Wednesday, June 29, 2011

No-Dig (Part 3): Ground Preparation

In the first post of this No-Dig series I described how decompressing the soil with a garden fork is the first step of the process. While that's true, there are some ways to prepare the site even before forking it over. Currently we are "tractoring" ducks...

...and chooks in areas where we plan to install beds. The fowl eat the grass and fertilize the future garden bed. Because we have two particularly aggressive grasses and other invasive weeds, it is important for us to knock them back before putting in new beds.

After the birds have done their job, the former lawn looks something like this. (Note the banana peels. We get "baking bananas" for $2 a box from a local veggie shop. We eat some and feed some to the ladies.)

But you may not have birds or even want them. Or maybe your municipality is even silly enough to outlaw them. Other techniques I've used include covering the ground with black plastic for extended periods of time (1 month to 4 months). Because plastic is UV sensitive, I extend its useful lifetime by covering the plastic with weeds. This serves multiple purposes. Along with making the poly sheets last longer, it is a way to dry out the weeds for later use as mulch and it looks much more attractive than a sheet of plastic laying in the yard.

And finally, to continue the local, abundant and free theme from the two previous posts, we happen to have heaps of roofing iron on our section. We use it to knock back aggressive grasses and weeds before bed building. Just make sure you weigh it down to protect against gusting winds.

Referring back to the first post in this series once again, the bed that I built on the solstice started out looking like this.

The iron had been there for about 3 months and the pile of topsoil on top of the Pink Batts plastic had been there for about a month. Although you can see a little bit of cacuya grass between them, I pulled that foliage off before placing an extra thick layer of newspapers there.

And in no time 100 garlic were in the ground.

An easy no-dig installation should be part of an easy, low-maintenance/high-productivity management system. And the key to that, in my decade plus of experience, is managing weeds. Two important parts of easy weed management are never stepping in the beds (see #1 in this series) and building in low maintenance edges (see #1 in this series).

I have run many workshops in 3 different countries on low-maintenance/high-productivity organic management. If you would like to host one in your area, please contact us. If you are a publisher, this management system is waiting for a book deal.

It is a great time to be building beds in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. Get on to it!

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

No Dig (Part 2): Pocket Garden

This is a technique I developed a few years ago that is fast, inexpensive and attractive. The materials you need are: wet newspapers, a trowel, a bucket of compost, an empty bucket, seedlings, and a bale of hay/straw.

Step 1: Lay out newspaper on the lawn as explained in the previous post, and cut a capital H in the wet newspaper with the trowel.

Or a capital I if you prefer.

Step 2: Fold back the paper like opening French doors.

And dig out the sod and soil to the volume of a 1 litre/quart yogurt container. Carefully put the soil into the empty bucket so as not to allow weed seeds in the soil on top of the newspaper.

Step 3: Fill the 1 litre/quart hole with compost.

Step 4: Plant the seedling, water thoroughly, and fold back the newspaper.

Step 5: Mulch with hay or straw.

* Note that we don't buy in hay or straw because we use tall grasses that we cut with a scythe and harvest with a rake. I have used wood chips as a mulch on one job, but that was only as a very low-budget approach in that particular case.

With a stack of newspapers and a few bales of hay/straw you could convert an entire lawn to garden in a weekend.

Peace, Estwing

Monday, June 27, 2011

No-Dig Garden Beds (Part 1)

I'm told that in the land of the long white cloud (Aotearoa/NZ) garlic is planted on the shortest day of the year and harvested on the longest. Fair enough. That's more or less what we've done for the past two years. But last week I managed to land right on the 21st. It was a beautiful day and I spent a couple of hours building a new garden bed, taking pictures, planting garlic and missing an afternoon meeting that slipped my mind. Oops.

Even though it is the middle of winter here and the middle of summer in the northern hemisphere, it is still a fine time to put in a garden bed. On my farm in New Hampshire, I remained seeding fall greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard) through the second week in August. If you have a small garden and want to expand it, or you want to start a garden on your lawn, here are a few things I've learned over the last 12 years of building beds.

* Please note that we use a number of techniques to prepare the plot before putting in a new bed, but those are not required. It is quick and easy to go from lawn to garden in one afternoon. I'll explain those prep techniques in another post.

Step 1: Decompress the soil. Assuming you're converting lawn to garden, the soil will inevitably be compacted by years of foot traffic, mowing, etc. Use a strong (thick tines) garden fork and plunge it into the soil on an angle about like this.

Push down on the handle so that the soil is just "fluffed" a little bit as such.

Work backwards so you don't compress an area you've already decompressed.

Step 2: Sheet mulch. We use newspapers (no glossy inserts), cardboard and scraps of unpainted and untreated plasterboard/drywall (Gib/Sheet Rock). It is handy to have wet newspapers, especially on windy days. You can put a stack of newspapers into a wheel barrow and run a hose over them, or...just leave them outside for a few weeks like we do.

Lay out the newspapers 3 to 6 sheets thick with generous overlap (50 to 100 mm) between each sheet. Don't be stingy with these. In our present world old newspapers are abundant.

Here I am building the new bed adjacent to an existing bed. Edges tend to be high maintenance areas, so I design to minimize them.

Because we have some very aggressive grasses that tend to invade our beds, I "reinforce" the edge with a bit of plasterboard.

Step 3: Deciding on siding. Almost anything can be used as sides for a raised bed. You don't even need sides at all. But many people prefer them. I like to use whatever is local, abundant and/or free. In the past I've used bricks, blocks, scrap wood, stone, and beams from a barn that was torn down. At present we are using a combination of concrete edging we got on Trade Me and concrete fence posts we got for free at the transfer station. I would recommend against using treated wood, but I've seen plenty of people do it.

Step 4: Fill 'er up! Many people like to use a "lasagna method." There are lots of recipes you can find by Googling. I prefer to use whatever is local, abundant and/or free. We make lots of our own compost that we use generously. But in this case we had some leftover topsoil that was just sitting in a pile conveniently next to where I decided to build this bed.

We also happened to have plenty of sheep manure that we bartered for French doors that we did not need.

I raked the soil and manure flat in the bed. Please note that I usually make beds no wider than 1.2 meters so that I can reach halfway into them from each side without ever stepping in the bed. This is crucial in low maintenance garden management. Never step in the beds!

But in this case where the bed is wider than 1.2 meters, I placed bricks as stepping stones for access to the middle of the bed.

Step 5: Plant. Depending on what techniques you use, you can direct seed or transplant into the bed straight away. Here I planted seed garlic just wider than a stirrup hoe, which is my main weed management tool.

Over time the grass under the bed will rot down into a "green manure." The worms will happily munch away and stir it up, and the roots of your vegetable plants will thrive in the loose, fertile soils.

Other options: In the next post I'll explain another technique that is even faster and cheaper.

Peace, and get planting, Estwing

Update 2: The front half of the house

Here is the second of three posts designed to bring you up to speed on the scope of this project so far (here's the link back to the first post). This post will focus on the southern four rooms of our house. These rooms actually make up the original part of our house, built around 1910. The northern lean-to, which I will talk about in my next post, was added on about 10 years later.

The original house consisted of four rooms and a central hallway. These are the bottom four rooms in these layouts. They are the ones that have received the least amount of demolition and rebuild, but that's not to say that the transformation is not dramatic.

The first time we walked into our house, we saw a hallway that stretched the length of the house. It was filled with dust, rubble, and long lengths of Hardiplank.

We have since sealed up an old doorway that was halfway down the hall and have hung a door in it. This has effectively sealed off the southernmost two bedrooms, and created an airlock in the hall entryway. Now when you walk in the front door you stand in this entry, and are greeted with our coats and boots.
When we moved in, the two southernmost bedrooms were filled to the brim with rubbish. I hate to disappoint, but they are still filled with rubbish. Only now its our rubbish. One of the rooms is serving as our indoor tool shed and the other as our indoor bike/ surf shed. They are too messy to picture. Maybe another day.

Moving down the hall (through the new doorway) you arrive at our bedroom on the left hand side. When we arrived this is how it looked:
It was stuffed full of windows, cabinet units, bathtubs, even a kitchen sink! Now it is a cozy little nest with gold curtains and a down comforter. Yummmm.

Across the hall is a room that we called "the dungeon" when we first arrived. It was dark and gloomy with dirty old carpets, moldy curtains, a massive boarded up window, and a giant hole in the floor. We didn't do any work in here for months. I think we were afraid.
But now, thanks to some demo work, we have converted the dungeon into a great open-plan lounge off of the kitchen. There is still tons of work to do here (like flooring, wall coverings, and doors), but it is already a nice sunny place and joyful space to live in.

I think what amazes me most, is how light can play such a critical role in the transformation of a room. The rooms in our house that were originally our favorites to be in are now the ones where we spend the least amount of time. And ones that we avoided initially, have become our living spaces.

Our intention was to design based on the principals of passive solar, making the most of the sun's energy to heat our home. But through the remodel we have ended up with a house that is not only warmer and lighter physically, but also more comfortable and joyful emotionally.

So what do you think? Are you surprised by our progress? Did you think we'd be further along by now? Any words of advice as we get to the "finishings"?

-June Cleverer

Friday, June 24, 2011


I reckon life is all about finding balance. And because we live in a dynamic world, the balance point is always changing. On this project we are looking for balance not only between eco and thrifty, but also factoring in the New Zealand building code and the potential for wide applicability across society and across the world. In other words, we are looking for the intersection of eco, thrifty, legal, replicable, beautiful and attractive to people other than already committed Greenies.

To my knowledge this is a unique endeavor. This project represents an everyman's/woman's approach to permaculture. There are lots of examples of eco-villages and perma-farms and expensive bespoke eco-homes. But in the foreseeable future, the vast majority of people will never live in such places. Most people in OECD nations live in places like this.

Well, much nicer than this actually. But we did not want to be accused of cherry-picking.

In response to Richard's comment on the last post, I'll give an example of the intersection mentioned above using insulation. Pink Batts are widely available, recognized by almost everyone, cost-effective, meet the NZ building code and contain up to 80% recycled content. Meeting (and exceeding) the NZ building code is essential to this project. So the options of insulation included Pink Batts, polypropylene batts, and wool batts. (We did not consider blown in cellulose too closely because we wanted to do the job ourselves to ensure quality installation and to keep costs down.) Polypro batts are made from recycled plastic and the wool batts are made from...wool. Both are more expensive and less available than Pink Batts.

Some people like polypro batts because they are so soft and easy to handle. But in terms of insulation, handling should be (!) a one off. I do not mind handling Pink Batts. Once they are installed, I don't plan to touch them ever again.

Some people claim that wool batts are the most eco option possible. I question that thinking. Have you seen the unsustainable ways sheep are grown in NZ? A holistic look at the ecological footprint of wool batts must include soil erosion, herbicides, and nitrogen fertilizers. Some might argue that the ecology, soil health and water health of NZ would be much better off with fewer sheep.

In the end, the insulation intersection for this time and place and the goals of this project was Pink Batts. For the equivalent cost of polypro or wool we were able to exceed the building code at a higher r-value. In other words, we have a warmer house at the same cost. By using an innovative installation technique (see Bridge to Nowhere), we reap the benefits and can share this under-utilized approach with others to replicate from Auckland to Alberta.

Peace, Estwing

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Still the One

We have had an amazing run of mild weather this autumn and early winter. Even up through Matariki - the winter solstice (fewest hours of sunlight for the year) - we have not needed any supplemental (electric or otherwise) heating for hot water or our living space. This has allowed us to keep our electricity use around one kilowatt hour per day for the last eight months. Our last bill was remarkably low. We used only 23 kilowatt hours in 30 days.

$15.72 includes a 38 cents/day line charge.

But those "cheap as chips" power bills are likely to hibernate until September, as we face two cold months ahead, and most immediately cool, cloudy weather and rain for the next 10 days. But I thought I'd share some of the best approaches we've chosen to save energy and money. From big picture to detail, they include:

Passive solar design: Increased glazing on the north side (toward the equator) for free heating.

(Morning photo: Drapes are still closed.)

Insulation: Holds that heat in at night.

Fiberglass insulation has up to 80% recycled content and is affordable.

Thermal drapes and pelmets: This is another form of insulation that happens to open and close daily. Mindfulness makes these much cheaper than double-glazing if you are conscientious about opening and closing them at appropriate times.

Pelmet is an old weather board from the exterior. (Ripped to 150mm and inverted.) Will be painted white to look like a crown molding.

Solar hot water: Electric water heating is one of the biggest additions to a power bill.

One of the best investments I've ever made. Thanks Allen!

Under-the-bench-fridge: Our refrigerator sips power while many others gulp it.

Small is beautiful! Big enough if you keep yourself organized.

Compact flourescent light bulbs: This hardly needs to be said, but CFLs use 1/4 the power of incandescent bulbs for the same amount of lighting.

Old reliable. I'm looking at LEDs, but the quality has to go up and price down.

We use heaps of other strategies for saving power, but those will be highlighted another day. Which of these can you implement in your home? What other great energy saving strategies do you employ?

Oh, the sun just came out. Gotta go open the drapes... - Estwing