The Druid's Garden

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

Slowing Down the Druid Way: A History of Time February 12, 2017

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

What continues to drive me is to live more in line with my principles: to grow my food, to take care of my basic needs, take charge of my health and healing, and to live fully and honestly with myself in line with the living earth. For a while, as I have discussed on this blog, I ran a homestead as well as worked full time to pay for it, something that I stopped doing about a year and a half ago. Part of why I had to walk away from my homestead in its current model (and regroup) was that it was physically exhausting me, especially as a single woman. I was trying to do everything: hold a full time job, grow my own food, tend my bees, tend my chickens, tend my land, make lots of things, write my blog, engage in my druid studies…and I couldn’t do it all. It was a painful and hard thing, leave a year and a half ago and open myself up to future possibilities. It also has been good in that I’ve been working to confront some of the fantasies that made me pursue things in the direction that I did when that direction was, for me, unsustainable. I had a hard time understanding how my ancestors made it–how they were able to do so many things, when I seemed to be able to do so few effectively.

 

Interestingly, at the time this was going on in my own life, I knew of several other homesteading folks who were in the same bind.  One couple, who were also educators, were selling their land because they couldn’t do it all, and they both had to work to pay for it, and the debt and time debt was really harming them. Like me, they really wanted to live sustainably but found they couldn’t swing it with the jobs and mortgage. Another good friend (another single woman) wanted to buy land, and had the money, but after seeing what I was doing and spending some time, started re-thinking her choices. Yet another friend was also a single homesteader and had no idea how to work and keep his homestead. All of us had also experimented with WOOFing and other kinds of community building but it wasn’t enough to sustain us long-term. And in the time since, I’ve met many people on the path who have expressed similar issues.

 

What I hadn’t fully accounted for when I started homesteading was the toll that trying to live in two competing systems at once did to me; I was trying to literally live two full-time lives at once. The existing system of work and life and taxes didn’t decrease in its demands just because I had a spiritual awakening and wanted to live in line with my beliefs: a mortgage, student loans, the demands of my work, the path and choices I setup for myself in my 20’s still were present and demanding of their attention in my early 30’s. The current system is designed so that it is easiest to live within it, and every step you take out of it is more and more difficult.

 

And so, I’ve been reflecting. What happened? What could I have done differently?  What could any of us done differently? What did I learn so that in the future I can take a different approach? For me, it all kept coming back to resources: my time and energy, debt, and community. I never seemed to have enough time to do even half of what I wanted at the end of the work days, and I spent a lot of my evenings and weekends recovering from my work. And, yet, I knew I was working more efficiently and engaging in a lot more self care than many of my colleagues at the university, who seemed perpetually exhausted. I also never seemed to be making much headway on my debt for the mortgage and on my student loans.  Each time I had gotten a raise, associated costs of life went up (especially health insurance), and I ended up taking home less money than before the raise. I felt like, literally, I was a hamster spinning in a wheel. What was happening here?

 

And as I’ve been working through these questions about my own experience, a deeper set of questions has also emerged: what are the larger cultural systems in place that influenced my experiences and the experiences of others I knew? Culturally, what are the challenges?

 

Obviously, there are a lot of ways I could work through this, but today, I’m specifically going to look at time and leisure. And this is for a simple reason: time and physical energy seems, to me, to be the biggest limiting factor for many people; it was a limiting factor for me, and certainly, for others that I knew who were in a similar place. In fact, time seems to be one of the critical factors between well-intentioned folks who want to do something and people who do can something.  This happens a lot: I talk to people every day practically who really want to live more sustainably, who want to practice permaculture in daily living, who want to reconnect on a deeper level–and who physically can’t do so.  They don’t have the energy, they don’t have the time, and the idea of “making time” sounds exhausting.  I think there’s a lot of harsh criticism out there for people’s honestly on the matter of their time and energy–one form of this criticism is that it sounds like they are making excuses. In the US at least, we have a tendency to criticize an individual for personal failings and deficiencies rather than look at the systems in place that help or harm us.  And yet, we live and work within these systems, and we are inherently bound to them and to the demands they place upon us.  Having a clear understanding of those systems, and what we can do about them for the good of our spiritual practice and everyday living, seems critical.

 

And so, in the rest of this post (and over the next few weeks), I’m going to explore cultural challenges–and solutions–with our relationship with time: how our system literally sucks away our time and makes it much more difficult to engage various kinds of sustainable living and self sufficiency, especially for those who are trying to walk the line between both worlds.

 

Understanding more about this system, and its history, is critical to all of us as we work to respond to the current industrial age, but as we begin to put in place new systems that will help replace this age and transition us back to nature-oriented living. And the key here is transitioning in a way that allows us to thrive: to be healthy (including well rested), happy, be able to take care of some of our own needs, and to work with the land to create abundance and joy in our own lives. So now, let’s take a look at our relationship to time in the broadest view, that is, over hundreds of years of human living.

 

Progress and Time

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along...

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along…

One of the so-called promises of industrialization and consumerism is the idea that things are “better” or “easier” for us now that machines and fossil fuels do so many things. We are told, explicitly as children in school, that we are better off, that we work less than our ancestors, have better lives, and largely benefit from the technologies and goods. Our ancestors of the distant past had hard lives of filth and toil, and we have somehow risen above this. This is one of the cores of the myth of progress: that our lives are better than our ancestors because of our “progress” as a civilization. Wrapped into this myth is the idea that fossil fuels and the current 40-hour workweeks somehow liberated us from crushing labor.  John Michael Greer has written extensively on this subject in his many books and blog, and if you aren’t familiar with his work and want his take on the subject, I’d highly recommend it (his new book After Progress is a particularly good place to start). This myth, the most powerful driving narrative of our present age, spans back at least until the time of industrialization but had its roots much earlier. One of these key pieces of the myth concerns the nature of time.

 

Work and Leisure in the Middle Ages

I’m sure any of you studying the druid traditions and old ceremonies read about 12-day celebrations and week long feasts and think to yourself,  how is this even possible?  Who would have time for this? A 12 day celebration seems like a dream, a fantasy, not the reality of any people, at least within the industrialized era. But evidence exploring pre-industrial cultures, including the Middle Ages in Europe, offers a different tale. In fact, peoples in Europe and elsewhere did have time for multiple 12 day celebrations and feasts because they had an entirely different relationship with time, leisure, and work.

 

A good book on the subject of time and the history of work time is The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor. Schor demonstrates that while the 40-hour work week of the 20th century was an improvement over the 80-hour work week from the 19th century (which she claims may have been the height of human work hours in recorded Western history), there is an implicit assumption that all work weeks were 80 hours in the centuries before the 19th. That is simply not the case. Schor provides good evidence that prior to capitalism, our ancestors had an abundance of time and a leisurely pace of work. She, and others writing on this subject, often point to the Middle Ages as a comparison.

 

Work in the Middle Ages was intermittent, with frequent breaks, even during planting and harvest times–these breaks were considered part of the rights of workers. During periods of downtime between planting and harvest, little work was done at all. In fact, almost one third of the medieval person’s life was spent on holiday: everything from prayer and somber churchgoing to merrymaking and feasting. These included many holidays through the Catholic Church (which was still quite pagan in those days, adopting many of the earlier week-long pagan feasts and traditions). In addition to the publicly sanctioned feasts, a typical middle ages calendar also included the “ale weeks” of various sorts where you might take a week off to celebrate someone’s wedding or birth of a child and the like. The Catholic Church’s doctrine suggested that too much work was a sin, and so, it actively limited how much work anyone could do (it also limited other things, like usury, or the charging of interest which is another topic entirely).

 

With this religious-political system in place, people had a lot of leisure time for all of those holidays and festivals as well as practicing functional crafts and bardic arts. For example, France’s ancien règime guaranteed workers fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays per year (could you imagine that today?) Approximately 5 months of the year were taken off in Spain during the Middle Ages. In England, records from manors in the 13th century suggested that manor  servants worked 175 days a year (likely a 10 or 12 hour day); peasant farmers worked not more than 150 days a year on their land, laborers worked around 120 days, and even miners worked only 180 days.

 

If we average these different data-points from England, we get 156 days of work per person. Today, with the typical “40-hour work week” with standard holidays and two  weeks off for vacation (read, crashing and recovering), the average American work week is about 261 days.  This is nearly one hundred days more than our medieval ancestors.  And even on days we don’t work or are on vacation, how many of us now are tethered to our smartphones and emails–our work follows us wherever we go, in ways even our counterparts from earlier in the 20th century can’t imagine. Now I’m not saying Medieval system was perfect–but on the matter of time, it appears to be a vast improvement from our current state of affairs.

 

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes....

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes….

Change is a constant, and certainly, big changes were coming near the end of the Middle Ages. The Protestants, specifically, the Puritans,  grew in strength and popularity all over Europe; their take on work was the opposite of the Catholic Church’s. Their motto was that hard work was good for the soul, and laziness was the work of the devil. Further, in England, the English Reformation led to major changes in work hours: King Henry VIII seized the monasteries and their land furthering the protestant cause and decreasing the stability of the peasants (who often worked land owned by the monasteries). The changes continued–after industrialization began taking off, a need for bodies in factories led to major shifts in how land was used: in many places, the common people and peasants were driven off lands and replaced with more profitable sheep (see, for example, the Highland Clearances in Scotland).

 

Eventually, these and other factors give rise to the 80-hour work weeks the 18th and 19th century (work weeks suffered by largely displaced peoples–economic refugees). The factory worker’s plight is a tale many of us likely know well (for a good description of this  in the early 20th century, see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Eventually, laws in various countries were introduced, including the current 40 hour work week here in the USA (which certainly seemed like a improvement after the insanity that preceded it).

 

Also, there is some truth in the idea that we have it better now in terms of work from our ancestors a century or two ago. But the idea that pre-industralized peoples worked away their days just to scrape by is hogwash.  It’s hogwash not only in terms of the Middle Ages, but even in terms of the more distant past. And, as I’ll explore next week in more depth, work weeks currently are on the incline, and have been for at least the last 20 years.  Part of this, as we’ll explore next week, has to do with our own choices and relationship to work (things we can control) and part of it may have factors outside of our control.

 

Concluding Thoughts

All of this information helped me put things in perspective–people living close to the land in ages past had very different demands on their time than people attempting it today.  I’m, then, not surprised by my own experiences and those with similar stories that I knew well. For so many of us, it is not a lack of desire, but of time, of resources, and of support–and finding ways to balance these things, while all the while paying for it within this crazy system–is a serious challenge and one deserving of our attention.

 

People living in times past had amounts of leisure time that seem unfathomable to those of us in modern industrialized or post-industralized societies–leisure time in which to make merry, engage in careful handicrafts, or pursue other interests fully. Further, people living in those earlier times also had support from strong and thriving communities.  People living in the distant past also had existing systems in place to aid them and often had carefully cultivated and abundant landscapes in which to work, which is diametrically opposed to our seriously degraded landscapes that we are now working to restore.  In other words, the challenges we face are serious ones, and our responses must, therefore, be thoughtful, deep, and careful. Understanding the systems in which we work, and their demands, can help us better adapt our own plans, especially to those that seek regenerative and nature-based living. Time, especially as it relates to our work demands, is certainly not on our side. There are some alternative approaches and solutions to this–and we’ll keep exploring these in the coming weeks.

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White Picket Fences, Free Range Fantasies, and the Many Paths of Sustainable Living June 26, 2016

We live in a time of grand and sweeping narratives, powerful narratives that tell us who to be, how to live, what to buy, and what to believe–and these shape our actions and identities. When I was a child in the 1980’s, the narrative of the American Dream, complete with the white picket fence, was compelling. A beautiful suburban home, a middle class lifestyle, a loving partner, 2.5 children, a large house, a beautiful lawn, the husband with a well paying job, and generally peaceful existence were the cornerstones of this dream. Of course, there’s a lot of critique of the white picket fence today, spanning from racial injustice and socioeconomic realities to sustainable living issues. In the sustainability community, in particular, the white picket fence has become a sense of what we are working against, as the white picket fence surrounds the chemically-treated and weed free grass…and certainly, that’s not what is going to help us transition to earth-centered living.

 

Loving the Land

Loving the Land- in many different ways!

However, what I fear is that sustainable living communities have replaced this white picket fence narrative with our own grand narrative, as equally powerful and as equally limiting. I call this narrative the “Free Range Fantasy” and it goes something like this: you and your perfect partner decide to quit your day jobs, purchase 50 acres in some remote area (which you somehow manage debt free), and build a fully off-grid homestead using an awesome ecological design method (cob, earth shelter, passive solar, etc). This homestead is complete with solar panels, acres of abundant gardens, fields of cute goats wearing daisy crowns, happy free range chickens, and two cute children covered in strawberry juice from your own strawberry patch.

 

The Free Range Fantasy is strongly promoted by a number of sustainable living magazines, events, books and other forms of media. As an example, Mother Earth News does a superb job. For the record, I love Mother Earth News and enjoy reading each issue; I also attended the Mother Earth news Fair in Seven Springs, PA last year and have every intention of going again. But I also recognize that Mother Earth News is promoting a specific kind of ecological living, and that living is not a reality for many of us, and it is in this grand narrative that much of the danger lies. For example, each year, they select a handful of homesteaders to be their homesteaders of the year. You can see articles on the last few years’ picks (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015).  Notice a pattern? I certainly did: every “homesteader of the year” is a couple or a family; nearly all are living on large tracts of land and remote locations–and nearly all fit into my Free Range Fantasy. Now, from a sustainable living perspective, these couples  are superheroes. I respect them deeply for the work they are doing, and the way forward they are paving. But I also have to ask: Could a single person ever win this award? What about a non-traditional community? What about someone who is disabled? What about someone homesteading in a big city or in a 1/10th acre plot?

 

When I meet and talk to people who are practicing sustainable living and permaculture, 9 out of 10 times, they simply don’t fit the Free Range Fantasy. They may not be able to afford to purchase a remote 50 acres and live somewhere–perhaps they are already trying to make ends meet just paying their rent and working two or three part time jobs. How would they ever save enough up for a down payment, much less live debt free? Or perhaps they are still recovering from years in higher education and have student loan debt and need to keep their job to avoid defaulting on their loans. Perhaps they have sick parents or a sick loved one and are geographically bound. Perhaps they have a bad back or a serious disability. Or perhaps, they are single homesteaders–trying their best to live sustainably while working a full time job, and doing so without the strawberry-coated children and supportive partner. Maybe they have a partner, but that partner has a different worldview than them, and this kind of living is out of the question.

 

I really commend people whose life circumstances have allowed for them to make the Free Range Fantasy a realtiy, and for the daily work of making that happen. I am inspired by the work that they do. However, for most people, the Free Range Fantasy unfortunately sends the message that the only way to live sustainably is to live by this ideal.

