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Ashley Cottonwood's SKIP & Homesteading Blog

 
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Location: British Columbia
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Hello Permies!



My name is Ashley Cottonwood and I'm a long time Permies lurker and recent staff member. I'm a huge fan of Paul's work and have been bitten by the "permaculture bug". This thread is to share and document my journey to becoming a homesteader, a permaculturalist, and my journey through SKIP in order to become PEP1 and eventually PEP2 certified.
I'm located in British Columbia in the Kootenays. The sites that I work with range from zone 3 to 5.



A Little Background...

I graduated from university and moved back to my home town; I had a hard time finding work in my field so ended up working in the tourism industry and living the "ski bum" lifestyle. I felt stuck! I had all this knowledge and no way to apply it, I loved spending time in nature yet could see how my lifestyle was actively destroying the very thing I loved, I wanted to contribute to my community in a meaningful way but didn't have an outlet. My friend suggested going to a PDC; I spent a few months on Salt Spring Island at the Seven Ravens' Permaculture Institute and my life flipped upside down from there. Even on my way home from the course I picked up a box of chicks and was hell bent on starting a composting program... regardless of the fact in lived in a trailer park that most definitely did not allow hens or large piles of bear attractants!

Since then it has been 4 years. I now run an organic market garden, small scale poultry operation, and compost program. I own a "half-acre homestead", rent 5 acres for my business, and help my sister manage and develop her newly acquired 5 acre property. I'm a class E certified poultry operator and raise a small flock of heritage meat birds in addition to my own personal backyard flock of layers. I have a background in genetics and would love to start developing a landrace of multi-purpose birds for the area.



Where I'm Going...

My current projects include re-working my compost program to address the issues of micro-plastics and latent pesticides. I'm working on converting my traditional market garden to more of a "permaculture farm" to experiment with increasing biodiversity and resiliency; I want to become more profitable while doing less work overtime. Luckily, the landowner is also on the same page! She is a permaculture designer and works hard to develop her property into a biodiverse oasis. I'd like to switch from raising meat birds for other people to teaching people how to raise their own micro flocks and process them on their own. There is a growing movement to allow micro-flocks in urban spaces in my community.

My goal is to try and become as self-sufficient as possible on my little 1/2 acre so one day I'm able to take on 10 to 100 acres! I plan help my sister design her property so that I can help her flourish while continuing to increase my own knowledge and experience. My dream would be to create a permaculture demonstration site, similar to Wheaton Labs, with my own personal flair and interests. In the pursuit of land I'm working on being PEP1 certified by the end of this year!



I welcome you to share in my journey; to help me with your own experiences and wisdom, to learn from my mistakes & triumphs, or to simply enjoy cute photos of chicks in tea cups!

I know I'm still very inexperienced; I've chosen a path of throwing myself into the field and seeing what sticks rather than working under someone who is a master in their craft. This might be outrageous but is a decision based on my personal circumstances rather than a belief that I'm better off on my own. So please, feel free to comment, ask questions, and share your own journey!




 
pollinator
Posts: 266
Location: Central TX, Zone 8b, multi-generational suburban homestead
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I admire your resilience in finding land to work on even though you don’t have acreage of your own!

I’ve been trying to help some friends with their own land with what limited knowledge I have but I don’t ‘work’ the land as if it was my own. It’d be a neat idea to offer to do such a thing if I weren’t so busy trying to design and build our own home on acreage right now.
 
Ashley Cottonwood
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Location: British Columbia
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Yes, I've been pretty spoiled actually. Renting the space has allowed me to "try out market gardening" without huge overhead costs: having to invest in fencing (there is 10 ft elk fencing around the whole property), irrigation & pump, tools and equipment (Jang seeder, hand tractor if I ever needed it), wash station prep area, and established 50 ft raised beds. The owner has decided she wanted to take a step back from gardening this year to be able to spend more time with her family so I have access to an additional greenhouse this season too. She grew up on the land so I know it hasn't been sprayed. She's worked hard to build the soil in her gardens with compost, crop cover, and diverse species planting. The beds are located right next to a pond and the ground retains moisture really well.  I'm hoping to move towards a system that doesn't require irrigation, or very little. She now has a live stock guardian dog. She has mini goats to help keep down the weeds and brush. I pay part of my rent by selling the produce and poultry back to her and her family.  

Overall it has been a great experience being able to have hands on knowledge of what it takes to grow food using a more traditional market garden process. Or even just run a business in general. I mean, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before it's fully formed permaculture farm, but it allows me the space to experiment with pretty low risk and investment. Land in this area is crazy expensive! No joke, a mobile home, in a mobile home park (so you don't own the land), was listed for over $330,000! So I'm very happy with my 'practice' zones until I have the skill and resources to take on more.
 
Ashley Cottonwood
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Location: British Columbia
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May Update

So far the market garden season has been off to a roller coaster start...

We had a week of warm weather (Highs of 25C) and then a recent drop in temperature to -3C at night. Lots of people had their plants got frosted. I was really trying to push my season to get crops in the ground early with mixed success.

Things that did fine outside:
- Spinach (covered)
- Carrots (covered)
- Fennel
- Endive (covered)
- My friends super hard tomato variety (covered)
- Cabbage/Broccoli/Cauliflower

Things that didn't do so well:
- Tomato starts in the greenhouse. I thought they would be fine but it is the second time I've made this error. I think I might have placed my greenhouse, at the property a rent, in a cold sink :? There are two different greenhouses with varying degrees of insulation and all the tomatoes died in both of them with the radishes still happy as can be...
- Squash that I transplanted outside because I started it indoors WAY TOO EARLY. I knew it would end badly but it was better than taking up space in my greenhouse. Maybe it will make a come back, maybe not, either way zucchini isn't a money maker for me. I just like zucchini bread.

I also experimented with trying to get an early crop of radishes off by planting them in one of my greenhouses before transplanting my tomatoes & cucumbers. It worked! The only problem was I didn't have any of my market streams set up to sell them because they were so early! Yay for early crops but I need to make sure I'm ready to sell what I've produced (Newbie fail). So far, I've been selling them on Instagram, which is mind blowing for me. A local catering business also likes to grab a little bit of whatever I have each week to add to her "Wednesday Lunch Club" meals.  I'm going to guess there will be some chicken snacks in the future...




Overall I have sense of some changes that I would like to make for next season. These concepts are nothing new, people have come to these conclusions long before me (There's Paul's voice in the back of my head saying "See? I told you so!")
- Move from Market Garden to Permaculture Market Garden/Biodiverse Beds: Instead of 50 ft of one crop plant a mixed variety and harvest whatever is ready/works out. I'm so small scale that I would have to scale up significantly to make "Elliot Coleman" style market gardening efficiency practices really worth my time.
- Direct seed as much a possible for squash/tomatoes
- Transplant all the things and none of the things: Transplant everything in the market garden beds and direct seed everything in my personal gardens and monitor the differences.
- Soil blocking instead of trays: my friend started a greenhouse this year and used soil blocks and it makes transplanting SO MUCH EASIER! No more stupid plastic trays that break all the time.



This is me prepping my garden beds. I peel away the tarp as I'm ready to establish each row. Helps keep the weeds down and earth worms go crazy under it in the fall/winter. Also makes a good habitat for snakes and voles. I then use row cover to protect from frost/hail/insect damage. The amount of plastic required is... depressing. I would like to figure out a way around this. The system has meant so far that I have very little weeding to do and very few issues with pests & losses to frost, but hopefully I can still improve to reduce plastic.



I get wood chips from a local arborist. He knows my preferences so drops some off when he has a load of chips that I would desire. Last years pile I was using in the pathways only to find out the bottom foot of the pile had turned into beautiful soil. YAY! Free soil amendments!



Apple & plum tress are packed with blossoms this season, hopefully we have a good fruit season. My neighbour said it was suppose to be "a good year for her apples"; hopefully my trees are following their lead.



Made a pig run at my sister's place for our families hogs. It's a forested area with a pond/surface well/wallow that hopefully keeps them occupied for a while. We can expand it later in the Summer but right now they are having fun ripping around. I would like to eventually set up a rotational grazing system for them but that will require some planning and forethought.



The meaty birds are doing well... I think. I find the meat breeds more finicky, it seems like half the things your suppose to do for raising meat birds is more like superstition that actual facts. I'm just trying my best to observe them as often as possible and make adjustments as I see them. This year I had 3 chicks with sinus issues. I isolated them for 3 weeks and gave them extra TLC; not sure if it was viral, bacterial, or developmental. They seemed energetic, to be eating & drinking well, and overall happy chicks but they had the sneezes and clearly a hard time breathing through their nostrils. The internet tells me 101 terrible things that are happing to them. My "chicken guru" tells me you would have to send one away for analysis to actually know what's going on so just give them some vitamins and hope for the best. I have Western Rustics. I tried the Mistral Gris last season but I had a painfully awful time with them injuring their legs when they were 3 to 4 weeks old. I was told it was because I let them run around outside too early... but I want birds that can run around outside early. I would love to breed my own multi-purpose landrace variety one day.



