Georgia’s Wall Part 3

Sunday morning we finished our regular chores and had a few minutes to spare before going to see John Carter with the kids at 9:00.  Four of us shoveled rabbit manure and bedding out of the greenhouse to finish up the raised bed.  The chicks found this activity particularly interesting.

8 Loads later we had 3-4″ of rabbit manure mixed with course sawdust across the entire bed and it was time to wash up and head out.

So, in review, we built a block wall, added in large bark chips and bits of odd firewood, layered course wood chips on top of that, course sawdust on top of that, a layer of composted horse manure, and a thick layer of rabbit manure and bedding.  I gave it a good soaking with the hose and it got surprisingly warm.

With the movie behind us, friends visited, chicken feed freshly ground and our Sunday afternoon swimming (cold!) out of the way we came back to work in the garden.  We were planting begonias and petunias along with herbs.  We spaced the herbs evenly across the bed and fit the flowers in between.  I layed out the bed and my daughter knew just what to do.

With that finished we gave everything a good drink, washed our hands and began the next project.

Now, you may think it’s silly to plant flowers so early, especially when my main vegetable garden isn’t in.  You may be right, but it was an excuse to work alongside my daughter doing something that helps her feel involved, helps her to make a positive contribution to our family and allows her to express herself.  We weren’t just doing chores that dad says need to be done.  She wanted to do this.  That’s more important than broccoli.

Georgia’s Wall Part 2

I hauled 500 pounds of manure in eight feed sacks to put in the raised bed.  Initially, and before work, I just got four bags.  That didn’t go far enough but I was dodging raindrops and short on time.

Again, this is well-rotted horse manure.  Since the wife and oldest son are at the homeschooling expo in St. Louis, I took the three remaining kids with me over lunch to grab the rest of the manure.  Here they are on the trailer.

I dumped each bag then the oldest daughter spread them out in the bed while telling me how excited she is to get her flowers planted.  Yup.  It’s worth it.

After work we added a layer of composted leaves, chicken bedding and chicken offal.

Tomorrow we choreograph the pasture ballet and have a few appointments to keep so we won’t make much traction on this project.  Sunday when I clean out bedding under the rabbits I’ll add that to the top of the bed.  The plan is to have some full-sun annuals planted on Sunday.  Hopefully we’ll get a heavy rain in the next 24 hours to wash the nutrients all through the chips below and take some of the nitrogen out of the composted horse manure.  If not, I think we’ll be fine.  There should be a fair amount of residual warmth coming from the greenhouse and the composting action in the bed so we shouldn’t have problems if we get a light frost.  If winter comes for one last hurrah I’ll have to cover the plants.

Georgia’s Wall Part 1

Georgia was a friend of mine before I married her granddaughter.  I helped her build a water garden just outside her door and she kept the door open so she could hear the frogs.  Georgia passed recently.  She spent years collecting things…lots of things.  She had a nice pile of used cinder blocks she had collected from somewhere so I built a retaining wall out of them.

The South face of the greenhouse seems like a nice place for some added beauty and my oldest daughter wants a flower bed.  I started by trying to level out some of the ruts and wallows the pigs left behind.  Then I put down a row of blocks.

If I was making a taller wall I would need to do some foundation work but with just two blocks I’m not too worried.  If it falls over we’ll just stand it back up.  I’m not concerned about level since I’m using broken, partial, used blocks from all over the place.

I put in a layer of course wood chips and sticks equal to the height of the first row of bricks.  There is also a layer of large chunks of bark and odd firewood scraps in the bottom of the pile.  Then I finished stacking the second course of blocks.  To be completely honest, my lovely bride of 15 years stacked many of the blocks.

With the wood chips nicely leveled out we added in 3 or so inches of sawdust.  This brought our level to the mid-point of the second block.  Both boys were busy keeping the wheelbarrow employed while the rest of us leveled, raked, shoveled and lifted.  This job took all 12 hands.

We were an hour into the project and it was time for dinner.  The wall is not straight, the blocks are not perfectly level, the raised bed barely qualifies as a hugelkultur bed but the flowers should be happy.  Tomorrow we’ll add a layer of compost, composted horse manure and who knows what else topped off with a layer of straw.  I also have to find a use for a number of half blocks that are still on the trailer.

Bringing Home the Bacon

I can’t imagine how we lived before pigs.  My sister, living in town, joked that she thinks she can get away with owning a pot-bellied pig.  I think it’s an excellent idea.  They root, they eat, they manure and they don’t ask much of their keeper.  They do ask for proper management; keep them safe, well-fed, move them away from their manure regularly and treat them well.  Let the pig do what pigs are built to do.

I have yet to see any living thing that will cause soil disturbance like a grown pig.  They will dig up moles, rhizomes, worms, grubs and who knows what else.  They dig just for the pleasure of digging.  That digging, left unchecked, can create an area that looks like the surface of the moon.  However, judicious use of pig noses can renovate pastures and make a positive ecological change to the landscape.

Everything we waste can be pre-composted through our pigs.  Garden wastes can go to pigs, feed spoiled in the chick brooder, cow manure, mice from our traps…they will eat it all.  In the winter that pre-composted material goes right to the compost pile where it helps maintain a high temperature for our thermophilic composting process.  Whatever we miss is churned with the soil and bedding into the garden.

Our most recent batch are ruptures from a production floor.   Just a quick note, a “rupture” is a pig with a hernia.  Often the hernia is expressed in the belly of a female or the scrotum of a male.  In both men and in hogs, the tendency toward a hernia is genetic.  It is generally believed there isn’t a way to manage the hernia short of surgery.  I don’t in any way wish to demean the farmers I bought the pigs from.  They are close friends who run a highly-efficient formula of inputs and outputs on a schedule.  Not all animals qualify for their program.  I picked up those that were genetically disqualified.

These pigs arrived in mid-December.  Please notice the three ruptured males.  Also notice they are packed in tightly together though they have room to run.  This shot was taken within 15 minutes of the first time their feet ever hit dirt.  Chew on that for a moment.  40-60# hogs that have never touched dirt and have never been more than a few inches apart.  Finally, there are two runts in there.  They never did grow for us but tasted great.

In the back is a ruptured female with a massive belly rupture.  We call her Thing1.  Here’s a better (but not great) shot of her:

Here’s another picture of the blue pig above.  I want you to be sure I’m showing you the same batch of pigs across this post.

Click on the image to see his large rupture.  I wish I had a better shot but I don’t. The rupture is within his …male anatomy.  It bulged in three distinct lobes and a portion was raw from where it rubbed the ground.  We thought we were going to have to put him down right away.  Here is the same pig at the end of February.

Where did it go?  In fact, where did any of the ruptures go?

These pigs were scheduled to be executed because of their ruptures.  They would not have survived on the floor in their condition.  I brought them home, switched them to Fertrell feed (high in pro-biotics) fed them twice daily plus a few scraps and gave them room to run in the sunshine and fresh air.  Their gut emptied between feedings.  They burned energy running, rooting, fighting and playing.  No antibiotics, medications or belt straps involved.  Just a change in management.

This winter we just parked them on the new garden and hauled manure away daily, using them to till the soil and work in organic material.  In the spring, summer, and fall we move 3-4 pigs to a fresh 25×25 area every third or fourth day using pig quick fence from Premiere 1 Supplies.  The fencing hugs the contours well, is visible to the livestock and everybody has a healthy respect for it.

Keeping a hog around the farm or house is a great way to boost fertility, create disturbance, pre-compost wastes and feed the family but proper management is the key to health.

One final note, if you smell the pigs you need to add carbon.  Pigs don’t smell, bad managers do.

Potato Time

You’ll hear conflicting opinions from old-timers concerning potato planting time.

“Plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day and they’ll all rot in the ground or have their tops frosted!”

“Always plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day!”

Well, if my cousin thinks it’s wise to plant corn on St. Patrick’s Day (at least a month early), I can’t hide behind my calendar.

It’s time to plant.  So, as mentioned in a previous post, I hammered in stakes and defined a 4′ wide bed with baler twine.  Here’s a shot of the bed:

I also cut and cured my potatoes in the basement.  I did this two different ways.  I simply cut some and placed them in a cardboard box, others I spread on a shelf in the basement and covered them with newspaper.  Here are the pontiacs as I weighed and cut them.  Anything over 4 ounces was cut in half, over 7.5 ounces was cut twice.  Make sure there are still two eyes on anything you cut.

Here they are two weeks later, ready to plant:

The cut and cure concept is not necessary, it’s just something you can do.  Just like the planting time above, ask any two gardeners about cutting and they’ll tell you two different answers.  Curing is the same.  We cut but did not cure last year’s potatoes and they did fine.  My sister didn’t cut anything and her potatoes will be fine.  I piled some in a box and they sprouted perfectly.  I sprouted some on a shelf and they sprouted perfectly.  The potato is very forgiving.  Garden as desired.

We are big fans of “How to grow more vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine“.  It is a book on biointensive gardening that we have had a lot of success with and was a gift from my sister years ago.  I have never grown potatoes using their method so I’m kind of taking a chance.

The basic idea is, you plant to the minimum spacing in hexagons making a pattern that shades out the weeds.  I have an easier time visualizing equilateral triangles but you get the idea.

Here is how it looks as we were planting using a 9″ spacing.  I have used various triangle templates when making holes to plant our garden but when making rows for my potatoes, good enough seemed good enough.  The rows aren’t as precise as they could be but the green stuff will grow anyway.

We have always planted straight rows of potatoes and hilled the rows.  This time we’ll just shovel on manure or pile on straw across the entire 4′ wide row, being careful not to knock down the tops.  I hope this works.

As you can see, we aren’t digging the potatoes in.  We are placing them on top of worked ground.  Then we cover them with a few inches of composted horse manure.  Most people with horses have horse manure to spare.

Here is the finished row.  We got tired of constantly shoveling manure so we broke up the monotony by shoveling sawdust for our path.  The sawdust makes a good weed barrier and rots quickly.

 As the potatoes come up we will continue to maintain the bed.  Look for updates as they grow.

 Sister added straw to the top of the row but I’m chosing not to.  The dark surface of the horse manure should warm the potatoes in case it chills.  I may regret the decision.  Garden as you go, take notes, do better next time.

Planting Blueberries

For years we have purchased blueberries from some friends, Mark and Kelly Smith.  This year we thought we should put in a row of our own and see how it goes.  With luck and in time we may be blueberry independent.  We had 2 inches of rain the night before so working on mulch was going to be the only work I could accomplish in the morning.

Now, I know blueberries in central Illinois may not qualify as sustainable as our soil is anything but acidic.  They are something of a guilty pleasure.  I’ll have to work to keep the acidity up.  But we like them, they will provide a little color in the fall, and a windbreak for our garden.  Also, the line we are planting is at the very edge of the parking lot/driveway and will give us a clear border.

I began by laying out some lines that were square with the buildings.  Please note the recycled bailer twine.  I also had a 6″ deep line of aged wood chips and sawdust in place for the last week or so in preparation for planting.

Then I began digging.  I knew my grandpa collected rocks but I had no idea.  I plan to put up a post in the near future about making sure your short-term goals (preventing your tractor from getting stuck) won’t be in the way of future generations…considering the consequences of your vision.


The goal is to dig a hole 1 foot deep and 2.5 feet in diameter.  I stopped mining rock before I got to my goal on the last hole..

Because I took so much rock out I had very little soil to put back into the hole.  I put in a mix of several things to give my plants a good start.  First I put in a few shovels full of unsifted compost.

Then I added in about half a bag of peat to bring up the acidity.  Now, if given the choice between peat and coco coir I would choose the coco coir but this is a special situation.  I bought a greenhouse from a nursery that was going out of business.  He also had a pallet of peat.  Rather than send the peat to the landfill I brought it home.  This isn’t a choice I make every day but I think, in this scenario, you understand.

Next I add a few shovels of rabbit manure mixed with sawdust.  I realize not everybody has rabbit manure but you have to understand, I don’t have soil in this hole.  I’m using the rabbit manure to replace the missing soil mass.  Bear with me here.  I’m not presenting an ultimate solution, I’m just trying to make lemonade.

Then I mix the components and add some water.

Now I replace my string, measure my space between plants (with a 4′ tool handle) and place my plant in the hole.

I’m still short on soil so I continue surrounding the plant with rabbit manure and top it all off with a bit of horse manure.  Yeah, I know…not everybody has horse manure laying around either.  I’m trying to bring up the acidity after mining out a bushel basket of limestone.

Finally, I cover the row with a fresh 4″ of composted sawdust.  As that sawdust breaks down it will provide a weed barrier and raise the acidity of my soil.  Also it will sponge up moisture and provide soil structure as blueberries want to be moist, not wet.

I have done a lot of work over a couple of hours to plant a measly six plants.  As they grow they’ll tell me what they need.  I may have to make some changes or at least a few tweaks before they really take off.  I don’t know.  It is the unknown unknowns (Thanks Talib) that make gardening exciting.

Special thanks to our friends Nathan and Aimee for lending a hand with the mulch.   They thought they were just coming for lunch

Dig the parsnips?

If I’m the country mouse, my sister is the city mouse.  She posted on her blog last week that Rodale says it’s time to dig out last year’s parsnips.  When would I do that?

What’s a parsnip?  It’s a white, carrot-looking thing with a green top.  I don’t have time to dig them so you’ll have to trust that the jagged leaves are the green top.  Please ignore the henbit and horseweeds.

Let’s continue the tour.  The parsnips are next to the turnips.  I’m working on feeding the turnips to the ducks and chicks every day but it seems like there is no end to the turnips.

We’re getting there.  Turnips are next to the peas that are just starting to come up.

Here’s the whole row.  You can see I am ready to plant potatoes tomorrow!

So, OK J.I.  I’ll try to dig the parsnips.  Soon.  Maybe.