 

Urban Garden early in Season!

Urban Garden early in Season!

I have spent a lot of time in sustainable living communities, and I can tell you that it has a powerful hold, being upheld as the “thing everyone should be doing.” It can get lodged deeply within you, this dream, of a life you *should* be living, rather than one you are living. I hear a lot of people saying “I wish I was able to buy a place in the country….”  or “In my dream world, I would…”; these are the narratives of the Free Range Fantasy. As the Archdruid of Water in AODA, I mentor people through our curriculum.  Part of the curriculum asks them to make three changes to their living to be more earth-friendly.  So many people feel guilty because they don’t feel they are doing enough, when in reality they are doing very good work, and pursuing a better path forward in their own lives. The Free Range Fantasy minimizes the important work that they are doing, in their community, and as individuals.

 

Truthfully, until very recently, I was trapped by this narrative. As a single homesteader in Michigan, isolated on my property, I fell into depression because my life looked different than the Free Range Fantasy. For me, most importantly, it was the family/partner issue–I didn’t have two cute strawberry eating children, nor a stable partner and it was extremely hard on my own to achieve all I wanted to achieve. I also didn’t have the funds, with my mortgage, to really take my property to the next step in terms of solar power, etc. In truth, I was doing everything I could, and still, my life resembled nothing like what I believed it should, according to the narrative. As long as I bought into the narrative wholesale, and I bought into it for a long time, then what I was doing never seemed to be enough, or sufficient, and there were always pieces lacking. In other words, the narrative made me feel like a failure, rather than encouraging me to celebrate my success and continued growth on this path–and I had much to celebrate! The narrative also encouraged me to place unreasonable expectations on myself. For example, when I tried growing all of my own food by putting in a 2000+ square foot veggie garden, I burned myself out and couldn’t maintain it (and started switching it to perennials, a much smarter option!) I now realize that growing all of my own food was kind of ridiculous when I was also working at the university 50+ hours a week. That is not a sustainable approach–and distance and perspective have helped me understand this, and the larger detrimental effects, of the Free Range Fantasy on my own well being.

 

Permaculture!

Permaculture – An Adaptable Philosophy, Ethical System, and Design System

As my own confessional here has demonstrated, the Free Range Fantasy can be as destructive as the white picket fence because it limits your vision to this one ideal. It stifles you, preventing you from doing something now that helps move towards sustainability, rather than dreaming of some far off thing that may never be your reality due to factors, probably many beyond your immediate control. More, if every person wanted their 50 acres, we wouldn’t have enough lands available! Part of the work of living in a sacred, sustainable manner is about living better in the circumstances that make up our present reality, not dreaming of a lifestyle that may not be tenable for that reality.  It is a good goal to work toward if your life circumstances allow, certainly, but there are other ways and means of living.

 

All of this has really been brought to life, and has shifted for me, during my permaculture design certificate and really embracing the alternative perspective that permaculture provided. Visiting small front-yard farms and alternative spaces was highly inspiring! Embracing small, slow and sustaining solutions is the new motto that I strive for. Permaculture isn’t about a one-fits-all model of sustainable living, but rather about applying ethics and design principles that can work for any life situation. It is here, that the power of these principles, that I found my path forward for regenerative, sacred living. And there are lots of books and resources that share alternative paths for such living, for example, how to make a permaculture patio! Permaculture isn’t the only way into what I’m talking about here, but it is certainly a way that has helped me get beyond the Free Range Fantasy in positive and productive ways.

 

I’m now at the point where I’m starting to consider buying a new piece of property after my life transition to a new job in a new state. The urban homestead appeals to me at this point my life, the idea of creating a site where people can walk to, that is easily accessible, that is very visible, and that can host permauclture meetups, herb classes, plant walks, and more. This site could provide sustainability and permauclture education right in the middle of my own community and town. That’s probably going to be the route I go for one simple fact–while I am blessed to physically be able to do this work, my call is to educating others. To me, this education must occur where people, here and now, where people are rooted and where they live their everyday lives. And those people aren’t just those who are privileged with being able bodied, have abundant finances, have perfect partner with which to do the work, or have their 50 acres debt free and ready to go. Rather, they are poor people, middle class people, disabled people, students, single parents, people of different walks of life–and I think its important to meet them where they are, in the places they inhabit, and show them options of sustainable living that they can do right here and right now. I now understand that that the kind of off grid living promoted by the Free Range Fantasy takes a community. If I have no family, partner, or community to bring to a homestead, than it seems that I will bring the homestead to the community and create family right here where I am.

 

But another piece of this is that there are always trade-offs and decisions to make, and each kind of living has its benefits: fossil fuel use and finances being two of them. In my case, I can substantially reduce my fossil fuel dependence if I live in a place where I can walk or bike to work and eliminate most of my car use–and seeing the destruction that fossil fuels have brought firsthand on the land here in PA make me even more eager to go that route. In MI, I used to commute 18 miles to work one way, and although the rest of my living was quite sustainable, nothing I did could really address 36 miles round trip 4 or so times a week. Further, acreage is expensive, and I can also stay out of debt if I live in town modestly; that’s another critical factor.

 

In sum, it’s important to realize that the Free Range Fantasy is an option for certain people who have the means, drive, family, and opportunity to do so.  However, it is certainly not the only vision possible, nor reasonable, given the challenges we face. For many of us, it is only a fantasy, and keeping our heads in a fantasy doesn’t address the importance of living in the here and now. We need a patchwork of unique responses, as many responses and sustainable living practices as we have people. We need people to do everything they can, using the best aspects of their own contexts to make it happen: abandoned lots in Detroit becoming gardens; apartment dwellers learning vermicomposting; a local school planting a garden; urban beekeeping; whatever it is. We are starting to see those visions emerge, and we need voices doing all of these things. And so, dear readers, I hope you will be inspired by the multitude of ways, the patchwork of options, before us for sustainable living and regenerative, healing lives!

 

PS: I just realized that this is my 250th post on the Druid’s Garden Blog!  How fitting! 🙂

 

The Silence of the Hive October 1, 2015

A full hive with bees working

A full hive with bees working

What you quickly learn as a beekeeper is that the sound of the hive matters.  When you first get into a hive, if the hive is in good health and has all of its needs met, the hive is generally pretty quiet (I talk about the hive as a single organism, because that’s really what bees are: a single super organism.)  Sometimes, a hive is louder when you arrive–the bees are fanning the hive with their wings to keep it cool, or they are beating their wings to generate heat in the winter to keep it warm (you don’t open the hive under 50 degrees). But in the absence of extreme hot or cold, a happy and healthy hive emits only a very soft sound, discernible only up close when you open it. Beehives always have some buzzing in them–the bees move around, beat their wings, and go about tending their young and storing away pollen and honey. You can sense the happiness and contentment of the bees in a quiet hive a going about their work. As you begin doing whatever it is you need to do and disrupt the bees, like pulling out frames or moving around hive boxes, they escalate to a louder buzzing sound, where the hive is on alert. The louder the buzzing, generally, the less happy of a hive you have on your hands. They get extremely loud and start flying at you and trying to sting when they think their hive is in danger–this is usually after you do something stupid, like kill bees, bang on the hive box, drop something, etc.. I used to think that this loud buzzing was the worst sound you could hear. Now, I realize there is a much worse sound you can hear–and that is the sound of silence.

