Thursday, April 14, 2011

Harvest log - one full year

We've just completed one full year of weighing and recording everything we harvest from the yard. I've uploaded a snapshot of the one year harvest so it's archived even as I update the regular harvest log. We harvested on average each day two pounds of food, providing 675 calories. As far as our goal of self sufficiency is concerned, that means we could choose between feeding less than half of Tulsi (who requires 1500 calories per day) or barely feed one third of me (2000 per day).

I last blogged about the harvest log in September. Since then, we've harvested fall and winter root crops of 105 pounds of jerusalem artichokes, 15 pounds of skirret, 15 pounds of mashua, 2 delicious pounds of lilies, 10 pounds of yacon, and a few other miscellaneous species, for about 170 pounds total.

We harvested 70 pounds of tomatoes since September. We had a first-time harvest of 8 pounds 11 ounces of Jiro persimmons, our largest crop of fruit yet from any of the trees we've planted.

We harvested 2.5 pounds of fennel seed, the equivalent calorie-wise of 25 pounds of greens.

Harvest of greens dropped dramatically with the hard winter freezes, both because we had fewer leaves available, and because I don't enjoy picking them in cold rainy weather with freezing fingers. We picked up again in March with the return of milder weather making happier plants and people.

Egg harvest slowed similarly with the onset of cold weather, as our older hens quit laying. Our new batch of four chicks (purchased in late May I believe) started laying in December, and we've had an average of a little over 3 eggs per day over the last four and a half months, with egg laying accelerating with the spring. (I guess it makes chickens happier, too.)

I've killed four chickens since September, all older hens we received last summer from some folks who were replacing them with a new flock but didn't have the heart to kill them themselves. (These have all been difficult for me, since they've been my first non-mercy killings of healthy and happy animals.)

We harvested 26 pounds of honey (about 3 gallons) a week ago, which gave a huge increase to our calories, taking us from 575 to 675 calories per day on average for the year. As with the other animal products (eggs and meat), this harvest represents a certain amount of imported resources from off-site, since the bees forage from all around the neighborhood to make their concentrated sweetness.

I won't go into great detail analyzing the calorie breakdowns, since I haven't gotten any comments asking for elaboration in the past, and you can take a look at all the data yourself. I'll just note that the vast majority of our harvested calories this year have come from animal products (eggs 25%, honey 15%, meat 6.5%) and roots (jerusalem artichokes 15%, all others combined 13.5%). Greens provided 10%, which speaks to the large quantities we've eaten since they don't actually provide very many calories per pound. Fruits and berries combined provided 9.5%. Seeds, shoots & stalks, flowers & buds, mushrooms, and squash provided relatively few calories.

We don't expect to be here more than a few months longer, so we probably won't get to see how the harvests of fruit and nuts turn out. If successful, they'll add a lot to the calories harvested. We'll keep recording the data as long as we're around, and I expect to resume similar tracking once we move to a new homestead in a year or two, since this has helped me a lot to figure out how much of what we actually eat, what we're lacking, etc.

Rotating Chicken Paddocks - What a Relief!

Chicken Yard Design Mistakes

#1: Sheet Mulching the Lawn

I've made several mistakes in my design for this property. That topic deserves an entire post of its own; for now I'll focus on perhaps my biggest two mistakes. When we moved in five years ago, we started with a big lawn in the front and back yards, which I promptly sheet-mulched to death, with a "take no prisoners" attitude towards grass. We introduced six chickens into the backyard in the first summer, letting them free range through the whole area. When I created our food forest design in the fall, I laid out the back yard as trees and tall shrubs, with the chickens running amok through the understory of the entire area, cleaning up fallen fruit and keeping pest insects under control. I had vague plans to fill in under the trees and shrubs with herbaceous perennials providing chicken fodder or some human use.

Great in theory, but we didn't really understand just how much destruction the little chicken monsters unleash on the ground layer vegetation! We had expected them to peck at things and eat some of the leaves, but we underestimated how many fresh greens they like to eat, and how quickly they can decimate their favorite foods. And we didn't account at all for the constant scratching, here, there, and everywhere, especially around newly planted starts with their loosened soil.

