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.

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.

Notes from the planning meeting

We recently held a planning meeting for the year ahead. Here are some of the points discussed.

We chose two coordinators to lead meetings on the Lakewood Farm.

We decided that members will have to work a minimum of four hours in a given month for a share of produce from the Lakewood farm. Shares can be claimed in the month after they were earned. A number of shares can be gained by any individual or family. The share is simply to be an even division of whatever the Lakewood farm produces. Shares will be filled twice a week. If members join after our march first cut off, they can still ask for a share, but it will only be filled if there is surplus produce. 

We discussed varieties to plant. Some members are donating seeds, which will be a big help towards the desired diversity of varieties. Most members want tomatoes, and members suggested Mortgage lifter, Red Grape, and Roma as varieties which do well here.

The members want to plant lots of flowers among the vegetables on the Lakewood farmsite, which will give the site a cheery look. In particular, they mentioned sunflowers (edible, produce bean poles) and marigolds (good companion plants.) Flowers will also help to attract beneficial insects.


We will probably go ahead with our proposed seedling fundraiser. One of the members has a greenhouse, but the electric heater to run it is quite expensive. We could also heat a small section of our hoop house with a propane heater. One of these two methods could be used to start large numbers of small seedlings, which could then be potted up into larger containers in our hoop house. By that point the weather would have warmed to the point where the hoop house would be adequate.  It is possible that various parishes might let us sell seedlings on their grounds.

We will postpone the aquaponics systems and chickens till next year.

We need to fence in the garden site. We will use four foot chicken wire, with metal T-posts. Then we will string a wire higher up to deter deer. We may also buy a solar charger and run an electrified wire along the top of the chicken wire to stop squirrels and raccoons from climbing over. 

We will be setting up a safe fenced area for children to play in. One of the members might have some used playground equipment to donate. A sandbox would be fairly easy to set up. 

There is lots of interest in a root cellar, solar dehydrator, and other methods of preserving food.

We need to instal a permanent water line. Uncoiling and coiling a frozen hose is time consuming and difficult. Even in the summer, dragging out the hose would be a waste of time. This would cost about fifty dollars.

We will be saving our own seeds this fall.

We would like to experiment with alternative cooking devices; solar ovens, hayboxes, wood fired cookers.

There is interest in a calendar where members can list their own project and invite other members to stop by in an informal way.

Notes from the meeting of November the 14th/ Greenhouse Design

The weather is still fairly pleasant, so we have continued working on our Lakewood Farm. At this meeting we continued turning our abundant supply of leaves into compost piles.

We also discussed plans for our greenhouse. It will be a simple hoop house, which has the advantages of low cost and ease of construction/removal. However, it will be less sturdy and harder to heat.

We will thread twenty foot lengths of rebar into pvc pipes, and bend the composite rods into hoops. These will be buried in the ground, and connected along the top by another rod. Then greenhouse film will be draped over the structure, and buried along the edges. Rope will be used to tie down the plastic and keep it from flapping in the wind.

Hopefully, we will be able to construct the greenhouse at the meeting after next. I will post pictures of the construction, and then record its performance. This is an Eliot Coleman style greenhouse, and part of it will be used for early plantings of cool weather crops. It will also house a hot bed for starting seedlings in the spring.  These will be for sale, for member’s gardens, and for our farm site.

Notes from the meeting of November 7th

At this meeting, we got a hot compost pile started. We are layering leaves, manure, and coffee grounds in an eight by eight foot wire mesh bin. We also added a little blood meal. Sufficient nitrogen causes a compost pile to heat up. However, the manure we are using may not have enough nitrogen in it; the manure pile had not heated up. And we did not have enough blood meal and coffee grounds to heat up the pile by themselves.  If, by next week, the pile shows no signs of heating, we will add some more nitrogen.

We had some lawn care companies dump leaves. In fact, we got too many leaves (if that can be possible.) And the truck drivers dumped leaves right on top of our sheet mulch garden beds, where it may prove difficult to rake them up without raking up the sheet mulch. These leaves will be hot composted, since we do not know where they came from or what they might contain. We have already picked out some trash. A hot compost pile will break down almost all chemicals, and kill pathogens. The only common contaminants which a hot compost pile can’t get rid of are heavy metals and certain extremely long lasting herbicides. Heavy metals should not be a problem in leaves. People don’t spray herbicides on their trees. By the time the leaves land on the lawn, there should be very little herbicide present on the surface, and even less would end up in raked leaves. To insure that this reasoning is correct, we will be testing all finished compost before adding it to the garden beds. Compost can be tested simply for quality by planting a few radishes or other inexpensive seeds in it.
We got our first set of professional soil tests back. The cheap home soil test had rather inaccurate results. We will not need to add any nutrients to the soil except nitrogen, since we actually have overabundant levels of many nutrients. The pH is 7.8, which has an advantage. It will bind with any heavy metals which might be present, keeping them from being taken up by plants. The only common heavy metal for which this will not work is arsenic. In a few weeks we should have our heavy metal soil test results back. The high nutrient levels may have been caused by a chemical fertilizer overdose by the previous owner.

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.

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.

Notes from the meeting of August 7th

This meeting was held on three quarters of an acre owned by a member in Lakewood. They will let us use the land as a community farm or garden.  We walked the land, and then had a discussion about our course of action.

We are looking for woven wire fencing, round or square posts about eight feet high (to allow them to be buried) and cardboard. Cardboard should be in large sheets, such as the boxes appliances come in, should be free of holes, and should not be glossy or highly colored. All staples and tape should be removed, and boxes should be folded flat.

We decided that no member must contribute to any project on the land which they are not interested in. Labor can be easily devoted to whatever members are most interested in, and nobody has to give money (except perhaps to pay for the water.)

The owners will have final say on anything which happens on the land. They will let us use municipal water and electricity, if we pay  them for their increased bill. We may also be helping them with various projects around their property.

Several members have told me that they could give between four and six hours a month, some on weekdays and some on weekends. So I think the minimum should be set to four hours a month. This counts family hours. For instance, if four family members come and work for an hour, that would be your monthly share.  Also, shares time can be paid in money or materials. We have not yet worked out the exact equivalence between them.  Time requirements may be waived for a number of reasons.

We hope to have three or so coordinators eventually, even though we put off making the decision. We need something like this for two reasons; first of all, for security, and to answer to the owners. The coordinators will have keys to the land, and will set up work times, so that the owners can be sure that only people who belong on the land end up there. Secondly, to  make day to day decisions on the ground and direct labor.

The conclusions in the previous two paragraphs have not yet been finalized.

We got a basic idea of where we would put various elements on the land. It is too vague to draw a map, but it is good enough for now, and will let us get to work.

We also decided not to limit operations to any particular size; rather, we would get started, and see how far the available time, labor, and materials get us.

Here is a list of the projects/ ideas which members proposed and the group adopted.

Growing flowers for the parish altar. One of the members is also willing to do this in their yard. This is important, as flowers cost a lot of money, and are generally treated with extremely toxic chemicals, since they are not for consumption and have to look perfect.

We will build a greenhouse if we have enough money and labor. This will give us a stable, sheltered microclimate. It will be mostly or completely heated by solar gain. We will try to keep the cost low, perhaps as low as six hundred dollars.

We will start an orchard, as the owners kindly offered to pay initial costs for a few trees. Obviously, this means that they can decide what kind of trees and how many are planted. It is important to plant trees as soon as possible, even though we will not permanently control this piece of land. This will give us time to experiment and find out which trees work best, and then if we acquire a permanent site, we won’t have to try and figure it out there. Instead we can use grafting stock right off our original trees.

Keeping chickens for egg production is not possible on this property. However, another member may be willing to start a chicken farming project on their land. And we can keep other poultry, both for meat and for their beneficial effects on the land. The owners have kept geese in the past.

We can compost on the land, so long as we keep it neat and contained, away from the owner’s house, and don’t compost food scraps. We will probably build a straw bale bin composting container.

One of the members suggested protecting young seedling beds with straw bales and simple hoop house structures, which sounds like a good idea.

We will use several garden styles on the land, to find which works best for each plant. However, the first style will be sheet mulch or wood chip gardening, in which a layer of cardboard is laid down to suppress weeds, and then wood chips and other mulch is laid on top. In the spring, vegetables are planted straight into the mulch. No weeds, very little watering, and no digging. We can probably get wood chips for free. Other styles may include raised beds, hugelculture, waffle garden, and french intensive or Biointensive gardens.

We will be keeping bees in top bar hives. If individual members want a Langstroth hive, they can certainly procure one and place it on the land.

We will be building aquaponics systems in our greenhouse. Aquaponics combines a tank for fish with a gravel filled grow bed full of pants, which filters and aerates the water. It is the best use of greenhouse space, as it produces two to three times the amount of vegetables a soil garden produces, and the fish are an added bonus. We could raise tilapia or trout. We could also use one or two of the units to raise koi or fancy gold fish to cover costs. The style of aquaponics we will be using is fairly cheap, as it depends on salvaged elements.

One of the members suggested raising and selling ducklings in the spring. We could also do this with rare breeds of chickens. (No collecting eggs; they could be hatched by the chickens if we chose the right breeds.)

Down the road we may use solar panels.

Our first projects are sheet mulching the garden area and rebuilding the fence.

Growing All Your Food— On a Backyard!

Biointensive growing is a method derived from  French intensive gardening. It is a complete and very refined gardening method, consisting of a number of interlocking pieces:

  • Double dug beds
  • Composting
  • Intensive, equidistant planting
  • Companion planting
  • Carbon Farming (growing large amounts of carbon to feed the soil)
  • Calorie Farming (growing high efficiency root crops like sweet potatoes to feed you)
  • Open-Pollinated Seeds

Using these techniques, a gardener can grow a complete diet for one person on four thousand square feet, or even less! Not only that, but the four thousand square feet will also grow all the seeds and compost needed to keep the system running. Even the worst of soils can be repaired with this soil building method. Only a little water is used, thanks to the organic mater and close planting, which shades the soil. All hand tools are used, so there is no expensive machinery to buy or maintain. The only hitch is that the supposedly complete diet grown is vegan, and like many others I think some animal products necessary to a healthy diet. However, if this method is combined with Aquaponics, we could really feed ourselves off our backyards!

For more information on Biointensive growing, read How to Grow More Vegetables, by John Jeavons. This is a very complex topic, which deserves a much better explanation than I can give here.