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Friday, February 28, 2014

Sawhorse Greenhouse

Just when whispers of spring were becoming audible, we received a big dump of snow. We needed it -- I'm not complaining. But it doesn't stop me from wanting to grow things! Here is my latest experiment to extend the growing season:

Last fall, someone I know was getting rid of two sawhorses. I snapped them up and fit them both in the Subaru (yeah, garden wagon!), along with some bags of leaves. Thanks, Brianne!

I chose a spot on top of an underground wood-for-food bed, hoping to capture some of the heat from decomposition when spring comes. This bed has spruce arranged horizontally underground, around 5 feet deep. Partway through last year, Lee asked me if I could utilize spruce instead of aspen, since he has a perpetual abundance of spruce that needs clearing. Shortly after Lee's offer of spruce, I was reminded by someone that Sepp (Josef) Holzer uses a lot of spruce in his hugelkultur beds. Ahah!

Above: The pit with wood in it was later filled to the top with wood and manure, and now has the sawhorse greenhouse on top of it.

Back aboveground, to the sawhorses: I set them just far enough apart to be able to place a wooden frame on top, also scrounged -- this time from amongst some palettes in town. It makes a good, sturdy roof-skeleton support. 

I stapled some plastic to the palette frame, leaving enough plastic hanging off the edges to wrap my sawhorses like a present. (It does feel like a present, by the way.)

Just like you'd do when gift wrapping, I folded the ends and pinned them -- with office clips and clothespins instead of scotch tape. I set a log on end where the pieces come together to bridge the small gap, then pulled cloth up over the bottom. 

Early this morning I checked on the interior only to find the ground frozen hard as a brick. I poured some warm water and compost slurry in a couple of patches and placed some kale and swiss chard seeds in the slurry. 

On top of the compost slurry and seeds, I placed plastic jugs with the bottoms cut off. Then I piled leaves up around them for insulation. Here's hoping the double greenhouse effect will bring some sprouts in the sawhorse-house before too terribly long!

Friday, February 21, 2014

From Knapweed to Veggies: 2010-2013

Sometimes it's good to stop and look back, to see where we started...

(Note: You can click on the pictures to get a closer look.)

~ 2010 ~

This is the only "before" picture I have of the garden. In 2010 we pulled a lot of knapweed (one of the piles, next to my daughter). I didn't know about sheet mulching with cardboard yet -- ha! 

~ 2011 ~

One day in the early spring of 2011, my daughter and I spontaneously decided that we would start a garden that year after all. We had initially thought we'd wait till we could get the backhoe to the property. But we couldn't wait! We quite randomly selected a spot and started digging. Boy, was that hard work. 

We hand-dug two pits about 2 feet deep; I sifted the soil and added my compost along with some sawdust back in. This process took several weeks. We didn't have a wheel barrow yet, so we used the wagon with a sledding saucer on top (above). It worked pretty well! Time would later reveal that we had chosen one of the rockiest, most difficult areas to dig -- just a little to the east was a nice pocket of looser, much less rocky soil. But I didn't know that then!

Thanks to an acquaintance named Shelby, I learned about sheet mulching. Just in the nick of time! I was saved from a whole season of intensive weed pulling around the garden area.

Google Earth 2011 imagery for our property was not very crisp at that time, but my husband pointed out that I had used enough cardboard that it could be seen from space! We laughed hard over that one. (What an accomplishment to make the sheet-mulching visible from space, given the low resolution.)

Eventually I was able to cover the cardboard with pine needle duff... I spent a lot of hours raking pine needles from around the Ponderosas on the property. It doubled as fire protection, and I didn't mind doing it. I erected a humble little fence using materials generously offered to me by our neighbors, who had put in some fenced trees, and the trees hadn't made it. They said if I wanted the materials, I could walk over there and pull the posts and wire. So I did! I fenced small sections to make it less appealing for deer to jump in, hoping they'd be afraid of not having enough room to bound out again. (It worked really well until late August, when desperation always makes deer bolder.)

~ 2012 ~

In 2012, I upgraded to wood chips from Oroville for mulching over the cardboard to control weeds. I was still only gardening in a portion of what would become the full garden, but I began expanding via above ground hugelkultur beds.

The garden was surprisingly productive, given its many limitations.

The transformation from knapweed and yarrow to vegetables became more apparent...

So many great memories already!

~ 2013 ~

At the tail end of 2012, we had started digging pits with the backhoe, removing rocks, and adding large wood, leaves and manure back into the ground. 

One day in early April 2013, I received over 10,000 pounds of manure and hay from my neighbors. I can estimate the weight because the dump trailer was rated at 10,000 pounds, and it was too heavy to lift and dump! In this photo, Bob is transporting some of the manure with the front end loader, into the "Aspen Hotbed," the pit on the far left. This is the horse manure that made it hot (and the pumpkins went crazy in there).

Green starts to emerge from the soil - this photo was taken on July 11, 2013, just before the garden exploded into a jungle.

Here it is the next day, July 12, from space!

Several weeks later, on August 31 -- the jungle has arrived on our semi-arid landscape.

Strawberries in September!

~ 2014 ~

And now the garden is asleep, waiting for spring...

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Limerick from Lee

Today my good friend Lee Johnson sent me a limerick...
 and it's too much fun to keep to myself! 

I know a young woman from Nine Mile
She gardens with joy in a new style
When I bring her some wood
She asks, "If we could?"
"In this pit we should build a big pile."

Good wood in the ground is a shame
Firewood cutters might be prone to claim
No smoke, fire or heat
No burning to warm up your feet
Some see it a waste, with no flame!

But the heat in the ground happens slow,
Helping all of those vegetables grow.
A process of making food from wood:
Slow burning this way is surely as good
As the harvest will deliciously show

Thank you, Lee, for telling the Wood for Food story in a poem, and for your tremendous effort in bringing wood for the slow burn! 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Hugelkultur Goes Underground

In November 2012, when the year's harvest was done, we began transforming the garden into a massive rotting wood battery. Why wood? The goal is conservation and availability of both water and heat, as well as creation of rich soil in the long term.

It is not a job for a shovel, to replace the first 5-6 feet of compacted soil and rocks with rotting wood and manure. 

My husband, Bob, has a front end loader with a backhoe attachment. We've been tackling the garden area in sections, digging one pit at a time. On average, the pits have been about five feet deep, and around 12x12 feet across. Some pits were 6 feet deep, and a couple were shallower; they were dug side by side, essentially joining on the edges. 

The process has been to remove the soil and rocks from a section, piling it off to the side. Bob removes the large boulders, and I hand-sort the cobble and small boulders from the soil, setting interesting rocks aside for future above-ground projects. Once the majority of the rocks are removed, the soil is available to put back in the pit, layered in among large pieces of rotting wood, manure, leaves, and whatever other organic matter I can get my hands on. 

Big thanks to Bob for all the digging, and for teaching our daughter to operate the backhoe in the process too!

The above-ground hugelkultur piles built during 2012 were a great source of woody organic matter for the new beds. One by one, they were pulled into the pits with the backhoe. The above-ground piles also had pieces of biochar in them -- partially burned wood that has a strong ability to hold water, helps reduce leaching of nutrients, and fosters the uptake of nutrients by plants.

The first few pits were filled with aspen, thanks to our friend, Lee Johnson, and our neighbor, Betty. I had read that aspen is a great species of wood to use for hugelkultur, so I sought it out. Aspen groves have a propensity to thrive and die in cycles, and around here, it is easy to find landowners who would like it out of the way after it dies. I was able to make real progress on this project because Lee decided to help by bringing wood by the truck- and trailer-load -- one of the most amazing gifts ever! Thank you, Lee!

The Willy's truck is loaded with manure from our neighbors, Chuck and Kathy, who own alpacas. The manure from their alpacas was amazingly rich and supported a lot of robust veggies the following growing season! This pit started off with long sections of aspen, which were arranged in rows, with alpaca manure...

...and leaves! I was able to use a lot of leaves thanks to the generosity of local people like Lenore and Paul Bouchard, Brianne Rowe Smith, and others. 

Here is the same shot facing East instead of West.

The second layer was made up of shorter lengths of aspen, being nudged into place here with the backhoe. Soil was also spread over each layer.

Into the pit goes one of my best producing above-ground hugelkultur beds. It was quite small and would not have produced well for as long as this new, larger bed will. 

Dark, rich, rotten wood, going in... The advantage to using existing hugelkultur beds in these pits is that they had already started breaking down, and their functionality was ready to peak.

Spreading soil over the wood, manure and leaves ~ looking West, November 2012

Looking South across the first two pits, September 2013

Harvesting fava beans from the first underground wood-for-food bed (Sept. 2013)

Big, beautiful onions from the aspen & alpaca manure pits (October 2013)

Don't have a backhoe? No problem!
It is not necessary to dig deep pits in order to reap the benefits of rotting wood for growing food. Our design came into place because of the fact that we have a backhoe. If you are working with a shovel, you can dig a trench only as deep as you feel like digging, and build your hugelkultur mainly above ground -- or don't dig at all and grow everything on the surface. 

There are pros and cons to every approach, but you can be successful regardless of what angle you take. I am excited about the pit system we are implementing, because it allows me to experiment with rainwater collection with the surface contours, and because of the mass that can be developed for water retention and for generating heat to extend the growing season. 

Benefits to above ground beds include quicker solar heating in the spring, and the ability to take advantage of solar exposure (South vs. North facing sides). Also, you can create microclimates depending on the shape and arrangement of the beds. 

The sky is the limit! Eventually, I hope to have a combination of below and above ground wood-for-food beds in our garden. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Above-Ground Hugelkultur Cluster (2012)

Once my first hugelkultur bed was up and running, I decided to try building a cluster. With two or more above-ground beds, you can create microclimates in between for lettuces and other plants that don't prefer the heat of summer, while reserving the southwest facing sides for heat-loving plants.

These beds were a lot smaller than the original lone bed, standing at around 2.5 feet tall. I didn't have a lot of wood to work with, but I made them as large as I could at the time. In the above photo you see the first pile in the cluster, which was made from small diameter wood, from small sticks up to pieces around 4" in diameter: saskatoon, rotten pine, a little aspen, and a little biochar (partially burned wood). On top and throughout I layered pulled weeds, hay, leaves, manure, etc. It's like a big compost pile with lots of coarse wood mixed in.

If you have weeds to pull that have seed on them, the weeds can make up the first layer, and the seeds will be smothered by the rest of the pile. It's a great way to get rid of unwanted weed seed without having to set them on fire... the slow burn of decomposition... It is important to get every layer wet while you are building it, since decomposition won't happen without moisture.

I covered the beds with a layer of soil, and then black plastic to help bring the internal temperature up. (The lower left is a hay bale I am heating to kill seeds.)

In the above photo you can see the three beds, arranged in roughly a triangle.

Okay, in case you're having a hard time seeing the triangle, I've drawn red lines along the "ridges" of each bed. (Ignore the log in the lower left; it became a fence post later.)

Once they started to produce, you could no longer see the individual beds, as they were prolific and covered with cucumbers, watermelon, peppers, spring-planted garlic, pumpkins, radishes and potatoes. I harvested a large number of green bell peppers off the side of the bed that faced directly southwest. In the middle, I had lettuce in August.

Remember that the soil below these beds was very rocky, very compacted, and extremely low in nutrients and organic matter. It didn't matter one bit. 

This is a giant purple radish that we pulled from the above-ground hugelkultur cluster. We do a lot of harvesting after dark simply because life is so full! 

We weren't able to grow radishes as well in our in-ground beds because of the condition of the soil. The hugelkultur beds were an easy way to build a rich growing environment without doing a lot of digging or rock sorting.

But, the digging did begin, and along with it the sorting of rocks, just one month after the radish photo was taken...

But that is a story for another day!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

First Hugelkultur Bed - 2012

Above-Ground Hugelkultur
~ the traditional way ~

In January 2012, I was feeling the ache for spring, and there was very little snow on the ground. I set off around the 20 acre property looking for dead and down wood that I could scavenge. I found lots of dead Saskatoon bushes (a.k.a Serviceberry) from a fire that burned through here several years ago. I also found plenty of pine that had been laying around for a long time. Above you see the start of my first ever Hugelkultur pile. 

Why wood? I had just finished reading "Gaia's Garden" by Toby Hemenway and Sepp Holzer's Permaculture book, which had filled me to the brim with great ideas to try. Our soil tends to be highly compacted with no organic matter, lots of rocks, and locally goes by the term, "moondust." So the idea of growing food in rotting wood really appealed to me. As the wood breaks down, it provides three main functions:
  1. Water retention -- the plant roots sneak down into the wood and soak up water
  2. Air availability -- air pockets form as the wood decomposes = self-tilling
  3. Warmth -- decomposition generates heat, extending the growing season

Just wood? No. As you would suspect, you need nitrogen too. Kitchen scraps, manure, grass clippings, spent grains from brewing -- whatever you can drum up for nitrogen should be added in. The great thing about hugelkultur is that there isn't a set recipe. Using what ingredients can be found, you improvise as you go along, and see what happens.

In the above picture, you can see a layer of leaves, as well as some darker wood that has been partially burned (biochar, but that's a topic for another day). The green pine needles are just decorations added by my daughter as part of our "Pineville" game, and are not recommended for hugelkultur due to the high amount of resins that can be allelopathic, inhibiting plant growth. Pine in general is not known for being a great hugelkultur wood, but if it is partly rotten, I find it works great. The main thing is to use what you have available to you, and be willing to experiment. 

In this photo, spring is well on its way, and I've added some soil as an outside layer to the hugelkultur pile. I've also transplanted some wheatgrass onto it, from indoors where it was growing in my windowsill (I'd already eaten all the wheatgrass I wanted from it). 

Here you can see a layer of pine needle mulch over the whole pile, and the wheat grass is taking off. The mulch is important to help keep moisture and heat in, and to protect the soil from the elements. You want your pile to be tall and steep, up to 6 feet tall and as steep as you can reasonably keep the sides. This pile had shrunk to half its original height by the end of the first growing season.

One fun part is deciding how to angle your bed. If you face one long side to the southwest, you can have a hot side and a cool side for tomatoes/peppers and for greens, respectively, making your own little microclimate.

As the animals began to take interest in my little hugel garden bed, I started erecting sticks with the plan to put up fabric walls around it for protection.

This pile was made mainly from small diameter wood and had lots of interstitial spaces between the limbs. This contributed to how much it shrank over the growing season. You can use large diameter wood too, I just didn't happen to have any at that point.

I like using old sheets, linens, etc. as fences for extra warmth and so the animals don't notice the green growth as much. On this day, my daughter was harvesting some wheat with scissors, and I was putting up some sheets. They look pretty junky, but they work. 

The red cabbage is going gonzo by this point, whereas the plants from the same source that I put in the ground were wimpy and struggling.

Radishes also loved this hugel bed. There were also large tomato plants, butternut squash plants, and onions, all growing on this one bed. Everything thrived.

This is one of two red cabbages that grew on my first hugelkulur bed. Both did very well growing in rotting wood. On the other hand, the other two from the same set of starts were a sorry sight, which I had planted in my regular in-ground garden bed. Neither even formed a head. Yeah, hugelkultur!

That was the growing season of 2012. In November 2012, I began incorporating all of my above-ground hugel beds into a large scale below-ground rotting wood project, which will be the focus of this blog as time goes by.

Have you tried growing food in rotting wood?