Friday, October 21, 2011

Giveaway Winner

The randomly chosen winner of the giveaway for The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is Alexis, Baron von Harlot - an Aussie reader who blogs at Lexicon Harlot.  Congratulations, Alexis!  Please leave your contact information in the comment section, and I'll get the book out to you just as soon as ever I can.  Your comment will not be published.

Thanks so much to those of you who entered the giveaway and shared your fantastic frugality and homesteading tips.  I really enjoyed reading them and hearing what all of you are up to.  It's encouraging to hear about so much ingenuity and general thriftiness out there in the big world.  I hope you all have checked out the tips and tricks in that comment section.

Those of you who didn't win, I recommend you find some way to check the book out nonetheless, whether by buying it or asking your local library to acquire a copy for you to peruse.  In the event I don't hear from Alexis by Tuesday next week, I'll generate another number and try with another winner.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cooking an Old Hen, with Knefles

When we slaughtered the last of our broiler chickens towards the end of September, we also dispatched our two Cuckoo Marans hens at the same time. The Cuckoo Maran is a dual-purpose chicken, which means it divides its energies between laying eggs and putting meat on its bones. We found the legs on the Cuckoos quite sizable, though the breasts weren't all that much to write home about.  After butchering the birds into cuts, I put the carcasses into the freezer to save for making stock and rendered all the fat into schmaltz to use for sumptuous roasted potatoes and other vegetables. Given my penchant for frugality and the amount of meat the two Cuckoos yielded, I decided to try again to make old hen meat palatable.

I had tried the time-honored coq au vin recipe with a previous batch of hens to no avail.  Still, to buy myself some time, I let the cut up legs, wings, and breasts marinate in some cheap white wine in the fridge for three days.  Maybe this was excessively long for marinating, but I was hedging my bets as well as simply being too busy to get to it sooner.

I had ambitions for experimenting with several different methods for cooking the meat, but as it happened the one that I managed to execute worked out pretty well.  So I'll outline what did work.  I started with a few diced onions cooked in olive oil just until they were softened and then lightly seared the chicken parts in the same pan.  The onions and chicken went into a bowl with some of the white wine marinade (enough to come about halfway up the meat in the bowl) and then were cooked in my pressure cooker for 45 minutes, at about 10 pounds of pressure.  When that was done, the meat was reasonably tender, so I gave some thought to how I might use it.  And here we come knefles and to what I can only hope is a worthy divagation.

Chicken and dumplings is a time-honored American dish for good reason, and I felt like going in that direction.  But it was cold outside, and I wanted something a little denser than the light biscuits that feature in the classic southern supper.  So I thought of knefles, a culinary guilty pleasure of mine.  I found the recipe in a fortuitous reprint of a delightful old cookbook, Cooking With Pomiane.  The book is genteelly dated and well worth the read, more of a tour through a charming bit of culinary history than a cookbook for our times.  But the recipe for knefles has proved an exception and earned a place in my kitchen repertoire.  They're a sort of Gallo-Germanic pasta that would be considered an abomination by the Italians, which, I grant you, isn't saying much.  The Italians think that any deviation from the particular pasta of their own particular region results in something fit only for barbarians.  Knefles, which hail from the Alsace region, would be distinguished then by the unanimity with which Italians of every region would heap scorn upon them.

So what are knefles?  Just a rough dough made with flour, milk, and egg, then scooped up by the teaspoonful.  You knock the scoops of dough into boiling salted water as you make them one by one and cook for ten minutes.  That's it.  Sort of like gnocchi, or schupfnudeln, or spaetzle, but not really any of those things.  Knefles are easier to make and less refined.  You can sauce them when they're cooked, or add a little butter and cheese and bake them, or you can play around with them like I do.  I like to add lots of finely minced fresh herbs from the garden to the dough.  I'm fairly certain that it's incorrect, but I pronounce the K in knefles.  It reminds me of Roald Dahl's vermicious knids.  And how likely am I to run across anyone who could authoritatively correct my pronunciation?

To get back to my harvest meal, in this case I used knefles as replacements for the dumplings in chicken'n dumplings.  So I put some chicken stock on to boil with the remaining white wine from the marinade, threw in the onions that had pressure-cooked with the chicken cuts, added some thyme and made a batch of knefles with chives and garlic chives in them.  Here's the recipe, which can easily be doubled:


1/2 pound (~230 g) flour (1 1/2 generous cups)
finely minced fresh herbs to taste (optional)
1 egg
about 1/2 cup (~24 cl) of milk

Combine the flour with the herbs if you are using them.  Mix in the egg and then enough of the milk to make a thick, shaggy dough that is just a shade too sticky to knead by hand.  Work the dough with a sturdy spoon for a few minutes in the bowl to develop texture.  Bring salted water or another cooking liquid to a brisk simmer just shy of full boiling and begin to shape the knefles.  Using the tip of a teaspoon scoop up a small hunk of the dough, only enough to cover about half the spoon.  Dip the spoon into the boiling water and knock it firmly against the rim of your pot.  The dough will fall into the water.  (Avoid the urge to scoop more dough and make bigger knefles.  The dough will expand anyway when cooked, and bite-sized knefles cook through better than large ones.)  Repeat until all the dough has been shaped and put into the water.  Stir the contents of the pot once very gently to detach the knefles from the bottom of the pan.  Cover the pan and adjust the heat so that the knefles cook at a steady simmer for ten minutes.  The knefles should have doubled in size and all be floating. Test for doneness the first time you make them, just in case you made them too big.  Then drain and sauce to your liking. Serve hot.

I cooked the chivey knefles in the chicken stock and wine, adding chopped garden carrots when they were halfway done.  While that cooked I took the chicken meat off the bones and tore it all into bite-sized pieces.  When the knefles were finished cooking I added the shredded chicken meat, some frozen peas and chopped parsley to the pot and let those ingredients just heat through.  This was all served up in a thoroughly non-photogenic mess.  What can I say?  The light in my kitchen sucks.  But the mess went down very nicely, very tastily indeed.  Since my childhood didn't equip me with nostalgia for chicken'n dumplings, I have to say that old hen'n knefles is a superior dish in my book.  This definitely counts as a harvest meal for us.  On our sub-acre lot we produced the hen, chicken stock, eggs, carrots, and all the herbs that went into the dish.  I happened to use purchased onions for the dish, but it could just as easily have been made with homegrown leeks.

An illicit glee invariably accompanies the preparation and consumption of a dish so comfortingly barbaric.  At least for me.  We always have the ingredients on hand, so it's sort of surprising that we don't indulge in them more often.  Knefles are about as cheap as anything you could possibly prepare at home.  Even a single batch makes more than two adults will eat as a side dish.  I sometimes save half the dough in the refrigerator and make the rest the next day.  The dough won't keep much longer than that, though surplus cooked knefles can be held in the fridge for a few days.  Put a little oil or melted butter on extras while they're still hot if you want to hold them; it will prevent them sticking to each other.  Cooked knefles can be pan-fried, but if you've refrigerated them try to bring them to room temperature first and cook them slowly and gently so they heat through without burning.  If you want to pan-fry freshly cooked knefles, spread them out to air dry for a few minutes so they'll brown a bit better.

If you make any similar sort of dumpling-y, comforting dish from flour, potatoes, or other starchy ingredients, I'd love to hear about it.  In detail, of course.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hoop House is Coming Together

We've been struggling to get our tiny hoop house project done, racing the first frost of the season, which has been remarkably dilatory in arriving.  Not that I'm complaining, believe me. This project was slated to begin in June, and technically, it did.  It's simply been a series of one delay after another.  Unreasonably hot summer weather accounted for some of the delay, a general gardening funk on my part contributed its own special languor, needing to stay out of the way of a contractor helped us delay some more, and then my husband's broken thumb came along, right when we really needed to get down to business.

But we're finally getting somewhere.  The bones of our 12'x15' hoop house are up.  The raised beds are in, and even planted.  All the stuff we needed to attach to the frame before the sheeting went on is done.  We used up almost an entire roll of duct tape covering up anything that might possibly wear or tear the plastic sheeting.  And the sheeting is on, though not shown in the picture above.  Now we just need to get the ends framed in before it's too cold to work outside.  This will be a big job, and probably as jury-rigged as the rest of the structure.

I went ahead and planted two of the beds when I just couldn't stand it any longer.  I was worried about missing the window of opportunity with the seeding dates.  It was a rather haphazard seeding job, and a groundhog helped itself to some of my lovely seedlings, but at least there's some greenery in there for the inaugural winter.  Two of the beds measure about 3.7'x9.5',  and the third 3.7'x11', giving us a bit more than 110 square feet (10.3 square meters) of bed space.  We'll only be growing food in two of these over the winter however.

The third bed is going to house our chickens over the winter on deep litter bedding.  This saves us the hassle of rebuilding the winter quarters we've provided for them in the shed the past two years.  We've built a containment system out of green garden netting in that bed,the farthest one in the picture above.  This space is just a bit larger than the 30 square feet (2.8 square meters) the hens get each day in the mobile coop and pen system they're in most of the year.  It includes feeder, waterer, a "bleacher" double roosting bar and a nesting bucket for them.  Right now they're just testing out the new digs.  They'll soon be putting in more light tilling and weeding service elsewhere until winter is well under way.  In theory the chickens' body heat will nudge up the temperature in the hoop house a little bit, thus helping the plants.  I say in theory because even in so small a hoop house as this one, four chickens can't possibly make much difference.  But we shall see.

I've got a few more tricks up my sleeve to try out and write about in the mini-hoop house.  So there will be more posts on the hoop house as we put the finishing touches on it, move through the seasons, and learn to make the best use of it.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Giveaway: The Small-Scale Poultry Flock

As I mentioned in my book review of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, I received two complimentary copies of this book.  So I'm hosting a giveaway to share the bounty with my readers.  This is a fantastic book for all homesteaders, urban chicken-keepers, and those who have yet to acquire their first small flocks.  If you haven't seen my review of it from last week, you may want to check that out.  By all means, do visit the author's website, The Modern Homestead.  It's full of thoughtful insights and useful information for anyone interested in moving towards self-sufficiency on a small acreage.

I mentioned that there was other news to do with Harvey Ussery.  I was thrilled to hear that he would once again be speaking at PASA's Farming for the Future Conference, which I attend each year in early February.  Hearing Harvey's presentation at this conference  four and a half years ago was what inspired me to start my own backyard flock.  But then, to my utter amazement I got an email from him a few weeks ago asking if I would like to co-present with him during his all day pre-conference homesteading track.  I went through a rapid series of thoughts and reactions, all centering on my paltry amount of experience as a homesteader compared to his two and a half decades in this vocation.  I was floored, honored, uncertain, hesitant, and thrilled.  In the end, I provided plenty of caveats, but ultimately said yes.  So!  I'm going to be presenting at next year's conference if only as a junior member to a seasoned and top-notch speaker.

I've encouraged my local-ish readers to attend this conference before, and I've written up summaries of things I've learned from this event in past years.  Now I can say, come introduce yourself to me at the conference.  Even if you've already read (right here on the blog) much of what I'll be talking about, you will learn a lot from Harvey Ussery, and I guarantee you'll come away loaded with enthusiasm and motivation.

Onwards to the giveaway.   Up for grabs is one copy of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.  This is not exactly a freebie giveaway; I want something in exchange for your chance to win.  I'm asking for a comment with your best frugality, homemaking or small-scale homesteading tip.  I want to see some creative ideas here, people, not the obvious beginners-level ideas you find in the most simplistic magazine articles.  Tell me your secrets for saving energy, making a delicious meal on a dime, a great gardening trick, a labor-saving tip for any part of the homestead, a special recipe you use for canning, lacto-fermenting, or curing the foods you put up,  or anything else clever you've come up with that fits in a homemaking or homesteading category. 

Tedious stuff you should read anyway:  One entry per person.  Entries for this giveaway will be accepted until Wednesday, October 19th at 6pm, Eastern time.  You must either be signed in to some account that will easily and obviously lead me to a way to contact you, or else leave a means of contact in your entry comment.  Anonymous comments that do not include an email address will not be considered as entries for the giveaway. Winner will be chosen randomly from all valid entries, which must contain the aforementioned tip.  The winner will need to disclose (privately, to me only) full name and mailing address.  I'm opening the giveaway this time to readers from overseas, so get your comment-entries in.  I'll announce the winner by Friday, October 21st.  If I can't reach the winner in a couple of days, I'll select another and try again until it all works out.

Good luck!

Edit 10/19/2011: Comments are now closed.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tiller Hens and a Reconsidered Routine

Our hens moulted about five or six weeks ago, and are slowly regrowing their feathers.  This is a calorically intensive process, and so our egg supply has fallen off a cliff.  On a good day we get two eggs from four hens; on the not so good days, one or none.  It doesn't help that we slaughtered the two Cuckoo Marans hens that were the more consistent egg producers with the last of our broilers at the end of September.  The Cuckoos were younger birds, but my experience suggests that their egg laying becomes pretty sporadic after the first year of laying.  Aside from that, the Cuckoos were much flightier than our Red Stars, who I'd made a point to handle regularly during their winter sojourn on deep litter bedding in our shed.  While the Red Stars aren't exactly thrilled about me picking them up, they tolerate it pretty well instead of panicking as the Cuckoos did.  I suspect it's all down to conditioning and handling rather than reflective of innate disposition of two different breeds.  The breeder we got the Cuckoos from didn't habituate them to being handled.

The reason this is all relevant is that I needed the hens to do some weeding and tilling for me this fall.  I knew the Cuckoo Marans would never be easily moved from one spot to another.  Getting the hens in and out of the poultry schooner requires twice daily handling, since the schooner must be positioned over each garden bed and maneuvered carefully around beds that still have plants on them.  The hens go back into their mobile coop each night, leaving me free to reposition the empty schooner.  Dealing with hens that were terrified of me wasn't on the agenda.  So the Cuckoos met their end with the last of our broilers, and went on to a useful afterlife of chicken stock, schmaltz, and a hearty dish of chicken and knefles, which I may tell you about sometime if I find the time.

The remaining hens, our Red Stars, are now earning their keep by clearing a large weed infested area for me.  This is the bed we referred to as the three sisters, where we meant to grow the three sisters crops this year: winter squash, beans, and corn (maize).  That came to nothing when labor was spread too thin and the bed never made it close enough to the top of the list to get weeded.  What the squash vine borers didn't kill, or the birds pluck out of the ground, or the long summer dry spell didn't kill outright, was overwhelmed by weeds of every stripe.  It was a jungle in there.  With the help of some garden caging that is easy to move around every day or so, the hens have weeded and lightly tilled this area into submission, while adding their own manure and mixing it into the soil.  Which is great; saves me a lot of time and prepares the area for some heavy-duty, remedial lasagna mulching.  It also gives me a chance to see the fanciful nesting box in action.  I banged this thing together this spring in anticipation of hosting a broody hen with some eggs.  The hen never materialized, but the nesting box was ready to go when I needed it for this project.  If they aren't earning their keep by giving us eggs, at least the hens are contributing labor and fertility in the form of their manure.

Weeded and yet-to-be-weeded areas are clearly distinguishable
 The hens eagerly hone in on each new slice of territory when I move the caging every other day or so.  That must mean that they've picked over the ground they've had access to pretty well.  In order to encourage them to scratch and till the ground I've adopted a feeding strategy gleaned from Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener, which I reviewed a while back.  Namely, I don't feed the hens in the morning while they're on tilling duty.  Their hunger early in the day motivates them to scratch down the weeds to look for grubs, worms, and other choice bits in the three sisters area.  I add plenty of garden cullings and whatever kitchen scraps we have.  Then late in the afternoon I provide them with some of their purchased grain feed.  That way they don't go to bed hungry and they have something to look forward to most of the day.

The afternoon feeding doesn't work with the mobile coop and pen we've been using most of the time since we got chickens four years ago.  In that system, the hens go into the coop in the evening and are locked in until I let them out the next morning.  I always try to let them out close to sunrise so that they're not literally cooped up and unhappy.  The time before I release them each morning is the only time during the day that I have access to the pen without them in it.  So I always provided their food and water first thing in the morning.  I like the late afternoon feeding not only because it gives me a more leisurely cup of tea in the morning, (though it's grand, let me tell you) but also because I think it saves money on feed.  The hens eat less when they've scrounged for themselves most of the day, even though they're currently regrowing their feathers.  This was precisely Deppe's reasoning for the afternoon feeding time - to conserve money when times are tough.  Seeing how well this works is encouraging me to consider ways of making this standard operating procedure for the hens next year.  I have to think on it some more over the winter, but we'll likely need to build new housing for them next spring anyway.  So it'll be a good opportunity to change things up.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: The Small-Scale Poultry Flock

I've got a bit of a problem today.  This is a review of a book that's worthy of all the gushing I can muster up.  But there's also a credibility issue.  I want my readers to trust that my opinion can't be bought, and that what you read here is my unbiased viewpoint.  To that end I don't respond to offers of products in exchange for reviews. (The implicit expectation of course being, that the reviews would be positive.)  While I have Amazon links to books and a few other products, these are for things I have paid for and been very pleased with, and am thus happy to recommend to others.  I also link a couple of books at a time in the sidebar without endorsement, simply as books I'm reading. Few of those ever end up on my Bookshelf list, which I'm pretty choosy about.

So with that out of the way I have to disclose that I'm not wholly disinterested in the book I'm recommending today, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.  The author, Harvey Ussery, is the person I consider my chicken guru.  Hearing his presentation at the PASA conference four and a half years ago is what convinced me to get started with a backyard flock.  His enthusiasm for not only keeping chickens for meat or eggs, but using them in an integrated way around the homestead spoke deeply to me.  A link to his non-blog website has been on my sidebar since Living The Frugal Life got started.  I had the chance to see him at another small conference early last year.  Speaking with me after his presentation, he mentioned that he had just secured a book contract for a title on small-scale poultry.  I offered to review his book when it came out, fairly confident that I would be able to give it a glowing recommendation, which I can.  He gave me his card and after that I began an intermittent email correspondence with him on poultry topics.  What I didn't expect was for him to invite me to give feedback on the manuscript before it was even submitted to his editor.  I was more than flattered to be asked and I happily devoured his first draft, offering what few comments and suggestions occurred to me.

Well, I had to wait for the finished copy to come out to see the pictures.  The end result is fabulous; well worth the wait.  Blows every other title I've seen on backyard chickens right out of the water.  Harvey's view is both broader and deeper than the typical small-scale poultry guide.  He considers the behaviors of various poultry species and how those behaviors are best incorporated to the benefit of the homestead and the homesteader.  Harvey's approach to poultry husbandry is to build health into the flock from the ground up.  Or rather, from below the surface of the soil on up.  He believes, as I do, that healthy soils are the basis for all sustaining and sustainable food production.  To that end, he manages his flocks so that they are able to express their full range of natural behaviors, and so they are always benefiting, rather than damaging, the soils they are on from day to day and month to month.  He also has a discernible frugal streak, which obviously appeals to me.  Both his frugality and his desire to provide healthy natural feeds to his livestock have led him to look for ways to feed poultry from the homestead's own resources.  This is right up my alley, and a topic rarely addressed by other writers.

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock will certainly help those who are poultry beginners. Though all aspects of keeping poultry are covered comprehensively in this book, it's not the equivalent of trying to drink from a firehose for anyone who has yet to start their first flock.  If you are an aspiring backyard chicken keeper, this book contains everything you need to get started, plus a great deal more.  This is really a book pitched to those who already have some experience with one or two poultry species, who want to take things to the next level or beyond.  I'm not speaking here in terms of flock size, but of integration - specifically, fully utilizing the labor potential of poultry, reducing the need for purchased feeds, recognizing and using the fertilizing value of manure, and choosing species, breeds and management practices to best suit a particular bit of earth.  Harvey is a tireless observer of the natural world, as well as a keen experimenter.  What he has to share has been learned through decades of trial and error and empirical observation of his livestock.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this title to anyone who wants to keep chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, or guinea hens on a small scale.  Whether you want birds for meat or eggs, whether you want to start with pullets or hatch out your own chicks, whether you are on a small suburban lot or have a few acres in the country, whether you want to slaughter your own birds or are comfortable with running an old age home for hens past their productive years, this book should be on your bookshelf.  The Small-Scale Poultry Flock makes the other two backyard poultry books I own look rather limited and simplistic.

As it happens, when Harvey's book was printed and bound I received one complimentary copy from him, and another from his publisher, Chelsea Green.  Much as I love the book, I don't require two copies.  So I'll be hosting a giveaway of my extra copy next week sometime.  Stay tuned for the giveaway, plus some other news on this topic.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Further Thoughts on Lasagna Mulching

It's fall and my thoughts turn to lasagna mulching the garden beds to retire them for the year.  I've had the chance to observe the effects that a few years of lasagna mulching have had on our garden, and wanted to share those observations with you.

First off, let's review what lasagna mulching, also known as sheet mulching, consists of.  The basic practice is to cut down any vegetation to the soil line, but leave all plant material lying in place.  You might not want to do this if there are lots of obvious seed heads on weeds.  While lasagna mulching certainly curtails weeds, I don't like to incorporate weed seeds, which can lie dormant for ten years or more, into the soil any more than is unavoidable.  Any vegetation other than seed heads is great - just extra organic matter. The next step is to add soil amendments.  These should be tailored to what your soil needs.  I use finished compost obtained from our township, wilted leaves of comfrey grown on site, our half-finished compost, a bit of greensand to help loosen our clay soil, and sometimes fresh manure laid down in situ by our laying hens.  Next comes a covering of paper, newspaper, or cardboard. If using any kind of paper, it should be thoroughly soaked before or after being laid down, to help it conform to the contours of the soil.  The heavier and thicker this layer, the longer the weed suppression will last, and the less frequently you will need to repeat the entire process.  Finally, a good layer of wood chip mulch covers the paper.  Again, the more of this you can pile on, the longer it will last and the better the weed control.

Some gardeners will actually repeat these layers in one go - thus, multiple layers of compost, paper and mulch laid down on the same day.  I have never had the luxury of having so much material to work with.  But if you have a small area and sufficient materials to do so, why not?  On the other hand, I omit the soil amendments when working on areas that I never intend to plant in, such as walkways in the garden and border areas where I only want to suppress weeds.

My first motivation for lasagna mulching was exactly that - weed control.  This is something that the technique accomplishes with great success.  There are a few weeds that can make their way up through even a freshly laid section of lasagna mulch, and some airborne seeds that will land on and germinate in the wood chip layer, but those few are generally easy to remove by hand.  What I wanted to discuss today though are the additional benefits of lasagna mulching.  There are several of them that I've observed so far.

Significant soil improvement is one of them.  This isn't exactly surprising; it's routinely mentioned as the "other" benefit of the technique besides weed control.  But knowing intellectually that it would help the soil didn't quite prepare me for the fat earthworms I've been coming across.  They're not inordinately long as worms go, but they are rotund.  Wider than a pencil by a long shot; embonpoint, even.  I hope it's not the case that the obesity epidemic has now spread as far as earthworms.  But clearly these worms aren't going hungry.  Their presence is both an indicator of healthy soil as well as a guarantee that the soil will be even better over time.  Every earthworm is a mobile factory of soil fertility, and I count each sighting as a blessing.  I also see, year by year, healthier plants that are better able to withstand the vagaries of stressful growing seasons.

The other benefits of lasagna mulching all have to do with what I believe are leading indications of the changes that global climate weirding are going to bring to my region.  More than one model of climate change that I've seen predicts routine summertime drought across much of the US.  My immediate region is forecast to escape the worst of this trend, but still the summers could still be drier than they historically have been.  The last two summers here certainly have been that way, whether or not they were part of an emerging new pattern.  Mulching and good organic content in the topsoil are critically important for plants dealing with water stress.  Mulching because it curbs evaporative loss of moisture.  And high organic content because organic matter acts like a sponge, soaking up water and releasing it slowly as plants need it.  Lasagna mulching provides for both of these.

The flip side of the dry spells predicted under the climate change models is a pattern of more violent storms.  This may seem contradictory, but it really isn't when you look at the meteorological explanations.  Namely, a more energetic (warmer) atmosphere that is able to carry and move more water vapor.  And in any case, whether it makes intuitive sense or not, this is exactly what we saw this year: About ten weeks of rain too insignificant to help the garden crops followed by a hurricane and a tropical storm that washed out roads, flooded farmlands, wiped out crops, and carried topsoil straight into the waterways, not to mention killing a few people and destroying a few homes.  Our garden certainly took damage from these storms, and we had standing water in the portion of our backyard that is just barely lower than our garden.  But careful inspection of the garden itself proved that we lost no topsoil at all to the heavy rains.  Again, I believe credit goes to the lasagna mulching.

Phallus rubicundus (yes, really), red stinkhorn mushroom

It wasn't just that the paper and wood chip mulch protected the soil beneath them.  Within a few short weeks of laying down these materials I can find evidence mycorrhizal mycelium colonizing the entire area.  These are networks of fine hair-like structures, the fungal equivalent of roots.  The white threads are easily seen near the surface, knitting the soil together in an enormous net.  I know by the wide variety of mushrooms that fruit out of those networks that we have at least a dozen different species of mycelium at work in the top layers of our garden soil.  I take this as a spectacular indicator of biodiversity and the increasing health of our soil.  Although I started lasagna mulching for weed control, the practice would be worthwhile even if the mycelium were the only benefit.  If you wonder why I think so highly of mycelium, I refer you to Paul Stamets'  eye-opening, jaw-dropping book, Mycelium Running.  Fungi of all types provide invaluable services to other life forms in the topsoil.  They mitigate stresses on plants, break down tough organic matter into materials accessible to other organisms, move critical soil nutrients from areas of excess to where they are deficient, and can even bind up harmful substances (such as salts) in a waxy coating so that they become inert in the soil.  Truly, mycelium is a blessing in the garden, and observation has convinced me that lasagna mulching equates to laying out the welcome mat for the fungal kingdom.

Unknown mushroom.  Enlighten me?

Finally, there's the fact that lasagna mulching entails a bit of carbon sequestration.  That means, on balance, that we're taking carbon that could otherwise end up in the atmosphere (where it could do us further harm), and locking it into organic material in our soil (where it can do us some good).  The amount of carbon that I manage to store away on our property may seem trivial.  And in fact, it is.  But the truth is that an acre of topsoil is capable of holding more carbon than all the air directly above it, all the way to the outermost edges of our atmosphere.  But that carbon has to be stored up by and in living things working with plenty of resources in healthy soil.  If the project were undertaken on a wide scale, boosting the organic matter stored in our topsoil and the living woody plants above it could go a long way to ameliorate the carbon emissions wreaking havoc with the climate; earth is populated, after all, by carbon-based lifeforms, and that's what organic matter is.  My infinitesimal contribution is to do what I can with the soil I have some control over.  You could do the same.  I believe we will never solve the many problems stemming from industrial society's waste streams (and there are obviously many) until we look at the "wastes" we generate as resources so valuable that people compete for access to them.  It's a challenge for me to lay my hands on enough cardboard, newspaper and wood chip mulch to cover all the areas I would like to, and this despite the fact that several people save their newspapers for me, and I know where to get cardboard and mulch for free.

Having outlined the benefits as I see them, I'll share a few tweaks I'm making to the way I use lasagna mulching.  I've tried planting seedlings into a freshly lasagna mulched bed in the spring and found it problematic.  While the plants survive, they don't grow particularly well without a great deal of hand-watering.  The layers of paper soak up so much water that relatively little of it reaches the roots of the plants.  The dry summers the last two years haven't helped.  I have to water directly into the hole I punched through the paper layer to plant the seedling.  This entails far more work than I would like.  Fortunately I find no such difficulties in beds that I lasagna mulch in the autumn.  By spring the paper layers have broken down enough to let water pass more easily through them, although they still provide something of a barrier to weeds. So I'm going to do my best in future to lasagna mulch my garden beds in fall, and the borders and pathways in spring or summer.  I'm also sold on letting the chickens participate in the lasagna mulching process as often as possible.  They enjoy their carefully orchestrated visits to individual garden beds that I'm done with for the year, it saves me that first step of having to clear the weeds, and they boost soil fertility by lightly tilling in their own manure.

One possible drawback to lasagna mulching is that the moist conditions it fosters just under the surface can be a boon to slugs and snails.  This was apparent in 2009, the last wet year we had.  The past two summers have been quite dry for us and I saw very few slugs anywhere in the garden.  If I lived in a wetter climate I might look for some other technique to build our soil.  Here in Pennsylvania I'm comfortable using diatomaceous earth to control what slugs and snails we have in wet years.  And if the climate change models are correct, we're not going to be contending with wet summers very often.

Well, there are my reflections on lasagna mulching, after using this technique in my gardens for about three years.  I think it's making enormous contributions to the health of my garden soil while saving me a lot of effort in weeding.  I'll do my best to keep that in mind as I try to get all the mulching done this month.

Cyathus striatus, fluted bird's nest mushroom