The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Homestead Bird Flocks and Flock Happiness December 1, 2019

Baby ducks!

On the Druid’s Garden homestead, we have many feathered friends. I think a lot of people see birds just as livestock, but here, we see them a little differently. Thus, I wanted to create a short guide for people who were thinking about cultivating a relationship with a backyard flock of birds but they weren’t sure what kind of birds they might want!  Of course, this is my own druid perspective on homestead bird flocks, which might be a bit different than what you’ll find on more general sites.   In this guide, I’ll talk about a variety of backyard flock breeds, how they might help your garden and homestead, challenges, temperament, and more. I will also note that I haven’t raised birds for meat, so I won’t talk about that much in this guide. I’ll cover four common backyard flock birds: chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl.

 

Entering Into Relationship

Stemming in part from my post last week where I talked about seeing all aspects of nature as sacred, having agency, and the need to honor life, I think it’s important to start any conversation about backyard flocks from this perspective.

 

 

Before entering into any relationship, it’s important to start with your own intentions and think about these questions framed by relationship. What do you want from backyard birds? What can you offer them? For us, we keep our birds as pets, as companions, and as helpers on the homestead. Our intentions are to let them have long, happy lives and to build relationships with them. And we work to offer them plenty of free-ranging outside time, secure and safe coops and runs, healthy food, treats, and a variety of things to keep them entertained.  Like any other relationship: the more I invest, the more rich rewards I gain. Many of the backyard bird breeds, when offered good housing, shelter, food, and so on, can live many years and provide you amazing companionship and joy.

 

This relationship and intention might be different if you are raising birds for pets vs. meat.  For meat animals, I ascribe to the “one bad day” philosophy. When raising meat birds, those birds should have the best life possible up until their “one bad day.” Animals can have great lives even if they are intended to be eaten. Raising meat birds personally isn’t something I do but I support others who do so ethically.

 

Thus, these birds are living, breathing autonomous individuals with their own desires and capacity for love/friendship. Each one has their own personality and is unique. The more you treat them as deserving of this respect, the more rewards you will have from raising them.  And certainly, this kind of thinking I’m advocating here goes against much of the conventional wisdom about “barnyard animals” and their treatment.

 

Flock Overview:

Now that we are through the philosophy of raising backyard birds, here are some of the backyard flocks that you can consider raising.  We are currently raising all four of these flocks and have hand raised all from babies or eggs.

 

Chickens:  Most people are most familiar with chickens of the birds on this list. I love chickens and have kept them for most of my life. They are fun, quirky, entertaining, and sweet mannered.  I only raise heritage breeds because these breeds are older and live longer (8-12 years).  Some breeds of chickens today are genetically selected to grow quickly, have large breasts, or produce so many eggs that it soon destroys their poor bodies–these are battery hen breeds (and are only expected to live 1-3 years).  I will rescue battery hens, but never seek them out as peeps!   A good heritage breed chicken will lay anywhere between 200-300 eggs a year and live 8-12 years. They typically stop laying during the darkest and coldest months–some chicken owners will choose to put a light in their coop at night to encourage them to lay through the cold and dark parts of winter, but I prefer to let them have a break and work with nature.  If the girls want a break from egg-laying at the winter solstice, they can have it!

 

Good heritage breeds are Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds, Black Copper Marans, Easter Eggers, Plymouth Barred Rock, Australorps, and Cochins.  If you are in an area with *any* hawk pressure, I would not recommend bantams or Silkies, but rather, full size hens.  If you want a rooster for protection, consider standard size hens and a bantam rooster–a larger rooster can be rougher on the girls, pulling out feathres, etc.  A bantam rooster can still protect but can’t be as rough.  One rooster is all you need for up to 12 hens!

 

Chickens scratching it up!

Chickens prefer to free-range and are omnivores. They also love food scraps and leftovers, and so, when I go out to eat, I always bring anyone’s unwanted leftovers back for them.  They are so happy to have anything to peck and scratch at.  They can eat almost anything except potato peels.  They adore moldy cheese!  So you can certainly have them help transition compost into soil and eggs!

 

The biggest problem with chickens can be their scratching behavior.  If you have nice garden beds, new seedlings, nice landscaping, or anything covered mulch, you won’t soon because chickens dig it up.  This digging action can be put to good use for fall beds and fall leaves but during certain parts of the year, keeping chickens out of beds and gardens is necessary.  I like to send the chickens into the garden in the fall, where they can dig up all the grubs and worms and help till the soil for next season and deposit their rich fertilizer!

 

Personality-wise, chickens are more independent than the rest of the birds on this list.  The flock may scatter often, with each individual chicken going off on her own to peck and scratch at what suits her fancy or small groups of hens may wander here and here. Thus, you will see them dotted everywhere when they are free-ranging.  This means its easier to lose a single chicken because they don’t stick together.  We have one currently have one rooster and eight hens, and he can’t stay with all the hens when they scatter, which is a bit of a problem when he’s watching for hawks.  But Pythagoras does his best!

 

Those same baby ducks much older!

Ducks are considered one of the best flocks for all-purpose backyard homesteads. This is because they don’t scratch up your mulch, are excellent at garden grubbing, and they lay almost as many eggs as a chicken. Ducks do need access to more water than chickens; ours get a kiddie pool filled with fresh water (usually twice daily in the warm months) and they are quite content.  The area around their kiddie pool will eventually turn into an absolute mud pit, so do be aware.  Wherever there is water, there is a muddy duck, however, so if you have water features on your landscape, this is something to keep in mind. In the winter, they get a smaller bucket that they can dip their beaks and heads into that sits on a heated waterer.

 

Ducks are great for gardens and the smaller breeds (like Khaki Campbells) are light enough to not damage garden plants.  On the other hand, our Pekins just stomp small plants down with their heavy bodies, haha!  There are many possible heritage breeds for ducks, but you want something less heavy if you are going to be having them eat slugs in your garden.

 

Ducks are very social with each other and form a tight-knit community.  I have never seen any of our four ducks stray more than about 10 feet from the other ducks.  When they move, they move as a unit, like a quacking, waddling school of fish. They have a great deal to say and constantly will run commentary on anything you are doing (or anyone else is doing).

 

Geese are my favorite of the backyard flock birds. When I was a kid, I was chased by a flock of mean geese and cornered on my uncle’s porch for almost an hour till my father rescued me. Thus, I never considered them an option for a backyard flock, but my partner talked me into it and I’m so glad he did.  Some breeds of geese are the most friendly and intelligent of all of the birds listed here. The breed that we raise right now is called American Buff, and they are beautiful, super friendly and curious. One gander can mate (for life) with several geese. On our homestead, we have a mated pair and they are always together–and usually following one of us around as we work on the homestead.

 

Geese lay about 20-30 eggs a year, but each egg is enough for a meal for two people (and if you do pysanky, goose eggs are amazing). They are vegetarians, eating grass as their primary food source. Our geese are on the lawn all day, grazing it and chirping in joy. Like ducks, Geese need access to pools of freshwater–our geese have a large tub that we fill up daily for them. We also give them the smaller tub in the winter for their heated waterer when necessary.  They aren’t filthy like ducks though and don’t make a mess of their water.

Our happy geese swimming in the back creek

 

Both geese and guineas (below) are excellent “guard birds” in that they sound a loud alert when someone comes up or driveway or they see a predator. The geese will also aggressively chase something off if they can. This can be useful for the homestead as a whole, and also keep you apprised of the overall situation (especially if you don’t have a dog for these purposes). Geese are quite loud, especially when they get their adult voices, so this is something to keep in mind.  When my geese want something (like grapes or chestnuts, their favorite treat) they will honk quite loudly.

 

Geese will go in the garden, and while you can get them to weed grass for you, they will also likely take a big bite out of some of your ripe fruits and veggies, so keep that in mind.  Also, coming in at 18-20 lbs a bird, they are heavy and can crush seedlings and small plants.

 

Geese are also by far the most intelligent, curious, and personable of the birds listed here.  They enjoy playing with cat and dog toys, chewing on anything they can (including your hair, clothing, etc) and getting themselves into trouble.  I love them so much and if you are looking for a companion bird, I would suggest a pair of geese.  Some people do bring their geese in the house and train them with diapers!  I wish I had thought of that when mine were young!

 

Guineas are the least domesticated of the flocks present here, in that they won’t want cuddles or to be pet, but they are still very friendly and fun. They are loud, with a range of different calls and honks, which help scare away predators and alert you as to what is going on.  I think they are by far the most aware of their surroundings and hence, you can learn a lot about nature observation from watching them.  Like the ducks, they move like a school of fish and stay close to each other. Particularly in their first year of life, they are pretty jumpy, and you’ll often hear them doing their loud alarm calls. They also have other lower whistles, which they use when they want you to do something (like offer them treats or mealworms).  Guineas are powerful birds, and even though they are the smallest of the birds on this list (weighing only 3-5 lbs) they are able to fly and move very quickly.  If a guinea doesn’t want to be caught, the guinea will not be caught! We have trained them with hand signals and mealworms–with a single hand signal, we can get them to move in a certain direction or go into their coop (our independent-minded chickens would never do such a thing).

 

Our adult guinea flock

Guineas are fantastic tick control. With the rise of tick-borne illnesses and radically increasing tick populations, we got the guineas to help us address a growing tick population. Since getting the guineas, the ticks have been far less and our lives have been more joyful because the guineas are such fun. The guineas are excellent in the garden for bug control of all kinds–bugs have no chance with an army of chickens and guineas let loose!

 

One of the things about guineas is that they want to roost in trees at night.  Thus, we always make sure we put our guineas away at least 45 min before dark or they will be 50 feet up in a tree and we won’t be able to get them down.  Roosting like that keeps them away from some ground predators, like foxes or coyotes, but makes them easy to pick off by owls.  A lot of people around here raise up a guinea flock and just let them go once they are about 10 weeks old–they rarely live a year (and often much less than that) with that approach. One friend raised up 10 and lost them all within 3 weeks. I don’t think it’s safe or ethical to raise and release in that way. Rather, we lock our guineas up with our chickens when we aren’t home and at night. The guineas have their own separate run during the day for when they are in the run, and they roost with the chickens at night. Thus, our guineas are two years old now and should live their full lifespan of 8-10 years with protection and night safety.

 

Happy ducklings taking a trip to grandma’s house!

Raising Peeps, Keets, Goslings, and Ducklings

Once you’ve committed to getting some birds you have to make is whether to get peeps or raise them yourself.  Remember that all of these birds are flock animals and cannot be raised alone, so you will want to think about how many you want.

 

Hatching Eggs. We raised up two of our four ducks from eggs our friends had given us–the incubator with seven eggs sat on our counter for a month.  One peep hatched successfully and my partner had to intervene and help the second hatch–they are now our large and beautiful Pekin Ducks (white) that you see in the photos here.  I loved that experience because you got to be the only one the ducks had ever seen–they’ve been here since they were eggs. We sang to the eggs, cuddled the eggs, and welcomed them to our lives before they were even born.  If you have a broody hen, you can also get her to hatch some eggs for you (she will hatch anything but a goose egg–it is too big for her to sit on!) The problem with hatching eggs is that it is what is known as “straight run.”  You may get all males or all females or a mix of both.  And the gender balance in your flocks can be the difference between a flock with fighting and a peaceful flock (as a rule of thumb, too many males equals trouble).  We have that problem now–too many male guineas and ducks, which means either we cull the flocks (which we will not do) or get some more females in the spring (which is our plan).

 

Baby guineas less than 1 week old! So cute!

Young Peeps/keets/goslings/ducklings:  You can also get peeps locally (around here our feed store carries them in the spring) or through the mail. I’ve done all of these options and all seem to work fairly well.  We had to get our geese via mail because we are raising an endangered heritage breed and nobody around here carries any geese, much less American buffs. They are overnighted within 24 hours of being hatched (they don’t need to eat or drink for the first 48 hours of life) and you call the post office and let them know about the birds coming in. They are usually tired from their journey for the first day and then perk up after that. I prefer to get local stock when I can, but it’s not always possible.

 

Flock cohesion: One of the things that we have found is that a flock that is raised together, stays together. If they aren’t raised together, they will form separate flocks, even when living in the same area.  Sometimes they can become friends, but often, they will always be separate. Case in point, we raised our guineas about 5 weeks ahead of our chickens and started to integrate them as soon as we could.  Even though they spent their adolescence and adult lives living and roosting in the same area, they are always two separate flocks and the guineas are a bit aggressive with the chickens (hence their separate run).  We suspect that if we had raised them together, they would live together and get along a bit better.  Same with our geese and ducks.  The ducks were about 3 months older than the geese, and the ducks picked on the geese when they were little and they were out together.  Now the geese are not taking anything from anyone, and they are a full 8-10 lbs heavier than even the ducks….but I wish sometimes they would get along better.  In talking to other friends who have these flocks, if we raised the ducks and geese together, we would not have this problem.

 

Needs for flock raising:

All of our flocks required fairly similar setups for incubating and raising babies, but each has its own needs and nuances.

  •  Chickens are very easy to raise, but by comparison to geese and ducks, grow much more slowly (assuming heritage breeds).  They take a while to get large enough to have their full feathers and be outside (about 12 weeks)  A heat light, source of food and water, and clean bedding are essential.  I also like to give the little ones lots to explore and peck at, so I give them fruits, veggies, scrambled eggs, etc. Chickens are very tame when they are little and the more you handle them, the better.  They are so much fun to cuddle and hold when they are little.

    Chicken on a tortoise!

  • Guineas have very similar requirements to chickens, but they are wild and will want not to be handled. From the beginning, they will likely avoid you and freak out when you are near the brooder; that is part of their wild nature. As they get older, they can be worked with and you can develop a great relationship with them–but they are not birds to be cuddled.  They also can fly out of the brooder really easily.  Guineas don’t do well with change–once we moved them out of the brooder and into the coop, they stayed in the coop for about 4 weeks solid before being willing to come out.  They eventually did!
  • Ducks are the most difficult by far to raise because they are obsessed with water and poop a lot!  They make a horrible mess of their brooder almost immediately.  Finding some way of catching the water before it goes into the bedding is essential; if not, you will be cleaning the brooder literally 3-4 times a day.  A setup like this one works well!  Ducks are fun to handle and mild-mannered; you can put them in your bathtub or sink and let them swim.  They don’t have their own oils till their feathers grow in though, so you have to limit swimming time to 10-15 min till they are older.  They are really personable and friendly when they are little.
  • Geese are super easy to raise–they don’t make the water mess that the ducks do and will bond with you quickly and follow you everywhere.  They also enjoy swimming.  They also have interesting tastes, and you can hook them on some veggies and fruits early in life (which will keep them coming back to you as they get older).  Our geese basically followed us around for 3 months while they were growing up and wanted to do everything we were doing.  It was a blast.
  • All of these little ones need to be kept warm; ducks and geese need less warmth than guineas and chickens.  Basically, the rule is to keep them at 95 degrees the first week, 90 degrees the second week, 85 the third week, and so on.  Geese and ducks want their temperature dropped a little faster; I think its due to the thicker down they have.

 

I prefer to raise little ones later in the year (starting in early June) so that they can see the sun and get outside as soon as possible. That way, they can start to eat grass, see the land that will be their home and so on.  If you raise them in the summer months, they can go outside early because it is warm.   That’s important to me–that they see the sun.

 

Predator Protection

Rooster and happy hen

One of the things I tell my chickens every day is “Be careful girls.  You are made of chicken!  Everyone wants to eat you!”  They ignore me, scatter across the property, and proceed to eat bugs.  Predator protection is a serious issue and you must take it seriously from day one or you will lose birds quickly. During the day, it is often hawks or neighborhood dogs that cause the most problems.  We have found that hawks get more desperate for food in the dark half of the year, and thus, we usually have to let the chickens out only with supervision during the months of November through March. Most of the birds have a good sense of self-preservation (except the chickens who seem oblivious to the fact that they are made of chicken) and the flocks are alerted at the first sign of an overhead hawk. Our geese are good hawk deterrents and we’ve seen a lot less hawk activity since they grew up and started honking.

 

At night it might be a fox, raccoon, weasel, or fox that is trying to eat your birds.  For this, you want really carefully constructed coops that provide day and evening security (especially for when you aren’t home). For our ducks, guineas, and chickens, we have covered runs so hawks can’t fly in.  The entire run is wired together and we also sunk the wire in an L pattern into the ground, several inches deep, to prevent raccoons or weasels from burrowing in.  Within each of those secure runs is a secure coop that gets locked up tight each night with a raccoon-proof lock.  Whatever you do, don’t purchase one of those cute looking cedar chicken coops they sell at the big box stores and online.  They are all much too small reasonably for birds and their security is non-existent (a raccoon can open any of the latches on those coops) and they are super flimsy (something could break it open easily).  I can’t tell you how many people have lost birds who have started with one of those cheap coops.  You are better off building something on your own if you can. Paying attention to your security will ensure many years of happy flocks.

 

I will also say that we have lost birds over the years.  The last bird we lost was Chickweed, one of our Australorp hens, about this time last year.  A hawk got her when she was on the other side of the house and away from our other flocks.  Rather than driving the hawk off, we put the rest of the birds in the run and then let the hawk have her meal, recognizing that this was the cycle of life.  We held space. After the hawk was done, we took her out into the woods and left her there with a chicken funeral.  We recognize that, as druids, the cycle of life is part of our existence.  While we do everything we can to be vigilant to minimize losses, we also realize that sometimes they are inevitable, and we honor all life–even the hawks.

Geese playing with pinecones!

Treats and Training

Treats can help you train your birds and bond them to you.  All four of our flocks, even our vegetarian geese, love mealworms.  You can grow them yourself or get them dried in bulk.  The mealworms keep the flocks happy and always coming to our door.  Other treats depend on the birds themselves.  Our geese prefer grapes and will come looking for grapes multiple times a day; I feed them grapes one at a time and they sit in my lap while they enjoy their grapes.  Our chickens like dairy, meat, bugs, and eggs the best of all.  The guineas prefer mealworms and also like millet, which we throw in the run for them when they are locked in.  The ducks prefer slugs and mealworms.  Different individual birds may also have their own preferences and so you have to figure out what everyone likes the best.

 

We use the mealworms to train them–when the flocks wander into the woods, we call them back with mealworms.  When we want them to go into their run, we train them with mealworms.  If there is an altercation between one or more birds, tossing a handful of mealworms into the fray immediately ends in it many cases. Pretty much, mealworms keep the peace on our homestead.

 

Conclusion

Me and my roo, Pythagoras!

I hope some of you found this guide useful!  I really can’t imagine my life without these wonderful companion birds.  It is amazing to have them come up to you, fly around you, and communicate with you.

If you are interested in birds and flocks, I have one more suggestion: watch the Nature show called  My Life as a Turkey. This was recently recommended to me by a friend, and it taught me a good deal about animal communication and is useful for anyone who wants to learn more about nature.  Blessings of the feathered friends!

 

Building Soil Fertility with Fall Gardening at the Equinox September 23, 2018

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

In the druid wheel of the year, we have three “harvest” festivals.  Lughnasadh, the first harvest.  So much of the garden produce starts to be ready at this time–and also at this time, the garden is still at its peak, but quickly waning. In the weeks after , our pumpkin patch died back with beautiful orange pumpkins and said “ok, I’m done for the year!” Then we have the Fall Equinox, where things are continuing to be harvesting, but many of the plants are in serious decline. By Samhain, everything is dead, the hard frosts have come and the land goes to sleep. It seems then, on the surface, that what we should be doing in the fall is primarily harvesting and sitting on our laurels and watching fall and winter come.

 

However, as a gardener and homesteader, my busiest time, by far, is the fall! Part of this is that bringing in the harvest takes some work, and takes many hours near the canner preparing food for the winter.  I find that as someone practicing regenerative gardening techniques, the bulk of my own gardening work takes place in the time between the Fall Equinox and when the ground freezes, usually December. This is because I want to work with nature and use nature’s proceses as much as possible in my gardening practice.  With this idea of soil fertility, working with nature’s systems, and land regeneration in mind,   I’m going to walk through some of my fall gardening tasks, and how they prepare me for the full year to come.

 

So in this post, in honor of the Fall Equinox, I will share a number of fall gardening techniques that will certainly help you improve soil fertilitiy in existing beds or start new garden beds.  These are all part of “no till” gardening and are rooted in permaculture design.

 

 

General Gardening Philosophy: Using Nature’s Systems and Regenerating Depleted Soil

As I’ve discussed before in relationship to lawns, most of the soil we are growing in is very depleted.  It is depleted from years and years of poor farming practices, from poor soil management strategies, and it is certainly depleted from the traditional lawn “care” techniques that regularly remove all nutrients (fall leaves, grass clippings, any other life that isn’t grass).Further, most new “developments’ (I can’t stand that word used that way!) actually strip the topsoil and sell it for commercial use.  So if you buy a house in a suburban development that was purcahsed in about the last 25 years, chances are, your topsoil was stripped and sold before you got there. Part of the reason I believe that raised beds are so popular is because people have difficulty dealing with the existing soil on their properties–it is usually compacted and depleted.  It is difficult to break into with simple hand tools, and difficult to start. One good solution then, is to avoid the problem: don’t use your existing soil at all. The soil building techniques I am sharing in this blog also work with raised beds–so build the soil wherever you can! 🙂

 

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

In order to build soil effectively, we can look to what happens in the forest in the fall.  The leaves fall down, the plants die back, and in the spring, new plants emerge from that every-regenerating bed. Humans don’t intervene in this process–and from year to year, fertility is maintained.  I try to create my garden beds in the image of nature, using nature’s processes and tools and creating layers with no tilling. The soil building techniques I will share, many of which are perfect for the fall months, help prepare the soil for spring planting by encouraging and feeding the soil web of life (rather than destroying it), by sinking carbon, and by building nutrients.  These amazing ways to regenerate soil and produce garden beds that, in the spring, are ready for planting!  And that don’t require you to create raised beds where you import too much topsoil.

 

Fall Soil Building Techniques: Clearing, Composting, Cover Cropping, and Sheet Mulching

Here are the techniques you can use to build soil in the fall:

Harvest and clearing beds: leave the roots!  Looking to nature as our guide, when you are harvesting the last of the produce and getting ready to clear plants from beds, rather than rip out the whole plant by the roots, instead, cutting the plants at the root and leaving the roots in the soil.  This does two things.  First, it helps hold the soil in place during the winter months (part of why we lose soil fertility has to do with runoff!)  But second, as those roots break down over the winter, new roots of next year’s crops already have places to grow–the roots have created spaces for them.  This mimics what happens in a natural environment–the plants fall, the soil is never tilled, and new plants grow from the same spot.

 

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Composting.  Nothing in the garden in the fall should be wasted–I am always saddened every year when I drive around looking for bags of leaves and find half rotted vegetables and tomato plants and such in garden bags on the street corner!  They are literally throwing away fertility, which they will then purchase back again in the spring.  So, with that in mind, the plant matter itself above ground that you are clearing from your garden should go back into your compost pile or else be used in your new sheet mulch for a new bed.  I’ve written on a few kinds of composting you can do.  I use my chickens for all of my composting, so it goes into the chicken coop for them to work and break down, but you can also do this with regular piles.  Composting doesn’t have to be very complex–basically, if you pile it up, it will break down in time and create soil.  You can ammend it, you can turn it, you can make sure it heats up–and all those things will make it compost down faster, but in the end, it will break down regardless of whether or not you intervene.  So yes, everything from the garden that’s not harvest or root can be composted for next year. If any plants have bad disease (tomatoes, in particular, get a blight that can perpetuate from year to year) I will burn them when I have a fire outside and not have them in the compost (as I don’t want to spread the disease).  The ashes from the fire also go back in the sheet mulch (I have acidic soil, so this is a great ammendment; it would be less good for someone with alkali soil).

 

Sheet Mulching Strategy.  For new beds or to help existing beds, you can use a layered approach that mimics the forest called sheet mulching.  I’ve offered several posts on this subject over the years, and is an extremely effective way to deal with plant matter, weeds, new or existing garden beds, soil fertility, and fall leaves.  Read about it here and here.  You can create new beds in the fall (much better than creating them in the spring) or add to existing beds.  This is a simple strategy where you create layers of plant matter, compost, straw, etc, and it will break down over the winter, creating a great bed to plant in in the spring.

 

Late fall sheet mulch

Late fall sheet mulch, nearly complete.

Dealing with Weeds in your existing beds. In my clearing of beds for the winter, I do make sure I address weeds (unwanted plants). Depending on the volume of the weeds, what they are, and their roots, I either pull them or add them to the compost pile, or, if there are a lot of weeds, I will sheet mulch right on top of the weeds–this new sheet mulch will simply add fertility to the bed underneath as it breaks down over the winter.  For this, I will just use a thick layer of newspaper over the weeds, and then a layer of fall leaves.  I top this with compost and either straw or a cover crop.  I do not let weed roots stay in place–or they would just create more weeds.

 

Taking advantage of free biomass (fall leaves).  The biggest reason that fall is the best time to establish new beds (using sheet mulching / lasagna gardening techniques) is that fall leaves are available. These are the single best free resource that many gardeners have access to, and within 6 months to a year, they make incredibly wonderful soil.  How long they take to break down depends on the leaf type–maples and cherries take a lot less time than oaks!  Pine needles break down pretty fast and add a little bit of acidity (but not in noticable amounts a few times; over 50 years, they would do so!)  And because most people don’t want their fall leaves, meaning you can go around where people bag them and pick up as many as you want for free if you don’t have enough on your own property to suffice. In an earlier post, I shared information on nutrition and long-term sustainable practices with regards to fall leaves.  If you don’t want to sheet mulch with them, throw them in a pile to break down (this takes about a year) or let your chickens do that for you in 3 months.

 

What I like to do is this–I like to cut back plants in my garden (leaving the roots) as described above. I compost the plants that are above ground.  Then I will spread 2-3 inches of leaves on the garden bed, right on top. If you mulch the leaves first, they will break down faster, but I don’t want to expend the extra fossil fuel to do this, so I don’t do so.  I still see them in the garden in the spring of next year, but by the end of the summer, all those leaves are soil. I will top dress my bed with horse manure (fresh or composted, if I can get it), finished compost, chicken dung–whatever I have available, and hopefully from my own land). Then I will cover crop it and/or put a thick layer of straw on it for the winter.  And the bed is now “in bed” for the winter.

 

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

Cover cropping for soil health.  Another good soil building strategy is cover cropping.  I like cover cropping for a few reasons–one, cover crops help hold in soil fertility (locking a lot of fertility up in the plants themselves).  Second, cover crops also hold the soil in place (which matters a lot, particularly if you are on a hill like I am!). Third, in January, my winter rye is a wonderful cover crop that provides some of the only green forage available to my chickens.  They love it, eat it, and poop, building more soil!   There are several cover crop blends you can consider for the winter: my favorite is winter rye.  If you want to let a bed rest for a year, you might consider red clover (which then gets turned under the following year).  Or, you can do a mix of daikon, turnip, clover, and vetch, which is something fellow permaculture practicing friends taught me last year. This is a another good forage crop and also, the daikon and turnip help break up compacted soil really well–and you can eat them!  If anything survives the winter of this crop, it provides great nectar sources early in the season.  They also throw this mix anywhere they want to start building soil and also behind their chicken tractor as they move it around their yard.

 

Cover crop in the spring--this is the only green thing growing!

Chicken in the cover crop in the late winter–this is the only green thing growing!

Fall plantings (Garlic, perennials). There are also select annual crops and many perennials that prefer to be planted in the fall.  Garlic goes in where I live sometime in early October–and then comes up strong in the spring, for harvest in late July/early August.  If you wanted a winter wheat crop, it would also go in during this time.  Of course, any trees, shrubs, vines, etc, that you want to plant can be done in the fall–the fall lets them establish deep roots over the winter and come out of dormancy strong and vigorous.  So you might do some planting to take advantage of the winter.

 

Putting my garden beds to sleep. In the end, I feel like I’m “tucking in” my garden beds for the winter.  Then, in the spring, I can run the chickens through the garden to deal with the cover crops and/or turn the crops over by hand (which doesn’t take long) and then plant right in that incredibly rich soil.  My plants are stronger, my garden is healthier, and I’ve worked to conserve and retain nutrients.  As part of this, I sing to my beds, I sing to the life in the soil, and I wish them good slumber till spring.

 

Conclusion

I hope this has been a helpful introduction to some of the “fall bed” work we can do to help build soil fertility.  To me, soil fertility is an incredibly important part of the work we can do to regenerate the land.  With common practices like tilling and barecropping and stripping the soil physically off of sites of new homes, our soil is in poor condition.  Part of healing the land means healing our soil, and these techniques can help us do that.  Blessings of the fall equinox upon you!

 

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!

Save

Save

 

Ode to the Rooster January 29, 2017

The Chinese New Year is now being celebrated, and it is once again the Year of the Rooster. I see this as a tremendously positive and powerful sign–a message of light and hope in this time of darkness. In honor of the rooster, I offer two stories that demonstrate how powerful and protective the rooster is–and how the rooster’s energy this year can lend us power and strength to drive back the dark. So now, pull up a chair by the fire, and hear two stories of roosters and their magic.

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, a group of us held an all night vigil for the winter solstice.  This is not an easy ritual–it is about 15 hours of darkness, in the cold months of the year. Our ritual started well enough: we had a glorious sunset, a lovely ceremony, a great feast that put warm food in the belling, and music, storytelling and conversation by the fire. That got us from about 5pm till about 11pm, and folks started going home to their warm beds, until only a core group of five of us were still present for the long haul till sunrise at 7:30am. We sat in the hours and hours of darkness with nothing but the fire to keep us company while the Yule Log burned away into coals. The moon continued to come across the sky, ever-so-slowly.

 

In those deep and dark hours, as you are holding vigil, a number of things happen within and without. For one, the time can be altered–the night is much longer than it seems, as if you had been sitting in darkness for days or weeks, not mere hours. You get lost in the darkness of your own thoughts. You wonder, in those deep, dark hours, if the sun will ever return.  The circle grows quiet, and each person battles with his or her own darkness. The darkness seems all encompassing. More than once we asked, silently or to each other, will the sun ever return? Will this long night ever end?  For it is in this darkness that we face our fears, our sadness, and our sorrow. And it is this darkness that can hold so much power over us. This vigil experience parallels, to a large extent, what so many are facing now as darkness seems to be descending upon us culturally.

 

And then, suddenly, close to 4AM, as we were still wrapped in the swirling darkness of the night, a call came out, ringing across the fields. A call that brought us back into our own bodies, back to the presence of our loved ones and the fire–a call that promised the return of the sun. That was the call of the rooster: cock-a-doodle-doo! One of the farm’s roosters, before the sun was anywhere near ready to rise, let us know that everything was going to be alright–for he was here to work his magic and to raise the sun. We heard him, and the inner darkness began to recede. He continued his calls every 15 or 20 or so minutes, letting us know the sun would rise again and he was seeing to it personally. The second rooster on the farm, a tiny fellow with the cutest little high-pitched crow, began his own crowing as we grew closer to the morning rays of light. The two of them, in unison, called up the sun.  All we could do was wait for them to finish their work.

 

As the gray turned to blue and the blue to yellow, the little rooster came down from his tree where he roosts at night and stood on the fence behind us, looking at us with his orange rooster eye, and he crowed and crowed until that sun came up above the mountains. If roosters weren’t there to pull up the sun in the depths of that solstice morning, I am not sure it would be able to rise at all. I thought then, about the millions of roosters across the land bringing up the sun in an ever-moving circle.

Rooster who crows up the sun!

Rooster who crows up the sun!

This experience resonated so powerfully with me partially because these were not the first magical roosters that I had encountered. Although I had raised chickens as a child, and grew up with them as friends at my parent’s homestead, we never had roosters, for fear of what they neighbors would think and their crowing. So we kept hens, and I loved those hens, each and every one of them.  When I came to my new homestead in Michigan seven years ago, I did as we had done before–purchased some day-old peeps, all hens, so that I could have a new chicken flock for companionship, eggs, garden assistance, and most of all, joy.  Roosters hadn’t yet crossed my path, or my mind!

 

My little hens stayed at first in my art studio in a warm large box with straw and a heat lamp. Since it was already summer, they got to go into the garden each day and search for bugs, bathe in the beds, and bask in the summer sun. After two weeks, they grew too large for their box and were moved to a larger area in my garage. Each day, they would get to go outside and enjoy the sun. We continued this pattern as they grew feathers on their wings and tails, and then on their bodies, as their little combs and wattles started to grow red.  Soon, they were like little miniature chickens, running around, enjoying bugs and scratching at the dirt.

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

It was soon after they moved into their permanent coop at 12 weeks old, that the rooster first came. I spotted him from a distance–a beautiful rooster with large cockle spurs, a gold/orange head, his body giving way to black with bold green and blue highlights and gray feet. He had a magnificent comb and bright orange-yellow eyes. And he saw me, and my little hens, and let out a crow. I had no idea who this rooster was; I had no experiences with roosters. I sat and watched him, and he stood and watched me. The hens crowded behind me, afraid. And in their fear, I realized he must be a scoundrel, not a gentleman.  I told him,”my hens are too young for you! Stay back!” And he listened, but watched them intently.

Beautiful Rooster!

Beautiful Rooster!

Each day as summer turned to fall, the rooster would mysteriously show up.  He never came too close to me, or to the hens, but he stayed at a distance and every so often, let out a glorious crow. With each visit, he inched a little closer to the hens.  But each night, just as mysteriously as he arrived, he vanished down the road, disappearing quite quickly.  Like clockwork, each morning I was awakened with his crowing–there he proudly stood on top of the coop, asking me to let the ladies out. I did so, and watched as they came near him, looking at me with questions in their eyes. I continued to wonder, as before, if he was a gentleman or a scoundrel.

 

I called up my neighbor who had a farm, with many roosters and hens.  He lived in the same direction where the rooster mysteriously disappeared each night.  My neighbor told me, “Yeah, he was mine all right. But he was too gentle and the other roosters kicked him out of the flock in the fall.  Now, he lives in the tree near my house. I can’t believe he’s alive–he spent the whole winter in the tree by himself!” I responded, “Do you want him any longer?” And he said, “If you can catch him, you can keep him. But best of luck catching him–nobody can get close to him, even to feed him! That rooster’s something else.”

 

And so, I knew what my task was to be–wooing this beautiful rooster into the homestead as a permanent addition–after all, he had already made himself at home here on my land, and now I just had to find a way to keep him here. I figured that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I began to offer tasty morsels of food when he showed up for his daily visit. Eventually, trust grew between us, and he allowed me to get within 10 or 15 feet of him. Trust grew between he and my hens as well, and they began foraging closer together, and they grew to understand that he was going to protect them. But every night, as before, he disappeared down the road. Perhaps this story would be better if he disappeared at the stroke of midnight or turned into a pumpkin or something, but that was not the way of things.

Where is that roo?

Where is that handsome roo?

Eventually, he began coming to me for food, and then I knew I had him. I threw some food into the run of the coop, and in went the rooster and the hens. I quietly closed the gate to the run while they were busy enjoying the food, and then tossed more into the coop itself.  He refused to go in.  I waited. The sun began to set, and he looked at me, knowing if it grew too dark, he couldn’t return to his tree 1/4 mile away.  But then, the hens went into their coop.  He followed them and I locked them all in. The hens piled all into one of the nest boxes and looked at me with a look that said, “You really just locked HIM in here with US?” and I smiled at them and wished them all a good rest.

 

I kept them all in the run for the next few days so that the new roo would see this as home, and after the third day, I let them back out to free range. The real test would be to see how they were getting along and if he ended up back in his tree. He did not, but instead, crowed around the coop four times, once in every direction. A good rooster, indeed.

Coming out of the coop together!

Coming out of the coop together!

I had named each of my chickens different names of beans, in honor of “bean” who was one of my most beloved chickens as a child (she knew her name and came when you called; she once got attacked by the neighbor’s dog and the vet had to put 37 stitches in her and she lived another 4 years!).  Each of the chickens then, was a bean or pulse: Lima, Adzuki, Pinto, and Lentil. And, in honor of a beautiful bean I was growing in the garden that I just harvested for the winter months, I named the rooster Anasazi.

 

The next years of my life were good ones. I quickly began realizing how many hawks we had in MI (never a problem in PA), and Anasazi repeatedly demonstrated his worth.  He would let out a shrill call and the hens would run.  He was, in fact, a gentleman, finding food and calling the hens to him to share it–saving for them always the most tasty grubs and best morsels.  He was not rough with the hens, as some roosters are apt to be.  He danced around them contentedly and put on a show before mating. Once, a neighbor’s dog came for the flock and he threw himself at the dog and then led it far away to keep the hens safe. I started wondering how I ever had got on without a rooster–and the truth is, I would have lost my whole flock that first summer to predators without him.

Dust bath

Dust bath

Anasazi worked magic on the land. When I would go out in the morning to do my daily ritual, Anasazi was there, crowing at each of the four quarters, and once each for above, below, and within. Each time he crowed, he helped protect the land and the homestead, and we were all safer with him there. He helped herd and guide the hens. He would lead the hens into the sacred stone circle, they would forage once around in a circle, and then exit at the appropriate gate. I began to understand the importance of his early morning crows to raise the sun–Anasazi had tremendous power in the sun, but no power in the darkness. He was a being of protection and of the solar current.

 

I grew quite unhappy in Michigan and was contemplating whether to stay or to consider applying for a job in Western PA, the land of my blood and birth. One night, not long after I began considering this, a badger broke into the coop in the darkest hours.  The coop was far enough away from the house that I did not hear what happened and remained sound asleep. But in the morning, I found the door literally ripped off of its hinges.  Inside, intact but frightened, were all of the hens–and not a trace left of Anasazi. In his life and in his death he protected his flock above all else. His death was a powerful sign for me–a sign that I had to move on, from my beloved homestead, returning to the mountains of my birth. For I realized that I could not run my homestead without Anasazi; he was such an integral part that it was not the same without him. My dear hens found good homes with a friend, and I packed up my things and headed East towards the rising sun, back to the mountains where I belong.

 

It has taken me three years to write about Anasazi’s tale, because, until I experienced the rooster calls this past Winter Solstice, I still did not fully understand all that happened and all of the rooster’s power and magic. However, I know this for certain: I am thankful that the rooster is guiding us this year, of all years, for I would rather be under no other being’s protection. I know that those of us, in the US and in many other places in the world, are facing times of tremendous darkness. I point to the roosters in my first story, those who brought us holding vigil out of darkness and who crowed up the sun, as a sign of hope and light in these dark times. I also point to Anasazi, who protected his flock against any harm, and know that we, too, can be under the protection of the rooster this year.

 

Spiritual Practices to Finding Equilibrium in the Chaos: Grounding, and Flow through the Druid Elements July 22, 2016

A tremendous amount of really difficult occurrences are happening in the world right now. It seems like the more time that passes, the more we balance on the edge. The edge of what exactly, nobody can say.  But the edge of something, and likely, not something any of us are looking forward to. Things seem to be spinning faster, and faster; the light growing darker and darker.  A lot of folks are having difficulty just coping with reading the news or even being on social media, the enormity of everything–social, political, environmental, personal–weighing down.  Responses to this range from rage and anger to numbness. There is a heaviness in the air that cannot be discounted.

A good place to seek the stability of calas

A good place to seek the stability of calas

 

And so, many of us turn to spiritual practices as a way of helping make sense of it all, to find a way forward, finding a way to keep ourselves sane and to levy some positive change in the world. For me, any outer healing or change in the world begins with my own inner work, finding my own inner equilibrium in order to compassionately respond and enact change. I find myself returning, again and again, to the elemental work I did in my AODA and OBOD curriculum: working with the healing power of the elements, seeking balance within. And so, I’m not going to talk about everything that is happening (as a lot of it is well outside of the scope and purpose of this blog), but I am going to share with you some ways of self-care and balance seeking that I’ve found helpful in dealing with all of this. Specifically, I’m going to use the framework of the three druid elements: gwyar, calas, and nywfre, and discuss how we might use those elements (particularly the first two) to help maintain our own equilibrium during difficult times.

 

Equilibrium

We have a lot of terms that get raised when we are faced with instability (instability of any type: culturally, locally, politically, or personally). These terms most often focus on grounding, but may also include balance, composure, equilibrium. I actually prefer the world equilibrium, for a few reasons. One dictionary suggests that equilibrium is “a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced.” What I like about the definition and concept of equilibrium is that it doesn’t require one response (e.g. grounding) but rather a range of responses based on the needs of the moment.

For example, if I am feeling really disconnected, scattered, and unfocused, I might do some grounding techniques that help more firmly root me back in place. But there are times that being rooted firmly in place is not the best idea, and instead, I need to let go and simply learn to flow. Equilibrium implies both of these things: finding and maintaining it is situational based on the context and your own needs.

 

Grounding, or the work of Calas

When I talk to spiritual friends about these times and all that is happening, I think a lot of them talk about “grounding” and grounding strategies. Grounding usually happens when we connect with the energies of the earth, of stability, of calm. In the three druid element system, this grounding is clearly represented by calas, which is the principle of solidity and substance. Calas represents the physical substance of things, the strength in the cell walls of the plant, the stones beneath our feet, the stable and unchanging fathoms of the deepest caves. When we ground, we plant ourselves firmly and solidly on the living earth–we plant our feet strongly and with purpose. We stand our ground, so to speak, we dig in our heels, we spread ourselves out upon the earth and feel its stability and strength.  Now, there are times when grounding is the correct response, and there are also times where I actually think it does more harm than good. The key questions to determine whether or not grounding is an effective approach seems to be: do I need stability in my life right now? Do I need something firm to stand on, to hold on, and to simply be present with? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then by all means, ground away. But recognize that sometimes, holding fast to something is a reactionary response, rather than the best response.

 

There are so many practices and ways of grounding–I’ll just share a few of my favorites.

Earthing and forest walking. I really love to take a barefoot walk through a path in a very familiar forest (even better if it is raining, lol).  I wouldn’t do this in an unfamiliar forest, or one that has a lot of poison ivy or brambles. But certain forests, dirt paths, and mossy areas lend themselves really well to this kind of activity. It is the most simple thing–you take off your shoes and socks, and simply walk on the earth.  Feel the land beneath your toes.  Walk, perhaps in movement meditation, for a period of time. You can combine this with energetic work.

 

Energetic work. When I do the forest walking, I like to stand a spot and envision the energies of the telluric current, those of the deep earth (envisioned in green-gold) rising up through my soles of my feet and into my body, clearing me and filling me with a sense of calm and stability.  The OBOD’s Light Body Exercise, for those that practice it, works quite well as a grounding and clearing activity.  Really, most kinds of energetic work can be good during the forest walking.

Some shagbark hickories can provide amazing grounding!

Some shagbark hickories can provide amazing grounding!

 

Weeding and Garden tending. Spending time with earthy things, like in the garden, can be extremely grounding and stabilizing. Planting, harvesting, weeding–even laying in the garden with a good book is a sure way to help do some grounding work.

 

Working with the stones. Carrying a small stone with you is a grounding activity in and of itself.  I have one that I’ve been placing above my heart if I am feeling really awful about all this stuff–I clear it once in a while by placing it in running water or sunlight, but at some point, I know I will be casting it off back into the earth permanently. This stone work is good for trauma and really deep healing.

 

Eating nurturing and nutrient-dense meals. Sometimes, when we are upset, we forget to eat.  But food has always been a grounding thing, and the more nutrient-dense and protein rich, the better.  An omelette of sausage and eggs and kale, for example, is just about as grounding as one can get!  Remember to eat.  The body and the soul both benefit.

 

Burying your feet in the earth. Similar to my earthing and forest walking, I have found great comfort in taking a shovel, digging a hole in my garden, and sticking my feet in it, covering them up with the soil. Sit there for a time in quietude, doing perhaps energetic work as well, or simply being and soaking up the sun while you sit. It works.

 

Sitting with Hardwood Nut Trees. When I am feeling ungrounded, I seek out hickory or oak trees and spend time sitting with them or hugging them. There is something about the energy of the hickory that I found extraordinarily grounding. Many of the hardwood nut trees also have this quality, as well as some others. I’m not sure I’d use a walnut, they have a bit different of an energy, like an expelling energy, which also has its own magic (but is not really well suited for this purpose). .

 

Sitting with a flock of chickens. Maybe this is just a personal thing, but I get great stability out of simply being near chickens. Chickens do many of the activities on this list, after all: dust baths, burying their feet in the earth, eating nutrient dense food, walking on the land barefoot–and they have tremendous connection to the energies of the earth. Spending time with them can be very grounding.  It is fun to watch them find bugs, peck, scratch, take dust baths–and most flocks that were raised with love will welcome your company and companionship.

 

Truthfully, as delightful as the above activities have been, I haven’t been drawn to grounding much lately–it seems like, in some ways, I am already too grounded and connected to what is happening.  Like my feet are planted so firmly that maybe I’ll just fall over if the wind comes by.  And so because of that, I have really been embracing the second druid element this year: the principle of gwyar.

Flowing, or the work of Gwyar

The element of Gwyar, often represented by water, represents the principle of fluidity and of flow.  Gwyar is the principle of change, opposite of the stability of Calas.  All things grow and change, and sometimes, we must learn to be adaptable and embrace that change.  Water teaches different lessons than the grounding of the earth–it teaches us the power of flow.  The babbling brook cascading over the stones, the water flowing off the leaves during a storm, the air flows pushing clouds and rain further across the landscape, the constant flow of time: these are all part of the power of gwyar.  Like Calas, there are times when embracing Gwyar is the right approach, and there are times when being too “go with the flow” is not the right strategy.  Questions I like to ask to determine this are:  Am I in need of letting go? Am I in need of trusting the universe to guide my path?  Am I feeling to rigid or inflexible?  Affirmative answers to these questions suggest a need to embrace Gwyar.

I have found that embracing Gwyar has been helpful for me as there are a number of things in my life, and certainly in the broader world, that are out of my immediate control. As much as I would like to control them, I am unable to do so, and attempting to exert control is only going to lead to my own suffering.  Instead, I must learn to accept these things at present, and flow with them, and the act of releasing my attempted firm hold is in itself a very powerful magical act.  And so, here are some ways to embrace the power of flow:

 

Getting on the water!

Getting on the water!

Get on the water. This summer, I bought a kayak, and have spent nearly all of my free time out on lakes and rivers, learning how to flow with the waves.  This has its own kind of healing work, but in a watery sense–rather than being firmly planted, I am learning the power of flow.  Of riding the waves, leaning into the current, anticipating–and simply moving along.  Not fighting the current. Putting up my kayak sail, and simply letting the wind and waves take me on an adventure.  Kayaks and other water vessels are easy to come by–you can rent them at many state parks or local lakes; you can also ask around and I’m sure at least 1-2 friends will have one you can borrow.  I would suggest a kayak, rowboat, or canoe for this kind of flowing work–you want to be closer to the water, as close as possible.  The other option is tubing–a lot of rivers offer a tubing option where you rent a tube, bring a cooler, and spend the next 4-6 hours floating down the stream.  This is really, really good for connecting to the principle of flow.

 

Whitewater Rafting: If you really want a more extreme version of “getting on the water,” whitewater rafting or kayaking is a good choice.  The stronger currents force you even more to get into the physical embodiment of flow and adaptability, which is a powerful spiritual lesson. In fact, the reason that this post is two days early from my normal schedule is that I am getting on the extreme waters this weekend and heading out to one of my very favorite rivers, the Youghiogheny, for some rafting!.

 

Water observations. Sitting by moving water (or even still water) can teach you a lot about flows and the importance of going with the flow. I love doing this by small streams and creeks–playing with the rocks, seeing the interplay between gwyar and calas as the water tumbles through and down the stream.  What amazes me even about still water, like lakes, is that the lakes themselves change as the weather conditions change–from choppy waters to still and clear waters–and this, too, is a powerful lesson.  As I observe the water, I think about the places in my life where I need to embrace gwyar and flow, and the places where calas is a more appropriate path.

 

Energetic work.  Similar to the work above, I have found that I can connect to the element of gywar energetically, especially at points of water or other kinds of movement or flow (a dance, for example).

 

Mindful drinking of water.  Drinking high quality water mindfully, paying attention to the taste and the feel of it as it flows, and sipping it quietly while you mediate, is another simple activity that you can do.  Try to find local spring water, if you can, for this, but any spring water or well water would do nicely!

 

Bathing.  We all need to be clean, and bathing rituals and activities can certainly help.  Even if it is simply a matter of turning your awareness for a few minutes to the flow of the shower around you, or the comfort of the tub, it can be tremendously useful for  connecting to gwyar.  I sometimes will let the water drain out of the tub as I sit within it, feeling the waters flowing around me and cleansing.

 

Getting in the mud....

Getting in the mud….

Standing and walking in the rain.  Take a walk in a rain without an umbrella (and preferably without shoes). Pay attention to how the water feels as it soaks you, flows around you.  Pay attention to how it runs down the road, down the trunk of the tree, see where it goes afterwards.  This is tremendously useful and I try to do it often!

 

Swimming in a lake or stream. Jumping in the water, and floating for a time, is a really fun way to embrace gwyar.  I have been combining this with kayaking–I kayak out to a secluded spot and then jump into the water for a bit.  It has really been great.  I’ve also been working to visit the many local swimming holes near this area!

 

Sitting with a flock of ducks.  If chickens epitomize an earthy and grounding being, the duck is a good representation of gwyar.  I like sitting with ducks a lot–they have a very different energy than chickens, and observing them can help teach the principles of flow.

 

Some Methods of Bringing Balance and Unity of Calas and Gwyar

A third possibility, of course, is that in order for equilibrium, you need both the energy of gywar and calas.  I have found that if I’m generally just so overwhelmed, feeling both ungrounded and unadaptable, the unification of these two elements in my life can really help me find my footing.  You can combine activities above together, or engage in activities that innately emphasize the unity of the two elements.  Here are a few of my favorites:

 

Playing in mud puddles. Playing in the mud should never be discounted as a fantastic method for seeking equilibrium.  We knew this well as children, but have often forgotten the most important truths as adults.  Wait for a good summer rain (it has been dry here, but I am waiting) and find a puddle in the field or abandoned dirt road somewhere–somewhere safe and clean.  And get on the oldest clothes you can, take off your shoes, and just jump in it. Or make your own mud puddle with the hose.  Make mud pies, just like when you are a kid.  This is a most healthy antidote to present day reality!

 

Natural Building. An alternative is to visit a natural building site and become one with the cob.  Natural building requires initial flow and wet materials that dry into strong structures.  Making some cob with the feet and the hands, and plastering it on there, is a great experience.

 

Frankfort Mineral Springs - Embracing Gwyar

Frankfort Mineral Springs – Embracing Gwyar

Visiting Springs.  Springs are another place where you can see the interplay and balance between gwyar and calas in a natural setting. I have been visiting springs all over Western PA since moving here a year ago. I recently went camping at Raccoon Creek State Park and had the delight of visiting the Franklin Mineral Springs while I was there. It was really a cool spring–completely unexpected–with heavy content of iron (I shared a photo of it above). It had a basin where the water flowed so cold–I dunked my head in it, soaked myself up in it, and observed the flow of this spring. It was awesome! What I have found about these natural springs is that, at least here, they really do represent the intersection of gwyar and calas–the flow interacting with the stability of the stone.  This particular spring resonated strongly with balance of the elements: the stone where the water issued forth and the basin for stability, the ever-flowing gush of the water from the stones, and the mineral content in the water itself representing the unification of the elements.

 

Stillness. Stillness of the body and of the mind is another way to embrace the intersection of gywar and calas.  We spend so much of our time running around, dashing to and fro, and never really just being present in the moment, in ourselves. After the AODA’s practices, I like to sit in stillness in nature, quiet my mind, and simply be present in the world around me. This work requires us to both physically stop moving and be more stable, but also flow into the moment and simply observe what comes. It is powerful and profound!

 

Dancing: The principle of dance is all about the intersection of the stable earth and other objects with flow, and participating in some dance yourself (even if you aren’t very good, it doesn’t matter, go do it in the forest or wild areas where nobody can see you). I like to do this with ribbons or flags or something to even more appropriately attend to the energies of flow.

 

Throwing Pots. Any art forms that encourage the intersection of calas and gwyar are useful activities for seeking equilibrium. I have found that pottery, for example, is one of the best ones (for reasons similar to natural building/cob building, above). The intersection of the water to shape the clay, and then the application of heat, offers powerful spiritual lessons and opportunities.

 

As we all navigate these difficult times, I hope that the above material will provide you with some strategies for seeking equilibrium.  Blessings upon your path and journey!

 

Honoring the Predators: A Story of Reconnection May 14, 2016

My last beekeeping post told a the tale of my two bee colonies destroyed by colony collapse disorder. I had hoped to have better news to share about my beekeeping endeavors this year. And things started well enough: a friend removed some bees from a house that was to be torn down and gave them to me; I moved my hive to a new location and setup the hive in a friend’s yard, and then I was able to setup an empty hive with the hopes of catching a second swarm. But, unfortunately, this tale has a different end, and a different lesson. The bees were doing great, I had just added honey supers a few weeks ago, and I was expecting a ton of honey from such a strong colony and then–the bear came. I have read about bears taking out beehives, but I have never talked with anyone that had this happen. My friend had never seen a bear, and there were no reports of them in the area, but clearly, one was nearby! The bear ripped open the hive, and, in the middle of a rainstorm, flung the colony all over the place as he had his meal. Bears go for honey, but especially, for the brood: the bees’ young larvae and pupae are very protein rich. And so, this was the scene that greeted my friend when she woke up, and the scene that greeted me when I arrived to see what could be salvaged.

Destroyed Beehives

Destroyed Beehives

Two of us worked for most of the day to salvage what we could. The bees that remained were soaking and, since it was only about 50 that day, very cold. The equipment was soaked, and I had no idea if the queen had survived. I thought it likely the bear would return, so I spoke to various friends in a desperate effort to move the hives before dark. I wasn’t able to secure a location, and since it is illegal to have bees inside of town limits, we instead drove many pieces of rebar around the hive, wired it up, strapped it shut, and hoped for the best. I wish now I had just stuck them on my porch for a day or two until I could figure out where to move them and risked the citation. Unfortunately, the bear came back, and while we made it harder for him to get inside, he still did, demolishing what was left of the hive.

 

The end of this tale is a bit better–although there weren’t many bees left after the second bear visit, we salvaged what was left: the queen and about 5000 of her workers. We borrowed a travel box from a friend, and we saved every bee we could, gently helping them into the hive box. A fellow beekeeping friend has a number of hives, so he had brood and resources to help them get back to health. They are now back on their way to a strong colony again, and they are protected from bears. All the beekeepers in the  area are on alert now about bears, thanks to my hive. This whole event has given me much to think about and meditate upon, and a variety of lessons  to consider–and today, the lesson is honoring the predators.

 

It’s ironic that this the lesson I am exploring, because the the hives were torn apart on the early morning hours of May 2nd. The day before was May 1st – Beltane. I met with a new friend, a woman who had dedicated her life to the work of the goddesses, and we got together to do a Beltane ceremony. As part of our first ceremony, each of us brought some things from our respective traditions to share with each other. One of the things she brought were offerings, including an offering honoring the predators. She made her offering and spoke beautifully about the predators, their role, the goddesses connected to them. In my mind, I was certainly not honoring the predators. All of my experiences with predators as a homesteader were negative: the hawk that swooped down to kill many of my dear chickens, including taking a peep right from in front of me. The dead chicken bodies I found as the hawk flew off after eating a meal. I remember the evidence of the badger that ripped my coop open one night and drug off my beloved rooster (an event I still haven’t written about), the snakes by the pond swallowing frogs whole, their peeping and screeching noises going on for over an hour till the snake finally finished its meal.

 

As my friend spoke so beautifully about the predators, I was instead filled with these images of predators and how I spent so much of my own time over the last few years keeping them away from things I loved. And then, that next morning–the largest predator of all in this area–the bear–came and feasted upon my beehive.

 

I have reminisced in the weeks that have passed since the hive was eaten that I really do have a problem honoring the predators–and that’s a problem with me, not a problem with the predators. And the predators, in their own way, will make themselves known and continue to show up in my life until I am able to honor them. And so, to help myself come to terms with the loss, I thought I’d write about the predators and, finally, begin to do the work of honoring them.

 

Cultural Problems with Predators

We learn about predators in school in really scientific ways: predators sit at the top of the food chain; they are carnivorous, eating only the flesh of other creatures; they may be solitary or run in packs. We learn about predators from the local news: a hiker was mauled by a bear, a swimmer was eaten by a shark, a pack of coyotes killed a number of neighborhood dogs. We learn about human predators, who we view as the worst kind of people: those who stalk, kill, harm and maim others. This, term perhaps shows us the cultural view of the predator, that we take this term and we attach it to heinous actions that are in no way comparable to a bear or a fox taking a meal. I think I was viewing the predators that had eaten the bees, the chickens, and so forth in the same way: you, predator, have taken something I value, you have taken a life. You have done me wrong and have done wrong to others.  But this is not the lesson of the predator, not the lesson at all.

 

Nature’s Wisdom

Sometimes, those of us, especially those in nature-based spiritual paths, want to see nature as all roses, all pretty trees, all little birds signing. But roses have thorns, the trees compete for light, and the birds sometimes knock each other’s eggs out of nests. Like everything else, they are working to survive by any means possible. A forest is full of both competition for resources and cooperation. I’m reminded here of the lesson of the many medicinal mushrooms of the woods (and you can read some of this in Tradd Cotter’s book; he gave a fascinating talk on this subject last year at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.) The medicinal qualities–particularly the anti-cancer, anti-microbial qualities–of mushrooms like birch polypore, turkey tail, or reishi are based on their growth in natural environments, where mushrooms have to compete to survive. Tradd gave an example in his talk of a petri dish that he was working on that had birch polypore in it–he had dropped something nasty into it (e-coli, I think) and was amazed to see how the birch polypore exuded an anti-fungal agent to combat it, and surround it, and eventually subdue it using what was essentially chemical warfare. That same chemical constituent, when taken within, helps us fight a number of diseases. If the mushrooms are grown in a lab or in a controlled setting, their medicinal value drops significantly–because they don’t have the natural competition of all of the other bacteria and others in the fungal kingdom. These mushrooms aren’t predators in the traditional (animalistic) sense, but they certainly  have similar qualities and offer similar lessons.

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Predator Patterns and Restoration Agriculture

The truth is, predators are a key part of nature, and without them, we lose a greater part of the whole and the entire ecosystem suffers. Recently, farmers and activists in permaculture design and in sustainable agriculture have been reintroducing predator-driven graze patterns to help regenerate agricultural lands. These patterns, set by millions of years of evolution, are now mimicked by humans on farms to move herd animals through various terrain. This work is perhaps best illustrated by the work of Joel Salatin at Polyface farm (see Polyfaces) and Mark Sheppard at New Forest Farm (see his book Restoration Agriculture or the film Inhabit). The principle of understanding why traditional graze patterns is simple: if you’ve ever visited a chicken run or petting zoo, you see what happens when animals are fenced in the same area for a long period of time. They first eat their favorite food, then nibble down to the less desirable greenery, and finally, eat whatever is left, leaving bare soil.  This is what happens in a stationary system, rather than one driven by predators.

 

Rather than fencing animals in the same spot, folks like Salatin and Sheppard carefully rotate their herd animals  among large tracts of land in traditional grazing patterns. Mark Sheppard has his system so effectively designed that every different animal (cows, pigs, geese, chickens) move through a patch and quickly out of it in only a few days time. As the herds are rotated, each animal gets it’s own best “first bite.” This technique encourages the grass to stay alive, and to shed carbon (as the grass is bitten down, it sheds roots to accommodate it’s smaller size, and that sinks carbon into the topsoil, enriching it). This, friends, is why prior to the settling of the USA by Europeans, the prairies had soil horizons that were 12 feet deep of rich topsoil: it was millennia of herds moving quickly through areas, driven by predators. Predators, then, are responsible for herd movements that can literally sequester carbon and stop climate change. Farmers interested in regenerative agriculture are using these same methods to sequester tens of thousands of pounds of carbon each year.  Salatin has compelling evidence tha  if every US farmer who raises any grazing animal used these techniques, we could sink all of the carbon the USA has ever emitted in less than 10 years.

 

This is the power of the predator, and this one of many reasons that they are deserving of our respect.

 

There are other examples of this as well. I’m sure that many of you saw the video about Yellowstone Park, where it was shown that the re-introduction of wolves changed the whole ecosystem because of the movement of herds.  The wolves were able, as the video suggests, change the movement of herds, which changed rivers, and helped regenerate the entire ecosystem. (There are some new articles that suggest that this video exaggerates the claims a bit, but I am still inclined to believe that a whole ecosystem, with it’s predators intact, is a more robust and healthy ecosystem). Without predators as a part of the ecosystem, all suffer.

 

Predators and Inner Lessons

The outer lessons, above, are clearer the more I write and think about them, but I would also like to spend a few moments on the inner lessons that the predators offer. I, like many, saw predators as a nuisance, as something to keep away, as something you don’t want to see flying above the skies or slinking through the grass.  But predators have another message–they are awareness medicine.

 

The hawks flying overhead made me better protect my chickens, and sent me a powerful message about defenses, about being vigilant, and about not letting my guard down. If my chickens were the tastiest plump morsels around (and they are, they are made of chicken), then I had to change my own relationship with the predators and protect my chickens better. If I lose a chicken to a hawk, this is not the fault of the predator, this is my own lack of vigilance.

 

The badger who broke into my coop, and dragged my beloved rooster off never to be seen again, sent me the message that I was to return to PA to my beloved mountains, a message I have since enacted in my life. The magic of my homestead worked because of my rooster, Anasazi, and without him, I knew it wasn’t going to work in the same way. That powerful message was the last thing I needed to truly move forward in my life.

 

And the bear, who easily took out the beehive during the first evening, and even more skillfully worked his way through wire, rebar, straps, and more, teaches me the lesson that the predators need to be honored. To be respected. They are there, they are present, and there is no getting around their message.  They are there whether or not we want them to be. And it is me, not them, who needs to change my own thoughts and actions .

 

The lessons of the predator are many: power, strength, vigilance, loss, opportunity, precision, healing, defenses, paying attention, cultivating awareness and openness to your surroundings. Friends, readers, what are your experiences with the predators? Do you have any additional lessons to share?

 

Permaculture in Action – Five Year Regeneration Model Site (My 3 Acre Homestead) August 1, 2015

Last week, I shared some inspiring words about permaculture design, and how it can give us a path forward and an active, regenerative response to the many challenges we face. I wanted to take some time this week to share a more extended example that is near and dear to my heart—and this will likely be the last post on my Michigan homestead, a “celebratory” post of the good work that was able to be done there on the land in terms of regeneration.  I’ve already written about the energetic healing work on the land earlier–this is about the physical space. My homestead in Michigan was recently sold to an incredible human being who will continue her own regenerative work on the land—and for that I’m grateful!

When I came to my homestead, the need for regeneration of the landscape–and myself–was obvious to me in some ways, and not so obvious in others. So here’s a look at my homestead and the healing work through permaculture design that was done there.  So this post is an example of what one determined person (with help from dear friends and her community) can do over a five-year period to regenerate soil and bring abundance and fertility to the land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Challenges

Zones and Sectors, Analysis - 5 year mark

Zones and Sectors, Ongoing Challenges after 5 Years

When I purchased my homestead in Michigan in 2010, much healing and regeneration needed to be done. Its no surprise that permaculturists often select sites that are in the most need of healing—the tools work, and they work well, and we like a challenge. This land was no exception. The landscape was just covered in trash, chemicals, and more. Here’s what I found when I purchased the property:

 

The Lawn and Mowing: First, there was the typical damage of the lawn: no water retention, chemically poisoned, extremely compacted soil, very low-nutrient soil, shallow root mass, lack of biological diversity, no habitat or food in the grass for just about anything. A full 2 acres were being constantly mowed—pretty much anything that could be mowed was being mowed. The grass wasn’t healthy, the soil was so hard you couldn’t even get a shovel into it.

 

Burn piles, trash piles, and garbage everywhere. The previous owners had decided not to pay for garbage service but continued to produce a copious amounts of garbage, so their solution for years was to burn it each week, spread it in random places in the yard, and dump it in the back of the property. In these burn piles, I found everything from nail polish bottles exploded by the heat to lumps of melted plastic, metal coils, and chunks of rubber. The land beneath these piles, of course, had all the chemicals leeching in. All along the edges of the property was a ring of trash—from old bedsprings to plastic containers, for YEARS I found more and more trash along the edges where the trees stood! There was also a full metal bus, which my neighbor was willing to remove and scrap.

 

Scary fluids in metal bins. There were several scary metal drums, stored about 20 feet above the pond in the brush. I looked at them for a good month, trying to decide what to do about them. Finally, my neighbor helped me sort it out—it was hydraulic fluid, and he offered to take it from me since he could use it. Luckily there didn’t appear to be any leakage into the pond.

 

Deforestation. A one-acre section of cedar and white pine trees had been cut about two years prior to my moving in—the google map view still had the trees, but they were all found in the back of the property. A neighbor told me the owners “didn’t like the trees” so they had them cut and dumped. The wood was not used and the land still bore the scars of that event.

 

Ox-eye daisy my first year

Ox-eye daisy my first year at the homestead

Alkali and degraded soil. Early soil tests from around the property revealed soil somewhere between PH 8.1 – 8.3 with almost no potassium to speak of and little to no organic matter. This kind of soil is a challenge—the high PH means that iron, phosphorus, and manganese are less available and may get locked up. I was, like many in my area, living on what had been old potato fields and the soil had been abused quite a bit in those days. You can learn a lot from the soil by the plants that were growing there—one of the few plants I had in the back of the property growing was Ox-Eye daisy; these are indicator species that grows in very poor soil conditions when little else can grow.

 

Water runoff issues. Additionally, the water runoff issues, especially down the driveway, put all the driveway runoff into a shallow ditch that went across the road and into the wetland.

 

Buried shingles everywhere. Someone thought it was a good idea to suppress weeds with toxic asphalt shingles—I found great layers of them under pine trees, down a pathway, in the barn.

 

Massive Garbage/Wood piles in back of property. When the previous owners had cut down all of the cedars and pines in the center of the property, they dumped them in the back, in the woods, and piled garbage on top.

 

Energetic issues. I wrote pretty extensively about energetic healing in my “about the land” page—I’m not going to be talking much about this here, but this is also a critically important issue. When something is mistreated, it closes off and curls up in a ball—that’s essentially what was happening to this land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Opportunities

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Despite the degradation present, the site presented a host of wonderful opportunities to enact permaculture design—“the problem is the solution” as Bill Mollison would say. The site included:

 

  • Nearly 1/3 acre of full sun, including a north-facing line of trees that created a heat trap
  • ¾ acre pond (not well placed from a permaculture standpoint for regeneration, but in healthy condition minus the garbage floating in it). Indicator species, like spotted leopard frog, suggested the pond was ecologically healthy.
  • A pole barn and detached garage
  • A variety of microclimates: full shade, full sun, part shade, protected, high ground, slopes, and so on.
  • A lot of established hardwood and nut trees: maples (for tapping, 3 tapable maples on property); several hickories, many oaks, wild cherry for medicine
  • Protective, biodiverse hedges of trees, shrubs, and berry bushes surrounding the property on three sides where neighbors and the road were (these helped deflect noise, protect from pollution, offer food and forage to all life, and provide privacy)
  • A big pile of logs dumped in the back of the property ready to be used
  • A bunch of other supplies, like posts and fencing, dumped into the sides of the property ready to be used
  • Land energetically ready for healing!

 

The Design and Restoration:

In the first year, I spent most of my time doing the physical clean up of the land and observing the site. The trash cleanup took up most of my time on the land: picking up the burn piles, picking up the trash, fishing more trash out of the pond, picking up pieces of glass, dealing with scary materials in metal bins, and so on. I also sheet mulched three 4’ x 20’ beds in the area that I had the most solar gain and sheet mulched a rocky, gravelly area to turn that into soil. The winter came, and I began researching plants and thinking about the overall site design.

Looking back, I think the project evolved as my knowledge of permauclture design and organic farming grew. I wanted to regenerate the soil, to grow a wide variety of annuals and perennials (with a special emphasis on fruit trees, herbs, and biodiversity), to encourage pollinators, and to create a sacred space. My goals evolved as I learned more!

 

Soil Regeneration. Because of the state of the soil, my big goals for the property was soil regeneration using multiple strategies. As I mentioned above, ox-eye daisy was growing abundantly all through the property, and I was told when speaking to some people from our state extension office that I needed to chemically manage it—advice I chose wisely to ignore.

 

Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

In my first year on the land, I sowed quite a bit of red and white clover in all the areas of the lawn that I knew I wasn’t going to do anything with for a period of time. Dandelion and burdock also popped up in those areas, breaking up compacted soil. I spread these as much as I could around the property (much to the dismay of my neighbors, I’m sure!) Dandelion and Burdock have deep tap roots and are dynamic accumulators of nutrients, so they are breaking up compacted soil and healing the land with their very presence.

 

Rather than mowing the whole thing and further compacting the soil, I chose to mow paths in the back 2/3 of the property and continued to mow the front lawn (especially after some legal troubles when I stopped one summer). The clover and dandelions (and other plants I later added, like boneset and new England aster) also provided valuable forage for pollinators. Looking back, being more intentional about this and sowing native grasses with deep root masses would have helped to build soil as well!

 

A second strategy for soil regeneration was bringing in chickens. A good number of permaculturists are using animals and specified grazing techniques to build better soil—my goal was similar. These grazing techniques basically suggest that we can sequester carbon by allowing grasses to get tall, then in allowing an intensive foraging by animals to reduce them to the roots. The roots get smaller when the leafy mass is gone, shedding carbon and building organic matter. As the plants regrow, new roots form and the cycle can begin again. My chickens ate bugs, pooped, and built nitrogen with their good work on the land. I also used them when they were in their run to compost materials rapidly and I was able to spread that compost into the soil. I spread manure from a friend’s alpaca farm, then let the chickens come in and scratch it up looking for bugs.

 

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

I also used soil amendments when I had the opportunity—I made compost teas and spread them in all perennial and annual beds as well as my field. Because of the high alkali soil, wood ash was out (which was a shame, since I had so much of it), but I did spread chicken compost as well as sourced some free seaweed and spread that. A friend had some leftover granite dust, so I used that as well as rock phosphate.

 

The field started out all in ox-eye daisy, heavily compacted soil. In a period of 5 years, few ox-eye daisies remain, and now there are a host of beneficial plants, berry bushes, and more. Where Autumn Olives grew up, I cut them back in the early spring before they leafed out, forcing them to deposit a lot of their nitrogen and carbon in the roots into the soil. This created a more fertile, less alkali soil, which eventually allowed me to create other things.

 

The last technique, one that I did only a little before moving, was to make and bury biochar to help fix carbon and build soil quality. My garden (covered below) received many more amendments (copious amounts of chicken-composted leaves, organic matter, etc).

 

Now a lot of these techniques were initially focused just in my garden—and that was a mistake. My garden was about people care—but the whole landscape needed to be cared for. Later in my time at the homestead, I started building soil not just for the garden and perennial gardens but throughout the whole property.

 

Serviceberry - first harvest!

Serviceberry – first harvest!

Biodiversity and Perennial Plants and Trees. I really wanted to showcase perennial fruit and nut crops as well as perennial herbs for medicine. To do this, I created different small perennial beds: an traditional medicine wheel herb bed in the front, a small orchard of fruit trees with mini-swales behind the barn, a second row of fruit trees with guilds of beneficial plants along the driveway, a butterfly garden, and a mini food forest (there weren’t trees, but there were trellises and large bushes). These spaces were designed and implemented individually.

 

In permaculture, we think about “stacking functions” where a single plant has many uses – the cover, for example, fixes nitrogen, provides good groundcover that doesn’t require mowing, and creates a fantastic nectar source for bees. Many herbs and perennials have these kinds of multiple functions.

 

Butterfly garden, year 2

Butterfly garden, year 2

Pollinator Haven. In my third year, I really focused on pollinators. I added many more milkweeds, spreading them throughout the property. I planted and managed two perennial pollenator gardens with long-blooming plants. I added other blooming plants, especially mid-to-late season blooming plants like oregano, bee balm, boneset, joe pye weed, New England aster, and goldenrod. The goal here was to provide nectar sources well beyond the spring flows. I had my property certified as a wildlife sanctuary and monarch waystation.

 

And, of course, I added the two beehives. I paid close attention to what the honeybees vs. bumble bees and other native bees liked, and I made sure that all of those things were present on the landscape. Clovers, ground ivy, brambles, so many things the bees like!

 

Certification and Signage

As I mentioned above, after some difficulty with my township about my rather wild front yard, I registered the site as a Certified Monarch Waystation and Certified Wildlife Habitat. I did this mainly for education of those driving by my house—the signage showed people that something different, something regenerative, was happening here.

 

Pond regrown - beneficial bushes and groundcover

Pond regrown – beneficial bushes and groundcover

 Education, Outreach, and Healing

A final piece of the design of this site was using the site as a place for others to come, to grow, to learn, and to heal. This took on a lot of different forms: I had 9 other people, at various times, with plots in my garden. Many others learned about various garden techniques like sheet mulching, front-lawn conversion, beekeeping, perennial plants, herbalism, and more. Throughout my time at the site, over 150 people, many through our Permaculture meetup, came through and saw what was going on, and learned about it. I hosted many monthly meetups as well as hosted three permablitzes so that people could come and learn.

 

Others came, when they were in need, to use the land as a quiet retreat for healing or integrative work.   Still others came to celebrate the wheel of the seasons in the druid tradition. These spiritual and healing aspects were as important to the regeneration of the land as the physical ones!

 

Here’s a final map of everything that was planted and where! Thanks for reading :).

 

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)