Getting the Lead Out (phytoremediation)

When we purchased our home, it was the land I valued as the key asset.  Our first soil test brought the stunning news that lead in the soil averaged 480 parts per million, a level classified as “move garden to uncontaminated soil.”  We got busy researching, and learned that Helianthus annus, the common sunflower, will draw the lead out of the soil.

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With that shot of enthusiasm we got to work amending our land.  In the autumn of 2013 we sheet mulched a large space in our sun-drenched front yard; we call this the mandala garden.  On top of a thick layer of cardboard, we piled rock dust, aged manure, chopped leaves and perennials, and clean top soil: the pile was about 14″ high.

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By the spring of 2014 we tested the soil again and this area – far enough away from our house to be out of reach of lead paint chips – showed a level of 280; better but still too high to grow leafy or root vegetables.

We sowed many seeds of Titan, Russian, and Red Pilsen sunflowers and let nature run its course.  When we cut down all the sunflowers we disposed of them; you don’t want to compost those!

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This spring our soil test showed 215 ppm, which is classified as a “slight” contamination but still is a major step forward.  We continue to add compost, but we grew fruiting vegetables this summer.

And some sunflowers just for good measure.

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Seed Saving

This year we grew Good Mother Stallard pole beans for the Seed Temple in Estancia, New Mexico <followthegoldenpath.org>.  Our first time growing pole beans, I wasn’t sure how to dry them.  While I researched, Ella walked into the garden, plucked from the vine one dried pod, pulled it apart, and…VOILA!…green beans had turned a gorgeous mottled red.  Exquisite, fascinating, and a great shared lesson in seed saving.

We planted ten seeds and now have ten x ten x…an abundant cache to send back, to share with friends, and to sow next season.

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Chef’s Garden at the Inn

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A concise 6-month history of the Chef’s Garden:  in January, on the cold grey day of my first visit to Chebeague Island, I stood on a lawn at the Inn and was asked there to create a Chef’s Garden.

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IMG_4795In March, enthusiasm was high.  The chef offered his list of desired plants and my friends at Frinklepod Farm, Noah Wentworth and Flora Brown,  started the vegy, herb and flower seedings; David Buchanan, of Portersfield Cider, shared advice on berries and stone fruits; Nance Klehm, from the Seed Temple in Estancia, New Mexico, sent seeds of the 4 sisters: Corn, Pole Beans, Winter Squash and Sunflowers.

In April, Chuck Varney, of Second Wind Farm on Chebeague Island, plowed and turned the sod, we amended the soil, and then tilled to break the clumps.  We had neither time nor materials to sheet mulch; on the island, bulk compost and mulch are available only if barged over in a dump truck, so we have worked with the soil at hand.  The ground laid fallow a few weeks and then we worked our way across the field picking out roots and clumps of dried grass.

In late-May, on a rain-drenched day, Noah and I hauled across the bay crates filled with the starts and seeds: japanese eggplants, red and white onions, varieties of tomatoes, peppers, butternut and buttercup squash, bush beans, radishes, carrots, beets, slicing cucumbers, and a potager’s array of herbs and flowers.  Some seeds failed to germinate.  Some plants have been slow to take root.  Overall, the garden is flowering and fruits are forming on the vines.

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IMG_4798The chef has said that he walks through the garden to relax during long days in the kitchen.  Today, he harvested eggplants, peppers, squash blossoms, herbs and edible flowers for this evening’s menu.

How wonderful to see an idea coming to fruition, and to know that customers have been fed from our shared efforts.


Light & color: making marks

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Sheet Mulch: where the Princess meets permaculture

There are three stages to the life cycle of corrugated cardboard: it arrives as a shipping container, becomes an enchanted fairy princess castle, is put to use restoring the soil.  Each has its purpose, but the last pays dividends for a long, long time.

During our renovation, new appliances arrived packed in lots of cardboard.  I was as excited for the packaging as for the appliances.  The cardboard was repurposed quickly, as a fairy princess castle was ordered.  I was up to that challenge.  Many years back, I transformed, for my Nephew, some boxes into an underwater cave surrounded with schools of fish.  Image 1

These days my ambitions are less grand and a few cuts with a sharp knife sufficed here.  The rest was left to our daughter’s imagination.  Of which she has plenty.

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Eventually that castle became part of the clutter in her room, and I was beginning to plan a large sheet mulch project.  I carefully broached the topic that her castle would become a part of the garden.  To my relief, she said, “That would be fine, Daddy.”

The corrugated cardboard became a key layer of the 12-inch sheet mulch for the 600 sf vegetable garden that we are preparing for next season.  We layered the materials in October to allow them to decompose over the winter.  IMG_4610

I first learned about sheet mulch from David Homa, of Post Carbon Maine.  He is a local maven of permaculture and gave me this list of ingredients: lawn, stone dust, crushed shells, seaweed, leaves, finished compost, newspaper, straw.

Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden, has an excellent discussion of sheet mulch.  His material list for “the perfect sheet mulch” is:

  1. newspaper, corrugated box cardboard without staples or tape. cloth, old clothing, or wool carpet, provided they contain no synthetic fabric, but these take far longer to decay than paper.
  2. Soil amendments: lime, rock phosphate, bonemeal, rock dust, kelp meal, blood meal, and so on.
  3. Bulk organic matter: straw, spoiled hay, yard waste, leaves, seaweed, finely ground bark, stable sweepings, wood shavings, or any mixture of these, ideally resulting in an overall C:N ratio of 100/1 to 30/1 about 4 to 8 cubic yards of loosely piled mulch for 100-200 square feet
  4. Compost, about 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cubic yard (6 to 12 cubic feet).
  5. Manure: 1⁄4 to 1 cubic yard,
  6. A top layer of seed-free material, such as straw, leaves, wood shavings, bark, sawdust, pine needles, grain hulls, nut husks, or seagrass. You will need roughly 1 cubic yard

There is a wealth of information available on the web, including this site with photos showing each step in the process:

http://permaculturenews.org/2012/07/20/gorgeous-gardens-from-garbage-how-to-build-a-sheet-mulch/

My own recipe was based on the materials on hand.  My first layer was about three inches of horse manure applied directly on top of the lawn.

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I scattered stone dust and then layered the corrugated box cardboard.   The cardboard was placed above the manure to create a barrier preventing hayseeds from sprouting.  Newspaper was used to fill in the gaps between the pieces of cardboard.

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Wood chips were spread thickly on top of the cardboard, and then, for bulk organic matter, we put maple leaves, grass clippings, end-of-season cuttings of comfrey, hosta and other perennials.  The brown – carbon – side seemed to be dominant, so to boost the nitrogen side, I mowed my neighbors lawn (with fallen maple leaves) and added that into the mix.  My neighbor was thrilled – and a bit incredulous – at my generosity, but I still think I got the better side of that trade.

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I would have liked to add seaweed into the mix, but I never found the time to get down to the shore.  Our final layer was loam, primarily as a weight to keep the leaves and clippings from blowing during late autumn storms.

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I would have liked to top dress everything with a layer of finished compost, but that can wait until spring.

Gone are the days of “double dig” garden beds, and whether the rationale is carbon sequestration or protecting the soil structure, my back definitely was better off for following the sheet mulch approach.  We are building the beds directly on top of the existing lawn.  I have no idea what our final C:N ratio was but I remain steadfast in my belief that nature is forgiving.  We were close enough, and will continue to add layers of rich organic mulch annually.

We have made a big step forward toward our sun-loving vegetable garden.

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The Burden of Restoration

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We bought our home in “as-is” condition, a cash only sale because no bank would finance the property.  To our great fortune we found an angel to provide that cash, with an agreement that within two years I would pay them back with interest.

One year – almost to the day of moving in – we are completing a bank loan to honor that agreement, but in trading an angel for some bankers, I could not have fathomed the process, nor the word-smithing required, to meet bank standards.

At the earliest stage of the renovation we tore down the barn; too far gone for preservation, an easy choice, but we did keep a 200 square foot area that connected the barn to the Ell.  Nothing sentimental, it was a matter of necessity to have storage for the things and stuff of family life.

Our shed is quite old – tree trunks, with bark still on, function as studs – and it is not pretty: roofline sags, the only remaining shutter hangs forlorn from its last hinge, asbestos siding is missing in places.  At some stage I will take down the shed, and in its place erect a mudroom, second bathroom, and a bedroom for Becca and me.  And storage space.  But that is a project for some other season.

During the first year our focus has been the main house interior: to reduce the energy draw; to redo the plumbing, electric, kitchen, bathroom, and floors; to develop the garden beds for a permacultural homestead.

The timing of the refinance was an open question.  Last spring, when rates were incredibly low, I risked a meager appraised value because work remained unfinished.  The house was comfortably livable, but looked 90% done.

By early autumn, rates had increased, but my “punch list” was finished.  I felt optimistic.  Never could I have imagined the obstacle that would arise.

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Twenty years ago I set out to work in “humanitarian finance.”  My goal was to organize a trust fund to generate cash, free and clear, for media-based community development projects.  Back in the Clinton era, end of the last century, the economy was roaring and people excitedly thought the internet would be a boon for democracy rather than commerce.  The future seemed bright.

While reading in a Law Library I came across the “Philanthropy Protection Act of 1995”, Public Law 104-61, which allows not-for-profits to manage investments outside the constraints of the Investment Company Act of 1940, which, just happens to be the primary source of regulations for the mutual fund industry.

I found a loophole.  Public Law 104-61 is not widely known.  When I contacted McDermott Will & Emery, a law firm which has the largest tax practice in the United States, they declined to provide advice because no one on their staff had any knowledge of the law and they “didn’t want to learn at my expense.”

Naïve and strong willed, I forged ahead into the deep waters of off-shore finance.

Within a few years we held in trust assets of various and unusual form: safe keeping certificates for 100 metric tons of gold bullion held in the underground vaults at Kloten, Switzerland; a rough-cut emerald weighing 1,000 grams; title to thousands of acres in Ecuador.

The more rare the asset, the harder it seemed to manage.  How do you establish a bankable value for a one-of-a-kind emerald?  And after Sept 11, the likelihood of insuring such an asset became virtually impossible.

The Trust Fund also held, in Swiss bank accounts, liquid assets.  Cash, the ubiquitous United States Dollar, caused the greatest difficulty when one of the bankers helped himself to the trust funds.  Humanitarian finance was an oxymoron.

That banker went to prison in Lichtenstein.  The Trustees, myself included, became Defendants in a lawsuit in a Federal Court.  Ultimately the lawsuit was settled, but I was forced into bankruptcy.  I have kept my distance since from the world of the glassy-eyed banker.

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Coming into the refinancing my past was layered, but this is the means forward to secure this home and property for my family.  The process of restoration has been life affirming, and once I was ready for the appraisal, I began to see it as the last step in absolving the deep-rooted shame and pain from that debacle.

My credit scored well.  We locked in a good interest rate.  Only the appraisal remained.  We needed a value of $200,000.

The appraisal came in at $200,000 but subject to tearing down the shed.  Given that, the underwriter refused the appraisal, because that verbiage would not be acceptable to the secondary market.  We were dead in the water.

I told the bank that we would not tear down the shed just to complete the refi.  We do intend at some point to tear down the shed – I look forward to building the new addition – but I am not going to rush into that.

The bank asked about repairing the shed.  I made clear that would not be done before our interest rate lock expires, so that was a moot point.  The third option was to restate the value of the home excluding the shed.

Our home and the shed passed the City’s building inspection with no issues.  The home and shed are insured.  It seemed incredulous, but if one bank insisted the shed was an obstacle, why would any other bank see it differently?

The Loan Officer was highly motivated to make the loan and went to the Bank President.  The President, in turn, went back to the appraiser to appeal for a change of language.  The appraiser, to our great surprise, consented.  He changed his report.

Eighteen words made the difference: “the shed is not a safety hazard or concern.  Settling is normal for a building of that age.”  No repair needed, no tear down, no reduction in value.  Our home is now financeable.

It will be a meaningful personal victory when we close the refinance on 4 December, but our work of restoration has a long way yet to go.  The physical property may be the least of it.

The script of every life includes victories and struggles, and as a parent, my goal is to raise children not in the shadow of my circumstance but in resolution’s opening: healthy, intact, curious young souls able to explore, question, move forward without the baggage of their predecessors, the patterns of generations.

This burden of restoration reaches deep, and its ultimate measure will not be the financial, bankable asset, nor even the condition, of physical property, but the WHOLE self, the emotional, psycho-spiritual, playful aspects, that we nurture.

I had never seen it this way before, but through working to restore one piece of the earth, and to create a home and haven for my family, I have learned a new way to think for the second, let alone the seventh, generation.

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Getting ready to roost

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Chickens are coming!  We have a winter before they arrive, but today, on a warm mid-autumn holiday, we got to work putting up a stockade fence.

IMG_4304IMG_4308Mel, a great gardener from the big house helped, and our neighbor Steve came over to see what was going on.

Our backlot is overgrown with roots aplenty, and not far underground lies ledge.  By day’s end, the post hole digger was dented and bent.  But six sections of fence went up.  Privacy for the hens, and for us too.

The City of South Portland will allow six hens – no Roosters – per household.  Muscovy Ducks would be welcome; they love to eat flies, maggots, mosquitos, mosquito larva, slugs, bugs of all sorts, black widow spiders, the brown fiddleback spider and any thing else that creeps and crawls.  They are a boon to any garden.

IMG_4309 If two households pair up, would that allow twelve birds in total – a mixture of chickens and ducks?  Steve had chickens decades ago, and welcomes the idea.  Maybe we have the chickens and he keeps the ducks, and they waddle back and forth, foraging here and there as they go.  Something fun to ponder as the winter winds begin to blow.  
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