Wednesday - June 13, 2012

I just wanted to take a few minutes to make note of some things that have happened in the last … oh I don’t know … days.

We harvested some tilia flowers and set them to dry to be used for tea.

We harvested some elder flowers in mociu and made some “Socata” which is a wonderful and refreshing drink and set some aside to dry also for tea.

We went for another yearly Ecoruralis meeting at Hermitage Malin. We learned about the continued aggressions of agro-business (through corrupted governance) towards … well … almost everyone except their local industrial-farming partners. As we move into the peasant/producer camp these aggressions have deeper implications. We had a great opportunity to share Cutia Taranului with the present members and with guests Steph and Kate from Arc2020. We were embraced with curiosity and support which continued to resonate with us for a few days. Cutia Taranului, as most of our endeavours, are usually met with doubt and skepticism … so passionate embrace was hugely refreshing and nourishing.

On the way back we harvested more elder-flowers … much more. This time we began to process it for making juice concentrate. Today we will probably finish the process (boiling with sugar and then bottling for preservation).

The raised beds are coming along quite well. We have remulched most of the established potatoes. We didn’t bury them too deep so the mulch should provide them with additional growth space, moisture and nourishment.

We processed our first winter-food preserves … yes already. We purchased from Ildi and Levente peas and spinach. We podded and froze the peas. We washed, chopped and froze the spinach in useful batches. We planted some of our own but consumed some of it, we may consume some more, but much of what we have grown will be set aside for seeding next year.

We ordered and received a large supply of fire wood (~10 cubic meters) of oak and cedar. There is now much chainsawing and chopping to do to store it for drying. Most of is designated not for the coming but the following winter … we want our wood as dry as possible. This coming winter we should be able to get by with some wood left over from last year together with all the scrap wood we have set aside.

We are continuing to make preparations for the delivery of the first boxes of Cutia Taranului. Bread and baked goods boxes to Bucharest and Cluj are set to start next week. Vegetable boxes shortly after. We are in touch with a few more peasants who are making preparations to join Cutia Taranului. The information system is coming together very nicely. More functionality and modules are being added as they become relevant and their development matures.

We have begun to collect the materials we need to get started building our first solar dryers (which could already have been handy with the tea flowers).

The days are now long and getting to be hot. Work outside is in the mornings and evenings. The rest of the time is spent either in the shade (workshop included) or indoors.

This year is very different from last year. Last year was a race to finish basic preparations for winter. This year there is no rush. For the most part we can take our time and enjoy the work we have to do. We are embraced in a diverse variety of efforts. Things are moving along quite nicely and at a pleasant pace.

 

Tereza & Xena

We have two hens who are mothers to chicks (two more are still brooding, as are two muscovite ducks). For the first few days they moved around freely until we moved them together with their nestboxes into the electric-fence perimeter. We have inspired, educated and entertained watching them and their chicks. Our hens did not go broody so both hens are on loan from our neighbors. Both are mothers to a small number of chicks due to an egg fertility problem we had.

Xena is a relatively thin, dark colored and featherless-necked hen. She is fiercely protective of her 3 chicks.

Tereza is a puffier, tan & white colored, full feathered hen. She is a more soft, rounded mother. In the first few days we chicks sitting on her and later she was the one we saw with just the head of a chick sticking out between her feathers.

Xena was the first to leave the barn with her chicks. She would find a quiet spot and just sit outside with her chicks rather then sitting inside the barn. One time she chose a location that is on a “path” that leads away from the house. The dogs were alerted to something and darted on that path. We saw trouble coming but couldn’t respond fast enough. Indy jumped over them, Loui tried to do the same but he is a smaller dog. It was amazing to see the relatively small bodied Xena attack him and push him away from her chicks and back towards the house. Loui was very confused and we were very proud … both of Xena and her protective instincs and of Loui who submitted to her (we had to train him to not attack or attempt to eat members of our flock).

