Thursday, April 29, 2010

Beauty of homesteading

This is the year that I realize how much work an urban homestead will take. When I first planned out our little quarter? sixth? of an acre, I just wanted to pack as much productivity into the area as possible. You know, so we could have food after the financial/economic/peak oil Greater Depression :). I didn't give too much thought to how much work it would be.

Planting, thinning, watering, and landscaping have been consuming most of my free time in the past weeks. And when the persimmon, cherry, kiwi, and pears finally grow up enough to fruit, it will take even more. But right now I don't care because it is so lovely to be outside in the fresh air, sunshine, flowers, and lots and lots of green, with birds swooping by my head and squirrels racing around chasing each other. Beats sitting at a desk.

Our semi-urban, semi-suburban property is starting to look like a homestead, and this time of year, it's beautiful. Our perennial herbs have popped up - thyme, lemon balm, mint, chocolate mint, rosemary, purple sage, and oregano - and our back "lawn" is covered in white clover.

The fruit trees and vines have baby fruits dangling and shaking in the breeze - peaches, apples, plums, and grapes. Apparently the self-fertile plum really is self-fertile! It just took four years to find out. Our miniature woodpile is surrounded by blossoming irises and thornless blackberries (Apache, Arapaho, Navajo), which are so pretty I may plant more in our front yard.

And finally, I love our new front-yard edible landscape, which we Permablitzed last weekend with the help of twelve fabulous volunteers. In time, that will yield us cherries, Granny Smith apples, Nikita's Gift persimmons, Desert King watermelons, and Black Futsu squash, along with more mint, oregano, purple sage, thyme, and daylilies, which I've been told taste like cantalope. Who knew a little hell-strip had so much potential?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Permablitz in action

Got an area of your landscape you need to transform from pointless to productive? Have you considered a Permablitz? This weekend, we held a Permablitz hands-on permaculture workshop at our house in Oklahoma City. Working together, in one day we transformed a 300 square foot Bermuda / mud / weed strip between driveways into a front-yard edible landscape with three fruit trees, culinary and medicinal herbs, edible perennial flowers, and "crop circles" (miniature raised beds made of old bricks) that will hold annual vegetables like watermelons and winter squash.

The idea for the project came from three problems I was encountering: no more space for fruit trees, no more space for rambling squash / melon vines, and a weedy, muddy area that served no purpose in our front yard. That strip between driveways required mowing and edging, but we got no enjoyment from it. It was also difficult to deal with (and presented some design challenges) since it was not near an outlet or a faucet, but was near a narrow strip where we keep our trashcans on the way to our only backyard gate. I think of the site as embodying the permaculture principle "Value the marginal" - because it borders two properties and is quite narrow, and previously, got no love at all.

Although I'm by no means a permaculture designer, and don't have a permaculture design certificate, I tried to design the area using permaculture techniques and principles from Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway, and then consulted with Randy Marks of Land+Form sustainable land design for feedback. I selected mostly perennial plants with multiple functions and designed the area to serve many purposes. Eventually, the landscape will yield over 100 pounds of fruit, shade our driveway, channel runoff from our roof into an irrigation stream, provide beautiful flowers, and serve as a showcase for front-yard gardening/edible landscaping.

On Saturday, thirteen motivated people came to learn, share food and ideas, and work on the 'Blitz, which was led by Randy and benefited Transition Town OKC and Sustainable OKC. The group really put a lot of effort and care into the project. Our efforts were rewarded at the end - as we sat in the garage and shared apricot beer brewed by my husband, a downpour began and we got to watch the swale-stream in action. Thanks to everyone who worked so hard!

Thursday, April 22, 2010


In nature, things happen when it is their time. Babies come when they're ready, flowers bloom at their leisure, and peaches need thinning when they are marble sized. (Side note: With modern technology, all these can be hurried and disrupted.... usually to our detriment.)

So, it's peach-thinnin' time. We have two peach trees, a J.H. Hale and a Hale Haven, planted about 20 feet apart in our front yard. In the years since they began bearing, they have never failed to deliver a bounteous crop of lusciousness, albeit slightly wormy lusciousness that needs to be cut open instead of eaten whole. This year, as always, the branches are loaded with tiny green fuzzy baby peaches.

60 - 70% of these helpless fuzzies must be eliminated before they grow large enough to crack the branches. Thinning the peaches also lets the others develop to their full size. In the past, I've put off the thinning, or pursued it lightly, or didn't thin the upper branches enough because I didn't want to climb a ladder, and later lived to regret it. Last year, there were several emergency thinning sessions in late May when I noticed the branches literally curved in half. It's soooo much easier to thin baby peaches than adolescent ones. For one thing, they are lighter. For another, they take up less space in the compost pile (which is overflowing, and I haven't started a new one).

The key word is.... ruthless. Follow this rule: thin to one peach every six inches. A slight twist of the peach is better than a yank, which can result in an entire twig ending up in your regretful hand. And remember, peach thinning starts with good pruning.

Pruning should be done several months earlier, in the early spring / late winter, to open up the inside area of the tree to allow easy thinning and harvesting, and allow good air circulation to prevent disease. You DON'T want twigs poking you in the eye while you're harvesting, and you don't want to spend half an hour thinning peaches off branches that shouldn't even be there!

It takes some time to do it right, but on a beautiful spring day out in the fresh air, peach-thinning is actually quite pleasant... if you don't do it so long that your trapezius cramps up and your neck develops a twitch. It's even pleasanter if you remember to put suntan lotion on so you don't get a wicked sunburn, and if you have good company to chat with and some music playing. Add some birds tweeting and it's positively idyllic.

I recommend spreading the thinning out over several days. Most people aren't used to looking up and reaching up for hours at a time. For me, a relatively slow and judicious picker, it probably takes about two hours a tree, considering the time it takes to move the ladder around our fifteen-foot high tree. I spread that out over four or five days, and I'm RUTHLESS so I won't have to do it all again in late May when the peaches start to gain their teen weight.

Now, this only reflects my experience, with these particular peach trees, in this climate. Other people may do it differently, but this system works for me and my trees. How about you?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

This is your brain on insomnia

One problem I have with traditional economics is that it makes numerous incorrect assumptions in order to facilitate the creation of the economic models. For instance, traditional economists usually assume that people are rational. Indeed.

Earlier today......

Brain: That looks like a fudge truffle.

Me: Yes, that fudge truffle is a present for your mother-in-law.

Brain: It looks tasty. Real tasty.

Me: Let's have an apple. How about some hummus?

Brain: I think I'll have that fudge truffle.

Me: That very large truffle has approximately 900 calories. It is not on your Paleolithic whole-foods diet. It is not on your Okinawa diet. It is not on your High-School Reunion diet. It is not on any diet at all!

Brain: (forcing hand to reach towards chocolate)

Me: Noooooooo!

Earlier tonight.....

2:17 a.m. Click.


Me: (Sleepily) What the %$#? Go back to sleep. There's nothing we need to do right now. It's the middle of the night.

Brain: So much to do! So little time! So much to do! So little time!

Me: Go back to sleep. We can deal with everything in the morning. There's really not that much left to do anyway.

Brain: But what if it rains? Then everything is ruined! Then we have to put it off for another week!

Me: Shhhhhh. It's all under control. We talked to Randy about the plan. The landscaping materials are all ordered. We got the plants. We e-mailed our workshop confirmations yesterday. We e-mailed out the rain date. There's nothing we can do about the weather.

Brain: When are we going to get the big rocks? What if that doesn't work to hold in the mulch? What if it looks funny? Maybe we should have gotten an apricot tree instead of the Granny Smith apple. Maybe we should have gotten another cherry tree instead of the apple. We already have two apple trees you know. We could still go down to Marcum's nursery before Saturday.

Me: Granny Smith apples stay good forever and don't have to be processed. And they are tart, good for pies and salads. Oh crap, I'm arguing with my brain. Ommmmmmmmmmm. Ommmmmmmm.

Brain: When are you going to work on the permaculture handouts? When are you going to make those copies? Maybe we still have time to get a videographer? Who's going to record this for posterity?

Me: I told you, it's under control! It's all on the to-do list! This workshop is not a big deal - just chill out and relax! CRAP. I'm arguing with my brain again. Inhale... 1, 2, 3. Exhale.... 1, 2, 3. Inhale... 1, 2, 3. Exhale.... 1, 2, 3.

Brain: Don't ignore me! Get up, get up! Get to work!

Me: If I don't go to sleep now I'm going to be useless tomorrow. Is that what you want?

Brain: So much to do! So little time!

Me: I'm going to get up now. But don't think I'm going to work on the Permablitz! I'm going to write on my blog and drink a cup of chamomile tea with valerian and then do yoga! SO THERE!

