The weather shifted from far too warm for March to dangerous in the space of just an hour. I could see the storm front pushing in and did what I always do: move anything that could blow around into the shed, tuck the animals into their homes and hope for the best, and check my emergency bag.
Being an USAF wife taught me to be ready to leave my home in 10 minutes if the alarm sounds. I have never been able to set that bit aside. So I always have an emergency bag packed — just in case. It came in very handy on March 2. My. Emergency bag isn’t the kind you could live out of for three days, it is the kind that will give you some comfort while living out of the 72 hour kit.
My Emergency Bag contains: my sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a USB powered fan, a solar charger, a spare charger for my phone, spare glasses, important paperwork on a USB drive, a Turkish towel, and a spare leash/collapsible water bowl for Jasper. My backpack sits ready for any adventure. It carries (in an emergency) a water bottle, snacks, purse, Welsh stuff, Kindle, flannel robe, and my 3-1-1 kit. Oh, and I always grab my yoga mat. I can be out the door in 5 minutes with this set up.
MySecondary Bag — The majority of my seasonal clothing will fit into my travel duffel. My garden seeds also fit in this bag. If I am given an additional 5 minutes, this bag can be packed and out the door too.
Family Kit — One thing I would like to do is to pack a family kit into plastic tote. I think it would work well to pack the tote like a camping kit. That’s a pretty easy way to think about what should go in it. I may start working on this one after the new year.
I have compiled a comprehensive and ever-changing list of the things I consider essential to my living a very small, very good life. I edit it about every three months. It doesn’t number the actual possessions, it just gives me a feel for the “rightness” of my surroundings. I fully adhere to the view that “the root of war begins in our quest for more.” — John Woolman.
Living at Home
Bed: frame, mattress, bedding, duvet in winter, cotton blanket in summer, throw blanket for extra warmth or napping, 2 pillows
Dresser: cabinet my dad made with 3 shelves + baskets for underwear, bras, socks, Fountain pen supplies, home only clothes, and movement clothes.
Closet: wooden hangers that hold all clothes, tote that holds off-season clothes, and other tote that holds my duvet + cover and coat in the warmer months).
Bookshelf: 2 shelves of my favorite books, 1/2 shelf with farm resources, and 1/2 shelf with Welsh books.
Fan — cannot sleep without the white noise
Chair and sheepskin . . . Where I can be found when I’m sitting down.
Schwinn GTX3 with Ibera rack and trunk, bike helmet, cable lock, tire pump.
As I wrote before: I think houses should be smaller so gardens and lawns can be bigger. I think we need less time indoors and more time outdoors. I believe everyone should have a right to hang their laundry outdoors and grow food. The other advantages of a small and simple home are: easier to keep clean, less chemicals required when you can hand scrub surfaces frequently, less electricity/oil/gas/wood needed to heat the home, less furniture (and other stuff) to off-gas into your lungs, less stuff in general, and . . . I am not convinced that we all need super large ovens, stoves, refrigerators, freezers, hot water heaters, washing machines, dryers, etc. I think we should choose the smallest size that works for us, even if that size is not to have one at all.
Our household is four adults sharing a 4 bedroom, 2 bath, with a common kitchen, living room, and laundry facilities, 1400 square foot manufactured home. At times it feels much too large.
My perfect home would include:
12 inch exterior walls, with large southern and eastern facing windows, with small and high northern and western facing windows, working shutters, greenhouse attached to southern wall, and next to it a screen porch with benches for removing and storing shoes.
Rain water harvesting system: roof, tanks, pump, and manual pump delivering water straight into the kitchen and bathrooms. Solar hot water tanks. Overflow pond.
Gray water wetlands and composting system for composting toilets. Septic for black water.
Small kitchen, large pantry. Solar food dehydrator, outdoor bread/pizza oven and grill (wood, not gas or charcoal), root cellar system.
Small solar energy system (or bio-digester). Transitioning to fewer electrical items so the system can be small and affordable. Solar battery chargers for small electronics.
Heat sink/ masonry by southern windows for winter passive heating — maple trees planted in front of house for summer passive cooling. Small rocket stove for heating and cooking in the cooler months.
The coming years will be filled with mini-experiments with each of the above systems. It will allow us to grow accustomed to the ideas and practicalities of working with these systems. In the meantime, as things break I have to ask myself, “Is this what I want in the future? Is this sustainable? Is this simple?” If the answer is yes, then I repair or replace it. If the answer is no, I let it be and we begin putting an alternative in place.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a flowering plant in the mint family. It grows quite well here in Zone 6b. I just have a couple of plants, but they produce quite enough for our needs.
In the late summer, when it is flowering, and late in the day I go out and pick the leaves. I am always careful to leave the youngest leaves and enough leaves so that the roots are fed and ready to survive the upcoming cold.
The following is how I use horehound. It should not construed to be medical advice.
Use 1: You can dry the leaves and then steep 1 tsp of leaves in hot water for a sore throat.
Use 2: You can mix a leaf with honey and chew on it for a sore throat or cough.
Or Use 3, which is how I prefer . . . Horehound cough drops
Make no mistake, this is not candy. It is quite bitter, but it is an effective cough drop. You can suck on it, like normal, or let it dissolve in a bit of hot water, add honey and drink.
1 cup fresh horehound leaves
2 cups water
Let boil for 20 minutes
Let cool and then strain out the leaves, I squeeze the leaves to release all the oils. I normally get about a 1/4 cup liquid.
Put liquid into a sauce pan, add 2 cups of sugar, and boil to the candy stage. ( I test by dropping a drop in a glass of cold water, if it stays together, it is candy stage. You can also use a thermometer.)
Put a silicone mat in a baking sheet and pour the horehound mixture onto it. Place in refrigerator until solid. You could also use small candy molds (and those are on my wish list for next year)
The next day, remove from tray (or molds), break into pieces, wrap in wax paper, and store in jars.
I keep most of mine in the freezer, but leave a jar or two in the fridge.
Sometimes while learning Welsh, I stumble on a word that just makes perfect sense. Usually it is one of those words that you really can’t simply translate. It means too much. Cyenfin is one of those words and it fits so perfectly with my whole being.
Cynefin: belonging to place, a place to “stand”
Cynefin comes from and leads to understanding that the earth is animate, all life is sacred, and harmony is found in living in the rhythm of cycles and seasons.
Related words are ‘cyfenw’ which we translate as surname, but it really has the meaning ‘place name.’Also ‘cyfeiriad’ which is address or ‘place you are.’
If I own it and wear it, it is one of these colors.
The reality of my pre-Covid life was that I was at home six days out of seven, go to church (where we dress casually), run a few errands, and a book club meeting two to three times a month. The reality of my mid-Covid life is that I am home except for the very occasional trip out. When at home, my tasks fall into a few categories: farming, walking, learning/reading, cleaning, and sleeping.
This makes it pretty easy to keep my wardrobe simple and small.
Rain coat, parka, gloves, sun hat, winter hat, scarf
puffer vest, farm boots, farm coat (at home only)
As you can see, my wardrobe is super simple, super casual, and super comfortable. I have a couple of options that are specifically for dressing up. Honestly though, I avoid that as much as I can. Weddings, funerals . . . That is about all I am willing to be fussy about.
I believe that if we each just took “enough” for our needs then their would be “plenty” for all.
Clean and beautiful environment — Our shared home is truly a marvel. We all have a right to enjoy her beauties. I believe Federal, State, and Local parks should be funded by taxes and free to visit. I also think we should be expanding our park system and striving to provide green spaces and community gardens in every urban environment.
Clean water supply — There are calculators out there that will tell you how many gallons of rain water your roof can “catch” per inch of rain. Combine that “catch” with your average annual rainfall and you have a number for the maximum amount of water you should use in a year. Some of us live in reliably wet places — for instance we average 48 inches of rain per year here, although lately that number has been more like 60 inches of rain per year. If you choose to live in a desert area, it will be harder. This is one reason why traditionally very few people live in actual desert conditions. Our modern exploitation of ancient waters and an intensive use of electricity is the only thing that allows for so many people to live in desert areas.
A clean and balanced diet — To quote Michael Pollan, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” To quote myself, “Eat what you grow and grow what you eat.” Local, organic, fresh/frozen . . . The sliding scale of best choices in my opinion. Michael Pollan also defines food as 5 ingredients or less, food your great-grandmother would recognize, and with words any beginning reader could pronounce. That is a guideline that is easy to remember!
Basic clothing — Clothing appropriate for your weather, your job, and always ethically sourced. I maintain a very small wardrobe, in colors I like, and most importantly are comfortable. I also choose natural materials.
A simple and small home — I think houses should be smaller so gardens and lawns can be bigger. I think we need less time indoors and more time outdoors. I believe everyone should have a right to hang their laundry outdoors and grow food. The other advantages of a small and simple home are: easier to keep clean, less chemicals required when you can hand scrub surfaces frequently, less electricity/oil/gas/wood needed to heat the home, less furniture (and other stuff) to off-gas into your lungs, less stuff in general, and . . . I am not convinced that we all need super large ovens, stoves, refrigerators, freezers, hot water heaters, washing machines, dryers, etc. I think we should choose the smallest size that works for us, even if that size is not to have one at all.
Basic health care —If Covidteaches us one thing I hope it is that we all deserve adequate, accessible, and affordable health care. All. Of. Us.
Simple communications — At a minimum a functioning Post Office, a phone with texting ability, and internet even (and especially) in rural areas. I also think if we all said what we meant and meant what we said, we’d be a lot better off. I have stopped reaching for showy words when I write and instead choose the word that accurately and easily says what I mean.
Well-rounded education — Reading, writing, maths, and logic at a minimum. Free public libraries, teachers paid well, resources and skill sharing libraries . . . But also an understanding that a degree does not mean you’re smarter, wiser, kinder, or a better person than the less educated neighbor.
Many of my choices have already been made: I will remain on this land (stability) and I will take care of this land (sustainability). That already narrows down so many choices like “Shall I buy the cheap chicken grains or the organic chicken grains?”
If I am staying here and taking care of here, then I can only buy the organic grains. Why? I want my chickens to be the healthiest they can be, I want any grain that sprouts to be a true seed (not some hybrid that won’t breed true), and I don’t want to introduce any pesticide or herbicide residue into my soil.
So my first two vows make my third vow easier. Then taking my previous post about cycles and rhythms, you can see that I don’t have to make too many choices about my days. The rhythm of the year and the day will lead to a simple day. I move through my days without thinking too much about “should I’s”.
My main choices these days are about how to use our resources when bringing things onto the property or removing things from the property.
A Case Study — The Laundry. The washer broke on 5 September 2020.
Fact 1: We already made the decision not to have a clothes dryer.
Fact 2: We already have a clothesline (for outside) and drying racks (for inside).
So — we are used to thinking outside the standard American box for laundry.
Query: It is 25 days to payday. Do we go to a laundromat ? Do we hand wash the small things and save heavy items for the laundromat? Do we put a washer on credit?
Considerations for Query: In 2012, an EF-4 tore our house apart and pulled the utility poles straight out the ground. We were without a washer for 3 weeks while we waited for the electric to be reconnected. I did laundry in a bucket. It was not so bad, just chaotic because, no roof, tarps for walls, etc. . . .
Considerations for Query: How much water and electricity does the washer use? How much water and electricity will it use to do laundry by hand? How much will a load cost at a laundromat? How much will a new washer cost? Are there non-electric options or low-electric options I am comfortable with?
Exploration: I did laundry in buckets for one week. It was not bad. I even was able to do sheets and jeans. Sweatshirts would have been more difficult and autumn and winter are on our doorstep. The biggest issue was wringing out enough water before hanging. In this summer-y weather, I could simply carry them out and hang them on the line. They watered the grass. In cold weather, they would have to drip all over the house. Not great.
Exploration 2: We purchased a small “spinner”. Washing the clothes continued as we’d done for a week. Wring out the clothes and place them in the spinner. Each spin cycle takes about 2 minutes. No dripping mess and clothes that could hang indoors in winter.
Exploration 3: A basket in a bucket system for washing, a second basket in a bucket for rinsing, and the spinner.
Conclusion: A mostly non-electric system that can handle all our laundry, takes 5 gallons to wash a day’s worth of laundry, takes 5-7 gallons to rinse a day’s worth of laundry, and 2 minutes to spin each load. It is an easy system, and it is a pleasure to use.
Conclusion 2: The old washer was taken apart. The metal will be used for roofing either the chicken arc or a new rabbit hutch. All other usable parts were cleaned, labeled and store. The things that can’t be reused will put in our garbage for the week. It will nearly double the week’s garbage, but it could be worse.
Financial costs + energy costs:
Spinner (a gift)
First Levario/bucket + basket (a gift)
Second Levario —$130
Water per day — 10-12 gallons. This is a savings of 30-60 gallons per day.
Electric usage — Our daily usage dropped 6 kWh/day.
My washing system:
I begin by putting less than a Tablespoon of soap in wash water. Into the basket, I place clothes that go next to the body and are relatively clean. The basket is closed and “agitated” 15 times, then the clothes soak for 10 minutes, then they are agitated for another 15-20 times, then the basket is removed from the water and left to drain for 10 minutes. Then I squeeze out as much water as I can by hand.
I do 1) relatively clean clothes that are next to the body, 2) relatively clean clothes like sweaters, trousers, and hand towels, 3) kitchen towels, 4) dirty stuff. Potty wipes are soaked all day in a bucket that lives in the shower. Those get washed in their own bucket.
Meanwhile, I have gathered 5 gallons of clean water into the rinse bucket. The load is then moved from washing to rinsing bucket. I agitate it 20 times and leave it soak for a bit. Then I lift the basket out of the bucket, drain, and squeeze.
Finally, things are layered into the spinner. It takes just 2 minutes per load for them to be “indoor hangable.”
If Harmony is my abbey then stability, sustainability, and simplicity are my vows. — Me
I define simplicity, in the context of my vows, as the quality of being plain, beautiful, and slow. It means a life where I am living in a rhythm with the seasons and daily rhythms of prayer, work, reading, and rest. It means a life where I am not fatigued with so many choices. It means a life where I have identified the essentials and eliminated the rest. In the words of Austen Farrer, “Simplify your life, do fewer things, and do them well.”
Living a Life in rhythm with the seasons — Being privileged to stay home and tend the farm, animals, and home means that I have freedom to tailor my year to the seasons with ease. Our seasons look more like Celtic seasons — the solstices and equinoxes are more the center of the season rather than the start of the season — and generally mark times of transition. The Autumn Equinox has passed. The six weeks following the equinox means the garden harvest is winding down. It is time to think about cleaning up the garden beds, mulching the bare soil, cleaning the seed starting pots and garden tools, and winterizing the rabbit hutch and the chicken ark. It is time to visit a local orchard and get our yearly supply of apples. By November 1, we will have switched to checking on the food we have stored so that we can use the things that aren’t keeping well. We’ll be busy in the woods carrying sticks back to the house for kindling. Meals will be more soups and stews and less salads and raw foods. Winter, for us, starts when laundry can no longer be dried on the clothesline, sometime in November, lasts through December, January, and much of February. We are hunkered down with blankets, candles, and fires. March 1 brings a flurry of garden preparations: seeds must be checked and reordered if I wasn’t able to save enough, tools must be checked and sharpened, seed starting soil must be sterilized and put into pots. The Spring Equinox is when I start some seeds in pots under a makeshift greenhouse. April 1 is the real start of the gardening year because greens and brassicas can go out in the garden. Peas too, as soon as it is mild enough. May, June, July, August, September, and October are all the furious rush of gardening season. I try to keep the Solstices and Equinoxes and the Quartering of the Year days as mini-holidays. Days to remember, days to observe, and days to be grateful for a chance to step outside of the normal work.
Daily Rhythms of Prayer, Work, Reading and Rest— My daily life follows a rhythm. I move from task to task, alternating between physical and mental work. I rise before the sun, do some stretches, recite my morning prayers, and then head out for a walk. Breakfast follows the walk, as does a tour of the house and the yard/garden/orchard as I assess what needs to be done that day. In the warm months, the outside work gets done first, in the cool months the inside work gets done first. That work is followed by Welsh time. Lunch follows along with strength exercises, the indoor/outdoor work gets done, and then some time reading non-fiction, and then fiction and then some more Welsh. Dinner time is followed by Evening prayers, a short spurt of evening tidy up, a short walk, and then more time reading or chatting with family. I try not to use lights in the evening so that my body is ready for sleep. I am early to bed, with an audiobook, and early to rise.
This path, this revolution of belonging, necessarily entails accepting our responsibility towards our own places and communities. It might be impossible to save the world all in one go, but it is possible to protect, guard – and yes, even save, when necessary — our home places and our communities. If we have to do it little by little, one place at a time, then now is a good time to begin. Each of us sewing just one of the squares which contributes to the vast, growing patchwork quilt of the world’s renewal.” ~Sharon Blackie
I read that somewhere, years ago, and it was probably John Jeavons. Jeavons’s gardening system is unique in that he has you using a good bit of your space to grow compost. Or rather, to grow things to be composted.
All in all, it is a very necessary thing to consider. When you eat from your land, you are only eating as healthfully as the soil is healthy. If you are lacking certain minerals in the soil, you will end up lacking them in your body. This is one reason why my family doesn’t strive to be 100% eating from this land. We know there are gaps —I mean, it was an industrial agriculture corn and soy field.
Growing soil: We compost religiously — I have already done a post on that. We don’t walk on the soil — I have mentioned that. We don’t till or plow the soil — I have mentioned this too. We have permanent garden beds — I have mentioned this too. We have grass paths between our garden beds — yep, already talked about this. We plant trees so they can pull up deep minerals. — I want to talk about this. We have animals for their manure — I am going to talk more about this in a minute. We try not to leave the soil bare — but we need to do better with this one.
Trees for the garden: I love trees. Plain and simple, and I would plant them for no other reason than for the simple joy they bring me. These beauties sink their roots deep into the earth and pull minerals up into their leaves . . . And then they drop those leaves, conveniently, within my reach each autumn. And so, I thank them, marvel at their beauty and thoughtfulness, and then gather up about half the leaves. I leave the other half to return minerals to the soil that is supporting the tree. The leaves I gather are added to the compost pile or tucked up around other plants — like the hibiscus, or a new little tree just getting established. Since we also heat our home with wood, the ashes are added to the compost as well. The ashes are another source of minerals for the soil.
Animals for manure: We have, in the past, had animals that we intended to eat (chickens, goats, sheep, and cows), or milk (cows and goats), or collect their eggs (chickens), or harvest their wool (sheep).
I have to tell you, I can’t do it. I can’t raise a creature, love that creature, and then kill and eat that creature. So I choose to be mostly vegetarian
The second great revelation was with dairy animals. I can’t do that either. First of all, you need a male (or have access to the male). Then you have to decide if you are keeping all the babies, if you don’t you’ll have to sell them or find homes for them. Babies come with tiny little horn buds. Some people have no problem burning them off with a very hot iron. I do have a problem with that. So I let their little horns grow. But most people don’t want an animal with horns. And finally, we learned that our family is highly lactose intolerant. So no more dairy animals.
My favorite animals (other than rabbits and chickens) to have on the farm are sheep. I adore them. After learning to card wool, spin wool, and knit — I also learned that I am very allergic to lanolin. Like in, it looks like I took an acid bath. Not good. So we sold my beloved sheep.
After all these experiments and failures, we decided on keeping animals for what they can add to the soil. And what they can add to the soil is POOP!
We have a hutch of very spoiled rabbits whose sole duty in life is to poop. Michael collects this poop and adds it to the compost pile. I couldn’t honestly even tell you for sure if our rabbits are boys or girls. That’s because their sole duty is to poop not repopulate the planet. Our rabbits all have names from Watership Down.
We also have a handful of laying hens. These hens have two duties on the farm. The first is to eat our scraps, our lawn clippings, and our garden weeds, and scratch through it repeatedly while pooping to speed along the compost process. Their second duty is to give us a few eggs a day. Really, this is just a bonus. Our chicks are named after Ogham trees, although really their names are “the ladies.”
