Hügelkultur in dry climates?

Hügelkultur, popularized by permaculturalist Sepp Holzer, is the practice of burying logs in a mound to create a raised bed that composts in place. As the logs break down they add organic matter and create, in theory, a rich soil full of air gaps, fungal and microbial life.

But the thought of mounding anything in our dry climate doesn’t make sense to me. As I said in my post about the pros and cons of raised beds, if I didn’t have contaminated soil I’d grow my veggies in the ground. A Root Simple reader from Cyprus, which has a very similar climate as ours, said that Hügelkultur experiments there had not worked out. I’ve also heard that Geoff Lawton is skeptical of the practice in dry climates. And I’ve found no peer reviewed research on the practice.

But I also want to keep an open mind. I get asked about this practice a lot and have to confess ignorance. If you know of a Hügelkultur experiment in a dry climate please leave a link. Perhaps there’s a dry climate variation?  Has anyone seen any research? Have you tried it yourself?

What the Internet Will Look Like After the Zombie Apocalypse

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Enterprising amateur radio operators in Texas, over the past several years, have created a wireless high speed data network, called HSMM-MESH or Broadband-Hamnet, completely independent of the internet. The map above is the network built by HAMs in Austin, Texas. Basically it’s a bunch of hacked Linksys routers connecting wirelessly over a wide area. Plug a laptop into any of the routers and you can trade messages, files and live video back and forth.

This is possible because it just happens that the frequency range of off the shelf wireless routers overlaps with amateur radio frequencies making it legal for HAMs to boost the range of these devices. That and the fact that several models of ubiquitous Linksys routers are cheap and easy to hack.

All you do is take your Linksys router, screw in a better antenna (note the one above made with a tin can), load some open source software on to it, scatter them around town and you’ve got a wireless data network. Note that the routers in this configuration are communicating with each other. To hook your laptop into the network you have to connect it via an Ethernet cable to one of the nodes or set up a wi-fi network at a node. The routers can even be powered by small 12 volt batteries or solar panels. To be clear, this is a wireless network that is independent of the internet (though you could route the internet over it). Such a network could be used in an emergency such as an earthquake or weather event to send digital messages. It’s also the means by which I could continue to send out cute cat photos even if things go full-on Cormac McCarthy

You could use this same hack, not exactly legally, to solve networking problems in a large house, business or rural property. And the same method has been used to set up data networks in developing countries. In practice it’s doubtful that the Man would ever get around to busting someone without a HAM license from setting up a network or routing the internet over it. As long as you’ve got line of sight between your antennas it’s possible to send information over impressive distances–with the right antenna, some HAMs have managed to get the signal out as far as ten miles with a stock router and no boost in power. And the network is self healing. If one router goes out the other routers take on the traffic.

For more info on how to set up a network like this see www.broadband-hamnet.org. or watch this series of videos. There’s also a free e-Book: Wireless Networking in the Developing World.

Cat photo kidding aside, this relatively simply hack has potential to help a lot of people.

This post was inspired by a lecture given by Gary Wong, W6GSW at the Pasadena Radio Club.

Keep Those Bikes Locked, Even in the Garage!

bikelock It goes without saying that you must lock your bike when out and about. Leave it unlocked for one second in most urban areas and you can bet it will be gone when you return. In San Fransisco, for instance, bike theft outstripped iPhone theft 3:1.

But there’s another kind of bike theft that a lot of folks don’t think about–theft from your home or apartment. Yes, even at home base your bike needs to be locked up. Some thieves drive around in pickup trucks looking for open garages with unlocked bikes. Several friends of mine have lost their bikes this way. Others have had bikes stolen from backyards and balconies. When I get around to remodeling the garage, I’m going to upgrade the crappy lock you see above.

Remember it’s in the Koran sayings of Muhammad, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” Have you had a bike stolen? What happened?

Phytoremediation of Heavy Metals

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Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Us city slickers have fouled the sandboxes we play in. Find an open field in a big city like Los Angeles or New York and the odds are that it’s a former toxic waste dump. Here in our neighborhood we’ve got a lot of lead and zinc–lead from paint and gasoline and zinc from brake linings.

These heavy metals don’t magically go away. They are elements, and short of an alchemical transformation you have to physically remove them, cover them up, or apply phosphate so that plants don’t take them up as readily.

One promising strategy is phytoremediation, the use of plants to uptake heavy metals. City Atlas youarethecity, in New York, is experimenting with Indian mustard, mugwort, basket willow and sunflowers to remediate a contaminated garden. The results are promising with some metals down 50% in a year. Mugwort (Artimesia vulgaris) did an especially good job with a wide range of contaminants.

I should note that Garm Wallace, who runs Wallace Labs, a soil testing service, says that phytoremediation can take many years to get heavy metals down to a safe level. That being said, breeding plants specifically for heavy metal hyperaccumulation is a technology that could make up for our past transgressions.

Thanks to Michael Tortorello for the tip.

How to Search for Science-Based Gardening Advice

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Agricola’s search page.

In the course of writing our books and this blog we’ve had to deal with a lot of thorny gardening questions such as the effectiveness of double digging, the toxicity of persimmons, compost tea, lasagna gardening and how to mulch to name just a few. While the internet is an amazing tool, the number of conflicting commercial interests, biases and crazy talk in the eGardening world can make it difficult to, as Mark Twain put it, “corral the truth.” And I have to confess to promulgating some of the questionable advice that’s out there.

In the interest of not spreading more bad information Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University, did a webinar (archived online here) with a lot of great advice on how you can evaluate gardening advice as well as do your own searches of peer reviewed literature.

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Saturday Linkages: Rammed Earth, Vanilla Ice and Moonshine

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Best idea of the week. Image: Natural Building Blog

Smokeless Rammed Earth Stove http://feedly.com/e/3e4xRBr8 

Ice Goes Amish: http://modernfarmer.com/2014/02/vanilla-ice-amish-farmer/ …

Plastic debris for brains http://www.honeybeesuite.com/plastic-debris-for-brains/ …

RiYL podcast 041: Colin Spoelman, moonshine maker: http://boingboing.net/2014/02/20/riyl-podcast-041-colin-spoelm.html …

Brazil’s new dietary guidelines: food-based! http://feedly.com/e/xL8TJUJf 

Austrian Designer Upcycles Bike Parts into Faux Hunting Trophy Bicycle Mounts http://inhabitat.com/austrian-design-upcycles-bike-parts-into-faux-hunting-trophy-bicycle-mounts/ …

How Would You Drive If Your Child Was Crossing the Street in Front of You? http://feedly.com/e/6MzdiI4- 

Meet the Miller: Nan Kohler http://feedly.com/e/oWHthiZg 

Meet the Baker: Dave Miller http://www.farine-mc.com/2014/02/meet-baker-dave-miller.html?spref=tw …

Flower Mandalas: http://boingboing.net/2014/02/17/flower-mandalas.html …

Fallout shelter originally installed in 1955 for a family of three in Fort Wayne, Indiana. http://feedly.com/e/1vhqFO23 

For these links and more, follow Root Simple on Twitter:

Advantages and Disadvantages of Raised Bed Vegetable Gardening

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The new hexagonal raised beds. More on the design in another post.

Due to contaminated Los Angeles soil, we’ve got to grow our veggies in raised beds. There’s just too much lead and zinc in the ground, according to our local soil lab. Putting together three new beds recently got me to thinking about the ups and downs of gardening in raised beds. I thought I’d list off the pros and cons:

Pros:

  • Keeps roots away from contaminated soil.
  • Good for disabled or elderly gardeners.
  • Neat.
  • If high enough, can keep out some critters–and keep veggies above the dog pee zone.
  • Plug and play–no need to build or improve soil.
  • Keeps roots from getting waterlogged in a wet climate.

Cons

  • Requires materials to construct.
  • Might need to buy soil–gardening in the ground is free.
  • Roots dry out quicker in a hot climate.
  • Lack of mineral content in bagged soils.
  • Use of peat moss in bagged products.
  • Unable to truly embrace the “no dig” philosophy: despite best efforts to the contrary, it seems the soil needs to be swapped out every few years. It’s container gardening, really.

Going through that list of pros and cons, if it weren’t for our contaminated soil it would be better for us to grow in the ground. From a water use perspective, in Mediterranean climates such as ours, it’s better to garden at ground level. Less evaporation.  In dry desert climates such as New Mexico it’s often better to garden slightly below grade to take advantage of summer rains. Conversely, in soggy climates raised beds have some advantages.

Another factor is cost.  A bulk soil order doesn’t start to make sense until you’ve got a lot of raised beds to fill or neighbors to split the order with. This leaves me stuck with bagged products. I’m testing out a variation on Mel’s mix: one part coconut coir, one part vermiculite, one part compost. It’s still expensive, but at least I’m weaning myself from peat moss, an unsustainable product. Unfortunately, all those bags have to be hauled up thirty steps.

As a whole, what we’ve done with our garden is a compromise. Most of the yard is permaculturish: lots of small fruit trees, some native plants, ornamental flowering plants for the wildlife and a whole lot of mulch. But I like to have a few Italian veggies so we’ve got five small raised beds.

Did I leave anything off this list of raised bed pros and cons? What are you growing your veggies in? Leave a comment!

How To Force Carbonate at Home

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There are as many ways to force carbonate as there are paths up the holy mountain. I wanted to avoid both the SodaStream’s loss-leader economic model (expensive refills) as well as hacked systems that use non-food grade materials. One trip to my local home brew shop, and I had all the equipment I needed to safely and economically carbonate any liquid. Here’s how I put it all together.

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Land Shark!

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This stunning garden sculpture is by an Australian artist, Brett Martin. I love the way it hovers over the grass and, best of all, swivels in the wind. Martin says,

I try to use as much recycled materials as possible. I used salvaged timber from building sites, a swivel chair, old table base, many hundreds of tin cans collected from neighbours and 5000 pot rivets. I live at Congo, the south coast of New South Wales and based this 3.5m beauty on a sighting about 4 months ago. I just had to immortalize it.

You can like the artist in Facebook and see some of his other pieces here.