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Karr’s Kritter Kam 2: Fall Edition

More fun pictures from the wildlife camera at the farm:

Texas white-tailed deer <em>(Odocoileus virginianus texanus)</em>.

Texas white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus texanus).

Coyote <em>(Canis latrans)</em>

Coyote (Canis latrans)

Coyote <em>(Canis latrans)</em> with mange.

Coyote (Canis latrans) with mange.

This one's a little harder.  There's a Great Blue Heron <em>(Ardea herodias)</em> on the opposite bank of the tank.

This one’s a little harder. There’s a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) on the opposite bank of the tank.

Feral hog <em>(Sus scrofa)</em>.

Feral hog (Sus scrofa).

Summer Without a Pool

Household water usage from July 2013 (with a pool) to July 2014 (without a pool).

Household water usage from July 2013 (with a pool) to July 2014 (without a pool).

I removed my above-ground pool in March of 2014 and I couldn’t wait to see the difference in the water bill.

I was worried I would miss it once it was gone, but there wasn’t a single moment where I missed swimming in the pool more than I enjoyed not having to deal it. I didn’t realize how much emotional friction it had been causing between the guilt over how much water I was using (this is Texas, afterall) and worrying about keeping it functioning properly (I maintained it myself).

It helped that I put things in its place that I love so much more.

With and without the pool

Before and after. The view is so much better now.

Borage — It’s Pretty Awesome!

Borage blossoms and seeds

Borage (Borago officinalis) blossoms and seeds

Edible, medicinal, an excellent companion plant, and a favorite of bees, borage (Borago officinalis) is quickly becoming one of my favorites too. In the same family as permaculture favorite, comfrey, I’ve had much better luck growing borage here in SW Austin. Borage offers a lot of the same benefits as comfrey (edible, medicinal, soil building, integrated pest management), but one difference is that, unlike comfrey, borage is an annual. It self-seeds with vigor though and I’ve saved some of the seeds to spread around other parts of the yard.

I plan to spread some seeds in with the strawberry plants I put in a couple of months ago. I read that borage and strawberries are a particularly good pairing since the borage attracts insects that predate on most strawberry pests. It is also rumored to improve strawberry flavor and yields.

But strawberries aren’t the only plants that benefit from being planted with borage, it will help any plant that it’s planted with by creating a living mulch and cycling trace minerals back into the topsoil as its leaves decay.

Borage plant (on left), with Bock for scale.

Borage plant (on left), with Bock for scale.

Smile! You’re on Karr’s Kritter Kam!

Common Raccoon <em>(Procyon lotor)<em>

Common raccoon (Procyon lotor)

I put a wildlife camera up out at the Farm about a month ago as one of the three strategies we need to implement in order to convert to the Wildlife Management tax valuation — the camera counts as ‘Census’.

In addition to the raccoon and the turkey below, there were lots and lots of pictures of cows, a couple of doves, a crow, and a mystery rodent or bunny. No hogs, deer, skunk, coyote, or armadillos, all of which I expected to see since I’ve seen them out there before. I’ll give this camera location another week or two and then I’ll move it over to one of the stock tanks, see who I can catch getting a drink.

Female Rio Grande turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia)

Female Rio Grande turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia)

I’m really excited about the turkeys in particular. I’ve actually seen and heard them the last few times I’ve visited the Farm. I want to manage for them specifically and found some good information on the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s website about wild turkey food and habitat needs.

Look at My Plants!

They made it through the winter. Yay!

"Sequoia" strawberry

‘Sequoia’ strawberry

My passionflower kept its leaves this winter so now it's focusing on flowers!

My passionflower kept its leaves all winter. Now it’s focusing on flowers!

Globe artichoke

Globe artichoke

Self-seeded cherry tomato

Self-seeded cherry tomato

Goji berry

Goji berry (Lycium barbarum)

Hardy Kiwi vines -- "Anna" Hardy Female, 74-46 Hardy Male, 'Dumbarton Oaks" Hardy Female

Hardy Kiwi vines (Actinidia arguta) — ‘Anna’ Hardy Female, 74-46 Hardy Male, ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ Hardy Female

Seedless Che tree -- grafted onto native Osage orange, self-pollinating.  I'm crushing hard on this little tree right now.

Seedless Che tree (Cudrania tricuspidata) — grafted onto native Osage orange, self-pollinating. I’m crushing hard on this little tree right now.

Flower forming on the Che tree

Flower forming on the Che.

Lettuce, borage, French sorrel, cilantro, and swiss chard around the Che.

Lettuce, borage, French sorrel, cilantro, and swiss chard growing around the Che tree.

Fig -- I propagated this from one that is already planted in the yard.

‘Texas Everbearing’ fig — I propagated this from one that is already planted in the yard.

L- R: "Apache" blackberry, "Heritage" raspberry, "Natchez" blackberry

‘Apache’ blackberry, ‘Heritage’ red raspberry, ‘Natchez’ blackberry

Mushroom Mystery

Two mystery mushrooms at the base of a dying oak tree.

Two of my mystery mushrooms at the base of a dying oak tree.

I discovered these mushrooms growing at the base of a dying oak tree out at the Farm in November, and I’ve just kind of been watching them ever since.

I thought (and hoped) then that they might be reishi mushrooms since I know they’re in the area. From “Reishi mushrooms abound throughout the wooded areas of Texas. Most commonly found growing at the base of dead pine tree stumps, they will also be seen poking up through the pine needles and wood duff of forest floors. Dying hardwood trees such as oaks, sweetgums, elms and locusts are also common homes for these shiny, red mushrooms.” Reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) are one of the most respected medicinal mushrooms and have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2000 years. It’s Chinese name, Lingzhi, translates to “supernatural mushroom”.

Another mushroom at the base of the oak.

Another mushroom at the base of the oak.

Mushroom with center-back stem.

Mushroom with center-back stem.

The other option is that these could be some kind of turkey tail mushroom. A Google search did nothing to help me narrow it down, as my mushrooms don’t look 100% like either a reishi or a turkey tail.

One of the things that is keeping from being convinced that my mushrooms are reishi mushrooms is that they don’t have the glossy, varnished look that they supposedly should have; however, this picture, from the Foraging Texas website, looks an awful lot like the mushrooms in my pictures.

An image of reishis from

An image of reishis from

I tried to take a spore print (reishi should have brown spores, turkey tail white ones) but I didn’t get much. There was some brown on the paper but was it just soil? I don’t know. I think my mushrooms may have been too old to print.

So for now this is still a bit of a mystery. When I first discovered these mushrooms, I took a picture of one and texted it to my mentor, Jason, for some identification help. From the very limited information I was able to give him then, he ID’ed it as a “LBM” — little brown mushroom. What do you think now, Jason?

The mushrooms in November.

The mushrooms in November.

Sneaky Snails Slaughtered My Seedlings!

The sad remains.

I even caught the little bastards in the act. Yes, they were fed to the chickens.

Let me start by saying that, despite a few past attempts, I’ve never successfully grown my own transplants so I went into this whole thing with pretty low expectations of success. Now that said, damn this loss stings! Particularly because it was going so well up until now.

I started cucumbers and three kinds of tomatoes — Texas Wild Cherry, Punta Banda, and Cherokee Purple. In an effort to mimic a cold frame setup, I kept the flat in a plastic bin with a clear front window that I moved out into the sun during the day and back into the house at night as I went too and from the chicken coop. I was even remembering to water them, sometimes twice a day!

I just read How to Grow More Vegetables, so once the seedlings were big enough, I followed John Jeavons ‘pricking out’ method. I really was trying so hard to take good care of them!

Cucumber close-up.

Seedlings about to be ‘pricked out’.

For two weeks, I kept them up on the deck. Then, after watching them for a few days, it seemed like they weren’t growing very well. I thought maybe a little more light and heat might help so I put them on the ground in the greenhouse. Bad call. The next day the little plants I was so proud of were just sad, chewed off stems. And now even the stems are gone. To say this makes me a sad panda is putting it lightly.

In order to harvest before the heat becomes an issue, these plants would have gone in the ground around March 15th (two weeks from now) so it’s too late in the season to start again with these vegetables.

My only consolation at this point is that I made some progress this year. I can get seeds started now and I couldn’t before, so I’ll just have to be satisfied with that and this painful snail lesson for now.

Life is What Happens to You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans

This seems like a good time to pause and reflect on how my diploma process is going thus far. What’s going well, what went wonky, that kind of thing.

Overall I think it’s going really well. I enjoy having a goal to motivate me and the structure and accountability to keep me focused.

That said, I’m not going to lie, the first three months were rather stressful. I knew going into this that my biggest hurdle would be an emotional one. I’d be fighting my internal, perfectionist critic the whole way. Because of that, I had a really hard time dealing with the fact that my actual day-to-day work was developing differently from the plan I had committed to. Originally I ran myself ragged, doing twice as much work as I had time for, and I forgot to enjoy myself and what I was doing.

In the last couple of weeks though, I’ve finally accepted that some things just aren’t going to happen when I planned, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t happen eventually. Seasonal activities are getting the highest priority and the other stuff will happen when it happens. The value in making a long term plan comes from getting the ideas and goals written down so that as life happens and other opportunities arise, those goals aren’t forgotten. But, in the end, they are just goals I’ve set for myself, not hard deadlines that warrant stress.

All of that aside, here are some other thoughts that might be helpful to someone else starting this process:

  • I padded my Learning Plan with too many ‘shoulds’. My internal dialogue, when creating it, was something like, “A good permaculture diplomat would study [X]“. One of the patterns I observed was how I threw myself into every animal-related task I had while dragging my feet on other, less interesting-to-me tasks. Noticing this will help me focus going forward. I want to sell eggs, meat, and other by-products from heritage breeds on rotationally grazed pastures that are being guarded by livestock guardian dogs I’ve trained and provide these resources to the community to do the same. That’s the vision I need to stay true to when the siren songs of ‘should’ become too tempting.
  • Because of the generalist, should-driven approach I took to planning, I didn’t allot enough time for certain topics. I would become really interested in something and want to spend more time with it, but feel unable to because I needed to move onto the next thing in order to stay on track. These are huge subjects and I only allowed enough time to scratch the surface in many cases.
  • I tried to plan an even amount of design, observation, community, etc. assignments in each month and I started to become anxious as I noticed more and more observation posts going up. In hindsight, I should have expected that — the beginning of this process should be about observation and discovery. I didn’t accomplish any of my January goals for the Farm because I realized that I need more time to observe and get to know the land out there. I need to connect with it first and my aggressive planning didn’t allow for that.
  • Three months seems to be the horizon upon which I can actually plan with any certainty. Looking at January, February, and March makes me laugh because I didn’t do most of the stuff I planned for January, but I’ve accomplished a lot of my February and March goals already.
  • A pattern has developed in my documentation process, I’ve been consistently a month behind. I find it works better for me to document the past month’s work while actually working through my next set of goals. I often gain new insight into my work when I let myself think on it for awhile before I write about it.

It Snowed! Sorta.

Icy precipitation is more like it.

Icy precipitation is more like it.

Ah…winter in Austin. One day you’re planting fruit trees in a tank top then less than forty-eight hours later, a snow day! (Yes, that was enough to cancel school today.) But, don’t worry, it’ll be tank top weather again by this weekend.

As you might guess, winterization is not something that tends to be a big concern around here with our mild but wacky winters. Our average first frost is around the beginning of December, the last frost is towards the end of February. We tend to have twelve to twenty-four hours of really cold weather once or twice a month during that time.

So far we’ve had two significant cold weather events this season — last month it got down into the mid-20s for two nights, staying below freezing during day, but there wasn’t any precipitation. Then last night it was 24 degrees with icy precipitation. Otherwise, it’s been sunny and warm.

This pattern tends to be confusing for my fruit trees and I was welcoming this cold front. I noticed a couple of days ago that my peach and plum trees were thinking about blooming. Hopefully this will remind them that it’s winter still.

Blooming peach tree, February 23, 2010 -- The last time it snowed.

Blooming peach tree, February 23, 2010 — The last time it snowed.

Since our cold snaps are so short, I’m kind of a hardass when it comes to protecting plants. I’m not interested in coddling, so anything in the ground gets mulched and watered and that’s it. The mulch acts as a blanket for the soil and the moisture moderates the temperature extremes around the roots.

Right now pretty much everything is dormant with the exception of my artichoke and pineapple guava. They were relatively unaffected by the longer exposure to cold temperatures last month, but the exposure to ice and snow seems to have hit them a little harder. We’ll see what happens.

There are some areas in my yard that get a little more attention when it gets cold though and those are:

  • The hens – I chose cold hardy breeds so I don’t worry about them too much. I did have to thaw their water this morning though which was a first. Their coop is positioned such that it’s protected from the sun more than the cold winds, so I board up the windows and cover them with a tarp when necessary. More for my peace-of-mind than anything, I think.
  • Outdoor faucets — I detach any and all hoses and put faucet covers on. Some of the pipes are exposed and those are insulated with foam year round for convenience.
  • Citrus trees — In past years I’ve brought the citrus trees inside. This was the first year I’ve left them outside, for a couple of reasons. Last year when I brought them in, my orange tree was blossoming by Christmas and, as a result, I didn’t get any oranges this year. Also, I eventually want to plant them in the ground so I need to see how cold-tolerant they really are.

    In addition to thick mulch and watering, I tried to place them in, what I thought was, a warmer and more protected microclimate — hugged up to the south side of the house, by the warm dryer vent and protected by the fence. I put my weather station out there with them so I could test and see if it really was any warmer. Turns out it wasn’t. The ‘Meyer’ lemon took the first freeze pretty hard but the satsuma did great. Knowing that snow was likely overnight, I chose to cover them with a sheet last night.

    I brought the lime tree inside both times since it’s small and has fruit on it right now.

  • Potted plants — I water everything and mulch all of my potted plants with leaves from the yard.

    I have a pop-up greenhouse for the first time this year and while it heats up nicely during the day, it doesn’t really protect my plants from the cold. With the exception of the greens that are planted in there, the fate of everything else remains to be seen.

That's about right.

That’s about right.