The Druid's Garden

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

Responding to the Predicament We Face: Planting Seeds and Cultivating Polycultures April 2, 2017

Planting seeds and seeing what grows--part of our own response to the predicament

Planting seeds and seeing what grows–part of our own response to the predicament

On Problems, Predicaments, and Responses

To say that the present post-industrial age has its share of problems is perhaps, at best, an understatement. I think the urgency of the challenges we face been exasperated here in the US by a radically shifting political climate where even basic human decency, access to clean environment, and former structures are breaking down around us at an alarming rate. When looking at these challenges, particularly large-scale environmental ones, we begin to ask “What can we do?” What should we do? How do we solve this problem?” And while some of the issues facing us may well be problems, the larger issue is a much more complex predicament, and that changes the nature of how we respond and what we do. A problem, as John Michael Greer has so cautioned us over a decade ago, has a clear solution. With the threats to human survival and the survival of many other species on this planet, the term “problem” doesn’t quite do it justice. A problem is something like a flat tire: there are a few solutions to fix it (patch it, put on a spare, buy a new tire) and they are fairly limited. Predicaments, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. Predicaments, unlike problems, don’t have clear solutions. They are issues so multifaceted, so interconnected, so complex, that any “solution” fails to address the scope and enormity of it and instead require a large range of responses. John Michael argues that the issues we face in our current age–of the limits of a finite planet, of climate change, of environmental turmoil are predicaments. To respond, we must find our own ways forward, ways of responding, and that a plurality of ways is often necessary. But how do we even begin to respond to that?

 

This is the question that many open-eyed, connected, nature-honoring folks are asking at present: what the heck are we going to do about what is going on? What exactly is going on? What can we do? How can we do it while still providing for our basic needs? How can we thrive in a world that seems to be socially, politically, environmentally and emotionally crumbling?  In fact, almost everyone out there who has any connection at all to the living earth struggles with the disconnection between what it takes to survive in this current world and where their value systems lie and leveraging a response. It is a fact that stares each of us squarely in the face often and powerfully. As I’ve worked my way deeper into my to the problem we face as a species and civilization over the better part of my adult life, I’ve certainly tried my own range of responses.

 

While I believe the most important thing in the end is to respond (rather than ignore the issue) it takes nearly all of us a while to get to the point of having a response we feel good about. I meet druids all the time who are distraught about what is happening and want to do something but don’t have the skills or tools to actually do it, or aren’t sure what to do, or are working through their emotions about it–and feeling guilty all the less for not doing anything. And to them I say, we are not trying to climb Mount Davis (the tallest mountain here in the Laurel Highlands of PA) in one day.  But we can make steps there with each thought and action, and that’s an important part of responding, and working through those steps, and addressing the time that they take, is a big part of what we’ll explore in the remainder of this post today.

 

Polycultures and a Multitude of Responses

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Any healthy ecosystem is not made up of a single species of plant (monoculture), but a multitude of plants (a polyculture).  We see this in any forest or wild area–you can see thousands of species interacting within a single space and thriving together, often working together to benefit the larger system. Polycultures outperform monocultures in every way: they outproduce them, they offer many different kinds of yields, they offer resiliency, they offer redundancy in the case of a single plant or plant species failing.  Nature loves, and creates, polycultures (and gardeners practicing permaculture do as well!)

 

I think the polyculture metaphor is a great one to help us understand the multitude of responses we need for the predicament we face. My response, my life choices, aren’t yours, and shouldn’t be. Each of us, given our unique circumstances, our sets of skills, or commitments to others, our work lives, and so on, must work to find our own response to add to the larger polyculture of responses.  For some people, their response is retiring to a little piece of land in the country and “pulling out” of broader affairs to live a more simple life. For others, it is activism on the front lines, marching, meeting, demonstrating. For some of us, it is coming together to build something anew. The thing is–there is no right or wrong way to respond.  There are responses.  Some may be more effective than others in the long run. It is with a polyculture of responses that we have a chance at success–for even if one or multiple responses fail, some will succeed and thrive, as we see in an ecosystem.

