Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Going Organic in West Haven, CT

Going Organic in West Haven, CT

by Jenna Messier, NOFA OLC Program Director

Last Spring, NOFA OLC held a Permaculture Design Workshop at my house, since my .1 acre property provided so many common design and landscape challenges for the landscaper to ponder.

Most prominently, we had major stormwater issues, with the concrete driveway falling apart and the basement leaking.  In addition, we had an over abundance of concrete pathways in the yard, taking away valuable growing space. My husband had been parking his truck on 1/4 of the yard space- a practice which I was officially ending on the day of the workshop - which led to compaction and probably small amounts of oil and automotive fluids leaking into the mixture of gravel and sand.

On the more fun and functional side, we were interested in designing the yard to maximize usage of space so humans had a place to lounge and grill, a kid could run through a sprinkler, and ornamental and vegetable plants were well-placed. I also wanted to incorporate the rabbit hutch and future chicken house into the yard, where they would be best suited.

Former parking space now veggie gardens
At this point, I will remind the reader that I am an average homeowner who has very few hours to give to these projects, so I have accepted that all of these modifications will take a few years to complete.  I thought I would share a few of the proposed design changes which students had provided during our workshop to both demonstrate best practices and tell the real story of how practical and costly they really have been.

1. Soil Testing - Prior to the workshop, I was pretty upset to learn that my soil had 900ppm lead, which made it unhealthy to harvest any root veggies or leafy greens from the soil.  However, knowledge is power, so we decided that the most important change we could make was to design raised beds and place them in the old parking space. There is one 15 foot raised bed which cost around $350 to build and fill with soil and compost.  The second set of hoops covers 4 long rectangular planters which offer mobility if I want to move them. I also have cool weather crops like greens and chives in the planters.  The large raised bed produced spinach, arugula and mixed greens all winter.  I planted carrots and potatoes one month ago and just started some tomatoes last weekend.

The old vegetable garden would became lawn, with a few perennials like echinacea, day lillies and rudbeckia "herbstonne" around the outside border. Just this spring, I added a raised bed wooden box and transplanted my black raspberries since they were getting a little unwieldy.  I also have a box of garlic, which I will move someday.  I have to admit, I am pretty impressed with my lawn which I planted with a seed mix called Tuff Turf and microclover from Good Nature Organic Lawn Care. This photograph also shows some of the old concrete pathways which will be removed at a later date. (It's on the list.)
Old veggie garden now lawn, berries on left
Side view, gravel has replaced concrete

Compost Manager 
Worms galore!
2.  Composting and Animals - Go Hand in Hand!  I have one cute angora rabbit named Stephano.  He is an easy pet to take care of, and relatively cheap to feed at about $15 per month. I use sterilized straw to line his cage and all of the straw, manure and urine go into the compost and really get it cooking! 131 degrees for 3 days is easily achieved. I plan on having 4 chickens for eggs and their compost contributions, but the chicken coop is nothing more than a wooden frame and an item on the To-Do list at this time.

The animal cages and outdoor run are situated along the outside edge of the property to maximize space and to utilize the windbreak which the solid fence provides in the winter. The compost bins were moved next to the tunnels last summer, but I think I will be moving them again so I can plant a paw paw tree in the sunny southern corner of the lot.  I figure that by moving the compost, it is improving the soil in multiple places.

To maximize compost production, I collect bags of leaves from my neighbors in the fall, and keep them for shredding and adding to my compost pile all year round.  My newest toy is a paper shredder which allows me to create carbon-rich, shredded paper, made from junk mail and out-of date paperwork, to balance out the kitchen scraps and manure in the piles. You want a 30:1 ratio of browns to greens, on average. Composting is so rewarding: you use your own waste products to create an excellent soil conditioner and fertilizer for your lawn and gardens. I estimate that my two bins create 20, 5 gallon buckets of finished compost per year.  My goal is to not have to buy any bags of soil or compost, but for now I need about 10 bags per year for containers and over-seeding the lawn.

Jenna's House - with New Gravel areas in red
3. Ripping up the driveway - the elephant in the room:  Honestly, I don't think we would have undergone the expense and time of ripping up the driveway if it had not started caving in. Yet, it is a best practice to manage your stormwater on site and allow it to infiltrate on your own property. This is especially true in my neighborhood which is only a mile or so from Long Island Sound, where runoff from our roof, lawn and driveway often go into the street and into the storm drain.  The picture on right is a garden design by one of the groups who attended the Permaculture Design Workshop last year.  I use it here to show in red the area which was concrete and is now gravel.The blue area was previously gravel and the green areas are under demolition this year.

I also wanted to share the costs of such a project.  It cost around $6000 to remove the concrete, haul it away, pay for dumping fees, 3 days labor, gravel and stone dust, and rent the excavator.  I am lucky to have a husband who was willing to take this project on. (Or maybe he just didn't want his trucks falling into the sink hole!)

So I want people to feel empowered to make small, medium and large changes to our landscapes for both personal enjoyment, like having a grape arbor and using it for summer shade, and to benefit the environment, like growing flowers for pollinators.  If all you can do this year, is over-seed your lawn with a packet of microclover to fill in the bare spots, adding a plant that will provide free nitrogen to your lawn, then that is just all you can do and it's good enough!