Amie and I will be traveling over the next two weeks, so posting will be sporadic, if I post at all. We have a 9-hour plane ride ahead of us (BANG goes the Riot), and my main concern right now is which book to take. That, and getting a letter notarized in which DH gives his consent for me to take our daughter out of the country.

I’ve whittled it down to three:

Death, Sex by Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan

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In the Loyal Mountains by Rick Bass

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Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner

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I’ve read about 1/3 of each of these and still can’t decide. Of course I would take The Book if only it weren’t so voluminous – both volumes will come along in my suitcase, though, along with Holmgren’s Permaculture.  Amie will read Charlotte’s Web. But hopefully we’ll both sleep on the plane.

Last weekend we finally got the plastic on the hoop house, just in time too, before the first big snowstorm.

A couple of days after the storm something did not look right. Several of the “ribs” were no longer bent. A quick inspection revealed that the snow that had accumulated against the bottom had pressed against the ribs, making them bend in more, tightening the arch. This had put too much force on the pvc cross connectors on top, and several of these had broken.

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The house still stood by virtue of the connectors still in place, the plastic covering (which did not tear even at those point where the loose ribs were poking into it), and the milder weather. Yesterday DH and I had a chance to go out and fix it.

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The cross connectors can’t stand up to that kind of pressure because they are made of rigid pvc, which may get brittle in the freezing temperatures. Not being able to bend, they just break. So we reinforced each connector with a metal rod. The pressure of the arch is now on the metal rod inside the joint and on the much more bendable pvc of the ribs where the rod’s endpoints press on them.

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Hopefully this will do the trick, but to prevent the pressure from building in the first place, we are also creating a cross brace on the most vulnerable side of the hoop house. This will at least give us some extra time to clear away the snow. (More on this later.)

I peeked underneath the row covers and everything is doing well, though the Russian kale looked a bit peekish – next year I will be following the Matron of Husbandry’s tips on winter hardy veggies. I also had the chance to harvest some of our first winter harvest:

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Swiss chard, harvested mid-December. So good!


A few weeks ago I used up all my compost. I had two full Earth Machines and one pile overflowing its chicken wire container. Not all of this compost was done yet, but after mixing it all up and adding straw, it was just the right mix of finished and unfinished for my purposes: mulching the unused beds for winter.

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The Earth Machine closest to the kitchen door is the one that receives all our kitchen scraps. It was thus the one that held the most nutritionally balanced compost. This bin had been turned and fired up several times, so it was also the most done. Also qua composition it was the most varied:

  1. at the bottom a ten inch band of dark, fluffy soil at 65 F.
  2. a fat middle layer of compost still at it at a steamy 120 F.
  3. at the top another ten inch layer of slushy, browning organic matter, much of it still recognizable, at 80 F.

75 degrees is the perfect temperature for vermiculture, and for sure, this top layer was riddled with thousands upon thousands of Red Wigglers (Eisenia fetida).  These worms do not live in soil and many people have to buy them by the pound. I did not buy mine and I have no idea how they got to be there, but they are welcome.

This is what the bin looked like when I opened it (picture from Wikipedia – I forgot to take one of my own):

eisenia foetida (c) Toby Hudson, 2009
eisenia foetida (c) Toby Hudson, 2009

It’s only when you hold in your hand a squirming ball of hundreds of worms that you realize that soil doesn’t “break down,” but that it is broken down. The realization is not simply grammatical. In all layers of compost macro and micro-organisms are busy breaking down the organic material:

  1. The bottom layer was being consumed by psychrophiles – both bacteria and fungi, which latter never like it hot.
  2. The middle layer was colonized by thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria.
  3. The top layer was being consumed by psychrophilic and mesophilic bacteria and fungi, as well as some flies, some larger invertebrates, and mostly the worms.

All these organisms break the pile down into carbon dioxide, water and humus by using the nitrogen (N, greens, protein) in it to consume the carbon (C, browns, carbohydrates). I always imagine this process as an angry mob of angry villagers setting fire to the wooden house. Only they set the fire inside their guts. A mouthful of carbon, a nibble of  nitrogen (with an average C:N ratio of 30:1) and whoosh! The same happens when the larger organisms eat the smaller ones.

It is their body heat – the oxidation of the carbon – that the compost thermometer registers. The heat-lovers, burning the hottest and being the most numerous, consume the fastest. The Wigglers, who don’t like it above 80 F, take their time.

I was sad to have to break up this veritable worm bin. Some of them ended up in the beds and others I transferred to the new (uninsulated) bin, which will collect our kitchen scraps over the Winter and Spring. None of them  will survive the cold temperatures, since unlike the earthworms they cannot migrate deep down into the ground when the surface starts freezing up. I hope they will as miraculously show up in my compost next year.


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I’m reading Edible Forest Gardens (EFG) again, alongside Holmgrens’ Permaculture. I’m underlining and taking notes in the books and making summaries on a quadrille pad. I’m on volume 2 of EFG, which is the most practical volume of the two, and I foresee a lot of drawing up of plans as I come across passages that apply to my homestead. I’ll let you look in over my shoulder as I “make my mistakes on paper” (the best place to make them).

I’m also looking around for a Permaculture course, preferably online, or a local one spread out over nights and weekends, as I can’t afford, time and money-wise, the three-week intensive in Bolivia, or even in Cape Cod. I found an online course given by Dan and Cynthia Hemenway via Barking Frog Permaculture, which I could even monitor at minimal cost. But I missed the entry date. Next year maybe?

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I’m excited  but apprehensive at the same time. I hope my turning to permaculture again won’t turn me away from Transition. I know the latter came out of the former. Rob Hopkins, the “founder” of Transition, is a permaculture teacher. And he advises that at least one member of a Transition Initiative facilitating or initiator group take a permaculture course for a good reason: the principles of permaculture and Transition are the same, only their domains differ.

Edible forest gardening is one part of permaculture, which applies its basic  principles to the agricultural domain, and which in turn then nestles inside the vast ambition of Transition. It is exactly for that reason that I fear I might lose track of Transition. Permaculture, especially when studied with such selfish motivations as my own (I want to make my homestead a permaculture site), could easily blind me to the larger challenge of Transition.

I feel I need to work on my own place – as a base, as a model – before or while I work on the place that surrounds me. And so my vision contracts and expands, expands and contracts. But when focusing on the ground right in front of my feet, I might lose track of the path. Then when I look up to find it again – or because it calls me – my suddenly telescoping vision might make me dizzy, overwhelmed, and I might turn away again.

I know myself. I am aware, and wary. This is one of the reasons why fellow initiators in my town would be so valuable: to keep me balanced!


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Amie’s idea of cleaning up

As I was vacuuming I deplored (again) how often the work of a homemaker is lost. It is lost when half an hour later the flour gets spilled and a day later the dust bunnies are convening under the sofa again. It is lost when the dishwasher is full – or empty – again. It is lost when we step into the made bed, put on a clean sweater, finish the meal… And it is lost all over again when at the end of the day I tell myself:

“I didn’t get anything done again!”

Usually the latter refers to the work on my novel and my garden. I clearly don’t reckon all that invisible work that doesn’t get paid, or appreciated even by the one who does it.

But I feel I want to mark it. It is a large part of my life, after all.  I played with the idea of recording it in the blog, but how monotonous that would be, for reader and writer alike! Monotony – doing the same thing, over and over again – is the essence of this work, after all, no matter the tunes we dance and sing to.

So once in a while I write it down in my handwritten journal. Recently:

Woke up, got myself and Amie dressed. Breakfast. Dropped off Amie at preschool. Cleared breakfast table. Made beds.  Dusted furniture. Vacuumed whole house. Emptied dishwasher. Filled dishwasher. Handwashed big pots and pans. Wiped stove and kitchen counters. Picked up Amie. Prepared and ate lunch. Cleared table. Emptied dishwasher. Filled (laundry) washer, ran it, emptied it. Hung laundry to dry. Moved some of the woodpile. Refilled wood basket. Snack time. Played “Max” ten times. Prepared dinner, set table, ate. Cleared table. Put leftovers away. Soaked beans and split peas for soup tomorrow. Dishes. Got Amie ready for bed. Read story and stay with her until she’s asleep. Cup of tea and write this. Got nothing done today!

I can only imagine how much less I would get done if I also had to drive my child(ren) to extracurricular activities, and/or if I had to get to the gym and hairdresser and…

But of course that wasn’t all of my day. For instance, I played “Max” ten times because Amie insisted we get all the animals home safe, and I got to spend most of that time marveling at my daughter’s efforts to reconcile the lives of the chipmunk, the squirrel and the mouse (and their babies, waiting for them in the tree) with the hunger of Max, who would get sick if he only had treats and got nothing wild to eat, and maybe the mouse was worth sacrificing because it has only one baby, whereas the bird has three…

Still, at the end of it, that’s how my day felt. The journal entry may not be a statement of (all) the facts, but of the feeling of accomplishment, which was zilch. In that sense it is a true entry. And in that sense, it has to be recorded, once in a while.

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Whew, we got the plastic on the hoop house frame right in time, a couple of hours in fact before the snowstorm blew in. We used 6 mil landscape plastic, which turned out more opaque than we thought it would: will it reflect and diffuse the sunlight too much? Well, it will have to do for now. We bought PVC clamps from a greenhouse store – it was the delay in the order that took us so long. All in all, this greenhouse cost us less than $300. The doorway still needs to be fixed.

I also got a lot of wild wood kindling in, in time before the snow covered it all up. Here is about a tenth of what we have, drying on the old soil screen in the shed. It’s good stuff, especially the long dead, already barkless wood that falls out of the trees on a windy day. These sticks dry out in no time, weigh very little, and they light like match sticks (very fat ones).

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The last thing we provided for was food for the birds. I have the feeling that there were much less birds during this Fall migration than last year, though I must admit I spent much less time keeping an eye on our feeder. I’ve seen a couple of juncos, but for the rest it’s just us and the woodpeckers.

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