Sunday, August 23, 2009

Permaculture Persecution

I am sure that a lot of my permaculture buddies can sympathize with me about the experience of discussing an exciting permaculture design or idea with someone and then having them respond with “no”, “it will be messy”, “what will the neighbours think”, etc. For those of us who put their heart and soul into permaculture, these responses can be very disheartening. I think that often times these negative responses have to do not only with misconceptions regarding permaculture, but also with different perceptions regarding beauty. In fact, I would bet that most people have not really thought about beauty and depth and that their perceptions regarding beauty are only skin deep.

Here is a case study that concerns “what the neighbours think”. A couple of weekends ago I got into a lively debate at a party with a neighbuor who doesn't like the idea of me (eventually) cutting down the Norway Maple on our front lawn to make way for fruit trees. Her main objection was that she liked the way the tree looked when she walks by. Someone else got into the conversation and asked why I wanted to cut the tree down. When I told her that it was to plant fruit trees in its place she replied, “wouldn't that be, uhhhh…., ugly?” I can assure you gentle reader that I did not say the first thing that came to mind. All I could think of saying at the time was that I guess people have different perceptions of beauty.

Why do I perceive planting fruit trees on my front lawn as beautiful?

There is beauty in the actual fruit trees themselves. While a large maple can be beautiful as well, I would say that a flowering cherry tree, along with the subsequent cherry tree covered in red fruit, is more aesthetically pleasing than a Norway Maple, at least on my front lawn.

There is beauty in eating fruit from your own yard knowing that it hasn't been sprayed with chemical pesticides or fertilized with inorganic fertilizers.

There is beauty in knowing that the fruit from your yard only traveled 20 m on foot to the kitchen rather than being transported from Chile, California, or even St. Jacobs, for that matter, using fossil fuels.

There is beauty in seeing your children get excited about eating fruit grown in their own yard. Take a look at the picture at the end of the blog of my kids eating cherries grown on a dwarf tree in a half barrel.

There is beauty in seeing the kids calling a fruit tree on the property “the restaurant” because of its prolific berries. In this case it is a weeping mulberry. One of our neighbour’s kids even made two pies with berries picked from the tree and gave one to us.

There is beauty in knowing that your fruit trees will help support the local bee populations that are currently under threat from a variety of sources.

There is beauty in knowing that the fruit trees on your property are producing food for your family and not just shade and leaves to rake.

Taking into consideration these aspects, I think that a much deeper appreciation of beauty can be found than simply the appearance of one tree or another. If and when a similar discussion comes up, I hope I will be better prepared to articulate my thoughts and feelings on permaculture and the beauty of home grown food. Please feel free to share any experiences or thoughts that you have had pertaining to permaculture persecution or differing appreciations of beauty.

Here are my kids picking the first ripe cherries from a dwarf tree grown in a half-barrel on the driveway.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

What Goes Around Should Come Around: Nutrient Cycling Part 1

Permaculture is a design system that is largely based on modeling natural systems, forests in particular (other ecosystems should also be modelled!). To successfully model something, a key component is first carefully observing it. Thus, one of the key principles of permaculture is listed as:

Observation: protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour.

If we observe a forest, we see that every autumn leaves of the trees fall to the forest floor where they are then broken down by bacteria, fungi, bugs, and worms (though the worms are a relatively new addition in North America and are changing some of the ecological dynamics of the deciduous forests). The breakdown of the leaves, and in fact anything else that the dies in the forest, results in the nutrients being released so that they can be taken up and incorporated in the growth of other plants and animals. The nutrients are cycled. Nothing is being wasted, it is all being reused and transformed - coming from the earth and returning to the earth. This fact is reflected in many of the creation myths that exist around the world. Many of them involve the first peoples being created from earth or mud. In one of the two biblical creation myths, there is a character named “Adam”, which apparently means “red earth”.

Another example is that we bury our dead in the earth. I haven’t looked into the origins of this, but it could reflect this knowledge of things coming and returning to the earth. Early peoples would have known that there is a transformation from life to death and from death to life (city dwellers have for the most part lost this connection, as they tend to not kill their own food, but instead opt to buy it at the supermarket). I have seen old Inuit camps in the tundra of the Northwest Territories where patches of wildflowers grow on small “refuse mounds” that contained the butchered remains of caribou or muskox. The nutrients contained in the bones, blood, and other animal parts support a diversity of life that is absent from the adjacent nutrient poor soils, even though hundreds of years may have passed since the mounds were made. The nutrients keep cycling and cycling and cycling. Native Americans were also said to bury fish with the corn crops to fertilize them and provide better growth. Similarly, gardeners today often amend their soils with bone and blood meal.

When our beloved cat Dr. Livingstone died, I buried him on the Hill behind her house that he used to frequent and planted some native prairie flowers on his grave. My kids know that this not only marks where he is buried, but also that he is being transformed into flowers. If this sounds bizarre, it is only because we have forgotten that this is how nature works and we, and everything else around us, are part of nature and its processes. Life to death, death to life.
Getting back to a wonderful process of nutrient cycling, I like to think of how the landscape developed in southern Ontario over the last 12,000 years or so since the glaciers melted. After perhaps a brief tundra/shrub tundra phase, spruce invaded the landscape creating the first forests. The spruce were then largely replaced by pines, which, in turn, were replaced by the deciduous species that we now have in the forests (varying in temporal and spatial abundance and composition, of course. I have the HARDEST time putting down statements without qualifying them… Nothing in nature is ever really so straightforward). During the majority of this 12000 year period, whatever died and fell to the ground was pretty much cycled back into the immediate system. There was no waste. Contrast that with our typical urban environments. In Kitchener, we have abundant lawns where the grass “wastes” are bagged and then picked up by the city every two weeks. The export of nutrients from the lawns typically necessitates the use of fertiliser to replace them. On of the typical trees planted in the city is Norway Maple. This, non-native tree, which seems to be particularly affected by fungal “tar spots” (unlike native maples), produces abundant leaves that make gardening around them difficult due to the shade. Again, in the fall these leaves (along with most other tree leaves in the city) are raked and bagged with all the carbon and nutrients being exported from the site. These “wastes” can and should be reincorporated into the site! What we are doing goes directly against what we observe in natural systems. Note that while I collect peoples bagged leaves for my garden, I don’t collect grass clippings as they often contain herbicides and pesticides. I have had a “hot” compost pile go cold as they beneficial bacteria within were killed by the addition of poisons in contaminated grass clippings that I added.

Another example, Kitchener has started a “green bin” program. It is an expensive program that is “designed” to save space in our land fills by picking up decomposable kitchen wastes and shipping them to another city for composting. So of course it involves buying plastic bins for everyone, as well as buying new trucks (or retrofitting old ones I don’t really know) with dual garbage/organic waste compaction systems. They evaluate the success of the program with the percentage of households participating. The higher the percentage, the more successful the program. However, in my humble view, the higher the percentage, the less successful the program is because people are NOT keeping the “wastes”, which are actually resources, onsite! Think of a nice environmentally conscious neighbourhood where most of the households compost their green and yard wastes. The city would designate the green bin program in this neighbourhood a “failure” due to their low participation! Now, the city does still promote composting, but I still think that adding the green bin program just adds on to a problem instead of fixing it.

Fixing the problem… A good design goes to the root of the problem and doesn’t just address the symptoms. Look at all of the costs associated with “fixing” the kitchen/lawn waste “problem”. Trucks costs and energy and pollution associated with their construction, operation, and maintenance, shipping the wastes to another city, labour, gas, exportation of nutrients, importation of fertilisers… My next entry will look at ways in which this problem can be fixed by modelling natural systems and the benefits of doing so. If have any other “cons” associated with the exporting of our yard/kitchen wastes, please add them in the comments section.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Backcast and Take Charge of Your Future!!!

One of the few memorable concepts in that I remember from my undergraduate years is that of forecasting and backcasting and their use in the planning process. Forecasting seems to be the technique used by most governments, utility companies, and municipal planning departments. In order to forecast, one extends a current trend and then plans your actions to meet this extrapolation. For example (and I do realize that this is a gross simplification), if Ontario is using X amount of electricity with the current population, then if the population doubles we would then used twice the electricity. What action would we take to meet this demand? Easy, build twice as many nuclear power plants.

In contrast, to backcast one envisions a desired scenario or outcome and then plans successive steps and actions to reach this goal. So in the case of Ontario doubling its population, an alternative envisioned future might be a more energy-efficient society that uses electricity from multiple green or at least greener sources, which may include small scale hydro plants, and solar and wind generated electricity. Energy use could become more efficient through simple steps such as phasing out incandescent light bulbs and using compact fluorescent or LED lights and legislating the use of energy-efficient appliances. Of course lots more could and would have to be done. These are just off the top of my head and I'm hoping that they will at least illustrate the difference between forecasting, which I view as reactive, with backcasting, which I regard as proactive. To me a proactive approach is much better, as it allows us to guide our society and civilization towards something that we would like it to be rather then simply heading in the direction of its own unplanned inertia.

On this much smaller scale, I can use backcasting for my own permaculture design approach by envisioning not only with what kind of landscape I would like to have, but also what kind of activities would I like to be doing on it. I think that second question is important, as too often conventional design is based on “looking nice” rather than what it will actually be used for or on what actually makes you feel good.

Bread oven built with on-site clay: I see not only great bread, but great outdoor pizza parties and social events.
Flower cutting garden: a fresh cut flowers for the table, food and habitat for beneficial insects.
Backyard play area: a play area of lawn behind the house where I can do tai chi, run around with the kids, etc.
Berry patches: multiple berry patches using different varieties of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and currents, to provide berries from spring to fall.
Medicinal garden: various medicinal plants such as chamomile, Echinacea, feverfew, etc. There is something both romantic and practical in using your own herbs to treat your ailments.
Vines growing up the house walls or on trellises to shade of the house.
Fruit trees with companion plant groundcovers mimicking forest processes.
Sitting areas throughout the property where one can “just sit and be (man)”.
Pergola with grapes providing shade for a sitting and eating area. Relaxed BBQs outside and eating in the shade.
No-dig raised beds for easy gardening.
Mulch and coppice growing areas to replace some unused lawn areas but otherwise just have to be cut.
Bean trellises providing a living functional fence to black unwanted views
Potato towers makign use of vertical space
I envision NOT having so much lawn to cut as it will be replaced with useful and beautiful plants.
I envision our house and yard being a beacon of beauty, diversity, and abundant food

These are some of the prominent things that come to mind when I envision what I would like my property to be like and what I would like to be up to do on it. I must note that these items are what I have envisioned and to be fair I must also ask the other members of my family to do the same (keeping in mind that I do hold a secret veto power…). To continue the backcasting exercise, now that I have some idea of what kind of future property I would like to have, I must now research the elements and decide where best to place them. For example, I know almost nothing about clay ovens other than the fact that there is a good book called Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost, Wood-Fired Mud Oven; Simple Sourdough Bread; Perfect Loaves, written by Kiko Denzer. Action item number one, buy or borrow the book. Another action item would be to investigate perennial medicinal plants. I have a friend who built a pergola, maybe he can give me some advice on designing and building one. What kind of vines would be best to grow on the house walls? A time frame for the implementation of each step can then be made once the design plans are firmed up a bit. In any case, the main point I want to make, whether or not you call it backcasting or not, is to ENVISION and DESIGN your future INTENTIONALLY. Yes, even the best plans may go haywire, but it is best to try. You just might succeed.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Coffee With a Side Of Mushrooms

One of my goals this year is to learn how to cultivate mushrooms. What we typically refer to as mushrooms, i.e., what you see at the supermarket or growing on the ground or trees in the woods, is actually only a reproductive structure. The majority of the fungal body that created the structure is hidden within the tree or ground. Fungi are extremely interesting organisms and play an incredibly important role in ecosystems by decomposing organic matter, which allows the nutrients in the matter to be recycled and used by other organisms. In nature there really is no waste or pollution - everything is used by something else and cycled around and around. An interesting example of this is with beer. To make beer or wine you add yeast (uni-cellular fungi) to fruit juice or grain mash. The yeasts eat the sugars in the mix with their waste product being alcohol. Thus, one organism’s excrement is another organism’s Friday night.

A good permaculture plan also tries to minimize waste and to reuse outputs from other elements in the plan. We call this “closing the loop”. Take coffee grounds for example. I wonder how many people take their morning coffee grounds and either throw them out into the garbage or wash them down the sink. That is an example of an open loop. The output from your morning coffee is literally going down the drain. What a waste! Coffee grounds are high in nitrogen and make an excellent fertilizer. You could compost them, sprinkle them in your garden or simply throw them on your lawn. Not only will this fertilize the plants, but it will also keep some harmful bugs away (note: any bidder or strong tasting or smelling plant likely contains natural chemicals that repel insects and animals that may otherwise eat them. Of course some plants have flowers and fruits that attract insects and animals to pollinate or to carry their seeds elsewhere.). In addition, you would be diverting the coffee grounds from the landfill. I remember seeing someone on the Internet selling fertilizer based on used coffee grounds. They were also selling a liquid coffee based fertilizer as well. While this is an ingenious method of closing the loop and making some money, I for one would not pay for used coffee grounds and twice brewed grounds to fertilize my plants, but I suppose there are worse things that one could spend their money on...

In permaculture, we try to cycle are inputs and outputs as many times as possible in order to milk their energy for all they're worth. This is where mushrooms and coffee grounds come into play. I had previously read that one can grow oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds. Doing this would allow the coffee to be used one more time before being used as compost or fertilizer. As I had always wanted to grow mushrooms, I ordered some oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) spawn on from a nursery for around $15. Oyster mushrooms are ear-shaped mushrooms that decompose wood and are widespread in the temperate and subtropical forests of the world. When the spawn arrived, I started dumping my morning coffee grounds into an empty yogurt container and added a few tablespoons of the sawdust based spawn. I kept topping the container up with grounds until it was full and then placed it in a dark cupboard. After a few days I could see the white fluffy filaments of the fungal mycelium growing through the coffee. Interestingly, the mycelium and grounds have a very perfumery odour. There are also sometimes drops of water on top of the mycelium, which I call mushroom dew. I have been thinking that maybe I could bottle it and sell it as a fragrance called “Eau de Pleurote”? In any case you can see the fungus growing throughout the grounds photographs at the end of the post.

To get the fungus to fruit I am going to cut some slips on the side of the container and dipped it in ice water for a couple of hours. This stresses the fungus and causes it to start growing the reproductive structures that are so tasty fried in a little bit of olive oil.

If you want to learn a little bit more about the interesting world of fungi take a look at the following short presentation by leading fungi expert Dr. Paul Stamets, a, entitled, "6 ways mushrooms can save the world."

Finally, if you have any mushroom growing experiences please feel free to write about them in the comments section. Alternatively, if you can think of any ways we can “close loops” you can write about those as well.

Yours permaculturally,

December 29, 2008January 2, 2009
January 4, 2009
January 7, 2009