I think I’ve gone as far as I want to go with my homesteading right now, and I’m walking back certain decisions; remolding my tiny slice of earth (once again) to best suit our needs.
This is an interesting feeling for me – a reversal after 12 years now, of working towards ever-greater productivity. Slowly, over those dozen years, we managed to cram nearly every nook and cranny with edibles, convert too-shady sideyards into duck runs and clay-lined ponds, and (as of last fall) we completely eliminated the lawn.
This year? Call it going backwards – I’m filling in the duck pond and replanting the eco-lawn.
The Pareto Principle
There’s this concept called the Pareto Principle – also known as the 80-20 rule – that basically says, for all manner of things, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
A few examples of the Pareto Principle you may have run across:
- 80 percent of a company’s sales come will come from 20 percent of clients
- 80 percent of the wealth is controlled by 20 percent of the people. (In the US it’s actually 85% of the wealth controlled by 20% of the people.)
- 80 percent of the time, people actually wear only 20 percent of their wardrobe.
- 80 percent of a blog’s traffic is driven by 20 percent of the posts.
Interestingly, Pareto himself was a gardener who developed his principle when he observed that that 20% of the peapods in his garden contained 80% of the peas.
Pareto at Home
I’m spending a lot of time right now asking myself how to apply the 80 – 20 rule to my own domestic sphere – how to get 80 percent of the results for 20 percent of the work and focus on those things that are most rewarding.
I see permaculture, and in particular perennial plantings, as a major way to achieve this. Last year, for example, I literally had more plums than I knew what to do with. Those plums just kinda showed up and begged the whole neighborhood to eat them, so a very good return on time investment.
To this end, three of my 17 raised beds have been converted into a loose hedge of perennial berries – blueberries and currants and gooseberries. That’s three beds not available for annual vegetables, but also three beds I don’t have to worry about planning, planting, and maintaining to the same degree.
But the biggest physical change to the homestead as we look around with our 80-20 goggles on is the duck pond. Yup, that idea was not a winner.
A Brief History of Duck Pond Failure
We started with an adorable little puddle-pond all thickly lined with bentonite clay. It worked – in the sense that it held water and it kept our two (eventually three) ducks happy enough, and with an insane filtration system, it stayed moderately clear. My puddle-pond was briefly even semi-famous!
Well, those three ducks soon became more, so we expanded the pond all the way across the shady side of our upper yard. This kept a gaggle of growing ducks and ducklings happy, but very quickly we began to see pond-side erosion.
A duck’s mission in life is to swim around a pond and shove her bill into the mud at the pond edges looking for worms and slug eggs and stuff. It was obvious to me as early as last fall that my duck pond edge and pondside plant growth was not capable of recovering from the destructive power of our ducks. They managed to modify the pond edges with their dabbling and undercut areas of support for various trees and perennial plants.
The ducks were super happy. I was not.
Between the worrying erosion, the effort to maintain the pond and the filter, and dealing with all the poop that just sorta happened as the ducks walked back and forth across our back patio to get to their pond, duck management quickly became a thankless task. The effort-to-reward ratio was all backwards, even accounting for how adorable ducks are. Ducks were taking 80 percent of the effort, but giving 20 percent (or less!) of the reward. Pareto was not on our side.
Duck Tragedy Strikes, Equation Changes
This winter our duck flock was sitting pretty at 8 ducks, including a handsome drake we hoped would help improve the genetics of the flock. Then, a rather horrible raccoon attack on Christmas Eve took our duck count to 5, all females.
Without a male in the flock, we lost the capacity for a sustaining homestead animal. But the problem, as the permies say, is the solution – and lacking a male, we gained the ability to co-house our ducks and chickens. (You may recall that boy ducks can be quite rapey and aggressive, which is why we had kept the flocks separate.)
We’ve moved the lady ducks in with the chickens, drained the pond, scraped out the bigger blobs of clay, and have begun the process of filling in the pond (“the pit” we call it now) with anything compostable we can get our hands on. If it’ll rot, it goes in the pit.
The ducks are fine – they miss their pond, but they get big tubs of fresh water, and soon we’ll incorporate a hard sided, easily cleanable stock tank into the yard to give them back a proper bathing area. In the meantime, co-housing the birds has gone a long way to streamline poultry maintenance. Instead of two food areas to keep up, two watering areas to fill, two coops to clean – it’s all combined. Manure is more manageable, too, and my patio stays cleaner.
So, all good, right?
The Weird Thing About Change
Well, what’s really struck me is how much navel-gazing introspection it took to be okay with this roll-back, with putting the breaks on our ever-expanding suburban farm. What I’ve described in a few paragraphs with these ducks was a multi-month process of homestead analysis. I think a lot of this for me personally stems from outside expectations about who I am and what I’m all about.
But having made the decision to downsize, I feel a relief that’s just wonderful. It’s like, “yeah, I don’t have to stick with something that isn’t working. I can just change it. And that’s ok.”
In permaculture, there’s a lot of talk about systems thinking – putting together the pieces of the puzzle in an optimum way.
When a system really works, it’s synergy. But when it doesn’t, it’s drudgery. Sometimes I forget that I, too, am one of the pieces – at least as important as (dare I say) one of my ducks – so these systems have to work for me, too.
I bring this up because you may find that parts of your own homestead – or even your own life – are just not working for you. You might even wake up one day and find that a life that used to fit like a glove is starting to rub you the wrong way, like a too-tight pair of shoes.
Maybe you’ll need to do something big: sell a home, say goodbye to a bad habit, quit a job or leave an unhealthy relationship. Or maybe the changes will be so small only you will know their true importance: getting up the courage to say no to a pushy friend, taking the time to exercise, decluttering, stepping back from workplace gossip. Maybe it’ll be as simple as moving some ducks around and filling in a backyard pit.
The point I’d like to make is that if something in your system isn’t working, you can change it.
I know it’s not that simple. Not every problem can be solved with a shovel (though I can think of a few that certainly could be!) Often change is damned hard, and I’m not trying to minimize that at all. But sometimes things are hard – or seem hard – because we hang on to this idea of how something should be, or how we want it to be, instead of just accepting it for how it is. I had to accept that this entire duck pond idea was basically a boondoggle, and that it was my boondoggle.
· · ·
My neighbor leaned over the fence the other day as I was shoveling dirt into the pit: “Betcha feel pretty bad about all that work you did making that pond, huh?”
“Nah,” I answered, “It was just an experiment that didn’t work out. We’re gonna try something else for while.”
And that was the truth.33
M Jarvis says
When I got my ducks I thought it was one of the best decisions I had ever made…
When I got rid of my ducks I thought it was one of the best decisions I had ever made as well….. 😉
That’s hilarious – like what they say about boat ownership. 😉
Eva Spitzer says
Thanks for writing- I was actually planning to dig a duck pond this spring… definitely rethinking that now.
M Jarvis says
I got by with using a cheapo little kiddie pool… it works, you just have to empty it out, hose it down and refill it unlike so much a pond…
And thanks to being lazy, I found out that the ducks can let the cleanliness of the pool get *really* sub-standard if you know what I mean… it mostly depends on how often you wanna mess around with it…
Yeah, I’d rethink unless you have a ton of land and can make a huge pond that can naturally balance. I’m with MJ on this – hard sided and cleanable is the way to go.
Well put. Thank you for reminding us that change, while sometimes scary, can be very rewarding.
Thank you Jill.
Just came in from an afternoon in the yard moving things around. I’m two months behind on my vegetable garden..i.e. never planted seeds…because I’ve been so busy working on other things, namely continuing to plant trees and shrubs. I grabbed some cabbage and kale starts from the hardware store and threw them in the ground. It’ll be OK.
A hawk annihilated my chickens over the course of a couple of weeks. I inherited the chickens, ten of them, with a run that would only keep about three to four chickens happy. They had been free ranging when I inherited them and when I tried to keep them locked up for their own protection, they nearly killed each other. So, a hawk got them. They had long good chicken lives. The eggs were great. Am I replacing them this spring? I don’t think so. At least not this year. They need a better run, and I haven’t had time to build it. My garden and yard is coming along so much better because the chickens aren’t ripping it up. There isn’t poop everywhere. Chickens in the future? Yes, definitely. This year? No. Too much work to do it correctly right at the moment.
Last year, in Year 2 of my fruit tree guild, I was really questioning the concept. Now that we’re in Year 3, things are so obviously coming together that it has renewed my faith in going down the permaculture road. There are enough daisies to be divided and cover a bigger area. The herbs are forming beautiful mounds. The lupines have come in beautifully strong this year and (with a little help) have reseeded. I divided the comfrey in late winter and the new shoots are coming up. A fair bit of clover made it through the winter. I’ve got some tulips and daffodils coming up for my own personal visual interest. Salvia is coming up nicely for the bees. And what did I do this year other than a bit of dividing and tossing some lupine seeds around? Not a damn thing. That area is pretty, it is taking care of itself, and the plum tree looks fantastic. Finally.
I know three years is not long in the scheme of things, but even when you’re trying to build permanent systems it involves doing, doing, doing, doing to get them going…and it takes awhile before we get to the enjoying part of the program. I’m also looking for things that are going to reduce the amount of doing and elevate the amount of enjoying.
Sorry to hone in one one thing, but the comfrey! Oh my gosh, I’m sold. Like, I have the comfrey religion. I am now growing the Bocking-14 kind and I’m going to give it one more year, then it’ll get divided and shoved everywhere! I’ve been making this comfrey gel (same idea as those sunburn cubes I did a post on and put in the book) – and it’s the only thing that healed my severe winter eczema. I’m about to start an experiment with comfrey and licorice root for skin care – if it works it might be the ultimate skin healer. I sometimes poke a little fun at my beloved Permies, but that community is where the really exciting ideas are coming from.
Deborah Hagerty says
I have comfrey that I grow (so I say, I could try to kill it and it would still grow) for my stomach pain and my nugget’s health. I felt like a bird dog on an unexpected romp who suddenly comes upon a family of quail when you mentioned “comfrey gel”
Debs at The Toy Box Suburban Farm in Everett, WA
Comfrey was the first of the “permies, don’t make me regret this” plants. And really, what isn’t to love. It’s Hardy AF. It has beautiful big leaves. The bees are nuts for it. It mulches. It makes magic skin care products. Really. How did this plant get such a bad rap?
My other favorite has become daikon. Not necessarily a pretty plant, but when it comes to improving the soil, it is hard to find anything as easy. It grows big giant roots that break up the ground, then rots there, leaving the ground in much better shape in the spring. This year, without the chickens walking all over it, I will dig some up and ferment them for the winter.
Let us know when you try the licorice root!
Maybe you can grow cranberries and blueberries where the pond is (cranberries in the wetter part, blueberries around the edges).
We are pondering ducks, but the plan is for some sort of tub, with a drain at the bottom, and a “duck-quaponics” system where the water is filtered by plants.
I love the duck-aponics concept! If you set something like that up, will you send pictures? I’d love to see how you make it work.
this was really terrific – thanks. *thinks about a lot of things* i think the best thing was that you learned a lot. and that is never wasted energy, right?
“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other ponds.”
That’s how it goes, right? 😉 XOXO
yes. yes exactly. 😀
*gives hugs* baby, you’re the best!
Anne H says
Excellent post. It’s good to be reminded that we need to constantly reevaluate all our choices. Thanks
I am just starting my day and your words have energized me.
“When something works it is synergy, when it does not it is drudgery.”
This season my suburban farm makes my life seem balanced. My job (Christian school teacher at $800 a month) makes other peoples lives feel balanced. Or maybe that is just their checkbooks that I lend balance to. I’ve always loved my job but I am ready to move on.
If I only consider awake time then my job is (officially) less then 50% of my day, but it sucks up nearly 99% of my life…. I’m sure I exaggerate. I do not want to abandon my students and I worry that my chair will be difficult to fill at that wage (I have zero illusions that I am a valuable asset) TMI! Thank you so much for this moment of “navel-gazing introspection” and the warning about “neighbors looking over the fence” I am ready to do this!
Debs at The Toy Box Suburban Farm (NOT the JrHigh teacher!) in Everett, WA
Thank you Debs. Isn’t it interesting how the expectations of other people play a role in these things? I’ve found with this blogging gig (and maybe you’ve found too) that it’s actually far harder to disappoint people than you’d think as long as you stay pretty honest with yourself and the folks around you. I feel like I manage to screw up, back track, mis-speak, mis-type, disappear for awhile, come back, and generally make a hash of things with a surprising regularity, and somehow it all works out. People are surprisingly kind and understanding. Good luck with your change. I’m rooting for you. (Rooting! Get it?! Garden pun!) 😉
I told the folks over at Root Simple the same thing: I would much, much, much rather read about what didn’t work than just a stream of success stories. I had purchased lumber to build an arbor right before they posted about how the arbor basically invited a whole bunch of rodents onto the roof. Full. Stop. I have tons of rodents in these woods and my place is currently rodent-free. Things that don’t go as planned are where the real learning starts!
My husband is very thankful for this article…haha! The best thing about gardening/farming is that it is a dynamic learning experience, a grand experiment, and hope in the future manifested. Pretty grand really, especially when it allows so much time to essentially play in the dirt. 🙂 This is going to be a very dynamic year for us as we prepare to redo both front and back yards. You’ve given us a lot of food for thought. And maybe convinced me that a duck pond on our tiny lot isn’t the best thing for us right now. Keep up the good work and enjoy the new eco-lawn!
Thanks Veronica! It’s all a big experiment. That’s the only way to look at it, I think. Good luck with your garden redo – very exciting stuff!
I think it’s a valuable lesson that you did not throw out the ducks with the pondwater, so to speak.
I’m learning in my own life that when something doesn’t work, or at least isn’t perfect (gasp!), there’s no need to scrap the whole thing. I get frustrated when I find myself (once again) stuck in the trap of believing the original plan is the only picture of success, and deeming anything different as “less” somehow. The only solution seems to be to give up entirely. But that’s wrong.
And Man! There’s a lot of freedom and happiness on the other side of that kind of thinking!
Oh, and yes, ducks are perfectly content with kiddy pools, which are ubiquitous and free for the asking.
I do adore the ducks. Yesterday I was out there, watching them all try to crowd into a tub of water about the size of a cookie tray. They’re so peaceful and charming. And I totally get trapped in the tunnel vision of a “big idea” – so I know exactly what you mean.
I think it can be especially hard to admit failure or the need to refactor when you’re a blogger who’s written about everything so publicly.
Here’s hoping this change works out for the better.
I’m approaching our chicken adventure this year with the awareness I may very well hate animal husbandry once I actually start doing it. I’m giving myself permission in advance to say it was a failure, but I really hope it isn’t as I’ve been fascinated with livestock for years now.
Re: refactoring while on stage: yup, you nailed it.
I think your family and chickens will be a match made in heaven.
Lisa Steele says
Great post. We’ve always just used a kiddie pool and horse trough for our ducks, but this spring I want something more permanent…now I might reconsider. Because you’re right, they’re perfectly happy with a big tub of water..or even a dog bowl of water!
Thanks so much, Lisa. Always an honor to see you. 🙂 I’m now pretty convinced rigid, easily cleaned wall tubs are the way to go, unless one has the space to build a huge pond with way more carrying capacity than the ducks will ever use.
Nancy Sutton says
I’ve been wondering how the duck saga was going… I know the richness of their poop in and out of the pond 🙂 Now I wonder how you’ll ‘efficientize’ the frequent tank draining (got to utilize that fertilizer 😉 …putting in a drain? … putting it on a ramped elevated platform so drain empties into a bucket? or digging a bucket-size hole beneath the drain? or using a quick-connect hose at the drain? Or ? (isn’t this half the fun of DIY … who need Sudoku puzzles 🙂
How will you utilize their slug eradication talent? They are valuable in not tean’t aring up the ground… and are a good source of animal fat, if we can’t manage a pig… sometime down the line, if you catch my drift 🙂
BTW, thanks for doing all the ‘research’ for so many of these (apparently) brilliant ideas, and saving us the learning curve 😉 I.e., I think your bentonite research is priceless… it is useful in so many ways 😉
My best lessons usually come from doing something the ‘wrong’ way…. but think of all that good exercise. I can’t tell you all the stuff I’ve ‘tried’, only to undo. But, sometimes the ‘fear’ of having to undo it, generates a lot of dithering, while I try to see into the future 😉
Thanks for this. I was pondering your last post, and I realized what I liked about it (and many of your other writing), is your nerdy and honest follow-up on your projects/ideas/methods. Trying things out, and finding out what does and doesn’t work is the only way to learn. I think we’re all often guilty (especially in the day of social media) to show everybody the things that went right but we learn more from the things that didn’t.
I expanded/rearranged one of my vegetable areas this year, but it didn’t actually get bigger, it mostly got a bit smarter. I haven’t quite brought myself (or needed) to downsize yet, but I can see finding ways to make it more efficient, and transitioning to perennials etc. to lighten my load when I get older or want to pursue another project.
Awesome post. We’ve wanted ducks and a pond for years, here in Portland suburbia (we had some years ago while on a farm in Davis, CA). I hadn’t thought about the dabbling and pond edge. I like your idea of tubs : ) I also love how you tied into de-cluttering other aspects of life. So so true. I’m going to read up on the permaculture community – didn’t know about that. I’ve been only planting perennials for a while, only way to go. And I’ve been trying to re-think our raised beds out back to figure out what that magical 20% is! Blueberries are definite winners (though we had a scorch virus 2 years ago and had to rip them out, but replaced them with resistant varieties. I’m intrigued by your comfrey suggestion too! Awesome post.
And this was goats for us! It just didn’t work.
Amy Ha says
Great article – thank you for sharing. Do you use rainwater to fill water buckets/tubs for your animals? I use the rainwater off our metal barn roof for the animals, but am hesitant to use the rainwater off the 3-tab roofing of our house and am curious on your thoughts on the subject.
This is going to be one of those only partly-helpful comments, but I wanted to mention I recently read an article citing research into the quality of water collected off of the so-common asphalt roofing (focus being that so many people are adding rain barrels and wanting to use that water for irrigation of edibles) and it found that the water is fine compared to other typical suburban water sources. I can’t find the reference now! So, like I said only partly helpful but that was my takeaway from the reading, at least.
Great post, Erica! I like to view most things I do in the garden as a big experiment, and I always learn something. Sometimes it is a bit more difficult to swallow the “failures”, when there has been a big investment in time and/or money, but it is better to just move on.
As a reader, I so much appreciate your honesty, and realistic approach! We are all out here trying to find a balance in our lives, and it is so helpful to know that everyone struggles in their own way.
Thank you so much for everything you put out there! Wow, a moment of reflection and I realized how incredibly much I have incorporated your information and perspectives into my own home and garden. I wish I could have you over for cocktails (or mocktails)!
I had good luck with a stock tank with a ramp. I would dump the tank every day in a different spot in my orchard to use the duck poop in the old dirty water. It’s weird the way ducks prefer to poop in their water. They really enjoyed the fresh cold water and were great fun to watch playing in the fresh water. Duck life is still good with a stock tank.
And this just as we’re considering getting ducks!
We wouldn’t want to mess with a duck-pond, though. We have a flowing ditch (it is NOT a stream – streams are govt-controlled waterways that you can’t modify – but it is a ditch that only has clean-running water that overflows from the spring, so… functionally, a stream.) We were thinking about widening a section of it so that the ducks could do their thing, but most of the mess would be contained by nature. Alternative: there’s a swampy section of our land that got cleared and is currently basically a mudhole with no ecosystem (great….), but it DOES have water flowing… if we get a permit to dig a hole in there, it’ll turn itself into a natural pond in a year or two. Then, ducks.
Given your expeirence with ducks, does that sound workable? And less effort than a fake duck pond?
I love your post…I identify with you and your life’s changing on so many levels. Thank you for sharing.
Pine Ridge Homestead
Bill W. says
I’ve found that livestock tanks are the best small duck ponds. Bury one in the ground, pipe the drain somewhere downhill so you can clean it on occasion, put pavers around the edge. Very little maintenance. Natural ponds are a nightmare with ducks. Rubbermaid 300 gallon tanks are perfect for up to a dozen ducks.
Rachel Hoff says
I can completely relate. Ducks were a HUGE mistake for us altogether and after just a few months we were done with them. Same with the rabbits. Granted, the rabbits were a lot less work than, say, the goats, but it turns out I’m not really a fan of rabbit meat and my dogs refuse to eat it so even a little bit of work was too much. Goats are a TON of work, but they make such great pets and between two dwarf goats I’m getting nearly a gallon of milk a day which is more than plenty for us. Between not having to purchase milk, yogurt, and cheese, the savings really add up. Just the milk and yogurt alone are saving us about $40/week in groceries.
My favorite quote these days: “Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. president. We spend so much time being afraid of publicly admitting failure that we end up twisting ourselves in knots to prove otherwise. WE are not the failure. We learn from it, and get better!
Such Truth and I love your homesteading blog. Best one out there. Here’s to new experiments!
Amanda Launchbury-Rainey Launchbury-Rainey says
I’m so happy you posted this. I, too, am having a rethink this year and leaving my whole veggie plot covered with cardboard and hay while building work progresses. I can redesign while soil improves and I don’t have to negotiate diggers and builders. Tough choice but I can stop feeling guilty!
Claudia Casebolt says
Many years ago, when you were still a baby, my daughter was born. She absolutely refused to take a bottle so that I could return to work part-time when she was six months old. I could not leave her with no food source so I let them fill my position (that was being held) where I had worked for many years. But, we were $500 short a month so I did need to bring in some money and I decided to sell Tupperware because I could take her with me. I was really troubled about selling plastic because I had always avoided plastics in my own life. A friend of mine said to me, “Isn’t it nice that you can change and be flexible in your life.” and she was right. Thank goodness I could, just for a little while, shift my values around a tiny bit so that I didn’t go nuts. I no longer have plastics in my life (we really know how bad they are now) but for two years I was able to be flexible and keep my baby with me to be the sort of mom I wanted to be. It is wonderful to see you realizing that same sort of thing and knowing that these decisions are not black and white. You will be able to be flexible as you see fit for all of your life.
Charlie@Seattle Trekker says
Loved your thoughtful introspection, something I will carry with me through the day and ponder a bit more.
Amen ! To honoring your own life and your own timing. One of the best decisions I ever made was to quit high school. That seems counterintuitive but I was in a school that didn’t care about my life or needs. I was horrendously bored and so I often ditched and read encyclopedias and the college textbooks that I bought at yard sales.
I didn’t “quit”; I was self-homeschooled!
Anne R says
Wonderful post! I didn’t know the 80/20 thing had a name. I’ve recently realized that the effort I put into some things (like turning the compost) is no longer part of the reward. You’ve inspired me to be ok with changing the way I do some things.
This is very much how I felt about my goats. I loved them and in a different , more acreage life, I would have kept them. But they became drudgery for me. It is all an experiment. I love my chickens and will continue to keep them and be happy with an ever growing garden and NOT feel like a slave to the life we had created.
OH and RACCOONS SUCK!
I LOVE this article. I just embarked on ducks. Only wanted a few but ended up hatching them out in an incubator and much to my surprise out of 18 eggs, 16 hatched. No big deal, as they are all cute, small and easy to care for. Well as yo know they grew. I sold a few off and thought I was ok, but I soon began to feel overwhelmed with the amount of work and mess. I have 53 acres and lots of room so I decided I should dig a huge pond for the ducks. Had my son dig a couple of test holes and found clay and was super happy. At the moment I have my ducks, now down to three, and two geese which I acquired as guardians and pets in a predator proof coop in my barn.. I have kiddie pools outside for them and netting to keep them safe until the geese are bigger. A week ago I was talking to my neighbours who incidentally all have ponds, and they have been losing their ducks and geese to a mink. It’s moved in and takes out the ducks and geese from under the water. I instantly have a tight chest and sick feeling in my stomach. It would be so depressing to go to the work to build a huge pond only to have it be a source for predators to get my birds. I finally decided to back pedal and rethink how I wanted to manage things, but felt this immense pressure on myself to fulfil this dream of having a pond. Almost like I would be disappointing someone, in some way to change plans and figure out something more suitable. Now I know it’s ok to change plans, even if it means I get rid of my ducks and just have my two geese (which are imprinted on me) . I don’t need to feel guilty for not going crazy and forging ahead with something that just doesn’t sit well with me anymore.
I’ve rambled on here and may not make a lot of sense, but it was so great to read your experience and how you view everything that happened and where you’re at. It’s all a learning curve and none of it is a waste. And it’s OK to change your mind 🙂