Power Struggle


Chip and I often grapple with whether we need machines to help us with tasks on our emerging farmstead, or whether we should do things by hand. We both want to dig in. We both like the idea of bootstrapping independently and doing things simply. We both acknowledge that some of the physical stuff is harder than it would have been twenty years younger. Sometimes the decision is easy -- we both knew we needed to hire the earth-moving machines for the greenhouse excavation. But when we need to discuss pros and cons, I'm usually the one suggesting the lower-tech solution, and Chip is usually the one suggesting the machine.


Some of those conversations are more contentious than others. We've gotten pretty good at talking over upcoming decisions in bits and pieces over a few days... mulling each others' ideas over in our minds, and sometimes we even swap positions by the time the discussion comes up again. In the end, we've usually agreed on our approach by the time we put it into action.


Today, although we are ready and eager for our next step: assembling the greenhouse frame, we paused building until we've figured out the next machine-or-no decision. We'd been discussing it, in our bits-and-pieces-over-time way, but had come to different conclusions at different times, and realized that we hadn't made a clear decision.


One recommendation for the greenhouse is that you get your beds set (soil amendments, etc) before building the frame -- it's much easier to move in yards of material before enclosing the building. Several weeks ago, we considered bringing in soil amendments from the closest nursery in Gallup -- it would have cost over a thousand dollars to haul in truckloads, and we would definitely want them to dump those loads directly over the side rather than having to haul it through the end door by wheelbarrow.

We decided instead to go the local-resources route,. We've been gathering horse manure from the wandering herds. New Mexico is a "fence-out" state, meaning that if you don't fence your property it's OK for others' livestock to forage on your land, and there are a few dozen horses who wander the area. Cattle too, but they rarely show up on our lot.


Our tiny collection of manure and coffee grounds

We've collected coffee grounds from the two coffee shops in Grants. There are also some places where the runoff has silted in along the roadside, causing more erosion across the road -- we will repair some of those spots by gathering the silt to add to our beds. We also have 140 acres of piñon/juniper woodland that has been in drought for years, so there are plenty of downed trees, dead branches, pine needles and other dead vegetation ready to collect. With this approach, the scale of our amendments is small enough that we will be hauling by the cart-load anyway, so we can go ahead and build the frame without waiting for the next load of horse crap!


Now we're in a discussion of whether we need to rent power machines (Ditch Witch, cultivator) or whether we can prepare 90' x 17' of grow beds by hand.


Our current thinking (hah, our thinking went back and forth even in this last hour as Chip and I sit here and hash through our ideas) is that we would be able to get the Ditch Witch in to the lower beds after finishing the frame, since we plan to put a bigger door at the end, and the east entrance is pretty much at floor level. So cultivating the lower grow area is also not an issue in putting up the frame.

Photo of a greenhouse frame to show clearance (photo from Greenhouse in the Snow)

The upper beds will be much less accessible after enclosing. With siding on, there isn't enough headroom to stand at garden level, so we'll be reaching into a 4-foot raised bed, which isn't the best arrangement for that initial deep tilling. If we want to get a power cultivator in, we would want to do that before framing, since the frame pieces are in the way. If we are tilling by hand with a pitchfork and shovels, that would be relatively easy to do with the frame in place, before adding the siding or glazing.


This morning we went over to try digging in the upper beds to see if we could dig them by hand after assembling the frame (my preference). After messing around with a pick axe, shovel, and pitchfork, I agreed with Chip that we should try the rented cultivator (Chip's preference). It was a Catch-22 because now the ground is frozen. When we put the greenhouse up, the ground will warm up, but then we won't have headroom to use a power cultivator or even a pitchfork -- we'll be stuck with using hand tools from below. I am not looking forward to using a power cultivator on frozen ground, but we'll see.


Anyway, having decided to take a day off from our construction jobs, we became land managers, using two tools we both consider extremely useful for the long term: a chainsaw and a chipper/shredder. We have an abundance of debris that needs clearing (dead trees and branches), and we also have ongoing use for the materials (logs for burning, and wood chips for mulch, soil amendment, paths, and berms).


Chip did most of the tree cutting, although I took my first ever chainsaw cuts (I am not crazy about machines that are the subject of horror movies, but I suppose I'll get used to it). We did have one sad casualty of the construction job -- a piñon/juniper pair of live, established trees that grew in the middle of the greenhouse footprint and had to go. They've been just sitting off to the side, uprooted, and today Chip cleaned them up. I asked him to take a slice for a cutting board! If we ever find down time to play with wood, it would be nice to use some of the other nice pieces (plant stand? cooking utensil?)

I gathered organic material from the immediate area for chipping (broken branches, twigs, pine needles). Our land is hilly, cut through every other step with arroyos. The piñon and juniper form mounds at their base, with the arroyos cutting between them. When you reach under the trees you find spongy layers of needles shifting to dark dirt just an inch down. You also notice that almost every tree group seems to harbor a quiet, sheltered nook, perfect for a respite if you take time to notice it. In the arroyos I also gathered more horse and deer scat, and grass seed for eventual reseeding of the re-graded (read: torn up) areas.


When my wagon was full I brought it back to the site, and after a few wagon loads I ran the branches and twigs through the chipper (Fargo -- but the chipper is much less intimidating to me than the chainsaw). It made a pretty good mound to add to our other soil amendments. A start, anyway!

So today seemed a good balance of using our bodies with help from our machines.

Treasure to be found under our trees!

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