Thursday, February 26, 2009

a large farm in small pieces

OK let's take a look at an existing parcel of land and do a bit of planning with the end goal of a working homestead that produces not only most of what the residents need and want but also produces extra to generate income. This particular parcel is made up of open land that was formerly farmed shown in yellow-green and areas of existing forest shown in dark green. You can see the existing residence and detached garage at the end of the driveway that connects them to the road.

Moving forward I've removed the colour that indicates which area is open space and which are is existing forest but I've left the outline of the forest so we can keep an eye on it during the planning process.

There are several locations that lend themselves to becoming ponds for water cleansing and storage as well as a place to raise fish, frogs and other protein sources and to serve as habitat for all the animals living on this and the surrounding properties. Pond and stream construction will be a major undertaking so it's best to locate these early in the process and to do this work as soon as possible.

Next I've highlighted areas to remain as existing forest areas. These will serve as habitat for animals and plants and also as a sustainable fuel source for home heating and cooking. They can also be sustainably foraged. One area at the northern edge of the parcel is shown as a reforestation project.

The next image shows tree replacement in several previously forested locations in the form of two different types of orchards. Near the residence you can see row orchards with fruit trees. These will also have cover crops grown under that trees and will serve as a place to pasture poultry. The mixed orchards shown further from the residence will contain a more varied selection of trees including maples for syrup, oaks for acorns, fruit and nut trees and hardwoods for lumber. This mixed orchard will be more intensively managed than the areas left as existing forest but will not be clear cut and replanted all at once. Old trees will be cut for lumber for construction projects on the property and for fuel and new trees will be phased in. The end goal is a managed forest that is not as natural as the native mature forests of this part of the country but not as non-natural as the row orchards.

Certain areas are fenced in and will serves as rotating pastures for cows, sheep, goats, poultry and llamas. I have always wanted llamas.

Row crops will be grown between the main residence and several new residences and out buildings shown below. The main circulation paths are also shown below. Notice how most of the row crops, new structures and pasture areas are outside the outline of the existing forest.

The final plan tries to consider the needs of those humans who inhabit the site as well as the other plants and animals that share this parcel of land. It has a diversity of ecosystems making it a more flexible, adaptable homestead.

top ten new garden suggestions

1. Don't plant too much. Inevitably you will plant too much. I will too but at least if you try not to plant too much you won't plant waaay too much and find yourself harvesting squash in the dark or asking your in laws to fly from out of state to help you weed. They already think you're crazy enough don't they?

2. Plant your first garden close by. Try to plant your new garden in a location you'll see regularly or better yet walk past everyday. This might be outside your kitchen window or next to the garage where you'll notice that the tomatoes are infact beginning to ripen or that that the asparagus patch really does need more mulch to help keep down the weeds.

3. Plant what you eat. I am all for experimentation but if you're just getting started plant mostly vegetables you know you like and can cook. Or limit yourself to a few new vegetables. You want this experience to be as rewarding as possible for you and your family.

4. Set a schedule. Try to plan time to spend in the garden. Maybe it's 15 minutes each day after dinner or a half hour in the morning before work. Maybe Wednesdays and Saturdays will work best for you but if you have a set time for being in the garden you're more likely to go there and get things done.

5. Keep good records. This is a tough one for many people, myself included but it will help you be successful more quickly. Despite your best hopes you will not in fact remember when you planted peppers last year or which varieties you grew or how many each plant yielded.

6. Make mistakes. Here's your license to mess up. If you're not making mistakes you're not trying hard enough to "grow your comfort zone" as Van Jones suggests. Stop worrying about being perfect and get to work. You'll succeed in ways you couldn't have guessed and you'll fail some to. That's how you'll learn.

7. Get help. Especially for those big projects like building raised beds or planting trees get your family, your friends or other people in your neighborhood to help. The permablitz model isa great idea.

8. Grow good soil. I know on the surface this topic might seem boring. When I talk to people in person about the importance of good soil I can see their eyes glaze over. Resist the urge to take this lightly! Healthy plants and a sustainable garden are a productive first and foremost of good soil.

9. Share food. Grow a few extra tomatoes or zucchini specifically so you can give the produce away. Give it to your local food bank or to people in your neighborhood as a way to get them excited about growing food. Ultimately you're only as food secure as your neighbors.

10. Include the kids. Try to share this new experience with young people so that they may grow up with a better understand of where food comes from. This is the ultimate way to help make the future a healthier, happier, tastier place.

Update: Check out the Hen and Harvest Garden Challenge!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

getting somewhere with design

"Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. And the nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being proceeded by a period of worry and depression.” John Harvey-Jones

While it’s certain possible to over intellectualize the process of design, it’s also just as likely that doing without thinking can lead to failure. Brainstorming about garden design is easy enough for most people. Many of us can conjure up images of gardens or at least thumb through online images of chicken tractors and victory gardens and dream about doing that in our own yards. The difficult task seems to be translating these visions into successful projects- taking information and putting it to work; the result of which will be the experience you will need to be successful in the long run.

As a place to start we’re going to discuss the process of design needed to organize the gardening/farming efforts of entire property. The first step is the brainstorming mentioned above. It helps to get an idea of what you want out of your outdoor efforts. To that end we used a questionnaire to organize your Needs & Wants. The second step is to take a Site Inventory of your property. The next step is to begin deciding what might go where. Of course this is the part that requires an understanding of how garden and growing food works.

