Dream Seed Farms

Sunday, September 4, 2011

3-week Compost

Actually, from the research I did, it should only take 18 days to turn kitchen scraps and yard trimmings into nutritious and delicious compost.

We already have our gigantic pallet compost bin, which we will fill up all year and empty out next spring. However, we have a few projects that we would like to start feeding soon with our own homemade compost.

There are all kinds of compost bins, compost tumblers and even electric counter top compost cookers on the market that claim to be able to emulate and accelerate the natural decomposition processes. While a host of bugs, bacteria, fungi, worms, etc., will do this all for free, these products all promise even better results for the bargain basement price of: more than I care to spend! 

Plus I do not like plastic junk that will ostensibly stay around forever. If I end up not liking my big o' pallet compost bin, I can tear it down and build something else, compost the materials or have a nice little bonfire. But I digress...18 day compost you say?

There is an idea called the Berkeley method that requires no special equipment or know how. It basically has you layer brown (dry and carbon rich) and green (wet and nitrogen rich) materials at a ratio of 30:1, C:N. The bigger the pile the better. It sits for four days, then gets flipped on the fourth day and every other day after that for 18 days total.

I started with two week's worth of kitchen scraps (N), dry susuki, a wild straw-like grass (C), freshly cut weeds (N), a pile of dried leaves (C), a bag of my homemade wood chips (C) and some rain water.

Just like baking a cake

A deliciously decomposing layer cake


After layer

After layer

Topped off with a nice electric blue frosting

I watered the ground first and every couple layers so the compost would not dry out. The blue tarpaulin is not necessary but it also keeps the pile from drying out, as well as from being soaked by rain. 

Four days and a road trip (read: once a month shopping spree!) to our Permaculture class later it was time to flip the pile. I had just bought my first ever pitchfork, and while I could have used a shovel or my hands, I really wanted to jab those five shiny metal tines into something!

There is a method to my jabbiness

Basically peel off the outer and upper layers

And make sure they end up on the bottom and inside of the next pile

Water with a blue elephant like a professional farmer

Situate the bottom and middle of the old pile around the sides

And on top of the new pile

My jab here is done

Cover and repeat seven more times

The idea is to create a thermophilic condition that allows certain organisms to metabolize the carbon and nitrogen. The pile can and will get hot. My pile was steaming every time I flipped it. The heat also helps to kill weed seeds and pathogens. A couple times it got white and moldy so I added some more Carbon, and I checked the moisture and watered accordingly. Now it is like black gold.

There are much more detailed resources online, but this one seemed to work on my first batch. I have a second trial going on now that I layered but haven't flipped at all. We will see how that works out. The great thing is that you can't really screw it up. It will all decompose and become nice compost in the end, even if it takes more than three weeks.

Another idea that has been popping up lately is water heating with stationary compost piles. Some folks are running plastic piping through gigantic piles they don't flip and getting scalding hot water out the other end. They have to temper it with cold water for bathing, and one guy on youtube claimed six month's of showers for himself and his farm hands. Down the line, we are hopping to add a spa to our B&B setup. Since there are no natural hot springs on the island, we would have to go solar, wood fired, or, possibly even now, compost heated. Could it work with a humanure compost pile as well?

After mucking around all day in the fields, a nice hot bath would hit the spot, even if it was poo heated!

A Sound Investment

About two month's ago, we made, perhaps, the best investment since we have been on the island. 

On the return leg of one of our road trips to our Permaculture class in Nagano, we stopped at a hardware store with a sizable shopping list in hand. Scribbled in at the bottom was an item I had been dreaming about: a wood chipper! I fantasized about gathering up everyone's Christmas trees (not that they have them here!), lawn clippings and even pruning random trees myself just to run them through the machine. I never actually expected to get one, but in case we ever saw one I had already made a pro/con ledger for the two types we would likely encounter.

Currently our garden is about a five minute walk from our house, in the middle of a couple other folks' gardens. The distance from our house is key because the main types of chippers available are either gas powered or electric. We could get a can and some gasoline too, but there is no practical way we could run an extension cord from our house to the field. The long term practicality of an electric version would be that we could plug it into any solar/wind system we might build in the future on our own land, thereby saving the need for expensive and dwindling fossil fuels.

