Category Archives: Permaculture

Augustus Fischer might be proud

Another great day on the farm today. It’s Civil War Days at the Fischer Farm but that didn’t stop me running the walk-behind tractor and getting my contour line ready for planting. Farmer John was out watering the pumpkins and gave me a quick run down on the Grillo tractor. I tilled the weeds out of the quarter acre pumpkin field and did a good piece along Grand Ave where I’m going for some kind of ornamental display, then turned my attention over to the 150 foot contour line that I’ve been fine tuning. Cannons and muskets were firing the whole time but there’s always work to do around the farm.

Found myself explaining what contour is a few times today and hope I did an all right job. I do have a full blog post drafted but as that’s turning into sort of a manifesto I haven’t finished editing it yet. The quickest explanation I can think of about contour is that it is essentially the shape that water makes upon the landscape, and that paying attention to how those shapes play out on the land can have big impacts in farming and in restoration. Essentially, soil is either being deposited or washed away, and there’s a line (or multiple lines) across every landscape where you can see this demarcation as the land goes from convex to concave. I picked one of those lines and decided to plant a row of sunflowers. A whole lot of surveying went into plotting out that line and a modest amount of site prep, but now it’s ready to get sown and tomorrow I’ll make it happen.

In addition to the hundreds of sunflower seeds I have ready to throw down I bought two flats of stiff goldenrod from Prairie Moon. They are a great nursery in Minnesota and I’m thrilled with the mixed flat of native perennials I ordered from them earlier in the year and planted in my urban garden. When I got the email that their remaining flats were on clearance I figured I would order a few more for the Fischer Farm. It turns out that the ten percent I saved on these flats doesn’t offset the twenty percent I’m probably losing in viability, as these clearance trays arrived looking much worse than the plants I ordered earlier in the year. Lesson learned, but I already knew better.

Fortunately I have all sorts of tricks up my sleeve and I’m going to share some secrets here. Okay none of it is really at all secret and I’m sure you can find this info all over the internet, but in case you didn’t already know, all parts of any plant in the Salix family pretty much are a rooting compound. These are the trees you know as willows. There’s even one in the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond that was reputedly struck in half by lightning, a fully mature tree, and both halves were replanted and are still there currently, decades later, looking lovely. Check it out sometime — it’s one of my favorite spots in Chicago.

Where this information comes in helpful to gardeners is that you can take willow branches, leaves, stems, whatever cuttings you can take, chop them up into lots of pieces and boil them for a while, let that water settle all the way to room temperature, and water in your transplants with this rooting compound, aka willow water. If you want to get biodynamic about it, and why not, right, add in comfrey, nettles, yarrow, and chamomile, in whatever ratio you have available, with a good dash of unsulphured molasses to really feed the soil biology. I have a pot of this brew on the stove right now and after it cools overnight I’m going to strain it into a two gallon pump sprayer. When I get out on the Farm tomorrow morning first thing I’m going to do is get all those goldenrod plugs in the ground and water them in with the hose. AFTER they’ve gotten a good soaking I’m going to go BACK and feed them the willow water biodynamic juice.

Why the two step soaking? Well for one thing I only have a two gallon sprayer and I’m watering a 150 foot row. But it’s also a fact of biology that dry soil doesn’t actually hold a lot of water. Whoa, crazy talk! I think about it like that Dagwood fellow from the Blondie cartoons. He could never eat on an empty stomach. If soil is too dry it’s actually just going to shed water. It’s about surface tension and hydrophillic action, field capacity, all sorts of mumbo jumbo. Once your soil is good and watered, though, then your plants can take a drink. If you’re watering your house plants you should generally water them twice, a little bit first and the rest later. If you’re feeding your garden, get the soil watered first, then go back in a while with your organic potions and fertilizers.

It’s been a really long day and I have a lot of work left to do tomorrow but if I don’t write it down it’s like it never happened. Also that pot is still on the stove and I needed something to do while that brew simmers so I hope that some of this was useful for someone. I look forward to landing a forty hour week job someday where I can actually farm and have a life and blog about all of it in maybe a more coherent manner. Until that happens good night and good luck everyone.

That’s a Dandy Lion!

20170424_083441One of the great joys in working to restore the Fischer Farm is in witnessing how many visitors come by to enjoy the Farm each week. It’s not just the regular volunteers, or the groups taking wedding photos, or the attendees of the many events that are scheduled there. It’s not just the birthday parties, the 4H getting crafty or the ROTC or the Boy Scouts parading around. Most importantly it’s the casual visitors, some of whom have just discovered the Farm for the very first time, and others who come back every year.

As I was out walking the fields the other morning (on my birthday no less), I spotted a couple of strangers picking dandelions. You may not yet know, but I am a big fan of dandelions, and I can and will go on at length about their many benefits, both to soil and soul. I approached the nearer of the two strangers and met a wonderfully punk teen who reminded me just a bit of myself at his age. I asked him what he was doing, making it clear that he was welcome to as many dandelions as he could help himself to, and he told me that he was picking them for his mom. So I wandered a bit further afield and met a radiant woman closer to my own age, with glowing red hair and a pleasing accent. She told me that she was gathering the dandelions to brew a home remedy passed down from her father, and I asked her if she might share the recipe. She obliged, and I am glad to share that remedy with you here. It’s a general purpose winter remedy or immune booster, and will keep you in good health for a long time to come.

Gather 500 dandelion flowers, and let them sit out for some time for the ants to disperse. Simmer in one liter water for one hour, let sit for twelve hours and then drain the flowers, making sure to squeeze out any remaining liquid. Add 1 kg sugar and the juice from two lemons. Cook again, slowly, for another hour. Pour into a jar with a tight sealing lid, and turn upside down while the mixture cools to room temperature. Keep the jar in a cool, dark cupboard and it should keep for a few years. Take a few  teaspoons of this remedy at the first sign of any sore throat, or throughout the winter as a general immune booster.

Thank you Agnies for sharing this bit of your family’s heritage. You are welcome on the Farm any time!

Failure is an Opiton

“There are no mistakes in #Permaculture..” Mark Shepard

What a total epic disaster. . So glad I played the game. .

I had some pretty big plans for 2015 — well calculated, thought-out sort of plans. Plans that would more than make up for the goat rodeo that was 2014 (still not ready to blog about that fiasco), but also an all-or-nothing sort of gamble that didn’t allow any room for error. Following on the trajectory of “award-winning community gardener” all the way through to Farm Manager for a nationally recognized urban agriculture program (across the street from a sitting President’s home, no less) I thought it would be a great idea to really farm some land this year, for real. It was a great idea, too, it’s just that the weather didn’t cooperate. Turns out that’s farming for ya.

In December of 2014 I enrolled in the New Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers program through Extension, which I knew to be an outstanding program, having sat in on several classes that year as a guest. Part of that program was supposed to be that I had to figure out a viable plan for a ¼ acre incubator plot in St. Charles, and follow through with it. More on that in a moment.

I have also been spending some quality time at the Fischer Farm in Bensenville, now part of the Du Page County Forest Preserve District, and formerly my extended family’s actual farm. Although I did not spend any time there growing up, it was a working dairy farm all the way through the 1990s. It’s a shame that they weren’t able to keep the farm running, but I am grateful that, thanks to the good stewardship of my forebears, Illinois has a few hundred acres of remnant prairie, wetland, and woodland that might otherwise be pavement. It’s now a historical preservation site, and I had agreed to provide all of the pumpkins for their Heritage Day festival in October, plus whatever other decorations I could grow. That festival turned out to be the same date as my sister’s wedding, and she also wanted pumpkins and various fall ornamentals. These seemed like pretty convenient opportunities, especially since my “off-farm” income doesn’t provide me with anything in the way of free time come July or August. Growing tomatoes, in other words, would have been out of the question.

So I placed an order with Johnny’s Seeds and waited for it to arrive. I was also waiting for the Frost Free Date to arrive on the calendar, which despite global weirding, is still at or about May 30 for these parts. Had a friend grow out some melons and a few other starts just for kicks, and I did manage to get some of those in the ground, but it rained an awful lot in June. The plot I was assigned spent a lot of time underwater, and those waters never really receded. I made several visits to the site and muddied my boots all the way through, but the ground just wasn’t workable. When I didn’t have any seeds in the ground by the first of July, I had to face the possibility that I wasn’t going to see any pumpkins this year. I did make a last ditch attempt on another borrowed site, simply trying to provide enough pumpkins for my sister’s wedding, but that site had serious mold and mildew problems and more than a few squirrels. And that’s pretty much my farming experience for 2015, without so much as a sunflower to show for my efforts.

Way back in the summer of 2014 I spent a long weekend at Mark Shepard’s farm in Viola, WI for a Restoration Agriculture Intensive, and I learned more than a few lessons there about farming with trees and plants and animals and such. As I recall, it rained an awful lot there too, but that’s beside the point. Mark had all sorts of pearls and snippets of wisdom to share with us as we sat in the classroom or meandered about his farm. “There are no mistakes in permaculture” he often repeated. One of the core practices in permaculture is deep observation. Gather all the data that you can, without judgment or prejudice. Don’t rush to interpret, just observe. Sooner or later, decision time is going to come, and when that time does come, remember that all decisions are made with incomplete data. Take the best data that you have available to you at that moment, make the best decision you can based on your accumulated wisdom and experience, and go back into observation mode. What happens next? What sort of outcomes do you get when you decide to do such and such? Gather ever more data. Rinse and repeat.

I may still farm next year, but I won’t feel bad if I take even more time to come up with a better plan. That plan now has to cover all the losses I incurred this year, not just the immediate cost of seeds and such, but there’s also the matter of all the time I put into the farm that I didn’t spend pursuing more viable income opportunities. Valuable lessons were learned, for sure, and I am grateful for the experience I gained, and for the convictions I solidified. I have for a while now subscribed to the philosophy that you shouldn’t play ball where you don’t own the field. The Extension program was a great opportunity, and if the stars had aligned it could have worked out great, but if that same piece of land were somehow mine, I would spend the first year cutting swales, sowing clover, and figuring out some way of turning excess rainfall into a resource instead of a liability. I already knew that at the start of 2015, but there’s a difference between reading about something and having first-hand experience.

I also have to factor in all the time I spent driving around between three counties, and whether the experience I gained is enough to offset the environmental cost of all the fossil fuels I burned, not to mention all the miles I put on my vehicle or the time I could have spent elsewhere. Probably, this time, but from now on I’m going to be taking a hard look at how I can consolidate all of my efforts, and I can think of a few places where I’m already spending a lot of time that could benefit from the planting of a few paw-paw trees. Stay tuned, because this story ain’t over, and I ain’t even close to quitting.

Karmapa Khyenno!

Do we need a Lens or a Prism?

This question came up on twitter the other day, and I wondered what other metrics we might use to define success within the bounds of permaculture. Certainly reducing waste is a worthwhile effort, and keeping track of waste is a good way to measure how successful we are at living up to the goal of reducing waste. As a rule, though, I’m rarely comfortable with breaking any issue down into a strict true or false dichotomy. The world is more complicated than that, and there’s usually more than one side to every story. Permaculture especially is about understanding the complex relationships between various systems and disciplines, and I suggested that we might need to view our efforts through a number of different lenses in order to have some valuable metrics by which to evaluate those efforts.

As a point of illustration, I’d like to consider the common milkweed, or Monarch flower, as some would prefer it be known. Milkweed is becoming something of an internet sensation lately, and the attention is well deserved. The Monarch butterfly depends on milkweed for its survival. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on the plant in order to absorb its toxins and bitter taste. Monarch predators have learned to read the bold markings of both the caterpillar and butterfly as a warning sign, and they choose to steer clear of the insect. Thanks to our history with industrial agriculture, milkweed, once ubiquitous, is now scarcely present throughout much of North America. It’s no coincidence that the Monarch butterfly has experienced a precipitous decline in population. Permies, naturalists, and urban aggies are rallying around the Monarch flower and planting it everywhere, in hopes that we can stave off the extinction of the Monarch butterfly and perhaps even see a rebound in numbers.

That’s all very commendable, but what does it have to do with metrics? Allow me next to introduce a concept with which you may be unfamiliar. Floristic Quality Assessment was popularized by naturalists Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm with their groundbreaking work Plants of the Chicago Region (3rd ed., 1979). They realized that a sound method was needed for assessing the natural quality of plant communities, so that efforts toward understanding and preserving these lands could be evaluated using a standardized and quantitative metric. Years of exhaustive surveys of the naturally occurring flora in the many counties surrounding Chicago had yielded a great volume of data, and this data was used to assign each vascular plant species a Coefficient of Conservatism (C) value. A taxonomic survey of a given parcel could then be undertaken, with each plant contributing its C value toward an average, in order to gauge the degree to which a natural area was likely to have been disturbed by humans.

Where do you suppose Asclepias syriaca, aka “common milkweed”, fits into this calculus? It has a C value of zero! Now, there are many species with the genus Asclepias, and some of them do rate a 10 on Swink and Wilhelm’s scale. How the different species within this genus were each given their rankings is just a bit much to explain right now, but as far as the Monarch butterfly is concerned, they’re all foodstuffs. A C value of zero doesn’t mean that Asclepias syriaca is worthless — nothing of the sort! When it comes to saving Monarch butterflies, A. syriaca could prove to be far more valuable than A. meadii, which scores a C value of 10. Mead’s milkweed (A. meadii) is one of the rarest plants in the Chicago Region. I might be interested in planting it for just that reason, but if my aim is to save the Monarch butterfly, I’m looking for a plant that can thrive anywhere. If I want to save Monarch butterflies, I’m going to plant lots of A. syriaca.

Permaculture flower

The Principles of Permaculture. Image via

So, where does this leave us in regards to permaculture? I’m still a big believer in FQA, and I’ll even contend that it ought to be part of every permie’s toolkit, but it isn’t the right lens to use in every situation. I’m a big fan of my Felcos, too, but sometimes I go for the chainsaw. If we’re going to evaluate whether or not we’ve been successful at anything, we first need to define what it is we’ve been trying to do. Permaculture itself is more of a toolkit than it is a particular effort. I suggested on twitter that we might want to consider how many mouths were fed, or look at quality of life, as indicators of “success”. Noah Patrick (@allthewebs) had some insightful comments regarding the nature of waste, and noted that “permacultures always give more than they take”. A look at the “permaculture flower”, often cited as a representation of the ideals of permaculture, reveals many avenues to understanding, each of which need to be considered in order to evaluate whether or not a given effort is truly “permaculture”.

This is all brand new to me. I hope to get my Permaculture Design Certification within the next year or two, but meanwhile I’m planting community gardens and mowing around milkweed. I’ve spent the last dozen years focusing on small scale urban efforts, but I’ve also spent a good chunk of time in the mountains or on the meadow. My approach is a little different in each context, but each is informed by the sum of my experience. Changing things up is one way I keep my values in check. I’m always eager to learn more, and I’d welcome the opportunity to continue this line of inquiry. What does permaculture mean to you? How do you define success within the boundaries of permaculture? What metrics can we apply to gauge whether our efforts have been successful? The lines are open! Leave your comments and let’s see what we might learn from one another.

Thanks to Cassi Saari, aka @BOUCUR, for some very helpful clarification regarding the history and application of Floristic Quality Assessment. When I someday figure out how to use footnotes within HTML I may go back and make the proper attributions.