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Learn the Skills to Inherit Property! The SKIP Kickstarter

Say you dream of a homestead of your own but have no idea how to go about getting one. You need land, but that's expensive; you need skills, but those are hard to come by. What if I told you there was a program designed to earn you both?

It's called SKIP, for Skills to Inherit Property. And there's a Kickstarter going on right now for the SKIP bible - a book pulling all the SKIP lessons into one volume.

Here's creator Paul Wheaton to explain the idea behind the SKIP program and book:

Millions of people are blocked from homesteading because of the sheer expense of getting started.  And millions of elderly people are frustrated that they cannot find somebody worthy to pass their homestead to.  Every year hundreds of thousands of homesteads are abandoned - with the government taking possession about half the time.

Other homestead owners are looking for land managers or caretakers.  Or some sort of collaboration.  But their efforts have led to horrific results from dishonest or even criminal people - so their homesteads are, effectively abandoned.

People with homesteads are seeking people with REAL experience and skill.

People seeking homesteading opportunities want to build REAL experience and skill.

This book is an attempt to bridge these two communities.  People seeking homesteading opportunities are provided a way to accomplish hundreds of things and document them for free.  Eventually, they will be able to peruse hundreds of homestead opportunities.   And people with homesteads will be able to peruse hundreds of homesteaders that have proven their worth.

Active homesteaders use SKIP to build their skills for their own benefit.  The verification of their skills lends weight to their words on our forums.  Some people already have land and use SKIP to build their skills for caring for their land.

One thing we can tell you is that we've personally benefitted from our involvement in the permaculture community responsible for this Kickstarter, Permies.com, our weekly go-to for support of our gardening and permaculture projects. Whether it's helpful hints for going sugar-free in our baking, a possible remedy for galls, or a fantastic discussion on honeybees vs. native bees, Permies is the one online community we can count on.

Here's a handy link to the Kickstarter, where you can learn more!

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3 Great Gifts for Gardeners from Small, Indie Shops

Copper_label

By Lisa Brunette

Springtime is a great point in the year to remember the gardener in your life - yes, even if the only gardener in your life is you! As the soil warms up enough for seeds, and bare bark begins to leaf out, we gardeners get ridiculously busy and might not have time for self care as we're busting sod and ripping open seed packets. Even if there's no gift-excuse day coming up, like a birthday or anniversary, a sweet little basket of gardening gifts is just the thing.

With that in mind, I've put together a trio of my favorite things - gardening items I've personally, thoroughly tested and love. I recommend these without reservation, and in fact all the below links are both 1) stuff I am currently using, or exactly like it and 2) items available right now in Etsy shops. I'm including affiliate links, by the way, so if you do purchase them using the links, Cat in the Flock might earn a commission, at no extra cost to you. So you can support this blog, show small, indie shops some love, and get a great garden gift, too!

Gift Idea No. 1: Name That Plant

Copper Label
As a way to train myself to learn them, I like to write the Latin names for native plants in permanent marker on these elegant copper labels.

Last week, I gave a tour of our garden to a local journalist interviewing me about the Shutterbee project, and it was really handy to have so many of our plants labeled for quick reference. I use these copper labels only to identify native perennials, which warrant the permanent treatment. They're real copper and weather well to a lovely patina as the seasons change.

You can order the same through the Etsy shop TheCelticFarm - they come in a pack of 30. Just remember to pick up a permanent marker somewhere, too.

Copperlabeletsy
Photo courtesy TheCelticFarm.

I don't bother to label annuals, as it's just not cost-effective since they're short-lived and change location each year with our rotation gardening. For those I find it's better to keep a planting chart (digital spreadsheet) and gardening diary (spiral where I paste seed packets with notes).

Gift Idea No. 2: Quick, to the Bat House!

Bat House
Our bat house.

It sucks (and I don't mean 'suck' as in vampire!) that bats got a bad rap just because of our overactive imaginations and superstitions. Bats are safe and worthy pollinators to encourage in your garden. Here's the official word from the Missouri Department of Conservation:

Bats are an important part of the natural world. Bats that feed on fruit are the primary means of seed dispersal for some species, and nectar-feeding bats are responsible for the pollination of many species of plants. In fact, more than 400 products used by humans come from bat-pollinated plants. These products include bananas, avocados, cashews, balsa wood and tequila.

Missouri bats help control nocturnal insects, some of which are agricultural pests or, in the case of mosquitoes, annoying to people. Many forms of cave life depend on the nutrients brought in by bats and contained in their guano.

In our yard, bats pollinate and eat our native passionflower vines. (We have two.) One of my favorite things to do at dusk in summer is to sit in the garden and watch as the bats come out, flittering overhead.

You can get your own bat house from JoesWoodWorksITC - this one is made out of cedar and features a double chamber.

Bathouseetsy
Image courtesy JoesWoodWorksITC.

Once you get the bat house home, here are some handy tips for how to hang it properly.

Gift Idea No. 3: Face Plant!

Face_plant

You might remember our face plant pot from "After a Lifetime of Frequent Moves, The Importance of Staying Put." Besides the awesome visual pun in 'face plant,' these just look really cool because whatever you plant in the pot becomes the hair atop the face. Think ChiaPet, only a lot less kitschy.

Unfortunately, mine was a recent casualty when I accidentally kicked it while trying to perform what my physical therapist calls "that kicky thing you do with your leg." Yeah, it's something I do to manually adjust my right hip (scoliosis issues). Too bad the plant pot bit it in the process.

Luckily, Etsy has a few replacement options, most notably these rather more whimsical versions from vintagebohemianstyle.

Vintagebohemianstyle
Image courtesy vintagebohemianstyle.

You can find more recommendations on my Etsy 'favorites' page, most notably some wonderful wearable wool in the form of a 'coatigan' and some merino wool long underwear. I like to buy a lot of things out of season when it's cheaper, and wool's a good one for that tactic. 

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What Is Permaculture Gardening? And Why Does It Matter?

Passionflower Vine

By Lisa Brunette

I've been tossing around the word 'permaculture' to describe some of the activities Anthony and I are engaged in here on the suburban farmstead. As it's not a mainstream way of gardening (or way of life) yet, I thought it might be helpful to define it.

Permaculture is a portmanteau for the words "permanent" and "agriculture." The idea begins with the conviction that modern humans are not growing things on this planet in a permanently sustainable manner. Especially since the advent of fossil fuel technology and its resultant slew of fertilizers, soil amendments, and chemicals meant to kill off insect pests, we've been poisoning the environment, depleting the soil, and destroying our water supplies. The problems continue with practices like monocropping, or growing large tracts of nothing but one plant, aggressive tilling of the soil, and letting farmland lie fallow and sterile, without putting anything back in during the seasons it's not in use to grow food.

Turnip

I first heard of permaculture when I lived in the Pacific Northwest, where it's a bit of a buzzword. Somewhat ironically, however, it wasn't until I moved back to the Midwest that I began to practice it in earnest. 

I say 'somewhat' because it's not as if people in the Midwest aren't doing permaculture. There's Midwest Permaculture Center in my neighboring state of Illinois, and some folks here have been effectively practicing permaculture all their lives and just haven't ever labeled it as such. One of the best permaculture solutions I've ever encountered - a super-smart, inexpensive, completely non-toxic method for combatting cedar rust - came from a fellow Missourian.

Nyssa sylvatica

So, OK, I've outlined the practices that permaculture is calling out as wrongheaded. But what do we do instead?

As it turns out, a whole host of things, and most of these things are very ecosystem-specific. What I've learned in my four years' deep dive into all things permaculture is that you have to adapt and tailor it to your situation, your home, your region, your weather systems, soil type, etc., etc. But that said, there are some universal takeaways. I'll touch on them here, with some book recommendations embedded for your further exploration.

Soil

We seem to be coming to a consensus that the earth beneath our feet is the key to everything. I've talked about the soil before when I gave some tips on sheet-mulching. But I'm learning new, exciting facts about dirt all the time! Just last week, it was that the fungus-to-bacteria ratio in your soil could be a much better method for judging soil quality than the mainstream practice of assessing ratios of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (the ol' NPK metric) and amending the soil accordingly. But don't let that science-y tone put you off, as the F:B ratio thing is really pretty simple: For more fungal activity, you want to use a mulch that promotes mycorrhizal growth, such as wood chips. For more bacteria, you'd use compost. Brassicas and mustard like much more bacterial activity, and most vegetables like a slightly more balanced ratio of 3 fungal to 4 bacterial.

Lisa digging in dirt

I guess the key takeaway is that permaculturists look for ways to improve the soil that mimic natural systems. When I'm hiking through the forest, I see a layer of dead leaves each fall that decompose, feeding the forest trees and plants. No one comes through and tills the soil. The forest is a healthy ecosystem. While we can't grow most food plants in a regular deciduous forest, we can mimic natural systems with thick mulches that replenish the soil, plants that are grown solely for the purpose of feeding the soil and/or chopped to "mulch in place," and layers of plantings that harness the power of a forest but focus on food we humans can eat, hence the term "food forest."

For an excellent introduction to soil, read Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. While I don't agree with his stance on native plants, the symphonic description of soil bowled me over.

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Native Plants

The best permaculturists use many native plants, as natives have evolved over millennia along with beneficial, native insects to exist in the given environment without a lot of human intervention. Now, there are permaculture practitioners who advocate the use of some exotic invasive plants, but I am not in that camp. To my thinking, the benefits of any particular invasive are far outweighed by the potential damage that invasives can do. Since invasives can easily spread through seed carriage from birds and animals, to me it seems irresponsible to use invasive plants (sort of like second-hand smoke). There's always a native or at least non-invasive introduced plant alternative that will accomplish the same thing anyway.

Echinacea

Of all the plants we've grown, the native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers are by far the easiest. You don't need to do anything to amend the soil, nor do you need to till it. Just put in the plant, or sow the seed, and you've got fairly instant success - though patience is key, as natives grow by the rhythm, 'first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap.' Many natives are edible and medicinal, too. We've used that criteria for selecting our natives and have never been at a loss. Our native food/medicinal plants include paw paw and persimmon trees, violets, blueberries, blackberries, plums, cedar berries, hibiscus, passionflower, sunflowers, echinacea, rudbeckia, hyssop, New Jersey tea, chokecherry, serviceberry, and more.

If they aren't edible or medicinal, they're at least host plants for beneficial pollinators and other wildlife, such as our sycamore, tulip, and black gum trees, as well as our native violet ground cover.

Though he doesn't call himself a permaculturist, and he has less of a focus on edible/human use plants than I'd like, Doug Tallamy is a leading advocate for native plant gardening. His book Bringing Nature Home is a must-read.

 

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Canopy Layers and Polyculture Guilds

Speaking in terms of that hike through the forest I mentioned earlier, the other thing we notice is that plants grow in distinct canopy layers. First, there are roots, tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes growing into the dirt, followed by low ground covers colonizing the soil surface. Next are knee-high plants and grasses, followed by shrubs and small trees in the understory. Finally, tall trees make up the canopy overhead. Permaculturists mimic the layering found in nature by designing gardens in the same way.

For example, in our garden, we've planted (or simply encouraged) the aforementioned sycamore, black gum, and tulip trees for the high canopy, and they're joined by a Shumard oak, Eastern red cedars, and several persimmons. Next is the understory, made up of paw paws, serviceberry, an old lilac, a rose bush, and fruit trees. Next are blackberry vines, blueberry and gooseberry shrubs, elderberries, chokecherry and serviceberry trees, hazelnuts, witch hazel, and others. Then down to the perennial vegetables asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish, as well as annual vegetables. Finally, we have a ground cover of violets and geraniums, as well as plants with edible roots.

Evening primrose

Polyculture guilds are more complex, but the one everyone references first is the three sisters: squash, corn, and beans. The point is that the three plants are interdependent. Corn provides a trellis for beans, beans provide nitrogen to the corn, and squash shades the soil over their roots. In our garden, we've created fruit tree guilds with, for example, alliums, witch hazel, evening primrose, borage, and other plants interplanted in the orchard. You might also think of simple companion planting, such as peas, lettuce, carrots, and beets planted in proximity to support each other. We planted an oak where its leaves will fall on a bed of blueberry bushes, the acidic oak leaves providing a natural mulch for acid-loving blueberries, and we won't even have to rake them into place!

Sepp Holzer's Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening is kind of the bible of permaculture, or one of them, anyway, and it's a great read. I highly recommend it. 

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Permaculture encompasses more than gardening as well - it's a whole way of life. I'll tackle other permaculture aspects in a future post, but I hope for now you're excited to dive in, checking out some of the books above. Also want to shout out to my online permaculture community, Permies.com, where you can discuss these topics with likeminded folk. It's been a great resource for me. And if you're in the St. Louis area, I recommend checking out the tremendous offerings from Gateway Greening - from low-cost seeds to a handy planting calendar to helpful how-to videos. Welcome to permaculture!

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There's Mulch to Learn Through Gateway Greening's 'Community Agriculture Conference'

GG14
The Gateway Greening Demonstration Garden.

by Lisa Brunette

This past week, I attended Gateway Greening's Community Agriculture Conference. It was entirely virtual and took place in the evening, so I was able to participate around my full work days. I attended most of the conference sessions, only taking a break mid-week. The conference was free, though I did kick them a donation since I get so much out of the group's offerings, and this conference was just one example. Gateway Greening has been so kind as to upload all of the conference videos to YouTube, where you can watch them free until the first day of spring, March 20.

While the conference showcased all that local St. Louis, Missouri, has to offer, the principles and practices certainly hold universal appeal. I highly recommend them to anyone, no matter where you're gardening.

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Here are my top 3 picks for what to watch, in order of priority.

1. Caring for the Life Beneath Our Feet - Dean Gunderson, Gateway Greening

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I believe this is the third presentation I've seen from Dean Gunderson, community projects manager for Gateway Greening. Just like his previous talks on how to create a sustainable orchard and how to plant late fall crops, this one gave me some fantastic takeaways. The biggest? Rather than spinning my wheels trying to get the right "chemical" makeup in my soil (that old Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium ratio), the emerging science actually says you'll get far better results if you think in terms of building the right ratio of fungal and bacterial communities in your dirt. 

2. Growing Mushrooms at Home - Henry Hellmuth, Ozark Forest Mushrooms

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We've been customers of Ozark Forest Mushrooms through our local farmer's market, so it was a real treat to get this behind-the-scenes tour of their growing operation in the Missouri Ozarks. Hellmuth's talk is definitely more skewed toward those who really want to dive deep into the world of mushroom cultivation, but it's fun to get all fungal science-y even if you're not going to create a special ventilated spore room. The exciting takeaway for me is that we can grow shiitakes on logs right in our own backyard. Can't wait to try it.

3. Organic Pest Solutions for Your Vegetable Garden - Jason Hambrick, Gateway Greening

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Hambrick is Gateway Greening's community education manager. I found his talk really helpful, especially as we strive to increase the percentage of our food that comes from the garden vs. a store, which means less tolerance for loss due to disease and predation. However, I'm unwilling to compromise organic principles, so Hambrick's tips were a great confirmation that we're on the right track. I learned some new disease-resistant varieties I hadn't known about, as well as some additional plant companions that hadn't been on my radar.

You can check out more Gateway Greening videos on YouTube. The organization also provides a handy planting calendar, for those of you in the St. Louis area (we have a copy on our fridge!). The conference happens annually, too, so there's always next year, and who knows? Maybe that one will be in person.

About Gateway Greening:

At Gateway Greening our idea is simple: to provide St. Louis with a fun, safe, and educational environment for people to connect and discover the Power of Growing Food through sustainable urban agriculture projects. 

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The 'COVID Cabana' Might Just Save Us All

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We outfitted our 'COVID Cabana' space with old lawn furniture, a tiki bar from a friend, and an area rug. All photos by Sue Frause.

By Sue Frause

When the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to the United States in January of 2020, my husband and I were mildly concerned. But even more so when the first confirmed case in the U.S. was diagnosed in our home state of Washington. That patient was being treated at Providence Medical Center in Everett, less than an hour away from our home on Whidbey Island. It was a little too close for comfort. In March 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee initiated a Stay Home, Stay Healthy order in our state to fight the virus. And since then we’ve been adhering to the basic guidelines of wearing masks, washing hands, and staying six feet apart. Plus a whole lot more. 

Bar 1
Kids to the rescue again, donating a BAR sign they didn't have room for. Farmer Bob outfitted it with lights.

Summer was easy, as we spent a lot of time outdoors, occasionally gathering with family and friends at our home or theirs. But when the cool, wet weather of autumn arrived, all that changed. It was the season to hunker on down indoors. Which for us, meant not having friends or family over for in-house gatherings, and not going to theirs. It was going to be a long winter.  

Gas Fire
Our son and his wife gave us their never-been-used gas fire pit to cozy up the space. S'mores, anyone?

 Here on Whidbey Island and beyond, along with the proliferation of alfresco dining options, people were creating outdoor spaces where gatherings would be much safer than in their homes. That’s when I realized we had the perfect space to put together a venue where we could invite folks over to share a glass of wine or two. Our Covid Cabana was born! 

Barn
Farmer Bob's barn was built in 2005 with the help of friends and relatives. Our Covid Cabana may be seen in the forefront before it was transformed.

Its location was ideal - a 7 x 14 ft. covered area off the side of our barn. When we built the barn in 2005, the original plan was for the space to house our chickens. But my husband, aka Farmer Bob, soon realized it wouldn’t be such a great spot for a flock of egg-laying hens. So over the years, it has morphed from a carport to a storage area for picnic tables, lawn furniture, and our tiki bar. A loft above it housed even more outdoor goods. 

Wine Room
Farmer Bob created this temperature-controlled wine room located inside the barn, just steps away from our Covid Cabana.

 But in November, all that changed when we transformed the catch-all space into a cozy Covid Cabana. The best part of the process was being able to use everything we had - we spent zero dollars in creating a comfortable space for up to six people. Here’s what we recycled:

  • Two teak benches that seat four, with a matching coffee table
  • Two outdoor chairs
  • Area rug
  • Tiki bar with two stools 
  • Bar sign
  • Strings of lights on a dimmer
  • Gas fire pit 
  • Grapevine wreath

When summer arrives in June of this year, Farmer Bob plans to build and install six barn doors on the two open sides -- making it an all-season, indoor/outdoor space. And I’m hopeful that sooner than later, we can change its name from Covid Cabana to … Cozy Cabana!

H-l-about

Sue Frause is a prolific, long-time journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in print and online in the U.S. and abroad. For 15 years, she wrote an award-winning column for The South Whidbey Record. She currently writes not one, not two, but three blogs: Eat|Play|Sleep, Closet Canuck, and married to martha. She is also a regular on Around the World Radio. In her many travels, she's visited all seven continents, but her favorite place in the world is right there on Whidbey Island.

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