Monday, February 9, 2015

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Birdwatching at the SC Upstate Demo Garden

I've been working out the details (in my head) of how to do birdhouses at the SCUPS garden for several weeks now and I think this is something members could really help me on. We could probably use reclaimed materials but I'd like to avoid recycling materials that haven't been proven safe for birds. I've seen some adorable birdhouse projects made from repurposed items, but they didn't look snake proof to me.

Here's our objectives:
  • Visible to kids at the school - fun!
  • Made well, with long-lasting materials
  • Able to be cleaned each season
  • Discourages snakes (they kill nestlings in my yard every year, which is a natural process, but I'd rather not welcome the birds to a snake diner)
  • Attracts native birds
  • Discourages non-native house sparrows (click here to see why)
  • Choose an area to make house wren nests to keep them happy (here's why, also check out this link that says house wrens deliberately add spider egg sacs to their nests because the spiders control the mites that attack their young -- awesome!!!)
  • Discourages cats and other predators
  • Make enough bird houses to put around the entire property, not just the garden. This includes the forest behind the flood catchment in the back of the school and the other boundaries. They need to be about 100 yards apart from each other. 
Most of our birdhouses should look like this:

This kind of guard discourages raccoons and cats:

This is how to make the guards (for a larger version click here), and this link has even more specific info on how to make the stovepipe baffle:

These are the hinged sides used to clean the birdhouse, which should have raccoon-proof latch on the bottom:

Here's some DIY bluebird house plans similar to the one in the above photo and here is another good description. Additionally, though most birdhouse recommendations say to put the house 5' off the ground, I've watched cats in my neighborhood jump that high and catch a bluebird parent out of the air as it tried to enter the house. Predator-proof sites say to use metal poles that are 8' - 10' high and sink 2' of that into the ground for stability.

Finally, here are the requirements for various species of birds. If anyone knows how to make these houses we can definitely use them:

Oh yeah, and we're DEFINITELY going to have purple martin bird houses, the site is just perfect for it -- especially after we add all our meadow wildflower plantings. It's possible I have one we can use (it is currently buried underneath my mom's Confederate jasmine vine, so I have to dig it out to see if it is in decent shape). The one I might have looks like this:


I bought some of Dr. David Bradshaw's improved birdhouse gourd seed strain to grow amongst our meadow plants. If they do well, we can add to the martin colony next year.

I know I said "finally" a while back, but we'll be adding bird feeders to the picnic area across from the garden. YAY BIRDS!

P.S. - Maybe not this year, but in the future how cool would it be to install a chimney swift tower and a rocket bat house?

    Friday, January 23, 2015

    The Founding of a Fedge (and other stories from Your Garden)

    Before and after our work days
    Photos by Eliza Lord
    If you haven't heard the latest about the Upstate's first public, volunteer permaculture garden, get ready for the good news. Your Garden has begun. Like the recent warm, sunshiny break from winter (which made for a fantastic foray into the first plantings this past week end!), we hope this project will be a catalyst for useful permaculture plant growing and sharing. Photosynthesis everywhere, baby! Since our first work day last October, members of the South Carolina Upstate Permaculture Society have pulled ivy, cut down shrubs, dug stumps, built swale terraces, moved a monstrous mound of mulch and lovingly placed the first plants into the welcoming earth. And that is just the beginning.
    Marking swales at Summit Drive Elementary. Photo by Nathaniel Lord
     Back in August, SCUPS met to brainstorm a possible project and location, somewhere that would be clearly visible to the public and also have the ability to be replicated. Since Eliza had been given permission to plant along an overgrown strip at Summit Drive Elementary, we zoomed in on that as the most viable sounding plan. (You will have to ask Eliza how she got permission to plant there, but it might have something to do with some privets getting a new hairdo.)

    diagram by Graham Burnett
    Since then, Eliza has designed the site to include a fedge (food + hedge), utilizing both the existing ecosystem's structure and the generosity of SCUPS members for fruit trees, shrubs, wildflowers and herbs. Black locust trees, with their edible flowers and dense wood grain, are already part of the canopy, fixing nitrogen in the soil, feeding bees with their nectar and providing a trellis for future fruiting vines. Other useful species already in place are hickory, mulberry and trifoliate orange.
    Soil dwelling scarab larvae
    Photo by Nathaniel Lord

    The goal for this garden is manifold in function! For SCUPS members, it will eventually provide plants and seeds, as we thin, divide and propagate on upcoming work days. For the school and community at large, it will be an educational walk, with signs added to identify plants and their functions in the ecosystem and within their guilds, as well as an opportunity for the school to incorporate permaculture related activities into their curricula.
    Monarch Butterfly
    Photo by Eliza Lord

    And it goes without saying that the site will be a haven and habitat for many creatures besides humans. 
    In particular, we plan to plant lots of milkweed to aid the struggling monarch butterfly population. Birds, amphibians, lizards, snakes and other native pollinators are also most welcome.

    October saw our first work day at the site, and it was a complete success. Members came from all over the Upstate and beyond to participate. 
    Shaping swale terraces
    Photo by Eliza Lord

    The major tasks we tackled included clearing a large area that was overgrown with shrubs and English ivy, and putting in some small earthworks to help the soil retain water on the steep slope.

    Crushed hickory nuts
    Photo by Tina Huba
    Participants brought their own bagged lunches, but were regaled with tastes of local gourmet, not least of which were Eliza's mom Joan's homemade pomegranate jelly, made from the fruit from the family heirloom tree. We also had fresh, ripe fruit from the aforementioned tree, white currant tomatoes, pawpaw fruit, and maple syrup sweetened hickory nut milk from nuts patiently pounded by the teens in the group.

     A shrubbery!
    Photo by Eliza Lord
    Young loquat
    Notice the green oats
    Photo by Eliza Lord
    Last Sunday, on January 18, we met for work again, albeit in fewer numbers, and were finally able to finish spreading the wood chip mulch and put in the first plants. We checked the swale terraces, which had been sown with oats around their outer edge, and they had held up well through many winter rains. Though it hadn't rained in several days, the wood chips inside were moist and full of earthworms and new mycelia. Some of the oats had winter killed, which we expected, but some were still surprisingly green after having temperatures drop to single digits earlier this month. These green oat terraces were identified as warm microclimates, and the new home for several young loquats. Other plants to join them were pawpaw seedlings, yarrow, mints and their herbal near of kin.

    Many thanks to everyone who planned, worked, donated plants or participated in this project in any way. We hope to plant and cultivate not only a garden food forest, but a culture rooted in ecological principles, earth care and people care, each living member mutually supporting, and being supported by, each of the others.

    You can get involved!
    We have regular work days planned, and if you cannot make it to any one of these, here is a list of plants you can donate. 

    Upcoming work days:
    Location: 424 Summit Drive, Greenville
    Tuesday, January 27, from 10am - 12pm
    Every Tuesday after that from 10am - 12 pm unless otherwise announced
    Saturday, February 21, from 10am - 1pm
    Saturday, April 4 from 10am - 3pm
    Sunday, May 10, from 10am - 3pm

    Check our Facebook page for more SCUPS events and educational opportunities.

    Not a member of SCUPS yet? Go here to join.

    Friday, June 27, 2014

    My Alternative to Roundup

    little Weedinators

    I could have entitled this post, "This Simple Weed Control Method Will Blow Your Mind" Or, "The Best Organic Solution to Weeds You'll Ever See". (Because, you know, all content deserves to go viral).

    But that would be untrue and misleading. It probably won't blow your mind, and it's not the best solution, either.

    The fact is, however, that it is a solution that, combined with other strategies (like mulching!), is currently working well for me.
    garden path behind the rabbit tractor
    Keeping weeds out of my beds is accomplished by using mulch. Keeping them out of my paths is another challenge. But last year I was gifted two lovely rabbits by my friend, Patrick, who were very quickly christened "Snowflake" and "Cupcake" at the urging of my ten year old daughter.

