Latitudinal Thinking for 4 Season Harvesting

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

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

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

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

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

Be the Change.


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


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!


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!


Enter the House of Pain

Jean Pain that is.  Until Ed posted some links a few days ago in the Hoop House Comment-palooza I had never heard about Jean and his wife Ida.  Wow am I glad he tipped me off.  Thanks Ed!

Jean Pain worked during the late 60’s and through the 70’s in the Provence region of France caretaking a large track of dry land forest.  This forest, as much of the Mediterranean rim was very prone to fire and Jean worked to remove brush to cut down the risk of catastrophic fire events.  Leaving the brush piles in the forests here in temperate Wisconsin would allow it to decompose readily, but in the very dry conditions in his area, carbon is cycled more readily by fire than biological decomposers.  Being a tinkerer and rogue spirit, he then sought ways to use that “waste” wood for something useful and began experimenting with methane gas production and composting.

Jean would make MASSIVE compost piles – up to 80 cu meters! – of water soaked shredded brush built around a 10′  tank filled with a slurry of compost and water that he would use to produce methane gas.   Temperature in the methane digester was regulated by wrapping coils of tubing around it and then another several hundred feet of tubing laid in coils throughout the pile.   Water would be pumped through the tubing cooling the tank, with the “waste” heat being used for space heating of the Pain’s home, greenhouses, and for their household hot water – average temps in these massive piles was 140 degrees!  These piles would then produce methane gas and 140 degree water for up to 18 months – in enough quantity for him to heat his 1000 sq ft home for 2 winters and produce enough methane gas for all their cooking and transportation needs.

I am still digging for more information on the Pains, and it seems you can get 90% of the availible information digested in about 90 minutes.  If anyone has a line on Jean Pain’s 88 page handbook “Another Kind of Garden”  you have found a buyer…

Start with the You Tube videos which are  low on quality due to their age, but super high on content:

Part 1

Part 2

Then go to my perrenial favorite storehouse of Information to Save the World:

Journey to Forever

And end up at:

The Permaculture ActivistMother Earth News

and finally Wikipedia.

Put it all together and it is no wonder why I am so in love with this guy: using waste wood to save the world by a beautiful mix of applied forestry, some Grade A tinkering, gardening, commercial scale composting, methane digestion, wrap it all up in a permaculture design 10 years before the word was coined, and add a healthy mix of military surplus trucks and wheel barrows for good measure.  Jean tracked his methods with a true scientific rigor – measuring inputs of petrol, liters of water and the rate, size and weight of the compost piles, and constantly worked to improve his designs.

Here are some questions that I hope to answer in my studies and through those that know more about Jean’s work:

  • How the heck did he get a pile to heat to 140 that has a C:N ration of 80:1?
  • How the heck did he keep it there for up to 18 months?
  • Why doesn’t the pile go anaerobic due to its size?
  • Where can I get a truck like the one in the opening shot of Part 1?

Is one of these in my future?  I think we found yet another reason that a commercial grade chipper may be making it into the Hoop House Business Plan…

Be the Change!


Hoop House Permaculture Brainstorm: Input Welcome!

Many readers will know that I am a Big Fan of Hoop Houses (aka High Tunnels) as low cost, easily erected, functional structures.   Last Spring I was part of a group that submitted a grant proposal chasing some of the Stimulus Money.  Obviously we failed (should have said we were expanding an interstate), but the idea of a structure producing, food, fuel, and resources in a linked system has lived on.   While I spent much of the early Fall leaning strongly towards re-committing to perfecting the small scale agriculture / Suburban Permaculture model here at the Home Site, the last 2 months have given me cause to rethink that; I am more convinced daily that The Funnel is closing faster than I had let myself believe and it is time to Get Busy.

So here is my challenge to all of you: Help me design a permaculture system within a 30′ wide x 70’long  x 12′ high Hoop House and I will pitch it for funding.

