Introducing Midden Part Deux: “L’eau Chaude”

Right.  So the past 2 weeks I was out of country – 6 nights in Victoria, Australia in the Great Otway National Park and then 7 nights in New Zealand 3 nights in Kiakoura on the South Ocean and another 4 getting to know Wellington.  It blew my mind and I am in no condition to post about it yet – still fermenting.  But time waits for no man, and with the leaves falling it is almost past time for me to get my arse in gear and build the second midden.  So here goes.


Introducing my Husky 235. 1.8 hp and I dropped and limped 3000#'s of biomass on a .25 cups of fuel. Efficient? Can I get a Hell Yeah? Wear your safety chaps, the femoral artery waits for no man.


First off, this midden will have several differences.  The first, of course, is in intended use.  This Midden will be designed to produce hot water (l’eau chaude) v. the Methane Midden’s failed attempt to make methane (botched the PH and ran out of time).  Second, this the Midden L‘eau Chaude will be constructed with freshly harvested brush.  That means a few things.  Like I needed to find 8000#’s of brush and that is a bit more than my backyard can supply.   Oh, and I need some new tools like chainsaws.  And finally I need a Big Az chipper.  How does a trailer mounted 27hp Vermeer sound?  It sounds kick ass to me as long as no one goes Fargo…  Renting the chipper for now, but if this works, I can see a huge shredder in my future.  Someone has to figure out how to run these on ethanol and methane, right?  Perhaps…  that shredder runs $8k.

We’ll get into the technical pieces of the  l’eau chaude in future posts, but for now, lets talk through sourcing the brush.  I called some of my friends that own land and was able to secure enough material in no time.  It isn’t hard to wonder why.  Say you own 20 acres, 10 is in woods.  You get a call from a friend who is offering to cull invasives from your woodlot.  For Free.  Oh, and he’s going to use the material to do some Epic Shit.  Done deal.  I have 3 lots that I am working on this week.  The plan had been to drop a bunch of Box Elder since it grows 6-10′ a year here and can be invasive, but that has run into some hitches.  First, they are dropping their leaves, and I need the leaf nitrogen in the Midden.  Second, the main wood lot was cleared of Box Elder a decade ago.  Huh.  So the land owner and I walked his lot and it became very obvious that there was plenty of species still in leaf, and the sources were, if anything, even better: buckthorn and honeysuckle which are wicked invasive in this area.

As we were felling these, I became worried that there wasn’t enough green material in the mix – the honeysuckle especially was only leaved on the ends of the trunks due to the dense canopy, and most of the buckthorn we were dropping was crazy mature – we had some with 7″ trunk diameters!   Looking around some more we noticed that mulberry was still in full leaf and they are a very aggresive tree in their own right.  Out came my new Husqvarna and we dropped several 7″ trees that were leaning over his paths and would become issues in the next decade.  These were limbed up, with the trunk being lopped up for firewood.  tomorrow, at the property where I market garden we will be dropping a HUGE mulberry that is shading a vegetable patch with the same technique: limbs into the Midden, and the trunk wood will be used for space heating.

The honeysuckle, small buckthorn and mulberry look exactly like the shrubby brush that was coming out in the Jean Pain videos.  Still TONS of trial and error to be done here, but it looks like 1″ or less trunk diameter is the money width for composting.  The 3 bins I have going at home were built using 1.5-2″ willow and are far too carbon rich; I needed to add nitrogen at the first turning.  1″ trunks would be a 2 year rotation in a willow coppice.  I have no idea what pushing a coppice that hard will do, but it is likely it will burn it out in 5-10 cuttings.  That said, I was cutting mulberry out of the landowners asparagus “patch” (its .5 acres) that was 6-7′ tall and has been mowed every fall for 15 years.  Those stalk were ideal.  Hmmm, with stalks that small harvesting gets easier.  How about a mulberry/willow/poplar coppice on 12″ spacing and a 25hp straight veg sipping Kubota (sunflower stalks compost FANTASTIC) pulling a two row Gehl sillage chopper…  Those things are dirt cheap on Craigslist as no one uses such small equipment any more.  Huh.

