Category Archives: Alaska Permaculture

Mini Earth Bag Dome Duck House

I’ve been wanting to make an earth bag dome forever (and click that link if you want to know what the heck that is or how to do one right!)  I’ve been saving poly woven bags since my days collecting soil samples in them for work.  I finally had a project to use them for: there are too many poultry on site to shove them all back into my chicken house for the winter so I needed to make a duck house.  I have 5 Muscovies now, and even though they need less protection than chickens in general,  it’s extreme enough in Anchorage that they needed a warm place to sleep in the winter. IMG_4034 I started by shoveling off the turf and topsoil (less than 6 inches) in a circle.  I scribed the circle with a stick on a string attached to a centrally placed pole.  Then I filled bags with the gravelliest soil I could find on my lot.  The inside diameter of this first ring is a little less than 4 feet. IMG_4039 I was running low on gravelly soil, so I went to the home improvement store and bought about $40 of pea gravel (10 bags) to do the next level.  This creates a barrier to moisture wicking up into the rest of the structure. Then I had the brilliant idea of using wood chips in the rest of the bags instead of soil.  Mostly because they are lighter and easier to move and I have a ton of them.  They would be more insulating that soil…think straw bale, kind of.  They would not have the strength of soil bags though, and have a high danger of decomposition and the resulting instability.  I also had 7 bags of ready mix concrete that were getting a little solid from sitting around for a while. Maybe woodchipcrete would be a little more stable?  SO I mixed in one 50 lb sack per wheel barrow load: IMG_4048   IMG_4049   This worked for most of the layers in the dome, until I ran out of concrete mix for the last couple of layers, but everything seems pretty stable…for now. IMG_4067 Here is a selfie of me standing on the top: IMG_4069 And here is a door detail: IMG_4061 I used a big cottonwood log as a form for the door, but it wasn’t as wide as the bags so things did settle to a little smaller than I would have liked, but still big enough for a duck. Then I covered everything with 6-mil poly (builders plastic/visqueen) to hopefully keep the rotting to a minimum: IMG_4071 And threw the top soil and turf back on: IMG_4085 And lo and behold, after baiting it with some canned salmon, the ducks finally trusted it enough to go in at night! IMG_4092 So we’ll see (and I’ll let you know) how things go. There is no ventilation other than the doorway. I will have to pull the poopy bedding out with a potato fork since even a rake is too big to get through the door. If they lay eggs in there that I don’t want them to hatch, it’ll be fun trying to get them out. My moisture management could fail miserably and things could settle or collapse in catastrophic ways (which could lead to a big pot of duck stew in a worst case scenario). I will have to shovel snow out of the entry. Next year I’ll have to get some sort of stucco over the non-dirt covered part of the entry so that it doesn’t photodegrade. It really didn’t take much time, energy, money, or materials to build, so I figure the risk is low for this experiment!

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Black Currant Love

Black currants (ribes nigrum) are my favorite fruit right now!  I am growing 3 big bushes – Titania, Consort, and an unnamed variety from the local farmers market.

1.5 g from unnamed black currant

1.5 g from unnamed black currant

The unnamed bush gave me 1.5 gallons/ 8 pounds of fruit yesterday.  The Titania was a little overripe already, but I got 3/4 of a gallon that hadn’t fallen and rotted yet.  The Consort is less ripe and I’ve only picked about half a gallon off of it, but there are more to pick.  It is also in the shade and currently (hah!  get it!) has some mildew problems.

I like black currants because they are vigorous and hardy and produce a lot.  They grow well about anywhere I plunk them down in my yard in Anchorage – right under an apple tree’s shade, out in the sun, wherever.  They are a great permaculture guild plant; I have a corner with an apple tree, black currant right next to it, white currant next to that, and arctic kiwi twining through the whole thing.  Red clover surround this dense mix, and everything produces well and catches just about all the light before it gets to the ground!  Unlike my red and white currants and gooseberry, they don’t get touched by the totally defoliating currant worm.  They get a few leaf rollers (or tent moths or whatever you call them) in a bad year like this, but nowhere near as much damage as apple and other fruit trees.  They are very easy to propagate.  The branches that touch the ground root and can be clipped off, pulled up and replanted elsewhere.  If no branches have done that yet, you can always pin one down to root, but most of mine have a very sprawling habit and are rooted all over the place.

They are pretty easy to pick, the fruit is on stringers that can be plucked or cut off as a cluster.  They are less of a pain to pick than strawberries and raspberries, where the fruit are a bit more separated and ripen over a longer period (I lose a lot of straws and rasps by not going out every day in the season to pick).  They are harder to pick than my apples since my apples are bigger, at standing height, and less hidden under leaves, but for small, easy fruit they win!  Generally, I can pick some into my mouth for a couple of weeks, then choose a good day, like yesterday, and go out and harvest almost all of the crop and process them in one day.  And be done with black currants!

I tend to like to eat them fresh – they have very very high vitamin c content and are quite tasty.  You may need to develop a taste for them, they are a little skunky, but that grows on you more and more!  I’m sure it is this spicy skunkiness, that is also in the leaves, which keeps the chewing insects at bay.  I love brushing by the leaves in the spring and getting a whiff of that wonderful perfume!  I also can juice concentrate for italian sodas with them.  This is more likely to be consumed by my son than jam, and I think most people would find it tasty…mellowed by sugar.  I’m going to try to make a little fermented soda this year by throwing some yeast in a bottle of juice concentrate and water and see what happens…hopefully not a broken bottle!  My roommate makes a good black currant fruit leather.  They can also be frozen for later use if you can’t decide what to do with them, or want to throw them in baked goods or something in the winter.

Quackgrass – who’s in control?

Every gardener, even those who have embraced weeds, likely has their nemesis plant.  That one garden invader that holds on tenaciously, spreads like honey on a hot day, can’t be eaten, and crowds out or poisons the ‘good’ plants.  Mine is quackgrass ( Agropyron repens ).

A bed of equal parts strawberries and quackgrass

A bed of equal parts strawberries and quackgrass

Strawberries from this bed.

Strawberries from this bed.

There are all kinds of great suggestions to control quackgrass, I’ve failed to take any of them to the level I would need to.  In my desire to garden gently and make conditions as much like a normal forest as possible, I am adverse to chemicals, tilling (this may be a good thing as the grass rhizomes can spawn a huge number of new plants when they get chewed up and spit back out), and mowing.  I have generally attempted to turn the lawn that came with my house into forest garden by sheet mulching and cover cropping.  If I had been able to sheet mulch the whole grassy area at once with at least 3 layers of overlapping cardboard/thick newspaper and mulch on top, it would have helped.  I would have also had to do something along the approximately 180 feet of the perimeter of the lot that borders the neighbors’ grass.  Instead, I only had the materials and time to tackle a section at a time, and the grass spreads back onto my mulched area in less than a year.  In fact, the rhizomes seem quite happy snaking along the cardboard, through its crenelated pathways, to pop up again in the specially prepared fertile, sunny middle of the sheet mulch.  Perhaps newspaper would work better, but the grass apparently likes a hard surface below soft soil to spread along, hardpan or old yard surface – each does the trick!

grass growing up in a sheet mulched bed.

grass growing up in a sheet mulched bed.

I also have too much area to be very successful with mulching – even when I score bags and bags of leaves, I never seem to have enough to even come close to mulching over a foot in all the affected areas as recommended.  I also have so many tender young plants that I have to be light and careful mulching around these keepers.