At this point let me put you at ease by suggesting that you are definitely going to make some mistakes. Don’t let a fear of failure paralyze you at this point. Maybe you don’t feel like you have enough knowledge to know where the chicken coop should go or if a particular spot will be sunny enough for your vegetable garden. The best you can do is to read and ask questions of knowledgeable people regarding these issues. At some point though you’re going to have to make a decision and get at it. One thing of which I am certain is that if you do not move forward with your gardening project, you will never eat food from it.

So now is the time, right or wrong, to begin making decisions about what is going where. Bubble in your decisions on a copy of your Base Plan, the plan you came up with as an inventory of your property. All your Needs & Wants should be represented graphically on this Bubble Plan. It is going to change as you share it with people and they offer constructive criticism. It’s going to change as your Needs & Wants change. It’s going o change as your budget dictates and for a whole host of other reasons but at least for now you need to have a starting point from which to begin- a point from which to begin the actual change. This Bubble Plan will offer you something else as well. It will help you organize and further design the individual areas or sites of your property.

Say for instance you have designated your front yard as the primary place for your vegetable garden. At this point you have a large bubble encircling the front yard with the words, “Veggies Go Here,” written across that bubble. Once you’ve finished bubbling your entire property you can revisit the front yard bubble and begin to refine its design. Ask yourself, What does that garden space actually look like? Where are the paths? How wide are they? Where does the tall stuff like corn go so as not to shade out the short stuff? Do you need water beyond what rains? If so where will it come from? Will the hose reach? How many tomatoes will you grow? Peppers? Kohlrabi? Do you need a fence? Once you’ve established an over all plan for your property you can drill down into the design of these specific sites without feeling overwhelmed. This strategy breaks the design process into a Master Plan for the overall property and Site Plans for individual sites throughout your property. Your Master Plan is just a refined Bubble Plan. Here, let’s draw it. If you haven’t figured this out I’m more of a visual person.

It’s important to remember that Design is not a noun, not in this context at least. Design is a verb and refers to an ongoing process. A Plan (Bubble or Site or Master) is the noun, the product of the design process. The arrows that loop back to the beginning of this diagram represent the fact that both the needs & wants and the site conditions relevant to a particular garden or farm project will constantly change. It’s alright to stop along the way and consider a Master Plan or a particular Site Plan to be “finished” so that you don’t go crazy with constantly redesigning your property. But recognize that over time your Plans will change while the process of design will continue.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

neighborhood farming

This week we're going to examine a strategy aimed at expanding the area available for growing food in a particular neighborhood. It happens to be the neighborhood where I live. The map above shows my town. My neighbor is marked by an asterisk. I don't have an abundance of sun in my yard so a few years ago I went looking to see if other people had more sun and were interested in growing food. Here's my neighborhood.

Here's my property in red.

I started by going across the street and asking my elderly neighbor if I could garden in her backyard. Then I recruited Eric who grows food in his backyard and is transitioning into a career as a farmer. Next I was able to start a garden in the backyard of the rental house next door to my property. It was part of a bartering arrangement whereby the landlord agreed to take down a few dying trees and in return I now grow food on her property. All of these active gardens are shown in dark green.

Several other people have expressed interest in helping to grow neighborhood food and/or have offered a sunny spot for a garden. These properties are shown in light green.

The biggest single area under cultivation is the vacant lot down the street. I've had some sort of a garden on that property for four years but this year it has been greatly expanded. It's shown in yellow.

Next we have the people interested in buying food. In years past I have given extra produce to these people, sometimes just leaving it on the backdoor step of neighbors I've never met as a way to start up a conversation. This year some of these people might formalize the relationship by becoming paying customers. These folks are shown in blue.

Other people in the neighborhood have offered compostable material, especially fallen leaves and grass clippings. Most of them have also expressed interest in helping to grow food and/or buying it. In fact most of the property owners represented on this map have overlapping interests in this neighborhood farming effort. These people are shown in orange.

Lastly there's the elementary school right around the corner. They have a great courtyard perfect for growing food and quite a bit of land out back that could be used to grow a great deal of vegetables. Frankly I haven't had the time to seriously address this opportunity... yet.

All of this needs work. Yes we have 462 gallons of rainwater storage capacity at the site across the street from my house and 12 raised beds and a great old apple tree. At the vacant lot however we don't have enough mulch stored for this coming growing season and we'll have to use municipal water unless I can find enough people willing to put in a decent rainwater harvesting system. A formal work schedule has yet to be developed. And the school, a huge opportunity, has not been included as of now. In other words this is, like any collective effort, an ongoing project that I imagine will continue to evolve. But it is the beginnings of model of expanding food production efforts beyond the boundaries of one particular property and out into the surrounding community. I can't wait to see where we go from here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

growing mushrooms

shitake.jpgAnyone who's been to a gardening class or a permaculture class about how to produce more food from home has heard the question, "What can I grow in the shade?" Shaded areas, especially deeply shaded areas of the yard, are not especially conducive to growing fruits and vegetables. Those plants like sunlight. So what is a Victory Gardener to do? One answer is mushrooms.

At this point I'd like to share my status as a novice concerning mushroom cultivation. This was my first attempt at growing fungi for personal consumption so feel free to learn with me but please don't label me an expert. I'm just figuring this out as I go and sharing the experience. I'm following the directions of the Mushroom People of Summertown, TN. I'm going to grow Shitakes and you're welcome to follow along.

After receive my inoculation plugs in the mail, my brother and I thinned several trees from a family member's property.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

change ain't sexy.

Last Autumn was a busy time for my family. Besides the day job, family life, growing food, harvesting discarded bagged leaves in my neighborhood for use as mulch (that being one of my hobbies) and attending a conference on sustainable community design (which was inspiring), we had our house reinsulated. Or rather, it would probably be more accurate to say we had it insulated—as much of it had no insulation at all.

You might think it is strange that someone who is convinced we’re embarking on a worldwide energy downturn would live in an under-insulated house for years. But like everyone else, our budget is far from unlimited. It has long been on the to-do list. The other reason is that we weren’t sure we were staying here.

My wife and I had been planning to build our own home for several years. Since my first day of architectural studies, I’ve dreamed of building my own home. In recent years I’ve studied alternative construction methods and have fallen in love with straw bale building. I’ve read book. I’ve taken classes and even worked on a few such structures. My wife and I were investigating a land purchase and organizing a few folks to help with the permit process.

But last fall we realized the situation had changed—or maybe we had. The peak in global oil production appeared imminent, and the effects of climate change are more rapidly headed our way. I became convinced that with more than 90 million homes already in existence here in America, what is really needed is less building new and more making do. Several people have suggested that I could be more useful to my fellow citizens by offering an example of effective strategies for sheltering “in place,” and last fall I started to believe them.

And there was still another reason we decided to stay put and reinsulate. My wife was expecting our second child and our other daughter was then almost two years old. Keaton can already pick up a hammer and swing it quite effectively but hasn’t yet learned what to hit and when. My family building a new home during the coming year, what with a pregnant wife, then a brand new baby and helpful toddler might make for a great reality TV show, but I wasn’t sure we’d find it funny.

I wasn’t willing to give up forever the dream of building our own home. I think using straw for home construction makes sense for lots of reasons: easy to work with, sequesters carbon, insulates very well, burns more slowly than wood and is available almost everywhere. I think we need more people who are exploring sustainable building techniques. I’d like to be one of them, but for now it looks like we are staying put, and that means more closely examining our current conditions and making reasonable adjustments. Sounds prudent right? Well, it is, but here’s the thing—prudent change isn’t sexy. Building something new comes with all the possibilities of perfection or at least improvement over what you’ve had before. We were to create the home of our dreams and point the way toward a future of sustainable building techniques—and that, my friends, is sexy! But reinsulating an old house? Not quite as exciting.

What it mean is that I spent three days with a crew who shoved insulation made from recycled newspapers into the framing of our home. When they first arrived they hooked up a device to the front door and pressurized the whole house to get a sense of how airtight it was. The answer was not very. That part was fun to watch, but then came hours of hard work caulking and sealing and weather stripping. The real work took a long time and wasn’t much fun.

Another contractor used an infrared camera to find out where the big heat leaks were located. This too was pretty neat. But then it was back to the grindstone. The flooring in the attic had to be removed, and then insulation was blown in. The crawlspace below the house had to be cleaned, plastic sheeting laid against the ground and insulation strapped to the underside of the floor joists. The best part, I say with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, was when the crew drilled two-inch holes all along the exterior walls of our home every 20 inches or so. That is, they drilled holes through my wife’s beautiful painting handiwork (more on this in a moment) before blowing insulation into each wall cavity.

It was necessary. It will make for a much more energy-efficient home. We are doing our part! And yet the work itself was mundane. And some of it was downright uncomfortable, just regular hard work. And the mess! Let’s just say that my wife, Jennifer, was not happy. And the caulking of each tiny hole didn’t make me happy either.

In contrast, my time at the sustainable community design conference was great. But all the talking and learning didn’t actually produce anything tangible. Both experiences were useful. The knowledge I brought away with me from the conference will certainly come in handy, but the real change came by getting down and dirty in the attic and the basement.

Hopefully much of what we’re talking about in this book is inspiring, and that’s great. But it is also time to move on from talk to action. It’s all fine and good to talk about peak oil and climate change, to track the progress of these issues and discuss the need for more gardens and farms. We need to spread these ideas around. But for most of us, responding to the converging calamities of the 21st century should be more work and less talk, even if the work isn’t sexy. As Mother Theresa put it, “There should be less talk; a preaching point is not a meeting point. What do you do then? Take a broom and clean someone’s house. That says enough.”

Having said that, I did film the transformation of my home. It will be turned into a video and uploaded onto the Internet some time early next year. Hopefully it will help inspire other people to begin making similar hands-on changes. My family will continue to share our progress with other people. In fact, I think we have an obligation to do so. But as much as possible I think we need to get to work—not online but in our homes and in our communities. It isn’t always sexy, but it matters.

videos on permaculture

2009 CSA Invitation

Cold Water Creek Farms
2009 CSA
Concord NC

Are you tired of canned vegetables or tasteless tomatoes from the grocery store? Do you have a case of the winter eating blues? Perhaps all the recalls, market withdrawals and safety alerts from the FDA have you wondering where your food comes from. Or maybe you’ve heard about the local food movement that is taking root across America. Well you don’t have to wait any longer to take part! Now is the time to secure your share of Concord’s organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Cold Water Creek Farms is offering 40 local families a chance to change the way they eat and enjoy 5 full months of local produce in 2009.

The CSA movement started in Japan where the arrangement was called “teikei” which translates as “putting the farmers’ face on food.” This is a network of community supporters and local citizens who support local farmers. They become members and purchase a “share” of a farmer’s labor in advance of the growing season. In return they receive a regular allotment of fresh food throughout the year. The local farmer gets financial support and the shareholder gets great food.

How does this work?

Starting in June, a weekly basket (1 share) of organic produce will be available for pick up from the farm on Atando Road off Hwy 49 just minutes from downtown Concord. (Map) Pick up will be on Tuesday evenings from 4:30 until 6:30pm. One share will equal an average of $25 of in-season, organic produce per week.

