Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Magic Potion for plants

We have been asked to reclaim a part of a property from overgrown grasses and other so-called weeds and turn it into a garden for the next season.

The soil around the property is generally rather poor, as is most of the surrounding area. So in order to have a good soil chemistry and good plant growth, we want to give it a boost and started to prepare a fertiliser mix that should introduce not only sufficient amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous, but also the necessary minerals needed for healthy plant growth.

There are 14-16 essential elements without which no successful growth can take place.  I say 14-16 as some are more or less important depending on the plant's requirements.

Note: as a side note it is worth to mention that weeds can actually fulfil the function of showing you which nutrients are in short, or excessive supply in your soil. Weeds in general aren't so much a nuisance, can but can tell you what needs to be done with your soil. If you have excessive dandelion growth for example your ground is too compacted and needs loosening (often occurring on trampled lawns, or bare soil, garden beds that tap-root breaks up the soil like a drill). Vetch indicates a low fertility, ie. low nitrogen in the ground. (It is a nitrogen fixer as it belongs to the legume family). Weeds can accumulate the necessary nutrients and bring them up from the deeper regions of the soil to where your annual veggies can reach them. Therefore, weeds should not be pulled as soon as they poke out of the ground. It is better to leave the weeds mature and pull them just before they start to seed. Let them wilt on the beds, till them back under or add them to your compost pile. This way the accumulated nutrients will be put back into the ground. 

In our case, the soil needs pretty much everything to start off as a vegetable garden. Although some nutrients are higher than others, we will brew a mixed fertiliser that can add all the main essentials such as:
zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn), magnesium (Mg), molybdenium (Mb), Iron (Fe), Calcium (Ca), silica (Si), Sulphur (S), sodium (Na), potassium (K) Boron (B) and of course nitrogen (N);

So in this video we show you how to make such a brew using seaweed and other plants. If you don't have seaweed, a combination of nettles, camphor, and other plants mentioned in this video will also do the trick.

On thing should be mentioned as well...this brew can stink. Don't kid yourself, you might want to leave the container with the mixture down wind from any place you want to spend some time at especially when using nettles. 

It doesn't take much effort to make the brew. Simply gather some seaweed or nettles and other mineral accumulating plants and chop them up finely. Some people want to wash out the seaweed to get rid of the salt. I personally don't bother with this, because the liquid fertiliser will be diluted 1:10 before putting it onto any plants and there simply isn't going to be any effect of the salt. Sodium is, as outlined above is also one of the essential elements. You can add other things like egg shells to the mix to add more calcium for example. Our water is slightly acidic here and this helps to dissolve the nutrients into the water. 

Pic 1: Cutting up the seaweed....a stress relief exercise


Mash everything up really well and aerate the mix. Do this every 2-3 days for about 2 weeks. After that you can let the mixture sit for another 6 weeks. Then strain the solids out of the brew and use the liquid diluted with 10 parts of water on your plants. This mix is especially good when you are transplanting or trying to get cuttings to root. It stimulates both root and plant growth.

You can watch the video below to see how we did it. It's pretty quick and easy so if you can get hold of some seaweed, why not give it a go? Have fun!



Monday, 9 December 2013

The Heating Fuel Crisis

Today I want to write about a topic that we all know just too well, at least all of us who live in an environment that requires the heating of houses.

How to heat your house in the future?

Normally, when one of us mentions the term heating fuel or fuel in general, nearly everyone will think about oil and the rising costs entailed. But of course, oil or gas are not the only fuel that are used to heat our homes. Wood is also a fuel, as are turf and coal, not to forget electricity and solar energy, or geothermal energy.

While solar and geothermal energy are becoming more and more popular in some regions, other regions are still heavily relying on either fossil fuel sources, or wood. 

Since we are currently residing in Ireland, I became aware of a new phenomenon that has developed here in the last 4-5 years. Traditionally, the main source of heat originated from turf, or peat. This material is one of the lesser known fossil fuels. It is the soil from the moors that developed over 1000's of years by decaying organic matter. Turf is, for all intents and purposes, the prelude to coal. Eventually the bog will be buried under the ground and pressure and heat from the ground will act like a slow cooker and compress the turf to what eventually will become coal and if more heat and presure are applied over time, this coal will turn into oil and if more heat and pressure are applied, this oil will turn into gas. All of these materials are good for burning and therefore can be used to heat your home. 

Pic 1: Turf drying in the sun


The problem of course, is that the time it takes nature to produce those fuels is much longer than it takes to burn them and therefore, we have to consider those resources as finite. 

Turf, in contrast to coal and oil brings along a separate problem when used as a fuel source. The bog (and here we distinguish between blanket bog and raised bog) is a unique ecosystem that, despite looking rather desolate, sports a high biodiversity and acts as a huge, long-term carbon sink. So taking all the turf from the bog does not only pose the problem of a disappearing heat resource, but also adds the problem of a disappearing eco-system, which helps us in the daunting task of scrubbing the CO2 out of the atmosphere. 

Due to these facts, the Irish government has decided to phase out the production of turf and started to protect the bog-lands in the country. 

Bord na Mona, the Irish governmental heating fuel company has already switched off one of their large-scale turf electrical plants and has plans to completely turn away from turf-heated power plants in the future. 

The EU has recently invoked a ban on turf-cutting, which is not completely being adhered to by Irish turf farmers. But that is another issue. 

With all of this happening, the price of turf has strongly risen and the availability decreased. As a response two things are happening. 

1) A large influx of Polish coal for Irish fireplaces can be noticed. Every petrol station and hardware store in this part of the country at least, has signs out advertising good polish coal. In my own humble opinion, this is the most backward way of combatting a fuel crisis. We turned away from coal decades ago as this fuel is one of the dirtiest one can imagine. We are protecting carbon sinks only by putting more carbon, and more soot into the atmosphere. This is simply unacceptable, yet it is becoming quite popular. 

Pic 2: Premium polish coal sold by the Irish governmental company


2) There is an increase of people who are offering firewood and many people are getting inserts for their old turf fireplaces to be able to burn wood. That itself is not a bad idea, however, it seems to me that the process is fundamentally flawed. 
The reason for this is two-fold. For one, the Irish have no idea how to burn wood (Sorry if I offend anyone, but that simply is the truth) and second the wood that is harvested is not planted in a sustainable way. 

Here are some tips from a perspective that comes from our experience living in a country that has been working on firewood heat since it was first started. In Canada, nobody would really buy any softwood to heat their home. Nobody that has the choice anyway. 
All the wood I have seen for sale here in Ireland is pine or some sort of other softwood. This wood does not contain any heat to speak off. For a comparison here are some BTU levels from different wood types in million BTUs/cord (one cord is 128cft or a stacked pile of 8'x8'x4')

Softwoods

White pine                14.2
Willow                      13.0
Spruce                     16.0
Sycamore                 19.5

Hardwoods

Red Maple                18.7
Paper birch               20.1
Yellow Birch             23.6
Red Oak                   24.0
White Oak                25.7

Hardwood also is a much slower burning wood. The density is much higher and a piece of hardwood can last all night if correctly burned. 

Another problem that softwood poses when being used as firewood is the amount of creosote that can build up if it isn't correctly burned. Softwood creates a high build up of creosote when burned slow and with little amount of oxygen, ie. when your wood-stove's choke is closed. This creosote will settle in the stove pipe and chimney and can cause chimney fires. Most Irish chimneys are not designed to withstand a chimney fire, where temperatures can reach over 900degC. 

Pic 3: That is what you DON'T want to happen...


The best way to use wood for heating is to have good, dry (also called seasoned) hardwood. When the log is placed in the fire, the choke should be opened for approximately 10-20 mins and then closed to maintain maximum heat efficiency and the best and cleanest burning. Never burn any green (fresh) wood. It will be slow to burn, not give any heat and on top of that produce a lot of creosote and soot, which in return can cause chimney fires.

Now, back to the problem of what to do. Hardwood is simply not available in a sufficient amounts and coal does not seem to be an option either due to the environmental impacts. 

It is difficult to solve this problem. This situation will take time to solve. Wind energy, and geothermal energy are options that will take time to fully develop in this country and many others. Ireland should be seen as an example of what happens when problems that seem so far off in time are ignored to the point when they become acute. Silviculture in Ireland started decades ago and if the planning would have been better, and more hardwood species would have been planted (like birch for example) at least the firewood situation could be a little better now. 

I mentioned Canada earlier in this post as an example. In fact, it is far from being a perfect example. What turf is for Ireland, hardwood is for Canada. The amount of hardwood being cut in Canada is immense, while most of the cut areas are either left to succumb to brush and thick forest which can not be used in the next 100 years, the ones that are maintained as agroforestry are exclusively planted with softwoods that promise a fast turnaround of profit.

Ireland and Canada are only two examples that I picked to discuss here briefly. The problem is omnipresent. We are facing a crisis and no one is properly addressing it. The little that is being done is lacking in efficiency and proper planning. The reason for that is the desire for fast profit and the apparent inability of the people in charge to plan further than their own short lives (as most people who are in charge are at least 40 if not 50 years of age, their planning is mostly only done to a max of 20 or maybe 30 years). 

Long term planning can be done. 

College Hall in Oxford University needed new main beams due to an infestation of powder-post beetles. The college was at a loss how to replace the huge and massive beams. As the college has foresters on their payroll to manage the woodlands owned by the school, the administrators turned to them for counsel. When approached with the problem, the foresters answered by saying that they were wondering when this would happen. As it turns out, foresters 600 years ago knew that the beams in the hall would eventually need replacing and had planted oak trees for exactly that purpose. Over 600 years of planning finally paid off. The trees were cut and milled while new ones were planted in their place...to replace those new beams in another 600 years.  

THAT is forward planning with high efficiency level. Not 20 or 30 years for profit planning. It is planning for purpose that is needed today, for us to be able to live comfortable and affordable lives in the next generations (notice plural) to come. We need actions today to solve the many problems we are facing in the future. The heating fuel crisis makes this even more obvious.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Fertilising a garden bed with seaweed

As mentioned in the first post we want to use seaweed collected from the beach to fertilise our garden bed.

The collected seaweed has been left out in the rain for one night just to wash some excess salt of it. Many people just throw the seaweed onto their garden and as far as I know it does not have a detrimental effect on the ground either. The seaweed should be still wet however, and the dried out stuff you can find at the top of the beach is not ideal for fertilising as the break down process is hindered due to the lack of moisture. Also the slimy alginate substance that leaches out from the seaweed helps the soil to stick together and retain more water without mudding up or becoming compacted and the dry stuff just doesn't have any of it anymore.

I also collected some blue mussels I found during an inspection of our boat mooring. They had grown to a phenomenal size on the rope under the buoy and were just enough for a little lunch before working out in the garden.

Pic 1: Delicious.....
The shells of these mussels were crushed between two stones and then spread over the freshly loosened garden bed.

We didn't pick out any of the weeds from the bed, unless they were the really tenacious ones like mint, brambles and some mombrecia. Weeds are nothing bad!! I always say this. They are only bad when you decide to make them your enemy. Every fibre of weed that grew in this garden bed took nutrients from the ground. I want those nutrients to go back into the soil and not take them out of the system.

So after the ground is loosened and the shells have been sprinkled on the soil for a long term calcium supply it is time to spread the seaweed. We covered the whole bed with approximately 3 inches of seaweed. If we would start a new bed we would probably go for 6 inches. This bed, however is already well established and the soil is quite rich.

It is important to leave the seaweed on top of the soil and not to till it under. If the seaweed is in the ground when it breaks down it can actually rob the ground of nitrogen to speed up the breakdown process, and that is what we are trying to avoid. So just leave it on top and let the worms do the job of tilling the nutrients into the ground. 
 
Pic 2: The finished bed
And we are done....yes, as simple as that. Over the winter months this seaweed will decompose and by spring time it will be time to cover the bed with cardboard and then more seaweed as a mulch. I guarantee you that there will be no weed poking through and your backs will be spared the tedious and frustrating part of weeding.

And here is the whole process in video form. 


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Our Oceans vs. Fish Farms

I was in Galway the other day and amongst all the different people on the street with their petitions for a free Palestine and the latest in nail polish and nail care there was a group that was protesting fish farms in the Galway bay. 

I currently reside far out on the west coast of Ireland for the winter. My parents live here and I have spend many a good time around, beside and on the water. 
My parent's house is located on one of the smaller bays on the west coast and like so many others it sports a salmon farm at the top of the bay. 

Now, I like to make it clear that I am not an aquaculture lobbyist, far from it. In fact I used to be stark against this form of food production. In a way I still am, but I am also a fisherman. I love fishing. In my younger years it was mostly sea fishing especially deep sea fishing. I was on the boat so much that I had to strike a deal with the fisherman in order to afford my leisure trips. I ended up working on a charter fishing boat with one of the best fisherman I ever met. Jan has since passed on, but there are many moments when I remember the days on deck and learning about all sorts of marine life from him. 

Sadly, the days of plentiful catches are over. I am writing this being only 34 years of age and I can remember catching boxes over boxes of fish, containing many different species. This was when I was sixteen or so. Nowadays I am happy to catch a Pollock and maybe a couple of mackerel in the summer time. I haven't seen a Cod in years, no Ling, no Whiting and pretty much none of any other species that we used to catch. 

Pic 1: Recreational fishing
The reason is pretty simple and doesn't need much explanation. The sea has been completely overfished. Trawlers from all parts of the world including Japan fish through the complete length and width of the Atlantic. There are 7bn mouths to feed after all. Places like Indonesia and Japan cover a large proportion of their daily protein intake with seafood. Ever more technology is thrown onto the trawlers including GPS, sonar, laser guided nets and what not. The industrialisation of fisheries is only paralleled by the industrialisation of farming in my mind. But we don't hunt animals with such zeal. Why not? Well the answer is obvious, there wouldn't be anything left within a year or two. How come that we think that we can do it in the sea?
Pic 2: A small sized trawler hauling in a catch


I think the problem lies within the restrictions of most peoples imagination. We can't see what goes on under the sea. It is a complete mystery. We can't just go under water and have a look either. At least most of us can't. As long as I can still buy my cod fillets at Lidl or Costco for €2.79 why would anyone think that Cod is about to go extinct? 

But what are we going to do when (not "if") that happens. Fishermen in Newfoundland already know what that means, yet the story is always the same. Fishermen cry out about livelihoods and customers want their salmon steak for dinner and their lobster for christmas, whilst scientists and environmentalists start to warn about the consequences and about the imminence of this situation like a preacher warns about the devil and the end of days. 

How can we do this then. How can we feed 7bn people (and rising) whilst maintaining sustainable fishstocks?

Fish farming like other animal farming can be a solution. Sadly nowadays fish farms are more like the pigfarms and cattle farms as run by McDonalds, Burger King and Costco. But there are better alternatives out there. Nobody would consider a pig farm with 100.000 pigs in one spot sustainable....well maybe some people would....some people also think George W. Bush was a smart person but that is another thing entirly. What I am talking about are sustainable farming operations that are not only environmentally but also economically sustainable. 

Fish farms are undergoing a transformation. There are systems out there which are currently being investigated that integrate several different farm products on a fish farm that together form symbiotic environments. Such farms are Integrated Multi-trophic Aquaculture or IMTAs. In those systems you would for example find salmon being farmed in cages as you can see in many places. However, where normally the wast products of this high concentration of fish would pose a problem to the local environment, the cages are surrounded by a mussel farm. Mussels feed of the waste products of the fish and not only help to lessen the environmental impact, but also turn shit into money... quite literally. They also eat sea lice larvae, which are a huge concern in salmon farming. Those people that were protesting against the salmon cages in Galway bay were also specifically concerned about the higher amount of risk indigenous wild salmon would encounter when passing close to the cages. Sea lice and other diseases could spread to the wild population further reducing the already low numbers.
Other products grown in IMTAs are plant extractibles such as seaweed. Which also grow better due to the higher amounts of nutrients in the water orignated by the fish. 

Pic 3: Mussels grown on salmon cages on an IMTA in Eastern Canada


OK, IMTAs are still not really that environmentally friendly or even organic. There are still pesticides used, and the salmon feed is probably made from chicken meal grown in huge chicken farms....but it is a start. 

Some people have taken aquaculture another step further. There are some farms existing today that work on Permaculture principles, specifically the principle not to work against nature, but with it. Some farms have truly mastered the environmental farming and I would call it more fishing than farming. I will not go into the details of this here, but rather tell you to watch this video which gives a detailed run down of the complete system and how amazingly beautiful, productive and organic aquaculture can be whilst staying...nay, becoming totally economically viable.  

So, no I am not against but FOR fish farms. We need to ease the pressure on our marine environments if we want to survive. Without healthy oceans we WILL DIE! It is as simple as that. 
The oceans have been so immensely altered through human activities, that we have reached a point where we can not allow any further destruction of this system without running a real risk of a total collapse. Does anyone remember the orange roughy? That is how fast a total collapse can happen. We are playing around with a system that we neither understand,  nor can comprehend. 
In order to continue feeding everyone in the future and have sufficient seafood available for all, we either have to cull several billion people or have to resort to alternatives such as fish farming.

That being said....this fish farming should not and must not be carried out in a way that is equally destructive and thoughtless as nowadays ocean fisheries. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Seaweed gardening

Seaweed is the bomb!!! Yes it is. If you are lucky enough to live by the seaside and have access to seaweed you have a free source of superb food for your soil and for yourself.

A little bit about the stuff

Seaweed comes in many forms, long and thin, broad, with little gas bubbles (oh the bubblewrap effect) or as hairlike strands. 
It can generally be said that all seaweed is a good source of nitrogen as it sports a really high protein content, which also makes it a good candidate to be directly consumed by us. Seaweed also produces a multitude of different bioactive compounds. Many modern drugs are derived from compounds that were initially found in some form of seaweed. 
Generally speaking there are only few species of seaweed that are poisonous, but it has to be said that the one or other species can be detrimental to ones health. Mostly however, it is really healthy. There are many books out there that talk about cooking with seaweed and for those who think that I am talking nonsense I suggest you give it a try. I have a copy of a book called "Irish Seaweed Kitchen" by Prannie Rathigan which I find quite comprehensive.

But in this post I want to write a little more about what can be done in the garden using seaweed. 

Seaweed is high in Carbon and Nitrogen which makes it an excellent fertiliser. In comparison to other terrestrial green manure crops you won't have to worry about weeds that might get trekked in with mulch. As a mulch cover it is also not too bad, although the higher nitrogen content will make

Seaweed additionally
it decompose faster than, say straw will. But it is free and if you don't mind mulching the garden a bit more often, go ahead and use seaweed instead of stra

Seaweed additionally
w or wood chips or whatever you might use currently. 

As you know, seaweed fertiliser has made it into the garden centers all over the world by now. 
In Argentina seaweed became a problem on recreational beaches. So much was washed up that it had to be periodically removed. A scientific study investigated the possibility of composting the waste seaweed and use it to enhance the soil quality of the local farm land. 
I won't get into the details of that one but here is the reference if you are interested: 

Eyras et al.
Biological Evaluation of Seaweed Composting 
Compost Science & Utilization, (1998), Vol. 6, No 4, 74-81
The conclusion was that addition of seaweed compost improved the local soil significantly not only in respect of carbon and nitrogen but also in terms of water retention and improvement of plant health to water stress. 

Additionally, seaweed is high in minerals especially Manganese and Zinc. Both of which are members of the 16 essential nutrients. If either of those nutrients is in short supply it will have an effect on the overall yield of the soil in terms of plant growth.

So what do we do with it?

Today we gathered a nice pile of seaweed to use as non-animal manure in our vegetable garden. And when I say our vegetable garden, I mean my mother's. Since we are staying at their place for the winter I thought it would be nice to repay my parents with a little work around the house, including the garden. Starting with fertilising the vegetable patch. 

The seaweed that we gathered on the shore is fresh, and wet. 

NOTE: When harvesting any seaweed or anything else from the wild really, please take care not to overdo it. We made sure that we didn't take a lot of seaweed from one patch. A little here and a little there won't hurt. Best is to gather up the seaweed that is washed up on shore during a storm. That stuff will rot anyway and why not let it rot where we can use it

After bringing it up from the shore - which we did by hand using a large bin to stay truly carbon neutral - we spread it out in a small pile. This pile is not on the garden bed however. We are expecting rain tonight and I wanted to let the rain wash out some of the salt before spreading it out on the bed. 

So much for today. Next we will go into how to pack the bed properly and how to prepare it for the winter months.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Autumn/Fall Update!

Again it has been a while since the last post. In this time however things were not quiet at all. 

We have since moved continents to spend the winter in a more habitable place on the lovely west coast of Ireland. It has been quite the ordeal as we also brought our cats along with us and despite all the necessary paperwork, and vaccinations etc. it is impossible to fly a cat into Ireland. Only from very select airports in the US is it possible to land directly in Ireland. According to Aer Lingus this has to do with the types of planes.....I call BS on that and say that it is one of those nonsense regulations that only hassle travellers. We had to buy a car in Germany and drive through 7 different countries in order to take a ferry crossing from Wales into Ireland. The cats were never even checked that way.....so much for protection of the native land. All this big effort only never to be checked. Somehow I get the feeling it would be better to let people fly with their pets and actually check them at the airport when one goes through customs. But hey, that is just my idea, what do I know. (Note: It was a saga and half. The telling will appear on my blog as we wanted to keep it separate from Permaculture Beginnings. Watch this space. Afton)

Anyhow, we have now landed where we wanted to go and will keep you updated on what is happening. We are planning a workshop on lasagne beds and easy low maintenance gardening in the near future. This workshop will be theory and hands-on split between morning and afternoon. We will hopefully (weather depending) be able to build a lasagne bed and build a mulch garden from start to finish to show people how easy it is to achieve a weed free garden without all the back breaking weeding work.
We have planned further workshops before next May which will be on the topics off: "An introduction to Permaculture" and "Food forests and Agro-forestry". 
These are all still in the planning stages and we will let people know about them as soon as we can. In the meantime feel free to check our new website which is still in the beginnings but we are working on it and hope to bring you news and updates soon. 

This is the link to the site:

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Pond update

I am totally excited. The pond that we put in last year has so far shaped up to be a real good habitat for a lot of different animals and plants. So this year I added what I actually did not want to add until next year - fish. Actually I had planned to add some minnows this year to establish a food base for trout that were supposed to be introduced next year.
Then I saw that there were trout for sale at the local farmers coop for 55 cents a piece. I ordered 20.
There is no water flow coming into this pond it is entirely rainwater fed. It has no aeration pump. Instead I planted some Elodea, which has completely covered large areas of the pond floor and produces an enormous amount of oxygen that can be seen in form of bubbles stuck to the plant.

The fish arrived on June 8th. I dropped them into the pond and have not done anything else. No feeding, no aeration nor anything else that people might think to do when growing trout.
My slightly conservative neighbour has been laughing at me and my pond idea since last year. He does not think anything will come out of this project, in fact he thought the pond would dry out in the summer. Fish, especially trout would definitely not survive apparently.
I had to try it. But judge for yourselves. Sorry for the bad sound. We are working on better videos and hope to put up a series here next year. 





Friday, 19 July 2013

Guilds

We have talked about plant guilds before in our posts and I think that most of you would have tried some guilds or companion planting before in their garden, but for those that don't know about it:

A guild is a combination of plants that are beneficial to each other. Mostly, a guild consists out of three or more different plants where one is a nitrogen fixer to fertilise the ground for the other plants, one plant is the main crop plant that uses the nitrogen and the third plant is acting as pest control for pests likely to damage the main crop plant.
One of the most famous guilds is called "The Three Sisters" and is comprised out of beans (nitrogen fixer), Corn (main crop) and squash(crop). While no pest control is present, these three plants thrive in each others vicinity and yield three different crops while maintain soil fertility.

I have several guilds in my garden. Some of them work really well, others not so well. A lot of the work is trial and error. One of the guilds that is doing fantastic is a combination of beans and peas with tomatoes and calendula. Calendula is supposed to repel the tomato hornworm and also keeps the number of nematodes in the soil in check. The beans and peas are the nitrogen fixer and the tomatoes are for my belly.....yum.

Tomato, beans, peas, and calendula guild
Some of these guilds I plant look chaotic and they certainly don't have to be stacked that dense. I happen to like guerilla camouflage gardening and the patch depicted above came about of me finding more seeds and just sticking them in the ground where there was a spot. The tomatos I did not plant at all, but there was tomatoes growing here last year and the ones in the picture are volunteers. Let's see how they will do. 

I also had some fantastic success planting beans cabbage and wormwood together. Not a bite taken out of the cabbage all year by any bug!!! And this year I am making absinth with the wormwood and other herbs I planted. So while the wormwood is not actually for consumption (it is a toxic plant in higher doses) it can be used to yield a product.

Trying out new combinations of plant guilds is fun and can result in an even more successful garden. In our opinion everyone should try this out. 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

An old friend we are just getting to know (again)

When looking through old cookbooks (I mean the really old ones) it is surprising how many different vegetables are mentioned that we have completely forgotten about. Most of us know that dandelions were once a commonly used green, but who has heard of marhsmallow? I am talking about the plant and not the little white sugar balls that make a camp fire complete. We know Solomon's seal as a horticultiural addition to our gardens, but did you know that it is edible and delicious at that too?

One of those long forgotten vegetables that once used to be a staple food amongst many Europeans and also the settlers of America is salsify. Salsify (Trappogon porrifolius) is currently making a bit of a comeback in the foodie scene and I always have to grin when I hear about this "new food" that is hitting the market.

Salsify is a plant from the Aster family. It is a bi-annual, meaning it flowers in its second year with some wonderfully showing flowers that depending on the variety can be purple, yellow or pale near to white. The most common vegetable variety is the purple one. Different parts of the plant are edible but for the most part the thick taproots are used along with the young tender leaves. The roots are similar to that of dandelion but have a dark skin with brilliantly white flesh inside. A thick creamy white liquid can be pressed from the roots when cut.

 We planted some salsify last year and most of the plants came up. At first it looked a lot like wheat grass. In the fall some deer mowed all of the leaves right down to the ground, sparing the lettuce that was growing right beside it. I can only assume that the leaves were more appealing to the deer. Since the plant is a bi-annual I didn;t care about the deer getting a meal out of our garden....we are after the roots in any case. This year all of the plants came back and started to produce lovely big flowers. Apparently these flowers are supposed to open and close with the sun, but I have only seen the flowers open once and that was early in the morning. I assume that whatever variety I have is a night bloomer as some of the flower heads are starting to form seeds and as I said, they don't open during the day.

Salsify flower


Fresh out of the ground
There are also some conflicting reports about when to harvest the root. Some sources suggest to harvest the roots at the end of their first year after the first frost which is supposed to bring out the flavour best. Other sources say to harvest the roots after the plant has bloomed.  I think we left it a little too long, so when the flowers are out before the seeds form might be the best time. The roots aren't as large as carrots would be, but still are of formidable size. 

After cleaning. Not the prettiest vegetable in the world. But tasty...yum yum.
There are many different recipes that can be found when searching then web. I scrubbed the root and scraped off the hard outer rind. The white flesh were chopped into small pieces and fried in a pan with some olive oil until they were golden brown. Since we didn't have much salsify this year (we just wanted to try it out), I decided to throw the pieces into a salad. The taste is fantastic. I can't really put my finger on it, but it did remind me of something. There was some sweet component to it. I think you will just have to try it for yourself. It definitely does not taste of oysters which it apparently does....the plant is also referred to as vegetable oyster. So far I found no one who could confirm that. In fact the internet is full of statements that it does NOT taste of oysters.

I collected a lot of the seeds this year, so that I can seed it out again. This time I will grow more, a lot more. Why not try it yourself. Give the old chap a chance.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Lawns.....lawns.....

There is little in our daily environments that I loathe as much as a lawn. 
I can't get my head arround the concept of this abomination. Let's think about it objectively a little. There are people who own a 1 acre property or even more and they cover it all in lawn. Well, it gives the kids something to play on. That is if the kids would play on it. In reality the lawn is most often forsaken for the driveway when it comes to playing and video games are more interesting than the lawn...at least in this respect I agree. There is little as boring as a lawn. It is green....and flat....and that is about it. Green and flat platitudes of boredom. Neat and even conformity where everything different will stick out like a sore thumb - or a cursed weed. 
What for? There are many different reason that people will list when you ask them why they like a lawn so much. Here are the top 5

1) Everybody has one

Not a real argument here. It is just the norm, inexplicably so, but it is the norm nevertheless. It is 'keeping up with the Jones's' in its purest essence.

2) It looks good

Well if flat green and square pleases you there is nothing anyone can say about that. Most of the time I find that the same people marvel at a nicely designed flower garden or take the weekends to go into the woods because it is so beautiful there.

3) It is for the kids

As mentioned before, mostly the kids don't play on a lawn that much anyway. Latest by the age of 14 they will rather spend time at the mall with their friends. There might be the odd exception, but for the most part kids do not like lawns. If you would give a kid the choice to play in a woodland or on a lawn most kids will choose the woodland, while the rest would choose the playstation. I remember two girls that were interviewed by a TV station about growing up on a permaculture property. There is a specific sentence that stuck in my mind that one of the girls said: "All the other kids never had long grass to be tigers in, they never had trees to climb around like a monkey...." This is in my mind the best way of putting it. Give your kids a lawn and all they might be able to do is kick a ball around.

4) It keeps pests away from my house

Really? Well having a 3-4 ft strip of clearance between your house and any vegetation is good for several reasons, but having a lawn will not help in this matter. In fact, lawns can increase pests such as house flies as they provide a good habitat for such insects. 

5) What else would I put there?

This is a symptom of how deeply engrained the concept of a lawn has become in our culture. While 400 years ago the word 'lawn' was pretty well non-existent in the English language and even the mere idea of a grass area for recreation was only heard off from rich estates, within this short period of time a lawn has transformed from a status symbol to a symbol of moral integrity. 


Yes, I did finish that last paragraph with calling a lawn a symbol of moral integrity. It is. What are your thoughts when you drive through a neighbourhood and see a lawn that hasn't gotten much attention in the last 2 weeks? The grass is visibly longer and less "tidy" than all the other lawns. Often in North America the appearance of the lawn is synonymous for the appearance of the indivduals owning the lawn. neglected lawns show their owners to be untidy; maybe even morally corrupt. This perception has made its way into movies such as 'Pleasantville' or 'Edward Scissorhands' and into literature such as 'The Great Gatsby' where upon seeing his neighbours untidy lawn, Gatsby gets his gardener to cut it to restore uniformity. A lawn that isn't maintained is appauling to the esthetics of most 'modern' people. 

Ah, so you have a lawn.....how....nice....erhm
Looks like a blanket has been put on the ground
In actual fact this thinking is absolutely unnatural. Nature does not confine itself into neat geometrical forms. At least only very rarely. Nature is not 'tidy', it isn't square.
And we know that, we appreciate that. Beautiful pictures of untouched nature will spark the wish for vacation time in most of us. Woodlands, mountains, lakes, rivers and streams, all that is more appealing than a lawn. Every lawn owner will testify to that. Yet, nobody would even entertain the thought of restoring nature to their backyard.
And here is the funny part. Most people think that it would be too much work to do so. Here is the good news. It isn't that much work at all. And it is only logical that it isn't. 

A lawn is the opposite of natural. It is artificial, man made, anti-nature so to speak. Everything that is against nature will take effort and also money to maintain. We have to swim against the stream, make the land what it doesn't want to be. If we instead make it what it wants to be, then we don't need to do much. Take some flower seeds and some clover seeds and pepper your lawn-area with it. Then wait and see. You can cut in some small walkways and an area that you might want to use as a seating area, but let the rest grow. No more effort, no more chemicals, no more time spent on the mower instead of with your kids. How many hours a week do you mow your lawn? Maybe two or four? Imagine what you can do in 4 hours with your kids. Maybe go for a swim, and ice cream. Instead it is spent mowing, while your kids are bored. How many chemicals do you use in order to keep it in shape? How much money in gas and herbicides do you spent? 

I left this part alone this year, all the flowers have blown in, there are also edibles and medicinals hidden in there, such as salsify, sage, plantain and violets.

Another bonus of a wild meadow is that the other wildlife in the area is going to congregate in spaces that are more 'wild'. There is an abundance of birds, fireflies, butterflies and even deer that come to visit.

All in all having a lawn is more trouble than  it is worth. If people could evaluate the use of their lawn and what else might be done with the area that is more productive, it would be better for the environment, better for the peoples pockets and better for their health. 


A word on chemicals

If you really want that lawn, think twice about using chemicals.
There are more chemicals used on an acre of lawn in North America than there are on an acre of agricultural land...this is SHOCKING! RoundUp for example is the commercial name for glyphosate. There are more and more studies surfacing that show that glyphosate is carcinogenic and toxic in many other ways. Think about it. It is a chemical that is designed to kill. And then people let their kids roll around in it. For some information on RoundUp you can scan the internet e.g.:

http://tinyurl.com/k57oywn

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01056243

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Vertical planting update

Just to show how our vertical box is coming on. I had some mishaps due to hail and what not, but it finally is taking. Mostly calendula in the vertical part. Tomato, cucumber, pepper and basil with beans in the top parts. The cucumbers will be trellised along the plastic.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Bbq time

This is our bbq. We built it out of recycled brick. The foundation is 4 inches of concrete and the Coal rests on a piece of recycled sheet metal approx. 1/4 inches thick. It takes a little longer to get it heated up in comparison to a gas bbq but the taste is so much better. Yum!

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Update

So I thought I will give a little update here as it has been a looong while since the last post. I apologize for the delay.

There have been several things happening and it has been really busy (which is half the reason for not posting anything....apologies).

We had put in an offer for a large piece of land recently clear cut as I posted in previous posts. This deal has not gone through as there were to many things found wrong with the property during a final inspection. So on this front it is back to the drawing board and we will have to find another property for our plans. On the upside however, during the final inspection, I noticed a sigh less than 5 km away from the site saying 'PERMACULTURE' with an arrow pointing down a small road. I followed the signs and after a while I arrived at a lovely little house/farm where a full 2 weeks Permaculture course was being held. This is a great sign. More courses and more spreading of the topic is essential to raise awareness of not only our current predicament, but also about possible solutions to our problems.

As you can imagine, all this kept us busy, but then there were other problems at home too. After weeks of rain and only overcast weather with temperatures in the mid teens, our garden is not doing too well. Growth has been minimal and some small seedlings were crushed during hard rain events. And now the tomato leaves are turning yellow. This is what really concerns me the most. Only 2 years ago, we lost all our tomatoes and potatoes to blight and I am wondering whether this will happen this year as well.
Even the tomatoes in the greenhouse are taking on a little yellow tinge. However, the fact that still gives me hope that the discolouration is only due ton lack of UV is that our container potatoes in the greenhouse are not showing any signs of distress or disease and are doing wonderfully. So here is hoping.

On the lighter side, I can't wait to try our salsify this year. I never tasted this root vegetable and we seeded some last year. It is a bi-annual and we will have to wait until the flower pop open in the second year, which seems to be imminent. So hooray!

Monday, 27 May 2013

The keyhole garden bed

One of the wonderful things about Permaculture is that it encourages to think about different shapes and layouts than just the rectangular shape so prominent in todays' world.

A keyhole garden bed is a garden bed that has a keyhole type area that allows working in a circle or semi circle and therefore reaching a larger surface area from one point than when working in a normal garden row. We have designed several keyhole garden beds and I have just finished planting the first plants into it. There is an onion circle (hardly to be seen in the photo below), a bean circle which is the visible by the holes. Around those there is a semi circle of tomatoes.

Since reaching past the tomatoes will be hard or impossible at a later stage, this is the outer most circle to be worked from the keyhole. The outside, planted with lettuce (left) and fava beans (top) can be reached from the paths. 

I also have a side to the right of the picture, which is harder to reach, as the grass typically grows long and high and I don't mow that side. Therefore I planted squash and it will run into the grass and hopefully suppress it a little. In any case I will only need to access it later in the fall. 

Since I like stuffing as much as possible into a bed, I planted some lovage in the free corners and placed a calendula on top of the tomatoes. The calendula will not only make the bed look pretty, but will also help keep nematodes at bay, although I am not sure whether this is required in this case. Nearly every hole I punched into the ground revealed a predatory insect that will help the soils ecosystems to stay in balance.  

Keyholes can be put beside each other to make a whole row of beds. The look can also be very appealing (in our opinion anyway). We use them often in garden designs that are close to the house where space is limited. They also make fantastic herb beds right outside your kitchen entry, for that quick dash to spice up your dinner with that little bit of cilantro or and extra load of basil. 

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Shooting for a dream

 Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. 

-Harriet Tubman

Go confidentally in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

-Henry David Thoreau

 The voyage on the Permaculture ship is often, if not always, a very indivdual and personal one. I believe that anyone, whether they have just dabbled in the subject, taken a full course, or live the life as a whole, has done so because of a motivation that comes from deep within themselves. Maybe it isn't always apparent at the time, but when one looks and asks oneself 'Why am I doing this?' the answer will be different for each person.

I have always regarded nature as the most important, the most interesting, fascinating, beautiful and precious 'thing' in the world.

It makes me angry and sad to see the daily destruction of it. I work as a chemist. I drive my car to work, I work for clients that cause huge devastation on the land, whether it would be oil companies which work in the tar sands of Alberta, or logging companies that clear cut the forests with no regard for the destruction of the surrounding ecosystems.

Therefore I have decided to do something about it. There is a real risk of failing in this endeavour and yes, it frightens me somewhat, but I have always been of the opinion that I rather die standing, than live kneeling down.

We have just incorporated a company that will focus on several different aspects in sustainable living with an emphasis on Permaculture. For one we want to teach ways of modern sustainable living to others and spread information about how we can maybe turn this ship that is heading for the cliffs around. On the other hand we want to set an example on how our current practices are not the most efficient and find better ways to manage our precious resources. We want to restore a recently clear cut area into a examplary food forest and agroforestry system that will demonstrate that a sustainable agroforestry is economically viable and feasible.

After a long search for an appropriate property we finally have found a place that we will try to purchase. It is 50 acres of clear cut land which consists of multiple different zones from wetland to hillside. It is absolutely devastating to see what has been done to this land for a couple of bucks, but the practice is common in the Maritimes region and sights like this are unfortunately more the norm than rarity. Initially when we first had a look at the property, the logging crews were still working, but most of the land had been cut. Some lonely old trees were still standing, which by the look of them were to knarly and bent to be of any value to the loggers.

When we had another look, even those trees were cut, the bottom 6-8 ft section taken and the rest left to rot. My heart felt like it was being squeezed, knowing that these trees which were nearing 100 years in age have been chopped for a section of wood, that when everything is said and done might make a profit of $10-$15.

Unneccesarily felled

There might have been 8ft of usable wood in this tree.


There might be some activism that can be done to stop this practice, but I don't think that it will help as long as there is even $1 to be made.

Instead, we will reforest the land with a productive forest system, that will provide income, food, warmth and shelter for many people on an ongoing basis. This is supposed to be a demonstration in how we can change the forestry sector to something sustainable and more useful that what we currently are doing with it.

We can't do this on our own, however. We will need help. There are many avenues we will explore whether it is crowdfunding, giving workshops, and later selling the products from the forest to finance more and more reforestation.

I dream of every clear cut area in the world being turned into something that can provide for people in the long term. I know this will not be possible, but once we can show that there are more productive, sustainable and economic ways of resource forestry available to us then just the chop and saw alternative, we might initiate a shift in thinking.

If you have any ideas, skills, time, or anything else that might help this undertaking and you are willing to share them with us, please feel free to send us a message or comment on this post.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The mysterious Kedron Balls

Hello friends! It is a long weekend and we are busy with getting the garden ready for planting in the next 2 weeks or so. I will post how everything looks and what we did soon, but for now I wanted to share something that isn't directly Permaculture related, but still makes me think about patterns and motion. 

A colleague of mine brought in a phenomenal little thing to work the other day. It is called a Kedron Ball. The Kedron lakes are two lakes in New Brunswick, consisting of Little and Big Kedron lake. I personally know Big Kedron lake well, as it is where friends and I go for our annual fishing outing. Little Kedron lake isn't far from there, but I have never been. 
It is Little Kedron that produces the Kedron balls. These balls are made off pine needles and other woodland debris that ends up in the water and sinks to the bottom. There, small whirls and currents swirl the debris and pack it together. The end result you can see in the photo below. 

Truely a phenomenal freak of nature brought on by motion and patterns in current. 

I am wondering whether anyone has ever seen anything like this anywhere else in the world. Little Kedron lake is the only lake in New Brunswick that I know off that produces these little mysterious balls. 


The mysterious Kedron ball

Friday, 17 May 2013

The end of the carbon era

Friends, terrible news, it looks like oil and other fossil fuels might be finite after all. Surprised?

Well I know that people who read this blog are probably not surprised by this. I certainly am not. It is something that I have been saying for years, and where I have met little differing opinions. We know that there is an end to oil. We know it, but we choose to ignore it. That is our right, as long as we know that there will be consequences to our attitude. So far so good.

Why am I writing this you might wonder. Well, for all of those who are not sure whether they should go on ignoring the fact or what to do about it I wanted to say a few things. And for the ones that already know about this I think there are some facts that you might have not though about and to give you some ammunition for the next debate you have with your oil crazy friend.

We have to look at our situation from an outside or rational perspective. I always find that this helps in order to make decisions. So let's look at a couple of things:

1) Is oil running out in my lifetime?

This is a contemptous point really. Most people choose to ignore the fact that we are runnning towards an energy crisis with high speed because they think it doesn't effect them or will not affect even their children. Because "there is so much oil left, we don't have to worry for another 100 years", right? Wrong! Even conservative estimates peg our oil reserves at maybe another 40 years. This is at the current rate of production and consumption. The truth is, that there is probably far less oil left than what is claimed. A short look at the reserves of the different countries will make this obvious. The reserve has maintained a constant level, despite production. Which is to say, that for every barrel of oil we have taken out of the ground another barrel was found. Sounds pretty fishy to me really. The second important factor to consider is the rising consumption. With countries like India and China enjoying the fruits of industrialistation and economic development, the need for oil in those countries is rising exponentially, eating away our reserves at an even faster pace than we calculated with. So 40 years is actually an optimistic number. The former vice presedint of Saudi Aramco said at the 'Oil and Money Conference' in October 2007: 

"[World] reserves are confused and in fact inflated. Many of the so-called reserves are in fact resources. They're not delineated, they're not accessible, they’re not available for production."

2) There are no signs that fossil fuels will ever end. All these prognosis are humbug, how do you know that it is finite

I have actually heard this argument and besides the knowledge of the origin of oil (which makes it finite) I have another hard fact that demonstrates that fossil resources are finite. Did you try to get a helium baloon lately? Maybe you should try. I think Disney has already stopped to sell helium balloons in their resorts. The reason is, there is hardly any of this precious gas left. I know this because I work as a chemist who uses Helium everyday as a carrier gas for our gas chromatographs. Well, we are in a pickle, because even as a lab we have problems getting helium to run our instruments. There is a huge push in the scientific (mostly the anlytical chemistry) community to switch from helium to hydrogen. Every big supplier is currently running seminars and advertising campaigns pushing hydrogen and hydrogen generators to facilitate a liberation of analytical labs from the helium trap. Helium is a by product of natural gas production. The grotesque thing about it is that it is actually one of the most abundant elements in the universe. We just have a problem keeping it here on earth. It simply dissipatees into space. Literally. 

3) They will come up with electric cars anyway once the oil is gone, so no reason to worry.

That might be true. Afterall there are already electric cars that have phenomenal performance and can cover up to 600km before needing recharging. But transport is only one of the things made possible by oil. Most people know that plastics are oil derived, so here we will be looking at another bottleneck if there were no more oil. Plastics penetrate every aspect of our lives. They are literally everywhere. To see just how dependant we are on plastics I urge people to watch "Addicted to platic" a pretty good documentary about plastic in our world. 

You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffClNhwx0KU

I spoke of helium earlier. You might not care about helium balloons or even analytical chemistry processes because they don't directly concern your life (although I am pretty sure that the analytical chemistry part has interfaced with nearly every person in one way or another), but there are other things like MRI that rely on helium. MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. A huge superconducting magnet is used to create a magnetic field which using the correct hardware can be used to make images of organs and muscle tissue. The superconducting magnets have to be cooled to 4.5 K (-425F or -269C roughly). Only helium can do this. There is no other gas that can be used as a substitute. So say bye bye to modern medicine. Because no helium = no MRI, no oil = no plastic for syringes, drips, sterile packaging etc and most pharmaceuticals are also produced from petroleum products. 

So what is the conclusion
 
Oil has literally penetrated our lives and we are totally and utterly addicted to it.

What to do? I really don't know. I have been trying to live without petroleum products and while I certainly reduced the usage of these products I am far from being petroleum free, and wouldn't even know how to do so. No more computers, internet, car, fancy clothes, plastics, electronic gadgets, how is a person to survive? Well survive is a strong word, but maybe live a modern life. 

I remember that there was a TV series in Ireland where families that were living a really decadent lifestyle were filmed for one day of their lives with no power. That means no cars, electricity or gas. I distinctly remember one family, where the teenage daughter didn't even leave her room for the day, because she couldn't have her hot shower, blow dry hair routine in the mornings and she didn't want to walk to the bus stop and 'be seen' taking the bus. 

I think we need to change our behaviour and attitude to modern life first. We need to understand that a world without excessive power is not only a theoretical inconvenience, but an imminent reality.  I am confident that we will find solutions. But we need to start looking....now!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Restricted space

Where I am from originally, space is a commodity that not many people have the luxury to afford. While I initially grew up on a farm and later in a house with a nice garden and know how privileged I was, many people live in small apartments surrounded by concrete and houses. Some might have a small 10 sqft backyard or maybe a balcony, but a real garden that would invite planting and growing of food is not granted to everyone.

Being in such a situation might make some people feel that things like growing their own food is an impossibility. Here is the good news: It is not! Anyone can grow food or have some beautification of the otherwise dull surroundings right where they live. And anyone can grow plants. Anyone. No excuses. No 'green thumb' is needed. No talent for plants is necessary. And growing plants does not have to be a lot of work either. Especially growing plants in a small space is very little work. Imagine having a balcony with those hanging long boxes that normally house pansies you could have 9 ft of that on a small balcony and you could plant 3 ft with onions in two rows.

We are growing onion in an old roasting tray, there is room for an even dozen. 

That would not be enough for a winter larder, but it would be sufficient for several meals. But what do you think is going to be easier to take care of, those three feet in the box or the same amount outside in a garden? You don't have to bend down for the balcony boxes. They are right there. No grass will encroach on the space. No other plants will try to take over. Plant another 3 ft with lettuce (that would be about 5-6 heads and you can cut them instead of pulling them giving you twice the harvest) and another 3 ft you can plant in some beets or radishes or whatever else you like. In between the heads of lettuce you could plant some Nasturtium. Those plants will hang down over the box and therefore will stay out of the way of the lettuce. Now you made 3ft into 6ft effectively, because you stack your space. Stacking in space can be very effective. It can allow you to double, triple or even quadruple your available space and get a high yield from something that never looked like it could even produce one meal. 

While most of the plants shown here are 'just' horticultural,
this house demonstrates what can be done in a small space. 

Let's continue with a balcony as an example. How about a trellis on the side wall. You could grow some grapes or even kiwis. After the plants have grown to the top, trellis along the ceiling all the way to the other side. One or two pots of tomato plants can be placed on that side. Put in some basil around the tomato plants directly in the pot.  Hello bruschetta!

I even heard about people that use small aquariums to grow water chestnuts on balconies. Many possibilities are out there. Many things have been done before, but many more still have to be tried.

So this year there is no excuse not to grow some food. Even if it is just a supplementary amount food tastes better when you grow it yourself. Have fun!

Monday, 13 May 2013

Haskap

You might have heard about the 'new fruit on the block' called Haskap berry. Haskap berries (Lonicera caerulae) are not a new hybrid of any sort, but actually native to most of the northern hemisphere temperate climate zones.
Another name they are going by is Blueberried Honeysuckle. The antioxidant amount in these berries is said to be even greater than that of blueberries. We bought three bushes last year to see how they fare. While the two small bushes from one nursery took on great the large one from a different nursery had some problems. It started to wilt only a few weeks after transplant and lost all leaves pretty fast. The bush also got pummelled by a freak storm gust that came through last year and will probably be forever on the slanty side.

However I don't give up on any tree or bush before I see a second growing season or the lack thereof. Good thing, because this year the bush seems to be perfectly fine (apart from the slant...er..yeah).

Here are some pictures of the blossoms.

I am delighted to see how beautiful the blossoms are.

Forever slanted...but still vigorous yay. 
So I hope that the birds leave some of the fruits for me this year. They taste like a mix between a raspberry and a blueberry. Truly delicious.