For several years now, I’ve felt guilty during planting season. The gas fumes of the loud rototiller fill the air, and the earthworms and other little bugs fear for their lives. Tilling the ground seems very much like ripping right into the “skin” of the earth. Everywhere you look in the natural world, living, fertile land has a cover. Where there is no cover, there is desert and barrenness. And yet every year we remove the cover, till that soil, expose the earth, kill the little bugs with those metal fangs, oxidize nutrients we then struggle to replace with compost and fertilizer, and become dismayed when a dry spell renders our soil hard and clay-like. We spend hours pulling up all the weeds that the exposure to light from tilling aided in germination.
Just this spring I was admiring the forest floor. The diversity of matter- twig, leaf, bits of bark in all different sizes. The way it is dry on top and always moist just below.
I wondered, “Maybe I should research the edible forest gardens and give up our big plot of garden that is so much work, and strife between man and nature!” It seems like a constant battle in the garden sometimes! There is nothing so rewarding as eating the food we grew on our own land, fresh and ripened to perfection. The hours spent in the garden are meditative, too. But I just couldn’t help but look around and see the disharmony that seems to exist in the garden, as well. I see many of my peers employing methods where the garden box is cut off from the earth with wood or weed sheets (and I wonder what earthen resources are used to make those, to ship those, to store them in brightly lit buildings til they are purchased, and what particles of weed sheets then decay into our soil?). I see all these plastic bags of fertilizer and specialty soils being bought and used. So much work, the packaging of them, the shipping of them, the energy put into the stores that sell them, and all the garbage they then generate when the packing is thrown away.
I decided to learn a little more about permaculture. Permaculture is a method of working with the land to create a closed-loop system, one in which all energy input is maximized and output is equal to or greater than input. In other words, it creates more than it depletes! It is a way of living generously with the earth, of giving more than we take, of working effectively and smartly, and creating self-sufficiency. It supports permanent culture, culture that can be sustained without such constant struggle over the years.
Along the way, my friend shared an incredible resource with me. The film “Back To Eden”, which you can watch for free right on the site, was the answer to my prayers and queries about how to work with our garden instead of against it! But, before I get into the method that will eliminate soil erosion, need for watering, most of your weeds, and nutrient loss, I want to start at the very beginning. Making your own soil!
I always liked the idea of making my own compost, but the actual practice of it seemed like a rather complicated process that I never seemed to get right (that perfect mix of ingredients) or remember when my attention was needed. So I was so thankful to realize that I have my own soil factory- my chickens! Previously, in an attempt to save myself some work I was leaving our chicken litter in the coop for a year, as I was using a deep litter method. As long as there was a good chicken to square-foot ratio and the litter was not too moist, and was well scratched at to turn it over and keep it fresher, the beneficial bacteria would flourish and keep any harmful bacteria in check. My litter consisted of just peat moss, about two bags per year, which was definitely inexpensive. Peat moss acts like the earth in being a great absorber of moisture in the droppings, and is great for the garden after the droppings have decomposed. At just two bags per year, it was costing me considerably less than my friends who used pine shavings as their only litter (pine shavings get stinky much faster and need to be changed more frequently). The drawback was that it is dustier (anyone in the coop after it had just been layed down for the year got it caught in their nostrils, whether person or chicken!) for a month or so, and with only changing it once a year or so it didn’t contribute a whole lot to our garden fertilization program.
When I watched the Back to Eden film, a light bulb went on for me about managing our chicken coop. My chickens are quite willing to yield me soil worth its weight in gardening gold! I am working on making the area they frequent (they free-range, but prefer the area just behind out barn most of the time) a soil manufacturing facility. I’ve changed up our litter to a combination of half a bag of peat and half a bag of pine shavings (less dust, more diversity of decaying matter) which I plan to change about four times a year.
When I change it out, I add the old litter directly to the area behind the coop, right into the soil, and constantly toss our kitchen scraps (raw veggies and fruit) and yard scraps (dried grass clippings and vegetation) to the chicken yard as well (the chickens eat what they like, and help decompose what they don’t). The weather, the chicken scratching, and time make this the perfect “compost bin”! Each spring, I should have everything I need to add to my garden’s covering.
These are my golden-laced Wyandottes. We had over twenty chickens, and a puppy we adopted ended up being an unreformable chicken killing machine. He is now with a loving, chicken-free family and I am saving my pennies to order more from my favorite chicken hatchery. We only have five hens at the moment! They are dear to me, each one. Five hens keeps us in eggs well enough, but I prefer to have a few dozen hens and sell the extra eggs to pay for their food and litter so they are no cost to our family. We give them a pan full of organic layer feed each evening to bring them into the coop, but the majority of their diet in spring, summer, and fall is foraged.
This is Mumsy. She is very broody, poor thing doesn’t seem to realize she needs a rooster around to become a mama! She has built a little nest outside the coop in a corner of the barn, and now all the chickens take turns waiting for this most desirable spot.
Twinkle Toes is our white, feather-footed Brahma. Peeking up behind her is Owlette, our Araucana. She lays lovely blue eggs.
Just outside the barn, a patch of wild mint grows. I love it there; I grab a few leaves when I clean out the water or food pans, and use them like a dishcloth, freshening things up. Mint is antiseptic.
Then, there is a ton of motherwort. I used to think it was stinging nettle, because there is also a little stinging nettle and when they are young, the plants do bear some resemblance. But as they grow it is obviously motherwort. What better plant to grow up near chickens? Motherwort is given to new mothers to help them adjust to the post-partum period. Its latin name means “Lion-heart”, and it is said to give the courage to be a mother. I would certainly need some courage if I was going to give birth every single day as a hen does! 😉
Our coop is a renovated stable. I hope to build a stand-alone chicken coop soon, maybe in our orchard to encourage the chickens to spend more time there and help eliminate fruit flies and other pests. Then we can re-claim the coop as a stable and shelter some cows, sheep, or goats!
I really love being in the barn and working here. Sometimes I bring my cd player out and dance. 😉
I think as mothers, the idea of permaculture is something we can apply on a soul level. We need some “perma-mothering”! As we constantly give of ourselves to nurture our families, we need to put a little more in than we take out. How can we do this? Taking some time to clear our minds of all the things that need to be done, and just be, is a good start! The barn is becoming my woman cave, I think- the place to perma-mother! How can we build ourselves up and allow our spiritual practice, friends, and families to strengthen us so that we are rich and full of life to give back? How can our daily lives be maximized so that we use the least amount of energy to obtain the best results, in a way that feeds into itself? Cerainly, a rhythm we love that “fits” us and includes room to dream and do things we love is part of this. I don’t want to be bitter or resentful of my family or decision to homeschool because I felt I gave up on too many dreams, ideas, or things I was inspired to do. We need to love what we do, and do what we love, with a responsible and realistic balance. And we need to use the disappointments, heartaches, and loss in our lives the same way the earth does; to be recycled into material for new dreams and deeds to grow.
Linked up with Natural Mothers Network Seasonal Celebration.