Sunday, November 15, 2009

Two Successful Experiments, Two Planned Experiments

Ok, so we've been slowing chipping away at sustainability. At first we thought we'd have to save up and buy a Prius or something, then we discovered bikes do the job nicely. Now that the bike thing is somewhat under control we've been moving towards food sustainability. We found a local CSA-it's a local farm where you can purchase a share in the farm's productivity for the year. In addition we began a home garden to supplement the food from the CSA.

The garden turned out surprisingly well. I began researching gardening (because I knew that I would totally *fail* otherwise) and found quite a lot of good info online concerning permaculture. I bought a book called "Gaia's Garden" Toby Hemenway and "The Four Season Harvest" by Eliot Colleman. Gaia's garden laid out a very clear plan for "sheet mulching". I heard mention of sheet mulching a lot on permaculture sites, but hadn't actually been able to find instructions for implementing it without the book. Essentially you loosen but not turn the soil with a fork, then put a layer of nitrogen rich material down. Blood-meal or cut weeds work well. Then you put a weed barrier than composts such as cardboard down. Then pile on 8-12 inches of compostables watching your balance of nitrogen to carbon components to maintain a 50/50 mixture. At this point I added a bacterial-composter which was not in the book, but seemed to work well for me. Then apply 2" of compost and 2" of mulch. Water the whole thing as you are mixing it up to the consistancy of a damp sponge. Then water it regularly. In the warm weather of May and June, I had 8" of nice black soil teeming with soil life in about 5-6 weeks! Amazing! The garden took off and we are still eating ripe tomatoes in November! The best part, I found was that I had no digging, no heavy garden work and almost no weeds.

We moved into our house in May and the plants were ready because I'd started them inside in March but the garden beds weren't ready. Starting in May, we didn't have much time for our sheet-mulch to decompose. So I modified the "recipe" by making the compost/planting layer deeper. I used one big bale of peat-moss and 4 bags of mushroom compost per 3' x 10' bed to make the planting layer about 6" deep. Then by the time the seedlings were growing deeper than 6", the compost underneath would be rotted down. This was a bit of a gamble, as I didn't know if the mushroom compost would be too hot and burn the roots, but it seems the peat moss diluted it enough so as not to hurt the plants. The garden was quite a success. We planted chard, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, basil, broccoli, spaghetti squash, butternut squash and bell peppers. All of the plants yielded well. The tomatoes got in the ground a little late for our area and consequently about 1/4 of them ripened on the bush and the rest I put in boxes in the pantry, layered 1-2 deep. They are just about all ripened now and we have been enjoying fresh tomatoes all fall! I may plant tomato bushes late in the season again just so I can enjoy them next fall.

I mentioned Elliot Coleman's book earlier, the "Four Season Harvest". I got very excited reading this book, thinking that winter gardening could provide fresh veggies for the family in the winter. So I headed over to our local gardening center to pick up some cold-season seeds, only to be informed by the gardener on duty at the time that Coleman's book, written in the Northeast (Maine) would not translate to our climate--at least not without modification for climate. He told me that the challenge here in Colorado for a cold-frame is that we have very low humidity which means that we have very broad swings in temperature. Seriously, for those of you who have never been here, it can be 70 during the day in December and then 20 at night or the next day. The problem this creates for plants is that their leaves don't get adjusted to the cold and then they get killed by the frost. This problem is exacerbated by a cold-frame. As it stores heat when the sun in shinning and it's already hot, so temps can get as hot as 140 very quickly and then the glass and wood doesn't insulate well enough to keep the plants from freezing at night. Well, I bought my seeds (I can't believe they even had all those winter seeds, Botanical Interests rocks!). Then I went home to brain-storm with Anthony. We decided to try insulating with straw-bales for the walls of the cold frame and then providing thermal mass with water. To do a good job of it, we'd really need a lot of water, but for starters, we did about 40 milk jugs filled with water lining the inside of the straw bales. Then to keep the cost of our experiment down, we just threw plastic supported by stakes over the top of the bales of straw. I planted seeds Aug 15 and covered the plants in early October.

It worked! I was totally shocked. The plants inside the "cold frame" not only survived, but thrived. Their leaves grew right up to the top of the cold frame and were pushing on the plastic. The ones outside the cold frame survived, but didn't grow much, (probably too cold). So, since it worked and the plants grew I built a tunnel arching over the top. This should take care of the snow crushing the plants problem I had with a flat top to the cold frame. And here, we have a new experiment. Will the water still be enough thermal mass to keep the plants going? Probably not without adding more jugs, because the mass of air just increased many times without the water mass increasing, so I anticipate I will need to add more water. Another experiment, I just planted some spinach and some kohlrabi. If stuff is growing, I may be able to plant more and have it grow this time of year, who knows! This will be my 3rd attempt to plant spinach. For some reason my spinach seeds have not been germinating. I am not sure of the cause. It could be slugs, squirrels which love to dig in my gardens, maybe I didn't keep the soil moist enough because I planted them next to mature plants which didn't need as much watering last time, maybe the soil is too acidic with all that peat in there. I'm not sure. If these don't germinate, I may try a different pack of seeds-maybe something happened to the seeds. I guess we'll see.

And this leads me to my next experiment, can we produce enough food on our .25 acre lot to mostly or entirely feed our family from our gardens? Maybe... if I garden three-dimensionally and try a forest garden. I'm currently looking into replacing our 100' long hedge row of an ornamental shrub with a hedge of hazelnuts. There are a couple nurseries out there supplying cold-hardy varieties. The extension out here said that hazelnuts aren't that productive here because of "the climate", but I will have to have more specific information than that before I give up on the idea.