Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lots of different composts and many ways to improve soil

Start of winter cropping... One thing that's really challenging (and wonderful) in a Cape Town context is that there's always something you could be planting, so planning bed rotations for the year becomes really complex. I'm trying to think of ways to grow a large winter garden because we don't have to irrigate from May-September, provided the rain comes.
I like David the Good's approach to composting a lot-- i.e. compost everything!

Actually, about David the Good: I love his videos, I think his take on gardening is interesting and helpful. Also: He supports Trump?!?!! And seems to have such a different perspective on many things I value. My conclusion, abbreviated: We must be reading very different things and converse with very different people-- our experience of the world is very different and somehow, this has led us to profoundly different sets of conclusions on some things... yet a lot of similarities in our day to day life, I suspect. I find it so interesting that someone I admire so much online is occupying such a different world. So my vague sense from this is that we should try to be kind to the people around us, and try to keep writing and spreading an inclusive type of kindness, with the knowledge that our vision is super limited so... don't be too dogmatic (this is not to be confused with me saying that Trump is ok). There's so much out there we don't see or imagine.

Anyway, back to compost-- I wanted to share some experiences because I've been composting for a long time, only sometimes successfully, and I use a lot of different approaches:

Chop and drop:
We have a lot of Port Jackson (acacia saligna, an invasive but nitrogen fixing tree from Australia), which we chop and leave in place- this is classic permaculture and ultimately the idea is that you don't have a lot of outside inputs coming onto your farm. I'm also multiplying comfrey as much as I can, also to do chop and drop next year if I can get it big enough. In the meantime... we clearly are bringing in a lot of free sources of fertility, and making use of various manures (human, chicken, duck, guinea pig...)

If you don't have a lot of space, vermicomposting is brilliant and effective for kitchen scraps, and you can't really beat vermicastings in terms of quality of compost. That said, if you have a household with more than a couple of people and eat at home most of the time, the quantity of compost can quickly overwhelm your worms (and even kill them, or attract rats). In our experience, it's a good idea to be persistent (get through the fruit fly stage!), it's also a good idea to scale up gradually. In terms of the quantity of compost you get out, I think vermicomposting requires a lot of patience relative to other kinds of compost-- as in two years of patience. I often wonder if people know that going in, if they'll be more willing to weather the fly times and the rat times. When we were still a family of four, we already needed a MASSIVE (240L) bin.

So, worm composting is the absolute best option for kitchen scraps in a household that doesn't have chickens, and that needs small amounts of very high quality compost (I know there are also large scale applications, but I have less experience with those).

Check out our many worm bins:
The very unromantic reality of our largest worm bin. As you can tell our minimalist dreams have given way to hoarding cardboard and seed trays... While our municipal bin is totally a pain to harvest from, because of its size it's also extremely resilient and a great source of worms if we're having any trouble with our other bins. And we do also harvest castings, as the worms are well established. 
These are the classic tote bins with holes drilled in them-- I'd recommend these for most households, you can always just add a new layer if necessary (looking back, adding many totes is probably better than getting a really huge bin like we did). We have five totes-- 3 for regular farms and two just for cat litter.
These are the two bathtubs on the border of our property, under some trees. They're a bit further away from the house, so it's harder to care for them. But they're large and I think over time they'll be an integral part of our household. I made the mistake of feeding them spent brewing grain, which very quickly got extremely dry and hot... so we're building up again after that mistake!

You can see that at the moment, because of the pig and everything else eating our scraps, the worms mainly live on newspaper. 

We don't have enough to feed all of them, so I feed them manure at times, and have two bins where I take compost out fairly regularly, whereas I leave the two bathtubs alone right now. I have one bin that is just for cat litter, and I will never harvest from that: it's just so that we don't throw cat poop in the trash.

Worm composting is a kind of cold composting, so it's not a good idea to compost things where you're very worried about pathogens, unless you're never going to harvest from that bin. In a drought situation, vermicastings are truly phenomenal for increasing the water holding capacity of small volumes of soil (i.e. if you doing row gardening, it'll make less of a difference), particularly if you're gardening in raised beds or containers. Generally, vermicastings tend to be bacteria-dominated, which means that it is great for vegetables.

Ok, so while we love vermicastings it's not our only type of composting: we do a few types of hot composting:

Humanure compost
Our humanure compost gets very hot, but as a failsafe we also leave it for one year so that the pathogen cycles are broken. The issue with this is that the volume of compost is much less than it would be if we did a rapid cycle of hot composting. So sometimes this is a bit sad because a year's worth of humanure for five people, mixed with a huge amount of straw, ends up being just enough (fairly phenomenal) input for a few fruit trees. So it's not a huge quantity, but it's going to have a compounding effect over the years.

Berkeley pile
The rapid hot composting style is great for vegetables and in contexts where you are starting out with a low volume of organic matter in the soil (like our very sandy, drought-stricken environment). You do need some space to build the pile and turn it. When I need to renew a vegetable bed (or if I have a sudden flux of leaves, to balance my regular deliveries of manure), or have some energy, it's fast, you get good compost, and you get a good volume of organic matter. And horse manure, which usually can't be helpful to my vegetables in the short term, is ready to go into the garden in just 18 days (versus the year I usually wait otherwise).

This is day 8 of the current pile, and it's already starting to look really dark and crumbly-- 10 more days (5 more turns!) to go.

Other kinds of composting:
Every week, I dump two bags of horse manure, 2 bags of alpaca manure, and two bags of straw into the chicken coop. The chickens free range on about 1/4 of the property, so we given them a specific set of the manure inputs for them to work through. I put their mixed up manure-sortof-compost directly onto the bottom of raised beds, and directly around fruit trees. It's not exactly compost, but it's not raw manure either, and it seems like a great way to get a few wheelbarrow loads of compost-like-stuff every week or two. In the long term, I'm hoping that chickens and ducks will do a lot of our composting in place, and that we can find a way to make composting for the annual garden simple, and routine (and not involve a lot of energy).

The ducks roam around our house, so we have a lot of straw around our house to mitigate the effect of their pooping. I collect the soil around our house when I'm potting up trees or making seedling mix (I have get trees and shrubs pretty big before they get planted out... ). Duck poop is fine going directly into seedling mix, and I've had good success using a mixture of coconut coir and soil from around the house as seeding mix.

Horse Manure:
I put horse manure and straw directly around trees: no composting. Not right up against the trunk, and I don't dig it in. Basically, I'm trying to increase water holding around trees-- but I actually need to do a lot more to fertilize our trees. We have a lot of fruit trees now and it is pretty hard to keep up. I also put the guinea pig's bedding directly around a tree. This style of composting is slow and dominated by fungal action, which is beneficial for the trees. The danger of this is that persistent herbicides have been put into the straw-- either the straw eaten by the horse, or to the straw that I recycle from another household. I suspect that this has, at times, caused weird leaf things to happen in my vegetable garden, and so I'm hoping gradually I'll be applying horse manure further from trees roots, and not applying it to our vegetable garden at all. For now, the benefits of bringing in 200-300kg of free organic matter each week is pretty significant.

To my family's horror, I have smelly buckets of seaweed soaking in water around and about. I'm using this primarily, diluted 1:10, for our vegetables. It has to be covered to make sure mosquitoes aren't laying eggs in there, and it is pretty gross. I'm hoping I can gradually scale up to the point where I'm providing seaweed fertilizer to all our trees, as well. I basically get a 25L bucket of seaweed every trip to the beach-- 1 to 2 times a week. I'm not systematic about it, but over time, like everything, it adds up. I generally wash the seaweed in sea water at the beach to remove any sea creatures/sand. At our farm, I only rinse the seaweed if I'm adding it directly to vegetable garden beds. Otherwise, I just add water and let it sit.

Korean Natural farming:
The core idea of KNF, as far as I can understand, is that you try to inoculate large volumes of compost with beneficial fungi and bacteria. There fermentation happening (as with soaking seaweed). I'm not being terribly scientific about it as yet, and I'm not going to specifically use precious rice to multiply out bacteria (unlike in Korea, we never have leftover rice!), but I'm attempting to multiply out my sourdough starter with fruit peels and other stuff. The thing I'm getting out of learning about KNF is thinking through options that provide rapid, cheap accessibility of nutrients (unlike most of my compost that is more like mulch with benefits). I'm still early on in understanding it, but it's an interesting approach in a very different climate (though they're also into it in Hawai'i, which is also different from Cape Town but shows that some of the principals must transfer).

Also, KNF has a cult-like figure at the center of it, so I'm only into it a little bit. I tend to be suspicious when one approach seems to self-assured and confident. There is just too much we cannot know.

Buckets of.... stuff...

Volcanic rock dust/Azomite:

This is the only input that I've purchased in terms of fertility. I bought in bulk, and I give a cup per fruit tree (and a teaspoon per seedling) when I remember. I'm not systematic about it, but I'm hoping that over time it will help to provide important minerals to our relatively ancient soils.

We have some chicken manure in places where our chickens roost, and previously I've just thrown that manure around trees, to let the nutrients gradually leach down to the tree. But as I see that the trees are needing more manure, I'm planning on soaking the chicken manure in water and giving it to the trees.

Closing thoughts
As you can tell, even with just 1 acre (and actually most of our manure and composting is focused on less than 1/2 acre still) and a lot of animals to help, a lot of thought needs to go into the soil (especially in a non-ideal farming setting like sand or drought). I suspect in a few years, I will not have to put quite so much thought into composting. A lot of people swear by one style of composting, but I think there are lots of different ways to bring fertility into a space, and each philosophy seems to have benefits that depend a lot on compost and availability of scraps/manures/etc. Also, if you just do soil without thinking about sun, wind or water, things go wrong. I think I'm realising the importance of finding a lot of ways to get water to the soil, and protect plants from wind-- they're all connected and important. If you have the capacity to completely dig up your garden, bring in a truckload of compost/woodchips, and put a lot of plants/trees densely at the get go, permaculture blitz style, I'm gradually realising that dense planting of desired plants would actually decrease the need to compost somewhat. At our scale, and my level of inexperience/busy-ness at the start, we just couldn't put in enough plants all at once (though now, inspired by our nursery, I'm starting hundreds of plants at a time).

I can definitely see why people just grab bags of N-P-K, as practicing all these different kinds of composting does take time and energy. Of things that I spend energy on, this seems like an investment rather than a sunk cost, and over time we see changes in the property and are able to grow things more easily. I don't think organic farming on 1 acre has to involve of complex composting, but I have found trying a bunch of different things, for different circumstances, appeals to me. Bringing in a lot of compost at the beginning of the farm's life will hopefully facilitate a tapering off later on.

What kinds of composting are you trying?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Change, growing lots of vegetables, planning my parents' house.

Our street seems poised to change from primarily rural to... we're not quite sure what. So as a psychological exercise, I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts here. Our fears are rooted in the recognition that for all our dreaming, work and building, the day-to-day stuff we can't control-- whether we get in trouble for our crazy rooster and the building material constantly piling up, whether there's bike-killing traffic, whether your kids can safely go down the street-- can start to crowd out other stuff. We have neighbours who once farmed in other parts of Cape Town, and had to leave their farms because of safety -- and where daily theft forced them to stop farming, and that is also something that is on my mind. Change can feel as though the dreams we've cultivated are tenuous somehow, that they can be taken away quite rapidly.

Which made me consider the dreams themselves. As we moved to the farm we stepped onto a particular path, not just into a particular space. The space seems deeply important-- not only our house but also our fruit trees and the work I've put into the soil. Yet what's perhaps surprising is the number of things we can take with us if we ever have to leave: we're learning and internalizing ideas and lessons about growing food, bringing up our kids, being sortof-off-grid. Year-to-year, there'll be more things that tie us to this place and there'll also be ways in which the land is giving to us gifts in the here and now, in which we don't have to worry about the future.

A friend asked if I stopped blogging regularly because all our dreams of farming or unschooling or working at stuff we enjoyed were already fulfilled, and I was thinking about how it doesn't feel like that for me-- there's constant space for growth.* It feels like over the next ten or twenty years, we can continuously create a more beautiful productive space, but each year we learn stuff, and we change whether or not that beautiful space in my mind ultimately comes to be. And each year, there are things that do well and things that fail-- things that the kids love about being here, things that they don't love.

Ultimately, this farm, and now the nursery, is under our stewardship for as long as it is given to us (we hope for a good long time-- don't worry mom!), but I don't want to feel aggressively protective of it-- I want to hold on loosely, even if it goes against my controlling personality. Maybe that's where accumulation of property or money is particularly problematic-- they become markers that signal whether our lives are going well or poorly.

In the long-term, I hope we can be progressively more radical in our understanding of growth, as these outward measures don't speak to growth in our ability to communicate, our ability to know our own heart, our ability to convey kindness, to relate to those close to us in a non-manipulative way. All these things are not things that we are born with, even if we are "kind", there are different kindnesses for different circumstances.

Pig is doing very well... and has a lot of character.

All roads lead to vegetable gardening
These days, I spend a lot of my time thinking about vegetables. I've been growing vegetables-- at least a little bit-- since I started this blog ten or eleven years ago. For a while, I gardened on our fire escape in the summers in Boston-- probably in contravention of fire code. For a while in Observatory, Cape Town, I was all about urban gardening in a very small space. Then I got really discouraged about the difficulties of how little we produced. For the last two or so years, we've been on our 1-acre smallholding, but the first year or so I did very little vegetable gardening because our hugelbeds were not mature enough and our water access presented real challenges.

This year, I've been thinking a lot about our own vegetable garden, as well as about two school vegetable gardens (one for a preschool, another for a primary school) and also about creating a market garden at our nursery.

