The Barefoot Friendly Project; Transforming Harsh Land

If you are going to walk barefoot in Texas, you better be tough.  The entire State is determined to poke, stab, slash, burn, bite, and scratch you.  My daughter and I are both barefooters.  Yes, you’ve probably seen that in a few of the videos.  Being barefooters, we know every inch of our homestead with an intimacy you’ll never get wearing shoes.  We know exactly the condition of the soil, where it is ‘safe’ and at what time of year (yes, it does change).

My passion has been to create an ever growing radius around the house that is barefoot friendly.  This is hard-core land reclamation.  We have just about every type of non-existent ‘soil’ you can imagine.  Some areas are pure beach sand, some areas have the ‘orange clay of death’, and some is simply rock.  If anything is growing there – and there is a surprising amount – it usually has barbs, thorns, or stingers.

My goal in working with the landscape is quite tangible; be able to walk comfortably while barefoot.

I have successfully created quite a few patches of areas that are now officially barefoot friendly.  And as my experience grows I am expanding my efforts.

The main formula I have found that works is using livestock for fertility in rotation on the areas to be reclaimed.  I use livestock in several ways.

In the spring our family grows out a flock of meat birds.  It’s a four month project from pullet to freezer.  We get about 100 meat birds delivered to the Post Office.  We raise them up for about 3 months until they are ready to harvest.  Our family works for a series of Saturday mornings to do the  butchering.  And for our efforts, our family has a source of chicken enchiladas and curries for the whole year.

Aside from the meat, the fertility is what excites me.  Once the chicks are large enough we move them outside.  We first put them in tractors, and as they grow we move them onto fresh areas with portable fencing.  The paddocks up by the barn where I’ve been rotating them each year are now barefoot friendly and almost downright lush.

In the areas where fairly decent grass has been established, the proverbial ‘lawn’, I am now moving rabbit tractors across the landscape to keep it fertilized and healthy.

When the land is almost bare and ridiculously harsh, the chickens don’t do very well, and forget putting rabbits on it.

You know what has worked the best?

Geese.flock of white geese by water pans on grass

Yeah, no kidding.

You have to feed the geese (because there really isn’t anything there for them to eat).  And I rotate them to nicer places with grass from time to time for a much needed break.  But as long as the geese have some big pans of water to splash around in, they are quite content.

Geese are the perfect animal for this job.  They are surprisingly tough creatures.  They are easy to confine, and easy to protect (they are excellent guards for themselves).

But their main ‘gift’ is…  I don’t know any way to say this nicely…  but geese shit all over the place.  Boy do they make an amazingly fertile mess.  My husband hates them for that reason.  God help me when they  get loose and come visit the patio.

Anyway, last year I decided to start working on a side yard area to make it barefoot friendly.  It started out extremely rough.  Mostly sand, a few scattered wildflowers, and an occasional patch of sticker burrs.  I set up four paddocks and started rotating the geese through each.  I would drag around a hose with a sprinkler to irrigate the areas a bit.

June 2014, the ground is very rough.  That white flowering plant is a bull nettle - ouch!

June 2014, about a month after the start. The ground is very rough. That white flowering plant is a bull nettle – ouch!

I kept the geese in each paddock for about two weeks.  I would fill and change the poopy pan water the geese played in once or twice per day.  I move the pans around to encourage equal distribution of the mess.  It would take about two or three weeks in each paddock for a good majority of the area to have gotten drenched in the poop water.  Then I move them to the next paddock.

I found the geese especially loved it if I would turn on the sprinkler while they were in the paddock.  They were just like little kids with a sprinkler.

Comedy, fertility, and ruggedness.  What more could you ask for?

Well, quiet would be nice.  But that is another story and another reason why they are away from the house.

As that first summer of the side yard experiment wore on I was so excited.  With the water and fertility, there was an explosion in growth of sticker burr plants.  This probably sounds worse than it actually is because I took great care to mow them before they even had a chance to think about seeding out.

Sticker burr plants without the seed heads look mostly like grass.  And it got so if you didn’t know better, it looked like a lawn.