Here is the design criteria:

  • Produces Food
  • Produces Fuel
  • Produces Resources
  • Is self sustaining in terms of funding – we want sale-able products valued at least $10k annually (money being a convenient current measure of “surplus” goods and productivity)
  • Use of only local inputs acquired on farm, or within community.
  • Productive in Year #1, though system should “progress” with time as systems mature.

30x70x12 Hoop House - Insert Permaculture Here...

Short List of Resources available:

  • 30x70x12 Hoop house
  • Space Heat (a bit over freezing in the winter) and Warm Water from a Biomass Gasifier
  • Electricity (grid for now, gasifier generated soon)
  • up to 20-30 hours of weekly labor year round, 10 preferred
  • Start-up Expenses up to $20,000 (Structure $5k)
  • Small Scale Ag equipment (seed starts, tillers, seeders)

Potential Inputs:

  • 20 acre farm with 5 acres tillable – straw, ethanol / BD feed stocks, unsaleable vegetables.
  • Manure from livestock
  • Community Waste streams such as yard leaves, food waste, etc

Examples for inspiration:

To these we would like to add energy systems such as small scale biodiesel, ethanol, and / or methane to further increase efficiencies, reduce waste and increase outputs.  Example, tilapia carcasses could be used as a methane feedstock while the digester itself adds to the thermal mass of the Hoop House reducing night time heating load and the methane burned in a generator to produce supplemental heat and electricity for pumps and grow lights or power other farm buildings.

The overriding focus is to design a system with elegant energy flows mimicking an ecosystem in true Permaculture form.  We wish to use natural biological systems whenever possible rather than mechanical solutions.  Technology will be very evident, but used appropriately only when natural systems are not feasible.  For example, beets don’t turn themselves into ethanol without help, but Tilapia will happily breed new young if provided a proper habitat and their water filtered readily by plants such as watercress rather than industrial nitrogen filters if stocking rates are reasonable.

I envision much of the structure to house known systems generating sale-able goods such as extending the growing season per Elliot Coleman or Growing Power style vermiculture.  And these “profit” systems will interweave with experimental ones such as a self propagating, natural filtered Tilapia aquaponic system using both male/female fish fed with on farm products.

But that is the rub – its a “vision” right now.  There are hundreds of GREAT minds that read this blog – please comment with your musings, link to your inspirations, and help spur this project to something unprecedented to push the envelop of our sustainable culture.

If the conversation gets going I would like to form a Google Group to facilitate the uploading of documents and links.  Here is a link to a shared Google Doc on a 30×70 grid to help with layouts should anyone really want to jump in.

Be the Change!!


4 Season Farming: Winter Vermicomposting

Elliot Coleman has literally written the book on the extending the harvest up ‘ere in da Nort.  And I can attest to the simple joy of entering a Hoop House on a sunny January day, stripping down to a tee shirt, basking in the humid 70 degree air rich with the smell of living soils, and stopping to harvest mache, claytonia, and perhaps some spinach.   But Hoop Houses can do more than just grow greens – they can build your soils in the off season. A few posts ago I regaled you with my attempts to begin composting in our small Hoop House at our Market Garden.  The farm owner was so inspired he cleared out 20′ along the back edge of his large Hoop House / Workshop and we built a serious indoor vermiculture bin that is about 20′ long and hold about 12 yards.  The idea is that in between the center of a thermophyllic “hot” composting pile chugging along at 140 degrees and the air temp of 30-40 degrees there is a layer of the pile that is full of moist organic matter that is sitting at 75 degrees or so.  In other words prime habitat for composting worms!

Outside air temp was 1 degree with a negative wind chill. Go bacteria GO!

Last week he filled the new bin with a mix of horse manure, bedding, and 50 gallons of putrid food scraps he had been saving all year and had never gotten around to throwing on a pile until now.  The outside of the hoop house (west facing) was then insulated with a pile of leaves 7′ tall and 12 feet wide at the base, and on top of the manure/gorp mess we piled on another 18″ of leaves to further insulate it and to conserve moisture.  Within 2 days this heated up to 145 degrees, and has stayed there for over a week now adding some bTU’s to the workshop.  A bin this size could take millions of worms, but given that wigglers are going for $25/lb we decided to call in some favors.  At the Bioneers Conference in Madison last month, one of my fellow panelists was James Godsil, a board member for Growing Power and co-founder of Sweet Water Organics – an uber cool urban ag endeavor in Milwaukee, WI.  Godsil is a true Great Soul and we hit it off immediately.   I shot him an email and asked if my wife and I could come out for a tour and pick up a few pail of worms and gorp (full of cocoons) which led us to yesterday’s trip and our seeing Milwaukee’s Renaissance first hand.

Sweet Water is still growing - under the banner are 3 massive aquaponic tanks mid way through construction. Awesomeness.

The site was amazing – I have toured Growing Power several times, and it was very interesting to see Will Allen’s concepts scaled up in an attempt to make them more commercially viable.    It will be worth watching to see how far they will have to stray from Growing Power’s laissez faire approach to aquaponics and its reliance on natural filtration and in house feedstocks.  Banks and investors have a tendency to demand higher returns on investment than Nature readily provides.  But, alas, I stray off topic!

Over 12' tall, and steaming despite the 4 degree air temp. We dug 10 gallons and thousands of worms -from an outside pile. It shouldn't be possible, but there we are!

After the tour Godsil took us out back to his massive compost / vermiculture pile.  Despite the cold (wind chills were negative) we clambered up the pile and dug into the steam to find red wigglers happily crunching away on the grocery store waste Godsil uses as feedstock.  Amazing!   Godsil makes a weekly trip with his pickup to the local store and grabs about 300 gallons of unsaleable vegetables which he then mixes with wood chips dropped off from local tree trimming services – essentially turning 2 streams of “garbage” into highly sought after vermicompost and red wigglers that will have bred up to a population worth thousands by  next summer.  Brilliant!

"Farm Schooling" Vermiculture 201 - My son thought the word "verm" was hilarious

After loading a few buckets we drove back to the country and I picked up my son to help “leaven”  our vermiculture bin in Jefferson County.    We were very pleased to see that our own bin was still heating nicely and was already home to a small population of its own composting worms that came in with the horse manure.  It was a great chance to talk about waste stream cycling with my son – worms and other “livestock” are a great attention grabber for children and we try to do as many tours as possible with local schools to show them that farming is more than driving tractors through corn, but there I go digressing again…

We placed the worms and gorp into 3 separate areas and then topped each with several gallons of fresh feedstock from my coffee shop source.  This we finally topped off with a 6″ layer of leaves to keep them warm.  As the winter progresses the worms will be able to move throughout the pile to maintain the 75 degrees they prefer.  In the outdoor piles at Growing Power and Sweet Water that may e as close as 1″ from the surface, here inside our unheated hoop house it is a bit deeper in.  Here are some more shots of the process:

Some of our "City Worms" along with vermicompost full of cocoons. Our hope is to breed enough to start dozens of new worm bins county wide next year.

A glob of feedstock for the worms - bananas are a preferred food. Wigglers in prime condition will eat their own weight daily. Witness the steam - the pile was cooking!

In the last picture you can just see a bit of blue peaking through.  That is a buried 55 gallon drum that is filled with water.  The hope is that it will store immense amounts of heat to stabilize the piles temperature for the worms and later in the winter when the pile is cooling, we can then use the water as cooling tanks for our gasifiers – simultaneously heating our worms to make them eat / poop faster and cooling our biomass energy generator to help us power the farm.  Awesome!

Winter is a time for reflection, planning, and maintenance (mental and physical!), but using the Hoop House for composting will ensure our early spring greens are able to get a huge jolt of nutrition with a thousand pounds of worm castings as early as March – with no machinery or energy inputs.  Too cool.

Thanks Godsil!


Season Extension: Compost and Thermal Mass


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.


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.


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?


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.


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