Further Tales from an Urban Oasis

Further Tales from an Urban Oasis

Hive Resurrection: Long Live the Queen! Thirty-three days after introducing a frame of new eggs into our queenless hive, and not being able to stay away any longer (curiosity being an unrelenting force a little like gravity) a quick inspection revealed capped and uncapped brood, laid in a fairly solid pattern.


Mystery as well! Could the new queen have hatched, mated successfully, and leapt into egg laying so soon?

Who am I to deny what my eyes have seen? This is another nice thing about “The Great Mystery”. .In my novice understanding, the number of days between egg and capped brood is within the realm of possibility: in my deeper understanding, the bee entity (hive) knows what it is doing. My role is to be attentive, and of service when needed.

Last years’ new hive, (several frames of brood with their attendant nurse bees, honey, and pollen) taken from the above resuscitated hive (referred to as a split), is rocking. Even late in the season (2010) the queen seemed very timid and would not venture beyond her one hive body; resulting in a small hive. I was advised by a female beekeeper to let her be, rather than follow the industrial advise to replace her (re-queen).

Her advise was sound, and in keeping with natural, holistic bee-caring.

Now, she is into her natural glory, and is moving among 3 hive bodies, laying in a large, half-moon pattern, with small arcs of capped honey in the upper corners.

Plate-Licking Good


Freshly Harvested Garlic

The supreme compliment for a cook and a delicious meal, is when one is so compelled for a little taste more, that no option exists other than to lick your plate.

I practice this whenever the above conditions exist.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that I teach a 6 day cooking class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., entitled “From Scratch Cooking That’s Plate Licking Good”!

I’ve just returned from an early June session. The class was full (10 people) and we had a marvelous and productive time. This is an introduction to “natural food” and focuses upon health, nutrition, vitality and taste. This felt to be my most successful class, as everyone was keenly interested in everything I taught, which ranged from fermenting an old style sour kraut (Sandor Katz style: check out “Wild Fermentation”, Chelsea Green publishers), sourdough waffles and artisan bread (baked in a wood-fired bread oven), to whole grains, slow cooked crock-pot chicken (the bones melt in the mouth like sugar candy), scones and flan. And much more!

(Perhaps more in this vein will follow, since vital health and nutrition is a foundational part of Permaculture: Zone Zero, Sustainable Foundations).

June Abundance

Red raspberries are in! We’ve been eating, cooking with (sourdough raspberry waffles), freezing (on baking pans until quick frozen, then into food grade zip-locks), giving away to friends and neighbors, and inviting friends to pick and share the harvest.

And we still have berries ripening everyday!

Catbirds mainly, with Brown Thrashers, Cardinals, and Blue Jays, have decimated the pie cherries, mulberries, and are making a go at the gooseberries, jostas (natural hybrid between currants and gooseberries), as well as swooping into the raspberries and wineberries. Amongst all of us, the Goumis have come and gone.

I confess to getting mad at especially the catbirds (prolific fruit eaters) since they are so convinced that all the fruit is theirs, not just 10%. They first came to our permaculture food forest several years ago, ate what fruit they could, nested successfully, and returned the next year with other mating couples.

The catbirds view our site as an urban oasis.

So it is.

In the Ecosystems section of my Permaculture Design Course, I marvel at some of the topics’ most important findings, and the implications. For example, (and very close to home) Niches. A niche is described as either an unoccupied space or resource within an ecosystem.

In natural systems, there is no such thing as an unfilled (unoccupied) niche.

“Build it, and they will come” is a Hollywood version of this above mentioned natural law. One very effective way to increase bio-diversity on site is to create niches: nature will fill them!

For example: set a small, bird friendly post (stick) in the middle of your garden, and the niche you’ve created soon attracts a bird, who will survey the space, fly down to eat an insect or two, back to the post, enthrall you with a song, drop a small packet of phosphorus –rich fertilizer onto your phosphorus impoverished soil, and fly off.

Likewise, create an abundant home orchard and food forest, and nature sends in guild occupiers to take advantage of such sweet harvest!

So I cannot seriously begrudge these birds…

Closing Bits

Kaolin Clay sprayed on Apples

It looks like snow in the orchard, as apples, pears, asian pears, and grapes are white from sprayed Kaolin clay (Surround) mixed with a little biological (live) fungicide (Serenade). The clay provides an organic barrier to penetrating insects, while the biological organisms provide a living protection against some insidious bacterial and fungal blights that are rampant in our southeastern humidity.

A larger black bear is coming through regularly; a red fox was seen dashing, tail horizontal to the ground, along our driveway (no chicken in her mouth); raccoons are squabbling nightly, making their unearthly, musical trills; Copes Gray Treefrogs are singing from our Black Walnut zone; ripened, small fruits are everywhere on our site; sourdough is ongoing and active on our kitchen counter, with baguette dough in the fridge, awaiting warm-up time prior to baking for tonight’s pot luck gathering and presentation on Orbs; all 3 hives are finishing up capping their excess honey (which we can harvest); yellow-jackets and wasps are patrolling our cabbages for yummy caterpillars; chickens have slowed down some in their laying (averaging 3-4 eggs each day from seven hens, probably due to periods of above average temperatures); we’ve been so far blessed with almost an inch or rain per week, and have avoided hail and other damaging conditions that have occurred nearby.

Even as the days have been hot, and Summer Solstice occurs, Asheville’s delightful night temperatures descend to the upper 50’s and low 60’s.


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Ongoing Tales of an Urban Oasis

Ongoing Tales of an Urban Oasis:

Hot Bees, Queens & Bears

A cold, rainy mid-May day, long time residents call “blackberry winter” circumstantially tells me its time to write on these pages again. At Barefoot permaculture, Blackberries are in bloom, as are the naturalized Japanese, ruby-jeweled Wineberries, and our workhorses, the Heritage Everbearing Raspberries.

Twice already I’ve sprayed our apples, pears (European and Asian), and peaches with a mixture of Surround (organic Kaolin clay) and Serenade (Bacillus subtillis: a bio-fungicide), in an attempt to stay ahead of the Plum Curculio (earliest damaging insect) and last season’s devastating Bitter Rot (Glomarella) which reduced 98% of our red apples to scavenged sections, only suitable for drying.

In the high elevations of the American southeast, humidity presents a challenge to aspiring organic fruit growers. However, it is still very worthwhile to grow our fruits cleanly and ecologically, so we can eat them right off the trees and shrubs, as well as feel ourselves as valuable members of the ecosystems in which we live.

As a species, we arose in a landscape that met all our needs for food, medicines, shelter, and connection. Our cultural creation-myths refer to this as the Garden of Eden. In my belief system, the Garden was a state of connected consciousness, as well as physical reality, and the “expulsion” was really self-exile. The storyline follows the ones who left the Garden, not the peoples who remained.

On its highest level, permaculture provides us with a powerful change of direction, from a species self-exiled (apart from) our natural community, thereby willing and able to profit from its exploitation and extinction, to being a part of the ecological system that surrounds us and makes life possible. This latter state segues us back towards the Garden.

Our goal at Barefoot Permaculture, is to recreate the Garden.

Hot Bees: Hot Whispers

After 3 full seasons of keeping bees, and loving their gentle presence, a very recent change occurred. Suddenly, whenever I was out and about in our landscape, 2 or 3 bees would appear aggressively at my face. Several times, while on my knees working, sometimes out of sight of the hives, I was harassed, chased, and stung.

This behavior was very different from all previous experiences.

I didn’t get the message.

Chiwa was taking a break, lying in the sun of one of our first warm days of spring, when a bee nailed her in area of her nose, between her nostrils. Within 24 hours, as I was emptying the mower’s mulch bag (70-80 feet from —and out of sight of— the hives), I was stung in the area of my nose between my nostrils.

Out of our combined 129 years of life experience, within a 24 hour period, we were both stung, unprovoked, in the same sensitive and unusual location.

This time, we got the message: the bees wanted our attention!


Its spring nectar season, a time of much honeybee activity, rising populations, comings and goings of many bees, and the potential for swarming. When the hive feels crowded, several new eggs are selected by the bees, and their individual cells are elongated into a peanut sized  chamber. The developing pupae are fed a steady diet of royal jelly, which alchemizes them into queens (as opposed to workers or drones).

The current queen is kept from food for several days in order to achieve flight capability, and then, in a magnificent moment, she and half the hive rise into the air in search of another place to live.  Thus, a  swarm, and a new hive is born!

Meanwhile, a new queen emerges from her chambers, disposes of the other potential queens, and rises on her maiden flights, mating multiple times with multiple drones.

Then, and only then, the remaining hive is ready to continue its functions as a living hive.

Her high altitude mating flights are full of potential dangers, such as hungry, sharp-eyed birds. Sometimes, she doesn’t return.

Message of the Hot Bees

t Entering Eastern Hive

The western hive looked good! I was unable to spot the queen, but I  saw      her tracks, in the form of brood. Small, close to being capped, and capped (pupating). Below the queen excluder, I put on a medium hive body of new foundation (ready for the hive to draw out in new comb), and closed up the hive.

The mid hive had all stages of brood too, so I just rearranged the two lower hive bodies, then closed up the hive.

Sure that I would learn the reason for the hot bees in our remaining hive, I opened up our eastern hive. I was not disappointed!

No queen, no brood: the hive was dying!

After an unsuccessful attempt to stimulate queen rearing (the introduced brood were too old), we were successful in introducing a frame containing new eggs from the western hive.

Immediately, the queenless eastern hive settled and calmed down. The hive knew queen potential was now present.

Return of the Bear

Rising for a Look at her Cub

Meanwhile, we had begun to suspect that our solar fence charger was malfunctioning. Although the flashing, red indicator light was strong when it was first switched on in the evening, later the pulse slowed dramatically. And due to the bears’ frequent presence in our site, we did not want to lose our hives to a hunger for bee larvae.

One day’s test showed the charger working well, yet the next day showed no charge. Finally convinced that the fence was not under full protection, that very morning, during breakfast, a medium sized black bear sauntered into view and down stone steps 15 feet away, towards our back yard and chickens.

This healthy looking bear behaved well, and when I ran out and yelled, took off through out bamboo and Black Walnut woods.

Standing near the henyard gate, I made my best rooster crow call, letting the hens know that their rooster (me) had risen to the occasion and chased the bear away!

With such environmental affirmation, we immediately took the necessary steps and by evening, the fence was up and running under full charge.

Closing Bits


In another week, a new queen should be hatching: we have the timing marked on the calendar, and will listen for her pre-emergent song (piping). Meanwhile, all three hives have lots of stored honey.

Two tables in the back are loaded with plants we’ve started from seed, and transplanting time beckons.

Several of my in-situ grafts have taken: I am dancing with excitement over the success of grafting a proven female pawpaw onto a so far flowerless variety; 2 heritage apples onto young native hawthorns that otherwise needed to be removed in order for last year’s successful graft of a selected American Persimmon onto a wild rootstock; and a first time success (after 2 failed attempts) to graft our favorite peach (Redhaven) onto an unknown chicken compost seedling.

Other potential grafting successes I await!

My brooms have been steadily selling. Many potential handles, in the form of looking like good walking-stick material, await transformation into handles. Broom making season beckons too!

May 16th was the feast day of St. Honore: patron saint of bakers, and we celebrated with good friends and fellow bakers and foodies with a pot luck gathering and wonderful foods, many baked! This we will add to our yearly celebrations…

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Barefoot Permaculture: Spring 011 Update

Barefoot Permaculture Spring Update

We are enticed in Permaculture training with the statement “The purpose of the designer is to become the recliner”. It’s a great image, and belies the idea that proper placement of the elements of our site design eliminate unnecessary work. (Note the word “unnecessary”).

Front paw track from a Bear

I do love being in my hammock, under the flowering crab apple in full bloom, amazed by the fragrant wafts of scented air, and the vibrating buzz of pollinators — both domestic and native— attending tens of thousands of nectar and pollen rich flowers overhead. The days are warm and the shaded hammock space cool: too early in the season for biting insects: perfect!

This time of year, whenever someone asks what I‘ve been doing, I truthfully respond  “ spending a lot of time on my knees”. Before they can ask about worship, I add “in the garden”.

There is always work to be done, especially in the spring! In a similar way that Inupiat Eskimo have many words for snow, we need at least several for “work”. There’s the work we have to do to pay our bills; leaving what we may love to do to perform tasks that we may not especially enjoy. There is maintenance that must be performed to keep our living spaces upright and dry; our bicycles and cars operable, our bodies well nourished. There are tasks that must be done, that with a particular frame of mind, can be enjoyed. All these (and more) are forms of “work”.

Adding lettuces to a bed.

In my classes, I define work as “if you do not have enough people to make something fun, its work”!

Although when in the garden and orchard, I often am without other humans in proximity, I deeply enjoy connecting with earth and her natural systems; especially on the one acre that I have been caretaking for 20 years. The currency of this connection is often work: this work I deeply enjoy!

Small hand tools mean one is on one’s knees working. Every dry day, I am doing that: rooting out rampant grasses, chopping down other plants for mulch and leaving their roots to feed the soil foodweb.

Preparing the beds for occupancy. Leaving every flowering plant until the honeybees can gather its nectar and pollen.

Plants Walk Around the Garden

In our Barefoot Permaculture Garden, many plants move around at will. For instance, mustard greens appear as small rosettes in autumn, stay green throughout winter, then explode into waist-high towers of edible greens and yellow flowers in spring; performing multiple functions: as visual greenery; food —both raw and steamed; greens for our late winter, green starved hens; nectar and pollen for our sisters (honeybees); a trap crop for attracting Harlequin bugs (a pest insect); mulch; compost; and finally, a seed source for the next season’s greens.

We have not planted mustard greens for at least 12 years!

Walking Mustard Greens

These types of useful plants I love to have in my landscape! I did my work in introducing them 12 or more years ago: they now do the work of moving themselves around. True, I must perform some work in managing them: harvesting for food, mulch and such, and I must go out on occasion with a pail of soapy water to harvest the accumulated pest insects, but that’s hardly work.

Two weeks ago, while grubbing up a stoleniferous, invasive grass that specializes in entwining its wiry roots with the roots of other plants, at the garden center (which hosts a gazing ball, crystals, and special plants, my fingers closed upon a flint arrowhead. I rubbed it clean, and wondered about the person who made it, and either gifted it to someone dear, or used it him/herself. Did they drop it? Lose it in a runaway animal? Was their life joyous?

I am carrying the worked flint in my pocket, and feel a connection with its maker. I send wishes back in time for a healthy, happy, fulfilling life…

The Origin of “Lovely” is an Orchard in Springtime!

As I move through our home orchard in bloom, all that I can think and feel, is Lovely, Lovely, Lovely… Its really pure delight to care for a home orchard, and keep company of the trees and shrubs throughout the seasons, all the while traveling together on earth around the sun. I’ve made the journey 20 times while caretaking this acre: many of these fruits have journeyed with me 16 or so times: we are seasoned travelers!

Messengers of Love: Bees (Natural Beekeeping)

Spring is a time of delicious fragrances: from the fruit blossoms to the intoxicating scent of the native holly (filled with Cedar Waxwings and pollinators), to the spice viburnam to the lilacs. I stumble around in a state of “Yum”!

Our three honeybee hives came into full swing earlier than usual, due to our incredibly early spring: we have not had a hard frost since early February. The queen’s laying began in earnest earlier than availability of nectar and pollen. What this means for the beekeeper is that the hives are in danger of running out of food, and thereby starving to death. Even as the orchard is in full bloom, as well as the spring wildflowers, maple trees and such, the hive too is in full operation. The demands of the new larvae and rising populations use up all the stored reserves as well as what is being brought in.

I checked my hives last week, looking through each hive body, lifting out individual frames, hefting the boxes to get a feel of how much stored honey was left, and checking for queen cells: the sign that either the hive is replacing a queen, a queen has perished, or there has been a swarm (how new hives are created, without any help from the beekeeper). The hive populations were so high that I was unable to locate any queens, though I did find a fully developed queen cell in one hive. Without having knowledge of the queen, I felt the need to close up the hive and just let it be. If the queen had perished, this was her replacement. If a swarm was in process, it may have already departed and this was to be the new queen. Since I had not spotted the queen, I had no way of knowing, much less knowing what to do.

I closed the hive, feeling frustrated and wondering how, after 4 seasons of beekeeping, I knew so little! These days, with all the pressures on bees, working with honeybees is a complicated affair.

The mantra that rolled through my head was “… leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them”. (Short for: Let them be, most likely they know what they’re doing).

Shiitakes & Stinging Nettles

Our hoophouse is filled with our from-seed starts. The hens are laying, bees are flying. I’ve been a mad grafter, grafting several pear varieties onto our pears, several apple varieties onto our apples, (including heritage varieties onto our hawthorn) and a few grafted American persimmons onto our male rootstock. Just when I thought there was no more available space!

The hammock still beckons!

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Late Winter at Barefoot Permaculture

Late winter 20 Elven (2011) and after a unrelentingly cold December and January, February’s prolonged warmth makes my body happy, and eases my being outdoors for lengthy periods of time, allowing me some comfortable catch-up on garden and orchard “chores”.

My orchard self though, has been screaming  NO-O-O-O!!!

Such prolonged warm temperatures — highs in the 60’s and 70’s, lows in the 40’s and 50’s — so early in the year, is a fruit grower’s nightmare, by tempting the plants to break dormancy earlier than usual. Many of our fruiting plants break into full flower before leafing out. What determines the timing is a confluence of factors including genetic predisposition (referred to as chill factor), temperature, and perhaps day length. Its really all part of the Great Mystery (science just describes some of the more readily observable parts of it).