But for now I am focusing on harvesting from the woods.  With about 6 hours of labor in, we have 8-9 piles of brush larger than the dump truck, and Friday I am putting in a full day now that my sawing muscles are hardening and felling a significant amount more.  Tuesday will be the final day of prep, and the rental chipper gets picked up on Wednesday at 7am.  Goal is still for 2 loads, 8000#’s, of green material.  These will go into the plastic tubs for soaking, and then construction begins on Tuesday 10/19!  Pics will be up tomorrow night on the brush hogging.

Can we turn the invasive species of today into the carbon sequestering, energy and food producing fuel stocks of the next century?     Stay tuned.

Be the Change!


15 Responses

  1. SO excited that invasives are coming into your biomass planning. I’ve come to realize that removing invasives just for the sake of removing them is pretty boring and not all that fulfilling…BUT if we can couple that task to something like this, then it seems much more worth it.

    I think the invasives issues are something that permaculturalists tend to overlook…we always claim to be observing and learning from nature, but in reality, there’s not much of “natural” WI left! The plants on the side of the road are NOT from here and NOT part of the native ecosystem that we should be mimicing. If we can target these species first in our search for biomass, that would really be great.

    • Agreed. But I am also coming at this form a practical end. Those invasives grow freaky fast, frickin everywhere, and on denuded land with no inputs. They are Mom Nature’s bandaid, and when Mom talks, you need to at least listen. So if we can use a coppice of russian olive, buckthorn, and honeysuckle to sequester thousands of tons of carbon, then when the coppice plays out, the soil will be healed and ready for an Oak Savannah perhaps. We have 2,262,462,020 (thats with a “B”) acres of conventional ag land, and about 4million organic (Woot!). Healing 2 BILLION acres of soil is gonna take a shit ton of shit. The increasing population and decreasing energy vectors have long since crossed; we are in overshoot — but you know that. Answers need to be practical, foolproof, and replicable.

      We need to talk through this over some beers, but I am not convinced that large swaths of non-resource producing lands are possible (or even moral?) until we get global populations under 3 billions again. To be absolutely clear, I am fervently committed to saving the pathetically small amount of pristine land left in this world. To the point I think you were making – a Methane Midden is a heck of a lot better use of buckthorn than piling it up in the woods and dousing it in herbicide, and I apologize for my rant.

      Larger scale restoration will take place over centuries, in the mean time I intend the heal the soil, feed our children, and try to maintain some semblance of social order. Wish to live in interesting times? Granted.

  2. I would hesitate to characterize invasives as Mom Nature’s bandaid…I think that title should instead go to the many *native* fast-growing and quick-reproducing early successional species. I know I’ve heard you talk about some native shrubs (not willow) that come close to what these guys can do. I guess the question becomes (if we EVER even get to the point when we have DONE enough for the privelege to ask this quesiton): when we run out of invasives to cut down for fuel/biomass, do we replant them as coppice crops, or do we go with some other native. You would obviously have to go by growth rates and energy density, which you know much better than I do…but there’s also gotta be more subjective factor: sometimes I’m just plain scared of invasives!

    The questions of “large swaths of non-resource producing land” is an interesting one that I never really got far enough along that direction of the doom path to think about. Population is certainly an issue, BUT so is biodiversity. As much as I plan to incorporate as much biodiversity as possible in forest gardens and other linked biological systems, our engineered systems are NO match for biodiversity that can be sustained by millenia-evolved ecosystems. This biodiversity needs a minimum amount of space to “hang out” until we get our act together…and I think this minimum is more than we would like to admit. I certianly agree that large scale restoration will take centuries, but this won’t happen at all if a critical minimum “tipping point” in biodiversity is reached.

