gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

Friends, I’ve been absent for far too long — but certainly not because I didn’t have anything to say. On the contrary. I am enrolled in the school of my dreams, with a curriculum containing all that I’ve been aching to learn, and I’ve been sitting on the edge of my seat trying to take it all in. Some of the learning curves have been as steep as these Northern California hills where we’ve settled for the duration of my program. Life is full and invigorating. There has not been a day that I’ve looked back.

We’re two months into our six-month program, and in this time we’ve learned to read the landscape, measure contours with A-frames and laser levels, read maps, manage surface water with swales (contour water infiltration ditches)…

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…create base maps, develop designs, learn group facilitation and peer mentoring and project management…IMG_2427

…create plant palettes, procure and plant and care for plants, monitor and manage soil fertility, design plant guilds and food forests…IMG_2794

…install drain pipes, design and install irrigation systems, calculate rainwater catchment volume…IMG_2582

We’ve visited example sites of urban resilience in diverse communities of the East Bay that integrate permaculture with social justice, such as Full Harvest Farm in Oakland and Urban Tilth in Richmond…IMG_2799

… plus a world-class Regenerative Agriculture workshop with the stellar Darren Doherty thrown in for a good measure!IMG_2816

In other words, Permaculture Skills Center’s Ecological Landscaper Immersion program is all that I had hoped it would be, and more. This is largely because of our exceptionally skilled (and I mean people skills too) instructors and the community of our cohort, thanks to whom this training is about so much more than just downloading information into the brain. It is truly transforming the student as a person, and what we think is possible. I can’t wait to share some of my milestones as the summer continues!!!

Steep slopes present all kinds of challenges, no matter what the size of the property.

Friends of mine here in Columbia are struggling with that particular headache on an otherwise lovely, wooded two-acre property they are developing into a new tiny house community. The plan is to offer affordable, small-footprint, ecologically conscious housing. It’s really an inspiring project and what this town badly needs, but the work on the property has been slowed down by a few challenges on the site, one of them an erosion-prone, very steep sandy slope along the western boundary. The owner of the neighboring property — located at the top of the slope from the tiny house development — has used his land as a depositing site for sand from construction sites in town. When it rains, whoosh — that sand is washed down to the tiny house property. There’s about three feet of deposited sand on this side of the property, which is a challenge, even just for the builders constructing the house foundations. And look at the slope itself: just bare. Barely there. The next rainstorm will again wash off the next layer of it.

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Before

I was asked to develop a permaculture solution to stabilize the slope. What I proposed was a low, living wattle fence using what’s called live stake propagation to hold back any further sand deposits onto the property and for general erosion control. This is a soil bioengineering technique that has been successfully used to stabilize riverbanks and other steep slopes, for example in this project by Oliver Kellhammer, and here and here. It involves planting live cuttings, which are leafless stem cuttings of fast-rooting deciduous woody species such as willow and cottonwood. The cuttings are harvested in the winter or early spring when the trees are in a dormant state, and are planted into the slope 3-4 feet apart. Other slender cuttings or whips are stacked horizontally to create a “fence,” and then you back-fill the space with soil, creating small terraces. Soon the cuttings begin to sprout and put down roots, and the resulting root mat is what holds the soil together.

Not having access to a native willow stand, I ordered cuttings from the wonderful Ernst Conservation Seeds, which specializes in plants for land restoration and conservation projects. The primary species I used were:

  • Streamco willow
  • black poplar
  • dogwood
  • elderberry (to add an edible  function to this living erosion hedge)

The cuttings are best at 0.5-1.5 inch in diameter. The length can vary, but they should have at least two leaf nodes above the ground when planted. During transportation and storage, the cuttings have to be kept moist and shaded. Pre-soaking them before planting dramatically increases the survival rate of the plantings, as it will initiate root growth. Most sources recommend 7 to 10 days of soaking, or a minimum of 24 hours.

bluebirdlaneCuttings are planted in the early spring. They should be planted so that 2/3 of the cutting is below ground. I was initially nervous about whether I’d be able to drive the cuttings that deep into the soil without some kind of a power auger or having to hammer them in, but this slope is really just runny, loose sand, so in most cases the cuttings went in with very little effort on my part. I filled the planting hole with a mix of topsoil and water to create good soil-to-stem contact. The other step that’s really critical at this stage is to correctly identify the top of the cutting, and not plant it upside down — that won’t work!

