cooking up some compost

damian is trying his hand at a big-batch 18-day compost project. this is in addition to our ongoing compost of kitchen scraps, chicken manure and humanure*. he started with goat manure, alfalfa, and straw bales. in most climates you would use free stuff like fall leaves and grass clippings instead of buying bales of alfalfa and straw, but organic matter of any kind is hard to come by around here, so we spent about $100 on materials (the manure was free). it’s gonna make a LOT of compost.

the raw materials:543413_10151815054673331_39302727_n

here’s the pile mixed (oliver helped, of course):1150995_10151815089683331_597703964_nthe pile is supposed to sit for 4 days and then get turned, but ours got super hot and stinky really fast. it also attracted a lot of flies. damian figured it was due to lack of air and too much nitrogen, so he layered in a bunch more straw and made the pile longer to allow for more air:1423_10151822041473331_853206133_nthat changed the smell from “dead goat” to “horse pasture.” thanks, honey! it’s still pretty hot (160F, we want more like 140, i think). damian assures me it won’t catch fire. i bought one of those bag-style fly traps that worked well when we had horses near by. stay tuned for more exciting compost adventures!

* i wasn’t going to tell you that we have a humanure system, but i feel like i’m being dishonest with all the blogging about water use and permaculture if i don’t mention the little fact that we quit pooping in drinking water. it’s been close to a year now and i’ve gone from very nervous and squeamish to a true believer. and no, it doesn’t smell. not even like a horse pasture. ok, maybe it smells a little like sawdust, but that’s different…

heatwave garden update

last week the temperature hit 109 degrees (43c). it was pretty rough but the blessing was every day after that when it “only” got up to 101 (38c) it felt comfortable and breezy. i guess it’s all relative! needless to say, that was the end of our spring greens, fava beans, and peas. but i harvested the first eggplant and the tomatoes are producing steady, if not prolific. oliver (my 2-year-old) harvested what appears to be a bonsai watermelon. it was the size of a tennis ball and not getting any bigger. i was planning on letting it grow but of course the toddler could not resist. after he picked it i figured i may as well cut it open and low and behold it was fully ripe! almost over ripe. it was very tasty, but so so tiny. i don’t know why. maybe i could market a new fancy lunch box sized watermelon. we’ve harvested a few hot peppers, the amaranth has volunteered in force once again, the corn is coming along, but my garlic is MIA. perhaps we over crowded the beds with our grand poly culture?

whorehouse tea

damian is taking a permaculture design certificate program! it’s a 12 week intensive and i’ve been joining him to listen to lectures whenever i can. the course is jam-packed with jaw-dropping, game-changing info and is making us super excited about ways to implement more permaculture around here. sponge swales! vermiculture! dry toilets! i want to make my own shampoo out of yucca root! and get a community mesquite mill! and and and!!! but you probably have no idea what i am talking about. so lets start small.
with tea.
i love tea, up until recently the tea i consumed was fancy snob tea from far away lands ordered by me on the internet. but all this time i’ve had several big bushes of tea right in my yard. it’s called mormon tea, or bringham tea, cowboy tea, or my personal favorite: whorehouse tea. ephedra funerea is the latin name (different than ephedra sinica, which is potentially dangerous). and it’s delicious. just break off some young branches and pour boiling water over them. you can also dry the branches first in a paper bag, then store and brew just like other tea. it has a very nice flavor and is mildly stimulant. it is also supposedly good for sinus problems and allergies. yay! you can harvest any time but for medicinal qualities the spring is the best time to harvest.

encouraging garden update

last time i wrote about the garden, you may have detected some discouragement. but, friends, spring is here and the garden is booming! for at least a month we’ve been eating huge bunches of greens (kale, boc choi, collards, chard, broccoli) every day. and as of about a week ago, when we started an allergy healing diet, we’ve been eating huge bunches of greens three times a day! i was trying to calculate how much i would be spending for our current consumption at the farmers market, i figure at least $40 a week for 21 bunches of greens. this year i timed it just right so as we are harvesting the last of the fall greens, my fresh tender spring greens are ready to harvest too. plus radishes, peas and favas are all starting to get big enough to eat. as of today, none of my plants have aphids or other bugs. i’m not sure why, but i’m not complaining.

at the same time that we’ve increased vegetable production (and consumption), we’ve lowered our water bill to an impressively low amount. last time i wrote about the garden, i was too embarrassed to tell you what our water use was, but now that i have proud new numbers, i’ll fess up. first some context: the average US water use per person per day is 300 gallons. california and texas are the biggest hogs, here use is more like 500 gallons pppd. in new york city, (more density, less landscaping) the average is 65 (go new york!). zooming in to california, the more dense areas by the coast average 136, but in palm springs, where they’ve turned the desert into golf courses, average usage is a whopping 736 gallons! but friends, i have a confession to make; last fall we conservationist environmentalist desert lovers used 420 gallons per person per day. i’m sorry. now for the good news; we got our usage down to 50 gal per person per day. even though i do a load of laundry almost everyday in an inefficient washer that uses 40 gal per load. i didn’t count oliver (our almost 2-year-old) in my calculations, if i include him, which i guess i should since he has a daily bath and otherwise uses water, then we’d have usage of 33 gal per person per day with an orchard, big garden, and chickens. woohoo!

how did we get our usage down, you ask? 4 things: smarter gray water use, less toilet flushing, smarter bathing, and smarter garden watering.

our gray water is now the only way we water our trees and landscaping.

we don’t flush the toilet unless there is poop in it.

we most often bathe by filling a 3 gallon square container (like a rubbermaid) with warm water and a squirt of dr bronners. for adults, put the container in the bath tub and use a nice sea sponge to wash yourself from top to bottom. you’ll never go back to showers. for a toddler, just stick ’em in the tub. they have a nice deep bath, and they don’t slip or drown because they have nice back support.

we mulched the garden heavily and bought a hydrometer – a nifty little tool you can get for cheap that tells you how moist the soil is. by only turning on the system when the garden is dry, we were able to scale way way back on the water. mulching helps too.

we’ve been planting and planting for spring and summer. hopefully our garden success will continue through the season!

biocompatible vs. biodegradable – a lesson in grey water use

oasissince we moved into this house, we’ve used our grey water from the kitchen sink to water trees. it’s a very low-tech bucket system. we also recently “upgraded” our washing machine drain so it goes into a barrel with a spigot connected to a hose that we move around to the trees in the orchard.

we felt great about all this until the trees that got the majority of our dish water started dying. oops. turns out most detergents, even those labeled “biodegradable,” contain salts that are very harmful to plants when they build up in the soil. where we used to live, in eugene, we probably could have got away with using regular soap because there’s enough rainfall to flush a lot of the salts away. but here in joshua tree, that’s not the case (last year we got 2 inches of rain, that’s what vancouver got in the last 3 days!). the salts just build up until the soil is totally toxic to plants.

it’s pretty hard to reverse the damage done by salts once it’s done, but we can stop adding salts by using grey water safe, or better yet, biocompatible detergent. i was already buying biodegradable soap, thinking it was grey water safe, but those labels are misleading. biodegradable means something will break down, but what it breaks down into may or may not be toxic to plants. biocompatible means that it breaks down into plant nutrients (no salts!), and makes plants happy. yay! i just ordered oasis bicompatible laundry detergent and dish detergent. so far they seem to work fine. i’ll post a review once i’ve used them for a while. even if they don’t work quite as well as regular detergent, i’m willing to sacrifice a bit of performance for being able to recycle what amounts to about 55 gallons of water a day (that’s 45 for laundry and 10 for the kitchen sink).