my foot and remained there. It was all I could do to not burst out laughing.

I have no idea where Loretta came from or how long she'll stay but I hope she stays around for a good long while. With characters like her around the smiles come easily.



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Basil, Basil, Basil

Oodles of basilAh yes, lots of basil these days. I planted several varities including thai, lemon and cinnamon as well as the standard genovese. I've got a bit drying but mostly I've been making gobs of pesto. Mostly I've eaten it as I make it but I've frozen a bit too. Still have lots more to blend up for winter meals. I absolutely love this stuff. Not only are the plants absolutely beautiful with their abundant, lush leaves but they grow so easily.




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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Welcoming natives and critters into our garden

This is the sixth 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 benefits of using natural forest ecosystems as models for no-till, sheet mulched gardens. This time around I’d like to extend on the idea of learning from nature to help us understand the beneficial roles of native plants and critters in our garden. The critters I’m most interested in seeing in my garden are small and usually very colorful. Birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, and insects are a part of almost any ecosystem in the Midwest and they are welcome in my permaculture garden anytime.

My guess is that some of you might be shaking your heads at the thought of inviting insects into your garden. Today’s gardeners and farmers have been taught that insects are an enemy of any effort to grow food crops and a huge industry has made a great profit from that way of thinking. Over the years corporations such as Monsanto have been very happy to sell gardeners a stew of chemical insecticides intended to eliminate any kind of insect life in the garden or around the home.

Permaculture approaches gardening very differently. In fact, from the perspective of permaculture the annual vegetable garden is just one part of a much larger integrated site design which also preserves and recovers natural biodiversity. In such an ecological landscape annual food crops such as tomatoes, squash, and corn are likely to be interplanted with native perennial wildflowers such as Purple Coneflower, Butterfly Milkweed, Bee Balm, Yarrow, Goldenrod, and Spiderwort. By creating a design using native perennials we ensure a steady supply of food for beneficial insects which perform many duties in the ecosystem including the fullest possible pollination of our crops. Yet another function of many of these native plants is as medicine for us. Purple Coneflower is perhaps one of the better known medicinals, its leaves and roots can be harvested for tea and tinctures for stimulating the immune system.

It is true that insects harmful to our crops do show up but in a well developed, healthy ecosystem the treatment for those insects is, of course, other insects. While ladybugs are perhaps the most well known predator of insects such as aphids there are a great many more beneficial predators that are likely to call our gardens and food forests home. Parasitic insects such as flies and small wasps such as braconids lay their eggs inside of other insects which are then eaten by the hatching larvae. As adults these insects consume pollen and nectar.

Yet another member of our community are spiders which act as a valuable control of the insect population and, as it happens, prefer the dark moist environment of a mulched garden. Round out this eco-community with lizards, frogs and toads which will do their part as well. These critters will also benefit from a thickly mulched garden as well as small piles of rocks placed around the garden. Even better, build a small garden pond in or near the garden which will not only provide habitat for the reptiles and amphibians but will provide a space to grow more food crops for you. An example is Broad-leaved Arrowhead, Saggittaria latifolia which provides us with edible tubers which
can be eaten like potatoes and which have a few medicinal uses. Lizard’s Tail is another easy to grow pond plant which has several medicinal uses.

Our feathered friends, wild and domestic, are another part of the surrounding ecosystem as well as our permaculture design. Many of the native perennials which are beneficial to pollinating insects are also suppliers of seed to a fantastic variety of wild birds. In the summer and fall leave your dead coneflowers standing where they are and watch birds such as the American Gold Finch feast on the seed. Not only do the birds benefit from the nutrition but they’ll help spread the seeds around and you’ll start to notice new plants popping up without any help from you.

Chickens and guineas are fantastic consumers of ticks and insects, turning that source of protein into protein for us: eggs. Use a chicken tractor to move them around different areas and they will till the ground with their constant scratching and leave behind manure which increases the fertility of our garden.

Because permaculture designers take a broader view of the “garden” as just one part in a larger system, the variety of multiple yields is much greater. Once a permaculture system is established it should produce more energy than it consumes which is largely the result of taking an approach that recognizes the possible connections between organisms in our system and which seeks to maximize their output to our benefit.


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Not an orchard, a food forest!

This is the seventh 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 previous articles I’ve touched on the idea of learning from natural forest ecosystems to aid us in our gardening. I’ve discussed no-till sheet mulching which emulates the thick layer of decaying materials found on the forest floor as well as the benefits of using native plants to foster a healthy population of pollinating insects and other critters. I’ve also discussed the idea of creating guilds of trees and plants which work well together. I’d like to build on these previous articles to discuss the importance of including fruit trees, fruit bushes, and vines as well as perennial vegetables in the design of a food producing system that goes beyond the standard fruit tree orchard.

Before I really delve into the article let me ask a question that’s been nagging at me for quite awhile: why do we not have fruit trees and fruit bushes planted in every yard and park in America? For a very small investment of time and money fruiting trees and bushes will produce a fantastic amount of fresh, tasty and healthy food for many years. I suppose you could say that money really does grow on trees. Now, let’s get to it.

A food forest is not an orchard. The standard fruit orchard is often planted in neat rows of trees of the same species surrounded by a tidy lawn of grass. There are several problems with this scenario. First, fruit trees do better when they do not have to compete with grass lawns. Such lawns do nothing to support the pollination of the fruit trees nor are they much use to other beneficial insects which can help control the populations of insect pests. Even more, the lawn is a waste of growing area which could be producing even more food for us. The orchard is really a model for large scale agriculture which provides easy access for quick maintenance and harvest of one primary crop.

The food forest is a completely different model with a different goal: a healthy forest-modeled ecosystem with a diverse yield. While food forests can be quite large, anyone with at least a small yard can easily create a highly productive food forest that will yield not just fruit but also herbs and salad greens for medicine and food. The food forest starts with one or two fruit or nut trees. If limited space is an issue these can be semi-dwarf or dwarf trees. The area surrounding these trees should be heavily sheet mulched from the start. As you add to your “forest” you can easily poke through the mulch with a spade or shovel.

Imagine the structure of a natural forest. Large canopy trees are surrounded by a lower layer of smaller trees which are in turn surrounded by a layer of lower shrubs which are surrounded by a layer of plants which are often surrounded by ground covers. Interspersed in these layers are vines which often grow up the largest of the trees in search of sunlight. In our food forest we will create these layers and by doing so more efficiently use the vertical space around our fruit trees. We can surround our full size fruit trees with semi-dwarf or dwarf trees and around these we can plant a fantastic variety of berries: currants, gooseberries, blueberries, juneberries, and black elderberries are a few to choose from. The next layer would be comprised of perennial herbs, vegetables, flowers as well as self-seeding annuals: comfrey, fava beans, borage, loveage, good king henry, chives, dill and cilantro. This layer provides us with food and medicine as well as insect habitat which will increase pollination and control of insect pests. The next layer would be the lowest growing plants such as strawberries, nasturtiums, lingonberries, and thyme. The vine layer might include hardy kiwis, grapes, clematis, wisteria, cucumbers, peas and beans.

In designing such a food forest we want to think about the best use of vertical space as well as light and the evolution of our system through time. In the early years of our food forest our fruit trees and bushes are smaller and offer little shade. During this time we can take advantage of the sunlight by planting a variety of large leaf annuals such as squashes which will not only offer us a high yield of vegetables but also provide ground cover. At the end of the growing season the plants can be chopped and dropped for an excellent fall mulch. Four or five years into the system and we’ll begin to see far less sunlight as the system matures and any sun loving annuals will have to be planted along the southern edges.

Of particular note when planning a food forest (or any garden really) is a very special plant: comfrey (which probably deserves an entire article do discuss the many benefits). Easy to grow from seed, after it is established for a couple of years this fast growing perennial will develop a fantastic root system which draws up minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil and accumulates them in its thick, fleshy leaves. Three to four times in a growing season you can chop it down to the ground and use all of those leaves as mulch around your fruit trees. In four to six days they will turn into a goopy brown sludge that delivers all those minerals and nutrients to the top levels of the soil providing a great benefit to your trees, bushes and other plants. You can also dump the comfrey leaves into buckets of water at let them stew for a couple of weeks into a tea which can be strained into a sprayer and used as a foliar spray which can be directly applied to any plants in your garden for a quick boost. The high protein leaves can also be fed in small amounts to chickens though there is some debate about feeding them large amounts over long periods of time as it may be toxic to the liver.

Other considerations in choosing our trees, shrubs and plants might be soil conditions and use of plants which might be invasive. If soil is poor a bit more time might be required as a succession of species can be planted that will help improve the soil for the fruit trees. In addition to comfrey, nitrogen fixing plants such as alfalfa, clover, peas, blue false indigo or shrubs such as siberian pea shrub and autumn olive or tree legumes such as black locust will all improve the soil. When choosing soil improvement species special care should be taken with non-native species which may be invasive such as autumn olive which can quickly get out of control and spread to other properties. Our permaculture homestead has well established and large population of autumn olives and they do produce an abundance of very tasty berries but I will be gradually cutting them back as the majority of them are replaced with less aggressive fruit bushes. Other strategies for soil improvement include heavy mulching and rainwater harvesting with swales.

In the early years of a food forest a bit of care is required, mostly pruning and mulching but this work is made easier by planting mulch materials nearby for quick chop and drop. Once established a food forest is, for the most part, self maintaining thanks to the increasing shade and leaf litter of the trees and bushes that contribute to the mulch layer. All that is required is a bit of pruning, harvesting and cut back of plants of established plants. If left alone the system might become crowded but will still continue to produce an amazing amount of food with absolutely no energy or time input from us.


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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Rooted in a place

Several weeks ago I finally made the short journey down to see Roger's place. I'd met Roger this past fall through Ruth Ann and the Cowboy Coffee. It's funny actually, the first or second time I'd gone into the coffee shop Roger was at the far end with Ruth and Juli and they were dancing and goofing off and it was at that moment that I knew that the coffee shop was going to be my favorite reason to drive into town.

Since then I've had some great conversations with Roger and he occasionally mentioned his farm south of town in the foothills of the Ozarks. It was obvious the very first time he told me some of the story of his family and this farm that this was a connection to the land far deeper than the norm. Of course, really, that's not saying much is it? We live in a time when the norm seems to be constant migration with little to no connection to the land. Family farms and land based living has declined steadily for many decades. The norm today is the suburban subdivision or a place in the city. There are rarely any kind of long term connections formed to these places as they are simply meant for relatively short term occupancy by any one family, often 15 years or less.

Roger and his family have woven a different kind of story which is based on an intimacy with a landscape that is hard to really understand. His family first began living there in the mid 1800s and have been there ever since. Roger grew up there and continues to live in a house he built in the 1980s. The house he grew up in, built around the turn of the last century, is a stone's throw away and is his son's home today.

On the day of our trip my time was a bit limited so I got the "short" tour. I think we were there for maybe 1.5 hours and having seen what I saw in that time I know that it was the short tour. One could easily spend a day there. Or a lifetime. This is no ordinary place. As we walked and drove around Roger narrated with fantastic detail the various stories of the generations of his family.

The farm is deep down in a valley and feels protected, cradled by the hills. It stays cooler down here. The soil is pretty rocky too though there are quite a few areas which have been cultivated over the years.


We started with the beautiful white two story turn of the century home that he grew up in and then slowly moved further into the landscape and as we went the stories he told went further back in time. There are three springs on the property which, over the years, served as the family's primary water source. In fact, the proximity to the springs was a primary reason for the location of the homestead. At one of these I bent down and for the first time in my life cupped my hands to drink the sweet water from a cold, natural spring. It flowed from under a tree into the rocky creek gravel. Fantastic.

From there we worked our way down the creek to the original family house which had been cut into three sections and moved from the original location further back which we also saw towards the end of our tour. This was an old, old house. Roger's grandfather's bedroom was left as it was when he died many years ago and given the state of the house and lack of windows seemed surprisingly intact. Roger told me of another spring that had been directed to the house using a pipe and showed me the buried tub that had been used to keep fish after they had been caught and before being eaten. In the cold flowing creek just outside the house a very nice bit of water cress was growing and I enjoyed several bites. I'm going to have to see if I can get some of that growing here because it was very tasty!!

Something else that Roger was sure to point out were the trees. So many wonderful trees were growing here! There was a nice mix of very old and young trees as well and the diversity of species was really fantastic. I'd imagine that it would be very interesting to explore the evolution of the land here in much greater detail. Roger knows trees and he knows the trees growing on the farm with great intimacy. In fact, he seems to know every inch of the land which brings me to the heart of this post. While I was in awe of the beauty of this landscape I think it was Roger's connection to it that really struck me.

To spend an entire lifetime in one place seems very rare these days. That it is such a beautiful place and one that has served as a home for so many generations of a family only deepens an already profound relationship. I cannot really fathom such intimacy with the land. Those of you that know me or that read this blog you know my current adventure trying to co-create this permaculture homestead. I've barely been here a year and I already feel more at home. This is a place I spent many of my childhood summers and so there is that connection too. But my childhood memories and my knowledge of my ancestors includes several states and cities and many different yards and homes. There is no long term base for our family.

From the old family house we passed the remains of an old wagon worked our way down and through various pastures and to the creek where there were many beautiful pawpaws growing. Roger relayed the story of the all-day trip to pick-up the wagon from Farmington which, like another story about his grandfather walking to Mine La Motte (20+ miles each way), really gives perspective to life without the combustion engine. It also serves as a reminder of what the automobile has done to change our relationship to the natural world around us. You don't see many details, smell any honeysuckle, or hear the song of birds when you travel in an air conditioned bubble at 60 mph.

The creek served as a place to swim, play and get cleaned up and I can't imagine a better place to spend an afternoon. As we crossed the creek on foot to see the steep hillside opposite of the field I was again reminded of the amazing diversity of species in the area. I think if I were to spend much more time there I would begin getting a sense of the patterns and history of the plants and trees but in such a short time it was too much to take in. On the far side of the field away from the creek was a pine covered hill and small pond, an ideal area for blueberries I'd imagine. It was around this time that we circled back and my tour ended.

I look forward to another trip down there when I have more time to take in the details without feeling so overwhelmed. As I come to the end of this post I can't help but feel that I'm missing something. I think when you've had a glimpse of something like this, something special with a history you also leave with questions. History is a story and an old homestead such as this feels like a window or, more accurately, a door that can be stepped through. Having Roger there to tell the history no doubt deepens the appreciation and understanding even as the stories evoke a sense of the unknown. In a strange way it is also a very direct connection to the ongoing flow of history. Roger is a part of it. We all are.

“Time is an enormous, long river and I am standing in it just as you are standing in it. My elders were the tributaries and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, every song they created and every poem they laid down flows down to me and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, take the time to reach out I can build that bridge between my world and theirs, I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world.”
--Utah Phillips from the song Bridges