Written by Paul on November 14th, 2016
I removed an old wall mounted ac a couple months ago and have been trying to figure out what to do with the space. Its on the south facing side of the house so I thought about just putting a window in which would have given me some more solar heat. Windows on the south side of the house can help but even the energy efficient ones will lose heat when the sun isn’t shining. I finally made the decision to built a passive solar heater. It was something I have been thinking about for some time. The idea was for an indirect gain system, where a space outside of the living area is used to warm air with the sun. The air rises and enters the living space through a vent or duct while cooler air from the house replaces it. There are a number of designs on the internet but I decided to build my own version of one using what I learned about how they can work. Its fairly simple in concept, an inlet near the floor and an outlet near the ceiling and a collector in between. I built a small framed chamber with 2×3’s on the outside of the house reaching from the sill to the ceiling. The thing that really makes it work is the solar collector. Surfaces when they heat up create a thin layer of hot air. As the air heats, it becomes viscous so the warmed air moving up the chamber never comes into contact with the surface and most of the heat stays in the heater. Heaters with continuous surfaces are very poor at exchanging the heat collected to the air. The material used needs to have the right properties of heat absorption and conduction. One of the really expensive versions had thin metal strips but most of the cost effective designs used black screen as the absorber.
The important thing was a material which could heat up fast and then release that heat so that it didn’t hang on the surface. Well I happen to have a roll of 10 inch aluminum flashing which seemed like it might have the right characteristics. I bought a can of matte black spray paint to help it absorb and not reflect. I built a flimsy frame with some wood I had around and then cut pieces of flashing that would be nailed onto the frame at 30 degree angles so that at mid-winter the sun would be almost perpendicular (the sun is about 25 degrees above the horizon at winter solstice). The walls, floor and roof were heavily insulated with recycled styrofoam. Mostly from containers we get at work. Apparently, most of those are just remelted when recycled so the real value is lost. For the south facing side, I have some windows removed from the barn which I have been planning on taking to the dump but just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I cleaned up two of them and while they needed to be turned on their side they ended up with an almost perfect fit. In order to not have cold air back flow into the house at night, I created a trap. The hole for the inlet is about 3 feet above the floor but on both sides, inside and outside, I made wide narrow plywood ducts so the air is pulled near the floor where it is coolest and then goes up and then through the wall and then down again where it comes out just above the floor of the chamber. Because the chamber is not heated at night, cold air will collect at the bottom. If the vent was at at floor level, this air would flow back into the house. Making the actual hole well above the floor still allow air to flow into the chamber when the sun is heating it but prevents this passive back flow at night.
I’ll try to add some measured drawings when I get a chance.
Written by Paul on October 22nd, 2016
Beautiful foggy morning in mid-October. Its amazing how the vegetation has really greened up with a few days of rain.
Written by Paul on October 21st, 2016
We had a flock of bluebirds come visit the other morning. A healthy ecosystem means diversity and bluebirds are part of that diversity. Bluebirds along with other birds eat insect pests and are a vital part of the pest manage plan here.
And here’s another valuable member of the pest control team. A praying mantis that seems pretty interested in whats going on inside. These are all signs that the ecosystem is healthy and functioning.
Written by Paul on October 21st, 2016
This garden was planted to attract beneficial insects and even in the late season we have lots of bumble bees visiting the many flowers. This garden cost less than $7.50 (from Johnny’s seeds) to plant as I have used the seeds on a number of gardens. These plants will self seed for next year. While the bumble bees have done their job for this year, it helps them for next year to have late season flowers to feed on. Besides benefitting the bumble bees these gardens are beautiful to look at and easy to maintain.
This image has about 10 bumble bees visible on the flowers in mid-Oct.
Written by Paul on October 18th, 2016
Saturday Oct 15th, we had the Boston YMCA return thanks to Ladawn Strickland and The Move which is now part of the Urban Farm Institute. It was an very busy but rewarding 3 hours. Twenty eight high school aged students and 9 staff came out to learn about sustainable farming, help with some projects and have a great meal directly from the farm. We split into 5 groups, each was assigned a leader and a task to work on. They built a raised garden bed which will be used next spring and a hugelkultur swale on the cow paddock to help retain water and nutrients and build soil there. They also helped feed the cows and pigs and learned about their role in the fertility of the farm. I am greatly indebted to the folks who donated their time to make this a success, Anne Brown, Janet Fuchs and Yun Gao and of course the folks at the Y. Lunch consisted of a salad which was harvested, cleaned and prepared by the young people, a vegan three sisters stew and of course grass-fed hamburgers. All the food was donated for the event by Breakneck Hill Farm.
Here is the new raised beds.
and the new hugelkultur swale
The pigs also benefited by receiving lots of weeds and veggies from our enthusiastic guests.
And enjoying a hearty lunch of hamburgers, salad and vegan three sisters stew.
Thanks to the Boston YMCA for their effort and attention!
Written by Paul on October 1st, 2016
The flowering plants (angiosperms), also known as Angiospermae or Magnoliophyta, are the most diverse group of land plants, with 416 families, approx. 13,164 known genera and a total of ca 295,383 known species (Wikipedia). The angiosperms diverged from the gymnosperms in the Triassic period when dinosaurs were first evolving about 240 million years ago. Most of our food plants are angiosperms and many require the help of pollinators to produce fruit such as pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, corn, beans and just about all the fruits and nuts. We tend to take them for granted but without them we would be virtually unable to produce these. Here at Breakneck Hill Farm, the farmer before me, Ray Davis, because of his orchards and honey bees recognized the value of providing habitat and food for these insects and planted Linden (American Basswood) and Spanish Chestnut trees. They are now fully grown and from mid-June to mid July the trees are literally buzzing with thousands of bees when you walk beneath them.
Spanish Chestnut flowers with a honeybee in the center of the picture.
I have also planted small gardens with late season flowers that will help to feed not only the pollinators but also the beneficial insects like parasitic wasps which will keep pests in check.
Here a late season blooming onion is hosting three bumblebees at once.
My kale got hit pretty hard by the aphids this late season. Unfortunately here the lady beetle has gotten on the job a little on the late side. By identifying the problem early I might have been able to suppress the population with something like Neem oil enough to allow some of the kale to survive. They certainly seemed to prefer the Red Russian kale over the curly.
This monster is a Tomato Hornworm, unfortunate for him/her they are covered in the cocoons of a braconid parasitic wasp. They will eat this destructive caterpillar from the inside out and then mature and go find another. This is how we use nature to do our dirty work.
Written by Paul on September 21st, 2016
About 70 students from the Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester came to visit and lend a hand. While we worked on a couple projects and learned about sustainable farming the kids had a ball with the animals. I’m not sure if the cows or the pigs were the biggest hit but they sure liked spending time with them. At the end we came together to discuss the relationship we have with food and how to make healthier choices. It was a joy to host this wonderful group of young people and I hope they can return again.
Written by Paul on August 25th, 2016
I decided to try two new plants this year, sweet potatoes and collard greens. I always thought of them as southern crops but they apparently do very well here in Massachusetts. Before planting the sweet potatoes, I dug a trench on the south facing slope of the garden and replaced the high clay soil with a loam/sand/compost mix. This is the preferred soil for sweet potatoes so we’ll see how they do. Sweet potatoes are a better alternative to regular potatoes which they are not really closely related.
Collards are a member of the brassica family like kale, cabbage and broccoli and like them full of health benefits. Apparently, conventional production results in pesticide contamination and while not in the worse category levels are high enough to be of concern. We use no pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Our leafy vegetable might have some insect damage but its because the benefits of allowing for an ecological web far outweigh the disadvantages of becoming a slave to the toxic chemical paradigm.
Most of this Kale (red Russian) was self seeded last year when I was trying to see if I could get a second year out of the kale plants that survived the previous winter.
Written by Paul on August 25th, 2016
Here is a family of turkeys in late August that decided to past through the farm. The link below shows them in the small patch of corn. Its interesting to watch as they strip the weed seeds off the plants. Like chickens, they are able to eat seeds directly because they have a crop at the base of their necks where the food is held until it passed to the gizzard where they keep small pebbles to grind up the material they eat. Humans and most mammals can’t eat seeds directly. That is why we grind them in a mill.
Written by Paul on August 21st, 2016
As part of our continuing evolution, I harvested and delivered kale, Lettuce, tomatoes and squash to the folks of the Urban Farm Institute at the Mattapan square Farmers Market. The farmers market brings fresh organically grown produce much of it grown right up Blue Hill Ave at the space provided by the Sportsman Club, to a population which would not have access. The produce is priced well below market rates to make it affordable to the residents who are primarily low income. After setting up the table we took a tour of the sites where UFI is currently growing food in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, including the site of their future headquarters, the recently acquired Clark-Fowler-Epstein house.
I can say enough about the resourcefulness and dedication UFI shows in overcoming immense challenges. Even when space becomes available, it needs to be covered with 18 inches of soil to mitigate the potential hazards of toxins in the native soil. Each property requires grant writing and fund raising to even begin work. Thanks to Nataka, Bobby, Apolo, Joe and Ronald for hosting me.
The Urban Farm Institute trains people in the inner city to grow organic food, Pease consider making a donation: