September 2017
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Updated Walk-Thru of the Swales

Today I did another walk-thru of the swales. It’s been a hot summer and we’ve had a lot of rain. Many of our fruit trees are doing great, but others not so well. Deer have devastated the young plum and apple trees.

The pond has stayed full from the rain. The goldfish are still doing fine. Frogs and other critters have started to show up too.

I have also been trying to get more free wood chips but no luck so far.

Follow along as I take a tour of the swales:

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Why Do I Like Solar Energy?

There are several reasons why I like solar energy. Of all the systems I have put in place on our property, the solar panels and solar water heater require the least amount of attention and on-going maintenance. Once installed, they produce energy for us every day and lower our utility bills.

Here are some facts about solar energy that I find very interesting.

The sun is an endless source of energy. It is a giant fusion reactor that will never stop producing energy for us. Someone out there is saying, “it will stop someday!” When it does, trust me we won’t be worried about our solar panels.

Enough solar energy hits the earth in about an hour to supply all the earth’s energy needs for a year. Let’s put that another way. There are 8760 hours in a year. That means we only have to harness 1/8760th of the solar energy reaching the earth. That’s 0.011%. As the demand for energy increases, there is plenty of capacity to handle it. Think about that. It’s astounding.

An area of less than 2000 square miles covered with solar panels could supply all of the United States’ electricity needs. That is equivalent to a square roughly 44 miles on each side. To put that in perspective, Rhode Island is the smallest state in the US and has an area of 1214 square miles. Delaware is 2490 square miles. It would not be hard to find 2000 square miles somewhere in the middle of Texas that would hardly go noticed if covered by solar panels. I mean, have you ever driven across Texas? It doesn’t have to be in one contiguous area. How about on every roof? I don’t have statistics, but I bet it wouldn’t take a high percentage of the roofs in the US to produce all of our electricity.

In 2008, the government spent $700 billion for TARP to bail out the banking system. If we had spent that money instead on solar panels, it would have been enough to install a 2000 watt solar array on the roof of every owner-occupied home in the US. That money could have gone a long way to achieving energy independence in our country. Instead it went to line the pockets of rich bankers, but that’s a topic for another day. I don’t advocate the government spending any of our money, but in this case it would have been a much better use of it.

Why focus on Solar energy?
During my lifetime, the dominant energy source has always been oil. It is so pervasive in our lives that we tend to think like it always has been and always will be there and readily available. But will it? There are many debates over the topic of peak oil. Are we really running out of oil? Or will it be so abundant that gas will remain at $2.50 per gallon like it is today? To put it bluntly, we’re crazy to think that the prices aren’t going up. I’m of the opinion that one day they will go up abruptly and painfully. Maybe we won’t even be able to get it. See my earlier post about the 2008 gasoline shortage. Alternatives like oil, natural gas, and coal are not the future. History will show that fracking is not the answer you’ve been sold. If you think fossil fuels are going to be abundant forever, take the time to check out some of Chris Martenson’s great work over at Peak Prosperity. His work on the Crash Course is very informative and I believe the math is undeniable. Fossil fuels have a place. They are useful for heavy equipment, trucks, and trains. We don’t need it for cars. In my opinion, we’ll see most passenger cars on the road change to electric in my lifetime.

Fossil fuels are not the only answer for our future. Solar energy is. Solar gets a bad name in the media. The government supports a failed solar company and it’s all over the news. An oil rig creates a catastrophe in the Gulf and a few years later most people don’t remember it as long as their gas prices are low. What were the long term negative effects of that disaster? They were pretty bad. What were the long term effects of the Solyndra scandal – not really anything. The reality is the big oil companies just have more money for lobbyists and advertising. With any emergency technology, some companies will fail. The best will succeed. That’s what completion is for. What’s important is that there are a lot of solar energy companies working on new, more efficient technologies.

