Friday, May 23, 2008

Potato patch planted

According to Solomon, growing potatoes produces just about the most food per acre of anything.  My goal is to produce enough to provide 1000 calories a day for 250 days (one Minnesota winter) which according to my calculations is about 750 pounds.  Flora advised this would require about 75 pounds of seed potatoes.  Here they are cut up into 2-3 oz pieces and laid out.  I got eight kinds from three stores.  I also want to companion-plant some amaranth with the potatoes, that isn't done yet.

Clockwise from upper left:
Yukon Gold, Kennebec, Norland, Norkota, Lasoda, All Red, Pontiac, Burbank Russet
By the time I got them planted, my original 75 pounds of seeds had dried out to 51 pounds.

Battle of the Biologists:  the Potato Round.
I ended up having to plant two separate plots as there wasn't enough room for them all in the main garden.  The first plot was planted with Flora's advice and assistance, and the second with Pigpen's, according to who was around for me to nag.  A big Wright On Thank You to both for all your help.

Plot 1 prep:  
  • Row spacing staked out about two feet apart.
  • Rows forked by hand to loosen the soil.  The soil in the main garden is not too bad.  I ended up with four 75-foot rows and one 65-foot, or 365 feet for plot 1.
  • A total of 1 lb 12 oz mixture of sulpomag and powdered humates was sprinkled onto the rows, followed by maybe a quarter yard of mostly-composted horse manure.
  • The fertilizer was worked in and the rows furrowed with one of those four-tine rake things.
  • Seed potatoes were planted about a foot apart, and the dirt alongside the furrow raked back on top and tamped down to make a slight depression.
  • Drip irrigation hoses (Toro Aqua Traxx) were laid on top of each row.
  • Fluffed up straw laid about 8 inches deep on top of the rows.
Closeup of forked protofurrow, left half manured.

Plot 1 weeded and forked:

Plot 1 fertilized:

Plot 1 furrowed 

Plot 1 covered with straw.

Plot 2 is a berm about 10 by 50 feet which Pigpen constructed last year.  It has a few young raspberries planted at the east end but otherwise wasn't doing much.  He kindly offered it for my potatoes.

Plot 2 prep:
  • In Pigpen's judgment the soil was not too good, so he dumped about six yards of the composted horse manure (4 inch deep layer) and rototilled the whole thing, saying "I don't like to fake around."  Or words to that effect.
  • After that I furrowed, planted, tamped, ran hoses and spread straw, same as for Plot 1.  I ended up with 170 feet altogether in plot 2.  The seeds in plot two were on average a bit larger and farther apart than in plot one.  
Plot 2 fertilized, tilled, furrowed, and planted:

Plot 2 tamped:

Plot 2 with irrigation hoses:

Plot 2 with straw:

I ended up with 535 linear feet planted, and about 1100 square feet.  A yield of 750 pounds from this area would be equivalent to about 30,000 pounds or 300 hundredweight (cwt) per acre.  That would be darngood - according to the USDA modern commercial growers can get up to 400 cwt/acre, but the preindustrial yields were more like 50 cwt/acre.  

So far it has taken about thirty hours to set this up.  There is a bit more yet to do in planting the amaranth.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Soil organic matter percentage

I've been ciphering on the question of:  if I want to increase my soil organic matter fraction by Fom to a depth of d over an area A, what volume of compost Vom do I need to add?

Because the soil organic matter percentage is a weight thing, and we order compost by volume, you might suspect the answer involves the densities of the compost and the mineral soil.  The formula derivation is shown below.

Bottom line, if I want to get the 0.51 acre Forklift Exclusion Zone up by 2% organic matter to a depth of six inches, I need 0.202 acre-inches or 27 yards compost.

If I want to get the 0.58 acre West Field up by 2% to a depth of 8 inches, I need another 0.317 acre-inches or 43 yards, for a total of 70 yards.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Permaculture Design Update

Was over to the gas station today, when a couple of young horsewomen rode up on a horse. Ah yes, I said to myself, someday this gas station will be a beer-lotto-cigarettes station only. For the record, the horsewoman bought a pack of gum.

Good news & bad news on my soil amendment experiment: the clover seed germinated after just nine days, and there was some visible in all four plots. Then the winds came and blew a bunch of sand onto it. I don't know if it's going to make it. We really need to fix up this sand and get something growing in it.

The campus is blessed with an Ingersoll-Rand long-boom off-road forklift "Inga".  Morpheus gave me a lift to get this crane shot of the cottage.  We're looking west by southwest.

Let's pan to the left.  The light-colored area on the left is the barren sand of "pad 3" originally intended as a building site.

Let's pan to the right.  The light-colored area on the right is barren sand of The Crater (source of Pad 1 (where the cottage is), Pad 2 (beneath the photographer), and Pad 3.)

Here's the partially-completed 3-d Sketchup model of my design, viewed from a similar angle.  Visible here are some of the West Field trees, the roof water catchment tank, the 'shroomery, the trellis, and the ice storage.

Shameless plug:  

Here at Wright On Sustainability (Permaculture Design and Engineering for the Post-Carbon World) we strive for solutions which are right for the short-term and long-term, right for the site, the region, and the planet, right for the client.

Espousing the Greatness:  

I thought, let's take seriously this seven-generations thinking.  Accordingly, the p/c design for the HDT cottage has eight phases and goes through the year 2150 AD:

By End of June 2008
By 1st frost Fall 2008
By last frost Spring 2009
By 1st frost Fall 2009
By 2020
By 2050
By 2100
By 2150

How to walk through a design of six zones and eight phases?  In earlier posts I went zone-by-zone because the inner zones came clearer to me first.  In my May 5th presentation to the client, after an ad-lib overview, I mostly went by phase, and within phase by zone, going outward in space and forward in time.  The clients were politely complimentary but didn't dive for their checkbooks.

Let me here try a patterns-to-details narrative, without getting too ridiculously detailed.
First, we should review the client's goals.

Hunt Utilities Group Strategic Direction - develop buildings for Agricultural Resilient Communities
Buildings which heat themselves.
Buildings which produce no sewage.
Buildings where you can grow your own food.
Campus overall goals of landscaping and gardening
“Goals: want to see HUG to have more permanent production with only a smaller yearly veg. garden area.  Want to emphasize the longer term plants, orchards trees and shrubs.

Food Production, Short term – to eat right away, Long term – fruit trees etc.
Soil Building
Water management
Experimentation and research
Cut down on dust”

As full-time resident of the cottage, your designer wears a small client hat himself -> I added these goals:

Cottage specific goals – all of the above plus:
Access. Doors face S & W, civilization is to the N & E.
Storage. There is not a closet in the house.
Resilience to Grid outages. The house is all-electric.

Cottage and Site assessments incorporated by reference
See previous posts:
2/7/08 - Cottage assessment
4/9/08 - Client interview and site assessment
4/23/08 - Long-term strategy appropriate to the region

Design Concept

The area is managed as a silvopasture, a savannah-like habitat with widely spaced nut-bearing trees and shrubs. The herb layer is almost all perennials, some edible and some for animal forage. (This no-till perennial approach will make a nice comparison to the adjacent field which is undergoing soil building in preparation for annual cropping of the organic kind.)
To maintain the solar resource for the cottage, the vegetation height increases going around from the south to the west – on the south side are mainly low-growing plants with edible roots and tubers, stepping up to mainly hazelnut trees on the southwest, and then to large oak, pine, hickory, and maple trees on the west.  

The long-term strategy I envision for the campus would have these primary aspects:
  • Planting more native deciduous nut-bearing trees.
  • Replacing the native pines with edible-nut-bearing pines.
  • Husbandry of cold-hardy animals, both working and edible.

Jacke & Toensmeier have adopted Alexander's Design Pattern approach to forest gardening, that is, patterns which solve design problems.  Below are the patterns from J&T used in this design, and how they are instanced.  Being gardeners, J&T don't list many house patterns like root cellar, greywater.  The design also includes such things but they are not emphasized in this post.  There is also quite a bit of site prep to be done, soil decompaction and such, which I'll leave to later postings.

At the landscape scale
1. Productive Landscape Mosaic (Campus-wide)
“When sterile, unproductive, and monocultural landscapes dominate the built environment, local ecosystems and culture suffer. Generate mosaics of productive and beautiful habitat throughout and around cities, towns, and suburbs by creating a full range of healthy and useful ecosystems on public and private lands.”

The 70+acre campus is already a mosaic of forest, old tree plantation, old fields, wetland, and a nucleus of buildings.  This pattern can be enhanced over time.

At the site scale
5. Site Repair (Entire cottage site, esp. crater)
“People often build or garden in the most beautiful spot on their land, leaving the rest of the site to its own devices. Leave the most beautiful, healthy, precious, and comfortable places on your site alone. Build and garden in those areas that need the most repair and attention.”

The cottage is built on a worn-out cornfield, on a pile of sand excavated from an adjacent pit, in an unsuccessful attempt to bury the septic line deep enough to keep it from freezing.  We are going to fix all that.  Presently The Crater would look right at home on Mars, but I have a vision of it as a grassy gathering place, where Hunt Utilities Groupies would sing their company song "I'd like to build the world a home", which I've been practicing up on guitar.

6. Outdoor Living Rooms (N of cottage)
“Those forest gardens that function best are lived in most. Design your forest garden so that it looks, acts, and feels like an outdoor living room.”

The storage shed and north wall of the cottage formed two sides of an outdoor room.  A trellis forms the third side, and has the additional functions of hiding the rainwater catchment tank and shading the mushroom logs.

7. Zones and Sectors
“Plants or animals that require frequent care or yield frequently often don’t get the attention they need because they are ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ far from the eyes and hands of those responsible for them. In addition, we need to appropriately deal with forces and factors that radiate into or out from the site.”

Zone 0, the cottage itself.
Zone 1, the grounds within 30 feet or so.
Zone 2, the grounds within 100 feet or so, bounded by the septic line on the east, the trees to the south, the trees to the west, and the north side of the crater.
Zone 3-4 (field east of septic line, and the woods to the west down to the pond, and the tree line south by the road).
Woods north of Old Main are considered Zone 5, unmanaged long term.
NE Red pine grove and SE oldfield expected to come under closer management within 2 generations.
Here I will just highlight wildfire.  The road forms a firebreak to the south, and the pond is a firebreak to the west but does not go very far north.  A northwest firebreak may be needed to protect Old Main and the Shop.  The pond is a potential firefighting resource, but a long pipe and powerful pump would be needed to deliver it to the buildings.

Of the garden
13. Oldfield Mosaics (Field south and west of cottage)
“Early- to midsuccession mosaics of trees, shrubs, and herbs constitute one of the most productive and beautiful habitats to mimic, but a multitude of forces can make this stage of succession difficult for woody plants. Plant woody plants into grassy, bacteria-dominated soils in clumps, rather than as isolated individuals, to create a mosaic of annual and perennial herb patches with clumps or masses of shrubs and pioneer trees.”

17. Forest Gardens in the Woods (West woodland)
“How can we forest-garden in existing woods without major disturbance to the forest? Assess the structure of the existing woods to see what community niches may be missing, then fill in with useful plants, preferably native species.”

The strip of woodland on the west, between the cottage and the pond, is an early-succession habitat with trees less than about ten years old.  We can "get in on that", planting edible-producing trees such as sugar maple, shagbark hickory, and butternut.

20. Forest Edges (South of berm)
“Most forest edges in cultural landscapes are a sudden shift from woods to field, with no transitional space to speak of. This limits the potential for beauty and productivity at this useful edge environment. Develop a diverse and productive forest-edge community using a mixture of useful trees, shrubs, and herbs.”

The narrow strip of trees between the road and berm is almost a pure forest edge about six hundred feet long by thirty wide, currently dominated by Jack pine with some young oaks.  We don't want really tall trees in front of the cottage, but Whitebark pine has edible nuts and gets only about 30 feet tall.  Over time this strip might be converted into a Whitebark pine dominated area.

In the garden
24. Definite pathways (not laid out yet but will be.)
“Soil compaction is one of the major banes of healthy, living, productive soil. Create definite pathways and growing areas clearly demarcated, that tell human visitors where and where not to walk.”

A lot of the campus is sort of undifferentiated open ground, which invites driving the Cat around willy-nilly, to the great detriment of struggling ground cover.  This is a bad habit we need to get away from, so say I.

25. Strategic materials depot
“Moving around large quantities of mulch is one of the more difficult tasks in forest-garden establishment and management. Clearly, the location of the mulch piles is a key ingredient in determining how much work and time this will take.”

Currently I am thinking just east of the crater is the place for the SMD.  Phase one is looking for several dozen of yards of compost to amend the soil.

32. Nuclei that merge (West field)
“How can we establish forest gardens when we don’t have money, time, or energy for extensive broadscale plantings over large areas? Plant perennial polyculture nuclei that expand and reproduce until they fill the available space.”

I would like to get these nuclei started this season:

North row of large tree nuclei (just south of crater)
1. West – Siberian Stone Pine, Korean Nut Pine
2. Middle – Siberian Stone Pine, Korean Nut Pine
3. East – Bur Oak

South row of large tree nuclei
1. West – Butternut, Shagbark Hickory (both Juglandacea)
2. Middle – Bur Oak
3. East – Whitebark Pine

37. Gourmet decomposers (‘shroomery N of cottage)
“The vast majority of net primary plant production in forests passes through decomposers. How can we tap into this energy flow to feed ourselves? Integrate food fungus production into your forest garden using logs, stumps, wood chips, straw mulch, manure piles, and enriched soils.”

39. Lumpy texture (Height increasing clockwise from south)
“Many forest gardens we have seen have a smooth, thick texture because the gardeners have tried to use all the layers all the time. This creates numerous problems in the forest garden and does not truly mimic the structure of natural forests. Design planting density and layering patterns to create lumpy texture.”

South of the cottage is low-growing stuff:  potato patch, berry bushes, hopniss, jerusalem artichokes.  Southwest there is room for at least twenty hazelnut trees.  On the West side there is room for a few large nut-bearing trees.

43. Native species (Bur Oak, Hickory, Maple, Hazelnut, Nut Tree Mix)
“We feel concerned about the loss of native species and the explosion of opportunist exotics, but many of our most desired and useful plants are not native. What should we do? Look to native plants to perform your desired garden functions first, before looking to nonnatives.”

49. Ground cover carpets (Drivable groundcover, deer forage mix.)
“How can we manage weeds when we don’t continuously disturb the soil to prevent their germination and spread? Can we do so in a way that gains us other benefits as well as reducing our workload? Plant dense carpets of ground-cover plants that fill the available niches for unwanted plants in the forest garden, suppressing weed germination and growth. Select species that also perform functions such as attracting beneficial insects, improving the soil, producing food, or increasing populations of native plant species.”

The near-term planting plan for most of zone 1 and 2 is ground cover of one kind or another.  Detailed design of an edible perennial understory is deferred to later phases.


I attempted a design which does the minimum necessary to accomplish the stated goals.
The plan is cautious regarding perennial polyculture, with a small number of nuclei and edible perennials to start with.
It does not call for massive plant purchases, major earthworks, or in-ground irrigation systems. Many of the house and Zone 1 improvements were already planned.
The plan leverages Flora's earlier seed mix designs, and uses some soil amendments already on hand. There should be a lot of leverage from improving the soil tilth.
Most of the first-year dollars are devoted to the urgent priorities of beautifying the grounds and improving the resiliency of critical house functions, with less dollars going to the important priorities of long term food production and water management. The soil amendment and site prep work is both urgent and important. It’s the most massive part of phase 1, but should be low-risk.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Marked Progress

The construction of the outside storage shed by Dan Hoefs, (218) 568-8733, took only two days and is a big step forward!  It does still need some bat-proofing along the ridge vent and the corners of the roof.  

In other exciting news, Mr. and Mrs. Universe are moving their trailer out here to the south field while their new Eco Dream Home is built.  This will make it much more convenient to trade hotdish.  But please tell the grandkids to aim their bottle rockets away from my styrofoam roof, at least until Redbeard gets some fascia on it.  

But that's not the funny part.  The funny part is, I learned about this move the day after I dug my soil amendment experiment plots on the trailer pad.  I had to tell the clover seeds to hurry their little genes up or they will be in big trouble.

* * *

Previously I wrote about the opportunity for "catching and storing" outside cold for refrigeration, here in central Minnesota.  Here is a calculation to get an idea of what my fridge is doing in terms of ice.  Mostly the calculation is a string of unit conversions by the factor-label method.

The energy guide tag says the fridge uses 484 kilowatt-hours per year.  It's average electric power usage is therefore 484 kWh/year * 1 yr/8760 h * 1000 W/kW = 55 watts electric, long term average.  

The amount of heat which the fridge is moving is greater than the electric power by a factor called the coefficient of performance or COP.  I'm just going to guess this is 3, so that the average heat transfer out of the thing is 166 watts thermal * 1 Btu per hour / .2931 W = 565 Btu/h.

One "ton" of cooling is the latent heat of melting of one ton of ice in 24 hours, or 12000 Btu/h, so the fridge is using the equivalent of  565 Btu/h * 1 ton/12000 Btu/h = 47e-3 tons of ice in 24 hours.  47e-3 tons * 2000 lbs/ton = 94 pounds of ice per day, which melts into 11.75 gallons of water.  

That seems like kind of a lot, but the unit does have a freezer, so if you were only trying to replace the regular fridge part with ice cooling it wouldn't take as much.  Does anyone remember how much ice the ice man useta bring and how often?  

For Energy Independence Week I was thinking of taking some of the refrigeration load off the PV array by freezing 2-liter bottles of ice ahead of time.  This calculation suggests that might not help too much.

Also for Energy Independence Week I've been monitoring how much I'm using the microwave, using a Kill-A-Watt meter.  The news there is pretty good -  I've used only 1.2 kilowatt hours in 17 days.  That may not be accurate though - annoyingly, the meter is only rated for 15 amps and the microwave is 20.  This meter is a great product but it's no good for some of the big stuff that really matters, like hardwired furnace fans or electric dryers and ranges.  Get with it P3.

My News of the Future segment today features John Michael Greer's latest blog post.  His previous six posts are very good as well.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Not to worry, minor toilet explosion totally under control

Yes, well, so, in an earlier post I described the low-flush toilet connected to the compost bin through a macerator pump, and how I had learned to be very economical with the flush water so as not to overflow the compost bin.

Too economical as it turned out.  Over the course of a week or more, the pump became slower and slower to turn on after a flush, and the toilet developed a disturbing 'belch-back' behavior.  Sure enough, it eventually backed up.  Not in the long skinny line from the pump to the bin, but in the short wide pipe from the toilet to the pump.

Pigpen was annoyed.  His diagnosis is that more flush water is needed in Number Two Situations.  This in turn makes his planned overflow-processing plant bed mission-critical, instead of being just a nice-to-have accessory.  That is to say, there may not be a window of operation between enough water to flush and too much water for the compost bin, or if there is, it is very small and will require an experienced touch on the pedal, like the touch the Skipper needed to start his 20-year old diesel, you know, before it threw a rod and became a yard ornament.  I digress, but that's the end of my little story 4now.

Here's another news-of-the-future link for all you sustainnibals:

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Raging controversy over soil amendment

So I'm faced with the issue of what to do about the soil, which is sandy, compacted, or both, and in several places, like near the cottage, is actually subsoil that is almost pure sand.  

All I really want to grow is clover (nitrogen-fixing drivable groundcover) and other soil-building cover crops, but the soil is in such bad shape I fear even these won't take.  

For compaction Jacke & Toensmeier recommend: "Amend with organic matter and till.  Thoroughly incorporate organic matter through depth of compaction.  Compost and Compost Tea."  They give a reference:  Harris, Clark, and Matheny, Arboriculture:  The integrated management of landscape trees, shrubs, and vines.  3rd edition.  Prentice Hall 1999.
For soil-too-sandy J&T recommend: "Add organic matter:  Mulch, Compost and Compost Tea, Cover Crops, green and brown manures."

As I understand it there are two kinds of Organic Matter - decomposable and nondecomposable.  Fresh animal manure, dead leaves and other mulch, kitchen scraps, etc, are decomposable.  The nondecomposable remainder is called humus, which helps the soil retain water and the plant nutrients released when the decomposing microbes finish and die.  If I am understanding this correctly, Compost is a mixture of humus and and these plant nutrients (fertilizer.)

Solomon explains very well how there is good compost and bad compost, according to how much fertilizer ends up in it, and how making really good compost is as subtle an art as making good beer or wine.  

Here at the cottage I surmise the soil is lacking in both humus and nutrients.  I really wish I could at least give it a massive humus infusion.  It dries out so quickly.  I feel like if only I could increase the water retention and cation exchange, that would give my forage crops a big jumpstart.

One form of Organic Matter that we can get a honking lot of is old, partly rotted sawdust.  There are also the sawdust berms that were scraped off the site a couple of years ago.  My dear friends Flora and Pigpen, both trained biologists, are in total disagreement as to whether this would make a good  soil amendment.  The issue seems to have to do with its carbon/nitrogen ratio and humus content.

The books say fresh sawdust is extremely high-carbon, and Pigpen is convinced it must still be too high, so that applying it would freak out the soil microbes and cause them to flare off all the soil nitrogen into ammonia gas, or something like that.   Flora is convinced it has become a lot like peat moss and should therefore make a good soil amendment.

At the meeting we agreed to send a sample out for lab testing.

In the meantime, I started an experiment on the ground.

The photo below shows the 4x4 foot patches I made, which have different soil amendments, but are all seeded with dutch white clover.  The seed is preinoculated with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

The site is pad 2, one of the built-up subsoil areas, which had a house-trailer on it all last year.

  • The lower left patch just has the seed raked shallowly into the surface with no amendment. You can see the soil is gravelly sand.
  • The upper left patch has an inch of the rotted sawdust raked shallowly into the surface.
  • The upper right patch has an inch of composted humanure raked shallowly into the surface. This compost has a lot of sand in it as the humanure was composted with sandy soil as the bulking material. Pigpen thinks this is well-finished compost.
  • The lower right patch was loosened one spade deep and about half the dirt removed and replaced with four inches of the rotted sawdust. Some of the underlying soil was turned up into it and raked to a uniform mix.  I have to say it was moderately difficult getting the shovel in.
The idea with all of these treatments is to simulate something we could do on the broader scale with the bobcat, so no fussy topdressing.  

I have this vague notion that even if the sawdust amendment is too-high in carbon,  since all I'm trying to do is grow a nitrogen-fixing cover crop, maybe it won't care so much if decomposing microbes are hogging up all the pre-existing nitrogen while they are decomposing the sawdust. 

I'd love to hear from you pro-am composters out there, how you think this will turn out.

As I write it has begun to rain, the first hard rain of the season.  I hope my experiment does not wash away.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Little things update

Well the ants went away by themselves, I hardly see any of them anymore.  I think this proves my theory that Ant Baits Are A Scam.  

The teensy pepper-grain-sized flies are still around but not quite as numerous.

There are now mice, or something like that.  They don't seem to have access to the inside, but I hear scritching in the southeast corner, like they are in the joint where the greenhouse roof meets the south wall.  Maybe coincidence but this happened not too long after Redbeard punched a hole there to bring the solar water heat pipe down in.  I think they started a family - I heard meeping noises one day.  Could be squirrels, I saw one climb the east wall and then run along the top of the straw bales, under the north eave.  He drew my attention to a hole in the underside of the foam roof - looked like something had tried to dig out a nest, though he did not go into it.

This house is a little on the dusty side.  I've identified three sources.  One is the bits of mud plaster that continue to flake off the walls.  Second is the very fine dust which wears off the greenhouse floor.  It's very easy for this to get stirred up into the air.  Down the road this floor should probably be tiled.  Third is dirt tracked in from the outside, this is mostly sand, which stays down on the floor.

Link of the week:
Forget Nuclear By Amory B. Lovins, Imran Sheikh, and Alex Markevich