Small Batch Garden

Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cob Oven Reveal

As my ol' pal and prodigal son, Ix, noted in the comments section of my last post - and by the way, Ix, I'm glad to see the money you invested in finishing school is paying off - the rough sketch of the fledgling cob oven on display in my last post was somewhat baffling.  Agreed.  I've been able to see it in my head since I started stacking rocks, but there's no reason to believe anyone else could have.

Well, ponder no more!  It isn't completely finished (I still have to do the finish plaster and finish building the shed over it) but it is now a legitimate oven, fired dry and hard, 6" thick dome, with a few tasty pizzas under its belt.  Check out the video of the first firing:

Burns surprisingly well (later, bigger fires) for not having a chimney.  Must be the door height to dome height ratio thingy that I mentioned last time.  I seem to have gotten that part right.

The thing I have to do next, though, is build a door to close it up tight.  I can put a lot of heat into the mass of the oven (about 500 lbs of cob alone), get it way up over 500 degrees in there, but it just hemorrhages heat once you remove the fire.  Everyone says a tight door is a must.  I agree.  A door is next.  I think it'll work great then.

Or you could build a version large enough to leave the fire in while you bake if that's your preference.  I could see that being a better party trick anyway.

So I've got $20 invested in the thing so far, for sand, that I used as a mold over which the cob shell was built.  I'll reuse that sand in the finish plaster, too, though I might have to buy a little additional pigment to add to the native clay to get the desired finish color.  Very affordable for its gravity.

Although...with a chance to look at it from the typical angle, and the little cooking tool and woodshed going up around it, I'm afraid the split down the middle in the target look of "wheat seed" looks a little more like "fat man's derriere."  Never mind what that would make the entry to the oven look like.

Nah, I think I'll plaster over that and make it smooth...we'll just pretend it's there to help the plaster hold onto the structure better!

Everyone who has seen it so far wants one, wants me to help them build one.  I think I could just about start a career building these things.  Pretty fun, too, but took plenty of physical effort.  Probably a full work week of effort all told, just to this point.  Core workout the whole way through, too.  Not like sitting at a desk.  Cobbing is actually very physical.  Surprisingly physical.  Every batch was a workout.  But left me feeling really good.  To be able to take heavy, natural, (and free) materials lying right around you and make something beautiful and useful out of them is uniquely rewarding.

If you're ever in the neighborhood let me know and we'll fire this baby up.

In the meantime, I've been churning it out lately.  I'm going to have one of the best photo updates in years ready for the winter solstice post!  Please stop back by.

Tripp out.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Equal Night

Happy Fall, everyone!  Living without A/C definitely makes Fall one of my favorite seasons!

My family (the 4 on the left) and the rest of my maternal family (Mom, sister, brother, heading to the right away from me) at the beach in the Florida panhandle last weekend.  First time we've gotten this much related blond hair together in a long time!  Forgive the matchy-matchy Gap ad - Mom's request - we haven't gone back to watching TV or using a water-flushing toilet or anything, just making Mom happy...;) 

Time to start drying things out from a muggy summer.  The first fire will be lit in the wood stove before too much more time goes by.  Books will get their annual maintenance.  Shoes too.  Mildew rules the summer in most places and ages.  And will again one day.  The large serving of energy required for air conditioning goes a long way toward a lot of other, less presumptuous, conveniences when the time comes.  Even after the planned addition for solar power next spring we won't have nearly enough power for even a single window unit.  Never will.  That's not part of our future.  So we get out the anti-fungal essential oils and rub the books down every Fall!

Today is also my Dad's 61st birthday, so we wish him well for another year!  And look forward to seeing him next month at the trail ride.

Not too much to cruise through this time around, but I do want to show some updated photos of my school project and a cob oven I'm working on at home.

Starting with the greenhouse at school:

I've set it up sort of like a cattle chute to file school children through on greenhouse days.  The solar oven in the foreground is getting increasing usage from the students, though admittedly, it took some prodding to get them out of the microwave. 
And out the other side, no congestion necessary.  In the last update this was still very rough; now it's looking a lot more polished, and a rain barrel has been installed as well.  This seems to be plenty of water for watering the greenhouse bed and seed starting flats, and filling small livestock fountains nearby.

The herb garden has mostly recovered from the goat encounter, and is once again giving us what we need for regular herbal classes and cut flowers for the classrooms, although the Brown-eyed Susans in the foreground bloomed in a stunted way.  We did our first herb class of the year yesterday on lemon balm, complete with lemon balm and honey tea.  Kids loved it. 

The perennial fruit has mostly recovered too.  This row of raspberries on the hugelkultur mound is looking pretty strong after being nibbled down to nubs in early June.  Grass in the playground seems to be benefiting from the chicken tractor's regular circuit.
On to my house and the new cob oven in progress:

Did a dry-stacked base for the oven out of fairly large rocks.  The oven will enclose the south end of the firepit area and create more of a cooking complex between the two.

Oliver checked each addition for stability.

This is the platform, ready to receive the oven.  That big flat rock on top cost me a massage...

Here's the first course of cob laid in place, and the beginnings of the sculptural roots extending down into the rock base.  I did this partly out of a craving for artistic flare, and partly to help glue what I considered the weakest part of the rock base together.

Second cob course going on.

New batch of screened mineral subsoil ready to stomp.

Just like biscuits...

All stomped up, good texture, ready to use.  There's no straw in this batch as it will form the thermal layer on the interior of the oven, and will be exposed to open fire and high heat.

I changed my mind and decided I wanted a brick arch for the door instead a cob one, so I just pulled off the cob that was sticking out this way and extended the sand mold to support the bricks as I built it.

The door/interior height ratio seems to be one of the more critical technical aspects of building one of these.  Supposed to be right around 60%, door height to interior height.  Mine's pretty darn close to target.

The sculptural roots have developed some more, and we're working on a "root dragon," as the kids call it, sleeping under the top layer of rock.  You can see his snout sticking out directly under the sand mound.  All of this will be coated with the colored finish plaster we seal the oven up with, and will stand out from the native rock, which of course blends very well with the cob made from subsoil that used to BE the native rock!  As soon as I'm done with this post I'm going to go wet my cob back down and finish the thermal mass dome layer.  Hopefully I'll have some great photos of the finished product, and some fine baked goods cooked in it, to show off next time around.

Well, like I said, not too much to show this time around, but I hope you enjoyed it anyway.  I know I'm enjoying it, and loving this cooler fall weather even more.  Ready for the bugs to call it a season, and ready to light that first fire in the old wood stove.  See you next time around, about Halloween.

Tripp out.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Permie Looks at 42

Douglas Adams fans will understand why one of my favorite numbers is 42, and I just turned 42 a couple of days ago, on a blue moon no less!  So I expect a lot out of this coming year.  Bless you, Douglas Adams!  Wherever you are now.  To kick my next circumnavigation of the Sun off in the right direction, how about this: last week I renewed my drivers license with the same address for the first time in my life.  Since I turned 16 I've never lived at one address for 5 years.  OK, admittedly I still haven't.  My 5 year Georgia drivers license started in Macon early in 2010, then moved to Tifton the following new year, and then to Ellijay 16 months after that.  And OK, the remaining 39 months are also split roughly down the middle, when you consider the 3 month co-farming fiasco of fall '13, where we briefly lived at a different address (though we still owned our place and never changed the address on our IDs)!  Yes, yes, the point is, it's the first time that's ever happened!  As far as signs go, I think it's a good one ;p

But I have to dig my roots in deeper, of course.  The upcoming decades might prove to be a rough time to be a rolling stone.  And gathering moss is at the top of my to-do list.  Just above planting apples, and peaches, and plums, and raspberries, and blueberries, and shiitakes, and, well, you get the idea.  Make haste slowly.  I have a hard time envisioning life on the road as adaptive in an era of volatile energy prices, contracting resources and budgets, and increasingly local economies.  But hey, if riding the slide on a sailboat's your thing, bon voyage.  Who am I to judge?