No one has been more ecstatic over a patch of sticker burrs than I.  Something is better than nothing.  The ground was getting covered and with every mowing we were adding more organic matter.  The sticker burr plants were loving the goose poop and irrigation.  They were growing like gangbusters.

A couple of very important points: the timing of irrigation and mowing is critical.  You have to keep on top of it.

Sept. 2014 The best crop of sticker burrs you ever did see.

Sept. 2014 The best crop of sticker burrs you ever did see.

And you have to continually keep the fertility coming.  The geese did that part beautifully.

Now for the sad part.

At the end of the summer I moved the geese temporarily to another area to rest on real grass.  And between my suddenly hectic travel schedule and some rains (what? it really rained in Texas?) I did not get to the mowing.

“Please” I asked my teenage son as I dashed out to catch a plane “could you mow the side paddocks?”.

“Sure mom” he said, and I was hopeful.

But reliability isn’t exactly developed in 15 year old boys.  The sticker burrs came out, turned green, and then hardened.

I came back to an absolute ‘no man’s land’.  It went way beyond barefoot unfriendly.  Even if you went in with knee-high boots you would get covered with stickers.

Sticker burrs are wicked.  I wonder if Homeland Security would be interested in using these for something?

Sticker burrs are wicked. I wonder if Homeland Security would be interested in using these for something?

My husband valiantly offered to mow the stickers and try and bag them up.  But there has always been a more than adequate seed bank of stickers in the ground (as I had already proved).  Why bag up and haul off the organic matter?

So I simply mowed the stickers with the mower on mulch mode and decided all the seeds would just have to be more organic matter.

But no way could I put geese, or rabbits, or anything on that land for quite a while.

Before I mowed, I tossed out a bunch of oats, clover, and rye seed (for the winter growing season).  And I wondered what to do next.

I really want to keep adding some fertility to keep the momentum going.  The rye and oats have sprouted and are coming up – hit and miss – throughout the area.  The clover?  Hmm, not much.  I know oats and rye will do much better if I put something out there to give them a bit of help.

The soil is so sandy, I don’t know how long a liquid or even granular fertilizer would work.  Call me backwards, but it just doesn’t feel right.  I wish I had some worm casting tea, but I don’t have enough for that scale of a project.  I do need to get a big bin going like I had when I was living in Oregon – (check out this video I did when living on the West Coast, everyone loves this video on worm farming).

I wish that clover could come up strong.

I wish I had made seed balls (yeah, like I really had time for that).

I wish I could get a thick patch of alfalfa to grow…

And then it hit me.  Even the cheapest rabbit pellets are mostly compressed alfalfa with some minerals mixed in. I wonder if that would be a good fertilizer to use?  It would take some time to swell up and then break down.  It won’t get washed away down the great sandy drain with the first rain that comes along.

And alfalfa is a legendary plant for land restoration.

Now I’ll admit that a lot of that legend is because of the massive root systems.  Rye is also known for a massive root system, which is why I really want to help out the rye that is growing as much as possible.

So I am going to toss out two 50 lb. bags of rabbits feed pellets on the area and see how it goes.

What do you think?  Should I mark off two areas and test one and leave the other as a control and see if there is a noticeable difference?

Drop me a note in the comments area.

And I’ll post an update in a few months with the progress.

Barefooters unite!

Marjory

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Marjory


Contributor

Marjory Wildcraft is an Expedition Leader and Bioneer Blogger with The [Grow] Network, which is an online community that recognizes the wisdom of "homegrown food on every table." Marjory has been featured as an expert on sustainable living by National Geographic, she is a speaker at Mother Earth News fairs, and is a returning guest on Coast to Coast AM. She is an author of several books, but is best known for her "Grow Your Own Groceries" video series, which is used by more than 300,000 homesteaders, survivalists, universities, and missionary organizations around the world.


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20 Comments
  • Sharron

    Burn the stickers with a torch like you would cactus thorns. Works great and will not harm the soil.

    • jackie Seward

      Wonderful article. Now when my husband laughs at me abut bare-footing I can tell him to talk to Marjorie.
      thank you for all that you do for all of us out here trying to make productive areas in Texas dirt.

    • jackie Seward

      Tried that and they still came back

  • Great Grey

    Yep sandburs are a real pain.

  • Mike63Denver

    The incomplete goof off eschewed the virtues of partial fragmentation.

  • Dale Barnard

    Thanks for writing about birthday shoes! We have those nasty burrs in my Austin neighborhood. They’re really the worst as far as bare feet go. They’re an issue for my dog’s paws, too. I like the idea of burning the burrs, but that doesn’t scale up very well. Good luck!

  • Dawn

    I use alfalfa pellets as a cheap organic fertilizer. It can even heat up and burn the plants if you put it on too thick. But it works great. I got the idea after realizing I was spending four times as much for alfalfa meal organic fertilizer compared to the same weight of pellet feed. I did get some volunteer maize and corn out of it, too.

    • Dawn

      I also wanted to add that the nettle will make a nitrogen fertilizer tea and I am planning on trying it myself this year.

  • Sandie

    I actually use alfalfa pellets once in a while to fertilize my garden. I do till them in. Works good to get a lot of nutrients in the ground.

  • Emilie McVey

    I was surprised that you did not mention fire ants as one of the problems with barefooting-it. When I lived in Austin, that was always a hindrance. My sister lives in the San Marcos area, and she’s put those little pests to use: they feed on ticks, and she and her pets are happily tick-less all year round. Of course, she’s not a barefooter….

  • I vote for a control area to see how well it works. Just make it small though, because I think this would work well and you want to maximize your gain.

  • Tim

    The link to the worm video did not work.
    I’d love to see the video, though.

  • Martha Wells

    Yep, grass burrs are not barefoot-friendly. Once had 2 Catahoula hounds that LOVED to eat them, some tough dogs! Rabbit feed might be ok to fertilize your fields, but might make more sense to dump some in your compost. Once given some wet (spoiled) emu feed and it heated up my compost very quickly, giving me lovely finished compost rapidly. Alfalfa really isn’t known to favor Texas summers. If you could find Lespedeza seed, would grow much better, it’s the Southern cousin to clover.

  • Hope Light

    Yes, on using one of the areas as a control. This is a true adventure story, Marjory.
    Love to you and your family and all the animals and plants, burrs included.
    Hope Light

  • d. henry Lee

    Have you tried putting goats or sheep in the lot? They will eat most anything.

  • Cathy

    Hi Marjorie .. That is quite the system you have there with the geese! We have a small family farm in Comanche county. My concern is about fire ants and hookworms . How are u managing the fireant mounds.?

  • Mel G

    We have those longspine sandburs too, and puncturevine, and cockleburs, and prickly-leaved plants like prickly poppy and prickly lettuce. The sandburs and puncturevine are the worst because they’re carried around on shoes, pantlegs, fur, tires, and stiff winds. Our state sells two species of weevil as biocontrol for puncturevine so we ordered some of those last year. It’ll take several years to know if that’s going to help. There’s no biocontrol available for the sandburs however.

  • Dad and I had similar problems, not only was it uncomfortable to walk around the property getting all those stickers, but our dog would come in spending lots of time digging them out of her paws. We would dig out the plants wherever we found them and put them in the garbage. We made a lot of headway there is not as much as when we started, but with it being just me now, I just don’t have time for it. As for the burr clover it is a legume, a nitrogen fixer. I figure if nature wants to help out I’m all for it.

  • Rick

    Slightly off topic: You mention that you have beach sand and orange clay. The sand will just let water pour through before plants can use it; the clay won’t let water in at all. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to mix sand and clay? At least you’d have a consistency that you can work with. I’d wet the clay to make the work slightly easier, throw sand on it and work the two with a rotovator. Then, I’d wet it again, add more sand and rotovate further. Then, I’d start adding goose droppings, fallen leaves or what have you. Another possibility: if you’re able to get lava rock in small particles, it is wonderful stuff to throw into the mix; lava is a sponge and holds water nicely; plants would love it; plus it is itself a great fertilizer. Third possibility: if you have wood chips in abundance, you can put them on a plot; in six months, the lowest level of chips will have turned into soil. That said, the wood chips would suck nitrogen out of the soil too, so that would be the perfect moment to sow the alfalfa that you like and replenish the nitrogen. After that, add the goose “product”, and you can grow pretty much whatever you want.

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