Saturday, August 31, 2013

Permaculture and Chicken Scratch---Stacked Poly-Alley-Guilds

So it turns out that the 10 pounds of tomatoes I told you about last time was really 29 pounds of tomatoes.  It seems I suck at estimation.  Since then, I have been pulling in anywhere from 10-20 pounds every other day and it's been busy.  I've spent many hours in the kitchen canning and freezing said tomatoes, along with pounds of whatever else the garden is providing.  I bought more jars, and  I have used almost all of them already.  It seems that the 3000 square foot mark for garden space is pretty close to where I want to be.  I have yet to run the numbers, but at a glance, with the extra square feet added by the front garden, this year's yields should come in much higher than last year's.  It's looking good so far, which is lovely, since this was not the best garden year, weather-wise.
Albert is also looking good.

But will I stop there?  Nah.  With the rising cost of everything, the stagnation of salaries, and the possibility of big time economic problems (to put it politely) on the horizon, 3000 square feet is not enough, and it's time to expand again.  I have a family to feed, you know.  :)  Now as you know, we have a nice little chunk of land, but not much of it is actually cleared.  I'm loath to clear any more, truthfully, because it's just so damn nice, plus, in practicality, a lot of it is wet, and is better suited to grazing animals, like the goats or some pigs. Plus free firewood, how can you go wrong??  The area that is cleared is pretty much the best area for growing food on this piece, so I have to make the most of it.

To do that, I looked to a few more principles of permaculture--those of alley cropping, polycultures and guilds.  Polycultures are nothing more than an area where several different crop types are grown in one space.  They are the direct opposite of what is practiced in large scale in this country--monoculture-- or as I like to call it "Corn, corn, as far as the eye can see, and not a bit of it edible".  Any person who has grown a garden of any size has practiced polyculture, unless all they did was say, grow tomatoes or beans and that was it.  But does anyone really do that?  No, so polycultures are not a foreign idea to anyone, I would think.  The benefits are many, including the fact that if the year is a bad one for say, eggplant (which this one was in my garden), and all you planted was eggplant, then you'd starve (you'd probably starve anyway, since eggplant has very little nutritional value, but you get my drift).  But if you planted many other things besides eggplant, then when the eggplant fails, it sucks, but you still have other things to eat.  Ta da!  It's a good system. 

So ok, I already practice polyculture, and I know you all do too.  So let's look at some other ideas, such as alley cropping and guilds.  Both of these principles center around fruit trees, generally, and I happen to have some fruit trees.  Kismet!

This is a shot of the orchard area, earlier this year.  As you can see, and is the fact of almost all orchards, it's a bunch of fruit trees in a sea of grass.  Basically, and especially when the trees are young like mine are, it's a huge waste of space, when space is at a premium.  Now I did attempt to use a couple of plots in here this year, but they failed miserably because I didn't keep up with the weeding.  My bad.  All in all, I didn't use the space effectively.  However, what you can see in this picture is alley cropping--using the space between the trees to grow another crop.  Brilliant!  Had it worked, it would have been a very good use of otherwise unused space. 

So establishing that the principle of alley cropping is sound, and knowing that I need more space, I sought to create an area in this space that would allow me to use the land much more effectively.  Honestly, I was stuck.  The grass is so pervasive, and the soil here is pretty bad, so it was really vexing to think of how to do what I wanted to do without fighting a continuous battle.  Luckily, my parents used to have a vegetable garden, full of raised beds.  And they were no longer using it and were going to take it down.  And because I love stuff people are getting rid of, I bartered that I would take it all apart, if I could have it.  They agreed.  After several hours of hard work, I took apart the boxes they had, loaded them into my car (and my dad's truck), and brought them home to reassemble.  And now the orchard, which looked like the above, now looks like this:
Complete with fatty, fatty broilers


I have no idea how much space I have added.  I actually have to measure today, so I can start planning for next year's garden, so I'll let you know.  But it is a use of the space that would not have been used, and better yet, it's all in neat boxes, which I like because I am so compulsive about that sort of thing.

The large, currently tarped areas are being solarized.  They will be where I plant the hugely vining things, like the pumpkins and winter squash and melons.  When in the garden, these plants eat the planet and severely limit my space to grow things in doing so.  Out in these long runs, they can do as they please and not effect the other plants around them.  The boxes?  Well, I haven't really decided what to plant where yet, but they will be the annuals we all know and love.  Honestly, I will probably use a good number of them for potatoes and garlic and things that need to grow down.   The hard clayey soil here is not really friendly to things that like to grow down around here.  I'll let you know what I decide!

The last principle that could be practiced here is the concept of guilds.  Guilds are a group of different plants, growing together, that benefit one another as well as us.  The above pics are not of a true guild, though I have in mind some ways to make it so.  Potatoes will probably not benefit the fruit trees in any way, whereas if I planted some flowering somethings to attract pollinators, that would benefit the fruit trees, and the fruit trees would, in turn, benefit them.  This area, as I need to intensely cultivate it for our food, is not for that.  Instead I have set up a "test guild" area here:


I planted two additional fruit trees, a peach and an apple.  I placed a tiered bed (from my parents' house) in the center.  I will grow strawberries in here.  Around that bed, and around the fruit trees, I will be planting lower fruiting bushes, herbs, and ground covers that will boost the productivity of all (hopefully).  On the flip side, this area is one of runoff from the gutters.  Though we do catch a good amount of the rain water, we never catch it all, and it goes off into this area here.  I have been working this year to stop this, or at least slow it down, but it's been tough going.  The plants here will be able to catch the water, benefit from it, and hopefully make the area less soggy for us.  And in setting up this area, I am stacking functions, another permaculture principle (go me!).  If it works, this will be a win-win situation.  I hope it works.

Truly all these principles can work together to make areas run as a unified whole.  Though I really do like things in their "proper" places, I am really interested to see how a cacophony of plants do together.  Will they work together?  Will it be productive (most important)?  Or will it become an untamed jungle that I can't stand looking at, much less working in (my biggest fear)?  Only time will tell, my friends.  I think we'll all see together!

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Friday, August 23, 2013

On the 23rd of August....

...there is finally a tomato harvest worth taking a picture of.  It's been few and far between this year.  As it is, I'm getting a July number of tomatoes a month late, and the vines all look like it's late September.  The weather has been--er--interesting.  Maybe the only nice thing about it (trying to look on the bright side here), is that the tomatoes are all coming in at once.  I never have that, as they're all OP, so they ripen whenever.  But due to the October nights and (this week) the August days, plus whacking off all of their heads, the tomatoes are coming in fast and furious.  I will be busy.

Basket 2 of 3.  It was the prettiest one.
The squash is about done, the eggplant never made an appearance, the beans got a second wind, which is nice, and thankfully the fall peas are coming up.  But the fall lettuce is still thinking about it, and the corn, which is very tall, is still considering it's options.  Possibly it's waiting for a better offer, I don't know.  At this point, I refuse to renegotiate it's contract, though-it's too late in the season.  One of the ears was really cool, though, see?  It'll be nice if it actually ripens.
It's got curly hair, just like me! Wild.

So right now I'm in full preserving mode, which I have been for a while, and for the first time EVER---I have run out of jars.  Huh.  To say that's never happened before in all my years of canning-which is quite a few-would not be a lie.  I am out of jars.  While I ponder that whole situation, let me leave you with this:

Today I went to the farmer's market, which I never do, because I don't have to.  But I wanted to try kale, which I didn't grow but have heard good things about, and before committing ground space to an unknown crop, I wanted to see if we'd even eat it--hence the trip to the farmer's market.  Anyway, there was a goat cheese booth there and the line for it was insane.  And it occured to me as I looked at that line that people are so ridiculous.  The two products people go crazy over, ie; goat's milk ANYTHING (soap, lotion, blah blah) and goat cheese are in fact from the very milk product NO ONE wants to drink.  If I could tell you how many times someone's said to me "I don't like goat milk" or "Ew.  You drink GOATS' milk?", this would be a very long conversation.  Totally bizarre.

Anyway, that's my observation of human strangeness for today.  I'm off to figure out to do with the 10 pounds of tomatoes in my kitchen.  Have a good one!!!

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

And the Beat Goes On

  • I reached my 100th milking a couple of weeks ago.  I only know this because I ran out of filters and had to open another box.  100 milkings.  It's not many, but it seems like a lot.  I've learned a lot as well, like:
    1. Minerva is a terrible milker, owing to her CAE.  She's had mastitis twice, and she gives very little.  However, she's the best one on the stand, and is the easiest to milk out.  She goes right up, settles in, and stands like a trooper.  Unfortunately, since she's not a good milker, she will not be bred again.  I'm going to continue to milk her until Dulcinea has kidded and is in milk, hopefully early next year.  Then I'm going to let her dry up and that will be that.  The good news?  Her cart goat training has begun.  She sucks at it.  But knowing Min, she will get it soon and be awesome.  I just have to persist. 
"Look at me!  I'm so smart!"

    1. Lilly is an amazing milker, despite her CAE.  I guess hers will not manifest itself in that way, and I'll have to be watching for however it does manifest.  If I get to Lilly before the vampire child named Tallulah, she's good for (I think) about a half gallon+ a day, which I think is pretty good for an FF.  Only every once in a while do I catch Lilly before Tallulah has been there and sucked her dry.  Lately, I haven't been able to do that at all.  Usually I catch her after Tallulah's had a bit, and then Lilly's milk numbers are down.  Tallulah is now 7 weeks old, eating and drinking like everyone else, so I'm going to wean her, and then I'll see.  That kid can drink!  30 seconds on the teat and Lilly's on "e".
    2. Lilly also enjoys holding milk back for Tallulah, which makes things especially difficult.  This morning she was pretty full, and I was looking forward to a nice milking.  But I guess Tallulah didn't get enough, according to Lilly, so getting that milk out was a pain in the neck.  I bumped and massaged, but I only got what she was willing to give, which was an ok amount.  I can always tell when Lilly's holding back on me.  Not only can I feel it, but she actually changes position on the stand when she thinks I'm done, and her udder goes up.  It's funny, but annoying.  Needless to say, this morning, after I had gotten everything I could and could get no more, Tallulah ran right up to Lilly and STILL had a nice meal.  Gah!!
    3. Lilly was hobbled on the stand up until a week and a half ago.  She was horrendous to milk.  Dancing every which way, and then bucking straight up in the air when she was done with me.  Now she dances much less and when she's annoyed with me paws the stand with a front foot, instead of stepping in the milking bucket.  I know that once Lilly stomps, it's either time to hurry the hell up, or give her something yummy to distract her.
    4. No matter what, it's a two week time span of hellish milkings for an FF, until they get the routine and milking can start in earnest.  The first two weeks, though, I just want to cry.  Afterwards, it seems to just be routine and adjusting.  Thank goodness!
Um....yeah...that's pretty much Lilly in a nutshell. 
  • What else did I learn?  I hate getting up that early in the morning.  Hate.  It.  But I gotta do what I gotta do.  Still, though...UGH.
  • Dulcinea is a "stealth heat" goat, and it's been very difficult to judge when she's in the "mood" to be bred.  When I think I have it, I put her in with Stewart, who is very willing to oblige, and she runs like an axe murderer is after her.  But she's a tease.  He can sniff, she lets him do that, but once he starts blubbering, she gets annoyed, and if he tries to mount, she runs like hell.  It's very annoying--to ME.  She's now in the boys' pen every day, and will stay there until I decide that her will has broken or that she's actually in heat.  She has to earn her living.  As I told her, being sausage-shaped is not a career path here.
"I swear; I will live and die a virgin!"

  • Olive is still here, and is not going anywhere.  Despite dropping the price on her a million times, no one was interested.  What did everyone want?  One of my girls already in milk!  Ha!  In your dreams, people!  I assume that all the newbie suburbanite farmer wannabees who contacted me don't want the work of dealing with a goat kid and raising them up until milking age.  Unbelievable, because she's weaned, CDT'd, dewormed and de-coccidia-fied.  Oh, and disbudded.  I did all the hard work here!  Gotta love the lack-of-work ethic.  Anyway, the price got so stupid that I just pulled the ads.  At that point, the milk Olive will someday make (yes people, I can wait, go figure) will be worth so much more than I was going to sell her for.  She stays.  The goat number is now at 9, with 7 girls and 2 boys.  It's a good number right now, and I'll see how it works out.
Still adorable

  • The Muscovies (look, I changed the subject!) are very large and very cool duck-goose guys.  They come up to us and wiggle their tails and don't run when you look their way.  It's a nice change from the domestic ducks, who run when the wind blows at them.  I like them, and I'm glad they're here.  They eat bugs out of the air!  Lots of them, too.  That's pretty cool.  Definitely they are a valuable animal.
  • The meatbirds are at 4 weeks now, and growing pretty well.  With the cold weather, it is difficult for them to get really big.  This batch is funny, and very adventurous.  Yesterday, unfortunately, we had a hawk attack and one female was injured.  She's possibly recovering, I'll have to see.  Luckily Cassio was in his run at the time and made a ridiculous amount of noise to alert me (and anyone in the area), so I came out to look.  It could have been worse. 
  • I have decided the backyard bunnies need to leave.  Since my analysis, I have realized that they serve no real purpose, so away they need to go.  How to do that?  I'm not sure.  I'll let you know...
  • The vegetable garden is in it's death throws--about a month too early.  I got nothing on that one.  As I walked through it last week, I could swear by the shape the plants were in it was early September not early August.  Very weird.  It may have something to do with the fact that several nights and mornings as of late have been of October ilk, and definitely not August.  Long sleeves?  Yup.  As of now, I have whacked the heads off of all the tomatoes in order to get any at all to ripen, pulled some things out of the ground that were just done, and put the eggplant under plastic to try to salvage some of the small fruits that were developing before October showed up.  It's a very strange year.  I'm wondering if I should have known when one of the pumpkins in the garden had turned orange by the fourth of July.  Maybe that should have been a tip-off?
  • However, the good news is that I have been able to plant nice fall crops like broccoli, cauliflower, peas and lettuce.  I've put more carrots in the ground as well.  Today I will plant spinach.  All is not lost.  But it was not a tomato year, that's for sure, and I got 0 melons.  Next year I will be putting some things in low tunnels to keep the heat up. 
And I think that's about it.  The beat goes on.  And I need a nap.  Take care!!

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Permaculture and Chicken Scratch--Holons

Hello friends!  It's a rainy day today, so I find myself with a little bit of time to luckily write this next post.  First, though, I just want to mention that this is my 400th post.  Apparently I have a lot to say.  But seriously, I want to thank each and every one of you who come around here to visit me and to tell you how much it means.  I started this blog for myself, to remind myself of what happened here and when.  I didn't think I would meet such nice people along the way.  So thank you all from the bottom of my heart!  It's been a pleasure to know you all, it really has.

Now back to our regularly scheduled post.

Back in the first post I wrote about permaculture, I mentioned a concept called holons.  I love this idea, I really do.  It's probably because I like to segment things into their "proper" boxes, you could say, and then, after they're all neat and tidy, figure out what to do with them.  Thinking of the animals and gardens and such as separate entities in a way helps me to look at them and see how to use them better.  Especially because not a one of the things that goes on here is truly separate.  Everything at Chicken Scratch is part of the whole.  But looking at them in this light helps me to see a pattern and then tweak it if need be.

A couple of you commented the last time on how you would have one of the "sections" of your homestead relate to the other, ie: by composting with your chickens.  Yes, a lot of things like that go on here as well.  But to think it through was a bit overwhelming.  I couldn't really envision how the systems related, so I couldn't see where the "holes" were.  So I sat down and drew a diagram.

Click on this diagram---if you dare!  :)

Ok, Visio drew the diagram, but you get my drift.  Basically, I sat down and put the different holons on the diagram in relation to where they are in the yard and then drew a bunch of arrows.  First thing I noticed?  We have a LOT of different systems going on here.  Second thing I noticed?  That it looked a lot like a web, and most holons had arrows that were reciprocal, meaning that if there was an input to that system, there was also a useable output.  But it was difficult to see which holons needed the most of my input, and which needed the least.  So I tried again.

And that helped a bit, though the arrows get a bit confusing.  What I was trying to represent was all the ways that each holon here relates to the others.  The system is complicated, no matter how you slice it.  The one common factor? If I don't run it, it doesn't get run.  And that most holons contributed to at least one other holon in the system.  The other thing was that I could then clearly see which holons needed me the most, and which needed me the least. The second diagram really shows it.  The first arc of orangey things are the holons I visit most often (it's in an arc just because it didn't all fit on the page).  The second line are the things I visit less, and the third, least of all.  I did not include the woods, even though it would count and should have a place--probably with the bees.  We'll have to just pretend it's there.

This was how this broke down:
  1. Dairy goats
    1. Input from me; feed, hay, water, shelter, care, scritching (very important).
    2. Output from them; milk for us (myself and family), manure for vegetable gardens and perennial gardens. Potentially also manure for berries and fruit trees, but I haven't used it that way yet.
  2. Waterfowl
    1. Input; shelter, feed, water
    2. Output; eggs for us, manure for gardens and potentially orchard/berries.  Unnoted output: protection for free-ranging hens and ducks.
  3. Layers
    1. Input; shelter, feed, water
    2. Output; eggs for us, manure for gardens and potentially orchard/berries.
  4. Fiber Rabbits
    1. Input; shelter, feed, water
    2. Output; manure for the chickens (I know, but they like it), manure for the gardens, waste feed for the chickens, and fiber for us.
  5. Large Vegetable Garden/Small Vegetable Garden
    1. Input: animal manures from layers, waterfowl, goats, backyard rabbits, fiber rabbits, broilers, and broodies, seed, water, compost, time, protection
    2. Output: food for us (hard to argue with that one), compost materials, waste food for animals
  6. Backyard Rabbits
    1. Input; shelter, feed, water
    2. Output; manures for gardens
  7. Perennial Garden
    1. Input; time weeding, plants, seeds, composts, manures
    2. Output; flowers to attract pollinators
  8. Orchard/Berries
    1. Input: composts, manures, time weeding
    2. Output: food for us, compost materials
  9. Broody House
    1. Input; shelter, feed, water
    2. Output; reliable source for egg hatching naturally ( I don't know about you, but my layers are idiots and forget which nest they were sitting on almost constantly. Silkies always remember), eggs for us
  10. Broilers
    1. Input; shelter, food, water
    2. Output; food for us, manure for gardens
  11. Bees:
    1. Input; shelter, food (if necessary)
    2. Output; honey for us, pollination for gardens
***Note that I did not count time as an input unless it was more time than everything else needed.  Time is an input everything needs.  It got silly writing it over and over.

Whew!  Once I had put that down, I saw the slackers:  the backyard rabbits, the broody house, and the perennial garden.  I don't like slackers.  So I had to think about whether all the inputs that those holons receive was really worth the outputs they produce.  I first concluded that the broodies are earning their keep.  As the price of shipping chicks goes up and up and up, it's becoming too expensive to do. Therefore I need a reliable method of hatching my own fertile eggs (well, not mine specifically, but you know what I mean), since my layers cannot be counted on.  I do own an incubator.  Or two.  But that would require an additional input of electricity, whose price goes up and up and up.  The broodies will need to be fed whether or not I use the incubator, causing the whole process of hatching eggs to cost more.  Therefore, the broodies are cheaper in the long run.  So yes, though at first blush they seem to be slackers, they are not.

The backyard rabbits are another issue.  Feed costs money, they take time.  They produce manure, but since bringing in the fiber rabbits, who do the same thing and yet also produce saleable or useable fiber, they're sort of redundant.  So at this point it's a question of do I keep them and keep on keeping on because it's only 3 rabbits?  Or do I sell them and gain a bit more time in my day and less feed used?  I have not been able to answer that one yet, because it's not so simple as black and white.  But I do recognize that it's something I need to address at some time, probably soon.  If the price of feed continues to rise, that will probably decide for me.

The last slacker?  The perennial garden.  Basically it does nothing but look pretty.  Is that enough?  Yes, actually, I think it is for now.  The garden does not demand feeding or new plantings, if I do that, it's up to me--it needs weeding and mulching to keep it looking nice.  In return, it's beautiful to look at and attracts bugs, bees and birds that then hang around and pollinate things when they visit, and not just the plants in the perennial garden.  This is an example of another sort of intangible output, much like the broody house (or the bees, whose pollination efforts benefit me both directly as honey and indirectly as fruit set).   However, I can "up" the productivity of this garden by snuggling in edibles or herbs.  This is something I will be doing in the next year, that I can tell.

It took a long time to get through that, but one of the first principles of permaculture is observation.  It means for you to see the land and the systems at place within it.  There are many natural systems on this property I still need to look at, but the like it or not, I put all these systems here, and I needed to see how they were working (or not working) first.  Now I know.  My advice you to, my friends, in this time of economic stupidity and climatic crisis that we are in, is to sit on down with a piece of paper and a pencil and draw yourself a diagram like I did. See how your processes lie.  See who contributes what to whom and how.  Find the weak points.  Decide what to do with them. As money gets tighter, it's harder to throw around at things that just don't work.  That's something I am learning.  We start at the beginning by looking and deciding.  Then we'll take action.  Before you know it, we'll be rockin'!

Agree with me?  Am I off my rocker?  Talk to me.  Let me know what you think.  If it takes me a while to comment, I apologize--summer is busy.  I will get back to you, though.  That I promise!

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Thursday, August 1, 2013


Ah, my friends, I have so many things to talk about, and I really want to go into that little permaculture series I was planning, but I have no time at the moment.  The garden is keeping me so busy!  So for now, I will leave you with some pictures of the front garden--the perennial garden.  I took them as I was sitting outside on the rocker in front for a half hour (a whole FREE half hour) the other evening.  This is the first time I've had that garden do something, so it was really nice to look at.  Usually the chickens have eaten it all by now and there are no flowers.  So yes, I am kind of enjoying not having them run around and cause mayhem.  Terrible, right?

I will be back soon, I promise.  'Till then!

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