So apparently when I'm feeling blue... I order books! I'm excited to poke my way through them over coffee in the morning. I started a thread for people working their way through the "Building Your Permaculture Property" book here: Accountibility Group & Buddies . I've also been listening to Paul's podcasts as I work away prepping beds and transplanting. Gardening + Podcasts = My Happy Place.

That's all for now folks!


 
pollinator
Posts: 49
Location: Ohio river valley Kentucky zone 6b
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Fantastic job on this blog so far! I can't wait to read more! Thanks for letting us following along!
 
Ashley Cottonwood
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Location: British Columbia
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Hello Permies!

Wow, it seems like I blinked and Summer rushed past me! I've been so busy I haven't had a moment for an update! So here is the long over due blog post!



I would say "roller coater" was very accurate description of the season; it continued to have so many ups and downs I can hardly keep track! With record breaking heat, a lot of my greens bolted before I even got a first cutting! I was left scrambling to to pull and replant, leaving my crop plan a mess. I would say it was less of a crop plan and more like "feelings" about what I should plant and when it might be ready to harvest. In the end, there was no record keeping, just panic.



In the middle of this heat waive, I killed my irrigation pump. When I say "my" pump, I mean the landowners' from who I rent from. Which meant I needed to replace it, and quickly! I spent 3 weeks hand watering a 1/4 acre of market garden beds, greenhouses, and livestock. This meant I had no time for weeding, pruning, or keeping an eye on the vole population that ransacked my beets. Luckily, my husband was able to order parts and fix it with the help of the landowner. What I though was going to be a $1000 fix was $150 ... few!



The heat took a lot out of me physically and mentally. I woke up early and worked until noon to avoid the heat. I suck at working in the heat to be honest; I run out of spoons quick! Mentally I broke when my order of chicks arrived half dead or dying. I was livid. They are transported in the cabs of the shipping trucks to make sure the air temperature is controlled,  so I knew whatever facility they were being kept in was way too hot! The company replaced the dead chicks, but the psychological damage was done.  In addition, I shut down my composting program as I couldn't keep up with the maintenance and irrigation of the piles.



On the bright side, I was very successful with crops that I had struggled with before. I had bumper crops of cucumbers, early season carrots, grapes, cherry tomatoes, and summer squash.  I sold out at many of the farmer's markets and had great sales at a local store in town.



The final nail in the coffin of the season was a predator (species still unknown). Over my wedding weekend (yes I got married!) I had the landowner and her family keeping an eye on my flock. Saturday morning they found 3 dead birds, but didn't tell me because they didn't want to stress me out during my wedding. I returned Tuesday to find that half of my flock was missing, over 30 birds. My meat birds are my main source of profit for the season. I was gutted that my fluffy butts where murdered while I was off dancing. I felt guilty for not being there when they needed me. I'm pretty sure that some of them had started sleeping under their coop at night, and all that was needed was someone to make sure they were shut in at night. A simple fix that was missed because I simply didn't know there was a problem.




So where is the silver lining?

I've decided to move from market garden to permaculture project. I'm partnering with my sister to develop her new 4.5 acre property to a permaculture oasis. That means:
- A have a fun new project to plan over the winter
- I don't have to pay rent
- Way less driving, as her location is closer than the previous one
- We can share the work load of raising animals together (alternate who is feeding & watering the animals)
- I get to practice my "permie" skills with my family, who are thrilled about it!

In addition we have built a new greenhouse at our property (photos to come soon!) and plan to add additional raised beds. The focus at our property will be:
- Building soil (I still have to irrigate heavily when it's hot or else fruit trees die)
- Water capture (We plan to have an outdoor shower and rain gardens)
- Turn our mini-orchard in a mini food forest

We plan to grow & preserve food for our family and sell the excess to the local store.

So yes, it's been a season of hard-knocks but I'm glad to still be here and still whole heartedly in love with permaculture!

 
Rebecca Blake
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Posts: 266
Location: Central TX, Zone 8b, multi-generational suburban homestead
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So happy for your successes! Even with the bad events it sounds like a very lovely summer :)

And congratulations on your marriage! How exciting!

For me this summer was a very good one for gardening as we had a very unusual rainy June and part of July for my area of Texas but my garden in all of its abundance was left unharvested because I fell really ill :(

Such a pity, I wanted to try canning tomatoes for the first time this year... instead they all rotted on the vine. Perhaps I should just try out canning on store bought produce first before growing it myself.

Thank goodness moving forward you’ll have a sister who knows how to put chickens up at night :)
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