Dream Seed Farms

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sheet Mulched Mandala Garden

We were searching through all of the tomes on Permaculture we have to find a less back breaking way of planting a garden. We were especially concerned with the amount of weeds but we do not want to till the land (as we have learned, while tilling increases initial yields, it depletes the soil of nutrients and creates an environment inhospitable to the teams of beneficial microorganisms usually found there). One idea we came up with was to sheet mulch an area. Essentially, you cut or trample existing weeds and leave them in place, then cover them up with successive layers of decomposable weed barriers, compost, mulch, etc.

We choose a round mandala shape, though we still haven't figured out the internal pattern, but that will come with time and probably on a whim. We started a few days ago with Michie holding a rope in the approximate middle of a sukanpo-free section of the garden and twirling me around the circumference as I trampled the boarder. After that, we dug up the center and buried a few sweet potatoes we were gifted. Apparently, they will sprout little roots that we will then be able to transplant to another bed to grow more sweet potatoes. Yummy!

Yesterday, I began by cutting all the weeds inscribed within the larger circle and dropping them in place.

I piled them up a little higher than I planned, so I had to cut a swath of weeds from a higher spot in the garden to fill out the mandala.

Sheet mulching is also called lasagne mulching or lasagne gardening, as you basically add layer upon layer to your garden instead of digging it up. The main thing we have in abundance right now is heavy duty packing paper and shipping boxes from our move.

I laid out packing paper and blank newsprint several layers deep. Then I watered it liberally before trampling it into place.

The next layer consisted of every cardboard box I could scrounge up. We have been on the island for about two weeks now and the most unpacking we have done was today as I needed ALL the boxes! But that wasn't enough...

...So I had to run home and unpack a bunch more stuff. I took every last bit of cardboard, even our makeshift shelves and garbage can (really just more cardboard boxes!) and brought them to their new resting place. I watered and trampled down this layer as well. I would have liked to have added another layer of cardboard overlapping the seems of the ones below it, but alas that is all we have at the moment. Hopefully, the cut weeds, paper and boxes will be enough to smother out any roots and weed seeds underneath. Besides, we still have a few more layers to go.

We do not have any compost made yet, so I skipped that layer for now and went straight to the mulch. I would have liked to have added a layer of rice straw, but there haven't been any rice paddies on the island for years, and we didn't have the space to pack any bales along on our last trip. So, I looked around and saw about the only thing I had access to was a pile of leaves that had accumulated under the sun porch of our house. I went home and slithered completely under the porch and pushed a heap of leaves out. I loaded them in a basket we found washed up on the beach, carried them to the mandala, dumped them out and realized I was going to need about ten times more!

The little tree that seems to have popped up on the scene two pictures above is actually a rake I fashioned out of some deadfall. I needed more mulch and since there is a tiny deciduous wooded area to the west of our garden, I jumped in and hauled out many baskets full of leaves.

I would have like to have added more but it was near sundown. Michie had just come home from work and stopped by the garden in time to snap one last picture. I also want to mulch out the boarder, perhaps with chopped up bamboo.

The basic idea now, is to keep adding layers of organic matter from the top down. This is essentially a biomimetic approach to feeding the soil just like a forest does. Old leaves, twigs, etc, fall on top and press down on the bottom layers which are devoured and processed into compost then soil by earthworms, fungi, bacteria and a slew of other tiny beasties.

We are leaving the island today for our next Permaculture workshop. So, I am excited to see if any roots pop up while we are gone. Hopefully, we can source some rice straw when we are about this weekend. We will lay out the internal pattern of the mandala next week and get it planted then.

DIY Compost Bin Parts 2 & 3

So, it actually took me two more days to finish the roof of our compost bin. Actually, I spent almost all of the second day trying to figure out how to piece all the misshapen scrap wood together into something sturdy and coherently roof-shaped. That, and I was hoping it would rain so I could stay home, but it didn't so I didn't go out until after lunch!

After designing, scraping and redesigning, building, demolishing and rebuilding several version in my mind, I ended up with four rafters and three purlins as the basic structure of the roof. Incidentally, I do not have a ladder nor access to one, so...I built the frame on the ground and then heaved it up, and rested it on the two beams I fixed into place. This was just a dry fit. I left it up over night, and thankfully it was still there the next day!

On the third day I pulled the roof frame off the posts and beams and laid it in front of the bin. I proceeded to attach several half and quarter length purlins to the frame. Rafters support most of the weight of a roof when rested on some kind of beam or support. Purlins are affixed atop the rafters and basically provide rigidity and a place to attach the roof covering. 

In this case, I started with one piece of ply-wood and a bunch of mismatched siding planks. I thought of using the ply-wood whole on one side and the planks on the other, but instead I ripped the ply-wood in half with my 100 Yen hand saw and put one half on either side, with the planks in the middle. I hope this is the best design considering any load it may bear under snow in the winter and the shear beating it will take from high winds and hurricanes.

For the final weatherproofing, I nailed and screwed three bent, rusty pieces of sheet metal with all but the last four nails and four screws I owned. I even pulled several dozen rusty nails from the scrap pallets and straightened them out, because I knew I might not have enough.

Next came the fun part...I lifted the roof up and maneuvered it into place. I had arranged for Michie to help me lift it up after she got home from work, but that was hours away and I thought, 'what the heck!? It only weighs about a hundred pounds, and I am young and game, so why not just do it myself!?' So I did. It turns out that the patch-work purlins made excellent hand holds as I stood over the open pit of the bin with a foothold on the front and back pallets. I had propped the roof against the left side and then proceeded to hoist it up a few inches at a time. With the last four nails, I hammered the side rafters to the posts, and with the last four screws connected the beams to the underside of the innermost rafters. I definitely need to buy more hardware whenever we get to the mainland next!

There are a few things left to complete, but for now, the compost bin is fully functional, and has a pile of sukanpo in it already! I still need to dig a bigger trench to hold the buoys for water catchment and I also need to devise a covering for the top of the bin that is both breathable and bird-proof. There is a grove of thin bamboo to the south of our garden, and I think I might try weaving a roll-up screen from that. I have never weaved before, and never really worked with bamboo, so that should be fun...

In retrospect, I probably should not have lifted the roof up all by myself. For that matter, I probably should not have built the roof on the ground first! I suppose I could have built a ladder, but then I wouldn't have had any more wood for the roof. Such are the conundrums one faces when building a driftwood compost bin.

Monday, May 16, 2011

DIY Compost Bin

So, we have been collecting wood and the like that has washed ashore over the past week and a half. We finally gathered all the components for a compost bin after a trip to the junk pile in the middle of the island.

Here is a day's work towards building our first ever compost bin. None of the wood matches, nothing is square, nothing is level, nothing is straight, but all it cost us was a few bags of screws and nails from the 100 Yen store (dollar store) and the electricity to charge up my cordless drill!

We found four wooden pallets of four distinctly different dimensions for the walls, plus other pallets to tear apart for scrap and fill wood.

The orange and yellow things are buoys that were broken in half by the tide. They are usually used for seaweed farming, with an anchor on the bottom end of a very long piece of rope that guides kombu (kelp) up where it can be harvested from boats. They are so big that I think Michie and I both could fit in side! The islanders rig up their shed roofs to drain rain water into them for their gardens. I wanted to do the same, but I had neither the tools to cut one open, nor an actual buoy to cut open...until theses washed up on shore.

More pallets for scrap, sheet metal for the roof and a mountain of sukanpo roots in the background (incidentally a mound twice as big as me, that we dug up from two small garden beds). The pallet scrap I used like wooden siding to fill in the large gaps between the pallet planks because we have a flock of very boisterous and clever crows that pick through everything. Hopefully the gaps are small enough to keep their beaks out but big enough to let air circulate.

After about 6 hours, I had the four pallets sided, upright and screwed to four posts on concrete blocks (which we found too!). The roof is tomorrow's project, as well as rigging up the buoy halves to catch rain water...

This is the view looking down the hill over our garden beds. The inner walls are a hodgepodge of scrap wood nailed in place to fill in the gaps and broken planks. I did the math and this thing will hold about 60 cubic feet (1.7 cubic meters) of compost when all full, though that will take a lot of weeds and kitchen scraps to fill up...or a day or two of sukanpo root pulling!!!

Apropos sukanpo, the weeds are taller than me now since we had a nice rain a few days ago followed by a lot of sunshine. They almost completely obscure the compost bin. I cannot wait to chop them down, dig them up and pile them in the bin!

The more we compost the better and more productive our gardens will become once we add it back to the earth. If we are able to incorporate a composting toilet down the road, we will also be able to complete the nutrient cycle, returning as much as possible to the land that feeds us.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


After our first weekend workshop for this year's Permaculture course, we were given a homework assignment. Over the next few months while working around the PC farm, we are going to build an earthbag house in the garden. The idea was to have a small (100 sq feet / 9 sq meters) comfy place to relax and for the instructor's kids to play in. All twenty of us students were tasked with designing a building that we would personally like to see built in that space. 

We interviewed the instructor and his wife, evaluated the site with the carpenter that will guide our building and had a great group discussion about the shape and function of the little house. We broke into smaller groups, and for the first time all weekend I was able to work with Michie, and two others. The main idea that came out of our group was that of a spiral.

One guy noticed that the PC instructor had a relief of a snail on the front entrance, and Michie found a small painting of a snail and a poem about the 'slow life' and living at 'my pace.' I mentioned that one of the underlying patterns recognized by PC is that of the spiral, symbolizing a perpetual and dynamic renewal.

We are free to create our own design, but I realized that a spiral house of earthbag walls was so similar to an idea I had sketched before we knew we were even moving to Japan. So, I decided to pursue the spiral house idea, knowing that, while they might not actually build my idea at the PC farm, the process of designing and laying out a building would be beneficial to us when it comes time to do the same for our own home.

All we basically needed was a rough sketch, but I am terrible with a pencil, so I tried my hand at clay. This may be arguably as bad as any sketch I could make, but it was so rewarding to actually build up a model, even if it is only five inches high so far! It kinda looks like something a kid might slap together as a fort for some Playmobile or GI Joe figures...

Crude Representation of a Spiral
Appointed in the Finest of Materials
Inner Wall as Staircase and Rocket Stove
Group Toilets, Benches or Monster Teeth?
I still have to build the roof out of some twigs, and but a little stove pipe in the chimney. I am thinking of a small loft over the bench and even a reciprocal roof. The little silver tea canister represents a rocket stove that I would love to build into the house. The flue would run under the bench heating it up as the smoke exits the chimney.

Limited by the rigidity of the board I built it on and the lack of clay to build more, I was not able to show my intention of continuing the spiral effect of coming in the front door and being gently urged to turn inwards towards yourself. The staircase wall also reinforces the idea of descending into (as you walk in) and ascending from (as you exit the house) the earth itself. Ideally the inner floor would continue to spiral down a few more levels, and the bench would be on the lowest part, sunken into the earth itself several feet below grade. A reciprocal roof would also add to the spiral effect as you look up and ascend the stair case or leave by the front door.

Michie has to do her own design too, but I think that whatever we decide on, we will be able to integrate our two ideas into a space we can live and work in. We already discussed a few conceptual ideas for a series of little buildings like this in a small compound with a courtyard in the center and covered walk ways connecting the building as the outer walls of the yard.

I will try to post some pics later when I finish the model. I have to have it done by our next PC class at the end of May. Since we will finally be on Ajishima next week, I thought I would use some beach sand for the plaster and twigs and branches for the roof structure.

I am sure there will be several refinements over time, but this is definitely a structure we can envision ourselves living in.

Oh, and in keeping with our theme, the house is called the "Dream Spiral!"