Tuesday, January 31, 2006

compost happens

Modern agriculture practices here in the United States of America require incredible fossil fuel inputs to produce the food that feeds us. An often overlooked input is the commercial fertilizers used to provide the nutrients necessary to grow food in this manner.

“Natural gas is a primary ingredient in the production of commercial fertilizer.”

“Nitrogen fertilizer prices have been high for several months now. In some cases, the price has gone up 50 percent or more, but why is it increasing? The price of nitrogen fertilizers is directly related to the price of natural gas.”

"Gas production has peaked in North America," [Exxon]Chief Executive Lee Raymond told reporters at the Reuters Energy Summit.

There are many reasons to learn how to grow your own food. The coming peak in global oil production will cause many problems for the gigantic agrobiz corporations that currently farm a huge percentage of the food we eat and then ship it on average 1,500 miles from the fields where it’s grown to our grocery stores. If you’re interested in the alternative of growing your own food right in your own backyard you will have to be able to provide the necessary nutrients your plants need year after year. As natural gas production continues to decline it will be difficult and expensive to do so if you’re reliant on commercial fertilizer products. So how can you produce the nutrients necessary to grow your crops? One way is to compost.

Do you recycle? For most Americans this means simply separating certain items from the trash they throw away and placing them in another container for garbage collection day. Composting can be just as easy. I am going to discuss several options for using nutrients that already exist in your daily lives as food for your garden.

The key is to break the mindset of linear thinking. Many Americans think in terms of buying what they need, using it and throwing it in the trash. Then the trash collector comes, picks up the waste and takes it to the landfill to be buried in the ground. From the store to the landfill- end of story. The truth is that’s only one option. Recycling is another. Recycling begins to address cyclic patterns that are different from our current linear patterns. You buy and use a product and then return it to be reprocessed and made into a new product. Composting is the recycling of nutrients. It works the same way only it happens at your home. You buy the item and use it, then compost it on your property. Later you add the compost to your garden to help grow food for yourself. If you can separate your cans and bottles into a recycling container you can compost.

The key to successful composting is to make it clean and easy for you and your family. It is necessary to have a separate holding can for the organic materials you use and want to compost. This will reduce the number of trips you make outside to dump your compost material. What sort of material can you compost? Most kitchen scraps can be included. Any vegetable pieces or skins, leftover pasta, stale bread, coffee grinds, tea leaves, banana peels- almost anything that’s made primarily from plant products can be safely and easily composted. In addition egg shells and shrimp shells can be included. It’s not an especially good idea to compost meats or animal waste as these items can attract unwanted critters to your compost pile. There are ways to safely compost these materials but it’s easiest to start simple. So naturally your next question is about keeping kitchen scraps in a can in your home and how to keep it from smelling horrible. The compost storage system in my home does not smell. Here’s my solution.

This small, stainless steel can sits in front of my general trash can. It includes a removal bucket I carry out to the compost pile. It has a lid that stays closed until I step on the pedal allowing me to dump in my scraps without touching anything. It’s small enough to hold several days’ worth of kitchen scraps and contain any odor. Even stylish versions are fairly inexpensive. After I dump the contents I use a hose to rinse out any scraps that stick to the bucket and I scrub it out with an old dish brush every few months. Even with this minimal amount of care it doesn’t cause an aroma problem. A simple solution for slight smells is to add a bit of citrus- a squeeze of lemon juice or a few orange peels just after empting the bucket. The acid keeps the anaerobic bacteria from getting established and causing a stink. We want the bacteria to break down our kitchens scraps but they can wait until we get them outside.

Ok so we’ve solved the problem of temporary indoor storage without obnoxious odors by using our close-top can. What do you do with the material when the bucket fills up? There are two options, simple decomposition and animal processing.

Simple decomposition allows microbial organisms to naturally break down your kitchen scraps into compost. At its simplest you can pile up your material and let the process begin. Chose a sunny location that’s out of the way so it doesn’t interfere with other outdoor activities. Regardless of the size of your pile you may want to contain it so the waste items don’t get scattered all about. A simple setup involves acquiring pallets from your local grocery store. Many food items arrive on pallets and you can usually acquire them for free. Other sources such as hardware stores or shipping companies might also help you find cheap pallets. In truth any scrap wood can be used to create a container for your compost. Your goal is to build a cube roughly 3 feet wide by 3 feet long by 3 feet deep. It should be open on top and it helps to be able to remove one of the sides so as to have access to your compost when it’s finished. A bottom is not necessary. Here’s what your compost container might look like.

Wire mesh looped in a circle also provides an adequate compost container. Make sure the size of the wire openings is appropriate for the small size of your kitchen scrap material.

Some people like to use plastic garbage cans with holes drilled into the sides.

And as usual there are manufactured options.


Remember not to create solid sides because air needs to be able to come in contact with as much of the pile as possible. This will discourage smelly anaerobicbacteria and speed up the process. Anaerobic bacteria thrive only in the absence of oxygen. They tend to produce odors unpleasant to humans, specifically the neighbors you don’t want to annoy. Alternatively aerobic bacteria need oxygen to thrive. These bacteria will also break down your kitchen scraps but won’t stink up the place. This means if you want a clean-smelling compost operation you have to let in air. You can also turn your pile or mix it up every so often to encourage air flow. This will also speed up the process.

These microorganisms also need water. Normal rainfall in most areas should take care of this need but you will want to water the pile if it gets dry, especially if you live in an area that receives little rain. You can buy compost starter that will give your pile a beginning boost but it isn’t necessary. The microorganisms you’re looking for will show up without any help. Again it just speeds things up.

In addition to using kitchen scraps you can compost fallen leaves and grass clippings. These items are often available in large quantities at certain times of the year. They can help you build up a hefty amount of compost in a hurry. The leaves are mostly carbon and the grass clippings and kitchen scraps are mostly nitrogen. Both are necessary to promote a healthy compost pile. You’re looking for a ratio of about 25 to 1 or 25 times as much carbon as nitrogen. It’s easier to think in terms of brown and green. Most compostable material that is brown in color is made up of carbon. Most of the compostable material that is green in color is made up of nitrogen (this also includes kitchen scraps). Think more brown and less green. Weeds with seeds and large branches are to be avoided however. If your pile isn’t balanced with the above ratio don’t worry, it will still break down it might just take longer. This does mean though that you can turn a whole lot of leaves into wonderful food for your garden with just a little bit of kitchen waste. I’ll avoid giving more specific directions because trial and error are unavoidable and irreplaceable as teaching tools. I’ll get you started. Write me if the stuff doesn’t rot.

There is another option for recycling your food scraps into compost. You can let animals do the work for you. The advantages are faster composting and reduced piles of kitchen scraps lying around. The disadvantage can be that you will have to take care of these additional members of your homestead. There are several species ready to assist you.

Worms. You can use worms to eat your leftover food and quickly turn it into worm castings, a wonderful compost for your garden. The term is called vermiculture.

A system like this can be used indoors or out with almost no odor. You place food scraps in the top and the worms eat them turning the waste into castings that fall through into the lower chamber for your use in the garden. Any extra worms can be added to your garden or used by fishermen. Red worms, European night crawlers or even meal worms can be used to quickly process your compost. My meal worms live outdoors.

By the way, the chickens love meal worms as a treat. Speaking of which…

Chickens. They can also be used to process kitchen scraps. I previously discussed chickens as a way to create compost here. In short you feed the chickens your leftover food and rake up their manure. You must allow the chicken manure to sit or cure for a while or it will burn your plants. The only animal whose manure you can use immediately is…

The Rabbit. Rabbits eat greens and other kitchen scraps and produce round droppings that can but put directly into the garden to nourish your plants. Too many meals of straight greens may cause problems with the digestive tracts of rabbits. It’s not wise to feed them strictly food scraps without also providing them rabbit pellet food. I’ll save more on raising and caring for rabbits for another post.

Integrated systems exist for using multiple animals to more completely and quickly process waste food. Often rabbits are fed scraps and then rabbit manure is fed to chickens or to worms for further processing. This sort of discussion however is beyond the scope of this introductory article. For more check this out.

Whether you’re interested in using worms to compost your waste out of curiosity, looking to close some of the loops of wasteful linear patterns so prevalent in our society or just searching for a way to provide the nutrients your new garden requires, composting is easy. You should give it a try. It's just this easy.

North Carolina Composting

Introduction to Composting

Master Composter!

Composting with Children

Composting in Schools

The Composting Association

Composting with Worms from the City Farmer

Friday, January 27, 2006

chickens feed me

How many of you have always wanted chickens? Maybe those of you who live in urban or suburban areas here in the United States have never really considered keeping a small flock of fowl right on your own property. Stop and ask yourself whether you’ve never considered the idea because you don’t really want anything to do with chickens or because you thought it wasn’t possible where you live? If it’s the latter you can toss out the notion that keeping chickens in town isn’t possible. It is very possible and you can start raising your own poultry as soon as you’d like.

Chickens can provide:

Hormone-free and antibiotic-free eggs(a wonderful source of protein) that taste better and are healthier than store bought eggs

Fertilizer for the garden in the form of manure from composted kitchen scraps.

Pest control of insects and grubs.

An excellent source of healthy meat for your table.

Wonderful companions.

For several years I fondly looked forward to the day when I could move to a home outside of the city where I could do all the things I’ve want to do for so long. With more room I could garden, grow fruit trees, start a compost pile and yes, raise chickens. Then one day I discovered something most recently phrased quite eloquently.