Speaking of plums, plums make me think of the late English author P.G. Wodehouse.  I have a book, a really nice edition actually, called "The Plums of P.G. Wodehouse," who was, in my opinion, a brilliant social critic, all too willing to discuss the cultural landscape of an empire in decline.  We'll be seeing more of that in the upcoming decades on this side of the Atlantic, too, I think.  The Brits are just way ahead of us, on average, in coming to terms with contraction.  Most people here in the States can't yet even entertain the idea that the period of explosive economic and technical (and growth!) growth - growth growth?  yeah, why not, it fits - of the post WWII era (the official transfer of power from the British empire to the American one) in this country is temporary and self-terminating.  Much less that we could already be firmly entrenched in the pattern of decline on the far side of the peak.  Still, the great god Progress will no doubt think of something to reverse that trend, and lay waste to that pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics...

[Tongue, cheek, yes?]

Back to Wodehouse, over the years of being married to my amazing and Anglophilic wife I've become a big fan of the British ITV show Jeeves and Wooster from the early 90s, which was based on Wodehouse's writing.  In one of my favorite episodes, Jeeves and Wooster find themselves in coastal Devonshire on Lammas Eve.

"Don't be out late tonight," the hotel manager admonishes the guests on their way to dinner, "Ol' Boggy walks on Lammas Eve."

That was the first I'd ever heard of "Lammas,"  But like the other quarter days, Lammas makes sense, has its place in the natural cycle, and recommends itself for observance, even if only because of its calendar position.  But more than that, traditionally Lammas was the deadline for wheat deliveries to the baron.  Then, as soon as the landlord was satisfied, it was also the Feast of August, always heavy on the bread from the recent wheat harvest, which had probably just replenished some pretty sad larders.  It was a time to celebrate the grain harvest and the feeling of security a heaping helping of starvation insurance like that must have delivered to the village.

Today is Lammas, and with my birthday so close by, I feel a certain natural connection to it.  If nothing else, it's a good excuse to keep my birthday celebration going for one more day!  Yeehaw!!  But you know, every year I get a little closer to a life that recognizes and appreciates things like Lammas, makes a special mead to tilt the next time it rolls around, and just rejoices in being alive and healthy.  And well-friended.  I am thankful.

Thanks for taking a little stroll down the virtual street with me.
Tripp out.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Summer Solstice Salute - Photos of All Projects

Happy Summer Solstice...a little late, but it was Father's Day, big market day, and Summer Solstice, all rolled into one!  Oh, and then Monday was Oliver's 5th birthday, and Tuesday was my garden day at the local Montessori school, where we built a big solar oven in our garden this week (more on that below).  So I'm going to just pick up where we left off last time, and run through a bunch of photos.  There are some nice garden shots, some new self-reliance measures, there's a tour of my elementary school project, and a wrap-up at the new organic cider orchard that a couple of my buds and I have been working on.  Let's go, starting with my place:

The ol' fire pit doing its thing, on May Day evening where we left off last time,  Raised my glass of mead to summer, as promised, grilled a little local grass-fed ribeye, some garden 'taters and root veg, sauteed kale from the kitchen garden, and enjoyed the fire with my family. 
Built a small front porch, which is about to get its roof. 
My daughter Ella turned 7.  Nice tea set from my mom, huh?  Ella loves wearing fancy dresses and setting out tea. 
Out to the garden, the comfrey that occupied the space in the lower-middle-left of this shot was harvested, for the second time this season, to help repair an orchard problem I'll get to in a minute.  The more established comfreys are really starting to produce some high-quality fertilizing biomass.
First-year plum guild starting to settle in.
View through nectarine polyculture across the strawberry-rhubarb bed.  Pinching the strawberry flowers for the first round, like the pros suggest, definitely paid off, with bigger, stronger plants that are now producing large, sweet berries as they peter out for mid-summer downtime. 
Separated the rooster from the hens while I introduced the spring pullets to the laying group.  Just as easy to build garden beds with chickens as with rabbits, probably easier - just have to wait longer to plant in it. 
There's a uglier side to this update, too, I'm afraid.  Boo boo #1.  I left a couple sheets of rockboard leaning against the adjacent fence while I was gone one day, wind started blowing, blew the rockboard backwards into this little peach tree, and made a mess of its trunk.  As you can see, though, medicine arrived quickly.  I slathered the wounds with the comfrey cream we make, to fight off microbial infection in the bare inner tissue, and harvested a mess of comfrey leaf to feed the soil around the tree.
I've never met an organic treatment that has more positive effects on fruit trees than the chop-n-drop comfrey strategy.  I've used it for years now on all kinds of problems, with excellent results. 
This nectarine is our first fruit tree to reach 12'.  Probably time to do some heading cuts on it next major pruning session. 
Second growth on this comfrey, following a fat harvest.  The rest of the guild is coming along nicely, the greens are productive, and some young tomatoes are settling in. 
Lavender, like comfrey, is another one of those plants that I couldn't do without.  Took us some time to figure out how to grow it here, though.  We babied it too much before - composting, mulching, putting it in a prime spot.  No, that's not what it wants. It wants to grow in the dry gravel along the path, and get kicked now and then for good measure!
Found a Cherokee arrowhead out in the garden recently.  Super cool.  Also found out that I have some Cherokee blood as well, which might explain the feathers in my hair.  Er, wait, that's probably just dirt and chicken feathers.  Maybe I just need a shower...
Also got a newer car since my last post.  The morning after May Day, we were in Atlanta for a big craft show, and got rear-ended on the off-ramp...sitting still, waiting for the light to turn green, a nice Mercedes slams into a GMC truck, who slams into us.  (I bet the guy was texting!)  Anyway, we had enough other problems cropping up with the old Camry, and unfortunately can't live without a car at this point, so we broke down and bought a newer one.  I hate having a car payment, even a small one, but she sure is niiiice.  I'm hoping this car will take care of us as well and as long as the last one did. 
This one's here to help balance out the utter dependency of the last photo!  We're finally catching some rain.  I mean, when it rains again. 
Moving on to my Montessori project.  This is the top side of our Mike Oehler-style earth-berm greenhouse.  This is the first thing you see when you walk into the play yard/garden at the school.  The little sign tacked to the right corner of the eaves says "Please excuse our goat-ravaged garden."  I'll get to that in a sec.  To the right... 

