Thursday, October 19, 2017

Manual labour and meaning, drip irrigation with a handpump, vegetables, and seed-starting

We were looking back at old posts of Eli as a baby and realising I posted a lot more at that time. One reason I post less now is related to time (SO MANY CHORES!!! THREE KIDS!!!!) and not being quite sure what to post: our lives are simultaneously super different than most of our peers, on so many levels, but then you may also find us driving to buy soda at the mall. Still, I do like the idea of sharing our stories, and how we grow and change.

We still think a lot about how to live our lives and simplicity and waste and sustainability, but ironically it feels more and more hypocritical to provide how-to's the further we get into things. We do sometimes give advice to people locally, we have people visit the farm, and so on.  But we live next to a township/informal settlement (you might use the term slum if you're from outside South Africa),  so we surely cannot give advice on simplicity. Our neighbours are living much more simply, with much less. We cannot give advice on generosity, either... Just the constant grinding awareness that we're lucky and limited. We actually probably have more plastic waste now than we did when we were faithfully zero wasting in Boston. We produce some of our food, but not exactly a lot.

I'm not trending towards hopelessness or cynicism. We move forward slowly, knowing our form of homesteading is a new kind of homesteading, where we have choices. We are not peasants, I doubt we will ever be. We make slow progress, tired and busy, which suggests that even this yuppie form of homesteading, at least in the beginning, does not have that much to recommend it. But there's still something good in it. Tolstoy said that hard labour is our guide to meaning. The daily practice of manual labour, of farming chores, is powerfully grounding. It's humbling and we spend so much time thinking about alien trees, vegetables, chicks and the best way to kill a rooster that there's less time to be worried about other things. Not that we should insulate ourselves against worry and be passive in the face of injustice, but that change should begin at home. I hope that over time we do have ample time for raising our kids well, for leisure and deep thinking, and for finally doing those postpartum pelvic floor exercises. You know, all the essentials.

Anyway, here are some details of how we irrigate and are trying to set up things for our vegetables (our fruit trees are mainly on drip irrigation).

Drip Irrigation, local vegetables, drought
This past month, we set up drip irrigation for our vegetable garden. We have a Mediterranean climate here in Cape Town, which means the rain comes in the winter and we have almost no rain in the summer. The past two winters, however, have had different rain patterns and everyone is talking about changing rain patterns. Cape Town's catchment dams are close to empty, and there are fears about long-term/permanent drought in the region.

In the midst of this, we are interested in how to grow food with as little water as possible. I've heard the argument that it is sometimes better to transport something from where it grows naturally, rather than force it to grow in an unnatural climate. I think that makes sense to an extent-- if we're talking heated greenhouses etc. (though agriculture in the Netherlands suggests otherwise!) In our case, we're mainly talking about irrigating (and maybe a little extra warmth from microclimates for some things). When it comes to water, we have enough rainwater storage in our reservoir from winter to get us through about 2 months of irrigation. Getting water out of the reservoir and onto our vegetable beds was beyond our physical capacity without some kind of tool, so that's what we worked on this month.

Here's our irrigation system: rainwater is collected in the reservoir, then pumped into this elevated 500L tank using a handpump. It drips down through about 200sqm of drip pipe.

I'm by no means a pro, but wanted to share some ideas of things that might work if you're dealing with drought in a climate similar to ours. The basics are important, but require some infrastructure:
  • Greywater use-- through a reedbed, can irrigate at least 3 water hungry trees (in our case, we water a banana and an apple on one side, and a walnut tree on the other side.
  • Rainwater- having a means to collect roof rainwater is really important, but you need quite a lot more for a vegetable garden in summer than a 5000L tank can provide. We were lucky to inherit a reservoir on the property, and I think this is generally really helpful for extra water storage, as well as for settling out water from a wellpoint, if you're lucky enough to have a wellpoint. The drought is serious enough that some people are converting their swimming pools to natural pools, to use as a multi-purpose water supply (water storage, swimming, irrigation)
Less well appreciated (at least by me), and potentially doable for anyone, even without capital:
  • I didn't fully appreciate the value of water storage in the soil before we moved to the farm. It is something I find quite remarkable now. I brought in many tons of free horse manure over the past two years and layered it onto brush piles as our attempt at hugelbeds, then layered onto those many many bags of waste hay from the nearby alpaca hobbyist. There are still some air holes and the beds still need work, but we can already grow a lot in them. Our garden also still needs irrigation, but it retains moisture very well, and we were able to grow throughout the winter without any irrigation at all, which is not always possible. I want to keep on working on improving water storage throughout the farm, so that we're able to grow with much, much less water than commercial operations. Vermicastings are a great way to save water-- we have a lot of worms going already, and hope to keep on increasing our worm farms.
  • Drip irrigation provides a really good water saving solution compared to watering with a hose or sprinkler. We've set up a system where we use a small handpump to pump water out of our reservoir into a small elevated water tank, which then allows the water to drip down throughout the system using regular polypipe, connected to drip pipe. The person selling us the handpump thought we were crazy. We might be. Even without using gas or electricity, I know it's still a lot of plastic in our system-- but the idea is that it lasts many years and really saves water. The reservoir water is not enough to last us through summer, so we're also en queue to get a wellpoint, also with a handpump. 
  • If you set up an irrigation system: Suddenly we have all this drip pipe and it's wasteful not to have plants in the entire area, as the entire area gets watered. Eek! It's a good motivation to put a lot in, which leads me to:
  • Growing from seeds really increases capacity and decreases costs. It's a skill I've tried to get better at, rather haphazardly, and one that I'm finally quite excited about. Having a dedicated space for starting seeds helps a lot, having a plan for making my own seed mix also helps (I use 1/2 sand from the garden, 1/4 compost, 1/4 coconut coir in a 25L bucket, mixed with a couple of handfuls of vermicastings). Seeds are such good value for money if you can get them going. The seed-starting process is also part of homeschooling, even though the kids don't usually enjoy planting seeds-- they watch me and play alongside me. Even though I don't think we're going to be getting most of our food from the farm for a while, we are getting closer and the kids are definitely part of the process, by being home with us.
Still to work on: 
  • Planning and proper rotation: although I think a lot about the garden and the farm, some things just need to be learned by doing, at least the first time around. Hugelbeds are not like growing in rows, but they're not quite like growing in raised beds either (not that I'm very competent in either of these!). Our beds are not exactly fully functional hugelbeds, either (we didn't have huge pieces of wood-- they're mainly smaller pieces). So I think figuring out how many seedlings can fit in a space, and how to rotate crops competently, might take some years of practice. I'm hoping this year's failures are the foundation for learning what works, and we're gradually putting in place more and more self-sufficient systems.
  • Wind protection: we get crazy winds in February, so I'm hoping we can work on breaking the wind a bit before it hits the garden. The garden already has some protection, so it's just a matter of thinking carefully about how to improve it.

Life in the reservoir

cat wants to make friends with chicks.

baby girl danced into two in October.

First artichoke

We went on a guided tour of you can tell the kids listened attentively (actually in between bouts of wild dancing, they did)

It was all about the boat tour.

Fluffy chicken is caring for a lot of chicks now-- 3 she hatched out herself, another 7 were gifted to her. Of those, one has died and one disappeared, sadly. still, we have 3 large layers and 5 of the fluffy bantam/silkie's left.

In baboon news, we had to walk by a massive troop of over 50 baboons by Silvermine. Hana overcame her fear and got to really enjoy hanging out with them. It's really different being with baboons in a national park, versus being with them at your house.

We had two rooster meals this month. Noah and Eli are more or less ok with roosters going, but they take these ritualized photos to remember them. I don't know if there's a way around rooster meals (short of not having chickens).

container swing.

Noah is allowed to brush Hana's hair!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

September: Ducklings, chicks, guinea pigs

In permaculture the late Toby Hemenway said that at a certain point your system "pops." And things get so much easier. I don't think we're popping just yet, but it is getting a lot easier this spring, as compared to last spring. Even though this past year has been a terrible drought year for Cape Town, the water retention in our soil due to many tons of manure (a goal of 14 tons/year, concentrated in particular areas of the food forest and garden) and hay has started to be noticeable. Don't get me wrong, the drought is really serious and is changing how we use water. But building the soil has meant things are not nearly as bad as they could be. We haven't irrigated at all for about four months, and our farm is lush and green. Even our veggie garden is giving us asparagus (which we are not eating... waiting another year), spinach, cabbage, a lot of peas, artichokes, and pepino melons without any watering. Ok, it's been winter and the rain is going to go completely soon over the hot and windy summer months. . So I shouldn't be too smug. I'm just hopeful. We're currently setting up drip irrigation from our reservoir to our annual garden, using hand pumps and a small water tank, so I'll take photos of that for October. Let's hope it'll be sorted by then, as we're going to need to start irrigating our vegetables in the next couple of weeks.

