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Posts Tagged ‘Honey Bees’

Some truly wild seeds - Honey locust pods, wild onions, autumn olive, cornellian cherries, purple asters, siberian pea shrub, and a wild black berry that was collected in Italy over the summer.

Some truly wild seeds – Honey locust pods, wild onions, autumn olive, cornellian cherries, purple asters, siberian pea shrub, and a wild black berry that was collected in Italy over the summer.

For a decade now, I have been a seed saver.  I have saved tomato seeds and squash seeds.  I have selected and saved my favorite beans to plant again, and I have tended garlic cloves and potato tubers from year to year.  I have collected perennial herbs, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and have planted trees that will produce into my twilight years.

 

These seeds and genetics represent a true investment and a savings account for the future.  David Holmgren, one of the founders of Permaculture and author of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways devotes quite a bit of time on the subject of saving seeds.  He argues that anyone preparing for a future that will have fewer fossil fuels available to use should include seed saving into their toolbox of skills and cultural knowledge.

 

Purple potatoes...

Purple potatoes…

When we save seeds, not only are we preserving genetic material, but also the accumulated solar energy of one summer’s growth to be used again in a future garden.  This tradition is as old as agriculture itself.  When we stopped roaming the wilds in search of food, and instead settled down to cultivate the Earth, seed saving assured a future harvest.

 

For right or wrong, feeding our world’s population now largely depends on industrialized, annual based agriculture.  It is very efficient at turning oil and natural gas into edible calories, but it comes with a steep price.  Habitat destruction, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity (both wild and domesticated), the dismantling of small scale farming traditions, and our seed sovereignty are all threatened by industrialized agriculture.

 

But as those of us who have seen the writing on the wall (when it pertains to the negative consequences of big ag) , and have begun the transition to a Permaculture based lifestyle because of these warning signs, we can begin to put a halt to all of this destruction.  One farmer or person alone is not enough to change the course of current events, but just like the seeds of a dandelion, the more of us there are, the better chances we have of thriving and finding a place to put down roots.

 

The world, or more specifically humanity, is at a cross roads.  We are at a place where we can decide as to whether we follow the path that industrial agriculture is leading us down, or the path that allows the wild seeds to flourish and heal the landscape.

 

Garlic for planting

Garlic for planting

Our gardens, as an extension of ourselves, our bodies, and communities, have a place in nature.  While humans may display traits similar to an “invasive specie” a lot of the time,  we can also play an important role in helping to heal some of the wounds we have created.  As more of us see the evidence that our current path leads to destruction, it is only through conscience choices and a concerted effort that we can find a better and more resilient path to walk on.

 

That path, the one that leads to a future where we care for the Earth and all its inhabitants is possible.  Its already there, waiting for us to first find it, and then be brave enough to follow it.  It is there behind the monocrops of corn and soy and wheat and rice.  It is there when the blood from CAFOs is washed away.  It is there when we can move past the “40 hour” work week and find truly meaningful work for ourselves to participate in.

 

That path starts in our hearts, our  homes and our gardens.  It is weedy, and gnarled, and imperfect.  It nourishes our bodies and inspires our dreams.  It starts as a young sapling and ends up an old, twisted oak with deep roots.  It is found in a tomato vine and a bean patch, a chicken coop and a beehive.


That path starts with our seeds.  Those that contain the genetics of the food we eat, and those that start as dreams and finish as stories that we tell the next generation.  Our seeds need to be protected and propagated, they are the future.  Save them and plant them and tend them so that others can do the same in turn.  Peace and Cheers.

A path into the future...

A path into the future…

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owentree2

A boy and his dog, and a tree…

I give thanks for my wife and my kids,

and the land, and the house that we call home.

The bees that pollinate the flowers, the trees that grow,

the weeds that heal, the seeds that spread.

 

I give thanks for the talents and skills

that I have cultivated and grown.

Critical thinking, grafting, and gardening of the self

DIY Loving, mending, and building of life.

 

This Good Earth is my home,

It is where I come from and where I end.

 

It is star dust and water,

saw dust and food.

Compost and manure,

Veggie and fruit.

Mushroom and meat.

Worm and bug,

Chicken and duck.

Apple and orange,

Leaf and root.

 

It is freedom. It is health.

It is endangered. It is sacred.

It is our home, and we only have one…

We may be at a place in history, that someday is remembered as a turning point.  A time when we realized how far our nation had fallen into fascism.   A nation ruled by racist, sexist, and homophobic bigots and killers…

Let us move on, and shed the extra weight of intolerance and bigotry.  No, we don’t have to all be alike, but we need to learn how to live together and celebrate our common ground…

Let us listen to the land.  We are as much a part of nature as polar bears or dandelions.  Let us once again find our place in this grand experiment.  Let us leave a bigger handprint, than a footprint and take a proud seat in the counsel of nature…

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While the title of this essay may be tinted with a bit of doom and gloom, it is not as ominous as it sounds, and it is a fairly accurate description of the events and stories that follow.  For anyone who has followed this blog over the last five years may have noticed, I have gone through periods of consistent, productive writing, balanced out with dry periods of nothing but writers’ block growing up through the cracks of my mindscape.  While these droughts have been few for the most part, this last one has been pretty epic in scale!  The last time I sat down to write was back in February of this year when I continued with an ongoing series of essays about DIY homebrewing.

 

Winter!!!

Winter!!!

Since this last winter (the one filled with all of the Polar Vortexes) many things have happened here at the Dead End Alley Farm, and much of it would have made great copy for essays and DIY how – to’s here on the blog. I am not going to touch on everything, but I guess it is time for us to catch up on current events and happenings around the homestead and the world at large.

 

As I sit here in the afternoon shade with a cold beer in the outside office (a picnic table and some benches, and a hacked together arbor covered in wild grapes and honeysuckle) I am listening to one of the hens cluck away in pride or fear or some other emotion that only a chicken can know.  I can see bumble bees feeding on white clover and catnip, an overcast sky, and my old dog Harvey lying in the grass watching the world go by.

 

There are parts of our yard that are overgrown with weeds that should have been ripped from the ground long ago, and some of our apple trees (especially the big old one in back) are beginning to shed apples like drops of rain.  There is garlic hanging from the roof joists of my back deck and the tomato plants are overloaded with luscious fruit this year.

 

I have three hives of bees this season.  My pride and joy are the Carniolans that overwintered and have proven to be exceptional bees.  They are 3 deep with 2 honey supers (which translates to a very healthy colony that is making a lot of honey), a naturally mated queen (who may be the same one from last year, not real sure if they have swarmed or not this season) leads this tribe, and they are poised to enter this upcoming winter appearing very strong and healthy with adequate food supplies.

 

buckfastbbeeinstall

Installing the Buckfast bees out at our country beeyard.

This spring I also purchased 2 packages of hybrid Buckfast bees that came up from Georgia.  Sadly one perished within the first week (dead queen), but the other one has shown to be a vigorous (if not a bit pissy) hive of bees.  At last check they were finishing up drawing out comb and making honey in 3 deep boxes which should be enough stores for winter. And throughout the early part of the year these Buckfast bees provided frames of brood and eggs to help strengthen my Carniolans, and have also helped out to create a third colony.

 

At the end of June I came across a local company, 4 Seasons Apiaries, that specializes in locally bred queens and nucs.  This is a huge deal for us in Minnesota, not only for the fact that it is hard to find northern bred queens anywhere, but because it was only 20 minutes from my house as the car drives.  I ended up purchasing a really dark queen for $28 and put together a split that was made up of two frames each of the Buckfasts and the Carniolans.  The jury is still out on how this hive is doing though.  The queen is laying eggs, there is brood (both capped and otherwise), and they are actually making quite a bit of honey, but their overall numbers seem low to me.  They will most likely be subsidized with honey from the Carniolans this winter in hopes that they will have enough food to survive the cold, dark days of the upper midwest winter.

 

While I cross my fingers in hopes that all 3 of my colonies will pull through and survive this upcoming winter, observation and common sense tell me that the likelihood of all 3 surviving is slim at best.  Current numbers from this last winters survival rate was anywhere from about 30-50%.  These are horseshit numbers when compared to 20-30 years ago when a beekeeper could expect close to 90% survival rate in their apiaries.

 

My backyard is a refuge for endangered species...

My backyard is a refuge for endangered species…

So the same story continues for the bees.  While the numbers of reported cases of colony collapse disorder have evened out (and possibly plateaued), bee losses continue throughout many parts of the world, but seem especially high here in America.  Why this is such a surprise to people baffles me.  Our modern – mono crop – anthropocentric ways of inhabiting this planet are not compatible with a diverse, living, natural world.  This story is no longer just about the bees, but also of the monarch butterfly, the oceans, the remaining old growth forests of the world, and even people.

 

Habitat destruction, climate change, slavery, edible-food-like-products engineered to grow with poison, industrial pollution, and profit – from – disease are all symptoms of the overarching cancer that is this modern day capitalist society. It has grown up around us over the last 300 years, the whole time was spent in a petrochemical party binge, and now that we are drying out we are starting to feel the hangover!

 

It is as simple as this – when the bees lose, we lose, and that is the road we are going down.  The world that we live in, regardless of your flavor of religion, or politics, or indifference is still ruled by cold hard facts established through observation and the scientific method.  The world is changing, mainly its’ climate, but also the make-up of its varied populations.  Every day the Earth loses another creature, another plant.  The last of manifest destiny is completing itself as the few remaining “wild” people are driven from their forest homes, and the blood of ethnic genocide still waters the tree of “Liberty” for those of us in the privileged world .

 

Here is my flooded basement!

Here is my flooded basement!

This spring my family experienced climate change first hand.  For some naive reason I thought we were insulated from climate change here in Minnesota, but was I wrong!  Starting towards the end of May and going through towards the end of June, we received upwards of 15 inches of rain for the month, with a lot of this rain coming in bursts of multiple inches in short periods of time.  At some point a sewer line about a block and a half away from my home could no longer keep up with the amount of stormwater entering the system and literally collapsed in on itself.  This blockage led to my whole neighborhoods’ sanitary sewers backing up and we had upwards of 14 inches of sewage water in our basements!

 

Lets just say it was a real shitty and smelly problem to clean up.  To add to the mess, the city that I live in is not claiming any real responsibility for the sewer collapsing.  They are saying that the amount of rain that we received is to blame (because no one could have predicted that we would ever get that much rain in such a small space of time), and it is not their problem that the sewer wasn’t designed to handle that much water.  This situation is a good illustration of the intersecting problems of failing infrastructure and its ability to deal with the symptoms of climate change.

 

Not only is it bad enough that our infrastructure is falling apart and failing throughout the country, climate change will only hasten the collapse of these systems that we take for granted.  As there is less and less money to spend on domestic infrastructure projects and basic preventative maintenance, and the ever increasing threats of unstable weather conditions loom closer on all of our horizons, our roads and sewers and all the other systems that make modern lifestyles possible will be challenged and frequently overcome by a force far greater than themselves.

 

What is the quick take away from this conversation?  That as we face the future of a world that struggles to adapt to a changing climate with far fewer cheap resources on hand to work with, we can no longer rely on the long term support of our governments to solve these problems or to even help clean up the messes that ensue.  Just think back to hurricanes Katrina or Sandy (or any number of other climate disasters that happen regularly around the world) and you have all the evidence that you need to show government ineptitude when a climate-crisis strikes.

 

Most of the collapse will be slow and unnoticeable except for those places directly affected by whatever natural disaster decides to strike next.  But with each changing season, and every new climate change induced disaster, bit by bit the comfort and convenience that we are used to will begin to erode away. As long as we keep spending our resources, whether that be gold or oil, in a way that denies climate change and resource depletion, we will find ourselves in a world that is an empty shell of the one we now know.

 

If I were a religious man I may start praying extra hard right now, but thankfully I let science rather than superstition guide my life.  Critical observation and the ability to make rational decisions based on the facts is important.  Not just for a nation or a civilization, but also on the personal and family level.  I think if there is anything I have learned, is that when we can look at problems on multiple levels, do the research that is needed to educate ourselves on these problems, and then make decisions based on these observations to correct the problem, we can do a lot just in our own lives to change the course of events, and add a bit of resiliency and human spirit back into our everyday lives.

 

Nature reclaiming what is rightfully hers!!

Nature reclaiming what is rightfully hers!!

As briefly mentioned here in other posts, a year and a half ago I quit a long time job of mine in favor of one that affords me far more free time.  The trade off has been huge, and sometimes quite challenging.  This has been my second summer off, and my first full season as a partially self employed, full time stay at home dad.  It has probably been the most eye opening, and sometimes hardest role I have ever had to play.

 

Being use to the role as the main breadwinner in my family for so long and then giving up that economic control is not easy, but a lesson that I urge you to all try at some point in your life.  After these last few months of being at home with the kids, I have a far greater appreciation and respect for the work that my wife (as well as all you other moms out there!) has done over the last 8 years.  Child rearing is the hardest thing I have ever participated in, but I am glad that I have had the chance to dive in full time.

 

For me the hardest part has been balancing time between time actively spent with the kids, chores, and coordinating our CSA.  The CSA we run is small.  2 full shares, and 2, ½ shares, but it gave me a nice chunk of cash in the spring and early summer for things like groceries (I can’t grow cheese cake!) and gas money.  That cash is gone now, so my new endeavor is working on a business plan that expands out from the CSA in other directions to increase my summer cash flow for a few more months.

 

Eventually I hope to start making a bit of money by raising bees to sell, starting a small plant nursery, and I am also exploring some options for teaching classes.  Using outlets like the public library system, community education, and space at my local co-op, I am hoping to put together a selection of classes that will include introductions to beekeeping and Permaculture, and also a tree grafting workshop each spring.  I am in the early phases of research and planning, but I hope to teach my first official tree grafting class this upcoming spring (contact me if you are interested in hosting a class).

 

I guess when I really sit down and think about it, my ultimate long term goal is to not have to ever work a full time job again, unless it is for myself.  I am not scared of hard work, but it comes back to the fact that I am no longer alright selling my time to some asshole when I am fully capable of doing something(s) I am passionate about and generate an income for myself at the same time.

 

You can't stop nature!

You can’t stop nature!

Is this selfish?  Maybe, but I am okay with that as well.  I have begun to realize more than ever most people are just clueless drones.  Who after years of taking orders, and numbing themselves with TV, processed food, and fanatical beliefs in fairy tales can no longer truly take care of themselves or make desicions that impact their destiny.  As it stands, with humans being prisoners to their own creations and all,  I do not have a lot of hope for humanity right now.

 

If you follow David Holmgren’s work Future Scenarios, we are most likely entering into the Brown Tech future.  A world where we will continue draining the Earth of its fossil fuels, destroying the last of the wild lands, converting more and more  of that land to desertscapes of monocrops, and the further erosion of our shared cultural heritage, modern Homo Sapiens have perfected the art of extinction.

 

It is a bleak future.  One that leaves less and less room for those of us who seek freedom and justice.  It is a world that has been reduced to cultural poverty by traditions and tragedies alike.  It is a world where all life on Earth has been reduced to interchangeable and disposable parts in the pursuit of Progress.  It is a world filled with death and injustice, but it is also falling apart.

 

Whether humans can survive this collapse of our own making is yet to be determined.  It will be hard, but even the strongest rock is defeated by water and wind in the end.  It is in these cracks and fissures that we can seek our refuge.  The spots forgotten about and overlooked.  The areas where literal and figurative weeds grow.  The edges.  The TAZs where humanity still flourish.

 

Go on hikes.  Hunt mushrooms.  Raise bees.  Raise Kids.  Bake bread.  Love.  Hate.  Grow some carrots.  Chop some wood.  Pull some weeds.  Laugh.  Hug a puppy.  Cry.  Resist!  Grow.  Take a nap.  Rise up!  Read a book.  Lend a hand.   Take notes.  Have fun.  Fish.  Visit a friend.  Hug your mom.  Plant trees.  Be human….

Freedom!!

Freedom!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Here are my two helpers.  We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard.  The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free.  They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

Here are my two helpers. We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard. The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free. They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

As happens this time every year, I have hit a lull in my writing.  Not that there hasn’t been plenty to write about, I just haven’t had the energy to sit down in front of the computer screen and pull all my thoughts together and put them into written words.  The summer of 2013 has seen our backyard bees doing great,  my wife just picked our first real harvest of Haralson apples, and it has been a very bountiful year for us on our urban foraging adventures which yielded us more than a dozen pints of mulberry jam and close to forty pounds of really great apples gleaned from an old neighborhood tree.

One reason for the lack of activity here at Autonomy Acres is that I am now working two jobs, and neither of them are the one that I have spent the last 10 years of my life working at.  Back at the end of May I called it quits at the adult beverage factory where I had worked and took the summer off to rediscover what it means to be human.  I was burnt out and depressed by the endless daily routine of factory life and knew I had to make some positive changes in the way I live and walk on this Earth.

Having a couple months off to gather my thoughts, and to let my body heal was the right medicine at the right time.  When I decided to take my life back, it was one of the most empowering moments I have ever felt, and the energy and self knowledge that I gained from that choice has changed my life.  I have realized that all the “Things” that society tells us are important and that matter are meaningless.  No longer will I let a “job” define who I am as a person.  The accumulation of money and “Toys” is not a measurement of happiness nor are they milestones that should be enshrined in our personal stories. Finally, it was reinforced in my mind that nothing is more important than our relationships with our families, friends, and the Earth.

While I wish I could say that I am now a gentleman of leisure, relaxing in a hammock sipping cold beer and reading Edward Abbey novels, sadly, I am still just a common worker!  I find myself back in my old haunts though – line cooking!  I worked restaurants for many years and truly enjoyed the kitchen work, but not the hours.  But I got lucky and I am now  slinging hash and eggs, cooking up real stocks and soups, and working with a terrific crew of Food Service Pirates at a local music college in the early morning, Monday through Friday.  It is nice to be appreciated for my talents and skills, and to also work for decent folks who treat me like a human being, and not a machine; a big change from where I previously worked.

I am also pulling a few shifts a week at a “Hip” national grocery store chain.  And while I do enjoy this as a part time gig, the pay is horseshit, and the health care benefits I was hoping to get through them just got put through the guillotine because of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which translated means – the big bosses saw this as an opportunity to make a shitload of money.  At least I still get a small discount on groceries!

It is interesting though to see a new side of the food industry that I was previously only a spectator and consumer in.  While I have written extensively about the global food supply chain and how it affects farmers and communities, and how it is ultimately not based on sustainable and local means and resources, seeing this first hand has been very educational.

freshly picked Haralsons!  These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard - No semi-truck needed!

freshly picked Haralsons! These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard – No semi-truck needed!

It is easy to use Wal-Mart as the poster child for the just-in-time, warehouse on wheels delivery model, but it is everywhere, whether that be a grocery store or a local brewery.  Anyone who has spent time researching food, how it is grown, and then how it is shipped to all parts of the world has seen the figures that say if a natural disaster or collapse of some kind disrupts the supply chain, grocery store shelves would be empty in 3 days.  Seeing how a grocery store runs, is managed, and is stocked I completely believe this.

Our food supply chain is balanced ever so gently on a global house of cards that when it does fall, it will fall fast.  It could happen because of the loss of honeybees that is now in the news almost everyday, or it could happen from a natural disaster or escalating climate change, or in a worse case scenario could be triggered by a terrorist attack or a war that shuts down the supply chain.  Whichever way you slice it, this scenario is all the evidence anyone should need to dig up that lawn and get growin’ as much of their own food that they can and begin adding a bit of resilience into their lives!

To echo past essays here at Autonomy Acres and other sources that touch on these issues, this predicament of global climate change, energy descent and food security that we find ourselves in, need to be looked at as an opportunity to move the human race forward into the future.  While it may seem like a futile prospect to think we can take on, and ultimately overcome these challenges, the words of Permaculture Pioneer Geoff Lawton come to mind -”All the worlds problem can be solved with a garden”!

It may seem like an idealistic statement, but I truly think that there is a lot of truth and wisdom from such a simple idea as planting a garden.  If everyone who has access to a bit of land, whether that be in the city or out in the country began to grow a portion of their own food, we would realize the abundance that this Earth can provide for us.  And a garden is more than just growing food.  Once you make the leap to becoming a producer and not just a consumer, many other wonderful things follow in the footsteps of a garden.

Compost is one of them.  Food scraps, garden waste, animal manures, leaves and other plant debris can all be composted and be used to start healing our soils.  When our soils are healthy and filled with organic matter, not only can we grow lots of great food, the soil also becomes a living ecosystem, a sponge for holding water, and most importantly a place that can capture and store carbon.

When we start to tend the Earth as stewards rather than rulers, and begin to see how humans can have a positive impact on our surroundings, beautiful things begin to spring forth.  Where once there were manicured lawns that were maintained by a regiment of poisons and pointless labor, now there can be gardens packed full of both annuals and perennials providing food for humans, habitat and forage for wildlife, and many other products that range from fibers, fuel, and pharmaceuticals.

Where once there were boulevards and roadsides, those pieces of land that are cut off from each, now there can be fruit and nut trees, fruiting shrubs, and forage for all the pollinators.  These pieces of land can be reclaimed and planted with species that need little to no human maintenance that once again help to feed us, provide us with fuel, store carbon, and heal the soil.

My futue looks sweet!  We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive.  It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

My futue looks sweet! We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive. It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

The future is full of possibilities.  If we continue down the road we are on now, then there will not be a future for the human race.  Turning the ship around is not enough – we have run out of time to do that, we need to jump overboard and start anew.  It will not be easy, but for the sake of the generations that follow, and all the other critters and plants that call this planet home it is what we must do.

Starting over will require participation from everyone.  It will not happen because a government or a corporation tells us too.  It will happen organically, and from the bottom up.  When the people demand an end to the destruction of the planet and are ready to start the healing process, governments and corporations will have no choice but to listen, and eventually cease to be.

It is possible, and it is starting.  It is happening everywhere that there are gardens being planted, where land is being reclaimed, and where communities are being built.  It happens when people band together and stand against the machine of oppression.  It happens when people realize that everything we have been taught is an illusion, and that when we change our lives, we have the power to change the world!  Peace & Cheer

A great video about living a simple life …

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Our first ever plums!  On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum!

Our first ever plums! On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum! Tree…

It is that time of year again here in the northern temperate climate of Minnesota when we start to see the abundance that pours forth from a well loved and tended garden.  Ripe tomatoes off of the vine, apples that will soon be picked, bags full of potatoes, and another successful harvest of garlic curing downstairs.

It seems like every spring I have reservations about the year to come – things like too much rain or not enough, how bad are the Japanese beetles going to be this year, or is a gigantic wind storm going to take out my fruit trees; and each year I am surprised by what happens and what thrives or what  completely fails.  But regardless of the overall outcome, we have always had something good to eat this time of year.  That is one of the benefits of planting a diverse garden, packed with the  many varieties of plants we have available to us.

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

When we diversify our gardens, regardless of the weather or pests, we can almost always insure some kind of harvest.  Right now, if I were so inclined too, I could walk out into the gardens and prepare any number of dishes using beets, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, onions, swiss chard, green beans, a wide range of cooking herbs, eggs from our chickens, and if I felt like stealing a bit of honey from the bees, that as well.

This is not me trying to brag, but more to show what is possible when we decide to grow food, and not lawns!  Yes, it takes some work.  Yes you may get strange looks from your neighbors (but also gain some allies as well).  And yes, you will eat better and feel the benefits of joining the ranks of us crazy Urban Homesteaders!

