Monthly Archives: September 2010

Plaster, Compost, and the beginnings of a Forest Garden

Since my last post Dakota, Emily, and I have finished the discovery and infill coats of earthen plaster on the house.  Others participated in various plaster parties and I’d like to thank them all graciously, but I especially want to thank Dakota and Emily.  The infill coat was a herculean task, and took just over a month to complete.  I’d guess we mixed a couple hundred batches of plaster in the cement mixer altogether, but the really time consuming part was smearing it on the walls and smoothing it out.  The walls look relatively flat and it just generally made it look like a serious building.  Tom Mudd, a local housing contractor, came by earlier today and told me it was “professional”.

There’s still a thin coat of lime plaster to put on before the walls are totally complete, but that’s going to wait until after the granite chunk footing goes around the very bottom of the walls.  I’ve been picking up loads of free granite chunks from a counter top maker in town and I’m going to mortar the chunks together with a lime mortar.  Functionally, it protects the gravel-filled bags that make up the stem wall from degrading in UV.  It also acts as a splash guard and a moisture barrier for the bales and clay plaster.  Aesthetically, I think it’s going to make it look kick ass.

We’ve also set up a basic tarp storage area outside the house to get all of the tools and supplies out of the house so work can start on the earthen floor.  There are a couple of things that need to be done inside before the floor can start being poured, but that should begin within the next few weeks.

The garden is in decline.  I knew it at the time, but I really should have done succession planting so I wouldn’t be swamped with different crops all at once.  The tomatoes have come and gone, and without a solar dehydrator many of them either rotted or were given away.  Emily is working on an Appalachian style solar dehydrator, which ought to be completed in relatively near future.  Many of the turnips and beets went bad before they could be eaten as well, so food preservation and succession planting are the name of the game for next year.

I spent this last week weeding and working on the garden.  It had been badly neglected because of all the work on the house.  The flowers I’d planted had overtaken large swathes of the beds, and so had inadvertently become a kind of weed and so were trimmed back hard.  I also put a bunch of compost and mulch around the fruit trees and berry bushes, as well as laying down some paths.  I’m essentially going to sheet mulch 3/4 of the area around the vegetable beds and plant a whole range of useful plants in the under-story of the fruit and berry bushes.  I did roughly 1/8 of what needed to be done, but it’s certainly a start and it felt good to improve the garden after all the neglect.

The majority of the work in improving the soil involves importing organic material.  I’ve used compost and manure from a number of sources, some were good and some weren’t.  Right now my main source is William Woods University’s horse stalls.  The fine people there load me up for free, and it’s only a 15 minute drive away.  The food forest section that I sheet mulched used basically two truck loads of material.  Once all of the soil has been improved though, I won’t need to be trucking in material any longer as long as there’s a closed nutrient cycle and all of the waste and humanure is composted and returned to the soil.

I also spent this last week making two large compost piles, improving on my previous straw bale system.  The original pile I made didn’t get compost in the very core of the pile.  It just wasn’t wet at all because the mound shape had hardened and redirected all of the water to the sides.  My new piles were slightly rectangular to handle the full truck load and be flat on top so the water would soak in more evenly.  Also, I layered the horse manure/bedding with weeds and other garden wastes which are high in nitrogen.  Horse manure by itself has the perfect C:N (Carbon to Nitrogen) ratio for composting, but with the wood shaving bedding material added it puts more carbon in the mix, so the greens help to balance that out somewhat.

I also sprinkled a shovelful of finished compost on each manure layer and wetted it down thoroughly.  Then I topped the whole thing off with several inches of straw to stop it from forming that hardened surface and to hold the moisture in better.   I stuck my soil thermometer in one of the piles and by the 3rd day it had reached 140F.  It’s cooled a little since then, but I think that’s because it didn’t have enough water.  Because it got so hot I decided to build the 2nd pile with humanure in the core to sterilize it.  If a compost pile spends 24 hours above 121F it will kill all the harmful pathogens in the poop.

The two piles should give me enough compost to give the vegetable beds a good layer and re-energize them for another productive year.  I’ll continue expanding the sheet-mulching of the food forest as I have time and available helpers.

I’ve got 4 new guineas in the guinea house and I’ve moved the lone chicken up by my camper as a personal tick guard.  I’m going to go get her a friend soon though.  I think she’s starting to go a little crazy by herself.  The guineas should provide excellent tick clearance, but really I haven’t even so much as seen a tick in more than a month now.

As far as community goes, Justin has begun work on a tipi he plans on trying overwinter in.  He had originally planned on making a type of yurt but has scaled back his plans as winter looms.  He’s cleared out a space in the main community field and has already collected the majority of poles he needs from the surrounding woods.  He’ll use the billboard tarps to make the covering.  He’s also discovered a vein of paint rock, basically a type of mineral ocher that can be used as a paint, such as on a lime plaster to make a type of fresco.

Patrick has downgraded his plans as well and is going to make a simplified geodesic dome assuming he has time.  He’s also cleared out a space in the central community field.  He’s had some transportation issues that have been slowing him down, along with other projects he already has in the works.

Dakota and Emily left last week for a 2 week trip to visit Emily’s friends and family in Columbus, OH, but they’ll be back this next week.  Dakota will probably be leaving a week or so after they get back, but Emily plans on staying until the weather heads south.

A new work exchanger, Joanie, should be arriving this coming weekend for several weeks to help out.  Also, Jessica, who’s actually from Fulton has been camping out in her van for a few days.  She’ll be leaving for California in a few weeks, but is hanging out until then.

The weather has been getting progressively nicer.   It’s not as hot or humid, and there have been plenty of blue skies filling up the battery banks.  It’s actually been kind of nice needing to use a blanket on some nights.

I know I’m missing a lot of different things that have happened, but I’m going to make it a priority to post once a month. So stay tuned, and check out the flickr feed for more pics.