Christmas gifts happily bolstered my reading materials

It is no secret that I love to read. Typically multiple books will be read simultaneously if they are wildly different topics like 1 fiction novel and 1-2 non fiction novels covering different matters. For example I am currently re-reading (well, listening) to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn read by Elijah Wood (affiliate link) while physically reading the two books discussed below. I had audible credits to use or lose so why not re-read this masterpiece with a twist?

As christmas gifts I received two books that have been on my list for a very long time. The book relevant to the farm venture is Humanure Handbook: a guide to composting human manure (affiliate link). We are flushing away an astronomical amount of agricultural nutrients and using an equally astronomical amount of drinking water to do so. The first step to rectifying this major oversight is to work through the taboo of discussing recycling nutrient-rich human excrement. In fact, the author had to self publish the book because as he states it “no publisher would touch this book with a 10 foot pole”.

The Humanure Handbook covers a large amount of science behind composting so I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the various applications of compost whether it be landscaping, horticulture, gardening or reducing the environmental impact of the waste each of us produces. In order to successfully fight through the fecal-phobia and taboo topic, the author definitely needs to delve into the science of composting to adequately explain how to safely turn human excrement into a nutrient rich soil amendment. He does so beautifully based on the 40 pages I’ve read so far.

The other book I received has been on my list for about two years before it was even written. Steve Rinella is an idol of mine because of what amazingly honest content he produces regarding responsible and ethical hunting. His TV show Meateater is a huge breath of fresh air  from the norm which are basically half hour infomercials for hunting products with people I don’t consider hunters shooting animals that are functionally livestock (contained in a fence and fed corn). I’ve recommended the show to friends in the vegan or animal rights categories that, while still uncomfortable with the realities of gutting/butchering/harvesting meat, gained a new and valuable perspective on hunting. His podcast by the same name is also enjoyable while more geared for hunters.

When he announced they were undergoing a seemingly impossible venture of writing a complete guide to hunting, I immediately wanted the book. Over a year later, the big game edition was released followed shortly by the small game edition. For anyone interested in processing their own meat (or just how meat is processed in general) including hunters, farmers, etc. these books are invaluable resources. Affiliate links: Big Game edition, small game edition.

I’m excited to learn more in depth and hopefully share any relevant information I pick up!

Cattle, General Pasture

Utilizing my uncle’s manure pack until I have my own

Carbon bedding bonds to nutrients and ammonia in animal wastes preventing pollution of the air or ground. When animals overwinter on bedding, they pack their manure down tight removing air pockets leading to anaerobic decomposition which provides free heat contributing to the animals’ health and comfort. Letting the pack decompose for 6 months lets the microbes digest some of the material as well as begin to mineralize the nutrients making them bioavailable to plants.

The concept is old and the cornerstone of fertility and soil building on my farm. There is one small problem: I don’t have animals yet!

But my uncle has beef cattle and pigs and was willing to part with some manure so I could start applying it to my pasture.

I wanted to add a bit more carbon to the pack so I lined my truck bed with sawdust before heading to my uncles farm. Upon returning I added ancient hay to the top of the pile and it all mixed together as I unloaded it by hand.

Once I got back to my farm with a truck overloaded with manure, I tossed the first bit into the compost bin to bolster the nitrogen content to rev the compost pile up one last time before the fall temperatures cool it down. On top of the compost I added a bit more sawdust.

The rest went quicker than I had anticipated. I used it to fill in divots and cover rocks that have appeared on the vehicle track through the pasture. There are a few more places along that track I would like to build soil, most notably around exposed rocks. Any future loads will be spread on the pasture around rocks that are barely exposed. When it breaks down a bit more, I can pull back the hay mulch and plant some clover and buckwheats seeds before returning the mulch.



Idle Brainstorm: Biochar, greenhouse and aquaponics

I’ve previously published a much unpolished brainstorm regarding the viability of aquaponics in areas like my Shenandoah Valley that experience a hard freezing winter and how to make the prospect more viable. Previously, I brainstormed about tapping into geothermal energy by sinking the domed transparent greenhouse into the side of a south facing hill with the mass of the earth serving to help regulate temperatures. As always, the energy required to provide heat to keep the systems working negates any benefit in year round production…and then some.

Since publishing the aforementioned post, I’ve brainstormed enough additional tidbits that I believe warrant another post. In order for the fish to survive the winter, the aquaponics system needs to be heated. There are many biological processes that produce heat that could be used singularly or in tandem. Due to the living nature of these processes, if one goes down or the temperature drops too far, they will all fail which would be the greatest weakness in this system.


Yeast converting sugars to primarily alcohol and carbon dioxide is an exothermic reaction meaning it also releases heat as a byproduct of the reaction. If this process occurs in a closed greenhouse, the carbon dioxide will feed the plants via photosynthesis while the heat produced can extend the growing season. I have yet to determine how much sugar would be need to be fermented to have a noticeable effect, but it is an option worth considering. As fermentation is carried out by slightly fickle microbes, the temperature would have to remain above 55-60 degrees for this process to be viable.

Composting (Decomposition)

The same heat that gardeners everywhere encourage in their compost heaps in order to speed the process of decomposition could be harnessed within a greenhouse. That heat indicates that decomposition is also an exothermic process. In fact this same logic is applied to winter husbandry of livestock…at least in the sustainable agriculture world.

Manure packs are formed in the winter when animals are kept on deep bedding. In order to preserve all of the nutrients in the livestock waste, more carbon bedding is added as needed. As the pack grows and anaerobic decomposition begins, the heat produced is enough to keep animals comfortable. Pigs are even better suited to this process when natural instinct leads to  the front-end loader built into their noses to burrow, turning the pile and creating aerobic decomposition. With animals like horses with dry manure, this might even create a fire hazard as it gets so warm but the wet manure of pigs negates the threat. Chickens also create a hotter aerobic environment in their bedding when they scratch for spilt feed, or if the pack is on bare earth, when they scratch for worms. Polyface farms just down the valley from my own reports that worms are active through the winter with this method.

Even if manure is not the primary source of nitrogen in the compost, there are still plenty of sources of organic matter from both on and off the farm: grocery store produce waste, spent coffee grounds from the local shops, restaurant waste, fallen leaves, household waste, etc. Like fermentation, the living microbes responsible for decomposition require heat to remain active through the winter.


Biochar is simply charcoal. I assume the added prefix is to make it sound more appealing as a soil amendment, one of many calimed biological uses for farms. Where I stand on biochar…I’m not sure yet. I’ve been researching and trying to find reliable studies but remain unconvinced. The fact that one of the first commercial biochar production facilities was shut down in a Ponzi scheme investigation (Source: FBI) certainly did do any favors in convincing me of all the claims made.

Regardless, I’ve still considered making my own charcoal for outdoor cooking. Any claims made of biochar proven by future science would be a bonus. There are some waste products of the farm that I don’t want to compost. Cedar, walnut and tree of heaven all contain compounds that inhibit the growth of many plants thus I am weary of adding the scraps that cannot be turned into firewood to compost. Charcoal is a viable alternative. My apprehension regarding actively harvesting biomass or diverting biomass from other uses solely to produce biochar would be lessened if the heat produced was put to a secondary use.

Unlike the other two processes, making charcoal in the greenhouse would not done by a living organism. Thus it would likely have to be the primary source of active heat while the living processes provide supplemental heat.


Could a combination of geothermal, solar, fermentation, decomposition and charcoal production keep a greenhouse or aquaponics environment alive in the winter? I’m not sure without doing some intense math. If I ever get the time or resources to dispose on the project, I might just give it a shot!

Also, have you thought of any additional, low input heating sources I have not considered? If so, please share!


My lasagna method for establishing garden bed without tilling

With incredibly well established crabgrass, killing it organically in order to create garden beds, tree planting sites, etc. seemed like quite a challenge. As time is on my side, I elected to lasagna garden!

The concept is simple.

  1. Existing plants (turf) are mowed down as low as possible.
  2. A biodegradable barrier is put down to smother out the existing turf. I used cardboard as businesses are happy to give it away but brown paper bags and even multiple layers of newspaper are adequate.
  3. Compostable layers are laid down on top of the biodegradable barrier: Anything compostable: mixed nitrogen/carbon (green/brown) material, manure, mulch, etc.

Working simultaneously with the composting materials from step 3, the layer in step two smothers out the established turf before composting both that now dead plant material and the barrier itself. Between the organic matter used in this procedure and what is provided in the roots of the existing, smothered plants, the worm and microbe activity will be exceptionally high yielding quality soil for planting in the following season.

Don’t forget to remove all tape, glue and staples from the cardboard. Also avoid glossy cardboard as it is coated in plastic.

Here are some pictures of my process.

Measuring 6 feet between beds (4 foot bed plus 2 foot aisle). These dimensions are simply my preference. Being 6’4″, there is nowhere I can’t easily reach in a 4 foot bed. Plan your garden beds to your preference!



Fill with compostable layers (composting manure in my case) then mulch with whatever you have available to inhibit weed growth. I also planted a cover crop of red clover as an experiment. It seems to be germinating best where the compost is old or where some soil was mixed into the manure compost such as where I excavated to install root barriers in the middle of some garden beds.




In retrospect, I can use old pictures to show the process from start to finish!

Lasagna bed being built in November of last year:



Asparagus planted into that bed in May. All but the very top layer of manure had composted:


3 weeks later in June:


I also use this method for establishing flower beds or tree planting sites. Here is a little filbert (hazelnut) seemingly content in his lasagna bed:



Landslides and Gardening?

Having only books and radio for entertainment at the farm is one of my favorite reasons for wanting to make it my full time lifestyle. I have nothing against learning from the internet but I find I absorb information much better through focused and singular vectors like books and magazines. While reading How to Grow More Vegetables, Eighth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons, I came across a claim by Alan Chadwick who is one of the pioneers of modern organic gardening. The claim is one I have seen many times and is usually qualified by phrases like “by observation”.

Apparently, Greeks noticed that plants grew best on soils from recent landslides. The idea that these during the landslide, the soils were highly aerated which provided easy root penetration that facilitated nutrient absorption.  While I not found any scholarly source to back this claim, it is logical and inline with plant ecology knowledge regarding plant succession following a major soil disturbance. Having made these observations, the Greeks invented the raised garden bed in an effort to emulate landslide conditions. I do want to note that the book also mentions contributions by other civilizations to organic gardening practices and was both informative and enjoyable to read.

However for my purposes, I will stop at raised beds:


Here is my longest bed being prepared. Beds are built into the slight incline with collected scrap and discarded, low quality wood from around the farm. Old fence boards were the main source of lumber while smaller pieces were split and made into stakes to hold the raised beds up. Its not pretty, but it is functional and free!

In order to smother grasses and weeds, I put down cardboard from which I had removed any tape, glue or staples. Normally I wet the cardboard first, but this preparation was hurried to beat the incoming winter storm which would saturate the cardboard anyway. I overlapped any joints or slits in the cardboard to ensure complete coverage. The idea is this one-time application will kill any perennial turf or broad leaf species then break down into organic matter once the soil microbes come out of dormancy.

On top of the cardboard, I piled well aged horse manure/bedding mix to a depth of about 2 inches. Once the soil is workable, I will perform a onetime deep tilling to incorporate all of the organic matter into the subsoil. Since this bed is for perennial plants, a surface incorporation of fresh compost will be performed as needed. Note: I started the far end of the bed with a load of manure when I was home from the middle east for the Thanksgiving holiday. It is almost a solid black and still hosted many worms despite the winter temperatures fluctuating between single digits and 40 degrees Fahrenheit over the past month!

On top of the manure, I mulched deeply with hay that was inside and underneath the manger inside of the barn. Livestock has not been on the property in about 15 years so the hay is old and useless as feed, but perfect for mulching!

There are also 15 huge round bails of 15 year old hay in the loft of the barn that I have no idea how to use. Since carbon is so precious on a farm, I think I’ll slowly use it as garden mulch, animal bedding (mixed with more absorbent material like sawdust) or in compost piles. Any other suggestions?


Garden, GIS Planning

Revisting Garden Planning With GIS

I’ve decided to follow many of the market gardening and urban micro farm literature in preparing my garden. Vertical space and efficient layout are key considerations in planning.

GIS Software mapped the garden beds at 4 feet wide with 2 foot aisles between beds.


Using a GIS tool that someone published online the garden bed polygons provided the boundaries to create 1×1 ft. grids.  Some unpredictable results were produced from my minorly complex garden bed geometries. I removed all but the two largest polygons to re-run the tool, then copied, pasted and cut the results to replace the other beds.


This GIS tool applied my grid to the garden beds to cut the polygons into 1×1 ft. squares. I ran into the same issue so I deleted all by the western most beds. After running the tool again, I copied the resulting beds and pasted them with 2 foot aisle ways in between. Then I clipped all of the beds to the desired boundary of the garden while adding an additional piece along the main fence. The end result is below


The point of doing this is that now I can link the individual 1×1 ft rectangles to any piece of data I want. Examples include: plant species, species variety, growth characteristics, water needs, sunlight recommendations, soil preference, composting/mulching/organic fertilizing needs, planting time in relation to frosts, harvest time and ANYTHING else that is even remotely useful. This will help in planning but also garden maintenance and in the future, logging location specific performance over time. With GIS software, I can analyze the latter against 3-D sunlight, elevation, soils, and climatic data when I get bored or want to knock the rust off of the skills of professions past.


Cattle, Side Projects

Brassica Cover Cropping as Biological Soil Tiler

The sustainable farming and land management industries are constantly coming up with innovations to find biological solutions to problems that have been solved through petroleum use since the 1940s. Brassica cover cropping is one example of this.

Brassicas typically have a large taproot and for ease of visualization, the most promising plant in this system seems to be the Radish. Sown in the late summer, the radishes drive their taproot into the soil as they take up nutrients. They are not harvested but left to last through a few freezes resulting in their death. As they decay, the nutrients are released back into soil and the taproot leaves a cavity in the previously compacted shallow layers of topsoil. Hence the tiling effect without mechanical soil turning that disrupts microbial activity and over-oxygenates the soil.

Erosion resistance and water absorption are boosted so well by this process that many riparian managers are studying the effect of planting them in drainage areas. Urban sprawl of impervious surfaces change the hydrology of the area by providing a flush of water during precipitation rather than an sponge-like absorption by local soils that gradually releases stored water into waterways. By aerating the remaining available soils with brassica cropping, that rush of creekbank-eroding rainwater can be somewhat alleviated.

I haven’t found much scientific data (at least not behind a paywall that double dips into taxpayers’ pockets). However there is a bit of literature from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (government source and PDF warning!) that makes me think this is an interesting development to follow!

I was introduced to this concept by my friend who is the farm manager at Frying Pan Farm Park in the bustling DC metro area. Being the last working farm in the county, they strive to strike a balance between typical farm operations and acting as a working farm museum for public education and enjoyment. Its great to see a farm with such a strong public presence exploring concepts of sustainable farming!

Bees, Garden

Lets talk about companions, acid and berries

If I had to make the choice of a single fruit to eat for the rest of my life, it would be blueberries. Raspberries are such a close second that I would read the fine print of the agreement to try and loophole them in.

Blueberries need acidic soil. I will have to retest my farm, but I anticipate the karst limestone-heavy area is going to need some amendment. In the raised beds I need a solution that doesn’t involve hauling in chemicals or soil amendments. My solution will be to mulch up many of the cedars that have encroached on the pasture. Every year, I will assist by adding a top mulch of chipped, discarded christmas trees (needles and all). I would like to note that I have not found any studies that convince me that pine mulch is any better the just plain old organic matter in acidifying the soil. In a pinch, I won’t hesitate to use the leave litter from the forest as a soil amendment.

As for companions, the literature prescribes clover to help fix nitrogen or acid-tolerant herbs for pest deterrence.

I’m going to take a different approach here. My perennial blueberry patch will be a sanctuary for the bees. Widely-spaced Rhododendron could provide shade for the plants during the dog days of summer, beautiful flowers in its long blooming season, and potentially psychedelic honey. I’ll probably avoid them in the end, but they are a viable companion. Lewisias flowers enjoy acidic soils and bloom in the late winter providing food for the bees when not much else is available. Strawberries are another delicious potential companion that would provide a living mulch but they have many pest and disease issues. Yarrow flowers have a rich history of natural medicinal use and seem to enrich soil where they grow. Clover is the last plant to consider as a legume that fixes nitrogen for the berries high demand.

Honestly at this point I have no idea what companions I want to plant with the blueberries. I think for now I will plant strawberries as a ground cover with no expectations regarding production while locating the flowering herbs on the boundaries of the rows.

If anyone has any suggestions for acid-tolerant plants that provide human food or nectar for bees, please let me know!

Chicks, Garden

Wintering Chickens: Shelter, feed, minerals

Wintering chickens actually seems like the least intimidating part of starting the farmstead.

Shelter- Hoop greenhouse over garden. One example is $100-$150 for a 9’x8′ structure. I can easily predator-proof it, provide deep bedding and lock the chickens in at night while letting them wander the garden by day fertilizing everything.

Feed – I am a big advocate of letting animals express their genes thus allowing them to alter their own diets to make up for deficiencies. I will provide them with basics. Carbohydrates will come from spent brewing grains and garden produce. Squash, sunflowers and Corn will be grown specifically as winter chicken feed as they both store well when harvested and handled correctly. Soil in the garden is rich with earthworms to provide protein (28% by composition) and fats while the worms are active. Additionally, red wiggler worms will be an integral part of the composting system and can be fed to the chickens. Honey locust pods are easily collected from the many trees in the pasture. The pods could also be collected for the goats winter feed. Persimmon trees are numerous and heavy producing, but are not as easily harvested.

Supplements- Keeping as much feed on-farm as possible, yeast will also be an abundant byproduct of my brewing operations. Enough yeast for subsequent batches of fermentation can be harvested when the current batch is complete leaving about 95% of it to go to waste. That wasted yeast is a great source of vitamins and minerals including calcium, the most important consideration for laying hens. To ensure all nutrient needs are met, I will provide some off farm sources to see if the chickens utilize them. These will most likely be kelp, oyster shell or other conventional sources.

Future considerations: Aquaponics to recycle processed chicken innards and waste as fish food as well as worms that feed on chicken droppings.