Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Ponds Part 1: The Whys of Water Features

Hello again! Sorry for the delay, but here's a new article on a totally new topic. Enjoy!

Here in New Brunswick, Canada on the 4thof December, it's a chilly morning. We're (supposedly) in winter now and there's not a whole lot you can do in terms of gardening unless you have a climate-controlled greenhouse.

But make no mistake, this doesn't mean you have nothing to do. On the contrary, winter is when a lot of very important decisions can be made about the upcoming growing season. This is when you start looking at what concrete improvements you can make to your site. You don't want to leave the overall design of your site until you're ready for planting, you want to do it when you have the time and energy to change your mind. That way, your chances of being disappointed with the result are far lessened.

So, what do I mean by 'concrete improvements'? By this I mean, (permanent) features that will significantly boost the production of a site eg swales, food forests, ponds. For this series of articles, we will be looking at the various stages we took in turning this:

Pic 1: Early Spring 2012, looking towards W-SW corner of property

into this:

Pic 2: Summer 2012, standing in SW corner of property,
looking E-NE

Ready? Part 1; The Whys of Water Features

There are several notable benefits to having a larger water feature like a pond included in your design.
  • Aquaculture: Water has a very significant advantage over soil in that water supports the mass of everything growing in it so they don't have to deal with gravity. This is why the largest of everything is aquatic, animal, vegetable, overall rate of production etc. This is a very handy fact for our purposes because there are many edible, aquatic plants that can be grown in anything from an aquarium to a lake, e.g. Chinese water chestnut. Also very handy are the North American cattail for several varied reasons; the tubor, stem and and large "fruit" pods are edible, the cattail (as well as the bulrush) is very, very good at cleaning waste streams and retaining silt, and the stems are hollow, so in winter they provide an excellent gas exchange system to the water trapped under the ice which allows over-wintering fish to survive (if the pond is deep enough for the fish not to freeze that is). Which of course reminds me, you can grow fish in a pond too (Imagine going fishing without having to leave your property!). We didn't put fish in the pond this year because we wanted it to clear up first and we didn't feel we had an adequate oxygenation system running, but it's something to do next year!

  • Temperature moderation: Rays from the Sun reflect off of the surface of water and provide extra light and heat to any surrounding vegetation, especially trees. In the hot times, the water acts as a heat sink.

  • Extending the growing season: The extra heat and light from sun reflection extends the growing season up to three weeks in both directions. For fruit trees in cold climates like here, this can be very helpful.

  • Slow irrigation: Water seeps through all unlined ponds, the more clay-y the soil the slower, but it still seeps. This provides a consistent water supply for surrounding vegetation and helps bridge gaps between rainfalls.

  • Buffer: The pond also acts as protection in strong rain events. When the water collects in the pond, all of the silt and colloidal matter sinks and is retained within the site. This is very important as not blocking the water flow off your site and not allowing it to release the fine, organic matter will eventually result in all of the nutrients being leached off your property and that just makes everything harder. You don't need to stop the water leaving your site (well, you cant anyway, not really) you just need to slow it, sink it and disperse it throughout the landscape. Swales are amazing for this, but ponds aren't too shabby either.

  • Reservoir: After having a pond closer to half the garden than the hose, we can tell you how handy for irrigation a pond is! Even just using a bucket, having the pond saved so much time and effort. Next year there will be a pumped hose rig-up, it just didn't happen this year.

  • Wildlife: We already had more wildlife on our site than our neighbours because for several years much of the site was left completely alone, and previous to this year we also tried to do as little damage (ie work) as possible, simply because we both hate mowing a lawn. When we put in the pond, our wildlife numbers and variety sky-rocketed. At least 3 types of frogs, 1 type of toad, 5 different kinds of dragonflies and the birds, butterflies and bees were unbelievable. Having this large, (mostly) still body of water available made a lot of difference to a lot of different creatures. And we got the benefit of that mainly in pollination, pest control and entertainment. All summer, our site was alive with the humming of bees,  frogs and toads regularly travelled across the whole slope above the pond (one toad seemed to make a home in our tomato patch which meant a great many saved tomatoes!) and many a summer's evening, we have sat watching the birds and the dragonflies. It was wonderful.

  • Mental Ease: All of the above benefits add up to a more stable system, which includes; increased quality (and also quantity) of the soil for your plants, increased quality and quantity of interaction with nature for you, increased quality, quantity and variety of fresh and healthy food for you, decreased stress and work for your plants, decreased stress and work for you and greatly increased opportunity for you to sit beside your pond and relax with a cool drink. There is a lot to be said for the ability to sit near a body of water, watch nature and relax with a cool drink.

  • Winter Fun!: If you live in a cold enough climate and have the space, you can even have your pond so that you can skate on it in winter. Here's a picture of us on our pond from last weekend when it got cold enough for 4-inch thick ice to form.

Picture 3; Need to get some skates....

So when you get right down to it, whether you have always wanted a pond, or whether I've just sparked off the idea in your head, there are multiple benefits to having a pond included in the design for your property. Even if all you can fit in is a Belfast sink concealed in a bench, or an aquarium on a balcony, that's fine. That's enough for you to grow some extra, different kinds of food, give some extra help to a fruit tree, take some effort away from your irrigation and give much-needed support to wildlife of all sizes.

So this winter, while the bad weather is having it's own way out there, why not sit down with a pencil and paper and see if you can't include a pond of any size or description somewhere on your property.

You may be surprised.

As always, comments are welcomed in the comment box below.

Up soon: Ponds Part 2 Planning the Dig

Monday, 26 November 2012

Zones and Sectors

Zones and sectors, sectors and zones. These are the first, most basic place to start when assessing any site with an eye to Permaculture. It doesn't matter the size, shape or planned purpose of the area you are looking at, zones and sectors are where you start.

Okay, so lets get to explaining these terms;


In one phrase, all energies entering and leaving a site. This takes in sun exposure, wind exposure, intruding noises and smells, watercourses, erosion, and even the odd stampede of quadrupeds. It is all the energies and forces that impact the site, including human and animal.

The one that seems to give most problems to people is the Sun Sector, so here is a website that calculates it for you (opens in new tab) based on your location and the dates entered.

By the way, same as any other map that has to be used in the real world, mark North and South to keep yourself straight.

Pic 1; Sun and Wind Sectors

The wind sector is the second-most important energy concern for your site. The wind tends to come from different angles at different seasons with different temperatures and force. This means you need to think about which winds you block (like the damaging winter winds), which ones you welcome in (the warm summer winds) and which ones may have some effect but are not constant or strong enough to warrant action (the spring and autumn/fall winds). A very handy formula to keep in mind when planning wind-breaks is;

H x 10 = D
where H = height of windbreak and D = distance the wind is deflected. Wind is never truly stopped, only deflected and when wind is sent up over a windbreak, it comes back down again with greater force. So if you have a windbreak of 5m, the formula becomes 5m x 10 = 50m i.e. the wind comes back down again 50m downwind of the 5m windbreak. Geddit? This is an important consideration when surrounded by neighbours, please don't forget it.

Depending on the location of your site you may or may not have any other concerns like traffic, noise, pollution, privacy, smell. If you do however, put them in the map too (adding those here would have resulted in a visually messy picture). We have a smell sector from when they clean out the local chicken farm and there's a constant background of traffic from the main roads surrounding us (funny, we moved out here to get away from traffic!). These are important things that will bear on how much you really enjoy your property. So take a moment, and really think about what prevents you from being able to enjoy your garden the way you want. Can it be considered as an impacting energy? If so, put it down on your sectors map. If not, can it be considered as a chore, or some kind of enforced activity? If so, it may belong in the Zones section.


Zones are a formalized way of separating tasks and elements by the number of times they have to be completed or visited and the effort involved each time. Zones are all about 2 things; Labour and Attention. Thankfully, the emphasis is on the latter and not the former, “100 hours of thoughtful observation followed by one hour of careful labour is better by far than 100 hours of thoughtless labour” (Bill Mollison, founder of Permaculture). So, while you might think you want to have a BBQ area with veggies for the kids to learn where food comes from, you don't really. You want to engineer a space that you feel happy in and want to take the time to enjoy. And yet, at the same time, certain jobs still have to be done on a regular basis.

One central concept to keep in mind is the minimization of work. And this is where the recognition of energy usage and therefore zones come in. You see, not all activities are equal, some need to be done more often than others and some require more effort at less frequency. There is a certain categorization of what appears in each zone that most Permies work by. There are 6 zones and go from your house to the very edge of your property.

Pic 2; Zone Diagram (stylised)

Zone 0 
-House or village or other structure that you are centring the design around
-Serves residents needs re heat, light and shade, water, electricity

Zone 1 
-Elements that require the most number of visits, most attention or most complex techniques should be placed here. Culinary herbs, intensive annual beds, laying boxes, quiet food animals like fish or rabbits. If you're planning on a tree nursery or require large 'mother' planets to take cuttings and grafts from, they should also have a space in Zone 1 to ensure that you catch any damage before you lose the whole lot.

Zone 2 
-Elements that still need daily check-ups, and some intermittent work, but don't need continuous attention. Here go your chicken coops (with a good source of water to make sure its kept clean!), your spot-mulched orchards, free-range pens and 'tractors' for animals, larger annual beds, also a representative of your larger tree crops should go here so you can keep a daily eye on the overall progress.

Zone 3 
-Pastures and buildings for larger animals and the main 'farming' area. If there are dairy animals, the dairy shed can be placed at the edge of zone 1 and zone 3, leaving out zone 2 for that section altogether. That way, you will be able to see your animals every day without trekking unnecessary distances out and back (see below for diagram). Zone 3 is also for larger water storage, and the use of large-scale windbreaks and other site remediation features.

Zone 4 - Too awkward for daily travel, the main tree-planting happens here. Whether you are after an edible crop, a timber crop, or restoring a habitat to bring back game animals, this zone does still need some planning and some attention, but this is much more long-term and you do not want to be wasting a lot of energy on it on a daily basis. This area, depending on its state, can also be a good place to supplement resources through foraging.

Zone 5 -Wilderness. This is the zone that you aim to impact the least. Keep some walking trails maintained, or do some responsible hunting in there, but on the whole, you want to leave that zone to the others, to the wild creatures that need that kind of isolation to keep going. Does this mean you can't have a Zone 5 when you're on an urban plot? Nope. You are only limited by your imaginations, by your creativity.

How many people really have zone maps that look like the stylized map above? That map does not take any surface features into account at all, so the only place where you would have it looking exactly like that is in a salt-pan. Its more common to have it look like this;

Pic 3; Example of zones on 'real' site


Pic 4; Example of zones in a 'real' site

Or this;

Pic 5; Example of zones on 'real' site

Using zone and sector maps means you can plan the location of your various garden elements based on minimizing the work and maximizing the enjoyment you receive from your property. Now here, I'm afraid you're going to have to do some work.

Using any source you like, create a ground map of your site, (from window box to fields it doesn't matter the size), then a sector and a zone map (on parchment paper or over-heads). Place the sector and zone maps over your ground map. Now, take a look at your maps and answer the following questions;

What is it that you really want from your property? What would make paying the amount of money that you pay to keep it worthwhile? Do you want it to be the social centre of the neighbourhood, or a maze that only you can penetrate? Have you always wanted an apple tree, or a fountain? What about places to meditate, practise martial arts or music? What is it that you want?