Vegetables will include:

Greens (Chard, Lettuce,
Spinach, Kale, Collards, Etc.)
Sweet Potatoes

You won’t get all of that every week of course but what you will get is a basket of the freshest in-season produce money can buy from friendly faces you’ll get to meet and come to know as the farmers growing your family’s food.

One of the goals of the CSA program is to open a dialog between the people who eat food and the people who grow it. Don’t know how to cook with Kale? Think your kids won’t eat beets? Do we have some recipes for you! We understand that learning (or relearning) how to cook with fresh, whole ingredients is part of the process and part of the fun. We’ll include recipes and be happy to help you change the way you cook for tastier results!

A meeting for prospective share holders for the 2009 season will be scheduled soon so you can meet the farmers and ask questions. Contact us if you are interested.

Cost of Membership:

Working memberships require participation in one on-farm project (see below)
• Full Share Annual Membership: $500, plus participation in 1 on-farm work project
• Half Share Annual Membership: $300, plus participation in 1 on-farm work project

Non-working memberships have no on-farm work project requirements.
• Full Share Annual Membership: $540
• Half Share Annual Membership: $340
An optional donation of an additional $10 will go entirely to make extra shares available for those who go hungry in our community. A security deposit of $250.00 is due by March 31, 2009. Any remaining balance is due August 1, 2009.

On Farm Projects:

On-farm projects offer the opportunity for members to join in the fun of farming for one morning during the growing season. Several on-farm projects will be scheduled, typically for weekends, throughout the year. Each project will take roughly 4 hours to complete.

Typically we will meet at the farm and work with other CSA members to complete the farm project. This time allows members the opportunity to get to know each other as well as see where and how their food is grown. A typical project might include one of the following: Starting seeds, drilling mushroom logs, weeding, watering, harvesting vegetables, washing produce, or helping glean fields of food for the hungry.

Meet You Farmers:

Three farmers make up Cold Water Creek Farms:

Brad Hinckley (Hinckley Farms) has been farming organically for more than ten years outside of Boone NC. He helped found New River Organic Growers. Brad is currently serving as the Mentor Farmer at the Elma C. Lomax Farm Incubator here in Cabarrus County as he relocates his farming operation to our area.

Eric Williamson (Sunnyside Farms) is a garden enthusiast who never met a vegetable he didn’t love. When Eric heard about the Farm Incubator program he recognized the opportunity to translate his love of gardening into a career. Eric has returned to live in Concord where he and his wife grew up. He will be a Participating Farmer in the Farm Incubator program this year.

Aaron Newton (the Greater Goods Garden Co.) is an author and local food activist looking to make the transition from gardener to market farmer by participating in the Farm Incubator program. He and his family have been transitioning to a local diet over the past few years and are excited about the commitment of the Cabarrus County region to making local food a cornerstone of happy, healthy living in our area.

Contact us with questions or to sign up.

Phone: 704/305.6654 (Aaron)



Thursday, February 12, 2009

feeding the soil

This post is the second part of an excerpt from _A Nation of Farmers_ regarding soil.

If a healthy soil is full of death, it is also full of life: worms, fungi, microorganisms of all kinds.... Given only the health of the soil, nothing that dies is dead for very long.

—Wendell Berry

One of our hobbies here in the United States the hyper-distillation of ideas. We’re trying to perfect the sound bite, a pursuit made necessary by a mainstream media that consists of a handful of news tycoons trying, in a fair and balanced fashion, to offer us only two perspectives of exactly 150 seconds per idea. Never mind that some of these complex ideas have to be dumbed down immensely to fit into this short window; the complex versions are really important to the lives of the citizens of our nation. It’s as if what really matters is whether the nightly news can afford to fit in a quick story about the state of American health care between commercials for burger joints and drug companies.

A good example of our oversimplification can be seen in our whole approach to the question of plant nutrition (well, human too, but that’s another discussion). NPK stands for nitrogen, phosphorus (phosphorus pentoxide) and potassium (potash or potassium oxide). K is the atomic symbol for potassium. P was already taken and the Latin for potassium is kalium, so that’s how we get K. See how complicated this is getting already? But stay with me here, this is important. This acronym NPK describes three major plant nutrients and helps to describe the ratio of the each as a percentage of weight in any particular synthetic fertilizer. For instance, a bag of fertilizer labeled 20-7-10 has 20 percent nitrogen, 7 percent phosphorus and 10 percent potassium. The remaining 63 percent is ballast, or stuff not necessarily useful to the plant.

NPK represents only three of the six plant macronutrients. That is, these are things that the plants need to survive. The other three are calcium, magnesium and sulfur. In addition plants need varying amounts of micronutrients including iron, manganese, boron, copper, molybdenum, nickel, lithium, chlorine, zinc, selenium and others. But ask someone who sells fertilizer about how to choose which fertilizer to use in your garden and they will rarely get past NPK, any more than politicians get past the soundbyte. And not only do we have a hard time getting past those three nutrients, we almost never get to the delivery system of these nutrients, which is just as essential.

Most people think in terms of plants absorbing needed nutrients through their roots. The truth is much more complicated. In fact plants feed themselves through a host of symbiotic relationships between the plants and other microorganisms in the soil. The plants in turn feed the microorganisms sugars. In some cases the connection is a physical one. Sometimes the roots of plants are penetrated by microrhiza; other times the plants are fed by nearby neighbors. The soil is a community of living organisms that makes up one of the most densely populated ecosystems on the planet.

Try to imagine millions of living organisms in one cubic centimeter. It is this community on which all of us who eat plants—or eat animals that eat plants—are dependant, which is to say it’s much more complicated than a three-letter abbreviation. Forget the idea that plants eat first. Microorganisms are at the head of the table.

It is true that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are very important for the successful growth of plants. It’s just silly to say that the right combination of these three alone can continue to provide enough food to feed us. The very reason we need to add N, P and K to our farm fields is that we’ve stripped off much of the topsoil in which the healthy ecosystem of soil microbes lived. In many cases the remaining microbial communities were then killed by applications of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The topsoil of many industrial farming operations is rightly described as simply lifeless sponge onto which chemicals are poured in order to make up for this community that once nourished the plants without such inputs.

And perhaps if this was a simple trade, the life of the soil traded for better living through chemistry, it might be a trade we would be willing to make. But as we have discussed elsewhere in this book, these chemicals have negative effects on human beings as well as destroying entire ecosystems such as our waterways. The cost in terms of human health and in terms of ecological health are two strong reasons for imagining a different way of growing food. Another is the economic cost.

Frank Dean of ICL Performance Products says the price of Merchant Grade Acid (MGA) used to process phosphate rock into phosphorus fertilizers rose between 25 and 30 percent in 2007, while “fertilizer phosphates, which use MGA as a feedstock, have increased by as much as 70% to 100%.”[i] That means some fertilizer phosphates have nearly doubled in price only a year. Meanwhile, the price for potash rose by 230 percent in April 2008, and potash production is increasingly concentrated among only a few companies.[ii]

No projections include a drop in demand for food or for the fertilizers currently used in their industrial production. In fact it is precisely the opposite. “World fertilizer demand has grown by 14% in the last five years—Equivalent to a new U.S. market,” said Deen. Phosphorus and its uptake by plants is a somewhat complicated matter, but the practice of mining rock phosphates from the other side of world and shipping them to the US for use as fertilizers is likely not a practice that will increase in the future. While a worldwide economic crisis may reduce consumption of energy, it is unlikely to dramatically reduce desire for food.

Meanwhile, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are extracted using natural gas (NG), which is itself a finite resource, one likely to decline in production during the next decade or two. Already we’ve witnessed fertilizer companies moving oversees to parts of the world where NG is more abundant. This is another way that we face increasing reliance on faraway places that don’t have our interests at heart. It is not just that dumping massive amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is bad for our health and bad for the environment; doing so is fast becoming prohibitively expensive and further increasing our reliance on parts of the world where we aren’t popular.

And natural gas isn’t the only fertilizer macronutrient potentially in short supply. Research Patrick Dery has concluded that the world is facing a peak in phosphorus production.[iii] Industrial agriculture strips phosphorus rapidly from the soil, and we are mining rock phosphates rapidly. This means that the price will rise and the ability of the world’s lower-income people to buy fertilizers to grow food is in real danger. In the longer term, we must address the problem of phosphorus availability in order to ensure a reliable food supply for our grandchildren.

But is there an alternative? The short answer is yes. The long answer is more complicated than a three-letter initialism but is not beyond the understanding of those who study soil and understand how the microbial community therein can help in a world in which we can’t afford the costs of synthetic fertilizers. There more than 100 microorganisms, including rhizobia and several yeasts, that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it available to plants.[iv] These microorganisms provide plants with nitrogen on demand—far more useful and complex than simply pouring on the fertilizer. That is, if the plant is in need of nitrogen, the microorganisms make it available. If the plant no longer needs more nitrogen, the microbes stopping making it available. Nitrogen doesn’t have the opportunity to build up to toxic levels in the soil or run off into nearby waterways. Microorganisms also make available other nutrients, macro and micro alike, and are the key to developing a sustainable soil structure for supporting permanent agriculture.

Ever wonder why forests don’t need to be fertilized, how towering oak trees came to be without someone applying the right combination of NPK? Microorganisms break down carbon and leach weak acids that break down minerals, making them available to plants. Those oak trees and the other plants in the forest rely on the nutrient recycling undertaken by the microbial community naturally occurring in the soil. We can mimic this process. We can establish healthy soil communities and provide nutrients for recycling. We can sequester carbon, a necessary part of this soil recycling program, helping to offset carbon emissions while we build soil. (More on this later.) The typical NPK approach to providing the nutrients necessary for useful industrial agriculture needs to be turned on its head. The answer isn’t an initialism. It’s fostering natural soil systems and the communities of beneficial microorganisms that make up those systems and protecting them at all costs.

That doesn’t mean we won’t have to fertilize soils if we continue removing agricultural products from them—we will. But we can do so with organic materials. Indeed, it is a basic premise of this book that we will probably have no choice but to shift toward organic agriculture—not out of some elitist preference but because we simply can’t feed the world any other way. Reliance on distant macronutrients and fossil fuels is a recipe for disaster as those things rise in price and availability. Many people have assumed that if we cannot get these things we are doomed to starvation. But this is not true.

Not only can we make nature work for us but we also have an enormously valuable resource that we largely waste—human manures and human urine. On a planet with 6.7 billion people, the one thing we have in abundance is human outputs. These outputs can indefinitely recycle the phosphorous and nitrogen we’ve been using all along, keeping world food yields high.

To do so, we will have to shift our relationship to our own manures. Historically in many places there was a tie between city and country. We will talk more about recreating the ties between urban and rural cultures, but one way we will probably have to do this is by the return of human biosolids to agricultural fields. In rural areas, we will have to take up the composting of human manures and the collection of human urine.

We tend to be very squeamish about these issues, but we will have to face these subjects head on in order to keep up our food supply. Our food supply depends on our ability not to treat these complexities as soundbyte issues, but to truly understand the ways in which we can transform our liabilities into assets.


[i] ICL Performance Products presentation, Concord, N.C., 1.10.08.

[ii] (accessed Nov. 25, 2008).

[iii] (accessed Nov. 25, 2008).

[iv] Personal communication with Ron Danise, a certified arborist who has worked in the field of arboriculture since 1964, during which time he has researched and developed organic soil amendments that develop living soil systems.

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!

suburban garden plan

Alright here's my neighborhood. My home is one in the middle.

I live on a one block, one way street. I have lived here for 6 years with my wife. We have added two daughters ages 3 and 1. Here's my property.

I've added some labels.

And some colour to help describe the property.

Our lot is very narrow except for this odd side yard. The back yard gets some sun but the best sunlight falls on the front yard. Here's a picture of our front yard after a recent "snow storm."

Hey, 2 inches is a snow storm here in this part of NC. It actually used to snow more where I live. Thanks greenhouse gas emitters. Anywho this is where I live. I'll add some pictures to this post and I'll use it to describe some of the changes we've made and some of the changes we have planned. The goal is not total food self sufficiency but a healthy environment with as many overlapping uses as is possible. Beautiful, edible, functional, playful, useful, self-maintaining, flexible and fun are words I use to describe what I intend for this space.

Here's a Google image from last May.

it ain't just dirt

This post is an excerpt from _A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil_, by Sharon and I. You can find out more about the book by clicking here. The proof reading just came to a close and the book will be available very shortly. It occurred to me, while proofing reading the two sections that I'm about to post, that they describe our sad situation with regards to soil, the basis for life on this planet, and how we might turn around our treatment of this life-giving medium as we shift away from industrial agriculture. I thought those of you planning your gardens might want to know more about the community of life that makes up soil and how to foster this community.

The soil requires a duty of man which he has been slow to recognize.

—Henry A. Wallace

It’s fair to say that we’re picking on industrial agriculture here when poor practices of resource management have occurred throughout the history agriculture. What makes our most recent failure to manage our natural resources so scary is the scale at which we are failing. Hugh H. Bennett and W.C. Lowdermilk said, “Soil erosion is as old as agriculture. It began when the first heavy rain struck the first furrow turned by a crude implement of tillage in the hands of prehistoric man. It has been going on ever since, wherever man’s culture of the earth has bared the soil to rain and wind.” But soil loss and degradation are now happening at an alarming rate and they’re happening most dramatically here at home. Each year in the US we lose more than 1 million acres due to soil degradation, not to mention the 2 million more lost to land development.[i]

When examined more closely, the phrase “land development” seems to be a contradiction in terms—the development of land often results in the destruction of its capacity to produce food. Francis Moore LappĂ© et al. point out in World Hunger 12 Myths, that it is not in the underdeveloped global South where soil is being lost at the greatest rate. North America is now the continent with the most severe desertification problem. Since widespread farming began in the United States in the 18th century, an estimated 30 percent of total farmland has been abandoned because of erosion, salinization, and waterlogging. Fully one-third of the topsoil in the United States has been lost. Today about 90 percent of US cropland is losing soil faster than it can rebuild, and more than half of US pastureland is overgrazed and subject to high rates of erosion.[ii]

In this country we are losing soil 17 times faster than it can be replaced.[iii] In fact more than half of the incredibly rich Midwestern prairie soils that underlie the bread basket of the US, and indeed the world, have been lost to wind and water erosion during the past 100 hundred years.[iv] And now that this soil has been swept out to sea by the rivers and the streams of our nation, it will never be available to us for farming. How long will it take to wash away the other half?

It seems we’ve become very careless with our treatment of the soil here in the US, and sadly the same is true of the treatment of our soils worldwide. Almost sixty million tons of topsoil are lost each day. And this shouldn’t surprise us. Citizens in overdeveloped nations have supported the transformation of countless acres of poor-world subsistence farms and sustainably managed ecosystems into industrial farmland for the production of commodities for export. This means that many more people in the underdeveloped world find themselves unable to provide food and fuel for themselves. Sadly a feedback loop has been created whereby hungry people, in order to feed their families, destroy the soil that kept them from starvation. In other parts of the world, biomass, including trees, shrubs and other perennial plants, is stripped from large areas and massive amounts of soil are lost because of a shift in agricultural management practices, overgrazing and cutting for fuel to heat and cook.

This need for food and fuel, coupled with distorted economic priorities, which are often at odds with long-term security, results in massive soil loss in the developing world. Pressures from the developed world bear down to increase the destruction. Every year thousands of square miles of rainforest are cleared, much of it at the order of fast food companies like McDonalds (and by extension anyone who eats there) who need land over seas for cheap beef production. As Dr. M.E. Ensminger, former chair of the Department of Animal Science at Washington State University, says in Animal Science,

Is a quarter pound of hamburger worth a half ton of Brazil’s rainforest? Is 67 square feet of rainforest—an area about the size of one small kitchen—too much to pay for one hamburger? Should we form cattle pastures to produce hamburgers in the Amazon, or should we retain the rainforest and the natural environment? These and other similar questions are being asked too little and too late to preserve much of the great tropical rainforest of the Amazon and its environment. It took nature thousands of years to form the rainforest, but it took a mere 25 years for people to destroy much of it. And when a rainforest is gone, it’s gone forever.[v]

This is true all over the world as large land owners employ dubious land use tactics to displace small local land owners. In this case, those who recognize the value of soil and its potential to provide for those who know how to care for it are no longer in charge of the stewardship of this resource, having been replaced by multinational corporations with economic goals that supersede the care of this precious resource.

One might think the economic impact associated with soil loss might get their attention. The global loss of more than 75 billion tons of soil each year is worth $400 billion annually. US agricultural losses due to the need for irrigation and nutrient replacement associated with soil loss are estimated at $28 billion alone.[vi] And there are other costs too, described by Dale Allen Pfeiffer as,

the offsite costs of soil erosion: roadway, sewer, and basement siltation; drainage disruption; foundation and pavement undermining; gullying of roads; earth dam failures; eutrophication of waterways; siltation of harbors and channels; loss of reservoir storage, loss of wildlife habitat and disruption of stream ecology; damage to public health; and increased water costs.[vii]

But what makes this enormous loss of soil so alarming is just how long it took to create this precious resource. It takes more than 500 years in nature to build one inch of healthy topsoil,[viii] and it takes a minimum of six inches of soil to grow food.[ix] Much more is definitely desirable. That’s at least 3,000 years’ worth of natural soil building for the start to finish in an agriculturally productive land base. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.”[x]

In recent years, chemical fertilizers and pesticides have in part compensated for the loss of soil humus, and we have been able to overlook lost soil productivity. As the feedstock for such chemicals becomes more costly and scarce, however, it is likely that we will experience the true extent of the damage we’ve done to ourselves through damage to our soils.

So what is the alternative? What cyclical model is available to us? Well, there is some good news. Though the process by which soils build up by breaking down organic material and eventually stabilize that material into what we call humus is naturally a slow one, it can proceed much more rapidly with active human participation. Historically most successful older societies have managed to avoid degrading their soils.

We work against nature by not returning organic material to the soil and we do worse with our practices that strip vegetation from the ground and cause erosion and with the poisonous chemicals we spray on our crops. We can, however, reverse this damage with healthy soil management practices and begin to build soil. Pesticides and concentrated chemical fertilizers damage healthy soil by destroying the microscopic life that makes up the soil; what soil is left after it is blown and washed away through poor cultivation techniques. So the first step is clearly to stop these practices, to add organic matter, to end tillage, not by pouring on more Round Up but by making use of organic strategies for sustainable planting.

This means cultivating small plots of land with a much more hands-on approach. Turning under thousands of acres at a time with enormous earth-churning machines should give way to increasing the amount of food we grow with practices of reduced tillage or no-till strategies. By this we do not mean the drenching of soil with herbicides and planting resistance crops into the ground—that is what many people mean when they speak of zero-tillage. But as the Rodale Institute has found, organic no-till agriculture can outyield both conventional chemical no-till and conventional tilled organic practices.[xi]

The healthy soil of a carefully managed quarter-acre Victory Garden can be administered easily with a shovel and a hoe. Water and wind erosion can be almost eliminated, and organic material in the form of compost and manure can be used to maintain soil health and fertility. For larger farms, the use of crimper and other tractor or horse attachments can minimize erosion, and the returning of manures to soil can improve humus levels. Using other strategies like compost teas and manure teas can result is a bloom of micro fauna that helps to repopulate barren soil with its natural inhabitants and fertilize it in a more natural way.

We have wasted much that nature can do to aid us in food production in chemical agriculture. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers destroy the community of living soil. The top six inches of soil is the most densely populated ecosystem on the planet. It is a mysterious world of micro and macro fauna that recycles the dead and provides for the living. It is this subterranean community that we all depend on for our survival. Permaculturalist Scott A. Meister points out, “In fact, there is more life below the surface of the earth, than above it.” He says of healthy soil,

It’s important to have soil biota such as microflora and fauna (bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, and algae) micro, meso and macro-fauna such as centipedes, worms and termites. These soil biota are the managers, or underground stewards of the earth. Some serve as highway makers, others as transporters, others act like the underground internet. Termites and ants are the earthmovers, as well as digesters and soil makers. Worms, specifically, break down organic material into smaller forms that can be digested by the smaller beings such as bacteria and fungi, in order that the minerals can be more easily taken up by plants. Worm castings (worm poop) are nature’s best fertilizer, and worms can create 60 tons of worm cast per acre per year.[xii]

We must regain respect for the well being of this community and foster its health if we are to return to a sensible way of growing food.

Beyond fixing soil is the more basic task of maintaining the fertility of the soil that remains and fully returning to the practice of sustainable soil management. John Jeavons, author of How To Grow More Vegetables and the man largely responsible for popularizing the form of French intensive gardening in this country, suggests that to farm sustainably in a biointensive manner—a manner that produces a lot of food in a relatively small amount of space—requires that 60 percent of all gardened areas be devoted to growing compostable crops. These crops, which include grains, also produce food, but much of their value is in the fertility they provide—this means a new way of looking at our food crops. In other words, he says that more than half of all the plants we actively grow under such a system should be put back into the ground in an effort to feed the soil. It is possible to work with nature to speed up the process of soil formation through processes like growing crops for compost and recycling the carbon and nitrogen in fallen leaves and other discarded plant material, as well as food waste, in an effort to increase the amount of healthy soil available for agricultural production.

However, our ability to foster healthy soils will go beyond the support of sustainable agricultural practices. Not only will we need rich soils to feed the growing population of people on this planet but soil building might also become a major tool in our effort to stabilize atmospheric levels of carbon and combat the climate change associated with global warming.

