Thursday, 25 April 2013

Flamethrowers and First Steps

"Sometimes, it's better to light a flamethrower than to curse the darkness." Sir Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms.

"The greatest journey begins with a single step." Buddhist proverb.

No, I'm not endorsing the idea of sparking up a flamethrower and advancing on your favourite target of wrath. Really I'm not, those things are heavy. What I mean is, it's better to take action than talk and no matter how big the job or long the journey, it'll never be complete unless you start. 

Take a look at this video, it's about 14 mins long so it's a good accompaniment to your coffee. This is an incredible teacher who saw an opportunity to help his kids and took it, and the knock-on affects of this man's actions have been huge. Enjoy.

As you can see in the video, it is possible to create change through your actions and examples. It is possible to positively affect enough people to make a difference. Learn to grow your own food and teach others to do the same. Convince your landlord, your principal, your local politician to see the economic benefits of fitting buildings with water catchment systems and green roofs. Look into starting or extending local CSA's and LETS. Spend what money you can in shops owned and operated in your community. Sit around the kitchen table with your neighbours and decide the most beautiful way to provide fresh, healthy food for all of your children.

Permaculture isn't about hiring lots of expensive machinery or using jargon that only club members can understand. It's about using the resources you have to fix the problems you face. Stephen Ritz managed it and I'll bet he hadn't a clue about Permaculture when he started. He saw an opportunity to make lives better and he took it. Be inspired. Take that first step and enjoy the ride. 

And like he says, don't forget to stop and smell the flowers along the way.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Super-Size Me!

In 1933, the economies of the world were in a shambles. Many factors are believed to be involved, but the cause is not what this post is about. Nor is it about the cause of the current depression that is still dragging on today. It's partly about what the US did to try and stem the tide back then but mostly, it's about what options we now have to take those lessons and go much further.

In a nutshell, US President Roosevelt managed to create a federal agency called the Public Works Administration (PWA) in his first term in 1935 whose mandate was to set up large scale public works through private contractors to employ scores of people and put them to work building infrastructure throughout the entire country. Hospitals, schools, hydro-electric dams, highways, railways etc. etc., nearly 8 million people were employed from 1933 to 1943 (wiki links here and here). Yes, the administration could have been done better and yes, I do agree that certain projects should have changed location (e.g. Mount Rushmore, I'm sure that certain First Nations peoples would much rather not have four American presidents in their sacred mountain), but you cannot argue with the math.

Between 1935 and 1943, nearly 8 million people were employed by the PWA. It is estimated that for every person employed in the PWA, almost 2 were employed indirectly. That means the total number of people actually supported by these projects was closer to 16 million. That is a hell of an investment into the security of a population. And that's just the paycheques.

The projects undertaken by the PWA were such that they brought the greatest benefit to the larger populous and not just the families on the payroll. The electrification of rural America, 70% of the schools built at the time and every town got a park because of these projects. The hospitals, the highways, the massive earthworks that were set up all across the southern states to protect the remaining soil from further wind erosion. How many lives did the public works make better? How many were saved?  
We are at a point now where that kind of stimulus is desperately needed. For more reasons than they were necessary in 1935. For this time, food production is much higher on the priority list. The "Green Revolution" eradicated independent, local food networks in many places around the world, i.e., in the 30's they mostly grew food, now we mostly don't.  Luckily enough, applying Permaculture Principles to the issue makes all of the problems fall into place as solutions. I'll take you through it.
The problems facing, well, the whole world actually can be boiled down to:

I don't think I need to bore you by continuing for very long on this one. It's a fact that the food production system pushed by the Western Powers and the IMF is broken. Did you ever see the tension go on a driveshaft while being operated? That kind of broken, where flailing, solid metal bars smash into everything around it, filling the air with shrapnel and screams.   
It doesn't have to be that way. It really doesn't. Incorporating food production into projects that are going to happen anyway is not hard. Moving tons of earth into soil retention mounds like the WPA did in the 30's? Then treat them like swales and plant food forests in the troughs. Trees and plants will move in there anyway so why not choose the kinds you want for maximum benefit? If done thoughtfully and with a view to gaining the absolute maximum yield for your investment, you can create food production sites, wildlife habitats, water harvesting/cleansing systems, a solid base for local economy, significant and highly relevant up-skilling of the local community and workforce AND the original purpose of soil retention mounds and paycheques. And all of the added extras come by making the natural processes work for you. It's really not difficult once you start looking.

The necessity to use natural processes in our favour is clearer nowhere else like it is for the water cycle. The alternative is inoperable, even today we are failing at making a human system do as good a job as the natural systems.
The water cycle is largely based on there being trees in an area. Water evaporates from the leaves of trees and forms clouds far easier than it does from the surface of large water bodies, and of course this fact is very handy for areas that don't have large water bodies nearby. This also means, no trees = no rain, a phenomenon that is already measurable in many parts of the world.
Luckily enough, the above point about using massive swales to plant food forests will incorporate trees to a large degree. So really, you are not just growing food, you're growing rain too. Rain that will fall on nearby places and re-invigorate fields, rivers and lakes. So again, by considering the overall system, additional benefits can be achieved with very little extra effort and the investment returns keep growing.

Living Conditions
I'll put this bluntly: If you asked them, the majority of people who are living in cities today would leave for the country if they had the real viable chance of being able to make a decent life for themselves. Cities are swelling because less and less people can make a living on the soil. It is not a choice if your alternative is starvation.
However, designing projects that will serve to return the land to abundance through water catchment, soil remediation and intensive reforestation will not only give people the opportunity to work in the initial stages. Once the projects are completed, the land would still require a certain level of care from trained inhabitants. So really, these projects could easily be designed to not only address the short-term needs of kick-starting local and national economies, but to also be the foundation for much longer term solutions to the problems facing all of us.

Health of Population
With unhealthy food and crowded living conditions, its no wonder that the rates of chronic diseases has climbed even while the rate of acute disease has fallen. These chronic diseases can be largely attributed to two factors; diet and stress.
The diet, already dealt with above. Permaculture + public works = abundance of healthy food produced at local levels.
Stress, well what are people stressed about? Food and shelter are the main ones right? It's often completely out of someones control whether they can or can't survive into next month because they don't control their paycheques or food source or where they live. You can't possibly stay healthy in those circumstances, the stress will kill you in the end.

Giving people back a sense of security through giving them control over their food supply, giving them the opportunity to be in control of their income, or making solid, affordable homes available through programmes promoting food production, entrepreneurship and off-grid, natural building all based on Permaculture principles can give people that chance to feel secure in their lives. Erasing insecurity and giving people a chance to breath causes stress levels to drop significantly.
Good food + good homes + minimised stress = a far healthier and robust population. And THAT means decreasing the burden on public and private healthcare systems by reducing the incidences of preventable, chronic, diseases. Which reduces the burden on the taxpayer and on government resources. Everybody wins!
As far as I can see it, Permaculture does not make empty boasts when it states that the problems of the world are solvable when looked at properly. A lot of time, money and human effort has been spent trying to treat the symptoms of our false economy instead of taking a long, clear look at what's causing the symptoms. Would you hand a drowning man a towel or haul him bodily out of the water?
Why are we treating our world any different?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Lazy garden beds in under 1 hour

So this is something we decided to try out this year. With all the looking around for a new property and trying to sell our current house, time has been a limiting factor.

Since we want to sell our property and realising that most people probably will look at the garden and think...."there is no lawn. I wonder where the kids are supposed to play,", (despite the fact that a 3D landscape is much better for kids than a 2D lawn dominated landscape) we are reluctant to put a lot of work or money into the garden.

We came across Geoff Lawton's way of making sheet mulch beds. Simply score the ground, cover with cardboard and/or paper and then mulch heavy, heavy, heavy.

We decided to try this out and I must say, it is very quick to put together a bed. I timed myself and if I wouldn't have had to cut my own mulch in the process I would have gotten a 10'x10' bed done in less than 45 min. 

All I did was this:
I scored the ground using my rake. I will say at this point that my ground is extremely loose. I tilled it last year and made a point of not stepping on everything but stuck to my little paths. So even now I can dig comfortably with my hands into the ground and take out that crumbly goodness.

Pic 1; A corner of the bed, see the crumbles?

Then, with all the grass and weeds still in place I used thick cardboard to lay out the shape of my bed (in this case a rectangle, but any shape is possible).
I used thick cardboard and tried not to include anything with glossy print on the outside. Make sure the cardboard interlocks and overlaps, so that every space is filled and no weeds can find their way through.

Pic 2: Cardboard layer, make sure there are no gaps!

Then I used bulrushes (or straw) to mulch VERY thickly on top. I didn't even go half as much as needed but I still had about 10 inch thick mulch on top of the cardboard at the end.

Pic 3: Thick layer of mulch on top
After all this was done I used the garden hose and watered for a good long time. Water, water, water. When you think it is enough do another 2-3 min.

AND YOU'RE DONE! Yay, a new garden bed.

Pic 4: The new bed

When it comes to planting time, simply make a hole in the mulch and punch through the cardboard using a small hand tool, maybe a small shovel or even a bulb planter. Put your seedling into the hole with a small bit of compost and arrange the mulch around it to shelter it from the wind. Then  watch them grow. 
I made keyhole garden beds so that I don't have to step onto the bed to reach the plants in the middle. It is very important to not compress the ground. Don't step on it, don't kneel on it. This way you don't have to till it the next year, or the year after.

Less work, more fun. Let us know how you get on in the comment box.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The tyrant is back....yay!

The tyrant is back....finally I would like to add. With the tyrant I speak of is of course Tyrannus tyrannus, the Eastern Kingbird. 

The Eastern Kingbird is a fly catcher and if you read my post about the wildlife around our pond (here), you know what the little fellow does around here. 

I have noticed that same behaviour of the bird diving into the water. Although the splashes so far are more timid than I remember them.

This time however I managed to take a (slightly blurred) photo of the action. 
If you take a good look you can see the bird in the tree in the center of the picture

And here is the diving just after it hit the water.

 Here is a close up

Dapping the feet?

So I wonder whether the bird does this for a cleaning purpose, or whether he is true to his name and tyrannises the tadpoles and young frogs that have just started their mating calls.

If anyone knows I would like to hear about it.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The search for Eden

Yes folks, this title sounds like something we would normally reject. But in this case (as usual) we are focusing again on more earthly realities, than divine salvation or other dubious lost histories. The reality of this world has already pushed wildlife and nature to the brink of existence by displacing them from their natural habitat. In our opinion, the same thing is happening to us humans. We are not made to live in a concrete jungle that is lit up 24 hours of the day by yellow sodium lighting and Neon signs. At least the two of us are not.

So we decided that we will try to find a place where we can push nature into the opposite direction and try to build a system that is of ludicrous abundance. A Garden of Eden, so to speak,  for ourselves and the animals around us.

Since we currently live in beautiful New Brunswick and have lived through several winters here, we had the fantastic opportunity to observe life in one of the most extreme regions where proper gardening is still possible. There are quite a number of "Cold Temperate Region" gardening books out there. What sucks about them is, that when you get all excited, leaf through it and then find references to Northumberland, England as examples of "Cold Temperate". Well, what on Earth do you call New Brunswick then, where on March 31st the ground is still frozen solid an inch under the mud line, if the ground is clear of snow at all. No offence meant to the English country men and women, but New Brunswick is just a little further down the scale.

So in other words, there's a far shorter growing season (last frost date for us here is Full Moon in June, first is Full Moon September, no lie), mostly due to the ground needing to thaw out. Also, maybe to counter this, the summers are hot, hot, hot. The sun gets pretty powerful and the plants do suffer under it. There are also few specific learning resources available other than David Jacke's work (Edible Forest Gardens) and specialized Maritime gardening books , but since the majority of these consist of the "add fertilizer, pesticide and lawn seed" school of thinking, they're also pretty useless for our purposes. 

The opportunities of this climate have made a few truths very clear;
The main one being: Self sufficiency is EXTREMELY hard to achieve. Greenhouse, cold frames, trees, and livestock without them, you're going to be struggling. The purpose of the greenhouse and cold frames should be fairly obvious, the season is just too short to seed everything out. Perrennials will cut down on the work and are more guarantueed to throw off some yield. Without the livestock your food storage might last until December, or maybe even into January, but then you are still looking at 5 month before the next bit of edible stuff comes your way.

In light of this we have realised that we should rather be going with nature then against it and given in. We decided to move south (not by much, but still a little) to wonderful Nova Scotia.

We have been involved in Permaculture for a while now and feel that this way of living will at least part of the answer to surviving climate change and an increasingly more devastated world. We want to share our knowledge and experience  but also put our money where our mouth is and show that this type of living is not only possible, but also of much better quality than what is standard in the so called modern world.

We therefore want to start a Permaculture and sustainable living education center, starting with the purchase of the land this year.
Our plan is to start small by holding and hosting workshops while we start building the first parts of the infrastructure like the main house built from natural materials or the initial garden parts. Later then we will add accomodations for guests and 'students' and hopefully host full length Permaculture Design and other multiple day long courses. 

After long deliberation and brainstorming we decided that the property should be at least 10 acres in size but preferrably bigger (when it comes to land more is always better. The quality of land can always be changed, the size can't.) The cheaper the better of course. The plan is to have the land paid off completely within the next year before we start building on it. Fiscal security is a must and no debt is the best security.

This blog will inform you of what is happening and how we get along. Feel free to share any experiences with us here on the blog. If you want to take part during any stage of this 'experiment' please let us know and we will see how you can help and what we can give you in return.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Indoor sheet mulch

Something we tried out in the fall last year (2012) was to incorporate a sheet mulch bed into our greenhouse. This bed is contained in a large box (5' x 2.5' x 3') which is then covered with old windows that hinge up acting as a coldframe within the greenhouse.

We first put in some leftover firebricks and larger stones we had removed from parts of our outside beds during the spring. There were two thoughts in my head that I hoped to achieve with the bricks. Most of them were put down at the sun facing side of the box to collect heat and act as some form of thermal mass. So far it seemed to have worked, the bottom of the box on the inside is consistently 2-3 degrees warmer over night than the middle. The other thing I hoped to achieve is a small air gap or pathways for air to flow through to aid decomposition.   I will have to see later this year how that went.

Old bricks add thermal mass and allow for air flow

So now the box is ready to start the actual sheet mulch process.

For the sheet mulch (which I also like to call compost cake) we layered several different materials into the box starting with wood and branches. We even threw in some whole pieces of firewood that started to have fungi growing on them to provide long term nutrients. So in effect, the bottom of the sheet mulch bed is like a Hugelkultur bed. 

Sticks and stones

The next layer consisted out of woody plants with some green material on them. Most of that was alder branches that I cut back the day before. Alders are nitrogen fixers and their leafs and stalks introduce more nitrogen into the bed than other shrubs or tree material.
Lots of Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

The next layer was comprised out of plant matter like Goldenrod and other weeds that we had pulled from the garden and areas where they needed to be cut. We also added yarrow which is a very good accelorator for the decomposition process.

The next layer was grass clippings, topped with some topsoil, topped off with more grass clippings. We have a wild meadow that we bushhog once a year in fall. We then gathered up as much of this cut grass we could and used it for sheet mulching. Quite a good bit went into the box in the greenhouse. As you can see, there is no such thing as too much mulch. 
At this point, it might be important to add that grass cuttings and other weeds are not to be left out of a compost or sheet mulch bed for fear of spreading the weeds. A good-going compost heap will reach temperatures that will kill most of the seeds and in a sheet mulch bed the top mulch will smother most weeds. So it is better to include the weeds and with them their nutrients.

Grass - Soil - Grass layer

The next layer on top of all the grass was a thick layer of newspapers. We tried to leave the papers and flyers together and folded so the the layer is about 1/4 to 1/2 an inch thick. Then we watered. A lot of water to soak everything. The box is not sealed so that water and air can flow out and in respectively. As you can see, the water makes a nice way out and soaked the floor in our greenhouse. But what fun is it when you can't make a mess?

No such thing as too much mulch

...and then some paper....

.... a lot of paper...

A watering mess....yay!

On top of the soaked newspaper we mulched heavily using bulrushes from our swampy parts of the property. We found that bulrushes make excellent mulch and we don't even chop the rushes up. Of course you can do that and it might make for a neater look of the bed, but I didn't have much time or the appropriate tools to chop the plants.  Bulrushes are used to waterlogged soil and no rushes will germinate in your bed if it is not waterlogged.

Job's done!!!

After all this is done, all you have to do is wait for spring, so far the theory. I will let you know how the growing season will work out.