This is the best greenhouse design I've ever seen.  Thank you, Mike Oehler!  Although his is buried even deeper in the ground.  I only had so much hill to work with, and didn't want runoff water, nor cold air, pooling in the greenhouse as the low spot.  It's buried deep enough, though, and has enough masonry thermal mass in the north wall, that I had tender young lettuce plants make it through a 5 degree night without any doors on...and one of the highest windows was out, being reglazed.  It holds some heat.  But because of the earth connection and open doors, doesn't get as hot as you'd think in the blinding summer sun.  I've built this particular greenhouse to accommodate the flow of young children.  During the heat of summer we're not growing anything in it, but it's a perfect place for my garlic to dry.  Everyone seems to dig it!
Speaking of digging it, how about Boo boo #2? 
Some great and giving folks, parents of one of my students, contributed a dump-bed load of composted horse manure to our garden efforts.  You might as well have dumped a load of gold doubloons in the garden, I was so happy.  Well, turns out the horse manure compost had a persistent herbicide from the hay (thank you, Gilmer County Master Gardeners!).  Graze On would be my guess (thank you, Chris!).  What a mess it's made of our school garden!  The tomatoes are stunted, curled up and really ugly.  Some of the fruit trees don't know what to do.  I spread that stuff everywhere.  At my house too.  At this point the strategy is to try to remove as much of it as is feasible, spread some untainted compost on all the offended areas, inoculate with mycorrhizae, mulch with straw, and water thoroughly.  ??
The tea garden at school - various mints, lemon balm, bee balm, self heal.  The kids usually pick and make tea once a week. 
Alright, Boo boo #3.  A giant billy goat at the farm next door to the school broke out of his fence and into our garden a few weeks ago.  He broke fruit trees, munched raspberries down to stubs, and clipped this herb row down hard. 
Things are starting to recover, like these young peaches, but man, between the billy and the tainted compost... 
This is the new raspberry row, on a hugelkultur mound on contour.  It was bushy and loaded with ripening fruit, just in time for summer camp-ers, when the billy broke in and demolished it.  It's slowly recovering, though.  I think we lost one Asian pear tree for good, but I think everyone else will recover.  The owner actually sold the billy goat on account of this.
This is our rabbit/worm compost factory.  Clover gets tons of attention from the kids, and tons of fresh greens to eat; they even let her out to roam now and then.  The rest of the time, she's busy feeding the vermicompost bin below her with her droppings and food mess. 
This is another of last summer's projects.  We dismantled an old dilapidated play set, and reused the materials to make a chicken tractor!
Food door below, egg door above.  Kids take care of them full time - feed, water, collect eggs.  And they've collected LOTS of eggs.  Usually once a week, eggs have to get used before they take over the kitchen!
The kids even move the tractor.  See, we used an extra swing as a harness, chained to the bottom of the leading end.  It takes two of them to pull it in the harness, so it also fosters teamwork.  They all love the chickens, and almost no one minds getting stuck with this detail for the week.
This photo makes me happy and sad.  Happy because we built a nice little school orchard - 6 pears, 6 apples, and another peach - on the cheap, and sad because our orchard was only cheap at someone else's expense.  A friend of mine, too.  Ran one of the great southern fruit nurseries, and went out of business 01JUN.  By mid-May, we were buying trees for $5 each, as he liquidated the entire nursery.  That's about half of what he had in them.  Good for us; bad for my friend.
Just yesterday we built this baby!  A nice solar oven, big enough to hold and heat lots of corn dogs and leftover pizza.  Got this pan of cold water to the edge of boiling in about 45 minutes.  Unlike most Americans, I don't think microwaves are good things, so I'm trying to encourage the kids to use this instead.  There's a false bottom, stuffed with insulation underneath, the seams are taped up tight, and the joint between the box and the window top is weatherstripped.  I think I'm going to have fun playing with this, and can't wait to build one at home!
The Other Other project.  A buddy of mine has a great little homestead to the north of us a little ways.  He's not there much.  He's off somewhere else making lots of money.  We have another friend, though, who actually lives there, and sort of takes care of the place and does some publicity work for the owner friend.  He's from Seattle, but wants to slow down and work on a farm.  So we're building one.  Starting with shifting the horse pasture, and planting the first 70 apples trees of our organic cider orchard.  This is where my friend's nursery business closing really helped out.
The lower tier has the first 25 trees, and a bunch of elderberry that definitely has a home in our orchard.
The upper tier has the other 45 trees.
We've had a little deer pressure, but a dowsing around each tree with a solution of Irish Spring "soap" seems to be working.

Our long-term goal with the orchard is a permaculture-type mixed yield polycultural "farm."  (Farms used to all be polycultural, but that's not the image associated with the word today).  We're brewing a steady supply of mead now, and more cider every season, and we intend to keep increasing our production, adding more cider trees, berries, grapes, honeybees, herbs, and so forth, every season.  Disc golf course might have to move...

With school, my youngest is now 5, and they can stay at Montessori until at least 12, by then probably all the way through, so it's my intention to keep trading my organic garden-herbalism-permaculture course for their education.  We'll see after that.  I might have too much to do at home by then;)

So I have our low-impact off-grid homestead and developing food forest "Rivenwood," our herbal business, Small Batch Garden, the school project, and the cider orchard.  That's four part-time jobs, a wife, and two children.  There's always something to do.  And I hope you've enjoyed this more comprehensive photo tour of my projects, 'cause, I gotta run!

Be back around Lammas.
Until then, 
Tripp out.