Thursday, August 18, 2016

Antibiotic resistance

A few weeks ago I got two books, one on antibiotic resistance and one on antiviral resistance.

When you think of anti-viral and antibiotic resistance, think of a tanning bed. Five minutes on a tanning bed isn't going to do much when you first start, but fifty and you're fried. But use that tanning bed five minutes per day for a year and the fifty won't be such a big deal. You've developed resistance. Now think of our use of antibiotics. I have a good friend who pops antibiotics when she needs to go out in public. Not because she needs them, but because she might contact someone who has something. She uses them for colds as well, although they're completely ineffective against viruses.

We do precisely that with livestock, poultry, and even bees. All are fed small daily doses of antibiotics to protect them against the decidedly unnatural conditions they live in. So those bacteria that do survive are resistant to the antibiotics, resulting in the use of an even stronger antibiotic the next time in order to have the same result. All of those antibiotics are excreted in one way or another--into our water, the air, the products those animals produce. All of those antibiotics encounter other plants and animals, and the diseases native to those naturally become resistant as well, over time.

Meanwhile in hospitals and doctors offices the numbers of resistant bacterial infections are growing exponentially. Diseases that would have been simple to treat a generation ago are now killing. It's a problem which people worldwide are trying to deal with in their own ways. In some areas any use of an antibiotic takes a hospital administrator's permission and the dose has to be administered by medical personnel. In other areas the people have turned to remedies that our ancestors used for thousands of years.

Whatever the solution, antibacterial resistance is a growing and well recognized problem. Anti-viral resistance is trickier.

The only real remedy we have against viruses is to keep the body strong and give it what it needs in order to fight the invader. Viruses are tricky things, with a massive arsenal of weapons. If bacteria are the armed robbers of the micro-biotic world, viruses are the terrorists. Bacteria are relatively straightforward. They get in there, they create a mess, the police stop them and it's over. Viruses turn the body's defenses against itself, and even use those defenses to get what they need. Once they get inside a cell (which they do by tricking the cell into thinking they belong there, "Oh, we're all one big happy family, you can trust me.") they turn the cell's own DNA into a viral replicating factory, creating millions of new viruses. Then when the body gets its act together and attacks the cell, they swarm out looking for new cells to infect. Macrobiological terrorists use the same kind of tactics, but that's not a rant for this blog.

Eventually the body does figure out what's going on and starts to fight the invaders. The trick is to keep it healthy long enough to get to that point. Pharmaceutical anti-viral agents focus on a few main points: Not letting the virus replicate, not letting the virus get into a cell, and triggering the body's defenses sooner. Because the pharmaceuticals are a single active constituent, with a single intended action, the virus finds them easier to counter. Antiviral resistance is also a growing problem as the viruses learn from our clumsy attempts to destroy them.

On the other hand, we have around us plants and fungi that have survived viral and bacterial attack for billions of years. They've developed their defenses against these invaders to a fine edge, and with a little ingenuity we can use those defenses for ourselves. Which leads to the idea of identifying the chemicals that create these reactions, isolating them, and making a profit from their use. The problem we run into is that plant defenses aren't just made up of one chemical--they may have one chemical constituent which solves the main problem but creates massive swelling, one which reduces or eliminates that swelling, one which helps the body recognize the intruders, and so on. It's not one chemical, which can be isolated and sold. It's a chemical symphony, and if you take out the violins or the drums it may not do its job right. So in the pharmaceutical industry we end up with a list of side effects often worse than the original disease because we're removing the axle to fix a flat tire.

The antiviral and antibacterial herbs target the invaders in a very different way than manufactured pharmaceuticals. They take what we might refer to as a holistic approach; building up the body, activating the body's defenses, killing the invader or making it incapable of replicating itself, healing the damage created by the invader and making the body more resistant to the same invader in the future. It's no surprise then that many of the antibacterial herbs are also antiviral on some level, and vice versa.

Herbal Antibiotics (Buhner)
Herbal Antivirals (Buhner)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Re-used canning lids update

Some time ago I started experimenting with re-used lids in canning. You can find the old post here.

I have continued to re-use lids when I can (pressure or water bath) and at this point I can say that the initial seal rate is higher than the new lids (100%) and only one has lost seal to this point, six months after I started. I've lost several of the bottles sealed with new lids during that same time.

I am keeping the bottles with the reused lids in a separate area of the cupboard so I can keep an eye on them. I have not started using the lids a third time yet (that would mean opening a bottle!) so that and using badly damaged lids are for future experiments.

But at this point I feel confident enough to keep the old lids for future use. At the moment I'm using most to fill the bottles with sterile water for storage.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Water conservation

I live in a desert, with the average rainfall being right around 12 inches (about 30 centimeters) per year. That's ALL year, not just during the summer. I have to laugh when people talk about a drought, then say they ONLY get 10 inches of rain per month. The last time we got rain was about the beginning of May.

Under those circumstances, water use is extremely important. I try not to use anything from outside--no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers, I harvest my own seeds...and then I have to cancel out all my gains by buying water from the city. During the summer, I use about 60,000 gallons of water per month. A great deal of that is used to water lawns (a long story that I won't go into at the moment--sufficient to say that the lawns will stay for a while longer).

