Wednesday, 31 October 2012

About Hippies and Technology

Here is something that always stumps me.

Whenever I talk to people that haven't grasp the concept of "greener" (for the lack of a better word) living, the conversation inevitably goes towards technology and that we need it for our lives. Well yes and no. I don't really agree that it is necessary for life, after all we evolved without iPhones and the Internet for a considerable time. However, I love technology. Yes I do. I love gadgets, and hi-tech devices. There I said it. Does that make me a hypocrite? I don't think so.

In fact a lot of my so-called hippie friends possess cell phones, have a facebook account and hi-speed internet. I even possess an electrical toothbrush. I do not know where this notion comes from, that people who are environmental activists, or plain and simply try to live environmentally conscious think that technology is of the devil, or that they devalue their cause because...well...they use technology.  Isn't that what these people are against?? No, "They" are not.

When I mention that I like technology to some of my (let's be friendly now) 'less-green' friends and colleagues I automatically get called a hypocrite, because when you are against mass slaughterhouses, you are not allowed to eat meat. If you are against gas guzzling cars you have automatically lost the right to use any means of transportation other than your feet. At least it seems that way. It's the same when mentioning that capitalism doesn't really seem to work. Guess what, you are automatically labelled a communist. The argument is a false dichotomy (ie only 2 extreme positions are 'valid') and false dichotomies exist to polarize opinions and to reduce real thought and real debate down to a mud-slinging match. There are plenty of people out there who perpetually renew the 'Hippies Hate Technology' myth because it makes them money.

Personally, I think a lot of people are afraid that when we consider the environment, our economy will go down. If we try to go through life producing less trash and waste, we will have to forgo all technology and live back in a cave. It seems to be such a polarized topic. Why do people think that there is only black and white? Is it fear of the unknown? Maybe fear of change? Or is that the false dichotomy arguments have taken over all conversations about this topic?

But whatever it is, I can assure you that since I have started to change my life bit by bit, I have gained life quality. Maybe I have lost a bit of quantity in some respects, but that turned out to be positive thing.

Like my car for example. It is a small, three door, 1.8L car. I pay $45 a week in gas and I travel 50km every day for work. Yes I still use gasoline, but at least I try to save on it.  Why would I need a pick up truck just to get to work? I have a colleague that drives a F250 3/4 ton truck. Because she has a long driveway and needs to be able to get out in the winter. There might be 3-4 days a year where this vehicle is important for this task. Guess what I do on those 3 days a year. I shovel my driveway. It takes a while, but I get some exercise. If I don't have the time, I park my vehicle at the top of the driveway (we generally know when a big storm will hit several hours in advance) and shovel just that little bit. Is this such a terrible thing? Personally, I'd rather save thousands of dollars in gas and shovel my driveway a couple of times. When you think about it, I pay myself quite a good hourly wage!

I guess what I really want to say is this: Living "green" does NOT impede your lifestyle. It doesn't have to at all. Everything else is just an excuse.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Thermal mass - Greenhouse Part 2

Oh my, it has been awhile. I wanted to post this a lot sooner, but there has been a lot of stuff happening in the meanwhile.

In this post I am going to go into thermal mass and why it is so important. I will also show and explain the measures we have implemented so far into our greenhouse and also what we are still planning to do. There is a LOT to do yet.

Thermal mass is essentially everything that can retain heat well and release it over a long period of time. Air does not store heat well. This is why I never understood north american heating systems. All that forced air seems to be hot air to me. Heating the air is like heating the outside. You will have to continually throw fuel at it. Once you have it nice and warm in the house and want to open a window, you will have to reheat everything again by adding more fuel, because all the heat escaped and nothing stayed behind.
Thermal mass stores the heat and if you open a window it will get cold in the house too. But then you can close the window and without adding more fuel to the system the room will heat up again through the heat released from the thermal mass. This is the beauty of thermal mass.

Dense and heavy materials generally make good thermal storage (also called heat sinks). In a house, this can be a clay brick wall that is sunlit during the day. In a greenhouse it can be barrels of water that are painted black for maximum heat absorption, but also raised beds packed with rock in the bottom and soil on top. Any of these measures belong to the category of "passive heat". Passive heat is really great, because it is free. And who ever turns down free heat?

For an example of extreme passive heat building have a look at earthships

In our greenhouse we have (so far) three 55 Gallon barrels filled with water and painted black. I could never really feel these drums heating up over the day, which kinda confused me for a while. But now that fall has come and the nights are getting below the freezing mark I can see the effect of these drums. Although they are not keeping the air temperature in the greenhouse up by much we consistently find that the temperature is 3 degrees above the outside temperature at the lowest point.  The most tell tale sign that there is a positive effect is that we have two tomato plants that are growing right in front of the barrel. Those plants are still growing and producing while the lowest temperature we have measured inside the greenhouse was -2 C. I call that a success to some extend.

We also started to add plastic bottles to the back of the greenhouse wall, all filled with water and painted black as well. These containers get really hot on a sunny day and we hope to eventually fill the whole wall top to bottom left to right with more bottles. These are all bottles that are not recyclable in the conventional way. At least they are not wasted and put on the landfill this way.

Lately we added some boxes filled with earth that are placed in the front of the greenhouse to absorb maximum light. These boxes double up as growing beds for winter hardy crops such as cabbage and spinach. We also grow some cold hardy herbs there such as thyme and sage (Really looking forward to using those fresh herbs in our christmas dinner).

We are planning to built another mini garden bed at the back wall that can be converted into a cold frame by enclosing it with windows. A greenhouse inside the greenhouse so to speak. 

In the future we also want to add more insulation to the back of the north wall and the small parts of the side walls to retain more heat in the greenhouse. I also want to have a thick curtain behind the door to prevent drafts. However, I am still looking for the necessary materials. Insulation is so important but unfortunately so expensive too.

I talked a lot about passive heat but I also want to mention active heat. Active heat means basically heating the greenhouse by means of a heat source that is somehow fuelled. And this is where the cost factor comes in. Commercial greenhouses are running a major cost just for heating in the winter times. For a small privately owned greenhouse I don't think this is necessary. However, there are ways of getting active heat for free. If your greenhouse is spacious enough you could encorporate a compost heap inside the greenhouse. The heat produced by the composting organisms can really be excessive and will throw a good bit of heat into the greenhouse. Some people have a section for their chickes in their greenhouse in the wintertime. This works both ways. The chicken have a nice warm temperature during the daytime and the heat of their bodys also helps heating the greenhouse at night.

Other possibilities are a rocket mass heater. Although these heaters run with firewood, small sticks are sufficient and only very little firewood is necessary. Maybe this is a good way to get rid of those apple tree prunings. For more info on rocket mass heaters check out this website

or simply google the term. There is a lot of information out there.

At this stage I would like to invite people to leave some comments to this article and maybe share some alternative ideas about thermal mass and how to heat greenhouses in general.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Food for Thought

I just heard an interesting tidbit on CBC. The whole thing was about what can be labelled natural food and what can not. Well, by Canadian standards anything that is processed can not be labelled as natural since ( and I think the example given here was ginger ale) it does not occur in nature in the way it is sold. So ginger ale may contain all natural components, but it itself can not be natural. I am not going to debate this at this point.

However, what it did make me think of is the fact that many people in our society have no idea what they are eating. “I wash apples with water before I eat them. That gets rid of all the pesticides, right?” Well, no, not really, but even this is not the point that I want to talk about today...yes, I know, normally it would be a given to thumb-up on organic food and “chemicals are bad” and so on. Yes, that is all fair game, but today I would like to make a little point about nutrition in food.

I have been involved with nutritional analysis for 4 years now and even after knowing a lot more than your average consumer about nutritional labels and values in foods I still learn new things about the things we eat every day. Here is the first and foremost one that I have learned;
Don't believe the label.
Yes, that's right, the labels are not always a true indicator of what you are eating. This has to do with several factors and I will explain them here one by one.

  1. Database labels
Not every label has been produced after tedious and expensive chemical analysis of the food. It is possible (and legal) to utilize computer programs that have certain foods and food components saved in a database with all their nutritional values, which are mostly derived from analytical test experiments. So if I make a donut and use x grams of flour and y grams of sugar and so on, I can add my recipe into the computer program and the program will produce an average of what this food should contain. So far the theory. Needless to say, that there can be faults associated with doing the labels this way. Here is one example:
I was starting to analyze different foods for their sugar contents and while I was evaluating the method I went to buy a number of different foods from a store nearby. Amongst the foods I selected there were freeze-dried strawberries. According to their label, those strawberries did not contain any sugar. “Hmm,” I thought, “either this label is wrong or these are not real strawberries.” Any fruit will contain sugars, they don't grow without it. When I analyzed those strawberries the sugar content was 44%. 
What happened? How could the two sets of results be so starkly different? 0 sugar content vs. 44%?
Well this is my explanation, and I don't know whether this is the way it happened, but it seems the most plausible to me: The nutritional values for the product were taken from actual (fresh) strawberries. Since freeze-dried fruit is a lot lighter than fresh fruit, the serving size (measured mostly in grams) was a lot smaller than that for fresh strawberries. And -and here is one of the pitfalls of reading a label- some are done by 100 g and some by serving size, which can be anything from 1 g to 250 g or 1 cup or 1 oz. or whatever (ever seen the calories on the label of a pack of chips? They never seem so bad, until you see that the value is per 10 chips!!). So care has to be taken. In this case the serving size of freeze-dried strawberries was 25 g, I think. About as much as one fresh strawberry would weigh. The sugar amount of one strawberry is so small that it may be declared as 0 on a label (once you get a value under a certain threshold the number can actually be declared as 0, same as the nickel content in some kinds of “nickel-free earrings”). Therefore, for an equal amount of weight, we can also declare the amount of sugar on a serving of freeze-dried strawberries as 0, right? Wrong.
And here is the mistake. During the freeze-drying process only water gets removed. The sugar does not get removed but gets concentrated, hence the 44% result. This is what the people who made this specific label did not take into account and this is how such an error can occur. It can take a long time for something like that to get noticed too.

