Knowing how to select the location for a food forest or perennial garden is possibly just as important as knowing what to plant. Before you start digging, take time to examine your site. Study. Watch. Learn from the environment around you. Take notes on some of the topics below to help you decide which location will be most suitable for your new food forest or perennial garden.
Sun and soil requirements: What pH will be needed for those plants? How much organic matter exists on site already? Does the site meet the sun requirements for the species selected?
Identify precursor species: Knowing what plants are already thriving will tell you about the site, soil, and environment. For example, if there are a lot of dandelions or tap root plants, the soil is trying to rebuild minerals and nutrients. If there are signs of plants with shallow, hair-hair-like roots, the soil may be trying to stabilize itself from erosion or drying out. Do you see acid or alkaline loving plants growing native?
Space to grow and fill out: Do the plants have room to thrive and have airflow at their mature size? Do you have room to move among the plants or rows? Do you need extra or protected space to make allowance for animals or livestock?
Ease of watering: Is there water access? The first 30 days are often the most important as the plants establish, so you will want to have easy water access points.
Ease of maintenance: Is the area something that you frequently visit or drive by? Is this area one that can be easily maintained or get tools and equipment to as needed? Will you need truck or tractor access?
What is the long-term use for this area? Consider mapping out 3-5-10+ years. Is your current use of the space preparing the site adequately for those goals?
Ease of Harvesting: Will you or others be able to quickly and successfully harvest? Are there rows or adequate spacing between key areas? Are 90% of the crops within arms reach? Will you see and be able to easily use the crops you have planted when the harvest time arrives?
In a culture that encourages us to have more money, bigger toys, larger savings, new cloths, and an endless supply of technological gadgets, we should be stepping back and asking, “why?” Do we really need one more gadget? Do we need another nick-knack? Do we need the latest cell phone or computer? Do we actually need the new shirt or pair of shoes or could we just simply wear the ones we already have? We have been trained by a consumer-based culture that more is better.
The reality is that most of these items we are collecting have a short shelf-life. Even our savings accounts, retirement funds, and inheritances we will fade in a relatively short time. Maybe they will last a few years, a few decades, or if we are are extremely wealthy they might last a generation or two. In the context of a century… our stuff will be gone in a heartbeat. But, what if we could pass on a legacy that would last 50-100 years or more? What if our legacy could provide food, shelter, and play areas for your children or grandchildren? What if our legacy provide pollination for wildlife, shelter for birds and animals, and purified the air? What if we could leave a legacy that actually provided a source of LIFE?
In my humble opinion, one of the most practical ways to accomplish a legacy of this caliber is to plant a midwest food forest. In permaculture, we use this phrase to describe a forest of edible and restorative plants working in harmony with one another.
What is a Food Forest?
Generally speaking, every forest is jam packed with edible fruit trees, nuts, berries, and fungi. Over hundreds of years, natural succession helps establish these systems and create a healthy and balanced growing environment. Using permaculture, we are essentially designing a system that works in tandem with nature to speed up the process. Instead of productive abundance taking 100 years to be established, we can design it to take only a handful of years. A food forest uses intelligent design to restore and remediate land that would otherwise take centuries to return to a normal state. Instead of working against nature to maintain a mono crop, perfectly green lawn, or a patterned landscape of tropical annuals, we use perennial species that will last foe year. This is especially useful in areas that have suburban forests, because in most cities our forested areas are only 50-70 years old (at best). Historically speaking, many wooded areas were harvested between 1940-1975 for lumber and then either naturally regrew or were replanted. Even the city land behind my house in Kansas City, MO is a fairly young forest and only has a handful of old growth oak trees that are older than 100 years.
A note on removal of invasive species:
Most of the forests in the Midwestern city areas are in similar shape and are nearly all facing the invasive honeysuckle bush invasion. Amur honeysuckle, or Lonicera maackii, was introduced to gardens in New York in the late 1800’s and by 1924 was already labeled as “weedy species”. Since then, it has spread throughout the east coast and midwest and it’s shrub-like structure shades out low growing species in younger forests. It’s red berries are generally ingested by bird species and the seed spread in their stool to other areas. Removing this species is often the first step for Midwesterners starting a food forest.
Once the invasive species has been removed, the land is ready for replanting and reforestation.
How to Plant the Food Forest – Part 1
1 – Land Preparation: In our recent project, we had a great deal of invasive honeysuckle to remove, which was obviously very time consuming. Digging it up is the most effective way, but you can also use a chain saw and cut it off at the ground. When you cut it, you will have to use chemicals to kill the root or it will simply grow back. Obviously, I prefer NOT using herbicides, but there are some natural alternatives that contain orange oil, agricultural grade vinegar (15-30%), and epsom salts.
It’s imperative to properly rid the area of the invasive species, because skipping this step will allow the old species to return and choke out all of your design work. When removing undergrowth species, I prefer to do it in early spring so it’s warm enough to work and you don’t have to worry about ticks or fighting through the leaf growth. If you are fortunate enough to have goats, they will take care of the leaves and branches, but you’ll still need to dig out the root or it will grow back quickly.
The second step in preparing the land is to examine your soil and structure. This is your time to consider amendments. You can bring in compost from a local company, collect fallen leaves from your fall clean-up, add bone or blood meal, or sulphur for acid loving areas. Before adding anything to the soil itself, make sure you are testing and observing your site. Get to know the land you are working with and begin with the end in mind. Know the type of soil your plants will prefer, so you can create the right environment for them.
2 – Plan out your design: For every project, I generally need about 10-15 hours of preparation and research before I even begin planting. Winter months are a great time to do this, because we often are not outside as much. Research species according to your soil type (acidity, organic matter, etc.) and carefully consider how much water will be retained in that area. Factor in sun exposure both in it’s current state, but also imagine the area once the plants have reached their mature sizes. How might this change your design?
Once I have the basic questions answered, I can then start looking at individual species and seeing what looks good together on paper. I will go through 3-5 different designs and purposely make myself change out some of the species in order to think outside of the box. Here are a few factors to consider:
Do my understory trees or shrubs have compatible soil requirements?
How it my spacing? What will this look like in 3 years? In 10 years?
Do I have at least 4 layers in my food forest?
Have I including at least one nitrogen fixing plant in my system (legume, locust tree, clover, etc.)?
Is there multi-seasonal interest for the eye? For nature?
Have I considered season-long pollination?
Do the plants that I have selected require a male and female plant for fruiting?
Do my colors and leaf textures work well together?
Finalizing Your Midwest Food Forest Design
Once you have created a few different drawings of your layout, I would recommend sitting on it for a few days and then coming back to it later. Run the ideas by a friend and get their feedback. When I was initially planning my layout, I incorporated too many alkaline loving plants next to my blue berries, which do best with slightly acidic soils. I was so focused on the fruit and berries that I liked, and the way they would look together, that I missed a pretty big piece of the puzzle. The result would have been an environment where likely neither would have thrived, so I was relieved to have the insight from another permaculture eye.
Before planting, plant on spending at least 10 hours of researching and planning out your design. As you plan, research various species, their growing zones, and read the reviews of others online. Often plants will say they will work in certain zones, but after a few years of consumer reviews, they change the rating on the species. For this reason, I tend to stay away from varieties that have not been tested in my region or ones that I am unable to find adequate reviews.
Personally, I like to order plants from places with one zone colder climate, so I know they can take the various types of weather we experience in the Midwest (KCMO).
The second part of this article will be available next week, including a few options in planting species for a wood-edge (sun/shade) area with clay soil structure. In the upcoming article you’ll learn how to amend the soil, perform bio-remediation for areas that may have had pollutants, and how to space the plants appropriately. The next article will include pictures of a newly planted food forest and close up pictures of the various species used in it’s design.
If you live in a cold climate region, you have probably been faced with the occasional freak out on social media regarding ice storms. In fact, here in Kansas City the mention of an ice storm is cause for grocery stores and gas stations to look as though we are on the brink of the apocalypse. Years ago, people knew how to handle themselves without electricity, water, or gas, but modern Millennials (like myself) are often completely in the dark when it comes to this. So, if you are wondering what to do before an ice storm, this is the starter article for you.
Before progressing, remember, an ice storm is not the end of the world, you are not going to freeze to death, and social media will carry on without you for a day or two. Before taking any of these steps, it is important to remember that more often than not, the weather service will blow storm possibilities to mammoth proportions. Just remember, if they did not, the backlash for people not being warned could be devastating. So, don’t freak out – just be wise. Take a few practical steps beforehand and you and your family can enjoy the ice in peace and warmth.
Here are some key items to do the day or two before an ice event.
1 – Make sure you have kerosene / heaters ready in case the power goes out. Test them before using and NEVER use while sleeping. They give of toxic fumes, so should always be used with an open window or ventilation. If you don’t have these, make sure to connect with a neighbor with a fireplace . You can offer to help chop wood or provide soup in exchange.
2 – Have water stored and ready. Use empty bottles, pots, pans, and even the bathtub to store water.
3 – Wash clothes and dishes immediately, in the event you loose power. In Kansas City we have lost power for over a week and having clean underwear sure helps make things brighter (and less stinky).
4 – Open cabinets of sinks / drains / pipes on outer walls. Providing proper air flow can help prevent pipes from freezing.
5 – Precook a meal or two. Plan your “no power menus”. Do not let anyone open or close your refrigerator – under any circumstance. Store food in coolers in the garage for easy access. The more you open the freezer and refrigerator doors (even a few times) will let out the cold, causing your food to spoil.
6 – Make sure you have a full propane tank of gas for your outdoor grill. Meals that can be cooked on the stovetop can often be cooked on the grill. Use cast iron pans on your grill.
7 – Buy some cheep candles at the Dollar store. You can use these for making homemade heaters, light, and to simply brighten the house on these ice days.
8 – Pre-salt your outdoor steps to prevent ice buildup. Leave a granola bar for the mail man too .
9 – Make sure pets, animals, chickens have food / water and are protected. Add extra straw and bedding, and feed cracked corn to increase body heat. Learn how to keep chickens warm in the winter here.
10 – Close shades and blinds to prevent drafts indoors. It may be beautiful to let the sunshine in, but remember, most houses (even with quality windows) are drafty. Pulling the blinds will help keep the heat in. With this in mind, limit or restrict going outside, but if you do, be sure to open / close the door quickly.
11 – Charge electronic devices and be prepared to turn off all power strips in the event of a brown out. Intermittent surges can damage appliances.
12 – Check on your neighbors, especially those who are elderly or single. Generally speaking, we should be checking in on our neighbors anyway, but during a snow storm, doing so once a day is a common human courtesy.
Additional Tips on What to Do Before an Ice Storm
Once you have the basic covered, here are a few extra tips for you to prepare a little more and make things a tad more exciting.
Find old board games to play and books that you have not read in a while. Organize family game and reading time – snuggle!
If you have a generator, test it out and be sure to hook it up properly. Youtube this or have a professional show you, because you can fry your home electrical panel if you do it improperly.
Fill up your bird feeders before hand and keep warm water in the bird bath. Watching birds out the window can provide great family entertainment during snow and ice storms.
If you are on a prescription medication, get refills before the storm arrives.
Brainstorm a list of activities and old games you played as a child: charades, win / lose or draw, coloring books, indoor hide and seek, fort building, etc.
Of the three tenets of permaculture, as depicted by Bill Mollison, the notion of “people care” is, perhaps, the most essential. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my journey in permaculture (permanent culture / agriculture) is in focusing my efforts on the next generation. Let’s be clear, this is not an article about global warming, the melting ice caps, or a lesson in how to recycle more. There are plenty of well-researched articles written by scholars who have given their lives to such topics. This is about the importance of permaculture for kids. This article comes from my own experience working in youth ministry, 15 years in education, and as a neighbor with seemingly revolving doors on his house so the kids can come and get snacks before seeing the chickens.
Regardless of your beliefs regarding global warming and the many political agendas surrounding it, the reason you clicked this article is because you care about kids. So, based on that fact alone, we have something in common. This common ground allows us to have a healthy dialogue about WHY we do what we do. At the foundation of my journey in permaculture is the value of interacting with kids in order to help them be a part of a community that seeks to better the world they will one day inherit. These kids are not just future leader of tomorrow. They are tomorrow’s leaders – TODAY. They are impacting the world around them with vigor and passion.
