Making a (Adult) Playhouse – Part 1

I’ve been watching videos for some time on people camping in non-traditional tents and building everything from simple overnight survival shelters to semi-permanent shelters (or even entire compounds) for weekend camping.

Having done medieval reenacting for 16 years now, I am well acquainted with living in a tent without electricity, running water, etc. (although never as completely off-the-grid as the people in the videos). Provided the weather’s not too God-awful, it’s even fun.

But I keep looking at people building survival shelters and I think to myself, “That looks like fun.” I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I was constantly building houses for myself from grass clippings (more of a floor plan than a house, really) or making them under trees or bushes.

I have also hit a crossroads in that I want to continue to do reenacting (at least I think I do), but not in the SCA. Watching shows like Tudor Monastery Farm make me Jones for a place to do really immersive reenacting, but there aren’t any medieval living history museums like that anywhere near me.

So I’ve been thinking about combining those two things and making myself some sort of medievalish shelter that I could camp in on the weekends–maybe even invite some friends over to also camp and/or build their own house.

Building even one semi-permanent structure, however, is no small task. And I admit I haven’t decided how I want to make it yet. I’ve thought about everything from a lazy man’s log cabin (simple and relatively fast to build, but not terribly medieval unless you’re in early-period Scandinavia) . . .

to a wattle and daub structure (very period) . . .

to a pallet shed that I could cover in daub (would look the same as a proper one, but much less time-consuming to make; probably would last longer, too).

But, before I can build anything, I have to have a place to build. I have woods surrounding my house. On one side, they are either quite open (which means you can see the house and garage easily when you are in them), or they’re a tangled mess of undergrowth, meaning a lot of work to prep them. On the other side, however, once you get through the undergrowth that grows on the transition line between the yard and the woods, the woods are generally cleaner and easier to get through–i.e. less to have to clean up to make usable spots.

I had one spot picked out as a likely place to put a small shelter; it was near the house, but the woods were thick enough that you could barely see the house in the wintertime and not at all in the summer. Then, the other day, I took a walk down the property line almost all the way to the creek at the other end and I found a different location that had interesting trees and a bit more space (also, the ground was a bit more level). A deer trail from there popped me out just above the lower pond. You can partially see the neighbor’s house from the new location, but won’t be able to see it once the trees leaf out.

Soon mosquito season will be here, and if it continues to be wet like it has been all winter (and like it was the last two summers), I will not be able to do anything outside during the summer. I have flood zones in the yard that I affectionately call the “upper pond” and the “lower pond.” I am hoping to get them dug out and turned into proper ponds this summer so that I can control the mosquitoes, but right now, both areas are just a mosquito-breeding swamp. And those feckers are numerous and aggressive. You can coat yourself with Deep Woods Off! and you will still get accosted by two types of mosquitoes: the ones who say “You didn’t spray your eyeballs or inside your ears!” and the ones who land where you just sprayed and say, “Ooh, I like ’em spicy!” So, unless we have a dry summer that keeps my yard from becoming a mosquito-breeding haven, I can’t really work on this project until fall comes around and kills off the mosquitoes. At that point, I will have the fall and winter (weather permitting) to work on building my shelter-house.

In the meantime, though, I’ve decided that I can at least make a good trail to the camp site. Personally, I don’t like getting eat-up by briars all the time, and I need a clear path for bringing in building materials, too (which I will have to do regardless of what style I choose; not everything I need is right there in reach).

The weather here has been fairly pleasantly cool (highs in the 60’s) and sunny all week. We have had so much rain this winter that I feel starved for sunlight. (I know now why Seattle has such a high suicide rate; the constant rain and gloom is beyond miserable.) So yesterday evening, after I got home from work, I walked down to the spot where I had come out of the woods on my previous trip and I started to clear a path in.

This is where I started.

I feel like I made good progress in the 45-60 minutes I worked on it before I started to lose the light (and get hungry).

If you are wondering what that white thing is, it’s a water spigot. There are random water spigots all over the property, probably from back when it was a day lily farm. This one is in an advanced state of deterioration; I think I could just break it off with my bare hands. I am unsure where the water main to these is located, but all of them seem to be cut off at the source. Still, I’m leery of messing with them.

I had three main things I had to contend with: briars (both blackberry and cat/saw briars), honeysuckle vines, and privet. When I was cutting out the edge, where the undergrowth meets the yard, I had a lot of material, but no good place to put it because everything around me was just a tangled mess. So I took advantage of some privet trees that I was leaving in place and I made myself a little living hedge fence.

I feel like that gives it a bit of a medieval feel. Come right this way; a medieval experience awaits you down this wooded lane.

Black Girl in a Big Dress

The Struggle is Real

Reenactor types (and people who just think the concept of reenacting is interesting or weird in a fascinating way), you need to make sure you watch the original series Black Girl in a Big Dress, an independent production on YouTube.

And even if you don’t have any interest in history or reenacting, you should still watch it because it’s funny. If you don’t relate to Adrienne because you are some type of nerd who doesn’t fit in with “normal” (aka “mundane”) people, then you are probably someone who knows someone like this.

Show the series some love. It deserves way more view and subscribers than it currently has; it should be viral by now.

Also, Season Two is imminent!

 

Medieval Fruit Chutney

The Tale of the Apples

Stuart bought a bag of small apples sometime before he went into the hospital (so over 2 months ago), and they stayed in the fridge until the compressor went out. (That’s a saga for another day.) They were dutifully moved into the cooler on the porch, where they lived, sometimes partially submerged in water, for 2 weeks until some coworkers came over and got my new fridge pushed through the sunroom window. (I told you it was quite a saga.)

While putting things into the new fridge, I gave them a look over and decided that either they needed to be used immediately, or the whole bag thrown out.

I hated the idea of wasting an entire bag (3 lbs, I think) of apples, but the reason why I hadn’t touched them in the past two months is, although I like apples, apples in their raw form don’t like me back. And with my stomach in a fairly perpetual state of upset over the last month or so from stress, I didn’t need to add to the problem.

My mother–who stayed with me lat week–suggested cooking and freezing them to use as topping for pancakes, waffles, toast, etc. But she went back home before we had a chance to process them and I didn’t know what she did to them as far as flavoring went.

So I started going through our historical cookbooks, looking for something to do with 3 pounds of apples.

Improve at the Kitchen

Most people want to turn apples into pies or fritters or something else that involves making pastry dough (which I had no interest in doing). Or they call for an apple to be used in a meat dish or something similar. (I had way too many apples for that.) Finally, though, I found a recipe for a medieval fruit chutney that called for apples.

Or, rather, an apple. But it also called for a pear, 2 cups of cherries, and 1/2 cup of currants.

That’s totally the same as 3 pounds of apples.

When I first met Stuart, I was very much a cooking novice. “Cooking” involved following the instructions on the back of a box or bagged frozen meal. The first time I was in his kitchen, helping with food prep, I had to ask him how to dice an onion.

That was nearly 16 years ago. Since then, I’ve not only helped process 30 pounds of onions–including 5 pounds finely minced–by hand in a single morning, but I’ve learned how to venture off script when it comes to cooking.

Mind you, I’m not at Stuart’s level (yet). He had quite a talent for going to the pantry, picking out a handful of seemingly-random ingredients, and turning them into a meal. Unless it’s something I’ve cooked enough times to remember it off the top of my head, I have to start with a recipe. I need that to point me in the right direction when it comes to spices and what ratio those spices should be in.

But the rest of the recipe is more like a guideline. Occasionally I follow them exactly, but most of the time I don’t. First off, if there’s anything I don’t like, it gets tossed. So we can just skip any lines calling for things like mushrooms or capers. (Although, to be honest, I don’t know if I do or don’t like capers; Stuart never liked them, so we never used them.)

Secondly, it’s usually inevitable that I don’t have a necessary ingredient. Depending on what it is, it either gets skipped or substituted. Some substitutions I make on intuition (I have watered down sour cream to substitute for milk before and it worked fine), but others I look up online.

Ad Libbing the Chutney

First up was dicing all the apples. The cores and any bad spots were cut out and went into my worm bin. (More on the worms another day.)

Sour Grapes Over a Lack of Vinegar

The recipe called for using a white wine or champagne vinegar. I don’t drink and Stuart drank very rarely, so booze is usually not available at our house. (Or, if it is, it’s scotch, which isn’t exactly a cooking alcohol.) When I was the one staying home and doing the cooking while Stuart worked, I built up a collection of booze alternatives. I had a variety of vinegars, plus fruit juice in single-serving containers. (A large jug of fruit juice would go bad long before I used it all; the single-serve drinks kept for much, much longer.) So, if something called for red wine, I could use a red wine vinegar or grape juice, depending on whether I thought the dish would be better tarter or sweeter. White wine vinegar or white grape juice substituted for white wine. And apple juice substituted for liquors, like brandy.

But when I went to the cabinet to get some white wine vinegar, I found we didn’t have any. In fact, we were practically out of all vinegars and were definitely out of all fruit juices.

This is why I keep a shopping list on the fridge door, and as things get low or run out, I write it down on the list immediately. Because otherwise, you never remember to replace weird stuff like wine vinegars the next time you go to the grocery store. (I have since put them on my shopping list and have restocked the collection.)

My options for this dish were rice vinegar (what I use if an Asian recipe calls for sake), malt vinegar (what I would probably use to substitute for beer), and apple cider vinegar.

Apple cider vinegar seemed like the most logical choice to pair with apples.

What Happened to My Stash???

I put the apple cider vinegar in a bowl and, as I cut up apples, I tossed them in the vinegar. Apples brown when exposed to air, and I knew that lemon juice (specifically the acid in it) is used to keep them from turning, so I figured vinegar would work the same. It did; my apples didn’t brown.

. . . At least right up to the point that I cooked them in honey and spices.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The actual name of the recipe I was loosely using is “Last of the Harvest Chutney.” Its intent is to use up whatever odd and end pieces of fruit you have. This works either in the spring, when you have a small selection of last year’s fruits still available in storage–not enough of any one thing to be useful, but enough in the aggregate–or you can use it in the fall when you have some leftover pieces that are too bruised to go into storage or weren’t quite enough to make one more batch of jelly.

That being said, I didn’t want this to be nothing but an apple chutney. So I decided to use up whatever dried fruits we have in the cabinet.

. . . We were out of dried fruit. No figs. No raisins. No cherries. No apple rings. (Not that I needed any more apples, but I still expected to find some.)

This is something else I usually kept stocked because you never know when you want to make some medieval meat, and medieval meat almost always calls for fruit.

Finally, in the top of the cabinet, I found a bag of prunes. I have no need to eat prunes out of hand, so this seemed like a good place to use some.

Then I remembered the fruit tray someone had brought over a few days previously. That definitely needed to be used before it went bad (I don’t usually eat fruit medleys, mainly for the same reason I don’t eat raw apples). So I pulled it out of the fridge and started sorting it. All the melons and pineapple stayed in the tray (they’re not complimentary tastes to a medieval fruit chutney, in my opinion), but the strawberries and blueberries went in with the apples. (The few remaining grapes, however, went into me; they were good and sweet.)

Lastly, I tossed in a bag of cashew pieces. The recipe didn’t call for nuts, but chutneys can have nuts in them, I like the crunch, and I’m not going to eat a bag of nothing but cashews, so why not use them?

The thing that really makes this chutney a medieval recipe isn’t the flavor profile (although that’s certainly a part of it), but rather the fact that it’s cobbled together from a bunch of semi-random leftover things salvaged before they go bad. Be they pies, pottages, or frumenties, medieval dishes were all about using what you had on hand and wasting nothing.

The Shortages Continue

Once my fruits were assembled, I started in on the spices. I had ginger, cloves, and cinnamon–no problem.

I can’t tell you how many years I waited for this setup, which allows me to store all the spices alphabetically.

But when I went to the cupboard for brown sugar . . . no brown sugar. Stuart must have used up the last of it making brine when he smoked meat last.

You can “make” brown sugar by combining regular sugar with molasses. Which I had. . . . Two days previously. But when I was migrating things from the cooler into the new fridge, I got rid of the jar, thinking I had no use for a small amount of super-hard molasses.

Yeah, that one was all on me.

But, I soldiered on with regular sugar.

Old Honey Renewed

The recipe actually starts on the stove with 1/2 cup of honey. (Which I doubled, since I guesstimated that I had twice the amount of fruit the original called for.)

Honey was one of the few things I had. But it was not as easy as just dumping some in. No, we couldn’t have that.

We had a honey bear that was old and the honey in it had gone hard. But hard honey can be liquefied again if you just heat it up. So, while I was still cutting up fruit, I put the container in a pot of water and let it warm up.

Even if you don’t have hard honey, you should strongly consider heating up honey first if you need more than a spoonful or two of it; warm honey pours like olive oil, which makes it a lot easier (and faster) to fill a cup.

Now We’re Cooking With (Electric) Gas

Once my myriad of substitutions were completed, the actual cooking went really fast. I added all the fruit to the simmering honey and let it cook on medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring it occasionally.

As you can see, my careful vinegaring of the apples was all for nought; the combination of honey and spices and cooking turned them brown anyway. (After the mixture cooled, it became even darker, turning rather purple.)

Despite all of the sugar and honey and fruit, it came out surprisingly tart. But it’s tart like a dried cherry; there’s an underlying sweetness that you taste after the initial tartness.

A friend of mine who is an excellent medieval cook tried a bite and declared it to be very good. So I have that as a bragging right.

Conclusion

Now that I have a large pot of medieval fruit chutney, you might well ask, “What are you going to do with it?”

To me, medieval fruit begs to be put on meat.

Normally, I would pair apples with pork, but 1) I don’t eat pork any more and 2) this is much tarter than apples normally are. Like I said, it tastes more like a cherry than apples. Cherries pair well with beef (sweet and sour also goes well with venison and, I assume, any other red meat), but chicken was to hand, so it’s what I used.

The one thing you don’t want to do is put too many things together that are just alike. So, to contrast with the sweetish flavor of the fruit, I decided to make the meat savory.

I thawed a package of chicken breasts and butterflied them and then flattened them with a mallet because it was 8:00 PM by that point and I didn’t have all night to wait for them to cook.

I put some vegetable oil in the bottom of a baking pan (I meant to use olive oil, but forgot and just used the first thing I got out of the cabinet) and dredged the chicken in it as I tetrised all the pieces in. Then I sprinkled them with thyme, basil, and savory until they looked sufficiently coated and popped them into the oven for 30 minutes. I had no recipe for the chicken at all, so I was totally guessing about the time. But after 30 minutes, I cut into the chicken and found it done.

I heated up a can of potatoes, added butter and sour cream to them, and cut a chunk of cheddar cheese. I put everything on the plate, added the chutney on top of the chicken and devoured it so quickly, I didn’t get a picture of it. Suffice to say, it was really, really good.

Stuart would be proud of me cooking so far off script.

Now, to learn to cook over an open fire.

Post-Script

When I ate leftovers the following day, I found that the chutney had mellowed somewhat and was not as tart. It still, however, tastes more like cherries than apples.

Next up: Using it on steaks.

Bringing Back the Blogging

I know I’ve said it before, then immediately fell off the bandwagon, but I’m going to start blogging again.

Most of the reason why I haven’t been blogging is because I haven’t been writing anything at all. That’s partly due to the fact that I’m busy with other things when I get home, and partly due–I think–to the fact that I have a very mentally-taxing job. When I get home in the evening, I honestly feel like my brain is tired. Not only that, but when I’m excited about writing (or anything, for that matter), it’s all I think about; I can’t seem to turn off my thoughts. And that makes it hard for me to focus on my work, which requires a lot of concentration. Unfortunately for me, I can’t compartmentalize my life and just do certain things at certain times of the day; if I turn on writing mode, I’m writing in my head all day long. So, even if unconsciously, I’ve been avoiding turning on writing mode just so I can get work done at work.

