Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cold Frame Construction

As the weather cools, I get rejuvenated about the garden. Currently I am swimming in melons and beets and carrots. But I know that soon enough the summer bounty will wane. I will quickly go from being selective of which fruits to pick to scrounging for something that isn't soft from frost. In recent years, I have tried to remember to plant cool weather seeds in August. This year I did remember and have a nice crop of lettuces already. The problem has always been finding space. So I started constructing raised beds that I can cover as it cools, or shade in the spring as it warms. These raised beds also help define the garden and don't get in the way of the larger summer plot, to which I add compost and rototill every fall and spring.

I convinced the bosses (not hard to do really) to let me build a cold frame at work as a sort of show bed. I told them I could convince people more easily to use our topsoil if they can see a pleasant little crop of radishes, beets, and greens. Besides, with what we promote and believe as a company, how can we NOT have a vegetable garden?! (Actually, we tried several years ago. We did it differently and got hammered by the rabbits, the wind and the sun.)

So I did build one. It really is very simple, it only took me a morning to do it all.
As always, I start at the trusty recycled lumber pile. Between what's available and what I have in mind, I can collect the necessary pieces.

Then, I construct the bed and place it. In this case, it is on a south facing wall. It will get plenty of shade from a beautiful Chitalpa in the summer, but when the tree drops its leaves, the bed will get a heavy dose of winter sun. Hopefully the building will trap some heat and protect the cold frame from some wind. Maybe we will even get a little heat from the radiant heater that sits inside the office.

Before I fill the frame with a high quality planting medium (read: Soilutions' Topsoil Blend; a mixture of our Premium Compost and local sandy loam that is approved for use on certified organic gardens in NM) I placed a wire mesh on the bottom. My intent is to keep squirrels, skunks, or gophers out of it. I used a piece of galvanized hardware cloth that we had sitting around the heap. Chicken wire would work well, too.

In goes the Topsoil Blend...

then the seeds.

I scavenged a couple of lengths of 3/4" PVC and some sheeting from our trash pile and put together a little hoop frame to cover the bed. This will act like a greenhouse: keep the moisture and the day's heat in and the frost out. 1/2" PVC would have worked better, i.e., more flexible, but when you using recycled materials, you take what you find.

If, during the day, it gets too warm, which is all too often this time of year, I can open the lid temporarily.

Stay tuned for progressive photos of the sprouts. Don't be bashful, come on down and grab a radish or two!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Constructing a Worm Bin

Hopefully by now, many people are aware of the wonders of redworms. These little guys happily eat foodwaste (or any other organic waste) quickly without demanding much from us. Unlike humans, they only eat what won't kill them and they reproduce only as food and space allow. On top of that, the vermicompost they secrete is biotically dense and beneficial to soils and plants.

This weekend, I built a small worm bin for the compost site. The bins we already have here are on the north side of the office. This is to keep them as cool as possible in the summer. But in the winter, the poor critters freeze and become hard to harvest. So, after much cajoling from the bosses, we decided to put a smaller bin on the south of the office for winter time harvesting. (Let me clarify now that worms are productive year round, though they are more lethargic in weather extremes, i.e., winter and summer. Given the right environment they will manage your waste very efficiently all year.)

The first thing to do is choose a location for a worm bin. As I said, we chose a spot in the garden that would be sunny in the winter but shaded in the summer. We have also found that an in-ground system is the easiest and best insulated.

After we have agreed upon an appropriate location, I start by digging the hole.

The hole size depends solely on the available space and the anticipated volume of waste generated. I like to line the hole so that dirt doesn't fall back in. For the lining, I go to my trusty recycled limber pile and pull out what I'll need.

I also dig it deep enough so that the worms have room to move to an area to their liking. In this case, I dug it 14" deep to have plenty of room below the freeze line.

Once the hole is dug, and after I build the frame, I place the frame into the hole. I want the edges to be close to ground level.

Into the frame goes the worms generously donated by a neighbor, taken from another bin, or purchased from us (or Gardener's Guild in ABQ).

I then fill the remainder of the bin with yummy feedstocks. This material can be anything readily available. I used mouldy straw and horse manure.

Almost done!
Since this is a bin constructed for winter harvesting, I put an extra layer of insulation, in this case an old straw bale. A little mulch to make it all attractive, and Voila, we have a worm bin.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Free Latillas

Here's a great pile of cedar wood. Get these while you can--they're sure to be ground up in a week or two.
I imagine they could be used for latillas, coyote fencing, fire wood, furniture....

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rainy Days Ramblings

I spend so much time hoping for rain that I get a little shocked when we actually get a couple of days of good soft rain. I know I can count on at least one good down pour during state fair time (I don't know why that is) and really look forward to it; it's usually still hot.
This year,though, the rain is providing me an added service: offering time to reflect. So often, we get the monsoons--moisture that builds most of the day, lurking on the horizon. We hustle about to finish up jobs or errands before the torrents force us inside for an hour. The monsoons actually add frenzy to my life. But today, as I sit in the tin box office, listening to the rain pop like corn on the roof, I have to bide my time. Not much will happen today--no customers, no sales, too sloppy to run the tractors in the yard.
Rains like this remind me of home. Long winter days and nights of moisture. I laugh to myself when I recall how we used to curse the moisture that would mould our towels, render newspapers unreadable, drip through the rafters, chills us through to the bone after weeks of trying to battle it. It would affect our soccer practices, our shopping routines, our dress code. Yet it would also bring the snails out for which my dad gave me .25$ per full milk jug. I would love the foam and sizzle produced from the 1/2 cup of salt we layered into the jugs to kill them; a sort of snail melba. Or my dad would get up on the flat roof and clean the oak leaves from the downspouts. If I wasn't careful below, I could get a good dollop of wet leaves across my shoulders as he'd throw them down. I learned to monitor his whereabouts by keeping track of his tobacco pipe or cigar smoke mixing with the wet air, swirling like a little chimney from roof-corner to roof-corner. Sometimes we would traipse the half-block to the park to watch the creek rise from a dribble to a stream to a torrent. There was a sense of danger standing on the bank that as a child I didn't quite understand but relished nonetheless. I guess I felt proud to be old enough to be trusted with peril.
When I lived in town not too long ago, the boys and I would rush outside to splash in the gutters or to watch elm leaves race each other down the block. I know that the neighbors were watching us and feeling that happiness people feel when watching youngster's pure joy.
Nowadays it seems that when it rains, I have to just stop. Just stand by the door and watch the rain fall into puddles. I try to think of words to describe the sound or feel of it. What else does that little plop resemble? If I were talented, then that little plop would resemble a deep breathe. And in that river of warm air as it exits my body would be my bills, my attitude, my sore muscles, my chores, errands, and obligations. My parents would be young again, and my wife happy. My spirit, anxious to be cleansed, would float on that deep breathe like a leaf in the gutter, and dance between each rain drop. Or it would raise it's weary head and catch just one on it's tongue.

For me this is time well spent.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Master Composter Classes Now Available

Through the hard work and perseverance of John Zarola, Albuquerque will be able to offer Master Composter classes in the spring. The classes will be designed to "teach the teachers." This means that interested individuals will be able learn all about small scale backyard composting in such a way that they will then go out into their community, i.e., neighborhood associations, schools, senior centers, and instruct others.

The training classes, for approximately 20 students, are projected to be held on:

April 24, 25 and May 1, 2 of 2010. Classes will run from 9 AM - 3 PM on all 4 days.

Class location will be: the Open Space Visitors Center, 6500 Coors Blvd., NW, ABQ, 87103.

Jim Brooks (of Soilutions fame) and other professionals will instruct the students according to the stated curriculum. Field trips will be added to the training requirements as planning evolves.

Students accepted into the program will agree to a certain number of volunteer hours which will be completed after graduation by teaching the interested public about home composting.

The current active steering committee is composed of: Jim Brooks, DeLaina Cushing, Dorothy Koopmans, Joran Viers and John Zarola.

After construction of an informational website, continued information, including: curriculum, references, application form, text book and assignments will be available at: Notice will be sent when this site is active.

Currently questions of interest may be sent to: John Zarola, Volunteer Coordinator

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Question: What's your take on Permaculture?

Recently a friend of mine in San Francisco asked me about Permaculture. He'll be taking classes soon and wanted my take on it.

Well, I have mixed feelings. I have never taken any formal Permaculture classes or instructions. I would say I am more of a follower of Jim Brooks than of Permaculture per se. Simply put, Permaculture promotes the idea of making any space – a yard, a home, a business, a community, etc. – into a self-contained system that supplies its own needs, creates abundance, and regenerates waste within itself. The above image depicts the ideology behind Permaculture very well: interdependence, fluidity, and the cyclical qualities of nature, of which we are a part. To me the rising popularity of the term Permaculture is due to urbanites need to classify a lost way of life. Like the "green" movement, "sustainability", and "local", Permaculture has been usurped by larger powers as a way to make sense of people's reactions to the chaos they find themselves living in. It irks me that there are websites now stating "Have a Permaculture Business" and even "Let Permaculture Design Your Kitchen." Permaculture is by far a better idea than the general mindless living we have fallen into, but in no way the sole solution. There are just too many threads running through our lives to successfully adhere to one ideology.

As a part of larger living philosophy, though, Permaculture is certainly helpful.

I have gleaned from various conversations and readings that Permaculture is a practice of sensible, logical, and thoughtful living through management of resources on available property. Instead of building a fence by driving to a box store and buying harvested rain forest wood, Permaculture suggests that we build what we in the southwest call a coyote fence out of limbs and branches from our property. Or better still, plant a living fence, maybe out of berry bushes so that we have two (or more) functions in one feature: barrier, wildlife habitat, and food source. In the southwest, water is a big issue in Permaculture circles. Again, Permaculture guides us to use our brain. Most standard building codes mandate that water be whisked away from a dwelling as quickly as possible. These houses usually have underground automated sprinkler system, too. The Permaculturist asks why pump water out of the aquifer to water a lawn when we can harvest the rain or grey water to perform the same function? And why do we have a lawn that needs to be watered in the first place?

Brad Lancaster in his indispensable book "Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Vol. 1" makes the suggestion that in order to properly manage water on a property, we need to watch it first to learn how it flows. Yet how often do we run inside out of the rain? Simple logic like this goes against our inclinations, but I don't think it goes against our intuitions.

Like most things, we do not NEED to study Permaculture to practice it. Simply slowing down, being mindful of our surroundings, and being thoughtful in our approach to a problem or project is all that we need to do to be a successful Permaculturist.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Recycling in New Mexico

It's difficult being in the recycling business in New Mexico. We often feel 30 years behind everyone else. We hear of $70-150 landfill tip fees on the coasts; ours is $3.85/cubic yard residential. California has goals to reduce waste going to landfills by %75 by 2010 but we as a state have a 12% recycling rate. We read of innovative uses for carpet, tires, glass in other parts of the country while it seems the only use in New Mexico for these types of materials is to line the sides of roads and ditches. There IS a lot of local enthusiasm for the "green movement", for recycling, etc. just not a lot of will shown by our lawmakers.

However, in the latest issue of BioCycle, there is an article about a yard waste recycling and composting facility in Kansas City, Missouri. I have roots in KC going back all of my 42 years and then some. One thing that always startled me on visits to the area was a skepticism toward recycling. I have a cousin who actually asked me "why should I recycle." When an Uncle from the area heard I was in this business, he turned me on to Missouri Organic Recycling (MOR); his friend started it years ago with his dad, or some such. Last time I was out there, I dragged my parents out to their (MOR) facility. I might just be the only person who visits dumps on their vacation. Anyway, I haven't felt so at home. With the exception of standing water, the facility looks very similar to ours.

Now back to the article in BioCyle. On the cover is a picture of food waste that looks very similar to large loads of food waste we get here on a regular basis. When I opened the magazine to the article, sure enough, MOR was the featured facility. Change the name from MOR to Soilutions, and ignore all the stuff about the state and all sorts of agencies throwing money at them from both sides to get the food waste collection program running,the article could be about Soilutions. They have the same challenges, the same goals, the same successes. MOR is just 10 years ahead of Soilutions.
So it gives me hope to see that we at Soilutions are developing innovative programs that, while they may not be avant-garde in relation to the rest of the world, they are on the right track to be on a par with the heavy hitting composters of the country.