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…
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…
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.
A few years ago Leigh and I visited Key West on a work related vacation. One of the more memorable moments was during our cruise to the Dry Tortugas National Park. It was a two-hour boat ride out to the islands, and the crowd was a weird mix of young and very old.
Leigh in the Dry Tortugas
As we approached the Park, we learned the reason for the considerable geriatric contingent on board the Yankee Freedom – bird watchers. Apparently, the park is a thriving destination for birders and birds alike, and we happened to be there during a special migration period for some pretty rare fowl. As the crew announced each sighting on the port or starboard, a mob of elderly avian enthusiasts would begin pushing and shoving in slow motion with cameras and field glasses at the ready. It wasn’t until they reported the presence of the vaunted brown-boobie off the port bow that things got really wild. I swear the boat lurched to one side under the weight of the hoard of crazed birders.
Up until this point in my life, I had no experience with the world of bird watching. It was a very strange thing to behold. So you can imagine my concern when Leigh enthusiastically hung up a few bird feeders in the area outside the patio window and proclaimed that she was going to watch some birds. Her excitement was such that our 8yo daughter even picked up on it and bought her a bird identification guide for Christmas.
Apparently, if you build it (and fill it with food) they will come. It wasn’t a week before a wide range of birds began to show up in the mornings, and a new Ant Farm ritual was born. Every morning we find ourselves eating breakfast over exclamations of new arrivals and arguments over which species have graced our humble feeder. I never would have dreamed a bunch of birds could bring us so much joy, but they have. You would have thought we died and went to heaven the day that the Red Bellied Woodpecker swooped in and strutted his stuff. We are a very hip family…
If you haven’t been following the blog for very long, you may not be aware of the crazy ups and downs we experienced trying to get power at the Ant Farm. I’ve held off writing this post to be sure that the ordeal was really over. Since we’ve been in the house for a while now, and everything appears to be bumping along nicely, it’s finally time to say that in the end, Alabama Power did the right thing on our damaged road. Continue Reading…
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.
Last week I was out of town at the TSP earthworks course in Ft. Worth, Texas. While I was gone, some major progress began at the Ant Farm. It’s rare that an inch of progress is made without me pushing as hard as I can, so it’s pretty safe to say I was excited. Apparently, the power company finally felt like it was time to install my power lines, and I got a text from my neighbor with a picture.
In the picture I could see where the tree trimmers butchered our pines, and I could make out both power poles, the transformer and the primary line dangling to the ground. After having been told repeatedly that they wouldn’t begin installation until the home was on-site, this was a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only surprise I would get, and the next one was nowhere near as pleasant…
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?
There are some aspects of walking a piece of property that will be self-evident, but to the uninitiated there’s a lot you can miss. If you’re serious about a property, you’ll likely visit it a dozen times or more before deciding to buy it, but you never know which property is going to be the one. For the sake of your sanity, you’ll want to make the most of each visit. There’s nothing like sitting down to review notes from the trip and realizing you have to return to pick up on some obvious, missed detail. Continue Reading…
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.