Friday, October 30, 2015

Naughty piggies? The dogs are on it!

Today, as I was walking back from the field, on of the student volunteers (we'll call her Tara) came running up to me and told me that one of the pigs had escaped the sty. The poor girl, being timid and outweighed, was at a loss as to what to do. This turned out to be my dogs long-awaited opportunity to do something useful on the farm.

I instructed Tara to keep the door to the pig pen open to admit the fugitive while keeping the others inside. Once she was in place, I called to my dogs and once I had their attention, I started running after the pig, crying in an exaggerated and excited voice "Get the piggy! Get the Piggy!"

Formosan Black dogs (the breed that makes up most of my mutts' bloodlines) though not bred for herding livestock, WERE bred for chasing wild boar. Admittedly, a farm pig is a poor substitute for a wild boar but they made it work. The thoroughly harassed pig decided that the pig sty IS safer than the outside world after all and ran straight back in.

First problem solved, Tara told me that the recently re-incarcerated pig had been misbehaving all day and she was scared to turn her back on it to clean the sty. Once again, my dogs were put on the job, this time as wardens of the pig sty. When any of the pigs would get too close, I'd once again tell the dogs to "get the piggy" and they would chase it back. Once at an acceptable distance, id give a "leave it" command. Eventually, the pigs all decided to stay in one corner, content to hump each other instead of fucking with the farmhands.

Will all dogs behave like this without training? Of course not. But if you spend enough time with your pooch, you probably know how much control you have over him, how he is likely to respond to certain stimuli and most importantly what his natural inclinations are. I know that my dogs love to chase things. I also know that their ancestors were bred for chasing pigs specifically. Because I've already put a lot of energy into teaching the "leave it" command I know that I can expect them to chase the pigs if allowed, and to return to me when I tell them the pig has had enough. This, in itself makes them excellent sty wardens. Because I'd assumed correctly that, when threatened, the pig would run back to a familiar, safe place, this combination of natural inclination and training made them acceptable livestock herders in this very specific instance. That being said, I certainly wouldn't set them loose on a flock of sheep with very positive expectations.

There are many jobs a dog can do besides watered down boar hunting, even with a small minimum of training. Perhaps you have a dog that can't be threatened or bribed into walking politely on a leash without trying to rip your arm off. He might be good at bikejoring. Maybe he is an accomplished digger. Set him loose in the garden on the off season to clear out the gophers and voles. Perhaps he is the laziest dog on the block but the local predators haven't figured that out. Put him in the chicken pen where so long as he is un-inclined to chase the poultry he will likely intimidate predators.

In short, figure out what your dog is inclined to do, give him whatever requisite training is needed to make him successful, then let him loose to accomplish his life goal: to assist and please you. Both you and Mans Best Friend will be glad you did.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Experiment in clearing an overgrown bed (week 1)

I've recently been sold on the idea of no-till with cover crops by this lady:

 Thing is, to get the cover crop going, I'm going to have to clear out or weaken the weeds that are already established. Since Operation Goat On A Rope can't be implemented until we have a goat to put on said rope, I decided to try an experiment to see which of the following three methods would give the best weed control for the least effort: pulling them out with the field screw and rake, crimping then covering with 6 inches of leaves or crimping only.

As you can see from the picture, after a week the row that was only crimped is rife with grasses, sticking straight up like so many middle fingers. This is probably not going to be sufficient to give my cover crops the advantage they need to get established; moving on.

The second row, I painstakingly loosened the weeds with my trusty field screw, raked them up for pig food then sowed a mixture of: buckwheat, oats and sorghum to cover things up. None of the cover crop has germinated since I was banking on a typhoon that never came and consequentially didn't water. I expect germination after it finally rains. I'm in no rush. Ultimately, I feel like this approach took about as much time and energy as it took to transfer a 6 inch killer mulch to the next row though this method yielded three heaping wheelbarrows full of pig food.

On the third row, I broke out the hand crimper all over again and pinned down that grass like my name was GSP. I then covered everything with leaves. Some of the leaves in our compost pile are from aleopathic trees (not sure about the English name of this tree species) making this killer mulch extra deadly. True, I may find that I have effectively shot myself in the balls when I transplant broccoli into this row and find that aleopathy swings both ways or I might find that brassicas aren't bothered by this particular aleopathic compound. Only experimentation will tell.

Keep you all updated!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Naturally repel mosquitoes with lemongrass and foot odor

Lemongrass works great for repelling mosquitoes though it is hard to really estimate a range or an effective concentration to keep the little suckers away. I found that my legs get the most attention when I'm out in the field and since it is way too hot and humid to wear long pants, I've had to just “take it” like a Thai whore, that is, until today.

Putting lemongrass in my pockets has been ineffective. Rubbing it on my skin has not shown any noticeable effect either. Sticking a clump in each boot, however, has done wonders.