  1. Incorrect analysis
    Incorrect analysis is something that can always happen. Trust me, chemists might wear white coats, but they are no gods. Mistakes happen. Although, that being said, quality assurance systems nowadays make analytical mistakes few and far between. However, I do remember a case where a product was hauled off the shelves by the food inspection agency due to a false claim of Vitamin A on the label. The product contained a large proportion of sweet potatoes, Vitamin A was declared at 75% RDI (Recommended daily intake that is, we can get to this later if people are interested). However on second testing by both the inspection agency and by the lab that initially did the analysis, it turned out that the product only contained 45% RDI of Vitamin A. What happened? It turned out that the product was tested before it even hit the shelves the first time around. The batch that was inspected by the agency however, was close to its best-before date. Due to the nature of Vitamin A the contents had changed over time. Vitamin A is quite labile (unstable, breaks down) and the concentration in any food will decrease over time. 

  2. Differences from “as is” vs “as consumed”
    What I mean by differences between “as is” and “as consumed”, is simply that many foods that we buy we will alter before consumption. For example, a deep frozen pizza. Ever wondered why some veggie pizzas are shown to contain Vitamin C? This is due to the bits of peppers and other veggies in the topping. Now, just like Vitamin A, Vitamin C is extremely labile and once you yank the pizza through an oven at 200 ºC, Vitamin C will be a thing of the past for this specific food item. This can be said for many foods where the product is tested in a different state as when it is consumed. Processing in general will alter the components of food in many cases.
There is a whole lot more to be said about food components and the labelling thereof. I always wonder who really understands food labels and how many consumers are out there that do not know what exactly is in a food. There are a great deal of misconceptions that have arisen simply out of a disconnectedness from the production and processing of the stuff that we eat. I mean, we all know that burgers and broccoli are all being made in the supermarket........and tomatoes don't contain sugar......I could go on and on with examples but I will leave it here. I think it is important to understand nutritional claims and to pay attention on how we nourish our body. I am no super healthy living dude, but I make a conscious effort to give my body what it needs. Of course, there is always time for chocolate and ice cream.

Just a bit of “food for thought”.

If anyone has any specific questions or queries on food labelling, let us know in the Comments section below!

Monday, 15 October 2012

Greenhouse Design

There is something that we started this spring that I am extremely proud of, and that is our self built greenhouse. From start to finish this greenhouse was designed and built by ourselves (well actually the building would not have gone so smoothly without our very own professional Calum who is a neighbour of ours and very handy to have around. Community building....).

We have spent a lot of time during the last winter to find a good design for a year-round greenhouse and in the end came up with our own design modelled after a greenhouse built by the University of Vermont (I just can't find the link right now. I will put it up when I find it). This design featured a long slanted side and a normal roofed side. We adapted the angle of the sun side (long slant) so that the winter sun more or less penetrates the plastic at a 90º angle. Our winter sun angle is roughly 22º on December 21st. In the end there were some technical difficulties on how to cut angles and nail the whole thing together so the actual angle of the greenhouse is slightly off, but should do the trick anyway.

Greenhouse design and shape are very individual. I like our design as it looks a bit different from your box standard greenhouse or poly-tunnel. It has the architectural flair of modern least I think so. 
The dimensions of our greenhouse are 16x10 feet in total area. The maximum height is 11 feet at the peak. Due to my neighbours experience we decided to build the platform first, then nail together the trusses (we used gang-plates for this) and then slot everything together in place. I initially wanted to build it from the frame up. Due to the final height of the construction I am glad we did it this way. 

The floor is insulated with 2 inch styrofoam plates. This is one of the most important places to insulate. A lot of cold gets in through the floor. The floor itself is 1/2 inch plywood. OSB is not that good since it can't cope with water at all, and there will be some over the floor during everyday use. The whole construction sits on 4x4 treated beams. 

Putting up the trusses after we constructed them on the ground was quite simple and a relatively fast process. I think this way was a lot easier than trying to nail the top together balancing on a step ladder. After everything was put together, we squared the whole building using 2x4 planks to get it ready for the plywood walls.  

After the walls went on the building was really solid. Not even a hurricane would move this now. Well, maybe now, but not when it is filled up with all the thermal mass that will be in it. 

The day we finished the walls was extremely windy. We couldn't put the plastic on the greenhouse without asking for a lot of trouble. So by the time we finally found the weather and the time to finish the job it was an evening during the week, and light was getting dim....


....ran out actually, but nevertheless we got it done. And the next day we saw this...

The grand total at this stage was roughly $800. 

Next post I will describe the steps we have undertaken so far and are still planning for winterising the whole thing and making it warm. In the meantime, please leave a comment on what you think of the design and maybe post some ideas of your own.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Why commodity farming doesnt really feed people.

I'm going to say something that will draw fire from the Internet. In fact I am going to say 3 things;

The drive behind the mainstream industrial farming model is not to grow food.

Farmers in the mainstream industrial farming model are unable to make a living from farming alone.

Neither of these facts are the fault of the farmers themselves.

Whoever thinks that any kind of comfortable living can be made from modern, industrial farming alone is either hopelessly naive, recklessly arrogant or was transported here through time from before the 1940's. There is no way, no frigging way that you can support yourself and a family from industrial farming alone. It cannot be done, and I'll tell you why.

Note: The image of huge golden fields of wheat and corn are what comes to most peoples minds when they think of industrial farming. For that reason, I am concentrating on grain farming but the broad arguments can be applied to all types of industrial model farming.

Modern industrial grain farming is bloody expensive. Year after year, farmers have to pay out ridiculous sums. To start off in the spring, their annual supply of seed (Thanks to gene patenting laws (You SUCK U.S. Supreme Court!) farmers are severely penalized if they save some of their harvest for seed when they buy from Monsanto and affiliates.  See?) and the supply of various chemicals that these seeds need to reach harvest, and the mountains of cash required to keep their machinery running, and the insurances involved in the business of farming, and then the costs of keeping a house and family goes on top of that.

Okay, every industry has its costs, but lets remind ourselves that industrial grain farming is a one or two paycheque a year deal. One harvest = One paycheque, okay? Lets skip straight to harvest then.

So all of the various costs are in on one side of the ledger, and the farmers have their crop yield figures and they go to find out the price. Who determines the price? The stock market does. Thats right, wheat, corn, soy, rice and plenty more are speculatively traded on the Grain Futures Market.

Okay then, the farmers get their gross income by multiplying their tonnage by the market price which is determined by the Stock Market, fairly simple. Then all of the years costs come out and the remainder is the farmers net operating income. Plenty, right?

I do have the working figures if anyone's interested but to make it simple, the projected income figures for 2012 are available from an Agriculture and Agri-foods Canada paper that was published in February 2012. According to them, the projected average net operating income for 2012 (ie how much is expected to be made from the farm alone), taking all of the farms across all of Canada is $63,555. (See Footnote at end for some clarification of figures and links) The projected average farm family's total net income for 2012 however is expected to be $123,498. $123,498 - $63,555 = $59,943. In other words, one adult has to take a job off-farm to ensure a certain level of income. And before you start looking at me askance, at harvest the farmer and his/her family have to put aside all of the monies they'll need to get the farm rolling again in Spring -for fairly obvious reasons- and that's not a handful of change. So in reality, the real disposable income for a farmer's family is far lower than the figures say. I'll also fill you in on the fact that net operating incomes in the recent past have swung by 30% from one year to the next based on numerous factors that farmers cannot control, up to and including decisions made by foreign politicians in back-room deals. Do things look a bit wrong to you yet?

There are so many 'reasons' why modern agriculture became the way it is. You could point the finger at a dozen without even trying, from post-war factories wanting to keep their profit margins healthy to corrupt politicians and interest groups to suits waving pieces of paper and screaming maniacally. But name-calling and revisionist history isn't going to solve the problem we face. Let me boil it down for you.

Farmers are not encouraged to grow food.

Farmers are encouraged to grow commodities.

Commodities make a few people very rich.

Food does not make anyone rich.

Our agricultural model is not based on growing food, it's based on making money. Plain and simple.

You could make the argument that these commodities are traded for food and other things and that makes it okay. Well, no I'm sorry, but it really doesn't. For one, the industrial farming model requires huge swathes of land to make it “efficient” (quotation marks are to prevent spit-takes and angry comments by engineers and other people whose job it is to take efficiency seriously). For the sake of space, I'm just going to mention my beefs with this first fact and move on;
  • Concentrating land in the hands of the very few and shoving everyone else out
  • Complete destruction of diversity for literally as far as the eye can see
It requires very large machinery and immense amounts of fuel to plant, maintain and harvest these horizons of land. Then there's the mind-blowing toxic soup of man-made chemicals required to keep a monoculture going, and all of the pollution by the machinery. Then at the end of the day, the person who depends on this model working the most, the farmer, can barely make ends meet and ends up sinking more into debt. Every. Single. Year. While a very small number of people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual work takes the real money and flips the bird at everyone else.

When you look at what human beings really need, we don't need money. Money is an interchangeable unit, a tool to get us what we really need; food, water, happiness. Instead of growing food, farmers are growing money. And that's not what we need, we need a farming model based on growing food.

Luckily for us, there is a way of transitioning to this. Because this model of food grown close by, services met within communities, sustainable, joyful living, is, essentially what Permaculture is all about. But that's a bit simplistic really, because in reality a couple of other things have to change too.

Back in the pre-modern farming days, there was such a thing as urban farming, though I doubt it was called that. Everyone had some kind of garden and grew what they could. Nowadays, people are putting a new twist on the concept of urban farming and now there are roof-top veggie gardens, waste-ground reclamation, school projects. There are so many videos about urban farming on the internet and quite a few success stories, if you need inspiration in your day, go look some up. Using Permaculture methods it is possible to supply most of a communities food needs by using the available space and resources in, around and over the community itself. Not by plane, by foot.

So what about the farmers then? There are lots of people without the time, space, or inclination to grow all of their own food directly, and this is where farmers markets and CSAs come in. From annual vegetables to perennial fruits and berries to meat and dairy to coppicing wood, to specialized skills and crafts. Growing food should be the main drive of farming and farmers need to be able to go back to their #1 priority being feeding their local communities, not making money for distant plutocrats.

I think this is enough of criticism. In the next blog we will tackle a more technical side of Permaculture again.

I would like to invite everybody to leave some comments about our farming and food model and maybe we can come up with some ideas together on how to make a change in our direct community. 

I'll leave you with a link for an article about Haitian farmers who have decided that they already know how to best get their food system back on its feet.

Footnote: This is an average figure so very few people are making this exact amount but unfortunately they do not give a standard deviation so I don't know how accurate this average is on a per-farm basis. For an example of how widely from average the incomes can swing, the across Canada average of net operating income alone in 2009 was $22,693. In New Brunswick the ave for the same year was $17,261 and in Manitoba and Saskatchewan it was $28,983 and $31,145 respectively (StatCan for all Ca figures and find provinces on side). The paper used to gather the income figures used above was also published in February 2012 and the 2012 numbers are a projection ( for the .pdfs available from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada). When more current numbers are available I will update this post. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

Seed Saving

It's Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and our twin Sugar Maples are ablaze. This is the time for finishing off the winter preparations, building overwintering compost heaps, storing vegetables. But something that's just as important and maybe wouldn't occur to a lot of people, is that this is also the time for saving seeds.

There are several reasons for saving seeds and saving a bit of money and hassle in early spring is only one of them. When you grow plants on your ground, regardless of whether they are vegetables, herbs or flowers, they adapt to your site in a myriad small ways. The seeds they produce are a bit more suited to your ground then the parent seeds were. So if you save those and plant them out next year, you will have hardier plants. Repeat this for several years in a row and you will have plants that are perfectly suited to your specific micro-climate.

By micro-climate, I mean the specific temperatures, sun hours and wind angles that impact your particular section of the surface of the Earth. It's the power of the micro-climate that changes the ability of certain plants to grow in particular gardens. Happily, micro-climates can be altered and made more beneficial for your growing efforts and we'll go into some of these methods in later posts.

Obviously, there are a great many different types of seeds, but it is possible to group types by their saving methods. To save space and confusion, I'm going to go through one of each in separate parts.

Here is Part 1:

Fermenting Fleshy (Tomato) Seeds

1. Scoop seeds from the inside of the tomato and set the flesh aside for eating.

 Pic 1: This is basically how you separate the seeds from the tomato. As you can see, it's not too complicated.

2. Put the seedy mush into a clear container and repeat until there are no more tomatoes of that variety. (DON'T mix your varieties unless you are very happy about not being able to tell your seeds or plants apart until fruiting occurs, if then.)

3. Pour water into the container until everything is floating.

4. Label the container with variety, & date and loosely cover.

5. Place container somewhere out of the way but not out of sight.

The point of this is that tomato seeds have a fleshy coating that if left on will rot the seed. However, when tomatoes are ingested by animals, the coating on their seeds is cleaned off by the digestive system and are ready to go when they're returned to the ground in a pile of manure. Storing the seeds in water for 3-4 days causes the flesh to be fermented off and so does the same trick. Minus the manure.

6. From the second day, rotate the container back and forth so that seeds start to fall out of the mush to the bottom of the container.

 Pic 2: A view of some of my containers. The far left has been sitting for ~24hrs, the other 3 are from about 4 days ago and are ready to go to the next stage. See the difference?

7. When you spot that ~90% of the seeds have fallen to the bottom of the container, tip off most of the water. Most of the mush will slosh away too. Don't worry if some seeds float on the top and are lost, they're hollow duds. The viable seeds sink to the bottom. Run more water into the container, swirl, let the seeds settle briefly and tip off the water. Repeat as necessary. I usually don't need more than two rinses but it depends on the variety.

NOTE: Do NOT be over-eager in deciding that your seeds are ready. If it looks like it might use one more day, give it one more day. I've had seeds soaking for 5 days and more with no problem except a white fuzz growing along the water line which was not a problem. If you are too hasty, you could end up losing a lot of good, viable seeds because you didn't give the fermentation process enough time. If you want to keep this stage down to a minimum, separate the majority of the flesh from the seeds before letting it sit, but still give it the time it needs to work.

8. Organize a drying place. I tend to tear egg cartons in half and use the top, other people use paper towel in baking trays, whatever your ingenuity can come up with. The point of the exercise is to dry off the seeds for storage. So tip the seeds (after tipping off as much water as possible of course) onto the absorbant surface, spread out the seeds as much as possible,  LABEL the variety, and put them where they wont be knocked over for about 2 or 3 days. Check on them during the first full day and try to the tease any remaining clumps apart.

Pic 3: Here are my lovely seeds and they're almost ready to be put into sealable bags. Unsure of when they're finished? If you can easily separate individual seeds that were clumped, they're done.

9. When they are all dry (again, take the time to be sure), put them into a sealable envelope, or clear sealable bag and store in an air-tight container. Putting different varieties in different bags and all the bags in one jar is perfectly fine. But once again, LABEL your varieties.

So next early spring, when everyone else is buying tomato seeds, you can just go to your air-tight container, pull out your personalized seeds and start the process of delicious, home-grown tomatoes!

Part 2:   

Dry-on-the-plant-seeds e.g. Coriander/Cilantro seeds

NOTE: my camera battery is dead, so rather than holding up the post, I'm going to add in photos later.

Some seeds are a lot easier than fleshy ones like tomatoes. In some cases, you just take the whole plant (chop near ground level or rip up roots its your choice) and dry them in a convenient place. Coriander is like this, you literally just spread the whole thing out in an area with good air-flow and leave it for as long as it needs. Well, to ensure that you don't get over-run with mould or insects, I'll give you a couple extra tips....

1. Coriander (the seeds of the Cilantro plant) is ready to harvest when the plant has clearly converted ~95% of its flowers into seed pods.

Harvest in the evening when it hasn't rained all day, before the dusk dew falls. This is to ensure that the plant is as dry as possible before harvesting. If it's damp, you're running the risk of mould taking over before the seeds can dry out. If you must harvest when the plant is damp then you can get away with it using a method described below. (But if its actually wet then you may have to go to drastic measures like using a hair-dryer, or just, you know, wait until the plant is dry to harvest)

2. Depending on your drying arrangements, tie the stalks loosely in small clumps and hang up seed end down. Or, if you have the space, you can spread the stalks out over a clothes horse. I would recommend this method if, like me, you had to harvest when the plant was a bit damp. The essential point here is air-flow. You have got to make sure that the whole plant dries quickly or mould will enter the seeds and then your effort is wasted.

3. When the seed pods have all turned a sort of tan colour and some seeds start falling off the stalks when shaken, you can harvest the seeds.

4. There are differing methods here, but after spending several hours doing it, I'll tell you about the 2 that we found worked easiest. I definitely recommend having an old sheet under your work space by the way, it makes a few things much easier!
A) Physically pull the seeds that don't fall off by themselves off the ends of the stalks and dump into a brown paper bag. Leave bags open to finish drying for about a week or so. Big Cons: lots of little, bitty mess to tidy up, you tend to loose a fair number of seeds so really do this method over a sheet, you can get some really sore fingers after a while.
B) Break or snip off the "seed heads" (The flowers form an umbrella-esk shape so the seeds do too, that whole umbrella is what I mean) and put the whole thing into a brown paper bag. The bags should be left with the tops open like the other method and shook every few days. When the seeds have all fallen off the sprays, remove them and close up the bag.

Needless to say, I prefer option B!

5. Whichever you use, after the seeds have completed drying, store in an air-tight container and put away for the winter or use to spice up your meals.

Part 3

Grab-as-you-go-seeds e.g. Calendula, Nasturtium

These are the very easiest kind of seeds to save, because they involve waiting till the plant has done all the work and then going out and filling your boots, or bag, or pockets or all three!

1. Identify which of your plants are nearing the seed producing stage.

2. Identify what a completed seed head looks like, e.g. when Calendulla is ready the flower head is completely brown and the seeds fall off relatively easily.

3. Wait until seeds are dry, again you're best waiting until there's been a dry day and harvesting in the evening before the dewfall.

4. Pull seeds off plant and place in brown paper bag. Leave top of bag open to ensure adequate drying for a few days in warm dry place.

5. Store in air-tight container until needed. Done!

Phew, that's a fair bit of information, but I hope you found it useful. I will add that much of the time, seeds you get from store-bought vegetables and flowers won't be viable. It's all to do with the politics of commodity farming (snarl!) and other nonsense perpetuated by mindsets that no business in growing food. (Ooh, sore point there! I'll explain my reasons in a later post, promise.)

If there's anything unclear or if you feel that I got something a bit wrong or  want me to add another seed-saving method or even something completely unrelated, drop me a line in the comments box and I will do my best to get you some satisfaction!  

Until the next post, cheers!

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Building soil and saving the earth

A friend of ours once said that Permaculture is really all about building soil and saving the earth. In a very simple way this is really what it all comes down to. Soil is the basis of our existence. It is of the utmost importance that the soil that we rely on is kept intact and healthy. Soil is much more than just dirt. It is its own cosmos, made up from nutrients like calcium and potassium, salts and organic compounds as well as lifeforms such as bacteria, nematodes, little beetles, worms etc. etc. All these components together make healthy soil. And healthy soil grows plants and therefore food in abundance. This food in return nourishes us and we can then convert the energy into whatever we like, say building a house. Therefore the soil in the end builds the house. This is how important soil is. Without soil there would be nothing on this planet but rock. 

In light of this revelation we decided to built a big compost heap in our garden to make good fertilizer for our plants in the coming year. This has also given us a good way of using up those old and brown tomato plants that the latest frost claimed as its victims and all the other stuff that needs to go at this time of the year. 

The compost heap that we decided to build will not need any turning during the decomposition process. It was built in shape of a tarsus which is a type of donut shape, a large ring with a hole in the middle to allow for air circulation. This is a special way to build compost heaps to optimise the composting process.

First of a base has to be built. This base is made from sticks and branches. It will allow air circulation and keep the heap itself off the ground. 

Next off, we added a layer of bullrushes. Actually this should be straw, but we couldn't find anyone close to us that had some fresh straw. Most farmers in our region concentrate on livestock and hay. Essentially the straw is used to add carbon and in this layer also to prevent the composting material from falling through the sticks. 

Note: There is a difference between hay and straw. Hay is from green grass that is dried in the sun and is quite nutritious for livestock. Straw is the woody stalk of crops like wheat and barley and is low in nitrogen but high in carbon. This is why straw is used so often for composts and sheet mulches as a brown layer. 

This layer still covers all of the base, but starts to shape the ring form by being applied thicker around the outside. A bit of manure is spread on the outside of the straw/rushes layer. We used chicken manure. Chicken manure is really high in nitrogen and therefore we did not apply much of it. Mixed under the straw it is hardly visible but will help to kickstart the decomposition process really fast. Add a bit of straw on top.

On top of the straw manure layer we can now add our first "compost layer". This is comprised out of what the average person would consider compost material. Your kitchen scraps or in our case old tomato plants. Really you are looking for plant material with a higher content in nitrogen. 

Again this layer is applied in a ring form and the donut shape is slowly building up.

On top of this layer we place another layer of straw/rushes. 

You can see the donut emerging now. Keep working on the shape and even out the sides. Then it is time to add some old, already finished compost. This adds  special micro-organisms and innoculates the compost heap.  Then put some straw over it again. Now it is time to water the heap. LOTS of water. Don't worry about making it too wet at this stage. Excess water will drain out throuigh the bottom. Later during the actual composting it is better not to add water and tarp the heap when significant rainfall is expected. 

Then  keep layering more manure, straw, green stuff, straw. It is good to add a layer of woodchips or leaflitter to introduce some fungi mycelium and also as a carbon source. A good compost has a balanced carbon to nitrogen ratio. However, we have seen ratios from 25:1 to 40:1 referenced and don't think that it has to be absolutely exact. Although I am sure that some people insist on an exact ratio. There are real compost fanatics out there. In our compost heap this time we added some old wood chips from where we cut our firewood earlier this year. We also added some charcoal that initially was meant for our BBQ, but which had gotten wet during a rainstorm. This is an experiment and we will see how it works. 

Keep layering and layering, alternating the layers between straw and manure, straw and green, and so on. Keep watering as you go. When the last layer is put on and before the last cap of straw goes on we added some rich soil from the bottom of a tree in the woods. Where the soil is nice and soft and loose under the tree where many years of decomposing leafs and tree needles are lying around there are a myriad of micro organisms that are trained like a special ops commando on breaking organic matter down. We sprinkled it over the last layer again as an innoculant. Whenever we take anything from the woods we make sure to say a short Thank You to the trees and animals of the forest. It is all too easy to forget that they're the ones doing all the work and in order to make sure that the whole system keeps going we should only take what we need and when we forget is when we start to exploit the environment and start to inflict damage.

When the last layer of straw is put on we cover everything and make sure that everything looks nice. Not everybody has the luxury to build their compost out of sight and it should have an esthetic look about it. Water one last time and voila....your compost is done. Now in the spring you will have a very good fertilzer for your beds and trees. 

Oh there is one more thing I wanted to mention. Don't worry about weeds in your compost. Throw them in. It doesn't matter. (Well, not burdock roots, though the leaves are fine. Eat the roots. :D) The heat inside the heap will destroy the seeds anyway and this way you won't lose the minerals that the weeds extracted from your ground.  

On another side note I would like to mention Biodynamic preparations. Biodynamics is a fascinating concept that we only got introduced to recently. Although sounding very esoteric at first glance, the results can't be disputed. In Biodynamics six different preparations can be used to help the composting process. Those preparations are made out of plants that are specially processed. The plants important for composting are yarrow (adding Potassium and Sulfur), Chamomille (for Calcium and Nitrogen), Nettle (Iron and Magnesium), Oak Bark (Calcium),  Dandellion (Silica), Valerian. Should you be using those preparations, use a metal staff to puncture six deep holes into the compost ring from the top and evenly spaced. Then add the preparations as per instructions. A good place to start getting information about Biodynamics is the book "Grasp the Nettle" by Peter Procter. We personally are not experts on this topic and before we get things wrong we would rather like to point towards other sources in this respect. 

What is Permaculture (to me)? Part 2

Permaculture to me is a whole lot of things. But first and foremost it is a solution. A solution to a really messed up world that we have created. The three ethics that define Permaculture are:

  1. Care of the earth
  2. Care of the people
  3. Return of surplus

These ethics are actually common sense or at least have been for our ancestors. Once upon a time humans used to live off the land. This time isn't even that long ago when you really look at. When the land you're standing on is the basis for your survival and your prosperity, even your life, no one will even get the fading shadow of an idea to exploit the land and destroy it for money. It would be like suicide, yet this is what our civilization is doing right now, live and in colour.
In days gone past it was important to foster a good community living as the community was equally essential to survival and well being. Again, nobody would have thought twice about lending a helping hand to a friend or neighbour, one just did. Luckily there are still some people that do this today, however many don't. Why is that I wonder?
As for the return of surplus, well, I think this might have been the first of ethics to go out the window. I am writing this on Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada. A time where you share good food and good times with your friends and family. Honouring an age old tradition. On this one weekend. With deep frozen turkey from aisle 16 with GM corn on the side. Half of it will end in the trash because after 3 days even the best turkey becomes somewhat outdated. The turkeys that didn't sell this weekend might make it to Christmas but then even the supermarket will throw them out. While many people stand around the streets of the supermarket and go home hungry. Yes this is reality, also in our wonderful first world that we enjoyfully live in.
So I think we can agree that the world - as it is right now - is not Permaculture. But it is an inspiration. Walking through this world and slowly opening my eyes I have seen more and more things that I simply do not like. But after spending years complaining to myself and others in my direct vicinity about the misstandings of this world I now decided to take action. This action comes in the form of Permaculture. It is my way of trying to change just a little small and tiny part of this world for what I consider the better. From now on I will try to live with those three ethics in mind. I will make a conscious effort every day to care for the earth, care for the people around me and to share my surplus with anyone that needs it. This blog will show the path that I and my partner are walking along together with an as of yet unknown destination. 

Have fun reading,


What is Permaculture (to me)? Part 1

To me Permaculture is all about respect, from bottom to top and back down again. Respect for the Earth, respect for those who come after you, respect to those sharing the space with you. And this respect envelops everything, there are no boundaries to it. Permaculture acknowledges that everything is interconnected and your actions can have a far larger effect than we can see, for good or ill. It's a respect based on knowledge and patience. To quote the founder of Permaculture Bill Mollison, “Rather protracted, thoughtful observation than protracted, thoughtless labour”

If respect can be seen as one pillar of Permaculture, then Observation is another. Observation is vital in Permaculture. No, to be accurate, without the power of observation, Permaculture would not exist. (There is an interesting story there that may make up part of another article) Knowledge is gained through clear observation of the place that you are looking at. By that I mean, noticing what's in front of you, really seeing what you're looking at. Watching how the water pools or runs, telling from the trees which way the winds blow, noticing how shadows from houses prevent certain plants from growing in certain places, these small facts can add up to a great database of knowledge that can be gleaned from any and every spot in the world simply by looking at it properly. Well, what's the point of looking at the world that way? For one, an extra bit of observation and thought can save you a great deal of grief and even money.

For example; Behind your house, there's a big tree and while it's alright looking, you really want to know what the view behind it looks like. Well, you finally manage to get back behind it and yeah, the view's pretty good, maybe that's what you prefer to see. But while back there you spot something. The tree on this side looks a lot more withered than the side facing your house. Well, what difference does that make? That withering is the sign of the harsh winter wind causing damage to the tree. So the tree is in fact sheltering your house from the coldest and most damaging winds and in so doing, saving you a lot of money in home heating. That's a pretty important fact to have as part of an informed decision.

Respect and Observation are all very well to say but it's like toothbrush and toothpaste. They're great additions to your bathroom, but if they just sit in the glass by the sink your teeth aren't going to get any better. If you don't notice what's in front of you, or don't treat your surroundings with respect, you're not going to see what's important.

So here's an exercise for you. On your normal days excursion, try to look at your surroundings with fresh eyes. Don't judge what you see, just observe the different elements and try to determine why it is the way it is. Spot where water running off roofs damages the ground below, or where it gathers on the edge of a road and supplies a mini-wetland. See where the grass has been cut too short, or where the birds love most to perch, or how a bush gives enough shelter at the right angle for a grove of wildflowers. Exercising your own skill at observation will make the world a lot more interesting because you will see the details that make up the whole picture. After a while, you'll even see how they interconnect and impact on each other.

However, to be fair I think I should warn you; once you open your eyes and start really looking at the world, it's really hard to close them again.