Thursday, February 28, 2008

getting antsy

It's nearly time to start planting!!

In fact, I should have started a few things indoors already (eggplants, peppers). I'll get on that this weekend. I promise.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A little inspiration

Here's a link to a youtube video about turning hyper-arid, perfectly flat and extremely salty land a few miles from the Dead Sea into a productive multi-crop orchard. These guys use permaculture principles which focus on mimicking the resiliency and productivity of natural systems but recreating them with species that are not only useful to the system but also edible or otherwise useful to humans.

An ideal permaculture system requires minimal upkeep and uses perennial and self-seeding plants to keep itself going even if left unattended for months or years at a time. Interesting stuff, and more on this later.


So I visited my dad in Phoenix, AZ last weekend. It was a ton of fun. There's been such a wet winter there that the landscape was so green it was nearly unrecognizable in places. We did a lot of fun things, but in my free moments I started a very pathetic beginning to a compost pile in my dad's back yard.

The main ingredient was the leaves that lay scattered all about below his tree. Alli and I raked them all to an auspicious location near the side fence and put them in a big old pile. I intended to have my brother help me pilfer some wooden loading pallets like you can find behind supermarkets to use for walls for the pile, but there was never time.

Alli and I were cooking a meal for many people on Sunday night and since we went to a farmer's market and found a ton of fresh vegetables there was a fair amount of vegetable scrap to throw on the pile (I just can't get others to share my taste for beet greens. Odd).

Since I doubt dad will produce copious amounts of vegetable waste to add to the pile, I was a little worried that the pile would be too leafy. On the other hand, he does drink a lot of coffee. And the coffee shop he frequents every day has a policy of giving away their coffee grounds to composters. My dad is a serious early bird, so I think he'll have no trouble taking advantage of this resource.

I sent him a link to City Farmer's photo-illustrated how to on composting since I didn't have time to really go through the process while I was there.

There's the link, if you want to give compost a try yourself. Drop me a line and I'll talk until I'm out of breath about all of the benefits.

I hope we all realize ...

I haven't preached this point too much so far because I figured it went without saying, but permit me a (hopefully) short rant.

Nearly all of the the food that we buy -- and then eat -- relies on cheap gasoline, cheap trucking and other non-renewable resources that we're sucking down by the ten thousands of gallons. Go to a grocery store, even a high-cost organic one and look around. Everything there would be gone with something as simple as a three-day transit strike.

Does no one else find that terrifying? And on a less catastrophic scale, rising oil prices (which are and will continue to be an absolute reality) will by necessity equal rising food prices. Maybe you've got pounds and pounds of food stored up in your house, but my apartment, not so much. Maybe the trucking companies will come through for us before oil costs are prohibitively expensive and run their trucks on biodiesel, or something.

Personally, while I think these more optimistic scenarios could certainly play out, I'm not willing to bet my starvation on it. I don't think you should either, to be honest.

So some solutions, please, miss gloom'n'doom?

Well, the most obvious and most direct answer is to grow some of your own food, more each year (pick your damn figs, oranges and pecans, dad. Get some wrist and ankle weights and do it instead of a workout or two. And then call Alli and she'll walk you through cooking delicious things from them). Don't have enough space? Get creative, vertical space is space too.

You'd be surprised how productive a small amount of land (or a balcony, or a patio, or a rooftop) can be . There's an Urban farm in Chicago (note: short mid-western growing season) that can produce enough food for 2000 people on two acres. Well, that's an advanced aquaponics system with a lot of full time employees, but then you're probably not trying to feed 250 people from your 1/4th acre, either.

Another answer that doesn't involve you digging in the dirt is to join a CSA. Community supported agriculture has you pay up front for a "share" of the produce from a farm over the course of the season. There are usually several drop off points to pick up your share, or some CSAs deliver to your door. There's a searchable and pretty comprehensive list of CSAs at

This answer helps the small farmers by giving them money to cover their overhead expenses, and gives you the best produce available. There are countless other advantages, like the accountability that exists when you meet and establish a relationship with your food producer and the support of a local food economy. Let's say that transit strike does materialize: your CSA share is safe. And the rising oil prices probably won't affect it too much, either, because small local farms running CSA's are typically organic, thus not needing petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides and the local nature of the food exempts it from rising shipping costs.

(I have skimmed over the obvious environmental implications of shipping all of that food long distances in refrigerated trucks and train cars because all 12 of my readers are very bright and have almost certainly made that connection on their own.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Another link

Yup, it's about urine.

Human urine as a safe, inexpensive fertilizer for food crops

That's the headline. It summarizes a study done by some Finish researchers.

Some interesting things


So here's a link to the website of a Canadian (of course; they're way ahead of us in innovative ag) couple who figured out a way to profit $52,000 on the sales of crops from less than an acre of farmed land. About half an acre, in fact. And they only own about a 5th of it. And the rest? Back yards in their neighborhood. In some cases they rent the space to farm from neighbors and usually pay for the space in produce and in others they're actually paid to farm other people's property. As people start to realize the nonsense of lawns, some families have seen this "SPIN Farming" (stands for Small Plot INtensive farming) as an alternative to landscaping costs.

Their profitability key is to use high value crops like salad mixes, micro-greens and specialty beets all of which can be harvested very young and spaced very tightly. So they get several harvests from a small space all of which are quite valuable; especially since they weigh and package them at home, charging per bunch instead of per pound.

Speaking of the evil of lawns: heard of edible estates? I'd link to its website, but it's sort of a disorganized mess. Basically this guy started this project to teach people how to use edible plants in a front-lawn-replacing landscape. If done correctly it reduces water need and certainly pesticide and herbicide need and also produces something useful, unlike lawns, which produce nothing but neighborhood homogeneity and cover thousands of square miles of America.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Speaking of the horticultural applications of pee...

But not my pee this time. I'm talking about the rather intriguing idea of aquaponics.

Aquaculture is the practice of growing fish as a cash crop.
Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in a medium other than soil using a nutrient solution to provide them with the elements they'd usually pull from the soil.

Each of these practices on its own produces a harmful by-product. In aquaculture it's all the fish sewage. In hydroponics the nutrient solution is often not completely utilized and it's an expensive sometimes chemically intensive input.

Aquaponics combines the two systems to mimic a more natural polyculture where the plants clean the water and the fish provide the nutrients. In a perfectly functioning aquaponics system the only inputs are fish food, water to top off from evaporation and a minimal amount of electricity to run the pumps that circulate the water from fish to plants and back. I've seen these run from solar cells housed above the unit.

Tilapia is a common fish grown in this setup, since they're tolerant of a lot of conditions and can be fed table scraps (but they're vegetarians. awww). It's sort of like worm composting, but with fish. Feed them your scraps, scraps avoid waste stream, fish make "waste" into plant nutrients, plants make it back into human nutrients. Cool. I love neat, clean, all tied up in a pretty package ideas like this.

I realize, of course, that a perfectly functioning system is by no means an easy feat. One home experimenter wrote that hobby aquaponics is a good way to become a serial fish-killer until you get it right. Still, this whole thing makes me want a yard/greenhouse/place to experiment/even a big balcony really badly. And it's making Alli nervous that we may someday be that crazy house on the block with all sorts of abandoned experiments and lengths of plastic tubing in the back yard.

It's not my fault; I was born with an inherent need to tinker with things.

Oh and here's a link to a video of a home-made aquaponics system.


I figure my long gap between posts is merited, since it's winter, and all my garden was doing was decomposing the organic matter that I piled there. I took my straw mulch and put it in a pile, and added some leaves and some kitchen scraps and hoped for compost.

I knew that this was mostly an unrealistic hope, given the low outdoor temperatures and the low levels of nitrogen in the mix. Finally, I decided that the pile just had to have a nitrogen boost. I searched around all the forums and various other resources that I frequent before I resort to trial and error, and found many suggestions for adding nitrogen. Some were good suggestions, but expensive. Some required that I own a 50 gallon aquarium.

I settled on the easiest and cheapest nitrogen boost, one much touted in every forum I looked at, after I did some research on its safety. I'll give you a hint, it involved a wide mouthed empty plastic jar and we flushed the toilet way less frequently. Human urine, as it turns out, is very high in nitrogen.

I also recently found this gem, an article on organic container gardening adapted to the slums of Mexico City, which relies heavily on urine use. Very interesting.