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 🙂
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 🙂
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 🙂 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 🙂
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 🙂
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.
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:
Are made up of fallen wood or other residue organic matter that has substantial mass.
Provide a fertile growing area for many years without the need to bring in extra fertilization.
Soak up a lot of water and as a result can survive droughty months without any need for irrigation.
Make harvesting easier by reducing the need to bend down to ground level.
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.
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. 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 🙂
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 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 🙂 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) 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.
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 🙂
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.
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 🙂
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 🙂
Yesterday we finally took the last step in welcoming our bees to Bhudeva. I was working (making great progress) on the mobile chicken shelter when Andreea noticed that outside the first hive we had already transferred to a top-bar-hive there was heightened activity. We can’t be sure but it looked like the bees may have been preparing to swarm (a natural instinct where a bee family splits into two resulting in many bees leaving with the active queen). We weren’t really prepared for it but we decided to place another (third) hive next to it with waxed top-bars and inviting scents and hope that if the bees do decide to swarm they may choose it as a new home. However it turned out into a much longer work session 🙂
Fortunately for us Levente was available and joined us – both out of curiosity and to help. We put the new hive in place and then opened up the living hive. For the most part things were looking good.
The hive looked thriving, there was lots of activity. The standard “chop and crop” frames were all filled with bees (we took the opportunity to gently, using a hand saw, cut off the ends of their frames so that they would not interfere with the hive’s lid). The bees did an excellent job cleaning up after the somewhat brutal chop-and-crop.
Some of the new top bars were also coming along. This one had quite a comb built up.
It was fantastic to see inside the hives (sorry … no image) chains-of-bees linked together, supposedly using their body lengths as a measuring tool in building new comb. However there were no eggs to be found … which means we may have lost/injured the queen when we made the initial transition. We did find quite a few young queens … which is when things got interesting.
We decided to do a split. So now instead of hoping that the bees move to the new hive (which wasn’t very likely) we moved into it three frames with one of the new queens. We added to it a few empty top-bars and a failed chop-and-crop bar from the original transition, with honey in it, that was left over from the initial transition. So now we had two hives populated and we managed to capture and set aside four additional young queens.
Then came the third hive – the one that was setup as a transitional hive. As we were warned in the forums the bees showed no signs of moving into the lower top-bar-hive. They were very active in the standard hive sitting on top of the top-bar-hive … but showed no interest in moving down. Our decision was to shake them into the top-bar-hive and remove the standard hive completely. Andreea & Levente took care of this task.
Had we been there on our own we would have a serious mistake that Levente wisely avoided. We would have taken the standard hive down – and that would have probably aggrevated the bees greatly. Instead, Levente opened the hive, inspected the frames one by one and then shook the bees directly into the standard hive – which of course was still sitting on the top-bar-hive … and this time the bees, with no choice left, moved down. They were very frustrated and there were a few stings … however, with the help of much smoke, Andreea & Levente managed to get all the frames out, examined, shook .. and the bees to move into their new home. We also put in the modified follower-boards to prevent bee-leaks.
Because there were three of us and the event was less traumatic we realized that we could easily chop-and-crop a few frames of brood and honey. I had a table and tools setup nearbye and indeed we got 4 frames chopped-and-cropped and reinserted into the top-bar-hive. This time, as I was chopping the frames I also cut the remaining top-bar down to size. Most of the bees found their way into the hive though there was a small bundle under the hive (attached to the netting).
Andreea completed the day by manually squeezing honey from the crops left over from the standard frames. She aso found and left in the honey plenty of pollen.
This all happened yesterday. Today the two primary hives are very active and the third, split hive, less so. We’ll see how it goes.
We are relieved and happy. We are looking forward to the bees settling in their new homes. We still want to phase out the remaining converted top-bars … but other then that it looks like the transition has been completed. We are expecting our acacia trees to bloom in the coming weeks … and that should result in plenty of honey-stores for the bees … maybe even some for us 🙂
This transition had a wonderful and unexpected side-effect. Levente was very much opposed to our decision to abort the standard hives in favor of top-bar-hives. He is already used to us doing things differently and he usually watches us from the sidelines with curiosity. With the bees he was outright against what we were doing. However yesterday he saw that the bees were actually doing very well. He was impressed. We gifted him with the remaining 6 frames and the 4 queens. We then drove over to their place where we sat with Valentin, his brother-in-law, who is a professional beekeeper (standard hives). This time it was Levente telling Valentin about the top-bar-hives and showing off our queens … and Valentin also seemed curios and impressed. So the bees did an excellent job of making a case for top-bar hives … and so it goes 🙂
yesterday was a car-maintenance-and-some-city-stuff day … all went fairly well (though tomorrow we have to visit the mechanic again to complete some thing tht had to wait for parts (they don’t keep many parts on hand).
today started out completely clouded and gray and uninviting to the outside … so it started with some writing.
then the sun came out and drew me out too … I spent most of the day completing the structure of the mobile chicken shelter … very happy with the results.
yesterday evening the neighbors lent us a brooding hen, at night Andreea candled some of our eggs to choose the good ones … and we have one brooder at work sitting on 17 eggs … then today our neighbors called again and offered another brooder … and she is already in place sitting on 3 eggs to which more will be added tomorrow … we are still hoping at least one of our hens will get the idea and become broody 🙂
two fighter jets flew overhead today … I was used to hearing and seeing them in Israel … definitely not used to them here … as I looked up at them I thought how vulnerable self-sustaining life is in the face of mass-destruction!
When that seemed to work out OK I prepared a few top-bars with passage holes enabling the bees to move between the hives. I organized the bars so that there was one standard (sealed) bar and one passable bar in the hope that in the future we will have to transition less bars into regular sealed top-bars.
With everything ready to go we waited for a day with good conditions for placing the top-bar hive in place of the existing hive and then mounting the existing hive on it. It should have been a simple procedure. It wasn’t.
To place the existing hive onto the top-bar-hive we had to separate it from its bottom. It didn’t take much effort but when I got the first crack open bees poured out and attacked. Within seconds I was stung numerous times. We decided to follow through and within a few more seconds had the standard hive mounted on top of the top-bar-hive. We left it sticking out towards the front a bit so that the bees would be able to continue to enter following the known scent. Only later in the evening I came back and closed it completely. When I did so, the slightest move of the hive caused the bees to stir like crazy. An unnerving sensation.
We then realized there was another slight problem. This top-bar-hive was the one I tried to build out of construction-grade lumber I planed on my own. My work conditions and tools do not enable me to reach a uniformly planed surface so the seal with the follower boards was not good enough and bees were leaking out from there rather then from the hive openings. We left it as is for a few days … until today I came up with a simple solution. I glued (not sure the glue will hold) and stapled some pond liner that is sticking out from the sides and bottom.
I tested the solution in the 3rd hive and it looks like its working fine. We have unsteady weather, but as soon as possible we will place in the modified follower boards in the hope it will encourage the bees to use the existing openings.
It seems that the bees are much less agitated around Andreea then they are with me. The day after the transfer I sat a good distance away from the hives to watch the bees for a few minutes and a bee came after me and stung me in the forehead. Andreea spoke to Ildi and Levente (our neighbors) about this and Ildi said that she has the same problem. The bees are perfectly fine around Levente but very aggressive towards her. I wonder what it could be?
We are committed to natural beekeeping (we don’t consider standard beekeeping an option – but we are going to purchase a smoker just in case) but we are also a bit exhausted and overwhelmed by our first contact with it.
With this post published I am off to visit Biobees forums. We hope to find some comforting and advice on how to move forward from where we are now.
The night before last was horrible for me … I felt attacked and as if I had to defend myself … so I didn’t get much sleep. Then yesterday felt horrible (tired and achy). Tonight I didn’t sleep much either but I wasn’t attacked again and so I did manage to get some rest. I’m feeling better today. So,before I do anything else today I wanted to share this panorama image taken a couple of weeks ago. A short lived rain storm has just passed over us and the sun broke through the clouds again. This images is facing east … the dark storm clouds with the sunset-lit greens is one of favorite color palettes (you are welcome to click the image for a larger view).