Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hugelkultur Update 6/27/13

     So far we have built two wood filled gardens on our property.  These are not true hugelkultur, a German term meaning mound culture,  as hugelkultur are usually about 6' tall and planted on the sides.  I use the term, for lack of a better one, to reference the fact that they are build on a base of large chunks of wood, in this case a combination of logs and branches, filled in with aged wood chips. 

     The first of the beds we built last fall, so it has had the winter to settle in and start breaking down.  We call this our hugelkultur in a swale with lasagna on top rain garden.  Click the link to view my post on constructing it.

     The pic above shows the area last year before construction.  A weedy mess with heavy clay soil.  The black plastic is a lame attempt to smother some of the bindweed, alfalfa, and grass that dominate.

     Below you can see what it looks like today.  So far I am quite pleased with the results, and that is saying a lot considering how labor intensive these beds are to build.  It has barely settled at all, and so far everything we have planted seems to like it.  We did top it off with some nice black topsoil from digging out the new hugel bed before planting this spring.  There are too many plants to list right now, a combination of flowers, vegetables and herbs.  Although this type of bed is not supposed to hit its peak for several years, I can already see the potential.  The only maintenance issue so far has been bind weed, which I spend 10 min or so a few times a week picking out from between the rocks  and the hens and chicks which are the areas where we couldn't use the kill layer of cardboard.

     The new hugel bed that we built this spring is also doing very well.  Click here to view the post on constructing it. 

     As you can see in the before pic above, the area was just grass along the rock border that separates our driveway from the small yard next to our house.  The pic is from this May, when we started the project.  Less than two months later we have the pic below, which I took this morning.

     Below is a pic from the opposite end.

     Everything in this bed is doing fantastically well.  The basil, cilantro, and parsley are already harvest able.  The Tomatoes are just starting to flower.  Loads of pollinators are buzzing around.  

Celosia (upper left),  Amish Cockscomb (lower left),
and Petunia (lower right) all starting to flower.

Amish Paste Tomatoes (my seed saving project this year)
Greatly out performing their siblings in the square foot and straw bale gardens.

Liatris is about to bloom as well.  The dandelions seedlings are the first weeds in the bed so far.  
If we eat them, do they still count as weeds?

The Borage (above) is flowering along with the comfrey.  
Those two seem to be magnets for beneficial insects.

Hundreds of these tiny parasitic wasps are flying around.  They feed on pollen as adults, then lay their eggs in caterpillars, destroying many garden pests.

For whatever reason, only one out of the three Goji berries that we 
got from Jung survived transplant shock.  It seems to be doing well though.

Oh my god this Sweet Genovese Basil smells amazing!And I get to walk past it every time I leave or come home.  Another good reason to move the gardens close to the house.

A couple of young cucumbers in front of the small decorative trellis we picked up.

Finally we got some parsley to grow.  Last year was a dud, and two years ago we forgot.

Two different kinds of mushrooms are popping up all over. 
Not for eating, but it's a good sign that mycelium are colonizing the wood below.

     So far I am calling this experimental garden a major success.  Thank you permaculture!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray - Book Review

     Each chapter of this beautifully written book is it's own story.  The story of an individual seed saver which, of course, is hopelessly intertwined with the stories of the plants they love.  Ray tells her own story as well, through the process of tracking down and acquiring so many heirloom varieties, from so many unique and interesting people.  And of course that is what separates an heirloom from any other open pollinated seed; a good story to go with it.

     As a new seed saver, I was both inspired and humbled by the tireless efforts of so many to preserve our collective cultural heritage in the genetics they steward.  I could not put this one down and ended up reading pretty much cover to cover through the accounts of gardeners who are also genetic librarians and, if you ask me, heroes as well.  Ray's easy to read style will suck you right in and is littered with seed saving tips and general gardening wisdom.

     Some of the chapters of this 203 page book really hit home, revealing the background of plants we have encountered personally, and people we have done business with.  In particular, the chapter on Glenn Drowns of Calamus Iowa was a real eye opener.  Glenn operates the Sandhill Preservation center and sells herloom seeds and poultry by mail.  We ordered our first batch of chicks from there and, after waiting patiently for two months, got a letter explaining that they were sold out and we should order earlier next season.  Boy were we upset about that, why did it take so long to send us a rejection?  We ended up ordering from a large commercial hatchery and got our birds a week later.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter about Glen;

"Perhaps the most famous folk seed saver and plant breeder of our time is Glenn Drowns of Iowa.  If he's not the most famous, he's no doubt the hardest working.  I thought I was a hard worker until I learned Glenn's schedule.  He works three full-time jobs.  One of them is teaching middle- and high-school science, including chemistry and biology, in Calamus, Iowa.  Another is running a mail-order business selling heirloom poultry and seeds, with a hundred-page catalog.  The third is keeping those varieties and breeds alive at Sand Hill Preservation Center, outside Calamus.

     I wanted to go visit Glenn, but I could not fathom using the fossil fuels to do so, and so I caught up with this busy man by phone on a Sunday, a rainy weather evening in Iowa that happened to be  chilly but clear in Georgia.  During our long and relaxed conversation Glenn explained his schedule.  He's up at four thirty every morning to tend the poultry.  A weather buff, he types in data about the day's conditions around seven o'clock, eats breakfast, and leaves for school at seven thirty.  At four o'clock in the afternoon, when he's home again, he focuses on farm chores until dinner at six thirty.  Evenings are spent filling seed orders, grading papers, and working on projects.

     You have to hear the numbers to truly understand the dedication of Glenn to the diversity of food.  He has single-handedly rescued poultry breeds from extinction, and now not only keeps alive 235 breeds but also raises poults and chicks.  Over the years he has had as many as 2000 plant varieties in his care, and even now keeps many hundreds going-including 185 sweet potatoes, 200 corns, 150-200 squash, 700 tomatoes, and so on.  The numbers are mind-boggling."

Boy did I feel like a schmuck after reading that!  Now that I understand a little more about what it means to save those seeds, a little waiting and limited capacity don't seem so bad anymore.  I should probably mention that we have been very pleased with the seed orders we have placed there.  Glenn does not take internet orders, but his catalog can be viewed online.

     I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in seed saving, or any type of gardening for that matter.  For it's information as much as it's inspiration, and to help understand why this hard work is so important to us all.

The Seed Underground can be purchased directly from Chelsea Green Publishing through the link below.  This is an affiliate link, and any purchase made within 30 minutes of clicking the link will result in a small commission toward supporting our efforts here.

The Seed Underground - $17.95
from: Chelsea Green Publishing


Friday, June 14, 2013

Plant Guilds

     A guild is a grouping of plants that compliment each other in some way, or hopefully in more that one way.  It is really a natural extension of the concept of companion planting.  My favorite definition of companion planting is "a collection of facts and folklore concerning the relationships between plants".  I think it's important to remember the folklore part of that definition.  Not that being folklore makes a thing necessarily untrue, but often the mechanisms at work can be misunderstood; and there is so much we don't understand about the relationship between plants. Still, there are some things that we do know which can be very useful in arranging garden plantings.  I think it is a huge step forward as a gardener to have this realization.  That each plant has different needs from and effects on the other plants and animals around them.  Then, getting to know each species as individuals becomes a worthy, though endless, endeavor.

     Our young Bing cherry tree guild, pictured above, offers a good example of some basic plant guild concepts at work.  Arguably the most important family of plants is the legumes, also known as nitrogen fixers, represented here by the lupines to the right of the tree.  These plants work symbiotically with bacteria in their roots to take nitrogen from the air and "fix" it into the soil in a form that is usable by other plants.  Since our atmosphere is somewhere around 70% nitrogen, and since nitrogen is the nutrient that the majority of plants need the most of, it seems like a no brainer to always have some type of legumes around the garden to fertilize for you.  It is a huge family of plants ranging from the tiny clovers to black locust trees towering over 100' tall and every size in between.  There are even edible legumes including all peas and beans.  This family of plants will give off some nitrogen during life.  But, if the roots are left in the ground, can continue to feed the plants around them for years afterward.

