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.

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.


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.

Notes from the work day April 2nd

At this work day, we got a new compost pile started, and cleared an area to start building permanent compost bins out of the wire we have salvaged from the fence. We began lining our keyhole beds with stones to define them, and building mini terraces across the slope with the larger rocks and concrete chunks we have dug up. These will stop the sheet mulch beds from gradually migrating downhill. We discussed renting a pole chain saw and large chipper to turn unwanted tree limbs into mulch.

notes from the work meeting, March 15th

We got one length of the wire fence up, which runs across the width of the property. It should keep out rabbits and groundhogs, and, with the addition of an electric wire, it will help keep out raccoons and squirrels. We still need to deconstruct and replace the fencing on the other three sides.
The fruit trees have now been ordered. They should arrive in the first week of April.
We got a lot of work done on the next set of planting beds. These will be hugelkulture/ raised beds. We are digging down about six inches, and then piling on lots of sticks, putting the dirt and sod on top of them, and layering on leaves, manure and wood chips. It will basically be a big thick sheet mulch. Since they are being built on a slope, we will edge the downhill side with rocks to form a sort of terrace. Unlike our last hugelkulture, it will not have a deep trench in the center, and it will be under two feet deep.
We are still removing trees and brush along the bottom of the property, generating firewood, and piles of sticks for hugelkultures.
There are two problems with our greenhouse. The beds tend to dry out too fast, so the batch of lettuce we planted germinated erratically. We will be solving this with a combination of more watering, clay seed balls, and self watering planters. And the entrance does not close well. So we will be attaching weights to the bottom of the flap door, and installing a PVC pipe and clamps along the vertical edge. However, it is much warmer inside than out, and the automatic vent seems to be working well.

Notes from the meeting of March 6th: planting

We made our first planting at this meeting: some lettuce in a sheet mulch bed in our greenhouse. Inside the greenhouse, we covered the bed with some row cover material. We were surprised at how difficult it was to attach the frame work containing our automatic vent to the hoop house, but we got it finished in the end.  There still needs to be some finishing of the plastic at the entrance and around the vent. We also did some planning for our fence, and started to turn and rebuild our compost pile.

I will post some pictures as soon as I can.

Notes from the Meeting of February 19th, greenhouse versus 75 mph wind gusts

We had intended to plant in the greenhouse at this meeting. However, Lakewood, the town where the farm site is located, had winds gusting up to 75 miles per hour a few days before. The greenhouse was still standing, but the plastic had pulled out of the soil along one side. (Click here for a picture of the greenhouse.)

Fortunately, we had not relied on burying the plastic, but had also clipped the plastic to the end hoops. So it was all still there and undamaged. We spent about half the meeting reburying the plastic, deeper this time, and we rolled the edge of the plastic around heavier scrap metal pipe before burying it.

The inside of the greenhouse heats up nicely. In fact, it is too hot, so we have built a vent frame containing a mechanical venting arm. However, we have not yet attached it to the greenhouse.

We finished preparing the greenhouse sheet mulch, so we should be ready to plant at the next meeting.

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.