Tag Archives: farming

Spiral Ridge PDC Day 4

Dinner at Spiral Ridge

Dinner at Spiral Ridge


This is the account of my adventure at the Permaculture Design Course at Spiral Ridge in October of 2013 http://www.spiralridgepermaculture.com.

My notes are somewhat muddled about Day 4, and I think they crammed some of the things from day 3 into it, which I already talked about. Our group decided to do the area around the proposed house site, and we were to use an already developed base map. But the base map was not too good so we spent a good piece of the morning messing around looking at the land and trying to get the map right, Actually a fairly useful real life exercise. The maps were posterboard about 2 foot x 4 foot. The base map is black lines showing existing structures that you then use tracing paper to make overlays of the various things that exist on the land…our goal was an overlay of each of the scale of permanence which I talked about last time… Climate, landform, water, etc.

Climate is a piece you look up on the internet, from various government websites. Since the government was shut down, so were the websites. So we copied the information from previous PDC classes. I tried to do some climate research this morning, and found it is interesting and challenging because there is so much information. The lecture was not too useful, partly because the lecturer ( I think it was Jessie) was not wanting to delve into controversy. I think it might have been interesting, because the group was fairly open minded.

We had a lecture about water and Landform next. Landform is contours, slopes, etc and how to visualize on paper. I think they talked about swales some. A swale is a trench on the contour.

Using water in a tube to find the Contour of the land along a swale

Using water in a tube to find the Contour of the land along a swale

The major purpose of a swale is to manage water flow. Cliff has a series of swales to manage the water flow through the top part of his land- I’m guessing maybe only the top 2 acres. I think there will be more swales built as he goes along, or maybe as he moves the pigs and goats along the land ( They graze in patches along contour, so I think they keep track as they go down.)

The other part of Water management is ponds. Permaculture practice likes ponds, because they are excellent ways to store water high on land. But they are also tricky to manage. They leak. Only the very small pond at the top of the land didn’t leak, I suspect they had used that pond fabric in it, but that is expensive to do in larger ponds. I think they are hoping that the other 2 ponds will eventually stop leaking when enough clay sediment collect in the bottom of them. A goal is to build key line dams on contour and create storage ponds. A significant goal with water is to slow it, spread it and sink it onto the land, and not let it run off like the “Grand Canyon” thru the lower part of the Quinn property. Some of the case studies we reviewed showed local increases in the water table due to permaculture practices.

The afternoon lecture was about Terra- Aqua culture…using land and water together… The Austrian Sepp Holtzer uses a series of ponds high in the alps to grow fish and then water the land, but his techniques have not been easy to reproduce other places. Two other models that might be easier to use… Viet nam jungle villages were they use Bamboo, pigs, ducks, fish ponds,crops on contour, the crops are at the bottom of the hill and they are fertilized by the pigs, ducks and fish higher up the hill. Another model would be the Aztecs in Mexico who created “Chinapas” fingers of land made out of willow branches and sludge into the water to create tiny inlets to catch fish and then grow crops on the fingers sticking out into the water.

That evening we were invited to a lecture on the state of the Climate at the Eco-village down at the Farm ( the place I was staying). Attached to the dorm I was staying in (which I would guess was about 20 years old) was a new conference center space which is partially completed. (Cliff says it will never be finished) It was completed enough that it could be used for lectures, but it has no doors, just flaps of plastic where the doors should be. Inside the walls were partly completed with straw bale construction.
Ecovillage inside
At the time the lecture was supposed to start, Miriam and I and the speaker, Albert Bates and 2 other people were there. We indicated that a few others were coming, so they waited about 15 more minutes for the rest of our group to arrive (they were lost or couldn’t get in the gate… another flaw of living at the farm. Albert Bates is a long time resident of the Farm (arrived in 1972, he joked that he was a latecomer) and the De-facto force of the Eco-village. He hired Cliff to run the Ecovillage sometime back, but I don’t think he let Cliff do anything, so Cliff moved on, but they seem to coexist. I also do not think they replaced Cliff when he left. However, the lecture did proceed after everyone arrived. The lecturer was a very young man from a Environmental group in Washington who had a power point presentation, which was followed by a brief discussion. He suggested maybe we could use non-violent techniques like the civil rights movement to mobilize people to march on Washington DC. He pointed out that Washington could easily be shut down. (For a while perhaps) He though we should shame our legislators for their inaction about the Environment. The assembled group was polite but I think we are more motivated to grow food than to March on Washington, who won’t care anyway. Afterwards Miriam and I had wine and ice cream with the Lecturer, his friend and Albert Bates. After about 30 minutes, another elderly hippie named Frank showed up, apologizing that he had missed the lecture. He had been talking to some folks from another town about mushroom gardening and had just returned. He talked at length about his calculation that we could stop global warming if we could sequester enough carbon by planting sufficient number of trees. He had calculated that there was enough arable land to do this on the planet. This was intriguing to me… I remembered the miles of medium strip I had passed a few days before when I drove up to Tennessee.

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Spiral Ridge PDC day 3

This is the account of my adventure at the Permaculture Design Course at Spiral Ridge in October of 2013 http://www.spiralridgepermaculture.com

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PDC day 3 took us deep into the Design part of the process. I met my design Team- Mike and Chris who live in Nashville and Benford who is working on a CSA in North Alabama. We were put together because we have Suburban backgrounds and interests. Chris and I have homes to work with, Mike would like to move to the country and get off the grid, but currently lives in a suburban house. Benford is still 23 and who knows…

Our assignment was to pick a base map to work with, interview our clients and come up with a design for a permaculture landscape design. Our practice clients were our instructors Cliff and Jen, which we already knew a lot about. We chose to design the space around their future house, which in permaculture jargon is Zone 1…easily accessible every day.

But before we could pick a base map, we had to learn about base mapping. Base mapping is how to map the topography of the Land. We were assigned to map an area below the future house sit that contained a pond and several groves of native trees that they were interested in keeping.
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We first extended from a previous base map and the area mapped was the length of a tape measure- 300ft and the width of another about 100 feet. So base mapping is like making a Cartesian graph with x and y points. Extension (x) and Offset (y). The corner of the map 0,0 was measured from the previous map. We then plotted relevant points along the 300 ft extension, being careful to keep the second tape measure at a 90 degree angle from the first, A triangle with a raised edge was helpful to keep it straight. The points we measured were the spillway to the point (each side), the rim of the point (at about 8 different points, and then edge of the dam that formed the pond etc. We used engineer scale with inches (which is divided into 10ths of an inch. One student asked why we didn’t use metric, our teacher said because this is what is easily available in the United States. After we completed the pond, we went on down the hill and measured the relevant groves of trees. I think they were Chestnuts and service berries. Then we had a piece of gridded paper we placed under our base map and plotted the points on the map to complete the base map. It was hot and tedious work. It is pretty important to get accurate descriptions of each point to make sure you have it right. The map looked pretty good when we got it done.

The next step are the Goals… sometimes challenging, because of the chicken and egg thing- can you decide what to do before you access- accessing may change what you can do… but I guess start with preliminary goals…

Then we had a lecture in great detail about site assessment. The first step is the Scale of Permanence- a way of observing our landscape– starting with the hardest to change to the easiest to change.
1. Climate
2. Landform
3. Water (where it is and how it flows)
4. Legal Structures
5. Access and Circulation
6. Vegetation and wildlife
7. Microclimates
8 Buildings and Infrastructure
9. Zones of use
10. Soil fertility and Management
11. Aesthetics and Experience of place

We were given a scale of permanence check list to evaluate each area on an overlay of our base map

The next tool we were given was a Team building tool called the 8 shields model. It was modeled after how native cultures operated and each of the 8 compass directions is a list of characteristics and we were to choose which best fit our personality… East- Beginning, South- Hard Work, North- Oversight, West- community. There were many more criteria, and it worked well for the other 2 groups, but our group was quite dysfunctional. I guess the best part was that we managed to muddle through with getting hostile, but I think it suppressed some of the creativity that we might have had had we allowed ourselves to be more spontaneous.

The last thing on Day 3 actually happened on Day 4, by then we were used to being hopelessly behind the schedule- that was the Client Interviews…
We came up with a list of questions to ask our clients and then asked them in front of the entire group. Cliff reminded us that his experience is that it is best to have both husband and wife to be in on both the interview and design approval meetings so that everyone is on the same page. He sends a list of preliminary questions so they have an idea what they want when he interviews them. They, of course, gave excellent answers to our questions.

“Even the curriculum is an Ecosystem”

Spiral Ridge PDC day 2 Oct 1,2013

This is the account of my adventure at the Permaculture Design Course at Spiral Ridge in October of 2013 http://www.spiralridgepermaculture.com

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Day 2 started with hearty breakfast…scrambled eggs, oatmeal, yogurt and assorted nice things to add to that like nuts, raisins, honey, jam etc. We also had coffee around the campfire every morning.

They assigned chores- animal care, working in the green house, and more boring stuff like dish washing and wood chopping. Some of our crew cheerfully volunteered for stuff like dish washing and wood chopping. Some of our crew cheerfully volunteered for humanure duty- which meant emptying the bucket into the humanure pile, which must cook for a year before it can go out as fertilizer. They don’t put it on vegetables. They cover each poop with cedar chips from an Amish saw mill. This was not a required duty.

Site Tour- we walked the upper part of the Farm…it was so interesting that we only got around to the top half. Some highlights…Water cistern attached to the Well- covered in insulation. and attached to a solar panel. Whenever the sun shines, water pumps into the cistern (5000 gal) which is used for clean drinking water and other uses. They also collect rain water from roofs, and grey water from washing and showers which is funneled into tanks and a pond.

We saw the herb garden next to the Cabin which contained some herbs I knew, and a lot I did not know, There was lots of blooming stuff including milk weed, so all week the Monarch butterflies stopped by for a snack on their way south for the winter. There were stinging nettles which are edible, but also have medicinal uses, Comfrey planted for it’s deep root that brings up nutrients, the leaves can be used as mulch. Yarrow and plantain are nutrient accumulators, There was a small Curly Willow next to the pond which can be cut down and will grow back from the roots (coppiced) There was a water plant in the pond… The herb garden area was a meandering Keyhole garden to improve edges and supply many different plants- there were about 100 different plants in about 100 sq feet- and room for more. The Cabin had 2 vines…a kiwi on one side… that was loaded with kiwis, and a hops plant on the other. There was also a fig tree that had ripe fruit on it.

There is a 50 foot green house that has baby trees waiting to be planted, a large overgrown basil (maybe left over from the winter- I saw it outside as well, A barrel full of duckweed to restock the pond in the spring, a greenhouse inside that was insulated for warmer space- it was currently empty. There was a large metal tub which they us to mix up planting medium, which they make themselves from 3 or 4 ingredients.

We saw the rabbit hutch which fertilizes the worm composting operation, where they add coffee grounds and egg shells. They have 1 buck and 2 does, which can supply you with a rabbit every week if all goes well and you don’t name them. We fed the rabbits greens from the garden and rabbit kibble.

Next to the rabbits was the gate to the chicken house where they had 17 chickens one of which was a rooster. There was netting over the chicken house, probably to discourage hawks. The chicken house had 3 nesting boxes, which were accessible from outside, so you could open it to collect eggs. Ducks from the duck pond can come into that area, as well as the chickens can out into the duck area. Cliff doesn’t like the chickens too much, he thinks they scratch too much, he is planning to phase them out in favor of the ducks…but then they will have to hunt for eggs.

The Vegetable garden was below the greenhouse and was mostly finished with the summer vegetables, There were still lots of tomatoes, and comfrey was planted there as well as huge marigold plants. The water from the upper herb garden drained into the vegetable as well as some irrigating with a hose…which they also use to water the animals.

Lunches were generally soup and salad- They came up with amazing soups, and I loved all the salads. Jen made several different fermented sauerkrauts, but sometimes green salads and coleslaw, and always interesting dressing and condiments.

Wild design- only noted 2 things in my notes- but both are interesting. “Nothing in Nature is random- all is in patterns- based on energy flows” “By recognizing patterns we can manipulate and enhance energy flows. And one that is not in my notes. The answer to very many permaculture questions…”It depends…”

Patterns in Nature- One of my favorite classes. Dendritic patterns of trees both in the branches and roots…It reminded me of Antoni Gaudi and his amazing cathedral in Barcelona, Spain. Hexagon as in honey bees. Nesting patterns of tree rings and rainbows, Lobing as in flower petals and pine cones. Spirals…ahh the amazing spiral. Start with hair swirls and finger prints then move to zinnias and hurricanes. Then consider the Fibonacci sequence which is found all over in nature…it can be a whole blog in itself. Stars for explosions and dandelions, Snowflakes. And finally Overbeck Jet which is like breaking waves, and mushrooms and atomic bombs and bones connected, and musical frequencies. Imposing squares and rectangles on natural patterns creates problems- poor wind and water flow and less edge effect. Natural patterns are more harmonic.

After a delicious dinner, they set up the computer and we watched case studies on u-tube…Sepp Holtzer- the wild permaculturist in Austria, An edibile food forest in a Davis, California subdivision, Geoff Lawson an Australian permaculture guru talking about urban permaculture and several more. Totally exhausted, Miriam and I were both staying at the Farm, carpooled back.

Permaculture Design Course at Spiral Ridge; Sept 30-Oct 11, 2013– Day 1

Day One was driving and getting there and first impressions…

Spiral Ridge

I left home about 8:30 am with car packed with 2 weeks worth of Jeans, shirts, socks, underwear- ran back in and stuffed in my down coat–a good move- also took a sturdy plastic box of books (14) notebooks, drawing pencils, tape, scissors, guitar, piano, music, smart phone, computer(which I didn’t use because I had the smart phone), snacks, coffee cup and water bottle. Also boots and sneakers. Atlas and Magellan (which they said would not find them, and didn’t work well even to go home…the smart phone might have worked, forgot to try it.) I signed up to stay at the “Farm” instead of camping out at Spiral Ridge,Tenn http://www.spiralridgepermaculture.com/ so I didn’t have to bring tent etc.

The “Farm” proved to be an experience in itself.
The Farm http://www.thefarm.org/
When I told my daughter Michelle I was staying at the Farm- she said “THE FARM”? and she verified that yes it is “THE FARM” made famous recently by Ina Mae Gaskin and her book Spiritual Midwifery, which Michelle had read. It was founded in 1970 by a bunch of Hippies who formed a community which traveled the country in Yellow School buses before landing in rural Tennessee to found a commune, which went totally broke in 1977 and they reformed themselves in a less communistic community which now seems seriously stuck in the 70’s. All the School buses are still there rusting away. People at the Farm do not farm, but they have other business such as Soy Milk, something  to do with nuclear-maybe detector badges, and some mushroom growing.  Anyway, I  made my way to the farm and found my room at the Eco hostel, which served an occasional other visitor during my 12 days. It had a queen size bed and a kitchen with coffee I could make. No maid service, and I brought my own towels. There was a washer and dryer, but the sign said to “Use only in emergencies”, So clean dry clothes did not happen till I got home.

After dumping my stuff off at the Farm, I made my way to Spiral Ridge which was 10 minutes up the hill by car from the Farm. The first thing you see is a very small Amish cabin with 3 rooms and a very nice porch that did not face the road. I came to understand that it all had a purpose… And then the other students arrived and our coordinator apologized, they had an unexpected shipment that they had to pick up, so we started an hour late. I wandered around while we waited and  saw lots of interesting things. Cliff and Jens children ages 12 and age 9 entertained us while we waited. Their daughter brought out a colored handout with the schedule.

Then We started. We had a large Canopy with tables and chairs outside the Cabin which was our Classroom. It turned out we were always late, but that just meant we stopped later.  There was solar power for the electronics and a light bulb for the tent at night.

The course was billed as 72 hours, but in the 11 days we must have had closer to 100 hours of time spent, I’d say, not counting campfires. I am counting chores when we did gardening and animal care, etc. There were 12 students- 6 from Alabama, 1 from Georgia, 3 from Tennessee, and 1 from Chicago, 1 from New York City. I was the oldest, Oliver from New York was 23 as was Benford, also from Alabama. Lindsey, his friend was also about that age, from Huntsville area. All white, all smart, most had college degrees. Kelly (a girl) was from Huntsville also and had worked for 2 years for Michael Reynolds the Architect from Taos who builds Earthship houses. Tracey is a landscape Designer from Thorsby and also works for Petals from the Past where I have bought trees. Miriam is a College Instructor at Samford College in Birmingham. Mike and Chris live in Nashville, and Logan is a traveler, currently living in Johnson City, Tenn.

<Our instructors were Cliff Davis and Jen Albenese, owners and parents 3 children, the youngest is 3. They bought Spiral Ridge after it was clear cut for paper pulp, Tennessee does not require replanting, so it was cheap as denuded land with just stubble on it. That was 4 years ago. They got the well at the top of the land by going in with the neighbor who has land at the bottom of the hill. Then they planted gardens with herbs and added a giant vegetable garden and a pond for ducks, attached to a chicken yard. Water flows through the landscape through 3 ponds. Below the Duck pond is a giant swale that was cleared by Machetes, pigs and goats. On this swale Cliff is gradually planting food and product trees- nuts, fruits, and bamboo. Next year they hope to break ground on a house that will be much more comfortable than the 3 room cabin. He is selectively keeping the wild trees that are coming back from the clear cut. Everywhere he plants trees, he plants herb guilds that are beneficial to the trees. We learned how he plants the trees, and had several planting sessions when we planted 30 or more trees. We joked about paying to work on the farm, but it is good to learn what he does- each tree gets a sprinkling of mycorrhizial powder (a mushroom powder) to help the roots grow. They also had a very capable assistant/Course coordinator who helped us with registration, course info and medical issues such as poison ivy and chigger bites. Her name is Jessie. She also taught some of the sessions, as did Tyler, an intern.

Our first educational session was about the history and definition of Permaculture…It was rediscovered and named that by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia the early 1970’s…Permaculture principals were definitely used by aboriginal peoples in Australia and in North and South America. The basic idea is to work with nature, not against it as we do in modern agriculture. So as many different plants as you can grow in a natural order- not rows, so that good bugs have food to eat and will flourish and eat the pests.Use animals for their talents, one of the best being manure. The Permaculture ethics are Care for the Earth, care for People and share the surplus. I was amazed by the abundance of the food in and out of their gardens–tomatoes, squash and melons growing in tons of places where they were not planted (at least by humans).

Mollison had 34 principles, Holmgren only 12; 1. Observe and Interact, 2. Catch and Store energy, 3. Obtain a yield, 4. Apply self-regulation and accept feed-back, 5. Use and value renewable resources and services, 6. Produce no waste 7. Design from patterns to details 8. Integrate rather than segregate 9. Use small and slow solutions, 10. Use and value diversity, 11. Use edges and value the marginal. 12. Creatively use and respond to change.

10 of Mollison’s Principles 1. Redundancy- create synergies. 2. Stacking functions. 3. Succession. 4. Edge Effects and Ecotones 5. Work with nature not against it. 6.Problems can be solutions 7.The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited 8. The principle of Disorder 9. The principle of Entropy- in complex systems, disorder is a increasing result. 9. Metastability- For a complex system to remain stable, there must be pockets of disorder. 10. Observation; Protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.