Category Archives: Compost

Things to do when not farming…

The seed catalogs are piling up and it’s a constant reminder of how in flux we’ll be as of

photo 5
Identifying cool mushrooms…

June. It’s been a long time since I’ve not put in a large seed order, and frankly, I’m feeling a bit antsy about it this season. So, to take my mind off of what I won’t be doing, I’m thinking ahead to the things this extra time will provide in terms of opportunities for learning. An ever-growing, ever-bearing, zone 1-10 list of things to learn while not farming:

  • Tend to the travelling orchard
  • Improve spinning technique
  • Improve fiber processing set-up and technique
  • Experiment with natural dyes
  • Learn about medicinal herbs
  • Practice grafting techniques
  • Volunteer at school or public garden
  • Help a fellow farmer with farm chores, butchering, shearing, etc.
  • Learn old-fashioned candy-making
  • Focus on food preservation techniques:
    • Pressure canning
    • Smoking meats
    • Drying
    • Fermentation
  • Take a class in business planning for the fiber mill
  • Maybe, just maybe, learn a new knitting skill
  • Explore niche or value added markets
  • Take a botany class
  • Spend some time with growers using methods outside of your own, including conventional, biodynamic, and other permaculture or organic farmers and gardeners
  • Cut up seed catalogs to make art with the kids
  • Cut up seed catalogs to do some companion planting planning
  • Re-read Edible Forest Gardens

The list continues to grow and hope blooms eternal, so… suggestions are always welcome and may spring shine warm sunlight upon your gardens!

“You can’t do that without a tractor!” and other things people tell us… [Part One]

We hear this a lot, “How can you do that without a tractor?”

Tractors make great trellises.

It helps that we don’t till and manage the farm in a manner consistent with Permaculture’s ‘slow and steady’ principle. But the question remains, how do you deal with a large swath of land that requires working? We’ve run into one such stretch of pasture that was heavily tilled and sprayed for a few years. What remains is a rocky, sandy, depleted soil with several varieties of pioneer plants putting down deep tap roots to mine for nutrients and to gain traction in a heavily eroded landscape.

How can we alter this stretch without a tractor?  Our answer: Time, livestock, poop, and seeds.

Pioneers, the first to appear after the soil has suffered enough tillage, are plants often detested by the traditional farmer/gardener. They’re designed to survive in harsh, arid soils. Some even secrete a growth-suppressing hormone from their roots, keeping other plants from competing for the limited nutrients available. Additional tilling, which throws nutrients into the air, will generate an ideal habitat for these plants, preventing what we’d like to grow from growing (unless we rely on biocides to kill them, then soak the ground with synthesized NPK).

Instead, we approach the land with an integrative thought process. How can we work with what’s here and what we have to improve soil and get a yield of some kind out of the process? That yield might come in the form of fodder for animals, or food for humans (or both).

The land mentioned above, once a GMO-cornfield, is being transformed into a productive grazing pasture for our sheep. We first let it grow undisturbed for a full year (in a few more years, the microbial life there prior to conventional approaches will return), while installing fence-posts.

Taking advantage of a gentle slope, we’ll graze the sheep, who expel some of the richest pelleted manures of any livestock, in the upper portion, supplementing their feed with hay. During this process, as it rains, they’ll fertilized the upper portion of the field and allow for water to carry some of the nutrients to the lower half.

The Tengelitsch-Graves kids plant fence posts for the future sheep pasture last summer.
The Tengelitsch-Graves kids plant fence posts for the future sheep pasture last summer.

The pioneer plants, which congregate in the lower portion of the field, will now serve as a food source for meat-chickens. Using a chicken tractor (instead of a petrol-driven tractor), we’ll move the chickens daily and where they’ve eaten away the vegetation, they’ll leave a rich manure in its place. After each move, we’ll sew grasses and a limited supply of clover (a great nitrogen fixing legume).

By next year, we’ll reverse the process, allowing the sheep to graze the lower pasture, continuing to fertilize as they eat, and run the chickens across the upper portion, seeding as we go. Out of this, we get yields of meat from our chickens, fodder for the livestock, and fiber off the sheep. No tilling (and no tractors) necessary.

HTF What the heck is hugelkultur, anyway? events

Interested in learning to build soil for your raised garden beds? Wondering about that crazy German word you’ve heard floating around of late? What is hugelkultur, anyway? We’ll share the answer and much more as we build beds all around our new, old, old house.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll welcome people or small groups to our urban farm and illustrate the art of all things earthy, including information on indoor and outdoor composting and how to find free materials for use in building soil. These informal gatherings are FREE and open to all.  Call to set up a time that works for YOU.

http://www.healingtreefarm.orgHealing Tree Farm • (231) 499 – 8188

Why weeds matter

By definition, a weed is any plant that crowds out cultivated plants.  In nature, plants will only crowd out other plants when the environment is altered and one plant is deprived of some nutrient or gained by another.  While we tend to think of forests as stationary ecosystems, they’re always moving.  As we see in succession, when one layer of pioneer plants has amassed enough biomass to sustain a perennial herb layer, the grasses move in and “crowd out” the pioneers.  As more biomass is generated at the top-soil layer by the bundled root-systems of the perennial grasses, the shrub layer encroaches followed by the shorter, then taller trees.  With each step, we see a more complex ecosystem unfolding until the web of biodiversity is strong enough to sustain minor alterations.  

“Weeds” or those plants we have labeled weeds, contribute to biomass, cultivation, offer a food source for beneficial insects and play a part in the development of the ecosystem.  And in many cases, those plants we’ve labeled “weeds” are far more beneficial than the plants we’ve cultivated.  Dandelions, for example, are completely edible, hold nutrients from the soil and redistribute these nutrients at the end of the life-cycle, are insectary, and offer humans some medicinal value.  Grass, on the other hand, prevents erosion and provides biomass, but otherwise, isn’t very useful to humans, doesn’t attract beneficial insects and takes in more nutrients than it contributes.

Healing Tree: the website

I’ve been brainstorming ideas to make this blog more effective and I’ve decided to build a website around topics discussed on the blog while maintaining the blog as a central forum for discussion and ideas.  The website will offer resources to folks new to permaculture and also those more familiar with the “do no harm” approach to farming, including helpful links and articles written by me and those more familiar with the process.  

Since we’re landless, we’ll be propagating a new kind of garden – with vital seeds of change – online!

How to Build a Fruit-centered Guild (Pt2)

Once you have built a healthy layer of topsoil, wait a while (like months) while the materials break down and the heat isn’t so intense as to devour the roots of early-plantings.  Guild-building is a long project for forward-thinkers.  It can be frustrating in that folks who visit our backyard experiment often give us perplexed looks, seeing mostly circular raised beds dotting the landscape.  “Give it a year,” I tell them.

We began our guilds in June, but this week we will begin planting bulbs for spring.  The bulbs sit higher in the soil and won’t be heavily impacted by the heat rising up from the composting manure.  [If you’ve never stuck your hand in composting manure, (and you probably haven’t) it’s HOT.   When sifting through manure to remove larger rocks, the rocks would surprise us with their heat.  I dropped one it was so warm.  Like a hot potato (covered in poo).]

I digress…   The bulbs are nice because they’ll give you something to enjoy next spring.  Beautiful large blooms to squelch any unwarranted criticism from family and friends.  AND they double as grass-suppressors, hopefully they’re edible or maybe they deter ground-rodents and deer.  The other important element of a  fruit-centered guild is that whatever you choose to plant, the roots and functions must be considered carefully.

The roots of a fruit tree extend out one and a half times the diameter of the tree.  If you are planting an apple tree, consider the size of the tree once it reaches maturity and adjust your guild-size accordingly (you can always add on later, if necessary).  As mentioned earlier, what to plant within your guild depends a lot on the roots and functions of the plants you wish to include within your guild.  There are many kinds of bulbs available, but which bulbs offer the most functionality within the guild?  Consider:

  • which insects/animals these plants attract or deter
  • whether or not any part of the plant is edible
  • the plant’s vigor and whether or not it will spread
  • pH  requirements
  • the type of root system and where it falls relative to the fruit tree
  • when the plant takes in the most nutrients/water
  • how and where the plant stores nutrients
  • yields and value to humans, medicinal value, environmental impact/value

A dandelion, for example offers a deep taproot that won’t “compete” for nutrients from the tree; it breaks open and oxygenates the soil; it has edible and medicinal roots and leaves and it absorbs a higher level of CO2.  Comfrey also has a deep taproot, enormous medicinal value, and stores a high concentration of nutrients in its leaves, so it can be mulched in place and makes a terrific fertilizer.  Daffodils are grass-suppressors (they keep the grass roots away from our beloved tree roots); they take in the majority of nutrients in the spring (before the tree); and they deter deer and rodents, but attract beneficial insects to our guilds.

These are just some examples.  We’ll talk more about the specific plantings later in our third installment.  For now, start thinking about roots and plant functions.  Think about the sort of things you would like to grow and research their various functions.  Also consider nearby trees.  Some trees, like the black walnut, are allopathic to neighboring trees and will deter healthy growth.

Keep in mind, I’m not an expert in permaculture, I’m a student.  There’s a lot to learn and as the old adage goes, if you’re not killing some of your plants, you’re probably not learning anything new.

In healing we may teach others and in teaching, we may heal.   

How to Build a Fruit-centered Guild (Pt1)

To build a guild think soil, roots, and results.  A mature ecosystem has a rich layer of biomass that has accumulated over many, many years.  In order to replicate, create your own layer of rich topsoil using a good combination of nitrogen and carbon rich materials.  Hay, fresh manure, and grass clippings work well for the nitrogen layers and straw, newspaper or carboard, and compost work well for the carbon layer.

Start by cutting the grass.  Leave the clippings to mulch in place and cover these with a thin layer of newsprint.  Atop the newsprint, pile four inches of fresh(ish) manure.  I pile the hay (not straw) directly over the manure in another thick eight-inch to a foot layer and then cover these with a thicker-than-before layer of newsprint.  Straw works well over the top to seal in moisture.  The creates a weed barrier and holds in moisture and allows time for your grass-suppressing bulbs to get rooted before the paper biodegrades.

Next… How to plant a guild…