Trials in the Hoop House

This year we’ve returned to semi-production as we learn what does well, and how to grow things in the new hoop house.

Basil, Mizuna, Tomatoes, and Soybeans are a few of the things we’re trying out in the hoop house this year.

Some things are doing amazingly well. The first bed of Kale that was seeded in early February is still going strong, and tasting great even now on the edge of July. Mizuna, Arugula, and Spinach (in that order) decided it was too hot and started to set seed, although a second sewing of Mizuna has done remarkably well in spite of some flea beetle damage and the heat. Another trial sewing of Spinach (blooms dale long standing) is in progress to see if we can keep it from going to seed immediately as the outdoor planting did. I’m totally excited about seeing how the ‘lower and lean’ tomato trellis technique goes for our indeterminate varieties, as well as figuring out the optimal pruning method for the determinates.

For fertility, we’re exclusively top dressing the beds with finished compost (1/6 biochar, 1/3 spent brewery grain the rest horse manure with a few wood chips thrown in for good measure). Following Charles Dowding’s no-till advice, I’m not adding concentrated amendments, just allowing the critters to do the work as they process the fresh compost and work it into the soil.

I’ve had some spotty germination challenges, which I believe are a mixture of poor seeding (the Jang seeder is going to be my yule tide gift this year) and inadequate watering during the first critical time of germination, otherwise, No complaints what-so-ever.

Having a focused area to maintain and care for outside of the greater farm has made me realize that attempting to do too much has been a huge challenge for me. Smaller, but better maintained land area is far more pleasurable, and so far productive, than a large area you can’t keep up with. As a result, there’s a lot of flowering cover crop at the farm right now, and the bees are just fine with this change in management strategy!

One delightful win for adding diversity rather than eliminating it, we seemingly have Basil downy mildew fully under control using Joseph Salvatori of the Garden Tea Company’s ( ) advice of letting a pint of milk sit open for 24 hours with a table spoon of yoghurt in it, then diluting 1:1 with filtered/spring/well water and spraying on the underside and top of the leaves. No fungicides to kill anything, just more good bacteria and nutrients to protect against pathogens. And it works incredibly well.

If you have groundhogs and wonder if you should ‘do something’ to protect your hoop house…wonder no longer.

Compost Power!

Thought the setup took a bit of doing, surprisingly little when you consider the results–we’re now looking at 3 to 6 months of almost free heat for a 200 square foot room in the barn.

The pile took 2 hours to build (shifted by hand out of the back of a trailer), and the materials for the heat transfer coils (300 feet of 3/4″ pex pipe, fittings, clamps and pump and fans) cost under $400.00. The plumbing work took about 2 hours as well. See the previous post about Jean Pain for more info and links to resources.

The system can keep the room at 70F when it’s 17F outside, with heat from a 6 ton compost pile.

Here’s the layout of the valves and inlets to the loop which make it easy to get all the air out. Just hook up a relatively powerful circulation pump and use a 5 gallon bucket for the water to circulate through, eliminating all air bubbles, when filling. I like to put the circulation pump so that any air that might get trapped in it can escape when the pump is off. The highest point in this system is an expansion tank above the ‘T’ fitting seen in the upper left hand corner of the image below.

And a few more images:

Shopping list:


PEX tubing:

When people say, ‘Honey Bee genetics are complicated’ they’re not kidding!

If you thought the ‘haplo-diploidy’ video’s I’ve posted links to here previously didn’t give enough of an indication about just how complex Honey Bee genetics are, this article of some new research in Australia will give you something more to think about!


The overview blurb in the popular press can be found here:

And a link to the scientific publication is here:

Compost powered Root zone heating references

We’re just about to implement some compost-powered root-zone heat systems for a small, indoor plant nursery and the new high tunnel.  These are the best references I came up with on researching the implementation of  compost powered root-zone heating systems for greenhouses or other closed growing environments.

Hope you find them helpful!


Cornell Small Farm’s energy research compost pile.

All of this was inspired by Jean Pain:

A french site with the most complete info I’ve found on Jean Pain so far, with some good links to videos with subtitles at the bottom of the page:

The New Alchemy Institute’s paper of a very well referenced compost powered greenhouse:

Here’s a local copy of the same PDF linked above just in case that site isn’t available in the future:
new alchemy (local copy) pdf

I really love this super low tech, simple, and practical method of achieving root zone heating:

And if you’re wondering how many BTU/hr/ton of compost you can get (1000) Cornell Small Farms did some research:

Root zone heating can provide massive energy savings:

And some practical advice for the installation of such systems:




Biochar, The Slow Burn

We’ve started producing biochar at the farm, primarily for our own use, but if you twist my arm hard enough I’ll sell some as well.  You can see our ‘how to’ video produced in October 2020 here:

I wanted an easy place to refer back to when I forget the recommended ratio to mix with compost for a good biological/mineral/nutrient pre-charge and subsequent application rates.  So here it is!

Biochar Application rates:

  • Remember that raw biochar will absorb minerals and nutrients in your soil for the first couple of years, nature will correct, so not a big deal but if you want to give your soil and immediate boost, pre-charge your biochar before application
  • Easiest way to get it ready for direct application is to mix in when building compost piles
  • Mix up to 1:1 or 50% by volume with finished compost and let rest for a couple of weeks before application
  • Or up to 1:3 or 33% biochar by volume in unfinished compost for good mineral/nutrient/biological pre-charge of the char before application (higher biochar ratios may shut down your pile)
  • Apply pre-charged biochar directly to root zone or in seed furrows at a rate of 1% to 10% biochar by volume of amendments applied.
  • If applying bulk, pure biochar directly, go for 1000 to 2000 lbs biochar/acre (raw or pre-charged)

The key to a highly productive, low tech/low cost biochar pit burn:

  • Start your fire in the bottom of the empty pit
  • slowly add material until the fire just starts to smoke
  • let the fire build back up and compact the pile/add more material before any white ash is apparent on any surface
  • frequently compacting the burn pile with a heavy poker, crushing coals off and tightening raw wood, really helps final yield
  • take care to fill in gaps which might burn too quickly
  • if you don’t watch your fire, your char will burn up
  • THOROUGHLY quench the fire with water, removing any unburned wood where live coals might be smoldering, and stir the coals until no more steam or smoke is produced
  • Let the char cool/drain overnight and dig out into your compost piles.
Low tech, low cost biochar pits can produce good char even from less than ideal wood sources if tended properly.

For our biochar pit (6′ diameter, 4′ deep) it takes about 8 hours to char 6 cubic yards of bulky less than ideal wood.  A well tended burn will yield around 250 gallons of char.

Best references I’ve come across to develop this process:

Various other biochar links:

And if you want to go deep into the science:

Though we haven’t done it yet, I’ve recently (February 2022) learned from Dr. Olivier Husson’s interview on the regenerative agriculture podcast ( that paramagnetic biochar can be produced by soaking your source material in a saturated iron sulfate solution for 24 hours before pyrolysis. I’m looking forward to trying this technique at our farm. Note: this can produce a very acidic biochar (pH around 2.5 at 400 °C, around 6 at 700°C…from direct corespondence with Dr. Husson), so how you inoculate your biochar after production may need to be adjusted accordingly.