    Snowflake and Cupcake, it should be pointed out, are "not for eating". However, they do play an important role in our permaculture system as well as providing valuable fertilizer. They power my rabbit tractor, a triangular cage just wide enough to fit between the garden beds. Each day, the tractor is dragged a little way down the path so the rabbits can nibble down the growth and keep it manageable.

    It's not a perfect solution. They don't eat all the weeds and there are places where it is hard to get around the cage to access their food and water. But it's adequate. And they provide other services, like eating piles of grass and other unwanted weeds and veggie scraps from the adjoining garden, or by being the soft, cuddly pets that don't complain and greet you happily each day.
    The pre-tractored path. Pay no attention to the weed ridden bed of spent greens on the left
    As with anything we seek to accomplish, there are no fantastical solutions. There's another sort of "magic" to be found, however, within ordinary processes; the tested, tried and true. Our ability to observe the habits and interactions of plants and animals in nature allows us to creatively put them to use in ways that benefit the whole system, as well as provide us with a yield. 

    This power to observe, learn and create is one of our greatest assets as humans. We can reflect and make adjustments to maximize symbiotic relationships in our landscapes and lives. It is an ongoing process. A process that, it may be noted, begins with wonder....

    Wednesday, May 28, 2014

    11 Principles for Design

    alder seedling
     As part of the homework chosen by my small group permaculture study group, we read the first chapter in Bill Mollison's Introduction to Permaculture. In it Mollison outlines 11 principles, and since I was hosting the meeting that month, I thought it would be fun to choose a project that would illustrate some of them.

    I ended up designing one that illustrated all of them. That's not really anything extraordinary, because permaculture is such an integrated system, it's almost impossible not to follow them once you are started down that road. Toby Hemenway writes in Gaia's Garden,  that permaculture "...principles have deep and surprising interconnections..."

    Now for an overview of the project. The spring before last, I had mob grazed a couple pigs through the pasture, part of which bordered the garden. There is a particularly low, poorly drained spot on the southwest corner of the garden, and here they had rooted up the ground so badly that it was both full of puddles and a tripping hazard. And strangely enough, the ruts they made were partially on contour. So I took a rake and made some berms and swales to finish what they had started. I ended up with something akin to the growing system used by the Aztecs called chinampas, only in miniature. During the fall, winter and most of the spring, the swales stayed full of water and hosted a variety of insects and amphibians. I grew sweet potatoes and tomatoes in the berms last summer, and while they did ok, it definitely needed improving.

    As in the chinampa system, to start the project off this spring, I waited until the swales had dried up, then shoveled the muck from the bottom onto the berms. After this, I decided to follow Bill Mollison's instant garden technique on page 103 of Introduction to Permaculture, which is similar to a lasagna garden. First, any weeds were slashed. Then seedlings were planted. I put elderberry, sunchokes and sweet potato tubers left over from last year's crop in two of the berms in the back, and ground cherries, dwarf sunflowers and Mayo Indian amaranth in two on the front. This was arranged to take advantage of the noon to sunset exposure without the taller plants shading the shorter ones. Straw and aged chicken manure were strewn near the seedlings, then a weed barrier of paper and cardboard was added. On top of this was placed a thick mulch of leaves, followed by a more aesthetic layer of pine straw. Along the garden fence I planted a cross vine, wild rose and an alder. Most of these plants came from the moist woods and creek bank across from the pasture, and I chose them because I knew they would tolerate the wet soil conditions of the cold weather season in their new home.
    berm planted and mulched

    On to the principles. The first principle is Relative Location. This means that each element in a permaculture design is placed beside other elements to maximize the positive interactions between them. Permaculture is primarily a design science of relationships. In my case, the swales were placed to collect the nutrient rich runoff from the chicken run inside the garden. And placing this in context, the chicken pen is downslope of an oak grove that surrounds the septic system from the house. So nutrients taken up by the oaks are shed in their leaves, which are then raked and thrown over the fence as mulch for the chickens to scratch in. These break down or are converted to worm castings, some of which are eventually washed through the mini chinampa garden along with chicken manure, which causes algae to grow in the swales. This feeds the vernal pond critters and breaks down into a rich muck by the time the warm weather arrives, which can be scooped onto the berms to fertilize the plants there.

    Each Element Provides Many Functions, and it's twin, Each Function is Supported by Many Elements comprise the second and third principles. The functions of the chosen plants include food for humans and chickens, fertility (the sunchokes and alder and elderberry provide organic matter for the soil when they are pruned or cut down for regrowth the following season, and alders fix some nitrogen), hedge for the enclosed garden, and nectar for pollinators. The shaped landscape also manages fertile water, allowing it to seep into the swales, while the berms provide elevated growing space during the wetter seasons so roots are not drowned. The sheet mulch functions to suppress weeds and to hold moisture in the soil. And the list could go on.
    elderberry seedling
    Energy Efficient Planning: By putting supporting elements around the element that provides the desired yield for humans, in this case elderberries, much of the energy needed to maintain the system will already be there on site, thus eliminating the need for many inputs once the system is established. Planning to utilize sun, slope, on-site materials (plants, leaves, pine straw, manure) and material from existing waste streams (cardboard boxes, discarded paper) also save outside energy inputs, as well as utilizing the habits of animals, such as pigs, to partially prepare the site and save labor.

    Use of Biological Resources: Most materials were gotten onsite, as was mentioned, from the surrounding ecosystem. The yields of the ecosystem, it is hoped, will increase further when brought into a system that is designed to increase the number of positive interactions. For instance, elderberry will probably yield more berries when brought out of the shade and placed where it will receive nitrogen and phosphorus from the chickens.

    Energy Cycling: As was previously illustrated manure feeds the vernal pond habitats in the swales, which feed the surrounding plants, some of which are used the feed the chickens (sunflower, amaranth, rose hips, sunchokes, sweet potato greens, extra elderberries) who utilize it and convert it to manure, and the cycle continues. But there is also a yield beyond this cycle in the food provided for humans (elderberries, ground cherries sunflower seeds, amaranth and sweet potato greens, sweet potato slips for the garden, sunchokes, rose hips) and pollinators (roses, sunchokes, cross vine).
    sweet potato sprout

    Small Scale Intensive Systems: While it is a lot of work to install initially, maintaining the mature system should be relatively easy with harvest and chop and drop mulching the primary chores. The scale of this project is small enough for a woman and her hand tools to accomplish and it was plugged into already existing nutrient cycles that had been set up before. So small systems can be built a little at a time, and as these need less and less maintenance, other small systems can be plugged into their outputs. Since many of the plants in this system are easy to grow perennials or self seeding annuals, this can be considered a zone 2 area, needing fewer visits than the kitchen garden or chickens in zone 1. (Zone planning involves placing elements at consecutive distances from the house according to the rate of visits needed by the human residents.)

    Accelerating Succession and Evolution: With pigs and people shaping the land to capture and hold water and nutrients, the soil quality can be improved much faster which amounts to more species and individuals benefiting from higher yields.

    Diversity: A variety of plants and habitats supports a variety of creatures. When humans direct their energies to supporting the whole ecosystem, rather than forcing a single yield for themselves, their needs are met and the continuing ability of the system to provide for all of its inhabitants is assured.
    ground cherry seedling

    Edge Effects: More diversity is found at the edge of two different ecosystems, such as a grassland and forest, than away from it. In this system we have a small orchard where chickens run meeting swale ponds and berm beds, meeting pasture. Patterns that increase edge are ideal, and in this case the shape of the land was altered vertically to create more growing space (berms vs. flat ground) and more edge between air and water and soil.

    Attitude: At first, the muddy, boggy mess left by the pigs presented a problem. But instead of trying to solve a problem by reversing the effect, a little creativity and extra energy turned it into a solution for something else: a self irrigating growing area and runoff management system.

    We never did get around to the project I designed at our last permaculture meeting, we were having too much fun. But that's not a problem, it's just an opportunity for a blog post (and for me to get some good exercise).

    Mollison concluded the list of principles by stressing that information and imagination are the only limits to the number of uses and relationships possible in a permaculture system.

    Saturday, April 19, 2014

    Pecan Dale Farmstead: Tool Care Station

    This week I put together a tool care station and thought I'd share a few of my methods.  First let me say that I have always been the world's worst at tool care.  I won't go into how many times I've found a tool outside six months after I last used it.  Suffice it to say that my tools are all in deplorable shape.  Add to this that I tend to have to buy new tools because I couldn't find the old ones.  I have several duplicates, as you will see.

    My husband recently started work on a shop for me, and the tool shed portion was finished, but not set up.  It's been stacked with junk from the construction for over a year, so last week I cleaned it out and we hung the tools.  My son labeled the pegs so we always know where the tools are supposed to be hung after use.

    There are 5 pitchforks to be seen, and 1out of the pic!
     Rule number 1 for tools:  Keep them dry when storing!  Water is your tool's worst enemy.  Don't even let your tools touch the ground if you can.  The moisture in the soil will rust the wood and degrade the handles.  Termites can do a number on the handles as well.  Don't ask me how I know...

    Since my hand tools are in such horrible shape, I decided to add a three step process of rejuvenating them.  The first is adding an outdoor washing station. 

    Wash your tools...Easy, easy!

    Rule number 2 for tools:  Wash the mud off of them after using!  That mud holds water close to the tool surface which rusts it.  The washing station was super easy.  I already had the little concrete pad and hose.   My son screwed a screw into a nearby post and I hung a brush on it.  Voila!  A washing station.  It works beautifully.  Dry the metal thoroughly after washing it (See Rule number 1, above).

    The washing station is near my tool shed, but is positioned between the garden and the tool shed.  I'm much more likely to use it now that I have to pass it on my way to put the tool away.

    Easy way to protect your tools
    Rule number 3 for tools:  Oil keeps rust at bay!   This is a trick I learned from Helen, the octogenarian queen gardener at the Roper Mountain Science Center garden.  I found a galvanized tub and put a bag of play sand from Home Depot in it.  I then poured linseed oil in it.  She had reused used-automotive oil in her station, but I went with linseed oil because it's more environmentally friendly.  The sand scrubs and the oil lubricates. Just dip the tools in the sand a few times after using them, and hang them up.  The oil will protect the tools from moisture in the air.

    Rule number 4 for tools:  Oil also conditions the wood!  My last trick is a deep conditioning station for the handles.  I use a 1 1/2 inch diameter piece of PVC with an endcap on the bottom.  I wipe the soil off of the tool handle and sand rough spots and splinters off if needed.  I store the sandpaper to the left of the station so it's always handy.  

    Tool Handle Conditioning Station
    I put the PVC between two studs, and put a toe stop at the bottom so it won't slip off the sill.  About 1/2 way up I attached a bungee cord.  This allows me to tilt the PVC over to add the tool handle, and also keeps the PVC upright between the studs when it's conditioning the handle.  

    I put the tool handle in the PVC pipe and then pour in a mixture of 1/2 linseed oil and 1/2 mineral spirits.  Linseed oil never quite dries and becomes sticky which is not at all nice to the touch.  The mineral spirits thins the oil and allows it to seep into the handles better.  Leave it there overnight, and then wipe the handle off and store the tool in its designated space.  

    The wiping rag is to the right of the station.  Note that it is hanging and not wadded up.  Never wad a rag with linseed oil or mineral spirits and leave it.  It can spontaneously combust.  Hang the rag where it can have lots of air flow.  I've also hung another PVC cap next to the station so that I can temporarily cap the PVC when I'm not using it.  

    The tools with hand-hold handles on the end won't fit in the PVC.  For these, simply wipe the wooden part with a rag with the linseed/mineral spirits mixture.

    Experts say that you should do this deep conditioning once a year, and during those long winter months is a good time.  I'm a little late since it is spring, but better late than never, right?

    Does it Work?
    Yes!  All of this took a surprisingly small amount of time to set up, and the materials were inexpensive.  It cost me about $16 for two cans of linseed oil.  I also had to buy $4 worth of sand, a $2 end cap, and a $1 scrub brush.  We had everything else laying around here.  Even if you had to buy everything, you could do it in stages if you are on a tight budget.

    I've cleaned a few tools already, and it seems SO easy.  First of all, I didn't have to crawl over tools to get to the ones I wanted before I started my garden project for the day.  This is a huge advantage, and will make me much more likely to want to get garden projects started in the future. 

    I have ongoing mulching projects, and afterwards I don't even have to stop at the washing station.  I just make sure there is no mulch left on the pitchfork, dip it in the sand a couple of times and then hang it up.  I'm pleased as punch!

    Future Improvements
    My husband will be happy if I can simply get the tools back to the shed after I use them, but he did offer to put a workbench with a vice and file and an electric grinder in the shed.  This way we can sharpen the tools when needed.  I think that's a grand idea, but my first baby steps are to try to make sure the tools are put up clean, and to try to refurbish the handles one at a time.

    I hope this is helpful, and wish you and your tools much Happy Gardening!!!

    Thursday, March 27, 2014

    How to Do a Free SCUPS Group PDC

    A while back, members of SCUPS decided to do their own PDC classes. These don't involve getting certification at the end (most certification courses run around $1,000 per person), but they do involve absorbing the knowledge of a PDC designer for free. The more PDC designers our group has, the more permaculture can spread in the upstate.

    Photo Caption: One of the houses at Earthhaven Ecovillage in Asheville, NC

    We started out recommending the free PDC videos at the Regenerative Leadership Institute. Most of the members who watched these videos didn't like how unstructured they were and their poor audio. Larry Korn seems like a fascinating guy to have a conversation with, but not the most intuitive instructor. Additionally, in the last month many respected permaculture organizations have come out against the founder of RLI (not Larry Korn) due to complaints of scams and poor personal relations with customers. Fortunately, we've discovered that Will Hooker from NC State has put up even more of his class lectures and they are of excellent, high tech quality with locally relevant info. We're now recommending them instead of the RLI materials.

    Though it is possible to do the materials on your own, we suggest SCUPS members ask around to form groups of 2-4 families who then learn the materials as a group. We also recommend that you give your SCUPS PDC group a name because then we can discuss each group's activities on the Facebook page without getting confused about who is doing what. (the name "SUPA BOB" is already taken by our group so even though you probably wanted your group to be called "SUPA BOB," you have to pick something else -- sorry). :)

    You can set up your group any way that suits you, but here's a suggested curriculum that is working for SUPA BOB:


    • Ask around on the SCUPS Facebook group or at SCUPS events if there is anyone in your area who wants to join up for a group PDC. We recommend keeping it small at 2-4 families and preferably people whose homes are not too far away to easily drive to.
    • SUPA BOB meets 2x a month at each others houses, usually on weeknights, to discuss the materials we already watched and read. We rotate between member's houses so it spaces out the hosting duties -- the host serves the main course and the other members bring no-fuss potluck side dishes or beverages. Some groups may elect to watch the videos as a group, but we personally found that we wanted to talk about our opinions and prefer to watch them & read the homework before the meeting.
    • SUPA BOB also meets 1 or more times a month at each other's houses, usually on a weekend, to do permaculture projects in each other's landscapes. This is also on rotation between member's so everyone gets a turn.
    • We found that only watching one video per 2 weeks would take multiple years to complete, so we grouped assignments to speed things up. Here's two photos of the spreadsheet that Kirsten Robertson made for our group. We filled in a member's house and meeting date for each video grouping. For example, the Robertsons might host the "Introduction" section, 2 weeks later the Lords might host the "Kirby Street Example" section, and 2 weeks after that the von Franks might host the "Forests, Trees, Site Analysis and Design" section. (Click to see larger images or contact Eliza or Kirsten if you want an editable copy of the original spreadsheet file so you can personalize it for your own group):

    Photo Caption: Contact Eliza or Kirsten for a copy of this spreadsheet file that you can edit for your own group.
    • Finally, take notes when you are watching videos or reading material so you have a list of things to discuss when you attend the meetings (unless your group decides to watch the materials together).
     We hope this helps anyone who is already or planning to take a free PDC together!