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Repurposing Wood

REPURPOSING WOOD

Not so long ago, my wife Emma and I bought our property, a place for which we’d been looking for nearly four years. And, in doing so, the enormity of what we were about to undertake sunk in. I’d been gathering up wood in anticipation of us needing to build a home, but the pace had been leisurely and the collected resources a bit aimless in there (re)purpose.

Amazingly, the property came with a bonus: There was already a structure on it. A picnic shelter, that is our future home already had a slab and a roof. This was a major relief because we’d been contemplating how to balance foundations, ecology, and building codes for the floor of the house. Suddenly, that was done. We’d have never voluntarily poured concrete, but we are happy to (re)use a slab. As for the roof, it was an instant spot to keep materials out of the weather.

However, with the dimensions of our home now official and the plan roughed out in a real way, I started calculating the amount of wood we had versus what we needed. We were short. Very much so. Hoping to get started within the next year, I realized we were going to have to seriously up our efforts for squirreling away some wood for the project. We wanted to repurpose the bulk, if not all, of our lumber, so that added a challenge, amongst the many before us, that many builders don’t have to worry about.

Pallets

What We Had Stacked

From the moment we’d decided we were going to live in North Carolina, I’d started looking out for lumber. I started with pallets. At our last home in Guatemala, I’d become quite the pallet enthusiast, particularly building tables, benches, and garden furnishings.

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12-Plus Methods For Keeping Challenging Weeds and Pests Out of the Garden

12-PLUS METHODS FOR KEEPING CHALLENGING WEEDS AND PESTS OUT OF THE GARDEN

With organic gardening, especially at the outset, comes a few new challenges for transitioning growers. Pesticides and other chemicals have, for several decades, become the go-to solution for all things in the garden, and now that many of us are clearing our heads from that fog, we are left to rediscover methods for dealing with everyday garden problems. 

When herbicides have been the trick for combating weeds, how do we do it without the chemicals? Where aphids once elicited a poison spray (on our food no less), how do we now stop them from eating our crops? When voles are feasting, how do we protect our food without resorting to awful compound killers? This is our food after all, so we have cause to protect it! If we have to do so without chemicals (which seems a form of protection in its own right), what are we to do? 

The permaculture way is to find somewhat natural solutions (we kind of stage them) to such problems. Bill Mollison is famously quoted as claiming there isn’t slug problem but rather a duck shortage. In other words, we can control slugs with ducks and get more production from the system on the whole. With permaculture techniques, solutions to problems have multiple functions in the garden. Not only will pest insects be thwarted, but pollinators will be invited. Not only will weeds be suppressed, but the soil life will be enlivened. Stacking solutions is how permaculture gardens, much more organically than typical organic gardens, handle weeds and pests, as well as fertility, soil structuring, and so on.  

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

12-Plus Methods For Keeping Challenging Weeds and Pests Out of the Garden

12-PLUS METHODS FOR KEEPING CHALLENGING WEEDS AND PESTS OUT OF THE GARDEN

With organic gardening, especially at the outset, comes a few new challenges for transitioning growers. Pesticides and other chemicals have, for several decades, become the go-to solution for all things in the garden, and now that many of us are clearing our heads from that fog, we are left to rediscover methods for dealing with everyday garden problems. 

When herbicides have been the trick for combating weeds, how do we do it without the chemicals? Where aphids once elicited a poison spray (on our food no less), how do we now stop them from eating our crops? When voles are feasting, how do we protect our food without resorting to awful compound killers? This is our food after all, so we have cause to protect it! If we have to do so without chemicals (which seems a form of protection in its own right), what are we to do? 

The permaculture way is to find somewhat natural solutions (we kind of stage them) to such problems. Bill Mollison is famously quoted as claiming there isn’t slug problem but rather a duck shortage. In other words, we can control slugs with ducks and get more production from the system on the whole. With permaculture techniques, solutions to problems have multiple functions in the garden. Not only will pest insects be thwarted, but pollinators will be invited. Not only will weeds be suppressed, but the soil life will be enlivened. Stacking solutions is how permaculture gardens, much more organically than typical organic gardens, handle weeds and pests, as well as fertility, soil structuring, and so on.  

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Ornamental Plants That are Edible and/or Edible Plants That are Ornamental

ORNAMENTAL PLANTS THAT ARE EDIBLE AND/OR EDIBLE PLANTS THAT ARE ORNAMENTAL

When I first began growing food and working with ideas of permaculture, I lived in the tropics where many edible plants leaf out large and are exceptionally stunning. Moreover, the places I found myself building gardens tended to be free-for-alls, where anything goes and HOAs didn’t interfere with what people planted on their property.

Last year however, after twelve years abroad, I moved back to the US. Where often people aren’t allowed to grow food at home. Because I’m more into rural areas, I don’t foresee much issue in this regard to me personally. However, I’m often asked for advice and eventually, I may do some consulting work.

Suddenly, the idea of having to gett around these committees and associations seems an important avenue for getting people into home food production. I already knew that it was possible to create an “ornamental” garden entirely with plants that are edible. However, now in the temperate climate, it was time to learn some of the plants with which to work.

(Please follow links, if necessary, for Latin names and more information.)

Perennials

Sticking with the principle that perennial plants are always a plus, I would want to recommend several to go into the garden. The selling points – there are many. Perennial plants put fixed roots into the soil, which take nutrients less intensively than annuals. In terms of appearance, they often appear earlier and provide earlier blooms as well, and in many cases, they hang on a bit longer. Ultimately, they are lower maintenance, often spreading out on their own, which makes for easy gardening.

Hosta

Perennial Edible Ornamentals

There are several ornamental plants that grow perennially, some of which are noted for being delicious as well as attractive.

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Common Composting Problems and Solutions for the Beginning Composter

COMMON COMPOSTING PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS FOR THE BEGINNING COMPOSTER

Composting is standard practice on any permaculture site. This is the case for several reasons. It creates a closed waste cycle between vegetable scraps and vegetable production, often with the added bonus (an in-between stop) of animal fodder. It helps to rebuild or maintain healthy, balanced soil by feeding the soil life and creating a steady replenishment of nutrients, and nutrient-rich soil makes for nutrient-rich food. In simple terms, composting is a most useful natural process that any human-supporting, sustainable system needs.

While it is standard practice to compost, that isn’t to say that doing so is always foolproof or works out exactly the way folks are aiming. There are many methods to make compost. Some sped up the process into 18-day creations. Others, such as with composting toilets, go through a year-plus of maturation before they are considered user-friendly. There are even composting systems that gurgle and burp out methane gas that can be used for cooking. In all these incarnations, at some point, something is bound to go wrong.

However, what most people do with compost bins is somewhat in between, something in which the peels of potatoes or bananas, the remnants of breakfast or garden pruning, are meant to decompose into rich earth with minimum effort. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to make compost as well, but it’s also the one from which people are often turned off with composting altogether. These bins turn into sludgy messes or stagnant piles of organic garbage, causing would-be composters to throw up their hands and call it quits.

But, the solution might be something really simple.

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15 Productive Plants That Are Evergreen and Suited for the Temperate Climate

15 PRODUCTIVE PLANTS THAT ARE EVERGREEN AND SUITED FOR THE TEMPERATE CLIMATE

For me, this year has been full of exciting information about the temperate climate. Having spent most of my permaculture life in Central America, moving to North Carolina has had me say goodbye to many old favorites and marvel at a host of new possibilities. It wasn’t until November, however, that I realized just how naked the forest and garden would be due to the cold.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about cold weather crops and cold frames for year round production, but until recently, I’d thought more along the lines of food in the winter rather than appearance. While the revealed vistas are often incredible, the collection of bare branches—kind of like a skeleton forest—really made me recognize the need to include evergreen plants in temperate designs.

So, I’ve done a bit of research and built myself a starter list for what might work where I am now: USDA Zone 7a or Köppen Classification Cfb. To my delight, there is a lot to choose from, plants that are both productive and evergreen.

Photo: Courtesy of Denise Allen

CULINARY HERBS

Culinary herbs are great on so many levels. They have huge health benefits, with lots of anti-oxidant and medicinal qualities, and they usually smell and taste great. Many are also perennial, which means they provide stability in the garden. And, just about all of them are great for repelling and/or distracting pests and attracting beneficial butterflies and bees. It turns out that a good lot of them are evergreen as well.

Using Gray Water When It’s Too Late to Design Your Home For It

USING GRAY WATER WHEN IT’S TOO LATE TO DESIGN YOUR HOME FOR IT 

Recently, I wrote an article about passively heating and cooling homes when they haven’t been designed well for it, and to my delight, lots of people left comments, many of them appreciative, regarding the tips. Within those post-article conferring, someone asked for a similar article in relation to gray water usage, so here I sit with that task at hand.

Before delving too deeply into it, I just want to say that I believe these sorts of intermediary steps from conventional living to a more sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle are perhaps some of the most important we can address. The sad fact is that most homes haven’t been designed optimally for energy-efficiency and resource management, which means that many people—existing homeowners—don’t realistically have the option to acquire or build a “permaculture” home from the ground up. Retrofitting might not even be possible right away. They’ve already got a place and just want to make the most of that situation. It’s important, in the name of progress, to meet them along those lines.

Water conservation is a huge part of what we have to do as permaculturists, and in ideal conditions, our homes are designed to deal with day-to-day gray water rather mindlessly. Sinks and showers drain into reed beds and cycle back into the eco-system. Modern conveniences like washing machines and dishwashers are hooked up to immediately feed into filtering systems. Unfortunately, for those who don’t have these ideal systems, dealing with gray water is a little more labor-intensive. However, there are some options available for those who want to work within the confines of a home not designed to deal with gray water.

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Money & Permaculture

MONEY & PERMACULTURE

Money, though valuable in its own way, probably should not be the motivating factor for adopting a permaculture lifestyle, that is unless the idea is to escape the perils associated with it. Nonetheless, how and where money will come from seems to be one of the more frequently asked questions when I tell people my plan for setting up a small homestead somewhere, building a home, and growing food. Most think the idea equates to wanting to sell stuff at a farmers’ market for a “living”. For me, it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I don’t need any money. My wife Emma and I have saved a modest amount to buy a property, and we have been looking for pieces that leave us some start up for building and setting up gardens, etc. We also plan on having ongoing sources of income, but the permaculture lifestyle—at least the one we’ve adopted and/or continually strive for—has appealed to us from the start because, while money still has value, life isn’t centered around acquiring it. For us, that’s huge.

While explaining our goals to others, it becomes more and more clear that money does not have the same role in our life or our plans as modern systems seem to dictate. “Working” isn’t solely based on earning a paycheck; rather, we plan to work for what money pays for: food, shelter, energy, etc. And, life’s luxuries, the ones many fear giving up, look more like a burden: Satellite TV or the new iPhone don’t improve life so much as add bills and persuade a sedentary, dull existence. For once, or once again, life can be about living.

Photo: Courtesy of the USDA

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Heating (and Cooling) Passively When It’s Too Late to Design Your Home For It

HEATING (AND COOLING) PASSIVELY WHEN IT’S TOO LATE TO DESIGN YOUR HOME FOR IT

One of the more difficult things about taking on a permaculture lifestyle when we already have an established residence is that, because the practice is based on efficient design, many times we having seemingly come to the game too late. Once a brick-and-mortar house is built and our savings are invested, it’s no small task to start renovating it to have a built in grey water system or south-facing aspect. But, that’s not to say nothing can be done.

With December rapidly approaching and temperatures falling here in the States, passive heating is more and more on my mind. I’m acutely aware of how poorly thought through, in terms of energy efficiency, many homes are. Having only recently returned, experiencing my first winter in a while, it’s painfully obvious, in fact, that rarely has any thought at all gone into passive heating. With power—natural gas, coal, oil, nuclear—readily available and reasonably affordable, houses simply haven’t been designed with this kind of efficient in mind for a long time. Economics has played a larger role than practicality.

That said, there are now a growing number of people wanting to live both more cost efficiently and more sustainably, but they are invested in homes not designed for that. For them, it’s important to find their own ways to contribute to and participate in positive lifestyle changes without immediately giving up everything they’ve worked for. They need to retrofit and make the most of what is already in place. Luckily, passive heating, to some degree, is still an option.

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Challenges of Choice

CHALLENGES OF CHOICE

Even before permaculture vernacular had become commonplace to us, my wife Emma and I were active in our pursuit of living more in keeping with how we wanted to treat the planet, its animals, and our fellow humans. We were already ardent boycotters, believers in fair wages, in animal rights, in corporate responsibility. We signed petitions. We were vegans who mostly cooked from scratch. We even shopped locally, utilizing farmers’ markets and small businesses.

