Category Archives: Permaculture

Real Food, Real Tenuous

I have to admit that I waiver between completely withdrawing from any news about the food industry and Big Brother Ag, and being drawn to the train wreck of conspiracy theory that is slowly unraveling.

This week, however, there have been so many disheartening pieces of information affecting my local foodshed and farmers that I could not stay under my rock. If you think it’s hard to find small family farmers and local, affordable food now, just wait another year.

From the FSMA to the large number of insurance companies currently refusing coverage for vegetable growers in wake of wide-spread spinach recalls, to proposed bills that could put small, local dairies out of business (5139), to self-righteous agendas (HB 1201/SB 5203) which would make animal sales or barters illegal and possibly have the effect of eliminating on farm sales of meat animals (currently the only way small farmers stewarding livestock and land can work around the lack of local access to USDA licensed slaughter facilities.)

According to the FDA, “FSMA is the most sweeping reform of FDA’s food safety authority in more than 70 years. This act gives FDA new and enhanced mandates and authorities to protect consumers and promote public health.”

It is also poised to put many small, local farmers out of business. You can bet this is already affecting your local CSA farmers, small market farmers, and even farmers who are only selling produce on-farm. These farms are only excluded if they generate less than $25,000 of income per year from all income sources. How many hard working farm families do you think could comfortably live on less than $25,000 per year?

Given the recent and alarming trend of insurance agencies suddenly dropping coverage for produce farmers, the FSMA may not have the chance to put them out of business anyway.

Our local foodsheds hang in the balance right now.

But our existing model of agriculture cannot be sustained so this will soon be a moot point. Even local, mono-cropped farms are contributing to our woes. I urge you to watch the video A Farm for the Future” and consider if you think we are making sufficient changes in our own kitchens to correct this situation.

In the face of all this disheartening news, I cannot help but remember my favorite Jess post called “The Floaty Brigade”. Are you floating in the water, or still on the cruise ship?

What I don’t see in all of this are realistic solutions to grow the amount of food we will need to displace our current food systems. I don’t see a large enough re-educational process happening amongst consumers and those responsible for feeding their families. I don’t see an emphasis on shifts in diet away from mono-cropped foods grown using precious oil reserves to truly sustainable foods. And realize that what is sustainable will vary in every region of the world.

Instead I see corporate green washing, national and state legislation, insurance companies and multinational corporations on the verge of destroying small truck gardens/family ranchers/fertile agricultural lands/water supplies/biodiverse seed stores, and reprogramming the way we taste, experience, consume, purchase and waste foods.

Policies surrounding health care, real estate, wetlands, tax incentives, food and farm subsidies, small farmer education initiatives, educational institutes and research facilities, the restaurant industry, the processed food industry, and consumer demand all need to change and they need to change yesterday.

Yes, permaculture will be part of the solution, but creating successful ecosystems is such a complex job that even mastering the theory is not enough to successfully farm on the level required to replace grocery store shelves and freezers. And especially difficult when it is removed from every process mentioned in the paragraph above.

I have not seen the big picture solution yet that we need to stave off genetically modified crops and meats along with their threat to native plants and animals, or the loss of the final rainforest and coral reef.

If this was a family problem, we could all sit around the table, point to how each is affecting the whole, and come up with solutions. But there are so many disparate players with conflicting goals involved that it will take tough and forceful resolution by a central ruling body to even get the conversation started.

I urge each and every one of you who eats (yes, that means YOU) to take this, the ultimate challenge. But direct from local, small farmers. Watch the videos, read the articles, contact your senators and congressmen, sign the petitions, and teach your children well.

This mess is going to be their inheritance but only we can save it.

Lessons from the Soil

It’s been just over a year and half since we found ourselves relocating to a log home in deep woods at higher elevation. It’s been a long and humbling year and a half. All my fears of bears and deer and deep shade and late frosts have proven true. But all my hopes for simplicity, family bonding, and deeply satisfying lessons learned have also proven true.

The former ornamental roses and structured gravel walkways have slowly given way to an ever-changing garden filled with many bittersweet lessons. Slowly life is beginning to find it’s way in and stay. The small garden pond will soon be once more full of tadpoles and azole, the bowers and seed flowers have attracted native birds all winter long, and the beneficial insect populations continue to grow and thrive. The ecosystem is strengthening.

By mid summer, this dirt and stick planted sun trap had turned into a thriving shelter for birds and boys alike, filled with sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, beans, pumpkins, peas, strawberries, lettuces and semi-dwarf apple trees.

The orchards are still going in and yet but tiny, unrecognizable sticks. These foundations will take years to fully mature. But I am learning patience and humility and enjoying the journey instead of simply charging along to reach the goal.

The garden above is a mini hugelkulture planting of elderberries, currants, blueberries, strawberries and rhubarb. Those first year sticks produced so many berries last summer the branches still sag under the memory of the weight of all the fruit they bore.

The soil is still problematic but improving. It is fully fabricated, having been trucked in first as 8 cubic yards of topsoil then amended with many loads of manure from local dairies and deep goat bedding from last winter. Add to that many loads of deciduous leaves and poultry and rabbit manure as well as blood, sweat, tears, and spent blisters.

The lack of sunlight and late hard frosts I can do little about. A greenhouse only helps if there is sunshine to shine on it. I am also struggling to create a low-maintenance answer to the particularly vicious forest slugs. The ducks were fraught with their own drawbacks and making too many changes at once proved more than I could manage so I sold the ducks off for winter and will re-introduce when I have time to properly protect the garden from their help.

I put in a garden of meandering paths, keyhole plantings and polycultures which was beautiful to behold but the maintenance of it quickly got the better part of my summer.

The non-rows made it difficult to irrigate, sow, weed and harvest. The fact that I did not have a garden to plant until late in April meant some things got in too late to form strong root bases before the weather warmed up in May and then got cold again in June, tricking the brassicas into thinking summer was over prematurely and it was time to go to seed before winter. Deceptive sun patches tricked me into planting sun lovers in the wrong parts of the garden. When the weather turned cold in June the bees retreated for another month, leaving tomatoes and squashes unpollinated and the first round of fruit set withered and dropped. The compost was not completely aged, tying up critical minerals and stunting plants. The slugs, encouraged by last year’s never-ending spring, provided some more stunting.

All in all, it was the worst garden failure I’ve ever experienced but I must admit I learned quite a bit. In the end there was enough food for my family but no surplus to sell or donate as I had hoped.

So as we are about to embark once again into gardening season, I am pondering the changes I want to make. I have tested and appropriately mineralized the garden. I will compost with only fully aged manure this year. I will reconsider the keyhole beds or at least design them around a watering system. I will not charge head long into garden folly and a summer of enslaved weeding and watering. This year my expanded garden will be more productive and less work. If nothing else, a gardener’s hope spring’s eternal.

April Gardening Challenge Round 5: Be Lazy

When it comes to gardening I am the lazy girl. I do start annuals indoors, and I weed like crazy, but each year I cut back more and more. One year while weeding I noticed after harvesting things like arugula and kale that what I was weeding were things like arugula and kale. And I was weeding those out so that I could plant things like arugula and kale. I’m a little dense sometimes but I finally recognized an opportunity for lazy. It led to me planting a “reseeding garden”, which is the vegetable gardener’s equivalent to the cottage garden. It’s not neat and orderly rows – but it is vegetables ready to harvest without any effort on your part. Lazy gardening at its best.

Once I figured that out I started thinking about gardening in a whole new light. If sowing seeds could happen without my help, what else could this magical garden do by itself?

In order to answer that I thought about what a garden, or rather the plants, really need.

Plant Needs – Just Enough, Not Too Much
• Air
• Soil and nutrients
• Water
• Temperature and conditions

And then I set about reducing the number of gardening jobs I had in order to meet those needs.

Main Gardening Jobs

• Preparing and amending the soil
• Sowing seeds
• Weeding
• Watering
• Harvesting

I looked closely at each garden job so that I could understand it and here’s what I found out:

Preparing and amending the soil – Because plants take air in through their roots, the soil should have air pockets and good drainage (so the roots don’t become waterlogged, suffocating the plant). By providing decaying organic I created an environment attractive to worms, pillbugs, centipedes, funghi, and bacteria – the web of life – who found and aerated my soil for me. As organic matter decomposes and creepy crawly critters move through your soil (depositing nutrient-rich outputs along the way), they create air pockets and soil structure.

What you can do
An initial heavy manuring gets the web of life off to a good start. Cover your soil with mulch (decaying matter like wood chips or straw or living mulch like creeping thyme or beneficial insect flower mixes) to prevent your soil from drying out in the sun or becoming compacted in driving rain.

Thereafter, compost “in place” and mineralize as needed to maintain good soil structure. Once you have good soil structure and decaying organic matter, limit soil amendments other than minerals to the top layer of the soil (it is, after all, possible to have too much organic matter). To compost in place, pull back the top layer of mulch, apply a thin layer of items to be composted and then replace the mulch. The web of life will find your compostable matter and convert it into minerals in a form that your plants can absorb.

Before applying minerals, get a soil test done. www.AL-Labs-West.com, www.LoganLabs.com, www.UMass.edu/soiltest/ all provide results but www.SoilMinerals.com will analyze those results and prescribe soil amendments. You can find organic amendments at www.BlackLakeOrganic.com, www.WaltsOrganic.com www.GrowOrganic.com or www.ConcentratesNW.com.

Also see the February soil building challenges for other ideas, including my passive compost post which reiterates much of the information in this post.

Sowing the seeds – Perennial and re-seeding varieties make this step unnecessary. In fact, perennials use less water and nutrients than annuals do. Perennials have more time to develop root structures and therefore are more efficient at absorbing moisture and nutrients from the soil. By pairing both nitrogen-fixing and nutrient-accumulating plants along with perennials (for example, a legumous cover crop and a deep tap rooted plant like comfrey) you create a near perfect planting combination. The occasional compost application may be all that combination of plants ever needs to thrive.

What you can do

See the book Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles for a complete list of perennial vegetables but here is a list of my favorites for the Pacific Northwest.

Top Picks for PNW Perennial Vegetables
Alexander’s Seeds (Smyrnium olusatrum)
Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)
Chives (Alium schoenoprasum)
Garden Dandelion (Chichorium intybus)
Jeruselem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
Tree Kale (Brassica oleracea ramose)
Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
Ramps (Allium triccocum)
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)
Salt Bush (Atriplex halimus)
Sea Kale (Crambe maratima)
French Sorrel (Rumex scutatus)
Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)
Turkish Rocket (Brassica unias orientalis)

Top Picks for PNW Reseeding Vegetables
Arugula (Eruca sativa)
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
Garden Cress (Lepidium sativum)
Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonushnricus)
Kale (Brassica olerecea acephala)
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
Mache (Valerianella locusta)
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
Swiss Chard (Beta vulgaris)

The book Gaia’s Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture contains some amazing information about soil, plant combinations and other ways to get you on the path to lazy gardener.

Watering - Hugelkulturs (incredibly high raised beds with woody mass at their core), ollas (buried clay pots full of water), proper spacing, mulch (which also cuts down on weeds), incorporating perennials, and sticking with just winter or spring gardening will all help reduce your watering needs. You can also use soaker hoses or irrigation tubes and emitters but these complicate things substantially and you may end up a slave to the system.

What you can do

The book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening–With information on mushroom cultivation, sowing a … ways to keep livestock, and more…has information on hugelkulturs and other lazy gardening techniques that will change your idea of gardening forever.

Weeding – By planting or laying down mulch and growing perennials or self-seeding varieties you limit soil disturbance which means fewer weeds.

What you can do
Mulch!

After incorporating all these techniques in the garden I managed to meet all my plant needs by working in harmony with nature’s cycles.

  • I provided good soil drainage and oxygen by using manure and other organic matter that encourage creepy crawlies to aerate for me.
  • I provided and maintained soil structure conducive to healthy root growth and creepy crawlies by covering the soil with mulch.
  • I provided nutrients by enticing decomposers (and their excrements), fungi and bacteria with balanced compost and manure.
  • I periodically tested and replaced missing nutrients to keep the plants healthy and vigorous.
  • I paired plantings together so that nutrient needs were met by other plants.
  • I preserved the soil moisture when first putting in the garden by adding humus and woody matter to retain and release rainfall, and by providing slow release ollas that trap water at root level and slowly release it as the plants needed it.
  • I also prevented surface evaporation by mulching.
  • The last plant need is appropriate temperature and conditions. I met that need by choosing the right plant varieties for the climate and season. Growing semi-tropical and sun-loving plants in the Pacific Northwest requires a lot of care and attention to nurture seedlings along. If you want to be a lazy gardener here, you need to learn to embrace cold weather crops.

    Not only were my plant needs met, but I minimized most of the garden tasks by focusing on healthy soil and soil life, mimicking nature, suppressing weeds and preserving water by mulching and water trapping, meeting plant nutrients with healthy soil and smart plant pairings (along with periodic mineral applications), and choosing to grow perennials and reseeding plants suited to my climate and seasons.

    What About Diseases and Pests?
    Focusing on soil health and adding biodiversity to my garden solved many disease and pest problems.
    Creating a habitat that is attractive to wild birds and insects may take time, but eventually natural checks and balances can be restored. Ladybugs, birds, wasps, beetles and other beneficials are helpful and willing workers if we allow them to be.

    What you can do

    Encourage beneficials! You don’t necessarily need to get honey or mason bees (but then again you might want to.) By simply planting things that butterflies and other pollinators love, and by leaving some “wild” areas in your yard with native plantings you can attract an army of allies.

    Some of my favorite plants to attract beneficials:
    Alyssum
    Borage
    Buckwheat
    Calendula
    Clovers
    Fennel
    Flax
    Foxglove
    Lupine
    Mustards (left to go to seed)
    Mints
    Queen Anne’s Lace
    Yarrow

    Scattering plants around the garden instead of in blocks by variety can also make certain plants more difficult for pests to find, or limit pest spread to just a few plants instead of an entire crop.

    Focusing on soil fertility first and foremost will create stronger, more vigorous plants with established root systems better able to ward off disease and pest attacks.

    One Final Lazy Gardening Thought
    Gardening in the winter and spring virtually eliminates pest issues (slugs are the exception), the need to weed and water, and the crush of the late summer harvest. If you are the laziest gardener ever, you might just want to garden only during winter and spring!

    What you can do
    Become a winter gardener!

    COWS – Community Orchard of West Seattle

    A new kind of cow. My kind of cow. Designed by the amazing Laura Sweany of Terra Flora Farm, it’s a shining example of just how much food and community one gorgeous garden can produce. One amazing thing is it’s newness – it was less than a year old when I visited one cloudy October day. You can see pictures of it on the Community Orchard of West Seattle website before in all it’s sodded glory, and while the team was building it.

    Although things have literally blown up for me since the day of my visit I’ve been thinking of this garden non-stop. My own blank slate is frozen solid right now but I’ve been quietly designing it in my mind’s eye. The orchards are taking shape and I have a vision for the children’s garden. The seating areas are obviously laid out but the central garden itself will be something along these lines, connecting them all.

    It’s simple to plan, sow and harvest straight row crops in a small space. But once the challenge of producing more and more in the same space wore off, I realized that I was craving something less rigid, less linear, and more free form. More organic, if you will. More this.

    This narrow swath of orchard is bursting with edibles and medicinals as well as flowers.

    Well-laden arbors cross over gently meandering wood chip paths.

    Keyhole plantings house herbs, flowers, and medicinals.

    A carpet of strawberries flanks blueberries, currants, gooseberries and fruit trees.

    Laura is employing the “Slender Spindle” fruit growing method and thinks she’ll get hundreds of pounds of fruit next year. Tying young branches downward (in the position of heavily laded fruit) tricks them into thinking they are gay divorcees and  suddenly they go to town so to speak. I’m anxious to see how this works next year because it would be a fabulous urban trick!

    The fruit trees are underplanted with clover to fix nitrogen.

    In Permaculture there are no block plantings. Forget about tracking and rotating crops. Combine things that look pretty together, paying attention to root space and sunlight needs (shortest in front, tallest in back).

    These plantings are just as intensively spaced as my old gardening methods.  If you had minimal air flow in your garden this could quickly turn into mildew but COWS is located on a windy hilltop so that’s not an issue there.

    This is a garden that will feed your soul as well as your stomach.  This is the garden of my dreams.

    Uber Raised Beds – aka Hugelkultur

    I’ve been watching this property throughout the winter, noted the keylines and how the water flows. I see what is swampy and filled with buttercups in the paddock. Although the forested areas (which are most of the property) have soft, loamy deep gorgeous soil from hundreds of years of leaves and needles and branches deteriorating, the area where the garden is has no topsoil. You hit bedrock literally an inch down.

    To make matters worse, the former homeowners built a driveway that heads nearly straight down hill, towards the house and garage, and towards the garden. They brought in what must have been many dump trucks full of crushed gravel for the drive, the parking area and all the garden pathways. The end effect of this is to create a river that speeds surface runoff toward the house, the other structures and ultimately into the garden. When it rains, the parking area and the garden quickly become a rising lake.

    To make the garden more productive and more flexible I’ve spent months digging out the compact gravel pathways by hand, removed the logs that held the old beds in place, brought in a dump truck full of topsoil. I’ve been slowly adding to that with composted animal bedding but with an area this large it’s going to take years to create a sponge big enough to soak up the excess water that I know is heading my way in April.

    I’ve finally decided the best thing to do is create the ultimate raised bed. I’ll be digging out the topsoil and compost that I’ve brought in, and piling it up into large mounds three feet high to create small polyculture plantings.

    To create the raised beds I’m gathering a wide variety of plant matter in various states of decomposition. Logs in various stages of rotting, branches, hay and wood chips from bedding, manure, leaves, compost and a shovel full of vermicompost complete with worms. I’ll create large mounds with this material and then cover them with soil and hay until planting time. The beauty of using such a large variety of plant matter is that they will release a wide variety of nutrients over a long time. The compost and wood chips and hay will begin releasing nutrients fairly quickly while the logs will release slowly over ten to twenty years.

    Each mound will hold a fruit tree, fruiting bushes, a nitrogen fixer, a nutrient accumulator, and other edible or beneficial plants. Alliums and wormwood to thwart the mole, comfrey, lambsquarters, plantain, alfalfa, lupin, dock, clover, chamomile and others to accumulate and fix nutrients from the soil and the air, to attract beneficial insects, to eat or to admire.

    The mounds themselves will act as sponges, soaking up that channeled water and act as a reservoir all summer long for those plantings. This provide moist, rich but well drained soil. For now I’m busy bringing in wheelbarrels of bedding and everything else from the forest floor. Once the beds are done I’ll provide a progress report.

    Thinking back on how much money I’ve spent in my lifetime on cedar beds – if only I had known about this then! With our wet winters here in the Pacific Northwest, these free raised beds are quite brilliant. If you want to learn more about hugelkultur you can find some wonderful material in Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture

    Have you ever tried hugelkultur? Do you think it might solve drainage issues you have in your garden?