 

Towards Responding through Thought and Action: Composting and Soil Preparation

In druidry, we understand that the inner realms reflect the outer, and that the outer realms reflect inward.  I believe responses begin within, in the realm of thought, contemplation, and meditation. My first piece of hard-earned advice is this: recognize that this larger predicament is a tremendous amount for a human to process and many of us need a good amount of processing time before finding our own response. This is an important step: our responses will take years, decades, a lifetime to engage with and understand. Part of this thinking process is just working on acceptance of what is happening so that you can respond.  It takes a lot to pull our heads out of this culture, look at the evidence, emotionally and intellectually process it, and decide what to do.  That is critically important work and we need to be kind to ourselves while we are doing it. Sometimes, it is also ok to pause and regroup before barreling forward with what we feel is a correct response. Otherwise, we end up in a place where we’ve thought we’ve made good choices–radically so–and then they turn out to be not as good (or as sustainable or sustaining) as we thought!  Of course, the nature of the predicament and the continued speed at which things are declining makes it hard to give us the time to process and to allow the seed to incubate, leading to guilt, frustration, and more.

 

Like many living in the Northern Hemisphere in the spring months, I have been (physically) planting my seeds for the coming year. Small seeds of St. John’s wort, sacred tobacco, catnip, many veggies, and so many other herbs.  Seeds are so magical: they have so much potential stored up in a little hard shell. As I carefully prepare the soil and push each one in, I am struck by the cycle of life within a seed. I see our own responses to this predicament just like a seed I plant: it needs time for incubation, dormancy, sprouting, and growth–growing seeds are a process, and I think growing responses are too.

 

And so, before we begin to plant the seeds of a response, we must tend to our soil, compost the old, and prepare the ground for new beginnings. I have been in this exact situation for the last two years, and it has at points been very frustrating. Long term blog readers know that I’ve struggled tremendously with my own response to the predicament, and that response has changed over time.  Since I became a druid over a decade ago, it was really important that I *do something* but I wasn’t always sure what that something was. My first “doing something” altered permanently my major long-term relationship at the time (as we were going in different directions with different worldviews).  It led me to owning a homestead in the country and doing everything myself (and eventually burning out, leaving to regroup).  It has taken me down the road of exploring a host of issues surrounding “everyday life”: work-life balance, waste, consumerism, food, family, friendships, and more.  It led me to temporarily “regroup” and explore urban homesteading options and a walkable lifestyle in a small town where I had to reflect, regroup, and work on my next response.

 

And as hard as it has been to feel like I’m doing less than living my full truth as I’ve been in this composting and preparation phase,  I now realize that it has been time well spent. I haven’t done anything radical or big with my life (or finances) that would be hard to undo, but rather, found niches and small things I could do while I was in this “dormant” period with my larger life goals. I’ve lived simply, walked to work, did a lot of wildtending, weed walking, spent a ton of time studying and building my oak knowledge and reskilling, reconnected with my ancestral land, engaged my community in plant walks, herbalism, worked on a lot of my own writing and artistic projects, did a lot of small-scale urban homesteading that I could do…all while really contemplating my choices. I learned a lot, a grew a lot, but I also felt very “unsettled” as I was focused only on the small things and on not doing the things I felt I really needed to do. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough.  Now, I realize that A) I was doing a lot more good work than I thought I was and B) this time to regroup and contemplate was necessary.  Making a choice too soon would have actually hampered my long-term goals (although I couldn’t have possibly known that a year ago!)

 

Time to do some composting!

Time to do some composting!

I think a lot of us find ourselves in this place, and it can be a frustrating place to be.  Its a mix of things: wanting to do something, but not being sure what we can or should do, and feeling increasing pressure to do something quickly given all that is happening in the broader world.  It kind of makes you feel like you want to explode! If you find yourself here, waiting and dormant, remember that this is part of your response, part of your work, and it is a very important part.

 

I think this “incubation” time has been a very difficult time for me in many ways: not being on land, and being rooted in a specific piece of property where I could explore has left me feeling really disconnected, unsure of my path forward, and yet, it has also allowed me to be in a space of new possibilities. And that’s what’s so powerful about these transitory times: they are unsettling, and net, incredibly powerful. Anything can happen, anything that you can dream up might occur. You don’t have a clear path forward, but you have an ample amount of hope and possibility.  In the Tarot, the “tower” is an incredibly difficult place to be: the structures we have aren’t working (societally and personally) and given that, they must come down, and the dust must settle before we are to see the way forward.

 

Planting the Seeds of a Response

The next phase in the journey of a seed and the journey of our own responses to the larger predicament is that period of planting. This is a huge transition: the period between thinking about responding and beginning to respond (even if the efforts themselves haven’t yet been seen).  The move towards some action, however, small, is incredible. We have already tended the soil and done our composting work–and now, we plant the seeds and wait for them to sprout. Incubation can also be a difficult period of time. I know after I’ve planted seeds, the hardest thing is waiting–seeing if they will germinate. Sometimes they don’t, and then we have to plant again, or plant different seeds, or change something about the conditions under which we plant them (heat mat, light exposure, cold stratification, scarification, etc.).  Sometimes seeds require fire to sprout–burning away the old and creating fertile soil.  Some seeds are simply harder to start than others–but well worth the extra effort and cultivation.

 

Planting the seeds is the critical difference between thought and action.  In the end, as I’ve argued on this blog, it is our actions that count–it is our actions that help us enact change, live in harmony, and come up with an effective range of responses.

 

Germination, Growth and Change

And then, the magic happens.  After an indefinate period of incubation, the seed we have planted comes out of dormancy and the spark of life, nwyfre, flows. The seed sprouts, and life is born. The beautiful, tender sprout emerges from the soil and you can continue the careful work of cultivating this seed into an incredible healing and nourishing plant. And yet, seeds are so fragile–once that sprout emerges, it can so quickly dry up, or rot, or not have enough life.  Part of what we must do is ensure that we tend the seed as carefully as possible during the early stages of any response.

 

Today, as this post is scheduled to be released at my normal Sunday morning posting time, the seed is sprouting for what could possibly be my greatest life’s work. After my two year period of composting and dormancy while I regrouped, I have made some very powerful and empowering decisions and had a series of things occur to set me on the path towards intentional community. I’ve decided to transition away from solo living and trying to do things on my own and move towards living in community, with the larger goal of co-ownership of a large piece of land where we build an intentional community based on regeneration, nature spirituality, and permaculture principles. This is a big vision, and yet, the first seed of that vision is sprouting today. Today, I am moving to a new place to live in our small town, and in that move, the seeds of this very community are being planted and sprouting. The first phase of our larger project is a three-pronged effort (because druids always do it in threes) to establish a community, permaculture center, and farm a small piece of land together while we work on acquiring our larger piece of land and figuring out what the nature of our larger community will be.

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

 

And so, we’ll be working in three directions.  We will be:

  • Reducing our ecological footprint and pursuing earth-honoring practices: this includes downsizing our own stuff and space requirements to live in a community of people in a smaller space, practicing various kinds of earth-honoring living, thus reducing consumption in many ways
  • Expanding community outreach and education through establishing a permaculture center in downtown Indiana, PA, that hosts classes, activities, and community events (like our first permaculture meetup that happened two weeks ago!)
  • Learning to live and grow together, both in our space in the downtown area, but also through a collaborative project growing a food forest on a small plot of land outside of town (we see this like our “sandbox” before we acquire the larger piece of land).

It is in this move today that we can start to explore things like consensus decision making, governance structures, co-ownership, and learn how to live in a smaller space with less stuff and more joy. For me, in the coming months and years, we’ll see if the seeds sprouted today is the one that will grow into an incredible food forest or if they will be learning experiences that will continue to guide my path. In between posts on all things permaculture and druidry, I’ll be sharing the story of our own growth of this community and some of the things we are doing.

 

Seeing those first seeds spring forth is a joyous occasion–but also a terrifying one.  As I have worked to see this come about, I have had to counter my own fear and rethink my own assumptions along every step of the way.   Of course, there is a part of me that is afraid, that fears change, that just wants to keep things the same as they are.  But ethical, sacred responses require us to set aside our fears and let the awen flow from within.  Remember, the problem is the solution!  I wish you each well upon your journeys of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, cultivating the sprouts, and eventually, tending those wild food forests!

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A Guide to Composting with Tumblers, Sheet Mulching, Worms, Chickens, and Piles June 8, 2013

Composting is a very easy way to integrate natural processes and nutrients into your garden, flower beds, and life.  While various statistics exist, most commonly, I’ve seen statistics that suggest that up to 50% of what we throw away in the USA is food items or items that are biodegradable.  These are items, like vegetables or stems, that come out of the nutrients in the system.  Americans also like  to rake up/bag up and throw away their lawn clippings, “weeds”, etc.  By sending them into a landfill, we lock those nutrients away and don’t allow them to cycle through the system again.  So composting is an important part of shifting to a more sustainable practice and allows us to build great soils in the process.  By composting, I was able to reduce what I threw away/put on the curb by almost 50%–and now I know how much I was wasting.

Over the last three years, I’ve been experimenting with a number of composting methods.  I currently am the composting site for three families (including my own).  As such, I’ve worked to develop a number of different composting strategies.  All of the strategies that I’ll present here work in combination with each other for different kinds of composting at different speeds.

The final product!

The final product!

Sheet Mulching – Direct Composting in Garden Beds

Materials you can compost: Fall leaves, yard waste, leftovers from last year’s garden (corn stalks, tomato plants, etc.).  Grass clippings, provided they come from a pesticide-free yard (get them from the one that still has dandelions)!

How to do it: In a previous post, I detailed how sheet mulching (preparing new garden beds or adding nutrients to existing garden beds).  Sheet mulching is a great approach because it really only requites you to move the material once–you just lay it in place and the beds make themselves over time.  I really like this approach and use it throughout my homestead.

Finished sheet mulched beds--planted with potatoes, kale, and garlic!

Finished sheet mulched beds–planted with potatoes, kale, and garlic!

Compost Tumbling- Keeping the Critters Out and the Nutrients In!

Materials you can compost:  Any food waste (except meats and cheeses), yard waste, garden leftovers.

How to do it:  For compost tumbling, you’ll want to get a compost tumbler.  You can make one relatively cheaply from an old barrel (fill it up and roll it around the yard) or you can purchase a nice one.  I bought one that is insulated, which theoretically allows one to compost in the winter…..or not.  In hindsight, I would have just made one myself out of recycled materials, such as an old 50 gallon pickle barrel.  I find that my compost tumbler takes about 2-3 months to produce a nice compost (and mine has two sides, so you let one compost down while filling the other one).

Leaf pile and compost tumbler!

Leaf pile and compost tumbler!

The Traditional Open Compost Pile

Materials you can compost:  Any food waste (except meats and cheeses), yard waste, garden leftovers.

How to do it: A compost pile is the simplest form of compost.  You just pile stuff up, wait, and if you are feeling really ambitious, turn it over every once in a while.  I started with a compost pile, but my neighbors dog started coming over, eating out of my pile, and then pooping all through my yard.  So I bought a compost tumbler.  You can prevent your neighbor’s dog from engaging in his nefarious behavior by using palates or scrap wood to create a bin that isn’t accessible from the outside.

Traditional open compost pile (about 50% of previous size, composting for 8 months, no turning)

Traditional open compost pile (about 50% of previous size, composting for 8 months, no turning)

Improved "open pile" with wire cage to keep out neighbor's dog.

Improved “open pile” with wire cage to keep out neighbor’s dog.

Worm Composting (Vermicomposting)

Materials you can compost: Food scraps, mainly.

How to do it:  In February, our permaculture group had a skill share on vermicomposting (and this is the link to a video). Since I provided the materials for the worm composter, I was able to get it at the end of the skill share.  I placed it in kitchen and  its been working really well.  The best thing about it was that I was able to find all of the materials in my garage, and the worms were donated to me by my friend, so it literally had no upfront cost.  You *can* go out and buy expensive worm bins, or you can just use the methods that are in the video (which consist of two opaque tubs, drilling some holes, adding some wet shredded newspaper, adding some worms, and adding food scraps).  The best thing about it is that you can compost this way year round, and you get AWESOME worm castings.

Vermicompost bin - yes, you can also add cardboard!

Vermicompost bin – yes, you can also add cardboard!

The Chicken Method: Let the Birds Do the Work!

Materials: Food scraps, old moldy bread, yard scraps, pretty much anything. We’ve given ours moldy cheese, old sauerkraut, leftovers from going out to eat, even the carcasses and bones of chicken, pork, etc.  They eat it all.

How to do it.  This last method is now my preferred method of composting! For this, you need Chickens in an enclosed coop.  I had my chickens free ranging, which means they help keep the bug populations down.  However, they were destroying the mulching around my perennial beds and I also lost the two bantams (smaller breed chickens) to hawks.  So I built them a larger coop, and with the advice of a friend, started “chicken composting.”  Basically the way it works  is this–you put whatever you want the chickens to compost in the coop.  Most of this they eat, and in a matter of hours, produce a nitrogen-rich dung (which needs to sit about 6 months or it will burn plants, its so high in nitrogen!)  What they don’t eat attracts flies and worms, which they do eat.  I also throw a ton of unshredded fall leaves in there, especially ones like oaks that are harder to compost down.  What you end up with is a wonderful tilled up hummus, straight from the chickens, with minimal work.

Chickens in their enclosure (note the enclosure was built with 90% repurposed materials!)

Chickens in their enclosure (note the enclosure was built with 90% repurposed materials!)

Chickens working the compost!

Chickens working the compost!

 

Gardening into December: Hoop House Updates, Chickens, Composting, and More! November 17, 2012

I wanted to post another update about the progress of the hoop houses and other gardening activities in mid-November in my Zone 6 climate in South East Michigan.  As I wrote about in earlier blog posts, I have been experimenting with hoop houses for season extension.  I posted a picture of my mid-April harvest in my earlier post; now I’m going to show you what is going on in the hoop houses in late November.  Most of these crops would have gotten zapped by a 20 degree evening about two weeks ago, but they are going strong in the hoop houses!  So here are some photos from today (its a bit warm today, so I lifted up the hoop houses to see what is growing inside).

Cabbage, kale, and spinach...oh my!

Cabbage, kale, and spinach…oh my!

Most of the veggies in these photos were planted in late August (except the Kale and Leeks, which have been going since spring).  Next year, I think I’m going to start them even sooner, as once the weather gets cold they don’t really grow.  Hoop house gardening extends the harvest season moreso than the growing season.  Here are a few more photos.

Arugula, Minzua, and more spinach!

Spinach is amazing this time of year!

These are a little small...I planted them too late, I think!

These cabbages are still a little small…I planted them too late, I think!

So yes, there will be fresh greens through December. I will be serving a salad at our Thanksgiving meal next week, and even with me picking some greens every few days for a meal, I should have enough greens to last till Yule!  The hoop houses last year made it till New Years (when I stupidly forgot to close them and the arugula and spinach I was growing got zapped).  We had such a mild winter that I wonder if they could have lasted longer.  This year I will do more experimenting and find out!

A family that I am friends with asked for some garden space, so we also got their garden established this fall.  They’ve planted winter wheat in part of it as well as some garlic. We are also in the process of laying down some newspaper and cardboard as weed suppression for the rows.

Winter wheat!

I also have some winter rye growing as a cover crop in part of the garden (one one of my newer beds to help establish the soil).  I’m going to get my chickens to till it under in the spring for me :).  The chickens enjoy nibbling on it this time of year.

Winter Rye - chickens love it!

Winter Rye – chickens love it!

A lot of what I’ve been doing in the last two months, especially now that the leaves have dropped, is composting and preparing my beds for next season.  I drive around the neighborhood and pick up as many bags of leaves as I can.  Most of these go directly into the garden, but I also save some for projects I know I have planned for next year (since fall leaves happen but once a year).  Fall is an excellent time to collect yard “waste” (and its anything but waste to a gardener).  My neighbors are always so kind to bag it up for me, stick it on the curb for me to pick up, and sometimes, even mulch it.  This year I collected about 40 bags of leaves as well as raked up a massive pile of my own.  These will all be used before next fall–for mulch, for sheet mulched beds, etc.

Garden beds with layers of compost and shredded leaves--ready for next season!

Garden beds with layers of compost and shredded leaves–ready for next season!

Lots of composting happening!

Lots of composting happening!  The pile to the right is my main pile for next year; it has coffee grounds, leaves, yard waste, food waste, etc.  Its about 5′ high now.

I’m also just about finished establishing a few new beds and tree planting.  Fall, again, is a great time for this because of all of the copious amounts of material for your new beds.  Trees that are planted in fall can have time to establish their root systems over winter before the hot, dry days of summer come back.  I’m also doing some experiments with other kinds of garden beds, such as the hugelkultur bed.

Hugelkulture bed in progress

Hugelkulture bed in progress, complete with chicken inspection.

New trees planted, protected, and mulched (mulch will be planted with beneficial plants like comfrey, mints, in the spring)

New trees planted, protected, and mulched (mulch will be planted with beneficial plants to help the tree, like comfrey, mints, false indigo, in the spring)

I also do a bit of indoor gardening, mainly for plants that can’t handle being outside in Michigan winters.  Here are my three citrus trees (one has oranges, very tart!) and a lemon-scented geranium.  The geranium I found at the bottom of a big bag of leaves, along with some other plants on the curb.  Fall is also a great time for what I call compost diving.  In addition to neighbors putting out leaves,  I find all sorts of stuff, and surprisingly, a lot of live plants :).

Citrus in south-facing window

Citrus in south-facing window

Lemon-scented geranium

Lemon-scented geranium

The chickens enjoy free-ranging every chance they get (which is anytime that either I or my husband are at home).  They are now all grown up (hatched mid-July).  We also took in a stray rooster who was kicked out of a neighbor’s flock.  I’ve had hens before, but never a roster.  But for free ranging chickens, the rooster is a great protector of the flock, not to mention being beautiful to look at, and I’m happy to have him with the girls!

Lentil and Pinto pecking and scratching

Lentil and Pinto pecking and scratching

Chickens near their chicken tractor/coop

Chickens near their chicken tractor/coop

Anasazi, our stray rooster that is now part of the flock

Anasazi, our stray rooster that is now part of the flock