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Hydroponics: A Step Away From Babylon

Lawnmower Bear shares the basics of hydroponics.

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Like many men and women of Beartaria, I took the stead pill early, while I was still living in Babylon. I was inspired to start building a homestead and growing my own food, but for the time being, I was stuck in a small apartment in the middle of the city. I was still determined to apply our community’s values and start growing my own food in my little homestead. There are many options available to apartment dwellers, such as container gardening, but the way I chose to start was growing salad greens in a hydroponic system.

Hydroponics is the method of growing plants in a container of water in a nutrient solution, instead of in the soil. The plant’s roots grow down into the water, and the plant grows upwards. 

The benefit of growing plants hydroponically is that food can be grown indoors efficiently, reliably, and quickly, in a controlled environment. You can start several kale plants from seed, germinate them, plant them in a nutrient solution under a grow light in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, and start harvesting kale leaves within several weeks. The plants don’t need to compete for water or nutrients, so you can grow them very densely in a small space with low risk of disease or pests.

A basic hydroponic system consists of a container filled with a nutrient solution and a medium to hold the plant at the top of the container. It can be as simple as an old mason jar in a window with a drilled Solo cup holding a lettuce plant in the rim, or as complex as a series of plastic totes growing a variety of plants in net cups set into the totes’ lids, piped together with float valves to maintain a consistent water level, under timed grow lights, air pumps, fans, and humidifiers. Part of the fun is taking the basic building blocks and building the system that works for you.

A complex hydroponics system set up in an apartment closet

The simplest type of system to start with is a Kratky system, which does not need an air pump to oxygenate the water. You just fill up a bucket with water and nutrient solution, put a sprout in a cup in the lid, and watch it grow. The plant drinks the water down as it grows, and develops two sets of roots: long thick roots to drink water from the bottom of the container, and thin fuzzy roots near the top, to breathe the air at the top of the container.

A basic Kratky hydroponics system
A basic kratky hydroponics system

Hydroponics are ideal for nutritious leafy greens and lettuces. You can grow fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers hydroponically, but they require more specialized lighting, pH control, and nutrient combinations. The plants that I’ve reliably had the best luck with have been kale, swiss chard, arugula, lettuce, bok choy, and herbs.

So, what does a Beartarian trapped in an apartment in the city, need in order to get started?

Seeds

– A Container such as a 5-gallon bucket, 20-gallon tote, mason jar, or an old milk jug

Water (at a neutral pH)

Nutrients from either a liquid hydroponic solution from a garden store, or a dry mix of Masterblend Tomato, Calcium Nitrate, and Magnesium Sulfate/Epsom Salts (2 tsp of each for 5 gallons of water)

– A Cup in the container’s lid, such as a 2″ plastic net cup, or Solo cup, filled with a Grow Media like clay pebbles, rockwool, perlite, or soil cubes, to hold the plant in the cup as it grows

– A reliable Light Source, whether it’s a sunny window or an LED grow light

Once you build a simple 5-gallon bucket system and grow your first kale plant, you can build and experiment and invent whatever system works best for you. Hydroponics isn’t a perfect indoor gardening solution, and it is very limited compared to gardening in the living soil on your own land, but it offers a way for apartment-bound Beartarians to easily produce nutritious salad greens for their families, independently of Babylon.

By: Lawnmower Bear @lawnmowerbear on Instagram

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Getting Started with Permaculture By Mr. Permie Bear

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Sometimes getting started on something is the hardest part, it certainly was for me getting around to finally writing something. Now that the so-called pen is on the paper, what comes next is likely to feel somewhat like a whirlwind on my end, but hopefully not on yours. I hope that what follows will help you get started and help you crush on a whole new level.

Before we can really get into some of the details, we ought to start out with a simple definition of permaculture. It’s a wonderful combination of amusing and inspiring when someone finds out that I am a Certified Permaculture Designer and comes up to me to say, “I just planted my first permaculture!”. Sometimes their excitement just can’t be contained (and for good reason) and I just can’t bring myself to tell them that what they told me makes no sense, so I usually just share in their excitement. Let’s not let that happen to you. By all means get excited, but do it with correct definitions. The word “Permaculture” is often defined as a combination of “permanent” and “agriculture” and while that’s close, it’s actually not quite the whole story. It’s really more like a combination of “permanent” and “culture”. It just so happens that often the easiest and most visible application is as it relates to agriculture. At its core, permaculture is a design language. It is a lens that we view and solve problems through. Ethics are at the core of permaculture and the tools we use to solve these problems are based upon patterns observed in nature. In essence, it is a way of thinking and designing systems to meet all of our needs as people living in this realm in perpetuity using ways that are not extraction based, but regenerative and therefore highly resilient and hopefully as permanent as anything can be. Systems and solutions that are Integrated and often times multidisciplinary, not singular and stand-alone. The three core ethics of Permaculture are:

1) Earth Care 

2) People Care  

3) Return of Surplus

These three ethics stem from the prime directive of Permaculture, which is the thought that in this life, we cannot rely on extraction based systems that value neither people nor the creation as a whole and that the only ethical thing to do is to provide for our own needs and the needs of our families. Something that many people in this and other communities really understand. Everything we do within the framework of Permaculture must look to those three ethics and if it does not uphold those, then our design needs work. So, for example, let’s say you decide to plant a garden. Does the way in which you plant and manage your garden meet these ethics? If you prepare your garden by spraying roundup to kill the grass, fertilize with miracle-gro, spray chemical pesticides, and burn all the garden residues – I’d say that’s a miss on 3 of 3. Let’s instead say that you use light blocking tarps or heavy mulch to kill the grass, manage the garden organically, and compost all your garden residues-Now we just hit 3 of 3. We can of course do better, but all of the things done in the second example are life affirming, not life destroying. That’s the kind of thinking we need. 

I guess there’s one other critical part of permaculture that is really present in everything and that is the connections between systems. That’s really what we are identifying and implementing when we look for patterns in nature. It is my belief that those patterns were made by God and there can be no better guide than what the Creator has set before us. 

 

Chickens and sheep working together to build soil. The sheep manure mixed with spent hay is piled up with whole grains mixed in the layers to give the chickens incentive to scratch and turn the piles, thus quickening the compost process. This compost will layer fertilize vegetables grown in the greenhouse.

 

The systems and patterns can be very simple, or very complex. Often times the more complex the system, the more stable it is because we have a plethora of redundancies. We already gave one example of a simple system, Plant a garden organically, compost everything you don’t eat. But that’s not many connections, and remember, as practitioners of permaculture, we are in the connection business. So, what if we add chickens? Chickens can turn the compost for us, get part of their feed from finding bugs in the compost, and add their manure so the compost is more fertile. If we got really crazy, chickens could also prepare our garden beds for planting. If we were to go absolutely bonkers we could add pigs to till the garden, chickens to level it back out and clean up after the pigs (who both eat the garden surplus, thus decreasing our need to buy food), the chicken and pig manure enriches the soil, we add guineas walking in and around the garden for bug control, have ducks around the perimeter eating bugs that would find their way to the garden, set up duck bathing pools around the garden perimeter so we can use the water from their bathing pools to water and fertilize the gardens (all in one shot), add certain plants to be used specifically for mulch and rabbit food (who have an area where their manure is collected for fertilizer), meat from these rabbits is used for people food and to feed the dogs that guard the sheep, which graze the grass in the orchard and fertilize it, which surrounds the garden providing a wind break and extra compost materials, more chicken food, and more pig food. See all the connections? Do you see how the needs of the system are being provided by the system? The nature mimicry? Rabbits garden, sheep fertilize, pigs dig, chickens scratch. They all eat. They have the chance to all exhibit these innate behaviors, each with inputs and outputs. We simply observed and designed. Returning to the 3 ethics:

