Ecological gardening in Small Footprint ecovillage

Spending a lot of hours helping out in the permaculture gardens of Small Footprint ecovillage, Estonia, I learned a bit about their practices for ecological gardening. While weeding, preparing vegetable beds and transplanting tomato’s, I talked with Merili, one of the community inhabitants who runs and plans the gardens. I got reminded of how simple methods for natural fertilization and weed-prevention used in permaculture are. Merili introduced me to their practices with heritage crops and harvesting their own ecological seeds from a range of varieties of each crop. Practiced this way, ecological gardening can be act of regaining control as local communities over the environmental consequences of something as essential as food and of becoming independent from large-scale, profit driven companies.The alternatives to chemical, large-scale and genetically modified agriculture are so simple and can be practiced by anyone. In this blog I describe some of the practices at Small Footprint to give some inspiration.

Overview of the gardens
In the ecovillage they have several locations where they grow vegetables. The main area is to the south-west of the ecovillage, where they have a patch of roughly 500 m2. On it, they have two greenhouses. One fixed greenhouse of around 25 metres deep and 4 metre wide, and one moveable greenhouse also of 25 meters long and around 8 metres wide which can be fixed in 3 locations on a 75 metre long rail. The ecovillage also has a small winter greenhouse which is attached to one of the buildings and used for sprouting vegetables and growing herbs and salads. Outside of the greenhouses, they have numerous vegetable beds and some other vegetables patches in different locations. Spread throughout the ecovillage there grow more than a hundred fruit trees, consisting of over ten different varieties of apple trees, several pear trees and also some cherry trees. On top of this there are countless berry bushes on the land. The ecovillage is only five years old, but most of the fruit trees and berry bushes were there when they arrived, so some of them are quite old already. Then they have over 30 hectares of farm land on which they grow rye and buckwheat. The vegetable garden is run mostly by two women living in the community, with a lot of volunteer help. The amount of work that can/has to be done is high however and sometimes they have to make some choices for what to focus on.

Picture from last year taken by Merili, showing the smaller greenhouse and in front a mixture of corn, zucchini, pumpkin, red cabbage, lettuce and flowers growing together.

Horse manure & nettle brews
For fertilizing the vegetable beds and helping the plants to grow, they have several practices at Small Footprint ecovillage. Primarily, they use a lot of composted horse manure which they receive from a local stable. This they add as a thick layer on the vegetable beds every year. For extra fertilization during the growth season they pour nettle brews to some vegetable beds every other week.

During my stay we made a simple nettle tea, just soaking nettles in water for a few days. Merili tells me you know the brew is ready when it starts to smell horribly! This brew is used as extra fertilizing during the growth season of the plants by pouring it every other week on the beds. Nettles have a lot of nitrogen in them which helps the plants to grow, making them a good natural fertilizer.

Biochar
They make use of charcoal at Small Footprint ecovillage to create extra fertile soil. Biochar is a popular term for making use of charcoal. As I understand, charcoal has a very large surface area on a micro level, this enables many microorganisms to live there and gives it the capacity to store nutrients and moisture. You could say that charcoal can work like a sponge, as it is has the potential of housing microorganisms, water and nutrients. When you soak it in compost, water, a nettle brew, urine or simply let it get enough rain, it becomes so-called activated biochar. This means that now the charcoal has soaked up water and nutrients which it can slowly give off when you add it to the soil and in this way help build a healthy, fertile soil!

At Small Footprint many of the buildings are heated with mass ovens. Since mass ovens need to have very hot fires to function properly, the temperature inside reaches over 400 degrees Celsius. This, combined with the fact that you close off all air supply once the fire has died down, make mass ovens excellent producers of charcoal for making biochar.

In the ecovillage they tried several ways of effectively using their charcoal. They have build a sift, to separate the charcoal from the ashes. This however left them with barrels of ash for which they do not really have much use as their soils are already alkaline (normally ash is a useful product in ecological gardening to help make soils less acidic). They also experimented with ways to crush the charcoal into smaller pieces, but haven’t found an efficient way for this yet as it is quite time-consuming work. Merili explains me that therefor they currently use it primarily in three ways. Either she soaks the biochar in urine for a while. Through this, the nitrogen of the urine and the water get soaked into the charcoal, making it activated biochar. The she adds this biochar to their compost, where it can take in even more nutrients. After that she uses the compost for making the vegetable beds. The second way she uses it is by adding the charcoal directly to the land a while before she starts preparing the beds with the horse manure compost. This way the charcoal has the time to naturally get soaked with water and nutrients (and it saves her a lot of time). Lastly, they mix charcoal with the woodchips that is added to the many compost toilets at the ecovillage after using them, so that through this the charcoal gets activated and the compost from the toilets becomes extra fertile.

Urine as fertilizer
They use urine as another natural fertilizer at Small Footprint ecovillage. They have several nicely build compost toilets which separate the urine and poo. Urine cannot be added directly to your vegetable beds as then the concentration is too high. Therefor, Merili only adds pure urine to strawbeds and to soak charcoal. Strawbeds and charcoal have so much carbon that they soak up the nitrogen before it gets to the vegetables in too high concentrations. She uses diluted urine to fertilize the many fruit trees they have on the property.

The humanure (fancy word for human poop) from the compost toilets is for the moment composted behind one of the buildings. They do not yet know where they will use it for and also don’t have the manpower to invest time in it right now. Merili explains to me that they ask people on medicines to not use the compost toilets, so that any leftovers from the drugs do not end up in the compost. Still she is a bit wary to use the compost directly onto the vegetable beds from which the same people eat their vegetables, the nutrient loop might become a bit too small then.

Covering the soil with organic material
When Merili and I were preparing vegetable beds outside, we covered them with a layer of leaves or straw. At Small Footprint ecovillage they have a lot of leaves from the many trees on the property which they use as mulch. The straw they use comes from straw bales made from their own rye fields. Putting a layer of straw or leaves on top of vegetable beds prevents weeds from coming up. It also keeps the moisture in the vegetable bed because no direct sunlight reaches the soil. As the leaves or straw decompose they give off nutrients to the soil. In colder times, the layer of organic material also keeps the vegetable bed warm and can prevent the soil from freezing. All this gives the simple practice called ‘mulching’ multiple benefits! A layer of mulch is placed right after preparing vegetable beds or after transplanting plants into them, but it can also be done at the end of the vegetable season. After harvesting, you add some new compost to the bed and then cover it with mulch for the whole winter. This prevents weeds from popping up and keeps the nutrients in your bed during this time.

Another technique used by Merili at Small Footprint to keep away weeds is placing cardboard on the soil. The cardboard prevents weeds that are rooted in the soil from coming up in your vegetable bed. When cardboard is left under a vegetable bed it Footprint I helped prepare two beds like this: we placed cardboard on the soil, made a layer of straw and leaves and then added a thick layer of composted horse manure. In this, vegetables are transplanted and then a layer of mulch is laid on top. Another practice is to lay the cardboard on the soil and simply cover that with some tarp or leaves to prevent weeds from popping up in the area, we did this around some pumpkin beds. Small Footprint ecovillage gets a lot of used cardboard boxes from a solar panel company they are familiar with, they sometimes receive tarp which has been used as a banner for some event.

Hugelbed
Merili and I also prepared their four-year old Hugelbed for transplanting some pumpkin plants. In a Hugelbed, big pieces of wood are placed on the soil and then covered with some compost and mulch to make small hills. The wood retains moisture for a long time, making it so that you don’t have to water the bed even when it is sunny for days in a row. Also, as the wood slowly decomposes over time, nutrients are released to the soil. Over the winter you cover the bed with mulch and simply use the bed again next spring. Leaving the soil untouched combined with the decomposing wood makes the bed more and more fertile over the years: something called building soil.

The position of this Hugelbed is to the south and protected from the wind by a building on the other side. Now in spring time, they added some horse manure compost on top. They have a lot of horse manure compost at the ecovillage, which is already slightly composted with hay when they receive it from some horse stables close by. Next, we put some of the nettles which we weeded from around the Hugelbed on top and then covered the bed again with leaves. The nettle gives off nitrogen to the soil, the leaves function as mulch. This mulch in combination with the water retaining tree trunks inside keep the bed moist over long periods of draught: Merili tells me that last year she only had to water the bed once in the whole summer. If you remember, the summer of 2018 was extremely hot in this part of Europe. We then planted the pumpkins in the bed. We added a few cornstalks and Merili is thinking of perhaps also adding some beans this year, to create the famous three sister combination. In this combo, the beans give some good nutrients to the soil and can climb on the cornstalks, the pumpkin leaves cover the soil and prevent evaporation from the soil when the sun shines.

Different varieties of pupkins
Next to the Hugelbed there are also two smaller raised beds. Merili explains that these are mostly just raised to keep the weeds out easier. These beds we covered with horse manure as well and then after planting the pumpkin plants we put some straw to act as mulch on top, since we had run out of leaves. The advantage of having several different beds is big for Merili. She grows around ten different types of pumpkins and wants to hand pollinate them. The risk of cross pollination is smaller when the different types are in different places. For several years now, she has used the seeds from her own pumpkins. The types of pumpkins growing in these bed range from ones that have very thick skin and ones with very thin skin, big ones, small ones, shaped like cucumbers and shaped like bottles. Unfortunately I will not be here to see how they all turn out, but Merili tells me that she harvested over 200 kg of pumpkins last year. During my stay we ate the last of them from the previous year (in June).

