Yardening and Yarditarianism

I’m an eclectic guy, and my gardening techniques reflect that.  I have permaculture inspired guilds in the orchard, I have bio-intensive organic vegetable gardens that are managed using Coleman’s 4 Season techniques.  I also have native landscaping with prairie plantings in the rain gardens and several island beds.  But take it all together, and its a mix no matter how well it flows.  Last year I settled on a term from my youthI am a Yardener.


For better or worse, I am currently entrusted with just shy of .5 acres (.2 ha) and in the 4+ years that I have written this blog I have chronicled the process of taking it from a denuded wasteland to the budding Garden of Eatin that it is today.   This year I will have many plans, but one that I am committed to is to grow as much food as I can in the yard – with a goal of 2000#s (907 kg) in 12 months.  That is gonna take some doing as the fruit trees have years until they hit peak yields, and even with the expanded canning garden total garden space is still under 2000 sq ft (186 sq m) or so.  Expected yield with “good” harvests sketch out to 1200-1400#’s (540-635 kg) which is still awesome.

32'x35' is about 1100 sq ft. Aw, hell yeah!

A big component of this yield will be our newly built (last June) Pimped out Garden.  At 1100 sq ft it gives us the room to grow serious amounts of food for storage and seasonal eating.  I could surely get 2000#’s from this garden alone, but will plan on growing food we eat, rather than cooking the books with huge amounts of cucumbers, roma tomatoes, and potatoes.  This garden will also likely get a 12′ hoop house in it late summer, and will have cold frames on it within 8 weeks of this post for early greens.  The soil is still weak as over half of it was trucked in last June, but I mixed in plenty of compost and vermicompost along with some green manures and deep mulching before fall and laying the ground work for rich soil ecosystems.  Still working through the planting layouts for the year, and need to catalog the seeds remaining from last year and fill holes, but this is all very exciting.

About half the orchard - missing are another pear and paw-paw hidden off camera

Up hill from the Canning Garden is my permaculture orchard.  Complete with 9 trees (Pears, Apples, Peaches, and Paw-Paw) along with well over a dozen fruiting shrubs, a few hardy kiwis, a couple of hazelnuts and a growing understory it is a nutritional force to be reckoned with.  to bolster its productivity while it fills in I liberally add annuals like peppers, garlic, and sprawling squash vines (these are actively managed and pruned to avoid crowding).  This year will also see the planting of 7 more fruit trees (another apple, a cherry, apricots, and 3 plums) and we planted 4 nut trees (from seed) for a protein/fat producing overstory (in a decade or so!) of chestnuts and hickory/pecan hybrids.  The fences will also be drafted into duty as a vineyard with a dozen grape cultivars for table eating and perhaps even wine.  In 5 years of so, the orchard will likely out produce the canning garden, and in a decade it certainly will – heck the kiwis could be up to 200#’s themselves!


Pretty sure I made this word up tonight (the Google can’t find it), but I prefer it to the slightly less obscure “yardavore”.  This is geeky, but -vore typically denotes an eating behavior that is by nature, where “-tarian” usually denotes an eating behavior of choice (herbivore v. vegetarian).  I also like this contrast with Localvore, which has been our “nature” historically, and yarditarian which is more a factor of choice and privilege.  Regardless, if one is gonna slap it on the table and try to grow 2000#s of food in one year from one’s yard, it goes without saying that we will be eating a significant amount of our food from our yard.  From March’s first French Sorrel and cold frame spinach leaves to the final stored potatoes and onions of the following March this will be an outstanding journey as we work to eat our bounty, working through the logistics of harvesting, preparing, storing, and sharing the produce from even this 10% of our yard.  I am not pretending to try to eat *exclusively* from my yard; self sufficiency is not, and never will be, my goal.  But adding 2000#’s of food to my family’s diet will add a significant amount of resiliency to our food supply while also teaching my children and myself incredibly valuable lessons about what is possible on so small a plot of land.

Should be a great year!


Energy Descent and the New Reality

Like most of us, I am quite sensitive to the price of fuel and watch its movements with keen interest, and it has not been disappointing of late.  We set a new record for the price of pump gasoline in December last week at $2.93, and have proceeded to break it 4 times since then and we currently sit at $2.98 for the average price across the US.  That is noteworthy, especially considering that this is up 14% from last December, and higher than it was the December before we hit $4+ in the Summer of 2008  and all hell broke loose in our economy soon after.

Oil IS our economy.  It is what makes global trade at this scale possible and why it makes “sense” to ship raw materials from Africa to SE Asia for processing and then to the US for final sale, grain from the Ukraine to be fed to cattle in Brazil to end up in $.89 cheeseburgers in the US, and the 1500 mile side salad.  That fact – that Oil is Everything –  means that watching the price of crude, or just the pump, is rather important for predicting when the next recession, or rather the deepening of the current one, will hit.  Since we hit Peak Oil in 2006 the New Reality is that energy economics are now ruthlessly driven by supply and demand.  Now that we are Post Peak, there is no significant means of mitigating price by upping supply to meet demand; when demand increases, price MUST follow suit soon after as supply is fixed and slowly diminishing.

Supply v. Demand: a graphical depiction...

What became painfully clear to us all, is that there is a price ceiling that our economy is able to support.  In 2008 it was somewhere near $110/bbl or $4/gln of gasoline.  Beyond that point oil/gas pushed the expense side of doing business too far (and had the psychological impact of drastically reducing consumer spending) and we smacked into a New Reality that energy was perhaps more expensive than we could afford; that we couldn’t afford to do *everything* we wanted as a global community.

And then we learned another reality about our current economy.  GROWTH is IMPERATIVE.  Chris Martenson in his Crash Course will explain this far better than I can, but in long and short the rate of our economic growth MUST EXCEED the interest that is due on everything we, as a global society, “own”.    As soon as the economy fails to grow faster than the interest that is due on the all the zillions of loans –from credit cards to government bonds– there is literally NOT ENOUGH MONEY to pay the banks and massive foreclosures begin to happen.   This is also why we continually here that 1-2% growth “isn’t enough”.  Check your car/mortgage/credit card bill for your interest rate if you wonder why not.

So everyone alive has know nothing but the fact that Oil IS the Economy, and that the Economy MUST grow.  But there is no more cheap oil, and the Economy CAN’T grow – at least not until it bottoms and the Peak is a lofty mountain indeed.   The Old Reality is over.  Welcome to the New One.  The next century or so will be dominated by series after series of recessions, which will relax the demand pressure on the price of energy enough to allow a brief “recovery”.  But as soon as the economy recovers enough it will inevitably hit the energy price ceiling (which is now lower than the last one due to all the bankruptcies that occurred in the last recession which lowered the overall size of the economy by destroying “wealth”) and we will enter a new recession.  This is the economic reality of Energy Descent: series after series of recessions interspersed with brief “recoveries”.

This is why I watch the price of fuel with so much more interest than I did 3 years ago.  Our current “recovery”, which is really just a slowing of the bleeding rather than healing, is inherently short lived and the price of Crude at its current mid $80’s and climbing does not bode well for the length of this reprieve.

We cannot control this.  We cannot “solve” this problem –mostly because its not a problem, its reality. That means we must react to our situation and find personal solutions to the IMPACTS of the New Reality on our lives.

This will mean many things, and the they will be very different to many people.  Tom recently commented with a challenge that went something like “cut the theory and prove it with your checkbook” ; i.e. try to see if the ideas are economically viable by earning my living through their implementation.  Tom runs a successful CSA in North Carolina and is well along his way towards resiliency assuming he isn’t running a mortgage and depending unsustainably on inputs.  Its a fair question, but as a “challenge” it is also arrogant and insensitive to the New Reality, and in that arrogance which runs the strong risk of demoralizing rather than inspiring.  There is no more cheap credit to buy land (5 acre farmettes are still running $350,000 hereabouts – add $10,000 for each additional acre), there are likely mountains of debt that were accumulated in the Old Reality forcing a much higher income threshold to maintain principal and interest payments, and hundreds of other economic and social facets of our individual situations that makes “proving” our ideas by forcing them to support our families a false challenge.

The fact is that the New Reality will do that for all of us.  The rub of the next few decades will be: can we re-adapt fast enough (using theories, hunches, untried ideas, and examples from those around us) to reduce our dependency on the Old Reality at least as fast as it is replaced by the New Reality.  Can we offset our energy needs as fast as their costs rise beyond our ability to pay for them; can we grow increasing amounts of food as fast as their price increases beyond our ability to afford them. Can we find additional incomes in cottage economies (or career changes in the case of those lucky enough to be in a situation like Tom) and reduce our expenses fast enough to keep our homes, pay down our debts, reskill, and retool?

In many ways it can feel like a race – can we pay off the mortgage before I lose my job, etc?   The impact of the Recession Rollercoaster will in many ways be limited to our connection and dependance on the system.  With a 40 mile commute, traditional mortgage, and no wood stove or PV cells, I am far more dependent on the Old Reality and its cheap energy, than if I am able to relocalize my income, truly own my home, and add more than a bit of self reliance to my household.

The coming, hell CURRENT, crisis will be mitigated in so much as we are able to innovate and implement individual organic solutions to the changes that are being forced upon us by the New Reality.   The changes may come faster than I can adapt to them  – I could lose my job this year and become one of the millions of long term unemployed and my permaculture orchard will be for naught.  But, knowing that, I can take strong, bold steps to limit my exposure and control the variables I can.  We can ALL do this. And my suspicion, based on the experience of the past 4 years, is that in adding that control back to our lives, in living in closer touch with reality, we will find more value in what really matters most and very likely increase our personal happiness in direct proportion to our reduced adherence to the Old Reality.

It will be wicked hard, there will certainly be moments of dread, but we can do this.

Be the Change.

Kunstler on Suburbia- Dang Sucka.

As part of my commitment to doubling down and getting real about rebuilding Suburbia into something that is livable I stumbled across this talk by James Kunstler of Long Emergency fame, which I am finally getting around to reading.  Well worth 20 minutes of your time. Though he spends the majority of the talk beating the shit out of Suburban and current Urban planning, he is a gifted speaker and refuses to pull punches.  The shit is real.  Get busy.

Be the Change.


Winter Reading Project, Post Script

Some other additions for the small scale ag side of things.  Notice that these are ALL from Chelsea Green.  They are a publisher (along with New Society Publishers) that I hit frequently and they are also offering 35% off EVERYTHING and free shipping over $100 until 12/31/10. Resilient Gardening has been on my short list for a year and with its glowing recommendations from several reader/bloggers, passing it up would be foolhardy at this point.  Laughton’s book is on a larger scale, but I refuse to let my dream of a small holding die and I also do consulting work on larger properties so that will be welcome reading as additional viewpoints are always welcome.  Cooper’s book seems to be right up my alley and I would like some more perspective from “over the pond”.

The Alternative Kitchen Garden
An A–Z

by Emma Cooper

“The Alternative Kitchen Garden is an evolving idea of what a kitchen garden could be in the twenty-first century: organic, environmentally sustainable, resilient, and about localizing at least some of our food production. It’s also a place not only for learning and practicing growing skills but also for enjoying ourselves and having fun. The Alternative Kitchen Garden is the ideal companion for anyone getting dirt under their fingernails for the first time and full of fascinating ideas and experiments for the adventurous gardener.”

Surviving and Thriving on the Land
How to Use Your Time and Energy to Run a Successful Smallholding

by Rebecca Laughton

“Surviving and Thriving on the Land looks at ways in which projects can be designed that care for the people involved in them as well as the earth that they are trying to protect. If land-based ecological projects are to offer a realistic solution to the problems we face in the twenty-first century, it is imperative that they be sustainable in terms of human energy. This book offers a framework, backed up by real-life examples, of issues to consider when setting up a new project or for overcoming human-energy-based problems in existing projects.”

The Resilient Gardener
Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times 

by Carol Deppe

“Scientist/gardener Carol Deppe combines her passion for gardening with newly emerging scientific information from many fields — resilience science, climatology, climate change, ecology, anthropology, paleontology, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, health, and medicine. In the last half of The Resilient Gardener, Deppe extends and illustrates these principles with detailed information about growing and using five key crops: potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs.”

Enjoy your reading!


Winter Reading Project

Last winter I read a bit over 1200 pages on Soil Science, and the learnings from that project were profound enough that they inspired me to revamp the way I plant my gardens,  created and taught several workshops on Introductory Soil Science and posted enough about composting that you all were justifiably concerned about my interests bordering on obsession.  Passion often comes delivered without an “off” switch…  I never did write up my learnings on Soils in a specific series of posts and that is on my list of winter writing projects.

But this year, with December half gone, I was struggling a bit as I was lacking a research project for the winter.  Plans for next year will be coppice experiments and a Full Bore shot at small scale, intensive “ecological yardening” (really need to just take a Permaculture Design Course so I can use the dang copyrighted term in my business).   With the readings of the past several month and the 3 days at the Midwest Biomass Conference I am only about 2 books short of the books on coppice that I want to read – and one of them isn’t even written yet.

So for this winter I am focusing on 2 subjects:  Systems Thinking for the theory side, and Small Scale Agriculture systems on the practical side.  The goal will be 3 books on each, which will leave some room for the week or two in January where I lock myself into a room with seed catalogs, coffee, and spreadsheets to plan my gardens, and still leave time for some strolls into literary whimsy should one present itself.  To that end here are the first few contenders (please add your own if you have recommendations) – I typically only buy 1-2 books at a time, as they almost always lead me to new pathways.

Systems Thinking

Resiliency Thinking, by Brian Walker and David Salt.  I just finished this and HIGHLY recommend it.  If you want to better understand the theory on how complex, ecological systems respond to change and why some bounce back and some cross tipping points, this book is a fascinating starting point.  150 pages means you can polish it off in a day of reading and a few pots of tea, but though it is very accessible, it is so dense with epiphanies that I gave it 2 weeks so that the insights could percolate through my thinking more thoroughly.  Great books change how you think and interact with the world.  This is one of those.

Next on order is Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows. Ms. Meadows authored Limits to Growth in 1972 and has been one of the most influential thinks of the Energy Descent movement.   When an author is recommended highly by the likes of Lester Brown, Hunter and Amory Lovins and is referred to by Bill McKibben as “one of the smartest people I ever knew” I take notice.

We’ll see where my muse takes me after that, but contenders are some of the books by Fritjof Capra, though not sure if he’s a quack yet, and likely a re-re-re-read of Permaculture Principles by my hero David Holmgren.

Small Scale Intensive Ag / Applied Suburban Permaculture

Solviva, by Anna Edey has been on my “should read” list for several years now and I need to tear the bandaid off.  So its on order too.  There are several other practical books out there such as Gardening When it Counts, the Urban Homestead, The Self Sufficient Gardener and the Backyard Homestead.  But likely I will stick to more theory (shocking) and read some of the newer permaculture books out there that I’ve missed so far such as the Earth User’s Guide by Rosemary Marrow or The Permaculture Way, by Graham Bell.  The upcoming book by Sepp Holzer should be a knock out – I loved what I saw of him on You Tube.

And that brings up another element – we are reaching a point now where the interweb is an ever more important source for researching these aspects as the practical applications of Permaculture are far outstripping the pace with which conventional media outlets can keep up.  Again, it is the diverse organic solutions that we as individuals are creating that will be the solutions.   And to that end expect these books and research to continue to influence my thinking and writing this season, and of course expect the dirt to fly as soon as the frost is out.   Should be a great winter!


Panhandle Hooks and Transition Lessons

The upper Midwest just got clobbered by a doozy of a Panhandle Hook dumping plenty of snow followed by some serious winds gusting to 50mph (80kph).  I work the weekends, so I had the pleasure of driving through all this at 4am this morning.  Now the signs were clear – NOAA has been preaching this storm all week – heavy snow, bitter temps, massive winds.  Its gonna be brutal.   The troopers are adamant – no travel unless you have to.  Again and Again the mantra is clear – be prepared, be careful, take precautions.

I have almost no choice – I have a job to do and a team to lead, but I know the drill.  I own an AWD Subaru.  I mount dedicated snow tires.  I leave with plenty of time, wearing enough fleece line gore tex and merino wool that I could have walked the 20 miles to work if I had to.  And in case I do need to, I put snow shoes, flashlights and some food in the car.  My wife hands me some water as I walk out the door.  I fill the gas tank and put a heavy winter camping sleeping bad in the car in case I bin it and it takes a while for help to arrive.  Heck, I’ve taken performance driving classes and raced cars in my past; I know the limits of my abilities and my vehicle.  I am not self sufficient, but I am prepared for the reasonable issues that I may face.  I will be in a bad way if I wrap my Forester around a tree, so I drive slow to ensure that never happens.  But if I ditch it or get caught in a drift I will be fine for a day or two which is 4x longer than I will need to be.  I have added a significant amount of resiliency and self reliance to my treacherous commute.

While gassing up, I see 3 different cars pull up and people run into the store wearing track pants and sneakers or flats and a dress.   I went to school in South Dakota…  weather will kill you dead in minutes out there in winter and people like this would literally get talked to for endangering themselves and others by their lack of preparedness (in South Dakota you have to pay for your own rescue if you are dumb enough to get into trouble in a winter storm).  On the commute home the drifting was intense as the Alberta air was blowing down in full force.  The roads were clear when blocked by woods, but hit a field and the drifts were very real, and the roads glare ice.  The troopers knew this and had gotten sick enough of pulling people out all damn day that they towed out a 12′ tall flashing neon sign telling people to SLOW DOWN: HAZARDOUS DRIFTING ahead.    Sure enough – it got BAD about .5 miles later.  I lifted off the throttle, hit the hazard lights, and slowed to 30mph.  Then, predictably, three cars blew by me 1…2…3….  the first hit the drift, braked and of course started to spin on the ice as the weight lifted off the rear of the vehicle.  Of course the next two did the same and they all hit the ditch 1… 2… 3…

I pulled over and ensured that they were all ok and were able to call for a tow and then I drove on struck again by how surprised each of them were- one even muttering “what happened?”  The signs were there –literally– and they failed to heed them.   The conditions changed, but they failed to adjust their paradigm.

There are many lessons here.  In any population there is naturally a wide array of risk aversion levels.  In herbivores it is a classic tug of war between bolting at the first sign of a predator and wasting precious energy, or waiting a bit longer saving energy and perhaps even taking a few more bites of grass. Too risk averse and you can’t compete as you gradually become weaker and less able to produce.  Not risk averse enough and, well, you get eaten.   Mammoths in North America had evolved to regard anything smaller than a short faced bear as too small to be a threat.  But when the Clovis people arrived – massing 1/4 of a bear so of course no threat at all– they were summarily wiped out in mere centuries.    I was raised in an environment that valued preparedness.  I have often thought that one could draw a loose, but fairly accurate, line through male society along the line of Those That Carry Pocket Knives and Those That Do Not.   Go to any birthday party and when the stubborn ribbon hits, there is always one or two people there that quickly reach into their pocket to produce a small tool to do the job.

I come from a long line of knife carriers and this year my son will get his first knife – a right of passage indeed– and in a few years his younger sister will too.  There are also those who went to Boy Scouts (Be Prepared!) and those who did not.  The trappings really don’t matter a lick – the key point is that there are those of us that want to be READY to handle, well whatever “it” is.  We are a bit more conservative, a bit more thoughtful, and a bit more diligent.  We are also rarely going to be reckless and will miss out on situations that favor immediate response and action without forethought.  We make shitty venture capitalists but are great in a plane crash.

I suspect that many of the readers of this blog, many of The Choir in the Energy Descent Age, are “knife carriers”.  We are heading the NOAA forecast.  We put the snow boots and blankets in the car.   We see the troopers signs and slow down.  In the coming decades we will also likely be the ones able to pull over, walk down into the ditch and rap on the window with a friendly “You OK in there?!”  I salute you.

Be the Change.


Resilience Thinking

“When it comes to resilience, what’s important is that the different organisms that form part of the same functional group each have different responses to disturbances… …If there are a large number of different response types, the service provided by a functional group is likely to be sustained over a wider range of conditions, and the system has a greater capacity to absorb disturbances.” – Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking

Redundancy is a goal, not a label; we need to get busy getting creative. The authors also describe those disturbances and “creative destruction”, which breaks down stability and predictability (say a Hurricane to the Gulf or Peak Oil for you and me) but at the same time releases tremendous amounts of resources for innovation and reorganization. Change is Here. What we need now is organic millions of organic, diverse, and innovative solutions to build a new regime and redefine normal at a more resilient level.

This is our challenge; This is our calling.

Be the Change!

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