Friday, December 16, 2011

Nipigon-Red Rock District HS Garden - Establishing Bounty

The three sisters (well, four really) garden in late August
This post is long overdue, but better late than never!  The school garden is something that had been talked about for some time.  Shasta Booker and Joan Duke worked to get the project approved and secure grant funding.  Later on, I participated in a meeting with Anya Scheibmayr, the Alternative Ed. teacher, whose class I visited in early spring and gave a talk about the whys and whats of a school garden and how it connected with the current world situation.  It was a lot to take in for them, but I think that I opened a few eyes.  As famous permaculturalist and my former teacher Geoff Lawton says, "the problems of the world can be solved in a garden."  There is far more truth to this than most realize.

The students broke ground in the school courtyard in June.  A perfectly sheltered micro-climate in the heart of the the school.  I gave the students a basic design to work from and they chose to implement five elements of it in the first year.They hauled some soil from the nearby bush to help get the beds going.  They dug the three sisters garden, three raised planting beds and made a compost.
Three types of tomato are seen here
The three sisters garden a few weeks after planting in June, some mulch would have been nice!
The raised beds were constructed a little lower than intended and basically were given a wooden border and filled with finished compost.  These beds were seeded according to companion planting techniques researched by the students.   The southernmost bed was planted with peas, cabbage, beans and radish.  The east bed was planted with carrots, onions, lettuce and beets.  The northern bed was seeded with three varieties of tomato, basil and lettuce.  A few weeks later we would mix in some homemade finished compost and garden soil which was donated by Lewis Martin and also add in some mesclun mix and a few other flowers.  Lewis has been gardening organically in Red Rock for over 15 years and likes to paraphrase the ancient Chinese proverb by saying "the best fertilizer is the gardener's footsteps".
The tomato bed in July with some other flowers and vegetables added in
Early season harvest of radishes
The three sisters garden was planted directly into the existing soil.  Corn, beans, squash and the fourth sister, sunflower were put in.  After a few weeks the corn and sunflowers came up strong but the beans and squash were a bit lacking. We added compost to the planting mounds and put in a few more plants. Another week or so went by and the garden really began to take off!  It was like a small jungle in there with all of the tall sunflowers, corn with beans spiraling up its stalks and the huge leaves of the squash to provide ground cover.
The three sisters garden really took off.  A symbiosis of nitrogen fixing beans climbing up the corn, with the earth sheltered by the squash leaves.  The sunflowers help to bring in pollinators and provide a windbreak on the north side.
Susan picking some radishes
Susan Harkness, my mother, and I volunteered to look after the garden for the summer whilst school was out.  Susan also played a big role in getting the project off the ground.

The summer had very little rain so we were forced to use tap water a few times. Hopefully in the future, a rain barrel system can be established to collect the copious runoff from the school roof.
A squash flower, a delicious treat in itself!
Maturing maize tassel
A sunflower basking in its namesake
As the summer went on the plants grew very well.  All who witnessed the garden were quite impressed.  It was truly a great start to an extremely important project.  When the students returned to classes in September, they saw the fruits of their labours.  They were then able to harvest this bounty and prepare a few meals from it, thereby getting to experience the taste of real organic food. What our grandparents simply called "food".
The three sisters garden, now that's abundance!
Ripening tomatoes in late August
The tomato plants produced quite well
A view from the tomato bed towards the three sisters
Students from the Alternative Ed. class and a science class harvest the bounty.  Here we see carrots, onions and beets.
It's a jungle in there
Students enjoying some fresh, local, beyond organic food
Preparing to make soup, with a few of the delicious apples from the old courtyard apple tree
Cutting up a squash is a big, but rewarding job
The garden can be integrated into the curriculum of any subject.  Given the importance of the issues of food security, the integrity of our food and the right to grow it, peak oil, local economy and so forth, this project is giving students the education they truly need.  It is in its infancy, like a seed sprout coming up strongly from the soil, striving to reach its potential.  There is much room for expansion, especially into perennials such as fruit trees, bushes and vines.  With further support, this garden can contribute to a crucially holistic and relevant development of real world skills and a  far deeper understanding of things than any textbook can hope to convey.  There has been an explosion in the creation of school gardens in the past few years and a wealth of evidence has mounted as to the myriad of benefits they provide.  Give your support to this project and watch the simultaneous flourishing of life and young minds.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What's Been Growing?

  Since you have been dying to see what's been em to enlarge

The cherries are plentiful.
Tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse.

Here be many strange bedfellows.  Tomato, scarlet runner bean, marigold, african daisy, zinnia, verbena and a  local wild orchid.

Three sisters garden with corn, beans, zucchini and squash,  with sunflower on the  northern side.

Asparagus fruits in this first year bed.

Our native honeybee.

On to the next flower.

Borage, a very nutritious edible, also known as starflower.

Another look at the tomatoes and peppers.  There are small pomodoro, roma and manitoba tomatoes.  Paprika, jalapeno, red beauty, cayenne and early cali wonder peppers.


Growing along the fence are brussels sprouts, onion, cucumber, dill at the end and lovage in the pot.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bin and Back: Farming with Worms

Red wrigglers (Eisenia foetida)

Worms are the quietest and most low maintenance farm helpers you can have. Creating a worm farm is simple and the benefits are legion.  It is something I have wanted to do since the beginning of the year and I finally got it put together a couple of weeks ago.  The process is always a little different each time depending on the materials that are available.  The keys to a healthy home for the worms are good drainage, air flow, moistness, layers of appropriate food and darkness.  There must be a balance between worm population, food and moisture.

I had an old sink on hand so that was perfect to make a worm farm.  The cracks in it will provide aeration.  I put a piece of 5 mm (1/4 inch) screen over the bottom drain.  Also already here was some old burlap cloth which made a good base bed inside the basin.

Then I layered cardboard that had been torn up and soaked in a bucket of rain water.  The tape had been removed and the cardboard was the brown, vegetable dyed type.  After soaking the cardboard, I wrung the excess water back into the bucket before placing it in the bin.

A handful of sand and handful of garden soil should be added a bit at a time on each layer to provide grit for the worms.

I had a bag of corn husks on hand as well that made a nice layer.

Brown containerboard type paper was also soaked and wrung out and then layered in.  Shredded newspaper also works very well as does egg cartons.

Layers of kitchen scraps are just what the worms need to round out their diets. When adding the kitchen scraps, pull back some of the moist material and bury the scraps.  This prevents fruit flies and odors.  Citrus and other acidic things such as onion must be added in moderation.  Do NOT use pineapple as it contains a substance that will kill the worms.  Green grass clippings should also be used very sparingly.  Meats, dairy, oily foods, spicy things and grains should not be added as the worms don't eat these things and they may cause problems. Well crushed egg shells, coffee grounds and tea bags are fine.

A worm farm can reduce your landfill waste by 25%

I collected leaf mulch from the food forest site to form the top layer.  It also contained the red wriggler (Eisenia foetida) composting worms that the system requires.  These little beauties will reproduce in the bin and in a couple of weeks the farm will be rolling.

It is reported that worm castings are five times more life rich than good topsoil.
Always remember to place a bucket beneath the drain as the worm juice makes an incredibly life rich additive for your soils.  Add some rainwater to the bucket to make sure that the worm juice doesn't dry up and to help create more life in there.  Place your worm farm in a shady location.  When it gets cold in the fall, the bin can be moved into the basement or garage.

The lid is a little different now, the larger peice of wood is above the lower one to provide air flow.

After a couple of months, the worms will have processed the original bedding materials.  Its now time to separate them from the finished compost by moving it over to one side of the bin and then adding new bedding and scraps to the other side.  The worms will move over there to get to the fresh food and bedding.  Just remove the compost and add it to any soil you wish to enliven.  Add some of the compost to some good water and you have yourself a "worm tea" to apply as a fertilizer.

If all of the contents are to be used, you can dump the bin onto a tarp and then slowly skim the top materials off as the worms go deeper into the pile to escape the light.

If odours are occurring then there is too much food being added.  Its important to only add the amount of scraps the worms can handle.  Fruit flies can sometimes appear and we deal with this by covering the top of the materials in the bin with a sheet.

Worm farming is really easy and just wait until you see the veggies you can grow with the juice/castings!

Update * The worms have reduced the materials by about 25% in about two weeks.  They have produced some juice and seem happy!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Hugelkultur - Become a Mound Builder

A hugelkultur bed I designed and built in Argentina, with help from Leigh McIvor and David  LeMay.  The photo was taken by someone at El Jardin de Los Presentes after it was planted.

Hugelkultur is an ancient Eastern European food growing technique.  It has been used for thousands of years to build soil fertility and provide a use for excess woody materials.  This system is great and has an added bonus for northern cold-climate gardeners. As the materials in the mound decompose, a small amount of heat is produced, extending the growing season and helping to protect plants from cold nights.

Here in the North of Superior region, we have an abundance of woody materials that we may often not really know what to do with other than just pile it or burn it. Hugelkultur is here to answer the bell.  Read on to learn how to make some hugelkultur mounds for yourself and the many benefits they provide.

You can make a hugelkultur mound right on top of grass if you wish.  My preferred method though is to first remove the turf, scrape the topsoil away and then weed it.

Next I dig a trench about 30cm deep (1ft.) and a meter wide (3ft.).  The trench collects rainwater that the woody materials will hold for slow release.  You can make this as long as you like.  If it is a longer bed then curve it to follow the contour of the land so it is always level.

Now we line the bottom of the bed with cardboard.  Make sure that it is just the plain brown stuff with vegetable dye lettering.  Do not use glossy, fully coloured and surfaced, heavily glued or waxy stuff.  The worms don't like to eat that as you might well imagine.  Remove all tape and you can remove the staples if you have the patience.  An optional layer of non-glossy vegetable dye based newspaper can be laid down below the cardboard as well.  Now wet these materials well to hold them in place and begin decomposition.  This layer encourages worms to come up and turn the cardboard into worm castings, helps to retain moisture and suppresses roots.

*As you go along through the entire huglekultur mound building process, wet each layer you add.

Gather some old rotten or partially rotten logs or other wood and lay this down to fill the bottom of the trench. Best to avoid using cedar as it takes forever to break down.  Some woods such as black walnut, black locust and black cherry could cause problems with the naturally occurring chemicals they contain.  With our abundance of poplar and birch in the area, best to use these or other such trees as alder, dogwood, pine or spruce.  Alder and dogwood are nitrogen rich.  This thick layer of wood provides multiple benefits.  It retains moisture in the summer and then slowly releases it.  The oft cited example here is that if you go out in the woods in the middle of summer and things are quite dry, just poke into an old log and it will be plenty moist inside.  This organic matter provides plenty of nutrients that nourish all types of life as you can also observe in the forest.  As it breaks down, it naturally tills the soil by creating openings.

On top of the large woody material, we place a layer of brush.  This fills gaps in the bottom layer and gives us a cushion to place further, smaller materials onto. Press down the brush (it could also be corn stalks or any other brush like organic matter) until its spongy and firmly in place.  It will break down faster than the large woody layer because it is much smaller and has more surface area. The center of the mound is aerated from the sides and the criss-cross of the brush provides thousands of air pockets for roots to easily go down into and soil creatures to thrive in.  It also provides excellent drainage while aiding in moisture retention.  A beautiful paradox.

Next we place a layer of partially decomposed compost.  This will feed nutrients into the soil and give a boost to the wood breaking down as well.  It is not as fine as finished compost so it won't all fall down through the spaces between the woodies.  On top of this you place the natural fertilizers you have on hand.  If you have manure, a layer of that is great here.  You can also add a layer of normal kitchen scraps that otherwise would have went to your compost pile as I did.  I gathered some vetch from around the garden site as it is rich in nitrogen and was there on hand and layered this on top of the partial compost and kitchen scraps. A bucket of urine diluted with about nine parts water to one part urine can also add a real boost of nitrogen.

It's now time to put the soil back on top all the while keeping in mind that you want a nice mound shape.

Then add a layer of nice topsoil or finished compost and voila, you are ready to plant or transplant.  Adding a layer of mulch is a great idea at this point. Another option is to construct your hugelkultur mounds in the fall and let them decompose over the winter.  Biochar may also be considered in amongst the large woody layer as it will hold water and nutrients for later release.

I transplanted spaghetti squash into this mound.  All told it only took a couple of hours to make and it's fun because its simple, makes so much sense and is interestingly technical at the same time.  

Plants that are known to do well in hugelkultur mounds are potatoes, squash, zucchini, melons and many types of berries.  There are really many possibilities here.  Blueberries and raspberries are reported to do excellently and are of course abundant in our climate.  Fruit trees are also reported to experience much higher growth in hugel beds.  Adding a low rock wall around the bed offers the additional rewards of heat absorption and radiation, habitat for beneficial creatures, water and soil retention and aesthetic appeal.  I picture a small berry bush forest holding alternating mounds of berries, fruit trees, cucurbits and potatoes.  Hmmm....

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Cool Spring

Work has continued preparing the gardens for planting.  I was out planting today in a light rain.  Beets, radish, romaine lettuce and beans got in the ground.  The sandflies drove me inside though.  A deer crossed the path in front of me as I was on my way to gather some fiddleheads.  The deliciousness of the ostrich fern fiddleheads have given me all of the motivation I need to create a perennial fiddlehead bed.  The asparagus bed that was established earlier in May, is doing great and the tallest flower head is about 2 feet.  After establishing the new fern bed, there will be two new amazing spring harvests, and best of all they are perennial!

The onions are doing well and the corn has recovered from some cold nights where it was necessary to cover it with a tarp.  The potatoes are coming along nicely as well and the peas are starting to leaf out a little.  The leek bed is looking good after a bit of a slowdown do to the cool weather.

A new keyhole bed garden has been planted with carrot, turnip and parsnip seed along with three different varieties of cabbage transplants.  The cabbage were grown from seed in our greenhouse.  They appear to be stabilizing after a bit of a shock when some really windy weather greeted their new lives in the open.

Several plant starts have been made in the greenhouse including thyme, oregano, basil, summer savory, dill, leek, cilantro and sage for the herbs. Experiments in grains has begun with amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.  Also planted are comfrey, alfalfa and stinging nettle to be used as fertility builders in the garden and to be fed to the future chickens.  Several wildflowers we have planted that are friendly to the hummingbirds and the butterflies and of course the bees are coming up now.

It is amazing to watch all of the different plants emerge in the site of the future food forest.  There will certainly never be a need to plant any groundcovers! There are a wide variety of trees, shrubs and all sorts of herbaceous greenery. The little wild black cherry grove is also looking very healthy after a thinning out of the two oldest and largest trees, which were dying.  The bees are loving the giant lilac bush in the center of the backyard beside the kitchen garden.

As the season has been very busy, I have not posted any more specific how-to articles as of yet.  Rest assured they are coming soon.  Let us see how the system evolves.