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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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

Groundcherry Discovery

Ripe groundcherries.

Ripe groundcherries.

On a visit to the Farm, while walking through one of the pastures, we discovered something very exciting — perennial groundcherries! After a little research, I believe they are Physalis viscosa specifically.

This is particularly exciting because I was already really interested in growing groundcherries and had started a few Aunt Molly’s groundcherry plants from seed. However, now that I’ve made this discovery, I plan on propagating these instead, since I know they thrive in this climate. Plus, I hear they’re pretty tasty groundcherries. I had a couple and thought they tasted good, but I don’t have much room for comparison. It was nice to get a more diverse option.

Also known as ‘golden berries’, a popular health food, these groundcherries have the possibility of becoming one of our cash crops.

A member of the nightshade family, they could be toxic to livestock (the unripe fruit in particular) so we’re going to have to fence off the area where the plants are growing as long as we have livestock grazing that area.

Starhair groundcherry (Physalis viscosa) plant, flower, and husk.

Starhair groundcherry (Physalis viscosa) plant, flower, and husk.

Cash, Grass or…Cows?

We have a new lessee running cattle out at the farm. He has, what I think are, very aggressive ideas about what “improvements” need to be made to our property (hybrid grasses, city water piped to troughs, spraying the weeds).

Calves with loblolly pines.

America’s. Next. Top. Moo-del is…

We told him upfront that spraying was not an option, but already, he’s tilled up tens of acres and planted annual rye grass, with the intention of planting Coastal bermudagrass this Spring. Since minimizing property taxes is the main reason we currently have a lessee, I think we need to look at other alternatives that are more in-line with our long-term goals.

The alternative I’m currently researching is converting our current tax valuation from “traditional” agricultural practices to “wildlife management” practices. Doing this would mean that we wouldn’t have to have a lessee in order to keep the taxes low. “Traditional” agricultural practices require that we stock cattle based on income derived from stocking at traditional intensity rates, meaning you have to keep as many cattle on your land as all the other guys who are trying to make money from it and it alone. Changing to “wildlife management” practices mainly means not having to keep the land available to that one “traditional” income source. Instead, we could have some cattle, some timber stands, and some orchards — none of which would need to support us on its own in order to maintain the tax valuation.

From the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Comprehensive Wildlife Management Planning Guide:

“The Texas Constitution and the legislature provides those landowners with a current 1-d-1 Agricultural Valuation (often known as an Ag Exemption) an opportunity to change from a traditional qualifying agricultural practice to wildlife management as a qualifying agricultural practice while maintaining the current valuation. HB 1358 by Representative Clyde Alexander provided that the landowner must implement and complete at least one management practice from at least three of the seven wildlife management activities listed in Appendix A. Most landowners interested in wildlife can meet this requirement, and implement several practices beyond the minimum required.”

We would definitely be able to “implement several practices beyond the minimum required” — the practices include activities like pond construction, gully shaping, plant establishment in critical areas, and grazing management. I have contacted a Bastrop County TP&WD Wildlife biologist to schedule an evaluation and start moving forward with a management plan.

In the meantime, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s private land website has an unbelievable amount of useful information on this subject. I’ve only linked to a small portion of what’s available below:

Soil Test Results

Soil Lab Test Results

Soil Lab Test Results — Click image to download a PDF of the detailed results

The soil lab test results came back. I’m not totally sure what to make of them, I don’t know which pieces are more noteworthy than others. I think I understand the reports well enough to know that there aren’t any really scary surprises. Looks like I need to add more of all of the usual suspects (organic matter, Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus). The report also repeatedly mentions adding Sulfur.

Also, in an effort to continue getting to know my soil better, I dug a two-foot deep test pit at home, mainly to see if it was possible to dig that deep. I took another soil sample from the pit and tested it using the jar method. After letting the soil settle, I’m having a hard time telling if it’s silt or clay. There were no discernible layers, it’s pretty much all of one or the other — clay or silt? I opened the jar and felt the soil in hopes of figuring it out. It felt viscous and slimy like clay, but there was a decent amount of grit in it as well.

Low-tech soil testing, using my senses instead of fancy lab equipment.

Low-tech soil testing, using my senses instead of fancy lab equipment.

Submitting Soil Samples

Soil Samples: House (left), Farm (right)

Soil Samples — House (left), Farm (right)

I submitted soil samples from the Farm and the House to Texas Plant and Soil Lab yesterday. The process was more complicated than I would have guessed.

The first thing was that I had trouble figuring out if I could just use a Ziploc bag as opposed to one of their for-purchase soil bags. I, by chance, watched their “Soil Sample Bag” video which, despite the ambiguity of being named the same thing as the product they sell, confirmed that I could, indeed, use a Ziploc bag.

Then I followed their instructions for collecting soil samples and the “Soil Sample Bag” video for mailing instructions. I ordered two comprehensive soil tests, and printed my receipt to include with my samples. I also printed the Soil Sample Submittal Form and filled it out to the best of my ability. I put my samples, my order receipt, and my submittal form in a box, as the video instructed, and then left to ship them off to TP&S.

I think, by placing the order at the end of the process, I did it backwards from what they expect, because, unfortunately, an hour and a half later and after I had already shipped my samples, I received additional instructions via email that were different from the instructions on the website. The email specified to write my order number on the submittal form with my name, said to provide three cups of soil instead of two, and gave instructions for sending the samples via USPS, whereas the website doesn’t mention preferred shipping methods (I sent them via UPS).

So, if nothing goes awry, I should get the test results back in a couple of weeks, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear from them and/or need to resubmit something before that happens.

Persimmons Aplenty

I went out to the Farm this weekend to see if there was fruit on any of the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) trees.

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) tree in mid-October.

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) tree in mid-October.

I felt a few of persimmons and they are still rock hard. I found out after I got home that I probably should have harvested some while I was there, since they will ripen off of the tree just fine. Hopefully there will still be plenty next time.

From Wikipedia: “The fruit is high in vitamin C. The unripe fruit is extremely astringent. The ripe fruit may be eaten raw, cooked or dried. Molasses can be made from the fruit pulp. A tea can be made from the leaves and the roasted seed is used as a coffee substitute. Other popular uses include desserts such as persimmon pie, persimmon pudding, or persimmon candy. The fruit is also fermented with hops, cornmeal or wheat bran into a sort of beer or made into brandy. The wood is heavy, strong and very close-grained and used in woodturning.”

These trees are doing so well on the Farm, I’m curious about grafting Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki) varieties onto them.