Permaculture – Composting At Scale

Following up from our “re-everything” post quite a while back, we’ll take a look at various composting techniques, today.  We’re going to look at the scale of economy for each of these methods, what they can and can’t compost, and the length of time before composting is ready for use.

Composting can be as simple as tucking some unfinished salad into the mulch of a garden bed and walking away.  It can also be as complex as making a large pile that must be turned on frequency such as the 18 day method.  It can take as little time as feeding leftovers to a container of Black Soldier Fly Larvae (BSF Larvae) which is a few minutes to a day or so, or as long as several years for a Hugelkulture mound to be finished.

As we go over each technique below, we’ll discuss volume of material, frequency of attention, quality of compost produced, purpose of the technique if any, as well as where it fits by scale in any size operation.

1) Composting as or with mulch, directly in the garden or via leaf mold bags.

This technique can be as simple as taking some selective kitchen scraps out to the kitchen garden and tucking them into the mulch.  The worms and other soil life will break it down within a day or two, if not sooner, in small amounts.  It’s never more complex than bagging your lawn leaf litter in the fall, and instead of sending those bags off site, set them in a cool place outdoors to break down on their own.  By the following spring, they should be already partially composted.  This can be used as a partial mulch that will quickly become its own in place compost around the base of your productive trees, or it can be set aside to mix in with option 2 below, a little along.

2) Composting in small amounts via a commercial tumbler.

There are several compost tumblers on the market, mostly for urban gardeners to use.  These come in various sizes, but the gist is that you put your scraps into the tumbler, then give it a spin to mix it in with the existing already-started composted material.  Over time, you end up with compost that is heavily composted mixed with compost that is still pretty fresh.  If you plan to use this kind of system, it’s a good idea to get two (or have some alternative available, such as a bucket to put the scraps in for a week when you’re ready) so that you can give the tumbler a week or so to “finish off” the compost it’s been making for however long it took you to fill it up.  It still needs a tumble every day or two while it finishes off.

3) Composting in small amounts via red worms (red wrigglers.) Also known as vermicompost or vermiculture.

If a tumbler is too much hassle, and you’re only producing small amounts every day or two, you may want to consider using composting worms (red wrigglers) to create vermicompost instead.  If you’re producing enough scraps through the week, you could use both methods, since each method produces a different kind of compost you can use.  The compost in the tumbler is more useful for making your own potting mixes, for example.  The vermicompost is more useful for creating spikes of nutrition selectively for plants that aren’t doing as well.  Either of these can also be used to make a compost tea, which can be sprayed as a foliar feed, or injected into a drip line feed to give all of your plants a boost of nutrition.

Red worms also love coffee grounds, so if you have a love for coffee, this is a good place to drop them off.

4) Composting in small amounts via BSF Larvae.

The big problem with all of the above methods for a small family’s waste production is that they can’t handle things like fish or red meat.  If you want to compost those, you can use a different critter, instead.  Black Soldier Fly Larvae are voracious feeders.  The adult fly has only one purpose, which is to breed and lay more eggs.  The adults don’t even have a mouth, so they cannot transmit disease to humans.  They also put off a pheromone smell which repels pest flies such as the common house fly.  The larvae are self harvesting, so when they reach a certain size and are finished being mostly-mouths, they start crawling up whatever incline they can to get out of the pit they’re in.  This means a well constructed container can be used to catch the “ripe” ones ready to be used as feed for chickens, fish, or other animals in your system.  And they are capable of eating those meats that would otherwise rot and turn rancid due to your compost not getting hot enough on its own.

Again, you can pair these with red worms if you like.  The waste material produced by BSF Larvae is perfectly fine to feed to the red wrigglers in the vermicompost system, as long as you don’t add to much of the fluids, and drown them out.

5) Composting in larger amounts via mushroom inoculation.

Mushrooms can be used to compost anything from pounds of coffee grounds, to old newspapers, and even firewood that maybe wasn’t sheltered as well as it should have been.  It’s a great way to deal with heavy toxins in a pond system, as mentioned in the “re-everything” post, and the break downs for non toxic materials can make some of the best spongy material to add to a compost mix.  If you do run your coffee through a mushroom farm (for example, oyster mushrooms,) you can still put the leavings in with the red worms, if you so desire.

6) Composting in larger amounts via piles.  This can be 18 day method or longer.

The compost piles often need turning, but a few methods don’t do this.  Piling leaf litter, lawn clippings, small twigs in a cage with a few layers of aged manure and/or fast decaying green matter (such as comfrey leaves) can be left alone to compost in place.  This can be planted in directly, if you won’t be turning it, as long as the cage allows good air flow.

Making a pile of browns (carbon rich material such as wood chips, fall leaves, and so on) with greens (the nitrogen rich manures and green leaves) and watering it down makes a decent pile.  To speed up the process, we need to “turn” the pile every few days, and keep it wet.  The core of a large pile like this will heat up as the pile composts, and this will accelerate the compost process greatly.

7) Composting in very large amounts via Hugelkulture mounds.

Hugelkulture mounds are built by laying logs of wood, branches, twigs, and such on the ground in a long line.  Often this is curved in multiple ways, and several mounds are done together.  These are NOT on contour as done with swales.  This shaping is to help cut the wind so that wind erosion is lessened.  The piles of wood are interspersed with “pockets” of manure, straw, and so on, and the whole thing is covered with dirt.  The pile should be a couple of feet to several feet tall, but not any taller than a man’s height.  Small limbs are often “stapled” into the sides of the mount to give it structure, and a cover crop is seeded to the mount to give it some root stability.  This mound can be planted into, and will take several years to produce soil, but the amount of soil produced in the end is worth the wait.  This will later be spread over other areas on the land, and new mounds created for the next batch to function.  During the soil creation process, the first few years the soil will be less nitrogen available, as the dead wood absorbs much of the nitrogen, but once the wood is saturated, the plants on the mound will suddenly thrive as the wood also acts much like a sponge, and water will be better retained.  It is best to plant annuals and short term perennials, initially, since the end goal is to spread the soil these mounds create onto other parts of the property after a few years.

On writing fiction and fantasy

One of the hobbies I dabble in occasionally is writing stories and poetry.  I used to write almost religiously when I was in college and shortly after.  In 2008, I started to trickle off due to an unpleasant life event.  Since then I occasionally return to this hobby, usually around November of each year, due to National Novel Writing Month.  I did manage to complete NaNoWriMo one year recently, but most years I fall by the way side due to time constraints.  In order to meet the minimal words per day requirement by writing every single day, I have to crank out at least 1667 words each day.  The NaNoWriMo definition of a novel is a minimum of 50,000 words, and you have 30 days to do it.  That’s how the number gets crunched.  People I’ve shared my works with have enjoyed them, mostly, but I get self conscious about my writing, and then trickle off any time I get back into it for any length of time.

The trick to writing is to “just write.”  If you have a story that’s been running around in your head, start the writing process, and let it out.  Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, and such.  Don’t worry about how tame, lame, or maimed the story seems to be as you write it.  Don’t worry about continuity or correctness.  Just write.

Once you’ve started the process, things will begin to settle themselves in your mind and on your paper or screen, and you will eventually hit an “end of the story” point.  Once you’re done, that’s when you go back and begin the editing process.  Look for obvious grammatical or spelling errors, first.  Then go back and read it for correctness and continuity.  Flesh things out, or trim them down depending on need, and get the story into a shape that is more presentable to an audience.

The more you write, the easier the writing becomes, and the less editing will be needed after a work is complete.  I’ve always been fine at the writing.  I’m not so fine on editing my own works after.  That story I successfully completed for NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago is still collecting proverbial dust waiting to be edited.  I might blow that dust off, and start the process soon.  It would probably be good for my soul.


My daughter makes a lemonade that tastes like candy.  (Think lemondrops.)  There is a trick to it, and I thought I’d share.

The basic recipe is 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of lemon juice, and fill the pitcher the rest of the way with water.  Stir and refrigerate.

The trick is to add a couple of drops of food grade lemon essential oil to the sugar and juice before adding the water.  We sometimes mix it up by adding a different oil (such as orange.)

The flavor is amazing, and the drink is refreshing.  Don’t do more than a couple of drops to the whole pitcher, as this can be overkill.

Always be careful with essential oils.  A little bit goes a long way, and always make sure that the oils you use for ingestion are food grade and meant for such.  Some oils are topical (external use) only, and sometimes that’s due to the base oil used, sometimes it’s due to the extraction process, and sometimes it’s due to the type of plant the oil is extracted from.  Some plant oils (essential or otherwise) are just not meant to be ingested (internal use.)

Give this recipe a try some time.  It should make your mouth happy.

Bramble Berries

Anyone growing up in the woodlands of the Ozarks knows how to find wild blackberry patches.  When I was a kid, my dad took my little brother and me picking blackberries in the summer.  We would pick gallons of the sometimes sweet, sometimes tart berries, then park on the side of the road somewhere and put up a sign to sell them.  If we couldn’t sell them all (and we usually didn’t, just due to the volume we had picked,) we would bring home the rest to make blackberry preserves, or cobbler, or to just eat fresh on top of some ice cream.  Some of the berries we picked were as fat as a thumb, sweet as honey, and people would ask if they were really wild raspberries.  The answer to that question is a definitive “no.”

A neighbor moved in around the time my mom remarried, and they had a small garden out front.  I used to ride my bicycle up and down the dirt/gravel roads in the neighborhood, and would often see them out tending to their grow beds.  A month or two after they first moved in, they put in a raspberry patch.  I liked raspberries even more than blackberries, but we never could find wild ones when we went berry picking.  Raspberries have a silvery shiny surface on the underside of their leaves.  The fruit also comes off of the bramble vine, with a “hole” where it came off of the little cone shaped base attached to the stem.  Blackberries, on the other hand, come directly off of the stem in a tight cluster.  There is a little dot where it used to connect to the stem, if you look closely.  How anyone could mix the two up was always a mystery to me at that age.  Then I learned there are more than just “blackberries” and “raspberries.”

There is a bramble that sprawls along the ground, laying down roots wherever it touches the ground to spread along in a tangled mass.  The stem is “hairier” looking than a blackberry cane, but it still has thorns, and it produces berries like its relatives.  This is a “dewberry” bramble.  We have some in our back yard, and the birds usually get them before we do, so we leave them for the birds to enjoy.

Blackberries, raspberries, and dewberries are the main varieties I’ve run across in my time, but there are some hybrids and crosses of various mixes of the three, as well as “black raspberries” and “thimbleberries.”  Some people call black raspberries “thimbleberries” but there is another variety by the same name.

The wonderful thing about all of them is that they are all members of the “rubus” genus.  All of them provide very tasty fruit that is in a wide range of sweet to tart, juicy, and delicious.  They make great jams, jellies, and preserves, cobblers, and dessert toppings.  They freeze well, but I wouldn’t try dehydrating them.  The leaves can all be used to make herbal teas, and some of those are medicinal, such as raspberry leaves which are often used for women’s health regarding birth giving activities.  The teas are tastey, too.

I plan to plant some black raspberries and “regular” raspberries during one of our perennial planting sessions in the coming year.  Since we’ve had blackberries and dewberries popping up in our yard over the years, I know these other rubus relatives will do just fine.

Rest in peace Papasan

One of the “hobbies” I’ve done over the years is martial arts.  I grew up wrestling (no instruction, just boys being boys) with my older cousin.  I ended up on the losing end more often than not, due to him being bigger, of course, but whether he let me win or I genuinely found the right grip at the right moment, I did win a few.

When my mom re-married, the man I call “Dad” tried to teach me and my new little brother a little Taekwondo.  This wasn’t formal instruction, and we didn’t learn any “katas” or whatever the Koreans call it.  We didn’t go to one of the local dojos to obtain instruction from there, either.  He taught me my first knife throwing instruction, and I probably still have that modified case knife in my old room at their house if I bothered to go looking for it.

I joined the military (U.S. Navy) in late 1995, and while we didn’t do any unarmed combat training, I learned proper firearms handling for combat situations while I was in.

After my oldest daughter was born, I started having nightmares about coming home from six month deployments, and her hiding behind my wife’s skirts, pointing at me, and asking, “Mommy, mommy… who’s that man?”  I didn’t renew my enlistment, because I wanted my kids to know who their daddy is.

While I was in college, I returned to my interest in martial arts.  A friend of mine in the Navy had known an old shipmate who had done “ninjutsu.”  I went searching for anyone teaching the art.  I couldn’t find any dojos online that that taught it near me, but I did my research and learned that the Bujinkan was what I was looking for.  I found a “home study” course (cringe) that I bought into initially, because at the time I felt it was better than nothing.  I devoured the course, but I knew I was lacking.  I was still searching for a group to work with me on this, because you need a training partner or three to make any kind of progress.  A partner gives you feedback, helps you understand when you are applying a technique properly, or where you’re failing to apply it at all.  I eventually stumbled up on a small “training group” (not a dojo) that was active in central Arkansas, and one of the members offered to pick me up once a week to go to instruction.

I was nervous, since I hadn’t really had any formal training, but I was welcomed with open arms, and it didn’t take long for me to notice my own improvements which were rapid.

The way this training group worked was for us to all work together on the basics, katas, rolling, falling, and whatever the “topic” of choice was for the week, month, or quarter.  Once a quarter, this elderly gentleman would fly into town and do a weekend seminar.  He was gruff but gentle.  He was full of wisdom.  He would teach a specific topic, run us ragged with learning it, but we would all be laughs and smiles by the end.  We were all bruises and bumps, as well, but that’s all part of the learning.  He would finish the weekend with rankings, to let us know where he thought we were at in our progression.  This man was Ed Martin, also known as “Papasan” amongst his friends in the Bujinkan.

My very first seminar with him is one of the happiest weekends I can remember.  He taught cane that weekend, and to this day, the cane is still one of my favorite defensive tools.  I still have the cane I bought from that seminar, and keep it in my car most of the time.  I came away from that seminar feeling more battered, bruised, and abused than I can recall feeling in any other moment in my life, but none of that really “hurt.”  It was a good kind of sore, and it melted into life lessons I will always remember.

At the 2002 Taikai, I received my Shodan (first degree black belt) from this man, alongside Jeff Schafer, and Robert Lamkin III.  I stopped going to trainings when my senior level work load got to be too much for me to attend while still maintaining my grades.  I’ve been back a couple of times, but have had life interruptions that have been problematic for continuing my training.  The last time was just before my youngest daughter was born.  I’m hoping to go back again, but only time will tell if I can ever get things in order enough to maintain and grow in the art again.

On July 14th, I received the news that Papasan passed away.  He touched many lives, not just our little training group, and he will be sorely missed by many.  His wisdom was ageless, and he will continue to touch the lives of new students for years to come, just by virtue of those students learning from HIS students.  He was a great man, and the world is a sadder place for his loss.

Wine Cap indoor kit – Fungi Perfecti

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the purpose and functions of fungi.  I’ve been wanting to get a mushroom yard going in the back yard for a while now, and while we’re looking at autumn for this, we went ahead and ordered an indoor kit from Fungi Perfecti to get things rolling.  We know we like Shiitake, Portabella, and Button mushrooms, but we don’t know if we like Wine Caps yet, or not.  We’re hoping to get a feel for how much we do or do not like this mushroom before we decide how much to inoculate the garden spaces with it.  Some have described it as being similar to Portabella, so we’re hopeful it’s going to be good.

The kit arrived this week, and while I did open the box on day one, I only just got the spot for it cleared out, the tray to put the bag in cleaned up, and a spray bottle to mist it with “acquired” from other duties in the household to re-purpose it for the mushrooms moving forward.  I’ll be starting the kit either tonight or tomorrow (today as you read this) and will probably take photos of the process as I go.  It should take a few weeks to a month before we see any mushrooms poking up, but it should last a few months before it consumes all of the wood chip medium it was shipped in.  The great thing about this kit is that once its used up, I can put it out in the garden areas with some fresh wood chips and propagate it further.  If we really like this variety, we’ll probably order a second indoor kit, and I’ll do an ‘unboxing’ / ‘getting it started’ video of the process with a side by side comparison of how the kit looks when you start it out, and how it will look when it fruits.  I’ll also go over how to tell when to pick them, and when they’re ‘overripe.’  I’ll also likely do a second video showing how to turn the first kit into an outdoor mushroom bed that can be used to grow out more, as well as how to select a site to put the bed, and so on.  Until then, I’m looking forward to getting these to grow and trying out the flavor profile from cooking it different ways.  As we figure this out through experimentation, we’ll share that information as well.

Locks as sport and hobby

I’m not big into sports.  I never have been, really.  However, I’ve always had a fascination with how things work, and that fascination extended to locks at a somewhat early age.  I made my first set of pitiful picks in high school, made a better set after graduation, and eventually bought a professional set from a friend who was taking an apprenticeship under a locksmith near the college I attended after I left the Navy.  I later took a course through Foley Belsaw on locksmithing, and learned more than just how to pick locks.  All of this leads back to my first sentence… there is actually a competitive scene in lockpicking groups, and it is called “locksport.”  (The more you know!)

My business mentor recently posted a monthly challenge to the group to spend time every day doing something.  I chose to brush up on my lock picking skills, since I haven’t had to touch a lock in over a year, and haven’t practiced just to practice in almost 8 months or so, before this month.

I was worried that I’d get frustrated, since it’s been so long, but apparently I’m not as rusty as I thought I would be.  I’ve managed to “pop” my practice lock at least three to five times every day for the last several days of the challenge.  This weekend, I’ll put together a few other practice locks, since this one is actually getting too easy to pop, already.

So the basic concepts are simple, if you want to know the physics behind this hobby.  Most locks people encounter will either be “pin tumbler” or “wafer” locks.  Wafer locks are mostly found in automobiles, cabinets, desks, and so on.  Pin tumbler locks are what are found on most peoples’ doors, here in the U.S.

The practice is simple.  Two tools are needed in order to open the lock.  One tool applies rotational pressure on the “plug” which is where the wafers or bottom pins live.  The other tool manipulates each pin or wafter, lifting it out of its resting state, trying to get it to fit in just the right spot for the plug to rotate, as if the correct key has been inserted into the lock.  For pin tumbler locks, this means lifting the bottom pin until the top pin is above the “shear line” and the bottom pin is still inside the plug.  The shear line is that edge between the outside of the plug and the inside of the casing where the plug can spin.  With wafer locks, you’re trying to get the wafer all the way into the plug (or out of the plug, depending on design) so that the plug can spin.  It’s all about making sure nothing is blocking the shear line, either way.

The most successful pickers learn to feel when the plug “gives” a little as each pin or wafer are set.  It’s truly fun, and is amazing for developing focus.  The act of picking is a meditative thing for me, which is one of the reasons I love doing it.

Sorry to cut this short.  Next week will probably be another Permaculture related post.  In the mean time, try looking up how to make your own picks, and see if you can get into the “sport.”  It’s worth the effort.

The role of fungi

In Permaculture, we often talk about the various layers of the forest, and the roles they play.  One often overlooked “layer” is mycelium.  This is living organism that produces reproductive growths that we like to call “mushrooms.”

Fungi serve many roles, most of which are critical.  They accelerate the decomposition process, building soil more quickly.  The mycelium also contribute to the exchange of nutrients between plants and micro-organisms in the soil.  They create a communication network between trees.  When a tree on the edge of the forest gets a pest infection, it communicates with the other trees deeper in the forest, and those trees begin producing defensive chemicals before the pests reach them.  The communication happens over this fungal network.

During the “Re-greening the Desert” project near the Dead Sea, some of the locals declared that the project must be “washing the salts through with excessive use of water.”  When it was explained that this was not the case, soil samples were examined to try to determine what was really happening.  The fungi that started showing up had actually produced a waxy substance around excess amounts of salt in the soil, which made the salt non-soluble, and thus protected the soil from the damage it could cause.

Fungi serve as food and medicine to people and other animals.

They are also used in ecological disaster restoration projects to clean up pollutants and disease.  Some varieties can filter and protect against bacterial and viral infestation.  Some varieties attack nematodes.  A few even attack insects, such as ants.

Mycofiltration, mycorestoration, mycopesticides, rebuilding healthy soil, and providing food and medicine are only some of the reasons you should consider learning more about fungi.

If you’re interested, one of the leading experts on fungi is Paul Stamets.  He’s written several books, but “Mycelium Running” is one of the best.  It covers all of these topics, as well as how to propagate and grow your own.  You should check it out, sometime.

Field Day

I know this is a “technical” hobby, but this coming weekend is the fourth full weekend of June.  That means it is Field Day.  Not the day we clean the ship thoroughly (Navy.)  Not the day we go on a big outing (School.)  This is the day we operating Amateur Radio stations in a communications war to see which clubs, groups, and individuals can score the highest points in the only “not a contest” contest of Amateur Radio history.

The purpose of Field Day is to give people the opportunity to make as many contacts from as many locations as possible, all while operating “off the grid.”  This means the radio can’t be powered by “The Grid.”  Anything from solar and batteries to generators are fair game, but if high voltage power lines are involved, it’s a no go.

This is also a day for raising awareness and interest in the hobby.

Every year over the last few years I have put together some kind of kit that requires soldering.  This year, I have no kit.  That’s probably for the best, because this year we are in a different location than our club has become accustomed to using.  In the past, we’ve been primarily at the O.E.M. facilities on Acklin Gap road.  This year, we’ll be downtown Conway at the following address, instead:

Arkansas National Guard Armory
300 Exchange Ave
Conway, AR 72032

If you’re in or near Faulkner County, Arkansas, you’re more than welcome to swing in, meet the club, and learn about Amateur Radio.

Can you recommend a book on Permaculture?

I’ve seen the same question pop up in about three different places, lately.  Since this has come up so frequently in such a short amount of time, I thought I would take the time to write about why this is such a wonderful question… and why it’s such a terrible question.

I’m happy and excited to see people asking this, because it means people want to learn more.  People care enough to try to wrap their heads around what Permaculture has to offer.  On the other hand, most people want “one” book to start with, and it should be a “good one” for their needs, but they don’t ever tell us what their needs are.

If you’ve been paying attention, my article last week was on starting where you’re at.  This is important for more than just implementation.  If you try to dive right in and read the Permaculture Designer’s Manual, without any real prior exposure, you will probably learn a lot.  Or you will fall asleep.  Or maybe both.  The truth is, that book is a huge volume of information to take in all at once.  It is also the defacto source of the best ways to design and implement for any given climate and environment.

Most people don’t NEED to know how to design and implement for anything outside of the climate they live in.

So the next sets of books that are often recommended are from the “big hitters” in Permaculture.  These are the books by Sepp Holtzer, Ben Falk, Toby Hemenway, Eric Toensmeier, Joel Salatin, and so on.  This is great, but if someone lives in the desert, the “Resilient Farm and Homestead” may not be the best book to start with.  If someone wants to focus on pastured livestock, the books on edible food forests won’t be as useful to them.  The first response to someone asking this question, “can you recommend …” should be “what are you wanting to do with the information?”

Someone who wants to learn design, really SHOULD dive into the Designer’s Manual.

Someone wanting to go from trying to learn how to container garden to growing food in raised beds with a Permaculture focus, should probably pick up something more introductory that meets those needs.  So far, the best book for this that I’ve found isn’t one of the “big names” in Permaculture, but is chock full of useful information, regardless.  I highly recommend the book “The Suburban Micro-Farm” by Amy Stross for any beginner.  The Amazon link may be an affiliate link, but it’s for her, not me, if it is.  I pulled it straight from her site, as is.  The book is an easier read, with better break down than say… “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway.  This is just my opinion, of course, but I’ve read both, and I try to recommend what I think is best for a person based on what they tell me their needs are, and I truly believe this book is a better starter book for a backyard gardener wanting to expand into Permaculture centric food growth.

She also has a website, called Tenth Acre Farm.  You should go visit her site, and pick up a copy of her book, if you’re just starting out.

If you’ve been following my Twitter and FaceBook posts this last week, a lot of the quote graphics I posted came straight out of her book.

If you’re more advanced, and you’re looking for how to choose specific elements for your food forest implementation, try Mark Crawford’s “How to Grow Your Own Nuts” and “Trees for Gardens, Orchards, and Permaculture.”

Before you rush out and buy books that are recommended, also try this.

Check. Your. Local. Library…

Our local library system has a really nice selection of books on the subject.  I own many of them, myself, but some of the ones I don’t own I can preview before buying, just to see if it’s anything I might want to hang onto for reference purposes.  The library systems are often neglected by the current generation, so help support it by utilizing it regularly.  It’s good for the community.