Long Time Gone…

Under the current repressive legislature and state house here in Wisconsin, it has been hard to find positive things to say. The erosion of basic services and outright dereliction of duties exhibited by our Governor has only endeared him to those whose ox has not yet been gored. The Wisconsin that I knew, and loved has been sold to the highest bidder in many cases, not by vehemence and understanding deceit, but outright incompetence. I have more than once been overwhelmed by the levels of ecological destruction that are allowed to stand without even review or inspection. The groundwater laws have been gutted, the surface water protections have all but vanished, and air pollution regulations are sneered at and our Governor wants to take the EPA to court for mandating that cleaner coal facilities will be operated. Each year, the health effects of fly ash alone compromise public health as much as adding 100,000 new smokers each year, but our “elected three times” moron has sold our state a bill of goods, that the robber barons are welcome and the state is literally for sale.

Understanding this as clearly as I do has led me to redouble my efforts to get cracking on the biochar process. It is essential to have people learning basic skills to double the output of their gardens. It is a moral obligation to teach all who want to learn and spread this anti-technology amongst the masses. I am raising capital, not through kickstarter or some other crowd funding source, but here, where folks have been following my ECO-oriented posts. Through our local non-profit, ECO-Tours of Wisconsin Inc., we offer training sessions that are four hours long. Our apparatus is open source and extremely hackable by interested parties, but we need to transport it to your site and all you need to provide is about a gallon of rainwater, enough wood for a bonfire for three hours, (and a safe place to have a fire) and five gallons of dry sawdust (no glues, laminate, foam or paint) ECO-Tours is currently accepting donations for an upgrade to agricultural quantities of biochar. This is truly a chance to get in at ground zero.

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Feedback Loops

One of the main skills that permaculture requires is using all of our senses to become aware of what the planet is telling us, what is available in abundance and what constitute various limiting factors. Some messages that we can receive are loud, clear and undeniable, others are subtle and there are even occult factors that are hidden either by their miniscule scale or just a lack of or expense of detection tools. How much sun an area gets is usually the first thing that gets considered when we think about planting. Most garden vegetables for instance need to have four to six hours of sun per day, anything less and the plants will be sickly and harvest will be limited. In cases of reduced light, some leafy foods might be able to make their leaves, but if it is a seed or fruit that we are interested in,  the plant may never have enough light (energy) to set that fruit or seed, so planting into these areas of limited light would be a relative waste of time. The best feedback loop regarding light availability would be to understand where the sun tracks through the sky, and to visually inspect the path of the sun overhead during the Spring, Summer and Fall to “see” if there are enough hours of direct sun to keep the plants happy.

Too many trees, or buildings blocking what light is available can eliminate the possibility of growing some of the most popular vegetables. Other essential things might be availability of water, soil quality and nutrient availability in the soils. Sure, you may be able to grow your garden hydroponically, in nothing but straw or some other soil-less mix, but some source of nutrients for the growing plants will be essential for their health and ultimately production. Developing a feeling for the organisms that inhabit the growing medium, as well as what they bring to the process, is helpful if not essential to overall success.

How much moisture is available is also a huge part of growing virtually any plant. Too much water and the plant will become limp and the tissues will be soft and lack a thick cuticle (the outer layer of leaves that helps them to resist insect damage) too little and the plant will wither. If either extreme is the rule, or if your location alternately bounces between the two, there are things that can be done to resolve potential problems before they occur. That is why getting to know your site is critical to making your efforts pay off.

I have been gardening since the early seventies in earnest. Even when i was living in apartments, I would have a tiny plot of dirt filled with food , even if it was only a few buckets full of well-drained soil, I would have tomatoes or peas, several bean plants, or lettuces. Over the years, I learned lots of things to help improve the health of my plants, but I also learned some things not to do. Gardening is one of the best hobbies because there is always more to learn and it offers nearly unlimited opportunities to experiment and try new things.

One of the most difficult things that I have had to learn is how to get multiple harvests from limited space. Two years ago was the first time I got triple harvest from the same bit of soil. Initial plantings were peas and cabbage. These two were harvested in a little over two moons. The peas climbed up on a bit of fencing that I rigged over the bed. The cabbages spread wide, protecting the tiny carrot and beet sprouts. These were co-planted, just a few weeks after the peas and cabbages. The root veggies stayed in the soil for most of the spring and summer, but rather than being satisfied with just two harvest times, I also planted cucumbers and squash just before the cabbages came out. The tendrils of which I trained onto the same fencing that held the peas in Spring. The cucumbers were putting out pickling sized “cukes” by mid summer and the squash were covered in blossoms at about the same time, setting fruit before the cool of fall settled in hard. Part of this process was luck, but another part was my own willingness to experiment. I harvested any beet greens that threatened to overshadow the carrots and trained the vines onto the fence which was on the north side of the bed, so that as the sun came in from the south side in fall, there would still be light for the carrots which were putting on mass even after the beets came out.

“Listening” to the plants themselves is the only way to understand what they need and to find ways to keep them happy. The soils are the same. Within them, there can be hundreds of thousands, even millions of organisms, each with their own needs, and requirements for living healthy lives. Filling out the food web that exists underfoot is often able to do more for the plants we seek to grow than any other factor. I have had gardens with limited light and water. I also have had to leave my plants for weeks on end without care of any kind, but because of high levels of organic material in the soil and an intact layer of mulch, protecting my plants, I was still able to get a bountiful harvest. All things being equal, plants can, with love and attention, flourish in spite of certain limiting factors.



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The Fly in the Ointment

Permaculture is a misleading idea. Nothing on our planet is permanent. Simply look at maps of land masses over time. Time lapse photography, if we could do it over long enough periods, would make mountains look alive, being thrust up during one epoch and eroded away in consequent ones. The fossil record itself confirms change has been the predominant feature across the entire surface of the planet, so who came up with the idea that permanence is good?

I didn’t make up the concept, nor do I have any hope of changing the nomenclature, but it is helpful to take a longer scale of time into account for a number of very good reasons. Let us imagine that we are building a barn. Say we expected it to be around for a hundred years. We may need it immediately, but there are considerations that need to be made. Prior to construction, we should take into consideration a series of questions. From which direction will the barn face the onslaught of winter storms? Almost in the same question is embedded another…where is the best solar gain to be had? What about drainage? Livestock with wet feet work against the health of the creatures and their productivity. Taking into account the needs of critters that will inhabit or work in the barn for the coming century is imperative. Knowing a bit about climate and weather is essential as well, some locations would be better suited by a lower profile building, especially if wind is strong, frequent or sustained over long periods, while in other areas a taller structure might be called for to create a chimney-like effect, generating a cooling breeze in times of no wind or oppressive heat. Once the first stone is laid for a foundation, this structure will be relatively permanent, so changing to adapt to those things that have relative permanence becomes quite difficult. Being in a hurry could affect hundreds of thousands of other relationships that the structure might have with the environment and those creatures who will utilize it for shelter. In addition, where can the windows be placed for the best solar gain during the cold season and how can the doors be placed for the best cooling during the hottest times? Eternal questions, because of the relative permanence of the environment.

Beyond the actual structure come a series of other questions. How will hay be laid up for winter? Where will the best water be found? If there will need to be daily pick-ups or deliveries, how can access be easily made without disturbing too much ground? Depending on what sort of farm you are planning, specific needs could drastically change the features of the structure. For example: a farmer who wants to raise turkeys would have very different needs than another who wants to raise cattle for meat, still another who wants to have milk cows or goats would have unique considerations for “harvesting” and storing their specific commodity. The wheat farmer might only need room for his equipment, seed and storage etc.

Permanence, being relative, is, for many, harder to understand than change. Most humans are loathe to change. We seem to subconsciously understand what that is. Our ancestors have sought to understand the human species for many hundreds of generations. During that time, it seems, that the more things have changed, the more we humans have remained the same. We abhor change, but there it is, staring us in the face. Permanence gives us a feeling of security. How we prepare for the future, and the changes that time will bring inevitably determine the quality of life for generations yet to come. Permaculture is supposed to take their welfare into account, as well as our current needs and aspirations.

Especially now, when it seems that everyone desires the quick “fix”, what they want now. Many can’t seem to be troubled with understanding the difference between wants and needs, getting our bearings in this milieu can be a little tough. When I learned that native people have always changed their environment to suit their long term needs, it made me feel unstable. My understandings of and about native people had to change. It was uncomfortable. Previously, I had thought that the tribal people who I had studied in great depth were some sort of super human race, that they were ecologically benign. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my area specifically, native people burned vast swaths of forest periodically because the nature of the forest in our area is to mature into a climax state dominated by maple trees. great for making maple sugar, but terrible for deer browse. Periodic fires allowed oaks to flourish instead, providing food for the deer herds that, in turn, fed the people.

We each go into the abundant world alone. what one chooses to bring back might be overlooked by another.

We each go into the abundant world alone. what one chooses to bring back might be overlooked by another.

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Using Seaweed in the Garden

Ventnor Permaculture

SeaweedIf you live near the sea here are a few tips on utilising a valuable free resource for your garden. Seaweed is almost good as farmyard manure, although it is lower in phosphates but richer in potash. It is loaded with vitamins and minerals

The best time to collect seaweed for use in the garden is right after a storm as the newly washed up seaweed has less salt in it than weed which has been lurking in a harbour for weeks. If it smells clean and fresh use it, if it pongs walk away. Only collect loose seaweed do not pull it off of rocks, by doing so you will be making numerous sea creatures homeless and damaging the eco system. Give it a quick swish in the sea and a shake to remove any residents. It is best to wash the seaweed with fresh water or leave in…

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It has become evident that our current system is not working. Rather than inciting riots, advocating the overthrow of our dominant power and control structures or encouraging people to tear down the systems of oppression abuse and neglect that we are all becoming familiar with, I encourage building a new system entirely. The old ones are falling of their own weight, we just need to find ways to get out of the way or shelter in place as they fall around us. there are those who will feel displaced, to be sure. There are those who will feel helpless and unprepared to face the new society that is on the rise around the planet, but that never stopped change before and it certainly will not stop the changes that are coming. Buggy whip manufacturers had their day, lead pipe came and went even the electric curler manufacturers had their moment in the sun, but they have all gone the way of the dinosaur, yet we still coax our preferred method of transport to go faster, we still find ways to get water into our sinks and we eventually came up with the startling idea of letting our hair look “natural” rather than forcing it to curl. for those who do not mind putting hazardous chemicals on their hair, they have the option of the “permanent”. (which only lasts a while)

I only mention these things that are passe’ because when times change, the legacies that we felt were an important, even the tools that we felt were essential to our “modern” culture went the way of the dinosaur. If our species is to survive, the concept of planned obsolescence, fossil sources of oil and the preoccupation we seem to have for more at any cost need to die out as well.

The more local we can  live, the smaller our energy footprint becomes. The less energy we need to burn through, the lighter our carbon footprint. Many scientists are saying that we have already crossed the threshold of the sixth mass extinction. Since the beginning of the industrial age, not only has more and more land come under cultivation, and more and more “modern” techniques are used to wrest food from that land. Along the way, habitat loss continues to claim entire populations of many organisms. This direction is certainly unsustainable. Many claim that GMOs will save us from threatened starvation, but the real challenge is not growing enough food for humans, but distribution of the surplus that we create. Those who have made their living from abusing the planetary systems that enable us to live here will never voluntarily relinquish the power that they wield. The only way to effectively eliminate them is to de-couple our lives from their systems of abuse and neglect. If we reorganize our lives to eliminate the flow of capital to their money-grubbing hands, they will simply die off and fall away. Designing a sustainable lifestyle is not only our right, but our responsibility as well.

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A Brief Musing On Ethics

Now, in this day and age, we seem to find plenty on anger, hostility, frustration and angst. We seem to be preoccupied by all things unethical, but it is easy to point fingers at what we see as wrong with the world around us. What becomes a bit more challenging is to examine our moral codes and bases for action. Ethics are based on arbitrary definitions, skewed perspectives and frequently poor use of language. Many of the world religions deem ethics as part of their teaching, but take one simple admonition…treat your neighbor as yourself…or perhaps even more fundamentally…love one another…

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Well, if we consider ourselves at all ethical, why are there protesters lining up to object to refugees coming across our border? Has anyone actually studied American History? We are descended from refugees and criminals. The vast majority of our earl immigrant population (yes, the vast majority of us come from elsewhere) was fleeing either religious persecution or they were sentenced to banishment for crimes. Late waves of immigration were because of economic hardships. Whatever form of ethics those who protest refugees from Central and South America coming here for a better life are based on either ignorance, fear or hate. It is my humble opinion that these emotions do inform us in the field of ethics. These “primitive” beliefs and understandings of the world around us do not rise to the level needed to inform our ethical nature. I truly believe that humans are designed to act ethically because their behavior could be replicated by others upon them and no one would want to be treated badly, unless they have confused abuse for love and neglect for caring.

These simple facts leave plenty of room for explanation, but for starters, we must understand that we live in a society sick from the hundreds of toxic chemicals in our environment. We load up our bodies with carcinogenic compounds and wonder why cancers of all types are on the rise. We threaten the welfare of others by heaping upon them derision, blame and fallacy until it is easy to cut them down where they stand or bomb them into “submission”. These are not the actions or behaviors of civilized people. These actions rely on falsified ethics. No god worth worshiping  would say: “Love one another except for the poor”, or “except for the Jews.” Nor would they desire us to contaminate the soil, air and water that we depend on for life.

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This year we are trying another method of sequestering carbon and it is supposed to conserve water and nutrients as well. Hugelcultur is burying wood under a layer of soil to create beds that are raised. This will not only add biomass to the garden but it will be more than double the height of our current square and rectangular raised beds, built up as a mound of woodpile, then covered completely with soil. So far the plants we have put on the mound seem happy as ever. Because it is more of a hill than a flat affair, there is additional square footage created on either side of the hill than if the soil were just flat. Just like purchasing land with slope, you get more square feet (or acreage) than if it were flat. The plants seem to love it and if the reports are correct, this will increase the nutrient content and water holding capacity of the soil for twenty years or more.


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