Monday, November 28, 2016

Leaf Mania

This year I decided to make some major changes to my yard. I eventually want to convert the whole yard into usable garden space, but a first step is making sure the existing garden space is fully used. To that end I decided to collect leaves this year and cover all the existing garden space. Right now it's mainly sand, even after 30 years of intensive composting and tilling.

So for the last month I've been on a leaf hunt. I figured 60 bags would do the whole

I've collected over 100 bags of leaves (only two of which had nasty seeds, which I had to sort) and spread them over the forest garden, the main garden, the western gardens, and actually decided to do the narrow section (apx 10 x 20) between the grapevines and the western garden. The leaves will be mulch for next year (I'm hoping to reduce water usage in the gardens by at least half, reduce water use by another third in the yard as a whole) and soil the year after.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, I'll do about six inches deep (instead of 18) next year and expand the gardens a little more. The front yard will be another forest garden once I'm finished and the only "lawn" will be the section under the ash. Which should technically be the main garden, since that's where all the leaves fall, but it's also the only piece of the lawn that stays green all summer.

I'm excited for the changes. As I convert to plants that actually thrive in this area our water needs will shrink to what the land itself can support. My greenhouse will be next, then small livestock will be added as I can support them from the existing land. The only remaining "need" will be electricity, which I'm working on. Once electricity is taken care of we can be completely self-sufficient in suburbia. :)

Well, except for inside water, but that's another story.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Catchment system update

Last night it rained. I went outside and the front catchment system wasn't filling. The drain had come off (which since I haven't cemented the system together yet was rather expected) but no water was draining out.

Of course the first thought was that the system was plugged. I pulled it apart, but all pieces appeared clear. The water was running down the outside of the pipes rather than the inside.

This morning I went out to check. Got out the ladder and climbed up to look in the rain gutter, and sure enough the drainspout fitting had been pushed up so the water was draining around it rather than through it. So if there's just a little water, it's not going to get into the pipes. If there's a lot of water it'll rise high enough in the rain gutter to go over the lip.

Pushed it down and it should drain correctly now.

The catchment system is still a work in progress. I want to make some changes, build in a way to flush the system for example, but that will have to wait. I have other projects at the moment. Right now I'm going out during and after each storm to identify any weaknesses. Some of the pieces will need to be cemented in before the cold hits, but most will remain just as it is until next spring.

Part of the testing is making sure that the system will drain appropriately when everything freezes. This means I have to go through at least one freeze-thaw cycle to understand how the system works and how it needs to be changed to accommodate unforeseen variables.

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.