Nothing's ever as easy as a blogger makes it seem I know, but knowing what impacts your property and your enjoyment of it, and knowing what it is that would make you happy, gets you on the road to being a happy, satisfied human being in a functional, balanced setting.

Now wouldn't that be nice?

Monday, 19 November 2012

Making Sauerkraut!

UPDATED: Nov 26th see end - Afton

For a little change this time, I thought I'd tell you all about our first foray into the territory of fermented cabbage aka Sauerkraut (literal translation from the German = 'Sour Cabbage')

Now, neither Nils nor I have gotten into the proper swing of blog writing yet so whenever we start a new, interesting or Permaculture -related activity, we have not yet started to automatically grab the camera, so the first couple of photos are borrowed (I'll tell you in the titles) but the end result really is sitting on my kitchen counter, I promise!

OK, we got the idea for this when we re-watched an episode of 'Edible Garden' (BBC series where this chickie spends a year trying to avoid buying fruits and veg and goes through a wide range of topics related. I recommend it, especially if you really what to see what English weather is like, but sitting here in New Brunswick, all I could see was the length of the her growing season....) where she visits a pair of women called 'the Soil Sisters' and they introduce her to Sauerkraut. Right about then I remembered a beautiful head of purple cabbage (home-grown!) in my cupboard and the bags of apples on my kitchen floor (Not home-grown but local & organic). So we made Purple Apple Sauerkraut.

First of all, lets diverge a little bit and explain how the trick works. Food fermentation works by encouraging beneficial bacteria and repressing harmful bacteria. What are beneficial bacteria? Bacteria that not only don't harm us at all (like neutral bacterial strains) but can also provide us with a tangible benefit from them doing what they do best. In this case, the benefit they provide is by processing the cabbage through anaerobic fermentation and thereby converting and increasing the nutritional value significantly. Now, people are used to hearing that anaerobic fermentation is a bad thing, that's what makes stagnant mud flats smell so bad, its what gives rise to botulism spreading through canned foods, etc. The anaerobic fermentation process itself is not a bad thing, it's the strains of bacteria that carry out the anaerobic fermentation that determine whether the result is really tasty food with a much elevated nutritional value, or some pretty bad smells and terrible stomach pain. When food fermentation of any kind is carried out, it is vital to ensure that your fermentation jars are super clean, that your source veg (eg purple cabbage and apples) are cleaned and ALL not-so-nice pieces are removed, that your hands are clean AND when you leave the jar to ferment that the top of the cabbage is ALWAYS covered with solution. After that, the good bacteria and the fermentation processes will look after themselves, but I'll go through all of this in more detail in the sections below.

Lets get started!

Picture 1: purple head of cabbage from Wiki, mine looked better ;-)
Step 1
First off is the prepping of the cabbage. Peel back all of the damaged outer leaves (be ruthless) and chop off the stalk. Slice the cabbage REALLY THINLY. Place cabbage strips in a large bowl, sprinkle a handful of salt over it and pound the crap out of it for about 10 mins. Use this as your physical anger management therapy (just try not to a) Smash your bowl or b) Send your cabbage flying cos then you'll have to cut another head).

Picture 2; A Cajun lady hulling rice, but this is the general idea. Don't worry if you don't have a butter churn handy, we used a bowl and our little pepper pestle in turns.
Doing this first stage properly is essential to a successful Sauerkraut. The point of the physical damage (slicing very thinly and then pounding) is to break down as much of the cabbage cell walls as possible. The beneficial bacteria that you want to encourage live in the cell walls of the cabbage and this stage essentially sets them free. The addition of salt is so that the liquid present in the cells (and by extension, the bacteria) is drawn out and also to act as a deterrent to invading strains of bacteria that may otherwise turn your food into something you really don't want to eat. This liquid is how the magic works and the key to a successful fermentation is keeping an eye on the level of that liquid as I'll explain lower down.

Step 2
Cover the bowl of salty, pounded cabbage and leave in a warm place for 24 hrs.

Note; the quantity here is about how big of a jar you have to ferment this in. From a medium sized head and 2 apples I filled a 1L mason jar. This is definitely one of the cases where if you think you may need a second jar, prepare it.

Step 3
So this is what the cabbage looked like this morning after 24 hours in the bowl. I peeled and cut (cos I don't have a corer, unfortunately) 2 medium-sized apples into about 1” cubes, washed and rinsed my 1L mason jar and set it into a clean bowl (this is because I prefer cleaning messes out of bowls than off counters and cupboard doors). I added another about half-handful of salt (just because I expected a bit more liquid but in the end I feel that it probably wasn't necessary) to the cabbage and started to fill the jar.

Picture 3; this really is my cabbage after sitting for 24 hours. No difference in the texture that I could see, it might be a little limper, but since it was quite limp after the crushing action yesterday, I can't say for sure. Yes, I could have cheated and said that this was the 0-hour cabbage instead of the 24-hour cabbage, but I'm just too honest I guess. By the way, this is what I couldn't fit into the jar, I'm gonna fry it up as part of my lunch omlette-y-thingy.

Step 4
I put in 3 handfuls of cabbage into my clean 1L jar and pressed it (gently but firmly) into a compressed layer with my handy pestle. Straight away, I spotted that the liquid was already enough to cover the cabbage when tamped down firmly. Then I followed with a handful of apples, then cabbage, then apples, then cabbage, until I reached the top of the jar. There was so much liquid in fact that I had to allow a fair bit to run up and over the top when I neared the end (thankfully my condom-bowl did its job and there was no need for frantic tea-towelling) so I really feel that the extra salt I added in step 2 was not necessary at all.

