Daniel Bingham is a software engineer for EllisLab and a member of Dandelion Village. He is also a permaculturist, Ultimate Frisbee player, rock climber and cook. Time not spent doing these things is devoted to playing with code and to writing.

Of Mulch, Compost and Water Flow

The Founding of Bing End

posted on April 04, 2014 with comments

On Tuesday March 11th 2014, I finally closed on the house that I have been trying to buy for the past year. It has been a long and arduous journey just to get to this point. So much went wrong that that I went to the closing still convinced another shoe would fall. Even after all the paper work was signed I was sure something more could go wrong. But it didn’t. The house was, at last, mine.

Mine?
Mine?

In the wee hours of the next morning, I awoke in a deep panic. The purchase process had been so long because no bank would lend on the home. It’s a bit a of a fixer upper, to put it lightly. Foundational issues, bad wiring and plumbing, a leaky roof. The one terrifying me at that instant, as freezing rain fell in a light pitter patter, was the foundation.

Now, here, you might ask, “Daniel, why on Earth did you buy this place?” It’s a fair question. I wanted a house in town, but with enough land that I could build an urban homestead on it. I wanted to be close to Dandelion Village. I wanted a small house and a big lot. But mostly, I’d made the mistake of renting the house before buying it and I’d fallen in love with it. Despite all its flaws, it had become home.

I ended up paying more than it was worth. It was underwater and I didn’t feel like trying to compete with institutional buyers in a short sale. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to. But by the time we got to that point, I’d already been through two attempts at obtaining a mortgage. I’d been at it for over 8 months. I had spoken to every kind of contractor on the planet. I knew what the home was worth, and I knew every single thing that was wrong with it. It was a long list. But, after all of that, I still wanted it. I ended up essentially paying for the land and 3 - 5 years worth of rent. Whether or not that’s what I’ve actually purchased remains to be seen.

The economics of the whole thing get better if I can start getting most of my food from the land right away. And so, I haven’t wasted time getting started on building the long dreamed of urban homestead. Before the closing, I had started laying down mulch as the foundation of four raised beds in the front yard. If things fell through and I ended up walking away, I figured I could just move the mulch onto Dandelion’s land. But closing went through and I forged ahead.

I’d originally purchased the mulch from Good Earth intending to lay it down in the side yard. Every time it rains the whole thing turns to a muddy slush that the dogs track all through the house. I was expecting the mulch to be something closer to wood chips. What I got was half way between finely ground mulch and compost. It was never going to work as mud prevention. I wound up ordering straight woodchips to use for the side yard and was left with 10 yards of composting mulch. Perfect for the raised beds I’d been planning.

Mulch, then compost.
Mulch, then compost.

I used the mulch to build the bed’s foundation and then I ordered a load of compost from Bloomington Speedway Mulch. I’d heard that Speedway’s compost was more nutritious than Good Earth’s. What arrived was not quite what I expected. Instead of well aged, rich humus, I got a fairly light and dry powder that smelled strongly of shit and ammonia. It was almost raw manure and there was clearly too much nitrogen and not enough carbon. Suddenly I was very glad I’d laid the foundation of the bed with mulch. The mulch would absorb much of the excess nitrogen and the two would combine and rot to form the perfect soil.

I decided to layer the two, lasagna bed style. On top of the foundation of mulch I put a solid layer of compost. Then a somewhat thinner layer of mulch, and a thinner layer of compost. Finally, a very thin layer of mulch, just enough to cover the surface. The beds wound up almost two feet high. They’ve settled quite a bit since then. I’m still a little worried that they’ll be a bit too nitrogen heavy and burn out the roots of my plants, but we’ll see. Hopefully I reached the right balance of mulch and compost. Either way, next year they’re going to be amazingly fertile.

More of a swale, really, than a drainage trench.
More of a swale, really, than a drainage trench.

In the mean time, I’m was still fretting about the foundation. The house sits on the side of a steep east facing hill. There’s several acres worth of run off that flows down the hill, and right up against the west side of the house every time it rains. Much of it flows into the basement and gets pumped out by the sump pump. All of this puts pressure on the already bowing cinderblock basement wall. There’s a solid 2 cm crack running horizontally down a seam of the blocks right at the frost line. Directly west of the west wall is a particularly steep section of hill. Whenever it rains with any force at all a large puddle forms on the surface of the ground, right up against the west wall.

To alleviate some of this pressure, I dug a drainage trench directing the water out around the front of the house and down the hill. I’m not sure what I’m going to do over the long term. Visions of terraces, digging out the wall to in fill with gravel, and ponds in the front yard swim in my head. I’ll probably need to do some more research to figure out exactly what my options are.

The closing has acted as the starting gun. It released me from my long wait behind the gate and allowed me to act on dreams I’ve been nursing for over a year. I’m glad to be working and it’s wonderful to see my dreams begin to take shape. But man, do I have my work cut out for me.

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Delirium and Disbelief

A Review of Susan Collin's Mockingjay

posted on January 16, 2014 with comments

I recently read Mockingjay, by Susan Collins, book 3 of the Hunger Games series and I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled.

Collins piled on the pain with out providing catharsis. She was doing plot gymnastics in order to deliever repeated sucker punches. I know what she was going for, the horrors of war and all that. But it resulted in a story that just didn’t hold together very well.

As the story progressed, the punches took their toll. I started falling into a deep depression. But it wasn’t the bittersweet that comes from a sad story, well told. It was a state of delirium and disbelief.

Katniss spends much of the book cycling repeatedly between hospital beds and states of near psychological collapse. When your narrator and window into a world are constantly delirious, it follows that you will be a bit woozy. But Collins takes it to an extreme in Mockingjay, and I spent large poritions of the book positively nautious.

Eventually, the disjointed writing that characterized Katniss’ trauma followed her to portions of the story where it didn’t belong. As if Collins had gotten stuck in that mode of writing and had lost the ability to write with the crispness and vividness of the first two books.

The whole book takes on a nightmarish Groundhog’s Day quality.

When the end finally rolled around, I was ready for it to be over. I wanted a catharsis. At least, as long as she wasn’t going to go full 1984 on me. But if she was going to provide a happy ending, then it ought to have been one that made me feel something.

As it was, the handful of pages she devoted to the aftermath felt weak. As if she was just phoning it in, glad to be done with it all. They weren’t vivid enough to make me feel anything.

Throw it all together and the result is a book that just doesn’t cut it. The rest of the series was wonderful. A well told story set in an excellently crafted world with a thought provoking allegory woven through. But Mockingjay was a dud.

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On Owning Recipes

posted on December 31, 2013 with comments

With Fridge to Food 3.1, I decided to slim things down and remove some features that I’d previously thought were integral. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made to me to have users “own” recipes. Very few recipes are actually invented by the person who shares them. Rather they are found in a blog post, the author of whom found them in a book, the writer of which was taught them by their mom and so on. Recipes are common knowledge, passed down from person to person. Tweaked, shared and then tweaked again. Yes, chefs sometimes do “invent” new recipes. As in, make them up with out finding them. But often as not, someone else had already “invented” that recipe independently. They were invented and forgotten about. Invented and not shared, or just invented and kept quietly in the family.

I realized that I was hesitant to post any recipes, even as “community” recipes. I didn’t feel I owned them. But that beat the whole point of Fridge to Food. I started Fridge to Food because I wanted to be able to search a database of recipes by ingredients and by tags. And I wanted to be able to rate those recipes by voting, instead of stars. In hanging on to this feature that was preventing me from using Fridge to Food, I was beating the whole point of the site in the first place.

So I removed the users from everything, except the photographs. You no longer “own” the recipes you post. You just share them. I removed reputation, because with out the ability to “own” recipes it doesn’t make any sense to build a reputation with them. And really, what did reputation mean before? That you were good at finding and recognizing good recipes? That’s not what it was supposed to mean. It’s gone. No reputation. No ribbons, no ownership of recipes.

For now, your user account will still remain attached to the recipes you post so that you can edit them. At least for a while. I will probably change it so that it detaches after some amount of time.

Photographs will remain owned, because they are copyrighted by the user who posts them.

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A Desire for Sadness

My Experience of Periodic Depression

posted on November 17, 2013 with comments

Every so often I get depressed. I don’t know what causes it to come and I don’t know what makes it go. It sneaks up on me. Coming on so gradually that I don’t even notice it until it’s here.

When it starts, I feel a little melancholy. But only a little. I can easily write it off as a minor, momentary glumness. I’m just low energy. I need to rest and recharge, that’s all. Days pass and it grows stronger. Melancholy develops into sadness.

I go searching for reasons. Trying to rationalize it, trying to pin it on some life event. My relationships aren’t fulfilling enough. My friends aren’t there for me when I need them. My life isn’t stable. I’m failing at work. It could all come crashing down at any moment.

None of these things have changed from the week before when I was perfectly happy. When my friendships were deep, fulfilling and numerous. When my life’s instability seemed manageable. And when I had confidence in my abilities at work.

The truth is that I go seeking those thoughts. I want to be sad and I want to give that sadness a reason.

In this state, I seek out powerful emotions. I seek out music, television, movies and books that will at once feed my melancholy and allow me to escape from it. Stories, songs or poems that will take me on an emotional roller coaster. That will make me feel, intensely. That will make me cry, from sadness or bittersweet happiness.

I wallow. I want to wallow. I can’t stop wanting to wallow. And that makes me sad.

Eventually, I start getting distracted by life. I go out and spend time with friends. I get exercise. I’m productive at work. I forget to be sad. And suddenly, I’m happy. Or content, anyway. The desire for sadness is gone. Just as it snuck up on me, it slips away and life goes on.

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A New Leaf

posted on October 03, 2013 with comments

I’ve used Wordpress to run my site for several years. I loved the blogging and writing tools it provided me, but struggled with site design. The default Wordpress theme is bland. But days spent digging through the free theme archives always ended in frustration. I attempted to learn the theming system several times, but always gave up. It felt overcomplicated. So I resigned myself to being disatisfied with my own website.

In August of 2012, I started working at EllisLab. My first task was to learn ExpressionEngine. I quickly grew to appreciate the Channel module and templating system. They’re clean and straight-forward and they force very little on me. With in days, I was eager to switch over. But I kept putting it off, never quite feeling as though I had the time.

I finally got started last May. The redesign and rebuild took shockingly little time. I completed it in an evening here or a weekend there and in no time I found myself with a mostly finished site needing only content. The rest of the time since then has been focused on just that, creating content. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what a content management system should allow you to focus on!

So here we are, the new site is launched. It’s still rather lacking in content, but time will fix that. I love the new design. I love that ExpressionEngine enabled me to create a design I’m happy with. Now I can finally stop cringing every time I visit my own site and focus on what matters, my writing.

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