First, before moving onto the next principle of Permaculture, a short update since our last posting in March. The video above highlights what’s been going on around The Gardens. Special thanks to John Kelly of San Leon who was kind enough to bring his drone over to capture some fantastic footage of our surrounding community and Celestine Gardens, all from a spectacular 400ft. view.
Our gray-water system has come to its completion, and with it, an automated irrigation system to utilize water that would have otherwise been wasted. Our first batch of vermicompost has added much needed fertilizer to our Summer crops, with a ballooning worm population to add much more in the future. We have secured a steady supply of fresh wood chips from the county and with it have added some weed control to our paths and an abundance of organic material that will decompose into fresh soil for our garden beds throughout the year.
At the end of the video, there is mention of new gallery pictures that have been added to our website; please have a look when you have the time. And last but not least, we will be adding a commercial-sized aquaponics system this Fall that will increase our produce production by many multiples. Now, on to the next article in our Permaculture series…
Fuel/Energy isn’t just what one puts in their car. Any resource that can be captured for use and put back into the system of production is energy. One of the goals of Celestine Gardens is to prove that there isn’t a such thing as waste. Though we will most likely never get to 100% reuse, this is the goal and continual improvement is always possible. Following along with David Homgren in his book, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, we get to Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy.
Water is harvested by three processes. The main part of our stored water comes from rain. With the information we gained from Permaculture Principle 1, namely observation, we were able to see exactly what the difference in elevations are across the property. This dictates how water flows from one area to another when it rains. From many days of sitting in rain storms, creating little trenches by hand to get water from the majority of the land into the pond, permanent trenches filled with gravel were made. And other trenches were made to get water off of the land when there is an overabundance and the pond is full.
A secondary method to capture and store more rain than the pond will hold will be implemented shortly. Any structure on a piece of land is able to harvest its catchment area (the roof’s footprint) x rainfall depth x the conversion factor of 0.623. What we plan on doing is to ensure all of our structures have gutters and 55-gallon food grade barrels surrounding them that can be found very cheaply from food processing businesses. When the pond gets lower from irrigation usage, we will be able to connect a hose to a spigot at the bottom of the barrels, and feed them into the pond. Our third method for getting water to the pond is from our gray-water system, which in the last article was nearing completion. As of today, the system has been functioning very well for months, and now has both homes connected to it. This is water that would have otherwise ended up in the county water system, requiring energy to clean, and serving no other purpose within the community. Now, it is sent to a bog with plants that have been shown to remove over 92% of all pollutants, then further filtered in our pond, and finally, mixed with natural fertilizer from our fish, strained and then reused to irrigate our crops.
The few small changes we had to make to run this system have not been much of a burden at all. We changed our dish soap and bathing soaps to organic (Dr. Bronner’s is awesome if you’re into “magic soaps”), and strainers make sure to keep non-dissolved particles from clogging up the plumbing. To reuse this caught and stored energy, we have implemented an irrigation system that is fairly simple. Our first idea was to use a windmill to pump water from the pond to mini water towers, then to drip irrigation. However, one day Tiffiny decided to remove her internal water system from her travel trailer. One of the components is a water pump that only pumps water when a request is made. Seeing this as a much simpler solution to moving water than a windmill with many custom pumping parts, we took this device and mounted it inside of a very sturdy wooden box made from old 2×12 boards, that doubles as a bench near the pond. A timer is used to request water once a day for 60 minutes, and the water is sent to drip-irrigation tubes throughout the gardens. The pump is powered by a 12-v DC car battery so that the windmill can be used to recharge the small amount of energy it uses each day.
Before the irrigation system, we either had to hand water the garden which takes close to 4 hours a day, or use a very inefficient broadcast sprinkler. Both of these methods cost and waste quite a bit of county water. With the new system, everything is automated taking no labor and reusing water instead of paying for additional water. Another category of energy is the material we use to fertilize new seasons of growth. For us, our main ways of catching and storing this energy is by using a process called vermicompost, and by turning wood chips into new soil. Our vermicompost bin was started with a few thousand red wrigglers from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm and a few hundred Texas Jumpers that were found in our local hard clay. Within a few months, we were able to turn a large amount of our kitchen scraps and yard waste into enough fertilizer to cover the top of all of our gardens. A second vermicompost bin was built to start adding new material as the first bin finished its processing and eventually the worms were moved to the new bin.
The worms double in population every three months and our worm population has been skyrocketing making it easier to process more material faster. This has reduced our weekly trash waste and allowed us to store more nutrient energy as opposed to having to purchase for our fertilizer needs. As Permaculture encourages multiple uses for each design element (the multiplier effect), our worms will also be used beneath our future rabbit hutches to further process their manure. With our chicken coop, since their manure is so high in ammonia, we will have to process it some before adding to the worm bins.
In addition to vermicomposting, we are using wood chips to solve two issues. One is that there was a tremendous amount of grass and weed growth in between our beds in the paths. In our area, we have an event twice a year where people are allowed to bring in non-polluted brush and tree material to a central processing area where it is sent through a wood chipper. From there, anyone is allowed to come and pick up these wood chips to use for landscaping needs.
We gathered half a dozen truck loads of the wood chips and placed them in the paths between our beds. As these are green wood chips, their nitrogen content is so strong that they inhibit weeds from growing while the material degrades into usable soil. A side effect we didn’t anticipate was that worms love the material. There are many worms per square yard now that have escaped the hard clay to enjoy the wood chips and further help them be processed into soil we can eventually use in the garden once its nitrogen content has been lowered enough to not burn the plants. Some gardeners swear by wood chip soil and use this exclusively to garden with. By using this method, we are reducing landfill usage in our community and capturing more nutrient energy that would have otherwise not been used for food production.
In keeping with Principle 2 of Permaculture, it is worth a brief mention of our aspirations for one of the final projects of Celestine Gardens Permaculture design, and that is energy production and storage. Currently, we are on grid, using energy produced via coal and wind production. Eventually, we would like to generate our own electricity and hot water via a low-tech method of solar concentration. One of the ideas that is often overlooked when thinking about sustainable energy is how difficult it is to recreate a device from scratch. Photovoltaics are great in their ability to convert sunlight into direct current, however, how easy do you think it would be to build a solar panel from readily available materials and simple tools such as wrenches and a welding unit? Pretty much impossible. Our idea for creating most of what we use in our community is to use low-tech devices that achieve similar outputs to high-tech gear; somewhat steam punk if you will. To capture and store sunlight, the method we are leaning towards is to create a solar concentrator.
This is a fairly simple design that uses an array of mirrors, focused on a central container of water that is converted into steam. This steam is then piped into a steam turbine which can power a generator to produce electricity, or simply be used for heating water and sanitation needs. Now, what about storage? Batteries are the current equipment of choice for storing electricity, but with our system and keeping with low-tech devices; we’re thinking that the best way to store any surplus energy will be to use the steam turbine to pump pressurized air into storage tanks. From there, when the sun isn’t out, we can open the storage tanks’ contents back through the steam turbine to generate electricity. One of the obstacles to overcome in this process is the thermal loss that occurs from keeping pressurized air in a container, as pressurizing air creates heat energy. Up to 50% of the inherent energy in the storage process can be lost this way. A very elegant solution has been presented by a brilliant young lady in California who has a company called LightSail Energy. She has found that if the added step of “inject[ing] a fine, dense mist of water spray [during air compression, this] rapidly absorbs the heat energy of compression and provides it during expansion.” This will be one of the last steps within our design, so we’ll leave it at that for now as it could be a year before this project is begun. These are a few ways that we have begun to capture and store energy.
Rarely do the resources we need come in the perfect amount and at the precise time we need them. The trick is to find ways to hold on to those resources in the fat times and then release them in the lean. Join us next time for Principle 3: Obtain a Yield which will highlight another important aspect of Celestine Gardens which is to create a system that also rewards those who thrive within it. Let’s face it, in the really real world if there’s no revenue, no way of creating jobs, who will be interested in living a sustainable life?
Holmgren, David. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Victoria, Australia: Holmgren Design Services, 2002. Print.