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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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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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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Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019

A permablitz is an event where a group of volunteers works together to install a permaculture (permanent + agriculture) garden for a friend, a neighbor, a school, and/or a community garden.  The garden can be an annual garden made for annual vegetables, or it can be a perennial garden made for fruit trees and other perennial food crops such as asparagus, brambles, and grapes.

A permablitz can also include installing a rainwater collection system, a gray water harvesting system, and/or building a chicken coop, trellis, or espalier.

Aerial image of Festival Beach Food Forest in Austin, TX nearly 4 years after their 2015 Permablitz

How did we find out about permablitzes, and when did permablitzes get started here in Central Texas?

The permaculture community in Texas may have first learned about permablitzes from Dilek Wise, a graduate from a Permaculture Design Course that I helped teach with the Austin Permaculture Guild in 2011 or so.  Dilek found out about an organization called Permablitz Melbourne, in Australia, that was helping their community to install permaculture gardens.  Permablitz Melbourne had by then installed scores of gardens, and did a great job of documenting their work. They’ve also made some very helpful videos about how to run your own permablitz – a few are linked below.

                       How to run a permablitz?

                       Permablitz on Costa’s Garden Odyssey, 2009

                       Plug In TV – Permablitz

When I learned about Permablitz Melbourne’s community effort working together to conserve soils and grow food locally, it reminded me of the work I had done as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala.  In the Highlands of Guatemala, north of Huehuetenango, we built and kept up 5 tree nurseries (each in a different village), implemented soil conservation methods, and planted woodlot trees in those villages, as well as 2 others.  After getting out of the Peace Corps, it always seemed to me that we could and should be doing that kind of work here in Central Texas. Permablitz Melbourne demonstrated that indeed such a community effort was possible.

Then, during the winter of 2011, while I was helping to teach a class called Food Forests for All, at The Whole Life Learning Center, I shared with the students of that class what Permablitz Melbourne was up to.  The students were enthusiastic and we had our first permablitz at Austin Ecoschool that very next January of 2012. Many of the people in that class have since had multiple permablitzes at their homesteads, and at community gardens that they were associated with.

Photos from our January 2019 Permablitz at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition’s New Leaf Farm

Since 2012 we have had well over 50 permablitzes, averaging about 9 per year, being held from September through May. In 2015 Earth Repair Corps was incorporated, in part, to help promote and run the permablitzes. If we have learned anything over the past 7 years, it is that we are not just building gardens, but communities that garden.

Since I was leading many of these events and heavily invested in them, there were at least six design elements that I tried to include in each and every permablitz.

  1. Soil and Water Conservation.  As I’ve said during many of my talks and classes, soil and water conservation is the cornerstone of permaculture design – that which all else is built upon.  Usually, whether we are planting trees or making annual gardens, we build some sort of earthworks on contour such as conservation terraces or raised annual garden beds.  These earthworks serve to slow, spread, and sink surface water running off the garden site, make that water available to the plants in the garden, and catch any soil sediments and detritus that might also be running off of the site.
  2. Perennial Food Crops.  Perennial food plants are the key stone of permaculture design – that which holds it up over time.  A perennial food crop yields fruit, nuts, and berries year after year, unlike annual food crops that produce for 1 or 2 seasons and then have to be replanted.  In Texas we have been planting mulberry, pomegranate, Asian persimmon, fig, apple, peach, plum, pear, pecan, pineapple guava asparagus, artichoke, grape vines, and blackberry brambles.
  3. Support Species of Plants.  Another aspect of permaculture design that distinguishes it from organic farming is that we are creating agriculturally productive ecosystems, so not every plant we establish in a permaculture garden is a food crop.  We use cover crops extensively, like clover, winter pea, rye grass, buck wheat, black eye pea, and millet to improve soils, and help vegetate bare soils.  Farmers trees like black locust, acacia, golden ball lead tree, Eve’s necklace, and arroyo sweetwood are all native leguminous trees that offer dappled shade, have deep root systems that bring up minerals from subsoils, and many of which fix Nitrogen into soils.  Lastly, deep-rooted herbs like comfrey, sorrel, and dock are added to some of our gardens for their soil-enhancing properties.
  4. Soil Amendments.  Many of our soils in Texas have been eroded and do not have the available mineral content nor the organic matter in them available for agricultural crops to flourish.  Bill Mollison was an advocate of adding soft rock minerals to soils to provide crops with needed elements, including soft rock phosphate, agricultural lime for calcium, pelletized sulfur, green sand for potassium and magnesium, and trace minerals.  We also add a slow release organic fertilizer in the hole of every tree we plant which is inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, and beneficial to the roots of most plants.
  5. Drip Irrigation.  Fruit trees in Texas need supplemental water if they are going to flourish and be productive, even when they are perched on a berm just below a swale.  The most efficient way to deliver this supplemental water is with drip irrigation.  I have become a huge fan of Ewing Irrigation here in Central Texas.  Each fruit tree needs about 4 gallons of supplemental water delivered to it every other day from May through early October, or for about 5 months.
  6. Mulch.  At the base of each tree a heavy mulch should be applied annually.  Wood chips from trees seems to be what is most readily available for us here in Texas, though if you look around to the north of Austin, from late spring through the summer, wheat straw is available.  A good mulch cover will help to keep soil temperatures cooler than the ambient air temperature, suppress weeds, and slow down the evaporation of soil moisture which can be significant under the Texas sun and winds.

Photos from our September 2018 Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls, TX

The costs for a permablitz can range anywhere from $700 to $4,000 and is usually paid for by the host site.  A commitment from the host site is also needed to finish up any tasks that were not completed during the permablitz – finishing up the irrigation system seems to commonly be one of these tasks.  The host site is also expected to provide volunteers with lunch during the work days.

Participating in a permablitz is a great way to meet like-minded people, learn more about sustainable design, and (after attending 3 permablitzes) have a permablitz at your home.

The permablitz schedule is announced on our calendar.  

Explosive abundance!

 

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April 2019 – Crop of the Month
Peach – Scientific Name: Prunus persica
Family: Rosaceae
Written by: Kirby Fry

The peach is arguably the sweetest and tastiest fruit that can be grown here in Central Texas.

I have fond memories of preserving peaches with my cousins and aunts.  We would blanche the peaches in boiling water for a minute or so, peel the skin off of the fruit, cut the peaches in half, remove the seed or pit, and then store the peach halves in quart sized Ball jars.  Wonderful tasting peaches were on the menu for the rest of the year. At a birthday party, my favorite dessert is still peach cobbler.

The peach tree here in Central Texas, however, needs a little bit of extra care.

My first suggestion when cultivating peach trees is to not plant too many.  It’s better to have half a dozen well-tended peach trees than it is to have a dozen poorly-tended trees.  When we purchase and plant peach trees, we should keep in mind that this tree crop needs the attention that we give to annual vegetable gardens, not pecan groves.

My second suggestion is to be ready to replace and replant varieties that did not thrive.  Peaches are a relatively short lived tree crop. We can expect 7 to 14 years of production from them.  We can also expect quite a bit of pruning, and limb loss. Be prepared to replace some of the peach trees you originally planted with better varieties for your region that you later discover and learn about.

With a moderate amount of annual upkeep, though, peach trees can have high yields and are exceptionally rewarding.  Some of the best peaches in North America are grown right here in Central Texas just west of the Balcones Escarpment in places like Fredericksburg and Stonewall.

Variety Selection

Peach trees are available mid-winter in plant nurseries as bare root stock.  The earlier they are planted the better – aim for late December to early January, as that gives them some extra time to establish their root systems.  After purchase, they should be planted within 1 day or so upon arriving at your homestead. Avoid exposing the roots to air and sunlight by keeping them moist and wrapped in paper, or submerged in moist sand, and soak the roots in a bucket of water for at least an hour right before planting them.

Choosing the right variety of peach tree for your region is very important.  Specific varieties of peach trees require a different number of chill hours in order for them to break their winter dormancy.  Chill hours, are the number of hours per winter that the tree spends below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the Dallas / Fort Worth area, there are between 900 to 1,000 chill hours, at the latitude of Austin there are around 600 chill hours, San Antonio may have 400 chill hours, and the Gulf Coast may have as few as 200 chill hours.  So make sure that when you buy peach trees at your local nursery, the variety you are buying corresponds to the number of chill hours where you will be planting them. Texas A & M recommends Junegold, Juneprince and Southern Pearl for medium chill hour regions – 450 to 700 chill hours.

Planting Tips

Select a site for your peach trees that is on sandy or loamy soils at least 18” deep, that is well drained, and which has good air circulation in order to reduce molds and fungi.  The trees should be planted about 18 feet apart, and the rows they are planted in should be 24 feet apart from one another.

When planting a peach tree, dig your hole a few inches deeper than the root ball of the tree, and twice as wide.  Add a slow release organic fertilizer with a mycorrhizal inoculant into the hole, and mix the same fertilizer into the soil that you will be using to back fill the hole with.  Flood the hole with water before it is completely full of soil and make sure to get rid of all air pockets around the roots of the trees.

Cover a 2-foot radius area around your trees with 4 to 6 inches of mulch after planting them.  Six weeks after planting the trees fertilize them with a 10-10-10 organic fertilizer.

Drip irrigation will be necessary from April through October depending on seasonal rainfall. Expect your peach trees to start making fruit around their 4th year.

Pruning Tips

Peaches make fruit on second year woody growth, so if you never prune a peach tree eventually the fruit will bear beyond your reach.  It is recommended to initially prune the newly planted tree back to a single trunk, 2 to 3-feet above the ground.

The next winter prune the tree again, leaving only 3 to 5 of the healthiest branches that are evenly spaced out around its trunk.  

Each year after that, 40 to 60 percent of new growth should be pruned back, leaving the center of the tree open.  The tree should be sculpted it into the shape of a wine glass for good air circulation and exposure to sunlight.

Fruit buds need to also be removed in the early spring, establishing a spacing of 6 to 8-inches between fruit.  A mature peach tree might put on 5,000 flowers and buds, when we actually want 500 or less fruiting buds.

Pest Management

There are a lot of insects and vermin out there that will want to eat your peaches.  Deer-proof and rabbit-proof fencing are a good start for any orchard. Proper spacing and pruning will also go a long way towards keeping your peaches mold and fungus free.

Garden hygiene is always important as well.  Manage weeds beneath your peach trees, keep a 2 to 4-foot radius around the trees mulched, and remove any fallen peaches quickly and compost them or feed them to livestock well away from your orchard.

The simplest treatment that I’ve come across for fighting insect infestation is the spraying of dormant oil on the peaches in mid to late January.  It’s very important to completely cover the surface of each bud. Dormant oil is a horticultural oil with baking soda and dish soap in it that suppresses insect eggs from hatching by either smothering them or dissolving the waxy surface of the insect eggs.  Once insects have begun hatching and sucking on the peaches the fruit becomes much more susceptible to fungal infection which can be spread from wound to wound by the insects. It’s an uphill battle after that.

Finally, late freezes may be what kills the most of your peaches.  You can expect this at least every 6 or 7 years, and in some cases a late freeze might damage your peach crop 2 or 3 years in a row.

Be patient and observant.  Buy a farmer’s almanac and start learning more about the chill hours in your region and what to expect each winter.

All of that said, I look forward to the late spring and summer harvest of peaches which is coming up in the next couple of months.  I remember well my daughters and I stopping at the peach stands in Elgin where they were selling peaches from Fredericksburg, such sweet memories.

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Earth Repair Corps is publishing a series of interviews with Permaculture Design Course graduates who have used the education & resources they gained from the course to further their careers in the world of sustainability.

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 Jim O’Donnell of The City of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division – read more below.


About Jim

My degree is in education from The University of Texas. I was a teacher in Dripping Springs for 28 years. During the summer, I worked monitoring endangered species for different contractors. The Vireo Preserve in the 1980’s was home to the largest breeding population of Black-capped Vireos in Travis County. I was able to get the 214 acres of the Preserve set aside in 1989. So, we manage Vireo as endangered species habitat that also includes the addition of rare and unusual plant species.

For the past 10 years, I have been working for the city’s Wildland Conservation Division which manages 13,000+ acres to protect habitat for endangered species. I continue to monitor endangered species, but now with the addition of lots of restoration work. Volunteers are the key to our work and success. I love working with people who come out to Vireo to learn how to manage their land in a more regenerative way!

1. How did you become interested in sustainable design?

I grew up in the Bull Creek watershed in northwest Austin.  As a teenager, I was able to hunt, fish, and camp in our Ashe juniper-oak woodlands.  Even though the landscape had been dramatically altered by a history of clearcutting and overgrazing, there was still incredible beauty in this recovering system. 

Observing our Hill Country landscape for over 50 years now, it is clear that some areas are so degraded that only a thoughtful and knowledgeable design can bring them back.  Most land managers use fire and herbicide with the mistaken belief that the land requires such techniques. 

Our approach on the City of Austin’s Vireo Preserve is to demonstrate that real regeneration begins with soil health, rehydrating hillsides, and adding diversity at all levels of the system. 

We have been successful enough that we are beginning to apply our designs and techniques on to other properties within the City of Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

2. What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design class?

Over the years, I have witnessed numerous re-vegetation projects that usually end in failure.  I was intrigued with the permaculture design system that incorporated a holistic approach to interacting with the landscape to promote sustainability.

3. Who taught you your permaculture design course and when?

I finished my permaculture design course in 2014 at the Whole Life Learning Center.  The instructors were Kirby Fry, Caroline Riley, and Taelor Monroe.  I was very impressed with the instructors’ knowledge and commitment to earth repair and sustainability. 

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

I have taken Elaine Ingham’s classes on soil biology.

5. Have you been able to apply what you have learned to your life and business?

I have been heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham on how to build healthy soils.  I am also collaborating with colleagues Dr. Brian Pickles and Monika Gorzelak, former graduate students of Dr. Suzanne Simard (University of British Columbia), to investigate the role of fungal networks in distributing resources among plants within forest ecosystems (“world wood web”).  I am also supporting research by Dr. Moriah Sandy (University of Texas at Austin) on potential medicinal and ecological properties of endophytes on Ashe junipers.  All of this research supports further knowledge on how to build regenerative ecosystems. 

All Images © Woody Welch 2019

6. Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, or pass on information about sustainable design?

I have had the opportunity to work closely with several area Master Naturalist chapters to teach about design.  The Capital Area Master Naturalists have been extremely helpful in recruiting volunteers for our project and giving us a platform to speak at presentations.  I’ve also been a guest speaker at St. Edwards University and recently at the University of Texas.  I am very excited to be a speaker at the Global Earth Repair Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington, in May.  And finally, I want to express my deep appreciation to the local permaculture groups for all the knowledge that they impart, their good work, and dedication to community.

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