“wherever we go, the city, the country, the moon, we take ourselves with us. there is no heaven. i used to fantasize about living in a healthier place, one where i could ride my bike, for example. then, one day, i started riding my bike. now, without having fled or escaped to anywhere, i live in a place where i can ride my bike.” – heretic fig

And if he likes he can live in a place where he raises his own chickens. Chickens are incredibly easy to care for. I got my inspiration for raising urban chickens from Katy Skinner over at The City Chicken. She has put together a great site that not only answers most of the questions urban citizens might have concerning raising chickens in the city but she’s also got a gallery of chicken tractor photography that’s bound to inspire you to raise your own. This by the way is a chicken tractor, but we’ll get to housing in a bit.

First it’s necessary to understand hens and roosters. Aren’t chickens loud most people ask? The answer is that the boy chickens (Roosters) are loud. They crow, especially early in the morning and are sure to annoy neighbors close by. I would not suggest raising roosters. Many municipalities don’t allow it anyway. Girl chickens (Hens) don’t make much noise. They do coo and occasional squawk when they get excited or are chased but on average they make much less noise than a dog. Some municipalities have adopted standardized zoning regulations that don’t allow livestock of any kind to be raised inside of the city limits. There are three approaches to dealing with this fact of location. The first is to lobby for a change in the law. The second is to attempt to acquire a personal variance. The third is to respectfully approach your neighbors with your intentions and if there are no objections quietly set up your chickens. A small flock of 3 or 4 hens will probably go unnoticed even in urban areas.

The next question most people ask is about how I get eggs if I don’t have any roosters. The answer is that chickens lay eggs regardless of whether or not there is a male around to fertilize the egg. The vast majority of the eggs you purchase in at the grocery store are unfertilized. If given some thought most people prefer the idea of eating an unfertilized egg.

Housing for your flock can be accomplished by building a chicken tractor (or chicken ark in the UK) a mobile, bottomless cage system that works well for housing your chickens. This will contain and protect your chickens while providing them with a humane and even enjoyable home. Chickens need a minimum of about 2 square feet of covered area to protect them from the elements. If you want eggs it’s best to provide a nesting box for the chickens to lay eggs in. They will make their own nest in the absence of a box. They may even lay their eggs out in the open but I think they appreciate the box. Chickens need at least 8 square feet of outdoor area. Technically they can survive completely indoors. This is how they’re raised in commercial operations. But I think you will have happier chickens if they get a little running room. They love to scratch and strut. Even in an urban environment chickens do face threats in the form of predators. Neighborhood dogs, raptors and even raccoons. The chicken tractor helps to ensure their safety. And they come in all shapes and sizes.

They even come in fashionable varieties.

Most people don’t realize chickens can fly. If you don’t provide them a home to sleep in at night they will often fly up into the safety of nearby trees. These trees may or may not be on your property. This could cause conflict with neighbors and is another reason to provide your chickens with a home. You can clip their wings to keep them grounded. This is accomplished by spreading one wing and cutting off the ends of the feathers. You don’t cut back very far so it doesn’t hurt the chicken. It just throws off the balance of flight and causes the chicken to crash if it tries to take to the air. Regardless of how permanent or how mobile you make you chicken housing structure it’s a good idea to provide the chickens their own abode.

You will need to provide your flock with a supply of water. The container will need to be cleaned periodically. A helpful hint is to tie the water container several inches above the ground. This will keep debris from flying into the water as the chickens scratch about. That means you’ll only have to scrub it when you change the water- once a week or so depending on the weather. I keep an old dish scrub brush next to the outdoor faucet for this purpose. You will also need to supply your chickens with food. Chickens will eat just about anything from your kitchen. They love table scraps and unlike dogs they prefer veggies. I feed them leftovers (they love spaghetti, think worms) and also any sort of grain or fruit I discard. Chickens are omnivores and will eat meat. I’ve watch them chase and eat crickets. They also love to scratch for grubs and bugs. They’re a great addition to the pest control division of my garden. I do refrain from feeding them leftover chicken. I bet they’d eat it but it just doesn’t seem right. I do mix their table scraps with feed I purchase from a farm supply store especially in the winter. I mix it myself to include chicken pellet feed, scratch grains and a small amount of crushed oyster shells. Sometimes I put it in a food container designed for chickens. Often though I just spread it on the ground in their outdoor area. They seem to enjoy scratching through their food.

All in all they work well as an excellent way to rapidly compost the organic material coming out of my kitchen. The manure the chickens generate is excellent fertilizer for the garden. Chicken droppings must be composted before they are used in the garden. If not they’ll burn the plants. I accomplish this by using a layer of leaves collected in the fall to line the interior of their structure’s outdoor area or chicken run. During the fall, winter and early spring I leave the chicken tractor in roughly the same spot. Every so often I rake up all the leaves, chicken poop and loose soil from the chicken run. I pile this material in a sunny spot and let it compost, replacing the layer of leaves in the chicken tractor. By time I’m ready to plant my garden I‘ve got excellent compost.

I do let the chickens roam loose in the backyard when I’m around, especially in the warmer months when there’s plenty of grass and insects for them to eat. During this time of year they mainly feed themselves during their “pasture time”. I do have a fence that encloses most but not all of my property. We do get the occasional animal that wanders into the area but the chickens are quick to run to their home at the first sign of danger and I seldom leave them to wander if I’m not close by. Rarely do I find the chickens venturing more than 100 feet from their home. As it gets dark I don’t even have to round them up. They make their way back to their tractor all on their own.

Chickens do need protection in the form of shade from hot summer days. The amount you provide will depend on your climate. Likewise you will need to provide a heat source in the winter if you live in a cold region of the globe. Chickens do fine down to the freezing point. At that temperature they can experience frost bite. My rule of thumb is to supply heat in the form of a light bulb to ensure the interior of their home never falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The light seems to help promote winter season egg laying.

Chickens will begin laying eggs 4 and 8 months after hatching depending on the breed. During the first year of egg laying the chickens will be most prolific, laying almost one egg per day in prime circumstances. This does depend again on the breed. There are many different types of chickens. Do some investigating to determine which you would like to raise. There are even dwarf chickens or bantams that are smaller and therefore more appropriate for undersized backyards.

I must mention the Avian bird flu. It has not shown up in migratory birds here in North America. The virus spreads from wild fowl to domestic birds through interaction and then spreads to humans through direct contact. IT CAN BE EASILY AVOIDED by not allowing your birds to come into contact with wild, migratory birds. For most urban or suburban dwellers this is easy to do. I have never had a flock of wild geese land in my yard. The chicken tractor would ensure that the already unlikely contact between my birds and wild fowl doesn’t occur. The second layer of precaution is proper handling of the birds. Recently children in the country Turkey were infected with Avian flu after playing with severed chicken heads. This is not a good idea. In fact it’s smart not to handle your birds very often and to always wash your hands thoroughly after contact with them. The chances of getting sick because you raise chickens are minuscule. Most of what is covered in the mass media is fear mongering but you probably know that already.

I don’t cover the butchering of chickens to provide a meat source because I am a vegetarian and don’t have any experience in the matter. The resources provided at the end of this post will make available that information.

To end on a lighter note I’d like to briefly discuss brooding chicks. This is an exciting experience as you bring home your baby chicks and care for them until they’re ready to live outdoors in the home you provide. Spring is a good time of year to acquire your chicks as they are extra susceptible to cold until they grow fully formed feathers. You can inquire locally at farm supply stores. Some will sell chicks usually around Easter. If not they may know of local sources maybe even local farmers who will sell or trade for chicks. You can also buy them from hatcheries by mail order. The biggest problems will be the minimum purchase most companies require. Most backyard chicken owners don’t need 30 chickens! Persistence will award you with a reliable source. Many suppliers will be unable to tell you if you are purchasing hens or roosters. If this is the case you should plan on 50% of each. Make plans ahead of time on how you will humanely handle your roosters if you can not keep them. Often you may find people further out of town willing to adopt your roosters. Try Freecycle for giving them away as well. Before you get your little darlings home you’ll want to have their temporary home set up. You’ll need to get a container, the large Tupperware type works well. Use newspaper as a lining. This will allow you to clean up droppings easily. Some people have mentioned problems with wet newspaper sticking to the chicks but I haven’t had this problem. Next you’ll need a light bulb that you can adjust so it hangs lower or higher. A stronger bulb works better and have a spare on hand. You’ll need a container for food and a container for water. You can purchase metal containers for each purpose that screw on to regular mason jars. These work best at keeping the chicks and chick poop out of food and water. You can as always improvise. Special chick food can be purchased from your chick supplier, a feed store or online. While you’re buying get some chick grit. This will supply the chicks with the small stones they need to aid in digestion. Bring the chicks home as soon as possible if shipped by mail. Adjust the height of the bulb, their heat source. If it’s too low the chicks will get hot and move away from the bulb. If it’s too high the chicks will get cold and cheeep (complain) from underneath the bulb. You should start at 90 degree Fahrenheit and decrease the temperature by 5 degrees each week. The chicks will let you know (cheeep cheeep!) if you mess up. After about 6 weeks they’ll have most of their feather (depending on breed) and can be moved to an outdoor home depending on the weather and how weatherproof you’ve built their permanent home. A final note, be sure to check the chicks for poop build up on their underside. They can “paste up” and block waste removal. This can cause obvious problems.

baby Ubie

All in all I think those willing to try raising backyard chickens will be please with the experience. What a wonderful way to provide food for yourself, fertilizer for you garden, pest control for your yard and to enjoy the company of intelligent and amusing creatures.

Best of luck.

The City Chicken
Chicken Encyclopdeia
Mad City Chickens
The Urban Chicken
Organic Living The Urban Chicken Part Three
Backyard Chickens
McMurray Hatchery
Brown Egg Blue Egg List of Hatcheries
Show Your Pride Urban Chicken Farmers!

Monday, January 23, 2006

real oil crisis

Catalyst, the Australian weekly news program that covers science-related stories, has produced a 13 miunte video that introduces and explains Peak Oil in an informative and thoughtful way. It is well worth your time. The best aspect of the video is that it thoroughly explains the most confusing statement usually associated with Peak Oil.

