A little something on permaculture in town

Someday, we’ll talk about the irony of a rural land man that lives in town. But for today, we’re going to take a quick look at a short and easy permaculture strategy you can utilize, even if you live in town. Probably not if you live in an HOA, though. 🙂

What you’re seeing in the pictures below is a pecan tree race. Now, a pecan tree race is much slower than, say, NASCAR. It takes a lot of patience. Originally, I put some swales in to capture and hold rainwater. And they worked wonderfully. Every time it rains in my neighborhood, the ancient waterway begins to run, and I capture and hold a magnificent amount of rainwater.

What I did NOT take into account was the planting succession. For whatever reason, my system of swales would not hold any of the useful food crops I planted. Everything died. I tried blackberries, figs, peaches, mushroom logs, and a couple of willow trees. (Willow trees aren’t edible, I know – But they are useful. And my daughter wanted one.) Nothing lived in any of the locations I tried. Finally I gave up, and let mother nature claim her own. Even buying fruit trees on sale became an expensive and losing proposition. And what DID grow there were native and some adapted species that thrive in North Texas. I’ve got a couple of species of ragweed that grow well here. Both the obnoxious kind that makes a gazillion seed heads if left unattended, and also the greater species of ragweed that burns your skin when you try to pull it. And, the greater ragweed grows really nice and tall, and the city will, in fact, bust your chops on that one.

But the best thing that started growing in the yard was native pecan trees. Now, we already have two mature pecan trees on our 1/2 acre. There can only be so many trees on such a small parcel. But they propagate like weeds! If you were to leave one pecan tree out alone in nature, in one year’s dropping, you’d have thousands of seedling pecan trees. I’ve seen it happen, year in year out since we moved here.

Well, this one particular area of the yard is pretty far back, and pretty well unused, and the swales make it hard to mow back there. So rather than beat up my head up against the wall trying to keep Mother Nature at bay, I decided to embrace her and let her do whatever it is she’s going to do. And in this case, Mother Nature wants to grow pecan trees.

I’d go out there and look at the new shoots, and the ones that seemed to grow best, and thrive hardest, I’d trim their lower branches so the strong ones would grow just a little taller and a little straighter. Then, a couple of times a year, I’d go out and look again, and trim again. I’d trim back hard in the fall, and then trim again hard in the early spring. (And when I say, “trim hard” remember that the tree was first pencil big, then finger big, then stick big, etc. We’re not talking about days worth of brush clearing)

Now, 4 or 5 years later, I have what looks like a pretty clear winner. I’m going to keep the contest going for another few years, just in case something happens to Mr. Big, but at some point, all the non-winners will have to be trimmed back and turned into compost. To use permaculture nomenclature, this whole area of my yard would be like a Zone 4/Zone 5. Zone 4 being lightly managed for timber (or nut harvest) and Zone 5 being completely left unattended. Let me give you a brief tour, by way of a couple of pictures.

Now, if you’ll take a closer look at the photo, look beyond the pecan tree grove and you’ll see a chaste vitex tree and a wall of overgrowth. This is the top swale in my landscape, the highest portion of the property. This is where the water from the streambed enters the property. Over the years, various homebuilders and developers have modified and altered the waterway, to the extent that they dumped their fill and excess there, but, generally speaking, the waterway still runs between the two rows of homes. This is really “the wild area” of the yard. I did plant a native persimmon tree back there, and it does well back there. I shaped that portion of the land to have lots and lots of edge. By “edge,” I mean I built small, curvy islands with lots of shoreline (relative to the size of the space). I am hoping that frogs and toads will begin to habitate that area. The Chaste Vitex tree is not native to North Texas, but has been grown in North America for over 300 years. [Chaste vitex] I like the Vitex because it does well in Texas, and provides ample habitat for all types of pollinators. I compost all kinds of stuff back here. Pizza boxes and other pure brown cardboard compost easily, and no one can see them. They soak up the water that comes through the waterway and fall flat to the ground, in short order. I also compost large tree branches and/or logs, scrap lumber and anything that’s too large or bulky for the normal compost heap. This system has been in place for several seasons, and you can easily see all the organic matter developing behind the swale.

The area in front of the Chaste Vitex tree is the pecan tree race track. The pecan tree that’s winning the race is nearly square in the middle of this small plot. This small parcel, in particular, has been the biggest challenge to keep mowed and looking somewhat neat. Well, neat isn’t the right word. “Neighbors less likely to call the city” is probably a better way to say it. I finally broke down, and re-shaped the swale, so that I can get the mower back there. It won’t hold water as well as before, but I had to do something to knock the jungle back ‘some‘ considering I do, in fact, have neighbors. In this area, in addition to the pecan trees, I have lantana, which is a Texas native, and native sunflowers. I’ve got some native sunflowers that grow higher up in the yard, closer to the house. When these go to seed in later summer, we always cut the heads off and throw them down here. They grow if they can. There’s also some a mustard plant you can see if you look to the right, at the corner of the barn. I tried a keyhole garden here, and it didn’t work. I’m letting the mustard plant go to seed before I dig the whole thing up. The mustard plant will provide early spring food for pollinators. I keep thinking I should just break down and go buy a small bag of Texas highway mix. Bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, Mexican hat, and primrose line almost all of Texas highways and provide food for native pollinators, and are pretty to look at.

Ultimately, what I’m creating here is a space of native North Texas forest. A small patch, yes. but a spot nontheless. I saw a video on FB the other day, and there is a new growing method that’s taking Europe by storm, and the idea is to create hundreds and thousands of these “micro-forests.” I didn’t know it was a trend, but that’s exactly what I’m doing, only slightly less intentional. Rather than intentional, massive plantings, I’m largely relying on what wants to grow there. In other words, I’m lazy and don’t want to cut the grass. 🙂

A few weeks ago, we were taking a family walk in a park near us. In some locations of Dallas/Fort Worth, they’ve done a good job with creating public spaces that remain more wild than bulldozing everything in sight. Bear Creek Parkway in Keller is one such area. As I was walking, and thinking, and observing, I saw my backyard in 50 years. I’m unlikely to ever see that area reach it’s climax, and the bulldozers may get to it before it can get a chance to fully mature, but I hope not. I’ve created a little tiny, native micro-forest that if left alone, will provide native flora and fauna for generations to come.

I would encourage everyone to think about little a portion of their yard, no matter how small, revert back to nature. You’ll be amazed by the results.

A little something on tomatoes

I am, by no means, an expert on growing tomatoes. But I have learned a couple of little things over the years and wanted to share them.

We used to live in El Paso, TX for about 7 or 8 years. You could actually grow a pretty decent garden in El Paso, if you had:
1) Shade – The sun there is brutal in the summer. You have to shade tomatoes from the afternoon sun.

2) Water. The Chihuahuan Desert is dry like a bone. If I remember right, average annual rainfall in 8-9″. But there was city water, recycled water, and a desalination plant. And if you lived in the river valley, you got water from the Rio Grande.

3) Soil. The soil was already really good in the river valley, and if you lived on higher ground, you could improve the sandy with organic matter in short order.

4) Because the climate there is so dry, you don’t have to worry so much about molds and fungi. Or mosquitoes. They just don’t grow very much there.

I have a specific memory when we were cleaning off the cherry tomato bush on New Years’ Day, in anticipation of a freeze that night. The bush was heavy-laden with ripe fruit on January 1.

But then we moved to Dallas-Fort Worth in 2014. I have found DFW particularly difficult environment to grow tomatoes. When I first here, I met with a local master gardener at the Farmer’s Market. She encouraged me to stay away from the bigger varieties, and stick with the tomatoes that stay small. These would be your Celebrities, Mortgage Lifters, and Early Girls. The master gardener said to stick to tomatoes that “are about the size of a tennis ball in your hand.”

The reason is that the last frost is typically scheduled for around tax day, April 15. Many experienced tomato gardeners have told me stories about trying to rush that and end up getting fooled by Mother Nature. And then, it gets so hot, so early, that the blooms will drop off, without making fruit. There’s a pretty long fall growing season around here, but I’ve had difficulty with getting the timing right.

One of the keys for successful tomato gardens is time. You have to devote daily attention to the plants. I’m sorry. That’s just the way it is. If you want to grow something you don’t have to attend to, you can grow a field of weeds. But tomatoes require daily care. When I was working in commercial construction, I never had enough time. I often times had to leave the house at 6:00 AM, or earlier, and I was often coming home at 6:00 PM, or later. Now, as I re-design my life, I’m really trying to devote a little TLC in the morning before I start my day. It seems to be working, as this is the best crop I’ve had.

Every morning, I go out to the tomato garden, pinch off suckers and unhealthy branches, tie-off what needs to be supported, look for pests, etc. I go out in the cool of the morning, before it gets hot, so it’s actually enjoyable. Four years ago, I built my garden bed with a woody core. What some of you may know as hugelkulture, except I built my wood structure BELOW ground, rather than woody mounds ABOVE the ground. Which to my limited understanding of German, I believe that a hugel is a mound, so it’s literally, “mound culture” Regardless, I have a wood core bed in my gardens, where the wood has now been decaying for 4-5 years. The benefits are really starting to show.

The tomatoes seem to be able to withstand the brutal temperatures that North Texas has to offer us this summer. I have added some water to them, but, overall, they seem very healthy. I’ve also tried to grow one tomato plant in a straw bales based on an interview I heard. So far, the results are favorable, and I can easily see incorporating this garden method into my current scheme.

You can see the tomato on the left is about to turn red. You can see the size of the tomatoes is about like a tennis ball.

I’m interested to see how these cherry tomatoes will fare this summer.


Flowers on July 15. Temperature is supposed to get up to 100 degrees today. Flowers will likely drop without producing fruit.

Ripe tomato in my hand for size comparison.

I’ve found that surveyor’s tape is the best way to stake a tomato plant.

Chickens love the compost pile near the garden.

Chickens also love tomatoes, whether green or red. You have to keep the chickens away from the plants, or they will devour it.

Urban Permaculture Swale Study

If anybody thinks of permaculture at all, which most probably don’t, they would tend to think of a rural setting or owning acreage. But it doesn’t have to be. Permaculture is ultimately a design system, and as such, can be applied, literally anywhere.

Here’s a short video showing a swale I installed in an urban setting. This swale was installed to divert rain water runoff coming down the hill from flooding my mother-in-law’s house. In permaculture, “The Problem Is The Solution”

A couple of simple homesteading projects you can do.

I have a couple of very simple homesteading projects I wanted to share with you. If you’re interested in getting started working on some projects on your piece of land, but have no idea where to get started with making any kind of preparations, these are two simple things you do:

  • Ferment naturally-occurring plants. Learning about and then utilizing plants that are naturalized to your area (therefore they grow wild and are readily available) is a great way to get started on your property. For instance, you can make a pretty decent cup of tea with dandelion roots.
    • In this case, I wanted to see if I could utilize the wild onions that sprout every spring in my yard. I tend to let my lawn revert to it’s natural, native state, and only cut the lawn when the city is on the verge of coming down on me. I pretty much let Mother Nature dictate what’s going to grow where. In this specific case, we have wild onions that grow in the yard. The bulbs grow to about the size of a ping-pong ball, but the bulbs are so strong, as to be inedible. They literally made me puke the first time I tried one. But I wondered…….”Could you ferment them to make them edible?” Fermentation changes the nature and makeup of food. And certainly, there could be nothing more organic than wild onions growing in the backyard. The lactobacillus bacteria will be plentiful on these. There are lots and lots of good guides on lacto-fermentation on the web. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide. The only point of this article is to get you to look at foods that may be growing in your backyard right now, in a different light. The fermentation process is super-easy. .All you need is saltwater, and……..that’s it. Dig the onions up, clean them up, cut off the tops, and wash them. Put them in a mason jar and fill to the brim with salt water. They make all different kinds of airlocks and weights for fermentation, but I don’t have any of that stuff. I just filled a clean mason jar to the brim with salt water and put the lid on, and then burp it every so often.
    • It won’t take long before you start to see the biological activity begin. Maybe a few days to a week. It’s literally alive in there. You can see it. It bubbles and fizzes when you open the jar. I tried one of the onions after about 20-30 days. Now, look – It’s important to know: I’m NOT advocating serving fermented wild onions served as an appetizer  before a romantic night with your sweetie. They’re still very strong. But the taste is pleasing, and tangy. Natural fermentation may provide you with an alternative way to eat healthy, natural, organic food right out of your own backyard.
  • Another skill I’ve been working with in the last week has been cooking on natural firewood. In this case, because we live in Texas, I’ve got mesquite. I’m learning to cook on firewood. Why is this a homesteading skill?
    • Cooking on firewood is not as easy as cooking on charcoal – The firewood has to be dried out. Green wood is very difficult to burn into hot coals.  It’s hard to get lit and stay lit. The firewood will also have lots of very hot spots and some very cool spots – It burns unevenly. It can also be harder to light. You have to literally build a fire, starting with tinder, and then kindling, and then the fire. It’s not as easy as just squirting some lighter fluid on the pile of coals. And it takes a lot longer then you might think. If you’ve got a hungry tribe at 6:00 PM, you don’t want to start the fire at 5:00 PM. You want to build the fire much earlier in the day, so that there’s ample time to form coals. Don’t attempt to cook over the wood when it’s still “wood” and aflame – Better to wait until the coals are fully ashy.
    • I only put the picture of the beer in there, because I was being cheeky with a friend.


Look, I get that this is not the same as getting hydro-electric power to your homestead. These are two very simple projects that you can implement almost immediately on your own property, and begin to take control over your own life and your own land.


A Story About Chickens

I’ve had backyard chickens for probably 15+ years now. In the event that chickens ever come up in casual conversation, and sometimes they do, people who want to know more about chickens will invariably ask, “How many chickens do you have?”

Which is a difficult question to answer. “How many chickens do you have, right now?” is a better way to ask the question. The number of chickens is always in flux. Chickens come, and chickens go. Over the years, my adopted management technique is something slightly akin to “Survival of the Fittest. Only the strong survive.”

I built them a coop, and it keeps them warm and dry and a place to lay their eggs, if they choose to lay in there. Oftentimes, they will lay in the barn, or under the rosemary bush, or under the flat-bottom boat, or anywhere else they have a mind to. And they have a 1/2 acre of minimally manicured and 100% organic yard to free range in. So, I don’t feed them grain that often. I want my chickens to always be just a little bit hungry. Put them to work out on the 1/2 acre, and they’ll spend all day, scratching out bugs and pests. And I make sure they have clean water. Beyond that, good luck girls. My birds don’t get medicine, dirt tubs, oyster shells or any of this other stuff you may read about. They have the yard. Go to work, ladies.

As a result, sometimes we lose a chicken. Most notably, to predators. Even though we live in an urban environment, we have all the same predators as those of you in rural areas do, albeit in lesser concentrations than you. Sometimes, at dawn or dusk, we’ll see Coyote come skulking about. Mr. Hawk is easy to see in the treetops, especially in the winter, when the trees have lost their leaves. And if Mr. Hawk has found the flock, you damned sure better to be willing to keep the girls locked inside the coop and be willing to stand over them, until Mr. Hawk decides to go look for easier pickings. I don’t bear any of the predators any ill will, though. They all have their role to fulfill in nature’s web. They need to eat, too. Ultimately, I try and provide some protection for The Girls, in the form of their coop and lots of natural undergrowth, but there’s is, in fact a natural attrition rate to the flock.

There’s also an unexpected growth rate that happens, too. We have friends that buy baby chicks at Easter and then, not know what to do with them after they quit being cute. So we collect chickens in much the same way that a shelter collects cats and dogs. There’s always a period of adjustment when you bring new birds into the flock. Thus, the phrase, “Pecking order.” It’s a real thing. If added in small groups, the chickens will divide up into teams, based on their original order. For instance, it might be “The three” and then “The two.” But, eventually, they all coalesce into one small flock.

It’s a little bit like a riff on that old story of Theseus’ ship. If you replace the entire ship one piece at a time, is it still the same ship? In the case of chickens: If you replace the flock onesies-twosies over time, is it still the same flock?

The most accurate answer to the question of “How many?” is probably somewhere between 12-13 on the high end, and maybe 2-3 on the low end. The reason I bring all this to your attention is to tell you a story about one remarkable chicken and a tale of survival.

We were down to 4 chickens at the time. I think we had 2 Americanas from the original flock of 12, and a couple of add-ons. One evening, several weeks ago, when I went to close the coop door, I noticed there were only 3 heads in the roost. Huh. That’s odd. Chickens are both unpredictable and predictable. It’s impossible to know where they’re going to lay their eggs. But once they get homed into their coop, they’ll return there, every single evening, at dusk. In my mind’s eye, I’m designing an automated system, running from Arduino, for this exact reason. The chickens always come home to roost. Always. I did a cursory look around for #4, but I knew if she wasn’t right there with the others, the prognosis wasn’t good. I got a flashlight, and scanned around the yard, but she wasn’t there. I knew she wouldn’t be. I shut the coop up, and realized that this was just another bird we’ve lost over the years.

The next morning, I got up to look for the carcass, so I could bury it in the garden somewhere. Depending on the kill pattern, you can sort of deduce who got your chickens. Coyote will take the whole bird, leaving only a plume of feathers, while Mr. Hawk will only bite their heads off and leave the bodies behind. But on this morning, there was no feathers, no headless carcass, nothing. Which was weird – Even if it was Coyote, you can at least see the spot where the kill happened – Usually, right outside the periphery of the undergrowth of the trees and brambles.

“Well, this is something new. But, nevertheless, the chicken is gone. So that’s that.”

And when Mother Nature takes a chicken from you, you never get it back. Never, never, not ever. Never. And that’s final. After spending some years watching their behavior, I’ve decided it’s a big, cosmic joke: From Apex Predator to Lowest Prey in only a few million years. You can easily deduce that Spielberg used chickens as the models for his ravenous Velociraptors in the movie Jurassic Park. They’re just too similar. And now, through some Grand Shift, they’ve been reduced to among the most vulnerable in the animal kingdom. So when you lose one, it’s not a joyous occasion, but let’s be honest: It happens.

Except in this one particular case. The chicken actually came back to us. About 6 weeks later, we had a neighbor reach out to us. This neighbor raises chickens, also. Somehow, our chicken had been surviving out on the streets for a month and half, scraping by on scraps, and somehow getting connected to the other chicken family.

When we first got her back, she looked like Hell. Her feathers were all ripped out and torn off, and her vent was all hanging outside of her body. Boy, did she look rough. I didn’t expect her to make it. The flock wouldn’t accept her right away – She had to find another place to roost at night. The Girls wouldn’t let her inside the coop to sleep. But I kept feeding her. And when I say feeding her, I mean, dumping some scratch in the trough. I don’t mean any kind of extraordinary feeding measures. But she was hungry, and kept coming back. The first few nights, she would vanish – But come back during the day for food. And she would stick around our yard, as opposed to going back over to the other place. They have many more chickens than we do, and their yard is 100% dirt and mud, whereas our yard is mostly overgrown. Perhaps it’s because we have better grazing here?

Regardless, it looks like she’s back from the dead, and here to stay. The others still haven’t fully accepted her yet. Right now, it’s “The Three” and “The One” but they at least let her sleep inside with them now.


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