Permaculture … on steroids

When my daughter’s fiancé visited us several years back, he made the proclamation … “what you have here, is permaculture.” Being city girl turned reluctant farmgirl,  I had to Google it to see what exactly it was. Wasn’t sure if he was praising our efforts, or swearing at us.

Turns out, yes, we are a family of permaculturists.  When I take on things, I tend to do it with a passion. Brad, disagrees. He says it’s not passion, it’s a freakish obsession to go overboard. With everything. We started with 10 chickens and now have 80. Two goats became six. Although, in my defense, two pigs became freezer fodder, so there is that. And we added six ducks, but that was the neighbor’s fault. Entirely. She bought the ducklings for us.

So it stands to reason that after Jomar  introduced me to a new concept that I would embrace it wholeheartedly. And really, we are quite magnificent when it comes to creating as little, if not zero, excess waste as humanly possible.

Walk with me, if you will, as I take you through our moderately messy, incredibly efficient, immorally time consuming and slightly perfect piece of recycling nirvana.

A bit of a warning. As I said, I get passionate about things. It started with mild composting. But I tend to have a charming neurosis (small, tiny, miniscule, not-getting-in-the-way-of everyday-living neurosis) that drives me to excel at things and be “one of the best.” Except sports. Not happening. Never. I mean, I am the best “walk and talk for 3 miles every couple of days” person I know. But that’s it.

So … the tour begins in my kitchen which is the heart, and start, of the permaculture process. Under my sink is a big stainless steel bowl which is used for collecting bits and pieces – anything from the sink drain catcher thing, anything that hens or goats or roosters shouldn’t eat. We don’t have a garbage disposal, so anything caught in the strainer goes into the bowl. Once that’s filled, it goes down to the compost pile and becomes rich earth. Coffee grounds, on the other hand, are collected by Brad and, together with newspaper, gets fed to his worms. I don’t go there. Ever. It’s not even in the same country as my wheelhouse.

I also have 2 Tupperware bins that sit on my counter. One is for the meat birds, the other for the active laying hens. Different things go into different bins. For the layers, they get pretty much anything with the exception of onions and garlic. As you can see, they like it. They like everything.

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The second Tupperware is for the meat birds. I’m more picky about that. They don’t get things like cabbage, Brussel sprouts or any strong flavored veggies. They get more mildly flavored treats – apple bits, carrot tops, bread crumbs, leftover oatmeal, mild flavored veggies. We sell both eggs and the meat birds, so we are careful about what might end up flavoring both. Well, I’m careful, Brad not so much. Which is why I’m in charge. And why our meat birds rock.

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If the eggs we collect happen to be cracked, that gets cooked up for the dogs. Egg shells get collected in a bowl and when I have enough, I toss them in the oven to toast them a bit, crumble them and put them in the hens food. It’s a good source of calcium and helps strengthen their egg shells.

Meat, fish, etc  gets divied up between the dogs and chickens. Yes, oddly enough, chickens eat meat. Chickens are not vegetarians. Getting eggs in the store from chickens who are “only fed vegetarian” is stupid. Chickens scratch in the ground for worms and slugs and eat insects. So don’t waste your money. Goats, however, are strictly vegetarian. Go figure.

And now we come to bones. Brad and I went to a naturopath, who prescribed we both drink bone broth. And she explained that it was what Vietnamese Pho was based on. Not able to find any bone broth in our local stores, I did what I do – I researched. Now I’m a bone broth pro. bone-brothThe best bone broth is found at my house. Seriously.  My freezer holds several gallon ziplock freezer bags. In these bags are leftover vegetables – the ends of the onions, the skins, the tops of celery, the stems of cilantro. Anything I don’t use or feed the chickens, I put in there. The other bag holds bones. With the exception of fish bones, every single bone in every single piece of meat I cook is in this bag. When you come for dinner at my house, you won’t be given a chicken thigh or leg to munch on. I’ll be cutting the meat off the bone for you, just like your mamma used to do.

When the bag is full enough, I toss all the bones and veggies in my crock pot. I cook it for at least 2 days, with some bay leaves, kosher salt, some whole spices (whatever I have on hand – peppercorns, fennel seeds, whatever herbs are in the garden or in the freezer). The bones turn very soft during this time, and turns the water into a flavorful broth that I bottle and freeze and use for a soup base, for cooking rice, for flavoring sauces. I always have the shelves in my stand-alone freezer full of bone broth. AND – after the bones are all cooked down and mushy, those go into the compost pile as well.

By the way, the reason I wrote out the bone broth recipe is, for some ungodly reason, Brad seems to think I could be the next Pioneer Woman. He insists I write down everything I cook (mostly because I can’t remember what I did so that I could recreate the meal again). Then he thinks my blog can turn into a blog not only about composting or permaculture, but about recipes, someone will “discover me”, we’ll be rich and not have to worry about our retirement. HAHAHAHA.No.

We collect slugs in the garden and bring them down to the duck pond. Veggie leftovers from the plantation get tossed into the goat’s pen. The big sunflowers feed the wild jays, swallows, yellow finches. And, if you want a goat to follow you till the ends of the earth, you carry a handful in your pocket and dole them out. You’ll have a friend for life.sassy

Some things are not good for animals – like potato skins. You’d think I’d just toss them, but I’m no longer a “tosser.” I cook the potato peelings for the chickens. I cook up raw chicken skins for the dogs. .

The kitchen is obviously the most interesting and vital part of the composting/recycling process. Brad does the other stuff. Leaf mulching and chopping  and burning and spreading ashes. It’s not as cool as a slimy bowl of gummy veggies under my sink, or delicately sautéed potato peels. So I won’t go into graphic detail. But I do invite you up to our farm and dare you to find one scrap that isn’t used for some purpose. Even the goat and chicken poop is meticulously collected. Nothing like a steaming pile of … well, you get the idea.

It’s a circle of life, my friends, a beautiful little circle of life.

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So … This is Gardening …

This morning I woke up early, and excited. Today was a big day on Reluctant Farm. It was planting day! I was going to become one with Mother Earth! I was up, straw hat in hand, bag packed with ice water bottles and a bag of freshly made bran muffins.

I was going to walk through Fields of Gold, a Goddess in Green, dropping seeds at precise increments into the rich brown soil. Oh, up and down the rows I would walk, my graceful hands in a choreographed swoop, feeding the fertile ground.

I knew exactly what it would be like. I had the picture.

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Anxious and awaiting instruction from Brad, who had already finished a row of planting while I organized the muffins, fixed my hair and donned my hat at a jaunty angle, I waved excitedly and said “Let the Sowing Begin!”

Brad pointed me towards 14 tomato plants. That was my job. To sort the tomatoes into whichever way I wanted to plant them, dig holes for each, unpot the plants, loosen the roots, plant and pat.

” Um, OK. But after this do I get to sow some seeds?” I asked. Because I wanted him to take a picture of me walking the fields, looking serene. I needed to update my Facebook profile photo.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Just do the tomatoes and then we’ll figure out what we need to do next.”

So I sorted the tomatoes. Which was kinda fun. I sorted the San Marzanos together, as they are the pride of Italy, the tomatoes that would become the base of my near legendary marinara, and would also cook down into some truly amazing homemade tomato paste.

I placed the two yellow and green zebra tomatoes front and center, as they would produce unique, colorful fruits that would stand out in the midst of the deep red Marzanos.

Then I bent over, and started digging.

When I pictured planting, I didn’t take into account the digging and the bending. In New York, I think we may have had one wilting philodendron in our 3rd floor walk up, and a straggly geranium on our fire escape. Gardening wasn’t top priority in the Bronx. When we moved out west, our family had 3 peach trees. Our form of planting was walking outside, picking a peach, eating it and throwing away the pit. So I didn’t really have a clear picture of planting a garden. And certainly not one of the proportions that Brad intended.

First of all, I’m not the most physical person. I didn’t play softball or soccer or four-square. I did nothing at all with sporting equipment. I went to an all girls Catholic school. For PE we did ballet. And I was on the swim team. That was it for my athletic achievements. As an adult, I have a recumbent stationary bike and an elliptical. Both MUST sit in front of the TV. Otherwise I’m constantly looking at my watch and saying “Oh My God it’s only been 7 minutes?”

So bending down forever is not something I pictured. It sucked.

“Brad – this sucks. This hurts my back really, really bad, and now my knee is hurting. This can’t be what people do all day, because it’s impossible to bend over all day long and not seriously injure yourself.”

Surely there is an easier, better way? Then I spied the big white plastic bucket. A seat! I turned the bucket upside down, grabbed a bran muffin, and started planting my second tomato plant.

Then my butt bones started hurting. Obviously I needed a cushioned seat! I went to contemplate the situation, and eat another bran muffin. That’s when I looked down at my hands…

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I felt myself getting weak, and my eyes rolling in the back of my head. I never considered myself a girly girl, but I never made a mud pie in my entire childhood. I never wanted a Suzy Homemaker Oven, but I had also never been in a physical altercation either. However, I could give a tongue-lashing so severe it would make your brain bleed. I’m tough, but in different ways.

I got on the riding lawn mower – the only piece of farm equipment I’m allowed to use after flipping two cars – and headed to the house. I scrubbed my fingers and brought back pillows, my rubber kitchen gloves and more bran muffins.

The digging was vastly improved with gloves, and the seat was infinitely more comfortable. So I finished my third tomato plant. And moved on to the fourth. And my thighs started cramping. “OMG Brad, my thighs hurt!”

“Susan, all I’m hearing is complaining. You are doing more complaining than planting.”

“I’m not complaining. I’m providing dialog! You can’t possibly think we are going to bend over all day and not way a word to each other. I’m your story. And if I die and they want to make a movie of my life, you’re going to need to help the screen writer with the dialog. And anyway, the bucket is too damn big and I’m not used to sitting with my thighs spread so wide apart.”

I head him mutter “that’s for sure” but chose to ignore him and continue with the friggen tomatoes.

“Brad – why do we have 14 tomato plants? How many tomatoes can we really eat? 14 plants? There’s only two people here. How much pizza and spaghetti can we actually consume? And you know what else? People who say they love gardening are LYING. This is not serene. I feel like I’m toiling in a rice paddy for God sakes. This is painful and not fun. I feel sick.”

Then it hit me. I had TEN tomato plants left. And it happened. I lost it. This doesn’t happen much. Last time it happened was decades ago with my first husband. He bought us a tandem bike and said, “let’s go riding!” I climbed on the back seat, and he wheeled us on a “little bike ride” – which amounted to over 50 miles. My knee swelled up to Elephant Man proportions, and I cried the whole way back. I could feel myself sliding into the same desperation.

It’s what happens when I feel like I’m losing control and being forced to do something I hate, that I just DO NOT want to do. My options were to quit, go to the house and watch a bad Lifetime Movie. And hear Brad call me a lightweight and tell me I need to work out to strengthen my core. Something I have yet to find and quite frankly, am not looking. Or stick it out and cry. I chose the latter.

I cried, I planted 14 tomato plants, and have decided to make my epic marinara, can it, and gift it for Christmas. I feel contented, and dare I say it? Happy.

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So I may look more like this …

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Than this …

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And I still hate gardening, but I got a free dinner afterwards. And if you are on my Christmas list, wait until you see MY garden of earthly delights!

Note to self … do NOT bring bran muffins to eat when you are working in a field that’s a quarter of a mile away from the house. Not a good idea. At. All.