Anthony Valterra

Hügelkultur - More Than Just a Pretty Word

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By Anthony Valterra

Ah, the Germans, a lovely people with a lovely language. For example, did you know the German word for daisy is "gänseblümchen?" It just rolls off the tongue. The Germans created a method of gardening in which they cultivated plants on top of a constructed mound made up of logs buried in the earth. They call it hügelkultur - literally mound or hill culture. The theory is that as the logs decay, they provide nutrients to the plants growing on top of them. In addition, the mound shape provides a sort of natural rain drainage. Plants on the top that need less water get less, and those nearer the bottom get more water. You can also use the hill shape to vary sunlight. Plants on the sunny side get more light; plants on the opposite side a bit less. Finally, the hill itself is supposed to provide a bit more growing space. Imagine the mound as half of a sphere. If the mound was not there, you would be planting in a circle with an area based on the diameter of the sphere. But with the mound, you have a planting area half the surface of the whole sphere. Assuming a mound with a 10-ft. diameter, you are roughly doubling your growing space (if I did the math correctly).

Above is our first try at hügelkulture, as it stands today. We decided to make it an herb mound. It could just as well support other plants, but an herb mound is a common choice. As you can see, we did all right. We have good growth from the sage in the foreground, the marjoram at the top, and the grey santolina to the right of the marjoram. There are also a couple of young oregano plants tucked between the sage and marjoram. Not shown: the reddening lepiota mushrooms, which grew prolifically all over the yard including on the mound - delicious! More about them in this post here. Herbs that did not make it on the mound (this year) were all sown as seeds, a tough go for non-native perennials, especially here in the beginning before the logs beneath the earth had a chance to decay.

How do you make one of these mounds? I'm sure you are thinking it requires elaborate planning, detailed construction, and a great number of resource inputs. Or maybe you're looking at it and thinking, "It's a hill; how tough can it be?"

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If you have read about my squash tunnel here, and its tragic demise here, then you know I am a big believer in scavenging for resources. Fortunately, we live in the Midwest, where the same storms that brought down the squash tunnel regularly bring down trees in the neighborhood. And when workers are cutting up those trees, they are usually very happy to have you help them out by hauling off some of the debris. That's how we got the logs for the base of our hügelkulture.

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We took some of the logs and arranged them in a circle with the diameter we wanted for the mound.

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Then we buried them and placed more logs on top. Repeat this process until you have a mound - easy peasy!

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Once we had the mound shape, we covered it in cardboard, a layer of mulch, and planted herb starts.  As I said, they did pretty well. But in theory each year that goes by, they should do better and better. The buried logs will decay and provide nutrients to the planted herbs. The first year the logs barely had time to start the decay process so the herbs were more or less relying on the soil covering. After this winter, the logs should be breaking down nicely, and I hope we will see a much more robust hügelkultur herb mound next spring and summer.

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Tragedy Strikes the Squash Tunnel

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By Anthony Valterra

Yes, that is the tragic remains of the once... well, "glorious" might be a bit strong, squash tunnel (which included beans and cucumbers as well). Regular readers might recall the post about the construction of the tunnel - How to Build a Squash Tunnel out of Bamboo - for Almost Nothing. Ah, yes, those were times of innocence. As one can see by the above image, the squash tunnel is no more. The Midwest weather decided to toss us one of its regularly occurring storms, and the high winds did in the bamboo. I know, I know, you're thinking, "Isn't that the point of bamboo? It's supposed to bend in the wind?" Apparently, even bamboo has its limits. Ironically, before the storm hit, I was about to put together a post critiquing my own design. I'll do that briefly just in case someone else wants to tilt at this windmill. 

The first mistake I made was in scavenging the bamboo and leaving it out for a week before starting the construction. When bamboo is green, it bends very easily. And if one bends it when it's green and then lets it dry, it holds its shape pretty well. But if you wait until it has started to dry and then bend it, it becomes brittle. And then when weight (or a strong breeze) is applied to the bamboo, it is in danger of splitting.

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As one can see in the above photo, the bamboo was changing from green to yellow/brown. In other words, I was using this bamboo "too late."

My second mistake was attaching the side poles too far apart. I think the correct way to do it would be to have the first side pole about 6 inches above the ground. And then double the distance for each additional pole. So, the second one would be a foot above the first pole, the third two feet above the second, etc.

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As you can see in the above photo, the first pole is about two feet above the ground, and the second four feet from the first. This wide distance meant that the plant vines struggled to reach up the sides of the tunnel. When they did reach up, they often tangled in the small shoots that were left on the poles. Which brings us to my third mistake, leaving the small shoots and leaves on the bamboo poles. My thought was that this would be both attractive and practical in that the vines from our squash would have more to which they could attach. 

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The leaves on the tunnel are attractive in the above photo. However, they are ephemeral. In a couple of weeks, they will dry and fall off, leaving only the twig-like shoots coming off the bamboo poles. This would be fine, but there was an additional problem. The vines would attach to the twigs, but rather than the vines pulling themselves up, they pulled the twigs down. the result is that the vine would grow back towards the ground, rather than up the sides of the tunnel.

Even with all of those mistakes, we did have some success.

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Look at those gorgeous butternut squashes hanging in the air! It wasn't perfect, but it still had some great visual appeal. And in the end, we've concluded, that is the main value of squash tunnels - they look cool as heck. Oh, sure, they do create a bit more growing space. After all, the tunnel is over a cement path. But really the amount of room saved is pretty slight.

After the devastating collapse, my very smart and resourceful wife quickly scavenged the bamboo scraps and set up small tripods for the vines to grow on.

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Not as fabulous, but guess what? The squash did just fine on these tripods. In fact, the beans and the cucumbers seemed to prefer them. I don't think we will do another squash tunnel. Midwest storms are just too strong and too common. But we still think bamboo is a great building material for a garden. Especially if you have a neighbor who needs to regularly get rid of poles, and you can get them for free. But next year I think we will focus on smaller, more practical designs.

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How to Build a Squash Tunnel out of Bamboo - for Almost Nothing!

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By Anthony Valterra

My father is a very handy man. He's the type of guy who sees a brick patio and thinks, "I could do that." And then he figures out how to do it. And actually does it. And it looks awesome. As his son, it is both heartening to see what can be done and discouraging when you see how often your attempts at doing something awesome falls short. But as my grandfather used to say, "It's good enuf fer who it's fer." It took me years to translate that from his Oklahoma twang to my more prosaic American standard into, "It is good enough for whom it is for." I always liked Grandpa's attitude towards life.

So, it is with this familial background that I announced with a casual and cavalier attitude that I would build a squash tunnel for the Dragon Flower Farm. I had no idea how. But we have the Internet, and I undertook some research. These days, however, it seems like there is nothing you can't buy pre-made. 

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This one is available from www.gardeners.com. No, we don't have any kind of arrangement with them. I'm just offering this as an example of a squash arch that's pre-made.

But with a limited budget, and with a DIY attitude, we decided to forego purchasing in favor of building. Most people build squash tunnels from things like cattle panels. Here's a step-by-step guide for doing that over at Jobe's. 

The cattle panel versions seem to be very functional, and we were leaning that direction for some time. In fact, we may have used that method if the shelter-in-place quarantine had not occurred. We were about to pull the trigger and go to our local big box garden/home supply store, buy some cattle panels, and go for it. But once the virus hit, we avoided going out to large, crowded stores, and the whole thing became a bit trickier and more DIY. One solution is the rustic, "let's-tie-some-sticks-together" look.

That one struck me as just a bit too rustic. I was hoping for something in the middle. Lisa and I were out for a walk, and we passed by one of our neighbors, who has a large grove of bamboo growing on the side of his property. Bamboo grows really fast. So, he has to cut it back a couple of times a year. He just has the city come and pick it up as yard waste. We'd already snagged a few of his excess bamboo canes previously, using them as tree stakes. And then the light went on - bamboo is great building material! He has all kinds of lengths and thicknesses. And since the shutdown, yard waste has not been picked up (with reduced staff and more garbage and recycling material being produced by everyone staying home, the city's workers were overwhelmed, and so they temporarily suspended pick-up). Well, talk about your win-win. He was thrilled to have us haul away all of his bamboo, and we got free building material.

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You need close to 30 canes to do this right. Any leftovers can be repurposed as garden stakes.

Now, all I had to do was figure out how to build a squash tunnel using bamboo. No biggie, right? Here is what I came up with. Will it work? I guess we will all find out by the fall. It will either collapse from the weight of the plants on it, be blown away in a storm, or be standing and provide some lovely images. Stay tuned to find out which scenario plays out.

First things first - what tools and supplies did I need? Well, other than the bamboo itself, this is literally all I needed.

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Saw, tape measure, twine, hand cutters, and a rubber mallet.

So the arch, all total, can be had for the cost of twine, provided you get the bamboo for free and already have these tools. Now here's how I built it.

I laid out two bamboo rods that were going to be my base supports to get an idea on the length of the tunnel.

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I then cut 6 pieces of bamboo into one-foot lengths, with a sharp 45-degree cut.

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These were going to become my stakes. They were surprisingly easy to drive into the ground. Using my hand and bodyweight, I could push them 6 inches into the ground and then use the rubber mallet to drive them down until about 2-3 inches stuck up above the ground. I then lashed the base supports to the stakes with the twine.

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Then I cut the side vertical supports the same way I cut the stakes - with a 45-degree end. This allowed me to drive them into the ground using just my bodyweight next to the stakes. 

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Overhead view - the sharp end will be driven into the ground next to the stake.

Once the vertical supports were in place, they were strengthened with horizontal supports on each side, which was lashed to the standing vertical support.

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Here you can see the vertical support driven into the ground and tied to the stake at the bottom and the horizontal support lashed to higher up.

All that was left to do was to bend the vertical support bamboo to form the arch and tie them together. If there is a place where this falls apart, it is here. I wish I had started this project as soon as I had the bamboo when it was still green and very supple. But I waited a few days and the bamboo had begun to dry out and become more brittle. It still bent, but I think it might be more likely to break.

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The full arch. I put another horizontal brace at the very top where the two sides of the arch meet for more support. We chose to leave some of the leaves on because we thought they looked nice. But as the bamboo dries, they may just fall off or be stolen by birds for their nests. We'll see. The real question is... will it support our squash? That is unknown. It also might be that the horizontal bracing is too high off the ground for the squash to reach, and there may just need to be more bracing on the sides for the squash to grow on. But that will be an easy addition if needed.

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Lisa inside the tunnel. This clearly shows the first horizontal brace might be too high up. It is about thigh-high on Lisa. We may need to put another one below it about halfway to the ground. And perhaps one above it as well. Stay tuned!

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Chaos Is a Garden

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Peonies on a floor of wild violets seen through a thicket of wild garlic.

By Anthony Valterra

Chaos isn't a pit.
Chaos is a ladder.

- Little Finger, Game of Thrones

...the idea that paradise is a walled garden is an echo back to the chaos and order idea… Walls, culture, garden, nature… The proper human habitat is a properly tended garden...

- Jordan Peterson

As we work on the Dragon Flower Farm, we are also developing our philosophy around what we are doing, and why. At this point (and it will likely change) I would say it is a philosophy of the mean - the middle way, if you will. One aspect of that philosophy is the role of chaos. In Jungian thought, the forest represents the primeval, the chaotic, nature red in tooth and claw. The home represents order, civilization, humanity's dominion. The garden is the place where the two intersect. It is ordered, but it is still influenced by the power that resides outside of its walls. 

Generally speaking, our culture tries to push that chaotic force as far away from ourselves as possible. We use chemical pesticides to kill insects we don't want, we erect barriers to keep out animals we label pests, and we root up plants we call weeds. That is one extreme. On the other side of the garden wall, we have people who are advocating never weeding anything, letting everything grow as it will, and the only intervention being the introduction of plants that are desired. We fall somewhere in the middle.

DFF (Dragon Flower Farm) is trying to ride the edge of order and chaos. We believe that it is possible to have intention in planting, engineering, and maintaining your garden, while still understanding that you are not really in charge. Nature will surprise you with volunteers, odd combinations of plants, and even insect populations that you did not expect. You can pour huge amounts of energy and resources attempting to fight against nature, or you can have a little humility and journey with her. Maybe you will even see some beauty that you could not have planned.

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Daffodils growing up through sedum - completely unplanned.

We have an intent for our space. We are trying to grow a significant portion of our own food. Ironically, we began this project way before COVID-19. But the pandemic has sharpened the seriousness of this goal. We are also attempting to support our native flora and fauna. Pollinators are particularly important, and growing native plants supports those insects, which supports our goal of growing our own food. Finally, we are trying to be good environmental stewards of our space. We avoid the use of chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. But in all of these endeavors, we do not hold ourselves up as pristine. We do not see ourselves living only on the food grown on our land, we have non-native plants in the yard, and we have used outside inputs such as mulch from another source. 

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A sycamore volunteer plant - maybe the act of a squirrel, or a bird, or maybe it drifted in on the wind. 

Our culture tends to favor order over chaos in the natural world. We want our plants and animals to conform to our needs and wants. To a traditional gardener, our space would probably look chaotic (sorry, Dad!). On the other hand, we fly in the face of many non-traditional philosophies. We are more than willing to uproot winter creeper, tree of heaven, and bush honeysuckle. This makes the native plant people happy but gets us a frown from some permaculture purists. However, we are OK with some non-native volunteers, which reverses the praise/frown equation just mentioned.

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One pod is local praying mantis; the other is a non-native, introduced mantis species; both are welcome at DFF.

How do we decide? We're guessing. But we know that we are not really in charge. Nature will abide. We can only do our best in the short time we are here and hope to pass on something to the next generation - a bit of wisdom, some life lessons, and maybe a small patch of healthy land.

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How about this little bundle of chaos? Native? Invasive? Food? Stay tuned to find out!


The Skillet Feeding You! How to Cook with a Cast Iron Skillet

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Note: This is part three in a three-part series devoted to cast iron skillets.

By Anthony Valterra

If you've read the previous two blog posts in this series (here and here), your pan is well-seasoned, and you know how to care for it. Before you start using it, the first thing you need to do is a bit weird, and it sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, but you need to get to know your pan. Remember, listen to your pan more than you speak.

Cast iron skillets have personalities (no, I don't know what their D&D stats would be1). Some heat up very fast, some more slowly. Some need a lot of oil regularly; some can get by on the oil in your foods. All cast iron pans heat up unevenly. Once they are hot, they give off a nice, even heat that lasts for some time, but as they are heating, you can hold your hand above the pan and feel temperature differentials.

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When we first started cooking with our cast iron skillet, it seemed like food was always sticking to it, no matter how well we greased it. After doing some research, the problem became obvious. We were treating our skillet like a Teflon-coated pan. We would put it on the heat, toss in some oil, fat, or grease, and start cooking. As I mentioned above, cast iron skillets heat up slowly. And they need to be hot in order to not have food stick to them. We needed to adjust our cooking process to give the skillet a few minutes to heat up. Generally, I heat up the skillet about one notch on the heat dial above what I intend to cook food at. For example, if I am cooking a hamburger and will cook it at a "5" on the stove dial, I will set the dial to "6" for a few minutes, and then turn it down to 5 when the pan is hot. Then I will add the cooking fats and finally, the hamburger.

Next, you will need to get metal cooking utensils to use with your cast iron. First of all, you can't hurt your pan with a metal utensil like you can a coated pan. And secondly, you will want that metal-on-metal ability to get the pan cleaned of all food. Finally, cast iron can get very hot, and the last thing you want is for a rubber or plastic cooking utensil to leave traces of themselves on your lovely pan.

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Although it has been mentioned a number of times, it bears mentioning again: cast iron skillets can get very hot. And they will get hot all the way up the handle. You need to remember that and use a good thick oven mitt when handling your cast iron while cooking with it. Also, don't forget that it will be hot and it will stay hot for some time. Don't set it down on the counter to cool, or you will end up with a burnt spot on your counter. If you drop it into your stainless steel sink when it is hot be prepared to hear a loud bang as the hot pan hits and bends (temporarily) the cool sink bottom. A better option is to leave it on the stove on a cold burner to cool down for a 5-10 minutes, and then rinse it with water and clean it out.

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The final point I will make is that while I've been cooking with cast iron for about five years, I don't have a huge variety of personal experiences. I have yet to make brownies or sweet rolls or anything not savory in my cast iron. But the word on the street (the mean streets of the Internet that is) is that one should keep one set of cast iron for sweet cooking and another for savory. Just as your choice of oil for seasoning your pan can impart a small amount of taste to your foods, the theory is that the foods you cook will impart a small amount of taste to the pan and then to other foods you cook. If you have just cooked a savory dish, and you are cooking another savory dish, the taste will likely be so subtle that it will be unnoticeable. But, some people swear that if you cook a sweet dish and then a savory dish (or vice versa), the taste is distinct enough that it can be noticed. I plead ignorance on this one, but it does make some sense. I guess if you had a very sensitive palate, you might choose to have one set of pans seasoned in coconut oil for sweet cooking and another seasoned with a different oil for savory cooking.

With that, I conclude my three-part series on cooking with cast iron. As I learn more, I will put out updated posts. Also, as the Dragonflower Farm investigates other pre-fossil fuel-based technologies, I will post our experiences of those as well!

(1) OK, OK, you forced me.

Simple Melee Weapons
Weapon Cost Damage Weight Properties
Battle Pan 2 gp 1d4 Bludgeoning 3 lb. Light, Versatile (1d6), Special

+1 to your AC if you are wielding it and have no shield. However, due to the nature of the weapon, it is ineffective against heavy armor, which causes a -2 to damage rolls.

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