September 16, 2021

Shocking Practices in Permaculture

When Dan and I first read Sepp Holzer's Permaculture, we were quite surprised at the heavy equipment Sepp used when he was setting up his farm. He totally rearranged the side of a mountain with a variety of earth moving equipment. At that time, we were meandering down the path of more natural farming and gardening and had come to see massive plowing and tilling as destructive. Because of that, his massive earthworks were shocking.

Thanks to my online permaculture design course, I'm learning that earthworks are the foundation of permaculture design. I'm starting to understand the when and why of earthworks, and how it differs from traditional uses of equipment and machinery. Plowing and tilling are seasonally repeated actions that destroy the soil ecosystem. Permaculture earthworks are carefully planned one-time projects with a specific purpose in mind. That purpose usually revolves around capturing and keeping as much water on the land as possible. Two common examples are ponds and swales. A less common one is ripping the soil.

Ripping is a soil conditioning technique. Have you ever dug a hole in the ground after a heavy rain? I have, and have been shocked to discover that after a good, long, soaking rain, the soil is only moist in the top few inches. The soil under that can be bone dry. This is common anywhere plant growth has been kept short, and/or the area sees a lot of traffic from either herds of animals or heavy equipment. Plants compensate for being mown or eaten by pruning their roots to match the top-growth. If that top-growth stays short, the roots stay shallow, so nothing penetrates the soil including water and oxygen.

In a natural system, deep-rooted trees and plants keep the subsoil from becoming compacted. They also pull up minerals from deep within the soil, for the benefit of the plants and everything that eats them. 

In Australia, a Wallace plow is used to recondition compacted soil. It is designed to specifically open a line in the soil at whatever depth it's set to. It doesn't necessarily tear up and turn the soil, but slices the soil to allow plant roots, air, and rain to penetrate. The soil ecosystem is preserved. The following are from an illustration in Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual (PDM), page 218, figure 8.11.

Short grasses (from mowing, grazing, or heavy traffic) cause short roots.
The soil is dense and without the structure needed to hold water and air.

Forage growth from 3 rips with the Wallace plow at various 
depths: 2-4 in (5-10 cm), 5-8 in (12-20 cm), 9-12 in (23-30 cm).

I've dug into our soil in numerous places and know how dense and dry the soil is, even one shovel-depth deep. So, I tried to research Wallace plows in the US but came up with nothing. What we did find, was a subsoiler. It's only single shanked, but Dan says the depth can be adjusted somewhat, although not as much as the Wallace plow. Still, something is better than nothing.

Soil ripper aka subsoiler.

Action shot.

Parallel rows in the pasture, made on contour.

Being on contour, rain heading downhill will be caught in the rips and soak deeper into the ground. I sprinkled a fall forage seed mix into the rows, where the roots can now reach deeper depths in the soil. This will then cut or grazed, causing the plants to prune their roots back underground. The living roots push into compacted soil and the pruned roots decompose and add organic matter to deeper levels of the soil. This can be repeated several times.

In the spring, we'll add more rips at hopefully different depths. I'll seed with a summer forage mix. In the PDM, Bill says this technique creates deep humus soils over one or two growing seasons. If that's the case, we've found a great technique to kickstart soil building where it's badly needed.

September 12, 2021

Fall Garden: Planting By Length of Daylight

Several years ago, I blogged about what I had learned about soil temperature and plant growth ("What I'm Learning About Fall Gardening.") For awhile, I tried to plant my fall garden after the soil temperature dropped below 80°F (26.6°C). But for some reason, taking the soil's temperature everyday became extra chore that got lost in the huge pile of other things to do. The other day, I was reading Debby Riddle's blog Riddle Family Farm, and she mentioned the Persephone season. I had completely forgotten about that. I shouldn't have, because the concept is extremely useful for fall and winter gardeners.

The Persephone season is a concept that Eliot Coleman mentions in his books, The Winter Harvest Handbook and Four Season Harvest. The story of Persephone is a mythological explanation of why most plant life becomes dormant in winter. Technically known as solar winter, Eliot's observation is that plant growth pretty much ceases when daylight is less than ten hours in length. For fall planting, the recommendation is to get cold tolerant crops planted so that they are fairly well established by the time solar winter begins. A good estimate of that is approximately 75% of their days to maturity.

According to TimeAndDate.com's sunrise and sunset calculator for my location, 10-hour days begin November 30 for me. So, for example, if a seed packet lists 60 days to maturity, I'll calculate 75% of 60.

60 x 0.75 = 45

So I count back 45 days from Nov. 30 and plant my seed before that date. In this case, before October 16th.

I'm not discounting soil temperature, but have to say that for me and my lifestyle, having a set date really helps. My cooperative extension says to plant fall crops in August, but it's often so hot and dry in August, that planting just doesn't feel right. And I know from experience that if I wait until late October, I'm not planting a fall garden, I'm getting an early start on the following year's spring garden. Intuitively, September has always felt right, so working this out systematically has been very affirming.

This dovetails beautifully with my agrarian year. My winter months are December, January, and February, and I find it fascinating that solar winter for my location begins the last day of November. I love it when all the pieces fit so neatly together.

September 8, 2021

A Curious Case of Compromised Quality


I've used Tractor Supply Co.'s 5-gallon buckets for food storage before, but I've never had this happen! At least I know my 02 absorbers are working. 

😆😕😄😂😀😲😝

September 4, 2021

The Status of My Other Experiments

One of the most valuable homesteading lessons Dan and I have learned is to think of new ideas and projects as experiments. Somehow, there is a difference between thinking "I'm going to do this," and "I'm going to experiment with this." The difference might seem subtle on the surface, but it's huge in terms of expectations. An experiment tests an idea, to see if it will or won't work and what aspects need to be tweaked or changed. With an experiment, we don't necessarily expect the outcome to be perfect the first time around; we expect to gain enough information either to make adjustments or decide that the idea wasn't as useful as we'd hoped. That's much less frustrating than seeing something as a failure. An added bonus to the trial-and-error mentality is that our imaginations have become freer to think outside the box. We no longer worry so much about failing because . . . it's an experiment!

I've recently shown you a couple of this year's experiments: using the hoop house as a trellis for a natural shade house, and my idea for trying sprawling cherry tomato plants as ground cover. Here's an update on some others.

Wicking pots

This is an example of something that hasn't worked out as I hoped.

Cherry tomato in wicking pot. Plenty
of sun and water, but still struggling.

I love that these are easy to water and with no evaporation of moisture, but I was disappointed that the tomato plants haven't grown well. I used good soil and plenty of compost, so what's the problem? I figured it out one recent sunny day when I put my hand on the pot. It was hot! Our summer shade temps are typically in the mid-90sF (mid-30sC), which puts them in the mid-100s (around 40°C) in the sun. I got out my soil thermometer and discovered that the soil temp in the pots was 100°F (38°C). So even though the plants had plenty of water, they were struggling with the heat.

Sunchokes for hopniss trellises

That link will take you to my first groundnut (hopniss) harvest post, and show you the smooth Jerusalem artichokes I planted in the bed. I read somewhere that sunchokes stalks make good supports for the hopniss vines.

Blooming sunchoke in the foreground,
hopniss on a trellis in the background.

Unfortunately, I didn't think this worked all that well. For starters, the hopniss started growing before the sunchokes, so I ended up using the trellises anyway. I have one or two hopniss vines growing up sunchokes, but mostly they've climbed the trellises. So, not exactly a fail, but not a success either.

Nitrogen fixers for the garden

In the past, I've sprinkled Dutch clover seed in my garden beds to supply nitrogen. This only works moderately well at best. Germination wasn't that great, plus clover tends to prefer cooler weather than our summers offer. So this year, I experimented with different nitrogen fixers - hopniss (ground nuts) and peanuts.

I can't remember if I mentioned planting my smallest hopniss tubers in the little garden bed on the side of the hoop house. I'm a big fan of diverse locations for perennials. I think it's a good idea to have a backup planting in case one location succumbs to something unintended. Anyway, they have happily used the hoop house as a trellis in companionable cooperation with the volunteer cherry tomatoes. They've helped my summer shade house be a success. 

Groundnut vines & cherry tomatoes have
completely taken over the hoop house.

In addition, the groundnuts have given the tomatoes a nitrogen boost, which they love. It hasn't protected them from late blight, but I'm getting tons of delicious cherry tomatoes.

The peanuts were planted in various garden beds, where they've done well.

Sweet potatoes with peanut plants (lower right corner),
with volunteer morning glories and cherry tomatoes.

Everything is thriving. The bonus will be harvesting a few peanuts, to boot! So this is definitely a success and will be standard gardening procedure for me in the future.

Landrace experiment

Before I give you my update, I'll refer you to two posts to explain what this is and why I'm doing it. 

I'll also preface it by clarifying that I just started this this year, so I won't have actual results at least until next year. I chose two species to start - winter squash and cucumbers.

Winter squash from landrace seeds.

Early this summer, I planted a landrace winter squash from seeds I received through Permies.com. It has struggled for most of the summer, but finally responded to lots of hurricane rain and is now looking pretty good. I'm guessing it struggled so much because it was bred in the Pacific Northwest, which has a very different climate than I have in the southeast. I'm also guessing that it survived because as a landrace, it had the genetic strength to not die. The squashes are small and pumpkin-like, but I will get quite a few.

Landrace winter squash.

I'm looking forward to tasting them and saving the seed. And their offspring will hopefully be interesting because in the bed next to them, I planted sweet potato squash. The vines have intermingled freely, so I'm pretty sure I got good cross-pollination.

Sweet potato squash (spotted leaves), tomatoes, and black turtle beans.
Can you see the 2 squashes? The spotless leaves are the landrace vines. 

The sweet potato squash has truly thrived for me. Early on, I found clusters of squash bug eggs on some of the leaves, but those were discarded and the plants now show no evidence of insect damage or disease. So to add that to my winter squash gene pool will be a real plus!

Of the cucumbers, I have mature fruits from a mix of about four varieties, mixed and planted in the same row.

Very mature cucumbers ready for seed extraction.

These will be the cuke seeds I'll plant next year. (For anyone interested, I have a cucumber seed saving tutorial here.)

I think that's it for my experiments this year. Anyone else do some experimenting? I'd be interested in what you did and how it's turning out.