Chill factor refers to the amount of dormancy needed by each fruit variety before it is ready to break into visible life again, and go through another season of flowering, fruiting, and leafing out. In southern climes, such as northern Florida, fruits need to have a low chill factor, because some dormancy is required to get the plants through a winter that includes some freezing temperatures.

In Asheville, NC (where Barefoot Permaculture is located, at an elevation of around 2100 ft.) in the southern Appalachian Mountains, we require long chill factor varieties, due to warm spells in February, usually followed by hard freezes in late winter. (Any trick or technique that influences a plant to delay flowering, even by just a few days, is often the difference between having fruit that year, or being fruitless and sad).

Just because a fruit variety can do well in climates that include well below zero temperatures, doesn’t mean that here, we can grown them for fruit. For example, apricots grow well much further north, in –40 degree temperatures, because there, it stays cold until spring finally arrives, and then its warm. So the northern grown apricots stay dormant until the right warm temperature occurs for several days running. It’s a successful strategy in the north, but falls short of success here. As a consequence, we may get a crop on an average of every 5 years, depending upon the dates of our last series of hard freezes. Hard freezes don’t necessarily kill a tree that has flowered, what they do mean is no fruit for that year!

In checking my flowering chart (kept since 1994) the timing of apricot first flower varies wildly from a previous earliest date of 9 March through last years’ 11 April, with  almost all of the dates in the mid-March range. On this date (6 March) the swollen buds are pink, and perhaps a day away from bursting into bloom. Its on the too early side of early!

If it were just the apricots, I would have little concern. Unfortunately (for this absolute fruit lover and my wife and friends), the unusual lengthy February warmth has tempted other fruits too, and the Asian pears have broken dormancy, rolled over in their cozy beds, stretched, and have visibly swollen buds. Whether , once begun, the process can slow down, remains to be seen. Another glance at my chart shows earliest first blossoms for the Asian pears in mid-March, although the majority of dates are late March. (This exhibits a prime reason for keeping a flowering chart: helping relieve angst in late winter and early spring).

Yesterday evening, due to the advanced stages of bud swell for both apricots and peaches, I cleft grafted onto both fruit more desirable varieties. The 2 apricots we have are generically called Manchurian, and when we actually get fruit, are really nothing to get excited about. I cut some scionwood (last years growth) from a tree at Asheville’s Edible Park, and grafted them onto a young branch. Due to the advanced stage of bud swell on both scion and rootstock, there is a chance that the graft won’t take (be successful). And, due to the fact we are still in late winter, graft success is “iffy” due to possible heavy freezes. Time will tell!

Cleft graft of Redhaven peach

Our favorite on-site peach is a dwarf Redhaven, and is 15 years old. I took some of her  scionwood and grafted it onto peach rootstock from a chicken compost seedling. Again, both varieties are in serious bud swell, so we will just have to see if any of the grafts take! Grafting is touching into the Great Mystery, and as such, is a natural alchemy (as well as tons of fun), and the chances of success are much higher than the lottery!

Late winter / early spring is a busy time at this urban permaculture site, with our organic gardens, extensive home orchards, honeybees, chickens, vermiculture operation, compost piles, shiitake mushroom logs, small pond full of male wood frogs sounding like a flock of ducks, hoping to entice a willing female for some splashing together, and the start of the next generation of frogletts… Last night a black bear visited and tore down our handmade wood & clay bird feeder, smashing it badly, although may be repairable. The freshly filled suet feeder is “disappeared”. Good thing I remembered to turn on the solar electric fence around our bee yard…


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Fresh Return from Guatemala

Freshly back from a 12 day gallop through Guatemala with David LaMotte, a wonderful and well known singer/songwriter, and co-founder (with his wife DeAnna) of PEG-Partners (pegpartners.org) a small non-profit that partners with other organizations to help fund “bibliotecas” (libraries) and “escuelas” (schools) serving the Mayan communities. Partially due to my international experiences, including my experiences in Guatemala and Belize, as well as my love of the Mayan people, I was recently invited to be on Peg’s board. During this trip, we visited projects already funded, and investigated other potential projects. Davis played his first gig in Guatemala (this: his 10th trip) at my friend Carlos’ blues club “Blind Lemons” in San Marcos de Atitlan. Besides experiencing the bright-eyed children benefiting from our projects, as well as the children-filled-to-bursting schools, I am feeling deeply honored to be on Peg’s board, and a willing witness to such good and effective works. In addition, we stayed healthy, enjoyed each other’s presence and company, and ate plenty of fulfilling “tipica” (local) meals of eggs, refried beans, queso (local cheese) and Guatemala’s incredible tortillas! Not to mention, being the absolute fruit nut that I am, I devoured mangoes, local bananas (that put “ours” to shame) and papayas with lime. Absolute YUM!

Having been conceived and born in Panama, tropical is in my blood! I am frequently in a daydream where, in my immediate landscape are: mangoes, papayas, many variety of bananas, avocados, perennial peppers and tomatoes, mangostein, anonas, dragonfruit, figs, passionfruit, and others. Like me, permaculture was conceived in the sub-tropics, and is at its glorious best in such settings. The further north and south from the tropics, the more challenging it becomes. By no stretch of anyones’ imagination is permaculture not entirely worthwhile in the temperate zones. Being solution oriented, the exposure to, understanding and practice of permaculture adds empowerment and joy to living anywhere. We in the temperate latitudes just don’t have as full a pallet as in the warmer zones. Others may argue with this simple statement. Climate though, plays a major role in what we can and cannot grow, truncating our temperate growing season. In the tropics and sub-tropics, the limiting factor of fresh foods all year is not temperature, rather availability of water (wet and dry seasons). Our permaculture practices of storing water in times of abundance for use in times of lack, works to overcome this limitation. Its neither that easy nor inexpensive to overcome the temperature factor for us temperate peoples. So we design abundant landscapes in the frost-free seasons, and find ways of storage (drying, root cellaring, freezing, canning etc.) to carry us through the winter.

