End-of-Summer, Start-of-Fall Update

The sun setting on summer.
The sun setting on summer.

Today is the autumnal equinox, issuing in my favorite time of year:  early fall, with its still warm but crisp days and clear cool nights.  We had our first frost this week, and the rest of the week looks like a bit of Indian Summer.  We are in the process of wrapping up the summer harvest, planting the winter garden, and starting the race to get everything ready for winter.  We are back on our three-burns-a-week schedule with the biochar retort, having slowed the pace down for the summer.

We intentionally cut the size of the garden in half this year, leaving half lay fallow, with a cover crop of winter rye (and weeds).  We applied biochar in the spring, before planting, to the garden half of the field at a rate of about 10% by volume to a depth of 1'.  The half that lay fallow, we just this week tilled up and are ready to add biochar to, in preparation for next spring's planting.  Although we are ecstatic about the luscious growth on our avocado and citrus trees, which we attribute to the biochar, we had mixed results, even with the added biochar in the garden this year.  We didn't run an experiment with controls, because we feel there is already enough evidence to prove the efficacy of biochar.  Nevertheless, we will continue to monitor the results.  This year's mixed results can as likely be attributed to the weather and schedule this year as anything.  Winter weather and snow lasted well into spring, delaying working the ground (and being able to add and work in the biochar) and planting the crops.  Additionally, this summer was cool.  The crops in the greenhouse did well though, with the more controlled environment.

Rainbow chard and cactus zinnias are two of the few remaining plants in the summer garden.
Rainbow chard and cactus zinnias are two of the few remaining plants in the summer garden.

The spring harvest of asparagus and strawberries was abundant and tasty.  The garlic crop came in well, over 1200 beautiful heads, of four varieties.  The harvest was a little late, again, probably due to the late arrival of spring weather.  The onions are in, braided, and hanging in the cellar.  They are beautiful, sweet and mild, even though slightly on the small size.  The brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, etc.) didn't do as well as last year, same thing, late planting.  Our experimental row of quinoa headed up nicely.  It's been harvested and dried.  We'll thresh the seeds soon and then be able to tell how abundant the crop was.  In the greenhouse, we were pleased with three of the four tomato varieties.  The Sungold cherry tomatoes are always popular, and we enjoyed the two heirloom varieties we grew---Amish Paste and Brandywine.  The peppers and eggplants have done well and are continuing to come in.  This year was the best we've ever had with eggplants--large, blemish-free produce, both Italian (Aubergine) and Asian varieties.  We ringed the stems of the plants with copper foil this year, and it seemed to the do the trick for keeping slugs off.  We harvested enough cucumbers to put away quite a few jars of garlic dill pickles.  We grew our basil inside the greenhouse this year, and it did much better, allowing us to make a lot more of the "world's best pesto" this year.

Background--fall/winter crops planted under row covers. Foreground--fallow bed tilled and ready for biochar. Rolling greenhouse will be pulled over winter crops soon.
Background--fall/winter crops planted under row covers. Foreground--fallow bed tilled and ready for biochar. Rolling greenhouse will be pulled over winter crops soon.

This summer we continued to work on our lean-to greenhouse with avocado and citrus trees.  An automatic irrigation system was installed, along with a boardwalk and more bark mulch.

Greenhouse boardwalk and automated irrigation zone system.
Greenhouse boardwalk and automated irrigation zone system.

We rebuilt our wood drying shelter, using a design which should both shed snow and also withstand a snow load better than the previous.

Reconstructed wood drying shelter.
Reconstructed wood drying shelter.

Several minor modifications were made to the biochar retort this summer, including some repair work by the manufacturer, New England Biochar.  Performance of the retort had slowly degraded (time of burn, not quality of biochar) to the point that we cut open and installed some flanges in the exhaust duct, which the NEB crew left with us.  After cleaning and reinstalling the duct, burn time was cut in half, from twelve down to six hours, and the HTT (Heat Treatment Temperature) increased from around 850 degrees F to 1000 degrees F.  After a little over a year, we have completed over 50 burns.  Our goal is to more than double that output over the next year.  And since we will have already applied biochar to most our growing areas, almost all of that production will be available to the gardening community.

Steve