    However, non-producing land is certainly an issue with a ridiculously huge polulation. That said, I heard a figure today that HALF of all food produced in the world is wasted (either rots on the vine, messed up during shipping, spoils in storage, wasted in kitchens, and most of all just thrown out by consumers). I have yet to verify this figure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is true. And if it is, I am really hesitant to start ramping up production land before these inefficiencies are worked out.

    Whoo, now that I wrote my essay for the night, I think I’ll go to bed…but yes, we do need to catch up. Not sure when I’ll be in WI next, but I’ll be around this weekend for a phone call if you’re around.

    • Here is where the beer part will come in… this is a philosophical discussion, not a practical one at its root. I mightily struggle with the definition of Native. The Oak Savannah was only possible with the regular input of fire from Native Americans, which themselves were immigrants from Asia. Should we restock camels, wild horses, elephants and giraffes which all (or their ecological equivalent) lived here prior to the Native Americans and the majority of our flora co-evoloved with? Again, I am absolutely committed to saving the remnants of native land left, but am also resistant to idealize a past without ensuring the thinking isn’t laden with sentiment for a past that doesn’t match reality.

      I am very reluctant to spend massive amounts of energy to combat a natural cycle (evolution and the dispersal of species – humans are a major geographic event worse than an ice age and we WILL have lasting impact, Nature is trying to compensate for unprecedented loss of species in Her way) without a high likelihood of success – otherwise you are treating symptoms, not the disease.. What are some of the best things you can do for bio-diversity in the 4th world? Teach the rural citizens sustainable agriculture and how to build rocket stoves that use a fraction of the wood. That way one plot of land will stay productive much longer (less slash and burn) and the bush more stays upright since firewood goes farther. But then there is the whole psychological phenomena of using more of a less costly resource (hybrid drivers often drive MORE than they did before they bought a hybrid) which is not insignificant, but has little bearing on this argument.

      My point is that the reduction of resource consumption must come before we begin focusing too much on Natives, otherwise the “non-resource producing land will just be converted back to ag or energy and the restoration efforts wasted. More importantly, in the near term we have a moral imperative to see to the needs of the current 7ish billion, compared to 2 billion in 1927 and we had resources wars back then (WW 1 & 2). It is true that a lot of food is wasted, but the geography of our population (we grow our food in the Northern Asia and America and the population is rather a long way away from there) speaks to some of that, as does the finicky nature of our consumer public. You picked potatoes with me – we threw 50% of the Purple Vikings away due to vole damage – that is what they are counting as “food”. It technically is, but most of us in the 1st world wouldn’t want to eat it.

      There there is the EROEI of biomass v. coal (lets not get into oil its too depressing). Actually, screw EROEI, and lets just talk energy density. Bitumen Coal = 30,000,000 btu per ton, Wood about 16 on average (more for Oak and Eucalyptus, much less for poplar and willow). The world mined 6.7 billion tons of coal in 2008; so at least 13 billion tons of wood would be needed to offset it, and we are already over-consuming our forests. An acre of pulpwood will yield 30 cord on commercial planting on a 20 year cycle, or 1.5 cords per year. We need 13 billion cords per year – above our current forestry use, and that is only to replace coal not oil.

      Of course we need to, and will be forced to, drop resource consumption. But my point here is that we need to find ways to meet our needs (not wants) in the current century as we work to heal the planet for the next one. The choices we make in this century will be brutally hard, with the multiple choice selection being a selection of bitter compromises and hard calls. But there is not enough land for us all to be hunter gathers and if we heat our homes with wood from natural settings there will be nothing left within a decade or so. Better to be planful, even if it means breaking some eggs.

      Jesus, is that a long comment! Obviously I need to post about this. In the mean time, Toby Hemenway does a great job explaining my view in Gaia’s Garden in his sidebar on Natives, I am just taking it out of the backyard and into the large scale energy coppice. One of my winter conundrums to solve is to “guild” the energy coppice to produce food and other resources to augment the energy harvest. Know any edible epiphytes that are Zone 5?

