Season Extension: Compost and Thermal Mass

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Rye cover and our beloved 25x11 portable Hoop House

I love the Hoop House at our Market Garden.  I love that I can harvest spinach in March.  I love that I can plant my tomatoes in late April and still be picking into October.  I love that it was 85 degrees in there today and 70’s in January are a reality in my little microcosm.  But as I mature, it is the more ephemeral things that matter… how it provides an ‘anchoring’ structure in our little .2 acre plot; something more substantial to draw the eye and provide contrast to row after row after of vegetables; the smell and feel of warm soil in January.   The picture above shows how the rye/feild pea cover crop is coming in.  Got a late start (as usual – “real” jobs get in the way ya know?), but it is doing alright.  The tilled strip in the middle was the last 200#’s of potatoes to come out of this plot, and has a .5″ high stubble of winter wheat coming in.

In years past I have planted spinach and mache in the hoop house, but always put it in so late that I never get a harvest until March and this year is no exception.  I typically get good growth and about 3 weeks prior to harvest (it takes forever with the short days in the winter) we get nailed with the Deep Freezes in early January when it gets down to -10 or so.  This kills everything flat.  The roots regrow in Febuary for a good harvest, but I would like to see what I can do to take the edge off that one or two weeks.

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Left: 1st week of compost Right: 250 Gallon "Pond"

I also have another winter problem.   I have arrangements with some local restaurants to compost their organic waste.  This nets us 100#’s or so a week… every week.  From November through April that means I have several cubic yards of slobsicles in my compost bins.  Building up my capacity to handle 4 months of gorp was the primary driver of our new Bin Of Dreams.  That bin is located on the north side of our garage and without direct sun, it takes a LONG time for 1500#’s of gorp to thaw out.  Will Allen at Growing Power composts year round in his hoop houses… perhaps I could as well.  So this year I am trying to kill both these birds with one stone.    The windrow is designed to be 4′ wide and has a 24″ tall fence to contain it somewhat and give me a 3-4′ height without a 8′ base width.  Eventually this will be 20′ long.  I have dreams of following the thermophyllic composting bacteria down the windrow (no turning) with composting worms.   Can I extend both my composting and greens season with the simple movement of 1500#s of gorp into the hoop house?  Time will tell.

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Its not a ghetto Koi Pond.... Its thermal mass!

In the past 2 winters I have had buckets and trash cans full of water in an attempt to add some thermal mass to the hoop house.  As I have said, it gets to be 80+ in there with 50-60 degree temp differences to outside air on good days.  But with only a single layer of plastic it sheds btu’s like a sieve.  The thermal mass in previous years has not been enough, it simply freezes solid eventually and effectually adds a cooling effect to the hoop house.  Rat Farts.  This year I have added a large fiberglass crate that hold several hundred gallons of water.  As you can see in the picture, to help this out, I have surrounded it with a foot thick layer of leaves for insulation on 3 sides, and will plant the spinach directly to the south.  In a further attempt to extend the season I amy dig out some row cover I found laying around and cover the spinach/compost/crate to keep the warm air around the plants.  Finally the entire Hoop House will get a 4′ wide “foundation” mulch to keep the frost from creeping in as long as possible while the north wall will get as many leaves piled against it as I can find.  Will this be enough to combat the utter lack of R value in the Hoop House?  Time will tell.  What is likely is that a double walled Hoop House with a bubble insulation system will be the way to go, combined with these techniques, if I want to go 4 season.

On a side note, I am trying to function stack the thermal mass.  I have added about 5 gallons of leaves and some finished compost to it to make the well water a bit more nutrient rich.  Then I walked down to the river and scooped up 5 gallons of river water and made sure to get a bunch of sludge from the bottom.  This water is full of critters and microorganisms.  I dumped this into the crate to “inoculate” the water and in a week or two I will add a handful of feeder goldfish.  Now it is very likely in my first stab at aquaculture I am dooming these goldfish to a cold death as fish cubes, but if they somehow don’t freeze solid the 250 gallons of microbe rich ecosystem should keep them alive.  And if the temps allow them to stay alive I will have also proven that I can sustain temps high enough to overwinter lake perch. Fish Fry anyone?

-Rob

Eco Evangelism


Look... Potato Soup!!

Look... Potato Soup!!

Lots of events coming up!

Tomorrow and next Wednesday my wife and I are off to staff some Slow Food events hosted by one of our Chef customers .  We will have the oppurtunity to educate the attendees on some of our favorite cultivars (we’ll have Kennebec, Purple Viking, Elba, Carola, and Desiree) as well as show how they can be combined with other easy to grow vegetables Garlic (Music), Onions (Red Baron) and Leeks (Blue Solaize) to create incredible hearty, healthy and sustainable food… with the dishes prepared by a gourmet chef!

Then, in less than a month, I will be participating in the Madison Bioneer Conference (From Here to There) as a panel speaker on Saturday afternoon 11/14 if anyone is in the area.  The event is promoting Real World solutions to food, energy, transportation, and community building to help us bridge to a Better Tomorrow.  A very strong focus will be on success stories already up and running in the area.  I am incredibly flattered that our little Suburban Experiment and small Market Garden were chosen to be part of such a cast of Heros (Will Allen is a Keynote speaker).  Very, very excited about this.

Bringing Bioneers 2009 Flyer

There are certainly enough headlines and anecdotal evidence out there to feed our inner Doomsday Voice.  It will be fantastic to be focused on evangelising on how far we’ve come in so little time (we  personally started less than 4 years ago) and using that message to inspire hundreds more to pick up the torch and start their own One Straw Revolutions.

Fukuoka lives on in our actions and we are forever in his debt.  More importantly we each have our own piece to add to the unfolding story that is our society’s answer to the challenges of our age.

Be the Change!

-Rob

Straw / Sheet Mulch Potato Update: SPUDTACULAR!

So its been a crazy month – I’ve missed you all!  We’ve harvested over 1000#’s of potatoes -and sold them- hitting farmers markets for the first time.  There is at least another post of stories there, but for now suffice it to say we love that we have become “the Potato People” in at least two towns and that feels great.

With the farm gardens under control again, I spent a beautiful half hour this weekend working through the Straw Mulch Potatoes that I had put in as a test of deep mulched potatoes (no updates on the towers yet – 2 of the three are still growing and the third blighted so bad I only got 3 spuds for 4 seeds planted).  The Straw Mulch bed had 10 plants, and had been sheet mulched with 3″ of horse manure a year ago, and then got another foot of straw thrown on top as the potato plants grew.  No additional fertilizer, no sprays, and not much irrigation was provided (an inconsequential 10 gallons total from washing out compost buckets).  My hypothesis was that the rich, untilled soil from the sheet mulching combined with the more constant soil moisture provided by the deep straw mulch would help tuber size and plant vigor.  On top of that I was very curious to see if there was any credibility to the claims of increased tuber set from the deep mulch, and how the harvest labor would compare.

First off, I am very pleased with the yield and am convinced (as much as one can be after one test) that super rich soil and deep mulching equates to better yeilds.  Here is my proof:

30#'s of spuds from 10 plants!!!

30#'s of spuds from 10 plants!!!

With an average yield of 3#’s per plant I would be getting 270#’s per row at the farm – a 50% improvement over my current technique – and I was already getting a solid 8.5:1 harvest ratio!   I planted this bed with 4 medium sized Purple Vikings – just under 2#’s.  Yes you got that right – a 15:1 ratio which is near record yields for even conventional farmers.

To put that another way if I can scale this technique up and apply it to my current spacing (3′ rows, 14″ spacing)  I could get 43,500#’s per acre which equates to 18,600,000 million calories.   With the blight coming in growth was stunted and overall tuber size was down compared to what I expect from Purple Viking.  One plant had over 15 potatoes on it – but only a few over 3 oz and most had 8 or more.  If those had sized up to the typical 8oz+ …no I’m not gonna run that math, I’m getting faint from the possibilities!  Sheet mulching an acre will take 400 yards of horse manure – this system isn’t for the faint of heart- but my “base” soil is deader than a doornail so a larger trial at the farm on rich soil will be on the docket for next year.

