EARTH REPAIR CORPS
August 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Escarpment Black Cherry – Prunus serotina var. eximia
Family: Rosaceae

Escarpment Black Cherry is a beautiful and unique regional variety of Prunus serotina that is endemic to the Hill Country and south central Texas. Prunus serotina var. eximia is a great tree for wildlife, and is delightful-looking year round and as it changes through maturity –  from its narrow, tall form as a young tree, to its fragrant early spring blooms that are beloved by bees, the refreshingly lush green foliage, the small and edible cherries (black when ripe, but the pit and wilted leaves are toxic), the crisp yellow fall colors, and the intricate and changing patterns of the bark, which is also traditionally used to make medicine.  


While mostly smaller specimens are left after centuries of deforestation combined with over-browsing of saplings, there are still great 40-50+ foot Escarpment Black Cherry trees here and there. These are remarkably hardy trees that will survive severe drought through dying back to their roots and going dormant. Though very hardy, in order to truly thrive to their potential they need slightly more moisture than the average hill country tree, and can grow into beautiful large trees that make dense shade when they have good soil, ample water, and close to full sun, but with the shade of other trees or a hill.

Almost all large remaining cherries are in a moist canyon or on a north-facing slope with good forest cover around them, creating deep shade, which helps to conserve moisture in the soil when it is most needed! 


Once we’re in the midst of summer, we can fully appreciate the cooling value of the native forests of Texas, and so do all the plants and animals! Creek and rivers here greatly benefit from tall tree shade as well, since it reduces evaporation and keeps water temperatures at livable levels for aquatic wildlife. Historically, most of the Hill Country’s steep slopes and hills were forested in old growth woodland, and the individuals trees were much larger, with a tall expansive canopy that shielded many more sensitive understory plants and the soil from the intense heat. Due to the loss of soil health, depth, and its microorganism connectivity, it is much harder for slightly needier native trees like these to survive across much their historic range, so these cherries are often found as a small understory tree growing in the shade and nicer soils produced by oak trees, due to the lack of remaining suitable habitat. Tiers of canopy shade are a necessary part of the native ecology of the Hill Country, and are how most woody species here grew together, as described by those who saw this region before it was largely deforested by 1860.  Many native trees do not like to spend their youth in the full sun, where the harsh sun rays cause them to spend most of their energy respirating, rather than use the energy to grow. They also do not like their soil and root area exposed to bake in the sun instead of growing in the deep, spongy, humus and moisture-rich forest leaf mulch they should have. 


A common and unfortunate myth in Texas is that native grasses do not grow under trees – which has really only come about from the short-sighted observation that in overgrazed pastures where all the grass was killed and thus woody vegetation begins to fill the created void of life, there often will still be little grass once trees re-vegetate the area – because there wasn’t really much left before… Yet we can’t make such claims and scapegoat trees for centuries of poor land management if we spend enough time with the native grasses in their less-disturbed habitats.

Many great native grasses love to grow in at least partial shade, including eastern gama, bristlegrasses, indiangrass, setaria, inland seaoats, wildryes, etc. It would be beneficial for more ranchers to encourage and utilize shade pastures for summer forage, since the same grass in shade vs sun might still be green and growing vs dry and shriveling in the dryness of late summer. In many upland areas, the remnants of the big native bunch grasses (that are now mostly restricted to riparian areas and lowlands) cling on to life often only by the protection and partial shade of trees – just shielding plants from the later afternoon sun goes a long way in making it possible for them to survive tougher soil and moisture conditions. 

Full sun is more bearable to plants in Texas when they have deep soils and good moisture – and the loss of these things from the erosion and dehydration of this region means that shade and trees, and the positive feedback loops they create towards a more moist environment, are more important than ever!

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Our PDC Grad Interview Series is back!

Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC. 

Learn More about the Permaculture Design Course and check out our upcoming Fall 2019 PDC.

We’re continuing this series with small-business owner Michael Wolfert of Symbiosis Regenerative Systems – read more below.

1)  How did you become interested in sustainable design?  Please describe to us any moments in your life that piqued your interest in sustainable, regenerative, and holistic systems.  

I had a deep feeling of despair in my late teenage years and early twenties. At the time I was mostly seeking ways to reduce my footprint and be an activist for policy change and reform. One day a friend of mine, Joshua Adair, called me up and said that there was a potential scholarship for a permaculture design course. I said, “what the heck is permaculture.” He said “It’s like gardening, natural building, community building and learning to live more sustainably!” and proceeded to give the details of the event. I said I would have to think about it. We hung up. I thought about it for literally 1 minute, called him back and let him know I was really excited to learn about this and incredibly grateful that there was a scholarship because I would not have been able to afford it at the time. I started to do some research and prepare for the PDC, though I still had no idea the rabbit hole I was about to enter. 

2) What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design course?

I didn’t have many expectations, having just stumbled upon the concept with very little time to consider the implications and the impact they could have on my outlook and life. 

All Images © Symbiosis Regenerative Systems 2019

3) Who taught your permaculture design course and when?  What did you appreciate about that course, and what would you have liked to have learned more about?   

Kirby Fry, Gary Freeborg, Jenny Nazak and Ted Norris.