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After

Honestly, planting the vertical cuttings was the easy part, even as there were 127 of them. The most labor-intensive part was sourcing, cutting and arranging the horizontal pieces, and filling in the terraces with soil. Thankfully, the same neighbor who created the problem in the first place brought over some good black topsoil from a cow farm. I mixed that into the little terraces, with the hope that it will prove to be a more fertile rooting medium than the sand. Lastly, I seeded the entire area with an erosion-control seed mix.

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During my last visit, the live cuttings were already sprouting, and the seed mix has germinated. That means that millions of tiny little roots are beginning to spread out into the soil, ultimately forming a connected root mat that holds the soil in place, absorbs water during rains, establishes a green zone and eventually even a privacy hedge. Plus, once the elderberries begin to fruit, you can eat from it. Much better than concrete and rebar.

More resources for soil bioengineering through live stake propagation:

Harvesting, storing and transporting live cuttings

Live staking and joint planting

Soil bioengineering expert David F. Polster’s site

 

 

 

All right folks, here comes probably my biggest announcement ever on this site.

Everything I’ve documented here at Gather&Grow during its three years of existence – permaculture design and education, learning and practicing urban homesteading skills, natural dyeing, launching a yarn line – are projects I’ve pursued on the side while maintaining a full-time day job as a university professor. I haven’t written much about said day job here, precisely because I wanted to preserve this space as an outlet for exploring my other passions. Some people might even have walked away with the impression that I spin yarn and grind acorns and study permaculture all day long, without having to worry about making a living… But the truth is that I’ve had to find the time to do all that while keeping up with a professional life that has, at times, been overwhelmingly demanding. It’s often been a struggle. (Picture me planting seedlings at midnight because I was doing 70+ hour work weeks and that was the only time I could find…)

…Which is why I’m stoked, and a little dizzy with excitement, to announce that I am taking the Leap. I’m quitting my job to pursue what I’m most passionate about – to work full-time for regenerating this Earth and its living systems. I’ve handed in my notice and wrap up my work responsibilities at the end of April. It’s official.

IMG_1741This is a transition that I’ve been quietly preparing for for a long time. Many, many months of discerning what it is that I’d most like to do to contribute to the solutions that I see as possible. Many, many months of getting over my fears of leaving a career I’d worked so hard towards, and of being self-employed (or unemployed, for that matter). Many, many months of saving money so that my husband and I would have enough of a nest egg that my leap wouldn’t spell a financial disaster for us.

(Of course, this decision has been partially motivated by different kinds of negativity around my soon-to-be former job. But I don’t feel the need to go into that here. Let’s just say that that job used to be my passion, and now it no longer is. And life is too short to spend your days doing something you’re not passionate about.)

So here we are. Many uncertainties remain, but I have no doubt that this is the right decision.

I’m saying yes to doing work that makes me come alive.

I’m saying yes to the possibility of a regenerative livelihood, a right livelihood.

I’m saying yes to a future that I want to see.

What’s next, you ask? Next month, I start a six-month advanced permaculture training called the Ecological Landscaper Immersion at the Permaculture Skills Center in California. Who would have thought that after 9 years in graduate school I’d be itching to get back to school…? But I’m as giddy as a first-grader: this program is exactly what I’ve been looking for. In ELI, I’ll be building some serious hands-on and design skills that will allow me to work in ecological landscaping and land restoration, whether on an urban backyard scale or broad-acre agriculture and land preservation scale, and in education and advocacy around these themes. My husband and daughter are joining along on this adventure. Northern California is where Dan and I first lived together as newlyweds and where I began my permaculture education, so it feels in many ways like a sweet homecoming.

And if you want to find out what happens after that… well, so do I, so follow along! Gather&Grow will continue to be the space where I’ll be journaling about this journey of taking my permaculture learning to a professional level and creating a regenerative livelihood. And this is where I will announce my Awesome Future Enterprise once it’s up and running… Ha! If you want to make sure you don’t miss that, sign up to get blog updates (if you haven’t already)!

And now… let’s get started.

In all honesty, I was prepared for my “bread from trees” to be, at best, just palatable. I had actually never tasted anything made out of acorns until now. My acorn baking was an experiment, and one that I thought would require a heroic adjustment of the palate.

But I was wrong. Both the bread and the pancakes I’ve made in the last few days with home-made acorn flour had a mildly sweet, nutty flavor that kept me and my family reaching out for more. Now that I think of it, a similar fragrance filled the kitchen as I was boiling the acorns to leach out the tannin. It reminded me of caramel sauce.acornbakingacornbaking-2

There it is — a rustic-looking loaf of bread, fresh out of the oven. I made it by modifying a simple cornbread recipe, substituting acorn flour for corn meal. I did still use some whole wheat flour, too, for both the pancakes and the bread, thinking that our digestive system needed a slower introduction to a new type of food. But now I think I’m ready to try 100% acorn… my next loaf will be called Naked Acorn Bread.

Happy weekend, everyone!

This is the story of how I came to make flour out of acorns. Not that adventures in wild food foraging are anything new around here, but acorns are a new frontier for me.

Two things happened in a space of a couple of days: first, coming home from my favorite coffee shop, I noticed plentiful acorns literally covering the ground in a small park under four oak trees. And second, I listened to the episode of the Permaculture Podcast with Mark Shepard, the author of Restoration Agriculture, where the podcast’s host, Scott Mann, took on a 31-day “perennial foods only” eating challenge inspired by Shepard’s work.

I’d read Restoration Agriculture before, and am completely sold on Shepard’s proposal of large-scale agriculture centered around perennial food crops, specifically trees. Not only do perennial plants yield more over time, with less labor input; but many of the cultivation practices that are destroying soil and ecosystem health and contributing to climate change are characteristic of large-scale annual cultivation: tilling and plowing, the resulting depletion of soil life and nutrients, the need for heavy amendments and machinery, and so on. I had to face the fact of a huge disconnect: I’m the first to extol the benefits of perennials versus annuals, yet my diet – like that of most people around the globe – absolutely relies on staples from annual plants, such as rice, wheat, and corn.

So I decided that the next step for me is starting to incorporate more staple foods derived from perennial crops. Restoration Agriculture makes a pretty convincing case for the nutritional benefits of the foods you can grow, for example, in an oak savanna system (as opposed to monoculture fields) – most notably, chestnuts, hazelnuts, berries, and animal meat. But Shepard also mentions the food potential of acorns:

“Acorns are large, high-calorie nuts. They are rich in protein and minerals and 50-70 percent oil, which can be pressed and used as an industrial food processing ingredient, cooking oil, or as a fuel. Spain or Italy have an entire industry and culinary tradition in place where pigs are fattened on acorns.”

Acorns are also freely available for the forager. They were a staple in the diet of many Native American communities, who called acorns the “grain from the trees.” Here, then, we have a nutritious “grain” that can be locally harvested, even in urban areas.

So I set my goal: acorn bread and acorn pancakes this weekend! I collected a bagful of acorns and got to work.acorns-2

There are a few variations to the process — see some links at the bottom of this post for resources — but the basic steps seem essentially the same:

  1. Harvest acorns, taking care to leave out any that have holes in them or appear moldy.
  2. Shell the acorns using a nutcracker. This is easy to do, since the shells are thin and pliable.acorns
  3. Crush or pound the acorn meats into smaller pieces or a coarse meal in a blender, food mill, or the equivalent.
  4. The acorns must then be leached to get rid of the excess tannin, which gives them a bitter taste. Immerse the crushed acorns in boiling water, boil until the water becomes muddy in color, strain and move to another pot of already boiling water. Repeat until the acorns no longer taste bitter. For me, this took about a couple of hours of boiling.
  5. Dry the acorn in the sun, a dehydrator, or an oven with the pilot light on until they are light and completely dry.
  6. Grind into flour.

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I promise to come back to report on the acorn bread/acorn pancake experiment soon! In the meantime, here are some resources:

 

wintercolors

Midwinter is the time for bright colors. When the landscape outside is resting, with the subdued neutral colors and quietness of winter, introducing a splash of color into our days brings with it uplifting energy… something we could all use a little bit right now, yes?