Since I wiped out the lawn, we've never been able to reestablish a solid ground layer of herbaceous plantings, except within a few protected cage enclosures. We have had some success with a few perennials such as the vigorous running Fuki (Petasites japonicus) pictured at right, but nowhere near full coverage. I now wish I had left the grass and weeds in the backyard as pasture, sheet-mulching in specific spots as needed for the trees and shrubs and patches of other perennial herbaceous plantings.

Compare our back yard chicken area (photo on left) with our front yard perennial vegetable garden (photo on right). You have to look a little closely at the backyard photo to see past all the nice looking tree and shrub growth, but note the absence of ground vegetation. Meanwhile, the front yard has solid dense growth except in the paths:

#2: Single Free Range Area

In retrospect, even if I hadn't made the mistake of eliminating the lawn, the 3000 square foot backyard free range area probably wouldn't support six chickens full time free-ranging. In my defense, I hadn't yet come across Paul Wheaton's excellent article on chicken raising before I designed the back yard. He makes a strong case for rotating chickens for one week at a time through each of four or more paddocks, giving the other paddocks at least three weeks to recover between chicken assaults. Had I designed for this from the start, I probably would have put the chicken coop in the center of the area, with a small run with gates opening into each of the four quadrants of the yard. I would have established 50+ gallons of rainwater catchment next to the coop, to provide automatic drinking water for much of the year. I would have laid out the paddocks and paths to maximize ease of human movement.

Not knowing of the rotating paddock concept, I placed the chicken coop at the far south end of the yard, against the north wall of the neighbors' garage, to utilize the heavily shaded space. The coop has a single door which allows the chickens access to the entire back yard to destroy everything everywhere, every day, at will. I placed our rainwater harvesting bathtubs at the opposite, northern end of the backyard, to serve as watering troughs. I laid out the trees and shrubs in a manner not conducive to division of the yard into quadrants.

Correcting the Problem

Even after I read Paul's article, I remained stuck with the original design, because I could not figure out how to set up four paddocks given the existing design limitations. (We also embarked on our major house renovation about that time, which sucked up most of our time over the last year and a half.) But I finally had a break-through epiphany a couple of weeks ago: if I settled for just three paddocks, I could retrofit them into the yard fairly easily!

New Fencing


So I spent a few days last week adding two permanent fences (I don't want an ongoing maintenance chore maneuvering fencing around trees and shrubs), running north-south down the center of the yard, plus an east-west fence along the bathtubs to keep the path along the house wall free of chickens. Tulsi likes this to keep the area as human hang-out area without chicken poop. I like this so humans can use this primary access route without having to deal with gates, many of which I added elsewhere to facilitate human access into and between the paddocks. (The "I"-shaped notations mark gates.) I divided the area into three roughly equal ~16' x ~60' paddocks (~900 square feet) running from the property line at the south end to the bath tubs at the north end. The east and center paddocks have direct access to the bath tubs for the chickens to use as drinking water. We'll have to maintain a watering dish in the west paddock.

In the future, we could add a fourth paddock by running another north-south fence on the other side of the main path center-right in the design scan. We would open up the path against the house, and fence off the side yard of the house, creating ~700 square feet of paddock. It would interfere with free flow between our house and our neighbors', and reduce the desirability of the side yard as a human hang-out area, so we haven't moved ahead with implementing this, just keeping it in mind as an option.

I made a small "courtyard" around the coop, which gives us flexibility in allowing free range time. I hate to keep the chickens enclosed in such a small run, but we may have to do so to control their impact on the paddocks. Since I could only make three paddocks, instead of the recommended four or more, we may even keep them in the courtyard for a full week at a time to substitute for the fourth paddock. And we may use the courtyard as a "sacrificial zone" in the winter, when the paddocks can tolerate even less chicken activity before plants get damaged.

The courtyard layout ensures permanent access to the dry area under the woodshed (labeled "chicken house" in the somewhat out-of-date design scan - the "chicken coop" written in pencil marks the actual chicken coop). No matter which gate I open to let the chickens into one of the paddocks, they can still use the woodshed cover for shelter from the rain and, most importantly, for their dust baths.

The courtyard has already proven itself useful in one more way. I can lure the chickens into it with bread or other food, then close all the gates and easily catch them to put them into their house before dark falls. This allows us to close them up early if we won't be home at dusk after they go in on their own.


We had plenty of old fencing of various sorts, so I built everything from materials on hand. I loosely anchored most of the wire fencing with vertical bamboo poles interweaved through the mesh, then jammed into the soil as far as I could get them. I built one straight section of fence from bamboo, with many ~4-5' vertical pieces closely spaced, and a few long horizontal pieces to tie them together.

For the gates, I buried solid posts made of black locust limbs cut from our hedgerow (inherently rot resistant) and in a few spots, scrap pressure treated 4x4s for the below-ground part, sistered to untreated scrap 4x4s for the above-ground portion. I constructed the gates from lath screwed together to sandwich chicken wire. After I figured out the first gate, I put together the rest fairly quickly and easily.



I've spent the past few days transplanting excess leafy green plants from the front yard into the back yard. I've tested the chickens with new greens to see whether they'll eat them when I hold the leaves for them. Mostly I want to get a solid carpet of greens so the chickens don't eat more than about 30% of the vegetation during each week they spend in a paddock. I'm also planting some seed crops. And if the chickens don't eat some plants at all, the flower activity will feed and bring insects into the back yard. Uneaten plants may even host caterpillars or other insects for the chickens to eat.

Overstocked chickens push plant imbalances into further disequilibrium. That is, they preferentially eat their favorite plants, ignoring their least favorite plants until they've exhausted their first choices. So over time they'll kill off their best fodder, leaving only the substandard fodder. (Overstocked cattle and other animals create the same problem.) So I'll need to keep a close eye on things and make sure I have enough of the best plants, or protect them as needed.

New Plants

  • French sorrel (Rumex acetosa) - they love this stuff--I probably need 14 or more plants per paddock, but I only have available 9 per paddock right now.
  • Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) - we have some of this small running sorrel in the front yard. We rarely harvest it since the larger french sorrel gives us a more convenient harvest, so I'll move some to the back and see whether it stands up to the chickens.
  • Dandelions - in years past, they didn't seem to eat dandelions very much, but now they love them! I've planted about 30 per paddock so far, mostly in paths, and will probably add more.
  • Fennel - the chickens love the calorie crop seeds. I'll probably want at least 6 plants per paddock.
  • Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides) - they seemed to really like the sample leaves, and this plant spreads rapidly so could stand up well to abuse. If the chickens don't eat it enough to keep it in check, we can harvest the roots for food. I planted about 12 clumps or root cuttings per paddock.
  • Clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) - seemed to really like the leaves. I don't know whether the plants will grow vigorously enough to do well. We have a lot of extra potted starts so I figured I'd try out 2 in each paddock.
  • Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis) - they ate the sample I brought them, but probably won't eat a whole lot of this very bitter leaf. They may eat the flowers and flower buds, or the seeds. I planted 3 per paddock.
  • Sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) - Same as for turkish rocket.
  • Wood avens (Geum urbanum) - Not very excited about the leaves, but they ate some of the sample. I planted about 5 per paddock.

Existing Plants

We had actually fenced the chickens out of a 500 square foot area closest to the house during our house construction, and we kept them fenced out for the last year to give it a chance to revegetate. Now we're letting them back into that area as part of the new paddocks, and they're now eating established:
  • Kale - number one favored plant, followed closely by french sorrel. Eat it to bare stems.
  • Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) - eat it to the ground.
  • Popweed / Bittercress (Lepidium something) - eat it to the ground.
  • Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica) - eat it to the ground.
  • Spearmint (Mentha spicata) - not their first choice, but they do eat it in smaller quantities along with the rest of the greens, eventually eating it to the ground.
  • Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) - Bizarrely, they aren't touching this stuff! In years past they ate all the comfrey to the ground, severely weakening or even killing many plants. I don't understand why they don't like it now, but hopefully they'll start eating it later in the season.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Sustainable cities - feasible transition or oxymoron?

In my presentation on Self Sufficiency, Five Years In, I gave some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the carrying capacity of the city of Portland. If everyone in the city does a better job of feeding themselves and fueling their houses from local resources than we expect to manage on our own site, the city could support about 280,000 people. In this best-case scenario, the current population of 600,000 would have to kick out more than half the people to become sustainable.

Leonard emailed me a question about this, and I wanted to post his question and my reply. This illuminates my philosophy of sustainability and what I think it'll really take to adapt to a post peak oil world in a healthy manner.

Leonard asked: "One bit I wanted to question is your assumption about carrying capacity for Portland: it seems to assume that we would need to produce ALL food within city limits, and couldn't rely on a significant portion of land-extensive staple crops being produced on broadacre polycultural farms in our pretty-well-intact horticultural hinterlands. The future that I've envisioned is one in which intensive vegetable gardening for zone 1-3 crops happens in the city, with zone 3-5 crops coming largely from outside using appropriate (low-embodied energy) means of transport into the city."

My reply follows for the rest of this post:

Good question, and thanks for asking it. In short, my calculations
are based on a long term stable, sustainable system. I recognize that
in the short term, the city will have to transition from here to
there. Your model could make sense as a transition strategy.
However, I think any scenario in which a city depends on the
importation of resources perpetuates unsustainability, and a
relationship of domination and exploitation, both of the landbase, and
of the people working it. That is, it doesn't fulfil the "care for
earth" and "care for people" ethics of permaculture. And the "redistribute the surplus" ethic
continues as the current mostly one-way, coerced flow of resources
into the city.

A lot of my thinking is based on Derrick Jensen's writings. I think
his two volume Endgame is the most important reading for modern
times; it gives a crucial analysis of the relationship between cities,
civilization, and our landbases. Should be required reading for all
permaculturists, activists, and anyone else working with the
"invisible structures." You can read an excerpt here of Jensen's Endgame,
talking about cities.

My first concern is that even with the best intentions, when third
parties get between the consumers in the city and the producers
outside the city, the loss of direct connection can quickly lead to
over-harvesting of resources. The middle men have little reason to
foster sustainable harvest, and focus instead on maximum production.
I think this can only be fully averted via direct relationships
between buyers and sellers, complete with buyers being fully educated
about the impacts of harvests on the landbase, and with visits to the
sites of harvest to ensure sustainable operations. Theoretically
feasible, but unlikely to actually happen. (And of course, for
sustainability, you then have to deal with getting the waste products
of the city, such as humanure, back out to the hinterlands.)

My more serious concern is that if a population is dependent on
importing resources, it will use whatever means necessary to keep that
resource coming, including violence. I wonder, in your scenario, what
the incentive is for people outside of the city to provide staple
crops for the city dwellers? Right now the incentives are shiny
gadgetry (cars, electronic toys, and packaged entertainment, and of
course the energy to operate it all) which are made possible by fossil
fuels; and the need to pay property taxes, which boils down to the
threat of violence. (Someone may own their land in the country, but
if they don't pay property taxes, the sheriff with his gun will come
to evict them. Thus they're forced into the cash economy, which often
involves selling off timber, farming the land, etc.)

The only way I see a society acting in a stable, sustainable
relationship with their landbase is when each participant has an
intimate understanding of their landbase and the effects of their
actions on their community of life. That means everyone participating
directly or at most once removed in producing their sustenance.

It's taken me a long time to write this response; I keep going into extensive details and then deleting them. I'm coming from a comprehensive anti-civilization critique, and since I don't know how much exposure you've had to this sort of thought, I'm not sure how much depth to go into to explain my perspective. (Definitely some overlap between anti-civ and permaculture circles, but also plenty of permies who want cities and civilization to keep humming along, just in a kinder gentler sorta way.) I'm happy to write more if you're curious about anything else I said above. But hopefully that gives you an idea of my thoughts...and an understanding of why we're looking to get out of the city and to a landbase which can directly support the people living on it, including us!

Our bath tubs: case study of stacking functions

The Tubs

I'll continue on the water theme of my recent posts, with this look at our backyard bathtubs. Whenever I give tours, I spend a few minutes discussing these tubs, which I plugged with rubber patches and silicone caulk to form water-tight ponds. They beautifully demonstrate the permaculture principle of "stacking functions" - each element in your design fulfilling multiple roles.

So, take a look at these tubs (click on the image for a larger version), and if you feel so moved, brainstorm for a few minutes about what uses we're making of them... Bonus points if you've already been on a tour here, and you think of some uses I didn't mention!

Some context for the picture above: our passive solar sunspace is directly to the north of the tubs. The ground slopes slightly from the camera position towards the house. The black locust tree post in the center of the picture supports a grape trellis. (Hard to make out the rest of the trellis components in this picture.) The trellis supports two white PVC pipes above the tubs, close to the roofline. These pipes drain the rainwater from half of our house roof system. (There's an easily visible "T" PVC pipe fitting at the left, and a barely visible 90 degree fitting terminating a PVC pipe above the tub on the right.)

OK, brainstorm away!


Ready? Here we go!

Rainwater Harvest

The PVC pipes draining the rainwater from the house roof direct the water into these tubs as an 8' waterfall, which oxygenates the water a bit. (On windy days, some of the water does miss the tubs.) The tubs hold about 50 gallons each, the same as a $10 used rainwater barrel. I "planted" the tubs about 18" deep, tilted slightly away from the house, so the overflow falls over the far edge.

Though we can't gravity feed water from the tubs, we do use this rainwater storage in some similar ways:

  • Manual irrigation (fill a bucket or watering can from the tubs, then go dump it somewhere appropriate)
  • Wash hands
  • Wash tools
  • Wash buckets
  • First rinse of root crops. Sometimes we do this manually by swishing a root around in a tub, or by filling a bucket of roots with water from the tub and whirling it all around to get the dirt off. Recently I've discovered a second function for our water-oxygenating waterfall: I place an open-meshed tray of roots across a bathtub under the waterfall, and let it clean the roots off. This works very well with a couple of interventions to move the roots around so they all get a share of the pummelling.

The tubs should help a little with catching nutrient runoff from the ecoroof on the sunspace. Probably some of the nutrients just flow out of the tub as the excess water overflows (feeding the comfrey planted at those spots), but I suspect the plants and other life in the tubs get a shot at some of the nutrients, especially during the active growing months when the aquatic biological systems are in full gear, and we have less rainfall and thus less overflow from the tubs.

Drinking Water & Wildlife Habitat

Seems like everyone in the neighborhood (besides the humans) drops by to sip from our tubs! We do have to top off the tubs in the summer with municipal water. Our visitors include:
  • Bees (thousands of them each day in the summer, from our hives and at least one of our neighbors' hives)
  • Damselflies (we're hoping they can establish breeding populations, but I don't think it's happened yet)
  • Wasps (and probably many other insects we just haven't noticed)
  • Chickens (low maintenance system for keeping our hens watered)
  • Ducks (from time to time, when our neighbors let them free range)
  • Cats (several from the neighborhood)
  • Rats (ditto, though we try to shoot or trap them for some stew meat when they get too comfortable sipping during the daytime!)
  • Birds (taking baths)
  • Raccoons
  • Opossums
  • ...who knows who else comes by in the dark of night?

Aquaculture Yields

Many yields for us and our animal friends:
  • Wapato - root crop growing in the couple of inches of soil at the bottom of the tubs. Also provides edible leaves and flowers. We prefer to let the leaves grow to pump energy into the root crop. The chickens prefer to eat whatever they can get at right here, right now. No sense of delayed gratification for them. So we have to fence them out from the tub a little bit -- they can get their heads in to drink, but can't extend too far into the middle of the pond.
  • Fish - I believe the tubs have too little area to support standard aquaculture fish like tilapia (which couldn't overwinter anyway.) Primarily for mosquito control, we have stocked the tubs with Gambusia (mosquito fish) free from Multnomah County Disease & Vector Control, and with 12 cent goldfish from Petsmart. The mosquito fish overwintered at least once, and maybe twice. They did vanish at some point, perhaps during the initial phases of our house project when we moved the tubs all around, draining and refilling them. Our goldfish have mostly survived, including three of them successfully overwintering this year. We did have three go belly-up in a smaller bucket of water two winters ago after a hard freeze. I ate them; they were crunchy and tasted like the oil in which I cooked them. If the future residents at our house don't want to eat tiny little fish, they can certainly toss them to the chickens.
  • Duckweed - Common aquatic plant, difficult to exclude from our tubs even if we wanted to. Luckily, the neighbors' ducks love it. Our chickens will eat it if they're hungry enough, but seem to prefer other greens. If nothing else, it makes a good mulch, soaking up excess nutrients from the ponds and giving us an easy way to transfer them to our regular garden. (The bees, by the way, prefer duckweed as their landing pads while fetching water.)
  • Snails - Nothing gourmet here, just tiny 1/8"-1/4" aquatic snails that go 'round and 'round the tubs eating, I presume, algae and decaying vegetation. The snails help keep things in balance. The chickens like eating the snails; I'm guessing they get some calcium from the shells, not to mention that 1/8" worth of protein.

Sunlight Reflection for House

On our rare winter days with bright sunshine, I never tire of following the shimmering patches of light as they travel across the walls and ceiling of our sunspace through the day. I placed our bathtubs a little over 4' from the house. This leaves ample path space and hang-out area, and also allows low-angled winter sunlight to reflect off the water surface and into our house, adding heat and light. In the summer months, the reflection of the higher-angled sun will hit the underside of our grapes on their trellis. Plus, the die-back and re-growth of the wapato, which catches the sunlight instead of allowing it to reflect, coincides nicely with when we do and don't want extra sun in the house.

I don't know how to measure the additional gain from the ponds, but they provide about 30 square feet of reflecting surface. I could believe they add nearly as much gain as one of our 3' x 6' windows in our "window wall."

Climate Control

We didn't plan this function; I'm just thinking of it now. The tubs may create a slightly cooler area around them in the warmer months, thanks to their thermal mass and evaporation. Once the grapes grow in fully on the overhead trellis, we might enjoy spending summer (or at least warm spring and autumn) afternoons on the south side of the house, in the shade of grapes and next to the cool water.

The tubs should also provide a little thermal buffering in the wintertime, perhaps helping to protect root systems of immediately adjacent plants. However, we didn't plant anything to take advantage of this possibility; the path layout and occupation of the vine layer by the grapes makes it difficult to plant any frost-sensitive plants against the tubs. (I've had ideas for planting moringa and/or air potato in the front yard, between the more deeply buried graywater ponds.)

The tubs will probably humidify the nearby air in the summer. This may actually negatively impact the grapes, since I think they benefit from good air circulation and not having too much moisture around them. I haven't yet thought of any useful applications for this function.

Terrace Retaining Wall

We don't really have much of a slope going on, so the tubs play a very minor role as retaining walls. The path on the house side lies perhaps 8" lower than the soil on the other side of the tubs.

Slow-Drip Irrigation

We didn't plan this one, but I think we have tiny leaks in one or two of the tubs. Happily, they occur near the grapes, so probably help maintain a constantly moist soil through the summer.

Betchya Didn't Think of This One

Ice skating rink!


So there you have it: seven main functions, with multiple sub-functions within some of those. I didn't even think of some of these uses until writing up this post, so I may be missing more! Any other ideas out there?

Friday, April 01, 2011

Portland water activism links

I mentioned in my "Cost of Portland water" post that the city has plans to implement costly water systems that we don't really need, with expected rate increases of 85% over the next 5 years. I've read a little bit about this, but haven't gotten active and don't know enough to really address the issue. But I wanted to provide links for folks who want to learn more and hopefully get involved in shutting down this siphoning of ratepayer money to big corporations:

Friends of the Reservoirs (fighting the good fight on these sorts of issues for at least 8 years, since I moved to Portland!)

Citizens for Portland's Water (not very up to date.)