As far as our gardens are concerned, self sufficiency has never been the goal.  For me the thought of trying to be self sufficient in food, whether that be in a city or a rural setting is a mute point.  The only way to be truly self sufficient is by building and living in a community that is based on mutual aid and respect.  When we can respect our neighbors and lend a hand when one is needed, than we can talk about being self sufficient, or more appropriately, self reliant.  Growing food is one of the ways we can start to build these kinds of communities, and start the process of reclaiming our culinary traditions.

For the rest of the essay I am going to highlight a few things already mentioned, the food that we receive from our generous gardens this time of year.

garlic

Here is a shot of some of the garlic we grew this year. We ended up with close to 250 heads, and almost all of them were as beautiful as these!

Garlic – Here at the Dead End Alley Farm we have been growing garlic for about 8 years.  The first couple of years were pretty rocky with very meager results.  But with a bit of homework, and some  perseverance,  we have now grown great garlic for the last five or six years.  Right now we grow 7 varieties – Chesnok Red, Georgian Crystal and Fire, Killarney Red, Marten’s Unknown (rescued from my neighbors garden), Mitachi, and Siberian.  All of these are hardneck varieties that are well suited to our northern climate.

Garlic deserves its own essay here at Autonomy Acres, and someday I will get to that one, but for now I will leave you with this.  Garlic is a heavy feeder.  I devote a large percentage of my homemade compost to my garlic planting every fall.  So if nothing else, I know that wherever it is that I plant my garlic, that space also gets a huge addition of organic matter and nutrients once a year.  Two books that have been influential concerning my love affair with garlic have been Stanley Crawfords A Garlic Testament and Chester Aarrons Garlic Is Life.  Both are more memoirs rather than growing manuals, but they are great reads and may get you addicted to growing garlic, just like they did for me!

Tomatoes – These do not need any introduction.  The whole world loves them, and for great reasons.  They lend themselves well to many different types of cooking.  They can be blanched and frozen as whole fruits, chopped and prepared as fresh or canned salsa, or cooked down into the classic sauce that fills the shelves of so many of ours root cellars.

These were harvested as I wrote this essay.  There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on.  All of them are great eating!

These were harvested as I wrote this essay. There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on. All of them are great eating!

For the last few years we have grown on average about 15 tomato plants, some years more, some a little less, but that usually yields us about 15 quarts of canned sauce along with quite a few pints of canned salsa.  That does not include what we eat fresh, or what we provide in our CSA shares throughout the late summer.

Tomatoes should be a part of any homestead garden, if only for the taste and beauty that they add to fresh summer meals.  Stick to heirlooms, but don’t turn down a good hybrid or two for early fruits.  Be diligent on lite pruning and trellising, and you will be rewarded in bountiful harvests!

baggedpotatoes

These 3 bags of potatoes hold close to 80 pounds of spuds! Not bad for a $10 investment!

Potatoes – Potatoes, also known as Earth Apples, are a staple crop here at our city farm, along with the garden we have been establishing at my in-laws an hour west of St. Paul.  I my opinion, they are the best bang for your buck crop.  Seed potato is cheap, and if given the right environment, will thrive and more than triple its mass in return.

This year at our “country” garden, we planted three rows each with five pounds of whole “seed” potatoes planted offset in rows about 15 feet long.  We ended up harvesting close to 80 pounds from those three rows!  Talk about a real investment!  Once again, potatoes are heavy feeders, so any compost, manure, and mulch that can be set aside just for them is well advised.

We also have a number of potatoes planted here in the cities this year as well.  They take up two of our raised beds and were planted with pre cut potato “eyes”.  As of right now the jury is still out on how well they have performed, the plants are still green and robust so we will allow them to be for now and keep growing into the early autumn.  Otherwise, potatoes are a great staple crop that can be grown in smaller spaces and provide a lot of calories that we can not get from other garden variety crops.

So to sum things up in this installment of Autonomy Acres, plant, plant, plant!  Grow whatever, and wherever you can, and realize the abundance that can be had with a little time and effort.  I am going to finish this short essay with one of my favorite youtube videos, a short piece from a South African farmer by the name of Jo Dyantyi.  I can only hope to have his outlook on life someday!  Happy harvesting Amigos y Amigas … Peace & Cheers

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Purple cone flowers and sunflowers in our back garden.  Both are great pollen sources for pollinators and also add beauty to our landscapes.

Purple cone flowers and sunflowers in our back garden. Both are great pollen sources for pollinators and also add beauty to our landscapes.

It is a beautiful afternoon here in West St. Paul, Minnesota.  There are a few clouds in the sky and a light breeze keeping this early August day at a nice temperature.  I am enjoying the modern luxuries of a few cold beers and a laptop in my backyard, a pork roast and chicken breasts being slowly smoked on the grill, and looking out over a garden filled with apple trees, sunflowers, and all other kinds of plants that the bees, birds, and butterflies are loving!

 

There are a few monarchs flying about and perching on the purple coneflowers, presumably enjoying the sun just like I am, and aside from the honey bees, there are also bumblebees, solitary bees, mason bees, and many other types of pollinators that I do not know the names of.  Some are wasp like insects that are all black with a blue sheen and long abdomens, others appear to be half  honey bee half fly, some look like apis mellifera, but are just different enough to be their own species.

 

But one thing all of these little critters have in common is their love of a healthy place to live.  All of our gardens, but especially the backyard garden that I am writing this next too, is a fairly overgrown collection of native and non-native perennials, self seeding flowering annuals, fruit trees, cooking herbs, and an assortment of other “weeds” that call this piece of ground home.

 

A wild cousin of apis mellifera.  I have no idea what this little critters name is, but it sure is pretty...

A wild cousin of apis mellifera. I have no idea what this little critters name is, but it sure is pretty…

For at least the last ten years there have been no pesticides or herbicides used on my property.  While I can not say the same of some of my neighbors, most of the yards around here have a bit of a wild side on parts of them.  Our neighborhood is one of the older ones in this part of town with some of the oldest  houses dating back to the late 1800’s.  Due to this, the demographics around here tend to lean towards the lower-middle class end of the spectrum, and many people that surround us (but not all of them) do not bother with heavy chemical lawn and pest treatments, which, as far as the bees and other pollinators are concerned, is a good thing.

 

As a result there are catnip plants, thistles, burdock, wild lettuces, purple loose strife and all other sorts of flowering weeds along the forgotten edges and property lines throughout the neighborhood.  You do not have to look hard or far to find fall asters, lambs quarter or dandelions, and there is a perennial ground cover of Creeping Charlie and white clover in many of the yards around our hood.

 

While this may not be aesthetically pleasing to the city council, or the folks who tend to their lawns with a devotion that is on par to religious fanaticism, this is a good thing for the honey bees.  These overlooked edges, and backyard weed orgies may be the honey bees (and their wild cousins) best hope for their ultimate survival.  It could be argued that urban neighborhoods like mine, with all the traffic and smog of city living, may be cleaner places to live and provide a more complete, and diverse diet if you are a honey bee.

 

A bumblebee and another wild cousin foraging on wild lettuce flowers.

A bumblebee and another wild cousin foraging on wild lettuce flowers.

While I am not typically a doomer, and try to stay rooted in reality, the honey bees are in a bad place right now.  You do not have to look far in the world of online or print media before you come across a piece about the plight of the honey bees.  Millions of bees dead in Canada, CCD getting worse, and struggles to get crops pollinated are all making headlines on a daily basis.  Are these headlines exaggerations?  I do not think so at all.  While I do not think the honey bee is going to go extinct anytime soon, I do believe that the food production system (which is based almost solely on honey bee pollination) that we have built over the last 100 years or so and rely on for almost all of our food is in great danger of collapse.  Mainly for the simple reasons that it is too big, too polluted, too dependent on fossil fuels, and no less damaging to the planet and her inhabitants when compared to things like clear cutting, mountaintop removal, tar sands, or hydraulic fracturing.

 

It is almost a catch 22.  If it weren’t for the honey bee, we would never have been able to start growing our food the way we have over the last 100 years.  But now it is this same mode of food production, the megalith of industrial agriculture that would not be possible without apis mellifera,  that is killing off the honey bee.  Because we have plowed up so much land, or in the words of Earl Butz – “Fencerow to Fencerow”, and have replaced it with monocrops of  GMO corn and soybeans, almonds and other regional crops that are all dependent on huge inputs of fertilizers, fuel, herbicides, and pesticides; we have basically created food deserts for all of the pollinators and other wild critters that use to called these areas home.

 

So is it possible that urban and semi urban (especially those in lower income) areas could be the honey bees saving grace?  I think it may be so.  Acre for acre, more poison that is harmful to insect and plant life (and all life in general) is being applied to rural land, especially in the areas that are growing corn and soybeans.  Glyphosate and Neonicotinoids make up the majority of the chemicals being used in modern agriculture and are being implicated with each new study as one of  the main causes in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Add to that fungicides, loss of habitat, varroa mites, and an artificial diet of high fructose corn syrup that is being fed to the bees to replace their stolen honey and lost forage of flowering “weeds”, and you have a perfect man made storm that is wiping out the bee population around the world.

 

Now that we have a fairly clear picture of the situation that the bees and other pollinators are facing, we can start to act in ways that can benefit and promote their survival.  As far as our broad scale agriculture is concerned, it ultimately may not be salvageable, at least in a form that is recognizable to most privileged humans if we want to insure the continuation of pollinator genetics.

 

Bee hives in an almond orchard.

Bee hives in an almond orchard.

Looking at the almond orchards of California as an example gives us a perspective of how large and complicated modern industrial agriculture has become. These orchards, which bloom once a year and cover an area of around 800,000 acres (or roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island), leave nothing else for bees to forage from after the spring bloom is done.  The orchards require close to one million of America’s honey bee colonies for adequate pollination each year, for about a three to four week period early in the spring.  Once the almond trees are done blooming, the migrating beekeepers pack up their bees by the semi load and move on to the next stop in their annual travels.  It may be fruit orchards in the Pacific Northwest, or tomatoes and melons in Florida, or fields of alfalfa and clover in the Dakotas, but the constant movement of the bees to one pollination center to another is also weakening them by exposing them to disease due to the high population density of bees from around the country.

 

If these orchards could move away from the monocrop mentality by reducing the amount of chemicals being used and provide other forage (perennial weeds, polycultural alley cropping, etc…) for the bees throughout the year, less bees would have to be shipped in each spring, and little to no high fructose corn syrup would need to be fed back to the bees, and we would start to reduce the demands that we have put onto a large segment of the bee population.

 

Will this happen?  Probably not anytime soon.  The almond business in California, the largest area in the world where almonds are grown, is a multi-billion dollar industry for California.  To question this industry or any other giant agricultural venture and it’s impact on the bees is bad business, and one of the reasons that our food system is balanced on a precipice overlooking collapse.  When we value money and profit over the health of ecosystems and all their inhabitants, we are no longer stewards of the land, but slaves to the almighty dollar.  Almonds, just like corn or soybeans (these two are not directly dependent on bees though), have gotten so large and complicated, that they are bound to eventually collapse underneath their own weight and hubris.

 

This is where the small scale farmers, urban homesteaders, permaculturists,  guerilla and backyard gardeners, environmentalist, and nature lovers can all play a huge role in supporting honey bee health, and ultimately their continuation on this planet.  It is true that it will take a massive paradigm shift to change agriculture as we know it, but we forget how powerful individuals, communities, and backyards can be.

 

This is a polyculture of wild majoram, borage, winter savory, comfrey, apple trees, and creeping charlie.  This area has been covered in pollinators for the last month and a half, providing nectar and pollen.

This is a polyculture of wild majoram, borage, winter savory, comfrey, apple trees, and creeping charlie. This area has been covered in pollinators for the last month and a half, providing nectar and pollen.

Let’s start in the backyard and boulevards of Everywhere America.  The first and most effective step an individual or family can take is to stop treating our lawns like it is royalty.  The lawn was a creation of the rich upper class in the 1700’s in western Europe, and was a symbol of wealth by showing you no longer had to devote your land holdings to food production.  This has continued on into the present and has only gained momentum.  There are whole sections of hardware stores and Wal-Marts devoted to this weekend pastime and all of the “Toys” you need to maintain a perfect Victorian lawn.

 

Lawn Boys and Yard Man mowers, leaf blowers, home scaled amounts of broadleaf herbicides to keep the dandelions (and other bee forage) at bay, and a whole universe of different sprinklers, fertilizers, and ornaments that tell your neighbors that you have succeeded in life!  All of these to some degree play a role in pollinator habitat destruction.  So the first simple step is to ditch all of these inputs and the traditional lawn and start planting bee friendly habitat.

 

While it has become my goal to eventually have no more “lawn”, I do still have areas for the kids to play on and the dog to roll around in.  However these areas are packed with creeping charlie and dandelions in the spring, and white clover throughout the summer, all forage for the bees.  I will never completely get rid of our lawn because my lawn is an ecosystem, filled with flowering groundcovers and nutrient accumulators that provide pollen and nectar for the bees. It is also a self fertilizing closed loop system that stays green most years with no water except for that which it receives from the rain.

 

One of our girls foraging on a catnip plant.

One of our girls foraging on a catnip plant.

Lets now take a quick look at boulevards, those small strips of land between the sidewalks and the streets and are typically planted with grass.  Not only are these once again useless lawn spaces that require watering, fertilizing, and fuel for excessive mowing, they also shed water in huge amounts.  If we made it a national effort to start planting our boulevards into rain gardens that were filled with bee friendly natives, perennials, fruiting and flowering trees and self seeding annuals we could increase total acreage of habitat by thousands, if not millions of acres.  This is huge when you think about how easy it is to convert a boulevard (or a whole lawn for that matter) to a no-mow, low maintenance landscape that can provide pollinators with forage and retain water in our drying landscapes.

 

And briefly, let us discuss park lands, roadsides, and other forgotten parcels that can also aid the bees in their quest for survival.  In my essay Guerilla Forest Gardens I talked about taking guerilla gardening to a new level by starting and tending clandestine orchards and food forests using edible woody perennials, shrubs and groundcovers.  This same principle can also be applied when it comes to planting habitat for honey bees, and many of the trees and shrubs that may be used in a Guerilla Forest Garden also provide great forage for bees.

 

Focusing on trees, there are many different kinds that also provide great forage for our pollinating friends year after year.  Here in Minnesota great trees to have around for the bees are Basswood, Black Locust, Autumn and Russian Olive, Poplars (bees use resin from these trees to make propolis), Mountain Ash, and any of the common fruit trees that are found in backyards.  Even though trees like these only bloom once a year, they can provide so much pollen and nectar at such a crucial time in the season that the more of these trees that are around, the larger the population of bees that can be sustained and thrive in any one region or neighborhood.

 

Trees that thrive here in Minnesota are obviously going to be different than ones that thrive in other parts of the country, so find your local and regional equivalents and get your cities and counties to plant more of them!  And if you are so inclined to plant trees yourselves (whether on your own land or in a Guerilla Forest Garden), many extension and county services have tree sales each spring where you can pick up bundles of trees like these for wholesale prices.

 

So aside from making our own yards and farms, local city parks, boulevards, and highway roadsides friendly to bees, what else can we do to aid the honey bees?  Ultimately it comes down to education.  First and foremost is educating the next generation about honey bees specifically, but nature and biology in general.  There has been such a disconnect over that last few decades involving our youth and the natural world that first needs to be addressed.  This trajectory follows the bulldozing of what was once rural, agricultural and wild lands, and the rise of the ever present and sterile, cookie cutter suburbs.

 

Most kids no longer have the luxury of getting lost in the local woods, or having adventures around a small creek; mainly for the reason that places like this hardly exist anymore.  So not only do our kids suffer from growing up in artificial environments mediated by a TV, an Xbox, and junk food, but these same woods and stream banks that once fueled a childs imagination and play time can no longer feed and house our pollinators.  So if there is any hope for the ultimate survival of the bees specifically, and a diverse ecosystem to support them, it lays in the hands of the next generation of young people and adults.  People who are not scared of the outdoors or bugs, people who can appreciate simple pleasures, and people who care for the natural world are what we and the bees need to successfully move into the future.

 

And second we need to help educate our families, friends, neighbors, and communities about honey bees and what they need to live healthy, productive pollinating lives.  The good news is that everyday, more people are becoming aware about this issue, and all the implications and connections that can be made to habitat loss, GMOs, and pesticide use.  The bad news is getting people to act on this new awareness that they now have.

 

A bumblebee on a comfrey flower.

A bumblebee on a comfrey flower.

Not everyone needs to run out and become beekeepers.  Some people just aren’t suited for it, and that is okay.  But something everyone can do, and quite possibly more important, is help to create the habitat and healthy environments that the bees need.  Tear up your lawns and start planting food for yourself and the bees!  Plant your boulevards in rain gardens that provide forage for the bees throughout the seasons.  Quit using the pesticides and herbicides that are killing the bees.  Contact your local and state governments about these issues and advocate for ordinances and zoning laws that are friendly to beekeepers and bee friendly habitat.

 

On the local level we can change things, even if it is one small yard or park at a time. True change, no matter how small, starts at home and with ourselves. When our lives and our actions are put out there to be positive examples to others, we can start to change the world.  Have the conversations with people who are ready to hear about these issues.  Take a class at a local nature center and learn more about the bees.  Write letters to your state representatives, boycott and protest Monsanto, go to city council meeting and make your voice heard, volunteer to help out a local beekeeper for a day, read books and watch movies about the bees, and always keep educating yourself.  And if you are moved by these little critters to the point of becoming a beekeeper, go for it and find the joy in getting stung a few times (it is really not so bad)!

 

The problems that face the bees are huge and are bigger than any one person or homestead.  But just like a colony of bees, when we do our individual jobs along with what everyone elses contributes, cooperation helps us to reach our goals.  We all have a part to play, and if we can succeed and overcome these problems together, the world may just end up a sweeter place to live upon.  Peace & Cheers

 

 

 

 

 

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Figs in Minnesota!!??  Stay tuned for more details!!

Figs in Minnesota!!?? Stay tuned for more details!!

The fruits of our labor are starting to show themselves.  Everywhere in the garden that I look, I am seeing fruits and vegetables that are ready to eat, or soon will be.  Tomatoes and zucchinis, strawberries and raspberries, kale, and cabbage, and peppers.  But more exciting than that are some of the perennials that have been planted over the last five years or so.

 

I began to plant fruit trees in earnest about five or six years ago and have continued adding to the count every year.  I started out with a few apple trees and a cherry tree.  That first year I planted a Meteor cherry, Ashmead’s Kernel (which was chewed in half), Haralson, Rubinett, and HoneyCrisp apple trees.  Since then many more apples, cherries, plums, apricots, cornellian cherries, mulberry trees and other perennial fruits have been added to our foodscape.

 

When we plant annual vegetables, things like a tomato or a pepper or a kale plant, we reap the harvest in the same season.  Our culinary desires are realized in one summer of photosynthesis and our hard work of weeding, mulching, trellising, tying, and pest control pay off in the fall when we start to eat whole meals that come right from the garden.

 

But fruit trees are a little different.  They are slow growing, and mature at their own pace.  Sometimes they get chewed in half by a loving (but stupid dog – sorry Harvey!!), or they get planted in a bad spot and get moved three times before they find their final home.  Fruit trees are a test for us gardeners of how patient we truly can be and how well we design our forest gardens.

 

For myself the wait and patience is starting to pay off.  This is not the first time we have harvested fruit from our trees, but this year on a few of our trees we are starting to realize the abundance that our future holds for us!  Each year we have harvested a bit more than the last, and with each season the fruit improves in quality (most of the time).  A good place to start is our cherry tree.

 

A bowl full of Meteor Cherries!  They were delectable in homemade muffins for breakfast!

A bowl full of Meteor Cherries! They were delectable in homemade muffins for breakfast!

Over the last three years or so we have harvested a handful of cherries each season.  Although last year was a complete loss due to a fungal infection, this year, whether it be climate conditions or the tree starting to reach maturity, the tree has bounced back and we have had the best harvest we have ever seen!  While it is still a drop in the bucket compared to what we can expect in the coming years, the cherries we harvested this year were in almost perfect shape.  Very little damage from pests, and the fungal rot that appeared last year was virtually non-existent this time around.

 

Meteor cherry, described by Michael Phillips, in his book The Holistic Orchard is

 

“Montmorency x Russian variety, introduced in 1952.  Large, oblong, bright red fruit.  Juicy, dense flesh.  Natural genetic dwarf grows 8-10 feet tall.  Large leaves help shield fruit from sunscald.  Requires less pruning than average. Resistant to leaf spot. Spur type. Zone 4-8”

 

This description is fairly accurate with one major difference – ours is well over 10 feet tall.  I have done a lot of pruning over the last three years, but mainly just to open up the interior for airflow and access for sunlight and harvesting.  I suspect that in the next couple of years we will start to see the full potential of this tree for two reasons.  First is that we now have bees on our property.  I believe that our fruit trees have suffered because of inadequate pollination, and second, which goes hand in hand with the bees, is that I have grafted two other varieties, namely Evan’s Bali and Northstar onto our existing tree to aid in that pollination and also planted a Mesabi cherry in close proximity to the Meteor.  Many cherry trees are said to be self fertile, but having another tree(s) of a different lineage will definitely help out in proper pollination.

 

Here are some of our Haralsons.  There will be much pie consummed this fall!!

Here are some of our Haralsons. There will be much pie consummed this fall!!

Moving about 20 yards west of the Meteor cherry is our Haralson apple tree.  This was planted the same year as the cherry and this year it is finally showing us what it is capable of.  Though it is one of the oldest apple trees on our property, it is also one of the smallest.  But do not let the size of the tree fool you, this tree is loaded with greenish orbs with a blush of red starting to show that will be finished ripening in the next two months.  There are so many apples on this tree that I am probably going to have to put some support stakes into the ground to keep some of the overloaded branches from breaking (and this is after doing a major thinning out of fruit early in the season!)

 

Haralson was introduced in 1922 from the University of Minnesota fruit tree breeding program and was named after Charles Haralson, head of the program at the time.  It is an all around good apple, mildly tart that is good for fresh eating, for baking, or as an excellent cider apple.  Throughout the years Haralson has become a Minnesota classic and most orchards have dedicated space to this apple tree.  I am glad that it is a part of my small orchard and it is finally coming into maturity!

 

The White Niagaras!  I can't wait to taste them!!

The White Niagaras! I can’t wait to taste them!!

This year also saw the addition of three grape vines planted along a south facing privacy fence we have running through our yard.  They are using the vertical space provided by the fence and are part of a guild that contains apricot trees and strawberries.  We planted three varieties – Catawba, Concord, and White Niagara and all three are doing great, but the White Niagara is by far the most vigorous.  It has put on almost five feet of growth over the last few months, and has a small bunch of grapes ripening as well.

 

Grapes are a new plant for me and I have much to learn as far as proper pruning, disease, and pest control goes, but I am excited to have finally found a good spot for them, and even more excited to eat them!  I also wouldn’t mind trying my hand at some winemaking as well.  Now anybody who has followed this blog for any length of time knows that I am a beer drinker, but as far as homemade wine is concerned, I say “Bring it on!”

 

While there are many other things going on and growing here at The Dead End Alley Farm, that is a good review of the season so far concerning perennial fruit.  It is fun to see some of these projects, or should I say plants, that were planted so long ago, begin to enter a new phase of their life cycle.  Barring the premature death of fruit trees to disease or pests or strong wind, we can expect these trees to only grow healthier and produce more fruit with each passing year for a long time to come.  It is one of the beautiful things about woody perennials, you plant them once and can harvest off of them for years, and sometimes even for lifetimes!  Stay tuned for more fruit updates, I hope to do a few more apple tasting reviews this fall, as well as a few other surprises!  Until next time, enjoy the rest of the summer … Peace & Cheers

 

 

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