Notes from the meeting of October 28th

This meeting was held at our Lakewood farm site. Despite the wet and cold weather, we got a lot of work done. We finished our second hugelkulture. This one was wider, longer, and a bit taller than our first one, and was dug deeper into the ground. This should help it hold more water. In arid climates, hugelkultures are a balancing act. The surface dries out faster than a flat bed. However, the core holds a lot more water than a ordinary flat bed. So, they should be heavily mulched, and contain more core than surface area. One giant mound seven feet high and thirty feet long would work better than many smaller ones. We would need heavy machinery to move that much soil. So we are building them a reasonable size for hand work; about four feet high, with a trench about a foot deep, and a width of five feet. We mulched it with a layer of wood chips, and then a layer of leaves. We also added coffee grounds and manure to the various layers, to add a little nitrogen and improve the water holding capacity.
Leaves are a good top mulch in a desert area; they shed water, which then runs between them and into the soil. Then, due to the waxy nature of the leaf, the water can not easily evaporate into the air again. Wood chips and manure can hold water, but can also slowly release it to the air. So we hope to top all of our sheet mulch beds with leaves eventually.
We are still working on ideas for our sign. It will probably contain our logo. See our Logo here.
At our last meeting, we dug up a short piece of I-beam. So we decided to do a full heavy metal test, as well as our lead test, to find any contamination in the fill on our site. The results of this should be back in a few weeks. Even if there is some heavy metals in the soil, we can continue to use the site, though we may have to adapt in various ways.
We also discussed our focus for the farm site, and came to the conclusion that we should concentrate more on things members would find it difficult to do in their yards; the greenhouse, fruit trees and bushes, rare perennials, animals, aquaponics, seed raising, and staple crops. And we are hoping to schedule various social events—  a traditional blessing of the land for instance, or a potluck dinner in honor of a Saint’s feast day.
We have bought a membership with Seed Savers Exchange. This will enable us to purchase heirloom seeds from their yearbook, which contains more than twelve thousand varieties.

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Heirlooms, hybrids, OPs and GMOs

There is some confusion about what all these words actually mean, so I am posting this to clarify things.

”Open Pollenated”, or OP, means that a plant will come “true” from seed; the next generation will look reasonably like the last, so seed can be saved from them. Wild plants are generally this way, as are most traditional plants.
“Heirloom” means that the OP strain in question is about sixty years old. Every heirloom plant was new once.
“Hybrid” means that two OPs were crossed to grow the seed. If a zucchini and a pumpkin were planted next to one another, and the seed was saved, it would almost certainly be hybrid seed; bees would have crossed it. The seed you planted next year would all come up looking alike. If it was better than the originals in some way, the gardener might decide to do it again on purpose. If, however, seeds were saved from the plants grown from the hybrid seed, every resulting plant would be wildly different. Selection over may years could then create a new OP variety which would come true from seed. Most heirlooms were once hybrids. So there is nothing wrong with a hybrid. The problem comes from their modern use. Since nobody else can duplicate a hybrid, companies dropped all their traditional heirloom varieties and switched over to them, thus greatly diminishing vegetable diversity, making famers dependent on bought seed, and setting the stage for disasters similar to the Irish Potato Famine ( at that time there were only two potato varieties in Ireland.) Also, modern varieties of any sort, OPs or hybrids, are suited to modern agriculture, and need large amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and perfect growing conditions. Heirlooms are better suited to low input methods.

You might be interested to know that apple seeds do not come true, since almost all of them are hybrids. You need two different trees for pollination to occur successfully.

GMO are a whole different matter. They are created by scientists in a Lab, and are dangerous on many different levels. Currently they are used to increase the control of large corporations over the food supply. However, unlike hybrids, which can be used rightly, GMOs have their own inherent risks.

I think that Heirloom varieties should be saved, because they represent the wisdom of the past; that small farmers should breed their own new OPs and hybrids, to adapt to changing conditions and methods, and to bring unique products to market; and that GMOs should be opposed in all situations.

Notes from the meeting of October the 23rd

This meeting was held on our farm site in Lakewood. We continued work on our second hugelkulture, and as usual unearthed more rocks and other stuff. The hugelkulture is now a mound of sticks and small logs. We have been sifting manure and coffee grounds into each layer as we build it, to help trap more water. At the next meeting we will add about three more feet of wood, and then top it off with layers of manure, soil, and wood chips.

We discussed ideas for our sign, and other ideas for future land development. And we got fluorescent tape and reflectors put up around our work area, to warn people and to avoid damage to the beds.

I have been researching hugelkultures a little more, and I have found that in a dry climate, large hugelkultures work better than small ones, since there is a balancing act between the core, which holds more water than a flat bed, and the mound surface, which tends to dry out faster that a flat bed. The small mound has too little core and too much surface area. So we will be building our hugelkultures larger then at first planned.

I have also found that bone char is the best way to supplement our soil’s phosphorus levels. Bone meal, phosphate rock, and soft phosphate tends to be unavailable in this pH, and the manure we are getting may be too leached. It is also a very dilute source. I got some advice from a more experienced permaculture gardener. Here is what he said:

(This comes form the Permies forum, which is a good source of information about various permaculture topics. However, I disagree with many of the philosophical and moral opinions voiced.)

“Phosphorus is a tricky element to work with; if the pH is below 6, it gets fixed by iron and aluminum, if it gets above 7.3, it gets fixed by calcium. However, plants and their beneficial fungi can be persistent and un-fix the phosphorus, perhaps with some acidic or basic root exudates and enzymes, depending on what is needed. It’s unlikely that phosphorus is completely absent from soil, all sorts of critters dropping dead and decomposing provide a fairly constant source from above. The big question is the availability, and that’s where things like bone char can help tremendously. A piece of burnt bone, once colonized by mycorrhizal fungi, can be an oasis of phosphorous in an otherwise phosphorus-fixed landscape.”

So, now I just have to find a source of bone char. We could make it ourselves, and we might do that, a little at a time. However, to get things started, I might buy some, if I can find a source without too much shipping costs involved.

Notes from the meeting of October the 17th

This meeting was held on our farm site in Lakewood.

We got another hugelkulture started at this meeting. At present it is a large half dug hole, with a pile of cut up brush next to it. We hope to finish it next time.

Also, we found it is very hard to build hugelkultures with our current number of members. The amount of ground covered each time is very small with this technique, whereas sheet mulching is faster, letting us compete more beds before Winter sets in. We probably will not build any more of them this autumn unless we can find some more local members. (Our membership is scattered across the Metro area.)

One of the reasons that hugelkulture building is so difficult here is that there are a lot of rocks in the soil, some of them very large. These take a long time to move, with only a small space gained for each. They will, however, be very effective at forming warm microclimates once we get them out.

We could, of course, do sheet mulch beds instead of hugelkultures. However, hugelkultures have a lot of benefits, particularly on this site.

And it would be easier to build hugelkultures at ground level, and pile imported top soil over them. But there is very little high quality top soil in Colorado, it costs money we don’t have, and the beds would probably be more drought prone that way, since roots would be less likely to move below the preexisting surface.

We plan to replace our rather messy temporary sign with something more elegant, especially so the neighbors don’t have to look at a piece of painted plywood against a tree all the time.

Notes from the meeting of October 11th

We got some soil nutrient testing done in the past week. We will have to wait about two week for the lead test to come back. The pH is neutral; this is good, especially if we have lead in the soil, since a neutral or alkaline soil ties up lead. The phosphorus and potassium are medium, and the nitrogen is low. However, the air is full of nitrogen, and most soils are full of locked up potassium, so we shouldn’t have to buy any. Phosphorus can be applied cheaply as manure or phosphate rock, though phosphate rock tends to be tied up in alkaline soils. Chemical fertilizers are expensive because the nutrients in them have been made available and soluble by energy intensive processing. Because of this they burn soil life and organic matter, and most of them wash away before they can be captured by plants. In contrast,  nutrients in a natural soil are insoluble, until they are made soluble by the action of plants and their fungal and bacterial allies— right in the root zone, a little at a time. If we do need to add trace minerals, they can be added as granite dust, which also contains potassium, or as seaweed.

Hopefully, our lead testing will not turn up any problems. However, since our soil has chunks of concrete, brick, etc. in it, testing is a prudent course of action. Most lead contaminated soils can be made safe by adding large amounts of phosphorus (to turn soil lead into unavailable minerals) adding organic matter (to bind with lead) keeping the pH up, and mulching heavily (to keep from coming in contact with lead in soil and dust.) All of these are things we would be doing anyway. If the lead was really high, in addition to the steps above, we would only grow fruiting crops like tomatoes, squash, and apples, since plants don’t accumulate lead in their fruits.

At the meeting we finished our first hugelkulture. At previous meetings we had dug a  broad, shallow hole about a foot deep, and filled it with sticks and branches. At this meeting we continued adding wood until the pile was about three feet above ground. We then added coffee grounds and manure to the top, and shook the pile so that they would migrate down and fill voids. The manure will add nitrogen to help rot down the largely carbonaceous wood, and helps hold water.  Then we piled on the soil from the hole, and covered it with cardboard and wood chips, to prevent erosion and weed growth. The only step remaining is to place the rocks from the hole on top of the pile. These will trap heat, creating a better microclimate, and will help with water retention. In Colorado, much of our snowfall disappears as water vapor without melting. Rocks trap enough heat to melt the snow into the mulch, and then help to hold that water in.

We also put up some wire to contain leaves, and laid down cardboard so our next pile of manure  will not be infiltrated by bindweed.

The horses which use the field are “scuffing” through our sheet mulch. To prevent this, we will be putting up a simple temporary fence to keep them out. This should be fairly easy, since they don’t WANT to get in; they are just running around the field.

We saw lots of snakes, especially hiding under our tarp. This is good, they will eat voles and mice.

Notes from the meeting of October the fifth/ bindweed

At this meeting we got another hundred and fifty feet of sheet mulching done, and repaired a mistake we made in our hugelkulture last time. We had built a mound of sticks, only to realize that many of them were from a willow tree; and willow branches sprout if stuck in the ground. So we would have had a thicket instead of a raised bed. We removed the willow branches and built a new pile of Siberian Elm and Green Ash. At the next meeting we will add some more wood and cover the pile.  (Willow can be used in Hugelkulture; it just has to be thoroughly dead first.)

Our neighbor to the east cut down a line of Siberian elm along the fence, giving us even more branches to clean up, and a lot more light in the morning. He will be planting evergreens there, but they will take a while to grow.

We took soil samples to do some basic testing on, and some lead testing, since parts of our site were filled in the past. If lead is found in certain areas, we will take steps to tie it up, and only grow fruiting plants there. (Fruit, unlike leaves or roots, does not accumulate lead.)

We found that bindweed had infiltrated our pile of manure from the ground underneath and all the little snippets of root we had accidentally moved to the sheet mulch with the manure were sprouting ABOVE the cardboard. Fortunately they are not well rooted yet, so we are carefully pulling them out now. But I decided to do some more research on it, since some will almost certainly make it through our sheet mulch.

Bindweed is literally a superplant. Its seeds last for fifty years in the soil. A plant can grow twenty-five feet in a single season. Drought, compacted soil, and heat make no difference to it whatsoever. Some say that a root system can be two miles long! While this might be exaggerated a bit, it definitely possesses enough root resources to outlast almost any gardener’s pulling efforts.  It can outcompete many garden plants, tangling them up till weeding is impossible. A tiny piece of root or stem will grow a new plant.

The roots are brittle, making removal difficult. They are herbicide resistant, hard to smother, and can’t be solarized in this climate.

There is dispute about their medical value. Some say they are poisonous, others say they are a useful anti-cancer medicine and tonic. And there is no doubt that they help heal damaged soil, and that cows love them.

But, we don’t have cows, and I think we can improve our soil just fine without this plant. So, what to do?

There are a number of ways to weaken bindweed.

  • A deep mulch, especially when backed with cardboard, will kill some plants and weaken any which make it through. It will then be vulnerable to persistent pulling action when small, as the roots will come easily out of a loose mulch. This will starve the plant.
  • A rye cover crop secretes substances which temporarily suppresses bindweed. A traditional sequence of cover crops is rye and vetch overwinter, then buckwheat, then rye and vetch again for another winter, and then vegetables the next spring.Loosening the soil with a digging fork disadvantages bindweed, whereas tilling just encourages it;  disturbed soil increases its growth, and the tiller spreads root pieces to fresh ground.
  • Since bindweed is a pioneer plant, it thrives in a poor soil. If the soil is improved bindweed becomes weaker.Geese, chickens, and pigs eat bindweed. A ‘chicken tractor” moved across land may destroy the plants.
  • Plants can be coiled up and placed beneath a rock, or in a bag. This cuts off sun from the leaves, but is more effective then pulling. Breaking the plant releases a hormone which increases its growth.They can be liquified or fermented and used as fertilizer.
  • Some Sunflowers, squash, legumes, Mexican marigold, and alfalfa are allopathic to bindweed, though they will not wipe it out. So are a few weeds; dandelions, and Lambs-quarter. We don’t want any more dandelions, but some lambs-quarter might be good, since it is edible. (Dandelion is too, but we have enough of it around.)
  • A deep cedar mulch kills bindweed.
  • They need an alkaline soil; if the soil is acidified, they weaken and disappear.
  • Horticultural vinegar can kill the leaves.
  • Some bugs can be released which EAT bindweed. However, these don’t do as well on irrigated sites

We will probably employ a number of these strategies. We are already laying down a heavy mulch; in the spring, we will plant allopathic plants anywhere the bindweed comes back, do a lot of hand pulling, and maybe get some hungry chickens.