It was a tough decision, and I still hadn't made up my mind, but fate intervened and made the choice a whole lot easier. Michie was strolling around the gardening center when she stumbled across a dusty little machine pushed into a back corner. She found me in the power tool aisle and we tracked down a sales associate. This gentleman did some research and told us that it was marked half off because it was a floor model and had no box. Plus, as it was a little dusty they knocked another 10% off! We even got to turn it on, and it hummed like a charm. It had never been used, and despite the lack of box it came with all kinds accessories that were packaged up and ready to go.

The decision was made and for about a hundred dollars we walked away with this baby:

Plug and Play

It is electric, and although the cord is only a couple meters long, it squeezes neatly along side our house where the only external power outlet happens to be. The only draw back is that, with the exception of the two big piles of brush in the picture above that some aesthetically-challenged nincompoop randomly dumped in our yard, most of the stuff I needed to chip was nearer our field.

So nearly every sunny day for three weeks, I would spend a few hours in the morning chipping whatever I could scrounge up, then take those chips to the field and use them for compost or as much needed mulch between our garden beds. Then on the return trip from the field I would haul back home a gigantic bundle of twigs and branches some other aesthetically-challenged nincompoop randomly dumped in our field.

A bundle a day keeps the nincompoops away!

Actually, the more I chip, the more they are likely to keep dumping.

That's fine, I do not want to buy a chainsaw until next year!

Besides, I will gladly take all the wood chips I can get my hands on. By adding layer upon layer of organic material to our gardens, we are actually helping to build the soil. The more green and brown matter we add the more food the bugs and worms have to eat and the more nutrients they poop out into the soil. It's a win win win win win win situation, for the nincompoops, me, the bugs, the soil, our veggies and our taste buds!

The best thing is that the chipper takes just about anything that once grew and that will fit into the feed slot. Thankfully, it has a non-removable cover that won't allow anything thicker than a golf ball's diameter through it. This is a good thing, because I would surely try to jam everything up to the trunk of a tree inside, and likely seize up the motor. Bamboo, weeds, branches and even sukanpo root (it smells like dill pickles when it is getting chipped!) just get chewed up and spit out.

I got a lot of long uncomfortable glares from the old folks around the neighborhood. Why was I carrying those over-sized bundles of branches they not-very-surreptitiously had dumped in my field earlier on!?! Thankfully, I heard from a friendly neighbor that many of the folks around here had seen a recent TV program about natural and organic gardening. They recognized a lot of the techniques that we were employing and came to the conclusion that it must be alright for us to do, because, after all, it was on TV.

In the end, this was indeed the best model for us to procure. We don't and won't need to buy and burn gasoline to run it, and later on we can tie it into any renewable energy system we build. And, right now it is a little extra work to haul everything whole from the field, chip it at our house, then haul it back to the field, but it is worth it. This is the first and only power tool we have put to use (with the exception of my indispensable cordless drill I brought from the US), so the human energy saved in not having to personally chip all that wood can easily be redirected into carrying said chips to the field. Plus, while I am vegan and eat only twigs and berries, I do not think I could gnaw my through a bundle of branches all that quickly!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Driftwood Tool Shed

Slowly but surely we have been gathering up all the tools and implements necessary to make us look like real farmers. Just because we have them, though, does not necessarily mean we (read: I) know how to use them! Case in point: a hundred dollar scythe blade I bent and cracked within the first five minutes swinging it around our field. The culprit? My overzealousness and, of course, one nefarious sukanpo stalk!

Even if I do not know how to use the tools correctly yet, I at least recognized the fact that for the expensive tools we bought to actually last past our lifetime as intended we would have to take great care of them and keep them from elements, if not from my own hands!

Enter the driftwood tool shed...

Overgrown pile of driftwood

Excavated and sort of leveled

Scavenged cinder block pylons

Someone's old chest and some else' cabinet

Perfectly level without even trying!

One roof and anchor poles added

Second roof and a rain barrel

A few days later, time for the first door


...the poor man's dimensional lumber!

Not bad for my first ever door

Fits like a charm

Double-sized pallet = double-sized door

Much pounding, prying and cursing later...

...Two fully functioning doors

Keeps the rain out...

...and the tools safe inside!!!

This was a three day endeavor over the course of a couple weeks, as the sun was at it's hottest and we had to leave the island for our Permaculture class in Nagano. Everything except some nails, screws, four hinges and two latches was salvaged from the coast or the junkyard after the tsunami. 

I have had a dilemma in my own mind over using the things we find on the shore. Obviously, these items were once in someone's home, integral parts of their daily lives. I have convinced myself that by reclaiming wreckage from the disaster and repurposing it, we are creating something peaceful and practical from the chaos and carnage. I hope it does not offend anyone to put these things to use, rather than have them rot on the shore or be burned away by the clean up crews. We are grateful for each and every scrap that has come our way and hope that we are doing it justice and giving all the embodied energy within it new life.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hugel Kultur? Hugel Kultur!


Have you ever had a swath of garden, a pile of rotting logs and five hours of time you didn't know what to do with? I found myself in that very predicament today. This is what I did:

Cut the weeds

Started digging a trench

Finished the trench

And wondered what to toss into said trench

How about this unsightly heap of logs and branches someone dumped near our garden?

I didn't plan or measure anything at all





Next came a layer of branches

Then a layer of dry leaves

And I ad-libbed a layer of palm tree fiber

Piled the dirt back on top

Mulched it over with the cut weeds

Tada! Hugel Kultur!!!

Hugel Kultur is a Permaculture idea brought to us by our German speaking friends in Austria. A 'hugel' is a hill or heap, and 'kultur' is culture. In this case it is a pile of whatever you might naturally find on the bottom of a forest floor organized into a big heap intended to store and slowly distribute water and nutrients to whatever is growing above it.

Observation is a key component of PC Design, and Hugel Kultur is a prime example of employing observations about the nutrient cycle of a forest towards a biomimetic gardening application. Basically, old trees and dead fall decompose on the forest floor and release their stored nutrients back into the environment. Throughout that process, the wood soaks up water like a sponge, and harbors all kinds of life that feeds off and transforms the wood back into soil.

The idea is to utilize that natural cycle to produce food with minimal effort. Instead of having to water and fertilize regularly, all we need is a bit of rain to get caught up in the logs, and to plant something on top. I tossed a handful of seed balls over the Hugel (from my last adventure) that had cracked open. We get to test two of our projects in one go. Woohoo!

This is also an ideal way to tidy up the yard, wood lot or even a construction site, as nearly all manner of woody scraps can be used (no treated lumber though). Dead wood or dry lumber seems to be better as it seems to be able to soak up more water. The branches and twigs are optional but lend additional nutrients. The leaves are important for two main reasons: more nutrients and, as I found, to keep all the dirt from falling down into the cracks. In addition to the unruly pile of trimmings someone dumped by our garden one day, we also had two dead palm trees hindering access to our compost bin. I stripped the fibrous coats off the trunks until I reach solid wood and added that on top as I didn't think the meager amount of leaves I managed to scrounge up would suffice. I will use the palm trunks in a hybrid Hugel Kultur / Herb Spiral later on...

For now this Hugel is done. Rather, my attention and energy put towards it is done. It will do its own thing now. After a few days the height will drop a little and then a little more as rain compacts the dirt and washes a bit of it down between the logs. The fiber and leaves will start to decompose, and then the branches, and it will sink some more. The weight and the metabolic action of the myriad beasties inside will likely raise the temperature a bit for a while, so it might be nice to try some season extending experiments in the fall. For now we will just sit back, observe and gobble up anything that happens to grow.

I had been thinking about building my very own Hugel Kultur for quite a while. I was at the end of stretch of available garden space with no more seeds to plant, and I actually needed to clean up the pile of branches to make way...for more wood. Thankfully, we were able to salvage some rather sizable timbers that washed ashore after the tsunami. They are three to four meters long and stout enough to support a roof, so we are going to save them for when we finally start building our own house. I happened to choose the hottest day so far, and the digging and the sukanpo pulling and the sukanpo wrangling and the sukanpo cursing really took it out of me.

This half smile was all I could muster before I passed out
In the end, our garden is a little neater, we have more food planted and I must have burned off 10,000 calories, at least. The new resident critters of our Hugel Kultur won't be the only ones feasting tonight...