But I am at the point now where I have to bring the blogging back. I started a while back extracting myself from Facebook. Personally, I don’t like the idea that they have a dossier on me and they not only keep a record of everything I post on Facebook, but they also use algorithms to guess at what type of person I am and what I’m likely to do based on what I’ve posted. Then there’s the tracking you around the rest of the internet and adding all of that information to your dossier and using that information to get an even clearer picture about who you are. I mean, it’s getting to the point that Facebook, Google, and Amazon will know what you are going to do before you do. And I just find that creepy.

While I’m still posting (some) personal information here, obviously, I don’t think that WordPress keeps a secret dossier on me or tracks me around the internet or sells every scrap of information or conjecture about me to a third party for marketing (or other) purposes. I feel like I have a bit better control over what people know about me.

Also, my blog and the comments on it are not full of politics like damn-near every post on Facebook these days. Even before all of Facebook’s creepy data compiling/selling secrets got leaked, I had pretty well quit using it because the posts that didn’t bore me made me angry and I had trouble keeping myself from not commenting on them. Because I know no matter how nicely and logically you point out the flaws in someone’s political stance, you are not going to change their mind. But you will wind up with one less friend. I just find it easier to ignore everyone’s political leanings so I don’t think less of them and not share mine publicly so they don’t think less of me.

Oddly enough, that’s the historical way of interacting socially. The #1 rule of polite conversation used to be to never bring up politics, sex, or religion. You can talk about anything else, but not those three things.

Wish we would go back to that.

Anyway, I plan on using my blog as a way of staying in touch with friends and family who otherwise might not know what’s going on with me since I no longer post to Facebook.

And that’s even more important now than ever. My husband passed away the 28th of December. While I don’t live a really long way from friends and family, I’m not right around the corner, either. For most of my local friends and family, I’m an hour to an hour and half away. So I’m going to be on my own a lot and people are going to want to know that I’m doing okay.

And “doing” is the operative word. I have to keep busy all day, every day. I have to have plans and goals. It’s a form of swimming. To stop being busy is to sink and drown.

 

 

 

Permaculture Part II – Putting the “Sculpting” Into Landscaping

Intro to Permaculture, Part 1

The History of Permaculture

Permaculture is really not a new gardening trend; it’s been around for thousands of years in tropical locations, like South America and India. It’s only been in the last century that scientists studying people in those locations have come to realize that the places they live in are not naturally fruitful; it’s no accident that those people can walk out their door and pick fruit and edible plants. Someone planted those plants–be it themselves, their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents, etc.

This has been an eye-opening revelation for anthropologists, archaeologists, and biologists. It’s been thought that non-civilized cultures (literally cultures without cities) left no permanent mark on the landscape–nothing to show that their villages ever existed. But now that scientists know that people intentionally planted edible plants all around them and let it go wild, they’re looking into the possibility that most or all of the Amazonian rain forest was started by humans! (Think about that if you ever wonder what your permaculture garden might look like if left alone for 5,000 years or so.)

It used to be thought that permaculture only worked in tropical rainforests where there were 365 growing days, steady rain, and really fertile soil. And while that is the ideal condition for planting something and letting it go wild (meaning no further maintenance on your part), it’s not imperative. Back in the 60’s, people (including Sepp Holzer, below) started experimenting with temperate climate permaculture and found they could get most of the same results with only a little more effort. (For instance, if you don’t live in a rainforest, you have to do some terraforming of the landscape to make it better at storing rain during your dry periods or occasionally supplement with watering.)

Today, people are experimenting with permaculture in desert and salty environments, trying to see if there is a limit to where permaculture can be practiced and whether or not it can halt desertification or even reclaim land that has been over-worked and over-grazed to the point it’s become desert-like.

Getting Started

You may think that you can’t garden because your yard is too shaded, or gets the wrong kind of sun, or is too exposed to wind, or is too dry, or the soil is rocky or full of hard clay, or you’re surrounded by pine trees that make the soil too acidic, or the deer will eat everything, etc. But permaculture doesn’t shy away from less-than-ideal garden spots. It says, “I can fix this” or “I can work around this.”

Even so, there will always be things you can’t grow because you just can’t give the plant the conditions it needs to grow (or can’t do it without a lot of effort). But conversely, you can always find something that will grow in the conditions you do have. Once you accept the plants you can grow and let go of the ones you can’t, you’ll have a successful, low-maintenance permaculture garden.

Observe

The first thing you need to do is check out your land. Ideally, you will experience all of the seasons at least once before you start work on your garden. That will give you some clue as to how water runs across it, whether some places are boggy periodically or constantly, the direction of the prevailing winds, the track of the sun (i.e. where it rises and sets in the summer versus the winter), deer or rabbit trails, which places get only morning sun or all-day sun or mixed/dappled sunlight, or western sun and for how many hours, etc.

You also need to poke around in the dirt and see where the dirt looks pretty good, where it’s sandy, where it’s full of clay, where it’s rocky, etc. And it doesn’t hurt to pH test the dirt in different locations. Most plants like an average pH, but some need acidic soil and some will die if the soil is too acidic. (I’m not aware of any plants that require a really base soil, but most plants will tolerate that better than too acidic.)

Also check out the lay of your land. Even if you live in Kansas, your land will not be perfectly flat; there will be little divots and places that have been ever-so-slightly hollowed out by rain. Outside of the breadbasket of America, you likely have land that has a least some discernible slope to it. Figure out where the high and low parts of your yard are. Rain/groundwater always runs from the highest point to the lowest point and it will collect in any depressions, basins, ditches, gullies, valleys, etc.

Something I had never thought about until I started reading about permaculture is that water moves downhill through the soil. Unless water is running across the top of the ground, we really don’t think about what happens to it after that; I’m sure most people, like me, thought that it just sinks down into the soil and gets into the aquifer. And it does this somewhat, but most of it runs downhill in the soil. This is why the low spot in our yard (which is at the bottom of a big slope) gets wetter after it stops raining.

Once you understand—literally—the lay of your land, you can decide what you’re going to change and what you’re going to work with (or around).

Zones

The other thing you need to take into consideration when mentally surveying your land is where you’re going to plant things. Permaculture guides suggest that you think of your yard as having 5 zones:

Click for link to site with more info about zones.

Zone 0 is your house and outbuildings—i.e. the center of your permaculture garden.

Zone 1 is everything immediately around your house and outbuildings—normally where you have sidewalks, patios, ornamental plants and flowerbeds, etc. In Permaculture World, this is where you would have your high-maintenance items like annual vegetables and maybe chickens or rabbits.

Zone 2 is where you put in your perennial plants, which don’t need daily attention like annuals do. If you are worried about smell from chickens or rabbits, or want to free-range them, then you would place them in Zone 2. This is also the place for bees and greenhouses.

Zone 3 is where you put things that need more room to grow, like orchards, nut trees, and grain crops.

Zone 4 is your pasture areas for larger livestock, like goats, cows, horses, etc. You may also have woods that you harvest periodically for profit or just for fireplace wood. Or you might leave the space open and plant with wildflowers. This is also the ideal place for fish or livestock ponds.

The final section, Zone 5, is left wild for the deer, birds, coyotes, etc.

All of this is great on paper (or in a picture), but I’m pretty sure most people can’t organize their yards like that. (How many people have enough land to even think about having a grain field and cow pasture?) In fact, some of the most beautiful and bountiful permaculture gardens I’ve seen have little in the way of zone planting:

Although this lady has 3 acres, she plants more like a person who only has half an acre. Her annual vegetables are near her house and she does seem to have a couple of spots where she puts a lot of fruit trees, but mostly there’s some of everything everywhere. This works if 1) you don’t mind walking around your property a lot to do the harvesting (and which such a beautiful setting, why wouldn’t you want to take a lot walks?); 2) you’re only concerned with growing enough for your family (you don’t want things too scattered if you’re trying to harvest to sell); 3) you aren’t bothered by the idea that you will invariably miss harvesting some things and they will either end up seeding more plants or the animals will eat it.

So, even if your land is too small to support the full zone system or you prefer the more wild, natural look of Bealtaine Cottage, there are a few things you should still take away from the zone concept:

If you live on 5 acres of land, you don’t want your annual vegetable garden or chicken coop on the opposite side of the property from your house. The likelihood that you will check on it, fertilize it, water it, etc. when it’s a hike to get to is pretty slim. The farther away your chickens are, the less likely you are to notice if they’re loose, or if they’re under attack by a snake or varmint.

It also helps if you plant your annuals where you will see them daily. Even if you have a half acre of land and consider your entire yard is Zone 1, so you can plant your annuals anywhere, if you plant them on a side of the house where there are no windows overlooking them (or the window is in an unused room), and you don’t approach the house from that side, then they can get forgotten. Of course, you first consideration should be the light, but if you have two equally good spots for a garden, but you can’t see one of them from the house or your driveway, then use the plot you can see for your annuals and the other plot for perennials.

Although you don’t want your annuals on the outer-edges of your property, nothing says that your outer zones have to stay far away. If your house backs up to the woods, and you like it that way, there’s no reason why you need to clear out the woods to make space for your annuals. This is especially true if you have a lot of land; if you have more land than you need for your annuals, then go ahead and fill in the rest of your Zone 1 with perennials.

Beyond that, put things where they go best. I plan on putting in my orchard (normally a Zone 3 item) on the open slope in front of my house (Zone 1) and planting my annuals (Zone 1) underneath them. My nut trees and bushes (Zone 3) are going to go on the north side of my house (Zone 2) because the slope and colder air will be most conducive to them.

I will be planting my apple trees way out in what would normally be thought of as Zone 4 because that’s where the driest low spot in my yard is located. Apple trees like cold winters; our winters tend to only have short periods of cold weather. Since low-lying spots collect cold air, the basin area near my driveway should be one of the coldest microclimates my yard has. (The north side of the property is also colder, but because of the steep slope on that side, it makes more sense to plant things that drop their “fruits”—like nut trees—rather than try to use a ladder to pick apples on very uneven ground. The basin is also lightly shaded by tall trees which will mean the apple trees will stay cooler in summer.)

My pond is going in Zone 4 (should be in Zone 4) because that’s where the water collects. But I have another area in the yard that collects water and it’s in Zone 2/3. If I don’t also turn it into a pond, then I’m going to turn it into a rain garden because it’s going to collect water there regardless and I don’t have it in me to dig a drainage ditch as long and as deep as necessary to get the water to drain into the lower pond.

Sometimes you build the pond. Sometimes it builds itself. And unless you want to do a lot of terraforming, you just have to roll with it.

But that’s the great thing about permaculture: the overall principle is to just roll with it. So much of modern landscaping and farming is about straight lines, defined edges, swaths of identical things, and rigid control. Permaculture takes the approach of the sculptor who said that there’s a figure inside the stone and all you have to do is chip off the stone that’s not part of the figure.

There are probably things on your property that you could chip away to make it better–whether that’s getting rid of an ugly concrete patio or a dead tree, or digging a swale to stop the soil from washing away.

More on that next time . . .

Intro to Permaculture, Part 1

During my Survival Binder posts, I mentioned Permaculture and promised some future blog posts on the concept. Well, now that gardening season is upon us, I’ll talk about this more in-depth.

What’s Permaculture?

Permaculture is a type (some people call it a style or system) of gardening. Like a lot of art forms, there are no hard and fast rules as to what does (or doesn’t) constitute permaculture. But, just as all Impressionist paintings have some techniques or themes in common, so too does Permaculture. Here are the four biggies:

  1. Permanence
  2. Usefulness
  3. Naturalness
  4. Diversity

Permanence

Permaculture gardens generally start with permanent plants and then non-permanent plants are scattered amongst them. (In permaculture, a “permanent” plant is any that keeps coming back–either because it’s a perennial or because it’s a self-seeding or otherwise self-propagating annual. “Non-permanent” plants are plants that have to be replanted by you every season–be that a true annual, like a tomato plant, or a perennial that dies out every season in your climate.)

This is contrary to the typical garden which places all the annual plants in their own plot of ground and either has no permanent members or has them in a separate location (like an orchard). Flowers and decorative plants also tend to be treated as separate entities and are given their own place (usually the front of the house).

There’s one mistake with this image: walnut trees inhibit the growth of many plants underneath them; only certain plants can grow under them, so if you have a walnut tree, you have to be careful about what you plant under it.

Permaculture integrates everything. Large permanent plants, like trees and bushes, are put in as central cast members, then smaller plants—both permanent and non-permanent—are placed around them as supporting characters.

The benefit to having a lot of permanent plants is that it makes gardening a lot less work. For instance, it’s a lot easier to occasionally trim an established fruit tree than constantly plant, water, fertilize, etc. annual plants. Perennial plants tend to put down deeper roots, which mean they handle dry conditions better, so they don’t have to be watered as often. Those same deep roots also allow them to get better nutrients, so they need little, if any, additional fertilizing once they are established. (Most perennials are fine with a light, once-a-year fertilizing, and in some cases, this can be as simple as dumping some compost or plant mulch on them in the fall.) And calorie-wise, a nut-bearing or fruit-bearing tree is a better investment than pretty much any garden vegetables you can plant.

The permanence aspect tends to be the portion of permaculture that varies the most from garden to garden. Personally, I think of a permaculture garden being a majority of permanent plants, but people with small yards tend to have fewer permanent plants because they have less room for large trees and shrubs and they want to devote most of their space to growing (annual) vegetables which they most frequently eat.

For example, asparagus and ostrich fern both produce edible shoots that are great to eat, and both are permanent plants, but both only produce their shoots for a brief window in the spring; the rest of the year, the plants are not producing edible food. If you are gardening on a very small plot, neither of those are good food investments for the amount of space they take up. I, on the other hand, have more land than I could ever hope to plant and manage, and I have some dense shady areas where nothing much but ferns will grow, so I can plant ostrich ferns by the dozens.

Perhaps a better way of thinking about this aspect of permaculture is not so much about the relative percentage of permanent plants to non-permanent ones, but rather the fact that the garden is treated holistically, if you will, and the two types of plants are integrated.

Usefulness

Permaculture gardens have few, if any, useless plants. People might throw in a few plants that are just for beauty, but the overwhelming majority of the plants are useful.

What kinds of uses?

First and foremost is edibility. A large majority of the plants that are planted (or retained, in the case of plants that pre-date the garden, like large trees) are edible. This is why permaculture is also known as “edible landscaping” and “food forests.”

Second in usefulness is usually medicinal. If you are interested in being self-sufficient in the event of a SHTF scenario, then you’re definitely going to want to put in some medicinal herbs.

Then there are other uses that plants can perform, but they are usually secondary to their primary function of being edible and/or medicinal. One obvious exemption are trees. While there are plenty of edible trees, many that are found around the average home are not fruit- or nut-bearing. But this doesn’t mean that they are useless and should be cut down. Trees are beneficial to other plants because they provide shade, bring up nutrients from deep underground that can help feed shallower-rooted plants, and keep the more smaller, more delicate plants moist (it is more humid under a leafy tree than in direct sunlight and the shade lessens the plants’ and soil’s water loss). Trees can also serve as scaffolding if you want to use them in lieu of a pole or trellis for beans, peas, squashes, cucumbers, kiwis, grapes, etc.

Another function that plants can serve is to repair the soil. Comfrey can both add nitrogen to the soil and be used medicinally; beans and peas can also add nitrogen while also being edible. There are a number of plants that will “fix” soil that is “tired” or poor and other plants tend to like to grow around them for the immediate benefit.

Then there are plants—usually flowers—that are used to attract bees and butterflies, which, in turn, pollinate the rest of the plants. Gardens that are in a very open place, with carefully-mowed ground all around them, will have difficulty attracting pollinators because there’s nowhere nearby for them to live. But a permaculture garden with trees gives them a place to shelter, and the more flowering plants—and the longer the flowering season in your garden—the more likely beneficial bugs (and bug-eating birds!) will camp out in your garden.

And then there are a few plants that are beneficial to people in non-edible and non-medical ways. For instance, gourds. Most people are familiar with using gourds as birdhouses (which is very beneficial in the permaculture garden), but there are a lot of different kinds of gourds with a lot of different shapes. There are some barbell-shaped ones that were traditionally used in Japan for centuries as a water bottle. The “dipper gourd,” oddly enough, gets turned into spoons and ladles. Other kinds can be used as bowls. Loofa “sponges” are actually the innards of a loofa gourd; plant a loofa vine and harvest all the pot scrubbers and back scrubbers you will ever need.

Naturalness

Probably the most identifiable part of a permaculture garden is its naturalness. The typical landscaping in an American yard is what I think of as “English formal garden.” Each plant is planted by itself, like a palm tree on a desert island, then it’s surrounded by a sea of mulch. Once or twice a year, it’s pruned down so that it has a more geometric shape and it doesn’t touch its neighbors. More mulch is added to keep anything else from growing up around it.

Permaculture gardens may look like spaces that were once cleared, but have been allowed to get overgrown or revert back to woods:

. . . or they may look more like Japanese or English country gardens which have some defined paths and buildings or artistic features, but still retain a sort of overgrown look that might best be described as “tidy wildness:”

. . . or they might be very symmetrical, with defined plant beds, and look like a regular vegetable garden that’s been way overplanted:

What they all have in common is that the plants are close together, there isn’t any bare space (unless it’s a walking path), and while some of the plants are cut for production purposes (i.e. trimming back a fruit tree to make it branch out more), or trimmed back to keep them from dominating or crowding out other plants, none are cut to be shapely or keep it from touching its neighbor. In fact, you want some plant overlap because the more shade the plants put on the ground, the less likely things you don’t want (i.e. weeds) will grow up, and the better the soil will retain moisture.

In short, a permaculture garden is just as planned as any landscape, it just doesn’t look like it!

Why would anyone want landscaping that looks wild? Isn’t the point of landscaping to look tidy and attractive?

Done properly, dense and integrated plantings can look just as attractive as conventional and monoculture gardens and landscapes. The Japanese have made an art form out of it. Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the first practitioners in the U.S., designing the landscape at Biltmore House and Central Park. That tree-shaded drive you’re moving down? That impressive outcropping of stone right around the corner? The lovely little pond? Everything was installed intentionally to make you feel like you’re completely in nature, but nature as you imagined it as a child or in a fairytale: always tranquil and picture-perfect. Things like tangles of briars, poison ivy, and boggy, stinky ground aren’t a part of this “natural” landscaping.

This picture-perfect scene isn’t natural; it was created by landscape architecture.

Beautiful, yet completely functional as well.

Even vegetables can double as ornamentals; colored cabbages, rainbow rhubarbs, and flowering medicinals, like yarrow, can make for an attractive front yard just as well as purely ornamental flowers, like daffodils, hydrangeas, and azaleas. And if you’re ever in a SHTF situation, these edibles will be overlooked by the ravenous hordes because they look like landscaping . . . and everyone knows you can’t eat that!

Diversity

The final critical aspect of permaculture is diversity. Most people who plant a traditional garden grow one kind of corn, one or two kinds of squash, one kind of onions, one kind of potatoes, one or two kinds of tomatoes, etc. This is really bad for survival, though. Think of your garden like your stock or retirement portfolio: diversify. Don’t have all of your eggs in one basket.

Because the weather’s unpredictable, one year you may end up with a cold spring, hot, dry summer, a late fall, followed by a mild winter. Then you may end up with a wet spring, a cool, wet summer, a dry, early fall, and a cold, snowy winter.

Some varieties of a plant might do well with that hot dry summer, but other varieties will do better with the cool, wet summer. The wet spring might rot all of one kind of plant in the ground, but allow another kind to go wild.

That’s why you should plant a lot of different kinds of plants and a lot of different varieties of each of those plants. No matter the weather, the bugs, or the blight, something will survive. Make a record of what did well in those conditions and what did poorly. If your season starts out hot and dry, make sure to plant some extra plants that did well in those conditions previously.

There’s also another reason to have a lot of diversity: food fatigue. This is a concept I wasn’t familiar with until I started researching prepping. Food fatigue is when people get tired of eating—to the point they quit eating altogether. This most commonly happens in war zones where people are reduced to eating the same thing day in and day out.

If you’ve ever read the Laura Ingalls book, The Long Winter, you know that their food dwindled until they were eating nothing but coarse brown bread and plain potatoes—then the potatoes gave out. One person writing about the book said that the real Laura Ingalls (instead of the somewhat fictionalized one in the books) must have been very hungry during that period, although the fictional Laura never mentions it.

But if you read the text closely, you’ll see that Laura complains of being so tired of brown bread, she doesn’t want to eat it; Ma has to order her to eat. At another point, Laura says that the all the women were listless and didn’t want to eat; only Pa, who was having to work so hard, looked at the food hungrily.

I’m sure Laura and the others felt plenty of hunger during that period—hunger that wasn’t described in the book—but she (and the others) clearly also go through a phase which probably came after the hungry part: food fatigue. The fact that no one really wanted to eat—even that Laura would rather go hungry than eat the bread—is a classic symptom of food fatigue. And it’s not necessarily even a matter of choosing hunger over food; a symptom of food fatigue–aka appetite fatigue, for just this reason–is not being hungry at all. In other words, you can get so tired of eating the same thing over and over again, you lose all appetite and you refuse to eat because you don’t feel hungry.

You will experience food fatigue in less than a month if all you have to eat 3 times a day are rice and beans.

Food fatigue is a real concern in a survival situation because people will be limited to what they can grow, gather/hunt, and what they have stockpiled. And too many people have very limited gardens, little to no gathering or hunting skills, and if they have a stockpile at all, it’s full of little more than rice and beans. Let me tell you, you will be over the beans and rice within a month and your mindset will change from “It’s a complete, nutritional meal!” to “I’d rather starve to death than eat one more bean!” Or, as one Confederate soldier put it, after eating endless amounts of (often wormy) rice: “I used to like rice, but goddamn the stuff now.” Some veterans refused to eat rice for the rest of their lives.

This is why garden diversity is so important. You’re not going to want to eat nothing but corn, squash, and tomatoes any more than you’re going to want to eat nothing but rice and beans. If you do 3 or 4 season gardening, your selection will naturally change with the seasons; by the time you’re starting to get tired of blueberries, they will be done for the season, but by the time next year rolls around, you will be eagerly anticipating them again. Planting different varieties of the same species also helps because the flavors and textures can vary quite widely. Part of the reason why people swear by heirloom varieties isn’t because modern hybrids lack flavor, it’s more that the heirlooms provide a new flavor, which is exciting. And because there is so much flavor variation between varieties, if you don’t like the taste or texture of one plant, try a different variety of it.

And don’t forget to plant as many herbs as you can (and spices, if you are in the tropics): you can choke down many more meals of beans and rice if you can vary the flavor through seasoning.

Herbs Gone Wild!

I promised some pictures of my herb garden in a previous post about my vegetable garden. I actually have two herb gardens–one with cooking herbs and another with medicinal herbs. I’m still making improvements on the latter, so I’ll give a complete before and after tour of it in a future post. So, for now, my cooking herbs!

This is what I started out with this spring. This is where I had last year’s straw bale garden. When it was finished in the ball, I broke the bales apart and leveled the ground. (I also had to build up the right side, which was on a somewhat steep slope. Even before I put the straw down, this area had pretty good-looking dirt; it was clearly a flower bed once before.

I planted sweet mint, peppermint, dill, fennel, oregano, parsley, cilantro, thyme, basil, rosemary, sage, and boarge. In most cases, I have two of everything.

It’s fenced in because the dog likes to dig (and kill plants). The wooden pole that you see against the fence post to the left is the “gate.”

Here’s the garden after a couple of months. Mind you, I’ve given it a trim once already!

This is growing outside the fence. I’m pretty up on my native weeds, but I’m not sure what this is. Out of curiosity, I’m leaving it alone. Maybe once it blooms I can figure out what it is . . . and whether I want to keep it. Heck, for all I know, it could be something leftover from last year’s garden. I got all of my plants from the local Amish market, which predominately sells heirloom plants. And while seeds from hybrids will grow, the heirloom plants seem more willing to self-propagate.

Speaking of self-propagating, check out this runner that my peppermint plant sent out. I think I got a total of four runners off of it–and that’s not counting stems that bent over, touched the ground, and put out roots. This is why people warn that mint can take over your garden.

I told it, “You think you’re bad-ass, peppermint plant?” and I dug a little hole with my fingers and planted it on the embankment behind the house–which is currently overrun with poison ivy. If I can choke the poison ivy out with mint, I’ll consider that a big win. Plus, imagine how great the yard will smell!

I think I need one of these Alaskan mosquito suits. I can’t garden otherwise.

And maybe all that scent will get rid of the mosquitoes. They’re so bad, I can barely stand to take the dog out for a few minutes to potty. This morning I looked down and there was a swarm of mosquitoes around me, the dog, and the cat. Insect repellent only works for about 30 minutes at a time, and even then, they’re still swarming around your head and trying to fly into your ears. I have nearly as many bites on my face as I do on my arms and legs. And don’t talk to me about long-sleeves and pants! The fuggers will bite through your clothes.

If there was a DDT bomb, I’d press that button and drop it right in the middle of our yard. Where’s a mosquito-sized nuclear bomb when you need one?

 

So, here’s the herb patch after I’ve given it a serious haircut and have weeded a bit. The only thing that’s not doing very well is the dill; I think it’s in too shady a spot. I have one more mint plant to plant–spearmint. Since mint seems to be very hardy, I may dig up the dill and plant the spearmint there instead. If I can salvage the dill, I may stick it in one of my bales and see if I can get it to perk up.

Can you see the red tomato cage on the right hand side? The dill may not be growing over there, but I have some of those self-seeing heirloom tomato plants growing. I’m not sure if there are 4 different plants or one plant with branches; it was laying on the ground and half-buried under the sweet mint and borage. So I put the cage over it and propped it up. Once it straightens out, I can see better what I’m dealing with.

And see the marker in front of the cage? I picked it up at Hobby Lobby last year because I thought it was funny. Instead, it’s turned out prophetic: I don’t remember planting this!

Here’s the haul. The laundry basket is full of nothing but sweet mint!

And here’s the same material stripped of stems and a couple of days into drying. I’ve found for relatively small amounts of material, drying them loose on a paper plate works just as well as setting up screens or dehydrating in an oven. It does take longer this way, but it doesn’t require special equipment or extra time; I just make it a point to turn the piles of leaves whenever I’m in the kitchen until they’re all dry and crunchy. Then I can put them into storage.