Course Wrap-Up

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It is that time.. the end of the semester and the completion of my long awaited bachelors degree. In sum much learning was gained throughout the senior project course. In specific I…

*Learned how to create and maintain an online blog.

*Gained knowledge via researching permaculture design which translated into a permaculture design map for property.

*Taught two workshops at the local community garden. One on planting garlic and another on cobbing the cold frame.

*Successfully completed a cob cold frame for local community garden which included a public workshop, as well as directly teaching students at the school.

*Maintained ongoing research throughout the semester including specific research of permaculture design in an arid climate.

*Implemented various project around homestead such as lime coating for cob cold frame, new compost system, sowing cover crops, sheet mulches, and home preservation.

At times I found the course challenging due to the time of year (fall/winter) and thus decreased opportunity to implement permaculture projects, and volunteer opportunities within my community. Ah well… I have a lot of great ideas to run with in the spring.

The course was extremely valuable in terms of gaining new knowledge for expanding my current gardening/homesteading practices, mapping of the property, and building relationships in my community – specifically with the local community garden.

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On Compost, Covercrops and Soil

Composting is a bit like garden alchemy, you take a bunch of your “junk” and “waste”, you throw it into a pile out in the yard and, eventually, with the help of time and some tiny biological helpers you end up with a rich, sweet heap of “black gold”. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts we have yet to find a way to generate enough of this black gold to meet our needs and inevitably, we have always had to import in at least one pick-up load of compost each spring.

In the spirit of creating a balanced more sustainable soil I have been researching ways to reduce or eliminate the need for this outside input. This year we have included so called “green manures” or cover crops into the mix, these green manures are intended to provide additional organic matter, naturally boost nitrogen levels, and improve soil structure. The plants that we are experimenting with are Hairy Vetch (available in bulk from a local seed supplier) and Peaceful Valley Soil Builder Mix (learned about this in the Gaia’s Garden Book) this balanced mix includes “Bell Beans, BioMaster Peas, Arvika peas, Purple Vetch, Hairy Vetch, Common Vetch and Cayuse Oats. I am excited to see some results as these crops take off in the spring.

I recently re-read The Rodale Book on Composting and realized that the composting bin system we were using, made from recycled wood pallets, was not large enough. In a passive composting system your pile needs to be at least 4′ x 4′ x 4′ to generate enough heat to keep all of your little biological alchemists happy. Thus even though there was plenty of good “food” for the bugs the piles dried out too quickly and couldn’t sustain the temperatures needed to fully break down.

Yes it was time to “go big” with our compost pile.  We have reused an old section of chain link fence to create a large circular compost bin roughly 5′ in diameter by 4′ tall. In the end the new system occupies less space, looks cleaner and hopefully proves to be more efficient. As a bonus our fall garden cleanup generated exactly enough waste to completely fill this new bin.

One of the biggest challenges of composting in the arid Salt Lake valley is keeping the compost wet enough. With the small amount of natural moisture we receive each year it is important to make use of every drop. We should be able to more efficiently harvest this free moisture by maintaining a concave top in our pile encouraging rain and snow melt to funnel into the heart of the pile. If we lived in a wetter climate – it would be more appropriate to do the opposite so that water would flow out of the pile.

One other method that I may experiment with is composting in garden beds. I have heard of this before and quite frankly it appeals to my lazy side. Basic premise – dig a trench in the garden beds and bury your compost. Make certain it is not too close to where you are growing plants so that you do not disrupt the nitrogen levels for plant growth. I am a little concerned that this may create underground rodent highways with lots of fast food- so more research is necessary.

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The Pro’s and Con’s of Green Building

I have been somewhat obsessed with green building and for the past few years have read everything I can find on cob, cordwood, and strawbale. More specifically Rob Roy’s books on Cordwood, Strawbale building books by Bill and Athena Steen of the inspiring Canelo Project and of course all of Lloyd Kahn’s Shelter Publication books… but the two books that have really inspired me of late is my all time favorite, The Hand Sculpted House and a recently published book, Little House on a Small Planet.

After reading the Hand Sculpted House I was fairly certain I needed to build a cob house. After building two cob cold frames I am ready to embark on a bigger project – a small (under 150 feet) cob garden shed. This being said, as the authors note, cob is not ideal for all situations and I am not certain that cob would withstand our high altitude winter’s very well. Take a look at these two projects: Go here and here to find two families who did not have the best experience with cob due to climate. One family now chooses to winter elsewhere as the home is not habitable during the winter and the other is having similar issues along with mold.

Which brings me to the second book,  Little House on a Small Planet. This book takes a close look at the movement (not certain if that is the correct word) of people who are choosing a different life style away from the mc-mansions, big mortgage, and large utility bills and towards more sustainable options, with lower living expenses thus allowing for more happiness.

The book has tons of examples of real family’s choosing non-traditional living arrangements.. multigenerational housing, shared living situations, extremely small houses and most admirable – coming up with a plan to pay the mortgage fast, or better yet save the money ahead of time.

Food for thought – according to the author, Shay Solomon, there are currently 10.4 million houses in good repair that are unoccupied within the United States. This equates to 40 vacant houses for every homeless person receiving services. Makes me rethink green building…perhaps the goal should not be to build more homes but to make what we currently have work?

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Book Reviews

For my school work I have been reading quite a few books and wanted to share  a brief review of the books I found to be most helpful:

Gaia’s Garden written by Toby Hemenway

This is without a doubt the best book on permaculture that I have read thus far. It not only clearly introduces the concepts but gives excellent examples. I am not usually a note taker while reading a book but found so much rich information that I took copious amounts of notes. One aspect that is particularly helpful is that the author is writing from a North American perspective (versus Australian which is common in permaculture literature) and thus many of the plant examples work for my climate.  His writing has changed the way I think about mulching a bed (I plan to use a lot more), introduced me to the Peaceful Valley Soil Builder cover crop, showed me how to grow my own mulch, inspired me to start messing with the elevation of my property, taught me about the four sisters garden (Rocky Mountain Bee Balm is the fourth), made me rethink how many trees my property can handle (10-20), and helped me with plant selection for my permaculture map. On a random note – I have an old apple tree with a serious case of coddling moth. My husband and I have done everything these past four years (short of spraying) to get rid of this problem. According to the book- pigs will quickly eat the fallen fruit which disrupts the life cycle of the moth and fixes the issue. Now if only my city would allow me to keep a pig.. I could have apples and bacon, or better yet, apple smoked bacon :)

The Rodale Book of Composting written by Grace Gershuny and Deborah Martin

While not the most fascinating read it is a very comprehensive review of the various methods of compost along with detailed instructions for creating a compost with the ideal ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Reading this book has encouraged me to refine my composting system for more efficiency by building larger compost heaps – which should allow me to “cook” my compost more quickly.

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond Volume’s I and II written by Brad Lancaster

Volume I introduces the concepts of Rainwater Harvesting – which is the practice of putting precipitation to use on your property versus utilizing municipal water. Volume II goes into detail on how to use earthworks to direct rainwater to areas that need the water. While the writer lives in Tuscon and the majority of his examples take place in that specific climate, the concepts and tools provided are useful anywhere. Most importantly these books have made me rethink irrigation systems and I plan to implement many of the ideas presented in the books to curb my water usage. Lancaster is an excellent author and these books are a very easy and enjoyable read.

The Hand Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage written by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith and Linda Smiley.

This is an excellent read for anyone remotely interested in green building methods, or anyone who needs a place to live (everyone!). While the authors spend a good portion of the book educating us about building with cob, the book provides so much more than a how-to about building with cob. It is rather the type of book designed to offer a paradigm shift to the reader, away from the traditional large suburban home with a mortgage and towards a more courageous future. I may be somewhat in love with this book and would say that this is a life changing book.

Permaculture Pioneers: Stories from the New Frontier written by Kerry Dawborn and Caroline Smith

The book interviews various individuals involved in permacuture in Australia. Each chapter introduces a new person and gives their “permaculture story”. While this book did not help me with theory or permaculture concepts it introduced me to folks who are living sustainable lives and earning a living through permaculture. This is helpful to someone like me who is working towards a more sustainable lifestyle in all aspects of my life – home, work, community.

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Permaculture Mapping Project Part II

This post is a breakdown of the final permaculture map. I broke it down into the four quadrants of the property with details of changes, plant lists, and stacking functions.

Permaculture Map

Northwest Quadrant

This area encompasses the west facing backyard as seen from the back door. Very little shade exists in this portion of the yard and therefore the afternoon/evening sun bakes the patio and house making this portion of the yard uninhabitable during the summer. Another issue is drainage off the patio – a portion of the patio drains into the shed.

Changes: I planned for the shed to be flipped around (thus opening into the workshop area). A french drain between the patio and back of shed will allow for proper drainage and will be planted with runner beans to create a living wall (that will be frequented by hummingbirds) along the back of the shed. Further plantings of herbs and hops will extend around the west side of the shed taking advantage of the roof water, providing fresh herbs close to the kitchen and providing an aesthetically pleasing area to socialize near. To the west of the patio a large plant guild will create both an edible landscape close to the back door as well as dappled shade for the patio allowing us to enjoy it’s use. In addition a trellised dining area will create a shaded nook. Leaving the patio is the main yard to be planted in drought tolerant grasses to provide an area for children to play games. To the south of the patio, along the west facing side of the house will be a chokecherry grove. This will provide an insulated thicket for the west facing wall of the house, in addition to being good forage for us and wildlife. In the far Northwest corner is the perfect area for a wildlife habitat as it is a portion of the yard that we do not visit often. In addition it is an area that receives very little water and thus I chose drought tolerant, many of which are native to our area. Bird houses from dried gourds, a bird/bee bath and an owl box will all provide good habitat for wildlife. Extending from the corner will be our bee hives, the cob cold frame and a clothesline.

Plants for wildlife habitat guild: Utah Juniper (wildlife), Golden Rain Tree (Nitrogen, shade), Utah Serviceberry (edible, wildlife), Apple (edible), Mountain Mahogany (nitrogen, wildlife), Fern Bush (insects), Milkweed (butterfly’s), Dwarf Yarrow (groundcover, insects), Bee Balm (insects), Utah Sweet Vetch (nitrogen, groundcover), Goumi Shrub (Nitrogen, edible, wildlife).

Stacking Functions: Northern wind screen, privacy screen, insect/wildlife forage, drought tolerant.

Plants for guilds surrounding back patio: Chokecherry (edible), Hops (edible), Wisteria (nitrogen, shade), Lavender (medicinal), Sage (edible), Russian Sage (insects), Scarlet Runner Beans (wildlife, nitrogen), Mimosa (nitrogen, shade), Pluot (edible), Pear (edible, Strawberry’s (edible, groundcover), Chives (edible, grass suppressant), Comfrey (mulch), Good King Henry (perennial green, edible), Daffodils (grass suppressant), Mint (edible).

Stacking Functions: Insulation for house, sunscreen, edibles close to kitchen, aesthetics.

NW Quadrant

Southwest Quadrant

This is the workhorse of the yard with intensively planted annual/perennial beds, and the rotating compost piles. There is no storage for tools and the annuals require quite a bit of irrigated water.

Changes: I added a small (150 sq. ft.) garden shed (will also provide privacy screen from neighbors). Other changes include espaliered grape vines against the south wall of the house (also as an insulator), and changing the raised bed system to be a sunken bed system to better capture rooftop water. This area also has an old apple tree which currently provides the only shade for my back yard. Due to this I kept the grass patch as this area will be the play/entertain area until other plantings are further established. After which I will keep the area entirely grass free and mulched.

