Ensemble Homestead Site Update - Q1 2023
Table of Contents
For one reason or another, I’ve become very interested in permaculture.
For those who don’t know (like me, a short time ago), permaculture, defined by co-founder of the practice, Bill Mollison, is “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions rather than asking only one yield of them.”
That’s a bit theoretical, so a more practical definition of “what is permaculture,” to me anyways, is a way of living and designing our lives in such a way like Bill said, to work with nature versus against it.
It’s about designing our lives as a system, understanding the flows of what resources we need, what waste we create, and what we can give back in abundance to the natural systems that are supporting us.
It’s all this that Annie and I are adopting and applying to our own home in San Antonio, TX, where we live well within city limits, but on a (relatively) larger urban plot at .54 acres.
I’ll talk more about just exactly what is permaculture in the future. But for now, I’ll introduce why we’re even interested.
Motivations — Why Do This?
I can trace where I am in my thinking now to a very pivotal conversation I had with Paul Hawken in late 2021.
Most memorable from our conversation to me, was when Paul explained the importance of “finding out where you live.” This was an incredible, unexpected answer to the question: what’s the one piece of advice you’d give anyone who wants to leave the world a better place than they found it.
So, getting into permaculture and applying all that I learn is my attempt at “finding out where I live,” like Paul suggested. As well, many of Annie and I’s conversations have led to the ideal of localization. What’s more local than your own backyard?
I’ve always intuitively felt that the more I learn about anything, the more I come to enjoy, care for, and appreciate it. And so, pursuing permaculture and coming to deeply know what’s all around me in my backyard I’m finding I appreciate and see more of that hidden world around me that Paul describes.
Already, a switch has flipped. I’m seeing more butterflies, caterpillars, rolly pollies, toads, spiders, and wildflowers than ever before. Perhaps everything here now has always been here, but I can tell I’m surely seeing more than I use to. Whether we look for it, see it, or not, everyday there’s awe all around us.
Self-Sufficiency & Sustainability — These are two sides of the same coin. It feels good to Annie and I to gradually provide for more and more of our own basic needs. Something feels very natural about learning to cultivate your own food, water, energy, etc.
It likewise rings more sustainable. Returning from the grocery store with tons of plastic bags and packaging feels quite wasteful. Being able to buy whatever produce, goods, etc. no matter the season doesn’t exactly make sense. And thinking seriously about how far our food travels just to get to our plates kind of hurts.
So, tactically speaking:
- We’ll be planting a food forest to over time meet more and more of our fruit and veggie needs. We will also add small livestock in the future.
- We’ll be establishing rainwater harvesting mechanisms to work towards using only the water that we’re able to retain on our own site.
- We’ll be setting up renewable energy systems and focusing on household energy efficiency to minimize the impact from energy use from our household as much as possible.
Health & Well-Being — Continuing first on food, the United States has developed an abysmal track record. We have the highest pesticide and herbicide load of anywhere, we’ve depleted our soils which dramatically affect the nutritional profile of our foods, and it’s very difficult to buy packaged goods without any seed oils. I wanted to get closer to my food.
Also, getting my hands dirty feels good. Like I mentioned before, knowing how to grow food feels very human.
And, since Annie and I can now say we’re the parents of a 1 year old, we’ve likewise thought about how living this way might be impactful for our son. No fault of my parents, but there’s many skills I didn’t develop as a kid that I’ll be excited to share with our kids; growing food, planting trees, capturing rain, identifying plants, and more.
Beauty & Abundance — Annie and I both want where we live to be beautiful. It’s the reason we bought the house we did in the first place. It’s an older home, plenty of internal updates needed, but the outside is almost completely covered by a beautiful oak tree canopy. It’s what sold us.
We want to take this to the furthest extend possible—plant more native plants to support the local wildlife, mimic what we see in our natural areas, really, bring the natural areas we enjoy so much closer to us.
On this point to, we know that a beautiful, thriving ecosystem comes from a healthy ecosystem. And so that’s why tactically we will:
- Focus on soil health as a priority. Healthy soil is the foundation to a healthy ecosystem.
- Plant native plants to our ecoregion that support birds, pollinators, and more.
- Further create conditions for a wildlife habitat to make our property a welcoming space for as many creatures as possible.
Resiliency — Climate change is no joke! And so, we both want to do our part in reversing this trend (the Ensemble Homestead isn’t the only permaculture project we envision for ourselves), but as well set up our own home to be as resilient and adaptive to what conditions we might expect for the San Antonio area.
This, is why many of the things mentioned already (rainwater harvesting, renewable energy, food production, etc.) feel even more important to us.
Our area of Texas is quite susceptible to drought so when flash flood rain events happen we should make the most of every drop.
It’s also quite hot here (surprise) and only anticipated to get hotter. So, in whatever ways we can, we want to create a microclimate that makes our home better adapted to the hotter days we might well experience in the future.
And of course, alternative energy systems are critical as Winter Storm Uri of 2021 really shook up many resident Texans like ourselves. With a Govenor like Gregg Abbott, you need to take things into your own hands!!! I suppose you could say that’s freedom in a backwards kind of way?
Education — I’m drinking from the fire hose of permaculture and ecology right now. I’m enrolled in an online Permaculture Design Course provided by Oregon State University and at the same I’m working on a certification to become a Texas Master Naturalist. In my typical style, I’ve bought more books, field guides, and trainings than I’ll ever be able to get to (Annie is rolling her eyes right now. 🙄)
This means digesting tons of resources, applying what I learn on our own site, and learning from the many mistakes.
But, maybe more importantly, I’m hoping to use this experience to share what I learn with others (like you!).
If you, like me, share some of the motivations I listed above then I hope to support you on that path to achieving them.
If you’re interested in living more self-sufficiently, sustainably, and creating beauty and abundance where you live for yourself and the planet then I think you’ll be able to learn something valuable from my various successes (and failures) to come!
I’ll do my best to share with you what’s most important to pay attention to along this journey, where to even begin, and how to make things easier.
I do think more “sustainable living” fails to catch on beyond a certain point because it can seem like such a burden or sacrifice.
What we’re doing here is focusing on creating abundance where we live.
Progress Update — April 2023
Most of these updates won’t contain such a large preamble, but since is the first a little more context seemed appropriate.
I’ll try to make these updates fairly consistent sharing what went well / got done, takeaways, and what’s next.
Thematically, it felt this quarter was about observation. Don't get me wrong, we took a lot of action (more on that below), however lots of time was spent watching and learning about the site. Thanks to the resources I've been digesting and programs I'm involved in, I'm gaining the skills for knowing what to look and watch for.
Here we go:
What Went Well / Got Done:
- Native Plants Inventory — We added 22 different species of Texas Native Plants to the site. The majority of these native to our specific ecoregion in Texas (the Blacklands Prairie). And, we sowed seeds for 1 additional species of another Texas Native Plant. With each species I dig my best to find the exact conditions (sun/shade, soil, etc.) in which I thought it would thrive. Not always easy, or perfect! But hoping that ensures a much greater survival rate for everything we purchased. Plants aren’t cheap! 🤪
- Constructed Berms N’ Basins — A tactic for slowing the flow of water down on a marginal slope I learned from Brad Lancaster (see more resources), Annie and I dug and built 5 Berms N’ Basins with plans for 3 more in our front yard. These are where we planted many of the 22 species of native plants mentioned above.
- Dug First Sunken Garden Bed — This was a ton of work! Given San Antonio’s semi-arid climate and sometimes sparse rainfall, we chose to go with sunken garden beds for our ‘food forest,’ versus no-dig raised beds. Man, I wish no-dig raised beds were the best solution for us, because the job would’ve been far easier. Granted, this was from research, not experience (yet), so we’ll see how things go.
- Planted First Garden Bed — In that sunken bed we planted a variety of fruits and veggies, some transplants, some from seed. We planted marigold, potatoes, blueberries, clover, sugar snap peas, green beans, leeks, and a mandarin tree. We picked a few things randomly first (our son eats tons of blueberries) then looked up good companion plants for those.
- (Started) Yard Revitalization — We want to retain one grassy play area of our yard for kids (and me to be honest). But, what we had was 1) not drought tolerant or native 2) not comfortable to sit/play on 3) mostly noxious weeds. So, we started that project by laying down an initial base of woodchips, then cardboard, more woodchips (free from Chip Drop), and a top layer of compost to kill what’s underneath and set the stage for the native Buffalograss that we’ll be seeding in May(ish). Going back in time, I would’ve done this differently laying cardboard and woodchips first as early as I thought about it. We laid that first layer of wood chips because I think we felt an itch to get started with something.
- Watched, Observed, Watched, Observed — I spent a lot of time observing the site. I imagine I will continue to do so, too! I watched for where we had sun poking through the oak tree canopy so that I could best plan understory plantings. I watched the AM/PM sun/shade. I went out during the few times it rained and took videos of how the water ran down our property, where it collected, and where it ran off our structures. I dug into our soils at different spots of our site and noticed the variance in composition, moisture levels, and life (worms, grubs, etc.). This has been invaluable to making decisions about what to plant, where, and for what reason. This is what helped me to make various sketches and maps as to what I hope the site will look like.
- Native Landscaping Books — I’ve been religiously looking up plants, seeking ideas for what plants do well with what, and trying to match my site conditions with the right native species. I’ll be honest, it’s been a lot of work! But, I have found a few resources that have made it smoother. I’ve been VERY surprised with how many exotic plants nurseries will sell, and, how many exotic plants nurseries will say are “native!”
- Watch, Watch, Watch — I’ve been really amazed with how much more I know about the different sections of our half acre that I didn’t know before. The concept of “microclimates,” hasn’t made such sense to me until recently. If you’re wondering where a good place to get started with something like this is, just watch what’s happening on your property. Where is the sun? Where is the shade? What’s the AM/PM balance? How does that differ in winter, spring, summer? Does water collect anywhere during a big rain event? Is there anywhere water is leaving your property (driveways)?
- Collect Cardboard Now — If you ever want to do a lawn revitalization project and want a fresh start, start collecting cardboard now. Laying down a layer of cardboard (then mulch) will suffocate whatever grass/weeds are growing beneath. This is a great way to start fresh with your new lawn. While you can buy rolls of cardboard, I thought it would be a good idea just to collect the cardboard we received from packages and boxes we had from our recent move. We collected carboard for months and ended up with a tiny amount relative to what we needed. I had to enlist neighbors in letting us use their boxes destined for the recycling bin. Not a bad solution, but wish I started collecting more boxes, earlier!
What’s Next (Q2, 2023):
- More Native Plants — I don’t believe the #’s will be as high as this last quarter, but I believe we’ll be adding some more natives to the landscape before our prime season for planting our woody perennial plants in San Antonio (because of summer heat) ends at the end of April.
- Plant Inventory — I’ll be taking an inventory of everything currently on our property to better understand what we already have, what might compliment those existing plants nicely, or anything we need to look out for with any exotics.
- Compost Bin System — We’ve been doing bokashi composting for a while now. However, I want to have a bigger composting bin system that I can add my fermented food scraps (from the bokashi) to. I’ve been digging a lot of holes in our yard because of the bokashi and I want to keep my hole digging to a minimum!
- Finishing Covering & Seed Yard — I’ll need to finish covering the yard with carboard, mulch, and compost ASAP. I’m pushing this project into maybe a shorter timeline than is ideal, but if I need to reseed my grass in the fall or next spring, that’s okay. Our son is only 1 so we have a couple years buffer until it’s needed for serious play.
- Finish Berms N’ Basins — We have three more berms N’ basins to construct to complete (for now) the slightly sloped piece of the front of our property. Excited about this as we’ll move into more of an observation/monitoring stage for this project to see how all the water catchment systems perform and as well how the plants fill out. Ideally, if we’re to plant within those newly created basins, we’ll need to finish that before May 1 to get the native perennials we want in there.
- Dig + Plant More Sunken Garden Beds — The first sunken garden is just one of many to come to complete the whole design of the food forest. I’d like to add 2 more over this quarter and plant those with various late spring/summer vegetables.
- Add a Rain Barrel or Two — This year is supposed to be a wetter one for San Antonio as the climatalogical conditions change. Let’s hope that’s true! So, I’d like to be able to install a rain barrel or two for spots we’ve identified to make the most of the rains we do get and give ourselves some supplemental water for summer irrigation when needed.
- *Maybe* Start Fence Project — This is a major project to come, but one we’re very excited about. We want to make the property a bit safer for front yard play (dang crazy drivers!), add privacy, and expand the space our dogs (and future chickens) can roam. We’ll see if this is something we’ll be able to dig into so soon, all time/cost considerations included.
Whew! That’s a lot for such a short amount of time (I know), but we’ll see what we make progress on. Annie and I each have more traveling this quarter, so that my cut into our weekend work and require more weekday tasks out of me.
Of course, there will (most likely) be things “accomplished” this quarter that aren’t listed here. This work isn’t exactly about sticking to some rigid, fixed plan but having fun and pursuing curiosities.
Annie and I are wanting to take this “hobby” a little more seriously, but not in a way that makes the hobby any less enjoyable.
So! Maybe we’ll get a birdbath or something too and see how adding water to our landscape brings more wildlife. :)
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