Virginia Gardening Inspiration

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My brother Brian the Firefighter and his family live up in Virginia.

Over the last few years he’s been restoring a lovely older wood home located on a little less than an acre of land near the coast. His wife Danielle is a talented gardener with an artistic flair and my brother is good at building and getting things done. He also has an eye for detail so they make a great team.

My parents are visiting them right now and Mom sent me some photos of their gardens to share here.

First… my brother!

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And the house (with one of my cute nieces in front):

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The soil in this area of Virginia is rich and loamy.

They’ve had great luck growing everything from Seminole pumpkins to peaches, raspberries, strawberries, herbs and sunflowers. vines-climbing-virginia-garden Virginia-garden-flowers

Towards the front corner of the yard, there is a peach tree surrounded by other edibles:

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Rosemary, raspberries, lilies…

And some years ago I gave Danielle a potted strawberry plant. Not only did she keep it alive, she’s multiplied it.

Check out this little strawberry patch, all from that one hanging basket:

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Having a green thumb plus the right climate = happy strawberries.

As my parents were visiting, Brian was able to get a local tree-trimming company to dump a load of mulch in the yard:

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It’s hard to beat free mulch.

By the way: if you have access to shredded wood chips and would like to use them for more than just mulch, it’s easy to make them into lots of compost. Just layer chips with some hot manure – like chicken manure – or soak the pile of mulch multiple times in diluted urine. Get some nitrogen in there and the pile will break down nicely into high-quality compost for your garden.

Or, just have your wife and daughter help you spread it as mulch. It feeds the ground that way, too.

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Beyond gardening, my brother’s family also keeps chickens and ducks for eggs:

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My brother is very good at building things. I once watched him build a playhouse from an old wooden fence in about four hours.

We’re talking framing, floor, roof… Brian is good.

No matter where you look, there’s some of his handicraft, plus something growing.

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Good work!

David-the-good-books-revised

Are Chickens Worth it? Let’s Count the Cost!

Chickens!

Are chickens worth it?

Are the eggs and meat you get worth the cost of a coop, the cost of feed and the cost of time it takes to manage a flock?

I’ve been keeping chickens for almost a decade now and, despite my best attempts, thus far the answer is…

Well. I’ll let you decide for yourself, but I know my answer. Here are the big problems.

A Coop Costs Money

If you have predators, you can’t just throw up some 2 x 4’s and chicken wire. No, you need hardware cloth, impregnable walls and roof and maybe even a concrete floor.

If you’re lucky, handy and a good scavenger, you might spend about $200-$300 for a solid little chicken coop. If you’re not, you spend a couple times that.

I can buy farm eggs for $3.50 USD per dozen – but hey, I get them cheaply because I live in the third world. You’re likely to pay $6.00 per dozen.

That’s fifty cents an egg. That means the chickens in a $250.00 coop must produce 500 eggs to pay off their real estate.

But wait… there’s more!

 

Chicken Feed Has a Price

A 50lb bag of commercial chicken feed costs around $16.00. Each laying hen will consume around a 1/4lb of feed per day. In 200 days, you’ll need to buy another bag. If you have one bird, that is. It works out to about $0.08 cents of feed per bird, per day. That’s not so bad.

But…

 

Your Time Also Has a Price

What is your time worth? $7.50 per hour? $15? $50?

If you were Donald Trump, it wouldn’t make sense to keep chickens unless you wanted to do so as a hobby. Chickens are certainly better company than Congressmen and have higher IQs, so I could understand if he did decide to raise a flock.

But we’re talking about your time. Let’s say it’s worth $15 per hour.

You need to build a coop, buy feed, let the chickens in and out, collect eggs, feed and water the birds, plus hunt predators.

Taking care of a flock doesn’t take all that much time, usually. Maybe a quarter hour a day.

That works out to 1.75 hours per week, or $26.25 of your time at $15 per hour.

At that rate, you could easily buy a dozen eggs every two days from an organic chicken farm… and keep your time.

 

And This is in an Ideal World!

You might decide keeping chickens makes sense for you even after these numbers… but what about deaths from predators?

Going out to the coop in the middle of the night after being woken up by the dying squawks of a murdered rooster isn’t fun. Discovering the fox that killed the cock has also murdered all your pullets is even less so.

