Gardening

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Indoor Micro-Greenhouse

My lovely wife and I found a pretty cool set-up for starting seeds awhile back.  It will also be a useful way to grow herbs and salad greens year-round.

It was $40 at Lowe’s, plus $5 x 3 for the lamps and $3 x 3 for the grow bulbs.  So just under $75.  But it will enable us to grow year round as well as start seeds.

It’s basically just a set of shelves with a custom fit transparent plastic case over the top that will help you trap heat.  The plastic is hard to see in this pic and I’m not a good enough photographer to get a shot without also getting a glare from the plastic. 

The front door can zip-up for a completely enclosed system.  We figured out very quickly that the internal temperature gets WAY too hot if you leave the plastic zipped and the bulbs on in your house though.  It was at 88 and climbing when I called it quits and rolled up the plastic front.  Considering how well it retains heat and how hot the lights get, I could probably have put it in the garage and maintained the heat I needed as well and it stays about 45 degrees in our garage.

With the plastic open and the bulbs on a timer, it stays at around 72 degrees in there.  As you can see we started several of our seeds already.  Looks like my system isn’t giving them enough light though.  Bummer.  I’ll need to add more lights.

You can buy one here (or maybe at your local Lowe’s).

Permaculture – Part III – Resources to Get You Started

As promised, here is Part III of this series on Permaculture.  Resources to Get You Started.

Books on Permaculture at Amazon.com

Audio (all from The Survival Podcast):

Video (there are hundreds of hours of free video out there, but this will get you started):

18 Part Video Series on Permaculture – by Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture

Permaculture – Part II – Introduction to the Solution

As you may have figured out from Part I, I think the solution to most of our problems is permaculture.

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture, as I’m using it, is a system that seeks to mimic nature for landscaping and gardening. In reality, it quite a bit bigger than that. From what I’ve read, when you start using permaculture for landscaping and gardening, it quickly becomes part of the rest of your life. You use it in decision making, construction, and so on. But why? Why mimic nature? We’re not intended to live wild, right?

Think about an old growth forest. The soil is soft, rich and black. Big, tall trees. Ground plants are abundant, but not crowded. There is great water retention, which helps to feed all of the trees and plants.

In the Spring, just enough sunlight gets through to help seeds germinate in the forest floor, attracting browsing animals and insects who in turn help to fertilize the soil with what they leave behind and carry the seeds to other parts of the forest. The rain replenishes everything and is stored in every living thing as well as the soil itself.

In the summer, there is shade and mottled sunlight on hot days. It usually feels cooler as a result. Plants are thriving. The shelter of the trees mitigates the damage that the weather and wind would cause to the soil and smaller plants. The trees are full and lush and pulling nutrients from deep within the soil with their root systems and converting them into leaves, seeds, nuts, and fruits.

In the fall, the leaves, fruit, nuts, and seeds fall. The microbes and insects sustained by the rich soil break down everything that falls quicker than most compost piles. Everything that falls is either gathered by wildlife and consumed (and then deposited as fertilizer and dormant seed), stored for winter and eaten later (and then deposited as fertilizer and dormant seed) or is quickly converted into mulch.

In the winter, the mulch protects the soil and seeds from the cold and ravages. The fruits and nuts provide food for wildlife over the winter. The natural fertilizer and compost continues to replenish the soil, providing nutrients to help the trees over-winter.

Then the process repeats.

No maintenance by man is required or even beneficial really (in fact, it’s often harmful). Nature does its own pruning, pest control, and so forth. Importantly, nature doesn’t till.

Great, amazing even, but my lawn isn’t an old-growth forest.

You’re right, but you can mimic these processes on the small scale. Moreover, with good plant selection, you can achieve a balance that will feed the wildlife you want to attract, push away that which you don’t, and produce an abundance of food, medicine, and flowers for yourself and your family. All without much trimming. All without much weeding. All without ANY tilling or chemicals.

Permaculture has been used to turn desert plots into lush green mini forests that are largely self-sustaining in less than a decade. It’s a process, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but with a little intervention, we can help nature along to where it ultimately wants to go and speed up the natural process quite a bit. We can create micro-forest, more or less, in a few years instead of old growth forest over a century or two.

Okay, but how?

Here is where my lack of expertise is going to shine like a polished turd. I’ve only just begun to learn, but this is what I’ve gathered so far:

It all starts with building up the soil. You have to put in some labor reestablishing the nutrient profile that decades of abuse via modern lawn “care” has destroyed. Usually this means bringing in compost, natural mulch, and manure. It does not involve tilling. Nature never tills. You’re going to be building up the soil, not digging into it.

Take the long view. Nature isn’t in a hurry, you shouldn’t be either. You can still have your traditional garden and even a grassy lawn for as long as you need to hang on to that. Indeed, even with permaculture, you’ll likely need to plant some annual vegetables every year if you want them.

Set up positive feedback loops. Those familiar with Dave Ramsey will get this concept immediately, but for everyone else, this means do small things simultaneously to address the larger problems. Two things will happen – 1) the small, quick changes will help you feel better about the whole process; and 2) the small things will make the big things easier.

For example, you can build up the soil in a small section of your yard and begin a medicinal herb garden (in a permaculture style), or you can add a water feature, some humming bird feeders and so on – these are quick and will make you feel good immediately. But you can also plant some fruit trees and crops that take a few years to establish like asparagus and grapevines. If you do it with some good prior planning, the presence of the water feature and/or medicinal herb garden may actually help the trees, grapes, and asparagus to grow because they attract beneficial insects and wildlife. The medicinal herbs, with a little preparation will also help you stay healthy physically and the water feature can help calm you mentally. Really…where’s the downside? And, oh by the way, this is one less area you have to mow and weed.

Think multi-function/multi-use. Your permaculture inspired lawn and garden will eventually incorporate plants that will provide food, shelter, medicine, and beauty – not just for you, but for local wildlife as well. It will help to keep a balance between helpful and harmful wildlife and flora. It will heal your home. But a key to this, given limited space, is to create an environment where everything serves as many purposes as possible. This way you have backups for your backups for your backups. If there isn’t enough rain, your lawn will still thrive when others require outside support. Same with insect problems – your healthy lawn and garden will withstand the pressure while others are eaten as easy, sick prey. In fact, your only real worry will be how to mitigate the impact of the stupid crap your neighbor does – like spraying for bugs and weeds.

Think Differently. Give away convention and embrace the new (and simultaneously ancient) method. This is easy for most once they realize how much less work the new method is.

Read and Educate Yourself about Permaculture. I’ll be recommending some resources in the next post – Permaculture – Part III – Resources to Get Started.

Now – for something fun – a visitor to the blog yesterday left me a comment that was truly hilarious and sums up the problem better than anything I’ve ever seen – thanks Dustin – Here’s that comment:

Imagine the conversation The Creator might have had with St. Francis on the subject of lawns:

God: Hey St. Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there in the Midwest? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect “no maintenance” garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

St. Francis: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

God: Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

St. Francis: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. The begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

God: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

St. Francis: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it… sometimes twice a week.

God: They cut it? Do they then bail it like hay?

St. Francis: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

God: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

St. Francis: No Sir. Just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

God: Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

St. Francis: Yes, Sir.

God: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

St. Francis: You are not going to believe this Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

God: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.

St. Francis: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

God: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

St. Francis: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. The haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

God: And where do they get this mulch?

St. Francis: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

Permaculture – Part I – Identifying the Problem

It’s not very often you come across someone or something you were basically unfamiliar with, but that has eloquently  put into words your very own feelings and thoughts about something.  For me, it happened fairly recently when I started reading about permaculture.

As usual, I’m not an expert, but I’m learning the basic principles and I think reviewing them here might provide both a helpful introduction to the concept for those who don’t know about it and help me to solidify my own thoughts and understanding.

In this first post, I’m not going to offer any of permaculture’s solutions.  I just want to point out the problems that we all face with lawns and point out some of the causes.

1.  Our big, green, decapitated grass lawns are not a very good idea. I actually don’t do most of what I’m about to describe, but I’m going to use “we” anyway.  When we build a house, we either opt to use rolls of sod (pre-laced with chemicals and fertilizer) or we seed the ground.  We water profusely for days and apply chemicals to keep the weeds from growing while the grass takes hold.  Once it does, we mow weekly, water, and still spray at least annually to keep out the weeds.  We apply fertilizer and even more seed.  If we have trees, we water, spray and fertilize those as well.  Then in the fall when the leaves come fluttering to the ground, we rake them all up (at least once) and send them to a landfill or a compost heap.  We edge the edges, trim the hedges, and prune the shrubs.  All with the intended goal of trying to beat, dig, claw, and poison nature into submission.  Is this really why we’re put on this earth?  I don’t think so.

Did you ever stop to think about why we do this?  Is it because the lawn is pretty?  Maybe it’s just me, but I’ll take a forest any day.  If you look at the history of Western Civilization, it’s likely that we began doing it as a way to imitate the wealthy.  Our forebears wanted to be able to suggest to the neighbors that they were wealthy enough to be able to have useless land that didn’t produce food, and that they had herds of grazing livestock large enough to keep it pristinely and uniformly chopped down.

Basically, we do all of this work to appear wealthier than we really are.  This is the same thinking that causes a newly married couple with no kids to purchase a 5,000 sq. ft. house, a sedan, and a sporty little mercedes.  In other words, this is the same thinking that got us into the credit crunch we’re in and caused the housing market to go kaput.  Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself why you look down at your neighbor who doesn’t mow often enough.  It’s either because you think it will hurt your own property value (proving my point), or because you feel like it’s a sign of an irresponsible loser.  Let’s look at that latter assumption – someone realizes they aren’t on earth to slave and toil over worthless grass and chooses to devote their life to something that’s important and they are a loser?  Someone opts out of a system that poisons the soil for generations to come and they are irresponsible?  Folks, this whole process – this whole way of thinking – is dumb.  I think we have a duty to opt out.  Am I suggesting you just let your lawn go wild?  No.  I’m suggesting that you have a responsibility to find a better way.

Looking at our lawns, pristine as they are when well maintained, they are water hogs, deplete the soil of vital nutrients, contribute to erosion and flooding, and require more maintenance than most farm land.  The only thing our modern lawns do well is ensure that we have an abundant work load, poisoned earth, and/or a big bill for chemicals.

2.  Most of the problems we have in our yards and gardens are caused by our modern yards/gardens and perpetuated or worsened by how we try to solve the problems.

Insects/Birds/Pest Animals – If I plant something, it will eventually send out signals via odor, color, or even chemicals to certain insects, birds, and animals saying “come and eat.”  It’s the plant’s way of ensuring it gets pollinated.  That’s WHY plants are beautiful and have distinct aromas.  Our typical response is to lather the plant with some chemical in order to keep away bugs.  In the process, we poison ourselves and the land and even more seriously, we destroy the systems that would help our plants to thrive.  When we apply insecticides, we upset the balance of predator/prey in the insect world.  It’s a lot like an engine…every piece serves a purpose and pursues its purpose with total dedication.  Plant, animal, or insect – usually, the purpose is to live and reproduce.  Sometimes that means insects eating plants, sometimes insects eating insects,  birds eating insects, birds eating rodents, birds eating plants, et cetera.  If we take away any one piece, then the others quickly become imbalanced.  If I kill the predatory insects, then the prey insects will have a population boom and my garden will suffer.  The same is true for any imbalance we create.

Weeds – Our lawns mimic prairies and savannas.  Speaking relatively, those are VERY temporary stages in land development.  They give way to taller growth, and fast growing trees, and eventually to large trees and deep growth forest.  Nature knows that, even if we don’t.  Nature will try to help the land progress into the next stage.

The way this progression happens is through the introduction of transition plants.  Plants like dandelions and plantain, which we call weeds, are the transition plants for prairies/savannas.  They serve many purposes (as do most plants), but their roles as transition plants are to 1) crowd out the grass and kill it off so that the grass will decay and replenish the soil with specific nutrients needed by the next set of plants; 2) attract insects and animals that will help to bring in the next group of transition plants; and 3) to pull nutrients from deep in the soil to the surface, readying the soil for the next set of transition plants.  Those plants will then fulfill their roles and add another complete set of nutrients and seeds to the soil for the next type of plants and eventually (in 100 years or so) we’ll have a deep growth forest – the natural state of things for most of the inhabited land of our planet.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.  Instead, we spray herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals onto our grass often with the horrific justification that we’re doing it so our kids have a place to play (might as well just scatter glass on the lawn at least that doesn’t cause cancer).  It’s a constant battle, and we may appear to be winning for a few years even, but in the end, the weeds will come back.  We can fight the weeds, but we’ll lose.  We can’t fight nature.  Nature always bats last.

3.  Grass produces very little food. You can, in fact, eat most grass seeds.  You can also eat many of the weeds that sprout up in a grassy lawn (though if you apply chemicals, or live near someone who does, I don’t recommend it).  But in terms of efficient land use for food production, lawns score pretty poorly unless you happen to be a grazing animal.  A lot of us add a fruit tree or a nut tree or a grapevine or a garden, but it’s usually a token gesture at best.  Plus we do these things in such a way that they create a ton of work for us – usually because we’ve sprayed them with the same poisons we’ve put all over our lawns.

In summary, the current model is labor intensive, harmful to the environment, unsustainable and completely pointless.  It’s also practiced by the vast majority of Americans.

What if there was a different way? A way that would provide us with medicine and food as well as physical and mental sanctuary?  A way that is self-sustaining because it provides its own water retention, tools, mulch, and weed/pest control?  A way that would both attract and feed local wildlife while still keeping them out of your food?  A way that, once established, requires comparatively little work on your part?  A way that instead of fighting nature, mimics it and uses it’s own “rules” to achieve a positive result?  There is.

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