Sunday, January 04, 2009

Garden Journal: Getting Serious about Urban Homesteading

We are starting on a more-or-less serious attempt at sustainable, productive, urban gardening. I will be using this blog as our garden journal. This is the first entry.

When we moved into our new house we did no landscaping (not in the original budget). The yard was a combination of decades-old compacted caliche (probably contaminated with toxins) and fill dirt with little organic matter.

In order to keep the yard from blowing away we put down two truckloads of cedar mulch. Then we had one of the wettest springs and summers on record. Also, we applied the leftover retainer from our architects to a bit of professional landscaping in preparation for our house being on the 2006 Green Homes Tour, which resulted in some rose bushes, a pomegranate bush, and various assorted things around the front porch. Our builder gave us a mountain laurel, which Julie planted by the street and made a little flower bed around. Julie also started a little kitchen garden around the back porch.

Otherwise we did nothing with the yard except attempt quixotically to keep the weedy grass under control with the rain and all. We probably needed at least twice as much mulch to fully control growth of grass. And since this grass was what grew naturally in the soil we had it must have been pretty hardy stuff.

In 2006 we pretty much let stuff grow as it would and tried to keep it knocked back. I composted all of our neighbors leaves (or rather, built a large compost pile that I struggled to keep wet enough to actually compost). I also got their grass clippings over the course of the summer (essentially I am transferring the fertility of that yard to our yard, which isn't very neighborly, I suppose, but they would just waste the material--at some point our yard will be sufficiently restored that I can start putting the compost on their yard--but note that the neighbor house is a rental and the guys living there now are not exactly focused on the yard).

We also had our flock of chickens established. I use the "deep bedding" approach to coop maintenance, in which you use a deep (about 1 foot) layer of bedding in the coop. You then clean this out once a year, which provides a rich mixture of partly-composted wood shavings and chicken poop and minimizes the effort needed to keep the coop clean. I use pine shavings which are available in convenient bales from the feed store. All the chicken books say not to use aromatic woods like cedar and pine but so far I've noticed no problems using it.

At the end of 2006 I harvested the first batch of chicken bedding and added this to the existing leaf compost pile. That heated things up nicely.

Our friends and neighbors Jay and Kay gave us an oak tree, which we planted in the front yard. Eventually it will shade the south-eastern half of the house but for now it is just a small sapling barely 8 feet tall, struggling to survive in the hideous soil that is our front yard.

In 2007 our thinking about the front yard was to prepare the soil to eventually plant a native, low-growing, drought-tolerant grass such as some of the new buffalo grasses developed at Texas A&M.

Toward that end, in April, I decided to compost in place, with the goal of having a batch of compost ready for the fall. I borrowed a friend's truck and picked up a load of horse manure. I dumped that in the front yard and then combined it with the leaves and chicken bedding to create a compost pile about 5 feet square, enclosed in chicken wire. In restrospect I realize this would have produced only a fraction of the compost needed to prepare the soil properly for a lawn. I covered the pile with a plastic tarp to retain moisture. It immediately heated up nicely.

I also decided to try growing tomatoes in the compost pile, having heard of people doing that to some success. I bought a variety of plants and stuck them in the pile, cutting holes in the tarp. I was afraid the compost would be too hot and it almost was: the plants barely survived. Then we entered an abnormally hot and dry summer and the plants barely clung to life. Meantime, the weedy grass, now emboldened by the compost pile, attacked the pile. Once the pile had collapsed to about a foot-high pile, I removed the chicken wire and built a dry-stone enclosure using stones left over from the construction of the stone facia on the house (we had insisted that the builder not remove any of the leftover construction materials, especially not the stone).

I added soaker hose to the pile and hooked it up to a cheap timer, which proved to be only marginally reliable. Oh well.

Over the summer the grass took over the pile and I stopped trying to cut it back. About September some sort of tipping point was reached and the tomato plants exploded. Unfortunately, I had failed to provide any sort of support, so the plants trailed on the ground, which made finding and harvesting the tomatoes a little more difficult and probably resulted in more loss to bugs (but less loss to birds, perhaps).

This last spring Julie also got two 55-gallon rain barrels that capture the runoff from our front porch roof, which is the only roof not plumbed for rainwater capture (which currently drains away as we ran out of budget and decided to put in the solar electric system rather than the rain water cistern since we had no landscaping to irrigate). Even in this dry summer, this has provided a reasonable amount of water and we could have had much more if we'd had more barrels. I'm thinking I'd like at least two more, which might provide enough capacity to irrigate the raised beds assuming we get a frogstrangler now and then.

In the meantime we changed our minds about the lawn idea and decided that we'd rather have raised beds for growing vegetables. We also found two books to be both inspiring and helpful:

- The Urban Homestead, which focuses on gardening and foraging

- Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guide, which focuses on land reclamation, waste management, and general sustainability

So for 2008 our plan is to put raised beds in the front. Julie and I have given each other a supply of soil for Christmas--it would take several years and more material than I have easy access to to make enough compost to fill even two 4x8 beds. So we'll have to buy some soil. I'll be able to build the beds from leftover construction materials (from the house and chicken coop).

I've started a new compost pile with this fall's leaf crop. I'll need to get another pickup load of horse manure to add to it. I would love to have access to a supply of rabbit manure but that would probably require actually raising rabbits, which probably doesn't make much practical sense. Rabbit manure can be immediately and directly composted by worms--in fact it's possible to make a self-sustaining business from selling red worms raised in rabbit droppings (especially if you also sell or eat the rabbits). Something to think about anyway.

We're shopping for soil now and I'll build the raised beds today or next weekend--if we get them in now we can start a crop of greens right away.

We also have some grow lights for starting seedlings that we could set up and use to start plants now if we can find the wherewithal--it's a lot of work to save a few dollars on plants later, but probably the right thing to do from a self sufficiency standpoint.

Over this weekend I made compost tea following the directions from the Toolbox, which requires that you use a fishtank aerator to oxygenate the water for 24 hours while the beneficial bacteria and fungi grow in the water. This recipe is for soil detoxification--I have no idea if our soil actually needs it but it probably does and I have no idea if my tea will actually help--I'd have to do before and after soil tests, but I figured it can't hurt and I can always make more (I used worm castings for the innoculant, of which I have a ready supply [we maintain a worm bin for our kitchen waste that doesn't go to the chickens]). Anyway, it felt like I was making a difference. And I walked to the fish store to buy the air pump and air stone, so there.

Our immediate plans are:

- Build two roughly 4x8 raised beds adjacent to the driveway. I will be able to build these with leftover construction lumber and fasteners I have on hand. These will be filled with purchased organic soil and augmented with our worm castings and compost.

- Build a potato tower. The urban homestead book suggests using tires for this but that doesn't appeal. So our plan is to build it out of bamboo, which grows prolifically in the creek behind our house (and it's tall stuff too). We're thinking split bamboo woven into vertical posts set in a circle. The idea with the potato tower is that you keep adding soil as the potatoes grow, maximizing the volume of potatoes for a given area.

- Maybe also build a bean teepee, which we can also make out of bamboo from the creek. This is a tall teepee that you let beans grow up the outside of. We'll see.

- Seed the rest of the yard with wildflowers or whatever. Judy and George sent us some seeds from Monticello that look interesting.

- Start some plants for spring planting: tomatoes, peppers, etc.

That's probably more than enough to keep us busy and will go a long way towards making our yard look more maintained.

So, out to the yard to knock some beds together....



At 12:56 PM, Blogger Judy said...

As a person who loves to compost (not that I'm very good at it), I applaud your noble urban homesteading plans. I hope I can help a bit when I visit in February. Love, Nei Nei


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