     Out of sight behind the lupines are several large dandelions.  We didn't plant them.  As most people know, they are really good at planting themselves.  Most people around here hate them, and go to great lengths to eradicate them.  Often resorting to dangerous chemicals that add stress to their already overworked natural body defenses and affect the environment at large in a similar way.  I think dandelions are awesome, and beautiful, and they play an extremely important role in nourishing our young cherry.  They are one of many plants that play the role of dynamic accumulator.  Dynamic accumulators have deep tap roots that can reach way down to sub soils where vast amounts of nutrients have washed down, out of reach for most plants.  In the case of dandelions specifically: Phosphorus, Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, Copper, And Silicon are all brought to the surface and into the leaves.*  The leaves die back in the autumn automatically depositing nutrient loaded mulch on to the surface.  It's like having my own army of fertilizing robots.  No wonder the lawn chemical companies want us to wipe out the mighty dandelion.  It's probably similar to the reason everybody stopped including clover as a feeder in grass seed mixes in the 60's when chemical fertilizers hit the scene.  There are many other dynamic accumulators including comfrey, fennel, and parsley to name a few.  The lupines act as both legumes and dynamic accumulators, bringing Phosphorus to the surface as they fix Nitrogen from the air.

     The garlic on the left is also a dynamic accumulator, providing Manganese and Sulfur, but the main reason we have it there is for it's ability to repel pests.  Garlic seems to drive grubs and other critters from the soil, including the dreaded Japanese Beetle, which totally defoliated this tree the year we planted it.  Garlic is our first line of defense here, and we basically have it planted everywhere.  Not only is it a delicious addition to a huge variety of recipes, it is an important medicinal plant as well.  Garlic seems to drive illness form the body just like it drives grubs from the soil.

     Pictured above in the center foreground you can see the distinctive silvery green leaves of a daikon radish.  This annual vegetable is serving a role here other than food for us.  Although we could harvest and cook it's root for dinner, instead we will leave it in the ground past maturity to serve as a Soil Buster.  This plant has a deep and very powerful tap root, that can penetrated compacted soil, heavy clay, even stone in some cases.  The root can grow quite large as it creates a path downward.  We will leave it in the ground, where it will rot leaving a column of organic matter that less aggresive roots can use to reach deeper.  Worms and other composters will also follow this path, mixing the organic matter from the soil buster into the clay and rock as they go.  This is tilling with a surgical precision at depths measured in feet instead of the  few inches our clumsy mechanical tillers and plows can reach.

       There are other important interactions going on as well.  All of these plants provide shade, acting as a living mulch to prevent the sun from evaporating water out of the soil below.  In turn, the shade from the tree helps the plants below in the same way, up until that point where they are not getting enough sun to thrive anymore.  The plants offer shelter to a host of beneficial insects that we depend on in a variety of ways.  The blossoms attract pollinators and feed tiny parisitic wasps that are critical for managing catarpillars.  Then lets not forget the benefits to us!  Of course most of these elements are offering us food, but I also appreciate the beauty and scent of the flowers and some shade too.  The best part is that they are doing all the heavy lifting of fertilizing, water management and weed control for us. 

     So there you have it.  A simple example of a plant guild and some of the terms we use to identify the interactions happening.  This is a vast subject, that is unique to each location due to differences in climate, soil compostition, moisture, and a host of other factors.  It is very exciting to me to be experimenting in this young but growing field of study.  Thankfully, we have the luxury to experiment right now, and are not dependant on our garden to survive.  Having the unprecedented ability to share information about these experiments gives me great hope for the future, as we begin to face the challenges presented by limited energy and an unstable climate.

[* Source: Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway]

Online Resources:
An explanation of guilds from TC Permaculture.
A free Plant Guilds E-book from Midwest Permaculture

Related Books:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Food Forest/Chicken Paddock Update 6/11/13

     After 2 months in the paddock around the pear tree, we moved the chickens to a new location.  I don't say a new paddock, because I'm not too thrilled with the new location so far.  I have a wood pile and some compost in the way, so it is not quite the right shape yet.  Also, I plan to do some earthwork in this area behind the barn at some unknown point in the future, so we are not going to be adding trees or other permanent plantings until we are satisfied with the layout.  Still, we had to move the chickens so it will do for now. 

     As you can see the old paddock is pretty much devoid of grass and is instead covered with several inches of mulch.  This is a combination of straw, leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, and 1/2 finished compost that we put down one wheel barrow load at a time.  The chickens did a great job of turning it.  There is no visible manure anymore, and there was no smell at all.  We basically did the deep litter method over a large area.  After fluffing up the litter under the coop, and a bit of work with the rake smoothing things out, I tossed out 1/2 of my seed balls.  We also planted some comfrey and garlic around the drip line of the pear.  And have added a young Stella Cherry tree to the paddock.  I have also put a few random chunks of log around just because. 

     I have to admit, it feels a little crazy at this point.  I'm sure that the wealthy neighbor who flies his plane over all the time thinks we're crazy, or stupid, or both.  But it does feel good to skip a whole big area when I'm mowing.  The weather has turned dryer, so I think I'll need to do some watering to get the seeds started.  But then I think that maybe I should just back off and let nature decide when the seeds should germinate.  And then I think about the sizable investment of seeds in those balls and how I would really like to see some of them sprout.  I'll probably water.

     Since our flock has doubled, and the babies are growing fast we built a new, heavy duty, hoop coop.  This one does not have wheels or a hitch to move around.  We are experimenting with having a permanent coop and run that connects to the various paddocks.  By building this inexpensive structure, we can see how the location works before we think about building a permanent structure.  It also gives us some time to become better chicken keepers, so we know what we want and need in a coop.

     Some pallets wired together and the rest of the straw bales from the winter coop provide some much needed shade and help define the new, wide open, area.  Having some structure for the chickens to move around and jump on top of really helps keep things more peaceful.  The birds seem more comfortable.  They made their dust bath just outside the shelter of the pallets. 

     After a couple of weeks inside the paddock, but still locked in their brooder, we had finally let the babies out with the big chickens.  They integrated pretty easily.  Oh, they definately get put in their place now and then, especially when they are trying to join the big chickens at their feeder.  But overall the transition has gone well.  Now they are housed in the mobile hoop coop and the adult birds we switched over to the new one.  One of our ameraucana hens has taken up residence with the babies.  She was always roosting alone, usually somewhere lower than the rest of the flock, either on the nest boxes, or one of the small perches I put in the corner.  Now she seems perfectly happy with the babies.  Only a couple of them are roosting up on the big perch with her.  The rest still sleep on the ground, under the lamp we put in the hoop coop.

     We still have not hooked up the charger and electrified the netting.  It's working out well, or at least we haven't had predator problems so far.  The rooster and one of the Rhode Island Reds jump out once a day.  I call them Bonnie and Clyde.  I can catch the hen, but the Rooster stays just out of reach.  I can open the fence and heard him in easy enough though.  Fortunately, I am able to come home for lunch and put them away before they do too much damage.  We suspect the hen is nesting in the day lilies up by our well, but so far we haven't found the nest.  I think we are going to let it go for a while and see if she goes broody.  If we can't find her nest, then hopefully the racoons and coyotes won't either. 

     The babies run right through the netting, but luckily they seem to be drawn to the compost area and are leaving the gardens alone so far.  They never wander far, foraging on the dandelions, plantains, and clover around the compost area.  Thankfully we have not had any more sick birds.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My First Cull

Warning: This post contains graphic content that may not be suitable for all readers.    

     By Sunday, after 4 days in isolation, our sick baby had started to smell.  Oh, we did a great job on sanitation; keeping the bedding fresh, cleaning his vent, and washing our hands religiously.  But the sickly sweet smell of infection had started to permeate the air.  The unmistakable odor that tells you death is peeking through the curtain, waiting for his cue.  We both knew what needed to be done.  Hell, the farmer in me knew what needed to be done the instant Nikki brought that chick inside, four days ago.  We had been holding out hope that this was just a vitamin E defficiency, which seemed plausable from the symptoms.  We got some gel capsules right away, and did our best to dip his beak into the goo and get some into his food and water.  Reports online told us that others had seen a full recovery within 48 hours.  But our chick remained the same.  Legs useless, but otherwise ok.  Eyes bright and clear, chirping regularly.  Good appetite, but unable to reach food and water unless we placed him right in front of it.  Every time he would try to walk, he would filp over on his back and be stuck.  We must have set him up a dozen times a day.  We were even getting up at night, summoned by a panicked chirping. 

     Between working full time, taking care of two flocks, the cats, the neighbor's dog, and the gardens, we simply don't have the resources to play chicken hospitol.  The sick chick demanded more of our time and energy than all the rest combined.  In addition to the risk we were putting our other chickens through, simple household economics demanded that we put an end to it.  The shaggy lawn and stack of dirty dishes told the story that we had both known all along; "You can't operate this way, so do what needs to be done."

     We are no strangers to killing.  Nikki has been going to deer camp with her dad and uncles since she could carry a stick and walk on her own.  I have also hunted, though not as often or as well.  We have harvested and cleaned numerous chickens, including two from our own flock so far.  Still, this seemed different somehow.  Maybe because it was so young and helpless, or maybe it was because it was not for food.  There was a twinge of guilt at having failed an animal in our custody, tempered by the desire to protect the rest of the flock.

     There was no resistance as I carried the tiny bird to an out of the way spot behind the garage and set him on a weathered cedar fence board.  He seemed resigned to whatever fate would bring at that point, still, I am glad I kept a firm hold.  I used a large, heavy bladed butcher knife with a very sharp edge.  I held the tiny bird firm against the wood with my right hand, and positioned the knife with my left, and then said out loud the words that we use for such an occasion.  The only words that seem to make sense at that moment.  "Thank you for being a good chicken."

     The cut was a good one, severing the head completely in one smooth stroke.  The tiny body struggled in a shocking surge of strength as the blade touched flesh.  The head rolled once and landed upright staring straight at me as the beak opened and closed in a silent scream.  The body writhed and twisted under my grip with a shocking force as the truncated neck protruded from the body like a worm and searched around in a circular motion for it's missing head.  Blood pooled on the cedar.  The scene was straight out of a John Carpenter movie.  I held the body firm waiting for the pulsing to stop.  Having a good hold is important to avoid getting sprayed with blood, and to avoid the indignity of having our chicken's life end flopping around in the dirt, both of which we have experience with from our first clumsy kills.  For two full minutes the body fought my grip as I marveled at it's will to live.  I thought about the millions of fictional murders I have seen on a screen and how not a single one of them captured the real drama and messiness of a life ending.  I wondered if people would have more respect and reverence if they knew.  If they didn't have so many clean, effortless deaths to imagine as they read about the atrocities happening in our world. 

     The corpse went unceremoniously into the trash.  I breathed a sigh of relief that the unplesant task was done.  We never found out the cause, but all of our other chicks are doing great, so I don't think it was the result of our husbandry.  The voice of my inner farmer told me that it was a righteous kill, and I had done the right thing.  Still, it's not something I ever want to come easy for me.