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.

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.