As others have found, and I have begun to suspect, there was no addition tuber set that I could attribute to the deep mulch – the spuds were located low on the vine as usual, but the soil was evenly moist and full of worms.   Harvest was a breeze, though not as easy as the bucket method – just pull the straw back,  ruffle the moist, rich soil with your fingers, and pluck our spud, after spud, after spud, after spud.  ZERO lost spuds to pitchfork foibles to boot.  As a strip crop between young swaled permaculture tree crops this could be a VERY productive system to pay the bills as the chestnut / orchard comes on line.  Plus from my experience you get a significant net INCREASE in organic matter and it is very close to no till.

Can organic farming feed the world?  Show me a conventional farmer hitting 18,000,000 calories per acre .

FU Monsanto.  You’re Round Up Ready?  Big deal…  this system is Peak Oil Ready.

Be the Change!

-Rob

PS: Here is a detailed and technical study of straw mulch for potato growing in Germany.  Graphs – oooo shiny!

Pimp my Garden

Now that is a show I might actually watch!  Instead, I will work on the pilot episode right here in South Central Wisconsin.  Steady readers will know of my successes and my struggles as I try to eke out produce from the denuded, dead soil that are so common here in HOA land.  Our first garden in 2005 was pathetic – corn 3′ tall in soil completely devoid of anything resembling fertility or life.  Within two years we were harvesting over 500#’s from that soil as we worked in organic matter: composting anything that didn’t move fast enough to escape the manure fork.   I read voraciously of Coleman, Permaculture, and Jeavons on how to maximise productivity and most importantly build soil.  That success whet my appetite for more – so in 2008 we branched up to a market garden at a permaculture farm north of here.  We grew 1500#s of potatoes and another 500#’s of spinach, squash tomatoes, flour corn and peppers and became “professional” growers turning a tidy little profit and paying for capital investments in my Grillo and other tools.  But man is ever one to push his limits – and all the time away from the home gardens came to haunt me in a massive insurgence of Quack Grass completely overrunning my now fertile garden beds by the end of 2008.  But I gave it little heed – I had grown 200,000 calories!  I was a FARMER at last.

Over the winter I planned ever grander schemes at the Market Gardens – almost doubling the potential harvest.  Gently voiced concerns from my wife, and many others, about time at home and sheer physical limitations began to add strength to that little, all too easily squelched, voice in my head whispering hubris! and tales of Icarus. And then, for better or worse, I separated my shoulder joint in June playing soccer and was forced to take the month of July to reflect on what I had done.   At home the quack was winning on all fronts, my kids were asking -daily- if I would be home the next day, and the lambsquarter at the Market Garden were taller than me.  My wings were melting in the sun.

Thanks to more than a little help from my friends, we got the Market Gardens back into shape.  My wife, unable to let the home gardens descend any further into The Abyss, reasserted herself as the Real Gardener in the family taking the home gardens and making them shine.   Her plants are out producing mine by significant margins.  We won some rear guard actions against the quack and secured 20 bales of straw and 20#’s of clover seed to hold our ground and Dig In.  Now, the potato harvest is coming in strong, we’ve put up record amounts of pickles, jam, and sauce, and Late Blight has taken care of the overabundance of tomatoes I planted.  We will not do any fall crops this year- opting rather to trade potatoes for storage crops of squash and turnips.

Back to the home garden.  It is stable, but is in need of an overhaul.  It is currently very productive – with great soil tilth and growing organic matter content.  But it takes far too much work due to the fact that all 7 60 sq ft beds are surrounded by field stone to protect them from the rushing waters that come down the swale (half our backyard) in heavy rains.  Those 7 beds add up to over 400′ of edge that I have to weed whip weekly and 400′ that the quack can get in under.  Also, the beds are separated by paths that are 3-4′ wide – meaning I have almost as much path space as growing space.  Because the quack comes in every spring / fall I literally have to tear down the field stone border of each bed (1000#’s of stone), turn it all, and sift out the rhizomes.  It sucks.  It also takes a month of weekends – time I don’t have.

So in the next month we’re going to Pimp My Garden.  Ever wondered what garden you would make if you “knew then what you know now?” Here is my answer:

The field stone is getting yanked – all 4 tons of it- and piled up somewhere – maybe to be a root cellar or stone oven someday.  The fertile soil will get pulled out, piled and covered with straw to protect the ecosystem some.   Then the subsoil, along with all the paths will get “grillo’d” to a depth of 1′ using the rotary plow to chop up the quack rhizomes.  After that bakes  in the sun for a week, it will get grillo’d again with a tiller, and I will dig a trench 1′ thick along the entire perimeter.  The new garden will be a giant “box”: 32’x40′ built of 15 reclaimed douglas fir timbers 3″x12″x16′ long each weighing over 50#’s, terraced 4 times to match the slope of my yard.  To the bottom of these, and extending down into the trench I plan giving the quack grass The Finger and laying a rhizome barrier.  Perhaps 12″ roofing flashing, but maybe just 6 mil plastic.  Eff you Quack.

Then the tilled up sub soil will get sprinkled with blood meal and onto this I will pile as much manure as I can get – I have sources lined up from a veritable Ark of livestock: Horse, Cow, Llama, Worm, and Chicken -networking is a fine thing!.  Its a good thing too, as I will need 50 cu yards of it to fill the bed!!  The manure will then be inoculated with 50 gallons of forest / prairie soil for microbes and 20 gallons of red wigglers from Growing Power, 200#’s of Green Sand for mineral balancing and better veggie nutrition.  This will then covered with pallet sheets of cardboard  2 layers thick (1/2″) and the soil piled back in with a VERY careful eye paid to any quack rhizomes.   Then the whole works gets planted to rye/vetch/field pea mix under a light straw mulch.

Finally, a 5′ “moat” will be tilled around the gardens and replanted to white dutch clover as a living quack barrier.  If I have any energy or time left before November -very doubtful- I would like to plant several hundred flowering natives and perennials around this barrier as well for beauty and beneficials, but that will likely be in the spring or later.

When done, the garden space will have almost tripled to 1000′ of growing space (1:20th of my lot) due to extending the beds by 12′ in length and removing much of the path space.  My edge will have dropped from 400′ to 160′ and the quack will be dealt a Deathblow.  In addition, I will have soil of unbelievable richness and fertility and 10 3′ “beds” of 100 sq ft to play with.  Perhaps I will be able to be no-till by 2011 after I pull the last vestiges of quack out in 2010…  But most importantly it will allow us to shift everything but the potato crop back to our home gardens – keeping me at home and allowing me to share my learnings with our children to teach them these vital skills – or just to be home to see their latest Lego ship or crayon drawing.

This will be a shit ton of work, but I will be in Hog Heaven as there is nothing I like better than building soil: schlepping manure, inoculating,  sheet mulching and running my Grillo.  Plan is one month of weekends, maybe 3 weekends if the weather holds. Also, the kids can help and it will all be in my own backyard rather than 10 miles away. This will be a Garden of Legend.

I will grow 2000#’s of food in my own yard …with the help of my mini Permaculture Orchard and edible landscaping.  Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Be the Change.

-Rob

Potato Towers Month 4!

Yeah, you got that right.  Month FOUR.  Potatoes are supposed to be half dead, wretched looking things at much past 90 days, but tower #1 went  in Apil 27 and is still vibrant and strong.  The spuds I field planted at the same time have only wispy desiccated brown leaves left – some are already decomposed.  Here is Tower 1:

Tower #1 Month 4With almost 3′ of root zone, This tower could be very productive if the theory holds.  Flowering for the 4th or 5th time – the repeated deep hilling as levels are added to the tower is acting like a “reset button” for the life cycle of the plant: each time it will stop flowering, and put more energy into growth and converting the former stalk to root.  My one concern is when to let the top growth go – I figure it will take a syck amount of leaf area to produce enough sugars to grow 25-50#’s of potatoes.  The main reason the plants die back is that they are pulling all their sugar into the tubers and there is no where near enough leaf are to do that now – will the longer season have offset that?  This may be the last rung on this tower and I have hit it with Fish Emulsion to give it some boost.  Still very little pest or disease pressure – though the University Extension just sent out a Late Blight (of Potato Famine Fame) bulletin – it’s in Wisconsin and stiking terror into all us organic potato growers – it can wipe out a field in as little as a week.

Towers 2/3, which went in 2 months later, are doing fine with one variety – I believe its the Purple Viking- having about 6″ more growth (1 rung).

 

Only about 5 weeks in and over 20" of root zone.  These guys are vigorous!

Only about 5 weeks in and over 20" of root zone. These guys are vigorous!

 

Tower 2.  Great leaf coverage, but about 25% slower growth than tower 3 with only about 15" of root zone.

Tower 2. Great leaf coverage, but about 25% slower growth than tower 3 with only about 15" of root zone.

At the same time I put in Towers 2/3 I also planted a double row of Purple Viking in a Straw mulch.  Initial Results were very solid, but the limits of this system are becoming apparrent.

 

Purple Vikings with 6 weeks growth using straw for "hilling".  5 Gallon bucket for scale.

Purple Vikings with 6 weeks growth using straw for "hilling". 5 Gallon bucket for scale.

The issue I am having now is that the bed is getting freaky wide- the straw keep sloughing off to the sides as I try to add height. this is about the limit I think I can reach without adding an insane amount of straw to the outside of the bales- I have already lost 2/3’s the path on each side.  If yields are good, next year I can see “fencing” the bed with full bales to give it some structure, “hilling” with loose straw inside, and post harvest turning the whole thing into a giant sheet mulch or fungus bed.  Again, this could be a VERY productive way to de-lawn a hundred square feet of your lawn over 18 months.

On a final note, here is a shot of what the yeilds of the towers will be up against:

 

Current Record harvest for 1 Yukon Gold Plant: 3.5#'s!!

Current Record harvest for 1 Yukon Gold Plant: 3.5#'s!!

This is the best yield for one plant (3 sq ft) so far.  At this rate, a tower will beat field spuds in yield per sq. ft at bout 5#’s per tower.  Expecting the bar to go up as I harvest the higher yielding cultivars like Kennebec and Purple Viking.  Still, this was a GREAT yeild for one Yukon plant.  My challenge in the field is to figure out how to ge this much (about 2.25x normal) from each plant!

Weather remains crazy mild – we have yet to break 90 ?! — and extraordinarily dry.  My sunchokes and Cupplant are withered and dropping leaves – these are hardy native perennials.  Even the week with 1″ of rain only bought a brief reprieve – the soil is dry down several feet and will likely not recharge until winter.  That said, the humus rich soil at the market gardens are doing much better.  The yukon yield above is from an unirrigated plot.  Yet another reason I like to plant spuds early to take advantages of the June rains.  The Late Plantings will likely suffer significantly in tuber weight due to the low rain.  On the flip side – tomato flavor is UNREAL since the fruits are not nearly as watery.

  While the shoulder injury has been a pain, it has really forced me to SLOW DOWN which has had the benifit of increasing that most important farming / permaculture skill of observation.  If I am only harvesting at 50#’s an hour v. 100#’s I spend more time looking at pest damage, tracking soil moisture and tilth, and just plain thinking which is making me a better person.  A time to reap, and a time to sow…

Be the Change!!

-Rob

6′ Tall Weeds…

Funny thing happens when you build amazing soil, add a week or so of rain, and have taken a month off of farming. The good news is that I could readily see the reason why inter-row weeding with the wheel hoe is worth it at about 30 days from sowing the seed potatoes – the rows where I did this had very, very few weeds since the vigorous spuds had out-competed them.  The rows I missed, well lets just say I needed two hands to pull up the Amaranth, and the Lambsquarter I needed to put my back into play.  I had a 80′ row of 5-7′ tall weeds, with some isolated Amaranth specimens the size of mature dogwood bushes.  Sorry no pics (forgot the camera)- but trust me, the weeds were impressive.  

Though I still have some naggin pain which isn’t seeming to ever fade, I have 90+% back in my shoulder and most of the issues are as much from muscle atrophy as the injury.   I worked for 5 hours today, with almost no consideration given to the injury, so how it feels waking up tomorrow will be interesting.  All plots are now back in manageable condition – it is amazing how much work can be done in a day, and I definitely owe a debt to the crew of Michael Field’s students that pulled weeds 2 weeks ago in my late potato plot. And yes, I realize how amazing it is to have a crew of organic farming students helping out during my injury!

On the harvest side things are just beginning to trickle in: the first cucumber is in, I got 2 peppers from the Hoop House, and have been getting tomatoes for 2 weeks from the Hoop House as well -though they are splitting very early and have had no edible ones yet since they are rotting by the time they are red.  If I can figure that splitting out (they get steady water so it ain’t that), I must say that Silvery Fur is one of the most productive varieties I have ever seen – I have counted 4 dozen tomatoes (mature size about 4-5oz) on just one vine!  That is about 20#’s of tomatoes from 3 sq ft!!  In about 2 weeks I will have more produce than I know what to do with.  My restaurants can take up to 30#s a week, and we plan on canning / freezing a lot this year -August will be NUTS!

From a spud standpoint I am on the last rows of my Yukon Potatoes.  With 50#’s planted, I have about 175# harvested, with another 80-120#’s in the ground.  Figure just a bit over a 1:5 ratio, but given Yukons rep for low yields and that over half were harvest at baby size (33% mature weight but OHH so good!) I don’t feel to bad about that.  Carolas will likely be next and in about a month I will be swimming in spuds and ready to begin deliveries to my commercial clients.  Again, August will be nuts and thank the gods that the shoulder seems to be mending.   Dear god, I have 1750-2250#’s left to harvest…  

Hopefully the market holds at $1.50 to $2 per pound – I plan on building (finally!) my Bio-Diesel production unit ($600), doubling my home’s garden space ($400), buying a freezer ($300), building a root cellar ($500), and thanks to the new tax credit possibly a down payment on putting in a wood stove ($4000) with the proceeds.  Al-Queda has poppies, I have potatoes…

Happy Harvest Everyone!

Be the Change.

-Rob

Cooperative Harvesting

So with the shoulder blown for a month or more and literally thousands of pounds of spuds in the soil I need to both rest my wound and harvest my potatoes.  Employees are not really an option as the paperwork headache of insurance, tax withholdings, etc is not worth it at this scale.  Perhaps I can “get by with alittle help from my friends…”

Here are my 2 favorite solutions I and others have come up with:

Potato Aid Parties

We like to throw parties, and are aspiring foodies.  Most people that we know love our potatoes and love to visit the farm, and many have offered help.  Put these together and we’ve come up with this idea:

  • Invite several families to the farm
  • They bring their favorite potato recipe and ingredients (sans potatoes!) to make it, and I supply the beer, harvest forks, and bushel baskets
  • We all take a farm tour and then harvest potatoes for a hour or two (3-500#’s)
  • We crank up the grills, gasifiers, and fire pits and roast, boil, and skillet up a storm
  • After eating our fill, everyone leaves with as many potatoes as they want and we keep the rest to take to our clients that are counting on some spuds.

Modified “U Pick”

A U Pick farm will not solve my issue of getting spuds to my very crucial restaurant clients, but what if I tweaked the business model slightly?  Instead of charging $’s per pound, I charged “pounds” per pound?  To put it another way – for every pound a customer takes, they harvest me 1 or 2#’s.  This gets people out to the farm to eat my harvest, but more importantly gets me some harvest to sell to my clients.

As I planted more than double what I needed this year in a fit of hubris,  either of these plans accomplishes my goals of getting 1400#’s of potatoes to my restaurant clients while simultaneously doing so without me re-injuring my separated shoulder.  It is healing nicely, so I may only need to have help for 2-3 more weeks.  Ideas are welcome!

Gotta love the hurdles life throws at you, but on the flip side I have apparently fallen in love with playing soccer which may very well inspire me to lose that 20#’s I’ve put on since high school and gets my legs back to the point where I can run a 5k in under 21 minutes again.  Judging by today’s run, I’ve got 10 minutes to go on that, but I am both stubborn and driven.  

A man can dream, and fitness is intrinsically good.

-Rob

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