All in all, this has involved a lot of planning and a lot of gardening relative to previous years. Absolutely NOT all successful, but still, a lot of food produced. As with everything, gardening is an exercise in grappling with control-- doing what you can, knowing what is in the realm of possibility, and leaving some stuff alone. What I'm learning is that there are a lot of ways to garden successfully, and that just trying lots of different stuff, and being willing (and lets be honest, having the time, money and energy) to keep trying eventually leads you to good things. So it's just worth just trying.

I re-read Fukuoka's work recently (and also went down the rabbit hole of Korean Natural Farming), and what struck me in re-reading was not the techniques, but the journey. I'm convinced by the idea of working with nature rather than against it, but I think the process of figuring that out for each space is actually quite winding and indirect.

When I feel discouraged, as though growing on this scale is not efficient or that I kill too many plants, I think it's valuable to remember that most of the world's food is produced by smallholder farmers, on a very small amount of land. Large scale agriculture is what is inefficient and unsustainable. We often get fed a message that big farmers feed the world, but that is not true. While I don't really believe the average person can grow all their vegetables on a space the size of a door, just because a lot urban agriculture pinterest boards are not terribly realistic doesn't mean you can't grow a lot in a small space, over time, once you get to know your conditions and adapt to fit your circumstances. [I also think that it is meat and dairy-based diets that need larger farms, as this is where I have found it hardest, and most inefficient, to figure out how to be self-sufficient].

When I produce yucky tomatoes, I can cut the bad bits out, give them to the chickens or ducks or pig or worms, and eat the rest. When large scale farmers produces yucky tomatoes (and I'm convinced if you're gardening completely organically, you'll always have quite a lot of not-up-to-standard tomatoes) their options are much more limited, so the pressure to produce good looking tomatoes, at whatever environmental cost, is so much higher.

On our farm, as I plan better for the future, I begin to see a way to produce all our vegetables and fruit and quite a few of our calorie crops pretty efficiently. Not all our calories, by any means, but a lot of food nevertheless, and we're creeping up calorie wise. At the school garden, suddenly it doesn't take much to produce all the greens needed for two schools for lunch for 160 kids, even if we can't produce a lot of other items just yet.

Propagation by cuttings
With the weather cooling down, it feels like we finally emerged on the other side of a very hard summer. Some of our nursery stock died, some survived. On the other side, I've learned about cuttings. I even have a pair of secateurs in the car, in my bag, or even in my pocket, to whip out if someone has something nice sticking out over their fence... My kids are a mixture of embarrassed and totally into it. 

Propagation (and growing all our ginger and tumeric indoors, since our climate is not warm enough to grow it outside)

My parents' house: Connecting to the grid

We're looking forward to having my parents living with us on the farm, hopefully later this year. After six months of waiting, we thought our building plans for my parents little house were close to being approved, but not yet. It's been a really long and painful process.

So, you ask, will my parents house be off-grid? Will it be built with mud and hay? Sandbags? Tires?No, sadly none of the above. We did pursue the possibility of building with sandbags but we weren't successful -- the combination of expertise, availability, affordability and council approval is pretty challenging to get right. I hope if we ever build another structure, I hope it will be something exciting and fun (TIRES-- earthships-- are still my favourite), but this time around we feel ok about building small, but pretty conventionally.

On being off-grid-- sortof. We'll going to have many of the things we have at our house that only increase our standard of living (consider this the definitive list of things that won't significantly impact on your happiness): (1) low-pressure Solar geyser (water heater) on the roof, (2) household water going out to greywater systems-- moringa trees and banana trees, hopefully, (3) rainwater tanks (4) composting bucket toilet.

So I guess the main thing that isn't on there is our PV solar panels. Having those, rather than municipal electricity, does significantly impact our standard of living (no fridge or booster for the geyser on the roof, so sometimes no hot water) and we're pretty sure we're messing up our battery because in winter we sometimes want to use our computers at night. 

Anyway, I'm still really excited to be hopefully close to building my parents' house, and also to growing a lot of stuff on their corner of the property-- I haven't grown anything there because we knew their house would be coming, but once their house is up we'll be growing a lot more.

Noah tried out his first day-camp last week, where he learned ukulele, trampoline, and hula. Felt like a milestone-- our boy is growing up...

*I slowed down blogging because I figure there's enough content out there on elimination communication (replace with any hippie topic), and I don't care enough to evangelize on any one life choice. I also decided around the same time that I didn't want to monetize the blog.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Lent, raising money, vegetable gardens

March is a special time for us. We started a Lenten-type practice with our old church in Boston about ten years ago. For the 40 days before Easter, the idea is to reflect on Jesus as best we can, and ask for what we truly want or need, with the premise that this is a good way to experience God’s presence. The process is profound for me because I don’t often step back, pray, or think about my deepest needs in any sustained way.

As part of Lent, Eug and I give up watching TV shows for the month of March. This year we are also doing intermittent fasting. I generally approach the fasting (from both TV and food) with vague dread. More often than I like to admit, a 40 minute show and cup of hot chocolate at the end of the day is the highlight of my day. When lent begins, I go through a slump the first few days. I find the space and silence alarming— I hate how slowly the time passes getting Hana to sleep without having our laptop open! Then suddenly, a few days in, it’s ok, sortof peaceful and calm. Eug and I talk a bit more than usual, I’m more aware of the kids’ need for some special moments in their day (as now I share this moment with them rather than seeking it after they’re asleep), I think more about the big picture.

This month, thinking about the big picture led me to ask for money, which is new for me and may be a bit odd and creepy. With buying the nursery, Heart & Soil (Yup, now you can like it on Facebook!) there have been opportunities for jadedness, cynicism and fear to creep in. The harshness of our economic system is much more personal than previously, and not knowing how to change it in the very small, personal space of our own tiny business. In fact, it’s pretty hard not to perpetuate that system. The act of land ownership itself, one could argue, is fraught. Yet I am convinced it’s better than saving with Apple and Visa stocks because it’s right there in front of us: we’re responsible for how we treat people and how we create value, it’s not spread between a million shareholders who want to see their stock value increase. In this grey area that is ownership, there is space to make progress, to the current limits of our faith.

Here is where the narrative “I’m busy and don’t have bandwidth to take on a new project” was initially paralyzing— I am indeed busy, at least by my standards, and my worry is often that I will not be left with enough energy to give my kids and Eug. Yet there is also this subtle burden brought by the desire to limit and to say no when good things require attention. In a quiet moment I almost immediately felt this narrative of busy-ness is just one narrative-- though there a physical limits to what I can do, obviously. Being happily busy with things that one is called to is surely life-giving.

In this vein… Eug and figured out that the next step for us is converting a portion of the nursery land into a market garden. Historically, vegetables have been grown haphazardly at the nursery— between rocks and rubble, probably on the down-low. It started when one of the employees at Heart & Soil suggested that he had friends and family who wanted to buy Zimbabwean vegetables, and suggested we should grow them on site.  Yet vegetable gardens are not profitable (well, nurseries are not profitable either, most of the time, but that’s a story for another day) but they can still support people, if the overhead and initial outlay can be somehow covered— support people by supplying organic greens, support people by stabilizing employment. One could argue that producing green, growing, stuff is the one thing that SHOULD be profitable. Again, I digress.

Given the out-of-pocket costs of the nursery, we had reached the limits of what we could do, and thought of asking for help. Asking for help means we need to be accountable to others in a different way than if we were doing it all ourselves, that it is not an act of sacrifice or altruism but a collective attempt at arbitrage— leveraging money, skills and social capital to do something that potentially ripples out positively. The ripples are not a sure thing, and they are little ripples not big waves. We're not trying to be heroes or save anyone. Still, I feel totally invested in the attempt.

Thank you for reading this long spiel, and for any thoughts you can send our way- I’ll keep you updated as we set up the market garden-- hopefully we'll make strides in April.

Noah found this gecko all wrapped up in a spider's web, wriggling around. It was incredibly hard to get the sticky net off it-- it was completely encased. Interfering with nature never felt so good (no pity for the spiders, who have more flies than they could ever dream of)

Friday, February 23, 2018

January and February 2018: sharks, salty water, waiting for rain

Thanks to donations of large amounts of water from farmer's dams and farmers being cut off, the water situation seems... better in Cape Town as a whole, with our day zero moved back substantially.

With two acres, now, and responsibility for 2 intensive school gardens, I feel more like a farmer-- in this drought, I sympathize with farmers more and more, the more my livelihood (or at least my actual day-to-day life) feels tied up with the experiences of farmers. (side note: we have a new president! Yay! And, on the empathizing with farmers note, I feel simultaneously happy and terrified about land expropriation without compensation. YES! Finally movement on land issues! Eeek! Wait! Not my land please!) Our nursery water has turned salty, so we're trying to figure out what to do-- our nursey stock is dying rapidly and we have to decide whether to water with salt water or not water at all-- which feels like no choice at all. Unlike iron, salty water is very hard to fix... so we're praying that it is seasonal and the salt content goes back down once there's been proper rain. I've learned that having a struggling nursery is intense, even if one goes in knowing it is struggling.

But otherwise, apart from some rats eating our ducklings, the animals are well, the vegetables are relatively ok (no thanks to you, MOLE RATS) and the trees are almost through the summer. Soon, things will cool down and I believe in my gut that next summer will be easier.

We only have one guinea pig, but he's living the good life-- we've finally found an option that works pretty well. Guinea pigs outside don't work because of predators. There's guinea pig poop everywhere, but he's a very happy guy.
Uncomfortable. Cat pretending to be interested in a spot on the floor. Guinea pigs knows from experience she's faking it. No, I don't know why there's bloody toilet paper in the corner. It's human blood though, if that helps.

Bubbles gets to eat the freshest produce in the family. He has his own farm-in-a-pot.
At rest.

We found the body of a small shark floating in the ocean, and brought it home for further examination.

Hana was convinced it was a doll for a while.

Noah did a dissection, with the help of Sam's dissection kit and a shark model that Meera sent us!

Our goose keeps nibbling everything because he's a bit blind and thinks everything is food. 
If you're on instagram (I'm not yet...) Eug is at 

Our first bunch of bananas is maturing. It has taken ages and we are extraordinarily grateful...

Noah remains the only person who can pick up Henry II when he ventures into illegal territory.

Our male goose seems to have had a stroke. He's doing ok, but we have to nurse him a fair bit-- he's like a very old man.

Sometimes people say how lovely it is that our kids play outside so much etc. But I think it's worth noting that they spend a ton of time doing various things on the iPad, also. I think there's plenty of time for both. 

Noah is really interested in photographing interesting creatures.

We have an area of our reservoir dedicated to the protection of frogs. Ok, it's just a pile of bricks. But it does the job. When we actually have water again, we'll have to figure out how to pile them up so that there's always something above the water

It can be hard to find things that bring together all our kids. Noah leading them in starting a fire for tea is one of those unicorn things. a 7yo, 5yo and 2yo Starting an outdoor fire during a drought. What could possibly go wrong. We were watching.

Mint tea.

The kids are really into minecraft legos... The countdown to getting minecraft is on, and I have an alert for whenever minecraft legos are being sold second hand on Gumtree.

This is our first watermelon of the season. I planted Sugar baby-- not sure if this is normal, but I planted 10 seeds, got 4 vines to transplant successfully, and will likely get 4 watermelons total. Which I guess is still cheaper than buying 4 at the shop, right? Right? right. What is cool is that I'm going to have a lot more seeds for next year.

My parents said they always used to store pumpkins on roofs, so I thought I'd store ours on our Jojo rainwater tank. They were too heavy, so now they're back on the table. 

We started out with a good pumpkin and butternut harvest, as well as really good amounts of zucchini, but sadly it's slowing down as disease starts to hit, and we're starting to get a lot of shield bugs laying their eggs in the zucchini and butternut. Here is where there are probably some important lessons to be learned about figuring out the best calculus between size of garden, the amount of labour available, the amount of composting materials available, and what we actually eat. I generally try to grow a lot of things that are expensive at the store (peppers, tomatoes) but these don't necessarily provide a lot of calories. Even though there's so much still to figure out, I'm so glad to be starting to actually harvesting stuff! 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Day zero and the challenge of becoming a hopeful, non-cynical prepper

There's rising panic over our taps being switched off on 21 April 12 April, and some 4 million people going to collect 25L of water, per person, per day, from some designated taps spread across the city. Some have rightly pointed out that this is what people in informal settlements have been doing for years. There's fear of anarchy and a lot of people practicing picking up 25L containers and collapsing (I also fall over when I try to pick up 25L with one hand, but it seems ok if I'm able to divide into two buckets-- still it obviously won't be workable for a lot of people).

A couple of things come to mind in the context of this panic-- albeit from my own position of privilege. I think everyone in Cape Town should be carefully preparing for Day Zero. At the same time, it's worth stepping back and thinking, without any panic, about this crisis, and also about the next crisis, one that we can't anticipate.

There's quite a bit of overlap in the prepper (emergency preparedness)/homesteader communities in the U.S. (where a lot of blogs and videos originate, though I suspect there are many preppers in South Africa, also). Still, I sometimes distance myself from the preppers because a) I'm worried that they may support Trump, b) they are sometimes heavily armed and preparing for the zombie mob, which I think has had many negative unintended consequences in the many years when there hasn't been any zombie mob. c) they sometimes seem to hate or fear people. All of which are stereotypes, I know, so I'm sorry if it seems like I'm perpetuating those.

So in this circumstance I really appreciate some of the helpful information and ideas that preppers bring to the table. About 3 years ago, we had severe electricity shortages. About 2.5 years ago, there were a few days when we couldn't leave our street because of violent protests in the nearby township. And now, there's the possibility of us having no water whatsoever, and the type of chaos that might ensue. There are some preppers who argue that there won't be one massive mega-collapse of capitalism as we know it, but rather a slow decline. The crises of the last few years may have been a demonstration of that. That's not even including household crises-- like illness or unemployment-- that we all have had at some point. I really don't want to live in fear of the next crisis or be constantly focused on others' perceived shortcomings; I also don't think that capitalism and consumption as we know it can continue.

I think the first way to be a hopeful, non-cynical prepper is to recognize that we can't control everything, and that things might go badly, and things might be hard, but don't need to break us. (then again, they may totally break me, and that is also potentially ok, one moves on from brokenness. I'm not meaning I'm stronger than the average person here). I'm saying fearing difficult situations is not the best approach, and preparing for the absolute worst sometimes means being consumed by thoughts of the world at its absolute worst. Which I find is too depressing, and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In my case my faith plays a role in how I think about my own limitations.

The second way is to do what we can to have systems in place for lots of different kinds of possibilities. I know I'm speaking to the middle-class here. It's really hard to prepare for crisis if you're already in crisis, so I'm not meaning to diminish that for anyone who might be reading from within a crisis.

By this I mean when it comes to security, energy, water and food, it makes sense to have several options available, or be in the process of putting options in place. Not necessarily expensive, complex options-- rather things that will help us live a better life even if there is no crisis. I'll go through how we think about each of those four areas:

We don't have much in the way of security because that's not really our thing, it's a bit of a weakness. We don't want to do the scary electric fence thing, but we're gradually making our fence stronger and safer by planting thorny, hardy but still beautiful plants on our perimeter (who may die during the drought, but I think they may survive). We also stay home a lot, have a small house, and are thinking about doing something to make our doors and windows a little more secure-- in the next few years.

For energy, we have access to municipal power, we have solar power, a low-pressure solar geyser, a woodstove for winter, a sunstove for summer, and we cook day-to-day with gas, and keep spare cannisters.

Water (and sanitation)
For water, we have a wellpoint (recent) and collect all rainwater (to a Jojo tank and reservoir); no water that enters the property leaves, as we also have two simple greywater systems. We're also gradually putting together a two-week supply of drinking water, by which time we hope to have collected enough rain water to survive and thrive without any municipal water. We've used a composting (dry) toilet exclusively for a few years now, and I write about it a little here, here, and here. The key is that we didn't put everything together all at once-- we set up slowly, and things started to work better over time. Still, we're using our greywater reeds less as we try to not waste the little dishwater we use.

For food, I'm working on improving our storage of some key groceries (I haven't preserved much  in recent years), but we're also working on growing more and more of our fruits and vegetables (using stored rain water from the reservoir) and expanding our flock of chickens and ducks (and making sure we have thought through their feed, also). This might not be possible for you, or it may be more possible than you expect. We spend a few days a month organizing and distributing staples (meat, legumes, dairy, grains, oil) of pretty large quantities of food, from small scale businesses and farmers, to between 20 and 30 families, including ourselves. This might get interrupted in a crisis, but I appreciate that it doesn't involve the complex supply chains of large supermarkets. For me, these are less about pessimism and anticipating doomsday, and more about homesteading in a way that adds resilience. I imagine we'll always get some food from elsewhere at least some of the time, but learning how to grow and compost adds resilience to our household and to our community. It's not just about growing, it's also about learning to cook and bake good food with few ingredients and little water and energy. All of which takes time and can't happen all at once in the context of crisis. In the crisis our fears come to the fore and it's hard to do anything other than crisis mode. A lot of learning probably also happens during crisis, but I think it's often less costly and more gentle on the environment if one changes slowly.

Resilience is also about finding ways to not contribute to the crisis (even being part of the traffic when there's a rush to the supermarket or the water line). Even not needing too much money, or having a few people to support us in our kids' learning, seems to be part of thriving independent of crises. I don't think high-tech fixes are necessarily the answer (60m deep boreholes with advanced filtration so you can still use insane amounts of water, for example).  There might be cool technological stuff, but I feel like a lot of times it's about learning how to do basic things-- as much as is possible given one's current circumstances-- and finding our ways to good systems through trial and error. This also teaches us to live more simply, which I think is one key to not contributing to crises. Learning happens slowly and incrementally-- we certainly have a long way to go.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Updates: Buying a nursery, 11 year Moringas, pig, protecting chicks, school gardens

Sorry, this is going to be scattered because it's been so long since I last posted:

Heart & Soil nursery
We really like our area, and our mini-farm. Despite it's challenges, it feels like a good fit for who we are. Like a lot of things that have happened in our lives, our farm feels like it's a gift from God. The drought has been really hard on a lot of places, including nurseries, and one of the nurseries on our street put their land (1 acre) on the market a few months ago. We ended up buying it, including the nursery stock.

We've been thinking for a while about responsible savings. Having kids, it doesn't feel right to us (at least not right now) not to build any retirement savings if it's within our power to save, especially given our relatively tenuous work incomes, the fact we have chosen to be completely uninsured, and the knowledge that although our lifestyle is pretty simple, it still costs some money. The nursery felt like a good middle ground for where we are at: it's not giving away all our savings, but it's also not putting money into huge companies.

We want to keep the plot as a nursery, and keep the people who work/live there employed. Much of the nursery management will continue to be in the hands of an experienced nurseryman, and we'll try hard to support without being overly involved, at least while I have full time non-farm work.

Despite pretty high financial stakes (retirement no longer in U.S. Stocks!), it felt very low stakes-- the logical next step in an adventure that will inevitably have hard parts. Despite feeling this is low-stakes and good-- the hardest thing about taking ownership of this property is still facing up to fears around money. We are trying really hard to fight that idea that we own or deserve our money. Even so, knowing the nursery is not going to make money for a long time quickly brings the focus back to money as we grapple with our responsibilities for paying people. When I am focused on money, it becomes about power, and I wonder if the opposite of coercive, extractive, money-oriented power in this scenario is not powerlessness but a spirit of learning and partnership. For my part, I have an opportunity to learn about a vast, vast array of plants.

Fun fact since you made it all the way here: the nursery came with piles and piles of props from the movie 10,000BC. Giant fake trees. plastic flowers. Yup. The previous owner designs sets for movies, and 10,000BC was the big break. So it's a mess but if you wade your way through all the movie props, there's an amazing variety of plants and extraordinary plant knowledge. It's a special place for a lot of people in this area, including us. So in that spirit we present: Heart & Soil. Please go and visit, or tell friends in Cape Town about us. There'll be a fake flower in it for you.

11 years
In December, Eug and I celebrated eleven years of marriage with moringa! Eug knows me too well. Well actually, I sent him a link to the moringa seeds, and it happened to be on our anniversary so we're calling it an anniversary gift (um, from both of us to both of us?)

There are definitely going to be moringa trees for sale...
Right before the New Year, our neighbour brought a pig for Noah to care for. I happened to be at my desk at the time, and by the time I emerged we had a runt pig. The pig was getting hurt by his brothers and sisters, and when it moved in it was still struggling the first couple of days at our place. Now he's doing pretty well-- though he's still tiny. And very intelligent. Aargh.
piglet likes snuggles and getting his back scratched...
Building new safe options for chicks and ducklings.
It's been a little while since we built outbuildings for our ducklings and chicks, as our large structure had been working really well until recently, when mongooses or cats started getting through the mesh and killing off animals in large numbers. So we've converted the large structure into a safe/enclosed structure for young trees-- a kind of mini-nursery. In the drought, our property has much better water options than the nursery so we can keep sensitive trees here rather than at Heart & Soil.

Eug has moved the large chicken enclosure and is making a system where we have 3 small enclosures for chicks and ducks to rotate through. We're not buying anything new in doing this project, we're just trying to make a better system with what we have. It's really painful to lose 2-3 animals a night, so we're hoping this will to dissuade predators (Once they don't have success for a while, they move on-- our rats are good eating, guys!).

Noah made the guinea pig a Christmas tree

Summer harvest.

Partying the New Year

New coup (for night time, and hopefully for sitting hens)

A hinged tortoise arrived on our property
Very small hatch-- one of hens only hatched out a single chick. Oh well.
These are some seeds from a seed sharing group of African women. It makes me so excited and happy to be growing some of these seeds on the farm. I'm going to save the corn for next year (when I have infrastructure), but I'm growing okra and many different beans.

Our first pumpkin of the year. I can just barely carry it. 

Our male duck, Male seems to be slowing down and we've not been getting many hatchlings from our broody ducks, but our grey duck-- Fluffy-- just hatched out eight babies. We'll keep a male from this batch so that Male can live out his days in peace and we can keep breeding ducks now and then.

School gardens

I've been really busy with two school gardens at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, as part of my role as a researcher. I'm not a professional when it comes to making urban gardens... I have a lot to learn, but I'm helping to start them because I'm able to leverage my time and sometimes a little funding as a researcher. If you're interested in following along, I'd really appreciate you following Nourishing Spaces, and checking out project videos that come out as the school garden work evolves. In the videos, we'll try not to make more of the project than it is-- these gardens are not going to make anyone healthy in and of themselves, nor solve systemic injustices. We'll just try to make the gardens as good as they can be, over time and through partnership.

Our kids are also starting their own channels on YouTube, so it seems to be becoming a family thing. I'll link to them once they're properly up and running. Noah and Eli really enjoy using ProCreate, an app on the iPad, to draw, and are gradually learning how to animate. Noah is loving listening to audio books, since we learned we could borrow 3 books a month from the Cambridge public library system. I've been reading a lot of Dick King-Smith and W.J. Corbett books to the boys for the last month or so. Hana is not so into books yet, but she has lots of other loves (including YouTube)!