Coexistence and Comebacks

Hello  Internet Land.  Once again,  been a long time since we added to our blog.  I write many posts in my mind but they seldom make it to the keyboard these days.  This past year has flown by in a blur and I realize more each day how much deliberate, intentional focus it takes to steer modern life in a meaningful direction.

Our urban farm in progress has taught us so many lessons and I hope to start sharing them more regularly.  Nature provides so much wisdom for life, and for me, it also imparts hope that I don’t often find in other places.  I recently had the privilege of hearing Dr. Jane Goodall speak in person, sharing her message of hope for the future.  While resisting the temptation to gush for paragraphs about how inspirational she is to my whole family, I will offer some illustrations of one of her points, from our own garden.  She shared that one of her reasons for hope was the resilience she had observed in nature.  We also have seen its incredible tenacity and ability to  come back from what appeared to be fatal weather and insect events.

This year we enjoyed warm weather very early in the season.  We set out tomatoes, peppers and new grapevines in faith that we had seen the last of freezing weather.  But Mr. Frosty had one last appearance to make and even though we had covered the plants, many looked to be a total loss. All the leaves died but I left the stems in the ground.  Nearly every plant, including the vulnerable new grapevine transplants, recovered fully and are now thriving and fruiting.

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This week, as I was trimming the overgrowth of immortal Texas wild shrubs and vines (speaking of tenacity!), I noticed a beautiful orange butterfly circling around the passion flower vine.  Last summer, just as the vine was finally getting established after a slow start, orange caterpillars appeared and ate every single leaf down to nothing.  I looked them up and discovered they were from the Gulf fritillary butterfly.  They are known to migrate over the gulf of Mexico and this vine is their preferred food source.  Considering I have not seen another vine like this growing anywhere near me, the fact that they can find it at all is amazing.  I also left my naked vine in the ground and this spring it exploded with growth and bloomed for the first time, even producing some passpassion flowerionfruit as well.

I snapped a photo of this beautiful creature seeking to deposit her eggs, knowing that her offspring and my plant can coexist.  Losing its leaves may force the roots deeper?  I don’t know.  But it certainly grew better after the attack.  When all seems lost, the spark of life is not defeated.  That’s a cause for hope, and not just for green things in the ground.

 

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Catching Up

Many things have transpired since the last post here.  I went back to college which has been great, but a little time-consuming.  In spite of that, we (mostly my husband) planted more this year than ever before and we found we had to adjust to something we were not used to – that being a bunch of healthy, beautiful plants setting fruit.  Thankfully the shock didn’t linger too long as a month of rain turned much of the garden into a pond.  The areas where we had planted in hugelkultur mounds or raised beds did well, but we had some hastily planted areas where we had just turned over the soil, and these went from pond, to now rock-hard, cracked clay ground (even though we had added compost previously).  Ironically we chose this area because we usually have lack of water, not too much.  The plants did okay with the pond, but not so well since the ground has dried.  The many earthworms we had also seem to have died or gone to higher ground.  But every situation provides lessons through observation that we don’t easily forget.  This is real learning.

After the rains came the insect hordes, including some new ones we have never seen before, in plague proportions.  So we also have increased our knowledge of bugs and their life cycles.

And it’s not all been a loss.  We’ve harvested radishes, lettuce, beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, squash, blackberries, and now we are giving away tomatoes from a bumper crop.  The really hot season is coming on so we will let everything run its cycle and prepare for fall.  Preparing new beds, and transitioning the lowlands into the food forest zone rather than annual crops.  The fruit trees already planted there still look great.

But the really big news (for us), after much talking and procrastination, is that we are finally urban chicken farmers.  We have started with five White Leghorns we received from the County Extension office, from a school hatching program.  The kids and I went to the fifth floor of a downtown building to pick them up with our high-tech shoe box.  There is nothing like standing in an elevator with a towel over a chirping shoe box.  You know you are an urban farmer when this is how you acquire your first chickens!

They were two days old when we picked them up (hatched around May 20), but now a few weeks later have come into most of their feathers.  Chicken behavior and social order – quite entertaining and not unlike humans in many ways.

My husband built this great pen which we can move around the yard wherever we want them to work, and as I write, he is slaving away in the hot sun, finishing up their chicken resort condo accommodations.

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We have started with five, and plan to increase to our urban limit gradually.

The other effect of so much rain has created a green jungle we must tame.  Living in the city with a chain link fence and a trail out the back gate where all the world can see our glorious mess, we want to be responsible neighbors and citizens, and not have to deal with code enforcement for overgrown grass and “weeds”.  But everything had gotten pretty out of control, not to mention the huge mountain of tree limbs we had collected from two tree trimmings.  Which leads to the final topic of this update.

The “road less traveled”, while often the right choice, is often deserted for a reason.  We kept all these tree limbs intending to put them back into our system, since they grew from it.  It just seemed the right thing to do.  Logistically however it became apparent this was more of a project than we had bargained for.  From now on, whoever cuts the limbs, takes the limbs.  We waited weeks to rent a shredder, only to discover it isn’t cost effective to rent one big enough to do the job (would have to pay for it to be delivered as well), or to hire it out.  So piece by piece, they will be hauled to the curb for the city to pick up and mulch with their great big wood chippers.  And if we need shredded tree mulch, they give it way for free.  We were concerned about getting tree mulch from sources that may be sprayed, but we are already using hay/straw that has the same potential problem.  To be consistent and practical rather than ideological can be a challenge.

So the lessons continue, the successes come gradually, and the goals remain fairly well in place.  I think.  Why am I outside sweating every day?  Wasn’t this supposed to be easy?   Eventually.  Easier.  Maybe not in Texas climate, but we have hope.  We are still laying foundations, but in time, the abundance will come.

Composting My Workout

DSC_0116What a beautiful week we have had, with two days hitting over 80 degrees.  We forget it’s winter with breaks like this.  We took the opportunity to cut a path through the debris of limbs to the original compost pile, plant some potatoes, and start tomato and pepper seeds.  I dug out some gorgeous finished compost and added it to some beds, then turned some other neglected piles at various stages.  I regret not being able to get to them sooner or we would have more needed compost ready now.

A city bike path runs right behind our house and I am often working along that fence while people in their fashionable athletic attire go running by.  In contrast I am dressed, well, not so fashionably.  One thing that has always seemed to get in the way of my own exercise routine is the feeling of boredom and anxiety about not having enough time to fit it in.

In Permaculture we talk about “stacking functions” which means you try to get as many uses out of anDSC_0115 object or activity as you can to maximize the use of time and space.  Turning my compost pile definitely gets my heart rate up and uses nearly every muscle group.  If you want enough compost for all your beds, you will want to make as much compost as you can, quickly, which means a great workout opportunity every few days.  Gardening and animal care provide plenty of workout options; shoveling, digging, hauling, bending, and pushing.  I love exercise that’s functional and productive.  I know some people love running or walking every day, and that’s great.  I love the feeling of progress and accomplishment, and running or walking when I don’t need to go anywhere doesn’t fit well into my priority scheme.

When I don’t have outdoor work, or it’s too cold for my taste, I do enjoy yoga which only required a $7.00 mat and a Youtube video.  Yoga is a multi-functional exercise for me because it seems to benefit my whole being, not just my body.  It doesn’t bore me and reduces my stress levels dramatically.

Simplicity seems to be gaining popularity as our lives become so full we run out of room in our houses and our days.  Most of us can find more ways stack functions in our routine and our living space.  All we need is a way to look at our lives from a different angle.  I would love to hear how other people have simplified their lives with this principle.

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Rescued from the compost pile

 

 

 

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Dianthus seem immune to freezing temps

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My favorite winter flowers

Problem turned Solution

One of the most beneficial concepts we learned in our Permaculture courses is the principle, “The Problem is the Solution.”   Looking at problems and unfortunate events creatively we can sometimes find the problem turns out to be a benefit rather than a deficit.  I admit I can’t always find the solution.  We still haven’t found a good use for the over-population of squirrels other than to eat them.  We are too far removed from our settler/ancestor roots to find that a palatable solution at the moment.

Our recent plumbing adventure (see last post) left me wondering how to turn this exasperating experience into a positive.  Soon after we acquired our neatly-dug, waste-of-money trench, the weather turned very cold, wet, and dreary.  We looked out at the mounds of dirt and the trench filling up nicely with water.  Too close to the house for the pond we had talked about, so that was out.  But the thought of filling those holes back up with perfectly good dirt just seemed like a waste.

We have a huge surplus of sticks and yard debris.  We don’t put any of it out for the city to pick up.  Even though it looks bad right now, we plan to use all of it one way or another. I decided to fill up part of the hole with the two closest unsightly piles and threw some dirt on that.  I know it will settle a great deal as time goes on, but we have no shortage of material to add to it.  We can plant on this spot with a layer of compost on top, or leave it to break down and dig out great compost (much) later, or both.

WP_20150120_002As I was filling in the shallow side, I realized the deeper side of the trenchWP_20150120_003 would be a great place to put an expanded worm farm.  We don’t have room indoors for many worm bins, and the summers here are too hot for them outdoors.  But underground, they would be in a perfect climate.  We can put boards over the trench so we can still use the area without fear of falling in and breaking a leg.  I am concerned about too much water catchment there when it rains, but we plan to put a gutter above this spot soon, with a rain barrel.

The best part is – we have all this fresh dirt!!  We wanted more planting beds, and this is very dark, fertile clay soil.  With some amendments we believe it will work great.  We didn’t have to dig it out ourselves, and it doesn’t have bermuda grass in it which we would have to battle if we turned over the sod in our new bed locations.  The price we paid the plumber for this hole is close to the amount we paid to have some screened topsoil delivered last spring.  We will sheet mulch again and use our own dirt.  So we may actually come out ahead all things considered.  Especially if we can produce plentiful worm castings.

This principle can be used in any area of life, not just agriculture.  We need better solutions to problems that don’t wreak havoc on the world and each other.  I wanted so badly to let the plumber know how wrong he was and how quickly the next guy fixed the problem.  I was tempted to give him a scathingly poor reference on our neighborhood social network (where he also lives).  Instead I put a good reference for the service that did the job right.  We are just learning how to view the world from different angles, and we don’t always remember to stop and think before we begin moaning about what’s gone wrong.  But if we take the time, we can often see how to use elements of a problem to create healthy solutions for all of us.

Uncivilization

Many people dream of unplugging from the dependency of conventional energy and water systems. This month we had two reminders of why we seek a better way to live – even if it seems like a distant goal at the moment.

I know it’s no sin to trim a tree, but our oldest and favorite tree lost a very large portion of its mass when power company crews came to trim trees back from power lines.  I am glad I did not know how much they intended to remove or I may have made a fool of myself trying to be a human shield.  This tree means so much to me, and has been a source of calming comfort in the hard years since we moved into this house.  I love to relax in the back yard and contemplate all that has transpired since it first sprouted, at least 200 years ago.  I always wished I could hear the stories it would tell. Everyone tells me it will survive, although I’m not sure if this will weaken it or not.  But in order to protect the power source used to write this blog, the tree had to take one for the team.  We asked to keep all the wood, which we want to put back in our system.  We will chip the smaller branches and limbs for mulch and find ways to use the larger pieces too.

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Part two probably deserves its own post, but it goes with the theme here.  We discovered how quickly life can become unpleasant when you have one toilet, and it ceases to flush.  Choosing to deal with our human waste by flushing it with all the waste water, only to have to clean it in a harsh chemical process, seems a little backward compared to some other methods that utilize the waste rather than create an expensive, unhealthy clean up situation.  But we flush it numerous times a day anyway, unsure if we have an alternative for a house of five people in an urban setting.  The composting toilet would be our choice if we had a homestead outside city limits, with more room to process the waste once it’s discarded.

What should have been fixed easily in about half an hour dragged out into two weeks, thanks to the holidays and an inept (or possibly dishonest) plumber.  It’s a very long story, but after two days without results, and digging a nice trench in our backyard without ever finding a sewer pipe, we called another service who had it fixed in under an hour for half the price we paid for the hole we now get to fill back in ourselves.

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I have been imagining life off the grid where we have control over our own waste products and water, and don’t need a power line at all.  I’m thankful for the heat in my house and a working bathroom, but I would love to achieve these things in a healthier way for our family and nature both.

Food is Free, and the Yard Sale Too

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John and Stacey – Food is Free Project Leaders

If you have not yet heard of the inspiring Food is Free Project, I’m happy to help spread the word in our little corner of the internet.  (Really, check out the website! Great videos, blog, etc.)  They began growing food in their Austin, Texas front yard to share with their neighbors, and then more neighbors joined in, building low-maintenance raised beds out of free salvage materials.  The spark drew people in to meet one another, work together, and create an atmosphere of sharing and cooperation.   Then it spread further as they helped place gardens at schools, churches, businesses, and other public areas.

I had been following their facebook page for awhile, noticingWP_20141129_001 how many other people followed suit, posting pictures of their own “food is free” projects and sharing ideas.  But then earlier this year, the property owner decided to sell the home and double-lot to developers, leaving the project scrambling for a new plan.  Thanks to many supporters, what could have potentially died out, is now moving on to bigger and better things in Arkansas, while the movement they started will continue to make waves in Austin after they leave.

We just happened to be in Austin this weekend when they tweeted they were hosting a “free sale”, giving away their equipment to anyone in the community who needed it as they make preparations to move off the property.  We took the opportunity to drop by, catch some inspiration, and wish them the best on their next exciting chapter.  For us, it’s a great reminder of our true purpose in our own project, not just to feed ourselves, but to bring people together and share the experience we gain for good of other families and communities.  We look forward to following their progress, and their example.

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*Bus Not Free* $4900 OBO.

 

 

Sweet Potatoes Part II – A Bud Nip Test

Yesterday we reached 73 degrees (don’t be jealous) so I took advantage of the awesome weather to get stuff down outside because it’s a lot more fun than the work inside the house.  Our large dog (a.k.a pony) now has a corral away from her digging heaven (sorry pooch), the plant skeletons have been put into the compost, and I harvested the remaining sweet potatoes.

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These came from an experiment where I tried to duplicate the results of a video I saw a few months ago.  An adorable little girl did a science experiment showing that an organic sweet potato would sprout more quickly and grow larger vines than others allegedly treated with bud nip, a chemical used to discourage the buds from forming.

Since my first non-organic sweet potato sprouted like crazy, I wanted to see what an organic one would do.  I bought one ($4.00 for ONE potato) and set it to sprout in the same location as the first one.  This one took weeks to sprout, and the vines grew very slowly.  But once I rooted the slips and planted them, they went crazy outside.  The vines from just two plants grew many feet of vines and produced some beautiful blooms.

My non-scientific experiment has some problems though.  I have no way to know the age of each potato involved.  Additionally, the organic sweet potato was a completely different variety with much darker skin and pale yellow flesh inside.  I also recently found a claim that bud nip is not actually used on sweet potatoes at all, only regular spuds, so who knows?  I like to test everything out for myself in possible.  I definitely want to avoid chemicals, but there’s nothing I hate worse than a false claim for a good point.  We are so prone to pick up and run with things that agree with our point of view without investigation.  I would love to hear if anyone else has tried this out and how it turned out for you.

I am happy with the return on our $4.00 investment and plan to greatly expand our plantings for next year, hopefully sprouted from our own chemical-free harvest.   Sweet Potatoes Part III? Thanksgiving Dinner.

Off to plant some garlic before it rains!

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24 Square Feet of Empowerment

WP_20141118_013Hauling stuff has always been a priority for me.  I’ve always wanted a pickup but never had one, and now drive a smaller vehicle than I did a few years ago.  You can get almost anything in a minivan, but now I drive an SUV wannabe.  The large van in the background is not available to me during the week (or weekends without unloading a ton of heavy tools).  Driving by desirable free resources discarded on the curbs of my city has been a source of ongoing frustration.  Yes, once I did cram a bale of Alfalfa and ten 5 gallon buckets along with two kids in a Kia, but that wasn’t pretty, especially in a thunderstorm.  Most of the time I drive by or scroll through the listings with a sigh of “if only”.  Not anymore.  Going to put some modest lightweight sideboards on this baby and I will be in business.  I have access to some good clean horse manure, the main missing element in our soil building so far.  Excited to be able to haul this outside the vehicle rather than in the hatch.   Will watch one episode of Hoarders a week to keep my curb shopping impulses in healthy check.

In other news, the freeze came with temps in the high 20s for a few nights.  Amazing how quickly the frost kills big healthy plants.  A few days ago we harvested from these and now they look like they’ve been dead for weeks.  But the plants that seem unaffected by the cold amaze me even more.  I love seeing how vigorous life can be even in harsh conditions.  The comfrey, cilantro, chives and even some of the young lettuces endured just fine.  I am now wondering, “how low can they go?”  This winter looks like it might give us a chance to find out.  We have many new plants we are preparing to set out in our experiments with cold.

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Newsflash: IT’S COLD!

I saw the weather map, and I know.  It’s cold everywhere.  Sorry no pretty snow or ice crystal photos – just cold air, and that doesn’t show up on camera.  I suppose I could take a selfie outside looking miserable, but that would be too much like our local weather news reporters.  In Texas if a snowflake falls, news teams must endure the elements at various locations all over the city, or even nearby cities (if they’ve had more snow) to report on the development for hours on end.  Yes, we love/hate winter around here.  Maybe because we always forget that it exists by the time it comes back.  We don’t ease gently into this season.  We go from flip flops one day to scrambling to remember where we stowed our winter gear, 12 hours later.

Being the aspiring farmer I am, I noted the coming freeze dates and harvested every last bit of food I could find in our garden.  Last night I canned 12 pints of green tomato pickles with many leftover.  I saved back the big ones for frying, gave some away, and still have a surplus.  Surplus is a word we have been chasing for many months and it looks like we may see our first hint of it.  We got this many tomatoes from only four plants.  Now if we can just coax this kind of yield earlier in the year when they have time to ripen, that will be awesome!  WP_20141113_002

Has anyone out there tallied up the amount of food they would need to produce and store up (seed saving included) to feed a family for a year?  At first it seems impossible, but then sometimes you get a glimpse of the abundance that CAN happen, as well as other people’s success stories, and hope revives.

My husband and I are planning to draw up independent designs on our back lot and see what we come up with when we put them together.  Big changes and expansions coming up.

First orders of business:  1) Fence up an area for the large canine that likes to “help” till up the garden beds.  2) Rain gutter/catchment system to replace the bucket method.  3) Chicken coop shed conversion.  4) improve soil in existing beds 5) Plan/design new beds  6) Integrate many new perennials and design some guilds around our fruit trees.

Would love to hear about winter planning and projects any of you are working on.

P.S. Above recipe was a simple one I found online:  3.5 cups of water, 3.5 cups vinegar, 1/4 cup salt for the brine.  Added to jars garlic clove or two and one teaspoon of dill seed.  Didn’t have fresh dill yet, but it’s coming up in the sun room/greenhouse.  Will report on the taste in a few weeks!

We Can Grow Sweet Potatoes!

WP_20141108_003We are still holding out here waiting for a first freeze, but for now the food keeps coming in.  This morning we picked enough pole beans for supper, and we may have acted a bit hastily on the sweet potatoes, but the plants in one mound were dying back a bit so curiosity trumped patience.  For the few plants we had put in, we got a decent return!  It all began when a sweet potato we bought to eat began to sprout, so I just went with it and got many slips from the single potato.  later I sprouted an organic variety and those vines are still growing vigorously in the back mound that gets the most sun.  In fact, they are the only thing that has flourished in that spot all year.  I am amazed how easy these are to grow, so it will be a staple in our garden from now on.  Interspersed between other plants they also provide a great natural ground cover.  Check the companion planting guides first – because some plants won’t do well in their vicinity.

In my yard sale adventures today, I spotted this gem.  The woman selling it had a mature one blooming beautifully in her front yard.  I believe it’s a Datura (Angel’s Trumpet) and even if I’m wrong, the price was right!

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