 

This past weekend was supposed to be an exciting time for me as a beekeeper–my two hives each had 30 or so pounds of excess honey in the honey supers from the last big nectar flow of the season, and it was time to go harvest. The honey this time of year is the stuff of legends, the nectar of the gods, the honey that can drive away seasonal allergies and warm the soul for the many long months of winter. Its made of plants that heal–goldenrod and aster.  Its dark and rich, extremely flavorful, and highly medicinal. I had been looking forward to this weekend for many months, excited that we had such a good harvest in the second year of beekeeping. It was especially gratifying after getting through the regulatory red tape of moving my hives from Michigan to Pennsylvania this summer and finding a new home for the hives.

 

This is what you expect to see....

This is what you expect to see….

My father joined me to help harvest the honey, and we laughed and smiled as we put on our suits, prepared our tools, and got ready to do the harvest. When we opened the first hive, I noted that the bees weren’t on the honey super–this isn’t necessarily abnormal; the colony is quickly shrinking in size as the weather cools and you don’t always find a lot of bees up in the honey super. But something felt just wrong. We were able to pull off the frames one by one, not even needing the escape board I had planned on using.  Then it struck me–there was no buzzing; the hive was silent. As I leaned into the hive and looked down through all the frames and into the brood box where the bees should still be, I could see straight to the bottom. No bees. I realized that the absence of sound was one of the worst kinds of sounds a beekeeper can hear–the silence of a dead or abandoned hive.

 

Six months ago on this blog, I wrote about the sound of silence and the music of the world–how one researcher found that as species died off and dwindled, as less and less habitats remained, a silence was coming over the world in ways not previously recorded or experienced. This, of course, is decades after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, who documented the effects of pesticide use on bird populations–and who created a national conversation on conservation. And, as I stood there looking at my empty, dead hive, pulling frame after frame, the full weight of the silence was upon me.

 

There are lots of ways that hives can die these days, but the name for what I found in my hive this past weekend is one you’ll probably recognize: colony collapse disorder (CCD). This is when the workers in a healthy hive up and abandon it leaving their young, their queen, and all of their food behind. Its not that the whole hive moves on, but rather, just the workforce of the hive disappears. Its kind of like if every healthy adult who keeps your town functioning were to walk out of town permanently and head who knows where without any food, water, even a change of clothes, leaving their children, elders, and pets behind, and just disappear, never to be seen again. The worker bees have no chance of survival without the honey (especially as it gets colder and colder), the safety of their hive, and the queen for reproduction–especially this late in a season. Even if they somehow made it to spring, without a queen, the bees cannot reproduce and the colony would die. In a careful inspection of the dead hive, I found bees that had just hatched, half out their cells, dead. Many others never had a chance to hatch and died before they were even born. We’ve had some very cold nights, and I’m guessing they froze to death. Without any adult worker bees tending them or keeping them warm, they had no chance. It was awful.

 

Its not just the loss of the hive, a dear friend and companion on my journey, that is so painful. Its the representation of what this loss means. Its seeing the headlines about bee declines and deaths and thinking that you can somehow do better, that your organic beekeeping and the love you pour into your hives will make your bees immune to what’s going on. That CCD will never happen to your hives. That your practices, and faith, and love, can create a protective bubble to keep the harsh reality of what we are doing to this planet out.  I am again reminded of what declines in bee, bird, and other wildlife populations mean for the health of our lands. I’ve been speaking so much of regeneration on this blog in recent months, and the loss of my hive really has weighed on me the importance of this ongoing conversation.

 

In the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of press coverage about Colony Collapse Disorder–what it is, why it happens, what causes it. The truth is, scientists are still figuring it out, but it seems to focus on three areas: pesticides, disease/mites, and the loss of of foraging areas. But it doesn’t take a scientist to recognize the massive changes happening in our lands: all ones needs to do is open his or her eyes and see through the bee’s perspective. Bees need the same things the rest of us do: healthy living spaces free of poison, health and disease free living, no toxins, and adequate food supplies. Those are increasingly under threat, and unfortunately, the situation is not improving at present time.

 

Less than 1/2 mile from the hives, I noted someone in the yard with his small pack sprayer of chemicals, hitting the dandelions and other plants he didn’t want growing there.  After leaving the hives very saddened, I noted on the same road a “lawn care professional” whom I might more aptly name a “poisoner” spraying an entire lawn down with his toxic brew. Some countries in Europe have outright banned the offending pesticides to help bee populations recover, but in the great US of A, the opposite seems to happen. Instead, we get the “Best Recommendations for the Public” from the USDA in the form of the following:

“The best action the public can take to improve honey bee survival is not to use pesticides indiscriminately. In particular, the public should avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants.”

Indiscriminate use of pesticides? Being mindful of pesticides? Are you serious? The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that we have one, and clearly, as a culture we still aren’t at that point. We have extensive amounts of greenwashing on the part of actual chemical companies and a government entity that panders to them. I think, personally, its time we really start getting louder about these chemicals and frame them for what they are and do: the systematic poisoning of our lands. Seeing that guy spraying the lawn as I was leaving my dead hive was just too much for me.

 

Lawn: be gone!

Lawn: be gone!

Of course, the other big issue with CCD is that the lawn itself is a food desert to bees and many other beneficial insects and wildlife, food desert. We have many, many kinds of food deserts in the USA today: places where people can’t get access to fresh food, and places where wildlife or insects also lack access. Part of the decline in bee populations is due to the lack of food availability for the bees: those chemically-ridden, manicured lawns provide no food or forage for wildlife, and they poison all who are near them. Less food means less abundance and a harder life for the bees and for everything else–the loss of food and habitat, of course, is driving the growing silence in the world. I’m not sure if this was an issue for my hive as they definitely seemed well fed this summer, but its a contributing factor in bee health more generally.

 

When I got into beekeeping, I did so because I wanted to help understand the bees, help tend them and bring them to the landscape; I wanted to help the land heal. And this weekend, I learned a very important lesson about beekeeping–it doesn’t matter how organic and clean your practices are in the hive.  If the people around you are spraying, even out to two miles, it will make it into your hive. And it will make it into your body, and into your children, and your pets, and your trees, your organic vegetable garden, and everything else. I’m not the first person I know to lose a colony of bees to this stuff, and I certainly won’t be the last. The bees are like our canary in the coalmine–the land isn’t safe and the bees die. My question is: how long are we going to turn our heads and close our doors when our neighbors, governments, friends, family, or farmers are literally poisoning the land we hold sacred? When the canary is clearly suffering or already dead?  That’s the question I think that we all have before us.

 

Regenerative and sustainable living isn’t all whimsical and happy. We don’t homestead, harvest herbs, and tend the land just because it allows us to sit with fluffy bunnies, milk happy goats chewing on burdock, and drink oodles of lemon balm tea sweetened with raw organic honey. Maybe there’s that image out there–that of idyllic farm life, perfect and content. That if we can simply build enough of an oasis for ourselves and our families, for our gardens and our animals, that everything that is out there won’t get in. The reality is far from it. We do this because the alternative, for us, and for the life on this planet is, death. Its silence. The emptiness of a beehive, the quiet of the birds that once lived and are no more, the shrinking patches of forest–this is why we do this work. We do this because we have to do something, and doing something, however small, is better than sitting around with our faces in our phones pretending nothing is happening. There are days when, as joyful as this path may be, the reality of the challenges we face in the world come right in our faces in a way that we can’t ignore.  This past Saturday, for me, was one of those days.

 

So You Want to Start a Homestead? Resources and Insights to Get You Started August 20, 2014

I’ve had a few people in the last few months ask me about starting a homestead or a small organic farm. A “homestead” or, if you are in the UK “smallholding” refers to a personal or family plot of land where food is grown, animals are tended, and the household economy encouraged (e.g. home crafts and food preservation) with the goal of increased resiliency and self-sufficiency. I thought I’d take the time today to talk about the resources and considerations one needs to do so using permaculture design principles and what I’ve learned from the 5 year process of converting my 3 acre piece of land into a small homestead. I’m also going to talk through what I learned and some of the mistakes that I’ve made in the hopes you don’t have to make the same ones.

Working on the homestead!

Working on the homestead!

 

Your Motivation for Homesteading

I think its important to recognize your motivation for homesteading or farming, up front.  For me, I am deeply motivated to live a more sustainable life and be more self sufficient because of a few reasons: 1) it aligns with my spiritual practices and life philosophy; 2) I feel like I need to be doing “something” and am unhappy with the lack of attention that many in my country pay to matters of long-term sustainability; and 3) It enriches my life and makes me feel more complete.  If you are unsure if this is a way of life you are interested in undertaking, I would suggest spending some time at a friend’s homestead, maybe WOOFing for a while, and getting a sense of what this life is like and if you would be well suited for it.  It does require a ton of knowledge, patience, hard work (manual labor), and constant attention.  But to me, the rewards are well worth it.

 

Understanding the Work of the Homestead

Most of us weren’t raised on farms.  We don’t really know what a full day’s labor really feels like.  If you are starting your own homestead or small organic farm, I think its important to discuss the work involved upfront.  The larger your homestead is, the more work you will need to do (e.g. a 2000 square foot garden is substantially more work than a 500 square foot one).  The more pieces you want to add (livestock, orchards, food preservation, farmer’s market/sales, organic gardens, herbs, a bigger garden each year, and so on) the more work you will need to do.  Just like the druid’s wheel of the year, however, a lot of work is concentrated into certain times of the year–if you live in an area like I do (Zone 6, South East Michigan), the harvest season till late fall represents the hardest work you will do for the year, but you also have substantial amounts of work in the spring in planting out and when the harvest starts to roll in.  If you aren’t sure about the work, go volunteer for a day on a farm or a small homestead and get a sense of what the work might be like.

 

Homesteading and Partnerships/Significant Others/Families

Homesteading is not really just a “fun passtime” but rather is a way of life, a way of seeing and interacting with the world.  And this way of life can bring people together, or it can tear them apart. If you are blessed enough to have a partner/family/significant other who is also on board and wants to homestead, then let the fun begin!  If you have someone in your life who is not on board…..I would carefully talk to them about your plans and see if you can come up with a shared vision where both of you can end up finding what you need and what fulfills you.  Do this before diving in head first with your homesteading plans.  If you continue to be met with resistance, recognize that homesteading and other sustainable activity transforms you in positive and powerful ways…which might not sit well with your partner. If your partner isn’t along for the ride, you might find yourself isolated and with increasing tension between you about your homesteading activities.  Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience…my sustainable living activities led to my divorce almost two years ago, where we did not share a worldview, and where doing this work alone caused a lot of isolation and tension in both of our lives.  I don’t regret my choices and I’m living the life I want to live, but that life has come at a substantial cost….and I think its important to understand that this kind of thing can happen. I do think, with the right kind of couple or family, homesteading could be an incredible way of bringing people together–I’ve seen its magic at work in the lives of a few of my friends.

Can you homestead alone? Yes, but it is not easy, and I honestly think it takes the right kind of person to do so well–a person that is strong, independent, knowledgeable, and enjoys hard labor and has enough free time to make it work.  There are certain things that I, as a single homesteader who also works a full-time job, simply can’t do.  I have to hire a good deal of work out, especially jobs for which I have no skills (construction), ask friends to come and help (like fence building or chicken coop construction), or find WOOFers to help.  If you are considering going it alone, I would strongly recommend instead finding partners/friends/family to join in on the homesteading fun.  Not just for a season, but on a more permanent basis–people come and go, and they can be fickle. See if you can find someone to do a land share, consider starting a small intentional community, or talk to other single friends and see if any others are interested in doing such work.

 

Trellised plants

Trellised plants

Activities Surrounding Homesteading

As a homesteader, there are so many activities you can engage in. The most common ones are growing food, growing herbs (medicinal and culinary), animal husbandry, orcharding, brewing, fermentation, canning food, drying food, root cellaring, soapmaking, candlemaking, medicine making, handcrafts, spinning, weaving, beekeeping, cooking, woodworking, hunting/fishing, and natural building. A good resource to see the kinds of activities that surround homsteading (other than this blog, obviously) is Mother Earth News magazine.  This list is not complete, but it gives you a sense of some of what homesteaders might engage in–and I have a lot more resources listed at the end of this post.  You shouldn’t take on too much at once–start by getting a few things in place that are important to you and then add activities slowly as you are able.

 

How much land do I need?

I would respond with, how much land do you have?  Homesteading can be done in surprisingly small spaces.  The Dervaes family is producing up to 6000 lbs of produce a year on a 66 x 132 foot urban lot in California; other homesteaders have 100’s of acres on which they work.  About six months ago, the UN released a report suggesting that the only way we were going to feed the world is by using small, organic farms–and you can produce a LOT of food in a very small space. Homesteads vary in size, and the less people you have, the smaller you want your operation to be.  Even if I had access to 30 acres, I wouldn’t be able to increase the size of my homestead at all right now because I only have so much time to do it.  I will say, however, that where you choose to homestead is important–you can run into trouble with neighbors and local governments depending on your setup.

 

Using Permaculture Design for Your Homestead

So you’ve made the decision to homestead, you realize it is going to be a lot of work, you have a plot of land, and you’ve thought about its impact on your relationships. Now you want to dive in and build a garden and get some chickens and maybe buy a big farm and….WAIT! Not so fast! I would STRONGLY suggest that before you start a homestead, you spend some time carefully planning and designing–both for the short term but also for the long term.

Start by spending some time reading about permaculture design and using these principles to create your dream homestead. A well-designed homestead, using the existing energy flows and producing no waste, will be a delight to enjoy, while if you kind of hodge podge things together, you might end up causing yourself more stress or work.  The homestead is a whole system, not just a smaller series of parts.  Seeing the homestead as a whole system changes the way you design it, the way you interact, and gives you vision and clarity about the process (I wish I had done more visioning earlier in my process here at my site!)  You want to think about what your site’s strengths and how you can use them effectively–do you have a pond? A lot of woodlands? A slope? Big open fields? An old orchard?

My favorite resource for learning about permaculture design (especially for those who are new to it) is a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture (Toby Hemenway). Another book that is a bit more advanced but is also really good is David Holmgren’s Permaculture Design: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.  I’ll do another post sometime about how I used permauclture design in my homestead here–and you can find many, many examples online of how permaculture can be used to design an awesome homestead.

 

Making Jams

Making Jams

Organic Gardening/Farming

Permaculture design often uses perennials in the place of annuals to create food forests–but every permaculture designer I know also has a healthy sized vegetable garden.  And vegetable gardening is both an art and a science–I have found that I am always learning and growing each year as I work to grow as much of my own food as possible.   There are different approaches to soil preparation, crop rotation and planting, and such, so you want to read a few to get a good idea of what is out there. I’ve read 20+ books on vegetable gardening, and here are what I consider to be the staples that any new homesteader should read: 

  • How To Grow More Vegetables, 8th edition by John Jeavons.  This is an outstanding book and a wonderful introduction to “hardcore” vegetable gardening.  Jeavons provides excellent information on crop yields and how to calculate them, how to prep soil using double-dig approaches (I don’t use this method, but those who do swear by it), crop rotations, cover cropping, crop interplantings, and more.
  • The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener by Elliot Coleman. The soil is the most important part of your garden–with healthy soil, your plants do well, are resistant to pests, and are able to produce abundantly.  I think Coleman’s book is ideal because it spends a great deal of time talking about how to create healthy soil–and do so in an entirely sustainable method.  I learned more about soil preparation from this book–and a great deal of other wonderful things. Coleman is also a market gardener, so if you want to grow veggies to sell or start a CSA, that’s another thing this book is useful for.
  • The Winter Harvest Handbook by Elliot Coleman. If you are growing food in a cold climate, you want to buy this book and read it cover to cover.  I’ve adapted Coleman’s methods on a much smaller scale here using small movable hoop houses and have substantially extended my own harvest season.  This book teaches you how to use hoop houses and layers of protection, to grow the right varieties, to time your crops correctly, and much more.  Any serious homesteader needs to read this book!
  • The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.  By Carol Deppe.  I really like this book, because my own experience has found that I can’t depend on the weather to be consistent anymore–Deppe takes a very humorous and insightful approach to planting crops to achieve “resiliency.”  Her discussion about Native American food growing techniques, short-season crops, and varieties is well worth reading.
  • Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.  Part of having a good garden is having good seed–planting heirloom seeds and saving seeds from season to season.  This book is a wonderful resource for saving seed and seed starting–I have found it invaluable in learning about how to make my garden more sustainable.

 

General Homesteading Books:

Books that help give you some insight into self reliant living and homesteading are quite abundant these days.  These are some of my favorites, books that give you a lot of good information and can be referred back to again and again.

  • The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour.  This book is considered the Bible of homesteading and for good reason–it covers anything and everything you need to know about self sufficiency from growing food to brewing to basket weaving.  One of the top books on my list!
  • The Backyard Homestead: Produce All the Food You Need On Just 1/4 Acre! For those of you who want to homestead but don’t have a lot of space, I’d again refer you back to Gaia’s Garden: A Homescale Guide to Permaculture, but I’d also refer you to this book–its a delightful read and teaches you how to pack a great deal of gardening into a little space (Vertical Gardening by Derek Fell is another good choice if you find yourself in this circumstance).
  • Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening and Other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit by John Michael Greer.  JMG is one of my favorite authors for a number of reasons, and his Green Wizardry book is an outstanding introduction to many basic activities that  homestead could use such as solar greenhouses and gardening.
  • Mother Earth News magazine (as previously mentioned above). It is a wealth of inspiration on chickens, canning, vegetable varieties to grow, simple living, and more.  They also offer two Mother Earth News fairs!
  • One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by Masanobu Fukouka .  Another classic text about farming and agriculture, this book is a fantastic read.

Food and Food Preservation:

If you are going to grow all of that food, preservation becomes a serious challenge! Here are some books to get you started in food preservation:

  • Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage for Fruits and Vegetables by Mike Bubel.  This book is an awesome introduction to the root cellar–it has plans, talks about what varieties are “keepers” (meaning they store well) and how to store all those lovely fruits and veggies from your homestead.
  • Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  by Sandor Katz and Sally Fallon.  Fermentation is an art and one that a homesteader should know.  This book is the best fermentation book out there.
  • The Ball Complete Book of Home Preservation by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine.  This book teaches you how to can pretty much anything and the recipes are really good.  The one thing I will say though is that this book assumes normal pectin and normal sugar amounts (up to 50%) for fruits and fruit preserves.  I have found that another book (listed next) is better with a special pectin, so you can cut the sugar way down.
  • Preserving with Pomona’s Pectin: The Revolutionary Low-Sugar, High Flavor Method for Crafting and Canning Jams by Allison Carroll Duffy. For jams and jellies, use this book instead–your blood sugar will thank you
  • Nurturing Traditions by Sally Fallon.  This is a cookbook that fits very well with a homesteader’s life (especially one that includes animals).
  • Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger Connection by Jessica Prentice.  This is another cookbook, and one that helps you get in line with the seasonal cycles.  Highly recommended!
Use many resources already on the homestead!

Use many resources already on the homestead!

Miscellaneous

There are obviously a lot of other books that one can read regarding a homestead.  I’ll list a few of my favorites here–and I have a lot more that I could add to the list!

  • Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, 2nd edition by Ross Conard and Gary Paul Nabhan.  I’ve read about 10 beekeeping books, and this is the one I like the most because Conrad and Nabhan argue that we are in partnership with the bees and that the partnership requires us to treat them with respect.  It is full of a wealth of knowledge about how to start your hives and keep them going!
  • Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost Wood-Fired Mud Oven, Simple Sourdough Bread, Perfect Loaves by Kiko Denzer, Hannah Field, and Alan Scott.  Because what homestead wouldn’t be complete without an outdoor kitchen and amazing earth oven?
  • The Soapmakers Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques, and Know-How by Susan Miller Cavitch.  Great if you want to learn how to make some of your own soaps!
  • Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Homemade Cheeses by Ricki Carroll.  The classic cheesemaking book!
  • The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips.  I don’t have extensive orchards here, but friends who do swear by this book.  If you are going an orcharding or berry bush route, you want to pick this up and give it a read!

Inspirational Reading:

My last list is more of inspirational reading, things to get you thinking and excited about living a more sustainable life through homesteading.  Some of these are very directly tied to homesteading, others give us philosophies and ways of interacting with nature.

  • Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology by John Michael Greer.  Another fantastic book by JMG, this one gives a set of seven laws that can help shift perspectives and live more attuned to the land.
  • Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry.  This book blew my mind…in fact, it is so amazing, that I am still reading it, two years later.  I read about a page at a time, wait a week, dwell on it, and keep reading.  Berry is brilliant, and anything you read by him will be worth your time. This book, written in the 1970’s, really shows what happened to agriculture and to all of America because of it, and provides some alternative perspectives.
  • Speaking of the 1970’s, go to old bookstores, and pick up anything you can find on sustainable living from the 1970’s – old Foxfire books, solar cookers/ovens, intentional communities, you name it, you will find it and be glad that you did.

I have a lot more I can suggest, but this list and these suggestions are certainly enough to get you started!  I hope this information is helpful to anyone who is looking to start their own homestead.  Readers, if there are books or resources that I missed that should be on here, please comment and I can add them to the list!

 

Homestead Updates – Early August 2014 August 5, 2014

With all my discussion of everything else, I have failed to do any reasonable update about the homestead in the last few months.  So here’s an update of what’s happening around the homestead!

 

The Druid’s Organic Vegetable Garden: Veggies, Pests, and Interplantings

One of the things I’m learning about organic gardening is that each year, the challenges of pests are quite different, and basing this year’s garden off of last year’s successes and tribulations isn’t always a sure bet.  My first year, I had potato beetles, hundreds of potato beetles that I had to hand pick and feed to my peeps.   The next year, it was the year of the squash bug and borer; I lost nearly all of my squash and zuchinni crops to them (the only squash I got came up in my compost pile!). Then it was blight and wilt the 3rd year.   This year, it is the year of the slug.  Slugs took out a good 25% of my crops before I resorted to buying some OMRI certified Sluggo (which uses iron phosphate to disrupt the slugs).  And Sluggo works, even if I applied it a little too late.  I think its all the rain and no heat. This lovely pumpkin patch has taken a beating recently, as have most of my squash. Slugs are literally eating the bottoms of the vines, like where they go into the ground.  Its very different than the other kind of bug damage from previous years!

