Category Archives: compost

April Fool

So, I’ve been absent for a few weeks and for that I apologize. It is not I assure you from lack of work on the farm, more a shift of writing priorities and spending more time on the Agoge Fitness Systems blog and my gym business.

Since I last posted here I finished editing a book on weight loss, attended a transformational workshop in St. Petersburg, Florida and still manged to keep things moving on the farm. Oh yeah, I also kept my business afloat and trained my clients.

So what’s been happening at the Acre?

The weekend after my last post I had my good friend Bob Maharrey, an experienced arborist, come and help me fell the more troublesome trees on the lot. Which he did with aplomb and grace. In two short hours he helped me drop three of the four intended trees. His schedule was tight and the fourth looked to be well within my skill set, so I sent him off with my blessings and thanks.

I probably should have gotten him to help me with that last tree. Instead with all the confidence of one whose knowledge is just enough to get him in trouble I set into felling this last tree.

I thought it grew straight. Really, I did.

But it was only after I’d made my pie cut that I realized it had a decided slant in the direction I did not want it to fall. (Are you noticing a pattern here with me and felling trees?)

So here I am once again in a total “oh crap” situation wondering how I’m gonna get out of this one. Somehow the situation loses it’s humor when you are both Laurel and Hardy.

“Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Blessed be the meek, for their ego is not so big they cannot ask for help.

And ask I did.

Luckily my neighbor, Bobby, a landscaper, was working with his guy, Jose. (Yes, there are still Latinos in Alabama.) Jose came over and we finally resolved the situation by getting a rope high enough into the tree that I could pull it in the direction we wanted it to fall as Jose finished the cut.

I spent the rest of the afternoon cutting logs to border our hugelkultur beds and dragging them out of the woods using the brilliant new technology John Paul had introduced me to the previous week. By the end of the day I had everything in place except for one log that was just too big for me to move. Again I called on Jose. He capped his day by helping me pull the log in question down to the garden space and I showed my gratitude with a surreptitious $20 tip.

That Sunday I finished laying out the beds.

The following weekend I had a workshop in St. Petersburg, Florida. You can read all about that here.

Last weekend I drove some 50 miles to Shelby, Alabama for a $5 load of composted horse manure and sawdust. When we got back I was met by my Emerson’s Acre partner, Stephanie McDonald, and her husband, Rob.

Together, with the added muscle of my wife, Samantha, we made short work of a truck load of composted horse poo. In less than two hours we had the entire load moved and two of the four beds filled and ready to go.

I distinctly remember a feeling of disappointment when we were done. We still had an hour or so of daylight and I still had energy. The job just seemed a little too easy.

Fast forward a week.

Yesterday after working at the gym until 11 am I loaded up Bronwyn, Thalia and Bronwyn’s friend, Ella, another girl under 12, and headed back to Shelby. The guy I get the compost from has four horses, one of them a miniature, and the girls were eager to see them.

In my experience the only way to maintain the upper hand with a gaggle of pre-adolescent girls is to beat them to the punch, subdue them with embarrassment as it were. As such we listened to the 90’s grunge station loudly and I sang along, loudly. It worked like a charm.

We stopped at Tractor Supply Company, my new favorite retail store, on the way back. Ella goofed, Thalia laughed, and Bronwyn searched for a halter “small enough to fit the goats.” She abandoned that search when the smallest one she could find was “twenty dollars!” and she found out I was going to make her buy it herself.

I bought a shepherd’s crook, will full intent to make it easier to catch Honey and Harriet, a bag of sweet feed and a new rubber feed bowl.

Once back at the house everyone scattered, as I expected. Resignedly I assigned the girls the task of keeping my water bottle full, stripped off my shirt (doing my best to defeat the farmer’s tan, you know) and set to work.

Rob and Stephanie were off camping this weekend and it didn’t seem right to call anyone else at the last minute.

“Hey Buddy, wanna come over to my place and shovel shit?”

Like any veteran personal trainer I began with the compulsive counting of reps. 25 shovels to the wheelbarrow, 100 yards to the garden bed…I lost track of the trips. I started around three thirty and worked until after seven. The final run was a hard blitz to get finished. A thunder storm was brewing up and I really didn’t want to spend today extracting the remaining mud from the bed of my truck.

Halfway through the chore I was reminded of my love/hate relationship with my boots. They’re a pair of ten year old Red Wings I bought back when I was still in the construction business. A well meaning chiropractor had sent me to an equally well meaning orthopedist. The orthopedist had outfit me with shoe inserts (after all that’s what they do, right?) and recommend that I look into Red Wings for work boots. Out of the near $600 investment the only worthwhile component was the boots. Man, I love those boots.

So much so that three years ago when the soles wore out, rather than replace them I had them resoled. Being a cheap bastard I opted or a local cobbler who was closer and cheaper than the closest Red Wing outfit.

Not knowing any better I let them replace the sole with a lug sole. Mudcatchers. Those soles have caused more heart ache than I care to recount. They trap dirt and mud and then release them the minute I step in the house. No amount of boot scraping or stomping will allow me to grab a glass of water or run to the bathroom without an earful of scolding for tracking dirt in the house.

Once I had moved half of the load I decided to climb up into the bed to make shoveling more effective. Instantly my soles filled up and my traction was reduced to nil.

On my eleventy-billionth trip up the hill I slipped. Falling face first into the hill I struck my left knee and planted the wheelbarrow handles hard into the ground in front of me. I dumped half of my load into my face and suddenly not wearing a shirt lost most of it’s charm.

Quick to recover, lest the goats start to snicker, I brushed myself off and dumped my load.

More and more I began to consider just what my friends might be doing at that moment. In my mind’s eye they were all lazy, shiftless bastards. Probably doing nothing more productive than just “hanging out” and drinking beer. Shameful, I admit, but it’s true. In all honesty I don’t know if I was questioning the sanity of my own actions or trying on a little superiority to motivate me to finish. Either way I still had half a truckload to move and move it I did.

Given the propensity of my boots to clog up and lose traction I stayed out of the truck bed and used a rake to pull the compost closer so I could get at it with the shovel.

On the last load to the garden rain drops began to fall. I had finished filling the garden beds but there was still two or three loads in the truck. It was here I began to negotiate with God.

“Hey God, I’m almost finished. Can you hold out just a few minutes more?”

Lightening flashes.


Scattered rain drops and the occasional lightening flash spurred me to finish. God was holding up but He made it clear He wouldn’t be doing so for long. Samantha pulled up from her grocery trip as I furiously swept the remaining compost out of the truck bed into the wheelbarrow.

Side note: Compost, topsoil, mulch and the like hold moisture. If not effectively removed from the truck bed they can encourage rust and the early degradation of an unlined truck bed.

The good news is that I finished. I dumped the remaining three loads into an unused portion of one of my existing garden beds to be tilled in later. Before doing so I had to hoe up a a whole bunch of weed growth, but I did that too.

Before coming in I harvested a mess of spinach, collards, mustard greens and chard for Samantha to to cook into one of our staple dishes, Beans and Greens and Sausage.

Today, it must be said, I have done nothing. It’s almost three o’clock and besides getting up to eat or make food I have been in this chair pretty much all day, reading and now finishing this blog post. It must also be said that I am sore. My entire posterior chain, from my calves to my shoulders has something to say about yesterday’s work. As a weightlifter I consider those things to be good things, but nonetheless they are also excuses for why I ain’t doing diddly for the rest of the day. That and eliciting groans of discomfort every time I get up.

I hope you’re having a good one, too.



Filed under compost, goats, organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening


This is not the greatest blog post in the world.

This is a tribute.

I was writing earlier today what was summing up to be one of my best posts. I was on fire this morning, writing with wit and candor and, trust me, you would have loved it.

Unfortunately I did something funky with my thumb in the mousepad area of my laptop and it all just disappeared. I tried several things to recover it but, since I couldn’t even access the word processing program, I rebooted and lost it all. It’s too bad, it really was rather good.

So, anyway, I was telling you about my weekend, about having bold and grand plans that were thwarted by pesky facts and how I changed gears, revised my plans and learned a little something about myself.

I had grand plans for the weekend. After work Saturday I borrowed a tiller from Rob and was going to spend the afternoon Saturday and day Sunday breaking new ground and building beds in the newly cleared area of the Back Forty. I was excited too. This was a beast of a tiller and I was sure it was up to the task.

We got it to the house about mid afternoon and after a quick lunch set to driving it up the hill to where we planned the new garden. I gained a new respect for this monster as I wrestled it up the incline but knew once I had it on flat ground it would prove it’s mettle.

I mentioned pesky facts. In my enthusiasm to “get gardening” I neglected to consider the landscape. By that I mean truly consider the landscape. We chose our site because of it’s flatness but we didn’t really consider what flat meant. The growth we removed was scrub, privet, wisteria and briars, none of which was older than ten years. The flat area is a cut into a hillside underneath the powerline service that runs to my neighbor’s house.

What I didn’t consider is that what I was about to till was a mere inch of topsoil over good ole Alabama clay. This was a cut that was bulldozed to facilitate to installation of the powerline and therefore not the rich loamy, forest floor I had assumed it would be.

There is a a single, fundamental rule when borrowing a tool. Don’t break it. Breaking a tool defeats the spendthrift nature of borrowing. In fact, you’d have been better off to just buy yourself the tool rather than borrow it, as it has now become twice as expensive. It’s twice as expensive because you have to both fix or buy the tool and then give it back to the person you borrowed it from. Don’t buy or fix and use, as you run the risk of breaking it again and then where would you be? No, buy what you broke and then buy yourself the industrial version and chalk it all up to experience. Next time maybe you won’t be so stupid.

It was these concepts of economics and friendship I contemplated as I attempted to break ground and not tiller. A cherry red exhaust, coupled with smoking, squealing drive belts finally drove it’s point home and I realised that this was not the earth from which I would draw my family’s rich harvest and bounty this year.

As I mentioned last week (you did read last week’s post didn’t you?) Stephanie and I were going to experiment with one or two hugelkultur beds. I had gotten the idea from Mike at the Backyard Pioneer and with the abundance of rotting logs at my disposal this seemed like a grand experiment.

Faced with breaking the tiller or myself I made one of those defining executive decisions that marks my tenure as titular head of Emerson’s Acre.

Actually, I hemmed and hawed. I paced up and down and wrung my hands and finally called Samantha to help me weigh the decision.

It’s here we get to the “learning about myself” part. Shifting from breaking new ground to building raised beds hugelkultur style is really a “no-brainer.” The raised beds are way easier, and therein lies the rub. See, there’s something macho about running a tiller, especially one of this vintage. Running a tiller like this is equal to wrestling with a grizzly bear, or better yet, plowing with a bull, using the bull’s horns as the plow, while they’re still attached to the bull. I was all set to get the crap beaten out of me and in a weird twelve year old kinda way was looking forward to it, or rather I was looking forward to basking in the glow of masculine accomplishment that would come Sunday evening as I stood victorious over four or five neatly plowed plots ripe for planting. That and Monday morning when I could loudly proclaim how powerfully sore I was from all the hard work I’d done, thereby cementing my superiority in the hierarchy of hard working men and sending all those of weaker constitutions, who spent the weekend watching TV and drinking beer, off to sulk in self loathing.

Instead, here I was Sunday morning ready to bail, to take the easy way out. My battle with myself was really over whether I was making a decision based on prudence or just because I was a wussy. A stupid distinction to be sure and again a “no-brainer” but here I stood wrestling with myself. Thankfully I married well. Gently but firmly she explained what a twit I was being and that I needed to quit messing around and get back to work.

Filled with the resolve that only a wife can provide, I changed gears. I parked the tiller, pulled out the chainsaw and my cutting gear and felled those trees I could without causing undue damage to myself or my neighbors. Well, almost.

I tried to be smart about it. Really, I did. I had marked several small and odd shaped trees for thinning and was starting with a relatively small oak that grew pretty straight. I cleared the ground brush around the tree and severed all ground attachments via wisteria vines. I noted the nearby power line and set my pie cut and back cut so as to assure that it fell parallel with the powerline. What I didn’t know was the amount of canopy wisteria present and how those vines tied my tree to adjacent trees. To my credit the tree did begin to fall in my intended direction but as the aforementioned vines became taut they changed the tree’s trajectory until it was now hanging perpendicular to the power line.

Oh crap.

Again we learn more about this man that is Dave.

Once again, I pace and wring my hands.

Oh crap.

How am I gonna get out of this one?

I said a small prayer to God (pick one) and my dad, asking first and foremost that I don’t hurt myself and then that I solve this dilemma as neatly as possible. As I faced down each of the possible outcomes the one constant was that whatever happened I knew I did not want to have to go next door and explain why Bobby and Annalise had neither power or cable.

That was my biggest fear, not that I’d screw up and knock down a power line, make work for a power crew on a Sunday, and possibly set fire to the Back Forty. No, my biggest fear was that I’d have to go, knock on my neighbor’s door and explain why they wouldn’t be watching Extreme Home Makeover, ESPN or anything else that Sunday afternoon. Summed up my biggest fear was not that I’d be an idiot, it was that I’d look like an idiot.

Somehow I dodged that bullet. I took a length of wisteria vine, a good inch in diameter, and looped it around the base of the trunk just above where it was wedged against the stump. Getting a good grip and checking my footing against the slope I pulled. Slowly I pulled the base of the tree a good ten or fifteen feet away from the stump until the trunk was close enough to horizontal that the weight of the tree broke the vine that held it and it fell, safely, to the ground.

Thank you, Jesus.

Thanks, Pop.

Now my fear was safely averted and while clearly I was an idiot I didn’t look like an idiot and that was what counted. I spent the rest of the day hauling twelve and four foot sections of tree trunk to form the borders of a raised bed. Thankfully, John Paul showed up around 3:00 and we got some serious work done. It’s amazing how much work you can get done with just one more helper. JP had the sense to suggest using tow straps to drag the last two logs which were too heavy for me to move by myself. In fifteen minutes we had doubled my day’s work out put. So much for not looking like an idiot.

By dusk we had two framed beds that were laid out with rotting timber ready to be covered. In the next few weeks we’ll build the remaining two 4×12 beds, lay the wood layer and then cover that with compost and leaf mold. Stephanie found a lead for free composted horse manure not too far from here and the nearby city of Mountain Brook sells leaf mold for $20 a load. I’d like to get a layer of soil six inches over the logs and have it all done by mid-April. I’ll be out two weekends in March but I still think it’s doable.

Yesterday, I spent my workout time finishing some of the tasks I didn’t get to on Sunday. I spread forty pounds of lime and forty pounds of pasture seed for the goats. I forked, hoed and tilled the 2’x16′ herb bed, turned the compost heap and added rails to the goat feeder in yet another attempt to keep them from pooping on their food. We’ll see.


Filed under compost, goats, organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening

Cold Frames II

Sunday morning I got up and made breakfast.

Sunday breakfast is best because it is then that I have enough time to devote to making a proper breakfast. Monday through Saturday I get up early for work and breakfast is usually a protein shake and a handful of vitamins.

Sunday I sleep relatively late, make coffee and set about to feeding my family properly. This past Sunday’s breakfast consisted of free range organic eggs, spicy pork sausage and sliced tomatoes.

Once properly fueled I set about the day’s project, the much anticipated cold frames.

Last weekend I made a start on the first frame. Using my sawzall (reciprocating saw) I broke down several oak pallets separating the ½ inch boards from their 2x runners. The pallets I had collected had boards with widths ranging from 3 inches to four inches across.

As an aside, pallets are, in my opinion, an excellent source of cheap (read free) lumber for any project for which cosmetics are not of prime importance. I have used pallet wood to build shelves in the garden shed, my compost bin, a jig for cutting firewood to length, the goat house and now my cold frames. Pallets are usually made of oak or poplar wood and can usually be found in the waste area of most industrial businesses. There are several such businesses just around the corner from the gym. I stop by on my way home from time to time and stock up.

I built the frames to match the dimensions of the shower doors creating a slope from a 16 inch back to a 12 inch front. A detailed description of their construction would just be confusing here, so I promise to post a video of how they’re made soon.

Piecing together a 12 and 16 inch wall out of 3 and 4 inch boards was time consuming, so on the second frame I took advantage of the ½ inch plywood I had scored from Independent Presbyterian Church (from the dumpster, remember, and I had permission, it’s not like I stole plywood out of a church. Sheesh). I made the back and sides from the plywood and the front of the pallet wood so that it might match its neighbor.

Thalia helped me clean the soap scum off the shower doors and we decided on an alternating pattern of swans and frosted geometry.

So far my total cost for the project is the gas to Mulga and a box of exterior screws.

Once the boxes were made and the glass laid I saw the need for some sort of hinge to make opening and venting the boxes easier. Samantha will tell you that I’ll take any excuse for a trip to Home Depot. She’ll also tell you how time consuming it can be.

I didn’t have any hinges and I wanted to go ahead and fill the boxes with compost just in case Stephanie was coming out this week. Once filled it would be difficult to access the hinges as I had placed the boxes up against the house to take advantage of southern exposure. What to do?

To my own credit and without prompting from my darling wife I saw the inefficiency of a trip to Home Depot and came up with an alternate plan. I attached a four inch board of pallet wood along the back of each box, allowing the board to rise a full inch over the back edge. This board now formed a backstop against which the glass door could stabilize and hinge.

Now to fill the boxes. The soil in my backyard is pretty bad. Actually, it’s downright awful. I’m amazed it will grow grass. It’s all rocks and clay, especially near the house where it has been graded for drainage.

Using a garden fork I broke up the soil. I then followed with one of my favorite tools in my arsenal, the grape hoe. This is one bad-assed hoe. It’s also called an eye hoe, as it has a round eye at its top that its especially stout handle slips through. This hoe has a wide face and its heavy. I call mine, Earthquake. So Earthquake and I made short work of the clods and reduced the ground to a fine bed of nutritionally questionable soil. I made a few passes with the rock rake and removed the most offensive rocks from the bed.

Now for the compost. I have a two bin composting system that I maintain in the back corner of the yard near the garden shed. All organic material goes into the compost and I make a habit of turning the pile once a week, transferring it from one bin to the other. When I need compost for the garden I use a stout screen I made from hardware cloth and 2x4s and sift the compost over a wheel barrow. Anything that’s not yet “done” gets tossed back onto the pile.

The sun was setting by now and so I turned and sifted by headlamp until I had acquired two full wheelbarrows of rich compost, one for each cold frame.

Compost has a great conditioning quality. With time, root action and the percolation that comes from watering the overall soil quality of my frames will be increased, even beyond the original soil level.

For me soil is the essence of gardening. The plants and produce that are yielded are an expression of the quality of the soil, just like our own outer health and vitality are expressions of our nutrition and inner health. So gardening for me is all about making great soil.


Filed under compost, organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening