1/3 of the way through

January 23rd, 2016

Bright and early I went out to check how the animals had all done through the heavy snows Friday night. The snow was almost up to my knees and kept falling in small, gentle flakes. The morning was beautiful. The air had that sweet, clear feeling that only happens after a big snowfall.

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I was so glad I had thought to leave the gate wedged open and secured against winds. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to force it open to get in the garden to tend the animals.

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Doesn’t look like much, but that thing barely poking up out of the snow is a full-sized aluminum poultry waterer – about knee-high.

I thought I’d do a little before-and-after for ya between yesterday evening and this morning.

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Looks like the tarps worked to keep extra driven snow out of the coop! You can see the higher drifts piled up outside. Not that the chickens will play in snow this deep either, though. 😛

I’m glad the drifts are there securely pinning down the bottoms of the tarps, because the winds got worse and worse as today went on. We reached near white-out conditions around 3:30 this afternoon and we could hear the howling of the wind. The strength of the storm was – in the old fashioned sense of the word – awesome.

For the moment, though, the snow has slowed. And the wind has died down enough for our neighbor to come scoop out his long driveway with his front loader for the second time today.

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The ducks did fine! And I saw snowy tracked prints all over the inside of the coop too. So they do know to come inside when it really gets cold. I was thinking I might have to block off their access to the outside run, which is half their space. I didn’t want to have to do that.

Oh no, it just occurred to me that my worries aren’t over with them – I hope they had the sense to come inside before snowdrifts sealed their little pophole shut. It’s about 14 inches off the ground, so it’s possible that it will stay clear. Normally I’d go out and check, of course, but … well, not during a blizzard. In the dark. I’ll just have to cross my fingers all night.

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I’m so anxious to see what everything’s like tomorrow morning.

We’re ready!

January 22nd, 2016

Spent the afternoon getting my little barnyard all tucked up and cozy before the big Blizzard ’16 strikes. First on my list: preventing cold drafts. Birds can stand cold temperatures in their massive feather coats, but not so much a chilling breeze or condensation. With that in mind, I put up a whole bunch of weatherstripping around all the doors and gaps, but was careful to leave a good ventilation gap at the very top of both my coops.

I put up plastic and tarps around the entire run in an effort to keep out driving winds and sleet. I’m hoping that I can manage to keep the run relatively low in snow so that the chickens can get out of their little coop to get some fresh air and exercise even if they’ll be locked in during the next couple days.

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I was careful to put my limited clear plastic a) on the South side so we might get something of a greenhouse effect for a bit more warmth and b) on the side near the house so I can easily how the girls are doing in there without leaving the house. It was pretty cozy inside once the winds were cut off. Noticeably nicer than outside.

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Playground complete with jungle gym and swingset!

The duck house I lined with plastic all around the inside – again with the ventilation gap on top – to block the many little drafts that come with building from old pallets.

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Hi Buddy!

For some reason the ducks prefer to shiver outside than sleep inside the much warmer coop. I’ve been told that they’ll be fine. I hope so.

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Nice and tight… as long as they actually go inside.

I used ratchet straps to pull all the bee boxes nice and tight. While loose stacked boxes might blow off, strapped tight together they’re heavy enough that they’re unlikely to budge. And even if they get blown over, at least they’ll all stay together and not expose the bees to their deaths in the cold.

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They had already been winterized before, of course. All three colonies have sugar boards and there is a thick cap of pine shaving insulation on top of each stack. The hive on the left is two smaller colonies I’ve stacked together to help them both keep warm (there’s a screen board in between to keep them from attacking each other). The boards screwed across the fronts reduce the entrances down to two bee-sized holes and also help keep out drafts. I put clear packing tape around a couple of the biggest gaps for the same reason. So they should be able to keep themselves fairly warm.

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Now we just sit back and wait.

Greenhouse dreamin’

January 20th, 2016

I’ve wanted a greenhouse for the longest time. One of the things I miss most about gardening in California is the ability to grow nearly all year long, and especially grow things that need warmer climates like olives and oranges. As I write this it’s well into the heaviest snow of the year and even daytime temperatures haven’t broken 25*F for a week. Even fresh kale seems an impossible green dream!

I’ve always wished desperately that I could overwinter more tender perennials. And I’d love a space to start my seedlings in that’s warmer than our roofed sunporch. And Josh was even talking about the possibility of starting some aquaponics with tilapia, but they’d need to stay above freezing during the winter. …I think it’s fair to say I’ve been wishing for some sort of greenhouse for years.

Well, I got some enormous glass panes off Freecycle a year or two ago and that gave me the impetus to start me drawing up ambitious plans.

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Sketchup has its frustrating points, but I do love it because drawing in 3D shows me when I make mistakes – when something doesn’t meet up or go together the way I think it should.

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My plans got more and more complicated. I wanted to make everything out of second hand materials, and I wanted to design the entire thing in a way that would be somewhat self-sustaining. I was going to make the foot wall into a can wall for insulation. I was going to harvest rainwater from the gutter just above and use it – via a series of aerating waterfalls – to refresh a tilapia tank below, which would in turn link to a series of linked, stepped wicking beds with the fish-fertilized water.

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The house’s brick wall and the raised tilapia tank would act as good thermal mass. The dryer vent located just near the stairs would add some heat to the space whenever I ran a load of laundry. I was even trying to figure out how to integrate a rocket stove running to thermal ducts threaded under the plant beds to disperse heat into the ground. If it got warm enough in there, it’s conceivable that we ought to be able to open the window connecting it to the house and get warmer air wafting through. At the very least, it should offer some nearly-outdoor but still not-freezing space for the kids to play or draw with chalk during the winter.

But it goes without saying that the more complicated it became, the more I started thinking I’d bitten off more than I could chew. As soon as I got to the point where I started wondering if I would need permits, or if I would need to dig foundations or otherwise secure the bottom plate to the concrete it would rest on, I got discouraged and set it all aside with a great deal of disappointment.

Until now.

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Why does it only ever occur to me to do the easy thing… last? I suddenly realized that I didn’t need to invest in a huge wooden and glass permanent structure right away. (Cue big, fat, DUH.) In fact, I have no idea if a greenhouse would even really work here. Why not experiment first and see if it’s worth the investment?

Instead I’m going to build a temporary structure, a hoophouse covered with stretched greenhouse plastic (the kind that lasts for 4+ years). I designed it so that if we want to, it can be removed each spring with minimal effort once nighttime temperatures hit 50*F. The idea is that before investing all that time and money into a permanent structure, I could first spend a couple years experimenting.

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So here’s the footprint – a simple 10×15 footprint cupped around the kitchen exit and window on the South-facing side of the house. I’ve ordered the plastic, and I’ve got plenty of carpentry yet to do as well.

I do feel bad not using the free panes of glass, but perhaps I still will some day. In the mean time, I wonder if I could find an alternate use for them? They’re very heavy, so they’re definitely not something I’d like to be transporting back and forth with the seasons. I’m kind of wondering if I could put them on some kind of A-frame propped over garden beds to warm them faster in the Spring… if that would work?

Hugeling again

January 18th, 2016

I spent this last weekend preparing to make my second hugelkultur bed.

Last year, after the torrential rains drowned all my plants again, I decided that having raised beds was a must. I didn’t want to go that route because of the lack of flexibility in terms of garden layout, but last year was so disappointing. The excess water suffocated my plants’ roots and it also starved all the soil microbes of oxygen. This meant the soil went anaerobic and the soil food web (that delivers nutrients to plant roots) died, so the entire year had reduced yields as the soil food web built itself up from scratch again. Not only that but potassium, which is responsible for fruiting and flowering, is water soluble and was all washed away… with predictable results.

So despite being no-till for about three years now, disrupting everything in the making of raised beds ought to be worth it in the long run.

But when looking at the cost of importing soil, making hugels instead begins to look more and more attractive. Hugelkulture beds distinguish themselves as both cost-effective (especially if you have an acre of forest from which to harvest fallen branches) and multipurpose (forming a compost pile deep in the center of your bed, providing nutrients for years). The logs, branches, leaves, chicken compost, grass clippings, and woodchips that I’ll fill the core of each bed with will also raise the soil level above the water table by at least a foot or so. It ought to be enough to save my plants.

Last weekend was nearly 50*F and sunny – beautiful weather for winter-type projects like this. Though I had grand plans earlier this year to raise all the beds simultaneously, I soon realized that the amount of work involved meant that I would only be able to raise one, maybe two beds each winter.

I selected the worst one and set to work. My goal was to remove the top 8-10″ of soil and set it to the side, on top of freecycled cardboard boxes for easy cleanup. After I fill the hugel trench with various organics, I will return this rich layer to the top of the bed. That’s all the soil I’ve worked so hard at amending through all these years, and I want it up top where the plants can get it!

My favorite chicken, Lady, was there next to me before I even started digging. She wasted no time cuddling up to my ankles, twining in and out between my legs like a cat, and generally getting in the way. I had to move her gently out of the way with the shovel so many times, just to make the next cut. She was gobbling up the worms and grubs as soon as my shovel exposed them.

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She’s at least 3 years old, and was never friendly until she got sick a month or so ago. I babied and doctored her a bit. Now that she’s mostly recovered, she’s suddenly very sociable and always comes up to hang out near me whenever I’m working. She doesn’t run from the girls or any visitors, but comes right up to us and stands still and lets anyone pet her and hold her who wants to. It’s the oddest thing, but I love it. Lucky girl – she was on the cull list (hasn’t been laying for quite a while), but now she’s earned a name and become a pet.

Not ten minutes into the work, the other chickens all became curious about the activity. They carefully made their way over and, keeping one eye on me and my scary shovel, dove right into the bug smorgasbord in the trench and began to “help.”

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i’ve barely gotten one box length down the bed and these scavengers are all over it.

They were soooo excited, pecking at a whole bunch of worms, grubs, little beetles, and who knows what else. I was very pleased to see it – it means the soil is alive with its own ecosystem, which is a very good thing. (And that I’ll be getting very nutrient-rich eggs in the next few days, which is also a good thing). They stayed with me the entire day, jumping in and out of the trench I was digging.

If you’re at all interested in a much more detailed look at the inner workings of the soil food web and why seeing bugs would make me happy, I highly recommend the book Teaming With Microbes. It explores at great depth the microbiology and mycology of the soil and how the nutrients move around in it. You might already know that compost is good for the soil – but do you know why? According to author Jeff Lowenfels, it’s not so much the nutrients of the compost itself that nourish the plants, but the beneficial microbes & fungi that that compost fosters. Your compost application “inoculation” allows these microbes to form symbiotic relationships with your plants, helping them absorb nutrients and minerals and thus outperform any crop grown in sterile soil.

So seeing my chickens so pleased made me really happy too. Frankly, I was surprised to see so much soil activity during the winter.

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why did they all jump out right before I took the picture?

The bed is about 4 x 32 feet. It took me a few hours, but at last I removed the entire top 8-10 inches and set it to the side on top of those freecycled cardboard boxes. By the time I reached the end, the bottom was underwater and the soil removed had a clearly anaerobic smell. Each shovelful squelched as I lifted it up.

Seeing this, I was so glad that I had chosen to dig it up even after 3 years of a strict no-till policy. Despite this brutal disruption, I am confident that the soil will be much healthier once it is elevated from the water table and filled with organic matter.

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Filling the candy boards

January 13th, 2016

Time to fill the candy boards (and finally bust out that 25-pound Costco sack of sugar I bought for this months and months ago). Because there’s some controversy over whether serving the bees cooked sugar is chemically good for them, I chose instead to use a tip from Rusty over at HoneyBeeSuite.com. I filled these boards with her no-cook method and found it easy, quick and effective so far.

Oh yeah… put tissue under your boards before you start! I wanted something thin enough that it would give the bees no trouble at all if it didn’t end up peeling off completely. Some people recommend waxed paper but I was a little doubtful as to whether, if I had trouble peeling it off, all that paraffin would be good for the bees. It would certainly be stronger though, so if this tissue doesn’t hold up then I’ll try it next year.

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The first thing I did was set loose blocks of wood in place to prevent built-up sugar from blocking the ventilation ports. Like Rusty, I decided to include some pollen patties in my candy boards. Not only can they snack on it whenever they want to (think of it like the protein of the bee world), but as soon as they’re ready to start brood production in the very early spring it’ll already be in place. In the past I’ve always underestimated just how early they really get going and have missed a critical point where I could have helped them out more.

Making the candy was fairly easy. After a little measuring, turns out my mixer can comfortably hold 7 pounds of sugar – any more than that, and… well, my vacuum cleaner saw a lot of work this evening. 7 pounds ought to be a good number for someone with mild winters. Rusty uses 10, but she’s in a much colder area than I am. I figure 7 is probably enough… and hey, it’s 7 pounds more than they had last year.

You mix your loose cane sugar (I’ve been told not to give them beet sugar) with 1-to-1.5 tablespoons of filtered water per pound until it reaches the consistency of moist sand – it holds its shape well without being squishy or wet. Just like you’d want when building a sandcastle. And then you pack it in, sandwiching the pollen patties in the middle. I made sure to squish the end of the patties right up onto those removable wooden blocks so it’d show through the sugar and the bees could find it.

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Oops though – the boards are a bit small and especially with the pollen in place, 7 pounds of sugar doesn’t quite fit. More like 6. I hope that is enough – I’ll have to keep a careful eye on the bees, refill if necessary, and we’ll see if there’s any sugar left over in the spring. I can always expand the candy part next year.

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End of pollen patty is visible when wooden block is removed.

Only a couple hours later and the sugar bricks are already quite hard! I won’t test my luck by flexing the boards or anything, but I am pretty impressed with how well they’re holding together. I’ll have to wait a while longer before they’ve dried enough to be ready, but it’ll be a big load off my mind when I can get these installed on the hives.

Insulating the bees

January 11th, 2016

I spent this weekend making quilts for my beehives… Quilt boards, that is!

Quilt boards are basically very very shallow supers that are filled with clean organic matter like dry leaves or wood chips. They’re sandwiched between the top of the bee cluster and the bottom of the metal cover. The quilt board’s purpose is to catch all the drips of condensation that form above the cluster of bees (they keep the center of their cluster at 80* to protect the queen) as their heat rises and meets the freezing metal cover above them. If the bees are kept dry, they can regulate their temperatures very well; but when condensation drips on them and gets them wet it can mean colony death.

I’m embarrassed to say that though I’ve had bees for going on 7 years, I haven’t heard of quilt boards til this year. Perhaps because I’m involved in a county beekeeper’s club now (oh, I wish I’d joined at the very beginning! I could have saved myself so many mistakes!). But they’re very simple to make, so no more excuses.

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Following the example of several other beekeepers, I added ventilation ports on the sides to allow some slow air circulation. Screening these ports is very important so that other bugs don’t get in and make a home there. At this stage all that’s left to do is fill them and stack them on the hives.

…except when have I ever done anything without complicating it?

See, another vital key to honeybees’ survival over the winter is the presence of a candy board (another thing that I’m doing this year for the first time.) It’s an even shallower super, filled brim to brim with cooked, hardened sugar fondant, that is not meant to replace the bees’ food stores but can save them from starvation if it comes to it. It goes below the quilt board, above the cluster.

But I don’t understand how the quilt board can be very effective if the candy board underneath it is blocking all the moist air that wants to rise past it.

So I took my candy board and modified it. Made it a little narrower, twice as deep, and nested it right inside the quilt board.

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Each quilt box is in two parts. First the quilt part, which is deepest on the sides but still a good 2″ thick in the center. Then the candy box, which can be taken out separately (so you don’t have to have lots of huge full-size boxes on the kitchen counter all at once). The candy box is held in place with pegs on opposite faces and offset from each other for more stability.

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The 1/4″ hardware cloth on the bottom of the candy box allows the bees to pass through to eat the sugar, but the window screen above it separates them from the debris in the quilt box.

Because I’m planning on stacking (not consolidating) my two smaller hives over the winter in order to help them conserve warmth and hopefully survive, I only made two quilt boards instead of three. The candy board I’ll put between the two stacked hives will be a regular full width one (but only halfway filled so as to not obstruct the rising warmth). I’ll top it with a screen to separate the colonies so they don’t slaughter each other.

