The Summer of Superweed Hell!

In July 2014 my mentor from Savanna Institute, Kevin Wolz, came to visit, checked the plants and informed me that they were being stunted by the weeds. Furthermore, the weeds happened to be “superweeds”—weeds that have become resistant to Roundup. Turns out these plants (the species I have is waterhemp) can grow 1-2 inches A DAY (!) and each plant has some 500,000 seeds per plant!! Eeeeeeek! Conventional farmers are indeed freaking out about them because Monsanto’s herbicides do not kill them.

The war started by my paying a couple of guys to come in with their weedwackers and fell the majority; but they could not get to the ones right in the rows of plants. These I had to pull up by hand, or, if they were too big to pull, sickle them off at ground level. Then I had to smother the ground with 4-5” of wood chips to (hopefully) smother the stalk root and kill it. Plus, I found that a few weeks after the weeds had been “wacked” (instead of pulled), they grew new sprouts and so needed to be sickled. Thus from the 2nd week in July up until the first snow, I spent from 2 to 4 hours a day weeding and mulching! One positive by-product: I’ve lost over 10 lbs and am really buff!

While I battled the superweeds, my garden did its thang, producing a bumper crop of cucumbers, squash, lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, carrots, beans. Somehow I went through life not realizing that pickles come from cucumbers. Duh. Anyway, I got a recipe for breaded pickles, which Bob made, along with some relish.

One day, working at my computer, I noticed a black sedan slowly backing up down my road, which is a dead end … strange… FBI? CIA? Monsanto? Come to get me…?? So I dashed out and spoke with the driver. Turns out he’s a local farmer who was really curious about what I was doing. I got his number so I can invite him to my open house next summer. Anyway, that prompted me to get a little sign made with my phone number so curious people can call me and stop by. Knowing that little sign would not survive the winter winds, I attached it to a board and some posts. I transplanted a couple of ornamental grass plants my mortgage broker had given me and then purchased some fake red berries and “planted” them in pots to add a splash of color. I’ve come to realize how important it is to me to create beauty as well as a sustainable farm.

The fellow who brings me wood chips brought me some big logs to create some hugelkultur berms. Having placed the logs where I wanted them, I then used my scythe to cut alfalfa, grass—anything green—to pile thickly over the logs. Then I threw a thick layer of mulch on top of the green. Over the many years, the logs deteriorate, resulting in really rich soil! I’ll be planting flowers and/or vegetables in my hugelkultur berms.

Lockie Farm will not have a grass lawn, but instead I’m experimenting with some Irish moss ground cover, and have sown Dutch white clover, which is great food for the bees. “Eat your yard” is the idea I want to convey.

Throughout the winter, as I received more truckloads of [free] wood chips, I would “suit up” and spread the mulch over the ½ acre around the house—my personal “playground.” Got inspired one day after mulching and wrote a humorous essay on the art and science of mulching relating to my B.A. and M.S. degrees.

One very cold day, a new horse-owning friend brought me a trailer load of horse manure. Had to wait a few weeks until the compost in my two big compost bins unfroze enough to add the manure. Manure is like gold to a farmer!

The winter of 2015 was less severe, and, thanks to last summer’s efforts to beautify the property, a little less ugly. Never has the arrival of spring meant so much to me. For the first time (this lifetime), I planted some red tulip bulbs in the fall and was thrilled when they bloomed!

Most of the WPP plants survived the winter. There are some berry rootstocks that are iffy—I’m waiting to see if some root suckers show up. I paid a professional to graft scions (a detached shoot or twig containing buds from a woody plant, used in grafting) onto the fruit trees so that they will bear edible fruit. He then instructed me to pull the mulch away from the rootstocks to prevent fire blight. Yikes!

In May I purchased two beehives and packages of bees. I called out for help to the Central Illinois Beekeepers Club, and they sent Mike Ries to help. Beekeeping is very complex, I discovered, so Mike has agreed to be my beekeeper. He gets to sell the honey, and also gives me some. He’s done such a good job, I now have four hives! So now if someone asks if I have any livestock on Lockie Farm, I can answer yes, as bees are livestock!

Then there was the excessive rains in May and June. The ground got so saturated, it no longer drained (my south border is an irrigation ditch), and I did lose a couple of fruit trees and some berries. The rain also prevented the first cutting of the hay, allowing it to get tall enough to stress the WPP plants.

Dane Hunter is doing some experiments regarding pollination—happy to have him use Lockie Farm for his research. As someone knowledgeable about WPP, he evaluated mine. That resulted in another project—scraping the mulch away from the chestnut trees and sprinkling sulfur around them to improve the pH balance of the soil—another learning experience!

Meanwhile, the hazelnuts that were planted around the border of the farm were being hidden and stunted by the tall alfalfa and grass. I tried to find a machine that could cut around them, but nothing seemed workable, so I am out there with my trusty stainless steel Japanese hand sickle, rescuing them by hand. Japanese beetles caused some leaf damage but did not fully destroy any of them. Next spring I plan to have chickens. I can then knock the beetles into a container and feed them to my chickens!

My first edible crop are the blackberries. Yum, yum! Plan to put up a roadside sign and sell a few. Am also getting some yellow raspberries, also yummy!

The Start of Lockie Farm

I (Marcia Powell) moved into my new modular house on my 20 acres of alfalfa in November 2013. I’m sure you all heard the term “Arctic Vortex” to describe the 2014 winter weather in the Midwest and Northeast. It was indeed non-stop cold and wind and snow. Picture a poor little house and garage surrounded by ugly dirt and mud—no trees, no flowers, no green.

Bob Lawrason, a permaculture designer, arrived on a cold snowy December day. With no trees, there was NO windbreak for the house. Winds up to 55 mph resulted in many shingles blowing off. Anyway, Bob spent a lot of time doing a permaculture design for Lockie Farm. (Lockie is a family name—my grandmother, sister, and niece are all Lockie’s).

I am Case Study #1 (see www.SavannaInstitute.org, Lockie Farm), for Woody Perennial Polyculture. I paid for 2 acres ($5000 per acre—on credit cards, gulp!) of trees/shrubs/berries. Roundup was used in October 2013 to kill the alfalfa, as I was led to believe there was no other way to kill it so it wouldn’t overpower the new plants. But Bob freaked, so we remedied the situation by digging up the top 3” and then putting purchased compost in.

“Restoration Agriculture” by Mark Shepard is a brilliant book published in 2013 about how agriculture should be done. Being on a mission to get farmers enlightened and inspired to start transitioning to this method of farming, I gambled and purchased a case (28 books) so that I could get them into people’s hands—especially local farmers–at a lower price. Sold them all!

The next big event was planting the Woody Perennial Polyculture (WPP—pronounced “wupp”), which occurred on May 10th. I had fun telling people that on Mother’s Day weekend I “gave birth” to 2500 plants! They are hybrid chestnuts (tall trees), fruit trees (medium trees), hazelnut shrubs, grapes, and various kinds of berries mixed in.

I staked out a half acre around my house to be my personal permaculture playground. Ideally I want to grow produce in a greenhouse, but I have to figure out how to finance one. Meanwhile, I ordered a high-quality hand scythe and learned to use it. As I cut a large swath of alfalfa, I wondered how many lifetimes I had wielded a scythe. I then paid someone to rototill the remaining stubble. Next came the double-dig thing. Turns out alfalfa has VERY long roots and is impossible to pull up. So I had to dig and hoe in order to expose the roots such that I could cut them off with clippers. Then I piled a lot of dirt over them in the hopes that will kill them off eventually. Anyway, I counted over 10 steps from starting to dig to actually planting seeds!! Hard work, but I’m hoping it will pay off for this year and years to come. In this garden I planted “CBS” (corn, beans, and squash—the “Three Sisters”–a body can live on these), cucumbers, broccoli, edamame, carrots, lettuce, spinach, and kohlrabi. They produced well enough that I had to donate some to the local food bank.

Given that my poor widdle house has no trees around it, I embarked on the challenge of landscaping. I purchased some evergreens and bushes to be the “necklace” in front of the house. I planted flowers in an old iron kettle and buried it so that it is in my line of sight when I’m working at my computer.

Bob and I attended a number of informal meetings of an environmental group interested especially in improving the water quality of our rivers and streams. Bruce, the leader, had some Bur Oak (native to the Midwest savanna) seedlings to give away to only those who will plant them and turn in a map as to where they are located. They will take 30 years or so to mature, so recipients need to be people who can do things for succeeding generations, which, of course, I can easily do. We received and Bob planted a dozen around the acreage.

Bob took six of the 300-gallon totes we purchased from the highway department at a great discount and transformed them into rain barrels to catch water coming off the roofs. He fixed each one up with a spigot and then camouflaged them with trellis. There were droughts here the last two summers, so it feels good to have these, what with all our plants.

Bob built a special burn barrel in which to make biochar. He sprinkled it around the WPP plants and then we innoculated it with compost tea, which adds microbes and such to the biochar particles, which then incorporate into the soil, enriching its nutrient value.