Step 5
To finish off, I washed a smaller jar (small enough to sit into the large jars mouth but not so small that there's a large gap on all sides), filled it with water (for weight) and set it into the full jar to press down on the cabbage and keep it under the level of the salty liquid. I also placed the whole thing in a new condom-bowl, this time a lunch-box, so whatever happens, I have less clean-up to do. Adding a label with the date was a matter of moments and, done!

Picture 4; the Finished Product! You can just about see that the line of purple liquid is above the purple cabbage and that's whats important.

Et voila! Our very first jar of Sauerkraut from our very first year of growing cabbage. If this works, I will be growing 3 times as much cabbage next year, just for the Sauerkraut! I know I should have taken more photos as I filled the jar, but still not used to photo-documenting every step. But we will get better, promise! We will leave this jar as long as we can, (hopefully we can resist until the New Year) and will let you know how it goes when we have a taste, can't wait!

I hope you found this helpful and please let us know about your food fermentation experiments and favourite recipes in the comment box below!

UPDATED: Nov 26th

*sigh* I have to own up and admit that our Sauerkraut experiment went awry. After a few days of looking great, the jar started going dry and we couldn't keep it hydrated. 

As you can see in the above pictures, the cabbage started oxidizing and turning dark which tells you that the whole process just ain't working. When we took off the lid and tried forking out the dark stuff to eat the cabbage underneath, we found that the cabbage had not fermented, it was still hard and inedible. There just wasn't enough time.

This was a risk we took and while throwing the lot out hurt, I'm going be glad for the fact that it was clear that something went wrong and so we didn't have to risk our bellies investigating.

Now for what we think went wrong:
  1. I added extra salt on the second day because I thought there wasn't enough liquid initially. Next time I will definitely not do that.
  2. I compressed far too much cabbage into the jar. I thought that you couldn't put too much in, and was glad to see the amount of liquid pouring out of the mouth of the jar as I pushed more in, but now I see that that liquid was needed for the fermentation. I was essentially drying out the cabbage as I went.
Well, we're going to buy another head of cabbage (cos that was our last home-grown one...) and give it another go. We'll let you know how THAT one goes.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Limitless Growth Myth

Here is a thought that is occurring in my head on a regular basis lately.

Our economy is measured by its growth. If the growth is negative for more than 2 consecutive quarters then we call it a recession. Bad word that...recession. Nobody wants to hear it. People want to hear that their economy is growing by 2, 3 or even 5% a year. Yes that is progress. This is how we will achieve everlasting and ever increasing prosperity.

Now my question is this: If our economy is based on a monetary scale, which it is at the moment and the growth is measured on, well, how much money was made, then how will this work ad infinitum? Can we always make more money? Everyone? All the time? Sounds like a pyramid scheme to me. And it is really. Our whole system is built on a lie. the lie that everyone can get richer all the time, every time. We know that the reality is far from what the system is promising. And then there is such people like the ones I met in 2010 when I was visiting a conference in Florida. It just so happened that Walmart had their annual meeting at the same time and my Hotel was booked with Walmart....Walmart....I think they are called associates. Anyhow, I tried to stay away from them not to get entangled in a discussion about local economy and the demon of big box stores. I managed until my LAST night. During a civilised but nevertheless heated discussion about salaries and exploitation of their....well, associates one of my "debate opponents" (a higher Walmart associate) answered the following after I mentioned that most empl...eh associates at Walmart are underpaid:

"Everyone can make as much money as I do (200K+ according to the man himself). They just don't want to work hard enough"

I think this is a slap in the face of Walmart associates that do overtime and work for as little as 13K a year. But that is beside my point. The striking thing was that in the same argument the man said that they can't afford to pay people a minimum wage because otherwise the company couldn't get the low prices they offer the consumer. So basically: people can't get paid adequately because the consumer wants low price. There is a good movie made about this practice. If I remember right it was called: "Walmart - The high cost of low price".

I don't want to single out one specific company. This is a phenomenon that our entire economy is based upon. In chemistry people use equations to describe the reactions between molecules and the products derived. These equations are ALWAYS balanced. What goes in, must come out and what comes out must go in. It is simple and easy to understand. In fact the laws of the universe dictate how to balance these equations. We are bound by those laws.

Somehow, this does not work for our economy, because the money that is supposed to come out isn't there to go in. So an easy trick is to make more money. We can print money...not a problem. Unfortunately doing this facilitates inflation. Another one of these bad words that nobody wants to hear. So we want more money, but don't want to make more. Then there is only one solution, we will have to take the money from somewhere else.

Mostly I found that these so called money trees do not in fact grow money (I am not giving up on that yet though...maybe they just take a decade to fruit or so...). So where else to take it from. Well, someone else of course. That person can take money from someone else again and then we create a circle and everybody will get more money....no, that doesn't work either. A closed system with no input can not generate more output.  

So how can anyone in their right mind believe that a truly sustainable economy has to grow all the time?

And then there is another thing that we seem to have forgotten about. Our economy does not solely operate on money. It is the resources that we use to produce our products that in return make the money. Or at least this is the way it is supposed to be.

Alas, we live on a finite planet. And the resource will not be there forever. Anyone who believes that is simply naive. Sorry but this was the nicest way to say this. I can even show that our resources are not limitless by simply naming some that we already used up (more or less):

1) Cod
2) Coal
3) Oil
4) Helium
....well you get my drift

It always makes me think of Sitting Bulls proverb. And he is right, you can't eat money. Nor can you drive money or heat your house with it (not efficiently anyway).

So what is the solution? In my mind, our economy has to be taking into account what resources we got and (and this is maybe the more important point) it should be a NO-GROWTH economy. Why always make more than the last time? Why not be satisfied with the size we got? Only a no-growth economy can be sustainable in the long run.

Forget what economists and bankers tell us. They don't understand natural laws, at least it seems so. David Attenborough said it quite well recently:

"Anybody who thinks there can be limitless growth in a limited environment, is either mad or an economist."

Food for thought.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Food, Cover, Water, Space, Arrangement Part 2

This is a continuing post so if you are wondering about Food and Cover, please see Food, Cover, Water, Space, Arrangement Part 1 
Now for Part 2!


Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink.

This saying is from the tall ships days, when sailors would go on voyages for months at a time. There are many dangers at sea (where worse things happen) one of the largest, even today, is dehydration. Salt water is not good for humans. In fact, drinking salt water will rob your cells of what water they have left and leave you much worse off. So the phrase above came about because of this need to remind green sailors that the sea is not for drinking.

These days however, there are vast areas of formerly fresh water that are now dangerous for humans and all other organisms too. The reasons are manifold, though one of the largest threats is now a result of our obsession with extracting the last possible non-renewable resources out of the earth e.g. Shale Gas Fracking and the Tar-sands. Super-storm Sandy has mostly left us alone here in New Brunswick Canada, but I can't help wondering how many of the tailing ponds along the east coast of North America - containing the most toxic sludge that you've never heard of - are now overflowing into river systems and catchment areas.

Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink.

So what are we poor human beings to do?

Rainwater (except in the case of acid rain) is by and large fit for human consumption. When rain falls, it can be a source of fresh water for humans and animals alike. I know, there have been some opinions out there about how rainwater is not safe, its chemically unsuited to our bodies, yada,yada yada. Yes, rainwater is quite soft but, it is in fact one of the best forms of water we can drink. It's free from heavy metals and has, if clean, a stable pH of 7 (neutral). However, many places have reported more acidic rainfall due to the increased CO2 in the local atmosphere. How to remedy this? Plant more trees. But even with the increase in atmospheric CO2, the rainwater shouldnt drop below 5.5 which is still an acceptable level to drink. Just for comparison, Coke has a pH of 3, anything after that starts getting harsh.  

Incidentally, rainwater is also sterile. No microorganism is tiny enough to join the H2O molecule in transpiration.

The main health concerns regarding rain-water harvesting systems is about making sure that you're not unwittingly incorporating heavy metals or harmful bacteria during the channelling and storing of your water.  pH can be safely and cheaply monitored and altered on a continuous basis, or if you cant be bothered with that, add the appropriate filter. Using plumbing grade storage tanks and pipes to set up your system is a no-brainer and if you are that concerned about moicrobes (which I'm not, and I've been accused of being an Über-Microbiologist) add a UV filter before it hits your taps and you are covered (UV light kills all cells, as long as the system is set up right and the bulbs are changed when they need to be changed, you will not get sick). Rainwater harvesting for drylands and beyond by Brad Lancaster is a very informative read on the subject and he goes into detail on all the aspects of setting up your own system. His website also has plenty of info.

The other consideration, and it is a valid one, is the concept of returning the water to the catchments and not over-harvesting the rain so that the soil doesn't get replenished. That is a valid point in agricultural systems, (especially in industrial farming models), however most of the people that need this kind of free access to good quality drinking water in North America are in the major cities. Have you seen the emergency flood drainage systems of most major North American cites when they're at capacity lately? Now, if every building in a city had a water harvesting system that serviced all the needs of its inhabitants, how much storm water would not end up in the drain systems? How much relief would that give to the cities public plumbing infrastructure? Cities do not have great soakage capacity, they tend to gather water on their hard surfaces, channel it through sewers and storm drain systems and send it away in a huge rush. If the city is not directly on the sea or have some other landscape feature that can absorb this huge influx of water, then what happens? The land downstream of the last slab of concrete gets scoured away and the landscape is permanently damaged. And this happens every single storm. Sandy has probably carved out whole new gorges.

By setting up all sizes of water harvesting systems, from downtown to commercial districts to residential neighbourhoods, the inhabitants of a city can ride out seasonal fluctuations far easier. More available water in the dry times, less damage in the stormy times under the exact same principles as for stand-alone domestic homes. There's not very much info out there about water harvesting systems for larger buildings, but I think that's only because it hasn't been recognized as possible and viable by the mainstream planners. In time, with the right pressure, I can see it becoming a standard part of the Building Code, just because it makes more sense than ever in the changing and increasingly unpredictable climate that we find ourselves in.

Water, water everywhere, why cant we all just have a drink?


Of all the things that certain people believe separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, our flexibility with space and territory is, in my books, one of the more relevant.

You see, regardless of the amount of food, cover and water, many, if not most animal species cannot stand population density above a certain point. Once an animal starts feeling crowded by other members of its own species, it will look for a new place to go. This has to do with the territorial drive and even social animals like wolves will seek new territory once the population density goes too high, regardless of the availability of resources. I don't believe this applies to herd animals like wildebeest, caribou and buffalo but I'm certainly prepared to be enlightened on that. Species like the prairie dog I'm not sure about, I think that those guys widen out their towns (a prairie dog colony is called a 'town') when they get too crowded, but again if anyone knows better, please share the information in the comment box.

Humans are a lot more flexible about this, as I'm sure you are already aware. The spectrum stretches the full 180°, from the hyper-urbanite who cant function without being surrounded by people and noise and bustle, to the 'recluse' who deliberately finds the most isolating place possible (like Faustino in his Patagonia retreat. Look up the movie sometime.) and all the graduations in between. This ability to pick what population density you prefer is both one of our major evolutionary bonus points and one of our bigger social problems. What do I mean by that? You see, everyone needs a sanctuary. Everyone needs a place and time where they can let go of their burdens and have a stretch and an exhale that comes from their toes. People need to have that time of relaxation or they cant re-focus on what makes them an individual instead of a cog in a machine.This results in frustrated, unhappy people who don't even know whats wrong because they don't know what they're missing.

There is not much involved in getting this mental space, people have this notion that it takes hours of practise, or can only happen in a particular setting with special clothing or some other nonsense. If you're looking to start intensive yoga, or to flip straight from rat-race to isolated temple living then you will have to take extra effort and time and clothing. Cultivating the ability to reach your mental sanctuary is something that can happen at any time by anybody, anywhere. No, I'm not messing you about. It's called 'being in the present' and the easiest method to reach this state and understand what it means is through an exercise called the conscious breath. The idea behind this is that when you breath in, you notice the path your breath takes from your nose, down your throat, into your lungs, then out of your lungs, up your throat and out your nose or mouth again. It sounds kooky I'll admit, but doing this really does take you out of your worries and troubles and puts you in the present moment where you have the space to breathe. Here's a video explanation, and as he takes the conscious breaths, do it with him;


Do you see what I mean? That sense of peace and mental space? What difference would doing that on a regular basis make in your life do you think? If you simply said, every time I go to the bathroom, or every time I put down my coffee cup or, even just every morning before I start my day, could those moments make a difference? Trust me, it does and in several ways.

When you know what it feels like to be in the present moment, you find it easier and easier to reach in moments of stress. When you face a stressful, or about to be stressful situation, you move towards breathing deeply instead of shallowly. This habit of breathing deeply provides your brain with a much-needed burst of oxygen when it needs it most so that you can see many more solutions than the automatic 'fight or flight' options. This means you can remain calm and in control of your actions and this will feed back into your sense of confidence, other peoples opinions of you and will in turn create more opportunities for you to succeed. Which will re-enforce the deep breathing habit which will provide positive solutions to negative situations which will benefit your relationships and your life and the cycle will continue.

The other benefit of practising an at least daily conscious breath, is that your thoughts become clearer. Somehow, the conscious breath habit almost acts like a mental sieve. You know how when you shake a sieve some things fall through the holes and some stay in the sieve? Well, if you apply that metaphor, where the thoughts and habits and ideas and assumptions and mental grooves of other people that you don't actually agree with but have never examined are the small particles that fall through the holes and the thoughts, habits, ideas etc that are truely yours ie you examine them and say 'yes, I do agree with that, that does make sense to me' those are the lumps that stay in the sieve. So in a way, this is also what the conscious breath does. It gives you the opportunity to take your personal situations, assumptions and prejudices, current or historical, strip them of emotion and look at the facts in a clear light. The result of this is that you can often see the ridiculousness of some of the baggage you lug around with you. I'm not kidding! Many times I've stopped dead and burst out laughing because I finally saw how nonsensical some of the old shit that I've been dragging around was. And when you can laugh at your baggage, you've already tossed it overboard.

Yes, the getting away from it all is something I heartily encourage for everybody. Everybody and I mean everybody should have the opportunity to pack a small bag and spend a week in the stress-free locale of their choice but that's not always possible and even less so when you really need it. That is why the conscious breath is so important. This mental breathing space is what I mean by sanctuary and it is one of the most important and most ignored mental necessities of our species. Everybody needs a space in the day where burdens are dropped.

When was the last time you dropped your burdens?


The above 4 considerations, Food, Cover, Water, Space are only useful to you if you can access them. Does that make sense? There could be the tastiest, most nutritionally ideal food and drink right in front of you right now, but if you can't pay the price it might as well not be there at all. You might have an incredible mansion, but if your predator is right in there with you then you don't have cover and you probably never have space either.

It's the arrangement of these 4 habitat factors that makes the difference between a thriving ecosystem and a stumbling disaster-in-the-making. Our habitats, our living spaces are no different. When people cannot access what they need to be human beings then we don't have a habitat, or a living space. We have a ticking time bomb of deeply unhappy, deeply frustrated individuals who cannot be blamed for feeling the way they do. In many places in the US or Canada, if you don't have a car you are very limited in your way of living. Often the most basic things like grocery shopping pose an obstacle due to the fact that the nearest possible store is out of reach. People living in huge apartment buildings with paper-thin walls where privacy is an unknown piece of vocabulary. All designed with many thoughts in mind, just not humans. All the wonderful resources that we have can be rendered useless if we don't use them in the right way.

The way to change that is to bring back the traditional way of building human settĺements where people lived in neighbourhoods and every neighbourhood had everything it needed to function: grocers, butchers, doctors, pharmacies, cafes, bars, everything that the community decided it wanted and supported by spending money there. Local businesses run by people living in the community. The beauty of our modern technologies means that we can take the very best of the traditional method, the walking-distance measurement of services, the inter-dependant layers of community etc, with the very best of the modern era; the at-home office, the inter-connections possible between communities and people within them, high density housing options, Urban Permaculture (of course!) etc etc. Here, how about I just give you a link to a video that goes into all of this in detail (here). Personally I think they should have gone more into food supply solutions, but some research into Urban Permaculture projects that are happening in schools and neighbourhoods all over the world right now provide very achievable and sustainable food supply answers that can work for everyone.

It is possible to create a community and by extension, a world that works. It takes some ingenuity and some effort, but it is possible.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Food, Cover, Water, Space, Arrangement Part 1

Food, cover, water, space and arrangement; these are the factors limiting wildlife habitat. Enough food and water to keep healthy, enough cover to escape from the weather and from predators, enough space to not feel crowded by other members of the same species, and how the other 4 are arranged to provide optimum conditions for the species involved.

I read this recently in the Hunter Education Handbook that was developed by the New Brunswick Provincial Government to increase the understanding of several things in the hunter population, but most importantly to increase the ecological understanding and to see where and why and how they can have the most positive impact on the wildlife of New Brunswick. I am a Microbiologist by training and an environmentalist by inclination, but a pragmatist by nature. I don't listen to nonsense from either side of any debate and the hunting debate is one of the more nonsensical ones around. As far as I'm concerned; if you kill it, you eat it and if you hunt, you make sure that your influence on the hunting ground is only a positive one. That means sticking by seasons, bag limits, respecting no-hunt areas, not damaging the ecosystem you are visiting and bringing your stupid trash back out of the woods with you!

The purpose for all these constraints is to do the best we can to make sure that there are sufficient healthy populations and healthy ecosystems to guarantee sustainable hunting for next seven generations (and YES if there is proper research and due diligence done on the part of the Wildlife Rangers, the politicians and the individual hunters, then truly sustainable hunting can be very much a reality. The problem, as always, is when people get greedy.). Sometimes people forget that this is the reason for the wildlife protection and hunting laws, and what happened before these laws were implemented.

By the way, I have to say that the New Brunswick Hunter Education Handbook is a very good document and, regardless of your jurisdiction, you should have a read of it if you're at all interested in the multi-faceted aspects of hunting. Yes, there are places where polishing is evident, but the actual information is very worthwhile. Though of course, you need to pay attention to the legalities in your own jurisdiction over the NB document.
End of Sidenote.

But anyway; Food, cover, water, space, arrangement, these are the limiting factors of any habitat.

Notice anything about those 5 habitat factors, or limiting factors? Could it be possible that our human living spaces could be called habitats? And that they are affected by the same limiting factors as the habitats of other creatures? Hmm, lets explore this idea... and to make it easier I'll treat them seperately.


Right now in North America, there are hundreds of thousands of children attending school with hungry bellies. There are hundreds of thousands of families who can only put fast food on the table. These people aren't stupid. They know that a kid who eats breakfast does better at school and at life. They know that eating fast food is destroying their health and their future ability to provide for their family. They know the risks they are taking. They do not have a choice.

For the first time in the history of the human race it is easier and cheaper to eat food that ruins your health than food that is good for you. Poor people now have what used to be rich men's diseases; gout, diabetes, obesity. Before the 'Green Revolution' saturated fats, processed sugars and salts used to be luxury ingredients. Now, it is so much cheaper to produce bad food that consists mostly of those 3 items, that the healthy food is now at a premium price that the poor just cant afford. The result is malnourished children, obese adults, a badly damaged workforce and a crippled health system.

That needs to change and fast.

Taking the habitat restoration model, the first to think about the food aspect is the what, and then the how (the 'where' will be dealt with in the arrangement section) and finally the who. The what is fresh, healthy food. The how is through Urban Permaculture. Claiming wasted space, turning lawns into edible landscapes, creating market gardens, rooftop gardens, water harvesting, energy production, community composting, providing training for people who want to open related businesses etc etc. The who? Well, nothing works if its not from the ground up. Local people who live in the worst-hit areas are the ones who know what the neighbourhood and residents need, know who has the initial skills to get it rolling and will ultimately be the ones running the show after the media has grown bored. You really want to make a lasting difference in people's lives? Go get involved in an Urban Permaculture/Sustainability project in a poor neighbourhood run by local residents and I guarantee you can make a real difference.


Our needs for cover are no different to what animals need. We need a place to escape from the weather and from predators of all kinds. We need a safe place where our burdens can be put down. Our homes need to be that place, we need to feel safe there otherwise there is no true rest and the spiral turns downwards.

But when is our home not that safe place? There are a couple of ways. When we cannot be sure that we wont be attacked, be it from an outside source ie someone barging in with bad intent or from an internal source eg familial/spousal abuse. The structure itself may also pose a threat to health be it in the physical form of disrepair or the mental anguish of 'Oh god, how can I keep paying for this?!' Your home, regardless of whose name it's in, needs to be your place of refuge. You need to be able to shut the door on the world and find your sanctuary.

So many people don't have this safe place, for so many reasons that its simply too depressing to compile a complete list, but let's go ahead do a little expense categorizing. The main running costs of a household (regardless of size) are:

  • Utilities
  • Food
  • Bank Charges/Rent
  • Clothes and Shoes
  • Miscellaneous

There are some expenses that are very hard to chop down, once you get to a certain point. An example is that of clothes and shoes. Growing kids need new clothes and shoes when they need new clothes and shoes and there's no way around that. Adults need proper work clothes, everyday clothes and I firmly believe that everyone needs a 'good' outfit to feel special in. Bank charges are another toughie, unfortunately banks cannot simply write off your debt when you say 'pretty please', but there are avenues for people who are genuinely hurting to get at least part of the debt erased or to get the payments more manageable. Rent, the landlord can't let you stay there for free, but there may be some leeway like paying through maintenance hours. You never know until you ask and if you join that up with creating edible landscapes around or on top of your building, some research and planning into how much money can be saved using these techniques may well tip the balance in your favour.

Where people have the most power in their household budgets is in the food and utilities sections. No, I'm not crazy and yes I have lived in apartment buildings and I still say that you have more power than you think. How much sun does your home get? Can you set up window-side grow boxes? How much square footage does the roof on your building have? Can you set up a roof-top garden there? Even if 'all' you grow is a pot of nasturtiums (edible and pretty) and 4 pots of herbs (parsley, sage, basils and thyme for example) you will have a year round supply of tasty, healthy salad greens and the nutrients you get from the herbs will really help you feel better in yourself and help stave off the bad affects of fast food. And if you have a back-yard regardless of size then you really have no excuse, you can put a fruit tree in a worm box if you want to. Go ahead, Google Urban Permaculture Projects for inspiration.

The utilities, the power and heat are trickier, but not insurmountable, not by a long shot. The affects of passive heat and thermal masses are not to be sneezed at (see the Thermal Mass post that Nils put up on this blog) and what can be done with a beer can heater has to be seen to be believed. As for power, there are Masai tribes who, after a couple of workshops with Dr Richard Komp (a real guru of solar power) have made a local economy based on making and selling electricity in the form of solar power cells. There's also a company who developed the iShack in response to the über-slums of South African cities. These new kinds of shacks have insulation, water harvesting and solar power so these homes are far more comfortable and do not have running costs. If they can do it, you can too.

So if your home is not your place of refuge, why not take a few moments to sit down and figure out why you really feel that way. Maybe you're in a bad personal situation and you need to get out. Maybe the mental weight of all the bills is pressing down on your head. Maybe its something else entirely that I haven't covered but it still affects you. Apply new solutions to old problems. Grow your own food, make your own heat and power, create your own community. Make yourself a sanctuary, because your mental and emotional peace is far important than you think.

This is becoming a very long post so I will leave it there for now and I'll deal with Water, Space and Arrangement in Part 2 so stay tuned!

And as always, if you have any questions or wish to leave a comment, please feel free to use the comment box below this post. 

Till next time!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Solar powered - Greenhouse Part 3

In my last post I talked about how much I like technology. My only problem has always been that I can't always afford the latest gadgets. But as one should always see the glass half full rather than half empty I think the lack of funds can make you very creative and inventive.

When we built our greenhouse we wanted to be able to use it all year round and at least supplement our groceries with some fresh herbs or even veggies throughout the "dark times" (aka New Brunswick Winter). I have talked about thermal mass and how we are (slowly) achieving all the goals we have set in the beginning of the year.

But with all the perfect heat absorption in the place, the hot days in the summer become a problem. The temperature in the greenhouse gets far too high during sunny days. We have measured up to 60 C inside in April (no plants inside then). Therefore a cooling or active ventilation system was called for.

I knew what I wanted the system to do (quite simply blow cooler air from outside into the greenhouse and facilitating a better airflow through the vents located on the upper part of the north wall), but how to achieve this with virtually no or very little money. The system I implemented cost me $40 although those costs are not really true as we will see later, as I recycle parts of the system during winter into a heating system. Two for the price of one so to speak.

Fans are readily available for free. I got mine from my workplace's IT section. Power supply units for computers are a typical problem for desktop computers. I myself had to replace 2 of them at home already and when you know a place that runs 150+ PCs, you know that there will be power supplies blowing any minute now. So I asked whether I could get the old burnt out power supply units before they get thrown out. Most places will not really care as they were going to throw them out anyway.

I opened the metal boxes and took out the little fans inside. Computer fans are perfect because they often run on 12 VDC which is exactly what the small solar panels bought from a local store produce. So one panel equals one fan. There are no batteries or charge controllers involved in my system. It is raw and direct. Hook up the solar panel to the fan and face the panel in the same direction as the greenhouse is oriented. When the sun is fully shining into the greenhouse it will also give 100% power to the solar cells. This is sufficient to run the fan.

The funny and coincidental thing with this system is, that when the sun comes in at an angle (i.e. the greenhouse is not getting too hot) the power produced from the solar panel is not really enough to run the fan and the system turns off. In other words this system is automated without any hi-tec computer programming or the likes. I ended up putting 3 fans in series and coupling them to 3 solar panels. I think I might add a few more next year, but there were a lot of days this summer where I was glad that the system was working perfectly. Without it I would have come home to a nasty surprise during some of the hotter days.

I mentioned earlier that I got 2 for 1 with the cooling system. Well, in the winter the solar panels run the fan for the beer can heater that is facing the east side of the greenhouse. When we built the greenhouse we could not orient it perfectly facing south due to the nature of the ground. We quickly noticed that the early morning sun does not reach into the insides and therefore it takes a while to heat the place up. I opted to build a beer can heater after seeing one at a friends place and researching it on the web.  Simply google "beer can heater" and you will get a ton of results, from simple to elaborate.

So far, I have only built a prototype. Partially because I wanted to see how I would fare building it and partially because I do not drink enough canned beer (I make my own in glass bottles. In my mind, 500 mL is better than 355 mL) and getting all the cans for a full system would take me years. The friend I mentioned that introduced me to the system used 248 cans....

As the days are getting much shorter now and we needed some light in the greenhouse and the fact that I got tired of running an extension cord from the garage to the greenhouse whenever I had to do some work requiring power tools, we decided to get power into the greenhouse directly.

In order to achieve this, I first thought about running a cable from the garage to the greenhouse and tapping into the power from the garage. Which is what I did. However, I am certain that the insurance would have had a thing or two to say about that particular solution. I also wasn't happy that I tainted this wonderful Permaculture structure with "dirty" conventional power.

So in true Permaculture fashion I set up a solar power system with a deep cycle battery and a 15 W solar panel. A 15 W system is not really all that powerful and it takes a while to recharge the battery if it goes completely empty. That shouldn't really happen, but if you forget to turn the light off the battery will drain at some stage. I myself will add a second solar panel whenever I can find a cheap one to speed up the recharge time. 
This concludes our Greenhouse series for now. However, I am sure that our further plans for our greenhouse will warrant a mention or even an extension of the series at a later stage.