      • We’d definitely need to encourage an expansion of beaver activity. We might even need to re-introduce the giant sloth…oops.

        Good on us, re-introducing the horse, though!

  3. The copse you propose doesn’t include an N-fixer. Would alder be a good idea to add in, or were you thinking something less woody like clover would fit the bill?

    • Black Locust (Robinia Psuedoacacia) is my pick. The wood has as much energy as white oak, the flowers are awesome for pollinators and wicked tasty, and it grows like a weed.

      Baptisa would be my pick for a forb.

      • Cool.

        If you’re feeding compost with this copse, though, wouldn’t the anti-microbial properties of black locust wood put a damper on things? I’ve read it lasts decades in contact with soil, in stark contrast to alder wood.

        I had heard of wild indigo before, but thanks for drawing my attention to it. I might have written it off as purely ornamental, but it looks like a very good compost species. We should be able to learn about this sort of thing from a publication called Forbs Magazine, with an annual listing of the richest soil…

  4. I have also been to NZ 3 yrs ago, found their strong legal attitude to farm pollution (ongoing transition from sheep to cattle) very encouraging.
    Anyhow, back to potatoes with vole holes. Any intensive crop production brings the risk of intensive parasite development.
    Rotation, fallow and ploughing all serve to disrupt the logarithmic growth of pest populations.
    Have readers any interest in growing stalk and fibre crops which have good heat insulation properties?
    Cannabis with lime can produce a load bearing high insulation wall block, for instance.
    In the final equation, might it be that is better for the planet to have a highly insulated dwelling and to sequester tons of carbon as Bog Oak , eg any heavy timber which is buried in waterlogged acid oxygen-free subsoil. (like a long established beaver dammed valley). johnf

  5. Hi Rob…
    Thank goodness you are doing all this, taking pictures, and sharing about it on your blog on top of that. You must never sleep. I’d write more but I don’t want you to spend time replying to me. Just keep posting.
    Good Luck… Best… Bill

    • Bill you are kind, and do more than your share yourself! – Here is my little secret: without driving a chainsaw/harvesting potatoes/composting/whatever all day and working myself nigh unto exhaustion… I CAN’T sleep. There is Epic Shit to be done and my only antidote to despair is action. The world got done screwed up in the last 200 years. Our generation is tasked to fix it. And I gots two kids.
      Time to get busy.

      Be the Change.

  6. Glad you enjoyed nz. I live way south of where you were although the climate is similar – Kaikoura that is 🙂 I’m a Dunedinite 🙂

    The invasives round here are gorse and broom mostly – look spectacular when in flower. I’m not sure about composting them but would probably work if done very hot – they grow from almost nothing! Now if I could find an easy solution to wild onion weed I think I’d be a gazillionaire 🙂

    viv in nz

  7. […] Hot Water or Methane.  Choose One… At the size I was building, I would either keep the methane digesters at 100 degrees (38 C) or heat the water to 120.  I couldn’t do both without separate heat exchanging systems.  Jean Pain had 400 meters of  2″ hose (1200′) so his first 100m (300′) went around the digesters to cool them, and then he had 300m  (900′) of exchanger left to heat up.  I can get an exchanger that big in my piles, but not with a digester in the middle.  Hence the L’eau Chaude pile… […]

  8. […] producing methane and hot water.  Time to do better.  The second Midden will focus on Hot Water (L’eau Chaude) with a dedicated heat exchanger and will be even larger.  Not only that, but I […]

  9. Hello from Winona, MN!
    I am very curious to see how this all worked out. We are on our second year in our off-grid homestead and looking for ideas. You are truly an inspiration and it is delightful to know you are sort of a neighbor. 🙂 I hope I didn’t miss something, I have been looking for the final post but haven’t seemed to come across it.

    Thanks again, Molly and Kenny

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