Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Rock gardens and upside down permaculture planning

My inspiration for our property (*until they started claiming rights to the term "urban homestead" and giving off a bit of a cult-ey vibe*) were the Dervais family in southern California. They produce tons and tons of food on just 1/10 of an acre. They're the go-to model for a lot of people of what is possible in a small space.

We have quite a bit more space than that, though we're definitely a smallholding or homestead rather than a fully-fledged farm. Particularly because we have a lot less labour, our plans need to unfold gradually. Planning our property out has been interesting, because I want so much for the entire acre to have maximum productivity. What does maximum productivity mean, and how quickly does one get to this mythical status?

Maximum productivity is of course really subjective, and if you’re starting out I’m still thinking through if this is a helpful goal. If you’re like me, you’re not quite doing a really perfectly planned permaculture design. You’re probably not doing a permablitz where a lot of people come over and transform everything in a weekend (though hey, if you guys want to come over work on a section of our property, I'm in! I'll plan it and do the free lunch and everything). I’m into design, but it’s hard to get to design quickly or all at once. Good design dawns slowly, and changes in stages as we go. At the same time, sun and water are so important so we also don’t want to prevent future productivity by planting a huge tree or building a structure where we could actually grow good food in the future. Animals are another really challenging factor on the urban edge: where do you put walls, where do you put animals? How do you make sure you don't negatively affect neighbours?

In planning, you almost have to know what you don’t yet know. So it’s ok to make mistakes and also to have a plan that changes. It took almost two years to plan and bring in enough sticks and manure to make it work, but our vegetable garden this year is doing pretty well, and has had nothing but stored rainwater so far this drought year. We’re eating about 2kg of tomatoes every day (fresh and in sauce) for now, as well as a couple of beetroots whenever we want them (four or five a week), spinach, cape gooseberries (10-20 or so every day), we have many pumpkins and butternut maturing well on their vines (and getting eaten by molerats, unfortunately), various peppers almost ready to pick, as well as some just starting out, sweet potatoes are getting going, and I could imagine setting up a few more beds so that in a couple of years we can grow a lot more. The plan for the hugelbeds took quite a bit of time, and unfolded over time— though we did plan around sun and reservoir (rain) water.

A lot of food in 4 hugelbeds.

Spot the giant pumpkin.

We're wanting to use as little as possible of our property for driveways and cars, and so, having moved our car back for now (and hoping to move it back still further), we have a small space between our container and our house— about the size of a carport. Though we’ve long put straw down, the straw just blows away, leaving eroding sand blowing away next to our house. Added to this, we have a sneaking suspicion that the foundation of our house is not well built (we used an existing foundation on the property, and it’s just rocks and concrete built up together). The blowing sand from under the foundation was a concern for us and January and February always bring serious winds. So I found a (free to us) source of landscaping rocks, and have been putting rocks between the house and the container, to help stabilize our foundation and stop erosion.

A lot of rocks
What’s interesting is that in stabilizing this small area  around our house, we seem to be facilitating the growth of other things around it. I was a little worried about putting down landscaping rocks and non-edibles (bromeliads and a tree fern, as well as some succulents): it seemed like a concession of precious space that could be used for edibles and defeat the purpose of not using the space for a carport. Yet it’s been interesting to see how adding plants (though non-edible) and rocks to this eroded section of our property seems to have a potential ripple effect— perhaps we’ll be able to add edibles or more useful flowers over time, or perhaps we’ll accept that ecological diversity—no matter what the shape— adds something.

Over time I'm tending towards doing things project by project, based on what presents itself as a priority, is a good way to go when one cannot overhaul an acre all at once. Over time, these projects compound, and you start to build momentum, feel encouraged, and see more fruit (and vegetables). So far, my experience is that it's important to be somewhat aware of sun (including variations in temperature, or microclimates— though this can be a little complicated to actually figure out in the beginning), water, and wind. Beyond this, I think it's important not to worry if bits don't work and you have to reconsider (replant) and let things evolve.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Piles of raw wool (part 1)

This would probably best serve as a blog post once I've actually made something, but here's 54kg of dirty raw wool, which has been sitting outside for a long time before i got it so has twigs and leaves got pretty far into the bale.

Our first step has been to untie the bale and sort through the wool, finding parts that had foreign objects (difficult to get out, even with washing) and sections that were relatively clean. Of course, I chose to do this on our Good Food Club Market Day, where we're also dealing with 20 families' food for the month. It made a weird kind of sense because it's a day when none of us can do much else, anyway.

I used some of the dirtiest wool as mulch around a few trees. I am planning on trying to make a mattress topper with some of the other dirty wool, and on spending time with the kids (and maybe also Elona) dying and felting balls of wool for a carpet. The kids really enjoy working with the wool, provided I don't micromanage too much.

Trying to find some clean-ish wool

Aftermath of Good Food Club
When we took off the wire, the wool basically expanded to fill our entire house. I had to rapidly send a lot of it into the container without sorting, so that Noah's lungs weren't completely blocked up with wool dust.

Hana is unpacking the only bag of really nice wool. It's a strange experiment, but I've wanted to make some (larger) version of this carpet for years. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Short Drive, short walk to Admiral's Waterfall

As a child, the only reason I tolerated holiday hiking was for the chocolate that we got at the top. Sometimes even that was a bit of a disappointment (intrinsic rewards and all that).  My mom never came along, and I suspected she had the better deal.

These days, those feelings about hiking are compounded by a two-year old who likes to be held, and a five year old who hikes barefoot (yes, I've calculated how long we'd have if he got bitten by a Puff Adder), a seven year old who is a mountain goat, and a husband who has very similar feelings on hiking, and usually stays home and works when we go on adventures. Still, WE LIVE NEXT TO BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAINS!!! THESE MOUNTAINS ARE NEXT TO AMAZING OCEANS!! And there was this one magical (though super windy) walk this past April, with Eug's family visiting Cape Town, where one dear cousin would carry Eli any time he needed a ride. This gave me a hint of the beautiful possibility of hiking together.

Anyway, with that long preamble, I'm always looking for walks fulfilling the following criteria: short drives, short walks, and body of water to swim in. These are very important because I can't usually plan enough to have elaborate snacks, so the reward is always swimming in the water. The snack is always apples. Anyway, I'm lucky enough that there are a few options that actually fulfill all three stringent criteria. Including this walk up to Admiral's waterfall (all the details on getting there are on the awesome se7en blog. On this walk, we were finally able to find tadpoles doing well. I should have taken the Ergo but made the mistake of thinking Hana would walk. Also, I desperately need shoes, but seem to be making the transition to being barefoot, from sheer indecision over what shoes strike the right balance between different priorities (waste, comfort, fairly made, durability, cost, ability to protect your feet from snake venom...) So I'd recommend having an ergo for your toddler, and shoes for yourself. And chocolate.

Wait, I'm still writing? Sorry. Here are some pictures. Check out this walk. Drive as far up the mountain as possible before beginning.

Simonstown harbour- primarily a naval base

Narrow path and steep dropoff, but Noah and Eli were fine with it (Hana preferred being held)


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Wellpoint, electric pump, small harvests

This month we asked someone to dig a wellpoint for us. A wellpoint is not as deep or expensive as a borehole- it doesn't require special equipment to dig, and it costs about R3000 ($214) excluding pump, but it's only really possible in places where the water table is pretty high-- there's a lot of luck involved. I've been conflicted on a wellpoint, because I've felt it can be a route towards overusing water and depleting the water table. I also wasn't sure what to do about a pump, because our solar could not provide enough energy for a regular electric pump. In a world with limitless time and energy, I would have dug the wellpoint with the kids and added our handpump to get the water out-- physical labour, and refraining from using electricity, is a pretty brilliant defense against overuse and destruction. But back to our current reality of compromise: we paid someone to come and dig a wellpoint, and put in an electric pump connected to the municipal electricity outside our house. A concession involving fossil fuels, but a happy one. It isn't an excuse to waste water, but it seems to add resilience and to ultimately use our resources more wisely. With level 5B water restrictions in Cape Town, this was the way to keep our fruit and nut trees growing legally this season. Our wellpoint water tastes like it has iron and maybe some calcium in it, but otherwise seems pretty good. Our animals also like it.

Apart from decision-making around our trees (and I'm confident we could have kept them alive even without the wellpoint, it would have just been harder), I felt that our lives have been altered a lot less by the water crisis than most people. At work we currently only flush toilets occasionally; people are keeping their water in their bathtubs, reusing rainwater for laundry, and faithfully saving water in all kinds of different ways. I'm so impressed by these efforts; I've noticed a tone of survivalism but also of strain and restraint-- that people feel this is not normal and that it is difficult (making current water use levels unsustainable for the general public in the long term).

The drought is likely to end next winter, and I want to advocate that households develop systems that mean that the next drought will be less of a crisis. Not relatively expensive interventions, like wellpoints, but cheap ones: dry composting toilets (my #1 soapbox), setting up rainwater collection, and very slow flow hot water, all normalize lower water use.

In other news, we saw our resident tortoise again-- it's been about a year since we saw him last. We spend a few minutes together, then it went on its way. I do sometimes wonder if we could provide him with a girlfriend without interfering with nature too much (i.e. if there was a tortoise rescued after a fire, we're the closest thing to nature, Cape Nature!) Don't worry, we'd never take an animal out of the wild.

We also have 2 annoying freeloaders in the form of Egyptian geese. They're eating my tomatoes. They're eating our animal feed. But they're a bit beautiful too. So we're stuck simmering outrage that they're stealing our precious produce, but we're not serious enough farmers to take any drastic action. Okay, we're not taking any action, though Eug and Hana sometimes yell at them.


Potato harvest-- you can grow potatoes without any watering, growing in tires here in Cape Town-- at least this year, despite the drought, we could. 

acrobatics with auntie Kim.

Spot Noah

 Hana also had to climb.

early mornings at the beach.

early morning mussels!

View from the south of the western half of the farm, where we're starting the process of building a cottage for my parents. you can see the big hugel with all the cut branches of Acacia saligna in the middle - there are about 20 trees there, so I'm hoping the hugel will eventually be a good windbreak.

This year is our first year with blackberries.

We have a few apricots, but the birds seem to be getting to them.

Tiny curry tree...

loquat is growing.

Our other avocadoes have died, but we have this one, and it's pretty strong.

Our largest fig tree- Figs propagate really easily; right now we have 6 fig trees. In general, our trees are spaced close together so that we can see what thrives, even if we have to thin trees we should have more than enough fruit. Eventually. 
baby ducks were hit hard this month by a hungry predator. We lost several ducks, chicks, and two of our precious guinea pigs, despite them being shut in seemingly secure cages, with no clear hole or entrance point. We were thankfully selling quite a few ducklings and chicks, which I was more and more glad of that the worse the predation got. Our remaining guinea pig is living with us indoors in the evenings and night, and our chicks are in a cage within a cage at night. 

granadillas-- tons of flowers but no fruit setting as yet.

more potatoes. I'm so excited about potatoes right now...

baby rat. Why are they so irresistible?  

Guinea pig salad. Noah isn't generally highly involved in our daily cooking, but is constantly chopping up elaborate meals for our guinea pig. 

Spider woman and support staff.

Christmas clothes. Clean for a day. I think we may have worn them too early? Not sure if it's just Eug and I, or life on the farm, or the hippie laundry detergent, but we can never keep our clothes clean for long.
chameleon visitor: one of Eli's favourites 

view from my container office

I came into 54kg of raw wool. i dream of making an amazing carpet of felted wool balls, but am brought down to eartj by a jar of dirty mess that doesn' quite resemble a felt ball... nothing on youtube has this starting point...

chameleon returns home

baby white eye at breakfast.

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 sandvlei...as 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!