The electrical grid is an important part of solar energy systems. There is a lot of talk about the need to upgrade the electrical grid. It’s a fact. That would also be a better use of taxpayer money than bailing out bankers. Let’s spend it on infrastructure that will benefit us for decades. Elon Musk is a personal hero of mine. His Tesla electric cars are leading the revolution. Finally electric cars are here to stay. His battery factory in Nevada might just be a more important contribution. The Tesla Powerwall battery could lead to a massively distributed electrical system, reducing our critical dependence on the grid. The Tesla battery can be used in conjunction with a solar energy system or standalone for home battery backup. I’m very encouraged by developments like that.

We already rely on the sun for life every day. It gives us warmth. It helps plants grow so we can have oxygen and food. But we can get so much more from it if we learn how to harness it. Solar is a clean, renewable energy source. Personally, I’m not waiting for the crisis. I’ve already put in solar energy systems for electricity and hot water. Even if a crisis never happens, my family benefits every day from lower energy bills. That is an important step on the path to self-sufficiency and independence.

Resources for this post:
Chris Martenson’s Peak Prosperity website: http://www.peakprosperity.com
Facts about the Solyndra scandal: http://ourfuture.org/20120926/the-phony-solyndra-solar-scandal
Elon Musk on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elon_Musk
The Tesla Powerwall battery: http://www.teslamotors.com/powerwall

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Find Your Passion

How do you know you’re passionate about what you’re doing? When you can’t do it for 3 days and that makes you feel sad.

This is a really quick post. It’s early in the morning and I’m about to be off to WordCamp Atlanta. It’s a 3 day event in Atlanta for the WordPress community. WordPress is the platform that I use to run this blog site. It also runs about 25% of the web sites on the planet. It’s an open source platform that is built on community and sharing, so I’m hopeful that my first WordCamp will be interesting and full of new ideas.

However, I’m just about to leave the house this morning and I’m already having withdrawals. The weather is beautiful here. Everything is starting to grow and really take off. Spring is almost here. It’s an exciting time around the homestead. As much as I want to go learn some new things about WordPress, I’m really going to miss working on our property.

Of course the problem really isn’t WordCamp – it’s the day job. If I didn’t have that, I’d be working on the property on Monday. But instead I have to go to work. Don’t get me wrong – I like my day job. I get to work on a lot of really cool projects. As day jobs go, it’s a great one. But I would give it up in a heartbeat to spend all of my time on our property and permaculture in general.

That’s because permaculture is my passion. When I can’t work on it, I have withdrawals. Like today. It’s ok because I also like writing about permaculture, and I need the blog to share that. So I can take a few days off to work on something else. But you can bet I’ll be right back here planting things and working on the property as soon as I can, because permaculture is my real passion.

Spend more time doing what you care about, and less on things that you don’t. Find your passion, whatever it is, and do it every chance you get.

Resources for this post:
If you want to know more about permaculture, visit:
http://www.permaculture.org/
Or if you want to know more about WordPress and WordCamp:
https://2016.atlanta.wordcamp.org/
https://wordpress.org/

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One Man’s Trash

There is an old saying that goes “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” More often than not, it is not just a saying on a farm. When I get called a packrat, I can say I come by it honestly. My father was raised on a farm where he learned to save everything. When I was a kid, he kept all kinds of junk in our garage. There were scraps of wood and a box full of miscellaneous screws and nails waiting for some imagination to give it form. I liked to build things, and I didn’t have to look very hard to find materials.

Today we live on a farm and I do the same thing my father did. Everything gets evaluated for its usefulness before going into the garbage can. Reducing waste follows one of the ethics of permaculture – care of the earth. When we throw things in the garbage, we think of it as being someone else’s problem. We need to think of it as our problem. When we keep useful items around, they don’t go into the landfill. Later when we find use for an item, we save money by not having to buy something else. Reusing items and reducing waste is a truly sustainable practice.

Here are some of the types of items I like to collect:

Wood: I save every scrap of wood I come across. Long boards are stored in the garage for future projects. Scraps of kiln-dried pine get cut up to be used as kindling for the wood burning stove. Scraps of pressure-treated wood are useful for weighting down cardboard or newspaper for sheet mulching. Pallets get broken up for kindling.