Picture taken by Merili of last year’s multicolored harvest, she grows over ten different varieties of pumpkins, harvesting her own seeds every year.

Preparing the tomato beds
During my stay, Merili and I transplanted 237 tomato plants from the winter greenhouse where they had sprouted into the moveable greenhouse. The moveable greenhouse comes in very handy with the long winters here in Estonia, this way they can sprout certain crops in the soil early, then move the greenhouse to a different spot when the last frost has been (hopefully) where they can transplant crops that want to be in the greenhouse all summer long. Before I had arrived, they had prepared the tomato beds on the land. The beds are mostly made up of the horse manure compost, in some places extra leaves and straw were added. Since this year Merili decided to make the vegetable beds narrower, allowing more beds in the greenhouse, we fixed the watering system for these beds. It is a drip system, connected to water from the pump house not far away which pumps up the groundwater.

Vegan vegetable growing
Before transplanting the tomato’s, we added a handful of a mixture of ground eggshells and fish-remains into each hole. Merili explains to me that tomato’s love to grow on fish! For all vegans out there, you can wonder whether this makes your tomato’s non-vegan?! But then again, they are also growing in beds made-up of horse manure, so I guess that in natural farming the use of animal products feels quite logical. I know of other communities however that try to grow vegetables really vegan, where they only use plant and kitchen compost and biochar. Then there are however still tons of worms in the soil on which manure the plants also grow a lot better, so it really is the question of where you draw the line as a vegan.

Seed harvesting
Merili has over thirty varieties of tomato plants, she harvests her own seeds and dreams of in the future selling the organic, local seeds. Most varieties she grows need the greenhouse to have warm enough temperatures that allow the fruits to ripen enough for the seeds to be full-grown. This year Merili is trying a Finnish and a Latvian variety of tomato’s which should ripen outside the greenhouse. It would be nice to have more varieties that grow outside because space in the greenhouse is limited. When many different varieties are so close to each other the risk of cross-pollination is off course there. Merili tells me that most varieties are self pollinating and are pollinated even before the flower fully opens. However, the risk of cross pollination remains real. She therefor mainly takes the seeds from the tomato plants which are in the middle of a row of the same variety.

At Small Footprint ecovillage Merili grows over thirty different varieties of tomato’s, she harvests her own seeds and dreams of one day selling them. Harvesting their own seeds makes the ecovillage independent from seed companies and contributes to having locally adapted, organic seeds. (Picture taken by Merili of last year’s harvest.)

Heritage crops and green corridor
On their farm fields they grow rye and buckwheat, using a heritage variety. Heritage varieties are varieties which were traditionally grown in a specific region. They are adapted to local weather and soil condition and need less work. At Small Footprint they now harvest their own seeds for the rye and buckwheat, slowly making their variety even more adapted to the local conditions. The ecovillage does not own any tractors or other farm equipment for working the land, instead they hire local farmers to do this work for them. The heritage variety of rye they grow on the lands is sown in late August and stands through the winter, to be harvested in July next year. This makes the fields filled with rye practically all year round and asks for little work of the land. From the rye fields they also harvest the straw to use as mulch in their vegetable gardens. During my stay in late May the rye is already as tall as me, Merili says it will grow to over 2 metres when they harvest it!

The heritage variety of rye they grow at Small Footprint is adapted to the local climate and needs little work on the land. The Rye stands on the field almost they whole year around: they sow it in August, and harvest in late July.

On the very edges of their fields, they plan to plant different types of trees like a local chestnut variety which keeps sprouting in the compost. This with the intention to create a green corridor for wildlife to cross their land. As the region around the ecovillage consist of many large mono-culture fields, this is much needed to support local wildlife and ecosystems. Recently they also planted hazelnut trees, as a wind barrier to the vegetable beds which are now open to the strong wind coming from the rye field.

Education
At the ecovillage they host one-day or several-day workshops on different aspects of ecological gardening and on wild edible plants. Most volunteers who come to help-out at the ecovillage also learn while doing in the gardens. For me it was a very educational experience to help out in the gardens, and Merili is hoping to collaborate more with agricultural schools in the future to also offer this opportunity to students. She explains to me that in the schools the students still only get told about the ‘conventional’ ways of agriculture, using tons of chemical fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides as well as gallons of water for irrigation. Merili already had two students who did their internship at the ecovillage, proofing to her that amongst the students their is the will to learn about this ecological way of gardening.

A group of volunteers working in the ecological gardens of the ecovillage, Merili is teaching them some of the permaculture practices applied hoping they will be inspired and spread these simple practices.

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