Category Archives: Permaculture

Make Your Property a Paradise!

At Good Life Ranch we farm using ecological principles rather than chemicals.  We utilize nature’s time-tested methods to maintain healthy animals, create and maintain a healthy environment, generate energy, produce food, and recycle waste productively into other systems.  Every component on our farm has multiple outputs, provides inputs into other systems, and serves an ecological purpose.  A few years later I ran across the term permaculture, and that concept fits our farm pretty well.  Permaculture is shorthand for permanent agriculture and is based on the utilization of perennial plants and renewable energy sources.  You can read more about it below.  It’s way more involved than that brief definition I provided.

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Our house and a portion of our gardens.  Perennial plants generate food and beauty year after year.

My training is in science.  I earned my B.S. in Biology and a minor Environmental Studies from Trinity University, studying as much as I could under David Ribble in ecology and conservation biology.  I have taught biology for almost 15 years in public schools in Texas and Kentucky.  Although we run our farm in a permaculture manner, I decided that I’d also like to use my knowledge of ecology and my skills as a teacher to help other people transform their properties as well.  To that end in 2015 I earned my Permaculture Design Certificate from Geoff Lawton in Australia.  More information about him and his farm can be found at the links below.

Geoff Lawton
Permaculture Research Institute
Zaytuna Farm

I would love to put my training and expertise to work for you!

Your property, no matter how large or how small, can produce food.  It can generate renewable energy, it can harvest water, it can recycle wastes, and it can create habitat for wildlife.  At larger sizes your property can produce timber, use livestock and plants to rehabilitate a landscape, clean the environment, and generate income for your family.

Here are some of the things I can do for you with a site design, no matter the size of your property:

  • generate renewable energy on your property
  • increase the energy efficiency of your house
  • lower your household’s output of waste
  • increase your property’s fertility
  • produce quality food on your property at almost any scale
  • create wildlife sanctuaries

Site designs I have created in the past include:

  • 1/4 acre suburban lots that produce enough food for families of 4-6 to achieve self-sufficiency
  • 2-10 acre sites that produce enough food for families plus generate all the energy needs of the owners as well as provide water retention and supply, hiking trails, wildlife corridors, food forests, and more.
  • 15 -200 acre properties that accomplish all of the things the above sizes do as well as provide commercial opportunities to live on your land and work there too.
  • “Bug out” locations that can be set up, left with minimal maintenance, and used as needed in emergency situations to support a family.  This is a surprisingly popular option.

I have not yet designed a small urban space, like a rooftop garden or balcony garden design, but I would love to do that.  Small spaces can be incredibly productive if well-designed and well-tended.

Here’s our brochure: Good Life Ranch Permaculture Site Design  All of the photos in that brochure are of our property, so you can see that functional designs are not just utilitarian; they can be beautiful as well.

Here’s a sample of a design I created for a 2-acre property: South Carolina property

Of course, all property designs are unique because they reflect the goals and desires of the property owners.  All designs I create are individual and made especially for you!

Please give me a call at (606) 787-4217 or shoot me an  and let us design your property to reliably and sustainably produce food, reduce your ecological footprint, generate energy, and create a better environment for your family.

It’s an investment in your property.  It’s one of the best decisions we have ever made.

 

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Having a Swale Holiday

Please pardon the permaculture pun.  And the alliteration.

I finally decided to break ground on the first true swale at Good Life Ranch. Most of our new pastures are devoid of trees, which is how most livestock farmers want them.  But trees are great!  Trees are windbreaks, food sources, shade sources, nutrient accumulators, solar-powered water pumps, mulch producers, and so many other things!  The trick is growing them in the open pasture and keeping the animals away from them until the trees are large enough to handle the impact and then keeping the period of impact short in duration.

swale is a tree-growing system.  It’s basically a trench with an uncompacted mound of soil on the downhill side.  The swale is constructed on contour, which means that it is all at the same level in the landscape.  This makes the water slow down and spread out rather than keeping going downhill.  The idea is that rainfall runoff fills the trench, soaks into the mound of soil, and then is utilized by the trees before they pump it back up to the atmosphere again.  The water is retained and used rather than running off so quickly.

I decided to put the swale in now due to the weather.  It’s been real warm so my tree seedlings have just now lost their leaves and gone dormant.  A few still have leaves on them, but they should be alright.  We’re also scheduled for about a week of rain and mild temperatures coming, so I thought that might ease any shock the trees experience.