  1. Earth care – Are the plants, animals, and soil taken care of? Yes, Animals are able to express their innate and unique behaviors. They are fed varied diets. Soil is protected with mulch and enriched with manure and compost. Pests are kept in check by animal and insect predators, therefore pesticides aren’t needed or used. (Note that I said, “Kept in check”. There will be some pests in the garden, that’s why they can be used as guinea food for example.)
  2. People care – The people work less because the animals are doing a lot of the work. Sure, you have to move them around, but compare that to all the individual tasks you now have to do less of like mowing, weeding, turning the compost, tilling, picking bugs, spraying plants, etc. Not to mention the enjoyment of working with each part of the system and the extreme health that will likely result from eating such high-quality food. (You will still have to weed, especially as you just get started. Sorry, But if managed well, weeding should be less and less each year.)
  3. Return of surplus – Compost is created and used. Manure is incorporated into the system whether as a compost addition, directly applying to the ground (as in the case of the sheep), or used to make liquid fertilizer (as in the case of the ducks). Nothing goes to waste. This system will yield more than we humans can possibly consume and so the excess goes back into the system and is used to further sustain it.

 

Pigs and chickens working together to turn pasture into garden. The pigs till and break up soil, the chickens help with sanitation and tilling while eating weed seeds and bugs.

 

Another example of a permaculture practice that might be easier for many people to implement is the creation of plant guilds. I realize many people don’t have room for pigs, sheep, large orchards, and the like, but we all have room for plant guilds. This can be as simple as companion planting in the garden. Perhaps this is planting a nitrogen fixing plant like a green bean next to or before a nitrogen using plant like corn. Perhaps this is using the famous “three sisters” guild which is pole beans, corn, and squash. The beans provide nitrogen, the corn gives the beans a place to grow, and the squash shades out weeds that would compete with the corn. This could also be as complex as a perennial polyculture under our fruit trees. “Say what Mr. Permie Bear? What is a perennial polyculture? I thought we were done with terms and definitions, then you throw this at me? How dare you?”. A perennial polyculture is just a collection of plants that come back year after year that provide things like nutrients and mulch for our fruit trees, provide habitat and food for beneficial insects, and food/medicine for us. For example, we could plant an apple tree. Say 6 feet off the tree trunk (not a firm number), in the drip line of the tree, we could plant a ring of comfrey and daffodils. This will provide mulch and block grass roots from coming in. Under the tree we can plant lemon balm, yarrow, and mint for teas, medicine, and flowers for pollinators. We can then plant garlic and thyme for cooking and keeping away certain insects. Maybe we’ll even throw in a currant bush for some more fruit and some Dutch white clover to keep out other weeds and provide nitrogen. The amount of plants you can cram in under a fruit tree is amazing! When we create plant guilds, what we are doing is stacking functions and also more fully utilizing our growing space by taking advantage of different layers (stacking layers). The stacking of functions is using that same space or system to achieve several different results such as food, medicine, pollinator support, and even beauty. Here’s what stacking layers looks like in this simplified example: in the same space required for just a tree, by stacking layers we are using the tree layer (apple), shrub layer (currant), herbaceous layer (comfrey), ground-cover layer (clover), and even the root/bulb layer (garlic). 

 

A simple polyculture. Comfrey, horseradish, violets, and comfrey grow under the canopy of an apple tree. There are also daffodils planted in a ring around the tree, but they are dormant in this photo.

 

When establishing plant guilds, it’s important to know that some plants are neutral towards each other, some help each other, and some are antagonistic. Each of these behaviors can have its place in our designs so it’s important to research relationships between plants based on what you are trying to accomplish, whether that’s to help something grow or even to try and stop something from growing. 

Now that we have covered some of the specific aspects of plant guilds, we’ll take a step back and look at the system as a whole and once again, we can compare this to the three core ethics and see we are on solid ground. 

It is truly remarkable that with proper design, we can solve or avoid many problems and create systems and gardens that are much more productive than they would be if left to their own devices. We can truly be stewards. There is a saying in the permaculture circles which is “the problem is the solution”. One of my favorite examples of this kind of thinking is attributed to Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture. When someone was complaining about all the slugs eating their crops, he replied “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficit.” In this case, the excess slugs were the solution to growing ducks for meat and eggs without having to buy feed.

So, get started by looking around you. What do you see in God’s design that is working well? What connections do you see? What connections can you make in your Beartaria? Find outputs that can be used as inputs.  Are you hitting the mark on the core ethics or do you need to redesign some things? The absolute, most important thing is to try. There is no “one right way” so don’t let the fear of not knowing get in your way. With ethics at our core, it’s hard to go wrong. Get out there and discover what works for you. In a word, Crush.

Bio-

Mr. Permie Bear is a former commercial banker turned Missouri farmer. He, his wife, and their 4 children operate Piney Creek Farm in the Missouri Ozark’s and specialize in pasture raised meats and raw milk. He is also co-founder of Grateful Harvest Seed Company. His goal is to create a fully integrated permaculture farm which teaches and shows people what can be accomplished with permaculture on whatever scale they choose to engage, backyard to large farm. In his down time…. Oh wait, there is no down time.

PineyCreekFarm.com

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God. Growth. Gravy. Serenity Valley Farm est. 2019 

Western Ranger Bear and I have so many ideas and things we would love to see happen here at Serenity Valley. When we talk about the future it’s not just that we become self sustainable but that we are able to help the community in which we live.

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Good sun rising everyone! Birth Alchemy Bear here and I wanted to share a bit about the history and background of Serenity Valley Farm as well as our vision for the future! Western Ranger Bear and I met back in 2014, it was not love at first sight. That being said, it did become a great kind of love that comes from friendship.

 

We got married in 2017. Through many talks about our future we realized there were three things that we found to be fundamental in our relationship and how we approached life. Most importantly was our relationship to God, and what He was asking us to do. The second thing that we both cared deeply about was having kids and raising a family on a piece of land. Lastly, we both are deeply passionate about truth and the freedom that it brings. It was not until just last year we boiled it down to God, Growth and Gravy! But that is the underlying passion that burns the candles here at Serenity Valley Farm and we would not be here if it were not for those specific desires of our hearts. 

The land on which we live in Fremont Michigan was originally owned by my great grandpa Edward Lambert Gebben. He is center in this picture flanked by his parents Albert and Alida Dunnwind Gebben. Edward was born in 1894 and was 25 years old when he cut down the trees which he milled to build this house and barn. The house was built in 1919.In 1924 Ester Helene was born to Gebben and his wife Lena Visscher. Ester was their first daughter and my grandmother. She was born right here in this house. I am hoping to homebirth (sooner rather than later! 40 weeks today!) and it really feels like coming full circle to be giving birth in the house which she was born in. 

Edward Gebben was known for being a very fun and slightly wild individual. He worked with dynamite and during the Great Depression when food was running low he would cut off a piece of dynamite and throw it in the creek at the back of the farm. The explosion would bring a bunch of fresh fish to the table for a week or two and created a lot of really deep swimming spots in the creek. He also was rumoured to have blown up the bridge down the road from his house just for fun one time, allegedly. A very hard working man who loved his family, he passed down a love of the land and independent spirit that I got to benefit from through my grandma. 

In this picture you can see Edward standing in front of the barn.

It has three floors, the first had two stalls, one for horses and one for cows. He kept about a hundred chickens on the second floor for his “egg route” where he delivered eggs in town. Third floor was for hay. He was an incredibly hard working man and had that indomitable spirit you can’t help but admire. He ended up selling the farm to a neighboring family in the 70’s. So while we purchased the property back in 2019 we cannot claim it is a centennial farm. So we just say it’s “nearly centennial.” Close enough. 

