Animal Tracking

A track trap we laid to capture chipmunk tracks. We got some mice, too. No one wanted our peanuts–the chipmunk actually hopped over them. These critters had an advanced palette, preferring locally sourced pine nuts from the pinon pines. Photo courtesy of one of my classmates, Kurt Thompson.

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

I just returned from an amazing five-day sojourn in the mountains, at the Windy Springs Preserve, in which I learned the basics of animal tracking from a pair of wonderful teachers, Jim Lowery and Mary Brooks of Earth Skills.

Tracking is the kind of skill that you can easily spend a lifetime, or two, developing. Yet it is also possible, with good teachers, for even a neophite like me to pick up a working knowledge of the art over a couple of days. By the end of the class, I was able spend an enthralling hour tracking a cottontail through a maze of sagebrush–all by myself.  Over the course of the class, I was fortunate enough to see the tracks of deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes, cottontails, jack rabbits, grey squirrels, chipmunks, kangaroo rats, foxes, mice, snakes, horned toads, lizards and beetles. We also got to practice tracking people, which is a lot of fun.

One thing I particularly appreciated about this class was that Jim and Mary encourage you to use your intuition as well as the “hard skills” of print identification, precise measurement, gait recognition, animal behavior, etc. For me, this was rewarding–and intriguing. It took tracking out of a purely left-brain zone, into a place of deep connection with both the animal and the landscape.

You can down load a free pdf on tracking basics from their website.

Tracking and Gardening

Now that I’m home, it strikes me that some of these skills I learned could be useful in the garden. Most anybody with a garden has had a moment when they wonder, “Just what kind of critter is digging holes in my beds?” or “Who is eating my cilantro down to nubs?” With my new knowledge set, I can answer these questions by setting up a track trap.

A track trap is an area of soil smoothed flat to capture animal tracks. In this class we used two methods: one was to drag a big, flat sack full of dirt (for weight) across stretches of open ground to smooth and compress the soil. When made in the evening, these clear spaces catch the prints of any animals that come through overnight or in the early morning. The results the next day were often spectacular–a clean, written record of the night’s activities. You may have seen this type of trap occur naturally on the bank of lake, or on a beach, or on a clean stretch of ground after a rain.

The other type of trap made by dusting a thin layer of dry clay on the rough side of a particleboard sheet, and then arching a piece of something flexible, like thin metal sheeting, over the board to protect the clay bed from wind, birds etc. If positioned correctly, these traps catch the tracks of smaller creatures–rodent types–very neatly.

If your garden topography allows it, you could drag clear the area around your beds in the evening and see what prints might show in the morning. The Internets are full of track pictures that you can use to identify your particular culprit. You probably already have a few guesses about who it is–it would only take a minute of googling to find out the difference between the tracks of, say, an opossum and a skunk. Or a feral cat and a raccoon. Even if the prints are not particularly clear, you can often tell a lot just by their size. Websites with track ID pictures come with notes about standard measurements.

Once you know for sure who is causing the mischief, it might be easier to come up with solutions for how to protect your garden. For instance, you could look up advice from your local Integrated Pest Management program, like the one offered by the University of California.

Note: If you’re in the market for a good tracking book, I can recommend the book we used in class, The Tracker’s Field Guide, written by one of the teachers.

Podcasts for the Urban Homesteader

Let’s face it, mainstream radio programming, both talk and music, stinks. Podscasting democratizes the medium. Anyone with a microphone and laptop can make and distribute a podcast and, while quality varies, there’s a huge amount of excellent, highly specialized programming available. So should be on the iPods of urban homesteaders? I’ve got a few suggestions:

Survival Podcast
We just appeared on this podcast, which is hosted by Jack Spirko. Jack is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to gardening, permaculture and a host of other topics. His listeners, many of whom now read this blog, also know a lot about the subjects he covers. And, refreshingly, there’s no conspiracy theories on the Survival Podcast, no need to get out the tin foil hat. I highly recommend this podcast even to those who would not think of themselves as survivalists.

