Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Permaculture is Alive and Well in the Texas Hill Country

In April, we were in the Texas Hill Country taking care of some business, working the orchard, and planning our next sustainable, permaculture projects.  Since we don’t live in the Hill Country, everything we plant there has to be hardy enough to make it on its own and any system we implement has to be sturdy enough to withstand the Texas sun, strong winds, drought, torrential rain, wild hogs, raccoons, mice, curious birds, and the occasional stubborn bull (there’s a reason for the saying “like a bull in a china shop”).  Since neither of us grew up on a farm, many of the tasks are foreign to us and so we have had to learn by trial and error.   
Lessons learned on our own:  if a cow can reach it, it will eat it – I don’t care what the book says.  If a mouse can see into it, it will get in it and eat it (pvc pipe for dessert anyone?).  If it is dry, a wasp or bird will nest in it.  If a plant has a green part or a root, or makes a seed or fruit, then something will eat it.  If a bird can get to it, so can a squirrel, raccoon, opossum, ring tail cat, and many other critters. 
This trip we made time to visit the special friends we have known for a while, and we reached out to make new friends as well.  We have found that even though people approach ranching with different intents, almost everyone we meet agrees, it would be great if we could provide healthy food for ourselves in a way that improves the environment.
Our favorite Hill Country friends live right across the street from our land.  They graciously let us stay in their cabin, a rustic cabin that is cute as a button.  They see us coming and going, fresh as a daisy in the morning and looking sun-crisped and tumbled in mud-pies by the evening.  They look at us and say “I know what you mean”.  They have worked the land, put up fences, and have established fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and berry canes. They are wise and have given more advice and assistance than we ever even knew to ask for.  Every chance I get, I ask how the garden is going and my neighbor is happy to give me the tour again.  We talk about composting kitchen scraps and pruning and mulching. We discussed potato planting in March and peach tree blossoms in April.  I’m wondering if the blackberries are getting ripe about now.  I hope their pies and jams are plentiful.  They are a fun couple to visit, and I’m glad we had time this last trip to sit and share. 
 Like us, we have neighbors that own the land, but do not live there.  Occasionally, we are lucky enough to be there when they are, like this time.  One neighbor came over and walked through the orchard with me.  She is also interested in growing her own fruit trees and wanted to know how I was doing it.  I explained how the rain harvesting system worked (collects water, stores water, distributes it on a schedule, without a well or pump: see previous post). She noticed the “weeds” near the base of each tree and so I explained what companion plants I had seeded there.  The buckwheat, vetch, and clover were all chosen varieties for this dry environment and they will add nitrogen slowly to the soil, building up a more active and nutrient-dense soil over time.  We discussed organic methods of planting and fertilizing.  I asked if she had heard of permaculture – the idea that it is more efficient to plant items that will live a long life and will participate in the interdependencies of the ever-changing active environment. It was a lovely evening and good company.  I can’t wait to see what she plants and what fruit her land will bear.
Also, this trip, we had the chance to make some new friends.  We toured their farm, which was full of permaculture ideas.  They told us all about how they raise goats for milk and chicken for eggs, how they recycle the manures into compost for next year’s crops.  They showed us their own rain harvesting system, which is so important in arid areas for irrigation and livestock.  Their garden was full of plants.  Some were perennials that had been kept in a greenhouse over the winter.  Some were newly sprouted.  They planted seeds, propagated plants, and harvested for their own food supply.  And surprisingly enough, they grew some plants primarily for chicken and livestock fodder (what’s more efficient than that?).  The matriarch of the family explained how some types of trees, like mesquite trees, even though often called trash trees because they are invasive, are good for providing shade and supplemental vitamins for goats, horses, and chicken; she gave many reasons why these trees should part of the natural ecosystem.  Trees were planted in areas so that some shade-loving plants and grasses could grow even during the summer.  All around the place, there were mature nut bearing trees, kitchen herbs and vegetables, and fruit trees, and it was all done without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  When I said “it’s like the land of milk and honey”, she replied “Yes, we keep bees for honey as well”.  Well done!

It’s exciting to meet people that want to provide healthy food for their family and want to support the local economy.  What’s more sustainable than growing your own food? 
My favorite book on permaculture: