The fast growth of Spring is back

Zen rocks training branches for a good spread on fruit trees

This month marks a number of new experiments and the completion of several projects. Thank goodness for longer daylight; there is a ton of stuff to do.

Highlights:

  • The fruit trees in the food forest are blossoming just in time for the arrival of our bees. This year I’m hanging rocks on various branches to help guide their shapes for balance and fruit production. Feels quite zen when walking by them.
  • The kids and I have been training the chickens to follow us using scratch corn in a shake can so they can weed in the food forest for us. We enclose the area in an extra strand of electronet to keep them out of areas we don’t want them (like the burgeoning garlic patch) and let them do their chicken thing on the soil.
  • Pair of rocket stoves built with a friendFinished building a pair of rocket stoves built with a good friend (and our kids). We used perlite and cement inside, so while heavy, they are still luggable for car camping and at-home no-electricity cooking. We’ll rely on our Biolite rocket stove for  backpacking. The initial test burns worked well and we quickly learned what type of fuel works best.
  • Starting a hugelkultur (“woody beds”) experiment with our potatoes this year. Same soil, same location, same seed potatoes, but will compare the trenching method versus a hugel method of burying wood debris at the core of a bed with straw and soil on top. Hugels retain water well and attract mycelium to make for very rich growing soil. Here’s a 10-second visual description of hugelkultur.

Lowlights:

  • Hugelkultur Experiment with PotatoesI somehow messed up the recipe for soil blocks and had one grow light burn out unbeknownst to me while I was gone for a week of work travel. I came back to moldy soil blocks growing mushrooms rather than chili peppers and squash. Oops.
  • The Biopod I purchased is not working. At first I failed to attract local Black Soldier Fly, and then when I stocked the unit with purchased BSF, they did not take. I’m sure this is user error rather than a flaw with the Biopod design, but I’ve not yet figured out what I’m doing wrong.
  • Our new bees colonies are in, but we lost one immediately to an epic war with ants who showed up overnight en masse. Thankfully our local supplier had an extra package of bees which I installed after assisting the remaining bees in their righteous battle over the ants. Dug out the ants, *carefully* applied dichotomous earth, and left a bomb of boric acid + cat food for them to carry down to their queen. All three hives are now up and running.

CERT finished, book started

As we continue to prep our food beds for the winter and ramp up the greenhouse production of lettuce, I’ve been spending more time on inside projects, particularly a new writing project.

I’m co-creating a Prepared Neighborhoods book with the public (consider yourself invited!). I’m convinced the neighborhood is where the sustainability movement meets emergency preparedness.

And now for our summary of this month’s homesteading experiments…

Highlights:

CERT backpack

CERT backpack: combining minimalism with preparedness

  • Seasonal beers!
  • Discovering wine corks soaked in rubbing alcohol as a nearly-free fire starter
  • Adding RevoLights on my electric bike just in time for the winter darkness. Very clever engineering. [Update: for the dozen or so folks who almost immediately emailed and texted me with glee to point out that I was not supposed to be buying anything new right now, the RevoLights were a Kickstarter campaign I backed months ago, before we started our Buy Nothing New experiment. Whew!  🙂 ]
  • Making my own cayenne pepper from the peppers I finished ripening in paper bags. Never tasted better hot peppers for my eggs each morning.
  • Finding the Insurance Information Institute’s emergency plan mobile app. Awful brand name, excellent app.
  • Completed CERT training after nine months, which gave me an excuse to experiment with combining a desire to lead a simplified life while still being prepared. My CERT backpack is a great example of how to leverage multifunctional items to equip yourself to handle a wide variety of situations while still keeping the pack simple and light enough to lug around all day for several days. Backpack contents listed below.

Lowlights:

Day Ranging Chicken Tractors

Left to right: new pasture, last month’s pasture, previous month’s pasture. The ground recovers in about three weeks.

  • Next batch of Golden Comets not laying yet, but eating as much as full grown birds. High feed cost + frequent rotation schedule in pasture – no eggs = frustration. After the unfortunate timing of our last raccoon attack, my bet to get these birds to laying age before the cold weather and low light set in did not pay off.  [Update: it figures, we got our first maiden egg from the new batch of birds the day after I posted this. Maybe we’ll still get lucky!] 
  • Battling Seasonal Affective Disorder – a fancy way to saying these damn winter clouds make me miserable – but  I’ve found additional remedies that work well, such as a Mustard Flower tincture and doing hot yoga (stretching in a 100 degree room will warm up anybody!).

For the folks who’ve asked what each item is in my CERT backpack:

Top row: bandages, first aid kits, trauma hemorrhaging kit, kneepads, gloves, CERT vest (above), P100 mask, googles (two pair), headlamp, helmet.

Middle row: emergency blanket, hand sanitizer liquid, Ko7 water purification drops, Camelback water bladder, laminated cheat sheet for how to mark doors, glow sticks, large garbage bags, walkie-talkies for team, Icom BC-166 2-way radio to talk to BIFD, large flashlight, bright orange paracord, Figure 9 rope tighteners, two emergency whistles, one with fire steel (below).

Bottom row: duct tape, P100 replacement filters (below), snack bars, bungie cords, microfiber camp towel (above), dry socks, toilet paper (below), large green rubber band to keep doors open behind us, multipurpose camp tool (Emergency Zone brand), lighter, compass with signal mirror, marking crayon, Leatherman tool, pry bar, utility turn-off tool.

Additions not in photo: vice grips to keep doors locked open, sterile eye drops, additional seasonal clothing, fresh batteries for everything including my two EDC (everyday carry) flashlights, backup gloves, ID cards on lanyard, small bills of cash. And I still have room to throw in more food (I get hungry often!).


Buying nothing new (except toilet paper)

As our rains and colder weather invade, we button up many of our outside projects and batten down the mini-hoop houses, cloches, and Agribon paper to extend our growing season. The remaining chili peppers – full grown but still green – will be brought in to ripen inside, and the water cisterns will be flushed/cleaned so they can quickly refill for emergency water storage during winter storm power outages.

And so we turn our attention to inside projects like bread-making, cheese-making, and another One Year experiment (our last one was on transportation). A few months ago we began a one year experiment of Buying Nothing New other than food, vitamins, and toilet paper to see how we would fair on 12 months of salvaged, repurposed, or used items. For example, we’ve shifted our apparel purchases to consignment shops (both local and online) for our fast-growing kids and for ourselves as we wear through items working in the garden.

The effect of “buying used” has had an interesting affect on us of actually acquiring *more* stuff in my life. Yikes! We’re actually buying more stuff now than we were before, because our brains were thinking “Oh, I’m saving money because it is used!”

But of course, we’re not. We’re spending cash where we were not before. And we now have more stuff coming into our lives, which is the opposite of the our previous simplification focus. Now that we recognize the behavior change, we’ve corrected it. But for several months, this experiment was clearly a wash (at best) on our finances. I expect we’ll begin making gains now.

This month’s highlights and lowlights:

Highlights:

  • Lessons learned re: our Buy Nothing New experiment. Time to combine a repurpose focus with a simplification focus!
  • Cool weather crops coming on strong; warm weather crops still doing well under their cold frames.
  • Addition of a Kenyan bee hive (aka Top Bar) that I’m bee-sitting for a friend who is injured. Fun to learn a new style of beekeeping.
  • Giving away our honey to friends and family as gifts!
  • Renewed interest in finishing my book on Prepared Neighborhoods (citizen-led emergency preparedness at the neighborhood level) and reinvigorating our own town’s preparedness activities.

Lowlights:

  • The biggest lowlight for our country is seeing the suffering of our East Coast neighbors from the superstorm. So, so, so wish more towns had citizen-led preparedness projects underway. We can’t rely on our government to bail us out; they are going to have their hands full just repairing the core infrastructure.
  • The biggest lowlight for me personally is literally the low light. Time to start taking Vitamin D supplements and St. John’s Wort to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder.
  • Learning from our failures for the Buy Nothing New experiment that were not always so fun. Example: had to buy a new car tire jack in a hurry (no time to search for a used or salvage option) when I discovered our Nissan Leaf does not ship with a spare tire nor a jack. It was a bit of dumb thinking on Nissan’s part that was not fun to discover as we blew the tire away from home – surprising given the Nissan engineers got so many other details about the Leaf correct.

Mid-summer update

Planting soil blocks with daughter

As we finish “Junuary” and hope to see the sun more in July, here’s a quick mid-summer update:

Highlights:

  • We have 25 new Golden Comets in the brooder. Should be ready to head outside before winter weather sets in.
  • Most of the transplants from our new greenhouse are now surviving – including typically tough ones like corn – as I’m learning how to do soil blocks better.
  • We’ve got very heavy berry production this year (thanks bees!), including some first-timers like honey berries. With my wife’s diligent harvesting, we’re putting 1-2 gallon bags of berries in the chest freezer per day, and still have plenty to share. I’m seeing the direct benefit of berry management techniques like pruning and directing.
  • We’re seeing excellent growth on the kiwis (hard and fuzzy) and grapes (table and raisin). We’re adding trellis structures to guide and support, as well as learning grape management techniques. And seeing our first clusters this year!

A single day’s harvest of strawberries

Lowlights

  • Experienced my first bee colony collapse, which was puzzling and frustrating as it was the “strong” hive that made it through the winter, but other two new hives are thriving.
  • I learned painful lesson of what happens when a farmer gets lazy. I knew the grass under the electronet was too high and likely shorting out the electricity protecting the chickens from raccoon and coyote attack. Two raccoons killed three chickens and mortally wounded two others before I got down there. Very upset with myself that our birds suffered the brunt of my lesson learned about laziness.
  • Cracked my primary scythe blade went hitting an unknown piece of rebar in 3′ high pasture grass. Purchased two replacements that are more appropriate sizes, both of which are awesome.

Hope your summer is going well!


Fixing the Big Picture inside ourselves

In the sustainability and social entrepreneurship circles I run in, we discuss almost every one of the macro issues that the world is facing today (overpopulation being the taboo subject few people dare to speak about publicly).

But even as we create “benefit businesses” and nonprofit corporations to build resilience in our systems, we must also look inside ourselves to affect the change required for the long term benefit of the human race and the biosphere in which we live.

I’d encourage you to take 10 minutes right now to put your brain into “full, open” mode and watch Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization video.

Imagine the possibilities, and then go take actions to make it reality in your life.


Mobile app for emergency responders

As a card-carrying member of our county’s emergency preparedness citizen team, I get these nifty ID cards which allow me access through roadblocks and such in order to get to the area which needs assistance.

But how will I know what to expect once I am there? How can I quickly share what I am seeing with all the other professional and citizen emergency responders?

NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey team now has a mobile app that should prove useful until local internet servers get overwhelmed or lose electrical service.

Looks pretty useful…


Map Your Neighborhood Step 10

There is a brilliant woman named Dr. LuAn Johnson in Olympia, Washington who created the Map Your Neighborhood (MYN) program. It has the nine steps to complete immediately after a wide scale emergency such as a tornado or earthquake.

For our small town, we are adding a “Step 10” series to various citizens’ nine step guidebook to bridge the gap between an individual set of neighbors and the larger community surrounding them. Steps 1-9 of Dr. Johnson’s MYN program ensure you, your loved ones, and your direct neighbors are cared for and secured. As we roll out our town-wide plans to connect our neighborhoods for both emergency preparedness and sustainability projects, the Step 10 series will shift the focus of specific individuals to securing entire neighborhoods and then the whole town (which happens to be an easily defined area – it’s an island).

Perhaps this list will be useful for your town as well. Here are a few examples of our Step 10 additions for citizens to pursue after they have finished their Steps 1-9. They will seek to travel (safely, short distances) to their neighborhood’s designated shelter:

  • Ham radio operators to begin communication coordination
  • Doctors, nurses, EMTs and CPR experts to to provide medical attention
  • Mechanics and engineers to ensure all generators are safely up and running
  • Members of the horse and bicycle communities to begin transportation duties (medical supplies, communication devices, etc) where roads are likely blocked by landslides and fallen trees

As we do further work on these Step 10 actions, we’ll document them on our main website, as well as excerpts here on this blog.