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Join Goodheart in southern Belize for the 6th Annual Permaculture Design Course

Visiting a local sustainable farm.This is a GREAT time to get away to the plush, green sub-tropics of southern BELIZE. Our site (MMRF) is 2 miles upriver from the village of San Pedro Columbia, and is accessed by a 30 minute dugout canoe ride. The river is clear and clean, and flows through the bottom of the property. At 30 years old, Maya Mountain Research Farm is one of the the oldest Permaculture sites in Central America.

Anyone bringing a friend is entitled to a 10% discount, and any 3 friends coming together receive a 10% discount each!

6th Annual Permaculture Design course

Location: Maya Mountain Research Farm, San Pedro Columbia, Belize

Dates: March 5th – 18th, 2011

Place: Maya Mountain. Research Farm

San Pedro Columbia, BELIZE

Instructors: Albert Bates, Andrew Goodheart Brown, Maria Ros, Christopher Nesbitt & local guest instructors

Cost: USD $1250  Includes site-grown organic meals; all course materials and expeditions; comfortable rustic on-site accommodations; and a Permaculture Design Certificate upon completion of the course.

Beauties of Cacao and Bananas, grown and harvested at MMRF.

Tucked into the foothills of the Maya Mountains, 2 miles upriver from the village of San Pedro Columbia in Southern Belize, Maya Mountain Research Farm is a working demonstration farm and a registered NGO that promotes sustainable agriculture, appropriate technology, and food security using permaculture principles and applied biodiversity

For details, or to register, please see mmrfbz.org or contact Christopher Nesbitt at info(a)mmrfbz.org

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I have a confession to make: I am a dyed-in–the-wool feces eater. And while I enjoy that of other animals, I am a taboo breaker of the most offensive kind in my predilection for the manure of 2-leggeds, and more to the point, my own!
Fortunately though, some of my relations, as intermediaries, do the dirty work.
Walt Whitman wrote “I am a part of everything I’ve met”. As a practicing permaculturist, I’ve refined this to “I am a part of everything I’ve eaten” as well as of the complex dance of all the organisms and energies involved in the process. Another refinement is from the idea of  “food chain” to “food circle”, for the natural process is circular. In a permacultural mindset, we can redesign our way into being part of the circle of life, rather than apart from. Besides being a cool thing to do, placing ourselves in the circle of life is energy efficient as well as productive! After all, life has exquisitely evolved over several hundred million years, a sustainable complexity that produces abundance, wastes nothing; cycles nutrients and slows the flow of energy through all ecosystems. All natural systems have evolved to live off of, and contribute to this surplus.
What allowed our industrial cultures to step away from the circle of life, has been the discovery, extraction, and use of cheap, abundantly available, fossil fuel. With production of fossil fuel peaking, as well as the depletion of all easily available sources, less fossil fuel is available and at higher cost. As more countries have come “on-line” in their use and need, cost for all consumers has risen even more. Since the industrial discovery of oil, the US has been top dog economically as well as politically and militarily, and as such, took the lion’s share.
Enter: Peak Oil, Global Economy, and Global Economic Collapse!
As if a clumsy, stage magician attempted yanking a tablecloth from under a finely set table, the table has been cleared. As the dust settles and the light comes back on, the table has been reset; unrecognizable to us, and certainly not to our liking.
What will be the effects of diminishing supplies of petroleum upon industrial cultures? Fossil fuel will be available into the immediate future, but dwindling supplies and costly extraction of difficult to reach petroleum (eg. 2 miles underground beneath 4 miles of ocean depths), along with greatly increased global demand, compounded by economics (who’s got the money?) is and will result in soaring costs. The economics is simple: increased demand and diminishing supply equals ever rising consumer costs. Scarcity and demand drive value. A negative spiral occurs: Ever more demand for diminishing resources leads to a scramble for those remaining resources, as well as increasing costs. The more the resource diminishes, the more frantic the scramble, and the higher the consumer cost.  Resource availability collapses under an onslaught of demand, and prices shoot out of sight. Under this fanatic pressure, resource is exploited, environment suffers, and collapse occurs! (This is neither new nor unsubstantiated: check out any ecology book).
They who have the money, get the oil! Our North American wake-up call has sounded: we are not the ones with the money!
The implications are scarily staggering for a culture addicted to cheap food, energy, comfort, import based hyper-consumerism, and transportation. We’ve had a fun ride on this rollercoaster, yet in the meanwhile, the infrastructure has developed severe cracks. Its not a matter of “if” the track will drop out from under us, rather a matter of over what period of time. Will it be even quicker than is now occurring, or spread out a little more. World powers are already pushing up to the bar and jockeying for position: wars large and small attest to that!
Fortunately, we do not have to wait until the earth beneath our feet is crumbling.
Permaculture teaches us to identify our primary needs, and design redundancy (back-up systems) to meet these. The world over, we share the same basic needs: clean water, healthy food, shelter, clean air, meaningful livelihood, security, and community.
Our focus on these pages is in creating and enhancing the soil ecosystems necessary for healthy, vital, and abundant food.
Back To Our Roots
When we eat a food, we take in some of everything that has gone into the food before us; sacred life-giving water, sun’s energy, and microbial/plant interactions. Without any of these, there is no life. Microbial activity breaks down and releases stored nutrients from previous plants and animals, making these building blocks available in easily assimilative form to currently growing plants. Plants link earth and sky, transmuting their forces into roots, tubes, leaves, flowers and fruit. From the tiniest insect to the largest carnivore, all reap the life-giving, nutritional benefits of microbe/plant interactions. And all partake of and benefit from all parts of the process. With each mouthful of food, we consumers also eat air, sun, water, earth, previously alive plant and animal bodies, and  …manure!
Soil micro-organisms make it all possible, and in fact, keep the sphere of life rolling along!
In permaculture, we learn to look for “points of intervention”. Another way to say this is: places to intervene in the system that will give us the biggest bang for the buck; achieve the desired goals with the least amount of expended energy.
Improving the soil becomes our strategy for best use of energy. If we want healthy selves, we need healthy and abundant foods. We do not find these in industrial markets (what we do find there, is going to reflect the rising costs of energy, since industrial food production has an extremely high petroleum cost as well as high transport cost). In Michael Pollan’s  book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”, the author says that in supermarkets, food is generally limited to the exterior aisles: the remainder of the store contains “food-like substances”.
Soil Is Not Dirt!
All terrestrial life is totally dependent upon the soil magic! Modern ecological as well as soil studies give us a more in depth understanding and appreciation of the complexities of soil. No longer can we believe it to be lifeless and inert. Soil is a mixture of bedrock weathered over hundreds of millions of years (into minerals) and organic matter; components of everything that has lived before, as well as parts (leaves, hair, skin, excrement) of currently living organisms. Nature’s crown jewels are the soil micro-organisms. We’ve called them decomposers, and list among them fungi, bacteria, nematodes, actinomycetes and numerous other micro-organisms. The term “decomposers” doesn’t do them justice! They really are “Enablers” for their lives and activities break down all organic matter, freeing up the nutrients and minerals making up the bodies of all life (plant and animal) and making these absolutely necessary building blocks available to plants. Plants incorporate the nutrients into their own tissue, and everything else (all of us!) eat either the plants or the animals that feed upon the plants, and in so doing, pass these necessary nutrients along the food circle. We all shed cells constantly, defecate, and die. Those nutrients in our bodies join the circle of life, are broken down by the enablers and returned to the natural system to keep life going.
Earth being a finite system, means there is a limited supply of everything. Without soil microbes, life would have run out of the nutrients and minerals necessary to build all physical bodies,. hundreds of millions of years ago.
Soil is an ecosystem teeming with microbes constantly breaking apart organic matter. In a teaspoon of healthy topsoil are hundreds of millions of bacteria, fungi and other organisms. Plants growing in a healthy soil ecosystem are chocked full of nutrients and minerals, healthy and vital: They who consume these plants bio-accumulate these healthy building blocks. By managing for healthy soil ecosystems, we create vibrantly healthy plants and other site inhabitants. Food is not just stomach stuffer! Food is energy, and quality of food determines quality of health and well being. Healthy, nutrient rich food makes healthy people and other animals.
We are designing for a vibrantly healthy, nutrient rich, regenerative soil system .As we begin to understand soil and its importance, strategic management steps become clear, as does a powerful tool for effective living within the circle of life: Everything we do, everything we choose to consume, and each individual action impacts the soil ecosystems, either positively or negatively! Decide to choose and act in a way that benefits the soil! Avoid choices and actions that do not. Vote with green energy! Spend your dollars supporting those who are soil friendly!
Caring for and enhancing the soil ecosystem is relatively easy, because soils needs are relatively simple and two fold: Organic matter and cover.