Metal: Anything made of metal gets stored in the shop. This goes for scrap metal or wire. If I can’t find a use for something or it’s too big, I take it to the local metal recycling place and get paid for it.

Cardboard: Cardboard gets broken down and stacked flat in my shop. Plastic tape and staples are removed. I use cardboard for sheet mulching and weed control. I used it to make my chicken brooder in the garage.

Newspaper: Newspaper is getting harder to come by in the electronic age. I save all I can find. I also bring it home from work when possible. I use it for sheet mulching, starting fires, under the car for oil changes, and covering things when painting.

Plastic:Small plastic containers from food products are useful for storing seeds or parts in the workshop. Cat litter buckets are useful for all kinds of dirty projects like carrying chicken manure to the swale.

Transformers: I mean the little AC transformers that come with electronic equipment. I save every one of these that I come across. If someone throws something away at work, I save the transformers. With a voltmeter, a soldering iron, and some electrical tape, I can usually come up with a replacement for one that fails or a device that came without the “optional” transformer.

Screws: Just like my father taught me, I save every screw, nut, bolt, and fastener that is left over from products and projects. They all go in a drawer in the workshop. That’s the first stop when I need parts for a miscellaneous project.

Here are some other examples of uses I’ve found for items I had saved:

• Old sheets get torn into strips and used for tying up tomatoes.
• I had some old real estate signs. I removed the plastic sign from the frame. The plastic was used to smother weeds. The wire frame was used for tomato supports.
• I used pieces of metal conduit and long shelf brackets for tomato stakes
• Closetmaid wire shelving. This is the white wire shelving they sell at the big box stores. I use a piece of this to cover my 5 sunflower seed sprouting buckets. It keeps squirrels and chipmunks out but allows the seeds to air out.
• Another use for Closetmaid shelving: I cut the center support from these with a pair of pliers which results in what looks like 2 giant combs. I pound those into the ground around my garden fence to form a 6” deep barrier to burrowing animals.
• I keep cat little buckets stacked in the shop. I use them to cover young sensitive plants for overnight frost protection.
• Scrap wire and coat hangers are used for training fruit tree branches.

These are just a few examples. Please share your ideas and stories about creative uses for old junk in the comments.

I like to visit local garage sales to look for treasure in other people’s trash. Recently I picked up several 5-gallon plastic planters for 50 cents each that normally go for about $10 at the big box stores. I’ve bought concrete blocks at garage sales and picked up scrap cardboard and newspaper for free. I tend to see hidden treasure in most junk. Call me a packrat if you want. My wife sometimes does. I have learned to store the items I save neatly and hide others where she doesn’t see them!

So next time you’re about to throw something away, don’t be so fast. Ask yourself if it might be useful before you toss it. You could save some money by reusing it, and help the environment at the same time.

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The Swales and Pond Fill from a Heavy Rain Shower

Yesterday it rained hard for about an hour. The upper swale filled up fast and overflowed to the pond. Then the pond overflowed out the spillway and filled up the lower swale. Here I talk a little about the swales and some of the trees from the cover of our front porch. It’s great to see the systems working. Enjoy the video:

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Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

I’ve tried a lot of things. Some went well and others didn’t. Occasionally I learn enough from the first experience to know not to try again. Other times the first failed attempt motivates me to make improvements and try again. Quite often my second attempt is much more successful than the first. The failure taught me enough to succeed. Life will test you. Embrace the failures and see them for what they are – tremendous learning opportunities. The more you try and fail, the more you will learn.

Recently I posted about making yogurt. The first attempt at that was bad. Eventually I found a better process and the results were great. If I had given up after the first failure, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the success – or the yogurt.

Soon I will publish a post about the chicken tractor I built. The post will talk about the benefits of a chicken tractor, but even more importantly it will be about what not to do. My chicken tractor design turned out to be a failure due to my own stubborn determination to overbuild it. Look for that post soon.

I’ve had a lot of mixed results in my gardening. Some of the biggest failures taught me the most valuable lessons. I started my garden in 2009 and located it where it was most convenient for me. That was before I knew anything about permaculture – or gardening for that matter. The past 6 years have produced some successes but many failures too. I have recently determined that I need to move the entire garden because I picked a bad location in the first place. Again it was stubbornness that led me to delay this decision. Permaculture teaches us to observer nature, and that observation has convinced me it is time to make a significant change.

A few years ago I planted a lot of fruit trees in our open space. I envisioned an orchard. The soil is not very good to say the least – unless you want to make bricks. I planted there anyway. I spent a lot of time hand watering the trees the first summer. Some of those trees didn’t make it, and I stubbornly planted new ones in the same spots. Eventually permaculture taught me new techniques that I am trying now. Techniques like a swale where newly planted fruit trees did very well this past summer with minimal watering during a very hot, dry summer.

My second aquaponics system worked a lot better than the first. One of the lessons I learned from my first aquaponics systems was how to build it in such a way that allowed for modifications and reusing of parts. I’ll cover that in a future post.

My first attempt at a biodiesel processor taught me lessons that led to much better results with the second one. The same happened with composting, black soldier fly larvae, and solar panels.

There’s a pattern in my activities. I have failed a lot. I learn a lot from the failures – most likely more than I learn from the successes. Don’t be afraid to try things. Don’t be afraid to fail on the first try. Learn from it. If you see value in the project, redesign it and try again. You should never stop learning and improving. This applies to everything you do in life. Give it all you have and life will give back to you.

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The Swales and Pond Fill to Capacity from a Heavy Rain

Last night a band of heavy rain came through. This morning I captured this quick video of the results.

First the upper swale fills to capacity from both ends. Then the spillway in the middle overflows and carries the water down to the pond. The pond fills to the point that is overflows at the spillway and fills the lower swale.

Meanwhile our pool reach 100% capacity from the same rain. With all the fruit trees starting to bloom, it will be interesting to see how they do in the swale environment. I’m optimistic the growing season is going to be a good one.

Here’s the video:

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A Late Frost Hits Us Pretty Hard

We were having an early spring with a lot of unusually warm weather. Peach trees were blooming like crazy. Our kiwi vines were leafing out nicely. I was starting some vegetable seedlings. I kept checking the weather forecast and it always showed warm weather for the following 2 weeks. Things were looking good for a long growing season.

Then the darn jet stream shifted. Almost overnight the forecast had 2 nights in the low 20s! Yuck.

There wasn’t much I could do about the peach trees but hope the weatherman was wrong. He wasn’t.

When the cold weather arrived, I scrambled to protect my vegetable seedlings but I left the fruit trees to fend for themselves.

After 2 days of extreme cold, our kiwi vines lost 100% of their leaves:

Kiwi Vines with Dead Leaves

Here’s a pomegranate tree with all the leaves dead:

Pomegranate Tree with Dead Leaves

Most of the blossoms are lost on our big peach tree:

Peach Tree Lost 80% of Blossoms

Nature Finds a Way

A few days later, I assessed the damage. The peach trees had lost most of their blossoms, but some new ones formed.

Here’s a pear tree with some new blossoms:

Pear Tree with New Blossoms

Here the kiwi vines have started new leaf growth right next to the dead leaves:

New Growth Emerges on the Kiwi Vines

The first comfrey leaves are emerging, which is always exciting to see:

First Comfrey Leaves of Spring

A couple weeks after the frost, things are really looking up. The peach tree has a fair number of fruits forming. Last year it had a lot of peaches – probably way too many so none of them got very big. Maybe nature was telling me to thin them out. We’ll see this spring as the thinner fruit crop develops.

One of our plum trees is covered in fruit. Several apple trees that have had no blossoms or very sparse blossoms in the past, are forming a lot of blossoms. Once again, it’s an exciting time when spring rolls around and everything starts to take off. Follow along as I report back on how the trees develop throughout the spring.

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Fruit Trees in Bloom on February 26th

Today I did a quick video tour of the swales where several of our peach trees are blooming. This is very early to get fruit blossoms in our area. The risk is that we get a late frost and lose the crop. Right now the weather forecast is still looking good that we won’t get that frost, but it’s going to take some luck.