Otherwise, we spent modestly. We felt comfortable in a one-room house with a single-digit appliance list. We bought secondhand clothing, more for the socially ethical implications, but nonetheless saved serious cash doing so. We patched that clothing when it got holes. We traveled on public transportation. Our computer, bags, tents, and whatever else all came used. As much as it saved us money, it was the principle that we were after: We didn’t want to waste the planet’s resources or create more trash when it wasn’t necessary.

To us, even if these decisions on their own didn’t effect a greater change, they kept us honest and accountable for our own choices. Permaculture has only further inspired us along this path, pushing the effort further as we learn or become more capable. One of the common misconceptions, I think, about living with these kinds of limitations is that it comes from a place of sacrifice, but for us, it hasn’t been. These options (or lack thereof) are what feels right and, ultimately, exactly what we want.

AN OLD PLACE ANEW

Photo: Courtesy of hobvias sudoneighm

After nearly a dozen years of backpacking, usually in less developed places, Emma and I have just moved to the United States, where I’m from. While certain conveniences—bulk bins, thrift stores, and local microbrews—excited us about the move, by and large, settling in an advanced industrial nation filled us with fear.

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Assessing a Property Before Designing It

ASSESSING A PROPERTY BEFORE DESIGNING IT

For the purpose of this article and the scope of which I’m looking to explore, we are going to begin by assuming a hypothetical property is already bought and paid for. In short, we won’t be going into all of the legal assessment ideas that might be involved when buying a property, though many of these thoughts could help in choosing one to buy. Instead, we’ll be looking at assessing properties from a design perspective, gathering a checklist of things to identify when implementing a permaculture project seems to be in the near future.

Obviously, at the foundation of all permaculture design, we rely on the famous three Permaculture ethics of earth care, people care, and return of surplus, but when assessing a property, we need to focus more on the minutiae of maintaining these ethics. This is the time we pay attention to the less easily packaged permaculture principles. This is the time when we observe and interact, when look to utilize natural patterns, when we discover opportunistic edges, and when we sniff out ways to integrate things rather than segregate them.

As amazing as all that sounds, we’ll also need to start whittling these principles down from grand theories to applicable data. Once we step into a project or onto a property with the intention of designing it, all the good ideas and positive ethics become a matter of physical application. This is the moment just before the pencil goes to drawing board, before the shovel plunges into the soil, the moment before the hammer hits the nail, and we need a good start. So, in terms of assessing a property, where do we begin?

BEFORE THE FIRST FOOTPRINT

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12 Activities for the Temperate Homestead

12 AUTUMN ACTIVITIES FOR THE TEMPERATE HOMESTEAD

For those who have followed my articles over the years, you might be aware of two things: A recent relocation and the fact that, in fact, I do not yet have a homestead of my own. My wife Emma and I spent quite nearly over two years in search of a piece of land in Central America, and in the end, we watched a couple of deals fall apart and, similarly, our hopes for living tropically dissipate. We now find ourselves in North Carolina, near Asheville, which is an exciting center of sustainable, small-scale food production and localized lifestyle choices. Due to this climate change, we have been reacquainting ourselves with how life may work when we do—fingers crossed—finally procure a small plot upon which to grow.

By and large, we’ve taken the new design approaches in stride. We have appreciated the idea of growing berries, apples, and American pawpaws instead of bananas, pineapples, and papayas. We have daydreamed about a snugly cob cabin as opposed to a breezy thatched hut, a kitchen meant to warm the house rather than one that needs to be outside. We’ve become foragers, enjoying mushrooms and wild edibles, something we were never able to do in Central America (though, undoubtedly, it does exist). Mostly though, we have been learning to let go off the ever-productive temperatures of the wet-dry tropics for the four-season temperate climate.

Having learned and practiced permaculture in the tropics, this changing of seasons has been a drastic shift for us. It’s easy to find new productive perennial plants, interesting to work through different housing challenges, and even exciting to think of a time when things go dormant (There is no rest to be had in tropical gardens!), but that part of the year when things don’t grow provides an adaptive mindset.

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Manure: An Overview of This Shi…ning Addition to the Garden

MANURE: AN OVERVIEW OF THIS SHI…NING ADDITION TO THE GARDEN

Organic gardens really benefit from manure, and that is no mystery. However, it’s important to be aware of what kind of manure is at your disposal because they are not all equally desirable. Some manures, dare we say, are choice garden additions, while others take a lot of coaxing, a slow and patient cook, from composting gurus. Chicken manure is vastly different from cow manure, which is largely different dog manure.

Understanding some of the subtleties of manure, even in the most basic of ways, can make a huge difference to how, when, and for what you are using a particular pile. For those of us who aren’t connoisseurs of manures, it’s important to get a grasp of which ones we’d most like to get our hands on (or in) and which ones aren’t necessarily best suited for growing our food but could be useful elsewhere. So, with no further puns, let us dive head first into the wonderful world of animal excrement.

MANURE IS MAGNIFICENT

Firstly, it seems useful to know why it is that manure is such a valuable commodity. In the garden, it does two things very well: amends the soil and fertilizes the plants. Dry, well-rotted manure is great for retaining water and very useful in sandy soils, whereas the same thing goes along way in lightening up dense clay soils. In either case, fast-draining or compacted soils, manure helps reduce runoff and nutrient leaching. As far as fertilizing, manure carries a good punch of nitrogen (The type of manure changes the levels) and other nutrients, both of which release it slowly (Again, the speed changes via type) to the plants. It’s also full of microbes, which up the amount of soil life, thus fertility, in the garden.

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How Do You Use Urine?

HOW DO YOU USE URINE?

Composting toilets are a great thing. They take what has become a problem in modern systems—human excrement—and make it into something useful: rich compost. Despite simple and effective ways of making composting toilets, humanure does still bring about some controversy with those who are worried about pathogens. Confident composters won’t hesitate to put a well-rotted humanure compost in vegetable gardens, whereas less trusting composters opt for applying it to fruit trees. The important thing about either type of composter, however, is that we start making the most of cycling the waste rather than contaminating our water sources.

With all of that said, urine is a completely different excretion, one that really doesn’t need to set off the same alarm bells. Most basic composting toilets are anti-urine, concerned about the high moisture levels, though some argue this needn’t be the case, that the moisture is actually good for the thunderbox. Nevertheless, the idea remains that urine is something else we should be thinking about. Unlike solid waste, urine applied to gardens doesn’t come with the risk of pathogens; rather, it is just, some would say, pure gold. In fact, it can be used in many different ways for boosting production.

MAKE WEE FOR THE GARDEN?

Urine Bucket (Courtesy of SuSanA Secretariat)

Urine is very high in nitrogen, so much so that it should be diluted a minimum ratio of 1:10 with water before being used on plants. The wee of one person is said to be rich enough to fertilize a tenth of an acre of vegetable garden for the year. Once diluted the micturition mixture, or tinkle tincture if you like, should be applied within twenty-four hours of the urine being expelled. Older urine can become a bacterial issue, and a smelly one at that.

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Cold Frames, How and Why

COLD FRAMES, HOW AND WHY

Before moving to the temperate climate, I’d assumed that winter was pretty much a wash for growing a decent crop. I knew soils were good and summers abundant, all of which led to lots of food storage for getting through winter. I even looked forward to the squashes and pumpkins, and I couldn’t wait for the berries and hard fruits. That all seemed doable, even exciting in a way, but the thought of shutting the garden production down still felt scary.

I always assumed some winter crops were there to be had in a glasshouse. I imagined growing enough greens for salads, but I also knew that a giant glasshouse is a bit too costly for a low-income homesteading couple, even without trying to heat it. Emma and I, as with every hopeful designer, daydreamed of a small attached glasshouse to help with passively heating our house, but there is only so much that can grow in one of those.

Cold frames were something I knew about, and even before investigating them further, they seemed a decent solution to this problem. Now, I ‘m really keen. Not only are they a way of growing a full bevy of crops in the winter (there is a lot to be grown, even in freezing weather), but also they can pretty quickly be pieced together with scrap and salvaged materials. In other words, they are effective and inexpensive, as well as easy to sustainably source.

THE BASIC BUILD

Courtesy of Marc Smith

Cold frames are so simple in design: Essentially, it’s four sides of a bottomless box with a window on top. They aren’t necessarily restricted by any size specifications, so they can more or less be designed to fit whatever windows or storm doors someone happens to find. The sides can be made from many different materials, including stones, bricks, cob, straw bales, logs, or scrap wood.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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