At our place rats dug into the coop and killed our chicks:

A lot of people suggested building a stronger coop, poisoning the rats, raising the chicks off the ground, etc.

Yet that costs more money. Why would I spend the time and effort when I can just buy eggs from down the road for a few bucks a dozen?

I answered some of the commenters in this follow-up video:

So – are Chickens Worth It?

I’ve raised chickens for eggs and meat and I appreciate the manure and the work they do with composting; yet overall…

commodus

No. Heck no.

The “ideal” of chickens has always failed to mesh with the reality of chickens.

If I let the birds freerange, they’ll wreck my newly planted gardens and often end up as predator droppings.

If I box them up in a Gallus gallus gulag, they need more feed and produce lower quality eggs.

I’m sure there’s a way to keep birds that makes monetary sense, but I haven’t found it. I’m no Joel Salatin and we don’t even own our homestead here, so… considering tractors, coops, chicken runs, hardware cloth, feed, time… the numbers don’t add up.

A lot of us love the ideas of birds – or we like chickens the way we like our dogs.

I don’t want pets. I want eggs that are higher quality and cost less than the ones I can buy locally.

That isn’t happening, so the birds have to go. I’ll bet if you crunch the numbers on your own homestead, you’ll see the same monetary drain I do.

 

Enjoy this post? Pin it to Pinterest!

keeping chickens worth it pinterest image

David-the-good-books-revised

Chicken Run Composting

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I have a new post over at The Grow Network on chicken run composting the Back to Eden way.

Excerpt:

Throw Compostable Items to the Birds!

Yard “waste”, weeds, kitchen scraps, picnic remains… if it’s organic and will break down in a reasonable amount of time, throw it to your hens.

Back To Eden Chicken Run Compost

When you prune trees you can take the entire pruned branches and toss them into the chicken run. When all the leaves fall off, pull the branches out again and throw them into a hugelkultur mound, turn them into biochar, or use them for rocket stove fuel.

The leaves will be turned into compost by your birds, and then you can use that compost in your garden.

This mother hen and her chick started tearing into the leaves and garden “waste” as soon as I dropped it in the coop:

Back To Eden Chicken Composting

Chickens want to work for you if you give them a chance.

Click here to keep reading over at The Grow Network

David-the-good-books-revised

How to Make Homemade Potting Soil With Three Simple Ingredients

homemade potting soil recipe

Today you’ll learn how to make homemade potting soil using only three simple ingredients. I’ll also give you alternate recipes for potting soil in case you don’t have those three readily available.

My Homemade Potting Soil Recipe

If you’d like to see me make my homemade potting soil, here’s a video I created illustrating the process:

First, you’ll need a place to work.

I like to spread a tarp on the grass and use that as my mixing area, but you can work on any solid surface. A tarp is easy to roll back and forth to help you mix, but making potting soil isn’t rocket science and you can really do it anywhere.

Second, gather your materials. My potting soil recipe has three main ingredients:

1. Rotten Wood

Fresh wood chips will eat up a lot of the nitrogen in your potting soil mix and can cause your plants to struggle. Rotten wood doesn’t cause that issue, plus it holds moisture and provides a loose and airy texture to the mix.

homemade potting soil recipe ingredient rotten wood

As you know if you’ve ready my popular book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, I don’t throw away or burn the logs and sticks that fall in my yard. Instead, I use them to feed the soil.

Leaving a pile of brush and logs in a corner of your property to rot over time will give you a ready source of rotten wood.

If you haven’t started doing that yet, just go for a walk in the woods and get a nice sack of fluffy, crumbly wood and drag it home.

2. Aged Cow Manure

I gather manure from my neighbor’s cows and leave it on a piece of metal in the sun to age for a few months.

Homemade potting soil recipe aged manure

Fresh cow manure is too “hot.”

If my home-baked manure sounds too weird, just pile it up in a compost heap somewhere and let it go for a few months. That will leave you with a nutritious, organic-matter-rich pile of good stuff for your homemade potting soil.

NOTE: Manure in the United States is often contaminated with long-term herbicides that will destroy your garden and your potted plants. Read Karen’s story and learn more about that danger here.

3. Sifted Soil/Grit

I let my chickens do a lot of composting for me, like this:

I go into the coop or chicken run, sift out the grit, soil and compost, then use it in my homemade potting soil.

