Archive for May, 2008

Planting into Sheet Mulch

May 29th, 2008 by shrimppop

My largest bed is almost completely sheet mulched now. This bed is a big hexagonal plot in the very middle of my back yard, maybe 25′ x 25′ roughly centered on one of the pear trees. The kitchen window looks directly out at this which means I am looking at it all the time (we have no automatic dish washer, so I spend a fair amount of time at the sink staring out…) In the initial weekend I got maybe half of this bed sheet mulched, but then ran out of the lovely 3-year old black, rotted horse manure. Since then, I’ve sourced another supply: the Rochester Mounted Police stables, about 50 yards from where I work. Each day they’ve been kind enough to put out a big yard bag full of fresh horse manure. The bag goes into the trunk of my Honda Civic and when I get home I spend 5 or 10 minutes carting it out to the back, pouring it onto the grass, raking it, covering it with cardboard and a layer of straw. That’s it- the worms and other microorganisms do the rest.

I’ve read that it is possible to plant directly into the sheet mulch by digging a little pocket in the hay, poking a hole in the cardboard weed barrier and filling the pocket with some soil, then planting into this soil pocket. So I’ve started doing that. So far I’ve got strawberries and melons and brocolli in and they seem to be doing fine. I’ve had to water once, and they seem to be holding moisture pretty well. I’ll continue to post about the results from this method.

I’m very curious to see what the different results will be for the area using the composted manure versus the “hot” manure. I’m planting into the former areas first, but I may try some experiments with the newer, fresh manure areas soon, just to see what happens. I’ve been told that fresh manure is too high in nitrogen and will “burn” plants if you put it directly on the soil. So I’d expect if the roots of pocketed plants got down to below the cardboard, that would be the end. It’s worth the experiment. By next year, I’d expect this to be well broken down and not a problem and high in nitrogen content.

Scale of Permanence in Design

May 28th, 2008 by shrimppop

I just finished my design project for the Permaculture Design Certificate program. It was awesome having Andrew Jones at the last session and his suggestions on using the Scale of Permanence as a guide for design was very, very helpful.

The scale goes like this, from biggest effect and most difficult to change down:

  • Climate
  • Landform
  • Water
  • Legal
  • Access and Circulation
  • Wildlife and Vegetation
  • Microclimate
  • Structures
  • Zones of Use
  • Soil
  • Aesthetics

In permaculture, we start at the top of the list and work down. Changes at the top have the largest effect, but are most difficult and should be designed carefully. Stuff at the bottom is much easier to change. In our culture we generally do this backwards, starting with aesthetics and then trying to make everything else fit with that. Many times, permaculture seems to be the exact opposite approach to how things are done in the larger, unsustainable society. I’m thinking we should start calling the current paradigmTempculture in order to reframe it. Sometimes I think the hegemony of the current way as too ingrained to change, but viewed from a higher level it appears to be surrounded by history on both ends. At least it does now in the moment I am writing it.

There is a lot of gray area in the ordering of the Scale, for example buildings can be used to create microclimate. Generally speaking, though, each level defined and determined a number of issues at the lower levels. For example, legal considerations around access points to the property and how the site was zoned determined a huge amount of the design. By the time I got around to siting buildings, they almost situated themselves. This process makes design much simpler and more coherent in that it progressively eliminates choices at lower levels.

I found this applied to my own site after I laid out and dug the swales (landform, water) and paths (access and circulation), planting areas started to define themselves.

Details on Swales

May 19th, 2008 by shrimppop

Here are some more details on swales. As I was working on them, I was struck by the sophistication of even the simplest of permaculture techniques.

Here’s a better diagram of how they work and how mine are constructed:

Swale Diagram

I had previously marked the paths out using a very simple contour-locating device I built ($5) from 2 x 2, a hinge, a cross piece of scrap wood, some fishing line and a weight. This forms a big “A” shape. Calibrate it by setting it up on a level surface and marking where the fishing wire and weight hangs crossing the cross piece. To use it, pick a starting point and then swing it around til the other leg hits the grass and the weight lines up, showing the legs to be level. Mark the new point with a stone and move on to the next point.
To actually dig the swales, first, I rented a rototiller ($39 for a half day) and loosened up the soil on the swale paths. Then I simply went along and dug with a shovel, flippiing the sod over onto the downslope side. After digging, I went along each swale and forked down and loosened a bit, just to put some depth for water to soak in.

Next I filled the swales with whatever drainage and organic matter I had handy. In this case, I had a bunch of gravel scraped onto my lawn from the next door neighbors winter plowing, so I put that in the base. Then I put in dead leaves which I had in profusion as I don’t rake them in the fall. Finally I put some ground bark mulch. This all went inside the swale.

I then scattered clover seed on both the ridge and the upslope side of the swale. The upslope side, being level, makes a nice path. Since the main path on the site runs downslope, across the swales, the swale paths are secondary cross paths. From these I run some keyhole garden paths upslope into the main garden beds defined by the swales and main path.

Finally, both the ridge and upslope side get a layer of straw mulch to keep them moist and deter weed and grass growth, while allowing the clover to sprout.

The fact that all of this works as an integrated whole where each part plays multiple roles was kind of impressive in a quiet sort of way. The clover helps seed the ridge, and will grow a good root system to keep it locked in place. It also adds nitrogen to the soil. The gravel and leaves were readily available and relatively easy to move. I would have had to scrape up the gravel anyway, so no big deal just putting it in the base of the swale. I mentioned that I use the upslope side for paths. I also noticed that laying the swales in broke up the garden space in a very interesting and useful way. The slope is now visible in the landscape, and it’s really obvious where the moisture is and isn’t in the ground, and where it flows. Little pockets and odd accute angles suggest places for anchor plants and shrubs. The garden starts to design itself.

Swale and Sheet Mulch Pictures and Welcome Brad!

May 13th, 2008 by shrimppop

Greenerminds is now officially a community project, thanks to Outback Brad who joined and posted for the first time this weekend. I’m looking forward to the details of his project, and what he’s going to share here.

For my part, I promised pictures, so here they are. These are a few weeks old- I dug the swales in mid-April, and did the sheet mulching the next weekend.

Here’s an overview shot of the main garden area, delimited by the swale in the foreground and the straw bales along the back. This area is about 40′ by 60′.
Overview of Swales

Now here’s a detail of one of the swales. I’ve overlaid a rough section drawing showing the water flow downslope and soaking into the lower side of the swale.

Swale detail

Here’s an overview shot of starting to do the sheet mulching. With the materials all collected this process goes very quickly.

Sheet Mulch Overview

I did an area about 20′ x 30′ (25% of the garden) in an afternoon. For the whole garden area I now figure I’d need 5 cubic yards of manure, 1 cubic yard of compost, and 36 straw bales. The sheet mulch will break down over a winter into excellent garden soil, thanks to worms and microorganisms that do all the hard work. However, you can plant directly into them by creating little pockets of topsoil in the straw. I’ll show this in a later post.

Here’s the detail on how the layers go.

Sheet mulch detail

Historically, I haven’t been very good at aesthetic design of gardens, and I have to say that putting in the swales and the pathways really helped to frame the areas. I have a main path running through the middle of the garden that will eventually include a patio area, then smaller paths extending off this along the upper sides of the swales. Keyhole garden paths then extend of these secondary branches.

This design framing was an added benefit I hadn’t anticipated. It also helps with plant placement, especially for larger anchor shrubs and trees by limiting the number of appropriate sites.

Feral Daydreams.

May 10th, 2008 by Outback Brad

Where to begin…

Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Every magazine cover in the check out line features “Ten tips to ‘Go Green’”. Every store sells compact florescent light bulbs. Reducing your carbon footprint and eating locally is “all the rage”. Walmart, whose economy is larger than most countries on Earth, has even gone “Organic”. I’ll save the debate on the merit and impact of this phenomenon instead to point out a simple truth… whatever the benefits, the point is being missed.

Sustainable. Green. Organic. I do believe the pioneers of these movements in large part got it. But is it inevitable in a capitalistic society that once something catches on and becomes trendy, it gets reduced, watered down, and lost in the transaction of dollars? Are Power Bars with 30 ingredients really “natural”? Does factory farmed “organic” milk benefit you, the cows, or the environment? Do people really consider these new multi-million dollar “eco-friendly” mansions sustainable? The examples could go on and on.

The marketplace is an entity where we can perhaps purchase more time, certainly not salvation. There is a universal law that must be rediscovered in the process, and it is of my opinion that it won’t happen within consumer culture, no matter how “green”. It is not open for debate and cannot be packaged and sold. Despite what civilization says about it, humans are ecological beings in an ecological system and simply cannot be separated from such, whatever we think or do.

A fundamental change in our cultural understanding and whole world view is absolutely going to happen, one way or another. What is perhaps yet to be determined is whether this change will come as a result of a mass awakening of our modern species, or by some collapse that will be much more painful for our descendants than the former option.

It is within that context that my family and I are trying to apply these principals. And it is with this knowledge that I join the discussion on this blog.

Introductions can be boring and cliché, so I’ll make this quick. I am a graduate of two community colleges, one of which gave me a degree in Natural Resources Conservation. My wife engineers fuel cells and is the type of woman who asks for a worm bin for her birthday. I am the type of guy who has chosen to stay home with our two toddlers and embark upon a primitive (read “time tested”) method of home education commonly referred to in modern times as “unschooling”.

I’m not a fan of how this culture views soil or children, two things I hold very dear.

And we just bought a house right outside the city line on an overlooked dead end street surrounded by an 800 acre city park. And it has a yard; a rather large, unlandscaped yard. A yard that we vow will not be degraded by being kept a grass farm, the likes of which are of the most toxic and largest wasteful agricultural sector in this country.

It is not a lawn. It is an ecosystem. And ecosystems contain countless interconnected components, one of which is food production.

Permaculture teaches that sustainable human settlements will only be achieved by mimicking and submitting to the structure and interrelationships found in natural communities.

This is the holistic approach that so many others stop short of.

So the unfolding of this site of ours, our little urban homestead, is our new project and this blog is where we will document our efforts. So check back soon and see how things are coming along.

Early May in the Garden

May 8th, 2008 by shrimppop

Here’s a quick status update on what’s going on in the garden. Well, maybe not so quick. There’s a lot going on this time of year! I’ll get some pictures up later this week. Mind you, I’m doing this all in my spare time while working full time, taking the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) one weekend a month, raising a family and so on. It can be done.

I got the swales dug, the paths laid out in straw, and about 30-40% of the garden plot (about 40′ x 60′) sheet mulched over the last month. I planted the paths and swales in white clover, but haven’t seen any evidence that the seed is sprouting.

I redeemed my “Christmas Cash” at the local nursery for a quince, a clethra and a variegated dogwood. The dogwood goes between the apple trees as a calcium recycler and “sweetener” to the fruit. Then I popped over to another fabulous nursery specializing in Japanese garden stock and materials for some clumping bamboo (fargesia rufa).

I also picked up a flowering dogwood down in Deposit this past weekend, but it was with a group that was devastated by the fungus now affecting many dogwoods in the northeast. So I’m a little nervous having it in the garden, but I’m going to try and keep it at least spatially isolated from the other dogwoods. I’ll also plant it with some lupines and poppies, which I believe have anti-fungal properties.

When down there I also obtained some free blueberries from one of my co-students in the PDC. My 9-year old and I planted these Tuesday night. I’ve been very into scrounging plant material, which is outrageously easy. I want a forsythia hedge (a “fedge”) along the back of the garden to keep the deer out, or at least discourage them. On my drive into work I saw that someone had cut back their forsythia, so I stopped and gathered up the free plant material. Later that night I cut the branches in small sections and stuck them directly into the ridge of the lowest swale. Hopefully this will be enough to get them to root.

Saturday night at the PDC we foraged for garlic mustard, dandelions and chives for a salad. We also boiled up some Japanese Knotweed (invasive relative of rhubarb and asparagus) to put in the desert. I wanted to go after the garlic mustard growing on my own lot this week, but sadly the guy who mows what’s left of the lawn cut them down. At least it looks better.

Another night I went exploring the old railroad tracks south of town and found a bunch of old apples, cherries and plums back there. Having brought along my clippers, I made a few cuttings, stuffed them in my pockets and headed home. I cut them at a bud or branch, on a diagonal, dipped them in rotenone to stimulate rooting, and put them in pots with about half garden soil and half potting soil.

Perennials and re-seeding annuals are coming up and out all over the garden: baptisia, yarrow, comfrey, lupine, bleeding heart, hosta, peony, hydrangea, rue, jacob’s ladder, bee balm, lungwort and pyrethrum. A number of these I dug up and made root separations, a great way to propagate many perennials.

This morning I started another biggish group of seeds for summer planting- tomato, tomatillo, fennel, stevia, purple bell pepper, ancho poblano, cayenne, jalapeno, perennial and annual sunflowers. I’ve been transplanting lettuces, tai sai, brassicas, cilantro, parsley, spinach and sorrel into the raised beds.

Theoretically, you can put pockets of soil directly on top of a sheet mulched bed and plant into these. I haven’t tried this yet, so this is my next test, as I am running out of established bed space.

Structurally, I moved the compost bin much closer to the back door, and started a compost bucket under the sink. I got some Aspen wood shavings from a pet store and I’m dropping a sprinkling of these into the bucket. The carbon is supposed to balance out the nitrogen and kill the ammonia smell that sometimes comes from kitchen scraps left too long. So far, no smell and no fruit flies.

Tuesday night I knocked the concrete off the iron pipes I dug up last summer. These were set as clothes line poles, sometime in the golden age of heavy industry. They were set about 3 feet deep with about 150 lbs. of concrete on each. These were not fun to dig out! Anyway, they’ve been lying there next to the garage with these big chunks of concrete on the end, until this week. The pipe is probably useful for something so I’m not getting rid of that yet. The concrete I’ll use as the base for a small berm which I’ll plant with shrubs like witch hazel and honeysuckle as a screen near the sidewalk and spruce tree.

The Social Experiment of Backyard Permaculture

May 1st, 2008 by shrimppop

We live on a fairly prominent corner in our village, and there’s a lot of foot traffic past, through and around our lot, which is now festooned with curvy swales, sheetmulched areas covered in loose straw, piles of various things, scattered creek stones and a number of straw bales at the back.

What’s taking place in the yard is generating a LOT of questions and commentary. So far, most of comments come with an air of either bemused skepticism or outright ridicule. There are also some notable exceptions.
So as part of the agricultural experiment, I’m also starting to track the social experiment. Will attitudes change once the garden starts to take shape? At what point? What will the comments change to? Will people still be interested? Will their interest increase and turn into action?

Here’s a sampling of some of the commentary so far:

  1. Looks like a lot of work. Maybe you should get a rototiller.
  2. Where’s the horse / pony / yak?
  3. What are you building?
  4. Hay! You gotta lotta hay! Lookit the hay!

Item 3: What are you building? Leads to the standard response: “It’s a permaculture demonstration garden.” The follow on to this is one of two:

  1. Eyes glaze over, look at watch, change the subject.
  2. What’s permaculture?

It’s about 4:1 so far for eyes-glazing. Only a couple of people have gone far enough to ask what permaculture is, usually repeat visitors like Mary who walks her dog past the house a half dozen times each day. The question is problematic, since even David Holmgren admits to the difficulty in answering this question with anything other than a 72 hour teach-in on the whole permaculture ouevre. I usually say something like “it’s a sustainable design system based on ecological principles.”

Interestingly, the process is starting to indicate who in the neighborhood is a potential partner, advocate, CSA customer, helper, future permaculture student and so on. In the spirit of having each element serve more than one function, don’t overlook the marketing, educational and promotional value of a site.