Friday, March 29, 2013

Food forest update 3/29/13

A Rhode Island Red Pullet.

One of our Ameraucana Cockerels.

    Life with chickens is good, but my plans have not survived the experience.  The past 6 months of hands on chicken care have really changed my thinking and I am now leaning toward a fixed coop for our setup instead of a mobile one.  I guess I feel that the dream of zero poop shoveling is not worth the stress on the birds and the security difficulties of constantly moving a mobile coop in a small paddock shift system.  I also can't see using so much good growing space to have enough paths and parking spaces for the mobile coop to work.

The chickens are digging up our bulbs!

     We  really need to get the flock under control.  As the ground thaws they are starting to dig up the flower beds and eat every bit of green they can find, even though we currently only allow them a few hours to free range most days.  If I want any hope of spring greens and peas this year we need to figure it out soon.  I am a little worried about how that is going to work now that they have had the run of the place.  Hopefully just moving the coop and fencing it off will do the trick.

      The layout for the food forest has undergone several revisions.  My head is swimming trying to reconcile the needs of the birds with the needs of the plants with the layout of the fencing and the spacing of the trees and the movement of the water and the angle of the sun and the so on and so forth...   So the "master plan" approach has been scrapped and I am going back to the basics.  Make small changes to the landscape and observe the results.  Starting with water conservation. 

     I still feel it is important for us to have a layout that works with the fencing, but since I haven't figured out what that is, our approach for this Spring is going to be to get the mobile electric netting system and muddle through the best we can.  We have been saving up this Winter and plan to purchase our electric netting from Premier this week along with a 12v battery energizer.

The above map is one I made after observing the water flows across our land this Spring.  I realized that a huge amount of water is coming down the driveway and veering around the barn and down the steep hill north of our property.  The runoff is starting to form a gully among the box elder trees there.

     What I envision is adding gutters to the garage and barn.  The North Side gutters will be directed East, where I plan to build a small swale type structure to keep the water on top of the hill and divert it back into our yard.  I know a swale is not the correct term for an off contour structure like this but the proper name escapes me at the moment.  I guess it's time to re-watch some Geoff Lawton videos. 

The small "swale" would get directed to a larger wood filled swale and then to a pond in the center of the yard.  The South gutters I would like to send to a large tank for use in irrigation and livestock.

      There is a high spot just beyond the pear tree that I am thinking will be the best place for the permanent coop.  This Spring we will park our hoop coop there and setup temporary fencing to see how it all works out.  I am really glad we chose a relatively inexpensive and mobile design to get started.

     As far as the seed ball plan goes I have gotten as far as pulverizing and sifting a jar of clay and acquiring most of the seeds I plan to use.  As usual I have more ambition than time and energy, but hey, at least it keeps me moving.

That's it for now.  As always your questions and comments are most welcome.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

How to build our 8 tray seed starting bench


     This seed starting bench is designed to hold 8 standard 10" x 20" seed flats directly in front of 2 double hung windows.  One light fixture can be supported by the unit, the upper fixture is hung from the ceiling above it.

Tools Needed:

Measuring tape
Straight edge
Drill / driver
Saw (for crosscutting lumber and ripping plywood) 
Framing square

Shopping List: 

(Use this list if you are planning to buy all new materials)
(Prices are based on my current local prices for these materials and are for example only)

Quantity               Material               Actual Size           my current local retail price
1                            2' 1x4"                 3/4" x 3 1/2"                             $1.09 for 47"
7                            8' 1x2"                 3/4" x 1 1/2"        $.78 each =  $5.46
1                            4'x8' x 1/4" plywood                                             $9.47 for luan
1                            4'x8' x 3/8" plywood                                             $13.57 for CDX
18                         2" wood screws                                                      $2.97 for 25
37                         1 1/4" wood screws                                                $3.29 for 50
51                         3/4" wood screws                                                   $3.79 for 100
                                      Total example price for all new materials =  $39.64

Cut List:

(Use this list if you are planning to salvage materials)

Quantity             Length            Material                               Piece Name

10                       4'                     1x2"                             Legs and Side Rails
6                         20 1/2"            1x2"                             End Rails
1                         3' 7 1/2"          1x2"                             Top Support
2                         15 3/4" x 3' 7 1/2" x 1/4" plywood      Side Walls
2                         15 3/4" x 1' 8" x 1/4" plywood            End Walls
1                         1' 8"                 1x4"                             Light support
1                         3' 9" x 1' 10" x 1/4" plywood              Bottom
1                         3' 9" x 1' 10" x 3/8" plywood              Shelf
1                         4' x 1' 10" x 3/8" plywood                   Top

Please keep in mind that 1x2 and 1x4 is given in nominal dimensions and the actual size of these boards are 3/4" x 1 1/2"  and 3/4" x 3 1/2" respectively.

Easy to salvage materials:

All the plywood needed for this project is in pieces less than 2' wide and under 4' long allowing for a great many salvage opportunities.  Other thickness can be used though some measurements may need to be adjusted depending where the pieces are located.  The 1x2" (3/4" x 1 1/2" actual) material that is used for most of the frame can be ripped out of any 1x or 2x dimensional lumber available if you have access to a table saw.

Step 1:

Create a side wall frame by attaching 3 side rails to 2 legs as shown below.  Use 2 of the  1 1/4" screws on each connection.  Pre-drill these holes to avoid splitting the wood.  Use a framing square to ensure good 90° corners.

Step 2:

Repeat step 1 and make a second side wall frame

Step 3:

With the side rails facing out, connect the two side wall frames using 6 end rails as shown below.  Use 1 of the 2" screws per connection to complete the frame.  It is helpful to have someone hold the pieces at this stage.  Be sure assembly is square.

Completed Frame

Step 4:

Install side walls to inside of side rails as shown below, leaving approximately 1/8" of frame exposed above and blow the plywood.  Attach using 10 of the 3/4" wood screws for each panel.  You do not need to pre drill these connections.

Step 5:

Attach End Walls to inside of end rails using 6 of the 3/4" screws per panel.

Step 6:

Install bottom support centered to inside of side walls as shown below.  Attach using 4 of the 2" wood screws through both bottom side rails and side walls.  Pre drill these connections to avoid splitting the wood.

Step 7:

Attach bottom using 19 of the 3/4" wood screws as shown below.

Step 8:

Install the top support to the center of the Top End Rails using 2 of the 2" wood screws as shown below.

Step 9:

Install the Top using 13 of the 1 1/4" screws

Step 10: 

Finish as desired, we used a coat of all purpose primer followed by an exterior latex house paint.  Stain or penetrating oil can also be used but some measure should be taken to protect the wood from the moisture involved with planting.

Step 11: (Optional)

Install incandescent light fixture to bottom support for heat source.  Be sure to follow local electrical code.

Step 12: (Optional)

Drill 8 medium size holes in shelf to allow heat to reach the bottom of the seed trays.  The holes should be centered so that 2 holes are heating the center of each tray.
Set shelf in place,  it does not need to be fastened.

That's it, you are ready for planting!

Our Seed Starting Setup


      Ok, so the cranes and the groundhog were both wrong, and Spring is still nowhere to be seen.  The 20° to 30°F weather, lingering snow, and grey skies have made it hard to find motivation to get our seeds started, but now is the time.  To be honest the equipment and methods we use for starting seeds are probably the least sustainable aspect of our garden.  When I learned the importance of saving open pollinated seed a few years ago, starting our own plants suddenly became a priority.  It was important to me to be successful at this new enterprise, so I gravitated toward the packaged solutions easily available at the store.  We use a name brand seed starting mix which includes slow release fertilizers.  This is the one place where our claim to use no chemical fertilizers simply does not hold up.  We are also using plastic trays and cell packs, fluorescent lighting, as well as electric heat and fans.  I have plans to try other methods as we go, but for now this works.  Lets face it, the argument against chemical fertilizers was never that they don't work.  Right now my biggest challenge is having enough finished compost in the Fall, and getting it screened and packaged before it is frozen in the winter.  We do wash and re use the trays and pots as many times as we can.

     I built the seed starting benches last spring.  They are designed to take advantage of the windows in our sun room, placing a row of trays in front of each pane thereby getting the maximum amount of natural light.  The bench pictured above is built out of 2x2" lumber and 1/2" plywood.  It is very sturdy, but also fairly heavy.  I re designed the unit and the result is the one pictured below.  It is made out of 1x2" lumber and a combination of 3/8" and 1/4"  plywood.  Still plenty strong for the purpose, but much lighter.  Both units have an incandescent light bulb in the box in the bottom that provides bottom heat to the lower four trays.


     The lighting is T-5 florescent full spectrum bulbs.  The fixtures are set back away from the windows so they do not shade the plants from the Sun.  Every few days I turn the trays so the plants stay straight as they tend to bend toward the stronger light source which can be either the window or the bulbs depending on the day.  For watering I use a 1 gallon pump sprayer.  It takes a bit of time to water each cell that way, but it is a very controlled way to deliver the water where it's needed as the cells don't always dry up at the same rate, and it does a great job of oxygenating and degassing the water as it's delivered.

     My next post will be detailed plans on how to build the lightweight version of our seed starting bench.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Watching the water flow

     It's been a rough last few weeks out here, including a couple rounds with the common cold combined with a few good snow falls.  I'm getting to that point where I'm just plain sick of winter.  Still, I have it on good authority that Spring is just around the corner.  On the last day of February, 4 sandhill cranes took a walk through the alfalfa behind our yard.  Now I happen to believe that the cranes have a much better perspective on these things than a groundhog ever will, more at stake too.  The snow is lingering despite several days above freezing and about an inch of rain.

     The chickens have tracked a lot of that moisture into the coop, leading to damp conditions inside and a bit of ammonia odor.  We have had to add quite a bit of dry straw and pine shavings to keep it under control.  I plan to clean out the bedding again as soon as things are dry enough to get the wheelbarrow around.  Otherwise they are doing well.  We still have all 20 birds (17 hens and 3 roosters) and the 6 that we moved to a farm are also still kicking.  I'm really proud and a little amazed that we have managed to keep everyone safe and healthy for this long.  Egg production has been really good at about 12-15 a day.  Yesterday we got 17 for the first time.

     The great part about this time of year is the opportunity to get out and observe the water moving over the landscape.  It is a great way to understand the direction things are flowing.  Which is an important thing to consider when building, laying out gardens, or planning rain collection or water harvesting land features such as swales and ponds.

     Tracing water's path can also help to locate and identify areas with erosion damage.

      One thing I have noticed is the way that the chickens work to help us capture water and recharge our aquifer by creating texture in the landscape.  Watching the snow melt and slowly seep into the dust baths our hens made has driven this lesson home.  It also leads to another profound concept.  That just as an arc between two points is longer than a straight line between the same points; textured land has more surface area.  Thus, we can literally make the world a bigger place, or at least add square footage to our yards and gardens.  This has me motivated to try my first true hugelkultur bed this year.