It’s all theory right now, of course – like I said, it’s my first time for any of this. The glue hasn’t even dried on my full-size candy board yet! Tomorrow it’ll be time to fill them and see how they hold together.

Tricking Mother Nature? Experiments with bottles.

December 9th, 2015

I really miss California. Growing up there deeply shaped my preferences as a gardener. My favorite flora all tend to be mediterraneanish in nature – lavender, rosemary, citrus…. olives.

Oh, olives. I love everything about olive trees – the gnarly stubbornness of their trunks, the slender shape of their foliage. The silvery color of their leaves, their smell. And the olives? Oh lord. I could eat olives pickled, brined, dried, canned, you name it. I have a deep appreciation for the complex flavors of olive oil and I would totally shoot it once in a while if it were socially acceptable (shh, don’t tell my friends).

But growing olives in Maryland? HA. We’re 1 1/2 zones too cold have a hope of most olives surviving here… or so goes the conventional wisdom. But then I started hearing about this particularly cold-hardy olive, the Arbequina, and how it could be grown in zone 7. That if you could protect their roots they could survive down to 10*F or so.

Enter the last un-terraced part of my steep southern-facing slope.

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You see, I’d spent most of last year researching sustainable building methods such as Earthship and passive greenhouse construction. (If you’re not familiar with Earthships, they are amazing. Entirely self-sustaining, built from recycled materials… check out the video below.)


I got so excited to build my own greenhouse using these Earthship techniques. Plans involved recycled tire walls for thermal mass and aluminum can knee walls for insulation, not to mention rainwater catchment and an in-floor rocket stove. Then I ran into problems with the gritty reality that is architectural drawings and local permits and red tape… things ground to a halt pretty quickly. I was more than disappointed and turned my sights to other things.

But all that research wasn’t a complete waste of time. Searching for a solution to this problem I realized I had a southern facing exposure with a steep, nearly wall-like hill for thermal mass behind it. The shed to the North blocks the coldest winds and reflects more southern sunlight back onto the hill. It dawned on me that I had a tiny microclimate on my hands – one that with a little extra manipulation might just be warm enough to keep an olive tree alive through a normal Maryland winter. If I could insulate the roots I might be on the way to an actual, possible solution.

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I knew from my Earthship research that air is a fantastic insulator. Aluminum can walls are really great to build walls from because each can, stacked in a honeycomb fashion with cement between, traps a little pocket of air. So what you end up with is fantastic insulation built right into the wall using only trash.

Aluminum can wall construction at Touch the Earth ranch house.

Aluminum can wall construction at Touch the Earth ranch house.

You can do the same thing with 2-liter bottles and cob (adobe), and there are permaculture groups in places like Haiti promoting this form of building to those with no housing or access to lumber. A solution to aid those that need shelter and clean up the planet at the same time? Pretty neat.

People also build walls out of glass bottles using a similar technique – though generally they use wine bottles with lots of colors because if you leave them uncovered on both ends they act like little stained glass portholes through the wall.

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I wasn’t really interested in their beauty though. I only wanted insulation from free, recycled building materials. Why not take advantage of my husband’s love of beer to build a super-insulating wall with all those unattractive brown bottles? Maybe their dark glass would even help warm stuff up a bit, I don’t know.

But apparently I got so excited to start that I forgot to use my level. Sigh. Oh well – I really was going for an organic, curvy, handmade sort of look. (Maybe just not quite this much.)

ARCHITECT-Y, ENGINEERING RELATIVES OF MINE, AVERT THINE EYES.

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By the time I noticed, the concrete had firmly set all the way down to the levels buried below grade. I had even done a careful job of embedding lots of chicken wire to tie all the levels together, so now it was all just one big block and I had no choice but to continue. Believe me, I thought about demolishing the whole thing, but didn’t relish the thought of thousands of glass shards in the garden forever.

Resignedly moving ahead, I bought a sheet of diamond mesh. I figure if I’m careful to set every bottle so its end is flush to the mesh or at least touching it, it ought to help guide my curves and slope… right? I did use my level carefully in subsequent layers, but in order to level it back out in the first place I had to smoosh in a whole bunch of concrete. So it’ll probably look like a wobbly concrete sandwich and be super noticeable. Grumble. Maybe I’ll just, like, plant some bushes in front to hide it. Or something.

I carefully plugged all the bottles with cement so they wouldn’t fill with dirt. Except those bottles on the bottom 3 layers – those, I want to fill with mud and dirt in order to act as anchors. I angled the bottles on the upper layers slightly tip-downwards so that if water does seep in, they can drain.

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It’s nearly twice this tall now. But the day after we used up the last of the beer bottles I taken months to collect, freezing nights set in. No more concrete work til next year, I suppose.

So. This little wall sure ain’t gonna win any beauty contests! But I’m still just ridiculously excited to keep working on it and explore its potential. If it turns out that it doesn’t work as insulation, well, that area needed some terracing anyway. If it turns out to be too ugly even for me (which is saying a lot!) I can face the whole thing with stucco and hide it away like a guilty little permaculture secret.

But here’s hoping it won’t come to that!

Solar waterer fail

December 4th, 2015

Finished my solar-heated winter watering system the other day and was so excited to see if it worked! I set it outside just before a couple of 30* nights.

Not too bad looking for being made out of scraps, eh?

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To test it, I put two identical buckets outside at the same time. Each had two gallons of water and both started at 63*. One was tucked inside the solar heater, the other set outside exposed.

By mid-morning the temp outside had reached 41* and was rainy when I checked on them. The one inside the solar heater was at 55*. Ok, but the other was surely at 41, right? Nope… at 52*, a mere 3* difference.

But water’s a great heat sink, so… maybe I just needed to give the buckets more time to differentiate? Or maybe it was too overcast to really heat up the solar water.

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The next morning was clear and 45* after a night in the 30s. The exposed bucket was at 44*, and the solar bucket? … a disappointing 49*. 5* difference? That’s it? And the same the next time I checked as well. A puny 5* sure ain’t gonna keep the water from freezing when the daytime high is 20*!

Well, crap. They can’t all work out, I guess.

I still think the idea of a solar water heater is solid in theory though, and worth seeing if I can rework it. Some ideas:

  • replacing the wood panel in the front with glass (somehow), to remove the shadow on the bucket. No idea how I’d do this and keep it structurally sound. Maybe I can just cut a window in the wood panel instead of remove it completely?
  • Maybe there needs to be something inside that can suck up more heat and release it slowly at night to help out the water – like a thick sheet of metal painted black. Or something.
  • Maybe I need to think more along the lines of a solar cooker instead of the dehydrator that was my inspiration (in a dehydrator the food ought not be exposed to sunlight). I notice that in solar cookers, there are huge slanted reflective panels to direct the sunlight directly at the target. Like the one below, retailing for a cool $99 from amazon.com.
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I notice on solar cooker design boards that people often use simple aluminum foil to get the reflections, so it won’t cost much to try.

Failures just teach us more, right? (Actually I’m not all that disappointed – I’m kind of excited to fool around with it more and see if I can make it better.)

Any more ideas? Leave me a comment, lemme know!

Integrated composting system

November 30th, 2015

I used to have a few different sources of fertility for the garden. One compost pile for fall leaves, one for kitchen scraps, and then the every-so-often cleanout of the chicken coop. I’d have to fill them all individually, only to later re-harvest them and mix them together before spreading them on the garden. What a chore.

We’ve always kept all our kitchen scraps and leftovers in a little bucket under the kitchen sink. Every night I used to go outside to dump it into the outdoor compost bin, which didn’t always smell so great and wasn’t always wonderful to have right next to the kitchen door.

So why not consolidate the chickens and the compost?

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I made this tip-in door. Every morning when my 7-year-old goes down to let the chickens out she takes the little bucket with her and dumps in all the kitchen scraps we’ve accumulated in the past day.

The chickens gobble down all the food, so there are no scraps left over to attract unwanted critters. It reduces our feed bill and gives the chickens a more rounded diet. It prevents food waste, since we can include the meat and dairy scraps that we can’t in regular compost. The chickens also do a good job of seeking out all the seeds, which is great nutrition for them and helps generate a much cleaner compost.

Because oh yeah, that’s the best part: the chickens naturally turn it all into compost for me, which pretty much eliminates my need for a regular kitchen door compost pile.

The chickens love it – they even come running now when they hear me jiggle the tip-in latch! And every morning, as soon as they see someone emerge from the house, they all run to the tip-in corner and mill around, super excited. They’re more excited about their special treat food than they are about going out their now-open door and getting out of the coop.

We haven’t completely gotten rid of our old kitchen-door bin – but we only need it about once every couple weeks, if that. We have to have a way to deal with chocolate & avocados (which the chickens shouldn’t eat) and actually rotten food (did you know chickens can suffer from e.coli, salmonella, and botulism just like humans?) But in the year or more that I’ve had this tip-in door, that old bin is still only about halfway full.

I love finding ways to work less. :)

Swales

November 26th, 2015

When I first started gardening on Backfill Hill, I was in such a hurry that I didn’t give a thought to layout. I didn’t take into account Maryland’s torrential rains, or the packed rock-like soil, or the steep slope.  I should have – native to California’s hard-baked desert clay soils, I was well acquainted with washout, erosion, and flash flooding – but I was so eager to start gardening right this very minute that I just did what was fastest.

And it’s not like it didn’t work. I mean, it was still soil and stuff grew, ish, at least in spring. Things went fairly ok.

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But back then I had no idea how important mulch was. The erosion was continuous. I was constantly having to put more woodchips on the upper paths. All the compost ended up at the bottom of the bed, while the soil at the top was still naked backfill clay no matter how many amendments I worked into it. Hard as a rock between rains.

Even weeds struggled. I ended up just largely ignoring that part of the hill, as its  yields were nonexistent.

With nothing to hold it back, water drains off too quickly, taking topsoil with it and leaving behind naked soil open to erosion.

 I knew from the beginning that one should across the hill slope and not along it, but I’m just too impatient. I usually end up having to go back and redo things the right way later, when I realize that jerry-rigging it just ain’t gonna work. And that’s what I had to do this time. All the water that was running off that hill could have been percolating into the soil for the last 6 years, nourishing plants and bacteria who would then enrich the soil. A moment’s impatience affected years of poor yields and extra maintenance work.

It was my study of permaculture and its thoughtful design principles – which emphasize careful stewardship of all resources – that made me go ahead and bite the bullet. But I did one better than just changing the direction of the beds.

I ripped out the paths and beds, digging trenches on contour (perpendicular and level to the slope of the hill)  and mounding up soil below in what is called a swale.

Swale-Cross-Section
from solutionsmapping.com . This diagram helped me tremendously when trying to understand how swales actually worked.

Permaculturists turn first to swales (and other major earthworks designed to slow, trap, and absorb water) when designing a garden. Though mine are really “mini swales” measured in feet instead of yards, the principle is the same.

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The flattened perspective makes it hard to see, but those two darker swaths edged by white fabric are actually filled-in trenches. I dug about 8″ deep, which was all I could do with a shovel on this kind of soil, then lined the trough with recycled landscape fabric and backfilled with deep mulch. So the paths are level to walk on, but function as a sponge for all the water that ends up pooling underneath.

If we get a really tremendous rain and the pathways actually fill up, the excess of the highest one is designed to flow into the lower one, and so on, to direct the water where I want it. At least, that’s what will happen if I dug them right.

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It’d be such a beautiful slope, if only it faced South.

 
So swales are like little terraces except in an inverted S shape instead of flat across. I need to plant the lower sides with something good at holding soil, but smaller than comfrey – I was thinking alfalfa, or maybe strawberries. Last year they were so good! Any other ideas?

I got the middle bed thickly planted with onion sets & mulched. (Then I lay a length of wire fencing across the top of it. Otherwise the chickens would just get in there and kick it all up and I’d have to plant everything again. Nice that the 4′ width of the bed is such a standard size.) I have high hopes for them doing well; the beds should be high enough to be nicely oxygenated but also damp enough for plants to thrive.

When I get time, I’m planning on doing the other half of the slope – the one that points East – as well. But as it’s the main entrance, it’s tough to figure out how to plan it in the most efficient way. I don’t want to have to zig zag all the way down when I’m just heading to the chicken coop.