How much food could you grow in your own yard? We're about to find out...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

fermenting part 4- kefir and yogurt

i put the kefir grains in 2% milk two nights ago.  the first night, i was a moron and spilled all kinds of kefir into kitchen sink because i didn't know how to strain it out of the quart fermentation jar.  you need to make a long funnel to pour into instead of a strainer.  i made an impromptu funnel out of aluminum foil until i look for something permanent.

after putting in more milk, i got a half liter of kefir today.  i pressed the kefir grains together somewhat using two water glasses, one smaller than the other, to extract out more of the whey and other liquid.  what was left was relatively firm half cup of kefir grains.  the number seems to have nearly doubled since the first night.  there is a light sour smell, but it smells fresh, not rotten.  the grains have a very interesting flavor.

i also got 5 more pints of yogurt started.  i figure five is a good number: eat four and keep on for future culturing.  sterilizing jars, lids, and seals is getting easier to do quickly.  i've tried about three different starter cultures thus far and have found that the best is trader joe's store brand greek style yogurt.  it firms up far better than danon.  it has more active cultures listed, too (3 in total).

i had far more heated milk left over, so i decided to experiment with the kefir.  i added a few tablespoons of the strained half liter of liquid and added it to each pint jar.  i screwed on lids and rings and set it up next to the kefir grains.  we'll see how that turns out in comparison.  if the pint jars of heated milk and kefir get firm, then i'll try making cheese.

on another front, i talked with my wife's grandmother, an 90-something finnish woman.  she remembers drinking viili as a girl.  she talked about spooning off the mold growing on top of the fermented drink and then drinking the fermented milk.  this whole fermentation jag i've been on since it got cold, has been a really interesting cultural lesson, too.  all over the world, different cultures have used fermentation to preserve food.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

fermenting part 3- kraut, yogurt,...

add kefir to the list...

i bought grains tonight from  it should arrive next week, i assume.  what started this: i bought a jug of kefir from trader joe's today.  i split it between two quarts of milk and will leave it for a while.  it essentially yields 2 quarts of kefir from a single 16 ounce jug. again, i'll post more info. soon.  while reading all over to figure out how to culture the kefir from the store to a larger amount, i got super interested in kefir grains and powdered milk.

the kraut is still going.  i added more brine to the kraut after i tasted it initially.  i tasted it just three days ago and it was far too salty for my taste, so i pitched that container of kraut.  i'll taste what will be a 3 week old kraut that has not been disturbed.  there is a layer of soft fungus of some kind at the top, which i'll scrape off.  i have a 2 quart crock that i'll use for my next kraut batch.  i'm on the lookout for free crock pots on craigslist or freecycle; i'll toss the burner part and keep the crock for fermenting..

i'm trying a greek style yogurt today as a starter.  also, i'm switching to pint jars instead of quart jars for reasons of portability and that i can keep a better temperature control on a smaller amount per jar.  beyond that, i have far more pint jars than quart jars and they're easier to sterilize.  the greek yogurt lacked a sharp tang, so i'm not holding my breath about whether or not it cultures well.  it did claim to have a wider variety of cultures available.

Monday, December 13, 2010

fermenting part 2- kraut and yogurt

the yogurt seems to be hit or miss.  some times it's firm like store bought greek yogurt.  other times it's runny.  the taste is the same regardless though.  the home made yogurt is tart and flavorful.  the whey rises to the top.  i'm not sure what to do with that, frankly.

the sauerkraut is now going on day 11.  i tasted it on day 9.  it was really good!!!  it's not nearly as sour as store bought, but i assume that will change.  i've resolved to taste it every three days now to figure out the change in flavor as it ferments.  the caraway seeds that i added to the kraut make a really tasty addition.  next time, i think i'll add parsnips or carrots or chunks of potato.

it's definitely time to buy a great big crock!

Friday, December 3, 2010

fermenting- yogurt and kraut

i shredded a head of cabbage and diced a half onion.  the cabbage and onions were tossed with 1.5 tablespoons of kosher salt and carraway seeds.  the mix was split between two cleaned wide-mouthed quart jars.  juice glasses were filled with water as a weight and set on top of packed cabbage.  the cabbage in both jars is already sweating out all the water.  i've never had live sauerkraut before.

my mom made yogurt when i was a kid.  she had a 6 or 8 cup yogurt maker, which must not have been anything more than a heating element.  i heated a half-gallon of milk and swirled in a couple tablespoons of the ass-end of a yogurt quart into the milk.  i poured the milk into quart jars and wrapped them in towels and set them over top of the gas stove pilot.  it's been almost 3 hours.  i think this will take longer than the 4-5 hours that is called for in the directions i've read.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

trellis planning and garden mapping part 1

in the garden there will be eight raised beds that each measure 5x10 feet in size.  i'll be able to plant herbs, beets, greens, kales, broccoli, cabbage, beans, peas, onions, garlic, carrots, melon, cucumbers, squash, corn, radish, strawberries, tomatoes, and potatoes in each and every bed, all arranged with the shortest on the southern most part leading to the tallest and trellised on the north of each bed.  there'll even be room for interplanting green manure plants like dandelions and burdock and comfrey.

so, if there are five heirloom vining tomato plants or five squash plants trellised up, i'm guessing that it could weigh as much as 100 pounds; 2x4 studs may be needed to frame it in.  trellises for peas and beans need not be as strong, half inch bamboo lashed together with string will be fine.  trellising for cukes should probably be somewhere in the middle in terms of strength.

i can vine grapes and cold hardy kiwis up the now-proposed arbor under the tree nearest the garden (i think i might have enough 2x6 lumber left to build the arbor.   maybe i'll try to plant hops or something else up the trees.  in 2009 i tried to run two kiwis up the tree along the driveway, but the squirrels trampled them down and they never took.

i'm getting some input and design ideas from a nice guy i met on the forums. he came over and took some photos.  he's taken a permaculture design course.  vince will be giving me some nice input hopefully.  i'm certain there are things i'm just too inexperienced to know.

Monday, November 29, 2010

free!!! lots of great illustrated designs for trellising and arbors.


squirrels and wild animal piss

i'm trying an experiment.  wild animal piss to scare away the squirrels.  i'm kind of scared to know how the wild animal piss is harvested. .  HA!

my plan is to squirt it strategically around plants that are fruiting or otherwise near harvest.  i've also thought it would be a good idea to spray it along the fences.  i've also had day dreams of filling up a super-soaker and spraying it up into trees and on my roof and on nearby utility poles and utility lines.

if it works i could switch to a different predator after a few years.  like from fox to coyote to bobcat or something.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

winter 2010-2011... planning out loud

it appears unlikely that i will have all 8 raised beds completed by spring.  that's just the way it is.  i have other commitments on weekends and have had other things pop up, so my momentum has been broken somewhat.

this winter, i'm going to plan better for trellices, hoop houses, and fruit caging.  i have to source out a bunch of 1"x3" boards, plastic sheeting.  the hoop houses need to be collapsible or take-down-able or convertible in some capacity.  i'm going to put an arbor beneath the tree along the east property line.

i'm going to plan better for fruit trees and food forest understory; it's likely to be four years (give or take) before the apple trees cast any significant shade.  i'll concentrate on companionate, guild-y sorts of combinations of plants to build up soil and concentrate nutrients for the trees.  nitrogen fixers and other beneficials (comfrey, dandelions, nettles, burdock, clover).  "green manure."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

four more garden beds!

i got a chance today to build four more raised bed frames today.  i think that with these four beds, it would make a great experiment to try to source out cut firewood for a more traditional hugelkultur style raised bed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

materials on hand part 2

i found three bags of concrete mix and i found a number of other concrete chunks and bricks. i still think i'll need to pick up more bricks from Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit at some point to do what i want with spiral gardens and will probably buy more 1" lumber for garden stuff or shelves in the greenhouse.

it looks like i've also accumulated far more hardware (screws, nails, other metal things) than i remember buying.  i have a few boxes of drywall screws and much more assorted chromed and galvanized hardware.  i also found a roll of jute string and some plastic coated thick steel wire that should be nice for a grape vine trellice.

it just seems like much of what i'll need for trellices is right in our garage.  i wish i had more bamboo.  maybe i should grow some.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

materials on hand

1)  28, 2"x6" boards (total about 150 lineal feet)
2)  100, 9" bricks
3)  20, 3'x3' patio pavers
4)  5, 1"3" boards
5)  8, 1" wide 6' long bamboo
6)  6, 2" wide 6' long bamboo
7)  12 tomato cages
8)  8 metal fence stakes
9)  30' of metal plumber's pipe strap
10) plenty of screws and nails

i'm still not certain what i'll do with the patio pavers.  the stakes, bamboo, and smallish lumber will be great for trellices.  this week will have plenty of shoveling and hauling.