Peach Tree Blooming in February

I haven’t seen any pollinators either. So I got some cotton swabs and hand pollinated as many of the blossoms as I could.

Enjoy the video and please share your thoughts in the comments section:

Please share your thoughts and opinions in the Comments.
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Property Update – February 20 2017

The weather yesterday was beautiful – almost 70 degrees. It was a great day to work outside. I took some pictures and thought it would be a good time to do a property update.

Swales and Wood Chips
We’ve spread a lot of wood chips over the last few months. The huge pile is almost gone, but I’m working on getting more:

Wood Chips Are Almost Gone

It’s cool to see how much moisture they hold. As I dug down into the pile, they are dry on the surface but wet underneath. And the chips have started to break down in the pile noticeably. That’s another good thing about wood chips – if you don’t need them right away, just let them sit there and continually improve until you are ready for them.

I’m excited as spring approaches to see how the swale environment progresses this year. If the explosive growth of the fruit trees last year is any indication, this year should be fun to watch. Right now everything is fairly dormant, but you can see how we spread wood chips throughout the area:

The Swales with Lots o Wood Chips

We got some rain a couple days ago, so the pond is full again. The water stays muddy, but that helps the goldfish hide from predators:

The Pond

Chicken Update
The chickens have started laying eggs. They ramped up quickly in January, and now we’re getting 12 or 13 eggs a day from our 13 hens. So far this seems to be a good laying breed. We’ve also had an unusual number of giant, double-yoke eggs. Yum.

The chickens are anxious to see things start growing again. It’s slim pickings in cold weather. Here are the girls in the compost area:

Our Hens in the Compost Area

The modified chicken yard is coming along. One of the doors is done. I have a few more things to do before it will be ready for the girls to use it. I’m in no rush because the chickens won’t be allowed in until the seeds we sowed have time to get established. Right now it looks very open, but it will look very different after the leaves come out on the kiwi vines

Panoramic View of the Chicken Yard

Moving the Aquaponics System
Another big project I’ve covered in some earlier videos is the move of the aquaponics system. I don’t have a set schedule for when this will be done. It will depend on when I have time. Since this is my 3rd aquaponics system with each one getting progressively bigger, my goal is to get it as right as possible this time so it doesn’t move for a long time.

The IBC tote has been moved to the new area. Much of the plumbing is gone. Next I have to remove all the rocks from the grow beds and keep them somewhere clean. Here’s a picture of the old system after partially tearing it down:

Aquaponics System Dissassembly

Ultimately I want to enclose it in a greenhouse, which means space will be at a premium. Thus the need to really think through every part of it. I plan to put the system back together in the proposed space with the assumption that some smaller adjustments will be needed before I get the final layout. This new system will include improvements like a larger sump tank and a separate solids filter.

The purpose of enclosing it in a greenhouse is so we can have year round production, so it doesn’t matter that much when I get the system started up. That’s why I don’t feel pressure to keep a schedule based on the seasons. Consequently, other projects that do depend on the seasons are coming first.

Early Fruit Blossoms
Even though we had some cold temperatures earlier in the winter, it has been fairly warm lately. So much so that several of our peach trees are already getting pink blossoms in mid-February. Even a couple of the plum trees have blossoms. It will either be an early crop, or we will lose a lot of fruit to a late frost.

Peach Trees with Blossoms in February


More Peach Trees with Blossoms in February

Currently the forecast is for warm temps all the way into the 2nd week of March. It’s hard to tell but my fingers are crossed.

Jono Is in Costa Rica
Jono has turned into quite the international traveler. He has been in Mexico and Costa Rica for a couple weeks. Before he left, he spread a lot of wood chips. He’ll be on his way home next week, then he’ll be headed back to Abuela Gardens in California for the rest of the year. I will miss him, but I know it’s time for him to go back. I’m very proud of him for what he’s learning. It’s exciting to think about where he’s going to go with this knowledge!

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