Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Clearing the way to a Homestead. New projects, Suggestions wanted!

Back in december we had to put the Earthbag construction to sleep for the winter. It was a little depressing that we didnt get the roof on, but its my own fault for starting the project so late in the season. None-the-less Im very proud and happy with how much work we were able to do and Im very excited about taking the tarps off in a couple months , get a roof on it, and really finish it up nice. 

The earthbag walls, covered with tarps to weather the cold and rain...an awning and another tarp shields the generator and other machinery

In the mean time, there is no shortage of work to be done and we are gathering no moss! Read on to see what's in the works and maybe you can offer some suggestions we may want to consider in the coming phases of development

So, 20 years ago the property was logged and a few clearings opened up. The edge of one of these clearings is the proposed building site for our house.

The terrain was very uneven and needed a good deal of leveling to make a solid base to lay a stable foundation.  We also wanted to open up enough room to make space for abundant food production as well as areas where I can mine the heavy clay soil for the dirt needed to fill the earthbags I will be using for construction of the house.

 When enough space was cleared and leveled to make a good start on these efforts the very thin topsoil was lost and quickly the rocky subsoil was exposed. This causes me some discomfort as there is nothing worse for the soil than to be bare and exposed but Im working to keep it protected and begin its rehabilitation. More on that shortly.

This is the east side of the clearing, looking west. When you are standing at the top of the slope and looking east you have a very nice view of Mt. Rainier so this will make a nice location for our wedding in September. This side of the cleared area is also where I will begin cutting into the slope to create some terracing. Along with developing the landscape for food production digging out the dirt to create the terraces will give me a lot of material for filling the earthbags when it comes time to start the house construction. Starting this process so far in advance of the actual construction will allow the dirt I remove from the slope to dry and more easily be screened and separated from large rocks.

To heal the damage of exposure as quickly as possible and to create a pleasant space to hold a wedding I immediately began the effort of rebuilding the soil. I started an ongoing collection of large amounts of cardboard from various sources in the neighborhood where I work with the intent of covering the entire area with variations of the sheet mulching technique

I began separating the branches and logs in the brush piles so I could save the pieces that were large enough to make firewood. Then I started chipping the smaller branches and spreading the chip mulch across a layer of cardboard. With this process I was able to make paths from the driveway to the brush piles making it possible to walk across the very muddy soil, while dragging a 200 lb wood chipper.
I also got permission from a local coffee shop to collect their used coffee grounds. They have a small garbage bin dedicated to used grounds and I can easily fill as many buckets as I desire with this very nutritious soil additive. I am also collecting the the kitchen scraps from our own house and plan to ask around at other local businesses to see if they might want to let me take theirs a well.
As I lay down cardboard and wood chips I have been incorporating these collected materials into the layers making a sort of large spread out compost pile. I also plan on bringing in a lot of straw as well.

This is one of the two ENORMOUS brush piles. This is what still remains after at least 7 hours of work to reduce its size!
So, by now you may be thinking "My god that looks like a lot of work".

Well....You have no idea.

I was amazed to learn how hard it is on your body to feed brush into a wood chipper for hours on end. Your hands vibrate so badly you feel pins and needles for a day afterward and you ache from hours of bending and lifting and shoving. Im not exaggerating to say that it is just as hard as filling and stacking 60 pound bags of dirt into a wall. Maybe even harder considering the distress you feel after working for hours and hours feeding branch after branch into a chipper only to look back at a pile that doesn't seem to have gotten any smaller. On top of this, wood chips take up a LOT less space than the branches they come from so after 7 hours of grinding a huge pile of branches you have a seemingly TINY pile of wood chips.

These are all very hard lessons for this out of shape city boy

This has lead me to a few alterations in the plan.

1. Hire an operator with a very large, industrial chipper to speed up the grinding work. It may have been a little foolish to think I would be able to tackle the entire job with a small consumer model chipper. 

2. pile the chips, coffee grounds, kitchen scraps and all other collected organic material into large areas fenced in with chicken wire to create massive composting piles which will develop rich, dense material that can be added to the soil over time.

3. Bring in the worms! Adding worms to the piles of organic material will enrich and speed the decomposition into healthy nutrient dense compost. I may also bring in some worm bins and make some worm tea for further boosting  soil health.

4. A more immediate and practical solution to the problem of protecting the exposed soil will be spreading the seeds of various plants that will help condition the heavy clay soil. Plants like burdock, comfrey and chickory that have large tap roots which will dig deep into the clay, braking it up, aerating and drawing up nutrients. Also plants like clovers and lupines that can bind nitrogen into the soil. Later as I add mulch and compost these pioneer plants will add their mass and nutrients to the ongoing process of constructing a healthy soil.

5. I am playing with the idea of taking some of the branches and twigs from the brush piles and laying them out over the ground as a type of very bulky mulch then covering them with dirt, smaller mulching materials and seeding them with the pioneer plants mentioned previously. This idea borrows from the technique of hugelkultur which covers very large mounds of bulky material with mulch and soil for making planting beds with many productive advantages. My idea is to make a lot of little mini hugulkultur beds.

Questions for the future:
What to do with all these godd**n rocks?? There are SO MANY. I have even uncovered the top of a very large boulder. My hope is that the rocky areas of the soil do not extend across the entire area we plan on using for food production. It seems that the really bad patches are localized in one area of the clearing but in the future we have to clear a lot more to open up enough growing area and sun spaces to support our food production.

I console myself with the areas of dirt that are relatively rock free and by collecting many of the larger rocks which can be used in the future for various projects like small garden walls but I will be spending some serious time considering the worst case scenarios and planning for ways to build up soil that is this rocky.
If you have any suggestions I would love to hear them!

Thanks for reading!

This post was shared with Raising homemakers    the Homestead Blog Hop   Savvysouthernstyle.net


  1. There is a great thread of comments and suggestions happening in a thread were I posted this blog entry on the permaculture reddit forum
    check it out!

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  2. Wood chips make excellent mulch right on top of the soil, without the need to compost them. Especially areas where you will be gardening, lay down newsprint (vegetable dyes only) and cover with a thick layer of chips. The paper and chips will bread down each year and you'll need to add a new layer. But it keeps weeding down to almost nil, and over the course of a couple years creates a rich hummus layer with no composting work on your part. We've gardened (vegetable and flower) this way for years and I wouldn't do it any other way.

    1. Great info thanks Josephine!
      We will definitely be using a lot of woodchips! A good percentage of those brush piles will be chipped and Im also trying to find tree services that will dump their excess on my land.

      Do you ever use conifer wood chips? I have heard they are not good to use but also that they are not bad.

  3. Wood chips are great, but I also love using pine needles and leaves as my mulch on top of cardboard. I love the way you are so quickly working on protecting all that bare soil! Thanks for sharing at the HOmestead Blog Hop this week!

    1. Hi Angi! Thanks for stopping by. If I could get enough pine needles I would do that too :)
      The plan is evolving and I have few ideas for how to get a few things going to add a lot of organic matter to the soil. Stay posted for updates!

  4. I think I need a wood chipper like this

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