Thursday, February 13, 2014

Some of this and some of that

We are getting ready for another storm here.  I feel grateful that I do not have to be to work today. I plan to spend some time baking, maybe some handwork and some reading and some homework for
my class. Tomorrow I will have to find my way to work in the snow. But today is yarn, tea and bread...yum!

Last semester I took a class in Organic Vegetable production. As part of that class I conducted some interviews with some local farmer's.  I am excited to announce that the local daily online paper is going to publish them.  When that happens I will post a link here.  I had such a great time talking with the farmer's about their cultural practices and their approach to marketing. There is so much great stuff happening in in the local foods movement in my area and it would be exciting to get the word out.

This past weekend I went to the 4th Annual Seed Savers Conference at the University of Maine in Farmington. I learned a lot and it was nice to go and be with people and friends that are looking to preserve seed for themselves and for us. With large corporations buying up seed companies at an alarming rate (43% of all seed by some estimates) it becomes even more important that we learn to close this loop. And its kinda fun. It is easy to get started with some seeds like tomatoes. And it saves money too!

Finally, I am not sure if I shared our new friend. This is Shadow. She is 11 years old. She is called Shadow because she follows you around like a shadow. She's a very sweet girl and is well loved!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

By Design part 3

In the By Design Part 2 I shared my observations of my homestead. My goal in this post is to look at ways I can close the loops between coop, compost bins, gardens and house. 
     Why would I want to do this? It seems like it could be a lot of work. One of the promises of permaculture is that the initial investment of sweat equity helps to create self-sustaining systems. This is appealing to me now that I am endeavoring this venture on my own. I don't want to be rid of the work of the homestead ( thoughts I will share in a future post). Instead, my goal is to allow the system I have already invested in  with labor, perennials, soil building to work better. Some of this would include better management of current connections to reduce waste and make more efficient use with what already exists her. In all honesty this past year took more psychic energy from the homestead. Now that the spirit is returning to center I feel a renewed energy.   
     So first I would like to build a better yard for the chickens. This would take some fence post resetting and some chicken wire. The only cash outlay for this will be a couple of rounds of chicken wire which will cost about 30.00 and maybe another box of staples for the staple gun.   My hope is to get some more laying hens this year to round out the ladies I already have. I also want to grow some meat birds this spring as well.  A better yard will allow them to venture out doors during sunny winter days which equates to more sun and day light which, ultimately, means more eggs.
     What goes into the chicken coop is bedding, feed, food scraps and water. I will be getting more mulch hay from my alpaca farmer friends again so bedding is all set. This is free and would otherwise be thrown in the woods to break down. Feed is still an outside input but I can supplement the summer feed with mowed clover from the orchard. I tried growing mangel wurtzle beets ( feed beets) a couple of years ago and may grow a row or two this year to see if they would work to supplement winter feed. Water is hauled from the rain barrel connected to the house but I I have collected a couple of food grade barrels over the last few years. I have some old gutter lying around and it would be an easy fix to put a small rain barrel on the back of their coop for easier watering in the summer. 
     What leaves the coop? Eggs, old bedding and poop. Instead of hauling the old bedding and poop to the compost bin I will use this as part of a plan I have for the garden where I will sheet mulch a back portion of the garden that has been underutilized for the last few years. Even if I am unable to get much planted in this spot due to the warm days slipping away it will still remain easy to tend. I will not have to mow or weed this bit of ground and I can always throw more mulch on top of the sheet mulch to suppress the weeds.
     What goes into the compost bin? Food scraps, leaves and garden waste. No outside inputs: by which I mean inputs from off the homestead. To make a good compost pile however requires a certain amount of attention. It should be turned every  3 weeks, it should be sifted in order to let unbroken down bits continue in that process and it should be watered if we are in a dry spell. There is the slow-motion compost pile. You  know the pile; stuff just gets thrown on it and at the end of the summer you take off the top, unfinished layers off to find some finished stuff to use. Toby Hemenway in his book Gaia's Garden gives a great description of how to build a compost pile and how to achieve finished compost in relatively short order with regular and consistent turnings. However he also suggests that while a " less turned pile won't rot dow as quickly as a more ambitiously forked one …each turing amps up microbial metabolism enormously. This drives the piles contents further down the two forked road of fully digested humus and totally mineralized nutrients. Mineralized nutrients can leach out of soil very quickly." Hemenway observed that a slower decomposition process provided nutrients longer. If it means there is one less chore to do on a hot summer day it means I can get to the lake sooner for a swim:) What leaves the compost pile then is slightly finished compost that I use to side dress perennials with which turns out to be just what I am already doing.   
     The gardens need a little more attention this year. I would like to take some of the early spring energy and devote it to the collection of leaves for mulching this year. In years past when I have done this I have found that the work of weeding and maintaining paths is greatly reduced. I also think that the soil and worms love the leaves as they break down. It is a free resource and feeds the soil with those nice deep minerals the trees tap into to feed themselves. 
     Eliot Coleman believes that by increasing the fertility of the soil the incidence of pest infestations is lowered.  Pests only go after poorly plants. I  learned some interesting facts about some companion plants and their benefits in my last class; organic vegetable production. For example I had heard that borage grown among tomato plants can serve as a tomato horn worm mitigator. Last year I noticed that where I had it planted I had fewer hornworm as opposed to other plants without any borage near it. I had wondered how this worked I had assumed that perhaps the texture of the borage leaves were too prickly for the soft bodies of the worms. Actually the borage attracts a beneficial wasp that thinks the horn worms are a tasty treat. So by exploiting connections that already exist I can lower the labor of pulling those gruesome beasties off my tomatoes. Borage now volunteers in my garden and is easy to transplant it to where I need it.
     My goal this year is to build a tool shed in the back corner of the garden for keeping buckets, and tools. I plan to use wooden pallets with maybe some 2'x6's  for the framing. I'd like a slight tilt to the roof so I can put another rainbarrel in the garden thereby decreasing the amount of labor that goes into watering my garden. Currently I haul water from the rainbarrel connected to the house.
     From the garden to the house I would like to make better use of what gets planted. Part of this requires a realignment in what I grow and how I preserve it. In terms of putting food by I want to concentrate on a majority of crops that will not take too much labor to put up. So lots of pumpkin and winter  squash. Brassicas grow well here and are easy to put in the freezer. I make a gallon of sauerkraut last year and I have found that to be a simple way of getting some really good healthy food into us for very little effort. So this year I would like to get a larger crock for making larger batches. Dilly beans and crock picks will also be on the list this year. I'd like to get better at keeping root crops because with the right combination of cool and moisture they can last a long time in the cold room. My electric dehydrator died last year and while I would love a solar dehydrator some day that may have to be for another year. But maybe another alternative will present itself. 

I'm sure that with a little more observation I will be able to see other connections. This is not a project that gets accomplished in one year but over many years as the homestead evolves into a collective of interconnected systems that nourish each other and us in the process.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

There is observing and then there is OBSERVING

In my last post I shared my observations in terms of understanding how systems work within my homestead and I thought before I continue with an understanding of the interdependence of these systems I would take another stab at observation. The observations of the last post were what I see with my eyes; observations I've gleaned from working with this land over several years now. But this doesn't get to the soul of the issue. And it is in the soul that I connect most viscerally with this lifestyle.

In the chicken coop the ladies sit perched on the piece of birch we have wedged in a back corner for their roost. At one end of the chicken row sits Fluffernutter the Rooster. A small guy, he is still master of these harem. I love to watch the little ladies as they venture out of the coop in the morning. At first their steps are hesitant and then assured as the strut around their yard I imagine hearing that song " Walk Like and Egyptian.' If I am in the yard when one of the girls announces the laying of an egg I will venture into the coop to gather the freshly laid, still warm treasure.

The compost bin is a gathering place of life. Inside the pile there are beetles, microorganisms, worms. On top of the pile a couple of red squirrels will fight over choice bits from the kitchen scraps. Often there is a sweet girl dog chasing the squirrels away. A form of sport for both critters I imagine. I have heard raccoons argue over the compost pile. The turning always brings to mind Yeats great Gyre for me. It is a marking of the passage of time. Bits  and pieces of past gardens, past meals, past seasons all layered with so much intention to be returned to soil. Turning turning…

I trod along the paths in the garden and love the feel of the hay under my bare feet. In the morning the eastern light will kiss the dew. I will pick whatever herbs or produce needs to be harvested that day and bring it inside to be put up or eaten later in the day. It is here that my mind wanders while I plant one small carrot seed after another or pull a weed or envision the garden in full bloom even though it is just spring. More often than not it is the infestation of cucumber beetles, the black flies swarming on those first really warm days of late spring, the dog trotting through a just planted row that will pull me from my reverie. But just for a little while and never with any great headache.It is part of the natural push and pull of this endeavor. Regardless it is that sense of accomplishment, of satisfying work, of a body tired from honest labor, of a reckoning at the end of the day where the tally is always positive that keeps me coming spring after spring to this spot of earth.

At night, in the summer, I lie awake in the dark. The moon cast shadows of the pine across the yard. In the woods around me I hear the coyotes yipping on a hunt and the barn owls share there moonlight serenade.  I will account for all that I got done during the day and all that I hope to finish in the morning. And I will know that It was a good day.

By Design Part 2

Permaculture design is a whole system approach to design. In order to understand the whole system one must observe what occurs within that system. If I were to look at the  homestead only as its individual corners I would miss connections that could be made between each corner. For example, lets look at four key areas to the homestead, the chicken coop, the compost pile, the garden and the house.

Currently the chickens are living in a chicken coop on the sorta southwest corner of the property. They require a fenced in yard for the spring so they don't eat the garden, they need to be mucked out, they require some feed to be purchased on a regular basis, they give eggs, they love to eat slugs, they like to eat food and garden scraps. They have not laid many eggs this winter because they are not getting enough day light with their current arrangement.  Next to the chicken coop is a small shed that was used for the ewes. The old paddock has been well fertilized. It is fenced in with welded wire and would be easily accessible to the chickens.

The compost bins are located at the northwest corner, along the tree line. They are used to collect any food scraps that the chickens do not eat; egg shells, coffee grounds, orange peels. I collect fallen leaves, grass clippings and garden waste to construct the compost piles.  There are two bins constructed from old pallets. I turn the piles but not as regularly as would be required to harvest finished compost regularly; however I do harvest compost sufficient to side dress perennials. 

If the house is at 6 o'clock then the vegetable garden is at 12 o'clock. In between the house and the garden is a perennial herb garden that I created by sheet mulching. This garden has mostly medicinal and culinary herbs and flowers. It is at a point where things are getting crowded and some of the perennials need to be divided. In this garden bee balm, mint and evening primrose have have firmly established in one key hole bed and maintain themselves fairly well. Elecampane, astragalus, feverfew, motherwort, arnica ,horehound, oregano need more room. 

Also in between the house and veggie garden is a fire pit constructed on one side with a large boulder, two other sides are built with large flat stones buried half way up. Around this is a former owner's former garden. In the spot is a variety of mint I have been unable to identify, there are paper whites and irises that come up. I have a big patch of comfrey here and some rosa rugosa. Among all this is black raspberry which does not really produce berries but does over take everything every year.

And then there is the veggie garden itself. The veggie garden has nettles, rhubarb, asparagus, good king henry, bunching onions and walking onions. and hops. It also has corners of the garden that are more acidic than others. At some point in the history of the ground it had a fire pit. This spot has the right balance between alkalinity and acidity. There is a tall field pine tree that shades the far southern corner. I have let some lettuce and chard go to seed for the last couple of years and now they reseed every year. Borage is firmly established as a volunteer every year as well.  Currently there are parsnips in the ground waiting for spring harvest. There are old trellising structures standing sentinel above the snow. There are some tools still out there because the snow fell before I managed to get them put away. There is no source of water close to the garden. The paths are mulched with mulch hay given to us by a local alpaca farm at the end of last winter. Garlic is planted. I planted some garlic from seed purchased last fall and bubils saved from the season before. Most of the beds were covered in composted sheep manure, lime and chopped leaves. Common pests are slugs, cucumber beetles, tomato hornworm, japanese beetles and mice.

To the left of the garden is a black berry patch, a small patch of everbearing raspberries, an elderberry bush that produced berries for the first time last year, a hazelnut bush that needs a mate and the orchard; with one tree with a small guild under it. This is on land that slopes gently down to the bottom of the orchard. The ground of the orchard has lots of red clover, yarrow, johhny jump ups and dandelions. Poison Ivy has taken hold on the north side of the orchard but so has burdock. The orchard consists of a dozen fruit trees 3 pears, 9 apples of mixed varieties. They are semi- dwarf  and over twenty years old.

Finally there is the house. If the flow of the land to all the productive corners of the property were to be considered petals on a flower, the house is the stamin producing the pollen for fertilization. From the house I cook and preserve the food that the garden and chickens produce. From the house the food waste feeds the chickens and the compost bin. From the land comes the food and firewood. The flow between these different areas is ongoing during the most productive times of the year.

In the next post I'll look at that flow as it exists now and ways to improve the flow to improve their integration.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

By Design Part 1

The idea of design is an interesting one for me at this juncture in my life. First it implies creativity. Homesteading is an inately creative pursuit. When the idea of homesteading first sparked my interest it was in my little 5'x 10" community garden plot in Portland, Maine. While my initial interest in gardening sprouted from the ability to grow fresh food for Tristan and myself and save some money; I also learned that what I planted and how I planted it could create a tiny, beautiful little oasis from a hectic life. My mind could wander while my body tilled and weeded. Lines of poetry would form when the osprey that nested on a nearby train trestle, caught thermals off the hill where the garden was located. The play between greenery and flower was an interesting palette to work with.

That garden provided some healthy food  and some important lessons during lean times in those days. The most important lesson was that I could provide for myself even if I did not have a lot of money. A seed gets planted, a small amount of effort goes into the growing, a little more effort and I could save the product to eat later. The next creative pursuit was learning how to preserve and cook the product from the garden.  The way that I ate changed during this time. I could see that if I made my bread instead of buying it I had better quality at a lower price. It added a moment every few days where I could concentrate on the kneading as a meditative process. The smell brought my children into the kitchen. I learned that if I could slow down for those few moments of bread making that the result was better than if I rushed through it. 

From scratch was not just something I could apply to cooking it was also something I could apply to many other things. The idea of from scratch opens up a whole host of possibilities. It means that you can see the possibilities that can be gleaned from an object. A skein of yarn becomes a hat. A bounty of forsaken zucchini becomes fritters, bread and omelets. A pile of scrap wood can become a chicken coop. A group of people with a common need can create a solution from scratch. From scratch requires creativity. From scratch seems like an important element of design.
From scratch requires a tally of what you have and what you need. An artist can't paint if there is no  canvass. Applying principles of permaculture design to the homestead and a life require a similar examination.  In the language of permaculture this is observation. In part 2 of this post I will share my observations.