I have spent five years in battle now – sheet mulching, pulling grass around plants and throwing it to the chickens (so that it doesn’t reroot, as even dried up pulled plants can), trying my best to totally eradicate grass in my yard.  But my approach is softening.  For one thing, my perceptions are gently shifting.  My reading had led me to the conclusion that this grass had not much going for it – not edible (by humans anyway), invasive, creating a tough root mat that outcompeted other plants for nutrients and perhaps exuded something that inhibited other plant growth (I can’t find much on this online, so it may be total bunk).  But as I look around my garden today, I see a pretty functional food-production space that still happens to have a lot of quackgrass.  My strawberry patch is chock full of it, and yet still produces abundant strawberries.  In fact, strawberries thrive amongst the grass in various parts of the yard, competing well without totally outcompeting it.  My fruit trees are also surrounded by healthy rings of tall grass without seeming to be too put out.  I have tried planting dense rings of bulbs (mostly tulips) around my trees to keep grass from encroaching, but not all of the bulbs make it and grass grows happily among them.  In fact, I think I set an apple tree back with one round of my bulb planting, impacting too many of the shallow tree roots.

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Apple tree, strawberry, spent tulips and quackgrass, partying it up.

 

 

 

same thing, wider view.

same thing, wider view.

Various techniques allow annual gardens to flourish – raised beds, good weeding, getting things to grow before the grass invades the newly mulched or dug beds.  But I am leaning more and more towards pure forest gardening with time.  The fruits and berries that result are more likely to be consumed than turnips anyway, and I have plenty of weeds to eat when I need vitamins (dandelion, dock, chickweed, sheep sorrel, lamb’s quarters to name a few), and fruit is more expensive at the farmers market than broccoli and greens.

raised bed with chamomile (surrounded by wood chips and red clover

raised bed with chamomile (surrounded by wood chips and red clover

There are areas where I have managed near total eradication – generally where I have managed to temporarily remove all surface traces of the grass and then get other things that really shade the ground going.  Most successful of these cover crops is perennial red clover, with other things sometimes able to mix in.  Not successful is sheet mulching a large area and not planting it right away – like the garden bed I prepared last fall and didn’t plant until after a trip to europe this summer, or the swaths of ground and path I have tried to keep wood chipped.

red clover, parsnip, lupine.  Very little grass.

red clover, parsnip, lupine. Very little grass.

Also, my chicken tractor is a help.  By itself, it does not eliminate the grass, but the chickens do eat it and dig up the ground enough to give me a dirt patch to try to get other things going in.  And if I could repeatedly tractor all of the grass every time it got five inches high it might exhaust the grass’ resources.  The chickens have been scratching enough of their barley into the ground that it is mostly barley thats been sprouting up after I move their tractor.

Chickens working on weeding a small patch

Chickens working on weeding a small patch

Barley grass and brassicas growing up in the wake of the chicken tractor

Barley grass and brassicas growing up in the wake of the chicken tractor

Sometimes, sitting in the garden in the failing light of day, I have caught a glimpse of the tall seed heads of my quackgrass.  And I have been filled, not with repugnance, but with the visual lullaby of wind made manifest in the patterns of nodding grass.  Truce.

The successes of the Alaskan Food Forest Garden

It was a great year for fruit! The apples, june berries, arctic kiwi, currants of 3 colors, sour cherries, strawberries, and raspberries of 3 colors were all mega-prolific. Sweet cherries, gooseberries and an improved mountain ash all produced a bit. Here are the Hyer 20 apples:

Turnips, potatoes, rutabagas and some cole crops also did quite well, and I got one almost-big-enough tomatillo. As of yesterday, most of the garden is harvested and in except for some cabbages, that I think are better left out until I can make room in the fridge or a cooking pot! I still have some spring bulbs to plant, but gardening is almost done for the year. Just in time considering we already had our first snow last week, and a few nights of frost.
I purchased the empty lot next door this summer, so my dream of starting a community garden may be realized next year, if I can get off my butt and organize it! Right now the lot is full of piles of wood chips and the back corner is fenced for an extended chicken/duck run.

