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

Advertisements

Pimp My Garden: Fall Season Prep

‘Tis fall, the Season of the Soil!  With the shorter days, and frosts in Wisconsin Nature is dropping its leaves to blanket the soil and begin to build the humus necessary to protect the future of it’s ecosystems.  Mom Nature really knows her shit, and we should listen; if Mom is covering her soil, we prolly should too.   Several billion years of evolution are talkin ya know?  This will detail how I am prepping the beds in our annual gardens this year.  These are the beds I built in June and the majority of the soil was trucked in – it needs some healing.  And you know my answer for healing the soil: compost and organic matter.

First up is to strip the organic matter off the top, shred it, and compost it.

In future  years I may skip the composting, but we still had a bunch of weeds so off to the Hot Composting it goes.  Once the beds were clear it was time to add some medicine – comfrey!  I have about 6 dozen Russian comfrey plants on property cloned off 2 plants I bought 4 years ago.  Comfrey is a wonder plant, full on minerals and excellent food for soil microbes.  Here is a shot of my a bit of my comfrey “coppice”, a double row along a 80′ fence line.

The comfrey is hacked done with a sickle and laid out on the beds.  Comfrey is a wonder plant, but it can also resprout occasionally.  To prevent this do two things – compost when you cut it when its flowering (if you have viable seed like me), and also when using it as mulch, don’t cut the fronds too close to the ground to prevent any chance of re-rooting from any root chunks.  Still, you will likely get some volunteers over the years.  In the permie beds I encourage this.  In the veg garden, not so much.   That imposed order is not natural, but its there.  Smother any that come up with a mini sheet mulch.

A layer twice this thick could also be used, but much thicker than that and I would be concerned with  it going anaerobic under the mulch.  Next up I spread nearly finished compost.  Actually this is as finished as most of my compost gets unless I am making potting mix; I prefer to leave some un-decomposed organic matter for the microbes to breed on in place.  Look at the color difference!  In very general terms, the darker the soil the higher the organic matter content.  Humus is black.

This is what about .5" of compost (on average) looks like.

I had about 1/2 of a yard of compost left for the three beds I was prepping.  Dividing it out works to about .6 inches on average.  I would prefer more, but with the mulch breaking down all Fall/Winter/Spring I will add another .5″ over time.  Final step is to “tuck them in” as Nature intended.  In this case its a 4″ (once settled) of well rotted straw that served all summer as the walls of the Methane Midden.

Makin Ruth Stout proud.

Not quite done.  Need to fill the 1′ paths back in with new wood chips.  Why?  Because choosing to use wood chips on the path was brilliant.  It prevents compaction by spreading the load of walking, but it also holds moisture, and breeds soil fungus like crazy, lots of mycelium after only 4 months.  Outstanding!

Notice that none of the beds were turned, nor do I  plan to turn it in the spring either.  Yep – going no till baby!  And from a guy with a $4000 rototiller that is saying a lot!  A surface hoeing with a 7″ scuffle hoe was done to clear the debris.  Once the debris was clear I could see dozens of holes from the deep tilling earthworms.  The straw and compost layers mimic natural soil strata: topsoil-> humus -> duff-> mulch.

No till it is.

2011 is going to be awesome!

-Rob

Be the Change.

“Professional” Composting

160 degrees within 24 hours. This system WORKS.

I make a lot of compost.  I would say I make a ton of compost, but in reality I make *several* tons.  Every year.  At home.  In the ‘burbs.  If you want to follow the path of Gaia’s Garden – you almost certainly need immense amounts of organic matter.  We live in a newer subdivision so without mature trees we have to get creative to get our biomass for composting.  In years past I resorted to tapping into local waste streams, namely our local coffee shop to the tune of 30 gallons of grounds and sandwich trimmings every week.  That volume eventually inspired me to build my Compost Bin of Dreams to handle it.  The gorp from the shop was good, though it was heavy and was difficult to aerate.  To our horror that shop closed down this past Spring due to the recession and we lost a significant element in our local community.  It was an awful tragedy to the owners, whom we knew.  As time went on and the grieving passed, and I realized I needed to find another source for compost material.  I had also recently bought a chipper and learned the joys of brush wood composting. Here is my new system which allows me to make up to 15 yards a year:

Materials

To compost at this scale – 5-10 yards a year – you need a lot of material.  You can count on a 75% reduction in weight due to loss of water and half the carbon in the decomposition process.  A yard of compost weighs in at 540#’s or so – so you need literally tons and tons of material.  That means you need to get it for free.  With my local grounds dried up, I turned to other waste streams, in this case brush and wood chips from our local municipal yard (and local farms when we clean up the hedgerows) as well as weeds from fallow feeds at the farm.  Personal favorites from our local / free waste stream:

  • Box Elder
  • Willow
  • Lambsquarter
  • Ragweed
  • Corn/Sunflower Stalks
  • Straw after fall decorations

There is not many food scraps in here, though we continue to add ours and I kick in lawn clippings as needed to fire up a pile.  I certainly could be pounding the pavement of the local grocers and restaurants, but have chosen not to.  First, that would again lock me into a pickup schedule and I am getting waaaay too busy.  Second, the waste streams from those outlets are almost pure nitrogen and if aren’t picked up daily turn into a stinky, anaerobic mess when I get them.  I have pushed my neighbors quite a bit this past year, so want to keep this recent uptick in activity pleasant.  Sourcing my own brushwood and weeds keeps me in control.

Tools

5'x8' w/ 1 ton axle. Arguably my most useful tool. Dead serious.

Trailer: To carry all this material you need something rather large, but I not necessarily a truck.  I do all of this with my 90hp TDI Golf and a 5×8 trailer from Farm and Fleet I bought 3 years ago for $700.   Trailers are useful as they are MUCH lower to the ground to make unloading/unloading easier than a truck, and you only use it when you need it.  I get 48 mpg on my Golf without the trailer.  With it loaded I take a 20% mileage hit and a bit of wear and tear on the brakes.  I also upgraded the suspension with higher spring rates when I needed to replace them, but that is cause I am weird.  Even with all of that it still beats the hell out of 15mpg in a 1/2 ton truck.

Chipper- I resisted this for years, but finally caved.  My chipper is a Bio – 80 from BCS and I got it used for $550.  They are very hard to find and would cost over $1000 new.  Alternatives would be a 3″ model from DR or Bearcat, but again – be ready for sticker shock as they are EXPENSIVE.  Luckily, they can be found on Ebay, and more rarely on Craiglist.  Avoid the “craftsmans” type ones like the plague.  They are underpowered, poorly designed, and worse than useless.  This is also why you see them on Craiglist by the dozen.  This is almost commercial level work, and you need Real Tools.  The rub: To compost brush, you need a chipper, and chippers use fuel.  Mine is averaging less than a gallon for every 7-8 hours of run time, which is more frugal than a typical gas lawn mower, which I haven’t used for more than 8 years.  A larger pto model could work on a tractor running on methane, ethanol, or homemade bio-deisel.  This Briggs could run on ethanol as well.  Methane too, but it would be a bit harder to put the tank somewhere.

Bins –  I wrote this up in detail in my Compost Bin of Dreams.  I have a 4 bin system that can handle over 2000#;s of material at a time.  It is a flow through system – start on the left and turn each bin to the right.  When the 3 turnings are done, most of the compost is ready. When I compost sod, or other marginal material, it usually isn’t done so it goes into my 30 cu ft outdoor vermi-composter for “finishing”.

Each bin is 40" cubed -Combined it will hold 5.5 yards.

Process

This is the real beauty of this system.  You read any book on composting and they say if you really want an ideal pile you need to gather the materials before hand.   But, since that is nearly impossible, they then tell you about how you can compost your lawn clippings (2-3 cu ft at a cutting at my house) kitchen scraps (half a cu ft), soiled napkins etc.  Most homeowners will never fill a bin even after a year unless they have mature trees to add the leaves in.  Given the amount of organic matter we need to put back into our soils we need to do far better than that.

1) Gather your materials I ask you to refer again to the picture of the loaded trailer earlier in the post.  This pile chipped up to about 37 cu ft of material.  That will settle to about a yard, maybe a bit less.  What you can’t see in the picture is that it is not ALL brush.  The top 3/4 is willow, maple, and pine.  This is the carbon for the pile.  I try to only use green brush as I want the moisture, sugary sap, and nitrogen from the leaves.  Green brush still has all the water soluble nutrients in it – and you want those in your compost to feed the microbes which then feed your plants.  Under the compost is about 300#’s of fresh cut, mature (6′-9′ tall) lambsquarter.   It is also just getting ready to set seed.  Normally adding several million weed seeds to a pile would be asinine, but reference the compost thermometer on the top – these piles get wicked hot and stay over 130 degrees for over 2 weeks solid.  They should kill the weed seeds, and lambsquarter when young is a tasty treat whilst weeding and it weeds easily.   Brush bulk is deceiving – that huge pile is barley 8 cu ft chipped, so I also added .3 yards of wood chips from the city pile to be shredded to offset the nitrogen of the lambsquarter and help build humus.  Remember it is lignin and cellulose that build humus, and for that you need woody material like leaves, straw or twigs.

Entropy Once the materials are on site, limb the larger brush with a loppers or axe to ensure easy chipping.  Do this before you fire up the chipper to save on fuel.  I typically start with the brush as its close to perfect on the C:N ratio if its real leafy.   I chip the trunks until the stem is under 3/4″ and then I shred the rest.  As I go I keep an eye on the discharge – if its too brown I add more green material; the mixing starts this early.  Once the brush is done I then move to the green weeds.  These clog even my chipper very quickly.  Luckily my shredder has a removable debris screen.  By opening the screen it is able to shoot out the material after beating on it for a bit.  I like the lambsquarter as it is long enough that I can hold onto the stalks as I feed it – otherwise the shredding blades can pull it through too fast.  If something comes out unprocessed I refeed it later. Every cu ft of material or so, I close the debris screen again and add the wood chips.  This clogs the machine every time, so I keep a tamping stick like a 3′ chunk of 2×4 or 4″ limb thats too big for the chipper to encourage the material to enter the shredder.  This is the slowest part, but oh so worth it since the shredded wood chips are very fine and decompose very quickly for a carbon.  GORGEOUS humus.

300#'s of lambsquarter all chopped up. Add browns 1:1 with this.

Building the Piles.

As the material builds up from the chipping I add it to my 10 cu ft wheel barrow.  Half way through I pour in a 5 gallon bucket of rainwater from a rain barrel, and add another when the barrow is full.  This is vitally important.  As Jean Pain taught us – brush needs A LOT of water to decompose well.  Using rainwater is important for two reasons.  First, rainwater is free from the chlorine present in municipal water which would inhibit bacterial growth for a day or more.  Secondly, rainbarrel water is bacterially active.  It is churning with colonies of bacteria and fungal spores and almost certainly helps jumpstart the pile.  Each heaping barrow load (13 cu ft) gets 10 gallons of water – so I end up with 30 gallons of water added to each bin.  Actually, composting is the prime us of my rainbarrel water, as once the compost is in the soil, I barely need to irrigate! I might try soaking the material as Jean Pain did, but this process goes so fast it doesn’t seem necessary.  As I add the material to the barrow I continue to eyeball the mixture and scoop up greener or browner forkfuls as I go to mix it well.  The end goal is a perfectly mixed and soaked pile from Day 1. Finished piles should look like this:

Look at the mixture and the particle size. It should be wet enough to feel like a damp sponge.

Pile the piles as tall as possible as they settle significantly.  I lightly tamp the piles with the fork as I fill them, especially around the edges where the friction on the sides resists settling.  My bins hold 1.3 yards and I mound them 18″ over the top.  If you don’t have enough material it doesn’t seem to matter if you add to it in a week or so, just know that that material will need an additional week to decompose.

A compost thermometer is vital to this process.  The piles heat up almost immediately – the temp shot at the beginning I took this morning I the pile I built yesterday – about 15 hours ago.  DANG.  160 is the highest you should let the piles get.  The first one of these I built hit 173 – that is far too hot and at the point of concern that it may begin spontaneously combusting like a hay barn.  To slow it down I have added more carbon to the mix.  Watch the pile temp almost daily – as it drops below 125, turn it again, and add more water.  This time is may only hit 140, wait a bit until it drops to 115 or so and then turn it a third time.  The 3rd turning should  be done at about 105 degrees, but at this point you are almost done, and the pile should be left to “mellow”.  This can take months, so I typically put some in my vermicomposter and spread the rest as mulch which I top dress with some straw in the veggie garden, or wood chips in the permaculture beds.  The microbes will continue munching on it in place.

Conclusion

This system is not for everyone.  It takes serious equipment and a serious intent.  I have almost $2000 invested: $600 for the chipper, $700 for the trailer, $500 in the bin.  And that is using used equipment.

But the results!  By spending the extra investment on the front end in material sourcing and prep you are able to take waste brush and turn it into compost in 3-5 weeks.  That means at a 4 week average and my 4 bin system I can reasonably do 15 yards of finished compost in a 6 month composting season.  In reality some batches will take longer, but I also compost more like 9 months of the year.  15 yards is 4 tons of finished compost and enough to spread 5000 sq ft 1″ thick.  To do this I would need a trailer load of material a week for 24 weeks – about 12 tons of raw material.  It will take alot of organic matter to rebuild our soils, and the 8000 pounds of compost I could put back into my yard is roughly 4 tons of carbon that isn’t in the atmosphere anymore and will continue to sequester more as it aids the growth of the plants in my gardens.

Hopefully this system will help you in your quest to rebuild your soils and sequester carbon naturally to help heal the planet as we feed our families.

Be the change!

-Rob

Grow Your Own Soil: Compost Crops

Readers will note that I am HUGE on living soils.  We moved into a dead, denuded landscape and have spent the past 5 years dutifully rebuilding them.  The single most important thing in healing soils is to add organic matter – essentially getting carbon back into the soil.  Why?  Carbon is the primary building block of all life and it is the fuel of the soil food web -from the zillions of bacteria and miles of fungal hyphae to the worms that feed on them.  We’ve been trucking in organic matter for years now – mostly wood chips, but also straw and manures; by the ton.  In fact, over the past five years I would estimate that we’ve surpassed 20 tons of raw material that we’ve either added directly to our soils (manures), or mulched (wood chips and straw).  That may sound like alot, but at least half of the carbon is lost to the air as part of the decomposition process (no fears for global warming as the carbon in wood chips and manure was atmospheric carbon just a year or so ago before it was sequestered by the plants), plus to add an inch to a 1/4 acre (11,000 sq ft) which is my yard (minus house and driveway)  you need to have about 9 tons of compost.  That’s 34 yards of finished compost, or over 100 cu yards of raw material.  Helping others get to this point is why I own a dump truck.

The result is that our soil is teeming with life and the gardens are really starting to “pop” this year with trees adding multiple feet of growth, 5+ cuttings of the Russian Comfrey, and sunflowers over 8′ tall.  We will continue to “uppen” our soils with compost and mulches for decades to come.  But I am trying to do this on as low of inputs as possible.  In the last 5 years we have built our garden soils up and the lawn is getting healthier every year.  It is time to try to see how sustainable I can make this system.  It is time to start growing my own soil.

To grow your own soil you need plants that pull carbon out of the atmosphere, which of course all plants do, but some do it really damn well.  I must tip my hat strongly to John Jeavons and his work on sustainable gardening here, but for annuals the choices are not too hard – what gets really damn big, with a thick stalk?  Think sunflowers, sorghum, corn, quinoa, amaranth, etc.  Add in all the small grains if left to dry out into straw and you get the idea.  Perennial crops are also money as well.  There are a wealth of BIG plants in the tall grass prairie – my favorites are cupplant, giant Joe Pye weed, sunchokes, and the myriad perennial sunflowers like maximillian and ox eye.  The true Big Guns in this area are rapid growth trees, often referred to as weeds, harvested as coppice such as willows, box elder, black locust, and even chestnut and ash.  Other “weeds” like lambsquarter, ragweed, and buttonweed get 6’+ tall , and even invasives like buckthorn coppice well.

Today I spent an hour touring the back yard with my Big Az 10 cu ft mulch wheel barrow, my sickle, and my new brush axe pulling weeds, hacking down old raspberry canes from last year, cutting back insurgent sunchokes, and taking the 4th cutting off the 60 or so russian comfrey I have around the gardens.  That produced an immense amount of green material – piling it into my utility trailer I easily had 80 cu ft.  That is far too much nitrogen for a pile so then I got out my loppers and a pruning saw and took some prunings from the buckthorn out back and two of our willow shrubs.  It wasn’t enough, but in a few years the 2 dozen box elders and  willows I have planted will be on line.  Here are the results.

about 100#'s of material, but dang is it bulky. Brush Axe is leaning on the trailer.

That is from one lap of the backyard – I can do this about 3-4 times a year at present.  In years past I just threw all the weeds into the compost bins, but it doesn’t work too well as the stalky stuff takes too long and the full size leaves mat up.  Now with the Bio-80 shredder it makes marvelous weed puree.

Entropy ala weeds. At least half that pile is/was comfrey so the compost will be awesome. The recycling bin is the chipped tree prunings - not enough to offset the greens, but its a start..

Now the Bio-80 is powered by gasoline, and I am likely to catch flak in the comments for burning dead dinosaurs to save the world.  I agree- its not ideal.  But I am building a transitional system and am not afraid to break some eggs to make an omelet.  The chipper is only 5hp and ran for about 20 minutes using less than a cup of fuel.  In future years I hope to find a way to power the chipper on methane from the ‘Midden or ethanol from a local co-op.  But for now I’m in bed with BP on this one.  One very cool option would be to use a chicken “shredder” to break down the green material – 4 layers in a confined pen would make short work of this over a week or so of adding an inch or two a day for the girls to scratch in.  Of course that is illegal here.  Working on that too…

This bin is 40" cubed and is about 66% full. This will settle almost 30% in the coming days. Making soil takes ALOT of plant material. Plant more trees!

Finally, it takes ALOT of plants to make a yard of compost.  A yard of finished compost weighs about 550#’s.  So the 100-150#’s of material that I put in, most of which was water that will evaporate out, is just a start. But every journey begins with a step.

I am very proud that this bin. When I add another weed lap in September, plus all the corn, cupplant, sunchokes, and sorghum stalks form the yard this fall, this cu yard of finished compost will be 100% homegrown.  As the gardens mature, I will begin getting leaf litter from the trees and willow and box elder coppice to add to it.  My gardens, minus paths, are about 3000 sq ft – that means that 4-5 cu yards could cover it all with .5″ of compost annually, which is alot if you are only maintaining fertility.  I can do that in about 5 years if I add more coppice trees; I am convinced that I can sustain the fertility of my gardens without additional inputs.

We can do this.

Be the change!

-Rob

Food + Fuel + Fertility = The New Paradigm

Food. Fuel. Fertility.   Of late, those 3 words hammer through my brain like a sledge whenever I get going on a new project.  The reason is simple – I am convinced that our agriculture has to do all three if we are to build a new culture to survive the new reality of Climate Change on top of Energy Descent and our burgeoning billions.  We talk and talk of sustainable culture – but I don’t want to sustain what we have now – the fear, the pollution, the waste – I want something far better.  We need a Regenerative Culture. The Age of Exploitation must come to an end – the Age of Healing has arrived.

The Methane Midden is a good example of this thinking.  While significantly on the energy/fertility side with its 4-6 months of hot water or methane on top of the 4000#’s of compost, it is also planted with squash and tomatoes to produce hundreds of pounds of food.  The system is still being tested (the plants aren’t loving it) but the potential is immense.  7 weeks in and the pile is still over 125 degrees – with no turning or maintenance at all.  Dang!  Tomorrow I am going to harvest several hundred mature lambsquarter that are 9′ tall to be shredded for the methane feedstock.  Much more to come on that project!

With that task of harvesting tall stalky plants in the back of my mind, this morning over breakfast I went on a fantastic internet fueled thought tangent on the feasibility of a fuel tweaked Three Sisters guild.  It is so simple, which is why I am so excited.  First – take the standard Three Sisters of corn + pole beans + winter squash and swap oilseed sunflowers for the corn.  Why?  Because my car and 2 wheel tractor run on diesel.  Journey to Forever says that you can get 102 gallons of oil from an acre of sunflowers – 43,000 plants on 1′ spacing.  But we are wanting a polyculture so we will need to let some light in by spreading the sunflower canopy a bit – say cut the spacing in half to 25,000 plants or so.  That still leaves enough plants for 50 gallons of oil if we use oilseed varieties.  Then take the understory and add back in the squash.  Monoculture will get you 10-20 tons of squash per acre.  So again, lets cut that down a bit and say 18,000#’s.  That is ALOT of food.  Food that keeps all winter long. Finally, we are vegetarians so we needs our protein.  Add in the soup beans.  25 bushels per acre is typical @ 60#’s a bushel.  Again, cut in half for polyculture and you get 12 bushels of beans, or 720 pounds.  So to recap our acre is now growing enough seed to produce 50 gallons of oil, 18000#’s of squash and 700#’s of dry beans –both of which keep for months and months.  That is rather good.   Lets make it better!

Remember the thought stream that got me to this point over my now cold steel cut oats.  Chopping down cellulose rich tall plants for methane fuel stock and compost.  25,000 8′ tall sunflowers…. lay them down end to end and its over 37 miles.  I haven’t weighed one, but figure they weigh 5#’s each.  That is 62 tons of green material that is going to be pretty close to perfect C:N ratio by harvest time.  125,000#’s of material – composted down with a 75% loss gets you to about 30,000#’s of compost, or 55 yards.  That seems high so I would love to prove the math.  That is enough to spread the entire acre with .4″ of compost- a very healthy amount and far more than I apply annually in my market gardens.  Fertility would increase to say the least.  62 tons of material would also be enough to build 8 Methane Middens so that we can heat our winter greenhouses or the chicken barn.  Dang sucka.

Back to the fuel part again.  50 gallons doesn’t sound like much.  And it isn’t.  Most of us only get 22 mpg and  drive 12000 miles per car per year – 540 gallons per year per car.  Ouch.  But we all know that we will drive ALOT less in the future and most cars are fuel hogs.  My VW TDI gets 42 MPG towing a 1000# of cargo in my trailer.  Have I mentioned I love my car?  So, even saving 5 gallons for the Grillo to till the acre, we still have enough oil to drive over 1750 miles towing all those squash and bushels of beans to market.    If we relocalize that is 175 round trips to town 5 miles away – 3 trips a week. Huh.

But I want to re-stress my loathing of the food v. fuel argument.  It is a farce if you think it through and know the science of biofuels-even ADM fed their ethanol mash to tilapia.  So we take the 25,000 sunflowers, grind up the seeds (will need some energy there – unless we build a bicycle machine to do it), and press them.  That seed mash left over from the pressing doesn’t just disappear.  In fact, about 50% of the total oil is essentially impossible to remove from the pressed seeds without solvents, and the protein and carbohydrates are still there too –i.e. the food value of the seeds is still there.  That means you still have 1500#’s of protein rich (40%) meal to feed to your livestock.

Can we rebuild the next 20 years to allow us to transition to a less energy dense future?

1 acre nets 18,000#’s of squash, 750#’s of dry beans (4500 cups cooked!), 1500#s of animal feed, 30,000#’s of compost after you have heated your buildings with 8 Methane Middens worth of energy, and you also managed to make enough oil to power the tractor and drive to town 3 times a week for the next year.

On one acre.

Be the Change!

-Rob

Oh, How the Mind Wanders

Today I got a wicked good workout on a landscaping job.  I bid it out at 5 hours of labor and I was to mulch two large areas.   The areas worked out to about 11 Cu yards of material for good coverage which is two short loads with B.A.R.T. (Big Ass Red Truck).  Dropped the kids off at school and emptied my municipal site of chips – about 7 yards.  They were wet for the 2” of rains and heavy as hell.  Also, the bed on B.A.R.T. is about 44” up so that is a hefty throw.  Took a solid hour of throwing chips with a manure fork (.5 cu ft a throw) with a few breaks to push the chips deeper into the bed.  Then it was off to the job site.  I had forgot my mulch barrow at the farm which has a 10 cu ft payload and dual wheels – for reasons I don’t understand I choose not to get it and use my rock barrow with its 5 cu ft metal barrow.  Those of you good with quick math now realize that  I just doubled my trips, but I wasn’t real keen on a 25 mile detour in a 7 mpg truck.   I literally thought “it’ll be a good workout” ad its not THAT far.  Got to the site and realized my memory had played tricks on me – the gardens were 75 and 125 yards from the driveway.  Oi.

The long and short of the story is that 11 cu yards is about 300 cu ft.  That is 60 trips in my little wheel barrow.  200 yards per trip for 60 trips is just shy of 7 miles of walking.  11 cu yards of wet chips weighs in at about 6000#’s.  Did I mention that the gardens were all down (thank goodness!) a hill with a 20’ drop?  I climbed 1200’ of elevation to boot.

Truth be told I had a great time – good honest work.  Very little thought – this was grunt work so my mind could wander and I was able to sweat out a lot of good ideas (as well as the math in this post) whilst I was literally sweating out liters of water.

The job took about 5.5 hours, but prolly would have shaved an hour with the mulch barrow.  5.5 hours of fairly intense work – I figure about 450-500 cal an hour based on my heart rate and sweat levels compared to the gym.  5.5 hours.  JESUS!  That’s almost 3000 calories!  Methinks that 6” Veggie Delight at Subway didn’t cut it and that also explains why I hit a “wall” at hour 4.5.  Jared should give me a call if he REALLY wants to lose weight!

3000 calories.  That got me thinking.  When we plan average caloric intake like the USDA says on the cereal boxes, we figure –at most– 2500 calories.  Even if I am rounding up a bit, that is a crap ton of energy I burned and given I kept working when I got home, it is entirely possible I hit 4000 calories today.  Energy I need to eat again.    Many of us have seen the caloric needs of a person touted in attempts to calculate how much acreage is needed to grow enough food to feed a person for a year.  I’ve seen figures ranging from 750,000 to about 900,000 calories per person per year.  In only a few cases (pretty sure John Jeavons mentions it) have I seen the author take into account that the caloric needs of someone farming (or insert physical trade of choice here) by hand has significantly higher caloric needs.  Sitting in a cubicle all day and watching my daily allotment of TV, I have proven I will gain weight at 1800 calories.  If I had to grow all my own food, or more likely enough for several families of 4, I will be burning significantly more calories and will likely need more land.  12 people at 850k equates to 10,200,000 calories.  If we are all burning 3000+ the land needs go up by 30% as we’ll need closer to 1,100,000 calories annually.

This is why I have stressed repeatedly on this blog the need to learn to efficiently grow calorie crops without inputs.  An acre of potatoes will produce at least 40,000#’ if well managed.  Potatoes have about 20 calories per ounce.  That works out to about 13,000,000 calories per acre.  Of course man can’t life on spuds alone, but that is enough to feed 12 hungry sustainable farmers.  A 5 acre farm set up to rotate cucurbits/corn/beans, onions/greens/brassicas/roots, and solanaceae (1 acre each) combined with fruiting hedgerows, and an acre in cover crop rotationally grazed by chickens could support the caloric and nutrition needs of 30+ people.  The eggs from the chickens alone would add about 4,000,000 calories per year (230 hens, 200 eggs per year, 85 calories an egg), so that 30ish person figure is likely fair even without running the math on the winter squash (20,000#’s), onions (15,000#) and hedgerows.  Plus you could add a cow or some goats to the pasture with no loss of eggs and we are running mono crop rather than permaculture design in most acres so we are wasting solar energy – but that is another post!

