Friday, March 16, 2018

Bokashi (In a sense)

I decided to get rid of the compost pit, for a number of reasons. First, I'm trying to go no-till, and second...rats. A compost pile is really no better, and throwing away the food garbage is counter-productive.

Food waste has to go somewhere. It goes in the garbage and into a landfill, it goes down the disposal and into the water system, or it goes into the soil. Those are really the only alternatives.

Personally I'd prefer the soil.

So I started researching alternatives. One that I ran into was Bokashi.

Bokashi is an oriental system of food waste fermentation. You can spend a fortune on special Bokashi products, but at its core it's fermentation. An anaerobic process that turns organic matter into sludge.

Some people claim that fermentation is dangerous and should be avoided. Others say composting is unnatural and dangerous. Honestly, both have their place, and I'm beginning to think that this is one where fermenting might be a better option for my family.

The standard process is to put bokashi bran (bran treated with beneficial microbes) into the bokashi bucket and put food waste in on top. Then top the food waste with more bran. Keep packing the food waste in layered with bran, and when the bin is full set it aside and start another.

The fermentation process can take up to two months, but once the process is started it can sit there and stew in its own juices forever. When fully fermented, the bokashi can be buried in the garden (not near existing plants) to finish composting. One serious advantage of fermentation over composting is that you can use meat, eggs and dairy in bokashi. Because it's an anaerobic process, the aerobic microbes that make meat stink can't exist.

It's a good idea. I did some research, and it's not cost effective. Particularly for me, without a job.

Making the bran is relatively simple and cheap--beneficial microbes (which you can make from whey), molasses, wheat bran and water. But I don't have bran, and no way to buy it...

But if I can make the inoculant, why bother with the bran? The bokashi process is supposed to be a relatively dry process, but other things are fermented in water so why not this?

So I'm trying it. I have a big jug of inoculant (whey as a lactic acid starter culture and potato water as microbe food), and a couple 5 quart ice-cream buckets with tight fitting lids. I layer food from our garbage bucket, smash it down good, and pour the inoculant in on top. Then more garbage, more inoculant, until the bucket is full. Then set it aside and start another. The stuff makes its own liquid and stays mostly submerged.


The first bucket stank to high heaven. The food was already submerged in its own juice when I started, so there was little chance to inoculate. When I started I poured my "starter" culture over it, smashed it down and put the lid on. The bucket was already full, so I couldn't layer the starter with the ferment. The smell did not escape the bucket.

The second bucket has an odd sweet smell but doesn't stink. Not precisely the smell I'm used to for fermentation, but not unpleasantly "off" either. I was able to layer the starter with the ferment, since I started this bucket fresh.

The third bucket is in process. Powdered milk in the bottom (since the fermentation we're looking for is mostly lactic bacteria), then garbage, then powdered milk, then more garbage. Mashed down to create its own liquid and maintain the anaerobic environment needed for fermentation. I didn't even use the culture on this one, although I'll keep it for future tests.

Update (four months later)

Bucket 1 still stank when I buried it. This can be considered the "control" bucket since I didn't get a chance to inoculate.
Bucket 2 was moldy but didn't stink the same way. Buried it next to 1.
Bucket 3 was the first real success. I used layered powdered milk and garbage, no inoculant. It didn't stink and had no mold. Buried next to 2.
Bucket 4 same process as 3. Currently fermenting
Bucket 5 same process. Currently fermenting
Bucket 6 same process. Currently fermenting
Bucket 7 just started.

This seems to be working quite well. When a bucket is about three months old I take it outside and bury it in an unused area of the garden.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

My GreenHOUSE!!! :)

I'm in love. Fresh greens in February, volunteer tomatoes, cilantro, a place for seedlings...

Friday, December 8, 2017

Greenhouse Update

Night-time temperatures are into the high teens, so I thought it was time for an update.

I finished sealing this week, although I still need to finish the waterwall. Currently that is half completed but there are two big water tanks and water bottles all around the outside.

According to my measurements, the greenhouse is holding a night-time temperature of about 15 degrees above the outside. When the temp outside is 19, the inside temperature is 32. Outside is 17, inside is 30, and so on. Not healthy for the more fragile plants, but still good. I'm hoping that the waterwall completion will bring that up by another five degrees.

However, I have noticed that the area near the block wall remains considerably warmer--when the water bottles by the glazing on the south were completely frozen, the big tanks in back by the wall weren't even slushy. The tomatoes back there are still alive, while the cilantro planted in front is struggling a lot.

I'm going to try to bring the tomatoes through the winter, just to see if it's possible. I'm getting a good idea of what's possible with this structure (for the winter, anyway) and it looks like we'll have a 10 to 11 month growing season. Which is exactly what I was hoping for. 12 month would be great, but no time for the structure to freeze off any bugs or mold. With a one month solid freeze, we should be able to reduce or eliminate year-round indwellers. :)

I knew that slanting the roof to the north would reduce the heat absorption to some extent--I actually wanted a more slanted roof, but got about a 10 degree slant. I was willing to trade off a little bit of winter growing time for (hopefully) less heat in the summer. We'll have to see on that one.

See the first greenhouse post here.

Monday, November 20, 2017

My greenhouse is up!

I've been planning this thing for years. It came together sllllooooowwwwwllllyyyyy, but with the help of some amazing friends, it's done!

The interior space is about 9x11. It backs onto a cinderblock wall with soil behind it. It has a door on east and west, in the direction of the prevailing winds. For temperature control it has a water-filled plant pot (the kind they grow trees in) in each corner. In future years those will be replaced with closed barrels so there's no problem with insects. Eventually it will have a waterwall against the cinderblock, made of gallon milk jugs filled with water. I started working on that piece today.

I had planned for the roof to slope sharply to the north (northern exposure) but it didn't work out that way. When greenhouses were invented, it was for areas with cool summers and frigid winters--the additional heat was very necessary, year round. People have continued to build that way, simply because it's traditional, but one of the main problems with greenhouses in more temperate areas is getting rid of excess heat.

The idea behind having the roof face north is that during the winter the greenhouse would receive full exposure on the front face, while during the summer it wouldn't hit any surface straight on, the roof not being angled correctly for sun exposure and the sun at a high angle so most of the light would also miss the front.

Because of some oops moments during construction the roof is angled north, but not sharply--perhaps a 10 degree slant. So rain runs off, but the sun will still hit it. I'm going to do an experiment during the summer and put a shade cloth over the roof, simulating what would have happened if the plan had remained as I originally had it. The water also runs off the back of the roof, into the forest garden area.

There will eventually be a small (1 foot wide) garden area immediately around the greenhouse to take advantage of the extended warm period.

Currently, when the greenhouse is not fully sealed and there is no waterwall in place:

Night-time temperatures: 8 to 10 degrees above outside
Day-time temperatures: 15 degrees above outside temps when cloudy, up to 40 above when sunny

So theoretically daytime temps could go down to 18 without too much risk of freezing. Night-time temps could go down to 22.

The tomatoes are still alive (if struggling). Cilantro is still alive. Greens are up and should be ready to start picking mid-December.

I've had several suggestions for additions and improvements, but for this first year I'm keeping it entirely passive. I want to know what the structure is capable of before I start making changes.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Dry farming (in a sense)

I try to grow most of what we eat. There are a lot of reasons for this, many of them health related. Argue as you will, our water, air and soil is scarcely healthy and we add stuff to them that makes it worse. When I plant, I know precisely what is going into my plants, into my soil and into my mouth.

I can't grow it all at this point, but I'm working on what I can.

Part of the problem with growing in this area is water. I use far too much water for thirsty lawns (which will be going away at the first opportunity!). Other than that my major water use is for food producing gardens, fruit trees, and grape vines. Unfortunately, municipal water is well known for harboring such gems as pharmaceuticals, industrial byproducts and agricultural waste. Then there's the nasties that we ADD to the water to make it "Safe." Right.

The best option then, would seem to be to produce only what I can grow without municipal water. Or maybe not. That would be a yard full of sand and rock, basically. I've done work to make the area more self sufficient, but it works to a certain point and then I have to look for something else that take me that tiny step closer to my goal.

I started doing some research on dry farming, farming that relies only on the water available on a site rather than irrigation or municipal water. From my research it appears that dry farmers fit primarily into two categories.

1) Farmers who farm during the growing season in areas with high humidity, low seasonal temperatures, mild winters and deep, rich (primarily clay) soils. The information I've been able to find indicates that soil between 6 and 8 feet deep is ideal, deeper is better. It must be a mix of sand, clay and organic matter to hold the water with no impermeable or partially impermeable layers to stop water flow.

2) Farmers who leverage mild winters and plant their primary crop (often winter grains) when the rains are falling (September through May) then harvest in the spring. These farmers can grow on poor soils, have low humidity, but also low seasonal temperatures and mild winters with little or no snow.

I do not fit in either category. My soil is straight sand, with a layer of rock underneath. Temps consistently get up into the 100's in the summer and below freezing in the winter. On the other hand, I have grapevines and fruit trees that have thrived with little water for 30 + years, digging their roots deep. So it is possible.

Additional research brought up a third group, farmers who grow in arid to semi-arid lands, in areas that have harsh winters and brutal summers. In fact, the original definition of "dry farming" included only those areas that got less than 20 inches of precipitation per year. By this definition, #1 up above isn't dry farming, or only in the loosest sense, in that they do not use irrigation or municipal water.

So with dry farming defined, how do I use it?

The basic principles of dry farming seem to be:

Keep the water in the soil
Soil treatment
Choose crops that work
Plant drought tolerant varieties
Fallow season
Plant spacing

Water can be kept in the soil through a variety of techniques--mulching (either dust mulch, organic mulch, or rock mulch), covering the soil, shading the soil, controlling wind, and controlling temperature. Water primarily leaves by going up or down--evaporation or dripping down to the water table. By choice, if you must have one or the other, water table is probably best since the roots can chase it down. Evaporation can be used, providing you have sufficient ground cover to catch the evaporating water and return it to the soil. Ideally the soil should be a clay loam, but we're not doing "ideal" here. High organic matter is of utmost importance. If you start with poor soil, work to amend it until it can be used.

Soil is a loose web of particles of various sizes. Water is a perfect (liquid) crystaline matrix. Through adhesion it will try to fill the space with itself, climbing up through the soil if there is a path for it. That path is created by the density and makeup of the soil. By lightly packing the soil under a seed, you create the path for the water to fill that space, wetting the soil if there is any water in it. Traditional dry farming uses multiple implements to bring the water up from deep underground. It also pulverizes the soil on the surface to prevent evaporation in a sort of dry (or dust) mulch. Originally it appears that this process was used because organic mulches were not available in the areas where dry farming was pioneered. Even now, organic mulches on the scale required by a dry farm are impractical at best.

Choose crops that create a large root system. Many "modern" varieties have very little root, since they're intended to be grown under irrigation. Primary crops for dry farming must be able to chase the water, rather than having it come to them.

When you've chosen your crop, choose varieties that are specifically drought tolerant, and that doesn't mean drought tolerant under irrigation. If it can't thrive under those conditions, it doesn't deserve to be planted. Look for phrases like "prone to cracking" or "don't water too much" because these indicate a variety that may do better with less water. Heirlooms are likely to be more drought tolerant than "new" varieties.

In arid areas it is necessary to let the soil moisture build up over an extended period of time. Every other year planting is ideal, but at minimum every four to five years the soil should rest and collect water. Letting an area "lie fallow" also increases fertility, particularly if you cover crop or have animals on it during that period. Taking into consideration that a cover crop (according to the information I found) will use up part of your stored water.

And last, plant spacing. This seems to be key in dryland farming, and this is where I have the hardest time fitting my head around it. With the basic principles of dry farming, plants are to be given a great deal of space. The idea seems to be that with less competition the plant roots will spread further, with more space to take water from, and produce more. This may be the case. I don't know, as I've never tried it. I have a 30 x 50 foot garden and planting five or ten feet apart simply isn't practical. With pumpkins or other squash I can almost see it, since they spread to fill the available space. But corn? Beans? Tomatoes? Potatoes? In fact, the information I read said potatoes should be spaced even further apart than that. Supposedly, without the competition of other roots in "their" space, the plants have more available water in the soil.

I'm not sure this plant spacing business makes sense, but I'm going to try it next year in a small area and see what happens.

On my scale I have no problem finding organic mulching materials, and dust mulch might as well be Santa Claus since I have no clay in my soil. I can plant under and around trees, create windbreaks, and plant in partial shade. I have plants I think will work for waterless planting and I'm going to try deep watering, watering through a pipe to force the plants roots deep.

Every outside input becomes a handicap if it's ever unavailable. Right now that means I need water independence, so that is what I'm working toward. Maybe it'll never happen, but each failure and success brings me closer to the ideal.

Monday, August 21, 2017


I harvest my own seeds. It's been a while since new seeds came into my yard, but this year I had a friend who wasn't able to have her own garden so I have several varieties of "new" tomatoes, as well as various summer and winter squash and pie pumpkins. It almost feels like I'm being invaded. :) By seeds and plants, not by people.

I don't want anything in my yard to be genetically modified, and as we move more and more toward a Monsanto controlled and owned food supply the list of things being genetically modified grows every year. Apples, sugar beets, corn, wheat. Several hundred varieties of GMO potatoes were approved a few years ago, and while they are currently "not available to the public" I would prefer not to chance my stocks being contaminated. There are a number of reasons for that, but it comes down to unproved safety, the litigious nature of Monsanto, and distrust of a government supported monopoly. They want complete control of our food supply and I'm not going to participate in that.

The only thing in my yard that could possibly be GMO is the corn, because of pollen drift. Everything else is hand pollinated and bagged, or it's built in such a way that accidental crossing is unlikely/impossible (beans, peppers, tomatoes). I've had most of these seeds for upwards of ten years, and some all my life. Others were gifts from people I know back before those particular items were approved for genetic modification.

My days of indiscriminately collecting seeds at every opportunity are over.

Then there's a little quirk of my property that just seems to kill everything. Seeds don't germinate, or they germinate and die, or the bugs get them. First generation I think I probably have a 30% success rate for most things. Some things grow but never flower. Others flower but never fruit. Some don't grow at all.

I've learned to live with it. It's just one more reason NOT to introduce new plants, because it's the first generation that's like this. If the plant grew on my property and I got seeds, the 2nd generation plants will be better. Third generation seeds will thrive.

I've been growing some unknown variety of watermelons for about five years now. Saved from a watermelon we had at a family gathering when I was maybe fifteen, it has adapted quite well. This year I planted several other varieties and waited anxiously to see the female blossoms. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Then, before I'd even seen female blossoms, I had three fruit four inches long on the plant from my own seeds. The others were weeks behind.

Adapted. Someday all my food will be adapted to my soil, my wind, my air. And it will be A. Maze. Ing.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gluten addiction and overdose

I was talking to a friend earlier and we got on the topic of gluten intolerance.

I have a number of friends/family members who can't tolerate even the slightest amounts of wheat. I had a friend over a few years ago and we were walking through my yard--her son couldn't even touch the wheat stalks. There are a number of problems, though.

Wheat, in its natural form, is very filling with a lot of nutrients.

In the mid 1900's, scientists began deliberately crossing wheat with other grasses in order to make it more economically feasible--shorter stalks, less bulk, more energy put into wheat production rather than leaf and stalk, more wheat per stalk, resistant to fungus and disease, etc.

One side effect of these changes was a massive increase in the amount of gluten in the wheat, which made it rise more easily and with less effort. Demand for the altered wheat increased, to the point that the majority of the wheat commonly used today is descended from these crosses. You can still get "heirloom" wheat, but it's more difficult to find. It also won't rise as well. Some older grains have as little as 3% gluten, while modern bread flours have many times more.

The habit of adding gluten to baked goods is an additional risk. Many flours have gluten added as part of processing, and people add gluten in the form of "dough enhancers" when they bake.

This results in something I call gluten overdose.

The human body is designed to function on a hunter-gatherer diet--lots of exercise, plain water, meat, herbs and seeds. This includes the ancient relatives of wheat. We are supposed to eat this stuff. It's part of our makeup. But if your diet was 90% meat, enhanced with protein powders, protein drinks and protein supplements, you wouldn't stay healthy for long. The body is simply not designed to handle overdoses on that level.

If your diet was 90% watermelon, supplemented by green food powders (not so many options in this direction, but you get the point) you wouldn't stay healthy for long.

And yet we seem to think that we can live majority on grains that have been supplemented with a product nature doesn't produce in those quantities and it won't affect us, our digestive systems, or our genes.

Our society, in my opinion, suffers from a gluten overdose. Those sensitive to these substances are getting sick, and it's gumming up the digestive systems of the rest. Depressed immune systems because of bad dietary choices result in even more, and more violent, "allergic reactions" to the substances causing the problems.

Celiacs is real. Gluten intolerance is real. What I think we've mostly been missing is the link between quantity and overdose.