Our 'village oven' - and why we built it

Most of the big dreams that I take on - are inspired by food.

Our latest excitement on the homestead is no different... it began with dreams of a fire being built in the backyard - preparing an oven to cook our food out-of-doors.  I'm still kind of amazed that it's built.

IMG_20140606_140121.jpg

This oven 'took a village' to build.

Our good friend Will has inspired me in so many foodie-related ways.  He taught me how to bake my beloved sourdough (learn how here), from his own magical experience working at a bakery in Greece.  Our oven idea was sparked by him talking of his desire to build an outdoor bread oven.  We had even talked of him building one in our backyard about a year ago.  When his plans changed and he moved out of the area - we were very sad to see him go - and also determined that we still wanted to build one!  

So I went on the hunt for plans.

I had watched too many wonderful videos of my beloved Gennaro and Antonio sliding fabulous meals into ovens all over Italy - eating and prepping food ... OUTSIDE.  

You can find the 'Two Greedy Italains' episodes on youtube - we continue to watch them again and again for inspiration!

You can find the 'Two Greedy Italains' episodes on youtube - we continue to watch them again and again for inspiration!

Truly - to prepare an entire meal outdoors, cook it via fire, and eat outside sounded like my idea of heaven.

Then, I ran across a new design that sparked an idea:  build an outdoor oven made out of an old 55 gallon drum - (on the website I found, they called it a barrel oven).  The reason I was drawn to this idea was because it was made with materials that are very simple to find in many places around the world.  Since we desire to try things here at our homestead which could be replicated in Haiti (where my cousin lives and works) - I thought this would be perfect.  It seemed you could build one as simply or as complex as you wanted.  

A barrel oven pictured in the book, finished with cob plaster.

A barrel oven pictured in the book, finished with cob plaster.

One of the first barrel ovens made - in Argentina - built with stone and earthen mortar.

One of the first barrel ovens made - in Argentina - built with stone and earthen mortar.


I'd also recently made a new friend who's husband was a welder.  When I commented "Oh, I'd love to learn how to weld" - her remark stuck with me - "Scott is a great teacher".

When I read the options on building this barrel oven - you could either 1.  Order the pre-welded oven kit, or 2. Weld up the parts yourself... I immediately thought of Scott.

It felt a bit risky when I sent over the email link asking if (this man I'd never met) would be willing to share his skills with us.  I wanted to learn how to... you know... just whip together a functioning oven out of an old barrel.

What I didn't realize was, in that step of reaching out, I ended up making some new and very dear friends.

I ordered the small, 100 page book online and started reading and dreaming:

Max & Eva Edelson wrote this simple book which has basic plans and gives an outline for how to build a barrel oven.  CLICK HERE to order yours.

Max & Eva Edelson wrote this simple book which has basic plans and gives an outline for how to build a barrel oven.  CLICK HERE to order yours.

I invited my new welder friend Scott over and showed him the design.  Within a few minutes, he had called up a friend and asked him to set aside a barrel they had.  I was giddy. We were already on our way.

Like with many things that I take on - I am the eternal optimist.  "We can TOTALLY do this!" I say... and, truly - we can.   It just usually involves quite a bit more work than I expect at the start.

Scott gave us a quote on the cost of the welding materials, and generously offered his time - to teach us and help us complete the oven.  Once we'd saved up enough for the materials (around $200) - we were ready to begin.

The girls and I got out the sledge hammer and knocked down the old fire 'ring' that once sat in our backyard.  We needed to get rid of it so we could pour our new cement pad and get ready to build our oven!

I soon found out that I had NO IDEA what I was talking about when I made that comment about wanting to learn how to weld.  I had this idea that you just used a little torch-like thing to heat metal and bend it into the shape you wanted, or melt pieces together - and voila! Magic.  When the girls and I walked into Scott's shop and saw all of these humongous metal saws, tanks full of argon gas, and cranes on the ceiling for lifting - I realized what a HUGE gift it was to be there.  I love giving my girls hands-on experiences like this to learn, but I was enamored and amazed myself at the whole process.  

The girls learning about measuring and cutting steel.

The girls learning about measuring and cutting steel.

Fun times in Scott's shop

Fun times in Scott's shop

We began with the ash grate.  Two pieces of angle iron and a bunch of cut pieces of rebar - welded together. It was a good place to start.  The girls had a blast learning how to cut with Scott's metal saw, and he let us take turns wearing the hoods and giving the torch a try.  It was really exciting to have a piece completed and we could begin laying our brick at home.

Our first welded piece brought home - ready to lay brick!

Our first welded piece brought home - ready to lay brick!

Since Will was our inspiration for the oven to begin with, we invited him up to help us begin the brick work and early construction. Over that same weekend, we learned that Will was moving back to our area!  We started on Easter weekend, knowing that we were building an oven that we would be able to use together.

 Another special piece to this oven was that we didn't purchase any brick.  We had a pile that we had collected from other projects, and our neighbors generously gave us a very large stack of new brick that they had in their backyard.  My hubby built the wood frame to set the brick arch over - and it had already begun to look 'oven-ish' after all the brick work was completed.  We were thrilled.

First day of brick work. 

First day of brick work. 

Excited to be building the arch!

Excited to be building the arch!

We did make a mistake on the design.  We forgot to set the angle iron bars into the brick work for the barrel to rest on!  Thankfully, there is always a way to remedy these slip-ups.  Scott helped us build a support bar and it was fine.

At this stage, things seemed to be moving quickly! But the majority of the welding work was still ahead.   Max and Eva Edelson - the designers of this barrel design, provide a pre-welded oven kit.  If we had purchased it ahead of time, we could have set the oven at this point and moved along.  Doing it ourselves took much more time, but it was worth it to learn every step.

Spending the next few weeks making trips to Scott's welding shop was so fun.  The girls and I looked forward to what we would do next.

Emma cutting metal, Sarah grinding the oven door, Scott welding in the oven racks!

Emma cutting metal, Sarah grinding the oven door, Scott welding in the oven racks!

Once the barrel oven was complete, Scott painted it for us, and installed the beautiful hand-turned wood handles he made on his lathe. It turned out beautiful.

Scott bringing the barrel over to set in place, welding the firebox door in, first top coat going on the brick.  Grateful to have met Scott and become friends through this project!

Scott bringing the barrel over to set in place, welding the firebox door in, first top coat going on the brick.  Grateful to have met Scott and become friends through this project!

Again - now that the barrel was home, I felt that we were SO close!  We had decided to do one layer of fiberglass insulation between the first cement coat and the outer coat.  We decided on using a simple cement sand topping for the top coat, since we didn't plan to build a roof over our oven, and wanted it to hold up to the weather.  

Placing the final brick to seal the oven, adding an insulation layer with more lath, last top coat going on.

Placing the final brick to seal the oven, adding an insulation layer with more lath, last top coat going on.

It seemed like we had to KEEP going back for more cement!  We went on a short road trip and Will put the finishing touches on the last coat.  He added some chopped straw to give it an earthy look, similar to cob plaster.  He made that last coat super smooth, too.  We love how it turned out!

Finished oven.  This was our very first fire to cure the brick.  BEYOND excited!  The entire process took 1 month and 10 days to complete.

Finished oven.  This was our very first fire to cure the brick.  BEYOND excited!  The entire process took 1 month and 10 days to complete.

That first day lighting the fire to cure the brick was a thrill.  We kept it going low and slow, but in a few hours it was at 450 and I couldn't handle not cooking anything.  I had a pot of beans soaking to cook that night, so I rinsed them, added garlic, onion, herbs and wine to the pot along with some tomatoes and threw them in.  I called my neighbor to come have a glass of wine. "I'm cooking in the oven! Can you come over?"  We drank wine and ate beans.  It was fabulous.

The next evening, we had our first pizza party scheduled to celebrate with some family and the friends who had helped us build the oven.  Before I could cook pizza, I needed to grind the inside of the oven to get it clean. (We don't know what substance was previously in the barrel, so this step was important. Also, it would have been much smarter to have done this before we began!  Oh well!)  I had hoped to pass this grinding job on to my husband or Will - but I was on my own and the party was rapidly approaching.   I looked for some eye protective gear - but only could find swim goggles.  I found a paper mask and went for it.  I climbed inside of the still-warm oven (we had used it the night before so it was around 100 degrees still inside).  I ground away until my arms wobbled, and when I felt grit on my teeth, I realized that the mask wasn't really working...  my girls got a fright when they came out back and saw me!  

I called my husband and found the respirator and some ski goggles. It worked much better.   The oven was now clean inside and ready for pizza!

SCARY Sarah with who-knows-what kind of oven junk all over the place!  Grinding the inside of oven clean.

SCARY Sarah with who-knows-what kind of oven junk all over the place!  Grinding the inside of oven clean.

My husband raised a glass to pause and thank everyone at the party who had helped make 'his wife's dream a reality'.  Will and I kept looking at each other while we were slapping together pizzas - both of us, totally in our element - hardly believing that we had a WORKING wood-fired oven!  Truly, even with all of my optimism, I couldn't have completed this project without my VILLAGE: 

The brilliant and inventive Max & Eva Edelson (thank you for writing your book!), the talented and generous Scott (thank you for teaching us girls, and for your patience with things being moved around in your shop!), the hard working and creative Will (thank you for putting heart and soul into this oven), the generous and willing McDonald family (thank you for all of the brick you donated, sharing wine and always looking for ways to help!), and my wonderful Jeremiah (thank you for letting me dream BIG and for supporting everything I want to do). 

Some shots of our very first pizza party and oven test-run:  It was a blast!

Some shots of our very first pizza party and oven test-run:  It was a blast!

Since that first party, we've baked several loaves of bread at a time, roasted chickens, roasts, flatbread, grilled meat and veggies on a grill pan, boiled chicken stock - many of these things at the same time.  One of the benefits of this oven is it's heat rentention.  Here's a quote from the designer's website:

"...the heat generated by the wood burned cooks both by directly transferring heat into the cooking chamber as well as by retaining heat in the oven’s mass and slowly returning that heat to the inside of the oven.  For these reasons, this oven is much more practical to use and requires much less wood to do the same amount of baking as in the retained-heat mass ovens and traditional domed earthen ovens.  It allows for quite a bit more spontaneity too since you can be baking just 15 minutes after lighting your fire."

We have been amazed at how this large oven holds heat.  Once up to 400 - 500 degrees - the oven will stay around this temp for several hours, even after the fire has gone out.  I hope to learn to use the heat in the oven more and more wisely.  On our baking day, I will plan on having several meals to bake in it - eventually inviting neighbors to bring their own dishes, (pots of beans, whole chickens to roast, etc) - over to bake.  

The oven is slowly developing character... smoke stains, hairline cracks.  This only makes me love it more.  I love that this durable, workhorse of an oven will be with us for many years to come.

Will and I plan to start a local bread business selling sourdough loaves to the neighborhood very soon.  We also foresee farm-to-table meals cooked out of the oven and much more.  If you live in the local Loveland/Ft. Collins, Colorado area, you can visit www.plentyfarms.com to stay updated on these new happenings!

Thanks for sharing our journey!



The things I do for compost.... (on soil ecology and spring garden prep!)

IMG_2214
IMG_2214

Three years ago, when I decided we needed to try and grow as much food as possible on our 1/5 acre lot, I bought a book.  I declared I would read it from cover to cover.  I learned that in order to have a thriving garden - you MUST start with the soil.  Since then, I've become a bit obsessed with dirt, compost, manure and humus.   Let me explain...

Many things that I read about that first year would only prove helpful as I got out in the garden and dug.   When we first dug up most of the lawn in 2011, we removed the sod layer with a sod cutter, then rototilled.  The moist soil underneath seemed dark - which was good, we thought.  We left it in mounds as we decided where to put our beds.  After a day or two, the soil began to dry out and it's real qualities were evident.  There was little to no texture, besides thick, hard, dense CLAY.  What looked dark and crumbly while moist, had turned into a mass of rock-hard clods when dry.

One very important aspect of good soil is something called 'humus'.

IMG_2218
IMG_2218

"Humus is vegetable or animal matter that has died and been changed by the action of soil organisms into a complex organic substance that becomes part of the soil".

There is an entire page in my book dedicated to humus.  It is what gives rich soil it's texture, nutrients and water-holding capacity.  It acts as a sponge, stops erosion, feeds beneficial organisms as well as earthworms, and contains all of the elements that plants need - and releases them slowly.

"Humus is the firm basis of good gardening.  It is possible to grow inferior crops on humus-deficient soil by supplying all of your plants' chemical requirements, mainly in the form of nitrates, out of a fertilizer bag, but if you do this, your soil will progressively deteriorate and, ultimately blow or wash away, as the topsoils of so much of the world's surfact, abused by humankind, already have." ( p. 16 The new self-sufficient gardener)

My soil at the start, had practically NO humus.

The simplest way I can explain how to build in humus, is to relate it to nature.  Think of the last time you walked into the forest.  The ground there is spongy, as the layers of leaves, needles and decaying wood have built up.  Over time, the sun and rain - along with fungi, bacteria and other decomposers have begun to turn all of this organic matter into dark, rich soil.  But the soil cannot be easily seen!  You would have to dig down, peel back the loose layers of this slowly decomposing matter to find the dark, rich, sweet-smelling soil underneath.  The soil is protected by a thick covering which keeps it safe from erosion and deterioration.

Over the past three years as I've immersed myself into homesteading, organic gardening and permaculture principles - I've heard this re-iterated again and again.  I've experimented with soil testing - but I have so many different areas and raised boxes - that it was tricky.  Thankfully - I've learned that adding compost regularly will eliminate your need to balance the soil.  The slow-releasing of complete nutrients in humus-rich soil is nature's way of fixing most problems. If my plants are suffering from something specific (like blossom end-rot for example - I know the soil there needs more calcium, and I can add this).

Ruth Stout (in the video linked below) talks about the incredible results she's had by keeping a very large layer of straw mulch on top of her garden.  She never tills, and amazingly... rarely waters!

The 'Back to Eden' film (which can be viewed on vimeo) is another family who discovered amazing results (without tilling) by using large amounts of wood chips as a mulch layer.

This film has incredibly fascinating facts in it about soil, why it's important to preserve (rather than ignore it) and the problems that our modern farming systems have created.    I highly recommend watching this. (You can watch instantly on Netflix).


Now... contrast what I described on the forest floor - with what we see in modern farming.  It's no wonder we are confused when we want to start growing vegetables.  If you drive by a typical farm - you'll see acres and acres of  tilled soil - exposed to the elements - waiting for a new tilling or planting.  Wait a few months, and usually you'll see corn or soy growing for miles.   As the above quote says - you CAN grow vegetables this way.  To grow plants, you really only need air, water and nutrients.  Some farmers supply their plant's nutrients with chemical fertilizers, spreading manure and tilling- or both.  On a very large scale, this seems to be the only way to produce in the quantities they are desiring.

BUT...

If you want to build your soil naturally.... the easiest way to do this, is to mimic what nature does, so well.

Back to our story.  We had some really dense clay soil that first year.  Because we didn't know any different but to till the soil, we bought a load of compost and mixed it in.  That was a good first step, but we left the soil uncovered.

I am learning more with each passing year - through trial and error.  But I've decided that if  "humus is the firm basis of good gardening",then creating more humus-rich soil in my garden must be the goal.

Here are the steps that I am taking to do this.

  • Compost everything that I can.  Every bit of organic matter that I can find, goes into our compost heap.  Kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, garden waste, dry leaves.  In our setup, the compost pile is in the chicken yard.  The hens eat what they want, scratch through it and it breaks down.   We add pine shavings and/or straw to the chicken coop to keep the smell down, then - every week we rake it out and add this manure/bedding mixture to the compost heap.  The combination of nitrogen-rich poop plus carbon-rich dry bedding -  heats up well and breaks down beautifully.  Usually in late summer or fall, I dig down and begin shoveling what is at the very bottom of the pile (it will be dark and crumbly) and put it into another pile (covered) to let mature.  In the spring - this rich, dark and crumbly garden gold is ready to add to my garden.  An important tip, when you think your compost is done... smell it! It should not have any bad odor like manure or ammonia, but should smell sweet.  Here is a very helpful video to give you some more specifics on how to compost:
  • Always keep the soil covered.  I have been experimenting with mulching ever since I heard of Ruth Stout's methods.  The benefits are - you keep your soil protected (like the forest floor) which is the ideal place for earthworms and beneficial bacteria and fungi to thrive.  As that top mulch layer breaks down, it feeds the organisms in the soil - which give nutrients and texture (humus). It also holds in moisture, meaning you'll have to water less.   I've tried using straw, leaves and wood chips on my garden.  Really - you can use anything that will eventually break down - but it's good to know what works best for your climate.  Living in Colorado - we have lots of sun in the summer, frozen winters and not as much rain.   I've learned that things break down quickest when they have lots of heat and moisture.   All winter here, since things are frozen - not much happens.  Then, in the mid-summer - there's not much rain.  I tried installing a drip system, wanting to conserve water - but that did not work well to help the mulch layers break down, as there was not enough moisture on the mulch to make this happen.  Instead, my mulch layer on top remained dry and wanted to blow away - and the clay soil underneath created deep cracks where the water gravitated toward.  I now have replaced the drippers with sprayer/misters to my system which moistens the entire top layer of the garden beds - allowing the mulch to get wet and decompose as well.  I try to make sure and water in the evenings or early morning. I realize I will use more water this way, but I feel it's worth it, to benefit my soil.
  • Look for compost/humus wherever possible, and add it generously with each new planting.  This year, we expanded our garden from 1,673 square feet of space - to 2,359 square feet.  We dug up the end of the driveway that we don't need, and got rid of more front lawn.   Because of these large areas that we added - we needed large amounts of additional compost.  More than our chicken yard and rabbits could provide.  I also have some neighbors who are willing to let me farm their yards - which will require extra soil amending.

We have a favorite lake nearby, which we love to visit.  The girls play and explore,  and enjoy collecting driftwood.   While there with a friend, I bent down and noticed how black and beautiful some soil was that had collected at one part of the shore.  'Look at all of this beautiful compost!!"  (funny, the things I notice these days!)

IMG_20140305_174006_783
IMG_20140305_174006_783

I noticed that there was a place not too far where I could park, and determined to come back.  I have since been back three times to collect loads of this beautiful humus-rich soil.  I spread out a tarp in the back of my vehicle, brought along some large bushel baskets and would collect trash as I dug through the decomposing sticks to reveal layers and layers of rich compost (which hopefully included some fish that went belly-up as well).  The area didn't have anything growing in it - so I felt good about taking some home.

IMG_20140306_164929_511
IMG_20140306_164929_511

Then, the other day as we were doing a dreaded chore (moving rock out from around our rasied beds) the girls and I noticed how much good compost there was in between the rocks. (This was due to leaves that break down over time). When I had a bit more time, I decided to see how much could be collected.

