Esperanza in Oakland, California grows food for her family in her urban back yard.
I was recently turned on to a permaculture technique called hugelkultur where logs and untreated wood are buried under the soil. As the wood decomposes is acts as a kind of slow-releasing sponge where it provides moisture and nutrients. Supposedly after a year or so a good hugelkultur mound will eliminate the need for most irrigation or additional watering. It is also supposed to deepen the flavors of the foods that are grown in those beds. It’s really exciting! I knew that keeping that huge pile of branches and debris from the storm this spring would eventually amount to something other than an eyesore. I’m going to give it a try and bury the sticks in our raised beds below the compost.
A great tip if you live in an area that won’t allow you to have a traditional raised hugelkultur bed is to put the logs in a trench and cover with soil so that it ends up being ground level.
Check out the video below and I’ll make sure to let you know how it turned out in the spring!
“Are you building garden beds…or a house!?”
This Saturday I hosted the first ever Om-Nom Acres event. We had gorgeous November weather! Eight people turn out in total, including those who live in the house: Devin, Sammit, Katie, Hanuman, Lisa, Mike, Chantel, and yours truly. Devin and I started our work nearly a month in advance, planning materials, tasks, food, etc. I put her in charge of shopping and prepping food while I worked on getting all the materials to the house.
On Friday, Devin and I worked through all the daylight hours, moving cement blocks from the six pallets in the driveway to the back yard where we level the soil and lined them up according to a rough plan. We managed to build and fill the garlic bed with compost. We also built half of the garage parameter bed. When it was too dark to work outside we ran errands, picking up equipment from my in-laws (a wheel barrow and a 3 piece crock-pot set), and straw bales from the garden center. When the stores closed we cleaned the house and picked up a few of our hearty volunteers who don’t drive so they could spend the night with us. We all fell into bed around 2AM after stretching and soaking in epsom salts.
We started Friday with eggs and coffee. Devin, Hanuman, Katie, Lisa, and I worked in the chilly sun. We moved more concrete blocks and compost. We double-dug the ground, extracting and heaving chunks of brick and stone as we unearthed them. We spread leaves and straw, and replanted the perennial herbs. When the sneaking hunger could no longer be ignored we broke for lunch, a spread of salads, meats, and potato products, and warmed up on cider.
In the afternoon, Mike, Sammit, and Chantel joined us and our productivity increased exponentially! Mike helped me address some structural concerns (like how to prevent all of this work from heaving during the winter or washing away in the spring). As a result, Mike and Hanuman took turns war-hammering over 700 inches of reinforcing bar into the ground through the holes in the blocks, a task that left them bruised, swollen, and shaking. These people are tough.
We worked until the light gave out on us, just before 7PM, and came inside to a warm taco bar and chocolate pudding! We sat in the living room, talked, laughed, received updates on the football game (sorry MSU!), and ate delicious food. Several people went home, but a few stayed and we massaged each other’s aching feet, hands, and back while drinking beer and watching documentaries on Netflix.
It was the most fulfilling two days I have ever had. And the best sleep I have had in years. On Sunday we rested. Throughout this week we still have compost to move, but we’re taking it slow.
- 450 Concrete Blocks from Lowe’s (+ delivery) = $569.85
- We’ve placed 300 blocks and have 150 remaining for a potato bed, an asparagus bed, and a cold frame.
- The blocks measure 8x8x16 and each contains two “pockets” roughly 6×6 for additional planting.
- 9 cubic yards of good quality screened compost from Tuthill Farms + delivery = $300.00
- 4 straw bales from English Gardens (near the house) = $25.40
- Sledge-hammer + 20 reinforcing bars (36 inches each) = $92.82
- 1 dozen amazing work gloves (4 small, 4 medium, 4 large) = $45.95
- 1 flat head shovel = $11.63
- 2 spade head shovels + 1 garden rake (already owned) = $0
- Borrowed Wheel Barrow = $0
- Borrowed Dolly = $0
- Several large plastic tubs (already owned) = $0
- Incidentals (food & beverages) = 249.26
- We bought so much food! This provided 3 full meals for most volunteers and we have leftovers for the whole week! I would say it actually cost us no more than 1/2 to feed everyone so really = 124.63.
Project Total: $1045.65 + $124.63 (food) = $1170.28
- This project has already taken 55 work hours and still needs another 10-15 for a total of approx. 70 work hours.The 55 work hours were divided into two days and done by eight people
- The remaining 10-15 will be finished by this coming weekend between three people.
- There were 6 primary jobs and people were encouraged to take frequent breaks and change jobs to avoid too much strain on their bodies.
- Block Mover: Used the dolly to move 5-10 bricks at a time from the driveway to the building areas in the back yard.
