Let it Rain!

This past Saturday Mia got the Big Rain garden in! Planted with over 125 native plants (purchased with help from Sprout and Bird!)from the upper midwest like Cupplant, Milkweed, Fox and Palm Sedge, and Goldenrod it will be gorgeous next year when it starts to bloom. From a sustainability side it’s 200+ cubic feet of space will hold almost 1500 gallons of rain water to slowly percolate down into the aquifer instead of carrying the poison runoff from my neighbor’s yards into our creeks-combined with our 3 (soon to be 5) rainbarrels and the 2nd smaller rain garden we are saving 2200+gallons per event. On the house side of the raingarden, and across the path to the backyard we have another 50 native plants including Yellow Confelower, Butterflyweed, New Endland Asters and Ox-Eye Sunflowers to nicley background our 3 rainbarrels for the west end of the house. We hope to turn this garden into a show and tell for local governments on the feasibiltiy, versitility, and beauty of native ecological gardening. Still have to plant the borders, but it is gratifying to see the progress!

Our Pea plants are now 25-50% taller than they should be according to the packets. This is wonderful-as the harvest should be stellar and the amount of nitrogen rich biomass is impressive. The down side is my attempt to use left over brush to trellis them, which was a great idea, was woefully inadequate for the amount of weight of the uber peas-next year I will use bigger sticks-or if the stars align, grow my own bamboo! Even though shelling peas is slow work due to my poor technique, the kids love it-bonding at its best! The tomatoes (all 15 of them!) are coming in strong-putting on a ton of stalk strength in addition to almost an inch of height a day which is encouraging. The difference between a 1st year garden and one with a full season’s green manure crop turned in is encouraging. And as a repeat of last year, my seed start transplants are beating the greenhouse ones by significant margins.

Remember that giant mound of sod from my prairie planting that I was letting compost down? Well some of the pumpkin seeds from last Halloweens decorations made it into the pile as well and I got some volunteers. Compared to the pumpkins volunteering on the flat land under the trees these are unbelievable vigorous. Leaf size is easily 100% larger- with some measuring almost 16″ diameter and vine length is also more than double. In Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemingway discusses the German technique of growing melons on earth mounded over rotted brush and yard waste to achieve better growth in a process called hugelkulture, literally mound culture. I am certainly seeing the same benifits-the sod mound warmed much faster than the flat earth with its south facing allowing the vines to start weeks earlier, and the composting interior is a hive of microbial activity freeing up immense amounts of nutrients for the pumpkins. Further more, the vines have cascaded down onto the kiddo’s sunflower house, and instead of crowding out the flowers, those ‘covered’ sunflowers have tripled their height benifiting from the shaded roots and wind protection. This bodes well for my 3 Sisters modification of swapping in sunflowers for the corn.

Stay posted for a how to on rain barrel building now that I have a source on oak casks from a local brewery!


Mia and I have a dream. One day we will own a little piece of land-more than 2 acres, probably less than 15. While we have had this dream for almost 10 years now, we are getting closer each month to actualizing. Spent yesterday pricing land, which was depressing, so I need to blog to reconnect with The Plan.

Our brand new home is appreciating nicely, and I have converted half the backyard into my own sustainable farming institute. In my 1/8 acre of paradise (just ignore the freeway for a minute) I am perfecting seedling starts, prairie restoration, windbreak creation (with guilded cover plants), fruit, carbohydrate (sunchokes) and nut crops, worm bins and rain gardens; even living playhouses for the kids made from sunflowers. I have even started trading produce with my local coffee/sandwhich shop to practice marketing. There have been several set backs (the 3 sisters debacle of ’05 still stings), but ruining 100sq ft of corn is better than losing an acre… which is exactly the point. Thanks to E4 and others I am learning by example and have upped my agri-reading to about 200 pages a week: all things sustainable and contrary. Mia’s support is invaluable-she makes the highs possible and the lows manageable. I need to work on my animal husbandry-since chickens are out in the city limits I will most likely have a peck of Angora Rabbits by summers end-I need the manure and the animal element is missing in our permaculture. Plus it will allow me to work on handspinning!

With the land purchase less than 3 years out (need to pay off the 2nd mortgage and the cars-at least the credit cards are dead) it is time to start getting even more serious on the planning.
We have all but committed to building our own because the price of those old ineffecient homes is ridiculous. So here is the loose plan (very high level) that I tweak almost daily.

The House: Small and green
~Passive solar is essential, so it will also almost certainly be a ranch layout 2 rooms deep with a thermal mass wall running the spine of the house. Depending on the site, I will most likely bury the back half-not entirely, but up to about window line so we wtill get light and cross breezes. Anything above grade will have straw bail construction for the wicked R-value and sustainablity, under grade and will be stone work-either rammed earth or Earth Bricks.
~Exterior. Banking that by build time PV roofing will be better, if not the roof will be a wicked cool water catchment system running to large (5000+ gallon) cisterns on each side set into the ground to mitigate temp changes. I like the versions of the Earth Ships but our Someday house won’t look like we bought it from Uncle Owen on Tatooine.
~HVAC. I am really stuck on this one. I need to build without one to pay for the cisterns, appliances, and energy production, and the passive solar with a woodstove will heat our ‘small’ (15-1700sq ftish) floorplan, but how do I cool it? WI will go thru 4-8 weeks where the temp never dips below 80 with high humidity so the thermal mass factor is out for the summer. I am currently set on a radiator system pulling from the cisterns, but not sure that will work. The alternative is a basment bedroom…
~Interior. Will look fairly contemporary, but we will use many of the Green Building pratices: no VOC paints, uber effecient appliances and fixtures etc using LEED certification as a guide-looks like we are Gold at first blush.
~Power We will almost certainly be intertied to the grid because I don’t like batteries, but with a power surplus. Wind will be critical, I like the Whispers, but the new African Power units would be a nice to add in for low wind conditions. Both would augemented by PV on the house as well as crazy effecient appliances, especially the computer and fridge. We have already cut our power use by 25%, but have a long way to go.

The Farm: Small & Sustainable.
~Contrary. Taking a que from Gene Logsdon and the myriad micro farmers out there I will go by the adage that smaller is better. 5 acres or less means possibly no tractor, or at least only a very small one. This keep costs and inputs way down a more foot time in the fields means more intense gardening (no better fertilizer than a gardener’s shadow!).
~Permaculture Just like the old days, but with a better marketing campaign, the goal will be no inputs-all the farms needs will be produced on site, or sourced very locally. Water from the Barn roof waters the animals, chickens eat fodder from the locust and pine nut trees planted to shade the coop, etc. This means very careful crop and animal choices. Intense composting and functional use of animals-chicken tractors, hog rototillers, sheep mowers, etc will be critical and very, very creative farm design-again why we need to start from scratch.
~Vegetarian This is where the whole profitablity part gets hard. We refuse to kill our livestock-though I am not going to go crazy on farmers that do. That means function stacking the critters Big Time-raise sheep that can be sheared and milked for instance. I currently like the Icelandic: multi colored (no dyeing!) and primitive so the need much less care. Finally, we have an active 501C3 from Mia’s animal rescue and will likely start up a farm rescue which could lead to some interesting tenants-pot bellied pigs would rototill the fields for me and make manure and be a nice tax shelter while saving them from an untimely demise.
~Crops. After picking 2 quarts of strawberries a day this past week I now know that I won’t sell strawberries for $2.50 a pint, same goes for peas-too labor intensive. I love fruit though, so we will have U-Pick strawberris, raspberries and blueberries. Other market veggies will be there (peppers, tomatoes, etc) and I might focus in on melons as they seem to get a good price around here and I love them. Perrenial crops will be high on my list-fruits, nuts, and sunchokes do to the low inputs and reduced labor (no tilling/planting-less weeding/fertilizing). Will probably have a small orchard of mixed fruits-heirloom apples and some Paw Paws. I am also looking into growing contrary plants for our fodder-Quinoa and Amaranth. Both have leaves that are edible (unlike corn) and neither needs thresthing (unlike wheat). Sizing of fields and pasture etc needs MUCH more research.
~Adding Value Everything I have read so far points to adding value to your crops as the way to making micro farms work. Strawberries get $2.50 a pint here. But take that same pint of berries ($2.50) and make a dozen muffins and you get $12. More work, sure, but not 5x the work. If you are selling tomtotes to the coffee shop putting muffins in the back of the car just makes the trip more profitable. Same goes for wool, eggs, milk (cheese) etc. Also there seems to be a need to ‘Go to the Farm’-we did this for years. So we intend to make the farm itself a destination-sunflower mazes and encourage the kids to pet the sheep, hold seminars on raingardens and organic gardening for the adults. Finally if I have any time left I intend to have a service business installing eco-gardens and building rainbarrels-the local brewery sells used oak barrels for $20-and I can make them into a rain barrel for under $40 total-Gaim sells oak rain barrels for $200, plus $50 shipping, mine would be $75-100 to your door, installation as an additional option.

The end goal is to reduce our need to be plugged into the work-a-day world, and replug into the eco world. Still LOTS of details to fill in, and thanks if you read this far. I needed to remind myself that we really are on track. Off to the library with this weeks requests!

Pop goes the Garden!

We just returned from an amazing 5 night trip to Alaska where we hiked and sea kayaked (post with Pics to come-probably on Mia’s blog) to the most amazing sight-our garden ‘popped’! Our biggest fear was that we would miss the peak bloom of our perrenials and our peak strawberry havest. No worries-see our perrenials below, and we are getting over a quart of berries a day!

$10 Compost Bin

Recently when surfing my preferred site for all things Reel Mower: Clean Air Gardening I saw a reasonably priced wire composter that was wasy on the eyes. It was still $60, but it looked incredibly easy to make. So off to Menard’s I went with a rough idea of what I wanted. The following list will allow you to make 4, 15 cu ft bins for under $40 (yes you read that right!):

1 48″ x 50′ roll of 14 guage vinyl coated fencing ($26)
2 10′ pieces of 3/8″ rebar ($2 each)
1 roll of 2 mil black plastic and some zip ties to hold it on with ($5-10).

Assembly is child’s play!

1) Using tin snips, cut the fencing into pieces about 11-12′ long.
2) Using a hack saw, cut the rebar into 5′ pieces
3) Find a level spot at least 4′ square to place the bin.
Builder’s note: It is absolutely vital that this spot be level!
The wire has very little support so the weight of the compost material must vector straight down or your bin will literally fall over! It is not necessary to ask how I know this…
4) Form a large (about 4′ diameter) cylinder with the fencing and weave the rebar thru the seam to hold it together.
5) Using a blunt object of some sort (hammer, flat shovel, large rock-not your hand) pound the rebar into the ground to hold the bin steady while you fill it.
6) Wrap the black plastic around the bin and secure with a few zipties-careful that the fencing seam doesn’t tear the plastic.
7) Poke several dozen 2″ holes in the plastic to let the bin breathe-but not so many that too much light gets in to kill all the good bacteria. If you are Type A-cut pretty squares out to match the squares in the fencing. If you are a farmer living in a subdivision use your finger after you wrap it on.
8) Layer in all your favorite compostables in 2-4″ layers alternating carbon and nitrogen layers.
9) Go have some good beer with all the money you saved!

If you don’t need the extra capacity, and really want to save money-use the 40″ fencing-a 50′ roll was under $10 and after building the 48″ bins it looks like that extra 8″ is overkill. 44″ would be ideal if you can find it. The bins are pretty invisible, and should be easy to turn-just pull out the rebar, unwind and move the bin, and refill!

My only concern is the black plastic-if anyone can think of a more eco-rrific/reusable thing to use to block light and trap heat let me know! Landscape fabric would be more reusable and you wouldn’t need to poke any holes, but still seems wasteful.

Permaculture in Action

So I had huge hopes for my ‘spring’ bed. This was the one that got annihilated by the rains of June ’05 that I had resurrected for 06. I planted it with radishes, spinach, 30′ of lettuce and 40 row feet of peas with hopes of freezing plenty for the winter. This was all to be harvested by, well, now and it replanted with the Three Sisters. It seems that I still had some learning to do, as the nitrogen levels, even with some added organic fertilizer was not up to the task. Of the 10 row feet of spinach, I have 2 plants about 5″ tall (after 6 weeks) and the rest sprouted fine, but never got past 2″. The peas started very slow, but now are coming on strong and I have some blossoms-the lettuce is also finally harvestable. Both are probably feeding off the pea innoculant-which is good. I should still salvage a respectable, though late, pea and lettuce harvest and then I plan on turning it all under and shooting for a fall legume intensive cover crop, followed by winter wheat and vetch to build it up for 2007.

Now my second bed is on its second season and was built with all the TLC I could spare last year. Manure, compost, fertilizer and double digging added up to a decent harvest even in its first year. Then I planted a vetch/winter wheat mix to over winter. The cover crop got in late, so the vetch was just getting going when I turned it under in mid May. In the first week of April, when I was planting peas I had a dozen left over so I tucked them into the last 3′ of wheat in the expectation of turning them under in a month or so. I never did-the peas loved it there. The wheat acted as a nurse crop-protecting the seedlings the first critical weeks from spring rains and winds. Then as the wheat grew, so did the peas-and trellised right up the wheat. Now I understand the soil in this bed is better, but these peas are absolutely flourishing! This November I will sow peas in right before frost along with a light sowing of winter wheat. If they survive the winter this would be the perfect winter cover crop-soil building and edible!

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