Homemade potting soil recipe sifted chicken run soil

You don’t need to do that, though. No chickens? No problem.

I sift grit from the local creek bed and add that sometimes. I’ve also just added good garden soil, old potting soil mix from expired plants and even regular old sand.

Mix It All Up

Now all you need to do is get mixing.

Smash the rotten wood into smaller chunks, break up the cow patties, and pour in the grit. I use one part rotten wood, one part aged manure and one part grit/soil in my potting soil recipe, but don’t overthink it. If it looks loose and feels good, the plants will be happy.

As you’ll notice in my video, I often leave pretty big chunks of wood in my homemade potting soil. The potted plants seem to like them and they act as moisture reservoirs and soil looseners.

If you need a finer homemade potting soil for starting seeds, just crush the mix finer or run a coarser mix through some hardware cloth to sift it.

Alternate Ingredients for Homemade Potting Soil

If you don’t have cow manure, try goat or rabbit manure. Both work quite well. Homemade compost is also excellent, though I never seem to have enough for everything I want to do.

Don’t have grit/sand available? Vermiculite or perlite both work nicely, though you have to buy them.

Rotten wood can be replaced with peat moss or coconut coir. I prefer the coir. It seems to repel water less. You can also use leaf mould. Sift it out in the local forest – it’s wonderful.

Along with these ingredients, I’ve also added some ashes, crushed charcoal, coffee grounds, old potting soil, peanut shells and even moldy cocoa nibs.

When I ran my nursery business I often stretched my potting soil budget by mixing purchased soil with rotten wood chips I got from a local tree company and set aside for years to break down.

Just keep your homemade potting soil loose and fluffy with a good mix of ingredients and your plants will do great.

 

Did you enjoy this article? Share it! Here’s a Pinterest graphic:

how to make homemade potting soil a homemade potting soil recipe graphic for pinterest

David-the-good-books-revised

The Blessing of Chicks

We have some little Easter babies in the hen house right now.

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I posted this video on Thursday, showing the first two chicks that hatched:

Then yesterday one of the children ran into the house and announced we had two more chicks! Those were hatched by the third hen who was still sitting in the video. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find a few more today, as I think she had more eggs beneath her.

I will post another video and more pictures soon.

Watching the hens raise chicks is wonderful. We never had luck with our hens in the US. They didn’t like to sit, unfortunately. Or they would sit for a while, then abandon their nests. I think this is in part due to the hatchery/incubator model of raising birds. No mom in the picture, so the proper cycle of raising young is broken. These jungle birds are great foragers and good mothers – I’m enjoying them.

David-the-good-books-revised

Chickens in the Wild

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Yesterday I was out filming a video when I spied our little flock of chickens happily wandering about in a neighboring field.

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Though I thought we’d lose birds all the time, free-ranging here has been much less of a problem than it was back in Florida.

There we lost birds to hawks, owls, possums, raccoons, foxes, dogs… it was ridiculous. Everything likes to eat chickens.

For some reason, though, the predators haven’t gone for our birds here. It may help in part that the chickens are wilder jungle birds bred by neglect. They’re not friendly but they fend for themselves very well.

Can you see the rooster in the middle of the above picture? He’s the one raised up on our homestead from a chick.

Here’s a closer shot:

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The boy has been feeling his oats, too. He’s jumping the hens regularly, plus crowing at all hours of the night and morning.

You can’t get closer than maybe ten feet to him before he runs away and warns the hens with his clucks, but he isn’t at all mean like roosters we used to own. This guy is perfectly safe around the children.

One of the benefits of free-ranging birds is that you have to feed the flock less. Another benefit that you might not consider is that the birds are eating seeds and insects and who knows what else from around your neighborhood, then coming home and leaving the minerals they find as droppings in the coop. You’re harvesting fertility from surrounding ground and bringing it back.

Of course, I suppose it might be a 50-50 thing, as you also feed the birds and then they go manure the neighbor’s fields… but still, I like the idea of gaining rather than losing, so I’ll pretend I don’t have any logical objections.

Have a wonderful Sabbath.

 

*             *             *

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.

My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O Lord—how long?

Turn, O Lord, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.

For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.

My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.

The Lord has heard my plea;
the Lord accepts my prayer.

All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

-Psalm 6, ESV

David-the-good-books-revised

Back To Eden Chicken Run Composting

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Paul Gautschi of Back to Eden fame has a method of composting where he throws food scraps and garden waste into his chicken run and lets the birds eat and till and manure it down. Then he takes a wheelbarrow and sifter out and harvests the rich compost/soil in his chicken run and throws it on his gardens.

I have done the same for the last few years and find it works wonderfully.

In a video I posted this morning you can see how I’m using this Back to Eden garden method to make plenty of the good stuff.

It’s really simple and doesn’t take much thought. I’ll share how I do it, then you can tweak in your own gardens however you like.

Back to Eden Chicken Run Composting

The basic idea: throw everything out in the chicken run (or inside the coop, if it has a dirt floor like ours does) and let the chickens turn it into compost.

If you have free-range birds without a dirt-floor chicken coop, this method is a non-starter. I have found that letting birds totally free range is more trouble than it’s worth, as I’ve lost many birds to predators, plus finding where they lay the eggs is a total pain.

Ideally you can balance “outside time” with safety, as keeping birds locked up in a coop all the time is sad… but finding eviscerated corpses of birds dragged behind the barn is also sad.

Currently we keep our setting hens locked up in the coop for the safety of their eggs. Mothers with young chicks are also kept inside. The other birds are free to wander during the day, but if they start sleeping in the trees and not coming back to the coop, we lock them up for a few days to reset them.

But… back to chicken run composting.

Here’s step 1:

Throw Compostable Items to the Birds!

Yard “waste”, weeds, kitchen scraps, picnic remains… if it’s organic and will break down in a reasonable amount of time, throw it to your hens.

Back To Eden Chicken Run Compost

When you prune trees you can take the entire pruned branches and toss them into the chicken run. When all the leaves fall off, pull the branches out again and throw them into a hugelkultur mound, turn them into biochar, or use them for rocket stove fuel.

The leaves will be turned into compost by your birds, and then you can use that compost in your garden.

This mother hen and her chick started tearing into the leaves and garden “waste” as soon as I dropped it in the coop:

Back To Eden Chicken Composting

Chickens want to work for you if you give them a chance.

Make a Compost Sifter and Start Sifting

I used to have a compost sifter made from pressure treated wood with hardware cloth nailed on it. Now I just use a bent piece of hardware cloth. Redneck, but it works.

Back To Eden Chicken Compost Sifting

Throw the dirt and compost from the floor of your coop or chicken run onto the hardware cloth and sift it through. This keeps the rocks and big pieces of junk out of your garden, though if you were going to use this chicken run compost for fruit trees you could just shovel it into a wheelbarrow and skip the sifting.

I love handling dirt so I enjoy sifting.

Back To Eden Chicken Compost Paul Gautschi Sifting

You can see various twigs and debris left behind by the birds. Eventually everything woody will break down, so I don’t take the little twigs out of the run – I just leave them to be turned and manured by the chickens until they’re compost.

Wrapping It All Up

The compost I harvested from the chicken coop in today’s video was the remains of a thick layer of leaves and grass we raked up during a yard clean-up day. The inside of the coop was mostly 6″ deep in it and you can see how thin the layer is now.

I harvested a total of two five-gallon buckets of compost from the coop when all was said and done.

Back To Eden Chicken Compost Handful

Five gallons of compost was spread across my garden beds and the remaining five gallons I set aside to make potting soil.

The Back to Eden garden method, in its whole, works best when you have access to lots of cheap or free wood chips. I do not, so, like most of my gardening, I borrow the pieces that work for me and throw out the pieces that don’t.

Heck, I can’t even follow a recipe in the kitchen without changing it, let alone do so in my garden.

If you’re interested in composting with chickens and other great methods for making compost without killing yourself, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of my popular book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting.

Compost_960I love the Back to Eden chicken run compost method… it’s amazingly easy and creates rich compost in only a couple of months. I like it so much that I’m going out this afternoon to load up the bottom of my chicken run with a bunch of fresh organic matter.

The chickens enjoy it and I don’t have to spend any time measuring C/N ratios or turning a pile. Win, win, win!

Finally – I posted a video of Paul Gautchi using this method a few years back. You can see that post here.

David-the-good-books-revised

Supercharging Garden Beds with Biochar and Compost

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Biochar and compost, my friends. That’s what I’m doing this time.

And… freshly tilled garden beds are irresistible to chickens. Little punks.

biochar and compost and a chicken

Yesterday I shared how we started working the garden beds, along with a video. Today I have a follow-up video, plus a deeper look at my experiments.

After seeing Steven’s success with biochar and leeks – and after getting really sick and tired of how gluey the clay can get here – I’ve decided to make lots of charcoal to add to my beds.

biochar and compost

I did an open burn and managed to get over 15 gallons of biochar. It’s mostly from fast-burning materials like palm fronds and bamboo, with a big of hardwood and random sticks thrown in.

Charging Biochar

If you throw charcoal directly into your beds it soaks up the minerals for a time, lowering or even eliminating your yields; however, if you “charge” it first with some minerals and nitrogen, it acts like a reserve in the soil. Or that’s the theory as I understand it.

Being rather insane, I decided to soak the biochar in seawater and Epsom salt. And urine. And some compost. I only soaked it for a couple of hours, though, which may not be enough.

Biochar wasn’t the only amendment I added to the garden beds. I also sifted some compost with my redneck compost sifter, AKA a carefully bent hunk of hardware cloth:

redneck-compost-sifter

Some of the compost is being reserved for a new batch of potting soil I’m going to make to pot up some of my compost pile fruit trees, but some of it we put in the garden beds along with the biochar. Biochar and compost – what a wonderful combination!

Rachel helped with this part, even after all her vigorous broadforking.

putting-biochar-and-compost-in-garden-beds

There are few things I enjoy more than working in the garden with my wife.

Having a task in front of us and getting it done together is better than watching a movie or hanging around smoking a hookah. I think. We’ve never actually smoked a hookah together, so that’s just conjecture, really.

Next on the agenda is planting… when we do that, I’ll share it as well.

Stay warm and have a great Sunday. We’ve been unable to make it to church for weeks now due to our car and I really miss it. I hope you are part of a good fellowship… and also have a working vehicle. Eventually we’ll be back to our normal Sabbath routine. Not worried. We have food, gardens, a beach within two miles walk… hard to feel too bad about a busted car.

And we definitely have “two or more gathered together” in the name of Jesus here on our homestead.

 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

David-the-good-books-revised

Carving Out a Florida Food Forest From the Palmettos: Possible?

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I recently received a quite interesting question in my inbox relating to pine scrub food and Florida food forest planning:

David,

FloridaFoodForestsCoverNewBLwebI recently found your books, bought and read the (ones) for Florida, and have handed them off to my home school children to get them started! We were blessed and got a great deal on some 15 acres – 3 is wetland – in St. Augustine surrounds. The uplands was cut and left to regrow about 30 years ago. I’m struggling with palmettos everywhere.

I have a small tractor and have been bush hogging some – and now know I could use this for compost – but overall I have acres of palmettos – and a VERY SMALL tractor lol. I have called to have the land pillaged to dirt, and this is very expensive – and I’m not sure ideal after reading your works. I’ve also looked at chemicals – maybe planting as I went to roll in as I try to poison them – but it takes horrible poison, and lots, and I want to grow food…

I searched your site (not yet your videos).

If you have written on how to start a food forest from solid palmettos, I’d like to read it.

Totally_Crazy_Easy_Florida_Gardening_350Your time is precious, and you can’t answer all the emails – and I feel guilty even dipping into your time – but I’m hoping you may already have a simple answer that is different than the rest. I’d rather have acres of food forest. I have time – I have only just found your thoughts, and will be fixing the area I have cleared (with my daughter taking the guiding role – why not, talk about random!). It will be beautiful – but right now I have about an acre clear with all the rest palmetto (though I’m searching your notes for an image guide to find the good that must be mixed in out there).

So the specific question: do you know of a decent way to either eliminate palmettos without going nuclear, or rolling them back somehow to get to food-forest state?

If you don’t have time for specific questions, I’ll still be a fan – and understand – so peace, and keep spreading the good news and writing books even my kids enjoy reading!

Les V.
St. Augustine Fl

Les also wrote a couple of follow-up emails and sent me photos of what they are dealing with:

(It looks) mostly like this – lots of palmettos, islands of gallberry(?) and small trees, pines.

Scrubland-palmettos-5

I’m using your books and videos trying to entice my daughter into loving this stuff – is there a Florida image heavy field guide? We would like to know what treasures might already be here – hard to know which to buy. It may be on your site – I will look.

Some places you must machete thru, but most has trails. Only one bad/aggressive snake (water moccasin) killed to date – in wetland. Rattlesnakes avoid us.

I bought almost no sod, but did plant Bahia around the house in “normal” fashion – where I have planted trees they have not grown – I’ll start feeding them. Soil is sandy, has clay, and is often wet 30″ down due to clay.

Would like to start large trees in front, not sure what – would love pecan, but don’t know if the possible wet feet ends that. Some medium live oaks – I have found 36-40″ stumps at near ground level rotting from their razing some thirty or more years ago. Jerks could have planted something – but then I wouldn’t have afforded the land!

Thanks for your thoughts, I will watch your site!

 

A lot to cover here but I’m going to give my unvarnished opinion on converting this land to food forest, though Les may not be happy.

First let’s analyze what nature is doing here, so ask the question:

What Type of Ecosystem Is This?

 

The answer is “Pine Flatwoods.”

This type of ecosystem is quite common in Florida and has its own rough beauty.

According to UF:

“Pine flatwoods are characterized by:

  • low, flat topography
  • relatively poorly drained, acidic, sandy soil
  • and in the past, by open pine woodlands with frequent fires.

The USDA Soil Conservation Service classification system divides the pine flatwoods into two distinct groups: 

North Florida flatwoods are typically open woodlands dominated by pines.  This ecosystem is most commonly used as woodlands (timber, wildlife, recreation, etc.). 

South Florida flatwoods are typically savannas, a type of vegetation community intermediate between grassland and forest.  This ecosystem is used extensively for range (cattle grazing).”

Les has some aspects of both ecosystems in my opinion.

There are dense areas:

Scrubland-palmettos-9

And more open areas:

Scrubland-palmettos-3

Unfortunately, this is a very difficult environment for most fruit trees and vegetables.

The soil is acid and the alternating dry and wet of baking-hot sugar sand and sodden clay can wreak havoc on root systems.

Even the weeds don’t really look happy in most Pine Flatwoods.

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The happiest plants you’ll see are usually the pines, turkey oaks and of course, the palmettos along the ground.

Scrubland-palmettos-5

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You can only push nature so far without having a serious uphill battle on your hands. I urge people to “buy the soil,” then the house, if they are interested in gardening.

This is a beautiful piece of property but it is, frankly, a rough row to hoe for building food forests and gardens. Not that it’s impossible – it’s just that the construction of the soil and its nature fights against growing most of the pampered food-producing trees and plants we love.

Should It Be Cleared?

 

I would argue no, except for perhaps the acre you are working on. I don’t see any reason to take down all the palmettos (or even many of them) in order to try out a food forest. Instead, I would conduct more testing near the house with various species of trees. Les remarks that the fruit trees currently there are not growing – this does not surprise me! The ground is not good for most fruit trees. Don’t expand into new areas until you really figure out how to conquer a small piece of this ground. Your hard work will likely come to naught as the palmetto re-conquer and the trees fail due to harsh conditions.

Instead, if this were my property, I would cut some nice trails through to interesting areas and let nature run free all around the edges. Up close to the house I would do some major composting. I would also have the soil analyzed for nutrients by a good lab, then do exactly what they say to amend it around the fruit trees.

If truckloads of tree mulch from another environment could be found – like a live oak/hickory/wild plum/bay hardwood forest – I would dump those in a quarter to half-acre area a foot deep and start my food forest experiments there. Do a whole acre if you desire, but know it will be hard work!

Whatever you do, DO NOT bring in any manure, hay or straw – or even factory compost – as they can all poison the land for a long time.

My friend The Scrubland Avenger has done some deep mulching and made a pretty darn nice garden in a scrub area similar to Les’s. It took a lot of work, though – and the trees farther out struggle.

Is There Anything Worth Foraging Here?

SmilaxShoots3

Yes, fortunately.

I have led foraging walks in scrubby areas and in pine flatwoods. The best wild edibles are blueberries and their edible berry relatives, along with occasional native passionfruit (Passiflora incarnata).

Sometimes you find good edible cactus as well, plus some edible yucca, pawpaws and maybe even the occasional persimmon tree.

Hawthorn may also be present, with their fruit being good for jam and their trunks being a possible rootstock for pear. I also often get smilax and even wild grapes occasionally.

Before you cut anything down, hunting over and over again until you really know the land is a good idea.

In the article quoted earlier, UF also mentions these species as being in the Pine Flatwood ecosystem (which meshes perfectly with my own observations):

Four Dominant Trees Characteristic of Flatwoods

  • slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. elliottii)
  • south Florida slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa)
  • pond pine (Pinus serotina)
  • longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) 

Understory Shrubs

  • saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)
  • gallberry (Ilex glabra)
  • fetterbush(Lyonia lucida)
  • wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera)
  • dwarf live oak (Quercus minima)
  • tarflower (Befaria racemosa)
  • blueberries / heath (Vaccinium spp.)

Minor or Infrequent Hardwoods

  • live oak(Quercus virginiana)
  • water oak(Q. nigra)
  • sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • red maple(Acer rubrum)
  • ash (Fraxinus spp.)

As you probably noticed, most of these are not particularly edible, though you can eat palmetto fruit if you really desire to do so.

You can usually manage to hunt some game in the Pine Flatwoods, too. That’s a bonus.

Florida Foraging Books

Les asked about Florida foraging books so they can hunt wild edibles.

I recommend these:

The Shrubs & Woody Vines of Florida

Shrubs-woody-vines-florida-gil-nelson

Gil Nelson knows his stuff and as the publisher states, “more than 550 woody vines and shrubs native to Florida are covered in this easy-to-use field guide with line drawings and color photos.”

Though not focused on edibles per se, The Shrubs & Woody Vines of Florida will help you nail down almost everything you are likely to see, then you can go hit up the internet for edible, medicinal or practical uses for those plants.

To find just the edibles, I have two other suggestions.

 

 

Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants Eastern/Central North America

PetersonWildEdiblePlants

Though not focused specifically on Florida’s unique and wide-ranging ecosystem, this field guide is helpful and covers plenty of species.

As the Edible Wild Plants description notes, “More than 370 edible wild plants, plus 37 poisonous look-alikes, are described here, with 400 drawings and 78 color photographs showing precisely how to recognize each species.”

The downside of this guide is that the illustrations and photos sometimes just aren’t enough for a good ID. I own and use it, though – and would want it with me.

 

Florida’s Edible Wild Plants

51-qp2YD-uL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Though I still haven’t managed to get my own copy of Florida’s Edible Wild Plants by Peggy Lantz (dang it!), I have a copy of the author’s previous work with Dick Deuerling titled Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles. That is another book you should have if you have any interest in Florida plant foraging, and knowing its enjoyable nature and good info I have no problem recommending this second book sight unseen.

This book comes highly recommended from multiple sources and if I still lived in Florida, I would definitely pick up a copy right now, before I even finished this article.

 

What CAN Be Done With This Land?

After starting an intensive little food forest with deep mulch and amendments as recommended by a laboratory, I would look further into what else could be done with these difficult pine flatwoods.

Though you may not like any or all of these options, they would be easier and more suited to the ecosystem than traditional gardening.

You will be going with the grain more than against it.

Beekeeping

Beekeeping isn’t really all that easy anywhere any more, but the bees do like palmetto blooms and will appreciate the nearby wetlands. Some people don’t like palmetto honey but I do.

Blueberry Farming

Blueberries like this environment, provided their roots aren’t flooded. My friend Bill Hall at B & G Blueberries in Ft. McCoy has beautiful acres of berries growing on his U-pick located on clay and sand much like yours. He dug furrows and planted on mounds. His best luck has been with rabbiteye types in that area.

Cattle Raising

These areas are better for grazing animals than for most other forms of agriculture as goats and cows do decently on rough areas. Running goats to lower brush and then planting grass for cows can work and it will also improve the soil over time.

Chickens

Chickens are a good meat and egg source to raise and they don’t mind the pine flatwoods. I would keep them in very good housing, however, as there are many predators in Florida that will see freerange chickens as an all-you-can eat buffet.

Pond Gardening

Malanga, taro, cattails, duck potatoes, kangkong and even the terrifyingly invasive water hyacinth can be useful species, though I wouldn’t introduce the last two on purpose as that’s… illegal. If you have deep enough areas or can dig them, I would definitely look into stocking with catfish and bluegill for easy-to-raise food. You can also go the hot tub pond route for smaller gardening spaces.

Pine Logging

There’s a reason Florida produces a lot of pine timber. It has a lot of areas like yours that are well-suited to pine trees. Dedicating a few acres to this renewable resource isn’t a bad idea and it’s a long-term monetary investment that takes little work once established. Or so I have heard, since I have never tried farming pines myself since I lacked the space and soil.

What Edible Plants Might Work?

Try the following and see how they do:

Loquat

Persimmon (Native and Japanese)

Sparkleberry, Rabbiteye and Native Blueberries

Black Cherry

Pecan (on higher spots)

Chestnut (on higher spots)

PawPaw (Asimina parviflora)

Spineless Prickly Pear (on drier ground)

Passionvine

Muscadine Grapes

Cassava

Malanga/Taro (in wet areas)

Sand Pears (“Pineapple” in particular is good)

Mulberry

Black-eyed peas

Yard-long beans

Chaya

Bananas (in wet areas)

Yams (planted to climb trees)

Yaupon Holly (for home-grown caffeine!)

Conclusion

A few final thoughts:

This is tough ground for traditional gardening, orchards and food forests. Only clear a bit and test. Don’t dive all the way in and take big risks… let nature run most of the ground until you know what will really do decently. You’ll likely need irrigation, mulch and lots of nutrition to get trees and plants established. Build out from “islands” of improved soils with happy plant communities which you’ve gotten to take.

If need be, try container gardening with mulch, compost and decent soil.

Biochar may help, as may planting lots of nitrogen-fixers and other nutrient accumulators you can “chop and drop,” like Mexican sunflower (annual Tithonia rotundifolia and the robust perennial Tithonia diversifolia), Enterolobium (spp.), Leucaena leucocephala, Autumn olive (Eleagnus umbelatta), cassias and even the dreaded “mimosa” (Albizia julibrissin). These can be planted heavily in areas you hope to reclaim from the scrub, then used to feed the ground from above and below. You can also cut back and drop the native scrub plants and trees around your desired species and planted edibles.

Machete gardening!

Good luck, Les. It may not be exactly the answer you hoped for but I want you to have the best chance of success. Great work being a homeschooler – hurray for homeschooling!

May your thumbs – and your Pine Flatwoods – always be green!

 

*        *        *

 

Finally, I do in-depth direct food forest and land consulting like this for a fee, so if you are a gardener or hopeful food forest planter reading this and want help on your own property – get in touch at the link. My goal is to save you lots of work and get you growing in the most appropriate way possible.

 

Update 11/3/16:

Linda Duever just shared a report on Palmettos she wrote – it’s a must read. Get the PDF here. I had no idea they could live for centuries or that so many creatures relied on their fruit. Another thing to consider as you plan your site!

David-the-good-books-revised

The Scrubland Avenger Builds Justin Rhodes ChickShaw

Chicken_Coop_Chicksaw_Justin_Rhodes

The Scrubland Avenger just built Justin Rhodes ChickShaw potable chicken coop based on Justin’s plans.

He writes:

“Here’s my version of Justin Rhodes chickshaw. Still waiting on the wheels coming in from Northern Tool. Probably on back order because of Justin’s blueprints. Came out way heavier than his because I used materials from around the house where I could on this project. Next step, set up electric fencing and bring in the chickens. Fun project and I can’t wait to put it to work.”
The chickshaw looks great – check it out:

justin rhodes chicksaw design

He sent me that photo earlier this week, along with this one:

justin rhodes chicksaw design

Justin’s design is a nice one but The Scrubland Avenger really classed it up by adding camouflage.

If he sends pics of the chicksaw completed, I’ll post ’em here.

This would have helped a lot back when I was keeping chickens on my homestead back in Florida. I don’t feel like building anything here yet since we already have a coop and I lack the needed powertools, but these chickshaws are really a great solution to predators and rotation.

As for right now, I’m randomly chasing roosters through the jungle:

By the way, I’m currently working on a Survival Gardener’s Guide booklet covering the various ways I’ve raised chickens. I hope to offer it soon on Amazon, so stay tuned.

David-the-good-books-revised
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