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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.

Goals and Accomplishments

I can’t believe that it’s already time to develop the next part of my Learning Plan. Did I get everything done that I wanted to get done over the last six months? Nope! But I got a lot more done than I would have if I hadn’t written down that list of goals in the first place.

With my lap hen, Bach.

With my lap hen, Bach.

Along with innumerable, subtle internal shifts that could never really be captured in writing, here’s a quick list of the things I did these past few months that I am proud of:

  • I removed my above-ground pool. No more chemicals in the soil or excess water usage.
  • I built a chicken tractor. I needed a place to quarantine new and sick hens.
  • I built Cosmo’s memorial garden.
  • At home, I planted two peach trees, a fig, a seedless che, blackberries, a raspberry, swiss chard, French sorrel and strawberries.
  • I cared for all of my plants through a pretty rough Texas winter.
  • I started seeds and then learned an important lesson about snails.
  • I grew and dried catnip. I drank it as a tea and refilled the cats’ homemade toys with it.
  • I made some progress towards breaking my terrible food buying habits. I’ve started cooking a lot more and we’re eating out or ordering food much less often. I’m learning to eat more seasonally via my weekly CSA box and I’m buying meat from the Farmer’s Market. Preferably from the ladies at Indian Hills Farms in Smithville.
  • I learned how to can food.
  • I’ve dealt with non-stop chicken drama — one of them has a bad leg, two of them were eaten by a possum, one was put down due to egg yolk peritonitis, I treated two of them for bumblefoot and then learned how to give penicillin shots to treat their resulting staph infections, and lastly one had vent gleet so I learned to give them vinegar and yogurt to manage their gut bacteria.
  • I trapped a couple of feral neighborhood cats and had them spayed and neutered, my form of urban wildlife management.
  • I met with a Bastrop County wildlife biologist and learned more about how to plan our wildlife management transition at the Farm.
  • I immersed myself in learning about bees: I went to an Austin Urban Beekeeping Meetup, I attended a “Keeping Chemical Free Bees” class and a “Spring Hive Maintenance” class, I read Les Crowder’s Top Bar Beekeeping book and watched the video of the same name. I also read The Backyard Beekeeper and The Thinking Beekeeper. I joined the Central Texas and Top Bar Beekeeping groups on Facebook and I ordered my top bar hive from a local apiarist.
  • I started the Texas Master Naturalist (Lost Pines Chapter) training program in February, something that has been a goal of mine for a few years. This has been a very intense course with classes every Monday night from 6:30pm-9pm, 4 hour long Saturday field trips twice a month, and sometimes up to 100 pages of reading in between.
  • I went to a prescribed burn workshop and connected with the South Central Texas Prescribed Burn Association. I get notifications when they do burns and can go out and help them. Unfortunately, I joined up towards the end of the burn season so I haven’t been able to go to one yet.
  • I got 90% of my design maps done for the house. I did the Zones and Sector maps digitally but I hand-drew the concept map, which is ever-morphing as I learn more.

Going forward, instead of trying to learn a little about a lot, I need to focus on specific topics and strive to really understand them. That’ll be the biggest difference in how I’ll structure my future goals.

At this point, I’m not too worried about the things I didn’t get done. They’ll keep moving along in the Learning Plan and I’ll get them done eventually. And if I don’t ever get them done, maybe they weren’t appropriate goals in the first place.

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 foragingtexas.com: “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 foragingtexas.com.

An image of reishis from foragingtexas.com.

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.

Cosmo’s Garden

Enjoy the sun spot, Mo Cat

MoCat in the sun.

Back in October, we found out that our 14 year old cat, Cosmo, had cancer and only a few more months to live. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, the time came and we had to let him go. It was, by far, my longest relationship with an animal, so I wanted to commemorate our time together by building him a garden.

An indoor cat most of his life, Cosmo loved when he was allowed to spend time outside on the patio. He was pretty well-trained and knew that stepping onto the grass meant having to go inside. (Trust me when I say that being outside was the one and only thing that was motivating enough for him to exhibit some self-control.) But that said, he couldn’t resist the butterflies. If a butterfly flitted too close by, before he could stop himself, he would be joyfully bounding after it, trying to keep up with the erratic pattern and elevation changes. Those moments, watching him unabashedly enjoying himself like that, are some of my favorite memories and it makes my heart happy to know that he’ll be surrounded by butterflies for a long time to come.

The Design

I knew that if I was going to do this I needed to design a system, not just plant a tree. This is permaculture design afterall, where systems are the name of the game, but also, the idea of Cosmo endlessly cycling through a system built just for him is very appealing to me.

After some site analysis, I designed a plum tree guild in a large boomerang berm, sited towards the top of a southeast-facing slope, close to the house for easy access to water, in an area that already has some peach and Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana) trees growing.

Garden Location

Garden Location

Garden Design Drawing

Garden Design

Since no one currently lives out at the Farm, irrigation presents a design challenge. Timed drip irrigation is not possible because we turn the city water off whenever we aren’t there, so my options became earthworks, adapted plants, and ollas — all three of which are being used in this design, along with cover crops for quick soil coverage.

The ollas I’m using hold two gallons of water and I’ve realized that I probably need to add a third one, just up-slope from the plum tree. They are currently emptying in about a week so it looks like I’ll be making weekly (more in the Summer) watering visits for a while.

One thing I didn’t pay enough attention to ahead of time was what was already growing on that spot. The day we installed the garden I noticed it was mainly pioneer plants and annual wildflowers, with some perennial wildflowers and bunch grasses. Had I noticed that sooner, I would have planned to have more organic material on hand to work into the soil as we built the garden because I suspect it’s going to need it.

The Plants

I chose a ‘Methley’ plum tree (Prunus salicina ‘Methley’) to anchor this garden because it is self-pollinating, has a low chill hour requirement (about 250 hours), is heat-tolerant, and, as opposed to Mexican plums which make good jellies, ‘Methley’ plums are good right off the tree.

The nitrogen fixer I chose to accompany the plum tree was more of a sentimental choice. Because of its name (Mi-MO-sa), its thorny nature, and its butterfly appeal, I decided that a Fragrant Mimosa (Mimosa borealis) would be an excellent addition to the garden that would be the resting place of my thorny-natured, butterfly lovin’ MoCat. This native shrub/small tree is extremely heat-tolerant and its adorable pink puffballs are an excellent source of nectar for both bees and butterflies.

As far as the understory goes, I intend on putting my beehives in this area as well so I’ll be looking at plants that, in addition to supporting the plum tree, also support the pollinator population. Luckily those priorities are not mutually exclusive since most companion planting information emphasizes planting for pollinators and other beneficial insects.

I plan to start with heat and sun loving natives like Autumn sage (Salvia greggii), Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), Mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea), and Drummond wild onion (Allium drummondii). Other non-native, less-well adapted edible and beneficial perennials will be introduced once the system has had some time to mature, since they will probably be more successful then.

The Garden

The morning Cosmo passed away, we drove out to the Farm straight from the vet. Once we got there, I used my A-frame level to find the contour line on the slope, then I marked the line and the berm with flags, and the digging began.

When planning for the eventuality of building this garden on a day that was going to be pretty hard mentally and emotionally, I decided that the priorities would be getting the earthwork dug, the ollas in, and the plum and mimosa trees planted. I knew that I would have help that day for all of that, and the rest I could do myself later. In hindsight, I should have paid a little more attention to soil preparation and amendment. As we dug and planted, I added compost, mostly to the trees, but I didn’t have anywhere near enough for the entire garden. Thankfully, I do have an endless supply of cow manure on-site, so I’ll be working to amend the soil with that going forward.

In addition to planting the plum and the mimosa trees that day, we also planted a couple of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) tubers, spread leguminous cover crop seeds over the berm, transplanted some of the disturbed wildflower plants into the garden (mostly Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) and Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis)), and threw out a bunch of wildflower, chicory, yarrow, and sunflower seeds.

The digging begins.

The digging begins.

The ollas are in.

The ollas are in.

End of Phase One.

End of Phase One.

I went back a few days later to add the mulch.

I went back a few days later to add the straw mulch.

Cosmo's Resting Place

Cosmo’s resting place.

I Made an A-Frame Level

And here it is.

A-Frame Level

Thrilling, isn’t it?

I followed the instructions from Brad Lancaster’s Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Volume Two. I constructed it from furring strips and wing-nuts, so that it collapses for easy storage and travel.

I tried to build the wind-resistant variation, with a line level mounted to the cross-bar, but shortly into that I realized how precise the construction would need to be so I ended up going with the weight on a string. The string is too long in the picture above though, it doesn’t take much to interfere with the weight hanging freely.

Brad also includes instructions for building a bunyip level and I intend to make one of those as well. It seems each style offers certain advantages in certain situations. I started with the A-frame because I can use it more easily by myself and I don’t need to have water handy. The A-Frame only measures as far as its feet are wide though so it’s better suited to small-scale projects. The bunyip level, on the other hand, uses a piece of tubing that can be up to 30 feet long.

Bunyip levels can also measure elevation and slope, which an A-frame cannot; however, they need water to work and you only get the distance benefit if you have a buddy to help you use it.

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.