Xena and Tereza stay fairly close together though Xena gives Tereze trouble. If Tereza ventures too close to Xena, Xena will lash out at her, give her a good bite and then chase her for quite a while … even after Tereza has backed off and tried to open distance between them.

Xena keeps her chicks busy throughout most of the day. Tereza can be found sitting peacefully with her chicks around or under her.

Once, when we closed them for the night, chicks got mixed up … 5 ended up with Tereza and 2 with Xena … all chicks were warmly embraced … yet in the morning one of the chicks with Tereza lept out and joined Xena. Apparently the chicks do know and prefer to be with their mothers πŸ™‚

Both mothers are exceptional at feeding. They constantly scratch and point out food to their chicks who follow and eat diligently. Sometimes we wonder if and what the mothers eat? When we gave them corn they didn’t touch it … they don’t approach anything that is not suitable feed for the chicks (the corn is way too large for the chicks).

The chicks gradually expand their circle of security … that is how far and how long they can be from their mother on their own. Their confidence grows every day.

Both mothers and chicks have already explored the mobile shelter. When it rains they find shelter in it, when it stops they resume their travels. The chicks look healthy and vital, they’ve discovered their wings and we can see them jumping longer distanced in growing arches πŸ™‚

The chicks eat very little feed (we usually make available to them in the morning and in the evening). They get most of what they need directly from the (currently poor) pasture. We have already witnessed both mothers and chicks ignore feed, preferring to explore what the pasture has to offer.

We have some predatorial birds who take an interest in the chicks. Both mothers are extremely protective. They get very loud when a bird is anywhere near them … even if sitting on a high power line). They get very aggressive when a bird makes an attempt at the chicks. However the most impressive behavior we have witnessed has been a collaborative effort. Tereza, the puffy hen, took all the chicks in under her while Xena went on the offense. Each mother went to her forte and the predators didn’t stand a chance.

This morning we left the mothers and chicks closed in their nestboxes because it is a fairly damp and cool morning and we don’t want to risk the chicks catching cold (they are very vulnerable when they are young). We heard Xena and Tereza shuffling around wanting to get out but decided to wait and see how the day evolves. Well, they didn’t want to wait and in what we can only assume was a collaborative effort mananged to topple the front cover that blocks the entry to their adjoining nest-boxes. They are now freely ranging in the moist day. We are confident the chicks will find all the warmth they need with their mothers πŸ™‚

Here in Romania, most chicks (and chickens) are kept in some form of captivity. Even if they have some free ranging space it is usually not very green (usually over grazed for years) and there are too many of them on it. Most require (expensive and labor intensive) feeding all year long. Chicks particulalry, are kept for many weeks in confined and sheltered spaces with their mothers and live entirely off supplied feed. Yet our chickens and chicks, who require very little feed from spring to fall, are healthy and, as others have pointed out, larger then typical chickens. We have been asked numerous times for eggs for other broody hens because “our chickens are larger”. Our explanations that the chickens are larger because off lifestyle rather then genetic have fallen on mostly deaf ears … and … ironically our eggs were not very fertile (due to too many males residing over too few hens).

 

Dear Cutia Taranului Members

We are nearing an exciting time. We are preparing to send you notifications that your first boxes will soon be arriving. Up until now you were anonymous people who filled out a form on a website … that is about to change πŸ™‚

Did you notice that we refer to you as “Members” and not as “Customers”? Customers simply pay for a service or product. Cutia Taranului is a product and a service and more. It is about a healthy, collaborative relationship between peasants and … well … you. Relationship implies a caring and conscious effort on both sides. We have been speaking to peasants about their part. About growing food responsibly, packaging it effectively, delivering it reliably and learning to appreciate the wonderful qualities of this new relationship with … well … you πŸ™‚ Your part in this new relationship has the potential for more then just trading a few bills of money for a box of food.

To share with you what more you can do to make this relationship healthy we feel the need to share with you a bit about what we’ve learned about the peasant families who will be appearing at your door. They are caring people that, for the most part, do what they do with a sense of purpose and appreciation. They work hard (sometimes too hard). Yet they have been cornered into a difficult position that forces them to sell their products within constraints that make it very difficult for them to make a decent minimal living … despite the caring hard work. As a result they feel unappreciated and cornered. Being cornered makes them doubtful, untrusting and fearful.

Most peasants have reached out to us after hearing about Cutia Taranului from others … and yet they were doubtful. They were trying to understand what were we not telling or even hiding from them? Would they have to sign a contract that traps them somehow? (no, like you, we prefer relationships based on faith and trust). Even when they were holding the first members lists in their hands they were doubtful. Even after they spoke to you and found encouraging and supportive voices they continued to be doubtful. They were and continue to be afraid they would lose “customers” if the price was too high or if the contents of the box were fixed (which we asked them to create to keep things simple and feasible for them) instead of “bending to the will” of individual paying customers customer.

Even now, when they are about to bring their produce to you, who have demonstrated to them that you really do care, they are afraid of doing anything to lose you as a customer.Β  They are afraid because they have reason to be. Over the years they have been losing customers and finding it harder and harder to make a living. They are coming from a world of distrust and often abuse and we are inviting them to an embracing world of trust and appreciation. They are afraid because Cutia Taranului is a challenging mental and cultural shift for them. Its a lot for them to take on.

What ultimately opened up their minds was not us but you. When you filled an online form it was an act of pure good will and faith on your part. When you answered them with enthusiasm on the phone you offered them encouragement and support. What remains for you to do is … to keep on doing what you’ve already been doing. Embrace them. Let them know you do care about and do appreciate their efforts. When they’ve made you happy let them know. If there’s something you don’t like, let them know too … share your thoughts and feelings with the same supportive care you do when you are happy.

Please be responsible and fair in you relationship with them.Β  Creating and maintaining new, healthy and hopefully long-term relationships is going to take conscious and caring effort from everyone. If at any point you find it difficult to continue making this effort on your own please reach out to us so that we may try to help.

In our (Andreea and Ronen) hearts and minds, you and the peasants are making a difference. Cutia Taranului is so much more then growing and consuming food. We believe that your good will and faith in each other is both proving that Romania is already a better place than most people make it out to be (so many locals and foreigners like to put Romania down as a backwards and corrupt country) and at the same time making it an even stronger, resilient and healthier place to live in. We are awed and inspired by you.

We wish you delicious food and inspiring transformation πŸ™‚

To Find Our Place

“One of the most joyous things we can do is to find our place, the land where we belong. Having found our place, we snuggle into it, learn about it, adapt to it, and accept it fully. We love and honor it. We rejoice in it. We cherish it. We become native to the land of our living.”

Carol Deppe

Monday - June 4, 2012

So despite soap making plans, today was a day of butchering. We had been planning for some time to get rid of excess male presence and energy in the flock (both amongst the chickens and the muscovite ducks). Today we finally went ahead and did it. We also slaughtered one hen that was showing signs of illness … we had been monitoring her for a few days and she wasn’t getting any better … so to we culled her (as food for the dogs). Then we went ahead and butchered one of our two roosters … I thought he would be harder to catch (he was very aggressive) but it turned out he is more bark then bite. Then we went on to slaughter two of the male Muscovites. I did the killing and Andreea did the cleaning and hacking.

The ducks were much harder to handle then the chickens. They are really strong and strike out with their short feet like crazy. They also took much longer then the chickens to die. The first one managed to get free from Andreea’s grip … splashing the bowl of blood mostly on Andreea and a bit on me. Andreea looked like a character out of a Rambo movie. We got a much better hold of the second one (Andreea his body and I his head) and managed to create a much calmer experience for everyone. The duck feathers were also much more difficult to remove … at one point Andreea gave up and skinned them … removing skin and feather leftovers together.

We cooked a chicken soup for the dogs with the hen-parts. We cooked an amazing chicken soup for ourselves. Despite my vegetarianism I make it a point to taste from the meat of every animal I participate in butchering. However the Muscovite meat that we baked in the oven was a rare treat and I had a decent helping of meat … my first in a long time (at least 12 years).

It was interesting to feel killing in my gut … not as an emotional or physical sensation … I was completely at peace doing the killing. It was an experience of energy …Β  of taking a life.

All of the water heating and cooking took place on the outside twin-rocket stove we re-assembled this morning. Summer is here. It was great fun being outside almost all day and feeding the rocket stove as work was coming along.

Β 

In the early afternoon hours two tractors appeared and finally laid the 2nd layer of gravel (on top of the first layer of larger stones that we put in last year) on the last 200m+ of road that lead to our property.

 

Sabine and Ina have been with us for the past few days …Β  in the background of the day Ina baked a fantastic bread. So we just came in from a late night snack of fresh bread and jams while watching a fantastic thunderstorm (my first one … so up close and personal).

 

Getting Started with Chickens – Free (Limited) Range

Poultry in general and chickens in particular are an almost obvious part of peasant life in Romania. We got started with chicken from day one – I think they were settled in before we were. I wasn’t too excited about having to take care of a flock from day one since we could barely take care of ourselves … however Andreea and her aunt had a different opinion on the matter πŸ™‚ In retrospect I’m still not sure I would have started out the way we did however it did give us an opportunity (still ongoing) to learn about them, their needs and behaviors and to make better decisions about how we want to integrate them into our lives.

I have witnessed two typical approaches to poultry-keeping here in Romania. One is to keep them in crowded and dirty enclosures with very basic, unsanitary and unpleasant improvised coops. In this configuration they are completely dependent on people for food (mostly corn) and water. The other is free ranging in a fixed and limited range. The same space is used year after year with little opportunity to regenerate … so again the chickens depend on people for food and water. Completely free ranging is an option I have witnessed but rarely because there are (at least in our area) predators who are a threat to a free-ranging flock.

Neither of the common approaches were particularly appealing to us so we went off to find better answers. However to find better answers we first had to find better questions. Ours is becoming a recurring template question that goes something like “How can we provide the chickens with the freedom to move towards a lifestyle that is best suited for their needs with as little inputs of labor, time, attention and resources required of us?“.

We did a lot of reading and came across lots of information. The main motive that shimmered for us was to think beyond “taking care of chickens” and be open to “letting the chickens take care of us”. That second part has some obvious and some not so ovious aspects. The obvious is that chickens provide food in the form of eggs and meat. However the not so obvious has so much more to offer: chicken manure enriches soil nutriets, chickens are part of a food chain that provides natural pest control, chicken scratching can be a natural way to till soil, chickens can accelerate composting and produce substantial amounts of fertilizer … and there’s more.

Finally we came across a beautiful man named Harvey Ussery:

He has a rich and captivating website and wrote a fantastic book. You know the saying “if you get just one book about <topic of your choice> then get <book name>”. Well we have just one book about chickens and poultry and its Harvey’s book “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers“.

We have two views regarding chickens:

  1. Current View: Free ranging chickens on parcels of land to cut down weed growth and till soil in preparation for new plantings (for diverse needs including pasture, forest gardens, raised beds).
  2. Future View: Free ranging chickens on a suitable pasture that will provide everything the chickens need for most of the year (spring – fall).

Current View

We have 9 hectares of land that need to be rejuvenated. Some of it has been resting for the last few years but all of it has been somewhat abused for many years. It’s a huge task and we have a far-reaching view for it. One of the tools we want to try is working with chickens to clear patches of land and prepare them for replanting. We chose to do this using a combination of a mobile shelter and electric netting. We built a mobile shelter as outlined (though a bit smaller then) in Harvey’s book.

These are a few photos during the construction of the mobile shelter:

… and these are a few photos of the completed shelter ready to go to work:

The book has very elaborate details about how to build such a shelter so I don’t really feel I need to get into it. We did decide to add a hardware-cloth floor because there are also underground/digging predators in the area.

The next stage was to setup electric netting … which is a kind of electric fence that is fabricated as a net especially for poultry. What makes it particularly suitable for poultry is (1) more densely spaced lower wires in the net to keep small chicks in and (2) a bit extra height to keep jumping chickens in … though a jumper will get out if she really wants to. It was quite a project figuring out what we needed to get (maybe I’ll do a separate post on that?) and then to find what we needed here in Romania – we found twoΒ  German manufacturers represented here in Romania Patura & Ako and another Finnish company Olli.

A few days ago we got everything setup. We moved the mobile shelter to an area near the house we’d like the chickens to scratch up for us, installed the electric netting around it and baited most of the chickens in:

We forgot the electric fence tester in the shop (they sent it to us by mail) but we got clear confirmation that it is working. First a couple of chickens made contact with it and jumped back agitated. Then our two dogs touched it and both yelped very loud and ran off offended not be seen for a few hours. The chickens no longer test the fence. The dogs go nowhere near it. We have one hen who jumps the fence when she wants to lay an egg … insisting to move back into the nearby and familiar barn space where they lived until recently. Except for her, the other hens have found the nestbox inside the mobile shelter and have laid their eggs in it.

The enclosed space is currently disproportionate to the number of chickens we have … but the flock is about to grow.

Future View

In the future we plan to resurrect some of our pasture and to prepare it for permanent residence of the chickens. We intend to build the chickens an earthship (mostly underground) style shelter that is set into the slope of the hill designated to become their shelter. Harvey’s book has loads of valuale information on how to design and build such a more permanent coop (though it is our idea to move it underground). From it we plan to have a few electric-netted pasture areas through which we can rotate the flock.

The chickens themselves will help us this year ,with the current configuration to begin work on their future pasture-home. This will probably take a few years to achieve. This will include diverse plants and mini ecosystems that will hopefully lead to a mostly autonomous system where we have less and less reason to interfere.

A Few More Details

As we launched this experiment our first chicks hatched.

Our hatching ratio has been very lousy. We don’t know the cause however we believe it was due to the cock-to-hen ration in our flock. We had 2 cocks and 7 hens. The cocks would constantly get in each others way when either one attempted to mate with any of the hens. Though one seems to be dominant … mating is always violent and messy … and we now believe mostly not happening. We have exchanged some of our eggs with a neighbor … they will eat our eggs and a broody hen will sit on their, hopefully more fertile, eggs.

We also have 7 Muscovite ducks – 4 males and 3 females … again disproportionate. The thing is that the male cocks also mounted the female ducks. Two of the three femals are broody … we’ll see what comes of their eggs in about 2 weeks.

The ducks are currently ranging free outside the electric netting. The brooding hens are still in the barn and those with hatched chicks are also free ranging. Once the chicks grow a bit (2 or 3 weeks) we inted to introduce them with their mothers into the guarded area. When the ducks get past bruising and we cull the extra males (cock and ducks) we will probably try to move the ducks into the guarded area too.

 

Thursday - May 31, 2012

We’ve got six chicks already hatched from the first batch … though the hen is still sitting on a few more eggs … we’ll see if more hatch tomorrow. Two more chickens still sitting, a fourth brooder (also from neighbors) was added today and two mother ducks are still cooking their eggs πŸ™‚

And … just in time … we’ve got the electric netting up and running.Β  As I write these words, most of the chickens are spending the night in the new mobile shelter that is protected within electric netting. They are agitated with the change … but we hope will settle into it quickly. We don’t have the net tester (it was left behind at the store and is making its way to us by mail) however we know for certain that it works because: (a) there are clicking sounds where there is contact between the conducting wire and some weeds; (b) the chickens have tried to find a way out and jumped away agitated from the fence; (c) the dogs both tried to find a way in and cried out in desperation and then disappeared for quite some time … terribly offended and well … shocked (dogs and other predators feel it more then the chickens because the chickens are apparently thick skinned – especiall their feet which touch the ground and close theΒ  electric circuit). More on chicken systems in upcoming posts πŸ™‚ For now … this approach feels like another right piece in the overall puzzle we are trying to put together here at Bhudeva πŸ™‚

Wednesday - May 30, 2012

The sun came out today and we happily joined it. We spent the first part of the day completing (I think) transplating plants into the raised beds. The raised beds are now packes full of lush life. The transplants looked sad today but hopefully will recuperate in the coming days. Winds and thunder are back … so hopefully fresh rains will arrive to. Next year we plan to do much less trasplanting and go with much more direct seeding.

Also we were excited to discover phenomenal (I don’t use that word often or lightly) improvement of soil on the raised beds … more on that in a separate post πŸ™‚

The day before yesterday we finally went and purchased the equipment for the electric netting which will enable us to let the chickens free range but in a limited area. The combination of netting and a mobile shelter will enable us to move the chickens to different locations. So today I built an improvised mobile box to shelter the netting energizer from winds and rain. It is all hooked up and ready to go. We moved the shelter to our first test location and if weather permits tomorrow we will put up the net for the first time and let the chickens get on with a new more purpose filled life πŸ™‚

We let the brooding chickens out today and found that one of the eggs was cracked and a tiny chick is chirping from inside. We couldn’t tell yet if it hatched because … well … there’s a chicken sitting on it again πŸ™‚ And … is seems that another chicken has gone broody. We’ve placed her on temporary eggs and if we find her still broody tomorrow we’ll place under her a fresh batch of eggs. That would make 4 chickens and 2 ducks. So much new life πŸ™‚

Also … over recent days the information system for Cutia Taranului has gone into fully operational mode … though new features are added almost every day. We’ve recently added more vegetable boxes from Cluj and some really special boxes of bread and other baked goods for Cluj … with a similar box soon to be available in Bucharest too. It is slow-going, very demanding … but growing beautifully … kind of like new plants … slowly at first as they divert most of the energy into their roots … then some green appears to further support the roots … then they just take off … we are so looking forward to seeing both our plants and Cutia Taranului take off πŸ™‚

Rainy Days and Hugelkultur Beds

Last year we prayed for continuous sunshine and warmth as we were racing to make our house livable and to complete preparations for winter. It was a droughty year … demanding for all the locals. This year we prayed for rains to saturate our newly built raised beds … and so we’ve been having a streak of rainy days. Its wonderful mild rain gently covering the landscape and watering all new newly planted plants. It has been going on for I think at least 3 weeks and more is expected throughout this week and the next with only occassional appearances by the sun (no doubt this would have been a challenging period for living off the electrical grid).

Last year everyone complained about lack of water. This year many people are showing signs of worry due to too much water. Some peasants have already lost some crops (some of which have already been replanted) to flooded areas.

We are now realizing another wonderful feature of raised beds. Our plants are all planted on raised beds and are in absolutely no danger of flooding (unless it comes in the form of a hollywood-end-of-the-world kind of disaster) since excess water that is not absorbed into the bed itself will run off. It will have another opportunity to get absorbed in the earth in the mulched space between the raised beds … and if there is still any runoff it will most likely find its way to the small lake we dug.

We have not yet harvested a single crop from our raised beds yet I cannot imagine raising plants in any other way (except of course where the terrain calles for Sepp Holzer style terraces). Planting in a field seems out of the question.

Building Raised Beds

A year ago we were still in the theoretical phase of working land. We already met Bhudeva though we were not yet the owners and we were bewildered by the vastness of permaculture and could not imagine how to begin reviving 9 hectares of land. Then we found Sepp Holzer’s raised beds and something told me we’d found a good beginning.

Raised beds is a common gardening term and usually refers to small and manageable areas of garden that are slightly elevated from ground level and neatly arranged to accommodate plants. This IS NOT what we are talking about. When we say raised beds we are referring to Sepp Holzer Hugelkultur … very large raised beds that:

  1. Are made up of fallen wood or other residue organic matter that has substantial mass.
  2. Provide a fertile growing area for many years without the need to bring in extra fertilization.
  3. Soak up a lot of water and as a result can survive droughty months without any need for irrigation.
  4. Make harvesting easier by reducing the need to bend down to ground level.
  5. Drastically increase the surface growing area where available land may be limited.

Paul Wheaton posted an excellent article on such raised beds so I don’t need to. I urge you to read his article to gain a basic understanding of what hugelkultur raised beds are and then, if you’re still interested, continue reading about our efforts to create them.

Raised Garden Bed - from Permies.com

Location

If you have a small garden this is probably a lesser-issue. However, we have 9 hectares of land and this was quite an issue. We have an evolving vision of the entire property but there are still many things that can and are being shuffeled around in that vision. Here is what we knew:

  • We wanted to build a few raised beds … how many would depend on how much wood we would have (which was still an unknown when we decided to get started).
  • We wanted the raised beds to be our primary gardening area for annuals.
  • Therefore we wanted the raised beds close to our future (and current) house.
  • But we didn’t want them taking up space that would be set aside for one of our forest gardens which we also want close to our future house.

So we decided to start building the beds just south of the intended location of our future house. The house is intended to be mostly underground so a forest garden cannot be placed to the south where it would block out the sun. The only inhibiting factor for this location was timing.Β  Eventually the area of the house and its surroundings will become a construction site (though a relatively delicate one) and we do not want the raised beds to be in the way or to get trampled. Fortunately there is enough space for both πŸ™‚

Materials

The raised beds started with a symbolic gesture. I simply placed a small pile of medium sized pieces of wood that were lying around from an old and ailing tree we pruned heavily (it seems to be reviving wonderfully). Most of the materials then came from a maor thinning we did of a dense and overgrown prune orchard behind the existing house (the one we currently live in).

We currently know of only two kinds of trees that are not suitable for raised beds. Hardwoods such as Acacia (which is a strong native here) contain chemicals which deter the microbiological fungi that are responsible for rotting wood (which make them extremely durable and rot resistant). Then there are walnut trees (also abundantly available here) beneath which nothing ever grows due to another chemical that is present in the tree (though we don’t know if its just in the leaves or in the bark itself) … so we don’t want that in the raised beds either. So our raised beds are mostly of prune trees with a few more mixed in.

Building

Building the raised beds was a lot of work for one person. I am confident that a few people working together could have done it much faster … however it is possible to do on your own. Converting a branched tree into pieces that can be piled together can be quite a meditation. I eventually found a work-process that I could follow fairly regularly (dragging trees from where they were lying around, spreading them near the raised beds, chainsaw cutting and then piling).

How you go about it ultimately depends on what kind of wood you have available to you. I had lots of relatively thin pieces (even the tree trunk) and only occassional massive pieces. In some cases I used the heavy trunk pieces to quickly create a base … very rewarding as it feels like rapid progress πŸ™‚ However I ultimately found that is it better to use the thinner pieces to create the base and then to lay on top of them the heavier pieces to weigh them down. Some of threes were tall, straight and fairly thin (most branches pointed up and alongside the trunk) and I just placed them as is on the ground … a pile of such trees formed a formidable base with relatively little work.

The good thing is that it isn’t rocket science and eventually it is all buried by dirt. My main objective was to make sure I got fairly large beds (at least 1 meter high just the wood)Β  and as much wood mass as I could into the beds. Because I was using fairly thin branches, whenever I could I tried to insert pieces into spaces that formed inside the bed. There was still much space for dirt to settle inside.

Another good things is that we now have 3 different “densities” of raised beds to observe and experiment with over the years. We have one very dense bed, two mixed bed and two low-density (and smaller) beds.

Spacing

We built 5 raised beds. They are located on a slight-slope that faces south. The land also slopes slightly from east-west. The raised beds are oriented roughly west-to-east and they are interlaced so that water can flow between them:

Again this isn’t rocket science and only time will tell if our choices will work well for us. We tried to leave enough space between the beds so that after burial, which widens the beds, there would still be enough space to walk comfortably between them with a wheel-barrow for carrying stuff in and out (tools, harvest, etc.).

The blue space you see in the diagram is where we got the dirt. We dug a small lake … however that is a topic on to itself … and it is too early of an experiment so I am nowhere near confident enouh to write about it. .. stay tuned though πŸ™‚

Burial

To bury the raised beds we hired Florin our wonderful tractor guy for a day (we had him to lots of other things that needed doing that day).We decided to dig a test lake and to use the dug up earth to bury the beds. The lake is placed in the lowest corner of this part of the land … so hopefully it will collect water without us having to penetrate the aquipher for water (as seems to be the norm around here).

The beds were spaced in such a way that a tractor good just get through and dump earth onto the beds. This is important to plan for if you intend to use a tractor. It would have been easier to do this one row at a time (or two rows at first) so that there would have been unhindered access for the tractor but just having the tractor arrive at our property is costly so we decided to maximize using it.

It took a lot of earth to bury the raised beds. It would have been an unimaginably difficult task (a few strong people over a few days) to get this done without heavy machinery.

Because of the limited access to the central bed the tractor had to dump a few loads when its not aligned parallel to the bed itself. This resulted in a “wide-dump” causing dirt to fall to far to the sides of the bed creating a wider bed then we had hoped for.

It is better (for the shape of bed that we were aiming for) that the tractor come up parallel to the bed and dump the earth right on top.

Post Burial

We then had the tractor haul over a pile of hay that we would use for mulch.

We also had the tractor haul over a pile of cow-manure that was sitting next to our barn (last years our neighbors housed their cows there for some time ) and had composted there. We didn’t know if the amount would be sufficient for the 5 beds so we preferred to leave it in a pile we could use as we see fit. In retrospect that was a mistake. Spreading it manually will not create more of it. It was hard work to spread the manure over the beds and I definitely regretted not having the tractor dump it directly onto the beds (with supervision to make the best of what is available).

Then came the mulch … and planting the beds … both of which I will get too in separate future posts πŸ™‚

Meanwhile …

While we were building our raised beds our neighbors were all busy doing the same traditional, expensive, labor intensive, fertility destroying activities they (and most Romanian peasants) have been doing for eternity:

People who passed by were curious about what we were doing with the piles of wood on our land … or to be specific … why we weren’t cutting it up into firewood … or to be even more specific … why were we burying precious firewood with dirt. We give a brief and passionate explanation to those who ask and get on with our work. The beautiful thing about these raised beds is that when you hear the reasoning it makes sense even if you’ve had no gardening or farming experience … it makes TONS of sense if you have had any experience … yet it it still mostly met with doubt.

If all goes well, then this time next year we will be free to relax or do new things while our neighbors will all be doing the same work again. Maybe in a few years when we’ve shown that we can get better results with less work and less expenses some of them will come around to inquiring about what is going on.

Beware: Sitting & Digging Dogs

Our dogs love sitting on on raised piles … usually of hay … though raised beds work great for them too. They demonstrated their affections from the start:

At first it was cute … heck it was an achievement that they just sat there instead of trying to bark the tractor into submission … but now we are constantly demanding they get off. It isn’t pleasant to see them walking over or sitting (or digging into) the raised beds now that they are planted … and to the dogs the plants make no difference. So our recommendations: (a) get them off from the very beginning and (b) get used to it πŸ™‚