Notes from the meeting of September 28th

We got a lot of tree trimming done at the farm site. ( The property is surrounded by cottonwood, Willow, Chinese elm, and green ash trees. The green ash and Chinese elm are in bad shape, full of dead and contorted branches. The cottonwood and Willow trees are in pretty good shape, but some branches and trunks are so low that they interfere with walking along the fence, or are actually laying on the fence.) There is a lot of dead wood around as well.

 We also got a five by five foot area dug out to a depth of about six inches, to start our first hugelkultur. (If you don’t know what these are, see this link on the website.

 We found that the soil is full of large rocks and chunks of concrete. This makes digging very difficult, though otherwise the soil is good looking, black and well textured. We will have to do something with all those rocks. Sun traps and mini retaining walls come to mind. We can’t figure out where the concrete came from; this was a plowed farm field before purchased by the current owners.

The rocks are another reason to stick with hugelkultures and sheet mulched beds over standard methods. Of course, hugelkultures require digging, but only once, and not to the depth that standard beds require, and they add more material to make up for a rocky soil. The rocks would make tilling very difficult.

 Once the digging was done, we broke up a lot of the sticks and branches from our tree pruning and stacked them in the hole, creating a mound two feet above the level. At the next meeting, we will cut some heavier diameter lengths (four inches across or so) and use them to top the pile. Then we will add some manure, put the soil back on top, and mulch it. The manure contains nitrogen, so that the wood won’t steal it from the plants. To avoid this problem it is best to use rotten wood, but we have lots of fresh wood on hand, and only a little rotten stuff.

 We will probably be putting off tree planting till the spring, but we can begin preparing for them now. We will be taking a soil test, after which we can mix in amendments and plant a cover crop on the orchard site.

Hugelkultures: the raised bed of Permaculture

As most readers of this site already know, Permaculture mimics creation, copying the work of God, the greatest designer. Here are two more natural patterns for us to follow.

In old forests, rotting, mossy logs slowly crumbling into the earth are a common sight. Small trees often root right on top of them, and surrounding vegetation and fungi tap them for water. Even late in a dry summer, rotting wood is still moist. They also trap soil, keeping it from sliding away, and nurture a vast community of beneficial life. Rotten logs enabled the ecosystem of Mount Saint Helens to quickly rebound after lava flows and mudslides.

Old growth forests tend to have a pit and mound topography. This is caused as large trees fall, turning up their root balls. They then rot away, leaving a mound of rich, well drained topsoil and crumbly wood, and a moist, shady pit with mineral subsoil exposed at the bottom. Both pit and mound have a sunny side and a shady side. This diversity of terrain creates a diversity of wildflowers on the forest floor, as many as fourteen species to the square yard. The diversity of plants then promotes a diversity of insects and a more stable system.

We can mimic these two patterns by building a hugelkulture. To build one, a shallow trench is dug, and the topsoil and sod are set aside. Then a mound of woody debris; brush, logs, rotten firewood, etc. is piled into the hole or trench. Manure, straw and other organic matter is placed on top, and then the soil is placed over all. They can be built in any shape, but are generally formed in long ridges, between three and seven feet high, running east-west, so that they each have on North and one South face.

The advantages are numerous.

  • The mounded shape is able to fit in more plants than a flat bed with a similar footprint would be able to do, effectively increasing surface area. (This is imitating another natural principle; in creation, surface area is often maximized to utilize resources, in this case garden space, effectively. The human lungs have an interior surface area the size of a basketball court.
  •  The spaces between the sticks, and the raised position of the bed, insure well aerated soil, and prevent flooding damage to crops.
  •  The rotting sticks hold a huge volume of water, so the plant’s roots can always access sufficient quantities of both water and air.
  •  The wood holds on to nutrients and keeps them from leaching away.
  •  The decay process provides a gentle heat which stimulates plant growth.
  •  This strategy maximizes organic matter.
  •  The wood feeds fungi and other beneficial organisms, which are often lacking in traditional gardens.
  •  The south face warms up early and has a much warmer microclimate then the surrounding area. This allows production of crops which need a lot of heat, and are typically difficult to grow in Colorado, such as melons and sweet potatoes. At the same time, the north side stays cool and shady, and helps lettuce and similar crops avoid bolting in the heat of summer. (This is similar to the diversity of wildflowers mentioned above.)
  •  If laid on contour, the hugelkultures catch water running down a slope.

We will be building a number of hugelkultures, both in the annual vegetable gardens and in the orchards.

Land schematic plan

Here is the schematic plan for the Lakewood Urban farm. It will be modified and possibly even changed as we get down to the details. For instance, the small tree orchards “4” will have to be closer to “3” than indicated here.

Land plan schematic fixed

This property is about a three quarters of an acre. As you can see, the land slopes almost due north. That is generally a bad orientation, but it will delay the flowering of our fruit trees, thus avoiding late frosts. To the south are two large crab apple trees; perhaps because of the above mentioned effect, they bore well this year when many other trees failed. On all other sides of the property there are lines of large trees, mostly cotton wood/ poplar, willow, and Siberian elm. Some of these may be removed, and all will be pruned back heavily. The land it self is mostly a blank slate; there is a small run in horse shed in the area marked 2, and a small apple tree in the center of the south side. All the rest is full of weeds, bindweed and thistles and some remnant alfalfa among them. The land was used previously for farming. The two ditches are operational, but we are not allowed to take water from them. However, our fruit trees will have no problem helping themselves.

The garden area will be laid out in contour line paths with keyhole beds along them. In the lower orchard, trees will be planted on mounds. There may be a Mary shrine in the center of the land. Within the solar area, only dwarf trees or bushes may be planted, so that the greenhouse will get six hours of sun on December 21st.

Notes from the meeting of September 7th

At this meeting we finally started work on the Lakewood farm site. We got about three hundred square feet sheet mulched with manure and wood chips. Volunteers had previously collected a stack of large cardboard boxes, manure was delivered for a small fee from a horse boarding farm, and chipped tree trimmings were delivered free by a tree care service.  The wood chips had a high percentage of leaves in them, which was good.

We used a keyhole bed layout, and placed main paths on contour using an a-frame level.

We learned a couple of things.

  • It takes a lot of water to soak layers of mulch. Cardboard in particular is resistant to getting wet. We should have had somebody using the hose the whole time. (Sheet mulches need to be watered because rain would take a long time to penetrate to the bottom layers. )
  • We skimped a bit on the depth, so we will have to add another inch or two. But as a rough estimate, each hundred square feet of garden used a cubic yard of wood chips and a third a yard of aged manure.
  • If aged horse manure is dry, the easiest way to load it into wheelbarrows is with a metal snow shovel.
  • The ideal sheet mulching crew would contain at least four people; one to use a hose, one to run a wheelbarrow, one to fill wheelbarrows, (this is assuming two wheelbarrows ) and one to spread mulch. (Of course, if there was a fifth person, they could be staking out the design and laying cardboard. But cardboard laying takes hardly any time at all, and staking should ideally be done ahead of time.)
  • It is amazing how much mulch (and how much work ) it takes to cover a small area. It would be easy to cover a tremendous area with big sheets of cardboard, and then find it impossible to cover with mulch.

One the whole, the meeting went well. We talked about cutting back some cottonwood and Siberian elm trees to get more sun, and generate lots of stuff that we could mulch; and about how to build our greenhouse. We still have to decide between a buried or an aboveground model.

Pervious to the meeting, all brush was cleared out of the fence line. So we now have a big pile of sticks that we have to do something with.

Notes from the meeting of September 2nd

At this meeting we got the two beehives for OLMC finished, except for painting. I will post pictures when the painting is finished.

We also discussed the possibilities of selling top bar hives to pay for the Lakewood farm project. If we do this, then the hours spent building beehives would also count towards the minimum required to get a produce share from the farm.

Sheet Mulching

Sheet mulching is a great way to prepare a new garden site. Typically, the soil is laboriously dug and tilled, rocks and roots are pried up and hauled away, tenacious perennial  weeds are battled with little success, and the whole process in repeated again next year, as the soil has returned to its previous concrete like state. Instead, we can take a page from God’s design manual. In the natural world, we don’t see expanses of bare soil, or tillers turning up the soil. Instead, a thick layer of mulch, gradually grading into topsoil, blankets the land. This layer holds water and nutrients, nurtures beneficial soil life, and protects the soil from wild temperature swings. It also works against “weeds,” God’s reset mechanism, which quickly colonize bare soil and restart the mulching process. We can gain all these benefits, and save a lot of work, by sheet mulching a garden.

In its most basic form, sheet mulching is a laying down a weed barrier, topped by a foot of any decomposable matter. The weed barrier can be cardboard or newspaper sections, depending on how ferocious the weeds are, and how large the site is. To get better results faster, however, a good mix of high nitrogen and high carbon mulches should be used, rather like building a large flat compost pile, for better decomposition. The weed barrier should cover the whole area, paths as well as beds, so that weeds can’t infiltrate from the edges. The best time to build a sheet mulch garden is in the fall. Come spring, the mulch has decomposed enough to be planted. And then you will never have to dig again; just put on a little more mulch occasionally, and pull up any weeds which sprout on top (they will be easy to pull from loose mulch.)

Sheet mulching is especially great for establishing perennial food ecosystems, which are a main focus of Permaculture.

Of course, nothing is perfect. For intensive, wide row salad production, biointensive or double dug beds, amended with plenty of compost, are a better way to go. And bare earth will heat up faster in the spring (though it will also cool off faster in the fall.)

Though we will have more than one style of garden on our site, sheet mulching will take up the bulk of the area.