Archive for November, 2006

Trading Non Renewable Petrochemicals for Topsoil

Monday, November 27th, 2006

Out of the five acres of land that makes up the Farmlet, only about three square meters of it had friable topsoil that was clear of kikuyu grass. In other words, only about three square meters of our five acre property was immediately suitable for gardening. Even though we have only been on this property for less than a year, we’re now harvesting vegetables—and have lots more growing—in our large, organic garden.

How did we get up and running so quickly?

Gas powered machines and sheet mulching.

Becky and I are not only focussed on using organic methods, we are paying close attention to the off-site inputs that we are using. We are especially concerned with energy and the use of non-renewable fuels.

Organic gardening isn’t a big mystery to us. We’re both experienced gardeners, so we know that organic gardening works. But what about organic gardening without petrochemical pack animals and field workers?

If you have ever tried to improve soil structure by adding organic matter, you know that it’s hard, time consuming work. We knew, from the very start, that we needed to amend our clay soil with a lot of organic matter. And we needed to do that immediately.

We decided to invest some of the little money we had in machines that, while not at all viable in the longterm, buy us time.

We are using these machines to, quite literally, build topsoil in a timely manner.

Our pickup truck has allowed us to bring in several cubic meters of organic matter from other locations. Look at this beautiful load of chipped tree branches from Becky’s parents’ house, for example.

1990 Nissan Navara, our pack animal, with load of mulch

We drove that stuff about 15km from the coast out to our property. How were the branches cut from the trees? With a gas powered chainsaw. How were they transformed into the smaller chips you see? A frightening and deafening chipper, attached to the back of a large diesel powered tractor, ate the branches and spit out the mulch into a neat pile.

Will this mulch eventually make nice topsoil, after we compost it with animal manure and let it age? Yes, for sure.

Is this path to improving soil sustainable? No.

Let’s look at another technique that we’re using to improve our soil. We’re composting a massive amount of random biomass (weeds) that we’re ‘harvesting’ from the house paddock.

But how are we ‘harvesting’ all of that stuff?

This Echo SRM-250 brushcutter is about as sustainable as the pickup truck and tractor/chipper rig. The Echo goes through heavily weeded areas like a hot knife through butter. It turns the heaviest kikuyu grass into coleslaw. Privet saplings, no problem. Thick sedges, zip.

Full throttle with the Echo SRM-250, tri-blade brushcutter

Here’s a tool that can accomplish roughly the same task in a sustainable manner.

Niwashi Garden Shark, toothed sickle

I did try out the Niwashi. Yep. It works. And I can assure you that you wouldn’t want to clear a large patch of weeds for composting with this tool, unless you had too. We will use the Niwashi for small jobs, especially areas around trees, but the Echo does the ‘heavy lifting’ for the moment.

While we considered buying a full sized scythe, four factors dissuaded us:

  1. Using a scythe is extremely hard, physical work
  2. It takes years of practice to learn how to use a scythe properly
  3. A modern scythe is not an inexpensive tool, costing roughly half what that Echo brushcutter costs
  4. Grass/weed cutting in not part of our long term plans, but is required initially

It’s difficult to express how much work gas powered machines can do, compared with trying to do the same work by hand. It’s shocking, actually. The goal, therefore, is to build permaculture systems that greatly reduce the human labor required and eliminate off-site energy inputs.

Let’s look at a passage from Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture:

In a permaculture system, we use biological resources (plants and animals) wherever possible to save energy and do the work of the farm. Plants and animals are used to provide fuel, fertiliser, tillage, insect control, weed control, nutrient recycling, habitat enhancement, soil aeration, fire control, erosion control, and so on.

Building up biological resources on site is a long-term investment which needs thought and management in the planning stages as it is a key strategy for recycling energy and developing sustainable systems. We use green manures and leguminous trees instead of nitrogen fertiliser; weeder geese and short herbs rather than lawn mowers; biological insect control rather than pesticides; and animals such as chickens or pigs instead of rotary hoes, weedicides, and artificial fertilisers.

However, careful and appropriate use of non-biological resources (fossil-fuel-based machinery, artificial fertilizers, technical equipment) in the beginning phases of permaculture is OK if they are used to create long-term, sustainable biological systems and an enduring physical infrastructure.

By all means carefully use what is available, use it for the best possible reasons, and develop alternatives as fast as possible.

We find that it always helps to keep the above passage in mind with everything we do on the Farmlet.

There is definitely an inertia factor in play at the beginning, as Mollison mentions. Getting up to speed is hard. If using gas powered tools will allow you to get initial control over small areas, so that you can establish your garden, animal and composting systems, use them.

If you can’t afford the machines, or refuse to use them, the goals are attainable, but with much more effort and on a much longer time scale. This principal should be kept in mind by those who think permaculture will spring up, like a rabbit out of a magician’s hat, as we move into collapse. Sorry. It’s not going to happen that way. But enough about that.

The importance of sheet mulching can’t be understated. Please learn this simple technique and be ready to teach it to others. We used this technique in solid kikuyu, one of the most invasive grasses on the planet, and we are growing beautiful vegetables in those areas now. We used no herbicides (or synthetic chemicals) of any kind. Animal manure and composed plant matter and woodchips (like in the picture above) were added to our soil. That’s it. (We are going to put chickens to work on the next phase of the garden.)

The combination of sheet mulching with limited use of gas powered machinery has served us well. These tools have allowed us to start a sizable, thriving garden, full of tasty vegetables, in less than a year. And it’s just going to get better with time!

Garlic Scape Kimchi

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

When I wrote about the garlic scapes a while back, I mentioned that we were going to make kimchi with some of them. Now that we’ve tried the kimchi, I have to admit that we much prefer to eat the garlic scapes stir-fried. Still, we’d probably make this kimchi again if we couldn’t get through all our garlic scapes while they are still fresh. The kimchi tastes fine, even if it’s not as good as eating freshly cooked garlic-scapes, and it’s certainly a good way to preserve them.
I tried making two versions of the kimchi — one raw and one blanched. The raw one was stringy and horrible. Even Kevin wouldn’t eat it, and he’s a full-scale garlic monster! We won’t be making that again! We certainly advise blanching the garlic scapes before making them into kimchi.
Garlic Scape Kimchi

  • Blanch enough garlic scapes to pack into one quart-size jar, so that it is full up to about 1 1/2″ from the top. (To do this, just bring plenty of water to a rolling boil, drop the garlic scapes in, and drain the water out about 3o seconds later. Immediately rinse the garlic scapes in cold water.
  • Pack the garlic scapes into the quart-size preserving jar.
  • Mix 1/2 a cup of water with 2 tablespoons of whey* (see note below), 2 teaspoons of sea salt, 1 tablespoon of grated ginger, 1 large clove of minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of chile flakes or chile powder.
  • Pour this mixture into the jar with the garlic scapes.
  • Top up with water if need be, so that the garlic scapes are fully covered with liquid. The garlic scapes tend to float a bit, so you can weight them down with a clean river stone if you want to. The water should be at least an inch below the top of the jar, since the contents may expand during fermentation.
  • Close the jar tightly, and keep it at room temperature for about 3 days. After that, it will be ready to go in the fridge.
  • Now you can eat it. . . but ours tastes much better after three weeks than it did when we first made it. We advise you to wait a while! it should keep in the fridge or cold room for many months.

NB: *To make whey, line a strainer with a cloth and pour in some good-quality plain live yoghurt. The liquid that drips out of the strainer is they whey you need for this recipe.

Contribution to Farmlet

Friday, November 24th, 2006

KM sent US$20. Thanks, KM, for supporting Farmlet!

Two Little Goats

Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

Today, two more animals have joined our Farmlet menagerie: two little saanen doe kids. They are twins — five weeks old.

Today we went on a much anticipated mission to pick them up. It was a long day for the little goats, since they had already had a three hour journey to meet us. When we first put them into the cab of the truck with us, they were a bit feisty and unsettled. Luckily they settled down after a few minutes, and curled up in a box by my feet, a bit like two large cats. We were very impressed that they were able to wait until we got to the Farmlet to relieve themselves! We are delighted with these dainty, curious little creatures, and hope they will be very happy here on the Farmlet!

All aboard!

Settling in

Why did we choose saanen goats? Because we wanted goats bred for milking. Of the milk breeds, saanens are by far the easiest and cheapest to obtain around here. We got two of them, since they are herd animals, and do not do well without company. We are happy to have found two healthy goats from an organic farm. Their previous owners have been raising dairy goats organically for quite some years, and have given us lots of advice about how to care for them.
The little goats seemed to enjoy nibbling at the forage and looking around in their new paddock, but they still look a bit lost in a new place and without their mother. After letting them explore for a little while, we gave them a bottle of goat milk, mixed with some formula, and put them in their shed for the night. (Their previous owners gave us a bit of goat milk that we are using to soften their transition onto milk-replacer formula.) They are already grazing a bit, but will continue on formula until we wean them in about six weeks.

Evening meal

Why are we bottle-rearing the goats? According to the previous owners, five weeks will have given the little goats a decent chance to drink plenty of their mother’s milk. Bottle-feeding the goats should help them bond with us, and (we hope) will make them easier to handle and milk when the time comes.

We are still working on choosing suitable names for our dear little goats. At this point, it looks like we might call them Daphne and Lulu. Daphne (black collar) is the more settled of the two. She had horns, but has already been de-budded. Lulu (blue collar) is polled. She is smaller and a bit feistier than Daphne, so it’s easy to tell them apart.

Comments Are Now Open to All

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

Guys, I’m going to give this a try, but, to those of you who have previously requested accounts, don’t forget that info just yet. If this little experiment doesn’t work, I’ll lock it back down. Lots of people seemed to want to comment on Cryptogon, they just didn’t want to register.

In other news, Becky and I are going to be out on some exciting Farmlet business today. We will post ASAP.