Permaculture in Practice: Produce No Waste

I’ve mentioned my under-the-window compost bin before. It sits just outside of our kitchen window, making it possible. in theory, to simply open the window and toss any kitchen scraps directly in, rather than maintaining a compost pail inside the house that has to be taken out regularly.

This is a view of the compost bin taken through the kitchen window today in the snow. When we first built the bin 10 years ago, we thought we might possibly be setting ourselves up for a rodent problem, having it so close to the house. As it has turned out, we don’t see many critters in it other than chipmunks (and one summer a mess of voles, but they did not stay long). We compost way more than we did when the bin was in a back corner of the yard, because it is so convenient. No one is tempted to just quickly clean the compost bucket into the trash to avoid walking across the yard, and there are no more complaints about a compost bucket sitting on the counter.

Here’s the problem, though – I’ve subverted our carefully planned compost system by having too many house plants.

What started out as a couple plants has grown into a miniature forest. It is no longer possible to open the window without knocking one or the other of these lovely friends over. I’ve subverted by own carefully planned and previously-very-effective system. I would move the plants to improve our access, but this is the only south-facing window in the house and they are very happy here. Time to come up with a more creative solution, but until I do we are getting clips of me like this on the trail cam.

We’re still composting, which is good, but I’d like to get back to a time when I didn’t find myself tiptoeing barefoot through the snow. And here is my warning – when you come up with a system that works for you, try not to be your own worst enemy by breaking it!

Permaculture in Practice: Catch and Store Energy

The second principle of permaculture is to catch and store energy. What does that mean? We’ve gotten so used to having energy appearing in our houses without any real effort on our parts that we seldom think about what energy we might be simply throwing away.

When permaculturists talk about cycling energy, a few examples often come up. Capturing rain water. Composting kitchen scraps. If you’ve seen any of my “compost cam” Gardener Visitor of the day posts, you know I’ve already got those covered. We have a compost bin directly outside of our kitchen window, so scraps can be thrown out as soon as they are generated in the kitchen. This was essential for making composting work in our house, where my husband is not a fan of keeping a compost bucket in the kitchen. Directly next to the compost bin is a rain barrel that is hooked in to our downspout. Since we get 40+ inches of rain here a year and do not have a dry season, most of the water for our veggie garden comes from this barrel.

I wanted to challenge myself to dig a little deeper this year. What other sources of energy do we throw away? Part of permaculture is thinking deeply about the space around you and finding the particulars of your own site and processes. What sources was I missing that weren’t listed out neatly on all of the permie sites?

When I found one, it seemed so obvious that I metaphorically kicked myself for not realizing it sooner.

We have a solo stove campfire ring that we like to pull out for fires with friends in the backyard. It’s a nice way to spend the evening, and was especially welcome during Covid. Because it is the only thing we use firewood for and we only use it for a limited amount of time each year we generally buy bundled firewood from the grocery store. But we always struggle with kindling.

This year as I was putting my fruit tree branches from the annual pruning on the curb for municipal pick-up, I realized that I was essentially throwing away a lot of energy that the trees in my yard had worked hard to produce. What could I use them for?

Kindling of course. Instead of throwing them on the curb, I got out my little handsaw and spent an hour or so on a nice day sawing the branches into solo-stove-sized pieces. Now we have a small pile of kindling next to the deck ready for the next campfire, and several more bags tucked in a corner of the garage for when these run out.

A little kindling waiting for a backyard fire

The rest of the prunings were used as rudimentary trellises for peas to grow up in the veggie garden or buried at the bottom of the new garden beds in kind of a mini hugulkulture. They will slowly break down at the bottom of the beds and release their nutrients into the soil.

This is the first year I haven’t had any branches to put on the curb in the spring. Now to just make a habit of doing this each year…

Garden Visitor of the Day: Spring

Although the temperatures here are still in the 30’s and 40’s (0-5C), signs of spring are here. Although the trees are still bare and many of the plants are behind, others are starting to green up. And the first baby bunnies and chipmunks started showing up as of last week. The baby bunny (bunnies?) seems to be hunkered down under our rain barrel and is making 20+ appearances a day on our compost cam. This doesn’t bode well for the vegetable garden, which is just in line of the camera, but may help justify the money I spent on a spring/summer CSA share this year. I’ll grow for the bunnies, and Westridge Organic Farm will grow for me.

Clip #1:

“Hey kid, get back here!”

Clip #2:

“Oops! Maybe not!”

Since this is a blog not just about cute critters, but also about supporting the natural world in our own yards and spaces, I want to mention some of the plants you see in the videos.

To the left of frame, you can see daffodils. They provide not just a welcome flash of color in the spring when Wisconsin is still pretty brown, with its life hidden deep inside where we cannot easily see it, but also some much needed pollen for the bees. I add 50-200 bulbs to our yard each fall, a mix of daffodils, crocuses, mini irises, scillia, hyacinth, snow drops, puschkinias, guinea hens, windflowers, tulips and others. Some naturalize, some grow a few years and disappear, some get eaten by the critters before they ever get a chance to bloom. But each one is a symbol of hope and life.

Just above the daffodils you can see the branches of a black currant shrub. It also blooms very early in the spring and is almost done blooming right now despite the cold temperatures. In a couple months it will be covered in small black berries that taste and smell foxy when fresh but make a delightful summer cordial when cooked with some water, sugar and lemon juice.

To the right of the frame you can see the corner of my compost bin. I’ve bucked convention by putting it right up against my house, just under the kitchen window. That means kitchen scraps can be tossed out the window and straight into the bin as easily as they could be tossed into the trash. There is no excuse not to compost here! Is it advisable to have a compost bin right up against your house? Certainly, most people would say no, and for good reason. They can cause unpleasant odors and attract pests close to your home.

About 10 years ago we decided to try it anyway, and we have not had any major issues. Part of my reason for adding the compost cam was to see if there were critters I was not aware of. I know there are occasionally voles in the bin, but since they never try to invade the house, I don’t mind them terribly and their numbers have never gotten out of hand (perhaps thank you to our resident fox?). The odors do occasionally get bad in the late summer, but adding a good layer of straw or hay solves that issue rather quickly. This might be one of those cases where our climate is in our favor – cold winters and short summers do tend to keep the pests and odors down. Have you thought of putting a compost bin close to your kitchen? It might be worth a look!

Garden Visitor of the Day: It’s All About Sparrows

After we spotted the fox on the compost cam, it took quite a while before the rabbits came back but we could see their footprints in the snow, so we knew at least one was still around. Clever little critters, those rabbits!

But our most common visitors to the compost pile now are house sparrows. A non-native bird with rather aggressive habits, they aren’t the favorite of many bird watchers or native species enthusiasts, but do tend to make friends with little children (and some adults) who enjoy how bold they are in moving in to take popcorn and bread crumbs when these treats are offered.

I try not to think too hard about their habit of kicking bluebirds’ egges out of their nests before moving in to take over, and instead just enjoy their boysterous visits to the bird feeder. When no one else is around in the yard, the sparrows usually are.

Pretty soon they will be making nests, probably with grass and twigs taken from the compost pile that this little one is sitting on. We regularly have half a dozen poking through the treasures there at a time in the spring. They will supplement the grass and twigs with trash they find on the ground to make a rather untidy nest. Whatever works, little sparrow! You’ve got to do what you’ve go to do.