This course was a real turning point for me. Kirby led the majority of class time and he did a great job introducing me to the idea that we might actually strive to have a positive footprint instead of just trying to eliminate our negative footprint, and that in this practice we could aim to set up positive feedback loops, modeling our designs after ecosystems. 

From that point forward, I knew what my driving focus would be. I would try my best to become a mutually beneficial symbiote with my ecosystem. An agent for making connections between the correlating outputs and needed inputs of the systems around me. Nudging ecological succession forward. Taking more responsibility for my family’s needs, consumption, and outputs. Striving to leave a legacy of regeneration in my wake. It’s a lifelong pursuit that I hope future generations will be able to carry forward. 

“This site is a 7,000 square foot lot in an urban environment. In this picture you can see one of the main swales we installed – using earthworks and rain water catchment we’ve managed to catch about 95% of the water falling onto the site as well as from the 3 neighboring lots up hill.”

4) What other courses, if any, have you participated in that have helped you to learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?

Working at Morning Glory Farm with Gracie Brousard and Richard Lindley was my first real-world continuing education. These folks were real eco-pioneers and all-around fantastic mentors. I was very lucky to find them and to be allowed to study farming with them. I worked there for nearly 2 years as a farmhand. During this time I lived primarily in a school bus with no running water or power. The meals Gracey would make from the produce they grew and goods they traded other farmers for really opened my eyes to what eating fresh and seasonal produce would be like. they were both extremely patient and kind. I learned a ton about gardening, farming, community building, and being a mentee.

Cypress Valley Farms was my second continuing education course where I worked as a co-farm manager in an attempt to start a profitable regenerative farm. I learned so much from this experience and the property owners that it’s hard to summarize. Some of the main takeaways were to focus equally on the business and marketing of your farm as you do on the growing of produce. Make clear agreements with all decision-makers – 1 hour of energy input here on the front end could easily save 10 + hours of confusion on the back end. Establish a healthy work-life balance and don’t let being a business owner consume and burn you out. 

Hill Country Natives was my third continued education course. Here, I worked with Mitch Mitchamore to cultivate an intensive food forest in Leander, Texas starting with 6 inches of topsoil sitting on hundreds of feet of rock shelf. Mitch runs a fantastic nursery for natives and fruiting adapted plants but often says the main yield of his business is education, conversation, and connection. He takes as much time as needed to work with each client personally. He gave me a lot of freedom and trust to come up with experiments and implement them on the grounds at Hill Country Natives. Some days, we would be working at the potting trailer for many hours having wide-ranging discussions and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I learned a lot about leadership and problem solving from Mitch and a lot about food forests and native plants from the work we did together.

I worked for Paige Hill-Oliverio of Urban Patchwork as I was just getting my business started, doing landscaping installation and maintenance gigs in Austin. I learned about being a contractor, spreadsheets, and integrating art into a functional design. Paige does great work and I still enjoy collaborating with her on projects to this day. 

Teaching a food forest workshop with Caroline Riley-Carberry, Food Forests For All, three years in a row was a powerful learning experience. We taught people the basics of food forest design and the underlying principles, lead them through a design process, and implemented the design over the course of three days. Some of the results are on display at the Whole Life Learning Center, where a field has been transformed into a thriving food forest that is managed by Caroline with help from the whole life-learners. Seeing the iterations and receiving critical feedback from the systems this course worked to design and install furthered my understanding of food forestry and permaculture in general. Caroline taught me a lot about facilitation and design. I believe some of the initial collaborators that started the permablitzes and eventually Earth Repair Corps first began putting heads together at FFFA 1.  I love seeing a ripple effect of positive actions after good people get together and get inspired by a common goal. 

I traveled to Michigan to learn from Mark Shepard with Pete VanDyck. I learned from Mark that the economics of large scale permaculture farming are tricky and that you have to be creative and strategic to make your way in this space. I learned that small farmers can leverage their power as co-ops to compete against big ag and revitalize agricultural communities. I learned about designing systems that can be managed by machines at scale in order to compete against big ag without compromising the regenerative metrics of success we strive to meet. I also hosted Mark to teach a workshop at our homestead when we had just started renovating the place and learned not to host workshops until your infrastructure is in good shape. The workshop was a success and I learned more from Mark about his philosophy, and made wonderful connections with local like-minded folks. 

I was a participant in TexRex with Darren Doherty, where we learned the Regrarians method of property design. This was Darren’s adaptation of the Keyline Scale of Permanence, based on years of experience designing large scale regenerative properties. This method has been a huge help in systematizing my design process and presenting information to my clients in a clear, digestible package. I learned a lot about rotational grazing, mapping, keyline design and much much more. This is one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended in that I took home more practical advice and methodology than any other, had a lot of fun between classes, and the food was delicious! I gained a ton of inspiration from Darren, Lisa, and the other participants.

I’ve learned from the Permablitzes, and seeing the updates from those systems installed has helped me to have more iterative feedback to improve the designs that I create.

I’ve been running my own permaculture/regenerative design and installation business for nearly 6 years now. We have worked on over 100 individual projects, and being able to monitor these systems gives me even more data to draw on for improving the design, installation, and maintenance methods we use for all things regenerative. 

I’ve been living on my own homestead for nearly 4 years and am constantly learning from observing ecosystem succession in outer zones as well as the inner zone experiments and systems we’re running out here. One standard question I have to ask myself when installing a new system is: will I be able to maintain this with my 3 kids in tow or even better get them to help me with it? How can I make this accessible and fun for our family flow? That’s a pretty fun design lense to look through.

5) Have you been able to apply what you learned from a permaculture design course to your life, and business endeavors?  If so, please elaborate.

Yes! As you can probably tell from my list above, I dove in headfirst and never looked back. 

I’ve been doing permaculture professionally for nearly 6 years. We have 8 full-time employees including myself and a great network of independent contractors we can call on for collaboration. We’ve continued to gain momentum and improve our methods each year. Although it is a marathon of hard work, I love it. The projects we work on, the team we work with and the clients who have chosen to lead the charge in this effort keep me constantly inspired, learning, and growing. 

For the last 4 years, I’ve been living on a 25-acre homestead with my family. Even though I grew up in cities and suburbs, as I got older I never really felt like I could relax when I lived in the city. The frenetic energy, constant background noise, light pollution, air pollution, the heat island effect, it all just got under my skin and made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to raise my kids in a place where we were so reliant on seemingly fragile systems. I wanted them to grow up with the freedom to roam in the woods, get muddy, grow food and see the magic of nature unfold over many years. I don’t know if they’ll thank me for it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way and the turning point was my PDC. Each year we are more self-sufficient as we find our place within this context and ecosystem. 

6) Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, and/or pass on information about sustainable design to friends, family, or employees?

Yes, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients, taught at least 100 students in workshops, have taught some co-workers, and worn out my mom with my ecovangelism. I’ve also learned a lot from these interactions and continue to meet really cool folks from all walks of life who all agree that sustainable design is a good idea.


Interested in obtaining your certification? Learn more about our upcoming Permaculture Design Course here.

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July 2019 – Crop of the Month

Tomato – Scientific Name: Solanum lycopersicum
Family: Solanaceae
Written by Guest Contributor: Jennifer Goode

Tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable crop in Texas, likely due to the relative ease with which they can be grown. Tomato season can easily last from April until October in most parts of the state, or even longer if there isn’t an early freeze. In Dripping Springs, we currently have a plot of 6 tomato plants that has been producing dozens on a weekly basis since June.  

If you missed the opportunity to plant tomatoes during the spring, you can plant transplants through July and take extra care of them until they’re ready to produce in the fall. Tomatoes grow well in most Texas areas if planted in nutritious soil that drains well. They generally need at least 6 hours of sunlight each day, but the mid-summer sun in Texas can be too extreme. It is recommended to devise a way to shade the plants from the western sun during this time of year. 

 

 Variety Selection

Texas gardeners can grow a variety of small and large fruit tomatoes, including Cherry Grande, Juliet, Red Cherry, Small Fry, Big Beef, Big Box, Celebrity, Homestead, among many others. The first thing to determine is how much space you have for your plants. 

Tomatoes come in Determinate and Indeterminate varieties. Determinate varieties usually put out a large crop at a time and are ideal for container planters, or for gardeners who have the ability to preserve their harvest. Indeterminate tomato vines continue to grow and fruit over a long period of time.  They require larger, sturdy cages and are not suited for container planting. 

 

Planting Tips

Soils with a significant amount of organic matter are best for tomatoes. It’s recommended to spread 2 to 3 inches of organic matter, such as compost or leaves, over the planting area and then mix the material into the top 4 or so inches of soil. 

Most tomatoes will need to be planted at least 3 feet apart, but some varieties may require more space depending on their vine size. Proper airflow between the plants is important to prevent mildew.

You will want to plant each transplant slightly deeper than it was previously growing. Make sure the soil is loosely packed around the base of the plant, and that you leave a “donut” around the plant base to help hold water. Adding mycorrhizal inoculants will benefit the plants’ ability to absorb and retain water and nutrients. 

Fertilize the plants every 3-4 weeks with one to two tablespoons of fertilizer. Once the plants begin to flower, add one to two inches of compost to the plant base for extra nutrients to help the plant develop its fruit. Liquid seaweed is also recommended during this time. 

 

Pest Management

Tomatoes are susceptible to a variety of pests, and there are a variety of methods to address these ranging from seaweed extract, molasses, cornmeal, neem oil, garlic, and more. 

Usually, you can find capital letters on tomato plant labels that note which diseases that particular variety is resistant to. Some of these notes include:

  • A – Resistance to alternaria leaf spot
  • F – Resistance to fusarium wilt
  • FF – Resistance to race 1 and race 2 fusarium
  • L – Resistance to septoria leaf spot
  • N – Resistance to nematodes 
  • T – Resistance to tobacco mosaic virus
  • V – Resistance to verticillium wilt 

For a more comprehensive list of tomato pests and how to address them, watch this video from Central Texas Gardener.

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July 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Inland Sea Oats/River Oats/Wood Oats, etc – Chasmanthium latifolium
Family: Poaceae (Grass)

Inland Sea Oats is a lush and vibrantly green clumping grass that is most commonly seen in the shade of woodlands, and along the floodplains of creeks and rivers. It is a warm season grass, but can grow near year-round in milder winters and summers, making it a great choice for forest grazing systems. Tall stands of this strikingly beautiful grass also make great cover for wildlife, who also are fond of the abundance of seeds it produces.
 
 
Chasmanthium latifolium, like many native plants, has been severely reduced from its historical range by centuries of overgrazing due to its high palatability.
 
Inland Sea Oats is remarkably hardy when in the shade, and can grow in much more rugged and alkaline areas than the few habitats where it remains, as long as it has shade and a good covering of leaf mulch at its roots. It can grow in more sun as long as there is plenty of moisture and deep soil. It can survive the worst summers by going into drought dormancy, but will usually remain green and growing even in drought years.
 
 
Chasmanthium latifolium is one of the earlier grasses to emerge in spring, and by summer it may be four feet tall with good spring rains. Its seeds are often ready around late summer or early fall, but in more beneficial rain years, we can even see its fully-formed seeds as early as June and July. This grass is one of many plants that is sensitive to the highly variable seasonal weather conditions of central Texas, and has quite variable growth and bloom times depending primarily on the abundance of rain in the spring and summer, and fewer hard freezes in winter. It can remain green and growing even through mild freezes, but will usually be dormant by late winter. 
 
 
This native grasses will readily grow from seed, and when happy they can spread quickly into large stands from both seeds and rhizomes. The seeds germinate very well in disturbed soils, and are a great choice to sow into eroding areas to help stabilize them, though its best to give the seeds at least a thin mulch if there isn’t full shade, or if there is a lot of erosive water movement.
 
Dense mats of Inland Sea Oats can slow and infiltrate large volumes of water, and will catch and build soil in places that were previously eroding away.
 
Their above and below ground structures are very well suited for catching heavy rains, from their tall stems and broad leaves that slow the rain, to the way the angling of their stems then directs water down in to the center of the clump, where their strong roots then funnel it down into the ground.
 
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Earth Repair Corps Teaches 2nd PDC at Texastopia Farm in Blanco, Texas
January through June, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019

This past winter and spring of 2019 Earth Repair Corps had the privilege and honor to teach its second permaculture design course at Texastopia near the headwaters of the Blanco River.  The design course consists of 72 hours of classroom instruction, group activities after lunch, individual and group design projects which are presented to the class, and a talent show on the last evening of class.

View overlooking the main house and classroom facility of Texastopia Farm.

Class Overview

The classroom provided to Earth Repair Corps by Texastopia offers a great learning environment for both teachers and students.  There’s comfortable seating and tables, a 4’ tall by 16’ wide dry erase board, a “close throw” projector with a pull down movie screen, surround sound, dimmable lights, and a fabulous air conditioning system.  ERC couldn’t ask for more.

The course curricula covers the first 9 chapters of Bill Mollison’s book, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, and then goes over specific design systems for the home moving outward from there to the areas closest to the house and then out into the broader landscape.  

One distinction of this spring PDC is that we have been making an effort to emphasize the difference between design methodologies and design systems, and so along with methods of permaculture design, Earth Repair Corps has also been teaching Yeomans’ Scale of Permanence 1 and Savory’s Holistic Decision Making Process 2 .

This spring, thanks to the speaking and recruitment efforts of Pete VanDyck, we had 3 members of the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) attend the PDC.  Carol Patterson, Mark Hamilton, and Thomas Marsalia all attended representing EAA’s board, upper management, and field technicians. EAA has tens of thousands of acres on the Edwards Plateau in conservation easements that it oversees and is looking to implement soil and water conservation methods that were discussed during class on a model site.  Their design project was phenomenal.

Along with many other great students were two of ERC’s partners, Randie Piscitello with Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School, and Jennifer Goode with Texastopia and ERC attended the course and earned their PDC certification.

Class Curriculum & Activities 

Our guest teachers included Shelley Belinko who taught about design principles and methods of design, Heather King who taught about annual vegetable gardening, Travis Krause who taught about running a family farm and animal systems, and Peggy Sechrist who taught about Holistic Management and intensive cell grazing.

One of the activities that the class participated in was using the radial laser level to layout two conservation terraces and a level sill spillway above Texastopia’s road leading to the Blanco River.  Then, by the time the class resumed the following month, Pete VanDyck and Texastopia had installed the terraces, planted them with native trees, and mulched them with straw. It was a great design process for the class to be a part of.

About a quarter of the way through the course, day 3 or so, the students begin their design projects.  This spring PDC we allowed a wide range of projects including group and individual projects, as well as onsite and offsite projects.  This gives students the opportunity to work on designs for their own properties, and or work together as a team on site if they do not have land of their own.  I was especially impressed with the design project that the EAA team presented for a piece of land that may soon become a lab and working model for soil and water conservation methods on the Edwards Plateau.  All students are encouraged to make use of Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence and Google Earth Pro for their presentations.

Students trace a sitemap of Texastopia before conducting an energy flow activity.
Students present their energy flow maps.

The evening before the last day of class we held a talent show.  Bill Mollison always had a talent show during his PDC’s and joked that if you don’t perform in the talent show you wouldn’t graduate.  What I usually experience is students being surprised and a little uncomfortable before the talent show, but really opening up and having a fantastic time during the talent show.  Not only did we have several musical performances, but people sharing with us what they are good at, and giving us “how to” demonstrations.

The spring 2019 PDC covered a wide range of topics and hopefully opened doors for its graduates to further pursue those topics.  One of the main objectives of the course is that the graduates become better designers and hopefully better teachers of sustainable design.  Those of us teaching the class get to make new friends, and support others in their efforts to create abundance through good design.

If you’re interested in learning more about our Permaculture Design Certification and obtaining one yourself, please read more here.

References:

  1. Using the Scale of Permanence as a Tool for Land Evaluation
  2. An Overview of Holistic Management and Holistic Decision Making
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March 2 and 3, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry

All Images © Woody Welch 2019

Earth Repair Corps Teams Up with Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School

During the spring of 2017, I ran into Randie Piscitello at the TerraPurezza Permablitz.  She had learned online about the work Earth Repair Corps (ERC) was doing with the permablitzes and wanted to find out how ERC could help Goodwater Montessori install a terraced orchard and annual vegetable garden on the school’s campus. Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School is in Georgetown, Texas, and was still under construction at the time of the TerraPurezza Permablitz. I believe that the school opened and began its operations during the fall of 2017.

Aerial view of the orchard terraces at Goodwater Montessori.

The Goodwater Permablitz took 2 years of planning and fundraising to implement.  This story is a testament of how planning and persistence pays off. Randie and her associate, Heather Pencil, worked together to raise $15,000 for the installation of the garden at Goodwater Montessori.  Parents and community members individually donated up to $1,000, and had plaques with their family’s names on them dedicated to the trees we planted and to the picnic benches we assembled during the Goodwater Permablitz.

The end result of this team effort and permablitz might just be that we have created a model farm and garden for all Montessori schools in the United States of America. 

ERC and Goodwater Montessori are also planning to have a summer intensive permaculture design course (PDC) on the Goodwater campus oriented towards educators and how to replicate what ERC and Goodwater accomplished during this permablitz.  We are filing the paperwork that will enable educators to get Continued Education Units for taking the PDC.

The Design Process

The land that Goodwater sits on is a long and narrow property and is in Texas’ Blackland Prairie. Below the school’s driveway and parking area, a hundred yards or more from Stadium Drive where the entrance is, is a large field that is mostly undeveloped.  We were given permission from the school to install a terraced orchard in that field.

I made several site visits to the school before the permablitz in 2019 and that’s when Randie, Heather and I began identifying the “known knowns”What objectives will be achieved from this garden? What are the measurable outcomes for the school and students? Where is the water supply line? Where is the access?  What existing infrastructure would we need to avoid? What is the soil like? Are deer and other animals present that could affect the garden?

Once those questions were answered, we started with a process of elimination, asking where can’t we install an orchard? There is a large engineered detention basin just below the parking lot where the storm water from the campus drains into, so we couldn’t install a terraced orchard there.  There is the buried sewer line on the east side of the field where we could also not install an orchard. At the very bottom of the field is a low lying marshy area that was also not suitable for an orchard, so that left us with the middle and west side of the field.

The next issue to consider was how to fence in the garden and keep it safe from animals and other unpredictable elements, the “known unknowns”.  Pete VanDyck advised Randie and Heather to look into Critter Fence deer netting, which they promptly did and purchased over 900 linear feet of fencing, materials for 2 pedestrian gates and one vehicle gate.  Now that we knew how much fencing we had, we could set the dimension of the garden / orchard. The garden would be 150 feet wide by 300 feet long.

Some other known elements that would be included in the garden were a garden shed, a deck to be used as a stage, 8 picnic tables, and a large area set aside for composting school food scraps and annual vegetable gardening.  All of these elements would be at the top of the fenced in area (the north side) leaving everything downhill from there available for the terraced orchard.

I then created several renditions of the design on Google Earth Pro, and finally laid it all out on the ground during the winter of 2019.

Terrace Installation

Laying out these terraces was pretty straight forward.  The 150 foot by 300 foot garden area was relatively flat with only a 2 or 3 foot drop in elevation over 300 feet, which meant that we could lay out the terraces in a way that made the most sense for maintenance and access.  Five, 100 foot long terraces were laid out perpendicular to the east and west fence lines. Two 140 foot long terraces were laid out close to and parallel to the west fence line, which would serve as an evergreen privacy hedgerow between the school’s property and the church next door.

Once the wet weather broke and the site dried up, Pete VanDyck with VanDyck Earthworks and Design showed up for a week with a mini excavator to begin installing the terraces.  The soil was still somewhat wet, and the earth excavated from the swales came out in large clumps. He did a great job though, and the terraces ended up being quite gentle and smooth. The bottom 4 terraces had a slight grade to them, less than 1.0 percent, and had a check dam and a level sill spillway installed in each one of them to hold the water back but then to also allow the water to exit the swales during significant rain events.  As it turns out, almost half of the uphill surface water runoff from the church’s lot to the west drains directly into the highest orchard terrace and subsequently cascades into the terraces below. The swales are 7.5 feet wide, 1 foot deep and ended up spanning 500 feet in all. They will hold 2,250 cubic feet of water below grade, or 16,875 gallons. A 2 or 3 inch rain will fill them up. The berms are 9 feet wide and 1 foot tall and yield very beneficial raised beds for the trees.

The two terraces that we had planned which were parallel to the west fence did not get installed because the fence line was so overgrown with brush (mainly gum bumelia, hackberry, and juniper) that we did not have time to clear it before installation.  Instead, after the fence line was cleaned up, we ended up planting the evergreen hedgerow trees on grade.

Another task that Pete and I took care of that week was excavating 1,000 linear feet of trenches and setting a 1 inch water supply line.  The water line was connected and set, and the trenches were backfilled before the March 2019 permablitz took place.

Tree Selection

I sent Randie a list of trees that I thought would be suitable for the site.  She looked over the list and pretty much took it from there. There is a little bit of everything in this garden – citrus, loquat, mulberry, apple, plum, peach, pear, chickasaw plum, fig, pomegranate, and pineapple guava.

The trees were laid out in a fruiting calendar configuration – that is they were grouped together and planted based on when they would bear fruit, with the earliest fruiting trees planted at the top of the orchard and the later fruiting trees planted at the bottom of the orchard.

The lowest terrace was used as a native woodlot demonstration plot where we selected oak, ash, maple, elm, hickory, and more.

The evergreen hedgerow along the west fence line is where chose to plant the evergreen loquat and citrus (meyer lemon, Satsuma orange, and kaffir lime).

The Weekend of the Permablitz

There was a huge amount of planning and preparation that went into getting this permablitz ready, and even though a colossal amount of work was done prior to the permablitz, there was still even more work to be done during the permablitz.

Thirty cubic yards of chipped tree mulch had to be moved by wheelbarrow 100 to 200 linear yards down the field to the orchard.  The west fence line still needed to be cleared and cleaned up, and all of that brush had to be moved out of the fenced in orchard.  An 8 foot wide by 16 foot long stage was built on Saturday by Chris, the father of one of the students, and 8 picnic tables were assembled.  Several raised beds with wooden 2” x 10” borders around them and trellis between them were also built.  

It seemed like planting the trees was actually one of the easier tasks.

Perhaps, at least for me and a few others, the biggest chore was setting and installing the Critter Fence.  Scores of “ground sleeves” had to be pounded 2 feet deep into the ground, 15 feet apart, in which the the vertical fence posts would be inserted.  We got all of the ground sleeves set, as well we built the 2 pedestrian gates, but it wasn’t until after the permablitz that Randie and Heather got the actual deer netting up and built the vehicle gate.

Thank goodness for Mason Dillard, a licensed irrigator and recent permaculture design course graduate, who showed up before, during, and after the permablitz to help install the irrigation system.  He installed 12 zones of irrigation, providing bubblers for each tree, and drip lines for the annual garden beds.

Heather managed to have all of the meals, breakfast and lunch on both days donated.  She was also instrumental in getting many other materials donated including all of the lumber supplies from McCoy’s, and garden supplies from Lowe’s. The local retail community really came through for this event! All we had to do was ask them in a professional and nice way to help out.

This permablitz required a lot of planning, fundraising, and hard work, however, I believe that the yields will be exponential symbiosis and abundance.

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June 2019 – Crop of the Month

Pineapple Guava – Scientific Name: Feijoa sellowiana, Acca sellowiana
Family: Myrtaceae
Written by: Kirby Fry

The pineapple guava is native to the tropics of South America but has naturalized in subtropical and sub temperate regions all around the world.  It is a well shaped, evergreen bush or small tree with attractive flowers that grows 10 to 15 wide and just as tall. It can be used ornamentally and even be pruned into more formal appearing hedgerows.

A mature pineapple guava can tolerate freezes as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but plants 3 years and younger can die back during freezing temperatures and should be protected with frost cloth for their first few years.  The pineapple guava does very well in Central Texas cities where there is a “heat island” effect and along the Gulf Coast.

Variety Selection

There are a few different varieties that are available such as ruby (red fleshed fruit), supreme (white fleshed fruit), Indonesian seedless, and crunchy white.  These varieties are not always available in local nurseries though, and may need to be ordered from a catalogue or online. 

The fruit varies in size and sweetness, and grows to be anywhere from an inch in length up to 3 or 4 inches in length. A young pineapple guava tree will produce half a bushel of fruit (4 gallons of dry fruit) by its third year.  A mature tree will produce 3 or more bushels per year, or 24 gallons of dry weight fruit or more.

Planting Tips

In Central Texas a pineapple guava will probably not achieve its full size and so can be planted 10 to 12 feet apart.  It should be planted out of the way of freezing north western winds, and be given western shade. It likes well drained sandy loam soils with a little bit of clay in them. 

Dig a hole twice the size of the container that it comes in and water it in well after planting.  It needs a little extra water in the hottest time of the summer, usually two slow and deep waterings per week will suffice.  Fertilize your pineapple guava with an organic form of nitrogen such as alfalfa meal during mid summer and early fall when it begins to flower.  The fruit will begin to ripen mid fall.

Pruning Tips

Gradually prune your pineapple guava, removing branches growing straight out from the trunk less than 1 foot off of the ground.  To shape it into a small tree remove the lower one third of the branches to encourage vertical growth. It can be pruned into a more formal hedgerow but more aggressive pruning will set back fruit production the following fruiting season.

Pest Management

The main pest for pineapple guava in Texas, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley, are root-knot nematodes, which can be addressed by adding organic matter fine mulch such as grass clippings) and compost over the plant’s roots.

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January 25 and 26, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry

All Images © Woody Welch 2019

Earth Repair Corps Teams Up with the Multicultural Refugee Coalition

In January of 2019, Earth Repair Corps had the good fortune to host a permablitz (or volunteer perennial garden installation) at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC) New Leaf Farm near Elgin, Texas.  

The property where the farm lies is in the Blackland Prairie natural region of Texas and has black clayee soils.  Typically, corn, soy beans, cotton, wheat, and sorghum are grown in this region.

The property is owned by John Beal who leases it to MRC.

Our relationship with MRC began when I received a phone call from Steven Hebbard, their farm manager at the time, during the spring of 2018.  I went out to New Leaf Farm for a site visit and was shown a 3.4 acre field where Steven told me that they wanted a terraced orchard and a perennial food garden with the possibility of row cropping annual vegetables and fruits in between the terraces.  Steven had been working with Jamie Soma on an overall permaculture design for the entire farm and so I did my best to honor their existing plans and create a system that worked well within their design.

Wandaka Musongera is New Leaf Farm’s current farm manager whom we worked with extensively during the design process and permablitz.

Aerial view of the terraces at New Leaf Farm.

The Design Process

The first thing I did was find out how long and how wide the field was.  It was about 500 feet long from top to bottom and just a little over 300 feet wide.  Since New Leaf Farm wanted the possibility of row cropping between the terraces we were about to install, we laid out 4 terraces exactly 100 feet apart from top to bottom, with each terrace being about 280 feet long.  This is the part of the design process that I call identifying the “known-knowns”, which is a process of elimination. This part of the design process entails answering a few basic questions, such as: What are the objectives of the client? How big is the job site? What is the soil like? Where are the roads? Where is the water for irrigation?

It took us 5 days of surveying, however, to figure out how to lay out the terraces on this field.  Steven told me that he would like to have the terraces slope a bit in order to prevent water standing for too long, so initially I set the first terrace on contour in order to establish a baseline and went parallel and down from there.  The three successive terraces below the top terrace all have a 0.5% grade to them draining water very gently to the riparian area where the water would naturally leave the field. It was like laying out the terraces on a giant lump of kneaded bread dough though, with lots of humps and bumps, and dips and drains, and was not a simple process. With the help of Lacey Proffitt, we must have laid out those terraces at least 4 different times before getting the design up to my requirements.

Terrace Installation

Once the layout was complete, Pete VanDyck with VanDyck Earthworks and Design arrived and spent a week on a mini-excavator installing the terraces.  I have lost count now of how many times Pete and I have executed such designs and installations together. Five level sill spillways, where the berm of the terraces stops but the swale continues, were installed in order to allow excessive water out during major rain events.  The swale, or below grade part of the terraces, is about 7.5 feet wide and 1 foot deep. The four terraces combined can hold back about 5,040 cubic feet of water, or 37,800 gallons of water below grade, right at the feet of our perennial agriculture. It requires a 2 or 3 inch rain event to fill them up. The berms are about 9 feet wide and 1 foot tall and offer the fruit trees we planted a broad tithy garden bed on contour giving the trees a real “leg up” on that clayee soil.

Volunteers digging irrigation ditches.

Tree Selection

The next design parameter I was given is that New Leaf Farm was interested in perennials that could possibly be used as natural dyes, had market value, and fell within the spectrum of low to moderate maintenance and upkeep.  Shortly after the terraces were installed and before the permablitz, MRC was given nearly 30 pomegranate trees that met those parameters and which were planted on the lowest terrace about 10 feet apart. 16 mulberry trees were selected for the highest terrace which are extremely hardy and can be used as a natural dye. 16 pears were selected for the terrace second from the top, and 16 Asian persimmons were selected for the terrace second from the bottom.

Golden ball lead trees, considered a farmers tree, were planted at a ratio of 1 farmers tree per 4 fruit trees between the fruit trees.  Farmers trees are native leguminous trees that may offer some or all of the following characteristics – native, leguminous, sugary bean pod and fodder for livestock, deep rooted, dappled shade, and mine for minerals by their root system and deposited on the ground’s surface through their leaf litter.

The mulberry and pear trees were purchased from Flavor Farms out here in McDade, Texas just a couple of miles from where I live. The Asian persimmons were purchased from Bloomers Garden Center in Elgin, Texas. The golden ball lead trees were purchased from Far South Wholesale Nursery.

The Weekend of the Permablitz

Saturday the 25th was a partly sunny and cool January morning.  Very fortunately the terraces had already been installed so the main 2 jobs for the permablitz crew was getting 4 water supply lines, each about 100 feet long, to the 4 terraces, and planting about 60 trees.  Nearly 30 people showed up that day including the Wandaka Musongera’s mother and younger siblings. Wandaka’s mother provided us with lunch on both days of the permablitz.

To get the water supply line to the middle of the terraces we had to dig nearly 400 linear feet of trenches at least 6 inches deep.  This was by far the hardest task we had, and it was interesting to see how the crew got better and better at digging as the day progressed.  It also really helped when I spray painted the trench lines for everyone to see and follow more clearly.

Woody Welch, a board member of Earth Repair Corps, had his drone up in the air taking pictures of the property, and was himself also taking some really great pictures on the ground.

During lunch on Saturday Steve Moakley, a MRC board member, spoke to us about their mission, Tim Miller gave a presentation on how to plant his heirloom leaks, Wandaka spoke, John Beal spoke, and I also gave a brief presentation on permaculture design.

Tim Miller of Millberg Farms giving a presentation on his heirloom leeks.

That Saturday night and early Sunday morning however, it rained hard and limited our access to the field where we were working.  We basically had to cart in wheelbarrows all of the trees and soil amendments about a quarter mile along very wet and muddy farm tracks to get them to the terraces.  It never ceases to amaze me though how well and how carefully the permablitz crew can plant trees. All of the trees were planted before lunch on Sunday, and by the end of Sunday most of the supply lines had been set and the trenches back-filled.

The permablitz at New Leaf Farm was a great experience and hopefully the beginning of long friendship between Earth Repair Corps and the Multicultural Refugee Coalition.

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June 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Scutellaria ovata/Heartleaf Skullcap and its subspecies
Family:  Lamiaceae/Mint  

The delicate blue flowers of Heartleaf Skullcap provide a refreshing sight in late spring and into summer. Their bloom time compliments well in the landscape with other wildflowers that stop blooming sooner, and this overlap helps to provide food for pollinators throughout the summer.  When happy, these reliable perennial herbs spread quickly into large stands through their rhizomes, like many other species in the mint family. They are easy to propagate by digging and replanting the roots, and though they can spread into large clumps, they are not particularly aggressive when growing with other plants. Heartleaf Skullcap is one of various Scutellari species that grow in Texas, and prefers slightly more moisture, soil, and shade than the average hill country plant to truly thrive.

Yet, they are still very hardy and can survive a drought even in poor/shallow soil once established, though their growth will be reduced in those conditions. In deeper soils, Heartleaf Skullcap can more easily thrive in full sun, and it often prefers well-draining soils over heavy clays. 
This wonderful woodland edge plant follows a cool season life cycle, and in fall it will begin growing out many different stalks from its roots, which then maintain themselves as a low groundcover over the winter. This growing habit is very useful to incorporate with warm season plants that go dormant in the winter, so that both groundcover and photosynthesis/feeding of soil microbes can be maintained over the winter.

Heartleaf Skullcap starts to grow its stalks out in early spring, reaching anywhere from 1-3 feet in height before they bloom, depending on their growing conditions. Depending on latitude, light, and moisture conditions, they usually begin to bloom anywhere from April to May, continuing into summer, and will continue blooming longer with wetter conditions. Heartleaf Skullcap loves the cool weather, and typically goes dormant as the summer heat settles in, unless prolonged by cooler weather and periodic rains, or if growing in a cooler and moist microclimate.

Scutellaria ovata is becoming more common in nurseries thanks to its various beneficial qualities and growing habits. The beautiful silvery-blue-green, fuzzy foliage and soft blue blooms create a pleasant visual contrast in the landscape. Like many other Scutellaria species, Heartleaf Skullcap also possesses useful medicinal compounds, and can be used similarly to Scutellaria lateriflora, though they have their differences.

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April 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Penstemon/Beardtongue species
Pictured: Penstemon cobaea, Penstemon triflorus, Penstemon baccharifolius, Penstemon tenuis
Family: Plantaginaceae (Plantain) 
The Penstemon genus features many different species of small perennial herbs with a great variety of striking flower colors and shapes. These are typically perennial plants that send out a 1-2 foot stalk when they bloom in the spring or summer, and remain a small, unimposing rosette for much of the rest of the year.
Their dense growth of trumpet-shaped flowers makes them an excellent early spring food source for hummingbirds, and a delight for all who long to be drawn out of the dull colors of winter. Many species re-seed easily, and though they are not aggressive, they can spread into large vibrant patches when allowed. Extra moisture and afternoon shade will help extend the bloom time of these fleeting flowers, but western species must have good drainage.

There are multiple Penstemons that love to grow in every ecoregion and habitat condition across Texas, from dry western canyons to eastern and gulf coast marshes and swamps. They are adapted to a wide variety of difficult Texas soil types, and one species, Penstemon triflorus, is endemic to the Edwards Plateau and its surrounding areas.
When we grow and propagate increasingly uncommon native plants like these, we help restore genetic diversity and mitigate the current fragmentation of their populations, some of which are very isolated. Thankfully, in recent years Beardtongue species have become easier to find in the nursery trade, especially at specialty native plant sales.

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