Category Archives: Gardens

Permaculture Approaches: Problems into Solutions, Slugs into Ducks

I last wrote about a very appreciated and loved creature – the honey bee. Next up I want to tell you about a weird, wild, often reviled beastie – the slug!

Leopard Slug (Limax maximus)

Any gardener is going to have a fraught relationship with slugs, especially after a wet spring like we had. But before we get to that, let’s get to know them better.

As with any problem we face, permaculture asks us to observe first, to learn and understand what we can. This enables us to make better choices about how we react, sometimes even allowing us to turn our problems into solutions.

Aside from that, every creature we share this planet with is amazing and worth marveling at just to keep our sense of awe and humility intact.

My Slug Story

When I first noticed slugs, they were not a problem for me. I was living in Dover NH in a house with a tiny fenced in backyard. One summer we noticed that in the right light all the patio bricks sparkled. It looked like fairies had sprinkled their dust… but it was actually the dried slime from the trails of slugs which we were having an outbreak of!  At night they would appear and we started watching them.

Not a Small Slug!

They were big – maybe 3 inches long fully extended, and I couldn’t believe how fast they moved given that they have no legs. I wasn’t trying to garden back then, so could simply watch and admire and not get into any kind of battle with the slimy critters.

Around the same time the movie Microcosmos came out. I saw it on the big screen of The Music Hall in Portsmouth. This artistic documentary about life in meadows and ponds included an amazing mating dance of snails.

A few years later my best friend, Nicole, moved to California. We did some traveling in the state and I loved the northern woods with the huge majestic redwoods, shocking to a New Englander. Those woods held black bears to be wary of, herds of Roosevelt Elk, and banana slugs, which everyone wanted to see with their intense yellow coloring standing out against the browns and greens of the forest.

Slugs Are Cool

Slug in the Garden

Why respect slugs? The role slugs play in the ecosystem is to eat decaying plant, fungi and sometimes even animal matter. They are recyclers who fit well into the No Such Thing As Waste permaculture view.

Slugs and snails (scientifically classified as “gastropods“) have been on this planet since the Cambrian era (497 million years ago!) – clearly they are successful and important. Thousands of species live in all kinds of habitats (sea, forest, desert, pond, ditch,…), with different eating habits (herbivore, carnivore, detritivore), and such a diverse genetic heritage that we know they didn’t all evolve from one ancestor, but arose independently a number of times in different places.

The Problem

However, they can be serious garden pests, and they also can spread some diseases. In our case, the one we most worry about affects goats – meningeal worm.

Young Kale Plant, Vulnerable to Slug Damage

My relationship with slugs became strained when we first started gardening here on our Living Land property. We’d gotten some land cleared, sheet mulched, and I planted garlic in the fall. That spring it came up, and I started planting other crops. I quickly discovered that we had a tremendous slug population. Sure, they were eating my lettuce, kale & broccoli, but also my onions and garlic! I would go into the garden with a quart container and fill it with slugs within about 20 minutes. Yes, I handpicked them, despite the slime factor.

I consulted soil experts. For many pests, it is a soil problem that causes distress in the plant which then attracts predatory insects. But, not with slugs I was told. They weren’t indicative of a deeper problem, but simply liked to eat what humans do too.

Cabbage, A Favorite Food of Slugs

I brought my containers of slugs to our chickens. We had friends whose hens enjoyed these protein rich treats. But, alas, ours had more refined taste, I guess. They looked at the slugs, looked at me, ruffled their feathers and strutted away.

So, we needed other control methods.

 

The Solution

Indian Runner, From Our First Flock

Of course, permaculturist Bill Mollison‘s famous quote came back to me: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency” which he said to another struggling gardener.

We followed his advice, and got ourselves some ducks. They were not as easy to procure as chicks can be, but we found Indian Runner ducklings locally. There were just a few of them, but, wow, did they love to eat slugs! Before they were big enough to be outside we brought them in for them and they gobbled them up. That first year, we let them spend time in the garden itself. They are not as hard on a garden as chickens are, but they made a bit of a mess of my carefully placed mulch. Since then, we rarely let them in the garden, but they have access to a large area around it. That has been enough to keep the problem in check.

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Frogs in Our Pond

We also added elements to our garden and land that support wild predators of slugs: frogs, toads, and snakes.  (If you can’t or don’t want to keep ducks, this is what I’d suggest you focus on.)  We added a pond form in the garden and within weeks it was full of frogs.

Now that we aren’t overrun with them, I can again admire slugs as amazing creatures. In fact, as the slug population has decreased, our duck food bill has gone up… I now look at them as a resource not just a competitor.

We love our ducks. They are extremely entertaining, give us amazing eggs, and a small amount of meat. They have an important place here and we’re grateful to have turned our slug problem into such a great duck solution!

A “Brace” of Ducks

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Speaking for the Bees

At the Concord NH MAM 2017

[Note: I gave a version of this talk at the March Against Monsanto Rally in Concord NH on May 20, 2017. This was also the day after the news broke that NH lost the majority of it’s honey bee hives over this past winter.]

I am here today to speak for the bees and the beekeepers.

As a chemical-free, permaculturally-based beekeeper I am extremely careful about what I put into the hive. But being a steward of bees means knowing the limits of my control over the world. That’s why I need all of you to help me and my bees.

A bee can travel as far as 5 miles from her hive. That’s 50,000 acres of land that she can cover – far more than I personally can protect for them. Any harmful substance that she contacts she will bring home to her hive where the queen is laying eggs, the next generations are being nurtured and they are creating their magnificent honey. What they bring back will have consequences for all those activities.

I received my first package of bees in 2005, so when the Colony Collapse Disorder news hit in 2007, I started getting questions about bees, most of which boiled down to: “What is the thing causing bees to die?”

I’m not sure what it is about humans, or Americans at least, that makes us crave simple answers. But, I don’t believe that thinking is helping us and I am not here today to tell you one or a few simple tricks to saving the bees. Instead I want to tell you a story about bees, humans, how we got here and how we might walk a better path for all of us.

It is still a simplified story, from the perspective of one human (me) who works with one type of bee, apis mellifera, the honey bee.

Let me tell you more about bees, to make sure that all of you are amazed and in love with them and the sweet, beautiful world they contributed to making.

The honeybee is just one of at least 20,000 species of bees. Bees began evolving about 100 million years ago, when wasps and flowers shifted their relationship from one of predator and prey to one of not just cooperation, but of symbiosis – they need each other now. Forming this partnership, called

A Single Poppy Flower, Opening

The Angiosperm Explosion by botanists, resulted in a tremendous increase in plant and insect diversity and, in our human eyes, beauty. (Iris Murdoch said: “People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”)

By now, 2017, there are over 200,000 species of animals that act as pollinators. Most of those are insects, with bees pollinating the largest number of plant species. There are others, though: birds, bats, and even some mice!

The fact that there is such a diversity of pollinators in existence, tells me how important they are. This is a job that cannot be left to just a few. We are lucky that this redundancy and resilience is built into the system given the losses that have occurred or might happen, but it’s time to heed nature and learn to respect and protect them.

A Sign Held at the Concord NH MAM 2017

There are now 8 bee species on the US endangered species list (7 in Hawaii plus the Rusty Patched Bumblebee). Even more disturbing, a study released in March 2017 by The Center for Biological Diversity found hundreds of North American bee species now face extinction. The reason for their decline is believed to be the complicated interplay of: loss of habitat, pesticides, diseases/parasites which move easily around the world with our current transportation system, and climate change.

But, let’s take a small step back… the trouble for our bees did not start in 2007.

The best way to track this would be by looking at colony losses over time or wild bee numbers, but that data isn’t available going back very far.  We do have information about overall colony numbers in the US going back to the 1940s, which American entymologist & MacArthur award winner, Marla Spivak, used to piece together at least a part of the story.

Spivak pointed out that honey bee colony numbers have been declining in this country since the end of World War II. In 1945 there were an estimated 4.5 million managed honeybee hives in the US and in 2007 that number had fallen to 2 million – despite an increase in crops planted that need insect pollination.

What happened?

A number of changes occurred, one being World War Two’s legacy of dangerous substances and technologies which we are still dealing with.

As a permaculturist, I am all for turning problems into solutions. But I am really coming to question the idea of turning swords into ploughshares in any literal sense, especially given the research showing the plough to be one of our oldest, ongoing agricultural sins.

Of course, these corporations were concerned with profit not peace anyway. Rather than shutting down their war-making factories in 1945, companies including Monsanto managed to keep running by setting their sights on a new target, and a chemical-dependent agriculture system started to take over. A DuPont Farm Chemicals brochure from the 1950s told us outright: “Man against the soil… rise from savagery to civilization.”

This new system concentrated crops into huge monoclutures, which could not support pollinators, but did create the opportunity for certain crop eating insects to proliferate in an out-of-balance manner, leading to a huge call for pesticides. With synthetic fertilizers now cheap and available, the practice of cover cropping, which had been great forage for our beneficial insects, diminished. And abundant herbicides meant weeds could be eliminated in crop fields and at our homes – but

Bees Love Dandelions!

many plants we call weeds are great food for many insects. (Let your dandelions grow!)   (See Marla Spivak’s TED Talk for much more detail on the post-WWII agricultural shift)

In his book Natural Prophets, Joe Dobrow describes our culture as we came out of that war as encouraging social and political conformity, respect for authority, patriotism, faith in science and government. But within a few decades other voices started to emerge – they are our predecessors.

Many people will remember that Rachel Carson predicted a silent spring due to a decline in birds linked to DDT, but not as many know that she also warned of a fruitless fall, a time when “there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.” This is what we face today.

(Of course, there are even more issues affecting agriculture and bees.  Farm policy, US diet patterns, food growing economics, and specific beekeeping economics are a few.  Remember that the world is complex!  But, I can only tackle so many issues here.  I provided some links for your further research if you are interested.)

What do we do?

A Bee, Making Honey

This winter I heard natural beekeeper Ross Conrad speak. He reminded us of the fact that one honeybee can only make 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime to contribute to her hive, which needs about 150 pounds of honey per year. And yet, she does not fall prey to the illusion that what she does doesn’t matter. She does not waver in her work or dedication. She knows her place in this world and embraces it.

We humans are not blessed with that certain knowledge of what we are supposed to do here. But, I believe that we are alive in a time that is calling us to find our place and make a contribution.

I know that we live now with some terrible examples of what humans can do, and we should let that inspire us to be very cautious. But, we’ve also been able to fix problems, such as banning DDT. The great news is that a lot of solutions in front of us will bring only benefits. A sustainable food production system can provide good food for pollinators, grow healthy soil which can pull carbon out of the atmosphere, offer meaningful work for people, and produce much healthier food for all of us.

So, I ask you to consider all these options to help bees: YES – plant for pollinators flowering plants, especially trees (make sure they are pesticide-free!), choose and grow your own organic food, buy local honey! ALSO – take back our food supply and our health from companies who do not have our best interests at heart. Work to curb corporate power (so we can stop these problems before they are started), promote peace, build more democratic institutions, organize your communities, attend rallies.

Don’t just resist – commit to participation and action as part of your life, not a task that will end when one politician or company is defeated. Let’s take back a sense of responsibility and ownership for our lives and communities, shake off the illusion that our actions don’t matter and support each other in creating a healthy world.

Poster at March Against Monsanto 2017

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In Praise of Rain, As the Drought Ends

I’m thrilled to announce: the drought is over for us as of May 9 after 24 months!  Which inspires me to write in praise of rain.

Here in NH we are in the midst of weeks of intermittent rain. A few downpours, even some thunder and lightning, but predominantly light precipitation that doesn’t flood us but soaks into the earth.

Lady’s Mantle in the Rain

Sure, it doesn’t help our solar power, grey days can feel dreary, and warm sunny days interspersed for pollinating would be ideal… but after months, nearly years, of drought I welcome each drop.

Not everyone realizes that drought conditions continued here until May 9, 2017. Winter snow melt improved surface water enough that visual cues were fewer. However, as a person with The US Drought Monitor bookmarked on my computer, I saw that we were not back to normal.

In reviewing the archived drought maps, our Autumns of 2013 and 2014 were “abnormally dry,” a sort-of pre-drought condition, but were resolved by winter snows.  Then, starting on May 12, 2015 we had a full year of fluctuating between “abnormally dry” and “moderate” drought.  On July 12, 2016 we hit “severe” status then climbed to “extreme” as of August 30, 2016, lasting until November.  This year’s winter snows were not enough to shift us out of “severe.”  It was in late March that, finally, regular rains, drop by drop, along with cool temperatures, eventually resulted in this week’s return to normal.  While it’s no guarantee, NOAA predictions look promising for a good growing season, while NH state officials are still encouraging caution, especially for those of us depending on our own wells for water.  In the local permaculture community we are discussing water management systems, now that we see both too much and too little water as likely problems in our future.

Rain Gauge – Nearly 2 inches over 2 days!

Looking beyond this larger concern… a rainy spring has also been a great opportunity for getting new plants started!

In the annual garden, the small seeds of carrots, beets, parsnips and radishes love to get going in moist conditions. Cover and pasture crops also thrive. We disturbed soil to build a new barn last year, which I now have the chance to reseed with a mix of perennials for pasturing the animals on. In our orchard areas, we have cut swales and created berms for water retention over the past few years, followed by hugelkultur mounds topped with thick (at least 1 inch) mulches to build soil. Now, I am establishing more perennial herbaceous plants around the young fruit trees and bushes. For instance, red clover and lupines for below ground nitrogen feeding to microorganisms and plants, and borage and cleome to offer nectar and pollen to the pollinators above.

Ducks always appreciate water!

While I can water in dry times, I find good natural conditions produce better results.

I remember watching the sky and the weather forecast last year, feeling helpless and vulnerable. It was humbling to have my human illusion of being in control and self-sufficient challenged, to be reminded that we are just a small part of a much larger system.

Sometimes that’s a relief as well. As Vandana Shiva says: “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.”

During this appropriately rainy spring, I am grateful to be the recipient of such generosity.

Lady’s Mantle

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