So its been a crazy month – I’ve missed you all! We’ve harvested over 1000#’s of potatoes -and sold them- hitting farmers markets for the first time. There is at least another post of stories there, but for now suffice it to say we love that we have become “the Potato People” in at least two towns and that feels great.
With the farm gardens under control again, I spent a beautiful half hour this weekend working through the Straw Mulch Potatoes that I had put in as a test of deep mulched potatoes (no updates on the towers yet – 2 of the three are still growing and the third blighted so bad I only got 3 spuds for 4 seeds planted). The Straw Mulch bed had 10 plants, and had been sheet mulched with 3″ of horse manure a year ago, and then got another foot of straw thrown on top as the potato plants grew. No additional fertilizer, no sprays, and not much irrigation was provided (an inconsequential 10 gallons total from washing out compost buckets). My hypothesis was that the rich, untilled soil from the sheet mulching combined with the more constant soil moisture provided by the deep straw mulch would help tuber size and plant vigor. On top of that I was very curious to see if there was any credibility to the claims of increased tuber set from the deep mulch, and how the harvest labor would compare.
First off, I am very pleased with the yield and am convinced (as much as one can be after one test) that super rich soil and deep mulching equates to better yeilds. Here is my proof:
With an average yield of 3#’s per plant I would be getting 270#’s per row at the farm – a 50% improvement over my current technique – and I was already getting a solid 8.5:1 harvest ratio! I planted this bed with 4 medium sized Purple Vikings – just under 2#’s. Yes you got that right – a 15:1 ratio which is near record yields for even conventional farmers.
To put that another way if I can scale this technique up and apply it to my current spacing (3′ rows, 14″ spacing) I could get 43,500#’s per acre which equates to 18,600,000 million calories. With the blight coming in growth was stunted and overall tuber size was down compared to what I expect from Purple Viking. One plant had over 15 potatoes on it – but only a few over 3 oz and most had 8 or more. If those had sized up to the typical 8oz+ …no I’m not gonna run that math, I’m getting faint from the possibilities! Sheet mulching an acre will take 400 yards of horse manure – this system isn’t for the faint of heart- but my “base” soil is deader than a doornail so a larger trial at the farm on rich soil will be on the docket for next year.
As others have found, and I have begun to suspect, there was no addition tuber set that I could attribute to the deep mulch – the spuds were located low on the vine as usual, but the soil was evenly moist and full of worms. Harvest was a breeze, though not as easy as the bucket method – just pull the straw back, ruffle the moist, rich soil with your fingers, and pluck our spud, after spud, after spud, after spud. ZERO lost spuds to pitchfork foibles to boot. As a strip crop between young swaled permaculture tree crops this could be a VERY productive system to pay the bills as the chestnut / orchard comes on line. Plus from my experience you get a significant net INCREASE in organic matter and it is very close to no till.
Can organic farming feed the world? Show me a conventional farmer hitting 18,000,000 calories per acre .
FU Monsanto. You’re Round Up Ready? Big deal… this system is Peak Oil Ready.
Be the Change!
PS: Here is a detailed and technical study of straw mulch for potato growing in Germany. Graphs – oooo shiny!
Now that is a show I might actually watch! Instead, I will work on the pilot episode right here in South Central Wisconsin. Steady readers will know of my successes and my struggles as I try to eke out produce from the denuded, dead soil that are so common here in HOA land. Our first garden in 2005 was pathetic – corn 3′ tall in soil completely devoid of anything resembling fertility or life. Within two years we were harvesting over 500#’s from that soil as we worked in organic matter: composting anything that didn’t move fast enough to escape the manure fork. I read voraciously of Coleman, Permaculture, and Jeavons on how to maximise productivity and most importantly build soil. That success whet my appetite for more – so in 2008 we branched up to a market garden at a permaculture farm north of here. We grew 1500#s of potatoes and another 500#’s of spinach, squash tomatoes, flour corn and peppers and became “professional” growers turning a tidy little profit and paying for capital investments in my Grillo and other tools. But man is ever one to push his limits – and all the time away from the home gardens came to haunt me in a massive insurgence of Quack Grass completely overrunning my now fertile garden beds by the end of 2008. But I gave it little heed – I had grown 200,000 calories! I was a FARMER at last.
Over the winter I planned ever grander schemes at the Market Gardens – almost doubling the potential harvest. Gently voiced concerns from my wife, and many others, about time at home and sheer physical limitations began to add strength to that little, all too easily squelched, voice in my head whispering hubris! and tales of Icarus. And then, for better or worse, I separated my shoulder joint in June playing soccer and was forced to take the month of July to reflect on what I had done. At home the quack was winning on all fronts, my kids were asking -daily- if I would be home the next day, and the lambsquarter at the Market Garden were taller than me. My wings were melting in the sun.
Thanks to more than a little help from my friends, we got the Market Gardens back into shape. My wife, unable to let the home gardens descend any further into The Abyss, reasserted herself as the Real Gardener in the family taking the home gardens and making them shine. Her plants are out producing mine by significant margins. We won some rear guard actions against the quack and secured 20 bales of straw and 20#’s of clover seed to hold our ground and Dig In. Now, the potato harvest is coming in strong, we’ve put up record amounts of pickles, jam, and sauce, and Late Blight has taken care of the overabundance of tomatoes I planted. We will not do any fall crops this year- opting rather to trade potatoes for storage crops of squash and turnips.
Back to the home garden. It is stable, but is in need of an overhaul. It is currently very productive – with great soil tilth and growing organic matter content. But it takes far too much work due to the fact that all 7 60 sq ft beds are surrounded by field stone to protect them from the rushing waters that come down the swale (half our backyard) in heavy rains. Those 7 beds add up to over 400′ of edge that I have to weed whip weekly and 400′ that the quack can get in under. Also, the beds are separated by paths that are 3-4′ wide – meaning I have almost as much path space as growing space. Because the quack comes in every spring / fall I literally have to tear down the field stone border of each bed (1000#’s of stone), turn it all, and sift out the rhizomes. It sucks. It also takes a month of weekends – time I don’t have.
So in the next month we’re going to Pimp My Garden. Ever wondered what garden you would make if you “knew then what you know now?” Here is my answer:
The field stone is getting yanked – all 4 tons of it- and piled up somewhere – maybe to be a root cellar or stone oven someday. The fertile soil will get pulled out, piled and covered with straw to protect the ecosystem some. Then the subsoil, along with all the paths will get “grillo’d” to a depth of 1′ using the rotary plow to chop up the quack rhizomes. After that bakes in the sun for a week, it will get grillo’d again with a tiller, and I will dig a trench 1′ thick along the entire perimeter. The new garden will be a giant “box”: 32’x40′ built of 15 reclaimed douglas fir timbers 3″x12″x16′ long each weighing over 50#’s, terraced 4 times to match the slope of my yard. To the bottom of these, and extending down into the trench I plan giving the quack grass The Finger and laying a rhizome barrier. Perhaps 12″ roofing flashing, but maybe just 6 mil plastic. Eff you Quack.
Then the tilled up sub soil will get sprinkled with blood meal and onto this I will pile as much manure as I can get – I have sources lined up from a veritable Ark of livestock: Horse, Cow, Llama, Worm, and Chicken -networking is a fine thing!. Its a good thing too, as I will need 50 cu yards of it to fill the bed!! The manure will then be inoculated with 50 gallons of forest / prairie soil for microbes and 20 gallons of red wigglers from Growing Power, 200#’s of Green Sand for mineral balancing and better veggie nutrition. This will then covered with pallet sheets of cardboard 2 layers thick (1/2″) and the soil piled back in with a VERY careful eye paid to any quack rhizomes. Then the whole works gets planted to rye/vetch/field pea mix under a light straw mulch.
Finally, a 5′ “moat” will be tilled around the gardens and replanted to white dutch clover as a living quack barrier. If I have any energy or time left before November -very doubtful- I would like to plant several hundred flowering natives and perennials around this barrier as well for beauty and beneficials, but that will likely be in the spring or later.
When done, the garden space will have almost tripled to 1000′ of growing space (1:20th of my lot) due to extending the beds by 12′ in length and removing much of the path space. My edge will have dropped from 400′ to 160′ and the quack will be dealt a Deathblow. In addition, I will have soil of unbelievable richness and fertility and 10 3′ “beds” of 100 sq ft to play with. Perhaps I will be able to be no-till by 2011 after I pull the last vestiges of quack out in 2010… But most importantly it will allow us to shift everything but the potato crop back to our home gardens – keeping me at home and allowing me to share my learnings with our children to teach them these vital skills – or just to be home to see their latest Lego ship or crayon drawing.
