Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Permaculture experiment

November 5, 2013

The permaculture experiment continues. Since we moved onto the property just a little over a year ago we’re still working mainly on the first and second zones.
According to Peter Bane, The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country (2012):

Zones describe a progression of territories surrounding the center of a system. On a homestead or farm, that center is typically the house where people dwell. 
 Zone 0: House and attached structures, other building interiors, pantry consumption, processing, storage

Zone I: Garden, intensive garden beds, laundry and drying yard, woodshed, garden, tool storage, small greenhouse, piped water, outdoor rooms, summer kitchen, rabbits, poultry, children’s play; animals needing special care; (z. 1 or z. 2) root cellar, cisterns, sauna self-reliance, household provision

Zone 2: Orchard, productive fruit trees and shrubs, piped water, small ponds, poultry forage, compost piles, greywater treatment, dairy barn (at the edge of z. 3), workshop, storage barn, mulch crops, nursery crops, living fences, resource inventory, tank aquaculture 

Zones 1 and 2 around our house.

Zone 3 contains fields, zone 4 pastures, and zone five wild areas. Our property is on the small side, about one acre. Sometimes I think there’s enough to do in the first two zones that we’ll never even get beyond them.

One of the good things about permaculture is that it encourages taking things slowly and proclaims that if you’re working too hard it’s because you’re doing something wrong. Peter Bane continues:         
Choose Small and Slow Solutions: Choosing to work with small, slow technologies and systems may seem paradoxical in the face of daunting social change. Shouldn’t we hurry up and get ready? Well yes, civilizational decline and economic contraction should engender in us a kind of urgency. It need not provoke haste. Most people are still sleepwalking toward the future, so it can seem that we must awaken them in a hurry. But haste and the waste it makes are the hallmarks of our energy-abundant culture and the cause of much of our present distress.

Small and slow means local, human-scale, intimate and familiar. It means steady progress and setbacks that do not ruin us. It means appropriate technology: tools that help us but do not enslave us.  (The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country)

Here are some of our small and slow projects:

Trees – We’ve planted a few more trees since we returned to the farm in August, namely two neem saplings (native to India, this regal tree produces leaves and fruit that repel many insects, making it a good addition to orchards and vegetable garden areas), two coffee saplings (to replace two that didn’t survive from last year), and a bamboo plant (of the enormous variety that in ten years or so will produce poles strong enough to build a house).

One of our two neem trees (in the foreground).
A thriving coffee sapling, behind the corn and squash.

Hortas (the Portuguese word for vegetable garden)  - Guy has rebuilt last year’s horseshoe garden following Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening principles, including a soil mix of compost, palm fibre, and vermiculite – we plant the vegetables in six inches of this mix, above the existing ground. Last year most of our vegetables failed to thrive in the local soil even though we added some organic fertilizers such as manure.

The horseshoe garden
In the meantime, I planted some of the same veggies in manure that I seasoned by spreading it in the sun and watering it for five days. So far both gardens are doing well.

Orange tree planted in early 2013.

Orchard – Guy and I agreed from the start that we wouldn’t sacrifice beauty to functionality. We’d seen several gardens and orchards where plants grew well but the surrounding areas were unattractive, unpleasant to walk through.

Last year my daughter and I designed a small tear-drop orchard that would be divided into five sections. This is where we’ve planted most of our trees so far – papaya, lemon, pomegranate, fig, orange, tangerine, coffee, persimmon, nespera, pitanga and jatobá - and there’s still place for many more. We projected paths that would cut through the orchard and a central trellised area for repose and meditation. I’ve been cleaning up the sections and working on the paths (described below).

Agro-forestry practitioners instruct us to plant vegetables and other edible plants, such as cassava (mandioca) amidst the trees as they begin to grow, planting in guilds as much as possible. (See the December 2012 blog entry) We’re just learning, partly by trial and error, but this year we have corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, okra and peppers growing in the orchard, along with the cassava and castor beans we planted last year.

Cassava from a year ago and new corn amid the tangerine, papaya, pomegranate and lemon trees. 

Grass – The area we’ve settled on was mostly pasture, planted with a very tenacious grass of African origin – brachiaria. As you may remember from previous posts (April 2013), one of Guy’s tasks is to cut the grass with his wonderful Austrian steel scythe, a huge job given the vigorous growth of the brachiaria grass. Since the rains started up a month ago the grass has taken off, threatening to go to seed, which is exactly what we want to avoid. We can’t use the grass for mulch once it contains seeds and even when it’s added to the compost the seeds remain active for a long time. (Hurray for the power of seeds!)

From our front porch, late afternoon sun on babaçu palms. Beyond the fence the cows have kept the grass 'mowed.'

I’m encouraging Guy to think of his work as harvesting the grass. Before it seeds, it is a real resource for us as hay, biomass. I use it to mulch the tear-drop orchard, to suppress grass in the open areas, and we use it elsewhere as mulch and as an addition to the compost piles.     
Paths – Between Guy’s ideas and mine we’ve come up with a very attractive and inexpensive way to create paths. We’ve found along the highway just beyond Cocalzinho (the nearest town) a free source of beautiful red wood chips. I hoe the paths clear, line them with cardboard (free from the supermarkets in town) and newspaper, make a border of flat rocks (picked up along the road where they’ve spilled from passing trucks) or small bricks we buy in town for less than 10 cents apiece (not so cheap but the only thing we pay for), and fill in with wood chips. Guy plans to use the same system to surround the horseshoe garden. 

The first section of path.

Insect combat – A constant threat to our tender plants, ants, grasshoppers, cut-worms, and other insects we don’t even know about keep us on our toes from one day to the next. Suddenly last week Guy noticed a cluster of tiny black grasshoppers on a leaf of a jiló plant. (Jiló is a small green eggplant relative, somewhat bitter but delicious once you get used to it and know how to prepare it – sautéed and browned with onion and garlic.) He successfully sprayed the leaf and the surrounding plants with a neem solution, but since then the clusters of little hoppers have shown up frequently on other plants.
We’re learning to make a variety of deterrent sprays along with the neem: garlic and soap, hot peppers, tobacco, for starts. Vigilance – we’re insect vigilantes.                                                                                     

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


September 10

The big news is that we have a humanure system in place (see The Humanure Handbook: a guide to composting human manure, by Joseph Jenkins). Guy has become our in-house sanitation technician, building first a privy that we used all of our first year here, and now developing the bucket-with-wood-shavings recipient and the composting bins that will receive the weekly deposits. I must say that it’s all very neat and clean and I can’t imagine anyone having a problem with it once they give it a try. It’s a long term project because the final product, months of layering the humanure/sawdust mixture with hay or straw, needs to compost for a year, so that we probably won’t begin using this composted manure until sometime in 2015.

Guy collected the bamboo from the stream banks near our house.
A thick layer of straw will line the bottom of the bin.

The first bin will take several months to fill and then a year to compost.
I am so proud of Guy for setting this up. I think it’s hard to move from the comfort and convenience of the flush toilet – which represented at one time a huge improvement in sanitation around the world, and still means the difference between sickness and health for millions of people in backward city conditions – to a system that not only preserves our dwindling water supplies but provides a rich organic fertilizer for growing food.

The first section of the horse shoe garden that we're preparing for vegetables.
We’re putting in our vegetable garden, following the Square Foot Gardening System combined with tips from permaculture manuals and from gardening books for this part of the world (similar in some ways to Florida). Our vegetables last year never thrived the way we expected, after our successful gardening in Bethlehem, and we’ve realized that in addition to the insects and the cows the soil itself failed us. One important solution is to use indigenous edible plants that thrive naturally in this climate and soil. But almost no one is doing this because centuries of immigration has meant the introduction of all the typical European, Middle Easter and Asian vegetables.

Greta at the wood stove. The gas stove is directly behind me.

Back in April my my neighbor gave me her old six-burner stove when she acquired a newer one - well, today I tried out the oven for the first time. We still have a lot of squash left over from April; I cook it up for lunch in a variety of combinations such as sautéed with onion, garlic, green beans, tomato and turmeric, but I love baking it in a Betty Crocker recipe for Zucchini Bread. The problem with my stove is that one of the burners doesn’t turn off, so once the bottled gas is turned on that burner has to stay in use. Can’t use the oven without using that burner. Solution: cook up a tomato sauce and let it simmer for as long as the bread takes to bake.

Our old but still serviceable six-burner stove.

I only understood the secret of a good tomato sauce a few years ago, long after my days at The Green Café. I read these words, “The secret of a good tomato sauce is letting it simmer for at least an hour.” Olive oil, chopped onions, ripe tomatoes, lots of minced garlic, a few dollops of tomato paste, herb of choice (eg. basil or oregano) mix well, allow to begin sticking to the pan before adding water, then simmer, simmer, simmer. Yum. 

We're enjoying the wild pineapples that have proliferated on the farm over the years. The trick is to harvest a few before someone else does - they're very sweet now at the end of the dry season.           

                                  Hope some of you will come share this abundance with us.

Friday, August 16, 2013

It's winter in the Southern Hemisphere

 August 16

Cold nights (around 55°), low humidity and no rain for months, dusty roads, and cloudless skies characterize the middle of winter here in the highlands of Central Brazil. A lot of trees and bushes flower now, including the beautiful ‘quaresma’ and all our mango trees. The nights can be spectacular, though right now the moon gets bigger each night and outshines the stars, and the Milky Way.

The wild quaresma tree that flowers throughout the dry season. View from our porch.

The mango tree closest to our house now promises a bumper crop this year after all.

We spent almost a month in Brasilia, watching over the care of our grandson while the rest of his family – my son, his wife and daughter – went to the States for three weeks. Among other things, they attended a conference for families of children with the 1P36 micro deletion syndrome that our little Giovanni has.
Giovanni enjoys a musical therapy session in his Brasilia apartment.

The residential neighborhoods of Brasilia, mostly groups of  three-story or six- story apartment buildings, astound one with the variety of flowering shrubs and trees, including some that bear fruit, such as pomegranate, mango and avocado. It makes walking a pleasure.

Pink IPÊ. First we get the pink variety, followed in succession by the yellow flowered ipê trees,
then the white, and finally the purple

A pattern on the cloudless blue sky.

Poinsettia (in our winter), and  the sun shining on dry leaves.

Flowering vine along the side of an apartment building.

 Hopefully my next post will show the beginning of some of our new projects, but so far we’ve just been settling back in and cleaning things up.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Back in Brazil - ready to go

Guy and I have returned to Brazil after two great months in the States, in Bethlehem (PA), Needham (MA) and Hague (NY). We saw family and friends and enjoyed the lush green landscapes of Eastern USA, which are quite a contrast to our more stark beauty here in the highlands of Central Brazil.

We're spending most of our first month back in Brasilia, watching over the care of our grandson, Giovanni, while his parents and sister take their turn traveling to the States. We were able to make an overnight visit our place on the farm - I took some photos to share:

Mangoes flowering

It seems that the scarce flowers have come too early, perhaps because of unseasonal but heavy rains in June. I'm hoping the trees will flower more heavily a little later in the season. Last year we had few mangoes on several of the trees and the expectation is that they fruit more heavily every other year.

The loofahs will be ready to harvest in a month or so.

This is the plant that I thought was watermelon - it's the same broad family as gourds and squashes. When it dries out only the fibers are left as I'll show you when I harvest them.

The healthiest of five coffee trees, all of which 
survived our absence.

Our own lemons, ready for salad dressings, lemonade and caipirinhas.

The jaboticaba tree has survived my radical pruning job. Hopefully it will fruit well in October or November.

The gravevine didn't do so well - a small black beetle attacked it - but it's still alive.

I sprayed all the ailing plants, including the grape vine, with a tobacco infusion. Cutter ants had denuded our pepper, eggplant and jiló plants, but they seem to be on the mend. Maybe we'll be able to harvest some vegetable when we return to the farm in mid-August.

Grass is growing tall around the house - time to get out the scythe and the sickle.
Hay mounds, quaresma flowering tree, and the riparian woods just east of our acre.

Plans for the coming months:
       Dig a pond 
       Use the earth to make structures, starting with a 
             cob stove and a 
             small shed, for practice
       Start building a guest room or two
             cotton - just a few plants
             more fruit trees
      Chickens! Build a coop and fence in a space for their      

There's a lot more to do but everything in its time - we choose to move slowly, enjoy the beauty around us, listen to the wisdom of neighbors and to birdsong, participate in our communities, and nurture our spirits.


Monday, May 6, 2013

The scythe

A while back I promised to tell you about Guy’s scythe. He follows Kelly’s Cool Tools faithfully (www.kkcooltools.com) and not long ago the site featured a beautiful hammered steel scythe made in Austria and sold at two outlets in the US, one in Tennessee, the other in Maine. Last summer when we visited the States, he decided to purchase his own to bring to Brazil. The ash handles for the scythes are custom-made in the United States, to the measurement of the buyer. So Guy sent in his measurements and a few days before our return trip the final product was delivered to him at his cousin’s in Bangor, PA.

It has proven to be an invaluable tool and because of its beauty as well as its efficiency it has provided us much pleasure. I wrote a short story about the snath, the handle, which was packed separately because of its length and almost got lost on the plane trip to Brazil. See the story at the end of this post.  

Guy checks out his brand new scythe at his cousin's place in Bangor, PA.

The grass in what used to be a pasture before we fenced it in needs to be cut.

Grass tall and growing.

Almost a half-acre of meadow behind the horseshoe garden.

Guy gets ready, sharpens the blade.
The cows would be happy to crop the grass but they'd eat everything else we panted too. 
Mission accomplished. Greta raked up the cut grass into piles.

The Snath's Tale
I arrived to the hands of my rightful owner weeks, two months, after I had every reason to expect – and the same goes for him. He had every right to expect me to accompany him on his trip and arrive at his final destination along with him and his wife.
Things got messed up even before the fateful journey. But first let me tell you a little about myself. I am a custom-made ash handle, technically a snath, for an Austrian scythe that was featured, if you remember, in the March 10th edition of Cool Tools. My eventual owner was a faithful follower of that blog and, I came to learn, determined to have the scythe for the country plot he was developing in Brazil, along with his part-Brazilian wife.
They came to the States in May and after a failed attempt to purchase the object of his desire directly at the site in Sumney, Tennessee, he initiated his successful effort to obtain his scythe through the Maine company. I learned most of this later, of course, from conversations I picked up over the years, though some of my information I garnered from the carpenter who created me during the early part of July, 2012. If  you’re wondering how I came to have such a sophisticated vocabulary, at least for a simple farm tool, it was mostly thanks to this early carpenter, who listened to her radio while she worked. It was always tuned to NPR or the university station and I heard a lot of literary talk as well as stuff like Lake Woebegoen and Car City. As I said, I was customed-made – I mean how many tool handles are custom-made nowadays? But this is part of the excellence of the … scythe: it takes into account the size and proportions of the purchaser, the person who is going to be wielding the blade. I admit that I got a bit of ribbing from the other handles that were being fashioned at the same time because I was clearly the shortest, and it bothered me at the time partly because I was young and immature but mostly because I had no idea of the adventures that were in store for me. Had I known I could have turned them all green with envy.
By July 16th I was ready to be packaged up and mailed off to an address in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I overheard comments to the effect that my new owner was impatient to receive me and I soon learned the reason for his hurry. He and his wife had tickets to leave, for Brazil of all places, on the 31st of that month.
I already expected a short owner so I wasn’t at all disappointed to meet the guy, short, yes, but well-proportioned, a full but neatly trimmed beard, and kind, intelligent blue eyes. I was delighted when the first day, as soon as he picked me up in my awkward packaging, long and odd-shaped, he unpacked and assembled me. Frankly I was excited to meet my companion, the beaten-steel blade that looks like the grim-reaper’s tool. You should understand that this meeting was like an arranged marriage and if all went well it would be for life, as long as we both should survive. I’m afraid I’m getting a little breathless here but suffice it to say that our first hours together, swinging gracefully across a soft summer lawn, me doing my part as intermediary between our owner’s inexperienced but honest strokes and my partner’s exquisite slicing skills. ah, those virgin moments were unforgettable, forever engraved in my fibers. 
But the coming weeks would test our love and our patience. Soon the voyage date arrived and the car was filled with my owners’ luggage – had I told you my owner is married, to a short plump mostly mild-mannered woman a bit older than he? – including the fine blade that was my sworn companion, packed separately because I was too long to fit in the duffle bag. Anyway, as I sat in their hosts’ garage watching the packing proceedings, a moment came when the doors were closed and the car drove off – without me! I can’t tell you, unless you already know, how painful it is to be abandoned. All kinds of questions came to my mind. Wasn’t I good enough? Was there another snath I didn’t know about? Would I ever again experience the joy of swinging across a field as my blade sliced the fragrant grass?
I swooned in despair, but then jolted awake as my owner’s cousin rushed into the garage, grabbed me and took off in her car. I heard her tell her husband that she’d gotten a call regarding me, and the request that she take me to be rejoined to my folks. Oh bliss! I was wanted after all.
The next few hours were exciting. First I was placed in a hold next to the engine of a bus, along with many bags, and still insecure, I wondered if I would be found, but not to worry. I was taken with the rest of the luggage to a counter where my passage was discussed, because I was too long to go as regular baggage but too light and skinny to warrant the high fee for extra baggage. They decided to take me as a courtesy item! Can you believe that? courtesy! I felt that my life was charmed.
Well. Jumbled and tossed around with countless bags of all sorts and shapes, I ended up in a large compartment of an airplane that was bigger than anything I could have imagined. Just the roar of the engine would have scared the wits out of me if I weren’t already suffused with an overcharge of emotions. I confess that I fell asleep again, barely raised an eyebrow when they switched us to another plane, and didn’t wake up fully until I was being carried from the plane to a conveyor belt with all the other baggage. Hundreds of people stood around the edge of the belt, grabbing whatever bags they could get their hands on. It was bedlam! and it frightened me, but I kept my cool and trusted that my owner would show up sooner or later.
Ah, cruel betrayal. Soon I was left with just a few other bags, three of which I recognized as my mates, spinning round and round slowly on the belt as the area emptied out, an eerie silence descended and the lights were dimmed. In the penumbra a man, singing softly in a language I didn’t know, picked us all off the belt and took us to a deposit that they called ‘bagagem perdida,’ or lost baggage. Me, the two red duffles and the lime green one were bagagem perdida, lost in what I eventually learned was the international airport of Rio de Janeiro. Only the big orange suitcase was missing, and I prayed that it had managed to travel with the folks.
“They will find us,” the travel-experienced duffles assured me. After some effort I found the shape of my blade, resting comfortably in the bottom of the large red duffle.  So I tried to relax and learn what I could from adversity. I liked the singing, but not the yelling – day-in and day-out. Noisy people, these Brazilians.
One day they came and fetched the green duffle. Two workers. One of them argued for taking all of us. “They all came in together,” he said. “Look at the tags: all started out from Newark on July 31.” But they other was adamant, “I only have paperwork for the green bag. Different names on the tags.” Of course, I thought, my owners are a couple, and they have separate names. Woe are we, the red duffles and me.
A few days later they came and got us. I was so hopeful! But they took us back where we came from, all the way back to Newark. Now I lost all hope. How would they ever find us? Long story short, they finally got it straight, but not without another major bit of drama. We were fetched again, and routed back to Rio, then the two duffles went off and I was alone once more.
All I can say is that the resilient fibers of the ash tree that made me also sustained me throughout my ordeal. I felt an inner strength even as I thought all was lost, even my last companion, the red duffle carrying my blade. But two months after the original flight, they put me on a new flight, to Brasilia, and soon I was reunited with all that was dear to me – the hands of my owner and the silken steel of my blade.
Now in the peace of the farm where I live, on a high plateau in Central Brazil, I have time to reflect on the near miracle of a skinny stick, considered courtesy baggage, surviving amid the chaos of huge plane holds and huger airport deposits. I know there must be a guardian angel of snaths, and I am grateful.

Weeks later - the grass is growing again.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Growing our own food, hopefully

March 20
Just yesterday Guy and I were agreeing that what we do here is just a drop in the bucket, a tiny piece of the huge experiment underway around the globe in how humans can live on the Earth in a more sustainable way. Growing some of one’s own food means less transportation costs, a lower carbon footprint, and healthy, fresh food. Other steps in the same direction include buying locally and regionally grown food, eating mostly food that is in season, and supporting small, perhaps organic, farmers.

You probably know that one of the big issues regarding food for the billions involves certain countries (e.g. China and Saudi Arabia) buying up huge tracts of land in other continents – Africa and South America – in order to feed their own populations, at the risk of increasing famine in places such as Sudan.

Climate change exacerbates the problems. Floods, droughts, fires, and invasive pests due to warmer winters are some of the changes that affect crops both on small and large scale farms. The ability to grow a portion of one’s own food, including chickens, even in tiny yards, on roofs and in window boxes, can mean a bit more to eat, and some variety. With more space, such replacing a lawn or a parking lot, families and communities could actually grow quite a bit of food.

As far as ‘planting your own food’ goes, I don’t really expect everyone to jump on board – it’s not easy to find the space and time, as well as develop the know-how for getting real food from whatever space you have. Buying local and seasonal is already a big start because it encourages and supports farmers, including truck-farmers. It also discourages the mega-farming-industry and long-distance transportation of foods – though it will take a much greater consciousness-raising to dissuade people from having strawberries year round, and the like. Here in Brazil farmers can extend the seasons of many fruits and vegetables, with second and third harvests, so it’s less important to think strictly seasonal, but still a lot of the produce in the supermarkets comes from quite a distance – southern Brazil, Chile, Argentina. And don’t get me wrong, I believe that it’s wonderful to have a treat from far away now and then. I still remember that back in the 50’s an apple in our Christmas stocking here in Brazil was like an orange in the States.

Here in the Southern Hemisphere the Fall Equinox brings in shorter and cooler days. On our high plateau – 3300 ft - hot rainy weather crops give way to vegetables that do better with dryer and cooler days. Cooler here means 75 – 80° in the daytime and 50 – 65° at night. I know, it’s tough!

After almost six months of planting it’s time to assess what we’ve learned – what has worked well and where we can improve.

Second round of guild-planting: veggies and other plants in beds between larger well-fertilized holes for trees.

Things are looking good - a future chapter will let you know how things have gone since then.

One of the tree holes: a cashew tree sapling at lower right, surrounded by green pepper,
fennel, green bean, and tomato seedlings.

Food for the soul - from our bedroom window.

Guy repairs the roof that was damaged by strong winds.

Newborn calf in pasture just outside our fence.

A bit of arugula, okra and green pepper for lunch.

Nasturtium flowers peeking out from among squash leaves. Wait til you see the squash we got!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The sunflower that survived the cow

Only a few leaves are left at the top of the stalk, which is splinted with a stake and string.

The bees are enjoying the flower. We're rooting for a full head of seeds.