Remaining Projects

1) finish garden beds (fall/winter 2010)
2) build spiral garden beds (early spring 2011)
3) plant fruit trees (early spring 2011)
4) greenhouse (fall 2011)
5) innoculate tree trunks for mushrooms (spring 2011)
6) rain water collection (summer 2011)

salvage victory!

it's easy to see how a project, any project could get out of hand in terms of cost.  this is especially true when overall health (as in sustainable gardening) is an overall goal.  how do you consider the cost of your health?  the book link is a great examination of the power and costs of going overboard without a budget.

i'm trying to do things as cheaply as possible.  the cost cutting is one of the more interesting aspects of the whole project.  this has led to the advent of the $8 chicken coop/run, and trying to source out free and very cheap materials.

today, i hit a grandslam home run!!!  i've blogged previously about the detroit architectural salvage near the corner of warren and grand river in detroit.  i bought about 20 boards that were 2x6.  the boards were all mostly 7-8 feet, but a few others were 5-6 feet.  i also bought 100 bricks.  grand total = $41!!!

the master garden plan called for four more 10x5 beds and two spiral gardens.  i'll piece together the 2x6 boards with some plumber's pipe strap and get the beds up and running for the upcoming spring.

one of the spiral gardens will be a tea garden with chamomile, mint, and beebalm, amongst others.  the other will have mostly herbs and self-seeding perrenials.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

coop improvement/salvage philosophy.

i nailed a scrap wire shelf up in the coop.  our neighbors gave us two brown paper sacks of leaves, including seed-heavy decorative grasses with really long stems that are common in suburbs... aka hay.   i took all the other feed out of the coop, so they can concentrate on this stuff.

the success of this whole project essentially depends on concentrating a lot of local biomass from neighbors.  constantly fixing nitrogen with legumes and peas.  leaves.  downed branches.  city provided compost material.

so far,  i've spent a total of $8 on my chicken coop.  all else was repurposed.  the only thing i needed was some fine netting.  all the lumber for the raised beds cost a total of $65.  hardware of about $30.

the hens cost $20.  feed has been a total of $40.  i've recently purchased a couple tarps.  i've bought a few rakes, shovels, etc.  green plastic garden fencing.  stakes and a few tomato cages. $150 on seeds and started plants.

craigslist and freecycle are awesome!!!

Two timely articles from Mother Earth News.

Vertical Gardening

this article outlines a great many ways to trellice up different plants.  It advocates for using arbors to further increase food production.  a message board thread at shows some advocacy for this method as well with proven results.  i think the permaculturists are interested in creating micro-climates to cater to different plants.  one suggestion would be to plant tomatoes, peppers and other plants on the west side of an arbor where they'll appreciate higher temperatures and afternoon sun, and to plant cucumbers and greens and other cool-loving or quick-to-bolt plants on the east side of an arbor to give them late day shade.

frankly, the material costs of the arbor is my first barrier.  cattle panels and other arbor materials are pretty expensive.  i think i'm inclined to really push the limits with trellices, though.

in summer 2010, i used what seemd to be large tomato cages for tomatoes and they simply weren't tall enough.  the indeterminate heirloom varieties (black russian, mortgage lifter, and an heirloom orange and yellow variety) all were far taller than the cages and ended up crashing down into the dirt again after they outgrew the support i provided for them.  i also used a metal post and horizontal wire for pole beans which worked out quite well.  another place, i used an 8 foot tall 1x3" tipi sort of thing with less laudable results.  i think the variety i used wasn't as suited to such high trellicing.

in retrospect, i should have used the smaller tomato cages for peppers and eggplant, which grew to be out of control and needed of support.  it seems like tomato cages would be great for peas and raspberries, too.

Wood chips as soil ammendment.

looking back on building the first four raised garden beds i have no doubt that they'll be great in the long-term, but i had raised some concerns about the soil being nitrogen starved in the near-term.  it seems like those concerns were valid and i may need to ammend the beds with some high nitrogen options, like blood meal (or urine).  since blood meal will disintegrate in water, it may be a good idea to mix up a high nitrogen tea and inject it about 12" below the surface of each bed, like with a syringe.  a long automobile fluid funnel may do the trick nicely.

you may remember that the chipped/shredded wood that was delivered was half fluffy shavings and half small chipped wood.  i had known that this would make the surface area of the wood sky high and speed along decomposition.  but it also seems like i underestimated the nitrogen-lock that may occur where the wood chips meet dirt.

since this blog and this project is about immediate results and really pushing things to the limit, i think i'm going to gamble with a small dose of blood meal now and maybe another one in the spring.

mother earth news is an amazing resource!!  for 40 years now, this magazine has been at the forefront of the upcoming eco-nomic and eco-logical transition that is needed so badly these days.  here's some links to some of their great publications:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Greenhouse part 2

i've become interested in rocket mass heaters as a great way to heat a greenhouse and warm the chickens and keep me from having mid-winter mood swings..  the cobb mass portion could snake along the floor and radiate heat.  given the position of the bee hive, i might even allow the bees in there.

initially, i thought i would want a freestanding greenhouse, but more now, i want to replace the wooden siding on the south facing wall of the garage with second hand windows and broken patio sliding doors.  many could open, still, but others could not.

there's an architectural salvage place in detroit at the corner of warren and grand river that could probably give me much of the materials that i'd need.  maybe take them to be quickly sandblasted or just a couple coats of good sealing glossy paint.  funny story, my wife and i almost got married in the former 555 gallery.

if i can start seeds and transplant into hoop housed bed, i think i can extend the season to 8 months in hoop houses outside and 12 months in the green house.  i think that we will almost always have lettuce. herbs.  strawberries.  tomatoes.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Some pics!

 Here's viewing southwest.  The chicken run wraps around the corner of the garage.  the four completed raised beds are framed in the rear.

 Looking due south.  where the kale is still sprouting, I will put more raised beds.  there are 9 patio stones in the souteast corner, which will be removed.

Here are the four hens..  They're laying each about 6 eggs per week. 

Seed garlic in the ground!

I planted two bulbs.  I planted some last year, but the seed cloves were much smaller.  A few sprouted, but died pretty quickly.

Hopefully, this year will be different.  I only planted about 20 garlic seeds, but it'll be fun.  Hopefully, it'll be a hardneck variety, but I have no idea what it is.

It might be too late, but today and yesterday it was in the 50's, so I don't think i've missed much of anything.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I'm going to be honest: there is absolutely no way I can achieve the amount of calories necessary to make a dent in our family's total yearly intake without growing some seriously calorie-dense food.  So, to be Socratic about the whole thing... What food crop can offer high calorie yield in a small space?

Genetically modified Monsanto corn is grown at about 200 bushels per acre.  Wheat yields are about 100 bushels per acre with all things working to plan.  Potatoes range from 300 to 400 bushels per acre!

Another point to make is that not only do potatoes yield higher per acre, but potatoes are also far more calorie dense than corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans.  The potato Wikipedia entry claims that 9.3 million calories per acre are possible from potatoes.  Clearly, it seems that the calorie density of potatoes per acre makes it the most valuable choice for this project.

So, given that potatoes appear to be the best choice, what is going to be the best way to grow them?  Clearly, an option is to just sew seed potatoes into the raised beds and let them go.  The problem with just sewing into the garden bed lies in the difficulty in continually mounding dirt up on the potatoes without blocking the sun for other plants within the bed.

Youtube has a bunch of videos available with techniques that seem to come from fresh ideas about sustainable agriculture and how to maximize space in the most efficient way possible.  I've had my interest piqued with the above-ground method that makes use of bags of various types.

Example #1
Example #2

I've decided to take it all one step further.  Landscaping cloth is a synthetic rolled material that people typically use underneath flower beds to keep weeds from coming up.  I'm going to make bottomless framed bags more like the kind in the second youtube video link.  I plan to use 1x1" lumber to stake out the corners of the bag and then staple the landscaping cloth to each post.  As the plants grow up, I can add soil and compost and roll the landscaping cloth up, stapling as needed to keep things tidy.

The whole point is that, as far as my reading has found, potatoes will grow along a plant stem wherever it is covered by soil.  So, it'll be interesting to see how far up I can push this method and what effects it will have with the potatoes.  As far as I can tell from all the youtube videos out there, this method is far from fool-proof.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Ferndale is in hardiness Zone 6b, maybe almost a cool 7.  That means that in order to keep food production going 12 months per year, I need to account for at least 50 F degrees (but really more like 60 F degrees) of heating capacity within a greenhouse to grow greens and peas and plenty of other cooler-weather-lovers.  The potential for all kinds of greens and other projects are really too much to pass by.

I'm going to use the blog to mentally doodle about this worthy experiment.  The whole thing really rests on whether or not the project can be cheap and easy to dismantle to sell if it doesn't work out.



I've been having good luck on craigslist lately with sourcing out free to very cheap materials.  All the wood chips and wood shavings for the raised beds were were free.  I bet I can source out some cheap or free old windows.  I already have a sliding patio door that had broken runners on a curbside near to our house.  It doesn't seem impossible to piece together 2x4 studs to frame in old windows.  I have plenty of patio stones to provide a base for a green house.

But, with Michigan the temperature requires that the greenhouse be heated in winter.  There's no way to avoid it.  Conceivably, most heating would need to go on at night and then sustain the temperature into the day. An option might be a Rocket Mass Heater.  This design concept is supposed to be really, really efficient.  It also seems to fit within my price range for materials costs.  Then again, if I were able to find a very cheap old wood burning stove, that would be hard to pass up.

It might be time to change around the chicken coop run to along the entire east garage wall and build a greenhouse on the southeast corner of the garage where the chicken run and compost piles currently are housed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Raised Beds, Hugelkultur style, part 3

 This is one kind of chipped wood I had delivered yesterday.  It's mostly chipped branches with a lot of bark.  It's mostly about a 1/4" square and pretty firm.  I'm guessing that it will hold a lot of water!

 The other half of the wood chips, was this fluffy hardwood shavings.  This will hold a lot of air and really help the organic material in the raised beds get really hot and cook whatever weed seeds are anywhere in the bed.

This is four wheelbarrow loads of the chipped branches as a base with a few shovels of chicken manure scattered across the top of the layer.

 Layer of green garden biomass.  It's mostly tomato vines, broccoli plants minus the heads, and bolted greens.

 Under the dirt, there are several alternating layers of topsoil and hardwood shavings and then about 6 inches of just topsoil.  It mounds up to be about 4 inches higher than the raised bed lumber.  I'm pretty certain that it will all settle down once the air is used in the aerobic composting process.  Rain is expected for each of the next four days (welcome to November in Michigan).  It should be very interesting to see what happens to the volume when water is added to the mix.

 I hammered a wooden stake as far into the bed as possible to allow oxygen to circulate and reach the under layers.  I think I'll keep doing this except with a piece of concrete re-bar to get down to the lowest layer.

so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
-William Carlos Williams

Raised Beds, Hugelkultur style, part 2

Well, after trying to source out wood on craigslist it became abundantly clear that the only wood available was in very large pieces that I would need to cut up and transport.  This presented a serious time commitment that I simply was unwilling to undertake with such a short amount of time before the ground freezes and work in the garden must cease.

So, I started racking my brain and realized that there might be another source of the rich organic material that would feed the underground bacterioculture and fungal systems that make veggies happy.  I had considered collecting neighbors bagged leaves, but I found another source that may be far more appealing... chipped up tree limbs from area tree trimming companies.

<--- Apparently, you can buy the fungal mycorrhizae to inocculate your soil, but why bother when you just need to encourage your soil to self-innoculate.  Mycorrhizae is in your soil already.  Depending on soil conditions, it may be inhibited or encouraged.  The goal is to give fungus so much food that great big chains of fungus penetrate every inch of your garden beds.  In doing this you can make sure that plant-ready nutrients are available to your veggies all the time.  If your soil conditions are right, your veggies can concentrate on growing the leaves and fruits and seeds that you eat instead of the veggie plants having to spend valuable resources growing roots to find the nutrients they need.

Note: Go ahead!!! Follow the link!!!  The product description at least provides a great explanation of the role of mycorrhizae in the growth of your garden.  Plus, it helps fund my little experiment in sustainable food production.

So, going back to craigslist, I found a tree trimming company that would rather deliver wood chips to my house than to a much farther location for disposal.  It saved him time and money because I would shovel the wood chips out of the truck after a long work day and it saved him drive time to the disposal site that was quite a distance away.  So, win-win.

The wood chips are smaller than the wood chip mulch that folks buy from garden centers and big box stores, so I think they'll decompose faster (decomposition rates of most organic material have to do with the availability of nitrogen, soil chemistry, and the surface area of the decomposing object).  I think I'm going to have to adjust for the more rapid decomposition rate of the smaller chips by adding some nitrogen from my compost pile and from the chicken shit that is ready and waiting.  See, circle of life!

Four hugelkultur-ish raised beds are dug out and ready for wood chips and back-filled soil.  I'm really interested in seeing whether or not snow collects on top of the raised beds this winter with the hot composition going on just a few inches below the surface.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's interesting what can be found when playing in the dirt...

1) I've been lucky enough to have never had to do much manual labor in my life.  So, digging and shoveling has been a rarity in my life until this point.  Each of the past gardens I've started were rototilled before planting, so everything was mixed up into who knows what sort of random soil configuration.  It's interesting as I dig down in the beds to see that worms actually leave tunnels under the soil.  I am actually surprised, but maybe that's just incredibly naive.

2) I've gotten close up views of roots.  When I chopped down all that remained of the garden on Friday, all the roots were left intact.  I broadcast seeds pretty heavily when I planted in Spring 2010.  I never took the time to thin out plants and was surprised by their apparent health.  Now I know that even when plants are sewn too closely, they'll send their roots out at severely horizontal directions to the surface of the soil to find unused space.  I mean, it makes sense that a plant would do what it needs to to get nutrition, but I am amazed by this example of self-preservation.

3) I am amazed at the amount of plastic in my soil.  It's somewhat disconcerting, but I guess rationally I should know that plastics decompose very slowly and pose little risk.  It's just weird to see such prevalent bits of plastic in my soil.  I'm guessing that it's there because I used city-provided compost in Spring 2010 which is made from leaves and brush that is picked up curbside.  It makes sense that people's household trash and pedestrian's cumulative littered waste would be prevalent in what is picked up curbside.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Raised Beds, Hugelkultur style

We've started installing the raised beds in the garden area.  Raised beds are a good idea for a number of reasons:
1) they keep your veggies organized and they help you space out plants appropriately
2) they resist soil compaction, which aids worms and other beneficials in tunneling through the soil the way they're supposed to.
3) you can plant earlier because the beds are raised slightly and they'll warm sooner than soil at ground level.

We've decided that with raised beds it should be easier to build A-frame plastic covered hoop houses with a defined bed.  Also, fencing off or netting off particular plants will be far easier because an animal will have to tunnel under the wooden frame and then up to the surface in the bed; it's not impossible, but less likely when other food sources are undefended.

The hugelkultur concept has been highly praised as a way to save water.  With my water bills being about $1200 per year, it will reduce (or hopefully eliminate) the need for watering in later summer.  With hugelkultur, you simply bury carbonaceous material under the bed.  Typically logs are piled on teh ground and then dirt is piled on top of the piles.  Essentially, the logs act as sponges once they decay a bit. The logs hold water and the plants send roots down to the logs to sit there, mingle, and have drinks.  As the wood decays it provides valuable nutrients to plants.  Worms and other beneficial organisms feed on the wood and turn it into worm castings and other insect waste for the veggies to gobble up and use for their own purposes.  Circle of life, right?

In our suburban version, we want it to be more tidy and more likely to escape the complaints of neighbors who probably wouldn't want big heaping piles of dirt visible over the fence.  The raised beds are framed out of 2x8 lumber and measure 5'x10'.  The soil was dug out of the bed to a depth of about 10".

Initially, it was thought that wood would be difficult to source out in the amounts needed to line the bottom of 10 beds.  I started thinking of burying tree leaves bagged in brown paper bags like from a garden or hardware store.  Craigslist solved this problem.  It turns out that nobody wants their trees when they fall down or are cut down.  A quick search of the Free section found a half-dozen current posts where tons of free fire wood was available.  Anyways, we'll be renting a truck and going to pick up as much wood as possible.

So, once the wood is lined in the beds, the soil that is piled up neatly next to the bed will be back-filled.  If 10" is dug out from the bed, and 10" of wood is filled into the bottom of the bed, there will be an extra 2" of soil to pile up on the beds to account for when the dirt and wood settles out through the winter.

One more thing: when brown things (leaves, wood, other brown-colored biomass) decay, they use nitrogen from surrounding plants; high nitrogen levels aid in decomposition.  To counteract this, you need to beef up nitrogen.  There are three common sources available: manure, green biomass (grass clippings, green leaves), and blood meal.  Manure and blood meal will burn plants if applied directly, but will aid in the decomposition of all logs that are in the bed.  Another method involves saving and using your own nitrogen-rich urine, but this may be too much for some folks.

For more information about Hugelkultur visit:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Finished hen run.

We got the hen coop finished.  The girls were outside rolling around in the dirt and pecking away at the new area.  They seemed curious and quite happy with their new territory.

We have big plans for the coop as a source of good fertilizer and for calories.

I've found a home for the two white Aracauna/bantam cross hens that we have at Catherine Ferguson Academy.  This is a great program in Detroit where pregnant teens and teen moms can attend school while their babies are cared for on site.  There is an on-grounds farm with apiary, poultry, a horse, and rabbits.  The students tend garden and engage in an entrepeneurship program where veggies grown on site at the school is sold at Eastern Market and other farmer's markets.

There was a great documentary made about the program and urban sustainability and economic/social justice called "Grown In Detroit"

here's a link to the trailer:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Our first garden- Summer 2009

This was our first garden.  It was about 450 square feet.  I planted green bush habit beans, squash, peppers, beets, tomatoes, and a few herbs.

We yielded about a bushel of tomatoes, about a half bushel of beans, a dozen squash, poor pepper yield, poor beet yield, and poor herb yield.  Strawberries and raspberries in border gardens didn't yield much.

Still, we learned a lot!!!  We learned about spacing.  We learned not to plant pepper seeds to early.  We learned that every squash type is the same species as all others.  Our bees made sure we had some weird squash hybrids.

We took out about 5 quarts of honey from the hive.  The wife was in charge and took some lessons in beekeeping.  The hive died that winter.

At the end of the season, we cut down a decorative apple tree that was stealing my late evening sun for about half of the garden; it was about then that we decided to double the size of the garden.

Enlarging the chicken run.

When we first got chicks at the end of April 2010, we had never had pets, let alone domesticated birds that were supposed to provide us with eggs.  Thanks Sally and Joel!

We started them in a cardboard box with an incandescent bulb and transitioned them outside during days once it warmed.  They survived a small basement fire.  We started putting them in a dog kennel where we lost one to a raccoon or a cat (RIP Long Neck).  Soon we had a coop in the garage.  We used found materials (a door frame, some 1x4's, some green plastic garden fence).  Cut a hole into the side of the garage, and we were golden!

The hens had a small porch area that was fenced in.  It was this area that was tripled in size.  It will be very interesting to see how long it takes the hens to eat all the green shoots in their new area.  One week would be a fair guess.  In total the chickens take up about 100 square feet, counting their inside and outside space.

If a hen can lay 5 eggs per week, and we have 4 hens, and each egg is worth 75 calories, it would make sense to make sure there is enough space to collect those nearly 80,000 calories.  That creates over 3% of our family's total yearly calorie needs and is an easy source of protein. 

The larger hen coop had other practical reasons as well.  First, chickens need sunlight to lay eggs.  Large commercial producers who cage their hens know that artificial light and hormones are needed to make up the difference.  Having space outside for the hens will improve egg production and lead to healthier hens and eggs.  Second, with a larger area for the hens, they'll have a better chance to break down weeds, leaves, etc., for the compost pile.  More area, means less concentrated droppings, which means more readily usable chicken droppings (fresh chicken shit is too hot to go straight on the garden).  Third, happy birds make a difference to me for lots of intangible reasons.

So, this coop and run is far more permanent now.  When we first got the hens, we weren't sure if the neighbors would object, but there is little, apparently, that won't be forgiven if you just share your bounty (we bribe them with honey and basil and eggs).  So, it made sense to make it a better, permanent coop.

Here are our two laying hens.  Breed: ISA Brown, 6 months old.  "White Wing" and "Jumper."  They've been laying for two weeks; one per day, each.

Here's the coop from the inside of the garage.  bedding is all pine shavings, but will be hay or straw in the future.  We got a bale of pine shavings for a buck at a yard sale!  grass clippings or other yard waste would be great bedding.  We'll bring in fall leaves in garbage bags as a pre-composting pile step.  All of our household food waste goes to the hens for food.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

About us.

We are currently a family of 3, with a fourth on the way in Feb. 2011.  Our 2 1/2 year old boy is already enjoying the garden and is preparing for a career as a Zamboni driver.  The wife really likes eating fresh, nutritious food.  The husband really likes satisfying pathetic post-apocalyptic thought experiments.

Both husband and wife enjoy sticking it to consumption-based corporations by participating in their games as little as it possible.  Neither wife, nor husband like the rat-race and prefer to spend as little time (in an office) working.  The husband is a social worker.  The wife is presently telecommuting to a great, flexible IT job, but fancies herself a librarian or art educator.  Both husband and wife value experiences over possessions and like second-hand stuff.

We are permaculture enthusiasts.  We eat locally whenever possible and support local businesses over chains even though a premium is sometimes paid in terms of price.  We like unions and think trickle-down is what happens when you can't get to a bathroom.

Our suburb is pretty funky.  It's got a nice walkable grid layout.  Lots of tiny shops.  GLBT friendly.  Public transportation sucks.  Biking is becoming more commonplace.  The co-op preschool that we just joined is really fun!  City finances are crappy, just like everywhere else with increasing fees and decreasing revenues.

Husband's family had a garden growing up, but it was pesticide heavy.  Wife's family has history as Upper Peninsula homesteaders.  Husband's family has history of farming, but mostly monoculture and gardening.  Wife's family loves hunting and fishing.


Our area was a traditionally fertile area for agriculture.  Receding glaciers left behind tons of sediment.  Black dirt was 4 feet deep in my backyard; a sewer replacement trench let me scope that measurement..

In 2010, the yard was ripped up by a backhoe for a sewer line replacement ($4000 ouch!), it needed some serious attention this past spring.  Ceramic sewer was scattered everywhere and lots of gravel and other stuff was brought up from the backhoe work.  With help, we unloaded 8 full-size pick-up truck loads of municipal compost (leaves, branches, bits of plastic) from our local city DPW and raised the yard about 2 inches, for nice drainage.

After several rototilling sessions to mix in the compost, we planted mostly from seed.  I would guess that our soil is pretty rich with high levels of humus.  I haven't tested it's pH or had nutrient levels tested, but we've had great success with our garden thus far.

After this year, we will begin incorporating compost with chicken droppings and household compost, as well as yard waste as raised bed dressing.  We've never used any pesticides, insecticides, or artificial fertilizers on the garden.  We don't plan to, but it is clear that the previous owner did apply pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

Watering may be required, but not regularly.  In summer 2010, the garden was watered often after initially sewing seed in the second week of May, but by mid-June, the watering stopped; none since, either.  I hadn't been very proactive with mulches last year, so that may be a serious way of reducing the overall water cost of the project.

Project Outline

Our calculated family nutritional caloric "need" is roughly 2.5 million calories per year.  The math is 4 family members * 365 days per year * 1700 calories.  Seems simple enough without addressing caloric disparity between first and third world nations..

We live in an inner-ring Detroit suburb in a thriving Woodward Corridor city.  Our home is a duplex with an upper one bedroom unit and a lower 2 bedroom unit.  We occupy the lower unit and rent out the upper unit to a wonderful friend.  We garden on our 40'x140' lot.  Our neighbors are really understanding and nice and gracious.

This project is about producing as much as possible of  our family's caloric intake.  We'll try to grow as much food as possible in our backyard and border gardens, totaling about 1100 square feet.  We have hens.  Two that lay.  We also have a beehive.  We are neither expert chicken-folk, nor expert apiarists.  We just like the way it all fits together.

Until this point, we have expanded what was just border gardens (2008) into a 500 square foot open-row designed garden with beehive (2009) to a 1000 square foot open-row garden with beehive and hens (2010).  I've taken out many plants in the border gardens and will continue to replace bulbs with edible perennials in the remainder of the year.

In 2011, the garden will be better organized with framed raised beds (between 16 and 20 of them) with a rough companion/square foot gardening strategy.  i'll be building poly-covered A-frame hoop houses starting in early April 2011.  I'm toying with the idea of putting in up to three fruit trees, grapes, and maybe an elderberry bush.  We'll grow potatoes for the first time next year.

It would likely take 3 years to dial in a food forest sort of strategy.  What is possible to eek out of an relatively unremarkable suburban backyard?  We'll try to find out.

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