Friday, October 15, 2010

How to Teach an Old Hen New Clucks

So maybe that's not exactly how the saying goes, but what can I say? I'm a chicken freak.

After much hand-wringing and a "where-to-begin" mentality in starting this permaculture conversion, I succumbed to an aspect of my personality that's been either help or hindrance when it comes to starting a project. More specifically it involves the various purchases I make towards that end. Depending on the desirable or undesirable outcome I refer to it either as the "karmically correct" purchase, or the "it was on sale" excuse. Only time will tell if this particular action was help, hindrance, or maybe even a bit of both.

The other day I went to Oak Lawn Garden Center. I had intended to look around and ask about special ordering some stuff for next season, but instead drove drive off with four fruit trees (two apples and two pears).  It really wasn't my fault that such an impulse buy occurred. I mean, could I help it that the "50% off all trees" sign was so conveniently placed about 100 yards away from the parking lot and around the corner from the privacy fence? At any rate, knowing that it was better to plant trees in the fall rather than spring, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get that first fruit tree guild started. Okay, that first FOUR guilds started. Was it my fault they had four desirable trees instead of just one? Don't judge me!

So I've been spending the past several days with a shovel and a steady supply of Tylenol as I try to dig through the absolute worst "soil" I have ever seen. I put the quotations around word soil because there really isn't any. Less than 1/4" of topsoil that is a light, sickly brown. Immediately underneath that? Pure clay that is so compacted there is quite literally no evidence of earthworm activity. Not one single air pocket. It takes me an average of 9 hours and about fifty two uses of the F word to get the hole dug. As I do get the trees in the ground, I'm employing sheet mulching, a method of building soil from nothing. I am trying this for the first time under the guidance of the book Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway.

Sheet mulching is a beautiful simple way to build soil where there is none. I thought I'd give you a quick run-down with some photos of how this is done.

The most time consuming part is getting the materials together.

You will need:
  • Enough cardboard to cover the area, making sure each piece will overlap by six inches. Remove any tape or staples.
  • Water to the site
  • "Green" manure such as grass clipping or old produce
  • Finished compost enough to cover about 1 inch of your area
  • Bulk mulch such as straw or hay. Bark mulch can be used, but keep in mind the woodier the mulch, the longer it will take to break down. Traditional wood bark mulch will take years to create soil.
  • Optional: Bark "pretty" mulch if you have picky neighbors, or desire the more polished look after the good stuff's been put down.
Unless the ground is moist from rain, you'll need to give it a really good soak first and let it sit overnight. Ideally you want the soil to have a "damp sponge" consistency throughout. Then you'll start building your sheet mulch almost like a lasagna. Layer as follows, making sure to water each layer until dampened all the way through.

  1. Green manure, about 1" thick. Water.
  2. Cardboard, overlapped by about six inches to keep the weeds from growing through the edges. There must be no open areas for light to penetrate. Water.
  3. Green manure, about 1" thick. Water
  4. Bulk mulch, about 2" thick. Water as you go, because you'll be surprised at how much it would take to water all the way through a finished layer.
  5. Finished compost, 1" - 2." If you don't plan on planting the area right away, you can get away with adding soil at a 1:1 ratio. Water
  6. Either more bulk mulch or your "pretty" bark mulch. I chose the pretty bark because it's...well...pretty.
Now when I plant the jonquil bulbs around the trunk of the trees (they are great deer deterrents and happen to be my favorite flower) all I have to do is dig through the bark mulch to get to the compost layer beneath. Will it work? I have no idea. Ask me next spring. On to the next project!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

There Goes the Blogorhood...

For some time now I've subscribed to Community Chickens, a Mother Earth News publication devoted to my favorite feathered friends. I've found it to be my first go-to guide when I'm looking for new ideas or anything else poultry related.

Recently the call went out for bloggers with chickenthusiasm to submit samples of their writing to become one of their "Community Cluckers," volunteer bloggers for the online site. I couldn't resist giving it a try, so I threw my cyberhat into the pile.

 I'm happy to report that either my writing is considered interesting enough, or perhaps the editors are desperate enough, but either way they've accepted me to be a Community Clucker!

 So look for scintillating tidbits from yours truly to grace (or deface, depending on your opinion of my writing) the Community Chickens site soon! Now if I can just come up with some ideas...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Permaculture: An antidote for Eco-Cynicism?

For some time now I've suffered from a terrible and debilitating syndrome. Okay, not really. But it's a supremely dramatic start to a blog post if you ask me. Anyway, after much thought I finally gave the syndrome a name. Eco-Cynicism Syndrome.

Though it has only been within the past few years that ECS has really taken hold, there were two major factors in my life that made me vulnerable to it to begin with. My passion for the natural world was the first, and my education in Wildlife and Fisheries Science was the second. A little bit of knowledge and a lot of love for our precious natural world can be a dangerous thing in times like these.

I realized I had ECS when I simultaneously reached my midlife crisis, realized my education only served to remove the veil of blissful ignorance that obfuscated the damage our planet was suffering, and reached the end of my  "hope rope" that the human race would ever turn from its soulless doctrine of greed that has overtaken it in favor of a truly sustainable existence based on cooperation and community rather than exclusion, isolation and mindless consumption. In short, I was dangerously close to giving up on us as a species entirely. There didn't seem to be any point to living with sustainability and conservation in mind if there would soon be nothing left to conserve.  My resulting emotional state was one of general malaise, hopelessness and cynicism towards the ability or interest of my fellow humans (with a few exceptions of course) to make any effort towards real and lasting changes that could mitigate the consequences of global climate change, or to accept any responsibility for it.

I spent the last several years trapped in a vicious cycle from the depths of ECS to an overwhelming compulsion to be as environmentally and socially conscious as I possibly could in a frantic effort to somehow "make up for" those who did nothing. Lately however, there was a rapid slide towards hopelessness and the temptation to go off grid not only in the sustainable living sense but also in the complete hermit sense. I was almost ready to shut the gates to our farm and start hoarding seeds and food in preparation for the inevitable societal collapse once the population at large realizes that Peak Oil is no longer a theory, but has in fact already occurred.

Needless to say, my head has been a gloomy place to live in. I kept an optimistic face on as often as I could around others while this inner nihilism ate away at my spirit. When a friend of mine at Oak Hill Farms brought up his interest in permaculture, I nodded politely and thought no more of it. I was too emotionally drained to hear yet one more way I needed to change my lifestyle to be more green when I still have to choke through the haze of my neighbors' burning household garbage, industrial pesticides and herbicides. Fortunately for me though, the curiosity eventually took hold and I stumbled across a few podcasts discussing permaculture that included some of the most influential figures in the movement. Who would have thought it would turn out to be the tonic I so desperately needed.

In learning more about permaculture and its code of ethics (care of the earth, care of people, and limiting your use of resources and sharing of surplus), I came to a drastic realization that may very well change the way I view the natural world and my role in it.  I realize now that though the philosophy of conservation may seem on its surface as the only way to approach natural resource management, it is not. In fact, it could very well be completely misguided at best, and completely ineffective at worst. The conservation model is at its heart a cynical one, seated in a primary philosophy of "not enough." We must have Resource A to survive, yet we teeter on the brink of permanently losing Resource A forever due to misuse, overuse or simply running out. Therefore, the conservation ethic tells us we must do all we can to slow this degradation and permanent loss as long as possible. This leaves a tickle in the back of the mind that our efforts, however noble, will at best postpone the impending crash of Resource A followed by the inevitable domino crashes of Resources B, C, D, E etc., until the entire system collapses in upon itself, leaving behind a dried up husk for a planet. 

How cheerful! No wonder I was felt like I was in a rut. Fortunately permaculture offers up an entirely different world view, one of restoration rather than conservation. Yes, when it comes to natural resources, permaculture operates under the belief that we can fix it, and we can make more.

It's a concept so simple that I can't believe it's not on the tip of every human tongue. Everyone's harping on about organic this and that, and that's all well and good, but how many people realize that organic is now big business, and as an industrialized monoculture it is just as harmful as any other factory farm?  How many people understand that organic certification movement has resulted in a lower quality of life for some farm animals (due to refusal to treat sick or injured animals for fear of losing certification)? Permaculture works solely on the principles of doing what is right for every component of the natural system from soil and seed to knife and fork. Organic is just one tiny part of the bigger permaculture picture. The bigger picture is one of an entire ecosystem working in a natural way to not only preserve our natural resources, but to actually make them healthier and add to them. When was the last time you heard something so optimistic about our environment?

As I read and learn all that I can and slowly make the conversion of our farm to a full scale permaculture farm, I hope I'll be sharing a few success stories amidst the frustrations and failures that are an inevitable part of trying something new. So stay tuned!