This month, Noah and Eli also went into the coffee business. They've been wanting to do something that would earn them a small income, and roasting organic beans is within their skill level. The Good Food Club (our food buying club) is still too small for bulk coffee orders, so making our own seems like a fun opportunity. We're still figuring it out-- given what I said last month about opportunities to earn money etc. Having the chance to have ownership is perhaps practice in giving, saving, spending-- so we'll see how it goes. They have a few things that they would like, and I think in some ways it's easier for them to prioritize and figure out their desires when they have a little more ownership.

We have had baboons raiding our property every day for the past two weeks or so. They are likely very hungry, and there are several large developments of gated communities going up right now. The southern peninsula is changing rapidly and we're hoping we have enough time to build our farm into a kind of oasis or something. Not to be wildly ambitious or anything... The baboons are quite a threat-- they can be very dangerous, and are actually entering our house-- this male is about Eli's size. Here, this guy managed to get all our bananas and pasta.

guess we were eating too much pasta anyway.
the kids (now including Hana) are out of the car and running to the beach faster than I can think.

Roasting coffee with a heat gun: this second hand heat gun has lasted us since 2012!
This little guy is an olive house snake. We encourage snakes on the property because the rats (including the mole rats!) are much worse, and most snakes are non-venomous and shy. 

to church!

This is my view in my container office. It's a tiny space, with my feet resting on bags of rock dust and surrounded by (too much) stuff. I love looking out and seeing the bananas, the tamarillo, our greywater reed bed, pomegranate.

We continue to be super grateful to Akim from Green Guerrillas, who is teaching Noah so much. This month he was part of the team vaccinating weaner pigs, and giving them their tattoos. He got to do one subcutaneous injection, and then another day got to cut up two pigs. 
In Boston we managed to find a second hand goggle and snorkel, that the kids are eager to try out, even though it's still too cold to really swim. 
So many of our ducks started sitting as soon as the weather got warmer. We've been trying to decrease the numbers of babies and combine flocks-- by eating eggs and giving moms chicken eggs (More on the chicken eggs, below). Still, we have thirteen baby ducks so far. 

We should probably have wondered why the chicken eggs under the ducks (we've occasionally put one or two in a clutch) have never hatched.  Actually, we did wonder, that's why we though we'd try just putting chicken eggs (no duck eggs), so the timing should work etc. We'd replaced two full clutches, when we discovered that the ducks actually kill the chicks and then eat them whenever they feel peckish. Uggh. We tried watching and immediately removing eggs when they started to hatch, but this was only partly successful. It was hard to watch all the time. Still, we managed to save 5 chicks, who are now living in our kitchen. One little bantam/silkie had lost a wing and been tossed far from the nest, but is a survivor. 
Newly hatched.
The world keeps giving us guinea pigs. We only have males now, so that we're not contributing to guinea pig overpopulation. These guys do roam a bit, but only in our vegetable garden, which is a lot safer than the property generally. The guinea pigs are a big part of Eli's life, and he spends a lot of time thinking about how to make their lives more fun.

Roaming by our bananas. I've planted quite a few bananas over the past couple of years, with mixed results. The cages help a lot with random things showing up and eating them down to the corm. Our climate is a little cool for bananas, so the hot compost pile helps keep the bananas warm. 

Peas! This is Hana's favourite September food.
Guilty: she picked all these secretly, before they were really ready for eating....

There are no tadpoles at Noordhoek Common! Evidence of the drought-- usually there'd be a lot of tadpoles by now.

Climbing Oak

This area would also usually be a little swamp-- the kids play as though the swamp is there, so it's noticeably absent this September.


We had two swarms of bees on our property within two days, which I think came from one of our hives splitting. The first swarm I was able to catch in a new box, but the second moved off before I could anything, as I didn't have a good box ready. (Interestingly, they rejected the box I did have, and all bees do-- they seem to know something is wrong with it!) So we currently have 3 hives plus one new empty hive my dad quickly bought, in the hopes we could catch the second swarm. Though our honey supply is not very good, I really loved getting this swarm, and love learning from my dad and seeing how calm and helpful Noah is in interacting with the bees.

Friday, September 1, 2017

August 2017: Using waste for urban farms, lots of ducks sitting, unschooling and power

Farming, heading into year 3!
Farming in an urban space can seem like a poor use of space, especially when there is really high density right next door, and a desperate need for adequate housing. Sometimes I think that it would be great for our family to have more land to work with (!minicow!), and for this land to be less threatened by developers. We have intermittent pressure to succumb to rezoning (our land is currently agricultural, within Cape Town city limits, which gives us quite a bit of freedom-- to own bees, livestock (though with rules about how many), and chickens/ducks). Our response to this is partly pragmatic-- we really want to stay here and raise our children here, and don't want to have to start over. It's also spiritual and connected to calling, though perhaps in a very tangible, we-don't-have-a-five-year-mission-to-change-everyone way: what we are doing is connected to where we are living. 

The other thing is that, while urban land is much more expensive and not very good for growing, there is a lot of organic waste in the city, and diverting this waste from landfill makes urban agriculture fulfill a role that isn't easily fulfilled by other types of farming, or other types of urban action. This month, one of our sources of waste diversion was large amounts of spent brewing grain. I'm working on scaling up our worm farm to take on more barley. The ducks and chickens eat some, but it ferments quickly, so we have to have a bigger/faster plan to turn the grain into something helpful for the farm.

Rain came to us in August-- it hadn't in July (usually our rainiest month). Our trees have responded by budding and leafing out. Our winter seems to last about one month-- our stone fruit were dormant only briefly. I am loving the signs of life around and about, and the hope of a summer that brings a lot of growth, and maybe even fruit crops. Tiny almonds are starting to form on at least 7 of our 9 almond trees. Our trees don't look like YouTube permaculturist trees seem to at the beginning of year three. Partly that's because of our drought, and some have been in the ground just a few months, some a year, very few two years. I think it's partly that the journey is truly slow, and that we have to be very patient.

Of course it's also a time of a lot of work: making sure trees have everything they need to grow, checking irrigation, prepping our annual garden to be on a drip system. Right now, our biggest long-term struggle is around mole rats. We have a LOT of mole rats, which can destroy an established fruit tree in a matter of moments. We've been planting with wire as a way to get trees established, but in the long term the wire will decompose, so we have about 2 years to figure out how to get rid of the moles.

Unschooling, money and power.
In a way this is its own post, but I don't seem to have the bandwidth to make a separate post so this is it: 

We continued to do many of the same things as before: Noah got to dissect pig organs, which is totally the type of thing he loves. He also got to make a lot of dog food, for which he earned organic biodynamic bacon for our family! It continues to be up and down and up again, but the trajectory is firmly positive, so we keep at it. The time it takes to talk through stuff, and to work through our own stuff as parents is good. I sometimes worry that we don't offer the certainty that small kids need-- I apologize a lot for being quick to judge, for being nitpicky, for nagging. But we keep at it. This month, despite the cold, we went to the beach a lot, continue to go to clay lessons pretty often, and generally we learn a lot together. As Hana edges towards two, I do feel things begin to shift as we suddenly begin to have 3 children, not 2 kids and a baby. 

One way that there has been synergy between unschooling and other aspects of my life is in relation to power, money and "earning" your place. One criticism of unschooling seems to be based in the idea that one earns one's place by working hard in school, perhaps by suffering, perhaps by working at a job you don't really like or doing things you don't really like. That escaping this is somehow dangerous. It's a grim drivenness that is very hard not to fall into as an adult. I sometimes will say "hey be careful with that, it took me time to earn money to pay for that!" Then I cringe. That's not the reason I want them to be careful. I want them to be careful because I'm worried that they're going to be a jerk, however defined, in the future, or because I really like whatever they're playing with, or because I want them to respect material goods. The message I hear so much of the time is that we must teach our kids the value of money, that they must be prepared for the "real world." Kids must even "earn" their pocket money.

When we live in a society as socio-economically unequal as ours is, one of the hardest things to figure out is how to navigate this idea that one's hardworkingness defines one's success. This gets woven into earnings and money. I don't think this perspective of "you earn what you have" is good for kids, at least not without nuance. When kids earn their pocket money, for example, they risk internalizing that their value is somehow related to this ability to earn, and counterintuitively also get the sense that earning money is pretty easy. For example, in our neighbourhood, there's no way most kids could earn money for toys, and it seems silly to imply that that is for lack of effort. That is, amongst the well-off (that includes the middle-class) it's ultimately the parent earning the money or building the social connections needed to earn-- all of which could well be valuable, except if it teaches kids that resource-poor people should put in more effort. 

A better narrative, which I think is consonant with unschooling and which better reflects our reality, is this: "we are really lucky and will share whatever we have with you (and others)". Life is not lived in the abstract, of course, and sometimes I give my kids a confusing mix of these two narratives, and they have their own navigating to do. 

Unschooling has something powerful to add to dreams of a kinder world: kids need dignity, parents share what they can constrained by their own background and values, and what we have is not what we deserve. If we know ourselves well enough perhaps we will not need so much, we will not need to prove our worth either to ourselves or to others quite as much. Which is not to say that one cannot work towards all those things without unschooling, but that it's been a helpful framework for me.

I suppose it is also worth acknowledging that unschooling is a manifestation of power; we're open to it because we are doing well financially. A lot of people (particularly in wealthier countries) say that homeschooling is not only for the privileged. I disagree, and think it is totally an expression of privilege, at least right now. Yet I don't think it is necessarily a negative expression of privilege-- I don't think schools or our community is worse off for wont of our sending our kids to school. We have time and energy to be better connected to all ages in our neighbourhood, and to spend most of our money within a very small radius. The task is to make alternatives to school better and more accessible to more people. 

It is a struggle -- it's yet another layer of privilege. But it feels better to own it than to feel self-righteous about one's brilliant choices. I feel very frustrated at people who are super smug about consuming only organic local food: not only are you enjoying physical (health) privilege but you also get to feel great about your choices! The task in both cases is not necessarily to say that organic local food isn't good, but to acknowledge the world in which only a few people get to eat like that, and work towards changing that, step by step.  

Noah got to climb with my dad again!

pig heart dissection at our neighbour's place...

Watchtowers at Soetwater beach...

This is a game called Timeline (bought while in the U.S.), in which you guess the order of historical events (albeit a very Euro-centric history). Noah likes to memorize the cards to give him an edge on his opponents when we play. Even though he can't really read, he's memorized a lot of the cards.

We were so grateful to friends who sold us their entire collection of trains and duplos, very cheaply, after their son grew out of them.
Did you wonder how the seal is doing? Not well. We're going to check today in case there's a skull in it for us. We've cobbled together almost a complete skeleton, from a few different seals, but never been able to get a skull-- seeing this decomposition I can understand why, as the skull is clean well ahead of the rest of the body.

Free the frogs and dinosaurs. never seems to get old...

The dam was notably deeper, thanks to a much better August of rain.
We arrived to our spot to find that this Keurboom tree had fallen over because its roots were pretty shallow, right next Silvermine dam. The kids took turns jumping, before we realised we might be able to root it again...

Wait, we can stake this in the ground, and maybe it'll be just fine! We'll check.

This is our cat's first kill. We were going to dissect it, but our scalpels were a bit blunt so Noah said "let's not." and we gave him to the chickens instead. 

Guava's were our best (*only*) fruit tree crop this year. They kept coming for a while. Okay, there were 10 total. But they were big and tasty so I'm counting it a win.

More beach as we prepare for spring...

Blue bottles on the new moon. Check out that sting! 
It can be hard to find napa cabbages (Chinese cabbages) for kimchi here, so we grew some... Okay, we grew six. Enough for some kimchi.

You know how I said we weren't going to eat our ducks any more??? Well, in August 5 of our ducks went broody on eggs. We keep removing them but have to be a bit careful about how many we remove, because if they stop laying completely then it can be a while before they start up again. Here, I switched out 13 duck eggs for 13 chicken eggs, as we'd happily have more chickens (and have 4 other ducks sitting on a mixture of duck and chicken eggs-- we've never had success with hatching chickens out of a mixed nest, but I'm hoping a nest of just chickens might just work out. I'll know next month!

friendship. Sortof. cat licks guinea pig, but not sure if she's just tasting her.

tamarillo! hoping for fruit this season...


Bear lime getting its spring growth!

pomegranate in spring-- by now we have over 20 pomegranate trees. Again, I'm hoping some will bear this year.