The new winter colorway, now available in my little yarn shop, is just that: bold, bright, and joyful. I created strong reds, greens, yellows, blues, and browns — all with natural dyes derived from plants — perfect for warm winter woolens. As before, the yarns are all 100% domestic wool milled in North Carolina. The fiber for the indigo (blue) yarns is also sourced regionally, from fiber farms in North Carolina. And here are the dyes:

  • butterscotch brown: black walnuts all gathered here in Columbia, SC
  • yellow: marigold flowers from my dye gardens
  • coral red/orange: madder root, partially sourced from my dye gardens
  • deep sky blue: indigo (not local)
  • forest green: basil from my garden, overdyed with indigo

I can attest to the energizing effect of these colors. My home doubles as my dye studio, so for the last few weeks I’ve had these splashes of bright color around the house at various stages of the dye process  — yarns being dyed, rinsed, drying, being re-skeined — making sure no day or no room is too dull. I particularly love the almost-electric blue of the NC-grown indigo yarns, and the lively variation across the skein, from lighter to darker shades, on the forest green and madder red Merino yarns.wintercolors-4wintercolors-2
If these yarns are calling out to you and your knitting needles, or you want to support ecologically responsible, locally sourced textile culture, or just want to learn more, please visit my Etsy shop. Happy Winter days, folks!

A few days before the end of the year — just in time! — I finally finished my locally sourced, all-handmade outfit of 2015.

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Black alpaca cardigan spun and knitted from alpaca fiber from Sea Ayre Suris Farm, grey bodice of Alabama Chanin organic cotton jersey dyed with comfrey and blackberry leaves, and a pale pink skirt of the same fabric dyed with purple basil.

See earlier progress reports on this outfit here, here and here. And special thanks to This is Moonlight for the #1year1outfit challenge!

My big reveal comes so last-minute because the final part of the project, the black alpaca cardigan, took much, much longer than I had expected. I finished dyeing and sewing the cotton bodice and skirt already in September, and thought I was way ahead of the game… except that October and November somehow got swallowed by other enterprises, and when I finally sat down to work on the cardigan, spinning the yarn took so, so long. I’d never spun Suri alpaca fiber before this, and I found it much more challenging than spinning sheep wool because it has no crimp and tends to slip as a result. In addition to which it was almost impossible for me to spin if my toddler was in the same room because she was far too enthusiastic to “help.” So, picture many, many late-night spinning and knitting sessions during the pre-Christmas weeks…

But now it’s done. And I got to wear my local outfit on the shores of the Atlantic on the unseasonably warm Christmas Day of 2015.

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A few notes for the fiber nerds out there:

  • The three-layered skirt is my own design. No, I’ve never made up clothing patterns myself before — well, not since I was thirteen — but I couldn’t find anything ready-made for what I had in mind. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Unfortunately, the purple basil dye, which was really pretty pink right right after dyeing in August, has turned out not to be very light- or washfast. Lesson learned: better stick to stronger, more reliable dyes like indigo, madder or osage orange when working with cotton.
  • The pattern for the top is the Reverse-Applique Corset from Natalie Chanin’s Alabama Stitch Book… but without the reverse-applique technique. So the pattern is from the Southeast too… keeping it within the fibershed!
  • The cardigan pattern is the Home and Away Georgetown cardigan — really, really lovely to knit. I had to tweak and improvise a little, because my handspun alpaca yarn tended to be bulkier than what the pattern called for. The end result is not perfect. But it works. And it’s just about the warmest knitted garment I have, and silky soft thanks to the high-quality Suri alpaca fiber.
  • Finally: I did not wash the alpaca fiber at any point. What I knitted, what I’m wearing, is virtually what was sheared off of the living, breathing animal in the spring. I learned that pre-washing alpaca fiber prior to spinning is not really necessary because it didn’t have lanolin. I intended to wash my yarns after spinning and before knitting, but simply forgot. The fiber was remarkably clean, so I don’t think anyone but me would be able to notice. At some point, I’m going to finally give the entire cardigan an initiatory wash… but for right now, I’m thoroughly enjoying the warm, earthy feeling of really being connected with where this fiber came from!

On the shortest day of the year, I bring the growing crescendo of the end-of-the-year busyness to a halt. I unplug. I light a candle. I spend the day in retreat mode, reflecting on the past year, the present moment, and my hopes and intentions for the coming year. I settle into the darkness of midwinter a little bit more, get cozy with it. Because in that darkness, nascent dreams, unarticulated hopes, and moments of honesty dare to come to the surface in a way that often doesn’t happen in the glaring light and noise of the everyday. As the northern half of the planet begins to turn towards the sun, and we transition into another year, I want to embark on that journey from a place of clarity, honesty, groundedness, and open curiosity. Especially since — from what I can tell — the coming year is going to be a big one for me.

solsticeThis is my fifth year of engaging in this process, this annual inventory, and it has become a personal tradition that I truly love — and fundamentally feel that I need. It really is very powerful. Each year, before beginning, I read my notes from the previous year’s reflections, and each time I’m astounded by how the insights and intentions and commitments from that time have unfolded and borne fruit, often in unexpected ways.

If you’re interested in exploring this process, I can’t recommend enough the solstice reflection by Christopher Kuntsch, freely available on his website. You may want to edit the guiding questions a little and make them your own, as I’ve done. But the most important thing, I would say, is to give this practice enough time, and a quiet space. Let it take the time it takes… and then re-join your loved ones in celebration. In the evening, my mother-in-law’s house will fill with people and good food and laughter and singing late into the night, and I will emerge from my solitude to join them in celebration of this time of darkness and light.

Happy midwinter,

Love,

Mari

I finally get to share with you something that I’ve been working on for the last couple of months. If you are a regular reader here, you’ve already probably noticed that my passion for natural dyes and local fiber has sort of taken over in my life. You may also remember that I opened a small Etsy shop to sell my stash of naturally dyed wool yarns. But that’s not all. I’ve been working towards a vision that’s more true to my values: sourcing only local and regional materials for my craft, and in so doing, being a part of restoring local and regional textile networks.

The pilot yarn line that I am now launching, the Gather & Grow “Carolina” yarn, is all domestic and regional wool, milled at an eco-friendly North Carolina fiber mill and hand-dyed with locally sourced natural plant dyes at my backyard dye studio here in Columbia, South Carolina.carolinayarns-2

I’m proud to collaborate with Echo View Fiber Mill in Weaverville, North Carolina, which produces luscious, high-quality yarns out of fiber produced by local fiber farmers and farmers across the country. I’ve come to really respect their ethics and integrity. I selected two yarn bases for my naturally dyed yarns: one is a wool-mohair-alpaca mix sourced entirely from North Carolina (the mohair and alpaca come from their own farm); the other is 100% US grown, soft Merino wool yarn.carolinayarns-3

And the dyes are natural plant dyes that I myself gather and grow (how appropriate, isn’t it…). The only exception is indigo, which I haven’t yet been able to source locally, but that will change, hopefully as soon as next year as indigo growing returns to South Carolina. The first colorway I launch are soft pastels: a sunny yellow and olive green from goldenrod, shell pink from madder, smoky purple and mint green from purple basil, and earthy straw and bark colors from Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan). This winter, I’m dyeing darker and brighter winter colors with indigo, madder, black walnut and staghorn sumac. These plants grew in our local soils, and I can tell you where each came from. Some grew in the dye garden I planted in the spring; others I’ve foraged wherever I found them — by roadside, on abandoned lots, by the Congaree River and even in the yards of friendly neighbors (with permission, of course). I am conscious of the environmental footprint of every step of the dye process, use only non-toxic dyes and mordants, and have built in systems to minimize waste and conserve water.carolinayarns

These yarns are my craft and my passion, and I’m happy to share them with the world. If you want to support locally based, ecologically responsible fiber culture, and get some colorful wool to keep you warm this winter — or give it to the knitter/weaver/crocheter in your life — head over to the Etsy shop where they are now available.

In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to lately…

I’m proud to announce that I’m again on the teaching and organizing team for the South Carolina Permaculture Design Course, taking place here in Columbia, SC, in Spring 2016.

Check out the 2016 course website!

Last spring’s pioneering course was a success — and for me as a facilitator, one of the most positive and empowering experiences I’ve ever had. I wrote about it here and here. In May, we sent out into the world 21 certified permaculture designers who have gone on to apply their learning to their incredibly diverse life situations and home sites.

We’re bringing the course back in Spring 2016, again at the fantastic City Roots urban farm — with the best of what worked last year and new improvements such as guest teachers who are experts in the area. October’s disastrous floods alone showed that our region — and the world — needs the tools to build resilience, regenerative ecosystems and human systems, and vibrant communities. That’s what permaculture has to offer. IMG_1088

P1030256IMG_9337IMG_0968It’s going to be good, folks. Help us spread the word or, if you are in South Carolina, come join us in the spring!

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