Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Biointensive Principles: Composting

More Ecology Action workshop photos from the composting class.

Start with about 4 ft. x 4 ft. of soil that has been loosened a bit, down to 12 inches if possible. They also recommend a layer of thicker sticks/branches on the bottom of the pile to help with drainage and air circulation.

A layer of dried, mature (i.e., carbon-rich) material.

Each layer gets watered after it's put down.

A layer of green, immature material.

More water.

And, a layer of soil. Repeat until the pile is about 3 or 4 ft. high, stick a compost thermometer in it, keep it moist but not soggy, and turn it in a few weeks. Then it sits around until it's ready for use. It's a slower, colder method, as opposed to the black plastic compost tumblers that heat everything up quickly and make compost in a month or so, but this way keeps the beneficial soil microbes that thrive at lower temperatures happy and healthy.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Biointensive Principles: Double-digging

A few photos from the double-digging demonstration at the 3-day workshop last month. Sometime during the weekend, someone said something like, "People hear 'Biointensive' and say, oh, that's the method where you double-dig. You all need to remember that there's more to it than that". True, but this is where it all starts...after the planning and calculating and calendars, that is...

John Jeavons beginning the demonstration. He's standing on a digging board to distribute his weight over a larger area so the soil doesn't get compacted.

We should be able to balance easily and understand where our center of gravity is, in order to use the least amount of energy to the greatest effect. Acrobatics encouraged, but not required.

The spade takes a bite out of the soil, about 12 inches down...

...and the soil is moved to the other side of the trench.

Then you position the spading fork on the lower level of the trench...

...sink it another 12 inches (or as far as it goes)...

...and wiggle it around to loosen the soil.

Repeat for the length of the bed, 20 or 25 ft. Take breaks. Breathe deeply. Think happy growing thoughts, and say hello to all the earthworms you turn up as you go along.

Friday, November 20, 2009


We are currently staying in Cupertino, CA with our friend Charlotte, who has two beehives in her backyard. Charlotte was kind enough to allow me to help harvest a frame of honey last week, and of course we took some pictures. She has a fairly low-tech way of doing things: we scraped the honey off of the frame with an ice scraper and it went into a 5-gallon bucket with a paint strainer cloth in it. The honey drained out through the cloth and the wax stayed in, to be melted down and made into candles later. We got about 7-8 cups of honey from one frame. The bees were extremely mellow during the whole process, possibly because none of them got squished when Charlotte took off the top of the hive.

I think I'm definitely hooked, although I can't possibly contemplate buying all the equipment yet - maybe in 2-3 years. I did get a copy of 'Begin To Keep Bees' from Franklin Carrier, the local (San Jose) beekeeping guru, and it's fascinating reading. And, thanks to the magic of Google, I've discovered the Mt. Baker Beekeepers in Bellingham. Perhaps one of them will have extra hives/suits/etc. to loan/rent/sell cheap to a beginner? Only time will tell...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Post-workshop musings

Yes, I'm updating after over a year. Try to contain your excitement...both of you who actually know this blog exists...

I just completed the 3-day workshop at Ecology Action in Willits, CA. I plan to write down all the facts and figures at some point, including what the future garden plan will look like and what my goals for the next few years are, but I wanted to get down my thoughts and feelings while they're still fresh. It was amazing, overwhelming, thought-provoking, tedious, and transformative all at once.

The room was full of people who are looking for change and new ideas. Most were probably in their 20s, some just out of college and figuring out what to do with their lives and some who were already garden veterans who needed new input. There were a few 30- or 40-somethings, established in their careers and looking for better solutions for their lives. Many in this group were gardening for a living or partial living in one way or another. The remainder were retired or close to it and wanting to help specific populations: one man had plans to work in Afghanistan, another man is running an urban garden program in San Francisco, one woman is a nutrition expert, one couple is thinking of moving to the Willits area to garden seriously without having to deal with the high mortgage payments of Marin County.

I haven't ever been around this many people who were already convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. No one seemed to need the introductory lecture on disappearing resources: water, farmable land, oil, knowledge of sustainable practices. We were all there to learn and that's exactly what we got - my head is spinning right now with random facts about Jerusalem artichokes (biomass + calories!) and the best way to transplant seedlings (don't touch the roots, unless they're onions!). A room full of people ready for change has a real buzz about it, and this is real, personal, sweaty, complicated change that you can't pawn off on a politician or a do-gooder. This is clump of dirt at a time.

I'm inspired, and terrified. I really don't want to sit down with a calculator and figure out calories per square foot, or compost by (air-dried) weight, or the number of seedlings in a flat. But that's what we did today and what I have the tools to do in the future. Will William and I, realistically, ever grow every single thing we eat and forgo coffee and chocolate forever? Probably not...unless we have to. If we do, I have the (VERY) basic blueprints for a diet that will feed both us and the soil. Unlike the rest of the workshop participants, however, I can't go home and dig up the back yard to put all of this into practice. We won't have land of our own until early January at best, and maybe not even until next spring. I can plan endlessly but until I see the land there's not much I can be certain of.'s like a exile longing for home. I can already feel the soil on my fingers and smell the freshness of it, and all of my dreams are green around the edges.