Brain: :)


Does that sound rational to you? I rest my case.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sunshine Blogger Award

Thanks to Sharlene T. for the Sunshine Blogger award! I'm honored!
As a part of receiving this award, I am supposed to select and post 12 bloggers that inspire others and show positivity and creativity.
Unfortunately right now I am trying to organize a Permablitz hands-on permaculture workshop, put in my garden, go to a wedding, and prepare to put down a bamboo floor in our house, and I have no time!
Until a later date when I hope I can fulfill my duties, please check out some great solar cooking resources at these blogs:
They are inspiring me to break out my own solar oven (GSO) and put it back to good use! Thanks ladies, and thanks again to Sharlene at Solar Cooking for Mainstream Cooks for the award!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

To meat or not to meat

"Beef containing harmful pesticides, veterinary antibiotics and heavy metals is being sold to the public because federal agencies have failed to set limits for the contaminants or adequately test for them, a federal audit finds... Even when the inspection service does identify a lot of beef with high levels of pesticide or antibiotics, it often is powerless to stop the distribution of that meat because there is no legal limit for those contaminants." Full USA Today article here

About ten years ago, I stopped eating meat (except fish) because of:
1) the cruelty of the factory-farming system,
2) the health problems associated with the standard American diet,
3) the social problems with factory-farmed meat - increased prevalence of certain types of deadly e.coli, reduced efficacy of antibiotics, and conditions of the factory workers,
4) the carbon / methane emissions and water intensity of raising and shipping beef,
5) the ecological problems of raising the (primarily genetically modified) corn /soy, including clearing of rainforests and use of petro-chemically based fertilizers and pesticides, to feed the beef; and
6) the gigantic manure lagoons /water pollution from the CAFOs.

My husband stayed an omnivore, but he is aware of the ethical implications of eating meat.
So after my husband and I watched Food, Inc, we decided to find a source of sustainable meat for my husband and son to eat. We found Rose Ranch, and the proprietor, Vicki, invited me to visit the ranch and observe the living conditions of the animals. After that trip, it seems that buying meat from Rose Ranch Jones is about as guilt free as it gets.

As Joel Salatin says, the cattle at Rose Ranch Jones are allowed to fully express their "cow-ness." The cows are 100% pasture-raised, with no corn supplements, in an area large enough so that it won't be degraded by overgrazing. The cows/steers aren't fed routine antibiotics, hormones or other crap like cow brains. Because of their diet, the beef from these cattle is higher in many nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, etc. The animals are "processed" (euphemistically speaking) at a local processor - not shipped days away to a slaughterhouse in a truck without food or water as is done in the factory farming system. And, to top it all off, Rose Ranch is only about 10 miles from my house. Basically, the RR method addresses the vast majority of my concerns with eating beef.

So, after ten years of not eating meat (except fish), I have started to occassionally eat meat again. I've eaten RR meat five or six times since we bought a side of their beef in January. I've started calling myself a Roseranchetarian (ha, ha), since I have only eaten meat from their ranch. After being a "pescetarian" for so long, I prefer vegetarian meals, but on balance, it seems that an occasional grass-fed beef meal won't hurt me.

The majority of Americans haven't changed their meat-eating habits after thirty years of available information on the unhealthy, polluting, unsustainable CAFO operations - but maybe, if they had another option besides eating meat vs. not eating meat (i.e. eating healthy, sustainably raised meat), we could create more change in the system. Since my husband and his family are going to eat meat anyway, maybe I can help support that change by buying beef from a local, sustainable, humane ranch.

Although I didn't ask, I imagine that the cow that became our beef probably would have prefered to live out it's natural lifespan - but at least it lived a sunshine-filled, stress-free, free-ranging, natural-food life. I'm happy that we could support ranchers who are creating an alternate to the confined-animal operation model that is degrading our planet's resources, treating animals so cruelly, and sending contaminated meat to our kids.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Just numbers

Have you ever seen the movie Fight Club? If not, here's a spoiler (warning!): at the end of the movie, the hero/anti-hero blows up all the financial institutions. Without all the little digits, all the bits and bytes floating around in the cyber-air representing the vast sums of money incarcerated in digital bank accounts around the world, people return to being just people.

As an aside, being a former risk management auditor, I know that financial institutions have all those bits and bytes stored off-site as well, probably in multiple locations, probably directed off-site simultaneously with the recording of the initial event. In my experience, financial institutions usually had the most interest in protecting and recording their data correctly and securely. So, you know, the Club would have needed to track down those mega-storage units as well. Maybe an EMP would have worked for that.

Getting back to the thread. Sometimes I marvel at all of it - the fact that we are all running around pretending that we have REAL assets, when in fact they are just little numbers flying around in the air. The checking accounts that we live off of - just numbers. The savings account for the kiddo's college education - just numbers. The retirement assets you've worked to save for the last fifty years - just numbers, subject to random manipulation and mutilation and erasure. People paid millions of dollars just to pass these numbers back and forth and rearrange them to make them look better than they are.

If I think about it too much, it makes me a little giddy. Like looking out of a plane at the ground before parachuting out. I guess it's just one more symptom of our mass mania. We pretend that we can grow forever. We pretend that we know what we're doing when we stimulate the economy this way and pump it up that way. We pretend we're doing the right thing when we collectively accumulate a debt we can never, and will never, repay.

Why not pretend that we have actual things called money, which represent actual value, sitting in vaults somewhere, instead of digital numbers which represent decisions in a banker's head to loan money into existence out of nothing? As long as we all pretend, and all agree, on the existence and relative values and worth of our digits, the hallucination holds firm. But if we stop agreeing....???

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Register for Permablitz

If you happen to be in the Oklahoma City area, you could sign up for the Permablitz! Here's the promo e-mail we are sending out today.

Heal the Earth... while growing food!

Conventional landscapes use a lot of harmful chemicals - fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and gasoline to run lawn machines. With permaculture design, you can turn your landscape into a productive oasis by channeling the forces of Nature: the flow of water, power of soil-building organisms and longevity of trees and perennials.

You can grow food without using polluting chemicals, using less water, less work and less energy, while also helping the planet by building soil and creating ecosystems. Make gardening easier and heal the Earth at the same time! Find out how... at the Permablitz!

What: Hands-on permaculture workshop led by Randy Marks, owner of Land+Form sustainable landscape design. Learn some basic principles and techniques of permaculture while transforming a barren Bermuda desert into a productive mini-forest garden.

When: Saturday, April 24th 9:00 am - 3:30 pm (potluck lunch)

Where: NW Oklahoma City home near Penn Square Mall (that's my home ;)

Cost: $15 via PayPal or by check

How: E-mail your name and phone number to to secure your spot in this limited-space workshop, then visit to pay your $15 tuition via PayPal. You also have the option to mail your registration and check (information at Registration closes April 20th.

After we receive confirmation of your payment, I will e-mail you the workshop details and a short pre-workshop assignment.

Note: Space is limited, please register early to secure your spot.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Emergency water cleaning

How to disinfect water

(Seen in National Geographic's recent special issue - Water: Our Thirsty World)

1. Locate plastic (or glass) water bottle.
2. Tear off the label.
3. Fill with any water source that's not too murky/cloudy.
4. Place the bottle on a piece of metal, in full sun. Do not disturb.
5. Wait six hours.
6. Drink, or store in the bottle to prevent recontamination.

This Swiss-engineered water-disinfection program is called SODIS, and their studies demonstrate that six hours in the sun will kill viruses, bacteria, and parasites (giardia and cryptosporidia) in the water, making it safe to drink. Although I assume it won't clean out other types of contaminants such as heavy metals or industrial chemicals, this method of water disinfection could still save lives in an emergency when regular tap water was not available for an extended period.

SODIS is now being used all over the (extremely poor parts of the) world to provide drinking water for people with no access to purified drinking water sources, dropping rates of diarrhea and cholera. Since over 4,000 children die every day from diarrhea, this is no small deal. In fact, according to the Swiss research team, the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF, and the Red Cross have recommended the SODIS method as a way to treat drinking water in developing countries where access to fuel for boiling water is very expensive.

Interestingly, the SODIS researchers also found that, when used properly, using PET plastic bottles for solar water disinfection was safe (did not release harmful chemicals into the water).

Of course, if I needed to pasteurize water I would use my Katadyn filter, or boil it in my Sun Oven/campstove/fireplace insert. SODIS, however, looks like it is a life-saving method of water disinfection for people who are stuck without another way to clean their water.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Rookie Mistakes (I Have Made)

Growing up, my family lived on two acres outside of Tulsa. My parents attempted some gardening, even keeping some chickens, until our dogs killed the whole flock in one fell swoop. I think my parents had ambitious homesteading dreams after living through some tough economic times in the late 70's (my father still curses Carter's name). I remember some huge tomato plants from elementary school, but my parents gave up the gardening efforts after the chicken debacle.

So when I started my gardening / edible landscaping adventure a few years ago, I didn't know the difference between a cold season and a warm season crop. I didn't know what to plant from seed, from plant, from set, from bush, from tree or from crown. I had to learn everything from scratch - which, of course, means making a few mistakes here and there. Since there may be a few of you who are just starting out, here is my top six list of "rookie" mistakes I've made as I work towards learning how to grow just a bit of food. I hope you learn something from my embarrassment.

6. Site Misplacement

When we moved in to our home in Oklahoma City, we had a blank landscaping slate. Bermuda grass, bermuda grass, and more bermuda grass. Wait, and two gigantic pecan trees which cast shade over much of the yard. The first landscaping project we did was to build a brick patio out back, right next to the house.

Later, I realized that our lovely, back-breaking and time-consuming- to- install brick patio was sitting right in the middle of the best sun of the yard - the spot where I should have placed my garden. While it was not a complete disaster, because there were still other places to put my garden, I have much less gardening area than if I had sited my patio correctly. About 50% less. Whoops!

5. Tree Matching

As an amateur orchardist, I was surprised to learn that some fruit trees require two different varieties to pollinate correctly - plums, apples, pears, and some peaches, to name a few. What! You mean I can't just get one of every kind of tree I want? I have to make sure they bloom at the same time? For months, I pored over the Raintree Nursery and Burnt Ridge Nursery catalogs, in combination with my site plan, before finally placing my order.

Yet somehow, I managed to order an European plum and an Asian plum tree, which don't happen to pollinate each other. So, two years later, I had to buy yet a third tree to pollinate at least one of my plums. After that, one of the trees grew a few puny plums that fell off the tree before harvest time. That was when I realized that plums don't do all that well in Oklahoma City. Now, I can't bear to cut any of them down.... the trees are nice and strong, even if they are not giving me (much) fruit.

4. Anger management

So there it is - my first garden bed, so nicely planted with seeds. All that research, all that work, to build the bed, fill it with soil, choose the seeds and plant them. Now I can finally go to bed and sleep soundly knowing I am on the road to self-sufficiency.

Wrong. Next morning, and for every morning thereafter, I see that SOME thing, SOME dastardly critter has completely destroyed my seedbed. I wanted to wail. Honestly, there might have been some wailing. How am I ever going to grow a garden if the mysterious squirrel-bird-coon keeps killing the seeds before they even sprout? I vow revenge, and start planning to buy a trap. Or a shotgun.

Then I discovered the easiest solution, which has worked without fail until this day. Whenever I plant a seedbed, I stake the four corners and then cover it with netting, anchoring it with bricks. The netting allows the sun to reach the soil and is easy to water through. After the seeds are a good size, I can remove the netting without fear. And all without any squirrel bloodshed.

3. Record-keeping (or lack thereof)

As I mentioned earlier, I ordered quite a few trees early on in my urban homesteading experiment. Apples, pears, plums. In my hurry to get them in the ground, I planted them and removed the tags. I recorded their locations on my site plan. But yet somehow, that site plan has disappeared. Now, I know I've got a Liberty and an Enterprise apple tree, but which is which? Which plum is which? Heck.

2. Plant abuse

Well, I can't claim ignorance on this one - just plain forgetfulness. I know that seedlings need to be "hardened off" - that is, you need to toughen them up by exposing them bit by bit to the cruel outside world after their sheltered young existence. Otherwise, it's a shock to their system when they are used to constant inside temperatures. Usually, I put my seedlings out for several hours for four or five days in a row, taking them in at night, before finally planting them in the soil.

Earlier this spring, I planted out some broccoli that I had raised from seed without first hardening them off. Of course, they all died.

1. Failing to plant is planting to fail

For several years now, I've meant to plant a huge winter garden like my friend Shauna, who harvested salads all through the winter with just a plastic sheeting to protect her lettuce and greens from the cold. I just never got around to protecting my fall garden with a cold frame or row covers. Instead, I "experimented" by planting a fall garden and then I let the plants fend for themselves (Result: kale and collards live; pac choy and mustard die).

Another planting failure: Year after year, I wait too long in the spring to plant my early crops, especially spinach, onions and lettuce. Then, they wither from the heat or bolt early. And I'm not even going to mention all the times I tried to plant my tomatoes early before the crucial April 15th date...

Bonus mistake: Going it on my own

Over the years, I have done a whole lot of research. I found many web resources, read a lot of books, participated in a permaculture workshop, and took an online class. I wanted someone to help me with a permaculture design, but couldn't find any local designers at the time (2005). What I didn't do was find people who were already doing this type of stuff locally, see what they were doing, and learn from them. That would have saved me a lot of time and given me a lot of new ideas - maybe even saved some money. But I was shy, and didn't know anyone in the sustainability crowd. So I missed out on the wisdom of the local experts.

Lessons learned: My gardening education and landscaping experiments have taught me something: start small, be flexible, plan ahead, and learn what works in your area. Perhaps most importantly, just get started...and keep trying through the inevitable failures.

So don't make my mistakes - go make your own!