Dream Seed Farms

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...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Adventures in Seed Balling

Behold, the mighty Seed Ball.

Ok, ok...one of many mighty seed balls...
Seed balls are pretty easy to make once the materials are sourced. They are great for no-till farming and also guerrilla gardening in urban settings. Basically, you throw the balls, surreptitiously or rather conspicuously, wherever you would like some plants to grow. This is preferable to tilling or plowing as it kills soil life and wrecks your back too. You can mix in veggie, fruit, herb, grain, flower and even tree seeds, although native species should be mandatory to avoid introducing exotic and invasive species that might irreversibly harm the local flora and fauna.

The seed balls I made today are destined for a garden plot one of the islanders has offered us to cultivate. It is a bit farther from our house than our first garden, and in all likelihood I won't pass by it all that often. So, I mixed in some things that don't need much care like veggies, flowers, herbs, beans and grains; some tall, some root veggies, some sprawling ground cover; all delicious!

To start, I combined the following:

1 Part Seeds
3 Parts Dry Sifted Top Soil
Mixed and added:
5 Parts Powdered Clay
Mixed and added:
2 Parts Rain Water
Rolled and...
VoilĂ !
The actual process of mixing and rolling took about three hours since it was just me and my two hands. With about a half hour to sunset I rustled up the last half of the mix by shaking the bowl and noticed the tiny clumps got bigger as I swirled the bowl around. I worked up a sweat tumbling the ever-growing seed balls around the bowl for the next fifteen or so minutes. I would stop and pull out the ideal sized globes and shake the rest up some more. The balls need to dry for a day or two, then they are ready for tossing.

I researched other techniques and found some folks employing buckets or barrels hooked up to a motor and even cement mixers to crank out heaps of seeds. Maybe in the future a setup like that would be more efficient, but for now, I can use what is at hand. No cement mixers have washed up on shore yet, so I just used the mesh trays, bowls and drift wood I found previously on the beach.

As for the ingredients, the seeds were gifted, bought and gleaned form others' fields, the rain from our roof, the soil and clay were from the hole I excavated for the rain barrel near our compost bin. I collected them separately and left them to dry on trays.

Soil. The poor man's compost!
Clay as hard as a rock...
...until I crushed it with my bare hands...and a stick
There are close to thirty different seeds in the mix I threw together, including veggies and fruit like: corn, daikon radish, welsh onion, cabbage, watermelon, cantaloupe, hokkaido pumpkin, edamame, nira (garlic chives), okra, arugula, chili pepper, green pepper, tomato, peanut, random brassica seeds from a farm in Nagano, and one solitary garbanzo bean from our balcony garden in Denver; herbs and flowers like: lavender, sunflower, green and purple shiso (beefsteak plant or perilla), chamomile, marigold, morning glory and salvia; and seed grains like: quinoa and two kinds of millet.

I do not know if any of the seeds will take root. The season, soil conditions, rain and sunshine will all play a role in determining what actually grows where. I hope to broadcast the seed balls over our friend's garden before the weekend, as we are heading off-island for a wedding. Once the rain soaks the balls and they melt away, the seeds will germinate and what will grow will grow. Delicious sprouts should start popping up soon since we are in the midst of our rainy season now.

The biggest ones have a crunchy peanut center!
I think we have more than enough for the little garden plot down the road. I hope to share some with our Permaculture classmates, other friends and Michie's mom, a certified Vegetable Sommelier, avid green thumb and contributor of more than once variety of the seeds I used.

I would also like to toss some around Ishinomaki City after we reach the port this weekend. The tsunami destroyed the entire coastal area and swept away the greenery along with houses and cars. Maybe if people see something green with bright blossoms blowing in the wind it will remind them of better things to come. It would be great if we could get something like the following set up here, but for free:

Finally, if you have the time and want to get more in depth info on seed balls check out this video:

Happy seed balling!!!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Earthbag Spiral House in Nagano

Here is a distilled version of the nearly 500 pictures I took of the four-day earthbag workshop held at the farm where we are studying Permaculture. While integral to many PC design principles, the time frame for building a house is beyond the scope of the PC course we are in. We still get to work on the house every class, but only for a couple hours, so that there is still time to learn about other design principals, farming, etc.

I was more than happy to take many buses on my own to go to Nagano and volunteer my labor in exchange for the priceless hands on experience of building an earthbag house. Michie and I are leaning towards this style of building for our own place, once we get the land. So, this was an awesome trial run for us, especially considering that they are basically using my spiral concept for the layout of the house.

Their roof will be much different than mine. They will actually have one!

It was great fun too to get to meet over 20 more really cool Japanese people. In everyday life here they remain buried under so much formality and duplicitous facades, but once among like-minded, inspired, engaged individuals they really tend to open up. I met some folks that I would be honored to have a long time friendship with. I think I even scored some helpers for our own projects whenever we are able to start them.

Plus, during the workshop they needed some volunteers to help prepare meals for all the hungry helpers. I pitched in and made a couple really good dishes each meal, and even surprised myself with a couple soups that were not all that shabby. I got to work with a professional macrobiotic chef and a vegan tempura and buckwheat noodle soup chef too. I think the creative juices were flowing on and off the worksite...even so far as to motivate me to create a vegan bamboo shoot gratin, now the stuff of legends. Seriously, it is legendary. I made a divine soymilk bechamel sauce, and coated a pile of roasted bamboo shoots, which our hosts received and prepared ahead of the workshop. I mixed in some welsh onions and broiled it to perfection. We ate bamboo everyday for every meal because there was so much. But, seriously, people are still talking about my gratin!!!

I digress...on to the earthbags...All of the pictures are mine except those with links to their source, taken by our PC teachers. Let's start with a slideshow our teacher put together of the whole process so far:

And now, the rest of our story...

Marking the foundation boundaries

Two lines for the price of one

Backbreaking but satisfying work...

While convenient, machines change the dynamic of a work site

We dug the foundation 60 cm deep, then began to fill it back in again

First a layer of bull rock

Then lots of pea gravel
Then lots of chipped rock and sand

Michi-kun, the carpenter, lays the first earthbags

Measure twice and tamp bags into place

The first course defines the space and makes the house seem real

Barbed wire is lain between courses for tensile and shear strength

Tamping staggered bags for a strong, uniform wall (ideally)

The first two course are filled with dry cement that will cure and complete the foundation

Back fill first two courses

Waterproof barrier, 6 mil plastic. Are there better options?

Cut and fill

Raising the central post, and glad for the machine this time

It looks like a house already

Five more courses define the space even more

End of the day with rain in the forecast

The window bucks get placed

1 meter rebar pounded into every other bag after the 8th course

Window bucks and outer stepping logs placed

Five concrete/earth mixed bags for arched lintel

The firewood just holds the barbed wire down temporarily

Done for the day. Time for some watermelon!

Everything gets more challenging the higher you go

More rebar and a bigger hammer this time around

The lower cinder blocks were for a rocket stove access panel (but minds changed)

Precision triangular tamping on concrete/earth bag arch

Almost done. I threw the keystone bag up there all by myself!

Michi-kun gets it just the way he likes it

My 'dream spiral' come to life...on our friends' farm


This was an extraordinary experience and I am so thankful to have been able to participate and learn so much. So many hopes and dreams coalesced into our being here right now at this time, to being able to study Permaculture, to having the PC group build an earthbag house, to meeting so many amazing and inspiring people in one go. Michie and I are very fortunate, and profoundly grateful!!!