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Essential Tips for Building a Durable Walipini Greenhouse

In the 1990s, a philanthropic arm of the Mormon Church called the Benson Institute started an unusual project. A group of volunteers constructed a prototype underground greenhouse for farmers near La Paz, Bolivia. They called the design a ‘Walipini’, meaning place of warmth in the local language. A simple pit with plastic sheeting as a roof, the design minimized costs, while aiming to create a more energy-efficient greenhouse for year-round growing using the stable temperatures of the soil underground.

For several years, the Walipini greenhouse produced crops for the community. The project’s biggest impact, perhaps, came many years later, as the the idea has slowly caught on among North American gardeners. Proponents praise the ability of a pit greenhouse to grow year-round using a simple low-cost structure and the earth to naturally heat and cool it. While there is truth in those statements, there is also a great need for caution when building a Walipini greenhouse.

Many North American gardeners mimic the original Walipini design exactly, as laid out in the Benson’s Institutes report on Walipini design and construction. The original greenhouse, importantly, was designed for the climate of Bolivia, 16 degrees South of the equator and with moderate winters. Placed in a different climate and latitude, the same greenhouse will naturally yield different results.

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Any well-functioning year-round greenhouse should be customized for the local climate and conditions. The following tips serve to help you design a durable, year-round underground greenhouse – one that is based on the original Walipini design, but customized for a North American climate. 

Tailor the Structure to Your Sun Angles

The most critical part of customizing a Walipini greenhouse – and the element most first-time growers regrettably overlook – is to design the structure for the solar angles at your latitude. The original Walipini was designed for Bolivia, 16 degrees south of the equator. There, the sun is high in the sky year-round; shallow roof angle will allow light to penetrate the greenhouse throughout the year.

At higher latitudes in North America, the sun is much lower in the sky, particularly in the winter. In Denver, Colorado, for instance, the sun is only 26 degrees off the horizon at solar noon on winter solstice (compared to 50 degrees in La Paz Bolivia at their winter solstice). If you quickly sketch out a Walipini structure with a floor several feet deep and a flat roof, and a line of 26 degrees off the horizontal, you will see that the sun will not illuminate the floor of the greenhouse during the winter. Rather, plants will be completely shaded, making it challenging, if not impossible, to grow. (You can visualize this issue in the deep pit greenhouse below.)

North American Walipini

Of course, you may not want to grow through the winter. Still, the same principles apply: consider the angle of the sun at your location during the seasons you want to grow, and ensure the greenhouse is not buried so deep that you are creating a shaded hole. You can look up the solar angles at your latitude using many online resources like SunCalc or NOAA’s solar position calculator. Then, sketch a profile of your greenhouse, adding the angles of the sun during some key dates, like the solstices and equinoxes.

As described below, you may have to adjust the geometry of your underground greenhouse to ensure sufficient light for growing. More on finding the best angle of roof for your greenhouse is described in this blog by Ceres Greenhouse Solutions. The report by the Benson Institute also describes their logic on choosing their geometry and is essential background reading.

Consider partially underground

If you follow the steps above, you will quickly see that it is hard to get full light in a greenhouse at higher latitudes without a much steeper roof angle. That makes the geometry of the typical Walipini greenhouse quite difficult for North American gardeners.

To get full light in the winter, growers at higher latitudes must alter the Walipini design altogether. A popular alternative is an earth-sheltered greenhouse, in which only part of the greenhouse is underground. Some above-ground glazing (i.e. glass or plastic) is used on the South, West and East to provide sufficient light in the winter, when the sun is low in the sky.

This configuration works very well on a south-facing hillside, as shown in the solar greenhouse by Ceres Greenhouse Solutions below. The north side of the greenhouse is surrounded by earth – providing natural insulation and stable temperatures of the soil — while the South face of the greenhouse transmits plenty of light for heat and growth.

ceres greenhouse earth sheltered greenhouse

A second alternative, in the likely case that you do not have a south-facing hillside, is to create a shaded area in the front of the greenhouse and use this for something else. This design was popularized Mike Oehler, author of The Earth Sheltered Solar Greenhouse, who grew in low-cost underground greenhouses in Idaho for over 30 years.

A deeper section in the front of the greenhouse will be intentionally shaded, to create a geometry such that the back beds are fully illuminated (shown below). Mike used the shaded area to keep rabbits; other uses might be a storage or work area, or location of aquaponic fish tanks.

earth-sheltered-pit-greenhouse

Use Durable Framing

The original Walipini design used earthen walls without any interior framing. The sides were enforced with rammed earth. In many climates with different soils, this creates a very short-term structure. Nature abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes. Without interior framing the sides of the greenhouse will slowly erode, or quickly cave in, depending on your soils.

There are several methods for building a durable underground greenhouse. The most common is a wood framed structure with post and beam construction. Wood posts are bored a few feet underground, and stabilized with concrete piers. The greenhouse walls are then constructed around this sturdy frame. For a good overview of this building method, see the blog How to Build an Earth-Sheltered Greenhouse by the owners of Raven Crest Botanicals (whose greenhouse in Vermont is shown below).

raven crest botanicals underground greenhouse front

Alternate construction methods involve concrete — either stacked and re-enforced concrete blocks or a poured concrete retaining wall. These are more expensive options, but also more durable since will eventually erode if exposed to wet soil underground. 

Plan for Moisture

To expand on the above point, it is vital to consider that all building materials below ground will be constantly in contact with damp soil. Organic materials, like wood, should be protected. The most common method is wrapping wood posts in plastic, like polyethylene sheeting. There are also specialty fabrics –commonly used under the shingles of roofs – that wick water away from the wood and allow it to drain down.

Additionally, drains should be incorporated around the perimeter of the greenhouse so water does not run down into the structure. Installing a French drain outside of the greenhouse will help prevent the greenhouse from becoming a mud swimming pool during heavy rains. Interior drains are also useful -- when watering the greenhouse, water will drain outside, rather than accumulate in puddles in the garden. The original Benson report explains water management quite thoroughly, and is a good resource for more.

Don’t Forget Insulation

A common source of confusion about the efficiency of underground structures is the role of the soil. Most people assume that the soil provides insulation. That is true, but only to a degree. Soil is actually a relatively poor insulator (having an R-value of about 2 per inch compared to insulation materials, typically R-7 to R-14 per inch). Thus, if surrounded by freezing topsoil, the greenhouse will lose heat to the surrounding soil.

Building underground is more energy-efficient because the structures take advantage of the stable temperature of the soil deep underground. A few feet underground the soil stays a more moderate temperature (usually between 40-60F for the continental US). It can help keep the greenhouse cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

However, soil only begins to moderate in temperature a few feet underground, depending on the climate. The surface layers of soil track air temperature almost exactly. (You can look up an approximation of your soil temperatures using the SCAN website from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.)

Thus, to greatly increase the efficiency of an underground greenhouse, the walls should still be insulated, just like in an above ground greenhouse with passive solar design. Without insulation, the greenhouse will quickly lose any heat stored over the day. Insulation allows the structure to take advantage of the moderate temperatures of the soil deep underground, and will greatly benefit those trying to grow year-round in cold climates. 

To insulate the walls of an underground greenhouse or Walipini, one can install rigid sheets of foam board insulation between the greenhouse framing. An added consideration is to select materials that can tolerate moisture. Polystyrene (often called pink board or blue board) is generally considered more durable for underground applications than other foam insulation boards like poly-iso (called bead board).

Set a Realistic Budget

A popular Tree-Hugger article boldly claims that you can “build an underground greenhouse for $300.” While that is certainly possible if you do all the work yourself, and find free materials, more realistic budgets are far higher. The article does not say where it procured its $300 budget; likely it is from the original Walipini project, which was built using volunteer labor and recycled materials in a developing country. It also assumes you are doing all of the excavation yourself, making it only applicable to those who own a backhoe or have a spare few months of their life to dig a large pit by hand. Building a durable underground greenhouse in a North American climate can be a significant endeavor, often costing a few thousand dollars. Whatever your budget, is important consider this and set realistic expectations so you are not surprised by costs down the road.

Another surprise for first time growers is that building underground is not cheaper; often, it is more expensive than a standard greenhouse. To create the same durable and energy-efficient greenhouse that exists above ground, one must do all the same work, but in addition excavate the site, remove a good deal of soil, and build sturdier walls that can resist the downward pressure of soils, and install drainage systems. That does not make the work unjustifiable. For their energy-efficiency, and stable year-round temperatures, underground greenhouses like Walipinis can definitely be worth it. But, do not opt for a pit greenhouse solely to cut costs.

A Walipini, or any underground greenhouse, can extend the season using a free natural resource. While an excellent strategy for many growers, one must be carefully consider how to customize the design or building method to work for the local climate. There is a great deal of misinformation about Walipinis, but there are also some excellent resources to help you build a durable, long-lasting, and abundant underground greenhouse.

Further Reading:

Benson Institute 2002 report - Walipini Design and Construction

Rob's Modified Walipini

How to Design a Year-Round Solar Greenhouse

How to Build an Earth-Sheltered Greenhouse

The Earth-Sheltered Greenhouse by Mike Oehler

The Year-Round Solar Greenhouse by Lindsey Schiller and Marc Plinke

Lindsey Schiller is a greenhouse designer and co-founder of Ceres Greenhouse Solutions, which researches, designs and builds energy-efficient year-round greenhouses. She is also co-author, along with Marc Plinke, of The Year-Round Solar Greenhouse: How to Design and Build a Net-Zero Energy Greenhouse. Read all of Lindsey's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

Bug Boundaries and Insect Invitationals

1Friendlies

Most people who know me well are aware that I put a lot of time into my little piece of paradise (aka  garden) during the growing season. I love raising my babies, replete with chatter, adoration, and cheerleading. Suffice it to say, I’m not overly pleased with the specific insects that love the same plants that I harvest to feed my family.

While I definitely lean toward having a balanced ecosystem in our garden — one where there’s room (and purpose) for everybody — I haven’t quite gotten to the place where I’m willing to sacrifice a plant to the insects in order to keep a plant for us… and, so I pick.

I have a couple of ambiguous-looking containers sitting out at the ready for my picking (see bottom photo). They originally held plain water with a bit of dish soap mixed in. At this point, I’m not sure what a chemist would read on her meters if she were to dip a probe into the liquid inside. My containers have been the death trap for a multitude of pests and the solution is now an odorous slurry of past lives.

While I honor, enjoy watching, and cherish many of my crawling and flying friends, there are some with whom I simply insist on drawing a line — the line around our property. If they stay outside that line, I hold them no ill-will. If they cross it into our space, it’s the container for them. These pesky voracious li’l buggers include Colorado potato beetles, Japanese bean beetles, slugs, cabbage moths, and mosquitoes — though the latter only when actively feasting on me and they don’t make it to the container. I put all stages of the others into the solution, from eggs to adult.

I use no pesticides in our garden. This is an active choice on my part. Even though some people prefer the time-saving, I would rather have food free of such chemicals. My method can be tedious if I’m feeling rushed. That’s why I tend to be more meditative about it.

2Munchies

It becomes a methodical search to inspect each leaf of my cabbage family, front and back, in search of all size slugs and cabbage moth life stages. I suppose to an outsider I might look rather comical, crouched on my hands and knees with reading glasses tipped on my nose as I work slowly along the rows. What the casual observer wouldn’t likely notice is that I’m pouring loving energy into each of those leaves while gently picking off the munchers and dropping them into the chamber of death. For the record, I do apologize to the victims of my picking.

My father-in-law, who farmed in his youth and lived with the land for a great portion of his life, skipped straight to the death sentence by squishing any insect between his fingers. My own sensitivities (and heightened connection to my senses) don’t allow me to travel such a route. To each his or her own, I guess.

The middle photo shows the clear decimation that can be wrought (often in just one day) by hungry and growing larvae and young slugs. The bean plant that looks more like poorly made lace was right next to a bushy and thriving plant. Whether due to personal taste of the animal or luck of the draw because of where mom laid her eggs matters not to me even though it piques my curiosity.

I strive for a ‘cide-free garden for those I cherish (examples in the top photo). I’m consistently updating and adding more vegetation to keep the pollinators happy and sated. I take care so that our outdoor kitties can wander without danger. I like for my fellow two-leggeds to be able to enjoy our property without worry. This is truly sacred land to me—one that feeds our bodies and fills our souls with peace and balance.

Though I look forward to a balance of the type Douglas Tallamy describes in Bringing Home Nature, for now I prefer to feed our own tummies rather than leave this precious food for the pests. Eventually my garden may have enough for us all. I do love watching a good microcosm. Until then what I say is, “Be gone ye young beasties, this feast is for us!”

Garden Pest Control Success

Photos by Blythe Pelham

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

Homegrown Flax to Linen: Retting

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Growing flax for fiber to spin into linen requires many steps. Once it is harvested and the seeds removed, it needs to be retted. Retting flax is the process of freeing the flax fibers from between the inner core and the outer layer of the flax stalks.

The fiber you want to work with extends from the top of the plant into the root in long strands between these two layers. Separating them requires that you dissolve the pectin that holds everything together and you do that with water. There are microorganisms involved, but your part is only to add water to get things going.

You could soak your flax in a stream or river, dig a small pond or hole to flood for the flax, or use any available container that will hold water and is large enough. That would be called water retting. On the other hand, you could merely spread the flax out in the grass and let nature supply the moisture in the form of dew and rain, which is called dew retting. If the conditions are too dry, you may need to add water with a hose or watering can.

Although it takes longer to dew ret than to water ret, I choose to use the dew retted method. It is my flax retting in the grass last summer that you see in the top photo. I will be laying out this year’s harvest soon. More specifics about my retting can be found at Homeplace Earth.

Temperature can affect retting flax. According to Linda Heinrich in Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, it may take only nine days in warm wet weather for the retting to be complete, but six weeks or more in cool weather. In my experience here in Virginia, it took 17 days to dew ret flax in July and at least 21 days when I did it in late September. It is possible to ret in the winter, it just takes longer.

flax retting complete - BLOG

The method of retting can affect the color of flax fiber. Dew retting will result in a darker color in shades of gray, whereas water retting will give you a more blond color. With that in mind, make sure to ret all of your flax at the same time if you want it to match once you have spun it for a project. If you are just learning how to do this, I wouldn’t worry about the color so much as the timing. Leaving it too long in the dew or water tank will result in a ruined crop. Not long enough can be remedied by retting it again. The time to stop the retting process is when you can break the stalks and see the flax fibers. This photo shows retted flax that I have stored since last year, but it would look the same if you were to check it in the field. Once retted, flax can be stored indefinitely. 

Flax is a fairly quick crop, particularly compared to growing cotton. It likes cool weather and needs to be direct seeded in early spring when you would be planting peas and onions. Pull it for harvest in about 100 days, hopefully before the temperature has been over 80° F. (27° C.) too often. My harvest is taking place now with time to plant another crop, such as cowpeas, in those beds.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

Homesteader to Restauranteur: 4 Ideas to Spark your Inner-Food Entrepreneur

RedDoor-Trish_2420

Are you a homesteader with a dream launching your own food business one day?  Perhaps a restaurant showcasing farm to table fare? Trish Watlington, owner of The Red Door Restaurant, shares four of her success strategies that launched her from backyard gardener to San Diego’s leading local food entrepreneur. I'd also call her an “ecopreneur,” given her focus on the environment and making the world a better place.

“Figure out what you really love and then figure out how to leverage that into a business,” shares Trish Watlington with a warm smile. This is the welcoming energy you’ll feel when you walk through the front door of The Red Door restaurant (which, of course, has a bright red front door), her relaxed restaurant where “farm to table” literally means the majority of produce comes year-round from her urban farm in San Diego, which Chef Miguel Valdez then creates memorable seasonal fare like Herbed Gnocchi with Squash Pomodora Sauce.

But what Watlington really serves up on her menu goes beyond the plate. A passionate champion for supporting the green business and local food scene in San Diego, she is an inspiring open book of information and resources to support others in getting started. 

Watlington shares four insights to inspire you on your food entrepreneur journey:

Learn from the journey: “When my husband and I were newly married in the early 1980s, we followed the classic homesteading dream and moved to 32 acres in Maryland, truly the middle of nowhere,” she reminisces.  “We had a big garden, an orchard and ewes that ended up so friendly they turned into our ‘puppies’ and sat in our lap.”

Watlington and her family ended up moving a few times with her husband’s job while she herself had a career as a family therapist, eventually ending up in San Diego.  “We always had a big garden and that first homesteading experience really taught me that ‘hands in the soil’ and sustainability mission is really where my passion is.”

Think crazy big: The idea for launching a restaurant percolated between Watlington and her husband, Tom, as a means to involve their kids in a shared business venture. Her son, Justin, had worked in restaurants and her oldest daughter, Sarah, brought the design skill set to the project.

“It was as big a whim as two people ever had,” she laughs.  “But sometimes you just need to get an idea off the ground and see where it goes.” The Red Door opened in 2009, focused on comfort food.

RedDoor-farm_2400 

Reinvent: “While the Red Door was doing okay as a business, I realized early on the business model we were operating under didn’t feel right and did not reflect our sustainability values,” shares Watlington.  “We really needed to get back to our homesteading roots and focus on connecting eaters with locally-raised fare.” 

This revised focus inspired Watlington to transform her half acre back-yard garden into a vibrant urban farm that now supplies the restaurant with nearly 100 percent of its produce in the summer and 50 percent during the winter. The Red Door reopened with a new menu focused on seasonal fare and evolved into now a farm to table leader in the San Diego restaurant scene.

Think beyond yourself: Watlington’s leadership in the local food movement stems from a deep-rooted commitment to supporting other business start-ups. “In collaboration lies opportunity,” she explains.  “It’s not about competition; when we openly support each other, and share everything from our vendors to our successes and failures, we all grow and benefit.”

A great example of this is San Diego Farm to Work Week, a now bi-annual event Watlington initiated as a means to cooperatively promote area restaurants that, like The Red Door, support area farmers. The event has grown in just one year to now involving a team of restaurant and farm partners, bringing together a community of businesses with a local food focus.

“This initially small seed of an idea behind Farm to Fork Week quickly took on a life of its own and now we have a movement,” she shares with a grin. But movement’s start with someone first stirring the pot and business owners like Watlington thinking beyond the plate and beyond their own bottom line for the good of the whole community.

Lisa Kivirist is a writer, the author of Soil Sisters and founder of the Rural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. She is also Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. With her husband John D. Ivanko, she has co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Touch-Up Pruning for Lemon Tree Health

 

Many properties across the Bay Area region have lemons that have stood fast for decades, still producing decent yields. When most people think of tree pruning, often they will think of winter time (i.e. apples, pears and cherries).

However, citrus has a sub-tropical heritage and thus is best pruned when there is no threat of frost or rain. Here in the Bay Area, you can do some light touchup pruning to that lemon or lime for optimal health.

Easy June Pruning Steps

Step One: Prune out any dead wood. Generally with lemons and limes, dead wood is obvious and often looks like grey pencils. After you have taken out the dead wood, look inside the center of the tree. Trees that are too dense inside can often succumb to mites, scale, whitefly thrips, and mold. By pruning out and reducing, you can allow light and air to penetrate all the branches and allow more fruit to set inside the tree.

Step Two: Find the non-fruiting, non-flowering branches. Lemon trees can be happily flowering and fruiting throughout much of the year. By slowly gazing and scanning, you can find the occasional small branches that have neither flowers, nor fruit. Again: go slow! You will begin to see that perhaps one out of 20 branches is a small shoot of leaves with no fruiting nor flowering parts. By thinning out these less vigorous branches, you are supporting the branches that the tree is choosing to put fruiting energy into. The end product of this light pruning is more airflow and light penetration.

Notes: Only prune pencil-thick branches. Thick branches will often send the tree into defense mode. When big branches are suddenly removed, it can lead to the big, straight, spiky branch. This is an ancestral shoot, which is not fruiting but full of spikes!

For cold climate readers, if your area is too cold in winter for lemons, try Kumquat. For those readers in small spaces, try ‘Dwarf Beaer’s’ lime and ‘Dwarf Meyer Improved’ lemon.

Joshua’s Foliar Spray Recipe

Have Mites, Scale, Whitefly or thrips persisting on your citrus even after pruning? Try my foliar spray recipe.

Ingredients:

• 10 drops of peppermint essential oil
• 750 ml water in a Spray Bottle

Directions:

Spray down citrus once each week just before sundown. The aromatics and stickiness of the peppermint will deter the pests.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

No Words to Describe the Value of What We Produce

cindy in cotton vest - BLOG

In this photo you can see the vest I made from my homegrown cotton which I spun on a hand spindle and wove on a very small table loom. When people see it they want to know how much I would sell it for, even though it is not for sale and I am not taking orders. This has happened so many times that I have stopped to wonder why it is so important for people to assign a price to things. This vest is special to me, of course, but also special to those who admire it. They want to express a value, but the only value they know how to express is a monetary one.

There is much more value in something we produce ourselves than can be measured in dollars. Furthermore, if you have produced something for yourself or to give as a gift, with no plans on selling it, dollars shouldn’t even come into the conversation. The value is in the energy expended to make it or grow it and in the love and intention that was put into it along the way. That happens when you put your heart and soul into what you are doing and it greatly enhances your quality of life as the producer and the quality of life of the receiver.

Often you wouldn’t be able to make a living if you sold what you produced at a market, but unless that is your business, you have some other means of making money. It is very freeing to do things for the love of doing them. When you produce for yourself, you can live a life that is beyond what you could purchase. It is priceless! Read more about this at Homeplace Earth.

I believe there is a special energy that is in what we produce. I have a table runner that a friend wove for me many years ago. I feel it has that energy and I think of her when I handle it. The food we produce has that special energy. At our table, if I didn’t grow it, we usually know who did. I remember one year when we bought a local watermelon from a small grocery store. It was the first melon of the season for us and we thought it was good, especially being the first melon, but knew it probably wasn’t grown organically. The following week we bought a watermelon from an organic friend at the farmers market. It was definitely better than the first. The next watermelon we had was grown by our friend Kevin. Kevin had told me how he grew his melons. In the fall he decided where the melons would grow, dug a hole at each spot, put compost in, and then added more soil. He wanted the plants to get a boost when the roots reached the compost. Kevin’s watermelon was, by far, the sweetest and the best. I wondered if knowing how much care he took with his melons may have influenced our vote or if it would actually have scored higher on a Brix meter. I think both factors were in play there.

Someone could go through life with blinders on and miss the special energy I am talking about. We have to be prepared to recognize it and to enjoy it. We can’t see this energy, but we can feel it. However, we would have a hard time describing its value in words.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Using Sprout Mats for Soil Building

In keeping true to my superhero persona of “ScAvenger” I write this article to provide another great potential resource for the urban farmer and homesteader.     

We live in area with poor soils right in Reno, Nevada.  Ours are very clay-rich (great for natural building) and drain poorly, have little humus, and lack several nutrients.  Over the last six years of developing our half-acre urban homestead with the goals of growing a lot of food and establishing trees we have spent a lot of time and energy developing our soil.  In addition to creating compost continually and amending with minerals as determined by soil testing we also collect spent sprout mats each week. 

sprouts2

A friend of ours grows pea and sunflower shoots (also known as microgreens or sprouts) for local restaurants in a hoop house in her small backyard.  She grows the shoots in plastic trays roughly one foot wide by two feet long in a medium of “natural” potting soil.  Each week she harvests about 40-50 flats of the tasty and nutritious baby veggies by carefully scissoring and bagging the leafy tops with a couple inches of succulent stem attached.  What’s left are as many soil, root, and stem-filled mats to dispose of.   Her operation is a marvel of efficiency and a great testament to the possibilities of high-yield urban farming but she cannot process all the “waste” each week in her small backyard.  So, for nearly two years now we have been collecting those spent mats weekly and using them throughout our gardens (and neighbor’s gardens) as mulch in soil building. 

Sprouts1

Fresh mats are sturdy and easy to deal with.  We use them around trees and in our food forest, let our rabbits and chickens pick through them, cover irrigation tubing from the sun, add to our compost piles, place on top of cardboard when sheet mulching (see pic), feed them to our worms, and plop them down wherever we’ve got some weeds poking up.  If, for some reason, they sit at her place for a week or so they start to break down, get a bit slimy, and are generally less fun to work with.  But, they’re still full of nutrition and a super-beneficial “waste product” for the urban homesteader and gardener in general.  Go ahead and look up your local sprout grower and see what’s possible for your soil building endeavors.   


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.