The house had several additions and the barn needed some extensive work but for us it was a labor of love. For Western Ranger Bear and myself we wanted a place where we could raise our kids on the land. A place where we could host events and grow. This place has an energy that is hard to miss when you walk around. It’s a vibration and it’s a freshness. The only way to really know is to visit and walk the land. It’s a priority for us that everyone who comes to visit could walk away feeling blessed and refreshed. 

In these photos you can see where the barn was at and the extensive work we had to put into it to make it viable.

The roof had become so decrepit if we had left it another year it would have caved in. We are working on getting electric and water out to the barn to make it optimal for housing animals again. The third floor we are very excited about. We can’t wait to utilize it for events and gatherings! This barn has so much potential and it’s hard not to dream about all the things we could do. As all you homesteaders know, it’s not that you don’t have enough projects! It’s that you only got so much time! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have about 24 chickens here at SVF, our goal is to get goats and a milk cow. We are also working on getting and learning how to keep bees as well as working on turning our old basement into a root cellar which we can use for cold storage. We eventually would like to also build a smoke shack for smoking meat and cheese. This summer (2021) our biggest project was the garden. We had the ultimate builder buddie (Kit Kat Bear) agree to come stay with us and manage the garden when I was (am) super pregnant this summer. We built over 20 raised beds and planted over 100 different kinds of seeds and plants. We have learned so much this summer! We have learned about what grows well in our soil; what needs more care; pest control; and have prayed for rain a lot! As anyone growing plants knows you have to stay flexible. That was a big lesson for us this summer. From managing expectations and disappointments, equipment failure and communication issues we have all risen up to the challenges and are applying what we have learned to crush harder next year! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A big part of the garden work and stepping towards self sustainability was selling at the Newaygo Farmers Market this summer. We made some great connections with local farmers and craftsmen/women as well as made some extra funds. In the spring we focused primarily on baked goods because our produce had not really started producing yet. There was a wealth of knowledge to gain from the other farmers there and I definitely feel like it was a great way to meet local people who are also working on homesteading! We will definitely continue to sell at markets next summer, and hopefully increase our area by selling at multiple markets. Our produce now is going towards canning and preserving for winter for our family. We also tried to do a road side stand but after our free range chickens ate the produce we had out I decided that we would try that next year after we get a more solidified coop area.

Western Ranger Bear and I have so many ideas and things we would love to see happen here at Serenity Valley. When we talk about the future it’s not just that we become self sustainable but that we are able to help the community in which we live. Making our garden big enough to help those in need and to help teach people who want to learn. We want to have a campground in the back by the woods for people who want to stay and try out living off the land. We want to be able to host classes and maybe even a homeschool co-op in the future.We want to build a life that our kids will really flourish in and be set up for success. More than any of that, we want to keep our hearts and minds open to whatever God is asking of us, because we believe that whatever He asks us to do will be even better than what we could imagine. So here is to whatever that is, whatever the goal, whatever the challenge we will continue to crush! More God, more growth and more gravy! 

 

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Chickens. Worth it?

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When venturing into the world of chicken ownership, one of the most common questions people ask is if it’s worth it financially. In this article, let’s break down some of the costs to see just how much money one can save with even a few backyard chickens.

When my wife and I decided it was finally time to get some cluckers, we originally bought 6 chicks. Upon seeing that the feed store had more variety a few weeks later than when we’d originally gone, we felt it necessary to buy 4 more, bringing our total to 10. One egg bound chicken passed away later and we were gifted 4 more from our friends with a 10 acre farm. Our grand total had reached 13. Then, most recently, we found some Ameraucanas at the feed store. Who doesn’t want blue eggs? 3 more were added to the flock for a total of 16 hens.

Let’s break down the math. Initial investment was, on average, $2.50 per chick. Some were $4, some were on sale for $1. 16 chickens at $2.50 each is $40. Let’s throw another $200 for initial supplies (brooder, heat lamps and bulbs, start/grow feed, bedding, water/feed dishes, etc). And finally, the most expensive aspect by far of owning chickens, the coop. As a builder, I wanted to build a modular coop where I could easily remove the roof, take each wall down as a single piece, and be left with the floor. Giving a total of 6 pieces to move and quickly reassemble whenever we get onto acreage. I built my coop by hand, included 2 large vinyl sliding windows, nice hardware, a melamine floor. Entire cost of the coop build, during the peak lumber price bubble, was just over $700. This coop is large enough to easily fit our 16 hens, and we could fit another 6-8 if we wanted to. But you don’t need something this large or elaborate. Cost can easily be cut into 1/4 of what I paid, even with today’s prices, if you’re planning on having less chickens.

So, to date we’ve spent roughly $940 on our chicken setup, minus the monthly feed and treats. The 16% layer feed we buy runs about $200 for 3 months worth for our 16 hens. That’s $800 a year. Throw in a few bags of grubs and 50lb bags of cracked corn, and we’ll round it to a smooth $1,000 a year to feed them.

This all might seem like an entirely unnecessary expense and not worth it, but here’s where the math starts working in our favor.

We get, on average, 12 eggs a day from our 13 laying hens. In a few months, the 3 Ameraucanas will begin laying, bringing our average to somewhere around 16 eggs a day. 16 a day is 486 dozen eggs a year, or 40.5 dozen a month. Depending on where you live, organic free-range eggs can get expensive. Here in Portland, OR, your top of the line farm eggs will run you $8 a dozen at the grocery store. So, in order to buy the 486 dozen eggs we will get in a year, we would have to spend $3,888. Our initial investment of $940, plus an entire year’s cost of feed, runs us $1,940 for year 1, and $1,000 every year thereafter. We are getting $2,888 worth of free eggs every year once you subtract the cost of feed.

The savings don’t just stop there though. Chickens eat bugs. That’s literally all they do. They eat bugs, poop on everything, and eat more bugs. Those bugs can wreak havoc on your garden. But they don’t. Because they get eaten. You get a larger harvest each year. More money saved.

Chickens, as mentioned above, poop everywhere. Chicken manure is like gold to plants/gardens/lawns. It is loaded with nutrients, and it’s extremely soft. Every day I go outside in our small backyard and blast the lawn with the hose on “shower” setting and the chicken poop just melts away into the soil. Our grass has never been greener than it was last year. You can scoop this manure as well, throw it into your compost, and have the richest fertilizer imaginable. Now you don’t have to buy fertilizer from the store. More money saved.

If you have children, you’re in luck. Chicken watching is one of the most fun things in the world. We have 2 daughters and our oldest loves our chickens. Every day we come outside to play, and she laughs hysterically every time one of the hens flaps their wings, jumps up on a chair, flies down, etc. She loves helping throw handfuls of grubs and mealworms to them, and smiles and laughs when they all come running. It is quite literally free entertainment for children. More money saved simply by letting your children interact with and watch the chickens instead of constantly trying to buy them new and unnecessary things to keep them busy.

As you can see, the financial aspect of becoming a certified chicken bard is well worth the initial investment and upkeep. We eat a ton of eggs in our household (they’re our oldest daughter’s favorite), and we give many eggs to my Mother-in-law who lives a couple houses down from us. so we don’t currently sell any of the eggs we get. But if we wanted to, we could easily make money just from the 16 hens in our small backyard. If we doubled the amount of chickens we had, a cool $4-5k a year from fresh chicken eggs would be easily attainable. Not only are chickens worth it, there is very real money to be made by raising them for either eggs or meat. They are the lowest maintenance animal you can own (just give them food, water, throw some treats and produce scraps in the yard every day, and change their coop bedding regularly), they’re endless entertainment to watch, they provide you with more nutrients than you’ll ever find in store bought eggs, they help your garden. If you’re apprehensive about getting chickens, just do it. It’s worth it in every capacity.

-Woodshop Bear

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