This short documentary says, "So if we’ve found nearly all the world’s oil, how long before it runs out? Surprisingly, that’s not so important. The real question is when will we reach half way – it’s known as 'peak oil'."

Peak Oil does not mean we're running out of oil. It means we are reaching the halfway point of oil production. It means we have used half of the oil available in existence on this planet. When the average citizen hears about Peak Oil for the first time he or she usually comments, "We're not running out of oil", and they're right in a sense. There is a great deal of oil still left in the ground.

Another way of thinking about it though is that we've been running out of oil since the day we fist began pumping it. There is a limited amount of oil under the surface of our planet. Imagine for a second that you pour yourself a glass of water. As soon as you begin to drink you are using up your limited amount of water. If you drink very slowly your glass of water might last a long time but eventually, unless you stop drinking, you will use up all your water. Oil, like the water in your glass, is a finite resource. If we continue to use it we will one day run out.

But Peak Oil is not about the day we run out of oil. Peak Oil defines the point at which we have removed half of the oil available to us. From that point on the amount of oil we produce globally each year will decline. We will have pumped all of the easy to access oil from the Earth and it will take increasing amounts of time and energy to pump out the rest.

Catalyst reporter Jonica Newby says "When oil is first pumped, it’s under pressure and comes out easily – production rises. But over time, oil pressure drops. Water is pumped in to maintain pressure. At the half way point, it reaches peak oil, and then-"

So what's the big deal you say? If we've used only half of what's available then there is still plenty left, and that statement is correct. The problem is that consumption of oil increases every year as our economies and populations grow in size. As soon as less oil is available each year this growth will slow and then stop and reverse course. Less oil means less energy and less energy means less of lots of the things we here in America and in many other parts of the world have become accustom to.

Near the end of the video the reporter interviews Eric Streitberg, Managing Director of ARC Energy. "Earlier this year, Eric asked an extraordinary question at the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association conference. Eric asked them to put up their hands if they thought that we had reached peak oil. Fifty percent of the people in the audience put up their hand saying that they believe we’re at peak oil and these are practicing petroleum industry professionals. So what if they’re right?"

How would you like to be the one to tell the next generation of the citizens of this planet that they will have to make do with less? This video might be a good way to start.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

i feed me

I mentioned in a previous post that I was interested in writing about some hands on ideas concerning self reliance. The peak in global oil production will necessitate a relocaliztion concerning the things we need and use. It doesn’t get more local than your backyard so just how can you produce more of what you need at your very own home. This is the first in a number of postings I have planned on topics including basic ways you can take responsibility for your own needs. I will cover a number of focus areas including the basics we all require: water, food, shelter, clothing, energy, transportation, and communication. This is not a closed list. Please feel free to request specific topics of interest.

How many of you are old enough to remember Victory Gardens? I remember the PBS television show The Victory Garden originally hosted by Jim Crockett, but not World War II or the back yard gardens that war necessitated. Originally victory gardens sprung up out of a sense of civic pride and a need for self sufficiency. I find it interesting that the Federal Government didn’t immediately endorse the program but warmed to the idea when it recognized the amount of food Americans were able to produce for themselves. In 1943 there were about 20 million Victory Gardens, or personal home gardens, producing more than 30% of the vegetables grown in America and more than 70% of the vegetables eaten by those on the home front. That’s a lot of food!

These days the average food item we eat travels more than 1,500 miles to get to us. Chances are most of those food items aren’t vegetables either. Our current commercial agricultural system requires heavy inputs of fertilizers made from natural gas and pesticides produced from petroleum. It also relies heavily on diesel fuel to power irrigation pumps, tractors, combines, and other modern farm machinery. This is followed by a trip to the processing plant where corn becomes corn chips and wheat becomes wheat thins. Then there’s the final journey mentioned above from the far-flung factory to the grocery store you reach by driving your car. After peak oil the world will produce fewer barrels of oil (our energy lifeblood) each year. Have you ever given any thought to the effect peak oil will have on your access to food? A quick glance at the first part of this paragraph should have provided you a vague notion. If you’d like to explore the implications further you should read, “The Oil We Eat”, an article from Harper’s Magazine Feburary 2004.

So how can we go about once again raising our own food right in our own backyard. It’s not as hard as you might think. Below are some of the basic considerations you should make followed by some of the principle practices of Biointensive gardening that might increase your yield and reduce your labor load.

Select a sunny spot. Most vegetables require more than 6 hours of full sun during the day to produce a bountiful crop. Be sure to take into account the shade of buildings or trees.

Select a well drained location. While vegetables like water, few will tolerate standing water. Make sure excess water can drain away after a heavy rain.

Choose fertile, friable soil. This means selecting soil that breaks apart easily and is rich in organic material. Good soil has an unmistakable smell that even inexperienced gardeners can recognize.

Check with local sources including county and state agricultural extension offices, nurseries, farm and feed stores, and even local farmers to ask about what grows best and when to plant it.

Start small. Nothing will destroy your enthusiasm more than planting a huge garden you are unable to keep up with. Begin with a modest amount of land under cultivation and grow your garden in size each year.

Try perennials as well as annuals. Annual crops must be planted every year to produce food. These include tomatoes, potatoes, corn and carrots, etc. These foods are excellent candidates for your garden but don’t forget about the plants that come back every year on their own. Fruit trees like peaches, pears, apples and plums as well as nut tress like pecans and almonds will grow year after year. Berry bushes like, Raspberry and blueberry bushes do not need to be replaced annually. We call these plants perennials. They also include strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus and many more.

Plan your garden. Decide what you’re going to plant, how much room you have and sketch out a plan of where to put each vegetable. Remember not to plant tall vegetables like corn where they will shade shorter ones. Also plant early vegetables like lettuce and spinach together so that when they’re done for the season you can replace the entire area with other vegetables that thrive later in the year.

Keep good records. Write down notes about which vegetables and varieties you plant. Keep track of when you plant them and when you harvested them. Make sure and record problems you encountered and improvements you think possible the following year. This may seem like a waste of time to those of you beginning to garden but this information will prove invaluable in the future. Not to mention it will give you better results faster.

Consider security. There are plenty of unwelcome critters that might like to visit your garden and even eat your vegetables. Be aware of the types of animals that visit your potential garden area and take steps to limit their access.

Don’t be afraid of the front yard. Plant vegetables where ever conditions are favorable. Front yards, especially those with large areas of grass are often well suited to vegetable gardens. Don’t dismiss these areas because of tradition.

Mulch with leaves. This is an excellent way to reduce the amount of water you’ll need for irrigation. It will also almost eliminate your need for weeding. That’s right I said almost no weeding! Spread out a layer of 1 - 2” of leaves from last fall over your garden after your plants are at least 3 inches tall. You will be amazed and you can turn the leaves into the soil next fall when you put your garden to bed for the winter.

Start composting yesterday. Begin a program of recycling kitchen waste as well as fallen leaves and grass clippings. This cyclic system of returning nutrients to your soil is the lifeblood of a good garden. The material will take a while to break down and provide nutirents so start today.

Biointensive Gardening goes farther towards utilizing the natural systems in your garden to maximize your production. Here are a few techniques you should consider.

Double Digging your garden bed. Instead of just turning over a few inches of soil to prepare for your vegetables, dig down and break up the soil at least 24” to allow for greater drainage and to give your vegetables room to grow extensive root systems for water and nutrient uptake. This will also allow you to work compost or other organic materials deeper into the soil. You can achieve this 24” of loose soil in part by building raised beds. This means using timber, bricks, stones or even logs as walls to hold up soil above the existing grade.

Intensive Planting. Instead of placing each individual plant a considerable distance from the next plant in a row spaced far apart from the next row, crowd the plants closer together. Alright don’t “crowd” them together but place them close enough so that the leaves of the mature plants will just touch. This will shade the soil below encouraging moisture retention and eliminating the sunlight necessary for weeds to begin growing. Spacing distances will vary by vegetable. I’ll provide resources at the end for estimating spacing distances.

Companion Planting. Some vegetables grow better when grown near certain other vegetables. Beans for instance grow better near strawberries. They are companion plants. However, Beans and onions do not grow well together and are best kept farther apart. Some companion plants take advantage of each other in more tangible ways. Beans and corn for instance have an obvious symbiotic relationship. As the corn ears begins to ripen, plant beans at the base of each stalk. The beans will use the stalk as a trellis on which to climb. The beans will also fix nitrogen from the air into the soil replacing the nitrogen used by the corn.

Carbon Farming. Up to 60% of the garden should be considered for crops that produce not only food for consumption in the form of seeds or fruits but also a large amount of carbon material in the form of stalks and foliage that can be turned back into the soil to improve its character and encourage the positive microbial community that is a part of the ecological system in the soil. Corn for instance produces a lot of carbon.

Calorie Farming. Up to 30% of the garden should be considered for crops that offer high yields of calorie intensive harvests. Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, and Turnips are a few of the crops that will provide a large number of the calories in a small space.

Use of Open-Pollinated Varieties. This means moving away from hybrid varieties. It is a commitment to genetic diversity and keeps gardeners from relying on specialty plants to produce food from the garden. It’s best to begin with the basics and that includes understanding how non-hybrid plants react to in your specific environment.

Understanding the Whole Garden. A productive garden is not simply a math equation 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. It is a complex system of interconnected cycles and species. This is not to be feared or dreaded. It is a coordinated structure that takes time to understand but will reveal itself if you pay attention to everything at work on your little plot of land. You’ll learn faster than you think.

If I could only keep one book on gardening it would be “How to Grow More Vegetables: And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine” By John Jevons. It’s a really long title but it’s an excellent book and you can pick up a used copy for less than $15.00. It is invaluable.

Below is a list of references including information on general gardening, the Biointensive method, seed catalogs and much more. This spring try planting at least a few of your own vegetables. It’s a rewarding experience that might lead to a life less dependent on modern commercial farming and its petroleum inputs that are destine to decline in the near future. Get ahead of the curve!

Victory Gardens:


Homeland Security


Growing Vegetables in the Home Garden

Garden Planning

Small Space Gardening

Container Gardening

Garden Mulching Questions and Answers

Biointensive Method:


Mother Earth News Article

Leap Frog
Seed Sources:

Anioleka Seed Company

Heirloom Seeds

Vermont Bean Seed Company

Seeds of Change

Pinetree Garden Seeds

Territorial Seed Company

Totally Tomatoes


Path to Freedom (6,000 lbs. + of vegetables on 1/10th of an acre!)

Friday, January 13, 2006

2006 trends

From USA Today

The Trends Research Institute releases its "Top Trends 2006" Thursday, the 15th report of its kind from the upstate New York-based social, economic and political trend forecasting think tank. Despite favorable predictions for labor unions and environmental concerns, Americans are headed for a culturally and economically dismal time next year if these predictions are on the money.

One surprising trend, says research institute director Gerald Celente, is that this generation is looking back in time for inspiration, a backlash against the poor quality of recent movies and music. "When the baby boomers were growing up," he says, "they didn't look back to the past — the politicians, the actors, the music — for guidance or to find their own voice." But this generation is finding "heroes in Lennon and Dylan. This is a first in American history."

Other predicted trends:
• The survival business will boom for the first time since the Cold War as Americans perceive their government as incapable of protecting them from terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

• Technology will continue to empower self-reliant, "off the grid" survivalists, who will seek to avoid payment of fuel, water, electricity and telephone bills.

• Citizen-driven movements for states to break away from the union will arise.

• Global sales of products "made in the USA" will suffer after media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which greatly damaged the world's view of the United States.

• Online TV, the ultimate in media convergence, will signal the decline of the communication industry's monopoly on broadcast news and entertainment.

• Real estate values in rural areas will continue to rise as it becomes fashionable to downsize from mega-mansions to log cabins.

• Entertainment that pokes fun at the consumption habits of the wealthy elite will become popular as reality TV's projection of "real life" becomes increasingly inaccurate.

• A new American labor movement will boost union power for workers in the lowest strata of the U.S. economy.

• Hometown economies will benefit as fuel costs soar and consumers become less willing to drive farther to do their errands; if a pandemic such as bird flu hits, people will patronize local merchants to avoid crowds.

• Discovering reliable new sources of alternative energy will be the primary drive in science and invention.

• Americans will address environmental concerns such as global warming, food safety and recycling.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

portentous march or thougthful response?

I wonder just how far Americans might go to protect the non-negotiable way of life Dick Cheney talks about. Will we kill innocent civilians to protect our ability to continue this materialistic way of life? Will we steal natural resources from other countries to feed our ravenous appetite for energy? Will we send our sons and our daughters to die for fuel for our over-sized vehicles? Will we mortgage their futures to pay for the assault? Will we degrade the planet to an uninhabitable status so that we can continue, if only for a short time, to consume as much as we can?

These questions weigh on me this morning as I read about an upcoming event that could have serious implications for our future.

"On March 20th, 2006, Iran is planning to open an International Oil Bourse (market) for the express purpose of trading oil priced exclusively in Euros. The world currently does all oil trades in US dollars, commonly referred to as the petro-dollar. Introducing an alternative currency that directly competes against the US dollar will facilitate many global economic changes."

Article Here

How will we respond? How have we responded previously?

Couldn't we choose a different path?


I do not believe most Americans are willing to except endless war as the price for continued "prosperity". There will be some, perhaps many that will say we should fight to the death over oil, that our way of life is non-negotiable. But I think faced with an honest explanation of a future based on oil dependency the vast majority of Americans would consider that idea insanely stupid. What we need is the truth about the finite resource that has created this artificial reality so far removed from the laws of nature. We need, as a community, to begin to understand that the laws of physics make continuation of this fantasy an impossibility. What we must reach for is a "graceful end to cheap oil" and transition in that direction. I don't think I'm alone.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


Several People have asked me what steps they might personally take as a global peak in oil production looms on the horizon. I thought I'd take a Several minutes this morning and write down a few suggestions.

1. Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about what's going on in the world around you especially as it pertains to Peak Oil. Peak Oil used to be dismissed as a discussion amongst doomsayers. It is however being more widely recognized as an actual phenomenon due to occur now or in the near future. There is plenty of information available on the internet. Don't take any individual perspective, including mine, as undeniable truth. You'll be amazed at how much of what's going on geopolitically, commercially, financially, etc. makes more sense once you examine it through this lens. One great tool I've taken advantage of is the ability to download audio from sites like Global Public Media. I can listen while working at my computer or burn to disk and listen in the car. The more you know the more prepared you'll be as changes unfold.

2. Get out of debt. Anyone who has watched the price of oil triple since 2001 will understand that a peak in global oil production will hurt the economies of both the United States and the rest of the world. Remember the U.S. economy is predicated on growth and if the amount of available energy shrinks so will our economy. This pain will be especially acute during the initial onset as panic and fear replace logic as the peak arrives. The less you owe others the better off you'll be as the markets scramble to sort themselves out. For an additional discussion on financially preparing for Peak Oil check out Bubba.

3. Sell your high gas mileage vehicle. As the price of gasoline increases you don't want to get caught with a V8 engine that gets 16 miles to the gallon. It will be increasingly expensive to drive and impossible to sell. More fuel efficient vehicles will be in great demand and lines to purchase them will be long.

4. Examine your proximity to the necessities. How far do you live from your place of business? How about the nearest grocery store? Your child's school? The hospital? Could you get around on foot or on a bike? Do you have a bike? What about mass transit stops near you? Examine your alternatives to driving.

5. Spread the word. If you're convinced or even moderately concerned about how Peak Oil will affect you and your family, share this concern with others. I expect you'll be surprised at how many other people are waking up the realization that our current western lifestyles won't continue to increase materialistically forever. Go further if you'd like and host a screening of the End of Suburbia. How about informing your government representatives and officials. If they don't know they need to, especially on a local level.

6. Lastly, choose hope not fear. Long-term fear is disabling. It's great when you need to flee from a fire but not so helpful when considering appropriate responses to crisis. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself." And as my new friend in Leeds put it, "We live by hope." The future will be what we make of it.

Friday, January 06, 2006

a difference of opinion

The difference in the philosophies of the Ford Motor Company and General Motors forecasts big trouble for one of them. You guess which one.

"Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford summed up what other executives have also said: 'We know that the days of unlimited, inexpensive gasoline are over, and we are planning our product lineups accordingly.'"

Ford Article

"GM historically has dominated the large end of the SUV market with its Suburban, Tahoe and Yukon models, but sales of all three have tumbled this year, including a 26 percent drop for the Suburban. GM executives acknowledge that concern over fuel prices has played a role but say the main reason is the models have gotten stale and consumers are anticipating a major redesign. “The bottom line for us is the utility market remains the largest category in the industry,” said Paul Ballew, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis. 'We are anticipating we will maintain our share of a stable market that is still very profitable.'"

GM Article

I added the emphasis but one thing’s for sure, the oil market over the next few years will be anything but stable.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

high mileage vehicles not possible?

Yes they most certainly are. I just finished reading an article on the subject.

"Ever heard of the Ford Fiesta that gets 45mpg in the city and 60mpg on the highway? Not familiar with the Volkswagen Lupo with a combined city/highway rating of 53.5mpg? Don't remember a car salesman ever offering you a test drive in a GM Opel/Vauxhall Tigra that does better than 60mpg on the open road? Never been passed by the sleek BMW 5 Series Saloon that gets 50mpg on the highway? You are far from alone. According to new research by 40mpg.org/Civil Society Institute, these are just a few of the 86 or more car models that get a combined rating of 40mpg or better ... but are not sold in the U.S..."

"Nine out of 10 Americans (88 percent) say that 'U.S. consumers should be able to get the best of the more fuel-efficient vehicles that already are available in other countries,' according to a new Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) national opinion poll..."

"At least 86 vehicles not for sale in the U.S. achieve combined city/highway fuel efficiency of 40mpg or better. Of these, 65 percent (51) are made by either U.S. auto manufacturers (e.g., Ford and GM) or foreign manufacturers with substantial U.S. sales operations (e.g., Volkswagen, Nissan and Toyota). "

Read the entire article here

You might also want to spin over to 40mpg.org

Don’t get me wrong, I think driving less is the best long-term solution. It makes great sense to build healthy, safe, walkable communities that mix uses and don’t require car dependency. As we transition back to that model however we must remember that anyone who tells us we don't have the technology to build cars with better fuel efficiency is either lying or uneducated on the matter.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

christian peak oil perspective from the u.k.

I have enjoyed reading Elizaphanian and thought I'd pass it along. Here's a joke from his site I found amusing.

Three men are shipwrecked and washed up on a desert island, a physicist, an engineer and an economist. Once they have dried out and come to their senses, rubbed the salty grime from their eyes and looked up at their surroundings, they see that there isn’t much on their island. Lots of rocks, the occasional palm tree, a passing bird, and – miracle of miracles – a crate of tinned food. But!.. no tin opener.

Each man comes up with a way of getting the food out of the tins, appropriate to their training.

The physicist says “I know from my study of the law of gravity that if I climb that tree and drop rocks onto the tin, that the force exerted will be sufficient to split the tins, and then we can eat the food.”

The engineer says, “No, no, I’ve got a much better idea. If we use the branches of the tree as a lever we can swing rocks against the tins, and that will make things much more accurate.”

Then the economist joins in: “Hold on a second. First, let’s assume that we have a tin opener…”