The fourth week of March/ the first week of April

Due to bad weather, we did not get as much done these weeks as usual.
In Littleton, we got the vegetable garden tilled, to create a better seed bed than was left by the tractor, and we got the fencing around the vegetable garden mostly set up. We planted rhubarb, lemon balm, and peppermint in our herb garden

We planted several hundred beet mix seedlings started in Littleton in the tilled beds in Lakewood. We also mulched some paths and cleared vines, weeds, and sticks from some of the fence lines in Lakewood.

In Littleton, we planted our fruit trees ( 1 meteor cherry, 1 montmorency cherry, 1 honeycrisp apple, 1 Red McIntosh apple, 1 golden delicious apple, 1 sweet 16 apple, 1 summercrisp pear, 1 Lucious pear, 1 Reliance peach, and 2 Italian plums, mostly on semi-dwarf root stocks.) We also spread lots of leaves and pine needles in the vegetable garden as mulch, and planted sugar snap peas, both from seed and as transplants, and Sugar pod 2 snow peas from seed.

The third week of March

In Littleton this week we rented a trencher and installed a water line and frost proof hydrant. We were donated a bunch of plastic storage units for our tools and supplies. Somebody also donated a picnic table and benches.

We planted flats of Sugar Daddy snap peas, Purple top white globe turnip, Yellow Granex onion, and radishes in the Littleton greenhouse under row cover, using our standard potting mix. We planted some small news paper pots of Sugar snap peas. (The greenhouse is unheated: however, at this time of year the double coverage should keep things from freezing.) We planted about 250 sweet peppers (Marconi Red, Jimmy Nardello, Ampuis, California wonder red, California wonder orange, and a few others) and 100 eggplant (Early black and Black Beauty) in plastic six pack with our standard mix. The peppers and eggplant are now in a heated frame at my house.

We started to pin down landscape fabric in our work area, which will eventually be covered by mulch or gravel.

In Lakewood, we decided that the old compost/ mulch area was unsightly and not very functional. We started the process of tearing down the old bins and forking out the compost materials. (Things did not decompose very well; they seem to have dried out.) We will be building new bins in the shade of the greenhouse, screened from view by a grape and kiwi arbor. We forked over 300 square feet of the beds that we rototilled last year to remove the grass, and re-mulched the paths. We also started gathering and piling all the rocks and concrete chunks on site to build a raised rock flower bed.

The second week of March

 Two weeks ago, we finished building an Eliot Coleman style high tunnel/ greenhouse, with two automatic vent openers. The frame was built of 20′ rebar rods sheathed in PVC pipe, with the ends buried in the ground.
We got a lot done this week.
In Lakewood, we planted seed lettuce, lentils, and peas in the greenhouse under row cover. The lettuces were various heat tolerant types. By planting them in the greenhouse, we will be able to select for the most heat tolerant plants to save seed from. Before we planted, we hauled all the old mulch and compost out of the greenhouse, since it might be harbouring slugs, and spread it around the trees. We also repaired the bridge over the irrigation ditch.

In Littleton, we planted Early Flat Dutch and Copenhagen Market cabbage, Waltham 29 broccoli, and a beet mix in flats in the greenhouse, under row cover. We used our standard potting mix, a blend of peat, compost, and perlite amended with lime, bone meal, azomite, and organic fertilizer.

We also cut up bushes to make a truck access, spaded the other half of the greenhouse beds, rebuilt the greenhouse doorway, and dug a ramp so that we can roll wheel barrows into the greenhouse.

A farmer kindly brought his tractor and chisel plow in to break up the vegetable garden area. So we now have 10,000 square feet of broken ground. (About a quarter of the whole field.) Since the weather is dry and hot, all the grass should be dead in a day or so. We will have to get to work quickly to take advantage of the open ground before weeds do. Part of the garden will probably be mulched in preparation for planting, part will be sown with a cover crop before tomatoes and squash are planted at the end of May, and some beds will be worked into a fine seedbed without mulch for planting cool weather, small seeded crops like lettuce.

New Littleton Site! Helping to feed the Carmelites!

The Saint Isidore Society has been allowed to use a new site; an acre field located near Gallup Street and Littleton Boulevard in Littleton CO. We will be growing enough produce for the nearby Carmelite convent, as well as for the participating members. We hope to eventually plant fruit trees and bushes, as well as a large vegetable garden.

Our site in Lakewood will be moving into its second year this spring. We will be continuing  our operations there as well as developing our new site in Littleton.

We have already erected the frame of a greenhouse on the new site, which should be ready for use in a week or so. It will be very much like our Lakewood greenhouse featured in earlier posts here: an Eliot Coleman style hoop house with a plastic cover.

If you want to participate, contact us and we will send you the exact location of the site.

Rocket and TLUD cook stove experiments

The Saint Isidore Society has been building small cook or camp stoves out of salvaged cans.

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(Pictures of our TLUD stove No. 2)

So far we have built four stoves: rocket stove 1, which was almost exactly like this instructable; it used four soup cans and a #10 can, and vermiculite as insulation; rocket stove 2, which was like number one with a chimney twice the height; a small biochar TLUD stove out of a soup can and another, slightly larger can, which was rather like the one on this site; and a larger and more robust TLUD.

Before I get into the results of our stove experiments, I will give a brief description of the principles behind each kind of stove.

Rocket stoves utilize abrupt right angle bends, an internal insulated chimney, and certain critical proportions to create an extremely efficient, nearly smoke-less burn. They can keep a few small sticks burning for a long time, unlike an open fire.

TLUD biochar producing stoves heat biomass in an oxygen poor environment, producing wood gas, the volatile components of organic matter. This gas is then mixed with preheated air, which produces a clean, efficient flame. They can burn agricultural waste, pine needles, etc., unlike a rocket stove.

Our rocket stove 1 burned cleanly, though it did produce a little smoke, especially when starting off. It boiled two cups of water in a covered pot in ten minutes. (For comparison, an electric stove with a glass top boils water in about six minutes.) We also toasted some marshmallows.

Our rocket stove 2 burned faster then number 1, and also produced some smoke. It boiled two cups of water in five minutes. However, we used two cotton balls dipped in alcohol to start this, and there was probably still some alcohol burning when we put the pan on. This may have skewed results. The first stove’s cotton balls had burned out a long time before we put the pot on, so those results are reliable.

The TLUD stove burned a soup can full of pine needles for about ten minutes, completely charring them all. It produced a hot, clean flame, but we did not try to boil water. The alcohol cotton balls we used to start it burned for ten minutes before the needles started to char. (In a TLUD the starter sits on top of the fuel and the charring moves down through it.) The small amount of pine needle biochar produced was not worth doing anything with.

We built another biochar stove out of two cans, (TLUD 2) a good bit  larger then the first one, and loaded it with wood. It burned well for twenty minutes with no smoke, but then went out abruptly, producing a lot of smoke. When we put it out and dumped it, we found that it had only charred the wood about half way down the can, so it probably could have kept burning for a while. The gas flame was beautiful, and looked just like a propane burner.
We did some research and found a few things that might have put out the stove prematurely. The fuel was too tightly packed, and unevenly loaded; a taller chimney would have drawn in more air; it should have been shielded better from the wind. So we tried again, this time loading the fuel until it could just barely rattle when we shook the can (the last time we had really wedged the fuel in), we put another can on top as a chimney, and we stacked bricks around it to keep the wind off. This time we got twenty-six minutes of clean flame and no smoke. When the fire went out we were left with about a cup of biochar, which we will use for potting mix.

Next we will retry our experiment on rocket stove 2 without the alcohol effect, and outfit both rocket stoves with shields to direct more heat to the pots. We will be building a larger and more robust biochar stove fuelled with wood instead of pine needles. We will probably be experimenting with larger rocket stoves and with a haybox cooker used in conjunction with rocket or TLUD stoves.

Advent wreaths

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The Saint Isidore Society recently held an Advent wreath fundraiser at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic parish in Littleton. Families payed to gain access to the event, and were given all the materials to construct an Advent wreath, and assistance if necessary. The pine cones and greenery had been collected a week earlier on a member’s mountain property. Participants also received a prayer booklet for the days of Advent. The Saint Isidore Society volunteers served refreshments and helped with the setup and cleanup. Everybody had a great time, and we will probably repeat this next year.

The year in review; plans for the year ahead

A frost on September 12th damaged the Lakewood farm gardens, though some outdoor plants and the greenhouse continue to produce well, as the weather has continued warm. We have started cleanup, and will be rebuilding many of the beds. We have also planted some fall crops.

At our planing meeting a few days ago, we discussed many topics, among them the following.

Sheet mulch works really well here. It seems to hold water, once it get really wet. If it is built dry, it can stay that way. It also does a lot better if it is started a few months before planting. Some seeds seem to need mineral soil on top, not just compost. Greens are difficult to start in a rough mulch. Paths should be raised up to form borders around the mulch beds, especially on a slope, to keep water in. Chunks of wood and sticks seem to improve a mulch. The mulch should also be deeper the a foot, more like two feet. By spring, the foot of mulch we laid had turned into something more like six inches.

Our labeling system (plastic with permanent marker) broke down. Even if the marker was permanent the labels were not and they soon disappeared in a jungle or got pulled out. This lead to a number of problems: difficulty in seed saving, inability to harvest green when ripe tomatoes, difficulty telling if a bean was a green bean or a dry bean, or if a squash was a winter or summer variety. At very least, different types of the same plant should be segregated, so as to avoid this problem.

To solve this problem, we will be spending some winter meetings inside wood burning labels into some stakes.
Cherry tomatoes were a waste of time, since they were too difficult to pick and ended up smashed on the way home.

Planting a second batch of zucchini and cucumbers in July is well worth it.
Watering by hand was a huge chore. Pulling the hoses around ran the risk of damaging plants and was a big hassle. As well as increasing water storage in deeper mulch, we may switch to using an oscillating sprinkler on a tall pole for most of the garden. If the pole is seven feet high, it will clear trellises, tall plants, etc. This would only require one hose and could easily be activate and left on for the required amount of time. For many plants in an arid climate, overhead watering is beneficial. Tomatoes, dry beans, and some seed crops will need to be watered from below. For these, we will be setting up soaker lines. This would also eliminate the problem of over and under watering.
We really need trellises for tomatoes. Without them, the plants did wonderfully, but finding the tomatoes was so difficult that many rotted on the ground or were eaten by slugs.
The farm was not set up so that members could come and help out on their own schedule. We will be having a numbered sign in each bed, with a corresponding white board chart in the shed, showing what is planted in each, and what has to be tended, harvested, etc. We will also set up a logbook for member’s use. This will greatly increase our efficiency in use of volunteer hours.
Distribution of produce was more difficult then we thought it would be. We need drop-off/ pick-up points, each with an evaporative cooler or refrigerator. That way members could pick up produce on their own schedule, while avoiding spoilage. This will be important if we grow more greens, which members have requested. At the same time, each pickup point would have a member in charge to inventory produce and send out alerts as to the amount on hand. One member voiced concern as to a child potentially getting stuck in a refrigerator. To avoid this we would lock any refrigerators.
We have many projects planned, among them the following:
Mushrooms started in our sheet mulches would improve the conditions for our plants. Fall would be the best time to do this, and we will probably use oyster mushrooms, which have the best symbiotic relationship with garden plants.

Over the winter, we can get our beehives and swarm traps finished and set up. We will continue to salvage wood for these. If we build enough, we may try selling them.

We will add thermal mass and insulation to our hoophouse to extend its useful season. One of the members can get bubble wrap for this.

The members want to raise more flowers in the gardens next year. There are many edible, medicinal, and habitat providing flowers for us to use.

We may start raising geese on the Lakewood farm, rotating them through cover cropped sections of the garden.
There are lots of indoor building type projects we can purse over the winter, such as solar applications, aquaponics setups, alternative cooking devices, and many more.
Bare root fruit bushes, grape vines, asparagus, and other perennial plants can be installed this fall. Geese are used as weeders in orchards and strawberry fields, and thus fit in well with this.
Next year, if we are more organized, we can save more of our own seed, and work on breeding our own plants.
To get our Lakewood farm ready for next year, we have many things that need to get done this Fall. Among them are: starting some big compost piles; rebuilding all our sheet mulches so that they are two feet deep; building our shed; setting up an irrigation system and trellises; upgrading some of the fencing; general cleanup; and reworking our entrance area. We will probably use concrete reinforcing wire for tomato trellis.
We will be hosting an Advent wreath crafting event at OLMC parish in Littleton to raise funds for the SIS. This will be held towards the end of November.
And finally, we have a new farm site in Littleton, near Broadway and Littleton Boulevard. If you want to come and help please contact me for the address.

Farm update for August

The farm has been producing tons of vegetables, especially eggplant, tomatoes, and zucchini.

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Here is just part of one day’s harvest.

Some things have not done so well. Due to a loss of labels, we have not been able to harvest any green tomatoes, since we can’t tell which they are. Watermelon are still the size of base balls. Winter squash are growing well, but still way behind where they should be due to late planting. Peppers are only starting to produce now. I am glad we keep them in the greenhouse, where they will have another month or so of growing left.

Sheet mulching has vastly out preformed the tilled beds, though we have no one variable trials to prove it.

I saved landrace tomato seeds from the farm; basically, I just saved seed from any plant that had produced, without worrying about variety or potential crossing. Over the years, the mix of varieties will adapt themselves to the location, soil, and growing methods. They will preserve enough genetic diversity so that something does well in any given year, but I will not have to keep fifty varieties pure and separate. I hope to do a post on landraces soon.

We salvaged a metal shed for the farm and are in the process of rebuilding it.

Farm update for July

We got all of our spring planting done, but some things were put in very late. We will be using row cover to hold off early frosts, so hopefully we get a yield from everything.

Squash and zucchini are doing well, and we have already harvested a few. Our best variety is Costata Romanesca, which has constantly done well for me here.

Our tomatoes are looking pretty good. There is a small amount of fungal disease, but overall the plants look healthy, and are loaded with green tomatoes. We have harvested a few ripe ones so far. We never got around to staking or tying most of them, so some of the tomatoes will probably be lost to sitting on the ground. Then again, some sources claim that in a hot dry climate, letting tomatoes sprawl helps keep them from drying out and getting sun scald!

Our peppers and eggplant in the greenhouse are growing like crazy! They really like the tropical conditions in there.

Our beans, melons, and cucumbers were heavily damaged by bugs. Some melon plants survived, but we were already late planting them, since a first planting failed to germinate. So they don’t have that good of chances. We replanted cucumbers, and our third try, surrounded by cut-off yoghurt containers, is doing well. Either the cups kept off the pests (possibly pill bugs) or a natural balance had kicked in. (Due to a very wet spring, pill bugs and sow bugs have gone crazy, and did a ton of damage in my home garden. Due to the fact that we are not on the farm site at night, we can not actually assign blame to them there, but the damage looks similar and there are lots of pill bugs about. Pill bugs damaging plants is a much debated topic on gardening forums and websites.) We replanted beans. The bush beans are still struggling, partly because the mulch and compost we planted them in went hydrophobic. We sprayed soap to correct this. The pole beans are taking off.

All of our trees have survived so far, and are doing well, with the exception of a struggling nectarine. Fire blight hit surrounding mature trees heavily this year, probably due to the wet spring.

We had a beehive placed on the property, but it died. We will be trying again next year. Hopefully we will have our top bar hives done by then.

Despite the wet spring, watering has been a huge chore. We are experimenting with small scale PVC watering devices, donated drip hose, and Ollas; traditional terra-cotta watering devices. An Olla is basically just a unglazed pot buried in the soil. It wicks water out depending on the dampness of the surrounding ground, and the plant’s needs. We are also building some waffle beds, and using rocks as a lithic mulch. These are techniques used by native tribes in the desert southwest.

The heavy storms in the Denver metro have mostly bypassed us, with only a small amount of damage to the site. The lines of trees along the fences and creek have done a good job breaking the winds, sustaining a fair amount of damage in the process.

We are beginning planting for the fall. We are planting peas directly in the ground, and starting cabbage, broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts at a member’s house.

Weeds have been a constant problem, especially bindweed. The bindweed was  not stopped by our sheet mulch, but it was slowed down considerably.

WIth the main planting done, we have been working on organizational projects. We have been setting up tool racks, sinks for washing up, and a work station. We hope to build a solar hot water heater and a reed bed for one of the sinks.

We are finally beginning to see a bit of produce coming in! There is not much yet, just a few cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, and some greens.

Problems with sheet mulch/ farm update

We have installed lots of sheet mulches on the Lakewood farm. Sheet mulching involves laying an overlapping layer of cardboard to smother weeds, and then piling on a foot or more of organic matter, ideally weed free, and with a balanced ratio of nitrogen to carbon. There are lots of benefits to this: less weeds, more organic matter, and, after the first year, less work, since the beds are never tilled again. For more information, see this post.
However, we have discovered two potential problems with sheet mulching.
First of all, sheet mulch does NOT stop bindweed. Those long twisting roots easily wend their way around the cardboard and through every crack, to emerge triumphantly at the surface. However, nothing else really kills bindweed either, and sheet mulch at least makes bindweed easy to pull. And the sheet mulch killed off the grass, thistles, dandelions, mallow, and other weeds on our site fairly well.
The second problem is more serious. When we planted the tomatoes, we just opened a hole in the mulch, stuck the tomato in, and pushed the mulch back together. Some of the beds were full of a light, fluffy mixture of grass clippings and mulched leaves. We then got a lot of rain, and occasionally people would step on the beds (our paths are not that well defined.) The mulch compacted and sank. Soon the tomato root balls were sticking out of the mulch, where the peat in the potting mix acted like a wick to dry out the roots. The fact that the grass clippings were very porous did not help matters any. We first noticed the problem when a lot of the tomatoes looked sick, with curled and yellowing leaves on a hot day.
Hopefully, we have solved the problem by laying a layer of rough compost from the pile we built last year over the beds. This will cover the root balls and hold water.
So, if you want to build a sheet mulch:
Don’t expect it to kill bindweed,
Try to mix dried grass clippings with other, more compact and water retentive material,
Lay the mulch much thicker than you think necessary, and plant deeply,
Carefully pack mulch over the root balls of transplants,
And ideally, build the beds in the fall, so they can decompose and compact over the winter.
The tomatoes in our hugelkulture/ sheet mulch hybrids are doing splendidly so far. I will continue to report on the success or failure of our systems over the next year. And now we will know how to avoid this problem for the future.
We are almost done planting. We have also got a fence built on the perimeter of the property, set up plant supports, and done a lot of weed mowing on the site over the last few meetings.