So let's round (just to make the calculations easy) and say I have a quarter of an acre. That's 10,890 square feet, or 1.5 million inches. If each inch receives just 10 inches of rain, that's more than 15 million inches or 68,000 gallons falling on my property. If I were able to use all of that (and assuming that I'm no longer feeding thirsty grass that needs to be watered three times per week) I could last much of the summer without supplemental watering.

Several problems with that scenario. First, water runs off. Second, water runs down (through the soil and into the water table) and third, water runs up (through evaporation).

The first is relatively simple--slope and grade the soil so that the water has to stay. A dip in the soil of an inch will prevent a great deal of water from running downhill. Fill that dip with mulch, you have a handy catchment area that will slowly drain that water into the soil over time.

The second, there's nothing I can do other than strip off the top 30 feet of soil (well honestly it's sand and rock, not soil), put down pond liner, and put the soil back.

The third, again, is relatively simple. Mulch. Lots and lots of mulch. Mulch every year. Seriously, if I wasn't buying 60,000 gallons of water per month how much mulch could I buy? LOTS.

On my property there is one area that is consistently hotter than anywhere else. I have never been able to do anything with it--everything I put there died. Repeatedly. But this year I did something different. I mulched it. As deep as I could, and this summer every bit of extra plant material I could scrape up went up there. Right now it's requiring one deep watering per week, as opposed to last year when I was watering it every single day and STILL everything died.

Now I'm seeing mushrooms in the mulch, and weeds I've never seen before. The plants are thriving--except in the areas where I haven't finished mulching deeply. There, they struggle, but they're still alive and kicking.

So if I could mulch the garden area like that, could I get away with once a week watering? I already water only twice a week in the main garden, and it has much better soil than the hill area. I'm guessing every other week, or even less once the system is established. That right there would cut my water usage a great deal.

This year I tried something new. Well, several somethings, but this year I didn't till the garden. I planted, and waited. And the plants thrived, with no additional water at all. I didn't water the main garden until the end of May, and everything grew just fine. So if I mulched it deeply, would I be able to stretch that to the end of June? The middle of July? The whole summer?

I don't know, but it's worth a try.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Five rings and Plant Guilds

It's been hot for weeks. Up in the hundreds, dropping some nights only to the low eighties before going up again.

The tanks are empty. The apricots are long gone and the plums and early grapes are coming on. Not quite ripe yet, but almost there.

It's full summer. The squash are producing, the corn has tasseled, the tomatoes are turning red and I'm a little melancholy today. It's too hot to plant, and there's nothing to harvest so I have to be content with a little weeding. Except this morning I was watering the almond and I noticed that the water was just running away from it, down the hill. So I mounded up the soil into a semi-berm to hold the water. Then I planted beans in and around the berm.

I was thinking the other day about five circles as part of a plant guild. A plant guild is a group of plants, usually centered on a particular tree, that is supportive in nature. Plants that attract pollinators, plants that clean the soil, plants that put nitrogen in the soil, and so on. So I've got the beginnings of plant guilds but I was working on designs and came up with five rings--tree, protective ring, annuals, perennials, and herbs.

Many of the trees I have in my yard are fruit or nut trees, which are susceptible to bores. Each spring (as early as I can work the soil) I go out, dig down along the fruit tree and try to kill any bores that have overwintered there. Most of my life I've been a traditionalist, because that was how I was raised, but traditional isn't doing it. Traditional is bare dirt around any tree. But the bores lay their eggs in the dirt around the tree...Traditional is dry soil, but the bores need dry soil. The larvae then dig in to the tree and overwinter there.

So last year I planted chives around the trees. They still got bores, but I noticed that most of the bores were on the bare side of the tree, where the chives hadn't grown yet. So...circumstantial, but possible.

This year I expanded that, planting chives, garlic and tansy around the other trees. It'll take two or more years to know if it's working, but I'm hopeful. So that's the 2nd circle. Protective.

The third circle is the human care circle. Technically the whole thing is, but this circle is annuals--tomatoes, beans, beets, whatever I choose to grow. They will be in full sun during the spring, dappled shade during the rest of the summer so productivity might suffer a bit...but they will be a little protected from the full heat of the summer sun, so I think that will offset the losses. Less burn, less evaporation, etc.

The fourth circle is the other trees or bushes in the guild. Planted probably at or close to the tree's drip-line (the edge of the tree where the drips stop, not the soaker line that brings water to the tree) these would be the perennials that support the tree and are supported in turn. The tree provides shade, mulch (in the form of leaf-litter) and in turn is cared for by these plants.

The fifth circle is other perennials that fill out the guild. Medicinal herbs, insectaries to attract pollinators, nutrient accumulators, etc.

It's a slow process, but necessary. This small yard has to take care of itself, and me, and still maintain soil fertility and increase nutrient levels without outside input. No fertilizers, no herbicides or pesticides. I bring in bags of leaves in the fall. Other than that, the main inputs are water and light. Soon, soon I hope, water use will be reduced. That's another topic.

I'm learning as I go.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Spring fever

I planted the last of the corn, squash and melons. There's been enough cool weather that I transplanted some of the yarrow seedlings and they're well established now. I think the rest will have to wait for fall, but if all the seedlings survive I should be able to do at least the park-strips and the front lawn. I checked and the water from the downspout is stretching all down the length of the perforated pipe, which is about 2/3 of the distance. I need to get another pipe to finish it, and I've been thinking of digging down and creating a small pond in that corner.

It's raining again today. I hear the constant drip of the water running out of the drainage pipes on the tanks. Yesterday there was a duck and a quail on the roof. At opposite ends and facing away like they were trying hard to ignore each other.

This morning there were birds in the garden, busily eating the lettuce I'm letting go to "weed." I decided if I'm going to have weeds they may as well be weeds that I can use. The lettuce and leftover potatoes from last year's harvest keep the other weeds down.

The baby apricot is about three inches tall and leafing out. I don't know what it is about a garden, really. I struggle when it struggles. I rejoice when it thrives. I'll watch for the seedlings and protect them (just enough so they can care for themselves) and then go plant something else.

Monday, May 9, 2016

It's raining

I'm listening to thunder. It seems to roll on forever, until it reaches the edge of my hearing.

This month it's been raining. It rained, then quit for two weeks, then rained again, quit for two weeks, and now it's raining. More rain than we usually get in a full year in the last month. Texas is washing away, California is drying up, and the desert blossoms.

I hear the rain start, and it's almost a pain to know that the tanks are full. I can't get any more water in them, so this rain will soak down into the aquifers and pile up on the mountains as snow. It will feed my plants for weeks to come, trapped in the soil where it's cool.

There's the thunder again. I want to go outside and dance in the rain, but I won't. This week I'll probably cover the beans with leaves. Weed barrier, mulch, and hopefully protection so the mushrooms will start to emerge. The lawn needs to be mowed again so that's more grass to cover the garden.

The beets and carrots are still tiny, just barely showing as a line of green against the brown. It will be some time before they can be covered.

I look at everything growing and it's as if I'm connected to the earth. Like I could sink my feet into the soil and take root. Winter has its own magic, but I'm not connected the same way.

I stood in my food forest the other day and looked down across my gardens to the fruit trees, and I just wanted to stay there all day. It makes me happy.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Permaculture (in a sense)

Over the winter I started doing research into permaculture, learning that we've been using permaculture principles for some time without knowing it. :) Very little organic matter leaves this yard--it's all recycled, one way or another. Leaves and grass are compost, food debris goes in the compost pit. Thicker wood that can't be composted is burned for ash or used for any number of other things. The land is sloped so that there is very little runoff, and xeric plantings deliberately placed where the sprinklers don't reach.

Water is our Achilles heel, but permaculture has a cure for that.

We live in a desert. It rains in the spring and fall, a bare handful of times per year. Snow during the winter mostly runs off rather than soaking in. In all we get about fifteen inches of water per year. Summer temperatures run easily into the 90's and 100's, with near 0 humidity.

This year water prices are going to double or triple, and with more than a quarter acre of lawn and garden that's going to hurt. With that in mind, earlier in the year I invested in a water catchment system to catch water off the roof. It's nearly complete. I also finished one of the drainage systems, carrying water from the downspout on one corner of the house across the grass and into the raspberries.

Two years ago we put in the drip system, and the secondary garden is watered by the lawn sprinklers. I'd much rather water vegetables than grass.

So this spring I ran a test. All of the vegetables were put in the ground--and left alone. The only water they've gotten was the rain two weeks ago. With temperatures in the 70's and 80's, I would have expected the water to evaporate quickly, leaving the seedlings languishing. If that had happened I would have watered, but they all appear fat and happy. As of last night (before the rain) the soil in the main garden was dry only two inches down, and in the western garden one inch. Seedlings are all up and amazing. Two transplants have been lost--one tomato, broken when a wall-o-water fell over on it, and a licorice seedling that something ate. Neither died from lack of water.

Last spring we were watering constantly, and the water just seemed to drain away, leaving the soil dry again within a day or two.

Something has changed.

I think we're working with a combination of things. First, each year early in the spring we till up the garden, which allows air in, fluffs the soil so to speak, but also creates more space for water to evaporate from. All that water that's settled deep in the soil during the winter evaporates off. We then plant into this aerated soil, and keep it watered until the seedlings come up. Because of the tilling the soil is broken up deep, allowing all the water to drain off. This year we didn't till, so the water that was in the soil is staying there.

Second, I mulched the surface as much as possible. Grass went down all last summer, and leaves in the fall. This year we will again mulch deeply with grass and leaves, as well as continuing with the deep compost pit.

By planting so that all soil is covered by something living (or a good thick layer of mulch, or both) we should minimize evaporation from the soil. With the use of consciously recognized permaculture principles (rather than just doing what feels right), I'm hoping that water use will be minimized this year.

The recipe for a water-wise garden:

Soil with plenty of organic matter
Mulch (next year's soil)
Plant densely
Catch and reuse (catchment tanks)
Water wisely (drip lines)