Pit and Mound Gardening

Hang out in sustainability circles for any length of time and you will notice a distinct antipathy towards traditional vegetable gardening. It ruins the soil; it is dependent on inputs; it eschews perrenial plants. It is un-natural. And in most cases that is all true.  But there are some real truths that this attitude can gloss over.  First, annual vegetable gardens are wicked productive – easily a pound or more per sq ft.  Second, the vast majority of us are used to eating food grown in annual vegetable gardens and food habits are extremely difficult to change – they are a integral part of our living culture and that changes slowly;  I am much more likely to eat potatoes than skirret or sunchokes, no matter what the permaculture books tell me.  Third, its gonna take YEARS for your multi story permaculture forest garden to start producing much of anything.  For certain, eventually it will outpace your annual gardens in productivity, but that is a decade or more out.  Until then, the 25#’s of harvest per tomato plant is gonna make you and your larder a lot happier.

So whats a suburban homesteader to do?  I’ve read thousands of pages on sustainable vegetable gardening – fantastic books from John Jeavons, Elliot Coleman, and many more that have inspired and intrigued me to the possibilities of vegetable gardens.  I’ve also read thousands of pages on ecology and soil science that contradict so very much of what those masters and mistresses have to say; tilling is very rough on the soil.  I want to have healthy soil, but I also need and intend to have a large canning garden for years to come.  Mulch Gardening like Ruth Stout’s “No – Work” garden and Lee Reich’s Weedless Gardening makes a great step towards integrating the two philosophies by removing much of the tilling.  Word to the wise though on this – Ruth Stout gardened conventionally for over 7 seasons before switching to no-till.  It takes a long time to build up your soils and you also need to irradiate persistent perennial weeds like quack/couch grass, sow thistle, and the like if you have them on site.  No till gardening is a journey, not a destination!

Bolstered by some impressive results from 2009, I mulched heavily this year and was very impressed with the reduced weed and irrigation inputs.  But the garden was still flat and that bothered me.  So at the market garden I tried a new technique that I want to explore Whole Hog in 2011.  Essentially it is based on a side bar blurb in Chapter 12 of David Blume’s epic opus Alcohol Can Be a Gas. Now a book on homebrewed energy revolutions is not a place one would expect to have an epiphany on vegetable gardening, but David is a die hard permaculturist so its all connected.  His idea was to dig trenches under your paths, fill them with mulch, and then use these mulch paths to breed up trillions of red worms to function stack a “wasted” space in the garden.  This idea worked wonders at the farm – with the beds I used this technique out producing my conventional beds by 20-50%.  As the season went on, I gave it more and more thought and always paid special attention to those two beds – digging and poking around as I tended to them.    My findings in short were these:

  • Mulched Trenches improved drainage -essentially turning the planted areas into raised beds
  • Mulched Trenches improved water retention – the mulch acted like a sponge, holding water for weeks and weeks between rains keeping a higher water table within reach of the annuals
  • As hoped, Mulched Trenches foster just ridiculous amounts of fungus.  My hope was that even with the soil intrusion in the beds from potato harvest the fungus would live on in the paths to re-innoculate the soil for the next season.  The mycelium was often inches thick and brilliant white to the naked eye.  Bingo!
  • Thanks to the moisture and fungus, the Mulched Trenches are havens for earthworms, even if you don’t plant worms in them, they will be there soon enough.
  • Within only 3 months, a 1/8″ (3 mm) layer of humus formed under the straw that mulched the potatoes and was clearly evident to the naked eye when harvesting.  That is very impressive soil building in such a short time.  Now, this was on incredibly microbially rich soil that has been farmed organically for 20 years so your results may vary, but it is no wonder why straw mulch gardening works.  You are truly “uppening” your soils!

All of this really coalesced with the epiphany that  my Mulched Trenches essentially mimic “pit and mound” topography in old growth forests and were creating all kinds of interesting micro climates for soil fauna and plant roots to exploit.  Wait a minute – the reviled and ecologically barren annual vegetable garden was starting to sound a lot like permaculture!  I was on to something.

With that in mind, I set out to integrate these learnings into my freshly “pimped out” garden as I prepped it for the 2011 season.   The layout will be a 1′ Mulched Trench on each side of 30″ growing beds.  Now that is a lot of path, and purists will give me hell for that.  Whatever!  To manage a 1100 sq ft garden, be a husband, father, and still work a full time job and do all my other projects if I can’t get into my garden easily and efficiently it will turn into a mess faster than you can say “fundamentalist”.   I plant in straight lines – it may not be efficient in space, but it is incredibly efficient in time and labor – we need to factor those things into our plans too.  Mandalas are great, but they’re not for me.  While digging the trenches the soil was piled up onto the 30″ growing beds – mimicking a “double dug” bed.  On top of this I applied .5-1″ of compost and topped that with 4″ of straw with a nod to Ruth Stout.  Here are some pics:

1' deep and about 1' wide - basically dig a trench with a spade and pile it onto your garden bed. As these paths are to be semi permanent I pulled some lines to keep me honest.

Once the trench was dug and emptied, I filled it with chips. I like to use fresh chips with leaves in it if I can - the nitrogen helps to feed the soil ecosystem. Tamp the chips well (walk on them) and mound them slightly as they settle. I aimed to keep them about level with the top of the growing beds. As the trenches are 3/4 full, rake the growing beds flat to get them back to 30" width and then top the trenches off. Figure a cu ft per running foot - these beds are 32' (9.7 m) long so it takes over a cu yard each.

After the growing beds are raked flat, I put down a .5" (13mm) layer of compost which is enough to cover the soil. More is better, but the most important thing is to inoculate the bed with soil bacteria which will munch slowly on the straw all winter and add some humus.

At this point the beds are built and the straw is laid down.  That is all pretty straight forward.  But before I sign off I would like to show some examples of just WHY this is so important:

This was from one of the chipped paths from this summer's garden. These chips were only 4 months old - just LOOK at that fungal growth!

This is also  my answer to any concerns about “locking up nitrogen” by adding this much carbon to the soil.  The fungus is working like crazy to break it down, plus the soil in the growing beds is normal and the nitrogen concerns will only be in the paths or just next to them.  And once the plant roots start exchanging sugars with the path fungus the soil economy will go bonkers to the benefit of your pantry through increased yields.  Just so you understand that this wasn’t an isolated  shot her are some more pics — all from the same row!

Almost 4" thick - the fungal net was already reaching well below the chip layer. Again - this is 4 months or less of growth!

These fungal nets capture nutrients and water reducing leaching and feed worms (see him?) and other soil fauna. Fantastic!

I am an unabashed Soil Geek, but these discoveries had me beside myself, jumping, hollering, and dragging my wife and kids out to see the bounty growing under my paths. Wow.

So there it is, my Pit and Mound gardening method.  Essentially I am taking straw mulch gardening -the tomatoes and other big plants will grow right into this mulch- and taking it up a notch with a healthy dose of soil ecology by fostering fungus, worms and all their buddies in the “permanent” paths.  This also reduces labor by increasing the gardens ability to self irrigate by essentially creating contour swales next to each bed.

Time will tell how much of an impact this will have.  But I do know that some of the best soils on my property are found UNDER my wood chip paths, humus is formed from carbon after all.  Any question about the efficacy of fungus to make soils is erased by going out to a nearby woods and rummaging under the leaves – its amazing.  In addition to the paths, the growing beds now more precisely mimic a natural soil structure – beneath my garden is the sub soil, then a foot of top soil, the the “duff” layer of partially decomposed material in the compost I applied, and topped with raw organic matter in the mulch.  EXACTLY the same strata you will see in a prairie or forest.   Its still a veggie bed, but we’re a helluva lot closer to building more sustaining system as it holds water, suppresses weeds, and builds soil and soil ecosystems.

Be the Change!

-Rob

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“Professional” Composting

160 degrees within 24 hours. This system WORKS.

I make a lot of compost.  I would say I make a ton of compost, but in reality I make *several* tons.  Every year.  At home.  In the ‘burbs.  If you want to follow the path of Gaia’s Garden – you almost certainly need immense amounts of organic matter.  We live in a newer subdivision so without mature trees we have to get creative to get our biomass for composting.  In years past I resorted to tapping into local waste streams, namely our local coffee shop to the tune of 30 gallons of grounds and sandwich trimmings every week.  That volume eventually inspired me to build my Compost Bin of Dreams to handle it.  The gorp from the shop was good, though it was heavy and was difficult to aerate.  To our horror that shop closed down this past Spring due to the recession and we lost a significant element in our local community.  It was an awful tragedy to the owners, whom we knew.  As time went on and the grieving passed, and I realized I needed to find another source for compost material.  I had also recently bought a chipper and learned the joys of brush wood composting. Here is my new system which allows me to make up to 15 yards a year:

Materials

To compost at this scale – 5-10 yards a year – you need a lot of material.  You can count on a 75% reduction in weight due to loss of water and half the carbon in the decomposition process.  A yard of compost weighs in at 540#’s or so – so you need literally tons and tons of material.  That means you need to get it for free.  With my local grounds dried up, I turned to other waste streams, in this case brush and wood chips from our local municipal yard (and local farms when we clean up the hedgerows) as well as weeds from fallow feeds at the farm.  Personal favorites from our local / free waste stream:

  • Box Elder
  • Willow
  • Lambsquarter
  • Ragweed
  • Corn/Sunflower Stalks
  • Straw after fall decorations

There is not many food scraps in here, though we continue to add ours and I kick in lawn clippings as needed to fire up a pile.  I certainly could be pounding the pavement of the local grocers and restaurants, but have chosen not to.  First, that would again lock me into a pickup schedule and I am getting waaaay too busy.  Second, the waste streams from those outlets are almost pure nitrogen and if aren’t picked up daily turn into a stinky, anaerobic mess when I get them.  I have pushed my neighbors quite a bit this past year, so want to keep this recent uptick in activity pleasant.  Sourcing my own brushwood and weeds keeps me in control.

Tools

5'x8' w/ 1 ton axle. Arguably my most useful tool. Dead serious.

Trailer: To carry all this material you need something rather large, but I not necessarily a truck.  I do all of this with my 90hp TDI Golf and a 5×8 trailer from Farm and Fleet I bought 3 years ago for $700.   Trailers are useful as they are MUCH lower to the ground to make unloading/unloading easier than a truck, and you only use it when you need it.  I get 48 mpg on my Golf without the trailer.  With it loaded I take a 20% mileage hit and a bit of wear and tear on the brakes.  I also upgraded the suspension with higher spring rates when I needed to replace them, but that is cause I am weird.  Even with all of that it still beats the hell out of 15mpg in a 1/2 ton truck.

Chipper- I resisted this for years, but finally caved.  My chipper is a Bio – 80 from BCS and I got it used for $550.  They are very hard to find and would cost over $1000 new.  Alternatives would be a 3″ model from DR or Bearcat, but again – be ready for sticker shock as they are EXPENSIVE.  Luckily, they can be found on Ebay, and more rarely on Craiglist.  Avoid the “craftsmans” type ones like the plague.  They are underpowered, poorly designed, and worse than useless.  This is also why you see them on Craiglist by the dozen.  This is almost commercial level work, and you need Real Tools.  The rub: To compost brush, you need a chipper, and chippers use fuel.  Mine is averaging less than a gallon for every 7-8 hours of run time, which is more frugal than a typical gas lawn mower, which I haven’t used for more than 8 years.  A larger pto model could work on a tractor running on methane, ethanol, or homemade bio-deisel.  This Briggs could run on ethanol as well.  Methane too, but it would be a bit harder to put the tank somewhere.

Bins –  I wrote this up in detail in my Compost Bin of Dreams.  I have a 4 bin system that can handle over 2000#;s of material at a time.  It is a flow through system – start on the left and turn each bin to the right.  When the 3 turnings are done, most of the compost is ready. When I compost sod, or other marginal material, it usually isn’t done so it goes into my 30 cu ft outdoor vermi-composter for “finishing”.

Each bin is 40" cubed -Combined it will hold 5.5 yards.

Process

This is the real beauty of this system.  You read any book on composting and they say if you really want an ideal pile you need to gather the materials before hand.   But, since that is nearly impossible, they then tell you about how you can compost your lawn clippings (2-3 cu ft at a cutting at my house) kitchen scraps (half a cu ft), soiled napkins etc.  Most homeowners will never fill a bin even after a year unless they have mature trees to add the leaves in.  Given the amount of organic matter we need to put back into our soils we need to do far better than that.

1) Gather your materials I ask you to refer again to the picture of the loaded trailer earlier in the post.  This pile chipped up to about 37 cu ft of material.  That will settle to about a yard, maybe a bit less.  What you can’t see in the picture is that it is not ALL brush.  The top 3/4 is willow, maple, and pine.  This is the carbon for the pile.  I try to only use green brush as I want the moisture, sugary sap, and nitrogen from the leaves.  Green brush still has all the water soluble nutrients in it – and you want those in your compost to feed the microbes which then feed your plants.  Under the compost is about 300#’s of fresh cut, mature (6′-9′ tall) lambsquarter.   It is also just getting ready to set seed.  Normally adding several million weed seeds to a pile would be asinine, but reference the compost thermometer on the top – these piles get wicked hot and stay over 130 degrees for over 2 weeks solid.  They should kill the weed seeds, and lambsquarter when young is a tasty treat whilst weeding and it weeds easily.   Brush bulk is deceiving – that huge pile is barley 8 cu ft chipped, so I also added .3 yards of wood chips from the city pile to be shredded to offset the nitrogen of the lambsquarter and help build humus.  Remember it is lignin and cellulose that build humus, and for that you need woody material like leaves, straw or twigs.

Entropy Once the materials are on site, limb the larger brush with a loppers or axe to ensure easy chipping.  Do this before you fire up the chipper to save on fuel.  I typically start with the brush as its close to perfect on the C:N ratio if its real leafy.   I chip the trunks until the stem is under 3/4″ and then I shred the rest.  As I go I keep an eye on the discharge – if its too brown I add more green material; the mixing starts this early.  Once the brush is done I then move to the green weeds.  These clog even my chipper very quickly.  Luckily my shredder has a removable debris screen.  By opening the screen it is able to shoot out the material after beating on it for a bit.  I like the lambsquarter as it is long enough that I can hold onto the stalks as I feed it – otherwise the shredding blades can pull it through too fast.  If something comes out unprocessed I refeed it later. Every cu ft of material or so, I close the debris screen again and add the wood chips.  This clogs the machine every time, so I keep a tamping stick like a 3′ chunk of 2×4 or 4″ limb thats too big for the chipper to encourage the material to enter the shredder.  This is the slowest part, but oh so worth it since the shredded wood chips are very fine and decompose very quickly for a carbon.  GORGEOUS humus.

300#'s of lambsquarter all chopped up. Add browns 1:1 with this.

Building the Piles.

As the material builds up from the chipping I add it to my 10 cu ft wheel barrow.  Half way through I pour in a 5 gallon bucket of rainwater from a rain barrel, and add another when the barrow is full.  This is vitally important.  As Jean Pain taught us – brush needs A LOT of water to decompose well.  Using rainwater is important for two reasons.  First, rainwater is free from the chlorine present in municipal water which would inhibit bacterial growth for a day or more.  Secondly, rainbarrel water is bacterially active.  It is churning with colonies of bacteria and fungal spores and almost certainly helps jumpstart the pile.  Each heaping barrow load (13 cu ft) gets 10 gallons of water – so I end up with 30 gallons of water added to each bin.  Actually, composting is the prime us of my rainbarrel water, as once the compost is in the soil, I barely need to irrigate! I might try soaking the material as Jean Pain did, but this process goes so fast it doesn’t seem necessary.  As I add the material to the barrow I continue to eyeball the mixture and scoop up greener or browner forkfuls as I go to mix it well.  The end goal is a perfectly mixed and soaked pile from Day 1. Finished piles should look like this:

Look at the mixture and the particle size. It should be wet enough to feel like a damp sponge.

Pile the piles as tall as possible as they settle significantly.  I lightly tamp the piles with the fork as I fill them, especially around the edges where the friction on the sides resists settling.  My bins hold 1.3 yards and I mound them 18″ over the top.  If you don’t have enough material it doesn’t seem to matter if you add to it in a week or so, just know that that material will need an additional week to decompose.

A compost thermometer is vital to this process.  The piles heat up almost immediately – the temp shot at the beginning I took this morning I the pile I built yesterday – about 15 hours ago.  DANG.  160 is the highest you should let the piles get.  The first one of these I built hit 173 – that is far too hot and at the point of concern that it may begin spontaneously combusting like a hay barn.  To slow it down I have added more carbon to the mix.  Watch the pile temp almost daily – as it drops below 125, turn it again, and add more water.  This time is may only hit 140, wait a bit until it drops to 115 or so and then turn it a third time.  The 3rd turning should  be done at about 105 degrees, but at this point you are almost done, and the pile should be left to “mellow”.  This can take months, so I typically put some in my vermicomposter and spread the rest as mulch which I top dress with some straw in the veggie garden, or wood chips in the permaculture beds.  The microbes will continue munching on it in place.

Conclusion

This system is not for everyone.  It takes serious equipment and a serious intent.  I have almost $2000 invested: $600 for the chipper, $700 for the trailer, $500 in the bin.  And that is using used equipment.

But the results!  By spending the extra investment on the front end in material sourcing and prep you are able to take waste brush and turn it into compost in 3-5 weeks.  That means at a 4 week average and my 4 bin system I can reasonably do 15 yards of finished compost in a 6 month composting season.  In reality some batches will take longer, but I also compost more like 9 months of the year.  15 yards is 4 tons of finished compost and enough to spread 5000 sq ft 1″ thick.  To do this I would need a trailer load of material a week for 24 weeks – about 12 tons of raw material.  It will take alot of organic matter to rebuild our soils, and the 8000 pounds of compost I could put back into my yard is roughly 4 tons of carbon that isn’t in the atmosphere anymore and will continue to sequester more as it aids the growth of the plants in my gardens.

Hopefully this system will help you in your quest to rebuild your soils and sequester carbon naturally to help heal the planet as we feed our families.

Be the change!

-Rob

Grow Your Own Soil: Compost Crops

Readers will note that I am HUGE on living soils.  We moved into a dead, denuded landscape and have spent the past 5 years dutifully rebuilding them.  The single most important thing in healing soils is to add organic matter – essentially getting carbon back into the soil.  Why?  Carbon is the primary building block of all life and it is the fuel of the soil food web -from the zillions of bacteria and miles of fungal hyphae to the worms that feed on them.  We’ve been trucking in organic matter for years now – mostly wood chips, but also straw and manures; by the ton.  In fact, over the past five years I would estimate that we’ve surpassed 20 tons of raw material that we’ve either added directly to our soils (manures), or mulched (wood chips and straw).  That may sound like alot, but at least half of the carbon is lost to the air as part of the decomposition process (no fears for global warming as the carbon in wood chips and manure was atmospheric carbon just a year or so ago before it was sequestered by the plants), plus to add an inch to a 1/4 acre (11,000 sq ft) which is my yard (minus house and driveway)  you need to have about 9 tons of compost.  That’s 34 yards of finished compost, or over 100 cu yards of raw material.  Helping others get to this point is why I own a dump truck.

The result is that our soil is teeming with life and the gardens are really starting to “pop” this year with trees adding multiple feet of growth, 5+ cuttings of the Russian Comfrey, and sunflowers over 8′ tall.  We will continue to “uppen” our soils with compost and mulches for decades to come.  But I am trying to do this on as low of inputs as possible.  In the last 5 years we have built our garden soils up and the lawn is getting healthier every year.  It is time to try to see how sustainable I can make this system.  It is time to start growing my own soil.

To grow your own soil you need plants that pull carbon out of the atmosphere, which of course all plants do, but some do it really damn well.  I must tip my hat strongly to John Jeavons and his work on sustainable gardening here, but for annuals the choices are not too hard – what gets really damn big, with a thick stalk?  Think sunflowers, sorghum, corn, quinoa, amaranth, etc.  Add in all the small grains if left to dry out into straw and you get the idea.  Perennial crops are also money as well.  There are a wealth of BIG plants in the tall grass prairie – my favorites are cupplant, giant Joe Pye weed, sunchokes, and the myriad perennial sunflowers like maximillian and ox eye.  The true Big Guns in this area are rapid growth trees, often referred to as weeds, harvested as coppice such as willows, box elder, black locust, and even chestnut and ash.  Other “weeds” like lambsquarter, ragweed, and buttonweed get 6’+ tall , and even invasives like buckthorn coppice well.

Today I spent an hour touring the back yard with my Big Az 10 cu ft mulch wheel barrow, my sickle, and my new brush axe pulling weeds, hacking down old raspberry canes from last year, cutting back insurgent sunchokes, and taking the 4th cutting off the 60 or so russian comfrey I have around the gardens.  That produced an immense amount of green material – piling it into my utility trailer I easily had 80 cu ft.  That is far too much nitrogen for a pile so then I got out my loppers and a pruning saw and took some prunings from the buckthorn out back and two of our willow shrubs.  It wasn’t enough, but in a few years the 2 dozen box elders and  willows I have planted will be on line.  Here are the results.

about 100#'s of material, but dang is it bulky. Brush Axe is leaning on the trailer.

That is from one lap of the backyard – I can do this about 3-4 times a year at present.  In years past I just threw all the weeds into the compost bins, but it doesn’t work too well as the stalky stuff takes too long and the full size leaves mat up.  Now with the Bio-80 shredder it makes marvelous weed puree.

Entropy ala weeds. At least half that pile is/was comfrey so the compost will be awesome. The recycling bin is the chipped tree prunings - not enough to offset the greens, but its a start..

Now the Bio-80 is powered by gasoline, and I am likely to catch flak in the comments for burning dead dinosaurs to save the world.  I agree- its not ideal.  But I am building a transitional system and am not afraid to break some eggs to make an omelet.  The chipper is only 5hp and ran for about 20 minutes using less than a cup of fuel.  In future years I hope to find a way to power the chipper on methane from the ‘Midden or ethanol from a local co-op.  But for now I’m in bed with BP on this one.  One very cool option would be to use a chicken “shredder” to break down the green material – 4 layers in a confined pen would make short work of this over a week or so of adding an inch or two a day for the girls to scratch in.  Of course that is illegal here.  Working on that too…

This bin is 40" cubed and is about 66% full. This will settle almost 30% in the coming days. Making soil takes ALOT of plant material. Plant more trees!

Finally, it takes ALOT of plants to make a yard of compost.  A yard of finished compost weighs about 550#’s.  So the 100-150#’s of material that I put in, most of which was water that will evaporate out, is just a start. But every journey begins with a step.

I am very proud that this bin. When I add another weed lap in September, plus all the corn, cupplant, sunchokes, and sorghum stalks form the yard this fall, this cu yard of finished compost will be 100% homegrown.  As the gardens mature, I will begin getting leaf litter from the trees and willow and box elder coppice to add to it.  My gardens, minus paths, are about 3000 sq ft – that means that 4-5 cu yards could cover it all with .5″ of compost annually, which is alot if you are only maintaining fertility.  I can do that in about 5 years if I add more coppice trees; I am convinced that I can sustain the fertility of my gardens without additional inputs.

We can do this.

Be the change!

-Rob

2010 Spud Season Begins – New Technique!

Last Friday I got a call that my seed potatoes were in.   This year I used one of the several organic farms in central WI that specialize in spuds to source my seed – I save a bundle in shipping, and they make a bit too.  Its all good.  But as this was an ad hoc deal,  communication was not ideal and some wires were crossed.  Apparently some of “Rose Finn Apple *OR* La Ratte; German Butterball *OR* Kennebec” got a lost in the shuffle and all those “or’s” got changed to “and’s”.  So I have an extra 150#’s of potatoes — not a huge deal, but its an extra 20% more space.  And were were already feeling the crunch on the farm as each of the tenant farms is looking to expand this year.  Might need to rethink some of my cover/compost crop experiments…

Running the math – 750#’s works out to just under 6000 row feet with 12″ spacing.  The Kennebecs and Yukons get more like 8″, but still, that is well over a mile of potatoes to hill, water, and harvest.  Good thing I have that extra day off!  With seed in hand and low tunnels up, it was time to get crackin on planting.  2010 is going to bring several changes.  First, I am growing even more varieties: Desiree (storage), Carola (melt in your mouth good), Purple Viking (al purpose and gorgeous), Kennebec (baking), Nicola (favorite of my Chef client), Yukon Gold (early/potato salad), German Butterball (storage), “Flaming” (no idea, it was a substitute for Red Gold), and 3 fingerling (La Ratte, Rose Finn Apple, and French).   Second I am planning the harvest more betterer since harvesting/selling 8000#’s of spuds in a part time one man gig is no mean feat.  And finally, I am getting much more intentional with my growing technique which is what I would like to get into in this post.

Last year I ran 2 experimental plots.  The first, the potato towers, were an unmitigated failure.  The second was using deep straw mulch over fertile soils was a spudtacular success –netting over 3# per plant.   If I could get the same yields in field production my harvest would be over 9 tons this year from 750#’s of seed (24:1) – or more importantly I could cut my seed order and acreage in 2011 by over half.  Doing more with less sounds great to me.

Here is the technique I have worked out and will be field trailing as much as time allows:

2 30" beds with a 1' center path to fit under the Low Tunnels hold 4 rows of spuds

You may have noticed that it is still March and I am planting potatoes – this is the bed under the first low tunnel I built this past Febuary.  The rye crop LOVED the cover and was 18″ tall by March 22! – I mowed and turned it under last Friday using the rotary plow and then formed this bed.  The bed design is taken straight our of 4 Season Harvest: 2 30″ beds divided by a 1′ middle path.  This allows it to snuggle under a low tunnel (hoops laying to the left, plastic to the right) allowing me to plant as early as the soil can be worked – in this case 3 weeks early due to having to till under the cover crop; 2011 I will be in March wk 2.

But I am not one to rest on anyones laurels, not even Eliot Coleman’s.  In Chapter 12 of Alcohol can be a Gas, David Blume talks through a really intriguing method of doing raised beds.  Essentially a contour swale is dug every few beds and then this swale is filled with compost material and wood chips.  In Blume’s idea, these mulch filled swales are then inoculated with red wigglers who munch away, merrily composting in place.  But Blume is a Grade A permaculturist so look how cool this gets:  these are contour swales – so they fill with water every good rain.  That alone is great as each raised bed is now sitting on top of a lens of sub soil water greatly reducing or eliminating irrigation.  But his swales are full of worm turd, which is water soluble and that lens of water is now super fertile.  Plus the worms can’t live in the swale during the flood so they high tail it into your raised beds and happly munch away in there while manuring and opening up air passages with their burrows.  Awesome.  But the swale function stacking ain’t done yet.  Blume doesn’t mention this, but being full of wood chips – they will act as nurseries for soil fungi.  The paths are never tilled, just added to, so the fungi lives on.  And on and on to recharge your beds with mycelium even after the disruptive potato harvest.  How cool is this?

It just so happens that the rotary plow is wicked good at building raised beds with 1′ deep swales on each side.  Oh, and I just bought a cool Italian chipper that eat 2″ trunks for breakfast.  AND I am planting coppice trees by the hundreds.  Look at the picture again, you see the start of the wood chip swale (not on contour in this plot) for my own little Chapter 12 experiment.   This week I will get another 20 yards of chips in BART (it will take about 90 yards to fill all the swales!!)  And this afternoon the farm owner and I staked out the contour lines of the new potato plot (65’x170′).  This week we will disc it to give the horses a workout, and then build the beds with the Grillo and the rotary plow: 6′ beds each surrounded by a 2′ wide swale.  On contour and full of mulch and worms.  Gods I love this plan!

Mulch rather than hilling: 1 bale every 40' of 30" bed.

So the beds are made, but I want to take the learnings from my uber successful trial last year and scale them up.  The trial consisted of 3 things – shallow planting of the seed potatoes for easy harvest, then covering the seed in compost and a foot of straw.  the yeilds were insane and weeding and watering were almost eliminated.  So here we go: enter a crap ton of compost and straw and I am planting shallower to hopefully allow me to use the root digger for the Grillo (good thing with 6000′ of row to harvest!).  The photo at right shows me half way done with one of the 20 beds.  The spud seed is planted about 4″ deep, the soil raked flat and then I applied a .5″ layer of 3/4 finished compost and watered well.  Over this I added a 1-2″ layer of straw.   This works out to 1 bale every 40′ of 30″ bed.  As I expect to “hill” the potatoes again in about 4-5 weeks with another layer of mulch I expect each 6′ bed to take 8 bales total which works out to 160 bales for the entire plot.  Bales are about $2 each, but seeing as I sell my potatoes for $2/lb I fully expect to earn that back in harvest and the reduction in weeding, hilling and watering should more than make up for it regardless.

Here is where I get really excited about this plan.  First – there is 3 acres of prairie on the farm.  We burn an acre a year, and the farm owner has always dreamed of using the biomass (3-4″ of straw) off on of the others on the farm each year.  I’d rather not spend $300 on straw if I don’t have too, so we took a fork and a rake out to the blue stem prairie today for a look see and the straw came up fairly easy.  Next week we will drag a harrow across one of the prairie plots with the Draft Team to collect the straw to one side and then pile it up for future use as potato mulch.  Awesome.

I’ve been writing about the MASSIVE amounts of compost we will be making this year – 40 tons or so.  That is flippin awesome in and of itself, but it also takes ALOT of machinery and making the fuel for that machinery is alot of work.  Using the bed method above nature is doing much more of the work – Moving wheel barrow loads of mulch around ad forking it into the paths is pleasant work.  Chipping the coppice wood will still need fuel, but my chipper has a 5hp engine vs. the Bobcats 45hp one.  Also, this system can get very close to no till in a very big hurry.  Ruth Stout would be very pleased with all my mulching and I’d like to think that Fukuoka would be pleased with my letting the worms do my composting in place.  Its all coming together.

This system makes all kinds of sense so we are moving forward.  It will be a CRAP TON of work in the first year as I have to build 20, 80′ long raised beds from scratch, and then fill 1700′ of swale with 90 cu yards of wood chips.  But once the system is in place the work should drop off quickly as is to be expected in any permaculture design.  Stoked as all hell about this.

Be the Change.

-Rob

Week in Review — Staggering Progress!

What a Week!!

First off — the Big One.  Tuesday morning I received a call from the owner of the farm where I Market Garden… I am GO for the Uber Hoopty!!! That simple, and much desired, call broke the dam on all kinds of  items that I had sat on until now.  Final quotes are coming in from Rimol and Farm-Tek on 30×96 Hoop Houses, my Slow Money lenders all got calls and I finalized my loan agreements.  Emails went out to experts that I hope to collaborate with and I built the basics of my Kickstarter micro funding page (will release the project  next week).  OMG is this awesome.  Should break ground in 3-5 weeks on the Hoopty.  Odin’s Beard!

Also, big progress was made on the Gardening Workshop Finished the first draft of the outline for the Composting class.  This is a 2 hour class covering the basics of composting, and I will have 3-4 bins on site to demonstrate the various ways to build passive and hot piles.  At first, I was all -“how the hell am I going to talk about composting for 2 hours!”  At that, my wife laughed and laughed and laughed.  Of course she was right: the outline is 3 pages long…

Finally, progress at the farm.  Dropped 70 transplants into the GFC (Ghetto Fabulous Coldframe).  They are mostly oak leaf lettuce.  Its at least a week early, but the frost is out of the soil in there, I am antsy as all heckfire to start eating/selling fresh again, and I needed room in the germination table: these 3 flats had been decimated by voles or poor germination – leaving only 70 plants with true leaves out of 600 cells.  Also, the spinach in the small hoopty is up and several plants have true leaves.  With the sun forecast for the next week it is looking like  March harvest may happen after all.   Of note, the experiments in the small hoopty played out very well: putting a cold frame over the soil gave the plants almost a 10 day head start.  Putting large chunks of black bio char on the next bed got about a 2 day jump and stronger growth due to the 1-2 degree warmer soil temps.  The control beds are still germinating.  All good!  Shallots and Onions are up with some over 2″ tall and I have another 700 germinated lettuce seedlings and am continuing to start 200-300 a week.  Next week will see another round of onions, and the week after will be the tomatoes.  With the Uber Hoopty delayed I will not be in the ground on my April Wk 2 date, so I am starting later by about 2 weeks rather than have leggy vines.  On the coppice plantings end I started 36 fodder willow cuttings 3 weeks ago, and despite doing more than half the steps wrong, I have 75% of them sprouting.  In 2-3 years that will be an awesome amount of brush for compost shredding and worm mulch.  These things grow fast – most have 3″ of new branches already.  Dang!

Compost Update – Harvested 1.5 yards, about a third of the pile, from the winter bins last week to spread in the mini-hoopty’s.  The pile was about 1-2 turns from being done, but had cooked down enough that I am comfortable tilling it under once the frost is out of the ground.  Into that hole in the pile I began moving the half cooked pile from the small hoopty.  As I did this I layered in 6″ of snow between wheel barrow loads to increase moisture levels.  That pile is 153 degrees less than a week later and despite being on only one side of the water barrels, has brought the water temps up 20 degrees in one week back to 95 degrees.  I am certain we can make methane in this system. Jean Pain’s work WILL live on!

On the Energy Farm front I ran the math on how large my windrows need to be to achieve about 20 tons (80 yards) of finished compost .  The results are exiting and staggering: 10′ wide, 5′ tall, and 75 feet long … and I will need three!  Time to get the farmer’s old Oliver tractor tuned up, lube up the manure spreader and fill the dump truck with 10 loads of horse, sheep, lama, and cow manure.  20 tons of compost means about 100,000 lbs. of raw material.  Awesome!  Only thing I am struggling with right now is how to keep it moist during turnings- a commercial tripod sprinkler will likely be in my future.  Also, might lay drip tape on them after I turn them.

Prep for the Uber Hoopty means moving or chipping up a 30’x40’x8′ brush pile of 8 years worth of orchard and hedgerow prunings.  I have a used BCS Bio 80 shredder (pic) incoming to shred the compost crops later this year, but this job is likely too big for this chipper – it would take days and days.  Will likley be renting a trailer mounted chipper and filling the dump truck with chips.  And, yes, I am looking forward to that.  The Bio 80 is also made in a PTO driven model for the Grillo, but this one is 40% of the cost of a new one’s $1100.  With the left over money I can buy a Worm Wigwam. More to come on that!

On the renewable energy side my CSE partners have finished a distillation tower for a Charles 803 Ethanol Still and have sourced a massive stainless steel tripod mounted tank to act as the boiler to cook the wort and heat the ethanol for distillation.  Unit is nearing 75% complete.  Also we have a water bath methane digester just “laying around” (the farm is a magical place!) that will get final assembly in the coming months, and we are designing a Cyclonic Separator (does that sound cool or WHAT!) to hopefully purge the last vestiges of tar from our gasifier.  Add this all up  and we make the Market Garden into a true energy farm.

Things are stating to move at break neck speed – money is flowing in from my investors, and its flowing out even faster – I will have spent $15000 in less than a month.  OMG.  But I continue to hear from people all across the country how we are doing things that no one else is doing, and how inspirational that is.  Its scary as hell, but I am thrilled to be pushing the envelope and to have all of you along with me for support.  We will make mistakes, there will be failures, but we are doing something. Conviction + Action = Change.

Be the Change.

-Rob


Pimpin the Hoopty

So I now have 3 Hoopty’s: my mini, the small one (11×25), and I am using the farmers “workshop” hoop house (26×72) for starts and compost.  Living the gangsta life!  Still, there are ways to add functionality even to these uber cool structures.

Vole Hotels

This might not be the sexiest item you ever add to your Hoopty, but wait 6 weeks for your spinach to sprout, only to have it mown down that night by a vole and you will see their beauty.  Simply put, voles are the bane of the winter farmer (and many a summer one).  Hoop Houses are IDEAL environments from a voles point of view – their are predator free, warm, and in the case of my winter composting of restaurant waste, FULL of food.  The small Hoop House was invested by January (one round of breeding) with a record 6 seperate sightings in a 10 minutes period – that is in only 250 sq ft, mind you.  Voles are tricky to catch as they are very finicky about what they eat.   Fresh greens and seeds are strongly preferred, with the voles ignoring cheese and peanut butter in my experience.  They can be so bothersome that Eliot Coleman spends more ink on vole control in Winter Harvest than he does on growing his Candy Carrots.  Here is my interpretation on his solution:

Voles check in...

Here is why they work – voles get that they are rock bottom on the mammal food chain.  Hell, if a chicken can eat you, you’ve got issues.  Knowing that, voles hug walls and burrow for all they’re worth.  Running along a wall in a hoop house and hitting the side of one of these, the vole will gladly duck into the hole (1″ hole saw) as its nice and dark in there (keep them covered).  By placing a trap immediately inside the hole, one can capitalize on this tendency.  Its not my favorite thing, but its effective and necessary.  In the field one can over plant and take 30% losses from bugs.  In a hoop house or germination area, its easy to feel that EVERY plant is important.  These are 1′ x1′, making very good use of lumber with only about 5″ of waste in a 8′ 1×4.  With such small lumber – pre drill all your nail holes to avoid splitting.

Germination Table

I direct seeded some spinach in the Small Hoopty about 6 weeks ago… and they just now sprouted.  Why?  Soil temps are about 43 degrees.  Once up, they are growing fine.  To max out winter season growing, transplants are the way to go – the key is to get them to pop out of their seeds.   And that takes heat.  In my compost germination table I got lettuce to sprout in 5 days.  FIVE DAYS! All thanks to soil temps in the 80’s.  We have a big compost pile, but still only about 5 flats fit on it.  I have 2000 onions to start so, for this year at least, I need more space.  Enter the farmer’s Germination Table.  He has 4 2×4′ heating mats that we cover with a double layer of old greenhouse plastic to keep them dry, and thusly we can start 15 flats.  Once the seeds germinate the flats are moved off the mats and start another 15. Slick.

600 shallots, 1000 onions, and 1200 lettuces. Here come the BOOM!

The heating mats are on the left side of the table – the table will hold two small flats deep (4′) and 16′ across under the plastic.  During the day the front of the plastic is raised with a simple pulley system to allow the plants to breathe, and this also helps to harden them off a bit.  At night, or on cold, cloudy days, the cover of a double layer of greenhouse poly is kept lowered.  The mats are set to 75 degrees.  From left to right: 600 shallots soil blocked 3/block in 4 flats, 1000 onions soil blocked 3/block in 6 flats, and 1200 lettuce plants in 6 traditional flats.  The Alisa Craig onions could net as much as 1500#’s of harvest.  Awesome.

All tucked in for the night. The short sides will get folded and weighted down with a block of wood.

A 14′ 2×4 on top of 2 cinder blocks provides a tent that will span the flats.  All told 64 sq ft of flats can be kept climate controlled, or at least frost protected, and half that is on heating mats.  this system is simple and effective, having been in use for over 15 years.  Improvments could be made in the covering – light must go through 4 layers of poly to hit the plants – that is about a 40% reduction in strength which I would like to avoid, but insulation is the name of the game in Febuary.  Next would be to ditch the heat mats as they suck up alot of energy.  The Hoopty Compost is directly to the north (thawing the bins of soil in the background) and in Fall 2010 I would like to work up a heat exchanger of some kind between the compost and the table.  Whether that means moving the table over the compost, or using water to move the heat remains to be seen.

With over 2500 plants on the table the season is well under way!

-Rob

Mini Hoopty = 100% AWESOME

So this morning I met a friend, Lance for coffee and then headed up to the Market Farm to test out my new Quick Tunnel bender from Johnny’s Seeds.  Siting for the Uber Hoopty (30×96) is still underway, but in the mean time I have spinach and lettuce to get going so I opted to go small or go go home.  There is a very strong economics argument for these little tunnels – they are between 5% and 10% of the cost of a typical High Tunnel of the same area with a trade off in significantly more work to harvest and maintain.  Here is the price break down for the 3 beds I am planning on building (3 beds 6’x80′).

Grand total for almost 1500 sq ft under plastic?  $400.  The bender and the conduit essentially last forever, the sandbags and plastic will be good for 2-4 years – perhaps more as the plastic is only out 5 months of the year.  The 20′ chunks left over will be used in the Small Hoopty, and at our home beds.  I am hooked on these things.

Why?  Well, for one the 80′ row went up in 3 hours of pick a little, talk a little paced work despite 5″ of frost that we had to pound through.  The next one will go up in half that.  Next there is the solar gain – interior temps on a 20 degree day were over 60 in 90 minutes and we were still futzing withe synching down the plastic tight.  Damn.  Finally there is the earning / produce potential.  These will net me spinach and lettuce sales at least a month sooner – well over $100 a bed, and will then get me into baby potatoes over a month earlier – again at least $100 each.  Those of you mathey types will have already determined that I am at positive cash flow without labor costs.   These will then make growing sweet potatoes possible in our climate by protecting the slips for May planting.

Here are some pics of our adventures today:

Tabula Rasa. Great soil, but not producing much ...yet!

We had 6″ of snow 2 days ago, but today was sunny and no wind at all – ideal conditions!  20 degrees, but thanks to the sun we worked in long sleeves all day.  The plot above is about 25′ wide and the plot is 90′ long.

Quick Tunnel Bender bolted to my trusty trailer. Simple. Effective.

Not bad for a bunch of first timers! This tool is SUPER easy to use.

The first 15 pipes bent in under 15 minutes.  Yep, under a minute each.  It is simply not possible to overstate how well designed the bender is, nor how easy it is to use on 1/2″ conduit.  Quick, easy to learn, and consistent: our first bend was as good as our 17th.  It is so pleasant when a tool works BETTER than billed.  So very impressed – can you tell? Next we needed to pound through the frost – I found a 3/4″ diameter steel stake laying around and, when slammed repeatedly with an 8lb sledge, made quick work of the job.  Funny thing about BFH’s – they get shit done!

5' (ish) spacing. Next time we may be more particular about evening out the heights of the hoops, but it works!

This went smoothly, but took longer than anything in the job except scrounging long heavy things to weight down the plastic.  Having Lance help was great, allowing one to set the hoop while the other beat out a tempo with the sledge.

Tufflite laid out - it i important to not have much wind or this part would be a nightmare.

Final adjustments prior to pulling the plastic taut. Our Jack Russell, Jersey, provided helpful advice throughout.

Laying the plastic was simple, but we had NO wind.  Sandbags would make the final tightening much easier, but our scrounge boards and blocks worked alright for now.  2.5 hours in, but we were taking it easy and enjoying the awesome day – its not even noon and, look Ma!  No Jacket!

Lance admiring his work. Fast, effective, and simple. Outstanding!

3 hours front to back and the results are impressive.  Will let this cook the frost out for a week or so and then plant with spinach.  The other two will get lettuce and romaine.  4″ of snow and 5″ of frost out in a week?

Snow @ 56 degrees? I told you things were effective!

This was just in the 45 minutes it took us to pull the plastic taut.  After 90 minutes it was 62 degrees – laying on bare snow reflecting much of the heat.  I see why the Tufflite is only used in the dead of winter!

Next week once the sand bags get here, I’ll put up the other two as well as one in the Small Hoopty, Though given these temps, that may only be to break germination and then I will need to switch to Agribon.

Woot!

-Rob

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