There are 470,000,000 acres of arable land in the US.  True, many of those depend heavily on irrigation so lets run it at 300,000,000 acres.  Divide by 5 acres and multiply by 30 people. 1.8 billion people.  Add in the Ukraine, Europe, Brazil, India and China and we *can* feed the world – we need about 1.5-2 billion acres, but its gonna be close and distribution is gonna be hell to get our surpluses to India and China not to mention that Africa is already a mess.

Plus we need to build soils like crazy as the only fertilizer in 50 years will be manure and compost.  Oi.  Maybe next time I’ll bring an iPod to keep my thoughts from rambling…

Build soils.

Be the Change!

-Rob

The Berta Rotary Plow, a love story.

The Berta Rotary Plow

2 years ago I bought a Grillo 85D walk behind tractor from Earth Tools and customized it with (the now standard) Lombardini Diesel.  Along with it I purchased a Berta Rotary Plow.  This implement alone was 40% of the price of the tractor, but the ability to turn under sod and cover crops as well as to form beds seemed worth it.  I’ve posted some shots in the past about what it can do, here are some more.  It is an InCREDIBLY invasive tool – it inverts and overly fluffs all the soil in the top 14″ and is the antithesis of no-till; its essentially mechanized double digging.  But if you want to break ALOT of eggs to make a wicked good omlet, its your toy.   Making the 20 potato beds for this years field trials will mean that the rotary plow will get a serious workout.  Here are some of the results from today:

This is the starter trench - just like with a moldboard, you start in the middle and work out.

The cover I am turning under is a winter rye planted in November 2009.  3-6″ top growth.  Here is the bed about 35 minutes later:

Imagine doing this by hand! Appropriate Technology.

Wrestling a 300# beast with a 12″ wide propeller inthe earth is not always as easy as it sounds, so the trenches can get a bit wonky if you hit rocks or soil compaction (center left).  Here is what another 30 minutes with a shovel cleaning up the lines will do, and a further 30 minutes laying down 1.5 yards of chips on the right:

Gorgeous. Witness the steps down the middle sowing the center path between the 30" beds, but also the overly fluffiness. Should be rolled prior to seeding.

Since I was on a roll and the Lombardini was all warmed up I cut myself two more on the other side of the small Hoopty:

No finish work, this is Berta Plowing in the Raw. A bit over 1 hour from surveying to this.

4 down!  Again, the beds are 6′ wide with 2′ of trench in between.  The beds are sized to be fit a Johnny’s Low Tunnel at the ends of the season over 2 30″ beds an a 1′ center path for weeding.  The 2′ trenches are being filled with wood chips are time allows, but it is a crap ton of chips.  – one of these 85′ paths will take over 5 yards of chips.  That is half a dump truck load! On the upside, this 65×95 plot is getting over 10,000#’s of fresh organic matter for the worms and fungi to feast on.

Here is a shot of the Berta breaking sod last year for a community garden:

The sod was chisled with the tiller first (hence the thatch showing). The Berta tends to "roll" rather than cut on really established sod. Tilling it first helps.

And a shot of turning under a field of mixed cover crop:

When they say one pass they mean: ONE PASS.

Cutting these 25-30 beds is a lot of work and I am beating the crap out of the soil.  The plan is to never touch these beds again with the Berta Plow – these beds are to be permanent, mulched, and at most only lightly tilled to clear debris as needed.

End goal?  to make my beloved Berta obsolete and end up with a system like this.

In the mean time, my Berta and me are getting it done.

Be the Change.

%d bloggers like this: