Backyard Chickens : Ramial Woodchip Composting

So in our new home (well, we’ve been here almost three years, but still) we are keeping 9 laying hens and, as usual, I am working to upgrade the soils to what I had in the old home where I could take a garden stake and drive it in almost 1′ by hand due to the stupid rich topsoil I had built up.    I like to keep a minimum 2000 or so sq ft of ground under cultivation between the annual vege gardens and the permaculture guilded trees.  And to build up that area I add 1-2″ of compost annually, plus mulches.  That means I need 6-12 cu. YARDS of compost a year.  That’s a bit silly, even for me, so I shoot for 5 yards a year and focus on the annual beds and any new guilds and just heavily mulch the rest.

But I also travel 25-50% of the time now, and unlike my old job I just get two days off (I don’t know how people do this!) vs. the 3.5 in my old gig.   To help me hit my soil building goals and still deal with the reality of my new work-life (im)balance I stack functions onto the chicken coop and have added two composting systems to the runs.   I’ll post about my simple ‘traditional’ composting run in a bit, but today I’d like to share my Ramial Woodchip Composting run since I spent the day playing in it.

Now in any good permaculture function stack it should be difficult to tell what is the true purpose of the system- and this run qualifies in spades.  Is it a ‘no’ work Chicken Feeder?  Is it a Worm Farm?  Is it a Composting System?  YES, yes it is.    In my previous gardens, I noticed that the very best soils were often found UNDER my wood chip paths– the bottom layer of the wood chips would seemingly melt away as the worms and fungus ate away at the chips, and the compost was of exceptional quality- super light and friable due to the high lignin content of the wood chips aiding the aggregatization of the carbon. I’d harvest my paths annually- laboriously sifting and forking away, but I’d always wanted to recreate it in a more purpose built system.  And now I had my chance.

The system is pretty simple- it’s just a modification/intensification of a wood chipped chicken run.  Every 1-2 months I get a trailer load of chips (1.5 cu. yards- any family sedan can tow that) that are very fresh and from a living tree (Ramial-you’ll know it because they will be hot composting almost instantly) and pile them ~1′ thick in a small fenced in area off the chicken coop.   Ramial chips (full of green leaves and smells like sap) are important as they breakdown faster and feed the worms almost immediately- dead and dry chips take a month or two for the fungi to break them down so the worms get interested.

Nothing fancy, I just string 25′ of 24″ garden fence up around the coop door and dump the chips in a wheel barrow load at a time- the chickens will spread them out. I let this sit for 3-7 days (or until I get around to it) so they hot compost briefly and the worms start to work up in them.

Then I start to let the chickens (we have 9 dual purpose chooks- they are layers only and pets that we’d never eat) in for a few hours to all day depending on weather and if I’m around.  The birds express their ‘chicken-ness’ by scratching and pooping, and the worms express their ‘worm-ness’ by breeding like crazy and eating/pooping their weight daily.  After a week or so I start forking the chips over now and then-just a few forks here and there as I pass by which helps the chickens get into the worms, and gets the top layer of chips rotated into the worm fest.  After 4-6 weeks the pile looks like the picture above– the large chips are still there, but the ‘fines’ and all the green shredded material is basically humus and worm poo now.   That’s pretty fast, aided by the stirring and shatting of the chookens, and the close ground contact maximising worm habitat over 200 sq ft.  At this point I do one of three things depending on my needs.  I either fork the mix onto my perennial guilds as is or if I want to seperate the fines and humus from the large material I sift it.


My sifter is designed to fit over 2 recycling bins that I got at a giveaway (dead useful things, those).  If I don’t really need compost NOW, then I throw 3-4 forkfuls into the sifter every time I walk past and the chicken happily jump in to scratch and eat out all the worms.  The fines fall through the screen (3/8″ hardware cloth) And I dump the large pieces back out or into a bucket to add to a fruit tree guild- takes 5 minutes 2x a day.  Or If I really need compost- I do it myself with a fork.  I can get 2-3 wheel barrow loads of sifted compost this way every 2 months.


Meanwhile, the chickens get 25-100% (depending on where in the chip cycle I am- the worms take time to breed up) their protein needs from the worms and macro soil fauna they get from scratching in the chips.  Plus I get tons of high carbon compost (10-15 7 cu ft barrow loads per year) and all the chip mulch I need.

This compost is quite heavy on the Carbon end- PERFECT mixed with forest soil for starting trees and as fall applications in the vege gardens, but it will starve annuals of nitrogen if added in in the Spring or Summer.  So in that time frame, I either stockpile it, or more typically use it as a Carbon layer in my hot composting for seedy greens that need to be nuked (vs just run through the main chicken composting run). Weeds tend to get away from me with my travel schedule so I always seem to need to do a ‘hospital compost pile’ in late June.


And it works perfect for that- above is a 1 cu yard pile of Canda Thistle (GODS do I hate them) shredded -yes that’s an obscene amount of thistle-and mixed .5″ of Ramial compost to 3-4″ layer of thistle shreddings.

I am quite fond of this set up as it spreads the work over time- Other than the day I load/unload the trailer, the system never takes more than ~10 minutes a day several days a week and provides the chickens with a great source of animal protein, and keeps them entertained.  Our egg production goes up a bit when we have them on this system and we seem to have even oranger yolks.  Plus we always have hundreds of easily found worms for fishing or to prime a sheet mulch.

Simple, multi function, and labor saving with mega outputs of fertility and food.

Be the Change.

-Rob

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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.

-Rob

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

 

Yardening and Yarditarianism

I’m an eclectic guy, and my gardening techniques reflect that.  I have permaculture inspired guilds in the orchard, I have bio-intensive organic vegetable gardens that are managed using Coleman’s 4 Season techniques.  I also have native landscaping with prairie plantings in the rain gardens and several island beds.  But take it all together, and its a mix no matter how well it flows.  Last year I settled on a term from my youthI am a Yardener.

Yardening

For better or worse, I am currently entrusted with just shy of .5 acres (.2 ha) and in the 4+ years that I have written this blog I have chronicled the process of taking it from a denuded wasteland to the budding Garden of Eatin that it is today.   This year I will have many plans, but one that I am committed to is to grow as much food as I can in the yard – with a goal of 2000#s (907 kg) in 12 months.  That is gonna take some doing as the fruit trees have years until they hit peak yields, and even with the expanded canning garden total garden space is still under 2000 sq ft (186 sq m) or so.  Expected yield with “good” harvests sketch out to 1200-1400#’s (540-635 kg) which is still awesome.

32'x35' is about 1100 sq ft. Aw, hell yeah!

A big component of this yield will be our newly built (last June) Pimped out Garden.  At 1100 sq ft it gives us the room to grow serious amounts of food for storage and seasonal eating.  I could surely get 2000#’s from this garden alone, but will plan on growing food we eat, rather than cooking the books with huge amounts of cucumbers, roma tomatoes, and potatoes.  This garden will also likely get a 12′ hoop house in it late summer, and will have cold frames on it within 8 weeks of this post for early greens.  The soil is still weak as over half of it was trucked in last June, but I mixed in plenty of compost and vermicompost along with some green manures and deep mulching before fall and laying the ground work for rich soil ecosystems.  Still working through the planting layouts for the year, and need to catalog the seeds remaining from last year and fill holes, but this is all very exciting.

About half the orchard - missing are another pear and paw-paw hidden off camera

Up hill from the Canning Garden is my permaculture orchard.  Complete with 9 trees (Pears, Apples, Peaches, and Paw-Paw) along with well over a dozen fruiting shrubs, a few hardy kiwis, a couple of hazelnuts and a growing understory it is a nutritional force to be reckoned with.  to bolster its productivity while it fills in I liberally add annuals like peppers, garlic, and sprawling squash vines (these are actively managed and pruned to avoid crowding).  This year will also see the planting of 7 more fruit trees (another apple, a cherry, apricots, and 3 plums) and we planted 4 nut trees (from seed) for a protein/fat producing overstory (in a decade or so!) of chestnuts and hickory/pecan hybrids.  The fences will also be drafted into duty as a vineyard with a dozen grape cultivars for table eating and perhaps even wine.  In 5 years of so, the orchard will likely out produce the canning garden, and in a decade it certainly will – heck the kiwis could be up to 200#’s themselves!

Yarditarianism

Pretty sure I made this word up tonight (the Google can’t find it), but I prefer it to the slightly less obscure “yardavore”.  This is geeky, but -vore typically denotes an eating behavior that is by nature, where “-tarian” usually denotes an eating behavior of choice (herbivore v. vegetarian).  I also like this contrast with Localvore, which has been our “nature” historically, and yarditarian which is more a factor of choice and privilege.  Regardless, if one is gonna slap it on the table and try to grow 2000#s of food in one year from one’s yard, it goes without saying that we will be eating a significant amount of our food from our yard.  From March’s first French Sorrel and cold frame spinach leaves to the final stored potatoes and onions of the following March this will be an outstanding journey as we work to eat our bounty, working through the logistics of harvesting, preparing, storing, and sharing the produce from even this 10% of our yard.  I am not pretending to try to eat *exclusively* from my yard; self sufficiency is not, and never will be, my goal.  But adding 2000#’s of food to my family’s diet will add a significant amount of resiliency to our food supply while also teaching my children and myself incredibly valuable lessons about what is possible on so small a plot of land.

Should be a great year!

-Rob

Kunstler on Suburbia- Dang Sucka.

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

Be the Change.

-Rob

Evolving Suburbia

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

Reality of the Burbs

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

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

Retrofit Rather Than Rebuild

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

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

Organic Response to Change

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

What is Possible

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be the Change

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

We can do this.

Be the Change!

Rob

Pit and Mound Gardening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be the Change!

-Rob

Midden L’eau Chaude: The Big Build

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

Last summer I built the Methane Midden which was inspired by Jean Pain’s epic work in 1970 France.    It was big, it was a little insane, and ultimately it didn’t work. Don’t get me wrong – it made a syck amount of compost, but it failed to meet my goals of also producing methane and hot water.  Time to do better.  The second Midden will focus on Hot Water (L’eau Chaude) with a dedicated heat exchanger and will be even larger.  Not only that, but I wanted to learn how much material it truly takes to make one of these so I also sourced all the biomass myself from two local farms, dropping literally hundreds of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckles as well as aggressive “weed” trees such as red mulberry and box elder over a week and then renting a 27hp Vermeer chipper to grind them up.  It was awesome!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Core

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

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

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

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

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

The Heat Exchanger


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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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