Unhappy Pumpkins eaten by slugs

Unhappy Pumpkins eaten by slugs

Unripe pumpkin grows!

Unripe pumpkin grows!

But regardless of this year’s challenge, the garden is going great.  I am still working on planting enough that I can harvest fresh and have enough for canning and preservation but yet not too much that I’m getting overwhelmed.  This is not an easy task.  I have a great bean harvest, but I’ve already canned what I wanted to can, and now I’ll be freezing some because I’m kinda overwhelmed with beans!

Wall of Beans!

Wall of Beans!  Trellising is working well here 🙂

I also planted too many zucchini.  I went with three successions of 4 plants each this year, planted at two-week intervals, because the last two years, I didn’t have any at all due to the squash borers.  This year though, since the borers are nowhere to be seen (perhaps killed off by the hard winter), I ended up with 12 healthy plants.  Its worked out well, as I’ve been teaching at a local community organization that has a soup kitchen and free food table, so the extras are going there each week.  And I eat zucchini and beansnow at least once a day.

Zuchinni and Kale

Zuchinni and Kale

In the photo above, you can also see my row of kale and potatoes on the right (I am experimenting with various interplantings this year).  The kale remains one of my absolute favorite crops–it rarely has serious pest damage, it produces for longer than any other crop due to its cold resistance, it is incredibly healthy and tasty and versatile, and it is extremely easy to grow.  I consider it one of the best plants for beginner gardeners to start out with!  The interplantings also seem to be going well–except that to harvest my potatoes, I need to pull up some kale. So I think in the future I won’t do long, thin rows but blocks of potatoes and kale.  Other interplantings were radish and zuchinni, carrots and lettuce, and basil and eggplant/peppers/tomatoes. All seem happy.

Another crop that I’ve been super pleased with this year is the three sisters garden (another interplanting).  Two rows of popcorn, two rows of sweet corn, and one row of beans and squash on the edges of each.  I used bush beans this year, and in future years, I would use climbing beans instead because they are starting to get shaded out.  The squash are working their way through the beans and corn…everything is very, very happy and abundant and wild, just how I like it!  You can see a squash hanging from the corn in the 2nd photo on the right. I am going to add this as a staple in my gardening in the future.  The one thing I will say about this interplanting is that it is not early season planting, so you’ll want to think about adding other things in other parts of the garden that are earlier season, rather than go with all three sisters (which I’ve heard of people doing).

Three Sisters Gardens

Three Sisters Gardens

Three sisters

Three sisters

Since its been so cold and damp, the celery is also growing really well this year.  Interestingly enough, its super mild this year (and it was sooo strong last year, especially after frost, that I could only use a little at a time).  I am very much enjoying cooking with the freshest of celery!

Celery

Celery

Here are a few other shots of the garden and awesome things growing!

Various Cabbages and Chards

Various Cabbages and Chards

Cucumber almost ripe

Cucumber almost ripe

I am growing these cukes an old bedframe–this trellis works great!

Tomato trellis (only sorta working)

Tomato trellis (only sorta working)

The photo above is of my tomato trellises.  I saw this done at another farm last year.  I had hoped to use it to trellis tomatoes…I think I needed stronger rope and I needed to be more on top of it than I was.  Its sorta working, but its sorta not.  The idea is that you pound in stakes, and then you string rope, and then weave the tomatoes up it.  But my tomatoes didn’t want to seem to grow very high up, they prefer instead to go out.  So I’m not sure what to do about that.  I’ll just be glad to get the tomatoes :).

 

The Bees

I discussed beekeeping first a few months ago.  The bees are enjoying the last major nectar flows of the year–the clover is mostly done for the season, but now the spotted knapweed/star thistle and the goldenrod is coming in.  They bees are still quite busy and the hives now have 40,000 to 50,000 bees each, and I have honey supers on both hives.  I’m hoping I’ll get at least some honey–and that’s looking likely, although how much it will be is not clear yet. Here’s one of the magical hives–the fourth box (on top) is the super!

Happy hive!

Happy hive!

Close up of bees

Close up of bees using their upper entrance hole

I want to say something about spotted knapweed.  Its one of those plants that people often get upset about, that its a ‘terrible invasive.’  I’ve heard of people dumping Monsanto’s Roundup on it to get rid of it…there are so many things wrong with dumping Roundup anywhere for any purpose, in my opinion. I’m working on an extended post on invasive plants and the concept of invasion, but for now, what I can say that as a beekeeper and permaculturist, I am happy to see the knapweed growing.  It is only growing in highly disturbed soil, so its one of those “opportunistic” species; other things grow in those same soils in other parts of the year.  In my many forays into the abundant wild fields to gather medicinals and food, I see it thriving in an ecosystem with other plants including St. Johns Wort, Yarrow, Mullein, Milkweed, and Goldenrod.  And every time I see it, its covered in bees, butterflies, and other things.  The beekeepers around here call it “star thistle” and, frankly, it is one of the most delightful tasting honeys you will ever enjoy.  Not to mention, the plant has medicinal value itself.  So while my bees live off of “invasive” star thistle and sweet clover, the hives grow strong.

Brood

Brood

This final bee photo shows the comb where the bees are raising brood.  You can see the white larvae in the brood chamber.  It takes about 25 days for the egg to turn into a larvae, then pupae, and then emerge.  I got to witness a pupae emerging when I was doing a hive inspection recently–she chewed her way slowly out of the capped chamber, then turned right around and cleaned out the chamber so a new egg could be laid inside by the queen.  The whole thing was amazing and incredible!  When you look in the hive, you can see the bees at all stages of growth.  The oldest bees are the foragers; they leave the hive to bring back nectar and pollen.

 

Chickens

I lost a good deal of my chicken flock to a raccoon in December.  My magical rooster, Anasazi, managed to survive and he was living at a friend’s house with a friend’s flock for the last six months.  In June, right around the solstice,. his crowing, which I love, got to be too much for my friends.  He needs to bring the sun up every day, so of course he is going to crow quite a bit!  And so I brought him back here and bought one large hen (a rescue) and then have been raising up a bunch of peeps for his flock.  You see, one rooster prefers to have about 10-12 hens, so that’s what I’m trying to give him (the things I do for that bird…lol).  Two weekends ago, I hosted a permablitz through the Oakland County Permaculture meetup, taught people about raising chickens, and had a bunch of help building an awesome new coop and enclosure for the growing flock.  Here’s a photo of the mostly-finished project:

Chicken Coop

Chicken Coop & enclosure

The new little ones arrived in mid-July, and they are growing so fast.  Here are a few shots of them from their first week of life!

New peeps don't want to pose for the camera

New peeps don’t want to pose for the camera, but they will poop on the stairs.

Young and old chickens

Young and old chickens; Anasazi the rooster is not interested

I am raising two adolescents birds as well, who I picked up in early june as peeps.  They are “clover” and “dandelion”; and they just joined the two older birds in the main coop.  They’ve been getting along well, but the two little ones refuse to go in at night so I have to go out, pick them up, and put them in the coop till they go on their own.  The adolescent chickens have, for no reason I can understand, taken a liking to my cat (who, up until a few weeks ago and they got too big, wanted to eat them for dinner).

Clover and Grimalkin hang out

Clover and Grimalkin hang out

Other Life on the Land

The land is bursting with so much life, so many beautiful herbs and plants, so many sacred tall trees.  I am so happy to see monarchs in the yard, hummingbirds, and even a bluebird this week!  I’ve been thinking about “if you grow it, they will come” as a philosophy behind the wildlife and butterfly sanctuary.  And that truely is what is happening here!

Coneflower

Coneflower

Burdock and the Honeybee

Burdock and the Honeybee

After each of my herb weekends, I come home to discover more medicinal plants growing here.  Just yesterday, a friend and I were walking around the property and came across a whole patch of boneset–an herb I had on my “to find” list.  And across from the boneset was a crampbark tree!  The bounty and beauty of this land amazes me each day, and I feel so honored to call this place my home.

 

Garden and Homesteading Update – March 31, 2014 March 31, 2014

The Spring Equinox was a mere week and a half ago, and today, for the first time, it felt like spring.  The snows are melting and the warmth is coming.  I think its been a long, hard winter for many of us, and not just because of the weather.  It was a dark time for many, myself included, and I am very happy to see the sun and feel the warmth again. This post provides an overview of the garden in its current state (March 31st) as well as the surrounding landscape.  I’ll conclude the post with some of the things I plan on covering on the blog in the coming year.

 

The Broader Landscape

 

The snows are not yet melted, and the lakes and ponds are still frozen over.  Here’s an image of the spiral labyrinth I’ve been walking on my pond all winter–its still there, and the ice is still quite thick.

Imbolc Spiral

Imbolc Spiral

I visited Lake Huron with a few friends yesterday, and likewise, the Great Lakes are still encrusted with ice.  Here’s a shot from yesterday at White Rock, on the Southwestern edge of Lake Huron.

Altar by the Lake

Altar by the Lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake (March 30, the garden shots below are from March 31!)

Even with all of this ice, however, the land and lakes are slowly thawing.

 

The Garden and its Magic

 

Today I spent time out in the garden in the afternoon, and it was a really welcome and nurturing time.  I can’t believe how much healing one can gain with only a few hours in the sun and with the plants and soil!

 

First, the most important discovery–plants under my hoop houses survived.  I added an additional layer to their shelter, something called “remay” which is a spun fiber.  I added this in early December, after the cold really set in.  It goes under the main hoop and above the plants and helps give them one additional layer of protection.  This still typically only protects the plants to 5 or 10 degrees or so, however.  With the cold winter, and the evenings of -15 and -17, I thought there was no hope for my little hoops.

 

And yet…look what I found today.  You’ll notice in the first picture that the spinach only in the center survived–that’s because the ground freezes from the edges inward.  But I realized, as my hoops were covered with over 2′ of snow, that that snow itself must have provided a buffer for the spinach.  This likely means that my other zone 6 plants (like my pecan tree back by the circle) had a chance of survival.

Spinach Survived!

Spinach Survived! (And see all that snow, still?)

Hope returns to the world!

Hope returns to the world!

A small radish survivor!

A small radish survivor!

I can’t really describe to you the feeling of opening up that hoop house and seeing those living spinach and radish plants.  I had given up on them as the hoops had mostly caved in under the heavy snow and ice that I wasn’t able to remove, as the darkness set in.  I have always seen the garden as a metaphor for myself, and I’ve had so many cold, dark, barren months recently.  Seeing those spinach and radish plants renewed the promise of spring within me….something survived, and soon, it will be giving me further nourishment and strength.  It was a profound moment, there in the garden.

 

All of the fall garden preparation has paid off–the early spring beds are just filled with wonderful soil.  I am so pleased to see it, as I have spent years making this soil the best it can be. I moved my 2nd hoop house (the one that wasn’t protecting anything), prepped a bed of lettuce and carrots, direct seeded them, and covered them back up.

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

One of the other things I wanted to report back on was the effect of the cover crops.  With 2+ feet of snow and ice on the ground, all of the soil in the beds is very compacted–its probably 4″ lower than it was in the fall.  It appears the red clover died off completely….but the winter rye is the hardiest of plants, and it, of course, survived.  Not only did it survive, but it kept my beds covered in it mostly spongy and nice, instead of compacted.  The beds with the winter rye are a full 2-3″ higher than those with bare soil or just straw.

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

I began turning the winter rye under today–it requires a full two weeks of wait time before planting after you turn it under.  I’ll work to turn all of it under in the next few weeks–this is a laborious job and one that could be done with petrochemicals, but after the rather lazy winter months, I don’t mind the hard work :).   I also like to add some brown matter to the soil to help the bacteria break down the rye–I added some composted leaves (leaf mulch) as I turned.  A simple garden fork does this work beautifully (much better than a shovel, which I used to use before I discovered the fork).

Turning under the rye

Turning under the rye

Peas germinate at 40 degrees or higher and don’t mind cold soils.  I used the garden fork to aerate the garden bed, and reduce soil compaction. I just stuck it into the bed and tilted it a bit to loosen the soil.  Then I planted my first succession of peas (Early Alaska, saved from last year) and will plant another succession every two weeks for the next 6 weeks.  This will ensure a continual harvest into the early summer.  You can see my homemade trellises here as well (they move easily enough to the new bed).

Planting peas

Planting peas

I checked on the garlic I planted in the fall.  No sign of sprouting yet!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

The last thing I did today was make a new, large compost pile.  I had the pile started in the fall, but I pulled out all of the food waste I had stored in my tumbler over the winter, added it to the big pile, and added several layers of leaves, some of the old straw from the garden, etc.  The pile is now almost 5′ high and 8′ wide and 4′ long, so it should break down nicely as the weather warms.

Looking Ahead

To conclude this post, I wanted to share a few more of the things that I’m planning on doing more this year:

  • Bees! Perhaps the most important news is that this year I am going to be a beekeeper for the first time :).  I have the hives, the bees ordered, and the rest of my supplies (suit, foundation, etc) are on their way! I’ve read every book on the subject I can find, joined a beekeeping association, found a bee mentor, have a friend who wants to learn as well, and feel I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.  I’ll have a blog post (or three) on the bees soon.
  • Garden expansion: I’m adding about 700 square feet of growing space (plus pathways, etc) to the garden this year to accommodate new vegetable and plant varieties.  In the fall, I added in numerous additional herb gardens in the front yard, and have seeds started for many new herbs.  The big job here will be fencing, and since fencing has been a struggle, I will share some of my experiences!
  • Herbalism course. I’m starting Jim McDonald’s four season herbal intensive course this upcoming weekend–expect even more posts on herbalism in the coming months.
  • Fermentation and foods: I plan to make my own miso, make more dandelion wine, make other kinds of krauts and fermented foods, and share those processes with you this year.
  • Sacred Trees: I’ll keep posting regularly on my research on sacred trees native/naturalized to the Midwest/Great Lakes area.  I think this is important work, and I am certainly learning a lot more about the trees as part of this series.
  • And lots more! I expect to engage in more natural building, foraging, and many other wonderful sustainable and spiritual activities this year–and I’m excited to share them with you.

 

I also have some very tragic news on the homesteading front.

  • Chooks. In late December, when I was out of town for the holidays, all of my hens passed on to their next life; they made a good meal or two for a hungry raccoon.  My beloved rooster, Anasazi, did survive (he has many lives, clearly) and is living at a friend’s house till I can raise more hens.  This was a combination of an ice storm, insecure living arrangement, loss of electricity, impassible roads, and a bunch of other things.  I have mourned their loss and miss them terribly.  But, I look forward to new hens later this year.

 

I hope that everyone has a wonderful spring–I’d love to hear about how you are enjoying the warmer weather and melting snows and what plans you have for projects this year.