Latitudinal Thinking for 4 Season Harvesting

-8 (-22 C) air temp, but crystal clear early morning sunshine streaming through the windows. Steel cut oats simmering on the stove and the kids, animals, and I snuggled up reading on the couch in this first hour after dawn.  Perfect morning to be reading about growing food every month of the year in Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook.  I live in Wisconsin.  As this morning so aptly depicts, it gets wicked ass cold.

But what is so vital to be able to get one’s head around is that temperature can be dealt with through slight modification of environment and very careful selection of species. ** Sunlight is the key **.  And that is where latitude – the “sun lines” come in.  I am at 43 degrees north.  That is way up there, right?  Follow the line around the map to Europe and be amazed.  Nice and Marseilles, France.  Florence, Italy.  Monaco.   Shit – I am further SOUTH than Milan, Turin, Bordeaux and Venice.  Of course they get a massive benefit from the Gulf Stream, but there is plenty of sun 9 months of the year to grow a huge variety of crops.  And from November – January (Coleman’s “Persephone” months) when the day length is under 10 hours, spinach, mache, claytonia will still grow if the temp is kept above 20 degrees or so and they are started early enough.  Crops like leeks, kale, carrots, etc can be harvested fresh from the soil from covered spaces (even mulch) in a condition and quality far superior to any root cellar.

As those who track the blog on Facebook know, In the coming weeks I will be building a 12×30 unheated Hoop House in the backyard.  And while it will be unheated, you all know me well enough by now to understand that this will be far more than a sheet of plastic over a garden bed.  Details to come.   I am never going to grow ‘maters in January, but the potatoes and onions in the cellar will go a helluva lot further on the table when augmented by FRESH carrots, leeks, after a crisp, nutrient dense salad of fresh picked greens.  In Wisconsin…  in January.  I have a dream – and its already proven, so its just a matter of building the system and learning the skills.  Permaculture is far from only being about fruit tree guilds and nitrogen fixing under-stories.  It is about finding sustainable ways to feed our society and build capacity for future generations.

Of course, growing under plastic is a transitional technology – plastic is made from oil.  But there are brutally hard truths about the coming decades – those 8-9 BILLIONs of people aren’t going to be fed on our current ag systems as oil gets more expensive– and we have a moral imperative in the first world to get our shit together and stop mining the soil of the developing world to feed our fat asses.  If you are worried about the embodied energy of the plastic consider the facts – it last for at least 5 years with care and used intensely can allow for 3x the harvests from the same amount of space.    Far more important – the additional yield is during the times of the year when most of us are importing almost all of our produce.  If the energy and moral sides don’t sway you – then the added resiliency of your own food supply might.  With careful planning it will be possible to walk out my backdoor 365 days a year (again – in Wisconsin) and pick meals worth of produce fresh from the soil for my family.

I will ever be one to embrace technology and tools to help us transition to a better future if those transitional tools meet my criteria; I will break eggs to make my permacultural transition omelet as I muddle through to find solutions to the problems of our age.

Be the Change.


If you would like to purchase the Winter Harvest Handbook and are not able to do so from a local bookseller, consider clicking through this link to buy a copy.  Proceeds will help us with our work being the change.  This is something I will be doing more of, though I promise to do so only for books that have profoundly influenced my planning or thinking.   Coleman’s book is insanely helpful on this topic – I have read it at least 4 times cover to cover and reference it several more times a year for my planning.
The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses


Energy Descent and the New Reality

Like most of us, I am quite sensitive to the price of fuel and watch its movements with keen interest, and it has not been disappointing of late.  We set a new record for the price of pump gasoline in December last week at $2.93, and have proceeded to break it 4 times since then and we currently sit at $2.98 for the average price across the US.  That is noteworthy, especially considering that this is up 14% from last December, and higher than it was the December before we hit $4+ in the Summer of 2008  and all hell broke loose in our economy soon after.

Oil IS our economy.  It is what makes global trade at this scale possible and why it makes “sense” to ship raw materials from Africa to SE Asia for processing and then to the US for final sale, grain from the Ukraine to be fed to cattle in Brazil to end up in $.89 cheeseburgers in the US, and the 1500 mile side salad.  That fact – that Oil is Everything –  means that watching the price of crude, or just the pump, is rather important for predicting when the next recession, or rather the deepening of the current one, will hit.  Since we hit Peak Oil in 2006 the New Reality is that energy economics are now ruthlessly driven by supply and demand.  Now that we are Post Peak, there is no significant means of mitigating price by upping supply to meet demand; when demand increases, price MUST follow suit soon after as supply is fixed and slowly diminishing.

Supply v. Demand: a graphical depiction...

What became painfully clear to us all, is that there is a price ceiling that our economy is able to support.  In 2008 it was somewhere near $110/bbl or $4/gln of gasoline.  Beyond that point oil/gas pushed the expense side of doing business too far (and had the psychological impact of drastically reducing consumer spending) and we smacked into a New Reality that energy was perhaps more expensive than we could afford; that we couldn’t afford to do *everything* we wanted as a global community.

And then we learned another reality about our current economy.  GROWTH is IMPERATIVE.  Chris Martenson in his Crash Course will explain this far better than I can, but in long and short the rate of our economic growth MUST EXCEED the interest that is due on everything we, as a global society, “own”.    As soon as the economy fails to grow faster than the interest that is due on the all the zillions of loans –from credit cards to government bonds– there is literally NOT ENOUGH MONEY to pay the banks and massive foreclosures begin to happen.   This is also why we continually here that 1-2% growth “isn’t enough”.  Check your car/mortgage/credit card bill for your interest rate if you wonder why not.

So everyone alive has know nothing but the fact that Oil IS the Economy, and that the Economy MUST grow.  But there is no more cheap oil, and the Economy CAN’T grow – at least not until it bottoms and the Peak is a lofty mountain indeed.   The Old Reality is over.  Welcome to the New One.  The next century or so will be dominated by series after series of recessions, which will relax the demand pressure on the price of energy enough to allow a brief “recovery”.  But as soon as the economy recovers enough it will inevitably hit the energy price ceiling (which is now lower than the last one due to all the bankruptcies that occurred in the last recession which lowered the overall size of the economy by destroying “wealth”) and we will enter a new recession.  This is the economic reality of Energy Descent: series after series of recessions interspersed with brief “recoveries”.

This is why I watch the price of fuel with so much more interest than I did 3 years ago.  Our current “recovery”, which is really just a slowing of the bleeding rather than healing, is inherently short lived and the price of Crude at its current mid $80’s and climbing does not bode well for the length of this reprieve.

We cannot control this.  We cannot “solve” this problem –mostly because its not a problem, its reality. That means we must react to our situation and find personal solutions to the IMPACTS of the New Reality on our lives.

This will mean many things, and the they will be very different to many people.  Tom recently commented with a challenge that went something like “cut the theory and prove it with your checkbook” ; i.e. try to see if the ideas are economically viable by earning my living through their implementation.  Tom runs a successful CSA in North Carolina and is well along his way towards resiliency assuming he isn’t running a mortgage and depending unsustainably on inputs.  Its a fair question, but as a “challenge” it is also arrogant and insensitive to the New Reality, and in that arrogance which runs the strong risk of demoralizing rather than inspiring.  There is no more cheap credit to buy land (5 acre farmettes are still running $350,000 hereabouts – add $10,000 for each additional acre), there are likely mountains of debt that were accumulated in the Old Reality forcing a much higher income threshold to maintain principal and interest payments, and hundreds of other economic and social facets of our individual situations that makes “proving” our ideas by forcing them to support our families a false challenge.

The fact is that the New Reality will do that for all of us.  The rub of the next few decades will be: can we re-adapt fast enough (using theories, hunches, untried ideas, and examples from those around us) to reduce our dependency on the Old Reality at least as fast as it is replaced by the New Reality.  Can we offset our energy needs as fast as their costs rise beyond our ability to pay for them; can we grow increasing amounts of food as fast as their price increases beyond our ability to afford them. Can we find additional incomes in cottage economies (or career changes in the case of those lucky enough to be in a situation like Tom) and reduce our expenses fast enough to keep our homes, pay down our debts, reskill, and retool?

In many ways it can feel like a race – can we pay off the mortgage before I lose my job, etc?   The impact of the Recession Rollercoaster will in many ways be limited to our connection and dependance on the system.  With a 40 mile commute, traditional mortgage, and no wood stove or PV cells, I am far more dependent on the Old Reality and its cheap energy, than if I am able to relocalize my income, truly own my home, and add more than a bit of self reliance to my household.

The coming, hell CURRENT, crisis will be mitigated in so much as we are able to innovate and implement individual organic solutions to the changes that are being forced upon us by the New Reality.   The changes may come faster than I can adapt to them  – I could lose my job this year and become one of the millions of long term unemployed and my permaculture orchard will be for naught.  But, knowing that, I can take strong, bold steps to limit my exposure and control the variables I can.  We can ALL do this. And my suspicion, based on the experience of the past 4 years, is that in adding that control back to our lives, in living in closer touch with reality, we will find more value in what really matters most and very likely increase our personal happiness in direct proportion to our reduced adherence to the Old Reality.

It will be wicked hard, there will certainly be moments of dread, but we can do this.

Be the Change.

Kunstler on Suburbia- Dang Sucka.

As part of my commitment to doubling down and getting real about rebuilding Suburbia into something that is livable I stumbled across this talk by James Kunstler of Long Emergency fame, which I am finally getting around to reading.  Well worth 20 minutes of your time. Though he spends the majority of the talk beating the shit out of Suburban and current Urban planning, he is a gifted speaker and refuses to pull punches.  The shit is real.  Get busy.

Be the Change.


Resilience Thinking

“When it comes to resilience, what’s important is that the different organisms that form part of the same functional group each have different responses to disturbances… …If there are a large number of different response types, the service provided by a functional group is likely to be sustained over a wider range of conditions, and the system has a greater capacity to absorb disturbances.” – Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking

Redundancy is a goal, not a label; we need to get busy getting creative. The authors also describe those disturbances and “creative destruction”, which breaks down stability and predictability (say a Hurricane to the Gulf or Peak Oil for you and me) but at the same time releases tremendous amounts of resources for innovation and reorganization. Change is Here. What we need now is organic millions of organic, diverse, and innovative solutions to build a new regime and redefine normal at a more resilient level.

This is our challenge; This is our calling.

Be the Change!

Evolving Suburbia

Fall and winter are times of reflection and as I look into the 2011 year I am continually drawn to the question of how to best spend my time, resources, and energy.   It is very likely that 2011 will be the Year of the Home (2010 was the Year of the Soil).  By that I mean its time to Get Serious about pushing the resiliency of my .5 acre (.2 ha) suburban homestead.  The reasons are varied and complex, but the short answer is that when I look around I see adding resiliency to our existing built environment as one of the areas most ripe for change – both due to how critical that change will be, and to how little is being done on that front currently.  One of the key thinkers that I turn to when working through this problem is David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture and an advocate for the reality that we’re stuck with suburbs for the next 50+ years so lets make the best of it.  The “problem is the solution” after all…  Here is David talking through Suburbia in Energy Descent, a reoccurring topic for him.

Reality of the Burbs

This is Reality - The future is what we make of it.

Suburbs have long been maligned for their intense resource use and the simple fact that they have been designed for automobiles rather than people; of course this is all too true.  More recently, the burbs have come under intense fire for being perhaps the last place on Earth that one will want to be be in an Post Peak Oil world.  There is much emotional reaction driving this assessment.  And emotion, while incredibly useful at times, inherently clogs clear thought.   I am not going to ask that we devote time to a truly thorough list of the pros/cons of the burbs, but hitting on some of the easy, perhaps positive, attributes will be helpful to this dialogue (the cons are well known).  First up is population density.  Significantly less than urban environments, and significantly more than rural ones.  In my subdivision, we have about 50 homes in 20 acres.  Factor out roads and each property gets .3 acres (.12 ha) –and it can all be irrigated with one 100′ hose.    This is close enough for a chat over the fence during chores, but far enough away that your son can play his drums without disturbing the neighbors and if your compost pile goes anaerobic you get a few days to fix it before anyone notices.  Most kids can walk to school, but you have to drive a bit for a bite to eat or to watch a movie… but your choices are limited for both compared to a city.  Whenever we have looked at moving to the country, the LACK of neighbors and amenities is one of our biggest concerns. Then there is the scale and quality of living space. Homes here average a bit over 2000 sq ft – mine is smaller, some are rather larger.  Currently that gives us over 500 sq ft per person – luxury indeed in global terms, and should the need arise much of this space could be converted to more utilitarian use (huh, that rec room looks rather like a root cellar…), or boarders/extended family taken in.  Our subdivision is newer, so insulation and build quality is relatively good – I will see a 4 degree rise due to solar gain on a sunny 40 degree day and we only get about 1 degree of heat loss per 1.5 hours overnight with outside air temps at 25 degrees (-4 C) and moderate winds; bake some bread and the furnace won’t run for hours.  Then there are the garages.  If you ditch one or two of the cars there is a serious amount of space in there.  As Holmgren points out these could be truly useful spaces for all kinds of cottage industries.  The asphalt roofs on the two story colonials style houses are well above tree line and hence have great solar access for PV, and are also already plumbed to gather irrigation water.  Change roofing material and I have over 25000 gallons/yr (99,000 l) of drinking water with some filtering and purification.  Perhaps most important of all, as Holmgren points out – the fact that the homes are individually “owned” gives the intrepid homeowner massive license to change, tinker, and retrofit as they see fit.  No need to take it to the condo association or get your 40 fellow tenants to agree to have chickens or a PV array.  Just do it.  Do I still have to drive 19 miles to work?  Well, only as long as the job will have me.  If it doesn’t I will have to do more with less, and to that end the asset list of my suburban home has much going for it.

Retrofit Rather Than Rebuild

Natualis Earthship - passive solar heated, rain water collecting, greywater cycling, and internal food producing greenhouse.

Here is perhaps the hardest truth about Suburbia – and we need to internalize it as fact very quickly.  IT ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE. Buildings have a staying power measured in generations – most of the farmhouses around here are over 100 years old.  We hear often in the Peak Oil circles about how long it will take for any changes in automobile fleet dynamics (to more efficient power-plants) to reach critical mass for change, but cars are only around for decades and even they won’t change fast enough.  There was a time when “back to the land” was an option, but thanks to the economic crisis , unless we are willing to walk away from our mortgages and squat somewhere, most of us are now finding it nearly impossible to find a bit of land to farmstead on due to lack of finance and liquid capital.  Also, in the same vein, the capital and finance needed to rebuild Suburbia in a more eco image also does not exist.   My neighborhood will not be torn down and rebuilt in Earthships anytime soon despite the fact that it would make us much more able to thrive in the coming century.  BUT we CAN retrofit our existing structures as we respond to the growing challenges of our age.  Look around your neighborhood – that is your  reality, or at least the starting point.  Much as we can put inexpensive add-ons on the oxygen sensors of our current cars to allow us to run pure homebrew ethanol (easier than installing a new hybrid drivetrain!), we can also retro fit our homes to be far more sustainable than they are now without a complete tear down.  And the possibility of hundreds of thousands of individual responses to the Long Emergency is incredibly exciting to me.  Welcome to the greatest Open Source Human Ecology project of all time; we will literally get to actively participate in the real time evolution of our own built environment.  Bring it on.

Organic Response to Change

Holmgren nailed the likely response to the coming predicament in his assessment that the response to the this century’s changes will be diverse, organic, and individually based rather than some grand top down salvation.  There is already significant evidence to show that this is indeed already occurring.  Last year, 7,000,000 people starting gardening for the first time as concerns about food security and cost increased.  The decision by millions to stop buying gas guzzling SUV did more to change the fleet offerings of the major auto manufactures than any legislation has for the past 30 years.   As each of us is confronted with our changing environment, we will make hundreds of adaptations to allow our families to thrive.  The adaptations that add sufficient resiliency will survive, those that were too extreme, or not bold enough, will hinder that household’s ability to survive economically.  The survival of the fittest works in human ecologies too.  Each household will respond as they see fit – some will undoubtedly favor certain areas more than others based on their individual circumstances, strengths, resources, and values.  We chose to focus first on increasing the resiliency of our food supply as we are concerned about the health of our family, a desire to eat seasonally,  and I have a strong personal inclination to garden.  Others will be more concerned with energy and will focus on PV, home-brew biodiesel or backup generators.  Perhaps you live in a cold environment like we do, and home heating weighs heavily on your mind as you see your utility bills rising faster than your pay.  Still others awaken to see their careers fading before their eyes and will focus on entrepreneurial aspects first to add resiliency to their economic lives.    The responses, in pace, severity, and type,  will be strongly individualized leading to fantastic diversity, incredible ingenuity, and greater resiliency for the community as a whole as neighbors talk to each other with pride about their recently built root cellar, new woodworking shop, or the efficiency of their new wood stoves.  The cross pollination of these ideas will greatly speed the progress and spread of these solutions as our responses to the Long Emergency goes viral.  I see far more hope in this organic, diversified response to the myriad challenges of our Age than a Top Down solution.  To be sure, incentives like credits for wood stoves, upgrading insulation, and small home-scale hoop houses would have immense impacts on many levels, but the real problem solving will be millions of hard working people getting their Change On and recommitting to the future of their communities.

What is Possible

We can’t build Earthships, but damn do they make a good target to aim at.  Our goal will never be self sufficiency, but greater resiliency.  The more we can cover the basic needs of our households for power, heat, food, and income the greater will be our chances to weather crises and storms (perhaps literally) as they come.  To that end I’d like to delve into what I think is possible on my lot here in southern Wisconsin.

Food is what I have focused most on and we have every intention on producing about 2000# (907 kg) of food in our yard this year.  And that is only using a bit under 4000 sq ft (370 sq m) of space with about 3/4 of that in perennial foodscapes, and the rest in a large 1100 sq ft canning garden.  This isn’t enough to feed my family for a year, but it adds significantly to our resiliency; with 300#’s of potatoes and squash in the cellar and several gallons of jams, sauces, soups, and such in the pantry we are much better off than we had been even a few years ago.  And as the orchards come on line, we see exponential growth in yields with very little extra work.  We are able to grow much or our nutrition as well as a bit of our calories, fats, and proteins.  Adding chickens or rabbits to our system would help immensely with nutrient cycling and protein production.

81% efficient, clean burning, will heat 2000 sq ft, and will simmer a skillet of potatoes all day long.


Heat is another prime concern.  At an outside temp of 20 degrees (-6 C) my home will lose about 1 degree of internal air temp every 1.5 hours.  That means in a few nights without power we become really damn cold in January.    Currently, like most suburbanites, I have a natural gas forced air furnace and stove, and my power is grid tied and produced by coal.  My automobiles use petrol and diesel from the fill stations and there are no bio-fuel coops within 100 miles.  In other words we are completely dependent on the energy grid for transportation and power.  But, we also live in Wisconsin, and thanks to our annual rainfall if I quit mowing my lawn I would have a mixed hardwoods forest for a yard in about 50 years.   Heating with Biomass makes a lot of sense for me, assuming the stove is high enough efficiency and we take care to ensure our wood is harvested sustainably (paulownia coppice anyone?).  Retrofitting a wood stove in my home will be about $5000, and I will need to source a few face cords of wood a year.  Another feasible option, thanks to my southern exposure, would be to retrofit a cobbled together passive solar system.  By changing 4 windows, and adding 3 more windows intended for thermal gain, as well as the addition of thermal mass to our home’s main wall we could significantly cut our heating needs.  This would never “heat” our home, and would cost at least double the wood stove option, but has the added benefit of be maintenance  and input free.

Energy is an area that is well documented.  Installing a PV array is not hard, but does incur a significant up front cost –though the price is coming WAY down, if you haven’t checked in the past several years call an installer.  Again, the goal here would not necessarily be to replace ALL of your electrical needs, but some.  Also, I am a fan of having at least a partial battery backup to literally keep the lights on in time of crisis.  Transportation fuels can get harder.  There is a vibrant and thriving culture of home bio diesel brewing and as the last local BD-100 station closed its pumps this year, I may finally assemble my Appleseed Processor.  The problem with home brew BD is the fuel stock.  Waste grease is already very difficult to come by in many parts of the country and this will only become more true as we continue through energy descent.  Still, I see it as a good transitional fuel until we get  community scale biofuel co-ops up and running.  Just watch yourself with the methanol, ok?

Gardening by Bike - image used w/o permission so check out her site in the link!

Economics is the final area that can be retrofitted.  Holmgren talks about the ease of which the garage, already a utilitarian space, can be converted to supporting Cottage Economies of all sorts.  Mechanically minded?   There will be a huge push to repair rather than buy new as funds become tighter – everything from electronics to appliances to furniture will need intrepid tinkerers to stay functional.  More creative of mind?  Bentwood furniture, toys, cabinet making, weaving, tailoring, etc will need new champions.  Home repair, food production (someone has to make all that jam from our guilded orchards!), and installations of the very retrofits we have been discussing are all good candidates.  A small business in root cellar retrofitting and repair crosses the mind.  CSA’s with a twist, where gardens throughout the community are installed, tended, and harvested by a “farmer” with the produce dropped at each individual’s home are already in place in various cities.  Perhaps you can start one in your neighboorhood. Pedaling around on your cargo bike to spread good soil and good food while literally building resiliency as you go seems like a job to me.

Community retrofitting is the most important of all, and the one I am least familiar with (one can’t weld up a pot luck, nor use a mattock to sing in a choir).  Currently my neighborhood is a a bed-room community with most of my neighbors treating their homes as really expensive hotel rooms where you have to mow the lawn.  We have no community theater, no coffee shop, or many of the other trappings of a vibrant community.  But even here we are seeing changes.  In recent years we built a community center, the PTA is revitalized, and several “neighbor” groups focusing on social gatherings and do-goodery are popping up as 21st century mini-rotary clubs.  This must needs continue as we add resilency to our our homes, if the community itself is better able to withstand a crisis, the likelihood that each of us individually will do so increases.  The bonds that tie us to our neighbors are the strength of our community.  As I type this we have a 4 month old gurgling in the living room as we baby sit for a local friend, and while we were in New Zealand on vacation, my neighbor repaired our water heater which had blown out the day before we flew out.  We can’t do this alone. If you don’t know your neighbors, bake some bread or pick a buch or oregano and walk next door.  Every journey begins with a step.

Optimism is there if you look for it – even in Suburbia.  I am not saying that the next 50 years will be a picnic, nor that we are on the verge of a new re-localized utopia.  We are going to have to work really damn hard, in ways that we can’t really even fahom, to deal with the present predicament.  We’ll skin our knees, we’ll cry at times, but we also have more strength in each of us than we know, and looking back across the major societal crises of the past 50 years from Haiti, to Katrina, to Kosovo, to Iraq, to Cuba, to Somalia there are the briefest periods of rioting, and in many cases even this is avoided, and in all cases the overarching result is the vast majority of people pulling together to get shit done.  Looking around at our suburbs we must not lose sight of the fact that in no other time have so many people had access to a bit of land — irrigated, arable land– that they own.  In a purely permaculture mindset, imagine the possibilities of 20 acres of Zone 1-2.  20 acres of the most intensely designed, managed, and productive landscapes one can imagine – fruit literally hanging on every cubic foot from 6″ below the ground to 10′ above it.  Visualize 10,000 sq ft of roofs covered in PV (that’s 120 kw of energy!), and every roof harvesting 25,000 gallons of water and every home producing over 2000#’s of food with garages full of productive ventures.  Streets are no longer dead zones of concrete, but spaces frequented by greetings and bartering of services and goods in the way it was not so long ago.  I lend you a sack of potatoes because I know your plums are delicious, and your husband fixed my stove last fall.    THIS is literally what is possible within the coming decades with reasonable investments of time, resources, and energy.  And we don’t have to live in a red or blue state.  It doesn’t matter if Congress never does a damn thing (which is likely).  The future is OURS and its time to get busy.

David Holmgren’s comments on the individual, diverse, organic solutions to the coming stresses match well with what we are currently seeing, with what myself and all of you are doing in our own lives to add resiliency, confidence, and beauty back into our lives. Our answers will be different, but they also likely spring from a very similar set of principles. Again, we are patterning our response to a changing socio-economic ecosystem after nature; we’re *evolving*. Some of our ideas will be viable and appropriate, some will fail and be a waste of energy despite our gains in knowledge. A few will also have applicability to larger groups outside of our individuality and our neighbors will adapt them, likely with some tweaks. The uncertainty of our near future is troubling to be sure, there will continue to be Oh SHIT! moments, but this will be a very exciting century; we are in the middle of a paradigm shift.

Be the Change

This organic change will come about as a natural, even ecological, response to our changing environment.  But it can be aided by the active pursuit of regenerative activities that will help to rebuild our communities in the image of a more resilient future.   Even as we speak our neighbors are dealing with the realization that something is not right with the world.  As that disquiet is crystalized into a desire for action, how much faster will they be able to adapt if they can look 3 houses down to a PV array on the roof, a willow coppice in the backyard and a yard full of fruiting trees.  The world NEEDS early adopters more than ever!  If a future of more resilient communities is one that you wish to see – then you literally need to BE THAT CHANGE now to actualize that future.  The time will be that our neighbors and community leaders will look to us environmentalist doomsdayers and say …” Well shit. Now what?”  Having real world, working concepts on what is possible in our own local communities will be critical to a satisfactory answer to that question…  “Now what?  Come see my gardens!”

We can do this.

Be the Change!


Midden L’eau Chaude: The Big Build

Load #2 being dumped for a total of about 17 cu yards (13 cu m). Let's do this.

Last summer I built the Methane Midden which was inspired by Jean Pain’s epic work in 1970 France.    It was big, it was a little insane, and ultimately it didn’t work. Don’t get me wrong – it made a syck amount of compost, but it failed to meet my goals of also 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 wanted to learn how much material it truly takes to make one of these so I also sourced all the biomass myself from two local farms, dropping literally hundreds of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckles as well as aggressive “weed” trees such as red mulberry and box elder over a week and then renting a 27hp Vermeer chipper to grind them up.  It was awesome!

This post is pretty epic itself – I opted for smaller photos in the post to keep the overall post length a bit shorter – click on them for a 600×800 shot.   This really should have been 2-3 posts, but I spent more time working than writing.  Skim or read it all the way through at your preference.  Total work covered in the build is 3 weeks, with another 1.5 in the biomass acquisition.  These are “puttering” time lengths – I am always working on 4-10 projects at a time :).

With the material on site it was time to get it soaking.  One of the keys to Jean Pain style brushwood composting is to soak the material for 2+ days to ensure that the chips are saturated to supply the pile with enough water to sustain it for months.  One of the problems I ran into early on is that of scale.  I can only soak about 6 yards of material at a time, which limited me to 1.5 batches a week with my days off and the shorter daylight of Fall.  All told it took over 3 weeks just to soak all the material.

Giant 375 gln (1420 l) totes I bought off of craigslist a few years back for $25 each. Why? Why not!

Once the material was soaking it was time to prep the ground.  I spent a day spreading the old Midden around the gardens.  This was unreal – never before have I had 8+ yards of compost to spread all at once.  EVERYTHING got mulched.  Yes, spreading compost by the wheel barrow load (40 of them!) is as fun as it sounds.  I will say it again and again – COMPOST is the true point of the Middens – gathering energy from them is merely function stacking an intrinsically useful activity.

As this pile was going to be 50% larger I had some concerns about it breathing well.  At one point I had myself talked into laying out 4″ perforated drain tile for air circulation, but thought better of it for several reasons.

Cupplant, Sunchoke, and Sunflower stalks forming the passive air circulating foundation to the Midden. After the winter it turns into humus and sequesters carbon. Regenerative waste stream? Check.

First – it added expense and resources.  I like to keep the plastic to a minimum; while not afraid to use energy or resources for the Greater Good, I also like to use natural products whenever its feasible.  Second, Jean Pain never did so I’m not even sure its necessary.  My solution was simple – I cut down a half dozen Cupplants that were nearby in the prairie garden that serves a insectary habitat near my permaculture guilds.  The thought is that these will allow air to come in slowly from the under the pile as they decompose themselves.  Basically the same reason you are often told to put twigs under a normal passive compost pile.

Now, the observant amongst you will notice a piece of .5″ conduit stuck in the ground with a tape measure  in front of it.   Of course there is a very good reason for this.  The Midden LC will have a 3′ (1 M) diameter core of brushwood that will be wrapped with 1″ tubing, but I am getting a bit ahead of myself.    With the base down, it was time to get building.

The Core

The core diameter of 3′ was chosen for the simple reason that hot composting seems to benefit from a minimum dimension of at least a meter.  Build a pile smaller than this, and you won’t get hot enough.   One of the downfalls of the Methane Midden is that the layout forced a width of only 2′ in most cases.  I thought that the straw bales insulation would be enough.  I was wrong.  Back to basics then.  Getting wood chips to form a cylinder can take some doing.  Luckily I had enough 2′ garden fencing in the garage to make a “mold”.  The thought was to cut the fencing to the circumference of a 3′ diameter circle.  Time for fun with math!

4' (1.2 m) tall Core. As I unwrapped the fencing, I would wind 150' (45 m) or so tubing around the chips to keep them in place.

A circle’s circumference is Pi x the Diameter of a circle; 3.14 x 3′ = about 9.5′.  Done.   Now, when you cut the fencing – leave the “nubbins” on the cuts – this works well to fold around once you get the circle made – think giant velcro.  The conduit I stuck in at ground zero and measured 18″ off each side to center the core column.  Then it was simply a matter of schlepping in the soaked chips.  About every 8″ (22 cm) or so I tamped the chips well with a 12# (5kg) sledge hammer.  Once I had 2′ tamped in place, I unhooked the fencing and unwound it.  Thanks to the tamping, the chips stay in place very well.  I then wrapped the fencing on the top of the cylinder with about 2″ (5 cm) of overlap on the bottom.  Then I started wrapping the heat exchanger around.

I love this shot. It really shows how stable the chips are with tamping (walking on it at this point). Jean Pain didn't use molds, just slapped it all in place with a pitchfork and walked on it.

This progressed 2 times until the core got about 5′ tall.  At this point I was becoming somewhat concerned that the column could topple, despite how stable it seemed.  Redoing it at this point would SUCK, so I opted to switch gears and work on the outer “donut” of biomass.  The thought here was to again use the 1 meter width of material to maximize the bio-reaction of the thermophilic bacteria.  Having 3′ of material on each side of the exchanger giving the Midden L’eau Chaude a total diameter of a bit over 9′ (2.75 m).  The other important reason to start building out the “donut” was that stacking, and especially tamping, the Core was getting difficult as it was over shoulder height for me at this point.  With a 2′ tall rim around the Core I could bring it up to its goal of 6’+ bringing the total heat exchanger length to over 550′ (168 m).  The heat exchanger needs a bit of explaining since it is critical to the Midden, so here goes.

The Heat Exchanger

550′ (168 m) of 1″ (2.5 cm) polyethylene irrigation tubing. Never one to be modest… this is a work of art.

This is the finished heat exchanger and I won’t even try to be modest.  It’s GORGEOUS!.  The water will come in the bottom, spiral up for 6′ and then take two larger loops back down to exit the pile.  Why this way?  It has a lot to do with temperature gradients.  Heat transfers best the larger the temperature differential (delta T).  The final goal is to that the water entering the pile at about 80 F (26 C) and exiting north of 120 F (49 C).  The bottom of these piles are cooler (heat rises!), but will still be rather warm.  As the water in the exchanger warms it is also climbing up through the pile, which is also getting hotter.  The thought is that there will always be a delta T of 20+ degrees between the pile and the water in the tubing.  Slick, huh?  Now wth is up with the big looping spirals?  The poly tubing kinks somewhat easily, so I chose to take 2 revolutions to expand the diameter of the spirals and slowly increase the degree of bend up to my final exit point. Now some final thoughts on the exchanger.  First, I would shift the hole thing up a foot.  Starting 4″ from ground level like I did will not add much heat to the water, whereas there is over a foot above the top of this column now that I am done.  I had thought that the top would be cooler, but that is not the case – no matter how much I pile on the heat just comes right through it: put your exchanger to within 6″ of the top without fear as long as the pile is hot.  Can you see I am already planning Midden #3?  But for now we need to bury that exchanger. Fleshing out the Midden


Taking shape! This is about 12 cu yards ( 8 cu m) with a current height of 5.5′ (1.7 m) and a 9′ (2.7 m) diameter. Awesome.

To keep the pile nice a tidy, and also to ensure that I could still walk around it, I again used a garden fence mold for the 9′ (2.7 m) diameter “donut”.  this time I opted for 3′ tall fencing.  The outer section takes an immense amount of material to fill – it was almost 2 weeks to get it to this point as the pile at this point was over 12 cu yards and weighed over 6 tons due to the sopping wet chips.  Remember that I could only do 5-6 yards at a time as the chips had to soak for several days.


I had intended to unwrap and re-wrap the fencing again, but in the end chose to leave it on and switch again to an insulating rim of straw, which I ended up stacking 3 tiers high.  It gets significantly colder here in southern Wisconsin than in Jean Pain Provence with winter lows dropping to -15 (-26) at least once or twice.  Time to break out the dump truck again!  Back to Craigslist and I contacted a farmer about 4 miles away with 70 bales of Oat Straw.  I would need about half that for the Midden, but filled up the truck to mulch the beds as well.

BART holds 48 bales of straw. I am not saying *everyone* needs a dump truck. But in my case I am making a good argument..

With the straw in place around the fencing, I then stacked a third tier of straw to form the mold for the final several yards of material.  In the shot at right the pile is nearing 7′ (2.1 m) tall which was the goal.  At this point I was nearing the end of the biomass and began to focus on rounding out the pile and maintaining the 3′ length from the heat exchanger as much as possible.   Was incredibly pleased with how the Midden was literally shaping up.  Sometimes a project just CLICKS.  This was one of those!

Gap left for the pump installation. You can FEEL the heat coming from the pile, the core of which is 150+ (66 C) at this point. Dang sucka.

Jean with one of his piles. As you can see his heat exchanger loops would have gone around the OUTSIDE of mine. Then again his piles crested 80 tons - 10x as big as mine. Jean was a visionary, and I am honored to be able to promote his work for a new generation.

Continue reading

Methane Midden – La Fin


The Methane Midden got a ton of press for its attempt to produce energy from brush.  And in a suburban backyard no less.  But as I spent the day Tuesday finishing its tear down I was struck by the need to set something straight.  While the goal of the experiment was to try to produce methane (and hot water in the new Midden), the goal of the system is, and will always be, to make an insane amount of compost.  I routinely trailer in over 10 tons of organic matter, mostly woodchips, each year to my .5 acre ( .2 HA) lot and my soils are still far from done.   Our urban soils are incredibly denuded in most cases, and until the organic matter content gets up to 5%+ in the top 6″ of soil we have a ton of work to do.  And in this region, topsoils used to be 6-10 FEET thick (2-3 m).  To add 1″ of compost on even .1 acre you need 13 yards of compost.  It is mind numbing to think about how much compost and mulch we need to heal the soil of our cities.  Luckily all the carbon we need is unhappily sitting above us in the atmosphere.  Hence my desire to cut down coppice and compost it.  Putting our tea bags in a bin won’t cut it.  The fact that I am working to get energy out of the piles is a fringe benifit.  A really, really cool one. 🙂

The break down of the midden was not sexy, but it was awesome none the less – 8 yards of compost, all at once, is simply staggering in what you can do with it.  The “compost” was really only about 75% done due to the amount of pine needles, it was really a well cooked mulch – very similar to the “duff” layer in a forest.

Rather than bury you with text I will tell it in pictures.  Enjoy:

Cut away of the Finished Methane Midden. The layers of heat exchanger settled over 50%, with the bottom two resting on the ground. Not good - time for a redesign.

What a mess. And you missed all the swearing to get it to this point! Anyone need any yellow garden hose?

Then I started spreading the mulch.  The plan was to use the finished compost to start my willow/poplar coppice that I will plant in Spring 2011.  It is sized for about 80 trees and will have an understory of Russian Comfrey.  Will likely also put in some False Indigo and everbearing raspberries, but I get ahead of myself!

The coppice will be around 3 sides of our kids playground and will have a total row length of about 125' (22 m). This side is close to our fence and is only 2' wide -enough for 1 row of trees..

Good shot of how thick I laid the mulch down here - easily 4-5" (10-12 cm). This is the main width - about 4' (1.5 m) for a double row of willow. Thanks again to author Michael Perry for his help with this during his visit!

The final leg of the coppice to be. Yes, I have 2 wheel barrows... I also have 5 pitchforks - and each has a specific use! So much mulch, and I hadn't even used half the pile yet...

This post may get long, but I really want to pound home the shear amount of Good Work that can be done with one of these Middens – I was beyond giddy driving my barrows around the yard flinging compost at anything that grew! Plus it is a compost eyes view of much of my permaculture beds.  I have been asked if I used more energy than I created with the Midden.  Yes, I did.  But show me an oil rig that can do all this:

'Barrow load under my sole bamboo - a clumper. This will be its first winter -fingers crossed!


Mulch spread in my Asian Pear tree guild - I forked it around the perennials so as to not bury the groundcovers

Wheel barrow load of mulch for my sole apple tree. It speaks volumes that I spread most of this compost "by the wheelbarrow load" rather than the forkful. AWESOME! This still needs to be spread away from the trunk.

7-8 barrow loads went on my Sunchoke plantings. Sunchokes are not my favorite food, but this reliably cranks out 50#’s of food for no effort.

Here is the raspberry patch. It was rather overgrown so I hacked it to the ground and refreshed the soil with 8 barrow loads of Midden Mulch. Still not even 75% done with the pile!

Into the Guilds! Mulch under my heirloom Pear - a White Doyne which I have never seen in a catalog, but got from a nurseryman friend.

The other portion of the Pear Tree Guild. This shows one of my Paw Paw's, some hazelnuts, another pear, and a hardy kiwi on the fence. 3-4 more barrows here.

I had so much mulch I decided to start a new guild. This is a pine I bought the year we moved in and is just no starting to grow. In went an elderberry, some thyme, a service berry, and several dozen strawberries. And yes, I just had these lying around...

Mulching under one of my front yard "pretty" guilds, both Peach Tree guilds.

It was so incredibly liberating to be able to spread compost where ever I wanted to – flinging forkfuls into the rain gardens, into the prairie, on the lawn – without have to choose which plants to favor and which had to go without.  Also notice that my annual vegetable gardens didn’t get any mulch.  This was intentional – this mulch is very carbon intensive at this point, and will be heavily skewed to fungal decomposers which my perennials prefer.  The veg garden would have been fine, but the fruiting shrubs and trees would really benefit.  Plus I have another 5 yards of compost in my regular bin for the veggies.

The Methane Midden was lined with over 20 bales of straw. These were a wretched mess... perfect for a winter mulch for the veggie gardens!

Now the Methane Midden has passed, but OMG will it live on.  I covered everything in this post, plus 3 other guilds, 2 rain gardens, and even some into my mini prairies.  Imagine what your gardens will look like if you built 2-3 of these Middens a year?  I can’t wait to find out!

Energy is fantastic and very useful up here where it gets to -15 F (-26 C) in the winter, but being able to make this much compost, from invasive species and “weed” trees is where the true beauty is.

Over 8 yards of compost from one pile in the burbs?  Epic Shit indeed!

And I can’t wait to do it again – only BIGGER.

Be the Change!


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