We have a line of existing pine trees in our front pasture that serve as some shade when the livestock are in that paddock as well as a windbreak and noise barrier for the house from the road.  The existing trees don’t extend all the way across the field, so there’s a 200-yard gap.  In that 200-yard gap is a strong breeze, noise from the highway, and an eyesore in the deserted mobile homes across the road.  So that’s where my first attempt at a swale will go.

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They’re hard to see, but the pink flags mark the level line across the field.

The first step in a swale after you decide generally where you want it to go is to find level.  I used a simple A-frame level I made from some PVC pipes.  Basically take 2 PVC pipes of exactly equal length, join them with a right-angle joint, and attach a 4-foot level to make the A.  If you attach the level with the PVC resting on a known level floor so that the level is level to start with, then you’re all set. By the way, I just won the contest I was having with myself to see how many times I could use the word  level in 1 sentence.  Now anything you set the legs of your A-frame on, you can find level.  So now you just move across the landscape marking each new level point with a flag.

Usually permaculturists hire big machinery to come in and create their swales.  Excavators, bulldozers, etc.  But this land isn’t steep – it’s almost level to start with – so I won’t need a very large trench or mound to contain the amount of water coming through.  I decided to try it with my tractor and a plow.

This is what I got:

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Freshly-dug small swale.  Now it’s easier to see.

It’s not bad.  I think it will do the job.  Not perfect by any means, and I learned that plows don’t turn well.  For the record, this was my first time plowing anything.  For anything with more slope, I don’t think a tractor plow would work at all.  An excavator would definitely be the way to go there.

In the picture above, you can see some of the pots of the tree seedlings I’ve been growing ready to go.  What you can’t see, in the spaces in between, are lots of bare root seedlings that weren’t in pots.  I laid them out pretty equally spaced but in mixed formation.  The trees planted in this swale were: white spruce, white oak, red oak, apples, and thornless honey locust.  I will add willow staves from the trees lining the creek in the spring.  All of these trees have a purpose:

  • Spruce is an evergreen and as such will be photosynthesizing throughout the year.  It also provides a year-round windbreak and noise barrier.  It’s great bird habitat as well, and birds in the pasture help keep flies down.
  • Both oaks provide shade, acorns for the animals, mulch from fall leaf drop, and quality timber at the end of their lifespan.
  • The apples are just seedlings from the seeds I’ve saved from apples I’ve eaten, so they will most likely just be crabapples.  Doesn’t matter to the livestock, though.  All of the animals love to munch on apples.  The apple trees also provide leaf mulch and wood for smoking fish and bacon.
  • The honey locust provides sweet pods that the animals adore, high-quality leaf much, and dappled shade in which grass grows well.  As an added bonus, honey locust is a nitrogen-fixer that adds fertility to the soil.
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Trees planted, cover crop ready to be spread.

The final step for now is planting a cover crop that will hopefully sprout first in the spring and provide competition for the grass seeds already in the soil as well as a nurse crop for the trees.  The mix I sowed consisted of 4 kinds of nitrogen-fixing clovers, turnips, kales, rape, and daikon radishes.  Those plants should cover the soil nicely.  If they don’t, then I’ll do some heavy weeding in the spring and replant then with something more vigorous like cowpeas.

Let’s see how this works!

***Postscript***

It rained all last night, and the Swales did their job!

Swales fill up for the first time.

Swales fill up for the first time.

Pasture Progress

Well, fall is falling and winter is coming.

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The pear trees are usually the last to change color and lose their leaves.

We have officially made it into December without feeding any hay this year.  Last year we only got to early October and most years we’ve had to start feeding hay in late October or early November.

We’ve been able to do this for 2 main reasons.  First, we’ve fenced in more pasture so that we have more grazing area available to rotate our ruminants onto.  Second, rotational grazing has really begun to positively impact the grass sward in our pastures.

The first reason is obvious.  More land available to graze equals more grass to rotate the animals onto and longer rest periods between grazing cycles.  Both factors extend the grazing season for the animals.

The second reason is more subtle.  Grasses and clovers respond much better to grazing than other plants, so their growth is favored over that of other plants during rotational grazing.

Non-rotational grazing, practiced by most producers, has a negative impact on the health of the soil and the pasture.  The animals are never or seldom moved so they keep coming back to their favored plants, eventually killing them and leaving in the pasture only the plants that they do not prefer.

In management-intensive rotational grazing like we practice, the cattle are tightly grazed and moved before damage to plants can occur.  They eat what they like, trample the rest, and then they are moved so that they area can recover.  Since grasses and clovers have evolved to be grazed, they respond faster than “weedy” plants.  The grasses and clover thicken vegetatively, sending up new growth and runners to improve the pasture sward.  This means that there is a constantly increasing volume of grass available, as long as the new growth is not grazed too soon.

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Sunset comes early in the winter.

It would be nice to be able to graze all the way through winter at some point.  Hay is the single largest expense to raising the cattle and sheep.

However, feeding hay does have some definite advantages.

First, it gets dark early in the winter.  Since we work at school as teachers, we often get home around 4 pm.  In the winter this does not leave very much daylight to move the cattle around in the winter.  It is a definite time-saver to put hay out instead of moving the cattle to new pasture.

Second, since we buy hay rather than cut it ourselves, we are basically importing fertility to our farm in the form of winter hay.  The hay is grown by our neighbors and eaten by our cattle.  Their manure from processing the hay is then deposited on our fields, increasing our fertility.  This is a great substitute for purchasing chemical fertilizer from a bag.  Yes, the hay costs money.  But it is scarcely more than it would take to make it ourselves in terms of fuel, time, equipment, and maintenance and has the added benefit of subtracting our need to purchase manure for fertilizing our fields.

Progress is being made.

The Ponds Work, and Now They Work for Us

A big hole where a pond will be

Good Life Ranch is hilly, to say the least.  We are in the “Knobs” country west of the Appalachians and most of our property consists of the western and southern sides of a ridge and the hollows running up into it from the valley floor.

Gravity does a number on water coming off of a ridge.  Erosion city.  Or country.  Or whatever.  Most of the time nature will figure out a way to slow the water down with deposition, meandering, or vegetation.  Leave it to mankind to create straight lines that allows water to build up speed.  Water coming downhill at speed will take away your topsoil and subsoil really quick.

We have such an eroded spot underneath a powerline cut that runs straight down the ridge and is kept free of vegetation by the utility company.  It needed to be fixed because it has created a 10-foot deep gully that kept getting deeper and straighter with every major rain event. 

In permaculture, often the problem is the solution.

Why not fight water with water?

Our solution was to build a pond and swale system to slow the water down, spread it out, retain it in a couple of ponds, and allow it to slowly infiltrate into the soil.   Much better than having it all running directly into the stream below and taking more and more soil with it.  Eventually it would have taken the fence too.

So I took out the trees that would have interfered with the digging or were near the dam wall for the ponds.  I hate taking out trees, but it had to be done and rest assured, more will be planted elsewhere.  Trees in or near the dam wall would eventually undermine the integrity of the structure as their roots invaded the ponds seeking the water.  My neighbor has a skidsteer and rents himself out for $25/hour so I hired him to actually do the digging.  It only took him a few hours to dig the ponds out and build the dam walls.

Then we put in swales on the downhill side of the ponds.   That is where the water goes when the ponds are full.   A swale is a level ditch, dug on contour, with a mound of uncompacted soil on the downhill side.  That mound of uncompacted soil serves to wick water up to trees and shrubs planted in it and creates a nice place for their roots to to stabilize the system. 

The idea is that the ponds and swales act as a “surge protector.”  They slow the water down, spread it out, and allow it to soak into the ground rather than carrying off all of the soil as it rushes unchecked into the stream below.  The ponds can each hold 10,000 – 15,000 gallons of water each when full, and the swales can hold several thousand more so there is quite a bit of water retention there.

So we got all of that done during late August and early September, the driest period of the year.  Then we had to wait to see if it would work.

Ponds dug and ready for rain

And we waited…

Then we got a couple days of nice rain!

Ponds holding water

And the ponds worked!  They held water.  It may sound silly, but it’s always touch and go until a pond actually fills up.  Some leak, some blow, some never fill.  These did, as you can see.

Now not only do we have surge protection spreading water through the landscape and preventing erosion, we also have water retention.  That allows for all sorts of other possibilities.  The ponds can water livestock, hold fish, provide wildlife habitat, and all manner of other ideas.

Using water to buffer water.

The problem is the solution.

Thanks, permaculture.