Hello! My name's Stephen, and I'm a boot at Wheaton Labs. This is my first official "boot" post. I'm the guy with a big nose and big sideburns, and who works in the garden most often wearing a funny orange hat.
I arrived in early May 2022 as a SEPPer and stayed for a month in the Love Shack. I'm now a boot and camping up the hill from the Fisher Price House.
Even with only about a month and a half under my belt here, I have learned a tremendous amount and have attempted to take advantage of every opportunity that has come along in an effort to learn as much as I can about regenerative gardening and farming, sustainable building, and permaculture in general. As always happens with such experiences, after dipping my toe in it I've realized there's so much more to know.
This time is also a new "season" in my life, and has brought a number of changes with it. For the past 15 years I'd been working in non-profit human services, primarily as an instructor for vocational skills, though I'd known and wondered about a more-sustainable lifestyle for over two decades. After resigning from the non-profit job, I packed what I could in my Toyota Corolla, rid myself of nearly everything else, then traveled over 2,000 miles and across two time zones to make it happen. My "next chapter" has begun.
I have plenty more to share, and have documented a number of my experiences so far - including why I think a long stay as a SEPPer is a fantastic idea - but I'll wrap for now. Thank you for reading. :)
Portrait, June 2022
My home, June 2022 (the "big blue burrito" is a tarp covering some of my possessions... couldn't say goodbye to all of my books!)
I wanted to add a testimonial as to the effectiveness of the SEPPer program, and how it helped me transition into being a Boot at Wheaton Labs. This isn't an instruction manual, however it is the advice I'd give were I asked by anyone either how I ended up having such a great time so far at Wheaton Labs, and/or how I was able to experience a smooth transition to full-time work here.
For those who don't know, here are some basic definitions.
SEPPer: Someone who's a guest at Wheaton Labs for the SEPPer (Seriously-Excited about Permaculture Pampering) Program. In a nutshell: you're an eco-tourist and you rent one of the pre-existing structures at Wheaton Labs for a certain amount of time, with an open schedule and broad access to Wheaton Labs resources.
Boot: a work intern at Wheaton Labs. In exchange for your labor over 5.5 days, you have free room and board, including three meals a day. After a certain amount of time serving as a boot, you are granted permission to establish a long-term residence at Wheaton Labs through a couple extension programs.
In a nutshell, here are my two main recommendations, followed by two suggestions.
1. SEPP for an entire month. I showed up here one Saturday in early May, and stayed in the Love Shack as a SEPPer until the first weekend of June. I was firmly dedicated to the idea of becoming a Boot, but I didn't blindly jump in to the role. Instead, as a SEPPer I was able to do a few things that better-prepared me for Booting.
I had a chance to meet the boots and Paul, as well as other guests, to gauge the full routine before I was obligated to fully-participate.
I witnessed what the "typical" day was like for a boot with my own eyes, not needing to rely on forum posts or videos or whatever. I was able to make my own judgment. More about this later.
I learned that I could fit in well with the rest of the group, and learned how they socialize and generally get along well with one another.
I ate and occasionally helped prepare group meals and sat in on "community business" discussions about some challenges and conflicts that emerge when living in community (which I personally hadn't done in a while).
When I needed time and space to myself, I was able to withdraw to the Love Shack to do my own thing, whenever I wanted. Nobody hassled me about not doing work, though Paul did ask a few times if I was "bored" because I wasn't hanging with the boots all day long...!
2. While SEPPing, work part-time with the boots. Probably the best thing that prepared me that was still low-impact was to commit to working the first half of the day with the boots. I didn't know much about what was going on for at least the first week, however it still proved to be valuable and very useful in terms of preparation.
All the stuff I'd listened to in the podcasts finally seemed to coalesce and make a lot more sense.
I was able to see the boots in action before I became one, and gained a better understanding of the role.
While working, I toured locations both in Base Camp and the Lab, learning the difference between the two places, making my own judgments about what I observed, and in general learned the lay of (most of) the land.
My morning routine was re-established, and waking up with the sun or earlier became easy again. This also makes it easier to go to bed at an early-enough time to have sufficient rest.
I did my best to build up my endurance and "keep up the pace" with the boots, and then if I needed to I was able to take a nap in the second half of the day (which I admit I did a few times, and it was unapologetically GREAT).
The first half of the day is completely gardening-based, which is what I wanted to prioritize anyway while I'm here.
I see no down side to being a SEPPer prior to becoming a boot, and I'd recommend anyone considering a boot stay to do the same. If you think money is an issue, I'd say it's a worthwhile investment and you should consider it as such. For example, the Love Shack is affordable - certainly considering that all utilities are included - and for me it was a no-brainer.
Were I do provide two more suggestions, these would be them...
1. Work on BBs in your free time. I didn't do any BBs prior to my arrival, and only aggressively started to pursue them starting in my second week (well, as I had driven cross-country to be here, I was still sorting out a lot of my own personal business in that first week anyway). They are useful, enjoyable experiences.
Completing my first one was intimidating to start, but once I did it I became addicted...! I finished over 15 of them within three weeks, and I hope to finish more. I now look at my own custom list of BBs I want to pick up, as well as keep my eyes and ears open whenever boots mention that more are available for completing various tasks.
Personally speaking, I want to attain BBs to "boost my Permies resume." When I eventually move on to a homestead or community, those who I approach will know I can actually do work that will be useful to them and that I'm not just all-talk or whatever. If this sounds like you may have the same or similar mindset, then I recommend you take the opportunity while surrounded by like-minded, motivated folks.
2. Go to town. Missoula is pretty great, in my opinion. I've enjoyed my weekly trips into town, familiarizing myself with the streets and a routine to follow that makes me comfortable after pulling up stakes and heading out here. Of course, a drive by the vegan donut shop also helps tremendously... :-D
Hopefully this is useful. If you made it this far, thanks for reading! :) If you realized a bit earlier that I am prone to rambling, then here's the TL;DR version.
1. Be a SEPPer for an entire month.
2. While SEPPing, work part-time with the boots.
3. Work on BBs in your spare time.
4. Visit Missoula. Eat vegan donuts whenever you're there.
One of the plots I've been assigned at Allerton Abbey has earned the name Swamp Castle. There's a moat in front of it that defeats many of my dry socks.
This is my diagram of what's been planted. anything marked with a ( V ) is considered a volunteer plant.
I'm the new guy, though I'm still excited by and enthusiastic about gardening. The seed library here is full of potential, and has me trying out a few things just to see how they work. The plant that has me most intrigued would be the "Annihilator Bush Beans." We'll see what lengths they'll go to to live up to their name.
Meanwhile, I have some daikon radishes sprouting up here and there...
The volunteer peas are also quite healthy. I had the idea of bending some pine branches into an improvised trellis to encourage their growth. Here's the largest example, which has decided to start flowering already.
I liked this idea so much, and there were several peas already sprouting, so I decided to line the parapet of Swamp Castle with an entire row of tiny pine trellises. I've applied this technique elsewhere at the Abbey, to the point that they've earned their own acronym: TPT.
To wrap up today's attention at Swamp Castle, I added sunflowers and beets to section D. We'll see what decides to cooperate as the season continues. My diagram will be updated in a later post.
Tomorrow we'll be gardening at Basecamp again. When I first started as a SEPPer, I was assigned to remediate a hugel that had been adopted multiple times by people who didn't stay long. In summary, the hugel was rather neglected. I started with basic mulching and removal of grasses - I earned a BB through these initial activities. Later on, when the boot and garden leads realized I was going to stick around and wasn't a complete idiot, they invited me to plant stuff on it.
So here's my diagram for Basecamp II. I've tried a wide variety of plants on this hugel.
Some factoids regarding this hugel:
It's south-facing and is in the wind almost constantly.
It has a significant challenge with drying. Removing the grasses was key to reducing moisture loss.
I've added slabs of tree bark along 90% of the paths, which help with traction while ascending and descending. It was Dez's suggestion, and I rolled with it.
There's a relatively new nectarine tree near the upper-right corner of this section of the hugel. It seems healthy and looks to be taking well to the area. I added a small dry-stack wall behind it to hang on to the soil behind it, and it's still standing after a week. :)
Meanwhile, Dez, Jeff, Caleb, and I finished up a significant engineering task earlier this week. Here's a photo of "Bob," a counterweight suspended on a steel cable perhaps 60ft long. Bob will serve as a balancing weight to counter the buffeting effect of winds that will hit a soon-to-be-installed tent covering in front of the classroom/workshop.
On Thursdays, we're gardening at Basecamp. Another hugel I've been assigned to work with is a massive array of four hugels in a row. It's a very "Zone One"-ish area, just outside the front door of the House.
Here's a photo of how things looked on my first day assigned to work on the hugels I call "Basecamp I." There are four photos in sequence, from north to south.
In this photo, you might see the comfrey and the mint in the lower section. There's also some red clover hidden right along the top of the hugel at the fence-line.
This photo is also already outdated, as the section in the middle of it has been completely overhauled. I removed the snowberry and ornamentals, since Paul pointed out, "I don't see anything I'd want to eat." I took the hint. Later photos will hopefully be full of daikon radishes and some purple chard, among other cover crops.
There's a lot of potential here, and I hope to keep its momentum rolling. Here's the diagram I composed to keep a basic record of what I'd planted in the early few days of planting. As per usual, I grabbed random seeds from the shelf and planted them wherever it seemed reasonable.
I dropped some potatoes in the ground since I had done well with those in my old town last year, and figured I could come up with some quick wins with them, right along the lower sections.
The asparagus in section H has a bit of a long story. To sum it up, Paul's pleased that they've persisted, and I'll be damned if it's gonna die on my watch. Fortunately, they seem to be fighters and after an initial scare (they disappeared for a couple days after we added more soil to the hugel) they could be doing great regardless of my assistance. As it happens, the three stalks do have a rather notable (read: "unusual") appearance...
PS: Don't tell Paul this, but I do have some asparagus planted over at the Abbey as an insurance policy...
To wrap things up... The hot season seems to have sprung on us this week. I'm assigned to soil sampling at Basecamp. In general, things are dry after two arid days of no rain and conventional summer temperatures. Most of the hugels received jugs of water and a spray-down today. A few outliers seem like they're well-watered to the core. Here's today's record: