Greenhouse Build

Roundwood Roof Beams

How I’m building the roof for my new passive solar greenhouse.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    We generate a lot of woody biomass from branches which we burn in pits to make charcoal. We then inoculate this charcoal to make a soil amendment that can last for over 1000 years in our soil.

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Lasagna Method / Ruth Stout Method

Deep Mulch

Soil should never be exposed to the sunlight. Keeping a large amount of biomass (ideally 6-8 inches) on the soil retains moisture, suppresses weeds and slowly breaks down building soil with lots of organic material.

Ruth Stout

Ruth Stout in her 1979 book The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of the year-round mulch method. outlines her simple method to reduce unwanted weeds, reduce watering needs and make a beautiful soil with lots of tilth. It’s very simple. Just apply 8 inches or more of straw mulch on top of your garden bed.

Since Ruth Stout many others have promoted gardening with lots of mulch. The Back to Eden method uses wood chips as mulch to increase the fungal component in the soil. Food forests use copious amounts of mulch to jumpstart the ecological succession, and in their mature years they provide their own mulch in the form of dropped leaf and plant matter. Regenerative ranchers such as Gabe Brown speak often about keeping the soil protected by using mulch (although for large areas it’s better to use cover crops as a living mulch).

All the soil pictured was created in one season simply by laying straw down on top of our hugelkultur beds. The white hyphae is from the edible wine cap mushrooms that proliferate.

Why Mulch?

Look at any natural landscape. You will never see bare soil, unless there has been some kind of disturbance. Nature abhors a vacuum. Pioneer weed species immediately begin to conquer bare soil. In conventional agriculture we till the ground thinking this will help, but all we do is make a perfect landscape for opportunistic weeds. If we leave the soil bare, we will be constantly fighting weeds. Mulch is the answer.

Soil should never be exposed to sunlight. Worms, bacteria, fungi and other decomposers in the soil food web all dislike and harmed by sunlight. They prefer dark, moist conditions–exactly the opposite of a dry sunny patch of dirt. It’s very important to keep what Gabe Brown calls, ‘a layer of armor’ on your soil.

The Problem With Deep Mulch

We understand now why it’s important to keep soil covered, and we understand the benefits to applying large amounts of organic material to our soils. But where do we get this organic material? Straw and hay are relatively cheap, so we could just buy them (as we’ve done in the past). There’s two problems:

  1. Pesticides. Is your straw grown without the use of biocides? Are you 100% sure? Some farmers use persistent herbicides (specifically plant growth regulators) that can harm your plants. If you can be absolutely certain your straw has no persistent herbicides then you should be okay.
  2. But even if you have no-spray straw, this still needs to be grown somewhere. Our goal is produce all our own fertility onsite. Buying straw uses acres somewhere else (as well as fossil fuels to cut and deliver).

The solution is to generate our own biomass onsite to use as mulch. We do this by growing cover crops and by cutting existing vegetation. We also chop and drop plants that we grow once they’ve been harvested. For example, once we harvest a broccoli flower we cut the stem (leaving the roots in the ground to decompose) and drop it in place. It will become food for our soil life, and eventually become soil that will grow the next round of broccoli.

How to Plant into Deep Mulch

There are two ways to plant into deep mulch, both of which are very simple.

  1. Use your hands to make a hole in the mulch until you reach the soil. Plant your transplant into the created hole, then squish the mulch back around the plant so its leaves poke out and get sun. This will keep its roots moist, but still allow it to get sunlight.
  2. Overseed many seeds by sprinkling directly onto the top of the mulch. Keep watered for a few days until they sprout and then you’re done. We do this with kale to grow mini kale for salads. It’s very easy, and doesn’t need to be weeded or even watered once its established.
Transplants planted into holes in the mulch. These plants thrived this season.
Young brassicas establishing themselves after being sprinkled on top of a layer of straw mulch. Don’t overthink it; plants want to live.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Traditionally farmers till the ground each year to prepare the soil for planting. This practise kills soil life, exposes the soil the the sun and over time will drain your soil of nutrients and increase compaction.

    Read More

    Cover cropping is the practise of growing a variety of plants and cutting them (or grazing animals on them) and letting them decompose to build soil. This is the #1 most important strategy for generating fertility without external inputs.

    Read More

Mimicking Nature

Food Forest

Nature grows forests with no inputs. Nobody is fertilizing or spending hours weeding a forest. So why do we do this for our gardens?

Why a Food Forest

Who fertilizes a forest? Who keeps it watered? Who painstakingly removes weeds?

Nobody. And yet forests can support life, and have a variety of harvests we can take from them. So what if made a garden that mimicked how a forest grew? Turns out indigenous peoples of every continent have been practicing this successfully, but it’s finally making a resurgence as a viable way to grow food at scale while drastically reducing the negative impacts of industrial farming.

What is a Food Forest?

A food forest is a diverse planting of edible plants that grow in layers, much like a natural forest. Rooted in permaculture principles, food forests aim to create a self-sustaining environment where plants, trees, and animals thrive together, providing an abundance of food with minimal human intervention.

The layers of a food forest typically include:

  1. Canopy Layer: Tall fruit and nut trees that provide shade and habitat.
  2. Understory Layer: Smaller trees and large shrubs, such as dwarf fruit trees and berry bushes.
  3. Shrub Layer: Medium-sized shrubs, including various berry bushes.
  4. Herbaceous Layer: Perennial herbs, vegetables, and flowers.
  5. Ground Cover Layer: Low-growing plants that spread across the ground.
  6. Rhizosphere Layer: Root crops and tubers that grow underground.
  7. Vertical Layer: Climbers and vines that grow up trees and structures.

Each layer plays a crucial role in creating a balanced ecosystem, ensuring nutrient cycling, water retention, and habitat for beneficial insects and animals.

The Plan

We cleared some existing forest and then we planted a variety of pioneer species to build up our soil and support our main canopy layer which will be a variety of nut trees. Underneath these huge nut trees will be lots of herbaceous plants (mint, lemon balm, anise hyssop, red, crimson and white clovers, comfrey, dandelion, oregano, thyme, beans, rhubarb, alfalfa, rhye, oats, daikon radish etc), with mixed berry bushes (currant, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, haskap, goji berry etc), and fruit trees like apples and pears.

No Disturbance

No Till

Traditionally farmers till the ground each year to prepare the soil for planting. This practise kills soil life, exposes the soil the the sun and over time will drain your soil of nutrients and increase compaction. Nature doesn’t till, so we don’t either.

Tilling breaks up soil aggregates and causes opportunistic microbes to burn through existing carbon. It increases compaction, breaks fungal hyphae, exposes microbial life to the sun and air and will make your soils worse over time, and make them require tilling to function properly. Tilling once to establish a new bed is sometimes useful, but it should absolutely not be a part of your longterm fertility strategy.

Breaking Soil Aggregates

Tilling breaks up soil aggregates, the clumps of soil particles held together by organic matter and microbial activity. These aggregates are crucial for maintaining soil structure, water infiltration, and root growth. When soil aggregates are broken, the soil becomes more prone to erosion and compaction, reducing its ability to support healthy plant growth.

Disruption of Microbial Communities

Soil is home to a diverse array of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that play essential roles in nutrient cycling and plant health. Tilling disrupts these microbial communities by breaking fungal hyphae, the thread-like structures of fungi that help plants absorb nutrients. This disruption not only reduces the beneficial relationships between plants and microbes but also exposes microbial life to harmful sunlight and air, leading to a decline in microbial diversity and activity.

Loss of Soil Carbon

When soil is tilled, opportunistic microbes rapidly consume existing soil organic matter, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This process, known as carbon mineralization, depletes soil carbon reserves, which are essential for maintaining soil fertility and structure. The loss of soil carbon contributes to the decline in soil health and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

Increased Soil Compaction

Contrary to the belief that tilling loosens soil, it actually increases soil compaction over time. The repeated mechanical action of tilling compresses soil particles, reducing pore space and limiting root growth. Compacted soil has poor water infiltration and drainage, leading to waterlogging and reduced oxygen availability for plant roots.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Hugelkultur is essentially a large amount of logs, branches and other woody debris covered in compost, soil. The wood inside acts like a sponge, holding a tremendous amount of water and also providing copious food for fungi.

    Read More

    We generate a lot of woody biomass from branches which we burn in pits to make charcoal. We then inoculate this charcoal to make a soil amendment that can last for over 1000 years in our soil.

    Read More

Green Manure

Cover Crops

Cover cropping is the most important strategy for generating fertility onsite without any external inputs.

Cover crops are plants that are grown specifically to cover and protect the soil, rather than for their edible or ornamental value. Using a diverse blend of cover crops we increase soil fertility by building biomass, but more important by having living roots that produce root exudates we feed microizal fungi and microbes which combine minerals and carbon to create soil aggregates

Perhaps the most important part of building soil is understanding how plant roots interact with soil biology. Plants produce root exudates which feed specific fungi and bacteria. These fungi and bacteria like the tasty exudates (sugars) and offer up minerals or important nutrients such as nitrogen in exchange. This extends the reach of plant roots and allows them to radically improve their health. It also creates soil aggregates which is vital for the structure of soil.

One of the main roles of cover crops is to build fertility onsite. Cover crops can add nutrients to the soil through their roots and aboveground biomass, which can then be incorporated into the soil when the cover crops are turned under. This can help to improve soil structure, increase water retention, and promote the growth of healthy plants.

Using cover crops can also help to build fertility without using any “ghost acres,” or land that is dedicated to producing a single crop. Cover crops can be grown in between regular crops, or in areas that would otherwise be left fallow. This allows farmers to maximize the use of their land and build fertility without dedicating additional resources or land to the process.

There are many different types of cover crops to choose from, each with its own unique benefits. Some common cover crops include legumes (such as clover and beans), grasses (such as oats and rye), and brassicas (such as mustard and kale).

Overall, cover crops play a vital role in sustainable agriculture by helping to build fertility onsite and improve soil health. They are a valuable tool for farmers and gardeners looking to create a healthy and productive ecosystem.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Swales are ditches dug on contour that collect water, spread it out and let it slowly infiltrate into the soil where it can help rejuvenate aquifers and moisten soils.

    Read More

    Hugelkultur is essentially a large amount of logs, branches and other woody debris covered in compost, soil. The wood inside acts like a sponge, holding a tremendous amount of water and also providing copious food for fungi.

    Read More

Water Retention

Swales

Swales are essentially just drainage ditches, except that they’re dug on contour so they collect and hold water instead of diverting it.

Swales are an innovative landscaping solution, designed not just to manage water runoff but to harness it beneficially. Unlike traditional drainage ditches that divert water away from a property, swales are strategically dug along the natural contours of the land. This design allows them to capture, hold, and infiltrate runoff water into the ground, thereby recharging groundwater and irrigating the surrounding vegetation. Particularly effective in areas prone to drought or those seeking sustainable water management practices, swales can be applied in a variety of settings – from large-scale agricultural lands to suburban backyards.

While swales are a cornerstone of many permaculture designs, they are not universally applicable. In cases like ours, where the slope is particularly steep—around 16%—traditional swale implementation can be impractical. The gradient not only challenges the swale’s structural integrity but also its ability to effectively retain water without causing erosion. However, this limitation does not deter our commitment to sustainable water management. We’ve adapted by deeply considering the natural flow of water on our property, devising alternative strategies to capture, slow, and utilize runoff in a manner that complements our landscape’s unique contours and conditions.

Capturing and storing water is a pivotal strategy for achieving long-term sustainability and success in permaculture designs. This approach is especially crucial when integrated with perennial plantings, such as the food forest we are developing. By establishing a system that efficiently collects and conserves water, we ensure a consistent supply of moisture to support the growth of trees, shrubs, and other perennials throughout the seasons. This synergy between water management and perennial agriculture not only enhances the resilience and productivity of our food forest but also contributes to the creation of a self-sustaining ecosystem that thrives with minimal external input.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Traditionally farmers till the ground each year to prepare the soil for planting. This practise kills soil life, exposes the soil the the sun and over time will drain your soil of nutrients and increase compaction.

    Read More

    Cover cropping is the practise of growing a variety of plants and cutting them (or grazing animals on them) and letting them decompose to build soil. This is the #1 most important strategy for generating fertility without external inputs.

    Read More

Worm Poops

Vermicompost

Our worms turn food waste into valuable worm castings, a fantastic soil amendment.

What is vermicompost

Vermicomposting is a method of composting that utilizes worms to break down organic matter and produce nutrient-rich castings (worm poops). Worm castings are a valuable soil amendment that can improve the structure, fertility, and water-holding capacity of soil. They are rich in nutrients and beneficial microbes, which can help plants grow healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases.

Why making your own worm castings is better

Besides the obvious cost benefits, the castings we make are of far higher quality. The castings you can buy are likely fed inorganic food, and they may go heavy on things like cardboard that lack nutrients. We also particularly like the worm castings we make because of the beneficial microbes they harbour. When you buy worm castings from the store they are devoid of life because they must be packaged and sold according to certain regulations. This time spent sitting in warehouses kills all the soil life present in the castings.

How to make castings

The process of vermicomposting involves setting up a worm bin and providing the worms with a balanced diet of organic matter such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and paper products. The worms consume the organic matter and produce nutrient-rich castings, also known as vermicompost.

Vermicompost is an excellent soil amendment that can improve the structure, fertility, and water-holding capacity of soil. It is rich in nutrients and beneficial microbes, which can help plants grow healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases.

View More Projects

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Cover cropping is the practise of growing a variety of plants and cutting them (or grazing animals on them) and letting them decompose to build soil. This is the #1 most important strategy for generating fertility without external inputs.

    Learn More

    Swales are ditches dug on contour that collect water, spread it out and let it slowly infiltrate into the soil where it can help rejuvenate aquifers and moisten soils.

    Learn More

Helping Pests Survive?

Pest Management

Although it may seem contradictory, we actively work to make habitats for garden pests.

Integrated Pest Management

The first year we grew kale we had horrible aphid problems. People suggest spraying soap or blending cayenne peppers and spraying this liquid on the leaves, or using commercial insecticides. We took a different route. We did nothing. By doing nothing at all, we provided a valuable source of food to aphid’s natural predators. The next year, we had no aphid problems and we haven’t had any since!

This is called integrated pest management. It works better on small scales and when the pressure to produce perfect looking vegetables isn’t imposed on you. If you tried to “do nothing” on a commercial farm, you’d go out of business. But on small home scales the best pest defence is plant diverse integrated polycultures (a lot of different plants in close proximity) and provide lots of habitat for predators. If you mostly leave this system alone, the pests and predators will find a natural equilibrium. You may lose some of your vegetables to pests, but you likely won’t lose all of your vegetables.

We much prefer to build natural ecosystems and work with nature instead of creating more work for ourselves.

View More Projects

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    December 12, 2022

    Cover cropping is the practise of growing a variety of plants and cutting them (or grazing animals on them) and letting them decompose to build soil. This is the #1 most important strategy for generating fertility without external inputs.

    We farm red wriggler worms to harvest their castings as a soil amendment.

    Mimicking how a forest works, we aim to produce food using woody perennials and agroforestry principles. Functioning food forests have been discovered that are over 150 years old.

    Swales are ditches dug on contour that collect water, spread it out and let it slowly infiltrate into the soil where it can help rejuvenate aquifers and moisten soils.

Hugelkultur

Logs, sticks and woody debris piled up and covered with soil to make a garden bed that barely requires watering and is constantly breaking down and building soil.

Hugelkultur, also known as “hill culture” or “mound culture,” is a sustainable gardening technique that involves building raised beds using woody debris such as logs, branches, and twigs. This method of gardening has a number of benefits, including increased water retention, improved soil structure, and the ability to use materials that would otherwise be discarded.

One of the main benefits of hugelkultur is its ability to improve soil structure and fertility. As the woody debris decomposes, it releases nutrients and creates a network of air pockets that improve drainage and water retention. This can be particularly beneficial in areas with poor soil or dry climates.

Another advantage of hugelkultur is that it allows us to use logs and woody debris that would otherwise be useless to us. Rather than discarding these materials, we can repurpose them to create raised beds that will support healthy plant growth. This not only helps to reduce waste, but also provides an opportunity to recycle these materials and give them a new purpose.

To create a hugelkultur bed, you will need to gather a variety of woody debris and arrange it in a mound shape. The logs should be placed at the bottom, with branches and twigs on top. Once the bed is built, it can be covered with soil and plants can be added.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Swales are ditches dug on contour that collect water, spread it out and let it slowly infiltrate into the soil where it can help rejuvenate aquifers and moisten soils.

    Keeping a large amount of biomass (straw, grass, wood chips, etc) on top of the soil retains moisture, suppresses weeds and slowly breaks down building soil with lots of organic material. We also grow edible mushrooms in the mulch of all our garden beds.

Instead of having a ugly parking lot, we decided to build a kitchen garden close to the house so we could quickly gather ingredients for meals.

First Steps

We needed to cut some trees to ensure enough sunlight would reach the garden throughout the seasons. We used the firs and hemlock for firewood, and the cedars for fence posts. We burned all the branches to make a large quantity of relatively high quality biochar. Biochar sells for prohibitively high prices, so being able to create our own is extremely valuable.

Quite a lot of trees to process by hand!

Once the trees were felled, the biochar made and the logs stacked, work could begin on converting the compacted parking lot into a productive garden.

The parking lot before construction began.

But how to turn compacted sandy dirt into productive and biologically active soil?

A diverse blend of cover crops would work well as their roots could punctuate the tough dirt and start pumping carbon into the ground. But this would require at least a year (and with the level of degradation and compaction here probably more like 3-5 years) to become ready for planting.

The Solution: Hugelkultur

We opted instead to dig trenches 2 feet deep, 4 feet wide and about 24 feet long. We would then fill these trenches with hundreds of pounds of old stumps, logs and rotted woody debris, then cover them with organic matter (grass, manure, compost, soil, etc) and plant directly into the top.

Seb began digging by hand but quickly realized this would take ages and the opportunity cost was too high so we hired our friend Larry to come with his machine. Larry, an old-school organic farmer (well before organic was popular) was somewhat skeptical, but got the work done within a day.

Larry getting to work!

Once the trenches were dug and filled with the material it looked as if no work had even been done. But hiding under the tire tracks and dirt was thousands of strands of hyphae getting ready to colonize the vast amounts of woody material. Around this time Seb dug in new water lines so sprinklers and hoses could be run.

The Benefits of Hugelkultur

The woody material is covered by organic material and soil so it begins to collect water like a sponge. This reduces your watering needs considerably. Once the plant roots are established you almost never need to water because the wood becomes saturated.

The constant moist conditions also allow fungi to rapidly colonize the abundant woody food source. Fungal decomposition builds high quality soil, so the hugelkultur beds actually improve their soil quality every year for about 5-7 years with no added inputs or effort on your part at all.

Lots of wood also fosters mycorrhizal associations between certain fungi and plant roots. This fungal connection helps the plant roots collect nutrients and minerals from a far bigger area than would be possible with their roots alone. Through root educates the plants can also request specific nutrients or minerals at specific times. This is a much more fine-tuned nutrient application than even the most high precision conventional (or even certified organic) agriculture can achieve. In short, increasing the fungal component in soils in beneficial for many types of crops.

  1. Better water retention
  2. Promotes beneficial fungus
  3. Builds soil without any effort (once it’s built)
  4. Is significantly cheaper than buying soil or compost

Planting the beds

Once the trenches were filled with wood we piled on grass clippings, horse manure (we bought this from an organic farm near us, but we are aiming to stop all external inputs in the near future), homemade compost and forest soil. This created a fantastic planting medium that was biologically active (from the compost) and contained tons of organic matter for that life to feed on.

Planting begins. These tiny plants were started inside from seed.

Starting a kitchen garden with no fence is a risky proposition so building a fence became high priority. Seb began stripping the cedar logs, and learning to dig post holes. Most of the post holes were dug 2 feet deep. He also built a garden shed as a way to learn the skills needed to build his passive solar greenhouse (not completed yet).

A simple garden gate

With the plants in the ground, water lines dug, the fence built and copious amounts of straw mulch (inoculated with King Stropharia Wine Cap edible mushrooms) applied, the garden was ready to go.

2022 Results

This kitchen garden produced a large amount of food for us this season and was overall a much higher success than we were expecting. We picked about a half pound of perennial kale daily for 2 months at least. Carrots, beets, runner and bush beans, fennel, amaranth, swiss chard, sunflowers, dill, basil, thai basil, strawberries, chili peppers, leeks and more all prospered and suffered no nutrient deficiencies. Volunteer butternut squash produced around 45lbs. We planted asparagus and strawberries together and hopefully in 3-5 years the asparagus will produce a nice early spring vegetable. Pests were not a problem at all because the population of beneficial insects loved the spaces in the mulch and were able to increase their numbers greatly.

Next Steps

A passive solar greenhouse will be built on the south side of the garden. This will be used to start seeds, grow tomatoes, peppers and other hot season crops and maybe even to extend our growing season year round.

The paths will be planted with low growing white clover as a living mulch. Clover is a nitrogen fixer so it will provide the adjacent garden beds with nitrogen.

A large variety and number of flowers will be seeded all around the garden to increase pollinator populations, and to attract even more beneficial insects.

The fences will be planted to runner beans, and maybe grapes or some other vine/espaliered tree to take advantage of the nitrogen from the beans.

Before and After

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