Renewable Farming

When your accumulation of old totes is ready to retire, here’s a new career

If you’ve accumulated just too many old totes, don’t shuttle them off to the old totes home. Turn them into an easy-to-manage garden, with unmatched drainage and no way for rabbits to invade.

June 29, 2018, Updated July 30   Weekend essay by Jerry Carlson — I’m not the brilliant grower on thousands of acres like Hal Brown is, but I’m his equal at accumulating stuff. There are so many things that might be useful someday. My idea of a storage area behind the machine shed is to have a collection big enough to hide more stuff behind it.

So today when Hal sent me his answer to heavy, wet soil in the farmstead spot he uses for a garden, that answer promised to solve two other gardening challenges too. Maybe three or four. He saber-saws the tops out of well-used totes, power washes them, then fills them with the right combination of clean, mellow topsoil from a stash stockpiled in his woodlot.


“If you have excess rain, you leave the tote’s drain valve open and the soil balances itself,” notes Hal. If weather turns dry, the garden hose is nearby. 

Late yesterday afternoon, my wife Jill and I browsed our own garden for fresh sweet peas, and realized again that bending over for pea-pickin’ isn’t as easy anymore. Hal solves this problem: Harvest goodies in a tote are reachable from four sides, without bending over. If you are kinda short, you can cut off the tote to whatever height suits you. 


Hal finds other containers for vertical gardens too: Shipping crates. Hal and his son Ty, who operate Windy Lane Farms in Indiana, import and market Horsch equipment from Germany. Horsh crates heavy export parts in stevadore-sturdy wooden containers. They’re ideal for holding hundreds of pounds of topsoil and compost. In the photo, note the leaf size on those Horsch brand string beans. 

Of course, at strawberry time, birds are still a problem. That’s why the owl statue is posted as a guard. 



My favorite feature of a tote garden, though, is that rabbits don’t jump high enough to mow down lettuce. No fence needed. Moles and voles and ground squirrels? No way. 

Hugelkultur bed (see link to Permaculture magazine)

July 30 update — After Hal’s idea composted in my head a couple of days, another thought germinated: Totes are large enough to replicate field conditions of Hugelkultur, a German term for raising crops in raised earthen beds with an underlying base of slowly digesting logs and branches. The nearby drawing, transplanted from the brilliant British magazine Permaculture, shows the concept. 

With a tote, you could stash fairly large limbs and logs at the bottom, then smaller branches, a layer of mulch and compost and finally a couple feet of high-organic soil. Mycorrhizal fungi would feast for a decade on the lode of carbon. The permeable branches underlying the main root zone would improve drainage, and you’d have an ideal hugelkultur bed. It would even be portable with a forklift, so you could move totes under a high tunnel to extend the season.

(Our grandson Blake is building several hugelkultur beds here on the 20 acres we formerly used for corn and soybean research plots. His high-carbon hardwood feedstock is a mounting supply of free ash tree logs, delivered by tree-care services that are trying to keep up with the death rate of ash trees in this community of 50,000. Burying and burning the wood stops the spread of the emerald ash tree borer. The ash tree depopulation in America is a similar loss like that of Dutch elm disease five decades ago.)

There are dozens of video documentaries describing fungi on Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube.  One of the clearest for a farmer’s understanding is The Magic of Mushrooms, free on YouTube at this link. The promo description: “Professor Richard Fortey delves into the fascinating and normally hidden kingdom of fungi. From their spectacular birth, through their secretive underground life to their final explosive death, Richard reveals a remarkable world that few of us understand or even realise exists – yet all life on Earth depends on it. In a specially built mushroom lab, with the help of mycologist Dr Patrick Hickey and some state-of-the-art technology, Richard brings to life the secret world of mushrooms as never seen before and reveals the spectacular abilities of fungi to break down waste and sustain new plant life, keeping our planet alive.”


Our local ag research farm, ACRES, operates just south of our Renewable Farming land and WakeUP production plant. We’ve seen ACRES grow corn in totes for a scientific purpose: They filled several totes to a specific weight, then planted corn in the soil and treated each tote with some nutrient they want to evaluate. Through the season, each tote was weighed regularly. The data provided an accurate measure of conversion of sunlight energy to total biomass. The ears were harvested, shelled and weighed, after weighing the entire tote and calculating total biomass accumulation. 

AgriEnergy Resources founder Dave Larson often described one of the earliest such careful experiments using a self-contained growth tub. A 17th century Flemish physician, Jon Batista von Helmont, thoroughly dried some soil, weighed out 200 pounds of dry soil and placed it in a large tub. Then he planted a willow tree in the tub and gave the tree only water for five years. Then after carefully extracting the tree and its roots, he weighed all the biomass and found that the roots, trunk and branches added up to a total of 164 pounds. He expected that the soil should weigh considerably less than the original 200 pounds after five years, presuming soil elements would be taken up by the tree. But after drying the soil, he found the original 200 pounds of soil had lost only two ounces. Amazed, von Helmont  reasoned that all of the carbon-containing cellulose and lignin biomass in the tree could have come only from the air and water. That led future scientists toward realizing that plants extract carbon from carbon dioxide, nitrogen from fixation by rhizobia, and hydrogen and oxygen from water. 

Your creative mind or your spouse’s can probably imagine that, with a bit of new green-treated fencing as a facade over the aluminum and old crates, you could create an aesthetically pleasing display of fruit, veggies and flowers with such cubes as the base. Of course you can rearrange or store them seasonally with a forklift. Who knows what your creative research mind might come up with to vary the soil “kultur” totally independently in each tote? 

Caution, though: Neighbors may covertly smuggle their old totes into your garden collection.