No Bare Soil: This is an area where we have lots of room for improvement. What we will strive to do better with next year is succession planting — which means I need to start seeds in containers that can be put into beds when another crop comes out.
I also need to spend time this winter learning more about mulching techniques for the garden beds. This autumn we started mulching the bed with grass clippings from the chicken yard. The clippings have been scratched at for several weeks, so no seeds, and has a little bit of manure in it. So far I’ve covered about half the beds and they seem to be staying pretty weed free. We’ll see how that turns out.
It is really hard to get clean straw around here so I need to do some reading. I have _Practical Permaculture_, _The Resilient Farm_, _How to Grow More Vegetables . . . _, and _No Dig Organic Home & Garden _ queued up and waiting for cooler weather.
This post could easily be called Closing the circle, part 2. It is the same principle in that we seek to supply the needs of the farm here on the farm. In this case we are talking about the start and the end of the gardening process.
Seeds: Garden seeds are life, energy, and valuable.
I am a firm believer in the fact that we can’t buy our way to sustainability and that we should not commodify (or trademark) what should be free. The current seed and nursery market is dominated by just those things. Seeds that are trademarked (or otherwise held by private companies) just seems wrong to me.
Rather than spend money on something that I believe is morally /ethically objectionable — I save seeds and perennial plants that can be transplated. And I share. I share freely with those who asks for a start of a plant or seeds. There are a few plants that with my climate I can’t easily save seeds from. For those I buy a yearly packet from Victory Seeds.
Each seed or plant is a life, a source of renewable energy, and valuable. Each year I make sure to save enough seeds for the next year. Seed saving is pretty easy. You let the plant/fruit of the plant come to full maturity. Then you harvest the seed pod or the overly ripe fruit/vegetable. The seed pod is really easy; break it open and collect the seeds. The fruit/veg is still pretty simple; break open the fuit/veg, scoop out the seeds, let dry, and then store. I store my seeds in prescription bottles. When the bottles are new they are washed out really well, sterilized as best I can, and then left in the sun to dry.
Surplus: The gardens nearly all produce more than we could possibly eat. The way we handle it is to eat all we want of that day’s harvest. Then we freeze, can, or dehydrate what is left. One day a week we invite others to come harvest for themselves. We are careful to teach them how to harvest properly. Occasionally we will harvest for another and take it to them.
An example: The start of the raspberry/blackberry season. We harvest early in the morning and have berries with breakfast and lunch. Then the remainder are put on a cloth lined baking pan and covered with a cloth napkin. Then they are set on a freezer shelf. The next morning, I scoop them off the tray and into a freezer bag or glass jar.
An example: I also keep “Chicken Bags” going. This is a ziplock bag where all the little bits and pieces of harvest go. Not enough basil to run the dehydrator, put it in the newest chicken bag. Too much watermelon, put in the chicken bag. Just a few blackberries, put them in the bag. A bit of zucchini left, shred it and add it to the bag. Just a scraping of rice, into the bag. A few beans, into the bag. You get the idea. The chickens get their fair share of the harvest when it is first picked, so this is seconds. If left on the porch rail for a bit before feeding, it will have flies, wasps, creepy crawies, ants, and other things in it.
People Power: 1) Using human minds and bodies to accomplish the task at hand. 2) Preferring to do fewer jobs well, slowly, and by hand. 3) Becoming proficient in the use of non-petroleum powered tools.
Yard: There is something calm and meditative about listening to someone using a scythe. It wooshes through the grass and leaves behind cut vegetation and a clean smell. You can use it while the grass is wet and the day is still cool. It isn’t hard work once you’ve learned the basics and you have a sharp blade. But it isn’t easy either. You must put your body into motion. You should keep your mind on your work.
An old fashioned reel mower works about the same. But if your ground isn’t even or you have clumpy grass, it is a much harder task. You still get the cut vegetation and you are still free from petroleum and oil smells. You still need sharp blades and to keep your mind on your business.
Or you could wait until almost noon and fire up the gas powered lawnmower. It leaves behind cut vegetation and an aroma of burning gas and oil. You still get the job done, but it isn’t nearly as pleasant an experience.
There’s actually another way that I dream of. . . . This is the front yard of my dreams. Planting enough trees that the grass doesn’t really grow. Encouraging the clover to grow instead of grass. Having enough garden beds, pollinator beds, chicken yards, and rabbit yards that mowing is only necessary along thought out paths.
Gardens: We use the people powered principle in the garden as well. This is a combination of a couple of my garden principles: stay out of the growing beds and people powered.
Our kitchen garden beds are each 5 foot wide by 20 foot long. They are set in a grid that is (currently) 5 beds wide by 3 beds long. Between each bed is a 2 1/2 foot grass path. Our goal is to never step in the garden bed. It is just wide enough that even I (at 5’1” tall) can reach the center. It is just wide enough that you can hoe it up at the start of garden season without stepping in it. If, when planting seeds, you need to be in the middle, we use a wide board that distributes our weight evenly.
We use a long-handled hoe, a long handled spade (rarely), and a collection of small hand held tools (Each is about 12 inches long) that includes a hoe, rake, transplanting spade, shovel, hole maker, and pruners. Mostly we use our fingers. Fingers are made for pinching, pulling, tugging, and you get a lot of practice squatting and changing positions while squatting while working this way.
We have found that by not stepping in our beds and by not bringing in power tools the soil stays loose and we stay flexible as we age.
Sustainability > Keeping Critters > Closing the Circle
Closing the Circle: Finish what you start, in sustainable/regenertive agriculture it means supplying all inputs from your own property and handling all your outputs on property as well.
This post is about how we attempt to close the circle with our critters and where we can make improvements. Closing the circle on human needs is impractical for us at this point and not really something we see ourselves capable of doing even in the future. So we make the most ethical choices we can. But that’s for another day and another post.
I talked a little about this in the post on compost. That, more or less, only dealt with outputs. Things like: manure, bedding, weeds, food waste, material, paper products, urine, etc. This post will look at rabbits, chickens, Jasper (dog), and budgies.
Rabbits are one of my favorite farm animals. I spent some time learning about what rabbits really eat and then figuring out how to grow that food here. When I feed the rabbits from our property and then collect their waste . . . That is closing the circle. As a reminder for rabbit outputs: we scoop up rabbit manure every month and add it to the compost piles; when a rabbit dies, their body is buried under a newly planted tree. Thank goodness, we don’t lose rabbits very often, but it has happened and will happen again.
So what do rabbits eat, and what can I grow to feed them?
Hay (90% of diet) — Grass, clover, weeds, plantain, wheat grass, sprouted wheat, dandelion, clover (white and red), timothy hay
I have all this on the farm, with the exception of the wheat for sprouting and making wheat grass. We have started transitioning them by feeding them greens, herbs, and some veggies all summer. I have wheat ordered for the sprouts and wheat grass. I’ll get them used to that all fall and hopefully we will be fully transitioned by winter. I am not sure that we will ever grow our own wheat, we certainly won’t even try until after retirement.
The chickens we currently have were raised on a homegrown diet supplemented by some scratch grain to train them to enter the ark and leave the ark (what I call their house). We planted several things specifically for the chickens this year in the garden.
For keeping clean — dirt, sand, a bit of grit.
For housing — to keep dry and shade, add insulating hay for winter
Protein — bugs, earthworms, mice (ick!), homemade yogurt, maggots, slugs, snails, ants, sprouted pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, mealworms, and grubs.
Calcium — ground egg shells, homemade yogurt
Fodder — yard greens (grass/weeds/leaves), leafy garden greens, most vegetable and fruit scraps, hay in the winter, bread crusts
We keep scratch grain here for getting them up in the morning and back in at night.
Compost— The composting chicken project seems to be going really well. I am amazed at how many bugs and worms I see in their yard. They seem satisfied and not hungry.
Pets: Jasper and Budgies
Our pets are still mostly on commercial food.
Although Jasper (5 year old chorkie) has been on a home-cooked diet a lot. I sort of rotate him. He eats whatever he is fed and is particularly fond of yogurt and carrots. His home-cooked food includes: chicken, fish, eggs, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans, peas, blueberries, and a dash of oil. His commercial food is a salmon/sweet potato mix.
Jasper’s waste is not composted. It is picked up and put in his own little septic that we made. We call it the “poo pit.” We’ve been using it 3 years and it hasn’t even reach the top of the lowest tire. I throw grass clippings or wood chips in there weekly to keep the smell down.
The budgies can easily be fed with the greens, herbs, and vegetables we grow. The biggest thing we would need to add would be the variety of seeds they love. Right now we feed them a quality food from the pet store. They did not approve of a sprouted food we tried.
The budgie aviary has a tray for droppings. We add a layer of used paper over the tray and that is emptied into the compost every evening.
Conclusions: I am pretty happy with where are right now in our attempt to close the animals circle. Next Spring my goal is to grow enough for the chickens and rabbits except the hay. I’ll get that from Hay Bob. Jasper will go back on a home cooked diet later this Fall. He’s looking a little plumper than I’d like. The budgies won’t have anything changed. They eat just a couple of teaspoons a day. Not worth trying to fix.
Whenever I am asked for sustainabiltity advice, I always say compost. Compost is the answer whether we are looking at your garden, your lawn, or your home. Compost is the answer because it should be the end of your consumer cycle.
Compost works by ways that are chemical, biological, and magical. I tend to just think of the whole process as magical and ignore the science. This is not a science blog and I am not a science teacher. I am a gardener/farmer . . . By the way is there a word for a gardner/farmer? Farmner? Yeah, no . . . Probably not. How about a female farmer? Farm-her? Yeah, I like that.
Kim’s magical compost rules
Pick out a spot to be your compost pile/bed. For beginner gardeners I often recommend making it the same size your garden beds will be.
Lay down a thick layer of cardboard or twigs.
Dirt: Cover that layer with a bit of dirt. Even old potting soil will do, especially if you use the organic potting soil.
Food Waste: Fruit, vegetable, grain, egg shell, coffee grounds, tea leaves, etc. NO meat, cheese, oil.
Plant Material: weeds, plants removed from your garden or landscaping, wood ashes, shredded paper, grass clippings, and fallen leaves.
Animal Bedding: If you keep animals on bedding (and you use organic bedding) this gets added too. For instance: we keep budgies over dirt or scrap paper, that along with their seed hulls and greens goes in the compost. Example: we use a mix of grass clippings and wood shavings for chicken bedding, it goes in the compost when we clean out the chicken house. The rabbit manure gets added once a month when we clean under their hutch. NO dog manure or cat litter please. Human urine is fine — in fact, I often encourage the guys to leave their deposit out there.
Other Additions: You can add all natural fabric scraps, unvarnished wood scraps, untreated lumber, grape vines, blackberry brambles, silk dental floss, bamboo toothbrushes (althougth I prefer to use those as plant markers), etc. Basically if it grew and hasn’t been too processed, you can add it to the compost.
Cover it: We keep a fresh layer of greens (grass clippings, garden weeds, etc) over the pile at all times. This really helps keep the smell down.
Turn it: After the autumn equinox, turn the pile over into a new space. This can mean simply turning into the space next to it, into metal trash cans, or into a new garden bed. This is the compost you will use to feed your gardens. Anything that hasn’t broken down goes back on the bottom of the compost pile for the next year.
You will see lots of worms. Try to be gentle with them. They are making their own compost to add to yours.
I am experimenting this summer with something I am calling the composting chickens. We have layered grass clipping about 6-8 inches deep in the main chicken yard. Every morning I go out and rake it all back into a neat pile, hollow out a bowl shape in the center, and add the food scraps from the house. As I am working, the chickens are making happy noises as they look for bugs left behind under the grass clippings I have moved. Then they get really excited and start scratching through the compost/grass clippings. This turns the pile — and scatters it a bit — and they leave behind some poo as they do it. As we finish their yard expansion, I am planning on adding boards around the bottom to keep the compost in and make the whole yard one big compost bed. Due to the size and shape of our little farm, our girls can’t free-range. So a static yard is the best we can do for them. I think this will really add to both their happiness and the job title. In the winter we will add hay bales or straw bales in the place of the grass clippings.
The Septic System:
We have a 22 year old septic system that works perfectly without any intervention. So I am pretty content to leave that system in place. If it ever fails, we will transition to a dry composting toilet. That will mean a separate humanure compost that will not be used around food. That is a whole other project and will require a lot of research.
In the meantime, we practice “Safe Septic.” That means, potty cloths for urine, a bidet and small amount of tp for feces, or a bidet and potty cloth for feces — for the brave at heart, just me so far, no chemical cleaners, no bleach, no regular shampoo, body wash, dish soap, or laundry soap. In my bathroom, I collect the shower water using a bucket and I have another bucket under the sink drain. I use these for flushing urine. Any water left over at the end of the day either waters indoor plants or gets tossed in the compost. This keeps the amount of water entering the septic much lower and allows for better biological breakdown of the feces in the tank. It has also dropped our water bill by 40%. We are pretty frugal with our water usage anyway and this made a huge difference.
Our approach to gardening has evolved over many years. We tried it all: row gardening, square foot gardening, bio-intensive (Jeavons), permaculture, and no dig. Each of these has informed our philosophy, practices, and principles. Each of these has also been practiced under the umbrella of organic/natural.
Here are some of our guiding principles. I would like to explore these more in separate posts. Our gardening principles are just that, principles not rules. We have experimented enough to know what each plant likes, doesn’t like, and where we can “fudge the edges.” The only time we use rules is if we are planting something for the very first time or trying again after repeated failures.
Grow what you eat
Eat what you grow
Plant perennials and things you can save seeds from
Store your surplus wisely
Stay out of the growing beds
People power not petroleum power
Close the circle
Time in the Gardens:
In March and April, we tend to spend a couple of hours a week in the gardens. Our gardening season begins in earnest on the Spring Equinox. This is when when we prune the blackberries, thin the strawberries, clear out the stalks in the pollinator garden, move manure and bedding to the compost, and start harvesting asparagus. Michael begins mowing the lawn and we use it in equal parts for compost and chicken bedding.
May and June are the months when we spend the most amount of time in the kitchen garden. There are beds to prepare, compost to turn, compost to spread, seeds to start, and then the near constant weeding. Our last planting day is the Summer Solstice. After that we tend the plants that are already growing. During these months it is not unusual for me to spend a couple of hours doing garden work each morning. Kelly then spends most of Saturday doing the jobs that he is better at than I am. Michael is still cutting grass for compost and chicken bedding. This is also the time for building projects.
By July and August, we are simply weeding for about a half an hour on weekdays and maybe a couple of hours on Saturday morning. Kelly takes over the primary Saturday weeding job because I am harvesting daily and processing the foods. Harvesting hours in the kitchen garden are hard to calculate because I do it as I move through each bed weeding, checking for bugs, and diseased plants. Somedays I bring in huge baskets of food, somedays a small container. The orchardand herb garden begins to fourish with herbs hitting their peak just about the same time that the blackberries are ready. It is utter chaos at times.
September, October, and November are the months when my enthusiasm wanes just a bit. I’ve been weeding for 5 months and there are 3 more to go. Some garden beds begin to look empty as the plants complete their lifecycle and die back. Some beds have huge flowering stalks that will become next year’s seeds. By the Autumn equinox we cover the compost so the winter rains don’t wash all the nutrients away. The chicken house gets cleaned out down to the bare earth in late October and the bedding added to the new compost pile. The rabbit manure is collected and added to the new pile too. This is also the time for more building projects.
Late November is the time to make sure all the produce is out of the garden, the seeds are safely stored, and all the pots are clean and waiting for the start of another gardening season.
“If Harmony is my Abbey, then simplicity, stability, and sustainability are my vows.” — Me
Sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level and avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. *source: Oxford dictionary
So, maintain or grow, but don’t deplete — balance. A couple of things to note here, I don’t think we can buy our way to sustainibility and I do not believe in commodifying that which should be free. That about sums up my definition, but what does it look like in practice here on our farm? Stay tuned. I hope to have a whole series of posts about how we strive to live sustainably.
Here are just a couple of examples where you can see how principles and questions lead to our practice.
A Sustainability Practice: We do not till or plow our garden.
Why? It requires petroleum. We prefer people power.
Why? It kills organisms in the soil. We prefer strong healthy soil.
Why? It requires nearly perfect weather. We prefer to admit that Spring in southeastern Indiana is wet and deal with it.
Why? It requires packing down the soil as it turns the soil. We prefer loose, crumbly soil.
Why? It requires a purchase and maintanence. We prefer a cheaper solution and maintanence that can be done on the front porch. IE: a spade, a hoe, and a pitchfork.
A Sustainability Practice: We do not buy commercial cleaners.
Why? It requires petroleum. We prefer to use less non-renewable resources.
Why? It pollutes the waterways. We prefer our water clean and drinkable, not just for us, but for all those downstream too.
Why? It kills organisms in the soil. We prefer strong healthy soil. (See above, the soil has a lot to do with most of our reasons.)
Why? It is hard on a septic system and/or a grey water system. We prefer not to replace our current septic — the cost is prohibitive and the concrete is not a renewable resource.
Why? It requires a purchase that can only be used for one purpose. We prefer to use multi-purpose ingredients.
*All pictures have been taken by me using my iPhone 8 with no filters* I took this one as I was taking dry laundry off the clothesline. I noticed this dragonfly, which was on the other side of a cotton dish towel. I thought it made an interesting picture.
Stability > Stability, Aging and Retirement
Our vow of stability means we plan to grow old here. We like to think of it as our retirement plan and safety net for Michael (and Hannah) when we are gone. Thinking in these terms means that as we grow older we are transitioning our systems to make it easier for aging bodies to do the work. We are also making sure we document our best practices. We strive to teach our adult children they whys and wherefores of the decisions we have made. In fact, I envision this blog becoming a sort of how-to for our property.
We have 12 years until retirement age (67). We have a list of projects that will need to be done. Each project has several pieces.
Housing: convert to rainwater collection only, reduce electricity usage to below 500 kWh/month (currently at 500 kWh/month), continue to find non-electric solutions, build rocket mass stove, build rocket mass heater, solar hot water tank, summer outdoor shower, dry pit/outhouse, re-insulate exterior walls to 12”, re-insulate roof and floor, build solar food dehydrator.
Gardens: add 4-15 beds, raise all beds to 2 foot high, beehives, add more soft fruit, permanent culinary herb bed, permanent medicinal herb bed, build 4 more chicken yards and another chicken house, build 4 rabbit runs, all plants either perennial or home saved seeds (increase diversity each year)
Yards: plant 5 trees per year, mow paths to scythe width, plant yard/meadow/paths with clover, vetch, and rye, increase pollinator garden space, add second clothesline, outdoor screened sleeping room.
Transportation: bikes, cargo bikes, and bike trailers
Finances: get debt free, stay debt free, save as much as possible, redo wills and trust for land/Michael/Hannah
This is Michael. He is 31 and on the autism spectrum (ASD). We have known since he was 9. We consider ourselves very lucky to have him in our family. He brings hardwork, joy, and “preciseness” to our family.
We learned early on that Michael does better with precise instructions (preferably no more than 3 at a time) and structure/stability. His routine very rarely changes. He likes to eat the same things, wear the same things, etc. He also has some pretty intense sensory issues — especially texture/touch, and hearing.
Our committment to stability means that Michael has spent most of his youth and young-adulthood here on our farm. He knows this property. For the past few years, he has taken over a lot of the caretaker jobs. He mows (with a pushmower) our front yard, the strip behind the house, and the paths are entirely his doing from design to execution. He carries the dead tree branches to create brush piles that protect wild saplings and a host of critters. He carries up the largest of those branches to chop into firewood to heat our home on the coldest of days. He dug all the cisterns/run-off ponds and trenches to carry the flooding waters away from the house foundation and back into the woods. And this year, he built a chicken house and yard almost entirely by himself with materials that we had laying around. He let me know how many additional 2x4s he was going to need and how many rolls of fencing would be required. He also turns our compost beds over each fall.
All of this has taken years for him to learn to do. Years he has had because we are committed to stability of place. This place.
*All pictures have been taken by me using my iPhone 8 with no filters*