Summer of 2015 in review

I ran out of time to do weekly postings, so here is a summary of our season on the Littleton farm site. Overall, it was a great year! All of our trees survived and are growing well. The tomatoes yielded so abundantly that we sold them at Church, after the members and the Carmelites had taken all they wanted. Our favourite tomato varieties were taxi, moonglow, green zebra, black krim, black cherry, Ananas Noire, Siberian, and Cosmonaut Volkov. We also donated some to Christ in the City and The Divine Mercy Supportive care. We also harvested lots of squash, zucchini, and turnips, but it turns out that the members don’t really like turnips, so we will be planting less of them next year. As usual, the Costata Romanesco zucchini did really well at the beginning of the year, and the powdery mildew resistant PM straight-neck summer squash from High Mowing Seeds got off to a slow start but is still going strong. Our Mammoth Sunflowers topped 8 feet, despite a few wind storms, and we harvested at least some seeds ahead of the chickadees. We got at least one ripe cantaloupe, about the size of a soft ball. Next year we will try again to be truly successful growing melons in Denver. And we harvested cucumbers, beets, tomatillos, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, and lots of arugula. We tried growing beans up our sunflowers, but this was a failure. In fact, all the beans we planted gave a lack luster performance.

Due to the work of harvesting, we did not have time for infrastructure projects or planting Fall crops. In any case, due to the extremely dry weather in Denver during the Fall, late crops are hard to start.

We have lots of plans for next year. We will be rebuilding our fence to be more animal proof by attaching fine mesh wire along the base and laid out along the ground. Our greenhouse will be mounted on skids sliding on rails, so that we can start winter crops outside while the summer ones are still growing, and then slide the house over them latter. To help lettuce weather the dry climate, we will build wicking beds and shade structures, and to help the workers survive the heat, we will build arbors and plant some grape and hardy kiwi vines. We will be planting more trees, raspberries, hazelnuts, and currents, among other perennials. We hope to have more flowers and insect attracting plants.  We want to experiment with some sunken hugelkulture beds to see if we can get by without watering some crops at all. Our compost system needs to be improved put on track this Fall. We hope to plant cover crops of winter wheat and rye on some of the beds, and deep mulch others.

In a few weeks we will have a planning meeting to get things on track for next year, redefine our mission statement and project list, and reorganize our vegetable share plan. I will post more information as we go.

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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.

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.

 

Planting has begun!

Over the last few meetings, we got a lot done! We rented a rototiller, and broke up 1500 square feet, addition to the 1500 square feet of sheet mulch beds we already prepared.  We will plant into this area immediately, and mulch it latter. This will speed planting, since mulch supplies for our sheet mulching have been hard to get recently.
On Saturday, lots of members came out and planted 250 tomato plants. There are still some more to plant, but the biggest ones, which urgently needed to get into the ground, have all been planted. We prepared a lot of planting areas, and are almost done with the fencing project. We are digging big holes in unprepared grassy areas and filling them with manure. We will plant vining winter squash in these and let them help smother the weeds.
Next week our squash, melons, cucumbers, beans, lettuce, peppers, and eggplant will be planted. Because we got off to a slow start, we are waiting till late Summer to plant cool weather crops, except for lettuce. We have some heat tolerant strains of lettuce which we will be trying out.

Work day notes

I have fallen behind in posting updates about the progress on the farm. In the last few meetings we have: reorganized what is left of our brush piles after renting a chipper, turned our compost pile, laid out quite a few beds, planted some potatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and peas, got rocks and concrete laid to outline some of the beds, moved some of the tomato transplants out to the greenhouse,  repaired two of the wheelbarrows, mowed parts of the field, done a lot of cleanup, set stakes to protect the new trees from pedestrians and vehicles, dug up some concrete, planted lemon balm around broken concrete in the irrigation ditch (to help stabilize it), continued work on the fencing, added a second automatic vent to our greenhouse, (with only one, the greenhouse overheated severely,) and continued the work of using up our many piles of mulch, leaves, and manure.
Our greenhouse survived the late snows earlier this week, and the tomato transplants inside are all safe. However, one of the heated frames at my house, which still held over two hundred tomato plants, malfunctioned, and we have lost over a hundred of them. Depending on what members want to do, we may buy replacements, or do without.
Then new vent opener is at the bottom of the greenhouse, on the opposite side from the existing one, to create a chimney effect.
To plant potatoes, we laid out cardboard, and built sheet mulch beds in the usual way. But we included potatoes in the bottom layers. As they grow, we will be adding more mulch, instead of trenching and hilling. We used some actual seed potatoes, (which are less likely to contain disease organisms that can kill or stunt the crop) but the price was too high, so most of them are just organic potatoes from the store. After much searching online, it seemed that most people can get away with doing this. Also, a disease can still show up in other ways, even with certified seed potatoes. A disease showing up is much less of a disaster for us then for a commercial farmer, who is depending on potatoes.

Rogation day

One of the priests from our parish come out to lead the Rogation day prayers. The Rogation days are an ancient custom,  held to call down God’s blessing on the crops, and to ask him to ward off disasters of all sorts.  We processed around the field chanting the Litany of the Saints, and Father sprinkled the land with holy water.

We pray that God will protect our farm against the Hail storms which are all too common here in Colorado, and that we have an abundant harvest.