Grass in the boot has been highly effective at keeping my calves bite free. To be fair, the mosquitoes might be deterred by the leaves waving around rather than the scent. At any rate, it keeps them away from my legs. I haven't gotten bit on my arms either though my upper body gets less attention with or without the lemon grass in my boot.

This is my new go-to strategy. Perhaps it will be equally effective with other herbs in other climates where lemongrass doesn't grow. I encourage any and all anecdotes on natural mosquito repellent.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Hugelkulture Misadventures

Remember in my first post how I'd mentioned you all taking the opportunity to learn from my negative experiences rather than making then yourself? Well, in the past 2 weeks, I've been hit with a double whammy of hugelkulture"learning experiences". In short: be aware that buliding sunken huglebeets are going to involve topping the new bed with sub soil (unless you already have very deep topsoil) and that the dirt you dig up to top the hugelbeet with will leave behind a pit that, if filled with rain water, will become like a cheap, pay by the hour love hotel for mosquitoes. Hello Dengue Fever!
Believe it or not, this is the "soil" on top of the hugelbeet a week after I painstakingly slung it up there. None of the oat grass or cow peas I sowed have made an appearance but the quack grass is doing just fine; go figure. Sure, there is a smorgasbord of nutrients, organic matter and retained water underneath, but the dirt appears to be completely unaware. In fact, this layer of sun baked clay is harder than a 12 year old boy watching his first porno. What I have been doing since this photo was taken is putting on alternating layers of dirt and leaves. Hopefully the OM turns the subsoil into something that will behave a little bit more like topsoil. 

See that knee deep pool of mud water? If you look close, you might see the mosquitoes sucking and fucking; sucking me and fucking each other that is. I wound up bailing out the water like a sailor on a sinking ship, all the while swearing like said sailor as the mosquitoes had a field day with my juicy, tender calves. Only after 5 days, through a combination of bailing and evaporation, the hole dried upI was finally able to get back to digging. Don't leave half dug pits at the end of the day. If it rains and fills up that pit, you are going to have to wait for it to dry up to go anywhere near it without getting eaten alive, much less do any actual digging. Dig it all the way so that even if it rains, you can fill up that pit with some wood and mulch to soak up the water and deny access to flying parasites. 

Hugelkulture by hand is demanding enough as it is. You don't want mosquitoes feeding on you while you labor, nor do you want your new bed unusable to anything aside from creeping grass because you neglected to mix organic material in with your subsoil topping. An ounce of prevention, my fellow permies! 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

How to and how not to make a hugelbeet.

I've finished one hugelbeet and have started on a second. Experience is the best teacher, but if you're like me, you prefer OTHER peoples experience. I'll share some of my eff ups with you so that you can avoid my mistakes.

What I did on the first one was I dug down a single shovel depth, tossed the soil onto the previous section, dropped enough wood to raise it about a foot higher than the surrounding field, then moved to the next section. Rinse and repeat. I realized after I was done that: more or less wood requires just as much soil to cover and therefore more wood is going to have a higher return on invested time and energy, one shovel depth of soil is not nearly enough, one needs to make a point to bury the sod rather than tossing it on top with the soil (upside down or otherwise), it is very necessary to put the largest pieces on the bottom and progressively smaller pieces on top and that some kind of border is necessary to maintain your desired height and width.

Armed with a laundry list of do's and not not's, I dove into building a second, but not even 1/10th of the way through, some "shoulda woulda couldas" have popped up already. First the vindications that I'm doing it right this time: I dug and threw three shovel depths of soil on top of the previous section which is piled up with wood until it is sticking up 3 feet above the surrounding field. The sod goes onto the previous section once the wood is half piled up and the biggest chunks of wood are at the very bottom and the twigs and leaves are on the top, avoiding the problem of big-'ol logs sticking out of the tope periscope-style. However, I'm unimpressed with the performance of my wattle border and heavy leaf mulch in between the beds. I regret the blood sweat and tears poured into the wattle fence which is not nearly strong enough, nor driven far enough into the ground to support the sheer mass of rotting wood pressing against it from within. Next time, I will drive in posts as I am building the hugelbeet so that they get buried as im flinging soil onto the previous section. I don't see any advantage to weaving wattle fencing except for on the very top few inches where the soil is piled. The leaves, though being 6 inches thick at application are already being breached by the quack grass. I wished I had put down cardboard first and then leaves.

The picture is the second hugelbeet in progress. As you can see, the soil on top of any given section comes from the next section, leaving behind a hole in the ground to deposit more wood. This hugelbeet is sunken 2-3 feet in the ground and raised 2-3 feet above the surrounding field, making a hugelbeet that is approximately 5 feet tall.

The second picture is the same concept illustrated by the master stick-figure artist, yours truly, Daniel. I know, I know, sometimes I even impress myself. I try to stay modest but Lord knows it's hard.