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.


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.


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!


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.



Ghetto Fabulous Cold Frame: a Photo Essay

The owner of the farm I rent my land at is a Master Scrounger.  Scrap steel, fiberglass molds, barely working engines, and barrels and tubs of all sizes lay around in somewhat organized disarray.  Last year I helped him restack a few dozen 3’x6.5′ panels of tempered glass from a retail store front and have been waiting for this day ever since.  My vision?  A Ghetto Fabulous, monster sized, uber cheap cold frame.  Step one started, as do many of my harebrained ideas, on Craigslist.  I found a guy 5 miles from here with 100 bales of oat straw for $2.50 a bale so yesterday I motored over with my TDI Golf, trailer in tow, to load up.  17 bales fit oh so nicely, and with the ground frozen solid I was able to drive right up to the mini Hoop House.

This is why I don't drive a Prius... 42mpg pulling 800#'s of straw!

Once the straw was on site and chucked over the fence it was time to start breaking ground.  With the recent rains we lost over half the snow, but the resulting ice proved to an issue.  The top 2″ of soil were not fun to break through, but below that was frost free.  The plan was to scrape free the snow below the bales so that they rested on bare soil as much as possible.

I opted to use my wicked tough 4" Rogue Chopping Hoe rather than a pick axe. The first few swings needed a lot of wind up, but then progress was steady.

I intended to lay out the bed on an East – West Axis, again to minimize shadowing, with the beds about 5.5′ wide and at least 15′ long.  The width of the beds was determined by the length of the glass, the length of the beds is to avoid the shadow from the tree wind break located 30′ to the west, and I want to avoid the footprint of the planned 26×72 Hoop Structure to the East.  Here is a shot about 25% through the job (30 minutes) with the layout taking shape:

The soil dug from the foundation is piled into the bed.

You can see that there is alot of soil being moved.  This is entirely on purpose for several reasons.  A bale of straw is well over 12″ tall and casts a heck of a shadow in the low light angles of mid winter.  So I sunk the south run of straw about 4″ into the soil.  This, combined with the natural south slope of the plot makes for about a 5″ drop over the course of the cold frame.  That is good, but I want better.  For every 5 degrees of slope you gain about 125 miles of latitude to the south.  So the soil from the excavation is piled into the beds, and once melted, will be “leveled” to give additional slope to the interior of the frames to maximize solar heat gain.  Finally, the black soil will reduce the Albedo Effect of the white snow reflecting the heat to further increase internal temps and hasten the melting of the snow and frost in the frame.

The cold frame is really taking shape. 6' of glass bows a bit without support so I reused the bamboo stakes from '09's tomatoes for bracing.

Some of the glass no longer had their frames and were bowing more than I thought prudent.   Luckily I had kept the 6′ bamboo poles I used for tomato stakes last year and they worked fantastic.  Time on farm at this point was about an hour and change – much of that spent lumping glass which was stored about 100 yards away.  I’ve had more fun than walking that far carrying 60# plates of glass over icy ground  in winter winds…  But it was worth it:

Viola! about 70 sq ft of cold frame in under 2 hours.

The straw cost $40, but will get used at least 4-5 more times (mulch for potatoes, then squash, then shredded for compost, then fed to worms, and their poop put into 2011’s cold frames 🙂 ).  I realize that few people will have 6-7 panels of tempered glass just laying around, but salvage windows, storm doors, etc are remarkably common if you keep your eyes open all year.  Will it work?  Well with one panel still to go on, no loose straw chinked into all the gaps, and the thermometer literally resting on frozen soil, the interior was registering 46 degrees as I laid the last panel on.  Outside air temp was 21 with a steady 12 mph wind – easily enough to kill spinach and kale, let alone the lettuce I have in mind for this cold frame.  Wind is the biggest issue in winter.  If you can keep temps over 20 (25 better still) you can grow a remarkable amount of food if you shelter the plants.

This cold frame will hold  250-300 heads of Romaine.  Early lettuce will command $4-6/lb, which means that my straw and $2 in seed will net a profit of several hundred dollars for my labor.  More importantly my family will be in for fresh romaine in less than 3 months.  Awesome.  Next week I will build another (got 4 blisters today that need to heal), and may put a small one in the hoop house for kicks.


Winter Farming: Compost… Potting Mix… Sprouts!

Jan Wk 3 Sprouts - no heat mat!!

Things are really starting to get moving at the Market Garden.  Last week saw the first seeds sown into flats, and I am VERY pleased to report that the first Oak Leaf lettuces are sprouted!  And in only 5 days!!! These seeds were bought essentially on a whim – I had forgotten a packet at home and was at Menard’s for something else.  Seeing organic Oak Leaf seeds for $2 I figured wth?  That $2 will seed 4 flats of 200 -enough for a 3 x 60′ foot bed (spaced for small heads).  Not too shabby!    The 3 flats that have yet to sprout were planted with pelletized seed from Johnny’s – a Jericho Romaine and a  Red Butterhead.  They look to be 2 days behind the pure seed – likely due to the clay pellets needing more time to soak up water.

First lets talk about the compost heating method.  This is the same pile we started back in the first week of December to mimic Growing Power’s techniques in using Hoop Houses to allow for 4 season composting.  At home, my piles, even my monster 4 bin system, freeze solid by Christmas.  Will Allen’s Hoop Houses cut the wind and gain enough btus during the day to stay hot all winter.  Our pile is still truckin along at 120-130 degrees without turning and is going on week 7.   having that kind of heat is dang useful.   So when the time came to start my lettuce for the cold frames, rather than unroll the 12′ heat mat, I scraped the top of the beds flat and nestled in 4 flats of lettuce.

800 lettuce transplants - heated by thermophilic bacteria

The two scraps of lumber are to prop up the greenhouse plastic I keep over it at night to lock in the heat from the pile.  This will stop once the rest of the flats germinate as its wicked humid in there and mold is already creeping in.  Mold.  In January!  Here is a “proof” shot of the soil temp under the flats.  This is a 24″ compost thermometer run horizontal under the flats.

87 degrees (air temp outside 22, inside 38) - yep that should do it!!

A bit more on the compost pile.  While we haven’t fully turned it, we have primed it a bit.  Every week we add about 10 gallons of material by digging a hole in a section and pouring in two buckets of gorp from the coffee shop.  We then cover this will about 4″ of leaves.  As the pile dries out we shovel snow onto the top and this seems to be keeping it nice and evenly moist.  The worms are loving it – we are seeing our first hatchlings now which is super exciting.  The wigglers move around an amazing amount in search for the conditions they want – the right mixture of food, temperature, acidity, and moisture.  Its super fun to try to guess where they have moved to on any given day.

The compost pile has been used for the past months to melt and heat all sorts of things.  First off, we buried two 55 gallon drums in the piles while we made it.  The thought was that we might need to heat the barrels with the gasifier to keep the pile warm enough for the worms.  Yeah Right!!  The pile has since heated the water up to as high as 110 degrees, and is still at 102.  If you have read any Jean Pain, you will be thinking what we are – if you can get 55 gallons of water to 100-105 degrees, you can make methane (stay tuned on that one!!).  A few weeks ago I went and dug up 5 cu ft of soil from one of our compost planting beds.  These beds are the end product of 10 years of composting municpal leaves on the farm.  The most mature bed is about 50×50 and is pure leaf compost (decade old) for about 18-24″ deep.  It is GORGEOUS.   I took a pick axe, hacked through the 4″ of frost and excavated a wheel barrow load of this compost/soil for my seed starting mix.  That soil was really dang cold and had chunks of frost in it, so I filled up some 18 gallon tubs and tossed them on the compost pile.  3 days later they were all thawed out.  Awesome!    Today I decided to take the time to make a Big Batch of seedling mix, and managed to take some pictures.  I am not real finicky – I basically take 3 parts compost soil to 1 part peat moss and then soak it down with a thin fish emulsion mixture.  Before I add the water, I sift the mix twice (1/2″, then 1/4″) to make it very fine.  The flats I am currently growing in were unsifted – this batch is for soil blocks.  Here is my sifter which was built by the farm owner:

Slick system - the sifting boxes are stackable which makes for quick work about 1 cu ft every 5 minutes

The top tray has a 1/2″ grate on it  and is nested on top of a 1/4″ screen.  Both are simply hardware cloth screwed to the bottom of the frames.   The Sifter frame is 2×2 pine with 2×4 bracing around the top.  The plywood is 1/4″ and provides alot of stability.  The internal “chutes” allow for a reduction in the sq footage so that a rubbermaid or some other container can catch the product.  Because they are angled, you still have enough room on the top for a good push/pull stroke.  I built one of my own at home and sized it to drive my smaller wheel barrow under it and skipped the nested sifters, opting for only the 1/4″ – though if I were to do it again I would compromise for 3/8″ in the name of speed.  The results?

"Junk" compost. This is typically put back into the compost pile.

Yes, this is even better in real life. GORGEOUS!

The peat moss gives it fantastic texture and prevents the mix from drying out.  I have some conerns about the peat moss – its not exactly renewable.  At the same time, one bag gets me enough to do something like 1-2 yards of potting soil which will let me grow upwards of 2000#s of food.   Next season I will have a shredder for the Grillo and will try to grind up some leaves into ittty bitty bits (shredder comes with a 3/16″ screen)to mimic this and will do a side by side.   Leaves are more readily decomposed, so those little bits may tie up nitrogen.  Time will tell.  In 30 minutes I made about 5cu ft of potting mix.  As is usual with home made products it should prove to be superior to store bought.  Why?  The compost soil I used was never pastuerized to kill “harmful” organisms.  That means that my seedlings will be living in a rich soil food web of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and worm casings (which will hatch alone with the seeds!).  All in all it was a great few hours on the farm.

Happy January!


First Seeds, First Sowings

Today marked the official start of the 2010 growing season!  This morning I pitched my expanded “grow list” to my first restaurant client and it went smashingly – agreements from this one account will double my gross revenue from 2009 —and it was the smaller of my two clients last year.  Main increases will be in duration rather than volume – I expect to be marketing produce for a full 32 weeks in 2010!  From March’s Frost Kissed Spinach to December’s storage crops of onions, potatoes, carrots, and squash this looks to be a great year.  With some luck in storage next winter, the 2011 “season” may see produce sales all 12 months of the year.  Awesomeness.

More immediately important ,this afternoon I planted the season’s first seeds (70 sq ft of Bloomsdale spinach) and placed my first order for seeds.  The Hoop House (11×25, not the proposed monster Hoopty) soil is still completely frost free, but is wicked dry. I went no till: first scraped the soil with a scuffle hoe to clear the tomato debris from October, then “lifted” the soil with my U-Bar digger, then raked if flat and hand seeded the beds.   Tomorrow I will plant another section with another variety of spinach.   My favorite part was “watering” the seeds with 10 bucket loads of snow; it will be 35+ degrees and sunny for the next three days and I will have melted by noon tomorrow in the 80 degree heat. The first seed order for the season was for some purslane (favorite of the landowner) and half my onion seeds – about 3000 starts.  Ailisa Craig, and two cippolini types: Red Marble and Gold Coin – I will begin onion starts in only a few short weeks, hopefully in soil blocks (expect a post there).

Hoop Houses make the winters very short indeed!


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