IMG_20140331_135809_470
IMG_20140331_135809_470

I grabbed a bit of leftover wire from an old rabbit hutch, set it on top of a 5 gallon bucket, and would shovel a pile of rocks on top, shake to sift, and dump the rocks away.  This way, my rock pile was cleaner (just rocks, no soil mixed in) and I was able to collect about 5 buckets-full of lovely compost to add to some of my new beds!   It was definitely a bit tedious - but I was thrilled to be outside working in the sun, and it felt great to end up with a nice (free) little load of humus.

IMG_20140331_135611_475
IMG_20140331_135611_475

For the rest of my compost needs, I have been asking around to friends - hoping to find a farm with more animals who might have some aged manure.  Yesterday, we found just the person!  A neighbor of our family has a HUGE pile of cow manure that has been aging (and has been turned a few times). He has enough that he was willing to share with me before he spread it out on his fields.   We looked for the part of the pile that was oldest, and dug to the bottom.  It was dark, crumbly and lovely - and smelled sweet.  Perfect!!  I will be getting my exercise shoveling and filling up the trailer several times this week to gather enough.

IMG_20140405_161604_296
IMG_20140405_161604_296

If you are looking to add compost to your garden, but don't have animals - it makes sense to ask around.  You could certainly buy it at a garden center, but there are plenty of people who will sell - or give it to you for free.  Compost, rich in humus - I believe, is the absolute key to a bountiful garden.

Here are a few pictures of my garden beds this year.  In the fall I spread out some rabbit manure on each bed, and covered them with as many fall leaves as I could.  Some beds got another layer of straw as well.  As this is only my second year experimenting with deep mulching, I still have quite a bit of clay in the soil below.  I don't mix in the leaves, because mixing in too much carbon-rich content (dry leaves, wood chips that haven't decomposed) will tie up the nitrogen in the soil - and make it unavailable to the plants.  Just using them as a top layer will protect the soil and draw up the earthworms and decomposers - and they will do the job of enriching the soil.  I also don't till anymore - because I've read that too much disturbance in the soil can hinder the microbial growth in the soil.

IMG_2129
IMG_2129

I have been going around with a large fork to lift the clay soil beneath - aerating the beds a bit, and breaking it up a bit.  This will allow the microbes to get in, and when I add more compost when I plant, will give some air to the ground below.

IMG_2126
IMG_2126

When I am direct-seeding plants like carrots, onions, beets or peas - I spread away the mulch layer, add a nice layer of compost to plant in and let them germinate.  I've noticed that I didn't have good luck with my seeds germinating when I tried to sow the seeds and then cover deeply again with mulch.  There was not enough warmth in early Spring for mine to germinate well.  After they emerge from the soil and get a few inches tall, though I will move the mulch layer back around the plants to protect it.

IMG_2133
IMG_2133

I have had very good luck with my raised boxes on the south side of my garden.  I believe it's because of a few things.  I get lots of hot sun on this side, and they thaw out earlier than the ground thaws - being raised up.  I have been watering evenly with the sprayers, and the sides of the boxes keep the mulch in place (it doesn't blow away as easily).

I used a guide from the Square Foot Gardening method to build the soil when I first filled the boxes.

'Mel's Mix' is:

1/3 peat moss,

1/3 vermiculite,

1/3 compost (from as many sources as possible).

IMG_2149
IMG_2149

I've added rabbit poop and compost to the tops of the beds after the plants are done in the fall, then covered with thick layers of mulch (straw, leaves) before winter.

IMG_2151
IMG_2151

In the spring - this is what I find.  TONS of earthworms and dark, crumbly rich soil!  Excited to plant again in these boxes!

I hope this information is helpful to those of you who are on this adventure of growing food.

Remember... in order to get this:

taken july 25 (27)
taken july 25 (27)

You've got to first start building this:

IMG_2157
IMG_2157

Happy gardening!