We had a rough go of it this Spring and Summer with a wide range of garden pests, fungal outbreaks and diseases.
Squash vine borers
Tomato horn worms
Blossom end rot
and the list goes on…
My understanding is that this largely due to the fact that our soil is completely lacking in organic matter and is relatively lifeless. We harvested a small amount of zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers a lone pumpkin and a single butternut squash. Everything else suffered destruction at the hands of one problem or another. Healthy soils yield healthy plants, and healthy plants don’t suffer these problems on nearly the scale that we’ve experienced this year. Continue Reading…
In an effort to get an early jump on things, we started our seeds on February 15th this year. We planned to start them in conventional trays in the house, but when we got to the big box store, they had these pre-packaged peat discs in a tray on clearance. Each tray holds 72 starts, and the cost was about the same as the empty trays. So we decided to go for it, and see how they work. We bought two for starters.
The seed trays are sitting by a south facing window in our living room. We use a motion sensing device called the “Scraminal” to deter the cats from digging in the peat. It makes a VERY loud noise whenever they approach the flats.
View of the North field as seen from the home site after clearing Fall 2013.
By the summer of 2014, we were finally situated on the property. We rented an excavator and installed the basic framework for our food forest. We buried the bulk of the remaining brush piles in 200ft of raised hugelkultur beds on contour and dug an additional 75ft of swale. These earthworks were designed to store a tremendous amount of water in the landscape and serve as a reservoir for the fruit trees and support species that would one day inhabit the forest garden.
The earthworks were quickly planted with iron clay peas to protect the soil and begin preparation for the eventual addition of the fruit trees and support plantings. Continue Reading…
Last night we got more than three inches of rain. It was the first time I’ve seen the swales completely full of water. The rain continued through most of the day and into the night. Ultimately, the ground absorbed as much as it could, and then the swales began to fill.
All of this water would have simply run down the hill into the ditch on my neighbor’s land north of the Ant Farm. Instead, it’s soaking into my soil and hydrating the stumps at the bottom of the hugel mounds… Nice! Continue Reading…
Since we completed the hugel beds and swales back in June, there hasn’t been much for us to do with the earthworks.
Shortly after we completed the project I seeded the beds completely with iron clay peas. The earthworks consist almost completely of subsoil due to my inability to separate out the topsoil during the excavation work. As a result, we’ve got a lot of work to do to build the soil into something that is productive. Iron clay peas were my choice for several reasons. I needed a crop that would create biomass for the soil while adding nitrogen and protecting the soil from drying out in the summer’s harsh sun. As with all of my other planting, the seeds were simply broadcast onto the swales and hugel beds a day or so before a light rain.
The iron clay peas did awesome for such a short season. The crop is a perfect fit for our climate, and we gave them LOTS of clay to enjoy! They’re currently in the flowering process, and we’ll probably see a pea harvest before the frost comes, even though that wasn’t part of our plan.
In a few months we’ll begin planting the trees for our future food forest, but for now we’re focusing on building the soil and getting some type of ground cover on all of the interswale areas. We’ve still got a lot of compacted, bare soil exposed in between the beds, and reconciling that is a top priority before winter sets in.
As we were planning the winter ground cover, somehow we decided to jump the gun a little and play with some actual winter crops. However, knowing that the odds are pretty good that the crop is going to fail, I really didn’t want to put too much time, energy or money into the experiment. As a result, we’ve decided to take a play out of Masanobu Fukuoka‘s book, and utterly neglect the winter crops. At least we’ll know exactly what we can grow in the native soil. Continue Reading…
Brush piles have pretty much been a fact of life for us over the last year. It didn’t matter where you looked on the property, chances were that a brush pile was the back drop to your view. If you were looking for us on the weekend, all you had to do was follow the smoke. All of that changed last week with the installation of our first bit of permaculture framework at the Ant Farm.
While a photo can’t do the insanity of our brush piles justice, this picture gives you some idea of what one of our piles looked like. There were approximately 30 giant stumps in this pile alone, and we were becoming convinced that they would be with us forever… We even thought about renaming the place, but “The Stump Farm” just didn’t have the same ring to it. The above image shows one of the five remaining brush piles. We had already burned three of them over the course of the year, and something had to give.
In My Big Fat Obvious Permaculture Revelation – Part 1 I talked about how our lack of a specific vision was wreaking havoc with our decision making and emotional well-being. In Part 2 we’ll examine what we’ve got to work with at The Ant Farm and layout our plan for the next few years.
So what is our canvas like? After much deliberation with the other permaculture-minded folks at the earthworks course, I think I can safely say that The Ant Farm rocks. While twenty of my contemporaries described their particular challenges, it became apparent to me that we have it pretty good in Ashville, Alabama.
Many of the guys at the event were working with four to twelve inches of annual rainfall. We get around sixty with literally hundreds of acres of water catchment on the south side of the property.
As we chiseled into rock twelve inches down in Jack Spirko’s field, I couldn’t help but think that our soil is seven feet deep before we hit the bedrock.
Most of the guys were dealing with exhausted flat farmland or steep cliffs that present major problems for cultivation, and here we sit on gentle rolling slopes of old-growth pine and hardwood forest rated as prime farmland by the US Geological Survey.
To top it all off, I’m surrounded by the best neighbors I could hope for. Good men who look out for my family because it’s just the right thing to do.
If our goal is to create a masterpiece, our canvas is a pretty good start. Continue Reading…
I’m usually a pretty decisive person. In our business I make snap decisions, one after another, often without as much knowledge or experience as I would like. Thirteen years of business ownership has taught me how to quickly research a problem, plot out a path and stay the course, but I also trust my gut.
Whether it’s the location of swales, a root cellar, roads, fencing or ponds, my decisions for The Ant Farm have been racked with uncertainty, and in some cases good old-fashioned fear. But why?
The answer hit me like a ton of bricks during the TSP earthworks course, and it’s much more obvious than I’d like to admit.
I took a picture of the initial layout for the plantings in the new swales during the TSP Earthworks Course. Many of the attendees expressed interest in seeing what Jack was planting where, so here it is… Click to enlarge and download at will!
Last week I attended the TSP Earthworks Course outside of Fort Worth, Texas. The event was hosted by one of the smartest people I know: Jack Spirko, the man behind The Survival Podcast. With something like 85,000 podcast downloads a week, Jack is THE man when it comes to a wide range of topics from preparedness to permaculture.
During the workshop we dug over 500ft. of swales using a mini-excavator and participated in numerous lectures on earthworks, food forestry and permaculture. Each day’s events were chock full of surprises including hands-on training on mini-excavator operation, a presentation by an expert falconer (with live hawk), a knife sharpening class, training on the use of laser levels for marking contour, brainstorming sessions, Q&A and even a hands-on class in beer brewing (not to mention beer drinking!).
The project included the installation of 500ft. of swale to support a future food forest garden.
I signed up for the event thinking I would get an opportunity to pick the brains of Jack and his right-hand-man, Josiah Wallingford of Brink of Freedom. However, we were pleasantly surprised that Nick Ferguson of Permaculture Classroom and Nicholas Burtner of Working with Nature showed up and participated in the events. The time I spent one-on-one with these permaculture gurus reviewing the contour maps of my property and discussing design possibilities was absolutely invaluable and unexpected.
I’ve attended a lot of training events in my life, but this one was definitely one-of-a-kind. The food was incredible: slow-cooked beef brisket, smoked chicken, wild hog sausage, canned elk, home made salami, and a wide range of home-brewed adult beverages including honey mead and various ales and hard ciders.
The team pulled together to complete 500ft. of swales in one day.
With all of the excitement and education, the best part of the experience by far was the personal connection with twenty-five other homesteaders dedicated to the same ideas of permaculture, freedom and common sense. I realized the day before I left that this event would mark the first time I would ever be in the same room with a group of truly self-reliant people. So much so that we were all willing to fork over $425 to dig ditches in the freezing rain on someone else’s property for the simple opportunity to learn about sustainable agriculture. Those of us who attended are a very special breed of crazy with a new bond… We may be crazy, but now we know we are not alone!
Now I just need a mini-excavator and twenty-five strong backs, and I can get my project done in a day or two… Any volunteers?
The Ant Farm began as 16 acres of forest in unincorporated St. Clair County, Alabama. My wife and I bought the property in 2013 with the vision of raising our two kids here. As we're learning, we're also teaching our children about sustainable agriculture, the land, self-reliance and freedom. Society has a tendency to produce grasshoppers. We're raising ants.
Go to the ant, O sluggard;consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.