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

 

Advertisements

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

Evolving Suburbia

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

Reality of the Burbs

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

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

Retrofit Rather Than Rebuild

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

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

Organic Response to Change

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

What is Possible

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be the Change

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

We can do this.

Be the Change!

Rob

Midden L’eau Chaude: The Big Build

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Core

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

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

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

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

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

The Heat Exchanger


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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Coppice Compost Harvesting

More to come soon as I do a proper write up, but here are some links I thew on Faccebook from today’s Coppice Harvest which netted just shy of 15 cubic yards – about 6000#’s.  Holy crap was this a fun day.  Broke the hitch mount off the dump truck and I barely even care.  The Vermeer 600XL chipper is bad ass.  Its also more tool than this project needs, but figuring that out was one of the reasons I rented it.  Thanks again to Chris and Mark from work for helping me out!

Mini-Videos

Photos

And thanks to coppicing, no trees were killed in the making of these videos!

-Rob

Carbon “Fixing” Plants

Most gardeners are aware of “nitrogen fixing” plants; those plants, typically legumes, that have formed symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria to take airborne nitrogen and fix it into water-soluble form.  As far back as the Romans, humans have fostered this natural occurrence to increase yields and increase fertility.  What we hear about much less is carbon “fixing” plants – in Permaculture speak – biomass or mulching plants.  In the past year, as I have learned more and more about soil ecosystems, I have become far more convinced that these “carbon fixers” are even more important in early successions as we heal our suburban ecosystems.

I have developed a mantra over the summer as I have worked to sloganize what it is that we are doing.  The result has been my oft-repeated imperative to: Heal the Soil, Store the Water, & Plant Useful Plants.  In a nutshell it is a roadmap to maximize the potential of any garden space – if the soil is alive it has more nutrients cycling in it, if the soil has sufficient water stored under mulches and in humus then  the potential increases again.  And once these two are in place, one can maximize the solar potential by filling in the canopy.  Of these, I feel the first is the most important as it makes the others possible.  And to heal the soil, you need carbon (organic matter).

Plants are truly the conduits of energy into the earth – by capturing solar energy and turning it into simple sugar they supply the foundation for 99.99% of all life on the planet, whether it is through root exudates in the rhizosphere or nectar through their flowers, plants make life possible.  But life also needs carbon, and most life on the planet gets its carbon from plants in the form of organic matter – the main food source of the bacteria and fungus in the soil.  But some plants do this better than others.

There are the grasses with their dense root systems that build soil visibly every year, and there are trees that cover the ground in a thick blanket of leaves every year.  Finally there are other plants that form stalks and stems that form significant amounts of soil as well – the tall grass prairies, corn/sunflower stalks, and windblown branches from softwoods such as willows, sycamores, and poplar.  What these have in common is tough, long carbon chains in their cell structure that resists decomposition.  This resistance to decomposition -in lignin, cellulose, etc-  is what forms humus.  And it is humus that forms rich soils.   This is something to be very mindful of as we mulch our gardens.

If you were to build a compost pile of nothing but greens, with only the barest amounts of “browns”, the pile would heat up very quickly, but would decompose down to almost nothing – 75-90% of the bulk would be gone.  That is because greens lack cellulose and lignin and are mostly water and nutrients – vital to soil life, but almost completely consumed in the decomposition process.  Compare this to a similar sized pile of shredded leaves.  It will take 4x as long to decompose, but the result will be 400% more humus with only a 25% reduction in size.

In most of my permaculture guilds I have stressed the green mulches of comfrey, sorrels, chives, etc to pull and cycle nutrients, and for several years I have imported my cellulose and lignin in the form of dozens of yards of wood chips.  Now that my gardens are maturing, I am starting to pay more attention to including plants specifically to “fix” carbon to maintain soil humus levels.  In the 6 years I have lived here I have lost about 1-2″ of total height in our 3 oldest perennial beds compared to the sod.  That is because the humus in the perennial beds is degrading over time, while the roots of the fescues in the lawn are forming .25″ of humus a year.  I had not been mulching these beds much as they have almost completely closed “canopies” of thyme ground cover that I didn’t want to smother.  I will try mulching more aggressively this year.

While all my guilds include nitrogen fixers such as leadplant, false indigos, New Jersey Tea, Serviceberry, etc and green “mulch” plants such as Russian Comfrey, I am beginning to either add in “carbon fixers” and am planting guilds specifically to grow brown mulches.  Some of this I am accomplishing by letting box elder seedling mature in my guilds as they sprout in the wood chip mulch.  In one spot, I have planted a 20 tree “short rotation coppice guild” of willows, poplar, and box elders.  In my annual gardens I am taking much inspiration from John Jeavons and planting “stalky” plants such as corn, sorghum, and sunflowers specifically to produce compost carbon in addition to edibles.  Once you change your mindset it isn’t overly hard.  Of course, having a chipper to use can become important as well – though many plants such as sunchokes, and weeping willows produce stalks and “leaf” mulches that are laid down without chipping and fast growing trees such as Empress and Sycamore have HUGE leaves that really add up.

As my gardens have matured, and I seek to support the soils I have built using primarily the inputs of my site, I find myself planting more and more of these carbon trees to grow my soil.  In doing so I help to maximize the potential of my site by using these fast growing plants to sequester carbon to build the soils beneath my edibles, while also pulling carbon from the air to heal our climate.

Prime Short Rotation Coppice Trees:

Willow, Hybrid Poplar, Black Locust, Box Elder, Empress, Sycamore, Ash, Hazelnut, most Standard fruit trees (annually pruned)

Prime “Carbon Fixing” Annuals/perennials:

Sunflower, Corn, Sorghum, Cupplant, Sunchoke, Small Grains, Amaranth, Quinoa, etc.

Many of these trees are useful in many other regards – Black Locust is a nitrogen fixer, provides rot resistant wood, and its flowers are a great early nectar source.  Black Maul willow is one of the most striking plants I have ever seen and the new growth makes incredible baskets.  Hazelnuts and Sunflowers are some of the best ways to grow healthy fats in the northern hemisphere.  Carbon gardening is by no means boring or a wasted effort!

Productive soils need to have all their nutrients cycled, not only the water soluble ones, but also carbon to replenish that which is lost due during the respiration of the soil organisms.  If we are to truly garden in the spirit of nature, we need to make sure that the carbon is replaced with the same diligence that we give nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and the 96 other macro and micro nutrients.

-Rob

Suburban Pollarding: Making your own mulch

There are several themes here on One Straw, but it can all be summed up with the statement that we need to build a regenerative culture as we skip merrily down Energy Descent.  To do that we need to rebuild our culture, grow more of our own foods, find a way to power our civilization, learn a shit ton of new/old skills and stabilize the climate whilst dealing with the next 50+ years of weather silliness and rather a lot more.  Any good permaculturist likes to hit more than one goal with each throw so I have been focusing on biomass lately.

I really need to write a biomass specific essay, but here is the skinny.  Where I live in south central Wisconsin there is only fair solar and wind resources, no geo thermal to speak of and it has been several million years since we had a decent tide.  But, thanks to plentiful rains, if you stop mowing your lawn for a decade you get a nice old field sucession.  They don’t call it the “Northwoods” for nothing; we are really good at growing trees.   Solar is a great way to make electricity and you would be insane to not consider something with such crazy low maintenance needs, but biomass has alot of fringe benefits to offset the labor input.  Primarily – if you do it right you sequester literally tons of carbon.  We all know that is cool ever since Al Gore told us so, but not only can we help offset truly catastrophic climate change, if we do it right, we can also heal our soils to feed our burgeoning billions.  Carbon is a pain in the atmosphere (above 275ppm anyhow), but DAMN is it cool in the soil.  We need to put it back.

Here is one of my all time favorite sustainability facts:

By raising the organic matter content by 1% in the top 6 inches of soil, you have effectively sequestered all the atmospheric carbon above that area of soil.

Dang, sucka! This is why agriculture is such a huge contributor to global climate change – conventional ag destroys organic matter, removing it from the soil and getting it airborne through massive nitrogen fertilizers and tilling. But the simply beautiful thing is that we NEED to raise the organic matter content of our soil by 2-5% everywhere if we want to produce food organically and by doing so we heal the atmosphere.  Trees, woody stalks, and straw are the best ways to get carbon out of the atmosphere (plants do it for free and are, by nature, carbon negative).  The trick is to harvest that biomass efficiently and then process it in such a way as to sequester it for the mid/long term.  Enter my Tuesday project.

I live right on a freeway.  In addition to the noise and pollution, the salt spray in the winters also have a tendency to kill off or stunt just about anything I have planted there (trying siberian pea shrubs).  But buckthorn thrives.  Now I would never intentionally plant buckthorn, but there are several specimens on the D.O.T. side of the fence and one mature one just on my side.  I have left it up as a windbreak to protect a maple I have planted.  But that buckthorn is rather vigorous, as is their wont, and needs to be hacked back every few years.  We call it trimming when its a chore and the material is thrown away, but when it is done with the specific goal of harvesting the biomass the proper name is Pollarding.

Here is a shot of the buckthorn with about 20% of the south side of it pollarded.

Its a BIG buckthorn! Pulled about 80#'s of biomass out and you can barely tell.

I essentially limbed up everything I could reach that had limbs facing in the 30 degree arc around the maple.  This freed up a lot of room, and made too big piles of material.  I separated these by use – the larger diameter wood (.75″-3″) I intended to chip up for oyster mushroom growing media, the leafy material at the end of the limbs would be shredded for compost.

the left pile is half off frame and is intended for compost, the right is about 10' long and intended for mushroom media.

I did not put any of this down as mulch due to the presence of very green berries on the tree.  By composting this material I will essentially sequester half the carbon from the tree (the rest is off gassed by bacteria) for 5-50+ years in the soil as humus which is pretty stable.  The results of chipping are always mind boggling.  What started as enough material to fill my dump truck bed (11 cu yards) I am left with about 2-3 cu feet of wood chips and perhaps 9 cu ft of green shredded branches that will compost down significantly.  Total weight was roughly 100#’s.

Chips in foreground for mushroom growing, green shredded material in background for compost.  Entropy!

After composting it will be about 15# once the water is consumed by the bacteria and half the material is off gassed.   The chipper does use fuel, but this stunt only consumed about 1/2 a cup which is less than my neighbor used mowing his lawn while I did this.  Larger chippers are more efficient and can be run on methane from the midden or ethanol if gasoline engined, or biodiesel if not.

The shear scope of our problem can be staggering at times.  I would like to add 1″ of topsoil to my new garden, which is 1100 sq ft.  That works out to just shy of 7000#’s of compost.   For one garden.  That is why I am becoming more and more convinced that the single most important thing we can do is to plant trees.  LOTS of trees.  The great thing is that it isn’t that hard.  1.5 acres of willow will produce 22000#’s of chips annually (harvesting .5 acres a yr) for 2 decades or more before needing to be replanted.  And that is dry trunk chips only, not the leafy biomass of the fronds.   While we can’t grow the biomass needed to heal our soils in our own backyards, we can certainly plant enough trees and “woody” plants into our home landscapes to maintain the soils once we have healed them.  100 acres of marginal corn land – say near rivers that flood seasonally and shouldn’t be planted to annuals anyhow- planted to willow coppice would produce enough biomass to rebuild almost 100,000 sq ft of garden a year.  Every year after year 3.  In 8 years we could have a garden as large as mine in every yard in my hometown of 500 homes churning along at 5%+ organic matter  and be producing 500,000#’s of food annually while also sequestering hundreds of tons of carbon annually.

When combined with energy systems like the Methane Midden, which has 6000#’s of chips in it, sequestering carbon can also offset carbon emissions for energy production.  I planted 15 willows on our property this year specifically to begin coppicing in a few years.  Next year I will pull rods from them to start 50 or so more.  Box elders are another strong coppice candidate in this area.   The hedgerows for a 5 acre sustainable produce farm divided into 1 acre plots would grow enough biomass to run a gasifier for a year while sequestering 11000#’s of carbon to be added back to the fields as biochar to help create terra preta.

We can partner with nature to heal the damage we have done.  Even in the burbs.

Be the change!

-Rob

%d bloggers like this: