Growing Water Wise

It’s the heat of summer. The plants are wilting rapidly in the garden, and you reach for the hose. Wait a moment. If you want to be water wise, you might want to reconsider your watering habits.

If you live in a desert, chances are that your water comes from groundwater, underground reservoirs that gradually fill up as rainwater seeps into the ground. In areas with intermittent rain, your water might come from surface sources like large lakes or reservoirs. In either case, saving the water that we do have for areas other than the garden is just plain sensible, especially if your garden is purely ornamental.

In some ways, summer is glory days for plants. They grow abundantly, they reach for the light, they produce fruit and seeds and the garden becomes huge and overgrown. However, summer can also be a challenge for plants because it comes with drought. Can you grow plants in the heat of summer and still be water wise?

Using treated city water in the garden doesn’t make much sense. Storing rain that would have become runoff does. Use a rain barrel. Rain barrels come in apartment size to massive, and some can even be stored under the ground to act as large reservoirs.

Water deeply and less-frequently. Although drooping plants seem to call for the immediate emergence of a hose and a thorough watering, some drooping is normal. Encourage your plants to develop deep root systems by watering them for a long time, rather than spraying each area of the garden for a few minutes. Watch your plants to see how long they can go without watering. Deep root systems help the plant gather water from far beneath the soil, helping it sustain itself without frequent watering.

Water in the morning. This is the time of day when plants are turning to the sun, beginning to make their morning food, and slurping up water with their roots. They need water to make their root. When you water in the early morning, you help your plants grow.

Create shade in your garden. Use hardy, drought-resistant trees if you live in a desert. If you live in a place where there is a summer dry and dormant period, use native trees or well-adapted fruit or nut trees to create shade. Make sure that the trees do not have chemicals that discourage other plants from growing. Spreading deciduous trees love the sun and let dappled sunlight in. Grow plants under and around these trees to conserve water.

Use the contours of the landscape to grow smart. If there is a damp area in your garden, use it to its full advantage by growing the most water-hungry plants there. If your garden is flat, flat, flat, consider adding some contours in the form of swales so that the water will move effectively around your garden.

Grow native plants and those that are adapted to the climatic conditions in your area. This does not mean that you only need to grow cacti. The key is low input: you want a plant that will grow in your garden with very little assistance. Ask around and see what thrives in your environment. Begin by looking at the plants that naturally grow in your area, the successful hybrids of your plants, and the plants that local organic farmers grow with ease.

Weaning ourselves off the infusion of extra water in the summer can be hard, but it’s worthwhile. You can create a durable, low-maintenance garden that will flourish in the heat while the high maintenance gardens around it wilt for want of water. 

Growing Networks, Growing Food: Community Food Security

Food security: it sounds so formal, but the concept is actually very simple. If you can eat fresh and healthy food every day, you are food secure. If you struggle to buy or grow or glean enough food for yourself and your family, you are food insecure.

Increasingly, there is a focus on developing food secure communities. A community has food security when it builds networks to grow, harvest, and share healthy food with everyone. Concerns about peak oil and the growing need for relocalization have given life to the local food movement. Food security is part of the bigger picture of local self-reliance. By growing our own food in our own communities, we increase everyone’s ability to eat healthy local food, now and in the future.

How does food security happen? There are many ways.
•      Creating school and community gardens
•      Growing urban gardens on balconies and rooftops
•      Sharing yard space with your neighbour so that everyone can grow food
•      Growing garden plots in back and front yard gardens
•      Harvesting and gleaning unwanted food and sharing it with those in need
•      Visiting farmers’ markets and building new ones
•      Developing links between farmers and those who eat the food that they grow

You can find resources to strengthen the food security in your neighborhood. As you dig deep into community organizations, you will find that many of them have an interest in food. Seniors’ organizations talk about health and poverty. Organizations for children focus on hot lunch programs. Schools grow community gardens. Gardeners enjoy growing vegetables. All of these local organizations are part of the food security movement in your community, but they might not think of themselves as such. Bringing them together can yield exciting connections and a fusion of ideas that creates new programs and projects in your community.

There are national organizations that can help as well.

The Community Food Security Coalition has an email list that links people across and within communities.
Farm to family and Local Harvest are both databases of farmers and farmers’ markets so that you can discover the produce in your local area.

Why Hunger has a database of community food security projects across the United States.

Slow Food celebrates local food and good, conscious eating.

The American Community Garden Association can help you find a garden near you, where you can grow your own food.

The number of organizations focused on community food security is abundant and growing. If you are starting a community based food security initiative in your area, lean on those with experience and ask them for resources to help you get started. There is a lot of wisdom out there if you know where to look.

It is Getting Warm Yet? It’s Summer - Time for Winter Gardening

It’s summer. While the sun might be sporadic in many places, it’s time to plant your winter garden. Winter garden? Yes, that’s right. Planting a winter garden is a summer time activity, however hot it might be right now. Plants need time and heat to grow, and the heat of summer is the best time to plant a winter garden.

Why plant a winter garden? First of all, because you can. If you love food gardening and you don’t want to stop, you really don’t have to stop. In temperate climates, it’s possible to garden easily all year round by using cloches and cold frames. A cloche is a simple little tent for your vegetables. You can make one out of a glass bottle, an old milk jug, a plastic food container or any other sort of clear plastic or glass material that will be durable in the garden.

Winter gardening is possible even in challenging climates. Yes, there may be a lot of snow in the winter. Do not let this deter you, oh fearless gardener. If you have a deck or a somewhat enclosed area, these are perfect for warmer winter gardening and provide some cover for your plants. If you don’t have a deck, choose an accessible area close to the house and use devices to help your plants survive through the snowy season.

Cold frames are the next step up from cloches. These little shanties for your plants might consist of a window that is propped by a board. The window makes a little greenhouse for a few plants at a time, and the prop lets air and some water in to visit your plants. If you have the means, by all means construct a small greenhouse for your plants. One made out of reused plastic will do. The plants don’t care much about the decor, they just like the heat.

The plants in a winter garden are not going to be the squash and tomatoes of the summer. Plants that only thrive in the heat do not like the winter. However, there are a whole host of greens that just adore cooler weather, and with a little coddling they can be quite content through the cold season. The key is to get them up and growing in the summer and fall so that they are larger and tough when the winter comes. Great winter plants include kale, Swiss chard, Good King Henry, collard greens, beets, parsnips, leeks, and many hardy winter lettuce varieties. Winter gardening calls for some experimental cooking as well, since we’ve forgotten how to cook with many of these delicious winter vegetables.

You can also plant peas and spinach in the summer and aim for a fall crop, as long as you provide them with a bit of shade in the heat of the summer. Row covers can help extend the season of some fall crops because they raise the temperature in the garden bed. Reuse the fabric year after year if you can to conserve resources.

While winter gardening might seem like a practice that is only for hard core gardeners, it is growing in popularity. Try it this year as an experiment. Like any other garden, the winter garden takes a few years of experimentation before you find your groove as a winter gardener.

Local Produce is Fun(gi)

Growing your own? It never looked so good. The grow it locally movement is growing in leaps and bounds, and with it come new trends in urban gardening and foraging. Stinging nettles and dandelions are on the list for foragers in urban areas. Bees in the city and chickens in yards are up next. What’s coming soon: cows in the alleyways? Possibly. However, the next big trend is urban mushrooms.

Fungi are the ultimate in local eating, especially for those of us in northern climes. After all, we’re a little stretched in the winter time, what with the lack of almost any fresh vegetables. Yes, there is the possibility of kale, chard, and collard greens, and there are root vegetables like celery root, turnips, and squash. There are even cold-storage apples and pears for the eating. All right, we’re rich in food, but it would be nice to have something fresh in the winter. This is where mushrooms come in.

Mushrooms are the next cool trend. A little bag of oyster or shitake mushrooms will set you back many dollars at the grocery store. But buy a mushroom log or better yet, some mushroom inoculant for your local garden logs and apartment compost heap and you’re all set to grow your own. Mushrooms can grow indoors or out, in very little space. Best of all for us north-facing gardeners, mushrooms don’t care at all about the light levels in your garden. The less light the better. They are the ideal winter food.

Mushrooms are also nutritious. High in fiber, low in carbohydrates, rich in potassium and selenium. The giant ones make a fabulous burger and the tiny ones make an excellent garnish for a winter kale salad.

How do you grow mushrooms, exactly? Well, there are log-growing mushrooms and there are compost mushrooms. I recommend the log version, since they last for a long time. Mushrooms use the nutrients in their substrate to grow, and logs decompose over years. Add the fungus to its base and keep in a moist environment, and you’re all set.

While mushrooms may not sustain whole cities, they are certainly one small piece of the greater puzzle of urban food security. Small, easy to grow, and simple to harvest, they are yet another step toward self-sufficiency, even if you live in a north-facing apartment and it’s January. And that’s saying something for the fungi.

Growing Soil

It’s spring. The birds are singing, the plants are growing, and at garden stores across the nations there is a run on potting soil and other soil amendments. Everyone is heading out to buy soil.

I confess to buying soil upon occasion, but I also consider soil to be the ultimate do it yourself project. Creating soil is one of the joys of being a gardener. Or rather, inviting the microorganisms, worms, and other soil critters to create your soil is one of the joys, as you’ll rarely see me out in the garden actually making the stuff.

Why create your own soil? Well, it’s a sight better than relying on artificial props to sustain your garden. The fertilizer industry is one that has a nasty energy footprint. In our current system of industrial agriculture, we use three calories of energy to create one calorie of food. How is that efficient? Granted, we can’t eat sunshine like the plants do, but there are efficiencies to be found and many of them lie in creating food using natural processes instead of industrial ones. Nearly half of the energy used to grow food is expended to create fertilizers and pesticides that we spray on our food crops. Energy-wise, this is equivalent to pouring just over five gallons of fuel on each acre of cropland.

Healthy soil can actually act as a carbon sink. Techniques like no-till farming, mulching, and cover crops. Soil is made up of gradually decomposing materials, so it would appear that it would emit more carbon than it contains. While some of the material in top soil decomposes quickly and releases carbon dioxide, much of it also turns into modified carbon that decomposes slowly over time. The key is to keep the carbon in the soil for as long as possible, and that’s what healthy amended soil does. This is the soil with decomposing plants in it, like mulches and all sorts of carbon-rich soil builders.

How do you create healthy soil that will invigorate your garden and sequester carbon too? Use soil amendments if you need to, but make these local and natural. Those who live near farms can use aged manure, while those who live near the ocean can use kelp. Our food scraps can and should turn back into valuable soil as well. Some people place these directly in the garden while others use a worm bin or a garden composter. Whatever the technique, compost adds an immense number of valuable micro-nutrients and microorganisms to the soil.

Regenerative agriculture treats farming and soil as the foundational and life-sustaining activities that they really are. Enough of treating our farmers like lower-class citizens who need to produce products that are cheap and just good enough. Honoring our soil honors the human, animal and plant life on our planet, and it’s good for the atmosphere as well.


Super Green Home: Turf Houses in Norse Era

Talk about a green home! This website documents some ancient turf home reconstructions that date from the Norse Era in Canada and Iceland. The photos are terribly cool and I cannot resist from sharing. But there is also a lesson to be learned here, beyond just how cool a house covered in grass looks.

These ancient houses feature walls built from turf cut straight from the ground. Literally, these homes are built from the ground up, from super local materials, and the structures are made by hand. Looking at traditional homes such as these turf longhouses will enlighten readers about what it is truly like to “build green”.

Before industrialization, it was out of necessity and practicality that houses were built from natural and local materials. Homes were built from what was available and could be worked by hand. There were no lumberyards with fleets of trucks shipping out materials across continents. There were no cranes to lift heavy objects or heavy machinery to dig giant holes. There was only human ingenuity and muscle.

You will note that the Norse used as little lumber as possible in their buildings. That’s because timber was a limited, and thus highly valuable resource, so it paid to be frugal with wood. What was available was turf, and that’s what became walls with some thoughtful consideration. Even the design and arrangement of these buildings suit the occupants’ daily lives.

What would homes in America look like if we did not have access to lumber cut halfway across the country? What if we didn’t have access to synthetic building materials and could only use what the land provided us? Our homes would, by default, be much “greener”, no doubt. It’s interesting to consider, as many builders now do. These “natural” and “green” builders are making such an attempt to build with more local and sustainable materials. And it’s likely many of these builders look to traditional homes for inspiration. For good reason!

Sharing the Urban Jungle

This afternoon, I crept outside in the rain, into the mud that surrounds the yard of my townhouse. I surreptitiously pulled a package of seeds from my pocket and began to plant them just beyond my fence. A line of buckwheat: it will be my first experiment in growing anything akin to a grain.

Like many of those who live in the city, we have a small home with an even tinier backyard. Our garden plot takes up a hefty chunk of that yard, with a little space left over to walk on. However, we do have a substantial path that runs behind our house. This spring I plan to plant blueberry bushes there. Who’s to say that they didn’t grow there by accident?

This sort of surreptitious gardening has a name: guerrilla gardening. It’s all the rage right now, beautifying vacant lots with handfuls of forage, digging beets and potatoes by moonlight. While guerrilla gardening is all the rage, I’m not suggesting that you grow veggies on your neighbor’s land without asking. There is another route, one that I may go for some time soon. That’s yard sharing.

There are many variations on the sharing of urban and suburban space and produce.  Consider Vancouver’s Fruit Tree Project, soon to be replicated in my neighborhood. People who can’t manage their fruit trees sign up to have their fruit picked by volunteers. The volunteers take part of the produce, the owner of the tree takes part, and the rest is donated to charity. Everyone leaves full and happy.

There’s also shared commercial agriculture. In this model, organizations like Seattle’s City Farmer install a garden in your yard and harvest the produce, selling some at local markets and giving some to the homeowner. The land owner gets a peek into urban agriculture, an urban farmer grows a business, and people get to eat local food from the suburbs.

There is also yard sharing, an informally-arranged activity that occurs between neighbors who want to garden or share their land. Web sites like Sharing Backyards promote the sharing of little-used urban lots. Many landowners have vast expanses of grass that they may want to use for agriculture, but they simply don’t have the time to grow food in their yards. Others have a desire to garden, but they don’t have the land. Yard sharing is like a matchmaking program for gardeners. Those who garden on others’ land do need to respect the boundaries of the landowner, but they may also harvest lasting friendships as well as food.

I grew up yard sharing. In the abandoned orchard across the street, we would pick apples from the trees that used to sustain a local family. I would play in the gardens of the families around our neighborhood, most of whom had lovely yards that grew bountiful produce. I wish the same for the children of today. Yard sharing is a path to food security, but it’s also a way to grow community.

Rural Dreams, Urban Living

There’s a debate amongst those of us suburban dwellers who have rural fantasies. We dream of chickens, of eggs, or sheep and spinning our own wool and knitting it into fantastic sweaters. We dream of mornings on the farm, pulling out pristine, dew-covered carrots from the ground and turning the earth. Surely, the reality is different from this. Just as the suburbs are not Leave it to Beaver and urban life is not all Sex and the City, I imagine that rural life is not the pastoral fantasy painted above. Yet it has a definite attraction for we urban and suburban gardeners, we displaced back-to-the-landers.

What’s the controversy, then? Well, there is a debate about rural versus urban and suburban living. Simply put, are humans better off joining together in urban areas, where they can build a complex infrastructure to support themselves? Sewage treatment, transit, and other goodies come with scale, and large numbers of people live in urban areas, not rural ones.

Or is it better to fly solo, or with the help of a few neighbors? Rural living can mean fewer building codes, which can lead to things like cob and straw bale building, passive and active solar design, wind power, and composting toilets. Great stuff, but let’s face it, rural living isn’t there yet. Although many possess a modicum of self-sufficiency, many others still depend on the power grid and less-than-adequate sewage treatment and need to drive long distances to get to stores.

There are some people who love the city and would stay there no matter what. They are deeply fond of their urban gardens and of the challenge of growing food on rooftops and balconies. They thrive on the diversity of thrift stores in the city and the growing connections with rural areas through farmers’ markets. They also love the capacity that city-dwellers have to share: for every person in a city of a million who is interested in learning how to spin or how to make cheese, there are many, many others. The ability to learn from others and to create joint educational opportunities is amazing, due to the scale of the city.

Then there’s the down side of urban life. Urban people don’t have to be cut off from nature, but it can be more challenging to find access to land to grow food in the city as it is presently designed. It’s often harder to get to walking trails surrounded by forest, too. While it’s not impossible to be a city kid who loves nature, it’s often more difficult to connect, especially when it’s so easy to move from home to car to office or school, and then back home again.

The city is a big animal, and it’s hard to shift the habits and thinking of urban dwellers. Yet this is exactly where we need to change, because it’s where the people are and it’s where people are making the greatest impact. Better transportation systems, more reuse and less consumption, and more food self-sufficiency are all critical issues for the urban environment and for ecosystems as a whole.

If those who are environmentally-inclined move to rural areas to pursue their straw bale dreams, does this mean that the city loses its advocates for change? Perhaps, to a degree. But maybe the two feed into each other. These former city-dwellers can reconnect the city to its rural neighbors, providing opportunities for current city-dwellers to develop new skills, eat fresh and local food, and learn about building practices that may not be allowed within city limits. Can urban and rural areas act as complementary inspiration to each other, driving each to more environmentally-friendly and trans-formative practices? I hope that it is so.


The Down and Dirty of It: Rebranding Cloth Diapers, Menstrual Products, and Toilet Paper

Come on, now. You don’t want to talk about it? Why not? It’s not polite? Well then. I have a four-year-old. I can talk toilet with the best of them.

I just finished writing a short “how to” book about cloth diapering. Our daughter was in cloth diapers for most of her babyhood, when she wasn’t learning how to use the potty. You see, we also practiced elimination communication or infant potty training, which means that we watched for her bathroom cues and took her to the toilet from babyhood. This involved a fair number of accidents, but eventually everyone got the hang of it.

Even babies understand when they need to go, and they’re not disgusted by it either. But as we grow older, we learn that some things are private, and what happens below the belt tends to fall into that category. We don’t want to talk about it. We certainly don’t want to interact with anything down there if we don’t have to. We’ll buy manure to place on our vegetable gardens, but when it comes to the bodily excretions of ourselves and our families, we say no way, no how.

It may be due to my background in gardening and environmental education as well as my status as a mom, but poop and blood don’t scare me. Sure, I don’t want to interact with them all day, but they aren’t going to hurt me. I’ll even talk about them. See?

Excretions and secretions are just plain disgusting to many people. Cloth diapers? No way, I’m not putting baby poo in the laundry. Cloth menstrual products and cups fall into this category as well. I’ve been using both for almost fifteen years, yet I still can’t chat with my mother about this. Not that the topic comes up much. The recent trend towards family cloth, or reusable toilet cloth bears mentioning too. Bring it up at the next party you go to and watch most people back slowly into the corner.

In these times of transition, we need to start questioning some of the barriers that we have. This includes questioning our use of disposable products that are created with new materials, use energy in their creation, require energy to dispose of, and create waste when disposed. Many disposable diapers, menstrual products, and toilet paper products are made out of trees that are bleached heavily with chlorine. We use them once, then they are burned or buried. In North America, the average woman will create 300 pounds of waste just from menstrual products alone.

Do we really, truly need to throw something out just because it contains bodily waste? Or can we stride forward with a brave face, put what needs to go into the toilet into the appropriate receptacle, and wash it?

I am a firm believer that promoting, discussing, and gradually using cloth and other reusable products will gradually make them socially acceptable. Maybe not cocktail-party fodder, to be sure, but an acceptable part of everyday society. We’ll stand up and be proud in our Diva cups and cloth pantyliners, toting cloth-bottomed baby, and say to the world that we’re not afraid of getting a little down and dirty. It’s all right, we can handle it.

7 Dangerous Foods That You Should Avoid, the popular personal health website, has a list of seven dangerous foods that you should avoid to lead a healthier lifestyle. Of course, these foods are not the only ones that you should avoid in the supermarket, but they are some of the more dangerous and toxic and some might otherwise seem safe to consume. It is sad that so many foods that line the shelves are so contaminated, but some are much moreso than others, so it’s helpful to know what to absolutely avoid.

Included in this list are canned tomatoes, non-organic potatoes, corn-fed beef, farmed salmon, conventional apples, microwaved popcorn, and milk produced with artificial hormones. Most surprising to me was the inclusion of canned tomatoes:

“The resin linings of tin cans contain bisphenol-A, a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Acidity—a prominent characteristic of tomatoes—causes BPA to leach into your food.”

Dr. Mercola comments on the dangers of BPA:

The current US federal guidelines put the daily upper limit of “safe” exposure at 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. You should know, however, that even low-level exposure to BPA can be hazardous to your health, and Consumer Reports testing found that eating popular canned foods may expose you to excessive amounts of BPA:

  * Del Monte Fresh Cut Green Beans had BPA levels ranging from 35.9 ppb to as much as 191 ppb
  * Progresso Vegetable Soup had BPA levels ranging from 67 to 134 ppb
  * Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup had BPA levels ranging from 54.5 to 102 ppb

Scary stuff. Read the list here and inform yourself about what to avoid the next time you go shopping for food!