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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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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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More DIY (Recycling and Repurposing) Bird Bath Fun!

Twig bird bath
Photo courtesy Austin Durant.

By Lisa Brunette

You might remember that super-popular post from last year on taking found items you might have lying around your basement or garage and repurposing them as bird baths. It was the No. 1 article from 2020 and the fifth most popular read of all time here at Cat in the Flock. Well, when I shared it with my online permaculture community, aka, the 'permies,' I was thrilled to see it inspire a couple of pretty cool extensions on the theme.

First up is the rustic twig bird bath above, made from a terra cotta pot water dish and found branches. This one's from Austin Durant, of San Diego, Calif. He must be great at Jenga to get that dish to balance so well on the twigs. Here's another look.

Twig bird bath 2
These photos also by Austin Durant.

You can tell Austin did a good job because the birds found the bath and began using it.

Sunday-birdbatch

In fact, they started to queue up for the whole bird bath experience!

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By the way, Austin is not just a bird lover; he's also the founder and chief fermentation officer at the Fermenter's Club. Their mission:

To improve people’s lives by teaching them why and how to make and enjoy fermented foods; and to create communities that are connected through their guts.

Fermentation is one of those skills Anthony and I are currently developing toward our overall goal of becoming more self-sufficient, as it gives us another method for preserving the food we're growing ourselves. The Fermenter's Club offers online classes in everything from how to make fish sauce to kombucha and sourdough bread. We haven't tried any of the Club offerings yet, but now that we know about it...

So the other bird gift to come out of my DIY post is this nifty feeder created by Stef Watkins of northern New Mexico. She made it out of the following:

  • a plastic tennis ball tube
  • a lunch takeout dish
  • a small branch (for inside the tube)
  • one screw
  • string
  • birdseed
Reclaimed plastic bird feeder
Photo courtesy Stef Watkins.

What's brilliant about this feeder is that Stef's not just repurposing but reclaiming two plastic items that would otherwise have gone into the waste stream. She gets major points for this one!

Now that you've seen where this whole thing with recycling for the birds can go, what do you have to show? Post your examples in the comments below!

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

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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 Garden in Winter, 2021: Pruning Trees, Just Noticing

Ice on dill umbel.
Ice on dill flower umbel.

By Lisa Brunette

We tend to think of gardening as a strictly warm-weather activity, not something to do during the winter months when the garden goes dormant, especially in climates that enjoy a full-on cold season, like here in the Midwest. During the decade I lived in the Seattle area, I found a certain quiet solace in the months of seemingly unending rain, as the winters were mild, the landscape electric green with moss. Here the green gives way to brown, and then white. That's a different kind of beauty, equally welcome.

There's good reason to take a cue from nature and have a rest ourselves. So for the most part, I've put the hard gardening work aside, and I'm just out noticing things. Like how lovely these dormant plants are after an icy cold snap.

Ice on  sedum flower.
Ice on sedum flowerhead.

But there are things to do in the winter garden, such as prune trees. I've been out there on milder days, trimming back an overgrown knock-out rose bush, as well as taking care of errant suckers and misshapen limbs growing into each other's paths on the fruit trees. I'm taking a light hand with these, however. After reading a lot across the full-spectrum debate about whether to prune or let nature take its course, I've decided on a just-right-of-center road. Or maybe just-left-of-center? I'm not sure what's left and what's right when it comes to trees. What I do know is extreme permaculturists say don't prune them at all, yet the mainstream orchardists tell you to get out there and hack away. I've opted to let the tree tell me what it needs.

Yeah, I'm not joking: I stand there and listen, sensing. I tune in for the shape of the tree to emerge. I cut suckers. I cut branches that cross paths, interfering with each other. Besides that, I leave the tree alone.

While pruning is best done while the trees are dormant, the truth is, there's not much else one can do this time of year. Outside, at least. Inside, of course, there's a pile of seed catalogs and planting charts galore! But only if you're a nerd like me.

Bird bath in  snow.
One bird bath...
Ice on bird bath.
Two bird baths.

Besides the sheer beauty of the garden in winter, another thing to notice is that a great many creatures continue to call the place home. The Dark-eyed junco is a winter visitor to the feeders and bird baths, so much so that some here in the Midwest call them our "snowbirds." 

Like the bird feeders, our bird baths operate year-round, with plenty of takers as soon as the ice and snow melt. Mourning doves in particular like to chip away at the ice as it's melting. One morning the sleet froze in painterly drips all over everything.

Ice on birdhouse.
Gourd birdhouse.

A fresh snow dusting offers the perfect opportunity to see who's frequenting the garden, judging by the tracks they leave behind. One thing I learned from this is that the rabbits use the paths I've created in the garden. Or maybe we just agree on where the paths should be. Here's a set of fresh rabbit prints, crisply outlined in the snow.

Rabbit tracks in snow.
Wabbit tracks!

You might recall my 'dances with rabbits' moment, as described in "When It's Time to Take a Break from Yoga - and Go Outside." Rather than cursing their existence, especially when they eat my food plants, I've opted to learn as much about them as I can by observing them. We have a brush pile a family uses as a warren. They help me out by pooping in the garden, and since I don't have any domesticated animals, it's the only manure my garden gets. One day this winter, I saw a nice pile of rabbit pellets right at the base of the apple tree. Free fertilizer.

After taking note of them for a year, I know exactly what they like to eat and when, and it's all part of that aforementioned nerdy planting chart. Early in the spring, when we plant tender peas and lettuce, which rabbits love, at a time when their other food choices are slim, I will cordon the food plants off with fencing. 

The rabbits aren't the only ones making tracks.

Critter tracks in snow.
Lots of critters, leaving their mark.

Squirrels are abundant, of course, and this time of year our grey squirrels get white tufts on their ears, as if they've grown winter earmuffs. Where are the raccoons, chipmunks, opossums, moles, groundhogs? Maybe their tracks are in the mess above, or maybe they're dormant this time of year. I guess I'll have to research that. I look forward to seeing them again in spring if so.

But for now, I'm pretty content to keep the feeders stocked with seed and the bird baths clean, to look out the window at the scene, or to bundle up for a wander outside, just to see what there is to notice. Like the garlic, I can wait till spring for the real work to begin again.

Garlic in snow.
The garlic bed, snug under a covering of snow. They're fine, though. Garlic can handle a good snow covering. They'll resume growing in the spring and be ready to harvest in June.

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