This will be a shit ton of work, but I will be in Hog Heaven as there is nothing I like better than building soil: schlepping manure, inoculating, sheet mulching and running my Grillo. Plan is one month of weekends, maybe 3 weekends if the weather holds. Also, the kids can help and it will all be in my own backyard rather than 10 miles away. This will be a Garden of Legend.
I will grow 2000#’s of food in my own yard …with the help of my mini Permaculture Orchard and edible landscaping. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Be the Change.
Last weekend I went to a mycoremediation workshop in Madison and learned a ton about inoculating mulches with mushroom spawn, and was even able to score three bags of Oyster Mushroom spawn for my own projects. Here is a photo journey through my first project. Site selection was a bit tricky – I would prefer to have a shaded moist spot, but as we are still less than 5 years in this home and all our trees are under 15′, we have no shade to speak of other than the north side of our home – and that space is taken with my “recycling center” of compost bins and vermiculture area. Instead I chose a spot on the east end of my large rain garden which is situated on the west end of my home. It will be shaded until about 11am and then become shaded again at about 4. That is likely too much sun, but I get volunteer mushrooms in similar sites in the gardens, so I am willing to give it a try. More importantly – with its proximity to the rain garden it will be moist more often than not. I am even hoping that the mycelium will creep into the rain garden’s mulch and help filter that water as well.
First off you will need some Mushroom Spawn:
Once that is in hand, you will need something to grow it in:
Yep – I tow with a VW Golf. With the TDI engine’s torque and an upgraded Bilstein/H&R suspension it can handle over 1500#’s. Now that I have the growing medium and the spawn for innoculating, it was time to prep the ground. In this case I scraped the area down to the top soil to remove any Quack rhizomes:
Scraping it wasn’t really necessary, but I wanted a clean start. Next up I laid down a mat of clean straw. The thought here is that straw is easily digested by the fungus, and the long pieces act like a highway for the mycelium and help it to spread very quickly:
If you hadn’t noticed, I chose the morning after a rain for this project – the straw and mulch were already fairly damp and I soaked each layer well before moving on. Once the straw was laid out about 1/2-1″ thick, I threw down a layer of municipal wood chips about 2-3″ thick and crumpled about 30% of the spawn into this:
The mulch is not ideal for mushroom growing – it had lain on the municipal pile for over a week and likely other fungus had begun to colonize it. Also, it was composting on site, and the cooler sections were a bit moldy. All of these would typically be a no-no for starting a fungus bed (clean, fresh chips free of mold are best), but Oyster Mushrooms are allegedly hyper aggressive and typically out compete most everything so I worked with what I had. I repeated the steps 3 more times: Straw, water, Mulch+inoculant, water and then finally capped the now 1′ tall mound with a thick layer of straw to act as a mulch to keep the inner chips moist and shaded:
It is possible that I will see mushrooms this fall as Oysters typically fruit in the Autumn, but more likely it will be 2010. I have also used another packet under one of my Peach Tree guilds. There I am less concerned about eating the mushrooms, rather I would like to have them colonize the mulch and I will let them drop spores to hopefully naturalize to some degree to improve the soil fertility in that bed.
This was an uber simple project – total time was under an hour. If you would like to start a bed of your own, I highly recommend Fungi Perfecti as a source of spawn and information. Very helpful folks! Fungus Farming is a great method to function stack in odd places in your yard – producing mineral rich food while drastically increasing the soil’s diversity and fertility with little effort. What’s not to like?
Be the Change!
PLEASE READ the final post in the series on Potato Towers. Results were NOT 100# – not even close – I got less than 4# from 3 towers. This technique is not a magic way to produce massive yields which is why none of the articles ever show pictures of the harvest. I grow organic potatoes professionally, and in addition to my field crops I try trails plantings each year. If you are looking for a sure fire way to produce record harvests try the Sheet Mulch Method I document here. That method yielded 30#’s from 10 plants – which is an insane harvest!
A huge focus of this blog is finding creative, sustainable ways to eck more produce from small spaces. I also love growing calorie crops, especially potatoes, and furthermore I really enjoy building things. So when a friend recently recommended the use of potato towers, I was very interested. So yesterday I was off to buy materials for several compost bin orders I have and wouldn’t ya know? 2×6 pine was on sale.
The theory is simple – solancea plants will root from any stalk that has ground contact – I’ve seen both peppers and tomatoes rooting from their stalks. The important part with potatoes is that they will lay tubers any where between the original “seed” potato and the soil surface. Every time the potato plant gets about 6″ above ground, add more soil – this is why you mound potatoes in the field. These towers just take the mounding to crazy logical conclusions- the tower is essentially a 3′ “mound”. What I like most about this kind of tower is the ability to “sneak” potatoes as the season progresses by removing a lower strip of 2×6 and grubbing around. As most suburbanites don’t have root cellars (yet!) this is a huge plus if you are growing 100#’s of spuds. Also, as the sides are opaque, spud production will occur right up to the sides, maximizing space and using less water compared to wire mesh designs. Also, the lumber avoids some concerns that may be present with using old tires. Old garbage cans, etc would also work.
The only major change I did for mine was that I used 2×4’s for the uprights as I had 10′ of them laying around the garage and I also put a sheet of cardboard under it to thwart the quack. Speaking of which, this could be considered a hyper productive way to sheet mulch – cardboard out next years beds, and build potato towers along them – one could get (in theory) 600#’s of spuds form one 20′ bed (6 towers with 18″ spacing) and when the towers come down you have a raised bed about 2′ deep with compost when you’re done. Hmmmm…
Planting the tower is easy, I took 4 medium seed potatoes (1lb exactly) and cut them in half. In the spirit of science, I used one each of Kennebec, Purple Viking, Carola, and Yukon Gold to see which liked this method more. The growing medium I used for the first layer is 2 year old leaf mould, to which I added some pelletized chicken manure for nitrogen as it looked a little “carbon-ey”. Weather here is mild and rainy, so they should be sprouting in no time. The only down side is that right after the photo shoot, our new adolescent dog decided that this was a fantastic play pen and tore into it with abandon – I think I found all eight seeds, but she may have eaten one or two.
The claim is that the towers will produce 100#’s of spuds with about 1# planted in 4 sq ft. That is freakish considering a record yield for field sown spuds is about 14:1; I was very pleased with my 8.5:1 last year. In typical culture, 100#’s would take at least 75 sq ft, but more likely 150. I am stoked to see this work and will certainly keep you posted. Other great advantages – you do not need any heavy equipment to grow these – and harvesting is super easy. Just be sure to save the soil somewhere for next year – mixing it with fall leaves and grass clippings in a compost bin would be a fantastic way to rejuvenate the soil.
Couple of post scripts. This thing is crazy overbuilt – I would feel comfortable parking a car on it if it had a cross tie across the top! I think the prime driver of the dimensions is cost. In the irony of modern economics, 2x6x8′ lumber is cheaper than 1x6x8′ lumber. Also, pine rots quickly, so using 2x lumber will buy you a few extra years -though by yr 4 I expect these to be falling apart. If it works I will likely build the next one using cedar decking for the sides and 2×2 cedar for the uprights. That should last a decade, but would cost about double. Another advantage would be that it would weigh half as much – this thing is heavy when built!
To make it more fun, we will likely be painting the sides with the kids – I have the idea of making each side a different person, and then we can mix and match the parts each year to create silly combinations. I would also like to enlist my wife (waaaaay more talented artist) to paint a picture of a potato plant with a “soil view” of roots on one side.
All in all the total cost was about $30 (8 2x6x8, screws, and 12′ of 2×2) and about an hour of time in the workshop -mostly becuase my kids were running the screw guns and they are 5 and 7. If you can truly get 100#’s of spuds that is crazy cheap – down to literally a few cents per pound over the lifetime of the tower. Combine that with the ability for literally every single homeowner to grow all their potatoes for a year in as little as 8 sq ft this could be huge!
Be the Change.
PS – As this post has been picked up by Stumble Upon and ranks high in most Google searches, I would like to re-direct new readers to the conclusions of this experiment, and to also click the category “Potato Tower” for further reading. Results with this system are proving very difficult despite the claims and I have yet to see the hype fulfilled in real life.
When sheet mulching I find it to be much easier to not let any one step get to far infront of the others. Get too much manure down and it starts to dry out, get too far ahead of the woodchipping with the pallet sheets and they start to blow away. Sheet mulching is a very satisfying to do, as the ground is covered very quickly and the sense of accomplishment is huge.
Utility Trailer. Mine is 5×8′, cost under $700 and turns my Forester into a “pickup truck” extraodinaire, able to move 3 yards of light mulch with ease, or 2 yards of manure. Plus a trailer’s sides are 3′ shorter than a pickups so schlepping manure into it is much, much easier. Besides, when I don’t need a work horse I take the trailer off and the Forester goes back to getting 32 mpg vs a pickups 14! I love my trailer!!
Wheelbarrow. I purchased a mulch barrow for this job. $95 at TSC and it holds 10 cu feet. Even overflowing with manure I could lift it with ease-the balance is more Vermont Cart than traditional wheelbarrow with alot of the weight past the wheel’s fulcrum helping you lift the wieght. I have named it Archimedes, but often call it Hubris… A barrow this big is bound to get me in trouble…
Coal Shovel and Compost Fork. The Coal Shovel can move over a cu ft of mulch/manure at a scoop-mulch is light so it pays to move as much per scoop as possible. I picked it up at Menards for $16 as quality/design seemed simple. The Compost Fork is from Earth Tools and imported from Germany. It has a balance and feel that far exceeds anything you will ever find in a hardware store, and is worth every one of its $40.
Helpers! Many hands make light work; I had my uber energetic 5 yr old with me. True, the amount of work done by Sprout was minimal, but the diversion of someone to talk to was priceless, and mad props to him for keeping us both entertained for a full day as “Mr. Stone” keeping the cardboard from blowing away, or squealing anew everytime I dumped him out of the wheelbarrow on the return trip to the mulch windrow. Regardless of their age, someone to keep the weed barrier from blowing away is always a good thing!
The end result of a single days hard work will be taking 1000 sq ft of very sandy loam and covering it with an 8″ layer of organic matter. Through fall and into spring the soil’s ecosystem will kick into high gear with the manure’s nitrogen and eat away at the cardboard. The chips will also begin to decay-I see about a 25% decomposition annually in my paths at home. The net result by June should be a 2-3″ layer of ecologically alive compost covered by 4″ of wood chips-ready to plant!
Sheet mulching can be a great way to relatively easily turn lawn into garden-as long as you have several months before you want to plant. Those months are worth it if you can spare them: in addition to killing the sod, you keep the topsoil of your lawn, with all its ecology, intact, and add 2-4″ of topsoil in the process.
So last year I began experimenting with sheet mulching and had very high hopes. Now, 6 months later I am reporting back. Unfortunately it is with mixed results. The partial success is that the sod is, in fact, dead. The partial failure lies in the fact that the mulch material is not decomposed-or at best only partially. That was last week and I found it frustrating, but it got sidetracked as I began Orchard Prep in full force.
But tonight I spent the final hours before sundown after work preparing about 100 sq feet of soil that I had pulled the sod off this weekend. For some reason that fact that I hadn’t seen a single worm finally sunk in. Let me say that again-in turning 100 sq ft of lawn-organic lawn-to a depth of about 8″ I did not turn over a single worm. My conclusion, based solely on anecdotal evidence without soil tests, is that my soils are as dead as I had once feared. This is why the sheet mulch is just sitting there-one needs decomposers to decompose coffee grounds and cardboard. This lawn has been there for almost 3 years now, but our subdivison, like most, had its soil stripped off and sold, and then post construction had hundreds of yards of backfill trucked back in-in our case it was quarry waste: a stable and cheap mix of sand, clay, and stones. That backfill came from a subsoil or lower level in the soil strata-a strata dead to the soil ecosystem.
Into that layer-with a thin veneer of topsoil (2-3″) crushed to oblivion by my spreading it with a skid steer- I am trying to create my Eden. I recently wrote about inoculating the soil with benifical fungus, but this goes deeper. I need to literally rebuild the entire soil ecosystem. Luckily I am not treading on virgin soil as it were-my trusty texts on Edible Forest Gardening speak of technique to do just that. The long and short of it is that I will be taking some 5 gallon buckets to nearby woods-as old growth as I can find-and scoop out some soil to mix into my orchard plantings. This is a broad base inoculation that will hopefully start to cover the gamut of bacteria, fungus, nematodes, and critters that I need to balance (or in this case create) my soil ecosystem. There is an abandoned farm about a mile from here with standing timber-I plan on making a foray next week to make some very significant progress on righting the wrongs of my site.
Be the Change!