The More Things Change

It has been FAR too long since I have put ‘pen to paper’ on this blog, and an immense amount has changed since those heady days in Wisconsin.    After my long hiatus, I am looking to return to this forum, and I appreciate any and all of you that continue to check back in or will get an update with this post.   More to come in the near future I hope, but as a teaser, let me say that we have moved.  Not just from Minnesota where we moved in 2013 from the home and community in Wisconsin that provided the fodder for so much of this blog, but we have now moved all the way to (and this is still insane for me to write) to the very doorstep of the Jersey Shore.

Yes, we now live in Red Bank, NJ having traded our home in a small rural town 30 miles west of Minneapolis to a packed burrough not 6 miles from the Atlantic.  No longer do we look out over my 6 cords of split firewood onto the 30 acres of natural park land to see eagles over the river dialy.  Now we live in a quaint, SMALL, 110 yr old home on a full shaded postage stamp of a lot.  Would you believe 5000 sq ft including the home and driveway.  There is no garage.   For this I paid 2x what we sold our home in MN for, and 3x what we paid for our Wisco home.  Taxes and utilities are also 2x.  Welcome to Jersey! I have built a large shed, but 3/4 of my stuff is either sold or living with friends and caretakers in MN and Wisco (thanks Drew!).  The Grillo is in good hands, but 1500 miles away.  Hells, I don’t even own a wheelbarrow.

As I said, much has changed.  But I am excited to embrace my malnourished erudite flaneur side, am reading like I haven’t in years, hope to get into some community garden plots, and I must say that I am fascinated by the ocean ecology and am working on taking up surfing.  I am positively awful.

Its good to be back.

Sincerely,

‘One Straw’ Rob

On Hasen; A Compost Bunny

Our beloved compost bunny, Hasen,  passed this week.  He lived a rather  long, and I’d like to think rich, life for a bunny- making it over 7 years with us.  I’d like to take a moment to honor him, not only as he was a good little rabbit, but also as I feel that his story has merit in its own right.  

Hasen, and his sister Pfeffer, joined our family in the Spring of 2009 (08?) on a trip to the U.P. of Michigan to see the waterfalls and enjoy a general basking in the riotous  exuberance that is Spring in the Northwoods.   As usual, we were struck by the general poverty of the area- it is a hard climate if you are more than a few dozen miles from Lake Superior and no major cities for industry and the primary resources (logging and some mining) being over harvested a century ago.  But it isn’t an impoverished poverty in many cases- people Get By in the stubborn and inspiring way one often sees at the ragged edges of our modern society.   As we drove we saw a small ‘farmers’ market near one of the catchall / general stores that have sprung up in the Norhtwoods- the gas station / post office / grocery store / tackle / farm store /cafe and we pulled in as I was hoping to channel a bit of money into the local economy (bourgeois much?) and perhaps a pastry for some nibbles.  Plus I had spied some greenwood bent rocking chairs and hoped to bend the ear of the craftsman.  As I recall, we didn’t luck out on the pastries, but the wood worker was a character and worth the stop.  However, whilst I was talking shop with the woodsman, our daughter Ella, had spied two rabbit kits in a wire cage in the back of a rusty pickup next to some chickens and a duck or two with a prominent hand drawn sign reading somewhat ominously (for an almost 6 yr old budding PETA activist) PET / MEAT RABBIT: $5.  Thank the gods they had only 2 left.

As we packed them into our car (8 hours and at least one night of camping  from home, mind you) I grumbled about the foolishness of little girls and bestowed upon them their tongue-in-cheek names and worked to justify their ‘rescue’ (Ella was beside herself with squees) in my mind.  Because being a softie of a man just won’t do- bunnies need a purpose.  Aha!  Like many aspiring suburban homesteader, we have a manure problem.   

Suburban town councils seem fit to only allow predacious pets, but their manure is not ideal for vege gardens both as it stinks to all hell from their high protein intake and there is a greater risk of disease overlap with humans allegedly.  Chickens were outlawed as of then in our town (we – with much help from Ella’s empassioned and well researched speech to the council- got a Chicken ordinance passed in 2012 right before we moved) and bunnies seemed like a good way, along with my worm farms, to provide concentrated nitrogen and soil microbes for our crops while also turning a bit of our yard wastes (rabbits are fair browsers for shrub prunings and devour garden weeds-we’ve never really bought food for them).  So it was ok to get the bunnies– we needed their poo.  I can see the wry smile on my wife’s face now…   ‘Sure Rob, you got them for their poo…’

Hasen and Pfeffer lived in their hutch for several years (we thought they were both girls at the time, rabbits being somewhat difficult to sex to the noob) contributing their services of waste recycling and poo with occasional forays into the yard in a fenced play area with Ella and we expiremented with rabbit tractors in the gardens which worked quite well.     When the babies came we spread the wealth to friends and it is a very special joy to have litters in the house with young kids.  Many, many good lessons there.  Pfeffer died at about age three, but Hasen lived on to move to MN with us in 2013 and entered the next stage of his life with us.

In our new home we had decided to get chickens- our neighbors even had a rooster in their flock, and at the end of our block was a legacy farm (still in the township, but surrounded by actual town) that bred mules-we often were greeted by the loud braying of their Jack donkey.  So I ‘converted’ a 8×10 plastic shed that we had inherited with the house to a chicken coop (OK, I put straw in the bottom, nailed some large sticks together for a roost and made laying boxes out of 5 gallon buckets).   I didn’t really want to keep Hasen in the house- indoor, non-litter trained rabbits are rather, well, odiferous due to their urine and I didn’t really want to build a new outdoor hutch.  Necessity is the mother of invention -so is laziness, and now that I thought about it, I didn’t see much difference between the structure needs of chickens and the needs of bunnies.  So I threw Hasen in with the pullets and made sure to put fresh greens or alfalfa hay in daily just like with his hutch.  Hasen did well with the chickens, they harassed him a bit as he didn’t fair too well in the pecking order due to a decided lack of a beak, but every Spring he returned the harassment as he persistently tried to breed them all– which gave some different lessons to the kids.   Not gonna lie, I’m still a bit upset we never got any chocolate creme filled eggs out of the deal.  

In that first summer I added a Composting Chicken Run (post coming soon) to the coop- essentially a 10×12 roofed and screened area to expand the confined habitat for the chookens to 40 sq ft total per bird.   Hasen had full access to everywhere the ckickens went, and while he rapidly began to switch to a more normal cerpuscular / nocturnal activity cycle he would awaken rapidly to butt the chickens out of the way when the fresh greens were dropped in.   Some interesting synergies became apparent as I observed the hutch over time.  First of all- unlike chickens, as rabbits have a true urine, and a very nitrogen rich one at that, the bedding began to compost much faster than with just the 5 pullets in residence.  I had the lot on a 6″-12″  ‘Deep’ Litter method and the sections under Hasen’s toilet corners were super rich compost and as the coop had an impervious plastic barrier (floor) the bottom 2-3″ of the litter would stay moist enough to cool compost normally, and I even ended up incorporating worms and they thrived as they stayed in the low moist area and the chickens rarely scratched that deep through the dry top bedding.  

Another very interesting synergy became apparent.  Rabbits have two kinds of poop- the first is a pellet that is only half ‘done’- these are often dropped in dens for later consumption especially when the rabbit is eating high lignin forage and/or food is scarce.  Similar to a cow chewing its cud, this allows the bunny in question to extract far more nutrient than a simple ‘once through’ system.   It didn’t take long at all for the chickens to figure out that Hasen was basically a hopping treat dispenser- they absolutely adored the ‘first poops’ which opened up some interesting function stacking to me.  Essentially co-housing rabbits and chickens allowed me to feed chickens brush, albeit indirectly, as Hasen would devour the dogwood, willow, maple trimmings, and the chickens would then eat the half digested pellets.  Didn’t see that one coming, but it really does work.

After a year or so into the co housing project, I can home late one evening to find Hasen out in the front lawn in the moonlight happily munching clover and dandelions.   He did his ‘happy bunny jump-turn-flip’ when I approached him, incorrectly thinking I need to catch him to keep him safe.  To my surprise he calmly hopped back to the coop in the side yard and into a hole behind it.  It seems that he had dug a hole under the foundation of the chicken coop from the run, and had begun going out on nightly adventures.  Here is where some of my risky contrariness reared its head.  I know damn well that living as close as we do to a river that is full of weasel, otter, raccoon, possum, fox, and the rest of the chicken / rabbit eating menagerie that I should plug that hole and keep them all safe.  But I didn’t.   Seeing Hasen that happy, and the thought of that little meat bunny sneaking out each night to romp in the suburbs under the moonlight brought just too much joy to me.  I talked it over with the kids and we all agreed that Hasen, who was 6 at the time, had lived a very long bunny life and that it was better to let him have his adventures, even knowing that the Great Horned Owls we hear weekly would likely get him in time.  

So we let him play and either through luck or pluck, no weasels followed him into the coop, nor did any owls turn him into baby food in the Spring.  Sure we were lucky, but it was also a calculated risk-and I am not one to live my life in fear preferring to live fully than live afraid and Hasen seemed to me, to share that sentiment.   The chickens, well putting them at risk was likely too far, but we have been fine.   It was not uncommon to see Sagely Old Hasen sitting and Just Be-ing at night or early morning.  In winter, it became apparent from the tracks that he had been making friends with local bunnies, though we haven’t seen any wild/domestic crosses yet.  That would’ve make me very happy indeed if we had had our own Watership Down.  

At the end of our second summer here, Hasen developed a lame hind leg.  I was not able to find a direct injury, but I suspect that he had had an adventure that was more exciting than typical causing some nerve damage, or perhaps he got arthritis.  Over time it crept to his other hind leg, though he retained use of that one to some degree until the end.   We expected last winter to be his last, but lame and all, he soldiered through the -30 nights in the coop and met his 8th spring this year.  He didn’t venture out as much at night, but would follow the chickens out into the lawn when we would let them range- either freely or into their fenced rotating ‘pastures’ once the gardens were up.  He was definitely moving slower, but his weight was good and he could scoot pretty well on his own- we’d find him just basking in the sun nearly covered in white Dutch clover, half asleep and seemingly quite content.   The chickens seemed to sense the change and almost never pestered him any more and they would share space at the greens pile daily or walk calmly around him in the ‘pasture’.  

This June, Hasen began to turn, his weight began to drop, and he stopped cleaning his hind feet which would get dirty from all the dragging, and over the past 2 weeks he would often be found with stems of greens wound around his legs.  We began cutting all greens we fed to the coop, but the end was near.  

Last night Hasen left us, but I learned a lot from that silly little meat rabbit and am better for having him; he was a good little composting bunny.   Seeing him, eyes half closed basking in clover and the late Spring sun never failed to remind me to Just BE.  

Thanks Hasen, may your moonlit adventures continue in the Valhalla of Bunnies.  

-Rob

Hold The Ramparts

The passing of Gene Logsdon last month hit me hard.  It was so sudden, so out of the blue, that its impact was raw and hot especially as my wife and I were experiencing the pending loss of her mother to cancer at the same time.  Gene, to me like so many of us, was a proxy grandfather spinning yarns of past days chocked full of practical wisdom, mores, and humour.  I am working my way through my Gene Logsdon shelf of my library, and looking forward to filling in some holes there as well.   This morning I picked up The Contrary Farmer, and was instantly reminded of why I love Gene so much:

We are circumspect about our economic institutions.  We do not bank on paper money within marble walls, but invest in sun and soil and sweat and the tools that make sweat more productive.  

I think of us as the Rampart People.  In all ages, we have camped on the edges of the earth, the buffer between our more conventional and timid brethren and those nether regions where, as the medieval maps instructed, “there be dragons and wild beestes.”  It is our destiny to draw the dragon’s view while the mainstream culture hides behind its disintegrating deficit and ramen us for shattering its complacency.  So be it.

 Gene started his farm when he was 42- I think that it is not overly coincidental that I happen to be turning 42 next week, and  I find that inspiring- also challenging.  

It is easy to see Gene as a grandfather, but Gene is also the Ben Kenobi of Sustainable Agriculture and he will continue on more powerful than we can possibly imagine. I see his ghost smiling at me as I sharpen my restored hatchet, when I pause in my compost turning to watch a bluebird hunt the garden, or his giving me a hard time whenever I get a little too much hubris- which is often.  And now when I sit and look at my career path and then look longingly over the once fertile fields of Minnesota, I hear him too.

Run, Luke …run!

Man the ramparts, all.  We need them.

-Rob

Be the Change

Back on WordPress!

After far too long I’m going to fire up the old WordPress blog. A lot has changed – we’ve moved to the Minneapolis area for one- and my new job involves a good amount of travel so our yardening has changed as well. Much less total sq footage and less epic projects, but we’ve added edible landscaping and permaculture design to this property and also now have a backyard laying flock of 9 chickens which has been fabulous.  Super exciting- the ecology here is LOADS better than our old home. We see eagles daily, and have seen otter, beaver and foxes within a 3 min walk from our door as well as over 90 species of birds, every frog native to southern MN and 3 species of turtles as our new home abuts a 30 acre ‘city’ park which is bordered by a river and contains woods, meadow, and a 5 acre pond.

Currently there is a gap in posts from the time I was on the now defunct OnestrawRob site. At some point I’ll migrate them all over, but there is a lot of work to be done there.

In the mean time, I’ll try to use this space to update on my current projects and please feel free to connect on Instagram: onestraw

Missed you guys!

Rob

-Be the Change

New Post up on OneStrawRob.com

New Post on OneStrawRob : a How To for my Cold Frames

All new posts will be made at the new URL.  Again, please change your RSS feeds.  I will begin forwarding all traffic next week.

The One Straw Blog is Moving!

I am very pleased to announce that the One Straw Blog is literally “being the change” and moving to a new url: www.onestrawrob.com!

June 2010 Tour - yes I am holding forth from my compost pile...

Why the move?  For 3 years now I have run an LLC focused on helping others live more sustainably and also to eat better through selling our produce from our backyard and market gardens at local markets.  Last year, we began to host tours and workshops at our home, and the response was incredible.  Thanks in large part to that response, seminars, tours, and workshops will be becoming a larger part of our work to Be the Change.  In addition to this I have greatly expanded the amount of services and products we offer.  Basically, if I have written about it on the blog, I will either be selling it or installing it.  From cold frames to compost bins, rain gardens to Fruit Tree Guilds; raised beds to low tunnels.  Heck, if you want me and the Grillo to till up your yard or a new community garden – I’m there.  But, it was becoming very clear that most of my clients had no idea that I wrote, and most of my readers had no idea that I ran a business.  That was just silly, so I made the change.

I will still be writing about everything that I am doing.  I will still be as detailed as ever with my “how to’s”.  But once I have proven the design, local readers will also have the option of purchasing the results of the trials if they do not have the time nor inclination to build / install one for themselves.  I very much enjoy building, and the more compost bins and gardens in the world, the better off we will all be!

Also, I have updated and expanded the “Read!” section of the blog in the “Bildung” section on the new site.   Bildung is a German concept that defies translation, but can roughly be seen as the concept that education can literally change a person.  7 years ago I was racing 400hp street cars I built myself and eating at McDonald’s.  But through the epiphanies resulting from watching our son undergo surgery at the age of 3 months, I became interested in organic food and started to read more about gardening sustainably.  The rest is history, and I have never looked back.

Finally, the site is now partially monetized.  I did not go lightly into this, but the blog will have a side banner and the links on the Bildung section are associate links to Amazon.  I have played with the sizing, and hope that the ads are not distracting – let me know if that is not the case.  The associate links and ads are to hep defray the hosting fees – trust me, I will not get rich on this!  With the books, I continue to encourage everyone to support their local book sellers and/or local libraries for their books.  But, if you are gong to order online anyhow, clicking through the link and making a purchase will give me a fifty cents or so.

In a few days I will begin forwarding traffic to the new site, which may or may not wreak havoc on the RSS feeds that many of you have set up.  I apologize for any inconvenience!

I thank you all so much for working with me to Be the Change!  The coming decades are going to be terrifying and exhilirating.  Together we can make a difference.  Let’s do this.

Be the Change!

-Rob

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

David Holmgren’s “Retro-Fitting Suburbia” talk in Auckland 2007

After I wrote Evolving Suburbia I came across this talk on and found it interesting to here David go into more detail than in the initial video I posted.  These are all availible on You Tube, but can be a bit hard to track down, though deepgreenvideo has them all up and I am using their uploads.  Also, you can find the text to the paper that covers the same topics on Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Bulletin.  Total time for the talk is a bit over 90 minutes, the first 45 is a very nice summary of permaculture, and a high level overview of David’s book Future Scenarios. Starting about part 5 or 6 he really starts to hone in on suburbia.  Specifics remain light, again the answers will be individual and organic, but his tactic of following 4 “homes” from the 1950’s to the early 2000’s is rather fun to watch.

 

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

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