Berry harvest in July

Dipnetted the Kasilof and the Copper this summer, so the freezer is full of salmon and berries, and the cupboard has a few jars of syrups and jams. Not a huge stash of food, but a start on the winter! Also grew a good crop of oyster mushrooms from a kit and dried some of those plus some wild boletes.
Secrets to this year’s successes: goat manure around the fruit trees early every spring has undoubtedly contributed to strong growth and health. Guild planting has definitely led to happy communities – the strawberries are doing a very good job of competing with grass, berries under the trees are happy, and borage and motherwort and other flowers are drawing the bees. Yarrow, crimson clover, buckwheat, field peas and favas filled in the interstices, were lovely, and contributed their myriad benefits (drawing beneficials, pollinators, providing chicken forage, covering the ground as living mulch, providing food and nitrogen fixation). Mushrooms (of a generally undetermined nature – except for ubiquitous inky caps) grew everywhere amongst the beds and the wood chip paths.
Secrets to this year’s failures – I always put all the manure on the trees and mostly ignore the annual beds, so they don’t do as well. I didn’t thin enough as usual, and let the turnips shade out the beets and carrots too long for the latter to get big (the former are the size of baby’s heads and still tender). I traveled in May and late June and missed planting many things early etc, but all and all a great year!

Overview of Garden Progress – Spring/Summer 2012

OK, I have not posted since March. I must be busy. or lazy. Or both. I will try to get up to date with a couple of photo essays of the time in between my March postings and now. This first one is of the melting snow and the garden, from above. Next time I’ll post a photo essay of some more specific happenings and progress in the garden/food forest. Enjoy.

April 9 – the garden is covered with snow!


April 13 – still under snow!


April 18 – Melting…


April 27 – Melted!

May 24 – Finally greening up.

July 13 – not the same view, but getting almost Jungle-like

Cold climate egg production!

One of these days I’m going to write about my building/energy efficiency and community building projects again, but for now it is eggs that are exciting me. I arrived back from an overnight trip to Ft Yukon (where there is some interest in chicken raising due to the high cost of AC store eggs) to find 5 blue-green eggs in the nest!! So it seems at least 3 of the girls are laying. And here is breakfast this morning:

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The lighter yolk, bigger egg is a local egg but not from my hens. My hen egg is the one with the bright orange, firm yolk! Delish! Shells are strong as well, and the chickens seem healthy.

So, as I commented on in the last post, my local, energy efficient coop management seems to be working: a 40 watt equivalent 8 watt led bulb on a timer to give 14 hours of supplemented light, in an insulated but unheated coop. Alaskan grown grain (oats, barley, and or wheat) available from an automatic feeder in the coop. Unfrozen water supplied once a day. Scraps are brought with the water including crushed egg shells, table scraps including greens frozen for them in the fall, and salmon scraps (guts, backbones, skin, heads, roe, etc – about a pint to a quart a week). All for 5 hens and 4 ducks.

Little blue frozen egg!!

One of my hens laid a little blue-green egg in the nest box this morning! It was 10 F in the coop, so it froze before I got to it, but I’ll cook it today. I don’t heat my insulated coop, and the little door to their yard is always open unless it is double digits below zero F.

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So cold doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to laying! Neither does my tough-love, low energy treatment: to have as sustainable an operation as possible I only feed local grain (wheat, barley and/or oats – always available) and bring them salmon and table scraps and warm water once a day. We’ll see if that egg tastes fishy since most of their protein and calcium comes from salmon!

The key is light. I got them as new hatched chicks June 15, so they are about 31 weeks old. A couple of weeks ago I installed a compact fluorescent bulb on a timer in the coop and have generally been giving them an additional hour of light a day until today. Today they will have artificial light from 4:30am to 9:30am (dawn) then from 4:30pm (dusk) to 6:30pm – 14 hours as my sources tell me they need. Yesterday they only had 13.5 hours, so that was enough for one girl! I will slowly adjust the hours to start later so the eggs don’t have so much time to freeze.

It certainly seems like a miracle that they are starting to lay! Here is the flock:
The black Easter-egger type (blue/green egg layers):

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One of the three grey Easter-eggers:

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Probably the lone brown egg layer – the barred rock mutt:

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And, of course, the duck family:

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3pm update: another little blue egg in the nest – this one not cracked from freezing!! And I ate the first egg and it was delish – no fishy at all!