Thursday, June 26, 2008

House & Garden

The styrofoam roof of the cottage is looking good in its new fascia.  Now it's time to get it ready for the finish coat of cob.  

On the east and west walls of the greenhouse, the OSB has been shingled with roll roofing and stapled with chicken wire.

I've posted before about our difficulties in sealing joints at the edges of straw bales.  Montalban is putting in some do-over time, cramming more flax straw in around the windows.

The crater area continues to green up.  The rest of the seeded areas around the cottage are only just starting to show a few sprouts.  It hasn't rained very much since planting day.

The potato patches have come up nicely, all except the Norkotas which are almost a complete bust.  The wheat straw Flora gave me for mulch turned out to be kind of a mistake - it was full of seeds and a lot came up, requiring hand-weeding of the whole doggone thing.  Flora was very apologetic, said she hadn't used that exact kind of straw before and hadn't had such a problem with the usual flax straw.  She helped me weed.  

Yesterday your correspondent had the privilege of attending part of a board meeting for our client, Happy Dancing Turtle.  One of the board members, let's call her Ray-man, is you might say a skeptic or at least not inclined to be any kind of early adopter of any of this sustainability stuff.  "I'll do it if it's convenient."  

Us sustainnibals and peakniks encounter these situations from time to time, opportunities to witness to the unconverted.  I feel like we more or less blew it again.  I maybe should have said something like, "We're working on it.  We'll try to make it convenient, and by 'try' I mean lives, fortunes, sacred honor, but I gotta tellya, I think the way this is likely to play out is not so much that the sustainable life gets more convenient, but that the unsustainable life gets steadily less convenient - less customers in your video store, the price of gas, food, and everything else going up.  Steadily if we're lucky and there isn't some kind of outage or shortage.  That's why I'm trying to learn how to live sustainably now."

Let me reinforce that in our News of the Future segment with a couple of articles from the fine web site  Here Dave Cohen talks the near-term economic consequences of oil addiction for the US.  Here John Greer eloquently makes a point I've discussed with friends, that our intricate human civilization is more vulnerable to climate change than a thin-skinned tree frog.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Construction weather

Out in the crater, the annual rye and other groundcover is starting to come up (compare to last week's photos.)

At the cottage, there is much fascia to install.  The underside of the eaves is to be sprayed with cob.

Huge, arguably unnecessary forklift.

"Well this is another fine mess you've gotten me into."

Another Woodgas Stove test.  This time I fueled it with strips of corrugated cardboard standing on end, with three fire-starting cubes on top for kindling.  This trial had the fastest start and the lowest smoke so far, and it burned a good twelve minutes in gasifying mode.  

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I'd have to say it was pretty raw for mid-June

Forty-five Farenheit. Horizontal rain.
I ventured out with poncho and shovel to check the dikes in the crater.  Ponchos are not that good in a high wind.  The dikes were mostly hanging in there.

I headed down towards the office to return Flora's seeder, and give her a bag of dirt and dandelion seeds (which I knew she would appreciate.)  I found her happily composting in the garden, while Redbeard and the other weather weenies waited inside, whining.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Planting Day!

Tuesday was a big day, a day of soil decompaction and tilling, and seeding of groundcover, a day of Diesel Fuel, Big Knobby Tires, and Steel.  

On Monday I spent quite a while dragging the bedspring around the South and Center plots with the lawnmower, trying to even out the sawdust and compost.  That worked pretty well for smoothing out small-scale unevenness, but not so well for one whole corner being light or heavy, because its like having a rake you can't pick up.  For a change it didn't rain much Sunday or Monday, so most of the standing water from last week's deluge went away.

So Tuesday was it, even though there was still a large puddle in the North plot, I figured we had to go ahead with decompaction and planting, as more rain was forecast.

Here's Pigpen chisel-plowing the West field (south plot.)  

We rented a front-mounted rototiller attachment for the Cat, to fluff up the Forklift Exclusion Zone (FLZ) around the cottage, and the grounds north and east of the cottage, including the former driveway.

That soft spot in the North-west plot was mostly gone after two passes with the chisel plow.

From here you can see most of the scheme.  Let's start on the right side of the cottage there.  The light-colored area right around the cottage can't be tilled because there is a styrofoam ground roof just under the surface, to keep the ground dry and insulating for heat storage.  Later in the day I top-dressed and seeded it.  Moving to the right, the brown banded area out to the little white stake is the 50-foot forklift exclusion zone, which was rototilled after earlier being spread with composted horse manure.  The inner ring, the FLZ, and the grounds north and east were all seeded with a "drivable groundcover mix" of white clover, high-traffic grass seed, and dandelion.  Farther to the right, between the white stake and the grassy berm, are the control plots for the West field experiment (the West field runs across the foreground.)  These West and South field plots were seeded with Wright On Custom Soil Building and Wildlife Forage Mix.  
Wright On Mix:
white clover 21.55%
300st per. Rye 21.23%
alfalfa 14.42%
cr. Red fescue 14.25%
birdsfoot trefoil 10.72%
rape dwf essex 6.30%
purple top turnip 4.76%
alsike clover 3.50%
pasja brassica 2.57%
winfred rapeseed 0.71%

Here's the view of the tilled up driveway, north and east grounds.  
Jolson and Pigpen finished all the tilling in an hour and a half.  I had all my seed ready and spent the rest of the day seeding with Flora's vintage 1909 hand-crank Cyclone seeder.  Just in time too, because the next day it rained like the Dickens again.

Final thought:  I have come to sense a certain irony, or dumbth, in that because so much compaction was caused by heavy equipment, we were forced to use heavy equipment for decompaction, to fight Diesel, Big Knobby Tires, and Steel with same.  In fact, within minutes of decompaction and seeding, the dratted forklift was back out in front of the cottage, six tons of metal positioned so that Montalban could nail up a six pound plank.  I fully expected this to happen, but inside, part of me was screaming, like Charleton Heston in Planet of the Apes, "you maniacs, you compacted it again.  Darn you all to heck."  I muttered something about this to Mr. Universe, who was like, "forklift's gotta drive somewhere."  I think, actually, not.  We use it because we have it, and, if one is concerned only with building construction, it is probably faster than ladders & scaffolding.  But if one is concerned with both buildings and permaculture gardens adjacent to them, it might be that ladders and scaffolding have lower total project cost, than heavy forklifts followed by other heavy equipment to fix the damage caused by them.  Just a thought for future consideration.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Woodgas Stove initial evaluation

You may recall I am advocating Energy Independence Week this 4th of July, which is observed by 1) Using no grid electricity, 2) Burning no fossil fuel, and 3) making no trips to the grocery store.

If you can pull this off for a week in July, maybe you learn enough to do a week in October, from which you learn enough to do a month in January.  Maybe not all in the same year but you get the idea.  Learning energy independence strengthens your household and America.

For this July I'm thinking of it as a staycation, like camping at home.  I need a way to cook without electricity, gas, propane, or even fossil-derived charcoal.  This means biomass, like wood and wood-derived charcoal.  I did get a charcoal grill, but for cooking on wood I liked the looks of the Woodgas Campstove XL from the Biomass Energy Foundation.  It's a small forced-air inverted downdraft gasifying stove which claims to burn wood and the like much more efficiently and cleanly than say, a regular open campfire.  

Last night and this morning I cooked two meals on it and did a couple of additional test burns.  I hereby report my findings:

Trial one:  Loaded the stove with chunks of wood about the size of hot dogs or dill pickles, and used flax straw for kindling.  I think the wood pieces were way too big as it took quite a while to get the stove burning cleanly - I had to add more tinder about seven or eight times.  I get the feeling the wood pieces should be more like the size of grapes or berries.  Once it did get going I sliced up a potato and made home fries.  This worked really well, the skillet was just the right temperature for browning the potatoes.

Trial two:  Test burn with flax straw as the only fuel.  I stuffed the stove really tight with it.  This got going smoothly but didn't burn as long.  The stove burns in two phases - the gasifying or smoke-burning phase, and then the charcoal-burning phase.  You can tell when it switches over because the flame goes out and the coals sit there and glow.  With the straw as the only fuel, the flaming phase lasted just seven minutes.  

Trial three:  I found some smaller wood about finger-sized to egg-sized.  I decided to get fancy and try to make strawberry pancakes.  This time it took maybe four or five additions of straw tinder to get the thing burning hot enough to stop smoking.  As with the first trial, even when burning with no visible smoke there was a kind of pitchy odor, maybe because most of my wood was pine, and not all that dry.  A bit of soot formed on the bottom of the skillet.  Even with the fan on low, the pan got way too hot and I scorched half my pancakes.  I should have brought out a trivet to set the pan down off the stove.

Trial four:  Another test burn with flax straw only.   I took a wad of it, bunched it up tight like this with the top looser, and stuffed it down into the stove.
Where's my aim'n'flame?  I might have to write an exception to the no-fossil-fuel rule to allow the use of butane lighters.

The reason I keep on about the flax straw is that we've got so much of it.  Here's that same blue wheelbarrow parked in front of the supply - enough to run the stove half a million times I guess, although it'll probably decompose first; there's already mushrooms growing on top.

Here it is burning nice and clean on the straw.  It didn't even burn as long as the earlier straw-only trial, maybe four minutes instead of seven for the flaming phase.  I'm not sure why, maybe the straw was more damp or I didn't pack it as tight.  The pile of char and ash there is from the Strawberry Pancake Trial.  I want to try saving the charcoal and running the stove on it later.

My beloved 8-inch iron skillet fits nicely on top of the stove.


This will do nicely for Energy Independence Week.  It basically works and is pretty okay for what it's trying to be, which is a portable camp stove.  I'm convinced it's vastly more efficient than a regular campfire; how else could you cook a batch of pancakes on one handful of wood?  

It's harder to get going than I expected maybe; I needed a lot of kindling, more than would fit in the stove at first.  It would take a lot of skill to be able to load it, light it with one match, and just have it come up without smoking.  In that respect it is similar to fire-making in general.  I think my Trial Two was beginner luck.  The manual says you may have to use commercial fire-starting sticks.  I vaguely recall reading somewhere else about this kindling-on-top technique, in the context of making an open fire or maybe it was a Rumford fireplace.  In that article they had four or five different sizes of fuel layered with the biggest on the bottom.  

When burning wood the stove did occasionally sort of sputter and let out a puff of smoke, I don't know why.  Might be wind, or maybe my wood chunks are still too big, or uneven, or damp.  When burning straw, it tended to puff out little bits of ash all the time - it's a forced-air stove and the straw burns to a very fine ash.

I mentioned earlier about saving the charcoal.  There are two reasons for doing this.  One is to save it as fuel for later, cleaner-burning fuel.  The other is to use it as a soil amendment in the garden, in which case you might as well save the ash too, as it will have calcium and suchlike mineral nutrients.

With this stove it's a little inconvenient to save the charcoal, basically you have to dump the coals out while the stove is hot - there's no damper to shut off the charcoal burning.  If you're saving it for the garden you could dump the char/ash into a pail of water.  To save the charcoal for later use as fuel, I dumped it into my wheelbarrow and spread out the coals so they'd stop burning. 

For the stay-at-home use I have in mind for it, I think it would be worth making some kind of stand or cart for it, to hold it securely at a convenient height, and with a side shelf or two.

Friday, June 6, 2008

and then the rains came...

...two inches of rain, ish.

Here's the North plot.  It's slightly lower than the Center and South plots, is the most compacted from construction of the cottage, and gets all the water from the cottage roof.  Glug.

Panning to the right we see the Center plot, which starts at about the cottage door there.  

Panning more to the right we see the South plot, which is less compacted and had no standing water.

Here's the Crater.  The five check-dikes we raked up the day before helped a lot but weren't adequate for the two-inch rainfall.  I counted forty-two washouts or about one every twenty-five feet on average.  I gave Flora and Mr. Universe each separate tours.  Flora figured there should have been twice as many check dikes, Mr. Universe figured they should have been twice as big.  Gaaah!  How am I supposed to get people with such profoundly different philosophies onto the same page?  As Dave Barry once wrote, it would be easier to get the entire city of Tokyo to wear matching outfits than to get any two Americans to agree on pizza toppings.

Crater repair Thursday

After the local excavators gimped out on our plan to terrace the crater, Flora came up with a scheme to hand-rake some check-dikes into it on contour.  I pitched it to Mr. Universe, and he was like, "so let it be written, so let it be done."

Here's Ms. Flora showing me how it's done.  (Ain't she something?  I love a woman in boots.)  Of course Mr. Universe has a laser level, we used it to mark the contours and got faster with it as we went along.  

We raked five dikes about five inches high - the lower two separated by about 8-9 inches and the upper three separated by about a foot. Over 1000 linear feet altogether, which took the two of us most of the day.

Meanwhile, Jolson took back Old MacDonald's manure spreader and rented his chisel plow, which we're going to use to decompact the west field.  

It's set up to plow about ten feet wide, and has three rows of chisels plus a drag rake.  Training day:  I practiced with it in front of the shop.  Redbeard said I looked good driving the tractor.  (Mental note:  bust chops on Redbeard mercilessly in the blog.)

I found I could chisel about eight or nine inches deep before the tractor ran out of traction.

It was fun chatting with Old MacDonald. He knows a lot about the local geography and who done what to where. He was like, "yah, you've got a job to do over there - they planted corn every year there until it basically wore out." He likes our Ford 8000 tractor "that's some good horse."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

As Doc Brown might say, It's a science experiment.

Only instead of an 88 mile per hour time-traveling DeLorean, we have an 88 foot per minute distance-traveling manure spreader.  Oh yeah.

Site repair continues at the cottage.  Today was compost-spreading day.  Altogether the site is more than an acre, so we rented Old MacDonald's manure spreader.  

We're basically doing a mixture experiment with two different types of compost.  The "expensive" kind is rotted horse manure @ $20/yard.  The "cheap" kind is rotted sawdust @ $4/yard.  (Delivered prices.)

We are motivated here by the permaculture principle of turning problems (like waste sawdust) into resources (like soil amendment.)

The hypothesis we are testing is: that this composted sawdust is like peat moss as a soil amendment, that is, it will help the soil retain water and, while its carbon/nitrogen ratio is high for compost, the soil microbes can only break it down slowly, so they won't tie up too much of the soil nitrogen needed by plants.  As far as we know there is no standard lab test for this property, so we are testing it on the ground.  (As I mentioned in a previous post, the two campus biologists, both with degrees and years of experience, had completely opposite instincts about this stuff.)

I divided the west field into three plots each about 68 feet by 90.  The idea was to amend the south plot with sawdust only, the north plot with horse manure, and the middle plot with a 50/50 mix.  All the plots would receive the same total amount of organic matter - 14 yards - which was my estimate of the amount needed to boost the soil organic matter percentage by two points (on a dry weight basis) to a depth of 8 inches (if it was tilled in uniformly.)  Overall it probably ended up being amended more heavily - on the map the west field measured 0.58 acre, but on the ground, only 0.42 acre.

I think we more-or-less pulled this off.  The tractor and spreader is a 30 foot long rig together and therefore kind of a blunt instrument in an 80 foot plot.  Also, we don't have a good way of verifying how much material we actually got from the compost suppliers.

Here's Jolson driving the Ford and spreader, while Pigpen tries to spread the sawdust out more uniformly with the Cat:

The south plot was supposed to get 14 yards sawdust and the center plot 7, it probably ended up closer to 15 and 5, we ran a little short.

The total amount of horse manure applied to the north and center plots was probably about right.  It was supposed to be 21 yards, we believe we had 50 to start with and we put a bit less than half the pile on it.  It was supposed to be split 7 on the center and 14 on the north.  Jolson kind of eyeballed that by driving the spreader faster over the center plot.  

The plan is to chisel-plow through all three of the west field plots to decompact them from the earlier construction traffic.  This will mix in the compost somewhat, and we can do soil tests to see what we actually got.

There are also two control areas on the south side of the cottage.  One will get no compost but will be chisel-plowed, and one will get neither.

For now I plan to seed these areas with wildlife forage mix.  

The rest of the site, mainly on the north and east sides of the cottage, we are basically just trying to get green with a drivable groundcover.  Much of this half-acre area consists of very poor sandy subsoil.  On this we put down 28-ish yards of the composted horse manure, which I estimated should be enough to boost the soil organic matter by two percentage points to a depth of six inches, if it was all tilled in uniformly.  This area we will probably rototill.

We did get the lab test results back on the sawdust and the soil samples.  Here are the hilites:

The west field soil had only 2% organic matter and a cation exchange capacity of 4.  This is pretty bad, I think you'd like to see both of those numbers about twice that.  The compost should double the organic matter.

The sandy subsoil had only 0.4% organic matter.  The compost we added today should get it to about a minimum level to support plant life.

The soil along the south edge, closest to road, I had tested for lead.  That was negative (less than 5 ppm, with 100-300 ppm being considered actionable.)

The sawdust was tested as compost, and it sure does look pretty bad on paper.  The carbon/nitrogen ratio was 115:1, and the pH was acid (4.6).  I did my own water-retention test on it, it held about twice its weight in water (6.5 oz dry -> 19 oz wet.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Cottage site repair begins

Edie the Esteemed Executive Director gave go-ahead on implementing some of the phase 1 permaculture design.  We decided the crater had to be dealt with first, as it required heavy professionals with heavy professional equipment.  Redbeard made arrangements with a local outfit, name of Schrupp Excavating.  Here they are getting ready to start with the schrupping:

They recommended widening the crater slightly in addition to shallowing it, so the sides would not be too steep and start washing out again.

Much of the dirt pile north of the crater was pushed into it.  

Here I'm standing on what's left of the dirt pile looking south at the newly remodeled crater.

The d-day plan called for terracing in eight-inch steps, and then laying logs on contour so as to form kind of an amphitheater-like place, but the gizmo they were going to use to do the terracing was on the fritz, and they couldn't say how many days it might take to fix and get back.  To make a short story even shorter, we ended up declaring mission accomplished on the major earthmoving operations, and seeded it (annual rye.)

Meanwhile, Montalban and Sly got to work on the cottage roof, putting up furring strips for attaching fascia to the styrofoam.  I've noticed one downside of styrofoam as a construction material, in that little bits of it get all. over. the freaking. place.

Little things update:
The plague of teensy tiny little bugs coming out of the straw bales has almost subsided entirely.  The ants have not returned.   I trapped one mouse.  Some birds built a nest on top of the north wall, there is an inviting ledge between the top of the straw bales and the underside of the eave.