The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Urban Homesteading in a Rental House: Late Winter/Spring Updates! March 5, 2017

Last year, I explored the idea of “growing where you are planted.” At this stage in my journey, I am working towards living my spiritual principles through permaculture practice within the bounds of a rental house within walkable distance to my workplace. Last year, I shared some general tips for how to do this kind of work, as it is a situation that so many of us find ourselves in at the present time. Even with seemingly “limited” options as befitting a renter, much opportunity abounds! I thought I’d share a few of the projects I’ve been working on in the last few months and give a general “update” about where things are. (Note: next week I’ll return to the conclusion of the “Slowing down” series!)

 

Food Forest Project: Planning and Soil Preparation

This year, I’m undertaking a new gardening adventure with a good friend of mine to start a food forest using permaculture principles on some land she has access to. This land is about 5 minutes out of our town and is on old pasture land. We expect this to be an “incubator” project for a larger project we are starting to plan for the coming months and years. But for now, we are engaging in some serious work to grow plants and design a welcoming and sacred space.

Some of our plans for the space...

Some of our plans for the space…

We are using permaculture design principles for the entire project, and we are designing not for the short term, but to bring healthy soil fertility and to engage in people care, earth care, and fair share. At this point, we’ve done our basemapping and planning the food forest over the last few months, and now we are in the process of starting seeds and preparing the soil. I hope to share some of that garden planning/basemapping work on the blog as we work to develop this site further.

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil...

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil…

On the matter of soil preparation, we are incredibly lucky to have access to animals at the farm, specifically, a pig. We put Saavik, the pig, along with her goat and chicken friends in the area where we will be planting. Saavik is doing an incredible job in turning the soil and digging up the roots. This is a very large area, and we weren’t sure how we were going to get the whole thing done in time to plant (we have a grand vision!) But giving the animals a go at the land over the last part of winter and early spring means that they will have done most of the work for us, tilling it up, eating the grasses and roots and grubs, and creating beautiful manure. I have never seen a pig at work before–she is absolutely incredible.  The entire pasture will have no grass and we will have the opportunity to rake up whatever is left, put in our paths, use a garden fork to address any soil compaction, and plant.

Go pig, go!

Go Saavik, go!

Seed Starting for Gardens

This past weekend, my friend and I recently started the first of the annual seeds for the food forest. We are up splitting the seeds that we need to start–I’m working on all of the herbs and she’s working on the veggies; most of the perennials will need to be purchased or sourced some other way. We are using my light system, and my friend also is working to setup her own light system modeled after mine.  We hope the two light systems will allow us to have enough plants both for my refugia garden as well as for our project here. I can’t tell you how much I love starting and caring for seeds! Already, the little sprouts are beginning to show. You can start seeds in just about any space if you have soil and light. The key is figuring out where to plant them afterward!

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Maple / Hickory / Walnut Trees and Syrup

There is something about the magic of the early spring that is truly unlike any other period of time. One of my favorite activities has been, for years, to tap maple trees and make maple syrup. The problem was that I didn’t have the evaporating system like the group of us had in Michigan nor did I have access to abundant trees. But, in permaculture design, the problem is the solution, and I started looking around to see what I could do…and so I decided to pursue “urban” maple sugaring.

A tree tapped in my backyard!

A tree tapped in my backyard!

It began with a single maple tree in my backyard, which I tapped a few weeks ago in early February. I wanted to drink the sap from the tree, which is nutritious, delicious, and very rejuvenating. A careful review of my lease showed no violation if I tapped them (I mean, do landlords really think about whether or not you can tap a tree? Likely not!) I tapped one of the trees and made an offering and the sap just started dripping out! All that wassailing we did is already paying off!

 

I inquired about tapping a few walnut and hickory trees at the garden site and we decided to do so. Then I tapped a second maple in the yard and the tree offered a half gallon or more of sap most days….this was getting to be a little too much to drink!

 

I realized that doing a “mini” sugaring setup would not be too difficult on my porch (you can’t evaporate that much maple sap indoors or everything will get sticky). I had purchased a very high-quality burner for a different project at a yard sale last summer for $3. I poured the sap into a large stainless steel pot and checked it every hour.  In one weekend, I manged to boil down 4 gallons of maple sap, adding more as the pot began getting down further until all four gallons were reduced in the pot.  Yes, it is true.  You can make small amounts of maple syrup in a rental house!

Turning sap into sugar!

Turning sap into sugar!

What I found is that with this small of a scale, I really needed to pay close attention to the syrup as it gets near finishing.  I burned the first batch (so sad) but the 2nd batch came out just beautifully!

Finishing off Maple Syrup

Finishing off Maple Syrup

A Triad of Composting

I am delighted to have a triad of composting activity happening at my rental house, which is allowing me to re-use a good deal of the waste I would otherwise produce. The first thing I have, where the bulk of my food scraps go, is my outdoor compost tumbler. I brought the tumbler with me from my homestead. For brown matter, I typically add fall leaves or shredded up newspaper–it works like a charm, even if it gets only afternoon light. At this point, I’ve produced about 20 or so gallons of finished compost that has mostly gone to my refugia garden and to my friend’s land.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.  One composts down while one is filled.

The second method I’m using to compost is my vermicompost bin. After messing around with a prototype five-gallon bucket vermicompost system for about 9 months now (which went through several iterations), I am back to the tried and true bin system. I had hoped the bucket system would take up less space, but what I found is that the five-gallon buckets couldn’t handle much compost at all,  because the worm population was small, it took longer, and the worms didn’t seem as happy.

Vermicompost bin system

Vermicompost bin system

The third method, which I shared a few months ago, is the compost toilet. that is, composting my own human waste and urine. This is working out splendidly, and I’m delighted to no longer need to flush the toilet (it has become a nice book stand!).  I’ve really started to enjoy “making deposits” and cycling my nutrients.  I’ve been experimenting with different materials, and am finding that a combination of sawdust, mulch (free from tree work), and shredded office paper and/or leaves are the perfect combination to hold in liquids and cover up solid waste. All of these materials are fairly easy to come by and are yet another way to turn waste into a resource!

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Growing Community

My friend and I are also starting to bring permaculture into the community by starting the Indiana PA Permaculture Guild.  I’m very excited to see how this new endeavor goes, and if it has anything like the success of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup, we will be able to do a lot of good in our community. Our first meeting is just around the Spring Equinox–a good time to begin anew. The goal of this project is to bring people together to learn about permaculture, teach each other new skills, and grow as a community.  I’ll share more as this initiative gets further underway 🙂

 

Refugia Garden and Seed Scattering

I started a refugia garden a year ago on my parents’ land and shared some of my earlier plans and results. Last year, this garden allowed me to grow some herbs for healing purposes as well as start a “seed bank” for healing the wild lands and bringing back key native medicinals to our ecosystem here. I’ve delighted in doing this work, and have created seed balls from a number of the seeds in this garden and have given them to many friends to help spread.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

One of the kind of humorous challenges of last year was that the refugia garden was “squashed”; my parents had thrown compost in the spot the year before, and the squash seeds sprouted at some point in June. I live about an hour from my parents, and I was travelling for a few weeks and didn’t make it out to check on the garden. I came back to find my garden literally covered in squash I hadn’t planted! The squash were doing well, so I tried cutting back the leaves to make sure the other plants had gotten light, and then I just let them be. Most of my medicinal plants did fine, but I lost a few key ones as part of the garden being squashed.  And so I am starting those plants from seed again this year (and enjoying a number of squash dishes this winter!)

Squash happens...

Squash happens…

A few weekends ago, my parents and I were driving past many of the abandoned strip mines and boney dumps in this area. As we drove and stopped in various places, I threw out a number of seed balls and spread other kinds of native wildflower seeds to help those lands heal. The mining companies are required to replant the landscape, but their idea of replanting is some basic grasses, vetches, and red pines.  And there is very little actual soil–most of it is slate and refuse from the dumps. I hope the seed balls themselves will allow for some new plants to take root and the compost and clay help build topsoil. We’ll see!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Magic seed balls ready for tossing!

The Walking Commute

I must say that I really enjoy walking everywhere–especially when my car is recently giving me trouble or during the big snowstorms.  Walking allows me to slow down, to take in nature on my walk.  For example, there is a bramble patch, several wild hedges, and a small stream on my walk to campus. It also allows me time for slowing down and decompressing at the end of the day on campus. This is one of the main benefits to living in town–the ability to walk to the bank, to get some tea, to hang out or see a jazz band, to visit friends, and more.  I didn’t realize how much I depended on my car until I could set it aside!

Campus after my "birthday" snow :)

Campus after my “birthday” snow 🙂

So these are some of the current practices I’ve got going on and some of the plans for this year.  I’m hoping to hear from some of you–tell me what you are planning, dreaming, and working to bring forth this year!

 

I hope this demonstrates that you really can “grow where you are planted” and even if that growth doesn’t include land of your own, there are still a lot of wonderful things you can do to live in line with the earth.  The best thing of all is that everything I’ve outlined above is manageable and enjoyable!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

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Vermicomposting I: Setting Up Your Worm Bin January 23, 2014

Vermicomposting is an indoor composting technique where you keep a worm bin and let the worms do their good work in converting newspapers and kitchen scraps to “worm castings.” This form of finished compost is incredibly high in rich microbial life (the basis for nutritional exchanges in the soil) and rich in nitrogen.  Its a perfect soil amendment for organic gardening of all kinds (or house plants if you aren’t actively gardening). About a year ago, one of my friends lead a workshop for our Permaculture Meetup on Vermicomposting; I supplied all the materials, and I ended up with a great worm bin. I fed it religiously for the first few months in the winter, sporadically after that, and, honestly, forgot about it for the last two months with the flurry of end-of-semester activity.  Recently, I opened it up to harvest the castings and refill the bin–the worms were still happy as could be and had produced an amazing compost!

My Worm Bin in Kitchen Corner

My Worm Bin in Kitchen Corner

Vermicomposting is one way that people in apartments or other small spaces can compost without worrying about having the outdoor space for a compost bin–you can add the compost to plants grown in pots or buckets, and have a small-scale patio garden operation!

 

Vermicomposting is also particularly useful for the colder months of the year. In December-February most of my food scraps will freeze if I throw them in a pile (and even sometimes, if I throw them to the chickens and the chickens choose not to eat them).  The worms are a perfect way to use those scraps and keep your compost moving and getting different kinds of compost year round (for other composting methods, see this post).

 

I also like the earth-centered energetics of the worm bin.  The humble earth worm, with a strong presence in your kitchen, brings excellent earthy qualities.  The idea that the soil web of life is happening right there, before your eyes, is a very magical experience.  I could also see this as a great way to educate children about the cycles of nature and our incredible soil web of life.

 

Building a worm bin is very simple, and probably can be done with materials you likely already have around your home (we built mine by finding materials in my garage). You can buy fancy expensive worm bins (usually running about $100 or so), but I think its much more fun and sustainable to build a bin out of what you already have.  You can also often find cracked plastic tubs on the side of the  road–a cracked tub would be fine for the inner bin.

 

Materials for the Bin: Here’s what you need to build the bin:

  • 2 plastic tubs. One tub will need to fit in the other, and the inner tub will need a lid. The tubs should be opaque (the worms like it very dark).
  • 2 “supports” 3-4″ high.  I used plastic deli containers, but you could also use bricks or stones.
  • A drill and largish-drill bit (like 1/4″ or so).
  • Newspapers.
  • Bucket of water.
  • Worms and food scraps (covered later in this blog post).

 

How to build your worm bin:

1.  Start by placing your supports in between the inner and outer tubs.  Your supports should hold one tub above the other about 3-4.” See my photo below for more information.

Supports in bottom of bin (this bin has been going a while, so you see some castings in there)

Supports in bottom of bin (this bin has been going a while, so you see some castings in there)

2.  Once you know how high your inner tub will be, you need to drill holes. You will drill holes  around the top edge as well as in the lid for air flow in and out of the bin. You will also need to drill holes in the bottom for drainage (the worms sometimes produce a “compost tea” that will drain into the bin and that can also be used for plants.

Drilled holes

Drilled holes

3.  Once this is done, add your supports and put the inner bin inside of the outer bin.

4.  Now its time to fill the bin! Tear your newspaper into strips.  Try not to tear too many sheets at once–you want to pull the sheets apart, tear them up, and then crumple them up.

5.  Add the strips to the bucket of water and soak for a few minutes.

6.  Add the soaked newspaper strips into the inner bin–you want to fill the bin 1/2 – 3/4 of the way full with the newspaper.  You can also add a bit of soaked cardboard or paper towel tubes if you have them–the worms will eat through pretty much any paper product.

Worm bin (1 month in, they are doing their good work!)

Worm bin (1 month in, they are doing their good work!)

7.  At this stage, your bin is ready to accept food scraps and worms!

 

Worms.  Most indoor vermicomposting does not use typical earthworms found in, say Michigan, but rather worms called “red wrigglers.” If you have a friend who has a worm bin, they can just give you a handful of their works–that’s how I got mine originally, and a small handful of worms quickly multiplied.  If you don’t have friends with worm bins, you can order them online (just google “red wrigglers.”)  They run about $15-30.

Worm in the bin

Worm in the bin

 

Food Scraps.  Worms can only digest certain kinds of food scraps–mostly vegetable in origin.  Here’s what you can’t put in a worm bin:

  • Meat and bones
  • Dairy
  • Citrus (the acidity of the lemon or orange peels can irritate the worms)
  • Eggshells (I learned this one the hard way–they don’t break them down)
  • Anything sprouting, like a sprouting potato peel (the worms tend to avoid eating living things)

 

Feeding your worm bin. Depending on the size of your family and the amount of vegetables you consume, one worm bin might not be sufficient for all of your composting needs. What you want to do is start on one side of the bin, pull back the newspapers, and bury a small handful of food scraps within. The next day, you can move a few inches around the edge of the bin, and add another handful. In about a 2-3 week period, you can work your way the whole way around the bin, burying food in many areas.  By the time you work back to the original spot, the worms should have taken care of that section and you can add more food.  If you add too much, just give the bin a week or so before adding more scraps.  When you are getting ready to harvest your worm castings, you probably want to let the bin sit about a month so that the worms can take care of the last of the food scraps–then they will move to working on the newspaper and break that down.

 

Harvesting and refilling your worm bin. I waited about 9 months to harvest my worm castings for the first time, but I know I could have probably harvested them a bit sooner.  What I did was take a small spoon and pull the castings up from the bin, checking them for worms, and then putting them in a separate bucket. Any worms I found went into another bowl, that eventually went back into the bin. I didn’t harvest 100% of the castings–I left about the bottom inch (which still had some newspaper) in the bin. That last inch had the highest concentration of worms anyways. After I had harvested my castings (probably 3 or so lbs of them) I refilled the bin with wet newspapers (just like I described above) and began adding food scraps again.  I think if you had a few bins, you could get them on different harvest schedules and have castings more often.

Finished worm castings--awesome!

Finished worm castings–awesome!