First Seeds, First Sowings

Today marked the official start of the 2010 growing season!  This morning I pitched my expanded “grow list” to my first restaurant client and it went smashingly – agreements from this one account will double my gross revenue from 2009 —and it was the smaller of my two clients last year.  Main increases will be in duration rather than volume – I expect to be marketing produce for a full 32 weeks in 2010!  From March’s Frost Kissed Spinach to December’s storage crops of onions, potatoes, carrots, and squash this looks to be a great year.  With some luck in storage next winter, the 2011 “season” may see produce sales all 12 months of the year.  Awesomeness.

More immediately important ,this afternoon I planted the season’s first seeds (70 sq ft of Bloomsdale spinach) and placed my first order for seeds.  The Hoop House (11×25, not the proposed monster Hoopty) soil is still completely frost free, but is wicked dry. I went no till: first scraped the soil with a scuffle hoe to clear the tomato debris from October, then “lifted” the soil with my U-Bar digger, then raked if flat and hand seeded the beds.   Tomorrow I will plant another section with another variety of spinach.   My favorite part was “watering” the seeds with 10 bucket loads of snow; it will be 35+ degrees and sunny for the next three days and I will have melted by noon tomorrow in the 80 degree heat. The first seed order for the season was for some purslane (favorite of the landowner) and half my onion seeds – about 3000 starts.  Ailisa Craig, and two cippolini types: Red Marble and Gold Coin – I will begin onion starts in only a few short weeks, hopefully in soil blocks (expect a post there).

Hoop Houses make the winters very short indeed!


4 Season Farming: Winter Vermicomposting

Elliot Coleman has literally written the book on the extending the harvest up ‘ere in da Nort.  And I can attest to the simple joy of entering a Hoop House on a sunny January day, stripping down to a tee shirt, basking in the humid 70 degree air rich with the smell of living soils, and stopping to harvest mache, claytonia, and perhaps some spinach.   But Hoop Houses can do more than just grow greens – they can build your soils in the off season. A few posts ago I regaled you with my attempts to begin composting in our small Hoop House at our Market Garden.  The farm owner was so inspired he cleared out 20′ along the back edge of his large Hoop House / Workshop and we built a serious indoor vermiculture bin that is about 20′ long and hold about 12 yards.  The idea is that in between the center of a thermophyllic “hot” composting pile chugging along at 140 degrees and the air temp of 30-40 degrees there is a layer of the pile that is full of moist organic matter that is sitting at 75 degrees or so.  In other words prime habitat for composting worms!

Outside air temp was 1 degree with a negative wind chill. Go bacteria GO!

Last week he filled the new bin with a mix of horse manure, bedding, and 50 gallons of putrid food scraps he had been saving all year and had never gotten around to throwing on a pile until now.  The outside of the hoop house (west facing) was then insulated with a pile of leaves 7′ tall and 12 feet wide at the base, and on top of the manure/gorp mess we piled on another 18″ of leaves to further insulate it and to conserve moisture.  Within 2 days this heated up to 145 degrees, and has stayed there for over a week now adding some bTU’s to the workshop.  A bin this size could take millions of worms, but given that wigglers are going for $25/lb we decided to call in some favors.  At the Bioneers Conference in Madison last month, one of my fellow panelists was James Godsil, a board member for Growing Power and co-founder of Sweet Water Organics – an uber cool urban ag endeavor in Milwaukee, WI.  Godsil is a true Great Soul and we hit it off immediately.   I shot him an email and asked if my wife and I could come out for a tour and pick up a few pail of worms and gorp (full of cocoons) which led us to yesterday’s trip and our seeing Milwaukee’s Renaissance first hand.

Sweet Water is still growing - under the banner are 3 massive aquaponic tanks mid way through construction. Awesomeness.

The site was amazing – I have toured Growing Power several times, and it was very interesting to see Will Allen’s concepts scaled up in an attempt to make them more commercially viable.    It will be worth watching to see how far they will have to stray from Growing Power’s laissez faire approach to aquaponics and its reliance on natural filtration and in house feedstocks.  Banks and investors have a tendency to demand higher returns on investment than Nature readily provides.  But, alas, I stray off topic!

Over 12' tall, and steaming despite the 4 degree air temp. We dug 10 gallons and thousands of worms -from an outside pile. It shouldn't be possible, but there we are!

After the tour Godsil took us out back to his massive compost / vermiculture pile.  Despite the cold (wind chills were negative) we clambered up the pile and dug into the steam to find red wigglers happily crunching away on the grocery store waste Godsil uses as feedstock.  Amazing!   Godsil makes a weekly trip with his pickup to the local store and grabs about 300 gallons of unsaleable vegetables which he then mixes with wood chips dropped off from local tree trimming services – essentially turning 2 streams of “garbage” into highly sought after vermicompost and red wigglers that will have bred up to a population worth thousands by  next summer.  Brilliant!

"Farm Schooling" Vermiculture 201 - My son thought the word "verm" was hilarious

After loading a few buckets we drove back to the country and I picked up my son to help “leaven”  our vermiculture bin in Jefferson County.    We were very pleased to see that our own bin was still heating nicely and was already home to a small population of its own composting worms that came in with the horse manure.  It was a great chance to talk about waste stream cycling with my son – worms and other “livestock” are a great attention grabber for children and we try to do as many tours as possible with local schools to show them that farming is more than driving tractors through corn, but there I go digressing again…

We placed the worms and gorp into 3 separate areas and then topped each with several gallons of fresh feedstock from my coffee shop source.  This we finally topped off with a 6″ layer of leaves to keep them warm.  As the winter progresses the worms will be able to move throughout the pile to maintain the 75 degrees they prefer.  In the outdoor piles at Growing Power and Sweet Water that may e as close as 1″ from the surface, here inside our unheated hoop house it is a bit deeper in.  Here are some more shots of the process:

Some of our "City Worms" along with vermicompost full of cocoons. Our hope is to breed enough to start dozens of new worm bins county wide next year.

A glob of feedstock for the worms - bananas are a preferred food. Wigglers in prime condition will eat their own weight daily. Witness the steam - the pile was cooking!

In the last picture you can just see a bit of blue peaking through.  That is a buried 55 gallon drum that is filled with water.  The hope is that it will store immense amounts of heat to stabilize the piles temperature for the worms and later in the winter when the pile is cooling, we can then use the water as cooling tanks for our gasifiers – simultaneously heating our worms to make them eat / poop faster and cooling our biomass energy generator to help us power the farm.  Awesome!

Winter is a time for reflection, planning, and maintenance (mental and physical!), but using the Hoop House for composting will ensure our early spring greens are able to get a huge jolt of nutrition with a thousand pounds of worm castings as early as March – with no machinery or energy inputs.  Too cool.

Thanks Godsil!


Season Extension: Compost and Thermal Mass


Rye cover and our beloved 25x11 portable Hoop House

I love the Hoop House at our Market Garden.  I love that I can harvest spinach in March.  I love that I can plant my tomatoes in late April and still be picking into October.  I love that it was 85 degrees in there today and 70’s in January are a reality in my little microcosm.  But as I mature, it is the more ephemeral things that matter… how it provides an ‘anchoring’ structure in our little .2 acre plot; something more substantial to draw the eye and provide contrast to row after row after of vegetables; the smell and feel of warm soil in January.   The picture above shows how the rye/feild pea cover crop is coming in.  Got a late start (as usual – “real” jobs get in the way ya know?), but it is doing alright.  The tilled strip in the middle was the last 200#’s of potatoes to come out of this plot, and has a .5″ high stubble of winter wheat coming in.

In years past I have planted spinach and mache in the hoop house, but always put it in so late that I never get a harvest until March and this year is no exception.  I typically get good growth and about 3 weeks prior to harvest (it takes forever with the short days in the winter) we get nailed with the Deep Freezes in early January when it gets down to -10 or so.  This kills everything flat.  The roots regrow in Febuary for a good harvest, but I would like to see what I can do to take the edge off that one or two weeks.


Left: 1st week of compost Right: 250 Gallon "Pond"

I also have another winter problem.   I have arrangements with some local restaurants to compost their organic waste.  This nets us 100#’s or so a week… every week.  From November through April that means I have several cubic yards of slobsicles in my compost bins.  Building up my capacity to handle 4 months of gorp was the primary driver of our new Bin Of Dreams.  That bin is located on the north side of our garage and without direct sun, it takes a LONG time for 1500#’s of gorp to thaw out.  Will Allen at Growing Power composts year round in his hoop houses… perhaps I could as well.  So this year I am trying to kill both these birds with one stone.    The windrow is designed to be 4′ wide and has a 24″ tall fence to contain it somewhat and give me a 3-4′ height without a 8′ base width.  Eventually this will be 20′ long.  I have dreams of following the thermophyllic composting bacteria down the windrow (no turning) with composting worms.   Can I extend both my composting and greens season with the simple movement of 1500#s of gorp into the hoop house?  Time will tell.


Its not a ghetto Koi Pond.... Its thermal mass!

In the past 2 winters I have had buckets and trash cans full of water in an attempt to add some thermal mass to the hoop house.  As I have said, it gets to be 80+ in there with 50-60 degree temp differences to outside air on good days.  But with only a single layer of plastic it sheds btu’s like a sieve.  The thermal mass in previous years has not been enough, it simply freezes solid eventually and effectually adds a cooling effect to the hoop house.  Rat Farts.  This year I have added a large fiberglass crate that hold several hundred gallons of water.  As you can see in the picture, to help this out, I have surrounded it with a foot thick layer of leaves for insulation on 3 sides, and will plant the spinach directly to the south.  In a further attempt to extend the season I amy dig out some row cover I found laying around and cover the spinach/compost/crate to keep the warm air around the plants.  Finally the entire Hoop House will get a 4′ wide “foundation” mulch to keep the frost from creeping in as long as possible while the north wall will get as many leaves piled against it as I can find.  Will this be enough to combat the utter lack of R value in the Hoop House?  Time will tell.  What is likely is that a double walled Hoop House with a bubble insulation system will be the way to go, combined with these techniques, if I want to go 4 season.

On a side note, I am trying to function stack the thermal mass.  I have added about 5 gallons of leaves and some finished compost to it to make the well water a bit more nutrient rich.  Then I walked down to the river and scooped up 5 gallons of river water and made sure to get a bunch of sludge from the bottom.  This water is full of critters and microorganisms.  I dumped this into the crate to “inoculate” the water and in a week or two I will add a handful of feeder goldfish.  Now it is very likely in my first stab at aquaculture I am dooming these goldfish to a cold death as fish cubes, but if they somehow don’t freeze solid the 250 gallons of microbe rich ecosystem should keep them alive.  And if the temps allow them to stay alive I will have also proven that I can sustain temps high enough to overwinter lake perch. Fish Fry anyone?


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