Lew Bivona

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since Jan 03, 2018
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Recent posts by Lew Bivona

Last year I developed a mini natural swimming (more like soaking) pool/wood fired hot tub design and installed it in my back yard (I know, this isn't a pond, technically, but I figured you all would have the best idea of what's going on with lotus plants). The pool is 6 foot stock tank and there is a two-part natural filter system made up of IBC containers.  a The first filter holds cattails and these seem to be doing fine, while the second filter is where I keep American Lotuses. It's a pretty cool design, and assuming I can get it working better, I'll have to do a write up some time.

The lotuses currently aren't looking great. I started some from seed and others from tubers I purchased. There are some large coin leaves, and the ones from tubers appear to be doing a bit better. However, some of the smaller leaves have started to brown and a couple are even slowly skeletizing, where the leaf looks like its burned away and just the net-like veins remain. The bigger leaves look like they're still ok, but are slowly turning lighter shades of green and beginning to look chlorotic. My hunch is that I'm not lacking in nitrogen or phosphorous, because the algae seem to be doing just fine :/ From what I've read, it seems like these might be micronutrient issues. However, I've read that under no circumstances should I fertilize my lotuses until they have their first aerial leaves. But it's been over a month now  and no aerial leaves in sight, and there are no shoots coming that make it seem like there will be aerial leaves any time soon.

I feel a bit stuck here, and these lotuses doing well is critical to my natural filter design. It's night time now, but I'll make sure to post pictures tomorrow. Thanks for your help!
3 months ago
I have to say, I come from the agroecology and gardening end of the permaculture community, so when it comes to engineering topics, or basically has anything to do with generating power or heat, I'm much less technically inclined. But I am trying to break through these walls a bit and understand them! Still, I'm confused about a number of things, even having poked around these and other forums quite a bit. I have a lot of questions, and they sort of jump around but please bare with me!

My thinking was that a simple project to introduce me to understanding this world would be to build a simple charcoal maker/kiln/retort (first question: is there any difference between these three things, or are they basically synonyms? I've read conflicting things on different pages!).

In a resource-constrained, too-frequently polluted world, before settling on a design, I wanted to understand what retort/kiln design would be most efficient (both in terms of minimal fuel input and maximum charcoal out) and generate the least harmful emissions (e.g. particulate matter or other nasty gasses). (Second question: What IS the most efficient design? From what I've read both TLUD and Rocket Stove designs can work well, but what are their pluses and minuses? Are there others? After reading about several different types of designs, I'm still unclear, probably because I don't understand the basic concepts well enough)

In trying to read about charcoal making, I ended up frequently on pages that discuss wood gasification. I did not understand before today that in charcoal production, the "smoke" exiting the chimney is actually wood gas (at least that's what I've read and heard in articles and videos trying to figure this out!). But it was my impression that pyrolysis (which is what we're looking to encourage to make coal) occurs at lower temperatures and lower oxygen levels than gasification (which is what you want to be at to produce usable wood gas). And my understanding was that in gasification, your goal is to burn the fuel so hot that you're NOT left with charcoal (or at least as much of it), and that it essentially all gasifies. So I guess third question: Could one design a charcoal maker/kiln/whatever from which one also harvested the wood gas exiting the system? Or are these two mutually incompatible processes, where efficiency in one (e.g. good at producing coal) would be bad at producing the other (e.g. low quality or low amounts of gas)?.

If they're incompatible, from what I've read, being a pragmatic hobbyist on a suburban-size lot, there doesn't seem to be much reason for me to develop a wood gasification system. In my short time exploring this topic, I've learned I have NO interest in storing wood gas (it seems like a good way to accidentally make a bomb, if you're as non-tech savvy as I am...), and so wood gasification is only really valuable if you can use it right away, say hooked up to a gas-powered generator. And those wood gas cars are cool, but I feel like my bike is infinitely more efficient, and I at least know how that works :p So at best, I'd really only be putting all of this work into developing something that could power a back up generator? Would wood gas make more sense to use as a cooking fuel since it burns cleaner, or can I just use my charcoal grill and feel pretty good about that? I guess I'm just trying to understand: in what ways would/could wood gas fit in more urban/suburban permaculture homestead settings, if at all?

For that matter, from my limited understanding, the power density (as described by Vaclav Smil) seems bad for wood gas and even worse for coal gasification. From a global perspective, does gasification really make sense as a form of sustainable power compared to solar, wind and hydro? It seems like the land footprint that would be required to gather sufficient amounts of wood would eventually lead to deforestation, as it did in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Is the idea that it makes more sense in areas with comparatively little solar exposure?

Finally, getting back to the charcoal making, putting on my permaculture hat of "designing for multiple yields," it seems that the yields of a charcoal maker are the charcoal, potentially the wood gas (see questions above), and heat, and a large number of the designs and videos I see people routinely not taking advantage of the latter (burning in the middle of summer, outside, and no mass around the kiln). Are there any charcoal retort/kiln designs that have thermal mass around them to catch and slowly release that heat, a la the rocket mass heater? Is this another case where doing one thing well (capturing the heat) would make another function work less well (e.g. producing less charcoal, or a less efficieny burn?). At the very least, perhaps it makes sense to just save your charcoal making until winter, so that you're at least getting a use out of the heat you're generating?

3 months ago
Yeah, I'm leaning toward the latter - that it's essentially a miracle that even just a few plants have this exact mix of traits, and so much of our planet's biodiversity is concentrated in tropical hot spots that it's probably a matter of odds. Still an interesting question!

Great point on the bayberries - I was violating my own (only plant sources) rules and have been thinking about beeswax as a sensible replacement in cosmetics. It may be silly of me, but I just wasn't really thinking about waxes as a fat that shares similar qualities to these oils. But myrtle/bayberry wax pretty much checks off all of the boxes I'm looking for in that sense. I think I'll do a bit of experimenting with it! Thinking of waxes as having these similar properties definitely opens things up quite bit

For culinary uses comparable to how one would use butter, I also had a little flash of insight: in this whole thing I've been thinking about what temperatures these fats (coconut, shea, cocoa) melt at. I read an interesting article about how, because they are composed of several different chains of fatty acids, coconut oil and the like don't have one "melting point", and that different parts of the fats are actually melting at different temps. Beeswax candle making is the same way - beeswax melts between 145-150 F. Only thinking about the melting points, I was failing to think on the flip-side - what are the freezing/solidification points of other oils? There might be some that are liquid at "room" temp, but only because we generally only keep our rooms in the comfy 60 - 75 F range. Maybe there are some oils that are solid at 55 or even 60 and could just be kept in the fridge to be treated like butter in a spreadbility sense? A quick look at some common oils shows that avocado oil starts to solidify around 50 F, and peanut oil in the high 30s. Again, I'm counting avos because I've seen them survive into zone 8 (with plenty of protection). I'll post back here if I find anything interesting to add!
4 months ago
That's my thinking as well, but I don't know enough about where and when these fats are synthesized in the plant (e.g. the same combination of fatty acids that is in the coconut is not necessarily circulating around in the plant - they might synthesize in the fruit itself, so transporting them around the plant is not such a big deal. There are also places where coconut trees grow well. Also, the melting point of these oils is relatively high (coconut oil 76, shea butter in the 90s), yet there are climates where these plants grow just fine in quite low temperatures - there're coconut trees in Tampa, FL, where temperatures in the cold months are in the 50s on average, sometimes getting considerably lower. You'd think if it were a problem of the plant equivalent of arteries getting clogged, that it'd only live in the most tropical climates.
4 months ago
Most of us are probably familiar with a number of plants or trees with fruits/nuts that produce oils/fats that are solid at room temperature (coconuts, cocoa, shea tree). Obviously these solid, plant-based fats have many uses, from cooking, to cosmetic, to even industrial uses. So many homemade/natural/zero waste products rely on ingredients like these and they're great to have. But they're all sourced tropically. They could be grown in small numbers in hoop houses or green houses (depending on how "temperate" your clime), but I'm interested in whether there are plant based sources that could be grown further north, in the outdoors without (much) protection or pampering. There are Mexican avocadoes that can get down to 10 F and probably further with breeding, but something that separate cados from the above examples is how much more shelf-stable coconut, shea, etc. are.

It would seem crazy to me that out of 400,000 plant species, not a single temperate species produces a solid fat, but I suppose it's possible. And if that's the case, I wonder why that is? Is there something about the way plants like cocoa or shea make these oils, or their chemical structure, that could only occur in warmer temperatures? What might that be? Man, I should have gone into botany instead of the social sciences!!!

Note: Not interested in animal based sources like fat or butters. In the rough thought experiment that guides my interest in homescale permaculture (and even beyond my own moral and ethical issues with even the most benign animal-rearing) the reality is that the lower on the trophic ladder you are sourcing food and materials, the more intensive production can be, with the least consumption of water, nutrients, etc.  In the mostly suburban context of the USA, maximizing production on small spaces is important for "suburban retrofitting" IMO.

5 months ago
I've emailed them every season for three season and don't believe I've received a response (or at least one that wasn't an autogenerated email saying "thanks for your interest"). My guess is that they have such a relatively small amount of seed, and that they want to preserve so much of it for larger/broadacre farms and operations that they really don't want to orient any of it to small and hobby growers at the moment. If by some chance you do hear back from them, please share (and I'll do the same)!
5 months ago
After a forum search I was very surprised not to see this topic treated anywhere on Permies: does anyone have native patches, or a source who is able to offer cuttings, of the fen nettle (Urtica dioica ssp. galeopsifolia), which is supposed to have all of the benefits of the nettle (soil health, filled with nutrients, beneficial insect attraction, a perennial, drought proof source of clothing fibre... what can't that thing do), with none (or almost none) of that ugly stinging. I've wanted to plant nettles for a while in my young forest garden, but that has garnered a very understandable lack of approval from my wife. I've never been stung personally, but it doesn't sound like I'm missing much.

That's why it's hard to believe there hasn't been more interest in propagating this stingless relative! The only accounts of this nettle I've found online are in Europe, mainly in the U.K. I would be super appreciative if someone were able to root some cuttings and send them over. I would gladly pay it forward and share it with other forest gardeners!
5 months ago
I just planted a whole bunch of wild violets from Oikos underneath a particularly shady spot in my yard (it's mostly not shade, since all of the trees are in establishment, and will be for quite a few years...). I planted them because of the shade tolerance and because they're a tasty little green that stands up to foot traffic well. How would you say waterleaf compares in terms of flavor? They look like they probably mind getting trampled quite a bit more, but it'd still be cool to incorporate them! Thanks for the post
5 months ago
So, I live in a pretty warm Zone 7 climate (urban heat island just outside of Philadelphia, PA, USA) and from what I've read, it wouldn't be difficulty from a frost/heat perspective to meet the needs of a pistachio tree. The main issue is, of course, humidity. The areas where Pistachios are grown in California seem to reach a high humidity level of 40 or 50%, whereas in NJ humidity levels consistently get to the high 60s, low 70s year round.

After querying around the web a bit, I haven't found a clear easy answer for what exactly happens to pistachios (and, more generally, to arid-adapted trees and shrubs), when you attempt to plant them in a warmer climate. I assume they are fungal issues relating to moisture levels, but is the issue the moisture level of the soil, or ambient air, or both? Do fungi kill back the trees at an early age, do they die completely, or just enough to regrow but never mature? Or is the issue that the fruit succumbs to disease, and that you'd never actually be able to harvest something? More generally, are folks familiar with the plant biology of arid-adapted plants to know why it succeeds in dry areas and fails in more humid areas (e.g. something with the way cells are constructed or the ways they hold moisture)?

Moreover, is this a more difficult to change aspect of a plant's habit? Plant breeders are constantly at work developing varieties that can survive a zone or two lower temperatures, or resist this or that pest, or even respond differently to varying daylight lengths. Is humidity sensitivity that much different?

I know that's a ton of questions, but that just goes to show how boggled I am!
1 year ago
First, some context: From observations I've made at various fields and garden beds, I very much buy into the concept of "aromatic pest confusers" (APCs) described in Jacke and Toensmeier's Edible Forest Gardens. I'm actually interested a bit in the idea as a pest preventative measure in more annual garden beds, as I'm not that concerned about pest pressure around many of my perennials (they don't seem to have a lot so far), and so I've decided to plant low-growing/mowable aromatic herbs between my beds as pathways. Although some of them are quite a bit aggressive (oregano and a couple varieties of mint), I'm not too concerned about spread because 1) I'll be mowing them probably once a week during peak season, which seems to really slow down rhizome expansion as plants attempt to recover lost growth; 2) I'm going to finally experiment with double digging, so that should disrupt rhizome growth into my growing beds as well; and 3) worst comes to worst and things go crazy, I'll just have to smother things under cardboard/sheet mulch for a few years – there are worse things in this world, and it was worth experimenting.

That being said, I do want to take good preventative steps if possible. I've been put off by a lot of the technical solutions people have proposed, because (and I'm not sure if folks are just being overly dramatic) even the most rigorous options like 12" deep overlapping rhizome barriers are described as ultimately not very effective and prone to eventual failure. My hunch is that it would take a long time for something like mint to get around such a stiff barrier, but there are enough hyperbolic horror stories out there that it concerns me. (Aside: has anyone ever considered soldering the seams of metal rhizome barrier with food-grade silver solder, or something similar? Seems like that would be pretty impenetrable).

Anyway, all of this lead to my eventual question: We tend to discuss soil compaction as something to overcome and have developed lots of techniques to break it up. Has there ever been discussion of using very focused, narrow bands of compactions as a sort of "natural" barrier? For example, the mint I'm planting likes lofty, garden bed soil and I've read that it has quite a difficult time expanding into compacted soils. I've never seen it taking over (or even doing relatively well) in abandoned lots that are filled with heavily compacted soils. My thought was that if I could find a tool like a vibratory compactor that I could tamp along the edges of the walkways, I could make a sort of compaction barrier and have very easy to manage APC walkways, while being able to keep the bed areas themselves lofted and healthy. Because I don't know much about how compaction is distributed or how persistent it is, I wanted to throw this idea out to all of you other permies! Would the bed prep I do ultimately undermine the compaction of the walkways (e.g. I've read about compost's and soil microbiota's ability to repair compact soils)? Would it even be effective, or are aggressive rhizomes tough enough to break through even deliberately compacted soil?
1 year ago