SW Quadrant

Southeast Quadrant

This area comprises the front yard, sidewalk, and fire-strip. For aesthetics this is an area that is already well established. It is a mix of fruit trees, and herbs that I harvest for culinary and medicinal purposes. Also included are perennial flowers and grasses covering the ground and providing mulch.

Changes: These include more biodiversity of plantings, including nitrogen-fixing planting under fruit trees. I spend a lot of time in the front yard due to the lack of shade in the backyard and therefore I have kept a grassy area to play with my son in. The fire-strip currently has two large established ash tree’s that provide excellent shade for the front yard. I plan to remove all of the grass in the fire-strip and create a contoured ditch down the center of it thus allowing sidewalk runoff to drain into the center of the strip feeding a variety of non-edible (due to pollution) drought tolerant perennial plants.

Plantings:

Currently have: Yarrow, Hollyhock, Chamomile, Rockcress, Shasta Daisy, Poppy’s, Apple, Peach, Blue Fescue, Mexican Feather Grass, Karl Foerster Grass, Lavender, Sage, Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Coreopsis, Sedum, Rose.

Plan to add: Hyssop (insects), Penstemon (insects), Echinacea (medicicinal), Utah Sweet Vetch (nitrogen, groundcover), Passionflower Vine (edible, wildlife), Hardy Kiwi (edible), Jupiter’s Beard (insects), Sundancer Daisy (insects), Pineleaf Garden Pink (insects), Thyme (groundcover), False Indigo (nitrogen), Comfrey (mulch), Buffaloberry (chickens, mulch, nitrogen).

Stacking Functions: Increase biodiversity, attract more wildlife/insects, aesthetics.

SE Quadrant

Northeast Quadrant

Due to the proximity to the driveway this area is mapped to become my husbands work area. He is a wood worker and badly needs an organized area to build his business.

Changes: Include a large workshop, privacy screening hedges, a small (well contained) bamboo forest for harvesting, two wood sheds for drying and storing wood. The area will be mulched with wood chips and will be a low water area. A grape arbor will provide privacy for him as well as a doorway into his work zone from the family social area. To the west of the workshop will be a large plant guild containing edible perennials and annuals, all watered from rooftop water harvesting.

Plantings: Skyrocket Junipers (privacy screen), Pinyon Pine (edible), Flowering Quince (nitrogen, edible, wildlife), Comfrey (mulch), Butterfly Bush (insects), Bulbs (grass suppressant), verbena (ground cover), Siberian Pea Shrub (nitrogen, mulch), Grapes (edible)

Stacking Functions: Northern wind break, privacy screen, separate the yard into various work spaces.

NE Quadrant

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Permaculture Mapping Project Part I

My last few weeks have been spent creating a permaculture map of my property. Thought I would share how I did this along with photos of the end results.

I started by mapping the lot and all existing features to scale on graph paper. Then I used my printer to blow this up so that I could trace it onto 8.5×11 tracing paper. Along with the hard features such as the house and driveway, I also mapped out all of the existing landscape features: trees, garden beds, etc.

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Current Layout

I did a separate map, which can be easily overlaid, of the existing sprinkler system, along with the various watering zones. My end goal is to almost completely cut us off of the municipal water system. This however is a long term goal and in the short term I am working to at least remove a couple watering zones.

Sprinkler Overlay

Then I mapped the entire site with all of the desired changes. This is the next phase that I envision for the property, taking into consideration not only the concepts of permaculture but also the needs/desires of my family. (go here for more details on the final map).

Permaculture Map

Next, inspired by the book Rainwater Harvesting and Beyond, I made a map of water flows. A major goal of this project is water conservation due to my location in a semi-arid region. On this map I worked to redirect water flow through the soil (versus over) and into various areas – such as garden beds ad plant guilds. The map shows various low and high points in elevation as well as water direction. The water flow map reflects what I can realistically achieve in the next few years. Thus while a water cistern and drainage ponds to clean and reuse greywater would be ideal… this is a good start.

Water Flow Map

The final overlay that I did was a plant mapping layer (this did not scan well – so go here for a better breakdown of the plants). This is a guide for me to use in planting the various guilds and due to size constraints it was easier to list on a new paper. Each plant guild contains a variety that includes nitrogen fixing, edible food, wildlife habitat, insectary, mulch providing, and groundcover. I chose plants based on how well they will do in Utah, with a preference towards drought tolerant, as well as plants that offered multiple uses such as food, mulch, etc.. All of the plants chosen have additional benefits (known as stacking functions) such as sunscreen, insulation to house, and privacy screening.

Plant Mapping

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Harvesting Rainwater

I just read Brad Lancaster’s books, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume’s I and II. They are brilliant and completely relevant to everyone regardless of where you live. Volume I gives a broad overview of the why’s and how’s along with a ton of great examples. Volume II gets into the nitty gritty details.

Basic premise – water coming from the sky, known as precipitation, is typically directed away from homes, off of property, and into the nearest sewer drain. Instead Lancaster suggests various techniques in order to capture the precipitation and put it to work growing food and creating lush landscapes – thus utilizing less municipal water.

Some of the ideas he presents are earthworks – basically changing the elevation around your property in order to direct water to plants. For example creating a basin around a tree, or making earthen fish-scales across a slope to slow and capture water to feed an orchard. In the examples presented all pathways, driveways and sidewalks are at the highest elevation, and other features, that need water, are set lower so that water will naturally flow into them. It makes sense.

Other subject matter includes grey water recycling  – did you know that the typical household uses 100-200 gallons/day. Cisterns used to store rooftop water is another subject. In using the mathematical formula provided in the book I learned that I could harvest 9600 gallons/year from my rooftop.

Another really important point the author makes is having good soil with plenty of mulch, and ground covers  – this will allow for water to better infiltrate through the soil versus just run over it and into the sewer. I can vouch for this in my front landscaping. With the addition of ground-cover plants (think wild strawberry, verbena, thyme) and trees, the area already looks so much better and consumes far less water than less developed areas of my yard.

So as much as I love this book and plan to heed it’s wise advise it pained me to read.. you see I have managed to do the direct opposite. My garden beds all sit up higher than the surrounding ground. There is no chance of runoff from the sidewalk, driveway or paths to permeate the plants. In fact the entire southern half of my yard is in raised beds. Turns out I should be doing the opposite. After reading this book.. I had to start over with the permaculture mapping project I am making for my property – Plant guilds had to be relocated to portions of the yard that will have access to water. Basins around the guilds had to be created to capture and hold the water. And one of my favorites ideas – a trench down the fire-strip, allowing the sidewalk water to flow down into, thus watering the trees and drought tolerant plants I have planned for the area.

I discovered another great idea in a different book, Gaia’s Garden, written by Toby Hemenway, references the Zemach family. Their property in New Mexico is a lush and waterwise example of permaculture design, in which no municipal water is utilized in the landscaping. One feature is a circular lawn with a subtle change in elevation creating a dish shape into which rainwater is directed to flow through to the center.

This is a big paradigm shift for me and my brain is still buzzing on how I can implement some of these ideas into my yard. Important since I live in a fairly arid climate with only 30 inches of precipitation per year.

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The Benefits of Chickens

Before raising my first flock of backyard chickens I rarely ate eggs.. unless they were cooked into something. Fresh eggs just did not taste all that great to me. I can still remember collecting the first eggs and wondering how I was going to eat them. Fortunately they tasted really good and now we easily eat a dozen plus eggs each week. There is something different about backyard chickens eggs. Mother Earth News Magazine has an ongoing study testing eggs from free-range chickens (versus the caged up variety) and publish the results here. Turns out that my chicken eggs are not only tastier than the grocery store variety, they are also healthier.

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Eating fresh eggs is just one of the benefits of having chickens. Other advantages include poop, bug control, and the education of little people.

The first year we lived in our current home, an outdated city ordinance (that we assisted with changing) prohibited backyard chickens. That first growing season we struggled with pests in the garden – white fly, slugs, and earwigs. I new from previous experience that chickens could easily clear up these problems. Sure enough, that winter we were allowed to keep chickens and I let them run free as much as possible.  I can vouch that from that point on we really have not had any serious issues with garden pests – with the exception of a coddling moth infested apple tree.

Another reason to keep chickens is their poop. We keep the girls in a chicken tractor and every time I move the tractor,  I rake up the manure and used bedding and place this in the compost pile. The high nitrogen poop does it’s magic adding nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to the pile thus turning our compost into the “black gold” that I place into our garden beds. (It is important to fully compost the manure before placing it into garden beds – raw manure will burn your plants). Adding this manure really does make a difference to the quality of the finished compost.

And the last reason..teaching responsibility to my young son. Every morning he and I check in on “the ladies” and make certain they have fresh water and feed, he collects the eggs and brings them gifts of fresh worms and veggie scraps from the yard. He loves on them and in turn they allow him to pet and hold them.

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Cobbing Project

Whew.. after three weeks of work I finished the last bit of cobbing on another cob cold frame just in time for winter. This time it is for a local community garden. I outlined the steps I took and added some fun pictures.

Step 1: Worked with the garden director to find a good site for the structure and oriented the site for south facing solar gain; marked the boundaries and dug down to firm terra with the help of the students (ages 3-6). A ton of fun – minus some dirt throwing episodes.

Part 2: Begged my husband to build the frame – with me as his helper of course! I am not good with precise measuring, cutting, etc.. this is why cob is such an attractive building medium to me. Fortunately my husband is quite handy and capable. He even drew out diagrams for me explaining to entire process :)

Part 3: Back at the site we (hubbie and baby helped) filled the ditch with sand and gravel. Tamped it down to create a firm base and laid the foundation.

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Love this beautiful picture that my husband took of the wood frame sitting on the foundation all ready for cobbing to begin!

Part 4: I spent time making cob loaves to determine the best ratio of sand to clay soil. (Roughly 2:3). Since every clay soil is different this is a really important step. I also wanted needed to reacquaint myself with cob before the big workshop that was… not so well attended. Ah well. The weather was perfect and we did place the first layer of cob. And I am reminded about why I like building with cob so much.  One week of cobbing later.. (I find that it is better to build slow to avoid slumping) and the structure is complete and ready for the spring.

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Cold Frame Update

Finally an update on my cob cold frame. My goal in building the cold frame is to have fresh greens throughout the winter. This is the first winter and a big test to see how well plants will grow.

To be honest it has been a busy fall with a lot of time and effort dedicated to projects at the community garden. So a few weeks ago I finally got my act together and threw some winter starts (spinach, beets and radishes) into pots and stuck them in the cold frame. Then I completely forgot about them… between being a stay at home mom to a busy toddler, completing my bachelors degree and a gnarly stomach flu I did not water or check in on the wee plants for three full weeks!

I approached the cold frame with some trepidation and this is what I found…

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To be honest I was not expecting much. The day I transplanted the plants had been particularly busy and so I quite literally had torn the wee plants out of the ground in the garden and hurriedly mashed them into some big pots. One pot I actually dropped three times while transporting it from the garden bed to the cold frame (pot on far right). In addition to this we have just had a big winter snowstorm with unusually low temperatures.

Impressive.. they are alive and doing quite well! Plan for next year is to fill the entire frame with plants.. three pots in not going to go very far :)

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