Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Fall days are death — if you are a leaf. For the rest of us, they are a glorious, vividly colorful final celebration before the doomy gloom of winter smothers every memory of happier times.
If you doubt my hatred of winter, just know I’ve spent the past two out of three winters fleeing to the tropics under the flimsy excuse of ”gaining farm experience.” One winter I studied abroad in Thailand, the other I worked on various farms throughout the Big Island of Hawaii as a WWOOFer. Learning permaculture techniques in a tropical setting was a great cover for the fact that I really just wanted to avoid another snowpocalpse season in Michigan. I don’t do well with cold, and I do even less well without natural light. But seeing as my new home of West Virginia doesn’t have the climate of a Pacific Island, winter is going to happen here regardless of my personal preferences.
Until that happens, I’ll continue to skip around barefoot and lay down in the grass to read books. And Ian and I will continue to use as much of the fleeting daylight that we can to continue with our property projects. This week, we tried to figure out what to do with the thick blanketing of dead leaves dropped around our home by the surrounding forest.
Project 1: Quick Compost
The first project we tackled was pulling out an old chipper we discovered stashed in a shed to shred up as many leaves as we could collect in piles. This was a two person job, so while I scurried around with a big rake and bigger tarp, Ian fed the piles into the roaring machine.
I guess it worked, because our massive pile of leaves shrank to one tenth its original volume, easily fitting in our makeshift leaf composter — a wire bin we created with metal stakes and excess fencing material. The idea is that greater surface area of the shredded leaves will allow bacteria to do its work faster, making the pile hot and decomposed in a short period of time.
Project 2: Chicken Yard Covering
The second project was another composting method, but instead of a chipper we wanted to try out a different farm tool- the chickens. Lazy things haven’t laid any eggs yet, we needed to find a different way to get some use out of them. Chickens enjoy nothing better than to scuffle around their yard, scratching and turning over everything in their path in an endless pursuit of bugs. When we first got our six hens last week (read about it here!)
It look a matter of hours for them to turn their relatively lush pen into a barren clay wasteland. After their yard was denuded, they spent their time in their coop, refusing to leave the fun floor of pine chips for their boring yard. So we thought we’d give them some leaves to play with instead. Their shredding instincts would be put to good use and we wouldn’t have to run the chipper as much.
The bonus addition of their poop into the mix would make for a nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the garden come spring. We piled eight to ten inches of leaf litter throughout their yard and watched them go to town. Like magic, we watched them lose interest in their coop for the far more satisfying crunch of fresh fall leaves under talons.
Project 3. Garden Top Dressing
At this point, our garden is more wishful thinking than reality. Since we only moved onto our homestead in late August, we haven't had the time or energy to do anything with the garden except work with service groups to repair the perimeter fence and restore some of the decayed terracing. We didn't have time to plant any winter cover crops, which is a shame because the heavy clay soil is in desperate need to organic material.
Since necessity requires that we work with what we've got, we have been hauling truckloads of leaves into the garden to overwinter in the soil and then be tilled in. It will take tons of leaves to make a difference, but considering that decayed leaf litter is just about all the forest around us needs to keep thriving, we figured it will be better than nothing. We have been intentional about getting a wide variety of leaves to try to keep the acidity levels neutral in the garden.
The only real downside is that our dog can no longer run laps in the garden, because we his reckless behavior would like cause him to break a leg on the now hidden terraces.
And now, what are your ideas for the best ways to use this seasonal bounty of organic material? All suggestions are welcome!
Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with two nuns and help to run a sustainable homestead mountain ridge retreat and ecology center that resides on a 500-acre land trust. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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