Sunday, 17 August 2014

Hard Work + Benign Neglect = FOOD

Much of our work here this year has been about water and soil.   After taking a Permaculture Design Course and intensively studying permaculture for 2 years, I spent this past winter mapping out a detailed plan for our property.   As Spring approached, the fear of making a major mistake placing elements that couldn't be changed after the fact (a Type 1 Error) was building.  If I didn't get the water right, nothing else would be right!  Adding to that state of apprehension was the steep financial investment of major earthworks.   All of this combined, I just wasn't confident forging ahead with so little practical experience under my belt.   The scale of labour was ALL wrong...  I didn't need to hire an excavator - I needed to dig!

We wisely decided to slow our timeline to avoid making costly mistakes (due to lack of experience) and in the meantime, get our hands dirty messing around with water and soil.  We needed to TRY some techniques and get some feedback from the site which in hindsight, I'm SO GLAD that we did.

The biggest lessons I learned in all the research/study of permaculture were:

1)  Type 1 errors can't be easily fixed and in many cases, can't be fixed AT ALL

2)  Try small things first to see what works on your site

3)  Make many small mistakes and learn from them

Those tips were enough warning for me!  Instead of hiring out an excavator right off the bat to make permanent changes to our property (that we may regret in future), our goal for 2014 was to "do the least for the most benefit".   I wanted to see how little we could get away with doing (and spending) to successfully implement permaculture strategies on our property while I had my 'hands on, get dirty, learning year".

Designing around water harvesting/catchment is crucial.  It was drilled into my head to deal with water FIRST before anything else.  We have grand plans for an active water catchment system (complete with large above ground storage tanks and plans to fill our existing underground cistern with rainwater) but for now, in this year of learning, the passive system is working beautifully. 

The foundation of this passive water harvesting/catchment was some basic survey work to find the contour lines of the land.   True to permaculture ethics (use what you have), I scabbed together a makeshift bunyip water level using a 6' wooden stake and a bamboo pole.  I had to buy tubing, but this can be re-used for many years of work here and on consultations.  I marked the poles on both sides (metic and imperial), attached the tubing, filled it with water and within an hour had a functioning water level - HOT DANG!  For more information about making a water level check out THIS VIDEO.

Before
I surveyed the entire area in front/beside the house which gave me a pretty good picture of how I needed to slow the water.  In the picture below, the curvy line where we cut out the grass is a contour line (it's completely level from the driveway around to the side of the house).  Further up, closer to the house (which is at a higher elevation), we marked another contour line which would become the wood chip filled water distribution swale/pathway.


Front of house after surveying and sod flipping - starting to mulch

Side of house, after surveying and sod flipping, starting to mulch

The brown downspout at the side of the house delivers water collected from half the roof right into the swale.  Once we install permanent (active) water catchment elements (tanks and distribution pipes), we can easily marry that into the work we've done to date.  The contour of the land dictates where those elements must go and so we proceeded with confidence.

We rented a sod cutter (a heavy, nasty beast!) and cut out all the grass from this area.  The KEY was to cut the sod ON CONTOUR (across the slope along the curvy contour lines, not up and down). By keeping the sod on contour, water running down the landscape would be further interrupted/slowed by the placement of the strips of flipped sod (one the soil improves, this won't be an issue as water will be much more easily absorbed).  We heavily mulched over the flipped sod and so began the soil building process.   What did I learn in all this work?  Grass is pernicious!  It will grow back unless VERY heavily mulched.   Heavy mulch smothers it and facilitates decomposition, so if you decide to undertake such a venture, use cardboard overtop the flipped grass and MULCH HEAVILY or you WILL have grass re-growing...

On to mulch... we already had a large supply of organic flax straw from our friend and local organic grain farmer, but we needed some diversity.  Once again guided by permaculture ethics, we continued to look for waste streams in our area.   We discovered that the power company is trimming/pruning under power lines in our area this summer and the result of that tree work is LOTS of wood chips (all from the surrounding area).  By having the chips dumped on our property, it saves the crew time and gas (avoiding the drive to a compost facility to dump) and the wood chips give us tremendous soil conditioning capabilities!  Additionally, wood chips are highly effective for passive water harvesting (wood holds a lot of water) and boosting the fungal content of the soil which in turn, boosts soil fertility.   All told, wood chips make excellent mulch (especially deciduous chips).  



I've lost count, but I know that we have taken delivery of approximately 17 loads of wood chips this summer (pictured above is 4 loads).   That shed wall is 16 feet (to give you perspective) and that's only 4 loads.  We've spread a LOT of wood chips this year and there's plenty more to do!



The decomposition process has already started in this fresh pile of ash chips.  It's heating up rapidly given the nitrogen/carbon ratio (leaves/wood).  See the steam?  We've been fortunate to receive a beautiful, diverse mix of willow, poplar and ash (and some coniferous trees as well) although the chips are largely deciduous.  We've given the tree pruners a small incentive (cash) to drop off the mostly deciduous loads.  Eggs have been thrown in as a barter as well :)  This is such a great deal for us as I had previously priced out having chips delivered from a city arborist and the cost was over $300 PER LOAD given our rural location. Taking full advantage of the pruning/chipping being done in our area this year has REALLY paid off.

As the area in front of the house was quite badly compacted, we knew that it would take some time to loosen it up without tilling.  To aid this process, we planted daikon radish and potatoes (great soil busters!).  A few recent test digs tell us that the heavy mulching is working - the soil is slowly loosening up thanks to a heavy earthworm population and the decomposition of the sod and mulch.   When using wood chips, it's important to ensure adequate nitrogen is added as it is depleted during the decomposition of the wood chips.   I can see that I need to add a bit more as the green growth is a bit light in colour.



Below (in the after picture) the strip of wood chips along the driveway in front of the house was planted to daikon radish.  Daikon did a great job of "drilling" holes into the heavy, compacted soil - it is a workhorse!   I recently mowed the tops down and heavily mulched over it all with wood chips.  The thick radishes will rot in place (aiding in soil building) and the holes left will help to aerate the compacted soil.  By Spring, this area should be much improved and the entire area in front and beside the house will be planted out into a perennial food forest.  I'm quite excited about that prospect. 

Before

After 

All summer, while we worked hard at these soil building and passive water harvesting measures (and tending to our large family) the rest of the gardens grew... and grew... and grew!   






The tomatoes in the annual garden are absolutely feral - I decided not to prune and baby them this year (other than mulching them well and keeping them from toppling over).  I simply decided to "let them be tomatoes" to see what happened.   In spite of suffering major early setbacks, VERY good things are happening (mice got into the greenhouse and ate the sown seed plus we had frost kill all the month old tomato seedlings).   I don't care if the plants look like a hot mess - they are producing well in spite of a being planted a full month late.  Fertile soil and long daylight hours can do wondrous things!









There is food in abundance everywhere we turn.   I have learned the valuable lesson that creating self sustaining systems is VITAL.  We have been very busy with the front yard this year and I haven't had as much time to tend the annual veg plot but as it's been heavily mulched and the soil has improved dramatically, it's largely fending for itself.  Although we are still in the heavy workload phase of property development (which is NOT sustainable from a personal energy and time perspective in the long term) I can see the big picture benefits of an established, self sustaining, mature permaculture site.  Less work and more harvesting :)  I'm SO up for that.