- Bed Builder: Used the flat head shovel and additional compost/dirt to level the ground and place blocks appropriately to build beds either 1 or 2 levels high. Must know the bed layout plan and pay attention to detail.
- Bed Prepper: Used spade head shovel to “double dig” the ground in the beds and spread leaves and straw over bed areas.
- Compost Mover: Loaded and moved compost from the pile in the driveway to the appropriate location in the beds (on top of double-dig, leaves, and straw).
- Block Filler: Used a shovel or hand spade to fill the 6×6 holes in the edges of the beds.
- Reinforcer: Used sledge hammer to pound in reinforcing bars at 2-level-bed corners and 1/2 way between corners.
- We all kept house, taking care of our own dishes, and feeding ourselves or helping others navigate the kitchen.
- We added 591 square feet of gardening space to the garden (+ the 101 square feet we had before) for a total of 692 square feet for growing in 2013!
- I’ll have to see how the beds hold up over the winter and spring with the rebar. If they need more reinforcing, I will make sure to post an update on what we plan to do.
- Invest in good gloves. The gloves I linked to in the materials section are the best work gloves I have ever used. They fit well, kept our hands warm but not too sweaty, and provide great protection from and grip on the handles and cement blocks. We are keeping ours around so anyone who wants to come help will have them. Without them, we all would have been toast in a matter of hours.
- Over and underestimate where it makes the most sense:
- I overestimated on the bricks, which is a good thing because a few of them came broken (2), I didn’t want to have to interrupt the workflow to go buy more, I will find a use for them, and they don’t “go bad”.
- I underestimated on the compost because I didn’t want to be overwhelmed and pay for more than I could move before it rained (advice from my mama). I can always buy more in the spring if I need it, when it will have a bigger effect on my crops.
- I overestimated on the food because I knew those of us in the house would eat the leftovers and I did NOT want my amazing volunteers to feel they couldn’t eat or drink as much as they damn well pleased.
- Be flexible
- The beds do not look exactly the way I had planned on the computer (though they are close), and that’s okay! It was really hard for me to get a good grasp of size and space from the screen to the backyard. We went with the flow of the yard, including making some adjustments for huge and unmovable underground tree roots.
- Take Breaks!
- If this is your project, take frequent breaks so you don’t wear out before your volunteers (no one likes being hosted by a zombie). Also, encourage your volunteers to take frequent breaks, hydrate, and switch jobs to avoid boredom and repetitive motions on the joints and muscles (injuries!). Make sure it is clear that people should not push themselves and everyone’s safety is important.
- Stretch and Salt!
- Stretch during breaks and when you close up for the night. I’m convinced stretching combined with soaking in an epsom salt bath helped me do this for two days in a row and still walk to class on Monday without anyone being suspicious.
I ordered 450 cement blocks (often misidentified as cinder blocks, but are no longer made of cinder) online from a big-box hardware store. I would heartily prefer getting them from my local hardware store (and if I ever need replacements you can be sure I’ll do just that), but for this job the big-box store delivers! There is no way I can pass up home delivery of 450 cement blocks. I don’t even know how many trips and how much time it would take up to get those from the store to my driveway in the back of my first generation Prius (smallest car ever).
My order confirmation clearly states that once the order is received, the store will contact me within 24 hours to set up a delivery time. “Great!” I think. “I can order tonight and schedule a delivery for later this week so the blocks will be here for our event this weekend.” Er, no. The delivery man called me at 7:21 this morning – on a weekend! – and said gruffly, “Uh, yeah, I’m calling about a delivery for a Mr. Dillon Hendrick. I’ll be around to drop the blocks off between 8 and 10 AM. Bye.” This left Dashel very excited.
I bolted out of bed, threw on some incredibly warm [sarcasm] yoga pants and a sweatshirt, and started chucking things from my driveway over the fence into my backyard to clear a path, disconnecting hoses along the way. I moved the car to the street, turned on all the outside lights, and then I waited. Sure enough, at 9AM, right square between 8 and 10, the delivery truck shows up and wakes up every dog on the block.
Six shuttles back and forth brought me 450 cement blocks and six pallets to work with this weekend. George, the delivery man, was very nice and remarkably pleasant for having been up so early in the morning on a weekend. I actually think he drove the truck past the house at 7:30 this morning on his way to work, checking out his drop location. In the time it took him to unload I was able to feed the dogs, makes a grilled cheese sandwich, and empty/reload the dishwasher. Not a shabby start to the day. Now I just have to resist picking at the plastic on the pallets until it’s time to use them. It’s like homesteading christmas! With that checked off my list I’m moving on to the next item: obtaining massive amounts of quality compost.