SALT: Seminars About Long Term Thinking
This is a series of seminars put on by the Long Now Foundation, headed by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stuart Brand. As, I believe, urban homesteading is a kind of long term thinking, the topics of these talks should be of interest to readers of this blog. Make sure to listen to the episodes that feature Nassim Taleb, Wade Davis and Philip K. Howard.

KCRW Good Food
Hosted by chef Evan Kleiman, Good Food explores the diverse food cultures of Los Angeles as well as tackling national issues related to the food system. Kleiman explores these topics with a sense of humor.

A Way To Garden with Margaret Roach
I learned about this podcast from the folks at Garden Rant who pointed out that there are very few gardening related podcasts. Perhaps most good gardeners are allergic to spending time in front of a computer? I enjoy this show, though those of you in places that have “winter” will get more out of it.

The C-Realm Podcast
OK, I’m a bit on the woo-woo side of things, to be honest. The C-Realm podcast is a very professional and thought-provoking show hosted by “KMO” that delves into everything from permaculture to zombies. It’s kind of a thinking person’s Coast to Coast AM.

The Kunstlercast
Author James Howard Kunstler’s weekly rant about the mess we’re in. It would be a real drag if Kunstler weren’t so damn funny. While most would call Kunstler a “doomer” I’d point out that he offers plenty of solutions–pedestrian oriented design, rebuilding our rail network, etc.

Boot Liquor
A greater danger to the future of our great nation is, I believe, not fossil fuel depletion, but instead the watered down “country” music coming out of Nashville in the past few decades. We should worry more about Miley Cyrus than turbulence int the Middle-East, in my humble opinion. Boot Liquor is an internet radio station not a podcast, but I thought I’d include it since it’s the musical soundtrack of the Root Simple compound. Boot Liquor plays real country music, songs about boozing, driving big rig trucks and raising hell (sometimes all in one song). If you’ve got iTunes you can find Boot Liquor amongst the country music offerings.

At some point we’ll get around to creating a Root Simple podcast. In the meantime what podcasts do you listen to?

Organic Gardening Magazine Tests Seven Different Potato Growing Methods

Doug Hall, writing for Organic Gardening magazine, did a test of seven different potato growing methods: hilled rows, straw mulch, raised beds, grow bags, garbage bags, wood boxes and wire cylinders. His conclusion? Raised beds worked the best giving the highest yield. Some of the other methods worked well too, though I wonder about black materials, such as grow bags, in our hot climate.

The last time we grew potatoes we used a stack of tires. Results were mixed. I think painting the tires white to reflect heat might have worked better. For most of you reading this, the opposite would probably be true. Black materials such as tires or grow bags would help keep your ‘taters warm in cool climates.

Read Hall’s article here: “7 Ways to Plant Potatoes

And let us know how you grow your potatoes . . .

Grow Biointensive Videos

I’ve often threatened that our next book would adapt the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders into a vegetable gardening guide. Obsessive/compulsive? Here’s how you plant radishes . . .

Wherever I fall in the diagnostic manual, the vegetable gardening method I’ve used for the past few years has been based on John Jeavon’s “Biointensive” method as described in his book How to Grow More Vegetables. This past weekend I made the pilgrimage to Jeavon’s Willits, California headquarters to drink the Kool-Aid at the foot of the master and take a three day Biointensive workshop.

The Biointensive method involves growing compost crops, double digging and tight spacing. Jeavons aims to produce a complete diet in as little space as possible while maintaining soil fertility with few outside inputs. Unlike most garden gurus Jeavons backs up his ideas with meticulous research which draws on his background in workplace efficiency.

He’s also generous and “open source” with his techniques. The workshop was reasonably priced for three full days of instruction. Should you not be able to get to Willits, Jeavon’s non-profit Ecology Action has produced a well made series of instructional videos that you can view online here. I’ve created a playlist of the complete set of these videos below:

Now, I’m so fired up from the workshop I’ve got to get away from this computer and out into the garden!