Saturday, September 4, 2021

The Orchard


It's original name was Tornado Alley. The first time we discovered this scrappy acre of fallen cedar trees, scattered by some forgotten force, we gave it a name. I always thought it would be the most inexpensive acre to clear because it simply needed all of those dead trees pushed into a pile to burn.

Over the years, we've opted for clearing and building on the first two acres of our place. Both took more effort to clean up, but now they are park-like in their beauty. Tornado Alley is the barrier that separates development from the wild. That barrier has grown and overgrown into an orchard.

The Orchard is a wily place full of life that sprang from the death of trees. Wild roses create thorny hills and botanical caves for small wildlife to inhabit. The food sources gather there, too. The thorny, massive bushes offer up rose hips, as well as the perfect trellis for grapes and beauty berries to flourish. The Orchard wears a scarf that changes with the seasons. In the spring, it is the color of tannic water that flows through its threads and streams. As the water evaporates, the vibrant greens of mosses and grasses redesign the colors of summer. Pops of color dot the trees as birds come and go. By winter, the warm colors of decay take hold as they wait for the water to return, always pumping life into The Orchard.

There are songs here. The symphony isn't so well heeled as the storied Festival Hill that is only a few miles away, but this orchestra is experienced in the song of the wilderness. The frogs trill like piccolos in a stave of notes and rhythms that are the beat of the symphony. Coyotes draw a bow across wild harmonious violins that crescendo as the night settles in. The big brass of trombones and baritones are performed by the cows as they call across the fields. As the arrangement decrescendos, a whippoorwill takes a solo. In The Orchard, the residents have perfected a masterpiece of song that has played nightly since before any human payed the price of ownership here. 


A man will crush the dirt, rip it apart and plant a proper garden in his quest to survive. A man, and even two girls, will overlook something considered ugly and pesty. Whether it was the spirits of the earth or a delay in plans to eliminate it, The Orchard made a statement in late summer. It will remain. It will provide for the animals, the plants, the stream that borders it, and if its newest human residents wish to partake, it will allow it. The rules are its own, and that means it will not give itself up as easily as a well cultivated crop. It will challenge with scratches, tall grass, bees that bump away invaders, chiggers, and sometimes snakes. But if a person is willing to coexist by the rules of nature, the orchard will share its abundance.

Juices, jams, teas and wines are waiting at a buffet provided by all the things we thought we didn't care for. When the truth is... The Orchard has been caring for us forever.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Building For Retirement on a Warming Planet

 I believe in science 100%. Our ability to learn, explore, hypothesize, experiment, and grow our knowledge in ways that improve our lives is a gift from the universe, the source, God. I doubt many of you who read this would never go to a doctor for a dangerous illness. I bet many of you get a flu vaccine, and you vaccinate your kids to protect them from dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases. You have electricity. You drive cars. You have an abundance of food, shelter and clothing. 

It's all science. Humanity learned the facts of this planet, and humanity used those facts and findings to bring us to a place in time where I can write this blog entry at the very same time it races to a computing cloud and races to the masses on this science wonder called the internet. So yeah. We all benefit from high tech, but for years, I've been interested in naturalists and what they learned about the world around them. How simple observation of the natural world, and experimentation with what the earth provides got us to where we are today.

What Does Naturalism Have to Do with Retirement?

I'll tell you. Aging is about adaptability. Whether it's your diet, your knees, your hearing (and mine is noticeably bad these days), your vanity, your income or the weather, as we age, we have to adapt. I think about this more than I probably should, and I share my thoughts with my readers. You're not going to agree with everything I think. I admit to existential anxiety about the future, and I have decided to admit it exists. 

Fact: The cost of living rises faster than the increase in wages. Return on savings is laughable. Social security will NOT cover our current lifestyle. Therefore, I give thanks for the ability to have our country place, and I give double thanks for the natural resources it hosts.

Needless to say, I love experimenting with solar energy, rainwater catchment, foraging, wildlife observation, green building, and whatever else I observe in the natural world. I'm no Emerson or Thoreau, but quiet observation is an excellent investment in my retirement.

While taking our time to enjoy and conscientiously develop our property, we're also building a future for retirement that will be sustainable both financially and environmentally. Our most recent endeavor was to finally erect a barn.

This thing is big enough to house both tractors, store whatever we have left in a storage unit we rent, and a spacious "workshop" for Tammy. It was surprisingly economical for its size. Eventually, we'll create a sitting area that allows us to watch the sunset and the wildlife comings and goings from the nearby creek. We hope the people we love to spend time with will enjoy our rugged little patio, too.

It's a Resource Balance 

In the next 10 years, we hope to spend most of our days relaxing and enjoying a quiet country retreat. Part of reducing the stress of aging is thoughtfully managing our assets. Without knowing what the world will be like in our advanced years, I'm paying attention to today to be as prepared as possible for tomorrow. 

COVID isn't going anywhere. Hopefully, it eventually becomes no more than a whopping cold or mild flu as we build immunity. However, as mankind ventures into parts of nature better left unexplored, we'll continue to see new diseases that threaten our existence. It's also getting hotter, so more than microscopic life will evolve. I don't plan on foraging for food as our main source of sustenance, but I am very interested in the history of human cuisine and natural science.

The above photo looks like a fence line in need of mowing, but it camouflages life sustaining food sources. Mostly for the wildlife, but a person could enjoy it, too. In fact, some of what you can't see here ends up on grocery specialty shelves as culinary treats. We plan on having some fun harvesting and creating some of those treats ourselves. 

Besides being an adventure in foraging, this is a lesson in natural adaptability. The hearty plant life that flourishes here reminded me that the things that create inconveniences for modern humans, are necessary for planetary life. I'm talking about that very alarming freeze back in February. There are fruits ripening in this photo that I had no idea were simply waiting for something as necessary as a freeze to appear in abundance.

Wild Rose Hips

I hate, hate, hate the very invasive wild rose bushes that absolutely conquer pastures around us. I shred the crap out of them, but as I was trying to figure out how to beat them back after their freeze induced growth spurt, I discovered Rose Hips. 

I was actually looking for more possum grapes along the fence line when I saw the fruit.

Sure enough, they have the same value as cultivated rose hips... Well, I'll be damned. 

These weren't quite ripe. In fact, they were almost as hard as a nut, but I tasted them anyway, only to read that they can make your mouth itch. And as they travel your digestive tract, they make sure to make you itch on their way out of your body... There's a crude name for these little wonders. "Ass itchers." Fortunately, just tasting one with the tip of my tongue spared me the whole digestive experience. I only had a weird feeling in my mouth and slight burning in my stomach; which could have totally been psychological after I read how a raw one can affect the body. At any rate, with proper preparation, they're good for you!

Here's the big retirement takeaway. Our land is clearly fertile, and I rather enjoy gardening. I'm not all that worried about food and  healthy living. I am worried about the heat, and inconsistent rain. We had a lot this year, but who knows what next year will be like. So natural fruits are worth understanding and maybe cultivating at some point.

Even wild roses.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

What are Possum Grapes and What Do I Do About Them?

 Make wine. That's what I can do with them. From what I've read, they're going to take over my fence line and probably anything else they can climb. We're currently in a losing battle with wild roses, and as a result, these buckshot sized grapes have emerged. 

If I never post again, it's because I was wrong about what these tiny grapes really are, and I died of loose bowels. I have been around the internet trying to figure out what these are, and the most accurate answer I got came from a friend. Eddie narrowed down the photo I posted on Facebook to Possum Grapes. 

I found a Possum Grape recipe on a blog called Not Dabbling in Normal. If I can convince Tammy to try this recipe, I'm predicting we'll have a very sweet, musky wine that does a few things. Makes us drunk in a terrible kind of way, gives us a really bad hangover, and most likely, diarrhea. But you know? What not try it? I could be wrong. 

For Your Viewing Pleasure...

I stumbled upon this video about foraging in South Texas. Try to forgive all the doomsday prepper/patriot crap advertisements, and focus on the video. It's about 30 minutes long, but I found it very educational. I suggest saving it as a reference, if your interested in what kinds of foods grow wild in Texas besides grapes.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Frog Toes

 I once heard that we'll know the land is no longer sustainable when we stop hearing the frogs.  I'm happy to say we have a very large and loud population of frogs and toads at the cabin. Last night, I met 4 toads who have taken up residence under the faucet on the rainwater tank. I haven't seen him lately, but there's a very loud and very green tree frog who lives under the trim on the cabin. He left his toe prints all over the window this morning.

Starting a Garden in a Shady Yard

Global warming coupled with a pandemic seems like a recipe for a food crisis to me. Central Texas has been very rainy this summer. It's good for our area, but in some cases too much rain harms crops. So does drought and fire. I've decided not to take food for granted. I'm going to try to grow a vegetable garden in our very shady backyard in Austin. 

I've always avoided it because nothing really thrives besides the grass and trees (and the grass is spotty). But I've made up my mind to try. I took a couple of 12" rods and set them 4 feet apart where I think there is more sun. I need a few hours a day to grow spinach, and probably lettuce. I watched the sun move across the rods and added up how much time they were in full sun. I put the garden where the sun shines the longest.  I need to talk to a local gardening expert to figure out if anything else will grow in that spot. And it's an odd, not visually symmetrical spot. 

You can see from the photo that the grass is struggling. I observed two things. First, I realized the dogs know exactly where to get the most sun in our yard. And guess, what? It's where the grass is thick and healthy. I got to work, cut my landscaping timbers in 4 foot sections, stacked, secured with 12" nails (they were a bitch to drive through the timbers with a framing hammer; even after I drilled starter holes), and filled it with organic dirt and compost. 

I'm not sure it's a success, but Birdie immediately started eating the compost. If the dog likes it, it must be good dirt! I'm going to work it for a few weeks, and sow seeds in September.

Is There a Seed Shortage?

The answer is no, but yes. Seeds are still cultivated, but packaging and shipping depends on a few things. 
  • Workers - staffing shortages due to Covid slows the process for getting seeds to consumers.
  • Covid increased demand for seeds.
  • Seed suppliers have to predict demand a few years into the future. Nobody predicted Covid.
Here's a quick read for Southern gardeners from the South Carolina Grower blog. This is good stuff to know. Along with timing of supply replenishment, I also learned that seeds don't last forever. They typically only hold their efficacy for a year of two; depending on how they're stored. If you look at a seed envelope, you'll see something like this stamped on it:

"For 2021"

I was so excited when Tammy told me that we had a ton of seeds in a drawer. I found them, and I saw "For 2017" stamped on the packets. As soon as I saw that, I figured they were no good. Otherwise, why would they have that? Welp. I've learned why. 

Although I'm setting a goal for a fall/winter garden in my shady yard, it may be spring before I plant, due to the difficulty in finding seeds. I saw some seeds online that are supposed to be 15 - 40 different varieties, but I'm so skeptical, I think I'll buy them in-store. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

I have existential reasons for reviving this blog

 Is that not a crazy blog title or what? Truthfully, most of you are nodding your heads, and saying, "girl. I get it."
Did you ever think we'd be where we are as a planet so soon? Most non-scientists will say, "no."
Most hippy dippy types - kind of like me - are taking a deep breath and thinking we'd better get busy if we weren't already. We have one planet, one lifetime and long lives ahead of us. So it's time to think about sustainability and how to approach it again.

Tammy and I have avoided Covid. We followed the science, and did what was recommended. Admittedly, I'm tired of being at home so much, but I'm also grateful for the country place so that we can get out and move around! We're also of the mind that along with human activity helping to speed global warming, it's human activity that unleashed the horseman called death. Therefore, we aren't putting on blinders while we sing, "la la la."

Backyard Garden in the Shade

Over the last 5 years, we have not put in a vegetable garden in Austin because our yard is so shady. Any non-food plants I've planted are kind of wimpy. Most things need more sun. (But if you're looking for something scrappy for your yard - plant salvia. It seeds and pops up everywhere, and that means flowering plants galore - even in the shade.) As of this past week, I am going to try to put in a vegetable garden or two. 

I hung out with my longtime friend Kiya Heartwood this past week, and she showed me her permaculture gardens. I was re-inspired that food plants are heartier than I thought. I'll be asking her a ton of questions as I try this myself. She is a small farm pro. This weekend, however, is about figuring out where to put the beds and then start breaking up this hard-ass Austin dirt.

I think I can grow leafy vegetables, and I may try sweet potatoes. I'll try carrots and turnips, too (I'll be giving away turnips because I only want the greens). Then I need to figure out what kind of vertical food will grow in minimal shade. Maybe nothing, but I'd like to try something. I've studied the sun pattern in the backyard for years, and I never settled on the best spot to grow vegetables until I realized that there's a sort of deadish spot in the grass where the dogs like to sun. So.... guess where most of the sun lands? I'm feeling only slightly guilty about taking over their spot. I fully expect some retaliation.

Don't Take Food, Water and Health for Granted

At the risk of sounding doomsday like, we are no longer taking our food, water and health for granted. Covid has been surreal. As a people, we could have slowed the spread, but politics and conspiracies got in the way. Supply chains will once again be disrupted. In fact, I read that wheat yields were down worldwide. What's next? 

Water. Not one thing on this planet can live without it. As the polar ice caps melt, the salinity of the ocean changes, and life in the seas will change, too. The coastlines are shrinking. People are moving inland. Housing costs are skyrocketing around migration. And droughts mean less water for more people. 

Needless to say, I'll be adding a cistern or two to the house in Austin. As much as possible, I'll use rainwater to water my garden. I should probably try hill gardening to reduce water usage. More to come on if I do that. I'm probably not that patient, though.

And finally, solar. Y'all know I'm about the solar energy. I'll writes some entries on how my journey is going. More to come. In the meantime, if your yard is shady and you want a garden, leafy green vegetables are your best bet:
Carrots - sort of
Turnips - sort of

If you're in Texas, always refer to Texas AgriLife for tips on what to plant and when to plant in your region. 

** I'm pretty sure Elizabeth took the photos in this blog entry, so credit goes to her.