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Monday, March 31, 2014

Dust Devil Eats Greenhouse

I always thought dust devils were supposed to pick up and whirl around things like... dust. Apparently they can be much more powerful than that! Today I said goodbye to my sawhorse greenhouse. Time to try a new, dust-devil-proof design instead (more on that later).

Fawn and I were down at the garden when it happened. I saw the wind picking up, first flattening the bunchgrass, then lifting leaves in the air... at first Fawn was laughing, and then I saw the roof of the sawhorse greenhouse sailing above my head. "It's not safe," I yelled, and she bolted for the shop (good thinking, kiddo). We waited it out and then came outside to survey the damage. All kinds of things were strewn about, far and wide. I'm kind of glad we were there, otherwise it would have been a confusing sight to arrive at.

The roof as it appears now, in a Ponderosa Pine tree.

The original sawhorse greenhouse can be seen at: 
(before its adventure)

Interesting to note: 
The milk jugs featured in held up just fine -- they didn't budge at all! Now that's saying something...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Coaxing Spring, Part II

Continued from 

The first post on coaxing spring involved free standing mini-greenhouses. Those have their place, but my main goal this year is to start seeds in the ground as early as possible, with protection from the elements. 

4. Moving Out to the Garden: 

Now here's the trick I'm really excited about: capturing some of the heat from decomposition, rising out of the deep hugelkultur beds. This is one of my all-time favorite, easy designs: 
  1. Make a circle of rocks around a bed. (Larger rocks buy you more time before the plants outgrow the set-up.)
  2. Plant seeds and water. 
  3. Place a clear plastic bag (contractor size) over top, or sheet of plastic to fit. 
  4. Tuck it in and weigh it down. 
  5. Keep the soil moist as needed, though the plastic will trap moisture and drip back down like a terrarium, which helps reduce the amount of water needed.
These rocks are about 10-12 inches tall. It will take the sprouts quite a long time to outgrow this mini-greenhouse. By then, the weather is likely to be fair! The rocks also act as heat batteries and provide radiant heat when the sun has shown itself. No watering starts inside the house every day, no time needed for transplanting, no transplant shock... just happy sprouts growing right in the garden, ready to sink their roots into rotting wood. What's not to love about it?

*     *     *

5. Wing-nut Cloches

When I was making the milk jug mini-greenhouses in Part I, I had a thought about pinning the jug down in the garden with its own bottom. I found that if you cut two "wings" from the bottom (leaving hinges intact on each), you can really stabilize these ugly-looking beauty-makers. I am open to weird looking contraptions in the garden as long as they contribute to having beautiful and delicious plants later on. 

This spring, one of my goals is to reduce the number of starts growing inside the house (it has been quite the jungle in past years!). This is one simple way to help get things started by direct seeding, but with protection for an earlier start.

Above is a milk jug with its bottom cut out. This was my first one and I only made one wing, which is weighed down with a rock. Works great! The lid can be removed when the weather is fair. A clear or more opaque jug would be better... but my mantra is, "Use what you have, and see if it works." The up-side to this milk jug design it that it doesn't taper, leaving more room for growing plants. 

However, with just one stabilizing wing, I thought it vulnerable to curious marmots and strong winds, so I decided to try cutting two wings next, for additional stability. 

Here you can see two wings, each held down with a rock. It has remained up for two weeks now, and one intense wind storm, so it seems pretty stable! You can use these over planted seeds or to encourage returning perennials. Having the lid off also helps some rain get in.

*     *     *

6. Back to the Sawhorse Greenhouse

It looks pretty cozy in there! I need to get the leaves out because all they are doing now is holding the cold in. However, under the milk jug cloches... is emerging. Wow! This photo was taken when the ground was still frozen pretty much everywhere else. And I have to say, the little green sprouts make all of these attempts in coaxing spring worthwhile.

*     *     *

 7. Back Inside the House... 

I am a big fan of overwintering tropical perennials indoors. 
If Lipstick Pepper blooms in March are not a promise of things to come, then what is?

A sight for sore eyes...

*     *     *

What kinds of in-ground season extension methods work for you?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Coaxing Spring, Part I

This time of year, I'm itching to see green sprouts, but the earth still freezes at night sometimes... and stays frozen in places. Time to get creative with giant zip-sealed bags and jugs! How many different kinds of crazy-looking contraptions can one wild-about-spring woman make?

1. The Light-Duty Mini-Greenhouse

Using a milk jug, make one cut, leaving a hinge, 
along with some holes in the bottom for drainage... add soil, and you're ready to plant!

Another optional layer is to put them inside a huge ziploc. I did this because it's not very friendly out there, with snow still coming from time to time. If you don't have giant ziplocs, you can just use masking tape to seal the crack to keep cold air out. The lids can be left on when it's really cold and then removed for ventilation on sunny days. You can also punch holes to twist-tie the mini-greenhouse shut (instead of masking tape). These can be planted with seeds at any time in the winter or early spring, set out on your porch, and the seeds will germinate when the conditions are right. 

*     *     *

2. Stepping it Up: The Commercial Duty Mini-Greenhouse

Huge commercial-duty jugs, 5 gallon: 
With one cut and some holes in the bottom, you have an instant mini-greenhouse.

Soil, seeds, and water (the world's greatest combo)

The whole thing inside a gargantuan ziploc, for double protection from the elements

And there you have it: ready to go outside! 
(I still bring it in at night sometimes, just to baby these sprouts along a bit)

(planted March 4; updated April 8)

This mini-greenhouse has been transitioned full-time to the outdoors.
The greens seem to be doing quite well, and the large bag around the whole 
thing also protects the tender greens from being devoured by chipmunks. 
(The chipmunks even ate my potted garlic on the deck, so they are not picky!)

I had my first nibbles today. Mmmm!

If you live in the North Okanogan of WA State or the South Okanagan of BC and want to try a commercial-duty mini greenhouse, you can get the jugs for free from Alpine Brewing in Oroville, WA. The jugs must be thoroughly rinsed out before being used for this purpose, and power tools are preferable for making the cut and drilling the drainage holes. They are very sturdy; I have some in their 3rd year of use, and they are still going strong. 

*     *     *

3. An Upside-Down Table Makes an Even Bigger Mini-Greenhouse

Can you see the table legs showing through the plastic? Go to antique and thrift shops and ask if they have any really junky tables they want out of their hair. I got this one for free that way (don't forget to smile and explain what you are doing, too). You can see the carefully engineered design, I mean... It's a clear plastic "contractor" size bag, with the upside-down table inside it. That leaves only one seam to close -- at the top. Clothes pins do nicely. Presto!

You can see that it's positioned against the house, on the deck, and of course it is on the south end of the house, in the most sheltered yet sunny spot we have.

Inside are two pots. I decided not to put the soil directly on the wood... it will last much longer this way. I added some styrofoam panels for extra insulation at the base.

These sprout photos were taken just today. Good morning, lettuces!

Good morning, radish!  
Life inside an upside-down table greenhouse seems to agree with the radishes and lettuces.

Thank you, Kezia Wills, for those three words... that was all you had to say: 
"Upside-down-table." I think yours involved a shade cloth in summer maybe... remind me! How do you like the contractor bag approach?

*     *     *

What are your favorite ways to coax spring growth?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Blueberry Spruce Bed: Construction

Blueberries are one of the most delicious foods on Earth. 
Thus, I needed to make a special bed just for their soil preferences...

It started out with a pit, just like all the other beds. This time, my friend Lee Johnson had suggested spruce, and it seemed like a good material when aiming for acidic soil. Someone else had reminded me that Sepp Holzer uses mainly spruce, and I was sold. Lee has plenty of spruce on his property and generously offered to bring some over to hugel-land... Thank you, Lee! Above you see the base layer.

After a layer of soil, I started in on the second layer of spruce.

Plenty of water is critical at this stage.

Bob used the backhoe to push more soil onto the second wood layer.

Wow, that saved me some digging! Thanks, Bob.

And now for some fines... grass clippings, leaves, and my favorite: manure!

Smaller diameter wood of mixed species, more grass clippings and lots more water...

Another layer of soil and you'd think it's pretty much done. But it's not!

I decided that the bed wasn't large enough to 
accommodate all six high bush blueberry bushes.

So, Bob dug an extension pit for me...

...and I filled it up with more wood, manure, leaves...

...and lots of pine needles to help make the soil acidic.

I harvested some grass cover crop material and 
watered the extension bed down thoroughly.

More manure and more pine needles... You will notice I didn't add any soil in between the layers of organic matter in this bed. Our soil is alkaline and I didn't think it would help me in achieving the acidic soil pH that blueberries like.

The blueberry bed is almost at surface level, but there is still a ways to go. I laid down three rows of aspen, making two rows to plant the blueberries, in between the wood.

Leaving space for planting, I added a lot of smaller diameter wood.

Lots more pine needles for acidity and organic matter

Soil and water...

The grand finale, spread out as the top layer: 
a special hugelkultur pile I had started the year before, for this very purpose.

Rich, dark, rotting wood with composted manure already mixed in. 
What a top dressing!

A big pile of the hugel-dressing (yum)

Here I am spreading out the good stuff across the surface of the blueberry bed.

Now it is finally close to being finished.

I incorporated some biochar into the top layer, for added minerals.

Wow, it is ready to plant. We must really love blueberries...

My daughter gets ready to help plant the bare root stock. At last!

A side note for blueberry lovers out there who don't want to use peat since it involves tearing up wetlands: If you put grass clippings in a dark plastic bag and let them sit for a year or two or more, the resulting compost looks very much like peat. I suspect it will work very well! I guess I'll find out...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Water Catching Time

One of the strengths of hugelkultur is its ability to catch the water while things are moist, and retain it for later (kind of like a wetland does!)

This is the lake that naturally formed from snowmelt, at the base of our driveway next to the garden. How convenient...

All it took was gravity and one 6 foot length of pipe to span from the garden's edge to the closest hugelkultur bed in the making.

A pile of vertical spruce wood, leaves and manure is a sponge waiting in the wings.

The melt water enters the pipe from the temporary lake...

...and the water exits right where I need it. The plastic under the pipe helps disperse the water as it enters the hugel-bed. This is the time of year to recharge the beds, to be ready for the dog days of summer! It's hard to imagine the heat of summer right now, but it is coming... Catching some of the water that flows so freely now is akin to making hay while the sun shines.

Does water collect where you live, in a place where you can capture some of it? 
If so, I'd love to hear about what you are doing to catch melt and rain water.