Classrooms, worms, and the conversations with kids
As an educator for the last 15 years, I have taught in public / private school classrooms. I have been a keynote speaker at hundreds of conferences and seminars. I have written school curriculum and served as student council advisor for 10 years. In spite of platforms, I have learned that the most meaningful conversations often do not take place in the classroom or surrounding an assignment on Ralph Waldo Emerson (though I love his work). The most heartfelt times did not take place in a prom planning meeting or even at our end of the year parties. Those events were memorable and exciting, but I tell you, the most profound conversations took place outside, in nature, and usually in the garden. Something profoundly different took place during the times I worked with students in the garden and their hands hit the soil.
When these young adults came outside and their hands hit the flowerbeds, their guards went down, their defenses lowered, and their hearts opened up. Conversations would range from home and family, sports to God, and from dreams to fears. Whether we were out feeding chickens or chopping down wood in the forest beside the school, those moments were the most meaningful in my career as an educator. So, what did I learn? I learned that the sowing into the next generation is more than just giving them an assignment – it is sowing seeds with them.
Kids don’t need another manager – they need mentors
So, how then do we learn to be centered on the next generation? Simply put, we take time to care. Kids spell “love”, T-I-M-E. That is it. Take time to talk, weed slower, and get less done. To be honest, when I worked with 27 junior high students in my gardening class, I quickly learned that I could get more work done in 2 hours on my own than after a week of having them do it with me. However, speed is not the goal. Quality of weeding is not always the litmus test for impact.
If we want to change a life, we have to be willing to value families before we value function. We have to value people before a project.
People Care in Permaculture
This core value of permaculture addresses the fuel for our projects. The reason we care for the earth is so that we can leave it as good or better for the kids who will live long after us. We want them to experience a better world in which they can experience a greater level of abundance than we have. Just think, when you were a child, kids rode bikes in the streets, would play out in the woods until the sunset, and would roam the neighborhoods as though it was their kingdom. We did not have to worry about a fraction of what kids today are faced with. And today, parents are terrified to let their kids go outside alone in many suburban areas. We need to impact our communities far beyond new recycling bins or switching to reusable shopping bags. If we think that stopping there is going to make a difference, we are kidding ourselves and petting our wounds by drinking overpriced coffee. Instead of settling for merely recycling to do our part, we need to be regenerative in our approach in order to reverse the damage we have already done. No longer is it enough for us to be “organic”, but we now need to restore the broken systems that even the USDA accepts as “certified organic”. Regenerative agriculture can no longer be a novelty form of gardening, it needs to become the norm if we are going to fix the damage we have done to our neighborhoods.
People care in permaculture is not only the “why” in caring for the earth, but it’s also the “why” behind the fair share aspect of permaculture. We want families to receive based on what they have sown. In permaculture, we seek to see families supplied for, fed well, educated to the highest degree, and kids receiving the support system they deserve. Each of the values in the permaculture system are hinged on the value we have for people – primarily kids.
Permaculture for Kids :: How to Step Out This Year
Instead of merely gardening in your backyard this year, invite your kids (or grand kids) to join you. You might not weed as quickly, and you might need to buy a few boxes of bulk popsicles at Costco, but it will be worth it. Here are a few ideas to get you started with the kid friendly garden. The seeds you sow by opening up your garden to others will produce a much greater fruit that you could put on your table. Don’t get me wrong, it does have its challenges, but even those are not insurmountable. I am a single 35 year old guy, and can tell you that even the single community can invite neighbors from the houses next door to take part. If you don’t have neighbors, find a foster care home to serve or invite over, or call your local Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization. If people care is important to you, make time for it.
Don’t settle for a flower for one. Grow a garden for all.
Seasons of change and transition are often challenging to navigate, no matter how many seasons of life one has experienced. As I am in the midst of one of those seasons myself, I am continually asking myself, “Why is this so challenging?” The answer to that is so simple, it is often overlooked. In short – People. People and relationships are complex, ever-changing, and the most precious commodity in the universe. Learning to navigate our journeys while being centrally focused on people are essential tools in a permaculturists belt. These lessons in lifestyle permaculture are a reflection of one of the core components of the practice – People Care. While many articles, blogs, and videos teach the earth care and money making principles of permaculture, the aspects of inter-personal relationships are often underplayed. When ignored though, the system goes out of balance. In most cases, earth care is the “what”, fair share is the “how”, and people care is the “why”. Without the foundational WHY being cultivated, the practices we build on top do not matter that much.
Have you ever been in a season of life when you lost your WHY?
In 2007, I was a part of a group of educators who helped found a small private school in South Kansas City. Over the last decade, The Daniel Academy went from 65 students to over 300. We purchased 18.5 acres of land in the city and an old church campus to hold our classes. Immediately, mentoring these young adults became my “why” and the fuel for my teaching job. Everything I did from that point forward was for kids and to see them thrive in the context of healthy families. Creating a school that was more of a community than an educational sphere became a foundational value that I functioned from. In 2010, we started a gardening and permaculture class for the junior high and high school students, and every quarter had between 5-35 students, depending on the season. Over the years, I can still tell you which students planted which nut tree groves, which families paid for and planted the apple trees, which students planted the wildflowers, and who helped plant the understory in the food forest. I can still picture some of my first students, Graham, Christopher, Becca, Bria, and Austin out in the courtyard planting Missouri native wildflowers.
This year, for multiple reasons, I came to the realization that my time at the school was nearing an end. I had been sensing the transition and have a burning desire to take the impossible step into “the next assignment” (forgive my teacher talk). I am not the first one to have been here, nor will I be the last. We have all been there, in that painful place between the last season of life and the ambiguous next season. We have all felt the intense series emotions that accompany transition and asked the question, “How in the world am I ever going to get there?” The answer, like most in life, can be found in the garden. Permaculture practice does not end at the garden gate, in fact, it often begins there.
It is important to embrace tough seasons, challenging relationships, and trying times. After all, the very best gardens have a foundation of crap.
Lessons in Lifestyle Permaculture
Here are a few of the lessons in lifestyle permaculture that I have been learning. Perhaps it will help others in learning to navigate their seasons from one garden to the next.
1 – Understand your WHY
For me personally, I have always thought I was project driven. I thrive when there is a large task, project, or an event to plan. My heart comes alive in doing acts of service for others and being able to see them loved well. In December 2016, when I moved my desk, some of the chickens, and my other belongings out of the private school and into my home, I began to reimagine my ideal backyard set up. It was my opportunity to give order to my own castle. So, I arranged my desk to look at the back window, and had the chickens in the perfect line of sight. I rearranged my shed and garage, and started drawing up the next phase in my urban permaculture yard. It was / is a picturesque set-up that I can find few practical faults with. The last two weeks, looking out from my desk, I had a profound realization…
I do not like chickens that much. Even heavier… I do not really enjoy permaculture (itself) as much as I thought. Believe me, I was shocked. For three days, I sat and pondered while I continued to clean and organize, until the realization hit me. There are no sounds – no people. At the school, I was surrounded by kids, teachers, families, and parents. Every twenty minutes someone would come into my office to sit, talk, or just hang out. At the time, those interruptions were annoying and seemingly inconvenient. Now, being at home, I have realized that those students, kids, and families were the WHY behind the projects.
It’s true, I raised chickens primarily because it gave me a platform to interact with students. I taught 11-12th grade English because I loved seeing the “ah-ha” moments on their faces. I worked in my office with the door open so that parents and kids could come inside and visit. In fact, I even studied permaculture to give me a connect point with families outside of the traditional classroom. This entire time, I thought the projects, hugel-swales, raised beds, writing assignments, and books were my passion, but I was wrong. I misunderstood my own passion, which was really caring for PEOPLE.
2 – Strengthen remaining connections and build new ones
When undergoing seasons of transition, take Bill Mollison’s advise, “For every element, establish 3-4 connections.” Often when our life experiences change, we focus on what was lost. We look too heavily on the “sink” or the waste. This is easy to do, because we experience a sense of grief and mourning, which is healthy and normal – for a moment. Instead of staying in the place of loss though, we must look to what remains. Strengthen the connections that have weathered the storm, because often times those are the most healthiest points anyway. In an ice storm, the branches that break off are often the ones that likely needed pruning anyway. Focus on restructuring from the remaining framework and make additional connections to strengthen that which remains.
Often times, remaining connections will experience stress and pain, but instead of ignoring it, tend to it. Let the wound have “sensation”, because it’s a sign of life still existing there. Apply healing salve to broken limbs, set bones right again, and prune back the dead leaves. Focus on the trunk and root system and be prepared to nurture it over a period of time. Yes, recovery takes nurture, and most importantly, nurture from community.
Use these times of transition to build new connections. Add limited additional elements to your system. Not only will this help you learn something new in the process, but it will also take your mind off your circumstances. Instead of focusing on the valleys, look up to the hills and find the longest-highest contour point (where the water comes from). So, let’s be practical. In times of life transition, embrace relationships where you can be vulnerable. Let people call you higher. Invite people into your home, even if they don’t invite you first. Make the phone calls you have been dragging your feet on, and try a new project or two in order to keep the hands busy. Don’t shrink back – take a step forward.
3 – Think long-term and begin with the end in mind
Seasons of loss are followed by rebirth. Death is not the end, but rather a beginning. In the garden, when sometimes dies, we do not throw it away and remove it from our property. We compost it and re-add it back into our system in a changed (often healthier) form. Even diseased plants can be composted, but need to be treated with a higher core temperature to kill the bacteria, but after a short time (18-days in the Berkley method) the compost can be generally re-added to the garden without fear.
One of the practical strategies in lifestyle permaculture is to begin with the end in mind. If you want a long-term food forest to feed your children, don’t limit yourself today by only planting lettuce and tomatoes. In our every day life, one of the practical tools I use is creating a vision board. As yesterday was National Vision Board Day, I had 15-20 folks over last night to just dream about their futures and get a little creative. Participants cut images and words out of newspaper and magazines, and glued them on their own vision boards to hang up in their offices, closets, and bedrooms. Keeping the longterm vision in front of us on a daily basis helps keep our eyes fixed on the bigger picture and allows us to visualize what the future might look like. For me, seeing my vision board every day helps me make smaller decisions that are like “steps” toward the bigger goal.
4 – The problem is often the seed of the solution
Problems are real and cause stress. Conflicts are painful. Relationship bumps are challenging and stir the heart. Emotions, both positive and negative, are real and should be experienced without shame. Getting stuck in the place of pain is obviously never the goal, but glossing over it is not helpful either. Often times, the pain points we experience in transitional times are the seeds that we need for the days ahead. I remember Geoff Lawton saying, “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency.” The slugs are natural parts of the ecosystem and should not be reason to burn an entire crop at the first sign of their presence. Their presence is an indicator that the system is in need of attention and nurture to bring it back into balance. The problem is often the solution. Those slugs, with the introduction of ducks, can be turned into eggs, meat, and fertilizer. Not to mention, those problematic slugs provide hours of entertainment for families when we get to watch the ducks on a feeding frenzy. The problems do not indicate the end or death; instead they merely indicate a system which needs nurture (not neglect).
When using permaculture as a lifestyle model, ask yourself some key questions about the problems you are facing:
A – What is the pain point I am experiencing? Why does it matter to me?
B – What is the opposite of this pain point? How can I build toward this to create a better reality?
C – What type of nurture is needed in order to bring about this change? What connections need strengthening? What pests / diseases need to be “heated up” in order to bring back the balance.
5 – Polyculture not Monoculture
In the garden, planting a mono-crop is often easier in the short-term. It requires no other connections with plants, little thinking, and can be accomplished in a short amount of time. In the long-term though, the mono-crops experience nutrient deficiencies, devastating disease, require fertilization, etc. When the mono-crop is finished producing it’s fruit, it is done. Nothing next. In contract, a polyculture with multiple, perennial species, a different approach is taken. It takes more careful planning, time to evolve, and a little nurture, but it will create a balanced and self-sustaining system that has perennial abundance. Polyculture systems experience less disease, continue fruit and supply, and a supply for both humans, insects, and animals. Polyculture systems create the platform for abundance.
When crisis arises in our personal lives, we often bunker down and try to hide ourselves away. After a rough day in the office, I would frequently go home and have a glass of wine and a PINT of Ben and Jerry’s Ice-cream. Nursing my wounds with ice-cream is an unfortunate go-to, but is usually followed the next day with regret. Likewise, instead of isolating ourselves in our momentary hang-ups, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in the place of community is a much healthier approach. When your brother falls down, stretch out a hand to help him up. When a neighbor is cold, give them a blanket and food. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Sounds simple, but it is much easier said than done. It requires us to establish and nurture connections, and be vulnerable. That risk is always worth it.
It is all about the WHY
At the end of the day, what I have discovered in this season of transition is that understanding our foundational WHY is the key to thriving in times of change. For me, these lessons in lifestyle permaculture have taught me to value family before function. People are the foundation stones for any project, and at the very center of my being is an innate desire to be in family and a part of a community who is in it for the long-haul. For me, that is permanent culture. People care is the foundation of my journey in permaculture.
Why do I do permaculture? I believe that families today deserve the very best food, produced in the very best way, and that kids deserve to live in a community that is flourishing with abundance. I do permaculture because when I leave the earth, I want to leave it to the next generation BETTER than I found it, which means that merely “organic” is not enough anymore. We need regenerative systems to heal the damage we have already caused. Millennials, we are way past the point of needing “sustainability” and organic food – we need a culture that heals families, land, and hearts. We have to leave this planet better than we found it or we have failed. Because of our endless greed, narcissism, and egocentrism – we will have failed the ones who will come after us. This is why permaculture is more than tomatoes – it’s about a legacy.
If you live in the Midwest, it can be challenging to keep chickens warm and insulated in the winter. The fact is, learning how to keep chickens warm in the winter is NOT the same as how we would keep ourselves warm. Heat lamps, space heaters, and candles are not a good idea in a dry chicken coop full of hay, straw, and feathers. For some reason though, many people try to heat nature the same way we would our house, however we forget that these birds have survived for thousands of years without electric heat lamps.
Here are 5 simple ways to keep your chickens warm during the cold wintery days:
1 – Feed extra calories and protein
Keep feeding the chickens their regular food, but add a little cracked or crimped corn to their diet on the colder days. If you know the night is going to be extra cold, feed the cracked corn later in the afternoon, so they can digest it a little before roosting that evening. This will give them the extra calories needed to produce body heat in the coop. Don’t overdo the corn, just like with everything else, you can easily get too much of a good thing. If you are local here in Kansas City, you can go to a local Mill (I use May Milling in Grandview) to get organic / non-gmo cracked corn for around $17 per 50lb bag.
2 – Allow proper air flow, while minimizing drafts
As a general rule, do not have any vents open in the winter that are within 18″ of your roosting areas. This will allow the birds to comfortably roost together and share their body heat. Maintain good airflow in the lower levels of the coop though, because you do not want the air to get stagnant. Remember, do not create an air tight coop. If you are using the deep bedding method in the winter, maintaining proper airflow will also keep out the smell and keep things dry. In Kansas City, I open extra vents in the summer to keep the coop cool, but cover them with cardboard in the winter to insulate the coop.
3 – Feed a little extra fat
Around the holidays we all like to have a little comfort food to help us cozy up in the winter months. Your chicken are the same way. Here are a few easy comfort foods for your girls.
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds (great protein, healthy fats, etc.)
Suet Cakes (use ones with >6% protein)
Meal Worms (great protein source and especially helpful just after molting season)
Left Over Spaghetti (trust me, this occasional treat is hilarious to watch)
Left Over Meat / Fish (any cooked meats that you have for dinner are generally ok for the birds)
NOTE: Do NOT use chicken sweaters. These are a novelty and are horrible for the birds. They damage feathers and prevent the birds from “fluffing”, which creates warm air pockets in their coats.
4 – Use extra bedding
Extra straw or wood shavings in the coop provide insulation, reduce smells, and absorb excess moisture. If you are in doubt, add another sleeve of straw just in case. Not only does this provide insulation, but it helps chickens have something fresh to scratch through, which prevents winter boredom.
5 – Keep water and food fresh
Using a heater in your coop is always a bad idea, unless you want fried chicken. Just suck it up and change their water 2x a day. Using warm water and keeping it fresh helps keep the birds hydrated and warm. I typically use two waterers and bring one inside to thaw while leaving the other one out until it is frozen. Then all I have to do is switch them out during the day. Adding a weekly tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and honey in the winter can also help boost their immune system. Always keep the water out of the coop when possible, though. The spilled water will create moisture in the coop, increasing the risk of frost bite. Food should always be kept dry, so either feed inside the coop or create a “lean-to” outside of the coop to keep the snow and rain out of the food container.
So there you go, a few easy tips to keep those birds warm in the cold winter months. If this was helpful to you, be sure to like the article and share it on your favorite social media outlet. Keep warm and drink some extra coffee!
Because permaculturists are are often futuristic in thinking, it’s easy to get excited about the future and miss the opportunity where we are in the moment. Many times, I find myself day dreaming so much about the mature food forest I will one day steward and I miss the fact that I need to be applying compost to the soil today. In the first part of these series on Overcoming Permaculture Destination Addiction, we talk about how to BE right where your feet are and to enjoy the plot of land you are stewarding today.
In order to stay in our power-allies, we have to set up careful parameters in order to keep ourselves focused and living intentionally. When a permaculturist is focused the system thrives with intelligent design and abundance. When we get distracted, we end up with 30 half-finished projects around the property. Learn how to select the most important projects here, with “Five Keys to Healthy Building”. For me, there are three dangers that often creep up that are easy derailments of my efforts. These dangers have applications both in and outside of the garden.
Danger #1: Planting Outside of Your Zone
We have all been at the greenhouse and saw “THE PLANT”. You know the one… it’s the one you don’t have in your garden that is so perfect and exotic that you absolutely have to buy it. Even if the plant is just outside of our growing zone, we usually still buy it with the thought in mind that we can nurture it, mulch, or maybe even take it in the greenhouse for the winter. The fact remains, the plant often looks good at the plant store, because it was just shipped there from Florida and is full of fertilizers. That is a short lived reality. Once those two factors wear off, we all know how the story goes – the plant struggles in our midwest garden, will sometimes make it through one winter, but is usually a pitiful stem in the second season…and dead shortly thereafter. A mistake I have made more than once myself.
Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to plant outside of our planting zone and sometimes (rare as it may be), we can make it work. However, there is a reason those planting zones exist. That zone is what is optimal for the plants growth and ability to thrive. Yes, the little plant might survive in your garden, but the chances of it thriving in a system it wasn’t intended for are slim. As a gardener, I have to deny myself the momentary pleasure of buying that tropical plant in order to give it a better chance in the system it was created for. Zones exist for a reason – they are the unspoken boundaries of the landscape that allow for abundance. We cannot simply erase these invisible lines simply because we desire the tropical tree enough. We cannot wish away the boundaries that nature has drawn.
Danger #2: Letting Books Frame Your Reality
When I first started researching permaculture, one of the ideal trophies many people touted on about were their “herb spirals”. These seemed to be the golden children of permaculture design that everyone wanted to have. As I read my first few books, I started to think to myself, “If I don’t have one of the spirals like this – I’m going to be a bad permaculturist.” So, during my first PDC, I was waiting for Geoff Lawton to introduce the concept, however, when he finally talked about it, he told us upfront that it was NOT a design for everyone. Lawton actually tried to talk us out of creating one before he gave the mechanics of designing it. He specifically said, “there are some growing scenarios that make it a really wise choice, but there are 10 other scenarios that make it a permaculture fantasy.” They key to a healthy system is doing what IS right, not creating something because it FEELS right. So what makes it right? The system. It is the difference between a system being able to sustain an element and the element actually being good for the system as a whole, where they both thrive because of its introduction.
Just because it’s do-able in someone else’s system, does not mean that it is the best course of action for your scenario.
Danger #3: Jumping the Gun
One of the hardest lessons I have learned in permaculture is that real growth takes real time. Real abundance takes ground work above all else. I have planted hundreds of trees and bushes the last few years, and some of them do really well while others thrive. The difference is generally found in how much time I spend nurturing the soil vs. how much time I spend playing the with leaves. On the trees which I have mulched, wood-chipped, composted, and sprayed with beneficial micro-organisms, I see immense growth and health. However, there are some trees that I focused on foliar sprays which have really struggled. The lesson learned regarding my apple trees is to allow 3-5 years of root growth on new fruiting trees BEFORE allowing them to have fruit set. This creates a tree that will be healthy for 100 years, but requires me to forgo the momentary pleasures of a few apples. The waiting process is painful, but it’s worth it in the end.
This month, I took some young 7th grade students out to the apple trees to look at the branches during the fall. On the trees, you can see the buds setting for the next season. I told them how we have been waiting for several years to have apples, because the focus has been on root growth, and how next year there will finally be apples! Here is the Facebook post I wrote that day:
“…Because I am a garden nerd, I know that next year I will have more apple blossoms than ever before. I can see the bud set starting this fall for the next year. We are nearly past the tree infancy stages and entering our first production years. We have labored hard to create the soil that they could thrive in, and have provided companion planting guilds to ensure a healthy eco-system. All the while, we have strategically plucked the blossoms and early fruit to prevent apples from forming the first few years. However, this fall, I see buds forming for next year that we will allow to produce fruit! The promise of fruit – finally! If I open up the buds to take a peek at the promises before their time, I cannot simply close them back up and hope for them to bear later. Once opened, they cannot be closed. The buds need the hardening off of the winter to prepare for the year ahead. Otherwise, should I act in haste, the fruit sets will fall to the ground. As a gardener, I watch and wait, and I do my part today to tend the soil and provide a covering.”
Overcoming Permaculture Destination Addiction
So, be patient. Wait. Tend the soil where you. Be wise. Observe the plot of land that you are responsible for stewarding and ask yourself what is best not only for the individual tree, but also the planting build; not only what is good for the guild, but also the system as a whole. Be where are you are right now and care for the plot of land you are responsible for.
Don’t worry about what land you are going to steward in the next 10 years, just enjoy today and get outside in the garden.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, unless you are a permaculture ninja, then the food forest is always more established on the other side of the hugelkultur swale. Whether you own 300 acres in the country or 1/4 acre in the city, I am sure we have all had the occasional case of property envy. This happened to me immediately as I started my permaculture design course (PDC) with Geoff Lawton. I started researching properties all over the United States that would provide the environment for the ideal food forest. As I went through the PDC, I started imagining swales, 7-layered systems, hugel-beds, herb spirals, and the multiple zones for growing and production. Unfortunately, those moments of dreaming quickly made me realize that I wasn’t happy where I was. I had a horrible case of destination addiction… permaculture destination addiction.
It is easy to get lost in the fantasy of “if I only had that property, then I would…”. Though it is helpful to dream, it is also dangerous if we allow ourselves to stay there. Not only do we have the opportunity to be happy and fulfilled where we are, but we also have the ability to experience abundance. Bob Fraser, a Christian leadership author, says, “Your ministry is right where your feet are.” In the case of the permaculture ninja, our opportunity for abundance is right where we stand. It is true, I might own another property in 20 years that will be very different than the ones I manage now. However, the reality is that I am stewarding land right now that needs my care, attention, and focus. I need to build right where I am as though I were going to be there for the next 70 years. I need to live in the present and not in the possibilities of the future.
What system are you stewarding today?
A permaculture friend of mine has a stunning little property in a suburban area that has a lot of old growth. He has hickory, oak, large maple, etc. Because of his desire to build a picture perfect permaculture property, he is longing to put in a food forest. He wants all seven layers with each one expressed in a way that it looks like a picture of Sepp Holtzer’s property. However, with the amount of old growth and shade he has on his property, having a 7-layer system is just not reality. He would have to cut down sections of the old growth to allow more sunlight and would need to amend the soil because of the high tannins in the acorns. In essence, he would need to kill off part of his 150+ year old system in order to add in a few bushes and understory shrubs. IT’S NOT WORTH IT!!
J.R.R. Tolkien says, “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom.”
Be where you are – Avoid Permaculture Destination Addiction
Instead of fighting against the natural succession that has already taken place on the property, he has the opportunity to work with nature instead of against it. Instead of the 7-layer system, he could be expanding the understory to include gooseberries, currants, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, etc. Instead of a regular vegetative layer, he has a property that would be perfect for mushroom production. He has a stunning overstay for raising chickens, ducks, turkey, or goats in the dappled shade of the forest. The maple trees are mature enough to be tapped for syrup, and the acorns are attracting the neighborhood deer and wildlife for hunting. This may not be a 7-layer food forest, but it really is a horse of a different color. There is a rare and unique system being offered right where his feet are.
Overcoming the temptation to “be” somewhere else is much easier said than done. Personally, I could spend all day dreaming about the future, white-boarding it out and making new designs. however, when I do that, my current system goes into chaos because I am not tending the garden the way that I should. Creating designs and white-boarding is an excellent practice, I outline a few tips on how to do it here, but we have to overcome the planning paralysis and become people of action and intelligent design.
Action, for a permaculturist, has to be not only balanced, but also optimized to express earth care, people care, and fair share. Our actions in the garden should pass the following questions:
1 – Am I doing what is right for this plant by creating an environment for it to thrive?
2 – Am I doing what is right for the companion planting guild that surrounds this plant?
3 – Am I doing what is best for the system as a whole?
Notice these questions do not involve topics primarily focused on the gardener. I am only one element in the system, and that system is quite simply bigger than I am. The questions are not asking, “Are avocados my favorite fruit?” This question has merit, sure, I want to grow something I enjoy. However, the reality is that I live in Missouri, so growing an avocado is not what’s best for the tree or the system as a whole…no matter how much I enjoy guacamole. In Missouri though, I can grow annual tomatoes, peppers, and other ingredients for salsa. I can grow perennial stone fruits for apple pie, berries for preserves, and grains for bread. Instead of focusing on avocados, it is best for me to appreciate the ground my feet are standing on right now. It’s best for me to intelligently design the system I am in and ask the healthy questions of how to optmimize it for abundance. Maybe in the future I will be in a system for avocados to thrive, but it is not today.
Because permaculturists are are often futuristic in thinking, it is easy to get excited in the moment and miss the opportunity where we are. There are three dangers that a young permaculturist or gardener should be careful of in order to create a healthy system. These are carefully outlined in part two of the Destination Addiction series, which you can read here.
Now, stop reading and get outside and into the garden!
In our region in Kansas City, like much of the Midwest, we have an abundance of black walnut trees. This species can be difficult to grow under because it can add toxins to the soil. The black walnut tree produces a substance called juglone, which prevents many species from growing under the canopy of the tree. If you have one in your yard, you may have noticed that grass is nearly impossible to grow under it. The highest concentrations of juglone are in the shell and hull of the nuts, and the highest concentration in the soil is often found around 15-20 feet from the tree. The toxins can be found nearly 80 feet from the center of the tree on older species. Because of this substance, it is important to not only identify what can grow around the tree, but also what will create a beneficial, symbiotic relationship with the tree to improve the system. Our 18.5 acre site at the Daniel Academy has an abundance of these trees and we are getting ready to install a few black walnut tree guilds that are tailored for Kansas City. Adaptations of these guilds can be used in other regions as well with species that are slightly more suitable for your area.
Permaculture Ninjas and Fitness
This particular walnut guild has been designed specifically to benefit the local ecosystem, but with the purpose in mind of serving those who are into a fitness based lifestyle. Our weight training program at the school, along with a local fitness trainer have hopes of using this system to not only heal the land, but strategically nourish the participants in the fitness programs. These plants have high density nutrients and multiple levels of application for fitness guru’s. Just imagine, if you can tailor a guild to suit a fitness center – what other possibilities are out there! Companion planting in front of a restaurant to compliment their style of food, exploring planting guilds near a children’s recess area, for a bird sanctuary, a learning garden for kids to capture insects, etc.
Black Walnut Tree Guild for the Kansas City Permaculture Ninja
Walnut Tree: This is the centerpiece and canopy layer of the system. Generally with a walnut species, we don’t plant anything under the canopy itself, but you could add some spring bulbs like daffodils, crocus, or spring violets. Wood chipping this area 6″ deep will also help create a healthy fungal network. We have noticed quite a wide species of mushrooms using this practice and that find this growing environment to be perfect for mushrooms. An advanced system could use this understory area for mushroom logs to grow shiitake or oyster mushrooms. The walnuts themselves though are the focal point and are excellent sources of protein, amino acids, and healthy fats. The hulls can be used to make tincture often taken by cancer patients treating their condition naturally.
Comfrey: Around the drip line, we have two species of plants. The first is comfrey, which is a fantastic biodynamic accumulator. This plant is used to bring up minerals using it’s taproot and make them more bioavailable to the upper layers of soil. This plant can be used for multiple purposes. It can be chopped and dropped in place for creating organic biomass and weed suppression. Comfrey can be brewed into a tea to help strengthen the heart. It can be applied as a poultice to speed the recovery of injured bones, ligaments, and joints. It is also a fantastic feed for chickens, goats, or cattle. My chickens go crazy over a handful of comfrey and it gives them a good boost of minerals, biotin, and vitamin B.
NOTE: I only use bocking 14 comfrey, because it does not spread by seed. Comfrey which propagates by seed can be extremely invasive and nearly impossible to get rid of down the road, unless you have pigs. It’s worth it to stick with bocking 14, which can be easily grown from root cuttings.
Mint / Lemon Balm: Between the comfrey plants, a mint species or lemon balm would work really well. This will help serve as both a ground cover and a source of continual pollination in the vegetative layer. This makes mint a great choice, because there are continuous flowers to serve as a support species, and the juglone in the soil will help control mint from spreading out of control. The leaves can be used in a tea to aid in digestion and relaxation, or can also be ground into a poultice for injured muscles. If using lemon balm, the leaves are also used as a tea for insomnia, stress and anxiety relief, and to help digestion. For those in fitness, both teas are extremely helpful in assisting in the repair and soothing of the muscular system.
Golden Currant: The next layer has golden currants. These spring and summer berries are excellent sources of antioxidants and do well in part sun. They are best planted on the South and West sides of the tree, but can be interspersed throughout the planting guild. The bright yellow flower clusters in the spring are satisfactory pollinators, but will be very showy and a source of color and beauty within the guild. The berries are extremely sweet and have high antioxidants. They are easily picked and eaten raw or can be used in smoothies.
Gooseberry: This plant is a great one to grow in the shade and is very tolerant of the juglone produced by the walnut. These can be planted on the North and East sides of the tree or interspersed around the planting. The slightly sour berries can be eaten raw, used in smoothies, or cooked down into a jelly or preserve. They are high in vitamin C, A, and manganese. As a berry, they also contain a surprising amount of minerals, including calcium and phosphorus.
Mulberry / Redbud: In the final layer, it is a great place to put dwarf species that can either be food sources or nitrogen fixers. In our area, I prefer to use the nitrogen fixing Eastern Red Bud. The red bud tree produces pink / purple flowers in the springtime, which put on a great visual show. Later in the spring, they produce a pea like pod that can be cooked and eaten like a snap pea as a source of early season plant protein. The tree is a satisfactory legume tree, which has a root system producing nitrogen-fixing nodules to help rebuild the soil.
On the other hand, one could also plant a mulberry tree, though in this setting I would prune it to remain a bush for easier harvesting. Mulberries grown as a tree are often harder to harvest and just make a mess on the ground. The mulberries are excellent food sources for humans and wildlife. Mulberries contain riboflavin, vitamin C, K, iron, and potassium. They are also rich in antioxidants and contain alkaloids that activate macrophages to help build the immune system.
This Black Walnut Tree Guild for the Kansas City permaculture ninja has been inspired by The Daniel Academy and Jonathan Elliott who lead the fitness and wellness programs at the K-12 private school. This school has been a permaculture test site since 2012 and continues to educate students in permaculture practices, health, and wellness. For more information, visit their website.
In the meantime, if you have an existing black walnut tree, consider enhancing it with this planting guild. Watch nature and science work together to create a multi-layered system that will produce food for 100 years beyond your lifetime. Leave a legacy – plant a permaculture guild.
As a type-A, leadership driven, slightly OCD personality, I know what it is like to get stuck in the planning phase of the building process. This brain freeze in the midst of a project is often referred to as planning paralysis. Overcoming planning paralysis is something that every good permaculturist struggles with at some point in time. From the very beginning of my permaculture journey, PDC leader, Geoff Lawton taught me that, “for every hour of work on a new project, you should have 10 hours of planning and observation.” At first, I thought, “NO WAY!” After all, I am a doer, a mover, and a shaker… not a philosopher. However, after realizing just how easy it is to walk around a property and get lost in your thoughts, or how fast time flies when you go out to the chicken coop “for a minute”…I quickly found the wisdom in his words.
One of my favorite ways of thinking through a new process or idea is by using a white board. I have one in my office, another two 8′ wide ones in the meeting room, and a portable one in my shed. Wait… I also have one portable one in my car and another one at home in the front closet incase an idea hits me in the evening. Sure, I use a whiteboard app on my iPhone, but honestly I prefer the size and functionality of using the markers.
How Do We Overcome Planning Paralysis?
In the past, when finishing an idea, I would let the board sit and sometimes erase it without following through on any of the components. The nagging fear in the back of my head has always been, “What if I forget something and mess it up? Maybe it’s better to wait until I have the perfect plan before starting anything.” Regardless of how much planning I do though – I will forget something and will find things I want to improve upon. Period. No plan is ever going to be perfect and no prototype is going to be the end-all-be-all. So, how do we then get out of the project planning phase and start overcoming planning paralysis?
Step 1 – Think with Strategy
Embrace the inner planning addict and let yourself have whiteboard time. Think, dream, and go big! Look for problematic areas and potential hang-ups. Examine the possible fruitfulness of the project and who you might include on your project dream team. Draw pictures, diagrams, make lists, and color code with 11 different colors of markers. GO FOR IT! Tweak one part of your process though, and add a column in your brainstorming for “Steps to Get Started”. The addition of this simple column in your planning will help you formulate the initial strategies for moving forward. Sure, the idea might fail, but at least you will know how to get moving.
Step 2 – Bring Someone Along with You
Even if you never want to pursue the idea, take someone else along with you for the ride – a student, intern, family member, friend, or co-worker. It is always good to have an extra eye on a project, but it is even more beneficial to have someone who can see things differently than you. Don’t bring someone with you who will agree with everything you say. Remember, you want to examine a full-spectrum. At the end of the brainstorming session, maybe you decide the project is not for you, but it’s possible that the person thinking along with you will want to take it on (or know someone who could). Fruitful conversations deserve their seeds to be planted.
Step 3 – Take a Picture of Your Brainstorming
Do not erase the board and walk away! Take a picture of your work to capture it “as is”. This visual can often be helpful to look back on, especially if there are images or diagrams. Plus, it is fun to look back on concept drawings from previous projects after a few years. Trust me, you can learn a lot from your own drawings and note-taking.
Step 4 – Type it Out
The last two steps are the most important in overcoming planning paralysis. After you have taken the picture of your brainstorming time, type it out. This simple step makes it searchable on your computer, easy to send to others, and helps make the process more streamlined. Often times when white boarding, we think conceptually. Something happens when we start typing and our brain begins to make things more linear. A natural process begins to develop and clear steps begin to form. The fact is, the pictures and images of the white boards often get lost in our photo albums of 400,000 other pictures of kids, trees, and mushrooms. However, making a digital file folder to organize your dreaming can give you the ability to go back and search them later.
Step 5 – Take Actionable Step Toward the Goal
The last step is the most important in the process of overcoming planning paralysis. Take a practical and actionable step. It doesn’t have to be huge or involve a bunch of money. Your step might simply be to share the idea with another person. Projects that involve people get traction. Remember, every good idea is like a seed that deserves a chance to be planted. Who knows what fruit might come of your actions, but if you never try – you will never find out.