Feed Me!

Torus-shaped compost pile.

Organic matter is the fuel that runs soil systems: carbon is the key ingredient. Must have it! Got to have it! Soils deficient in organic matter are poor soils, with minimal soil organism complexity and numbers. Resurrection of almost any soil condition includes the addition of organic matter! Soil acidic? Add organic matter. Soil alkaline? Add organic matter. Our first order of soil system management is: Feed The Soil! Another (and even more appropriate) way of saying this is: Feed the carbon cycle! From a chemistry perspective, soil life has evolved to break apart carbon bonds. In the process, carbon as well as other elements necessary for life are released and made available for plant uptake. This is a beautifully intricate and complex dance without which there is no life.
The strategies of this article include composting, vermiculture, use of green manure plantings, mulching, addition of soil additives (such as kelp and phosphate), foliar feeding sprays (such as compost tea), and animal manures (including humanure).
Composting doesn’t require purchase or building of a bin to be successful. Nature composts everything without any of the above. For our convenience, we can accumulate organic materials in a pile, keep things tidy, pleasing our fellow site sharers and neighbors, and by so doing, produce a finished product more quickly. A certain mass of materials (roughly 4 ft.cubed) that bring together manures (nitrogen rich) and dried plant materials such as straw & leaves (carbon rich) at a very general ratio of 1 part nitrogen to 20-30 parts carbon, set a stage for speedy decomposition which includes pathogen and seed destroying temperatures. Some people turn the pile several times (moving the outside of the pile to the inside) for even speedier finished compost. I do not, being in no hurry, and knowing that compost happens, thanks to our life enhancers, the soil organisms, who break apart the chemical bonds, releasing the nutrients.
After the pile temperature spikes (roughly 140 –160 degrees F), and the compost temperature approaches ambient temperature, microbial activity slows down to include macro-organisms, such as compost worms, insect larvae, beetles and other crawlies and wigglers. Thus begins the process of finishing the compost, much like a wine needs a finishing period for the flavors to develop.
What has happened in the compost process is a speedy breakdown of organic matter into resins, gums and other substances, and humus, a long lived carbon particle that can hold up in the soil for many decades, acting as nutrient and water reservoir: long term fertility. The measurement of soil organic matter (SOM) is the measure of humus in a soil. When early Europeans arrived, soil organic matter measurements were as high as 9-14 percent. After decades of plowing followed by industrial agriculture’s war on natural soil, the average SOM may be 2-3 percent. (One percent is considered dead soil). Even this degree of degradation can be amended with the addition of organic matter. However, it takes many tons of organic matter to increase SOM by 1 percent.
Weeds are plants growing where we want other plants to grow. My technique of weed management has evolved from yanking them (roots and all, out of the soil and moving them to the ongoing compost pile) to waiting until they have flowered (honeybee treats!) then cutting them at the base prior to seed set, and laying them down in place as mulch. Each time above ground plant parts are cut, a corresponding root die-off occurs. The root die-off becomes instant food for the soil system, as does the slow release top mulch. Rather than upset the soil system around the plant by yanking out the entire plant and rootball, now I have an ongoing source of soil food, turning problems into solutions!
Vermiculture is the use of compost worms (Esidia foetida) to create a natural product called vermicompost, which I refer to as SuperCompost!
As far as the use of organic matter in soil enhancement: Manure is great; Compost is better; and Vermicompost is the best! Since the initial heat generated by microbial breakdown organisms in the above mentioned compost pile is high enough to kill macro-organisms, compost worms show up as temperatures moderate. They ingest leftover organic matter, further digesting it, concentrating nutrients several times higher than the surrounding material, and excrete these super nutrient packets (“casts” or egesta) out their posterior. The magic of vermicompost does not reside only in the nutritive value of these packets (which by itself, is very high), but better yet, while inside the worm, casts are inoculated with soil microbial spores, in effect, stacking its functions and producing a truly value added product!
Our strategy is to concentrate the compost worms by building a suitable bin, thereby concentrating the vermicompost. One worm, under worm-pleasing environmental conditions (adequate soil moisture, plentiful organic matter, and pleasant temperatures) can produce half its body weight in casts every day. One worm’s poop weight is truly miniscule. Our permaculture Point of Intervention is to concentrate the worms. One pound of worms, under optimal conditions, can produce one pound of vermicompost daily! Multiply this by five, by ten! Vermicompost is too strong for growing plants directly in it. Rather, it can be mixed in planting soil or transplant holes at a general rate of 1:10 (vermicompost: soil).
Green manure plants are grown for the sole purpose of soil improvement. At some stage in their growth cycle, and in accord with the scale (available tools) of the agricultural enterprise, they are either cut, disked, dug into, flailed, scythed, or just laid down on the soil, as food for the soil ecosystem. The healthier the soil system, the quicker the organic matter breakdown time, and the sooner the system is ready for planting.
At Barefoot Permaculture, (my home and ongoing permaculture site: an urban homestead in Asheville, NC, located in the southern Appalachian Mountains), my interests and practices involve inexpensive, low tech solutions available and affordable to anyone. My tools are mostly hand tools, and since I early on succumbed to Mollison’s idea of the importance of hammock time on a permacultural site, I simply scythe my green manure plants, lay them down as top mulch, and don’t expend the energy to dig them into the soil. Time will handle that matter. There are, of course, other layers of complexity behind my practice. Digging into the soil disturbs the soil microbial systems.
Nature has evolved “top-down” feeding: a look in the forest reveals leaves on the forest floor, and a system of decomposition that is on the soil surface, just under the leaves. Almost all soil activity occurs in the top 2 inches of soil: this is the zone of maximum air and organic matter deposition. Vertical dwelling earthworms rise out of their burrows, grab mouthfuls of surface organic materials and drag them down into the earth, yet the vast remainder of the soil system accomplishes their work at or very near the surface (a wooden post in the ground rots only at the surface edge, not 2 feet down). In healthy forests, soil systems act like a huge mouth just under the leafy forest floor!  Nature has worked out the nuts and bolts, and following her example by designing and using top down mulching systems, allows us to work less and achieve more. We cannot improve on this already-in-place system!
In permaculture, we model the best of nature. The only time we see bare soil in natural systems, is following severe disturbance, such as severe fire, flood, or exposed soil from the recent retreat of glaciers. Immediately nature begins to close off the disturbance, heal the wound, and revegetate the site. A predictable array of plants appear, much like white blood cells in our bodies, an initial response team of wind-blown and animal carried seeds, whose job is to get up and green, roots down, anchor the soil, halt degradation of the soil system, pump in organic matter and buffer extremes of temperature and moisture, thereby ameliorating (improving conditions of) the site. Less harsh after a season, the improved site conditions allow and attract arrival of the second team of responders, longer lived annuals and perennials. Each stage of plant community with its own evolving microbial as well as animal counterparts, further ameliorates the site, until a healthy, stable, mature ecosystem is in place.
Bare soil is an abomination! Either a vegetable cover or mulch is necessary to buffer extreme environmental effects of moisture and temperature, Both are limiting factors in ecosystem health, and thereby, points of intervention. Using mulches allows us to stack our functions; both protecting soil from extremes, and feeding the soil through top-down applications.
Most soils worldwide are deficient in phosphate, an element necessary for successful flowering and fruit development. Other elements too, are missing from agricultural systems, both industrial and small scale, depending upon the cultural practices. Any extractive agriculture, where materials are removed from the system, results over time with loss of minerals and nutrients, thereby impoverishing the site as well as quality of food produced. Until we start employing regenerative practices in our agriculture that emphasis soil health, most of us are working with impoverished soils. To get our systems up and running, our strategies include importing needed soil additives. With loss of minerals accompanying any soil disturbance, and with knowing that whatever is not held in the soil/plant systems finds its way into water, and all water heads down to the sea, our strategy for reintroducing mineral vitality to site can focus upon kelp and other seaweeds as important soil additives.
Worldwide, phosphates are usually a limiting factor, and are a necessary input: slow release rock phosphate the better choice. Bird manures concentrate phosphate, so using chicken manure is also a good practice.
Once a site is remineralized and working well, minerals are recycled within the system, and our need for added inputs decline. One strategy is to let nothing organic leave your site: recycling everything gets it back into the food circle. Nutrients are like a bowl of money: if we are always taking money out of the bowl, at some point we run out. There is no more!
Our practice is that whenever we take some out, we put some back in. This way, the bowl is always full, and we have created a regenerative system!
One of the most exciting practices to come into public awareness in the last few decades is the power of making and using teas as a foliar feed. Science long ago discovered mouth-shaped cells (stoma) on the underside of leaves, that opened and closed, acting to “breathe” out gases. Their time of opening and closing are temperatue/time related.
Gardeners throughout time are continually experimenting. Before long, foliar feeding (spraying nutrient rich liquid on the leaves) was found to bypass any limitations in the soil, such as high or low pH, which binds and makes unavailable nutrients in the soil. With foliar feeding, the nutritive solution went through the stoma cells, directly into the plant. Foliar feeding has evolved beyond fertilizer to include “teas” made of compost and vermicompost, which include herbaceous material, seaweeds, and other natural substances. Elaine Ingham, of Soil Woodweb Inc, has researched the most efficient and healthy methods of making and using compost teas that include and optimize beneficial soil micro-organisms. These types of tea can be sprayed directly on the plants as well as soils rich in organic matter.
Further studies show that some beneficial microbes, sprayed on leaves, will occupy sites on the plant, and act as a living guard against disease organisms: a true bio-control! A key technique in formulating live compost tea, is the use of a bubbler (to create an oxygen rich solution) as well as addition of a small amount of natural sweetener, such as molasses (micro-organisms like the sweetness, much like sugar and yeast, and in the presence of oxygen, boost their populations big time!
Animal manures are a good source of organic matter, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients for the soil ecosystem. If you are fortunate to have access to composted manure piles, especially from naturally raised animals, the richer your site will become. Manures should be composted, or at least, well aged prior to application. Too much of anything is pollution:
12 inches of manure overtop of your soil is most likely too much. Having access to toxic levels is not a problem most of us will encounter. Cattle manure is well digested and doesn’t need much aging. Keep in mind that small levels of application seldom generate much heat (a 4 ft. by 4 ft. pile would). Horse manure is also valuable, depending upon what type of bedding material is used (some materials, such as, black walnut and cedar, can suppress plant growth). Pig and chicken manures must be composted prior to use, since both, are too strong for fresh use, and will burn plants.
Bunny manure is ready to use. An easy, productive, and natural polyculture is bunnies over a vermiculture bin.
After getting ideas of effective small animal polycultures from E.C.H.O. Institute in south Florida, during a 2001 project in Rwanda, teaching design of productive systems for very small plots of land given to village women following the genocide, I designed a productive, 4 tiered, small footprint, stacked animal polyculture with rabbits on top, then chickens over ducks with compost worms at the bottom. (This intensive polyculture was necessitated by site size: women often with several children, were given a site roughly 35 ft. by 35 ft, on which to build their wattle and daub home, latrine, gardens and fruit plantings. Protein was scarce, and the concentrated manures gave them both soil fertility as well as a small bit of income by selling the excess to neighbors, allowing the children to attend school. These “protein high-rises” had a footprint of 10 ft by 3 ft by 5 ft).
The easiest manure for us to harvest, compost, and use is our own! Instead of flushing it “away” in drinking water, removing our share of ingested nutrients from our local circle of life, concentrating them with the feces of others as well as industrial waste in municipal sewage systems that periodically release untreated sewage containing heavy metals, antibiotics and all other pharmaceuticals into local waterways causing untold ecological problems, we can rejoin the circle of life by responsibly adding our share of nutrients back into our local system. Since reading Joe Jenkin’s “Humanure Handbook” after attending my first PDC at The Farm in Tennessee in 1994, I have flushed my home toilets a total of 21 times. Instead, I have a new happy holiday: June 22 is when I harvest my finished humanure compost, and wheelbarrow it up to my garden and orchard. Such a beautiful compost! And the first harvest surprised me with a upwelling of tender tears as I realized the implications of this act: I now was more deeply connected to and a part of the life processes on my site!
Invitation to Become a True Radical
In these pages, we’ve been introduced to the complexities of soil ecosystems, centering on Nature’s crown jewels, the soil micro-organisms. We’ve learned the basics of soil care and enhancement through a discussion of compost, vermicompost, green manures, additional inputs, foliar feeds, and manures. Information along with application and experience blends into wisdom. Our moment of power resides in the present.
After being introduced to these concepts, take a personal pledge to become a friend and champion of soil. Realize that all of our actions and choices impact the soil community, either for the better or for the worst.. Since all life depends upon the health, vitality, and complexity of the soil ecosystems, how can we not honor this most important life enhancing process?
Being soil conscious, as well as friend, champion, and enhancer of soil is true, holistic radicalism. You can do it silently, proclaim it on a tee shirt or keep it in the closet: just do it! Doing so provides easy entry into the circle of life!

Andrew Goodheart Brown wears many hats: Permaculture teacher and practitioner (always looking for a PDC to teach); International consultant for small scale agricultural projects; Endangered species observer; Naturalist and field biologist; Organic gardener & home orchardist; natural food chef and teacher; home brewer & artisanal bread baker; fermenter, and broom maker

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Solar Panels Attract Aquatic Insects

Researchers from Michigan State University have found that the shiny black surfaces of solar panels are highly attractive to aquatic insects, which mistake them for water. They lay their eggs there but these fail to hatch jeopardizing the reproduction of a variety of insects, the scientists reported in the journal Conservation Biology [Source: CBC News].

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Why Bicycles Rule

bicycle paths

bicycle paths

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Farmers Markets As Community Builders

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 02:  Produce is seen for sa...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Farmers Markets are helping to build community around the country as they have done for centuries worldwide.  A study by sociologists of customer behavior in supermarkets, revealed that when we shop these mega stores, we drop into a trance, visit routine sections of the store, check out, and leave with the same old stuff, week after week.  Seldom is a word spoken to anyone else in the store except to the person who takes your money.

At the farmers market, on the other hand, shoppers converse with other shoppers and vendors ten times more often than at the supermarket. Things are discussed, friendships are built,  and the community grows.   At the market, customers shop consciously, not in a trance.  Their senses are alert as conversations take place about food, life, and local issues.   They come to be part of something that is changing society.  Friendships are formed, bonds are created, and the world becomes a better place, because community is forming.

Farmers markets are the fastest growing part of the American food economy.   They are community gathering places, bringing people together who want to be part of something better, something with more life in it.

A community can be defined as a group of  people living in a common location, interacting with one another, organized around common values.  A sense of community is vital to humans. It’s something we need and want, but so often do not get in our current American culture.

The farmers market gives us this place where we can get what we need.  When we leave the market, we leave  not only with good food, but also with a greater sense of our local environment and who we live with, who’s growing our food,  and who we are sharing our space with in our daily lives.   We leave with a sense of belonging to something good.

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