Francisco de Orellana, a Spanish conquistador who explored the Amazon River basin in the 16th century, spoke of a vastly populated region thought by most modern historians to have supported only sparse numbers of humans. The reason for this was that it was assumed that because tropical rainforest have notoriously poor soils it was unlikely that such soils could support high numbers of humans.

Recently however, archeologists have made a discovery that might support Orellana’s report. It appears that coexisting groups of Amazon inhabitants from 400 to 1200 ad utilized a soil-building technique that resulted in terra preta or “black earth”—a type of soil made up of plant and animal remains mixed with charcoal. The result was an astoundingly fertile soil that could have supported many more inhabitants through increased agricultural yields than the sparse population in the Amazon basin previously estimated by researchers. Michael Tennesen, writing for Discover, goes on to explain,

As thrilling as this evidence is to archaeologists, it may also have very practical importance as a modern weapon against some of our most urgent ecological problems. Soil scientist Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University believes that the mysterious dark earth holds clues to creating sustainable farming practices and even to combating global warming.… First, because the enriched soil remains fertile for a long time, its use would discourage farmers from moving on and burning more forest to open up new fields. Second, because of the added charcoal, terra preta holds up to 10 times as much carbon as unaltered soils. The late Wim Sombroek—a legendary soil scientist whose long interest in terra preta earned him the epithet “the godfather of dark earth”—began to wonder if dark earth could be used to sequester carbon. Lehmann’s studies have shown that it can: Fifty percent of the original carbon in plants and trees used to make biochar remains in the terra preta soils after the conversion.[xiii]

So it appears that a low-tech alternative such as adding charcoal to our soil could work not only to repair depleted soils but also help with some of the much needed work of sequestering carbon. That is, there are ways in which we can revitalize the soil and thus avoid the false choice of making it temporarily productive with hydro-chemical concoctions or simply stopping such fertilization efforts and starving to death.

And there is more good news about how our ability to help recreate healthy topsoil and sequester carbon can further help. Joel Salatin operates Polyface Farm a “family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.” His strategy of pasturing animals relies on perennial grasses in a rotating system. The grasses feed cows, who then move on to other pastures. Chickens are then allowed to follow the cows to pick through the manure and graze on the grass not eaten by the cows. The combination of cow and chicken manure fertilizes the grasses, which are then allowed to regrow before the pasturing cycle is repeated. The fields are never tilled. This might sound like a simple, unimportant description of farm animals being raised for meat, but it isn’t.

Peter Bane, editor of Permaculture Activist, describes the possibility in an article entitled, “Storing Carbon in Soil: The Possibilities of a New American Agriculture.” After hearing Salatin describe his 500-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and its soil-stewardship practices, Bane was moved to do some math. Salatin said that in 1961, when his family first arrived on their current plot of land, soil testing revealed 1.5 percent organic matter. A subsequent test in 2007 revealed 8 percent.

In 46 years of rotational grazing without the addition of any fertilizers except composted manures from the animals’ winter bedding (supplemented with woodchips and other carbon from local sources, but minus the animals that leave the land), Polyface has built up 6.5% additional carbon in their pasture soils while taking a profitable return from the sale of meat. They use essentially no toxic inputs, and need very little machinery…. An acre of soil covers 43,560 square feet. The top six inches, which is where most of the carbon is stored, weigh about 1900 tons per acre. The annual increment of increase in soil carbon at Polyface is 0.14%, about 2.7 tons per year.… A [more?] reasonable estimate of land [agricultural land in the US] with more than 30 inches of rainfall per year (the average in the Shenandoah Valley is 32" per year) is 800 million acres. That’s about 2/3 of the area east of the Dakotas, roughly from Omaha and Topeka east to the Atlantic and south to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s mostly growing corn and soybeans now, and they are mostly going to animal feed or industrial uses: paint and ink ethanol, fizzy drinks, and junk food, none of which is good either for people or livestock. If that land were farmed as the Salatins farm Polyface in Virginia, it could sequester 2.2 billion tons (2 billion metric tonnes) of carbon per year. That’s equal to present gross US atmospheric releases, not counting the net reduction from carbon sinks of existing forests and soils.[xiv]

Bane goes further to suggest that if carbon is traded at $50 per ton, such a shift represents a $100 billion boon for American agriculture. “Who needs subsidies from Washington?” he adds.

[i] Pfeiffer, p. 13.

[ii] Lappé et al., p. 45.

[iii] Pimental Journal of the Environment, Development and Sustainability, Vol. 8, 2006.

[iv] Pfeiffer, p. 12.

[v] M.E. Ensminger, Animal Science, Prentice Hall, 1990, p .21 .

[vi] R. Lal, “Soil Erosion Impact on Agronomic Productivity and Environment Quality,” Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 17, 1998, pp. 319–464.

[vii] Pfeiffer, p. 16.

[viii] Pimental and Giampietro, Food, Land Population and the U.S. Economy, (accessed Nov. 25, 2008).

[ix] David Pimental. et al., “Will Limits of the Earth’s Resources Control Human Numbers?,” Environment Development and Sustainability, Issue 1 1999, p. 4.

[x] Letter to all State Governors on a Uniform Soil Conservation Law, February 26, 1937

[xi] /notill.shtml (accessed Aug. 25, 2008).

[xii] (accessed Aug. 25, 2008).

[xiii] Michael Tenneson, “Black Gold of the Amazon,” Discover, April 2007, (accessed Nov. 25, 3008).

[xiv] Peter Bane, “Storing Carbon in Soil: The possibilities of a New American Agriculture,” Permaculture Activist, Autumn, 2007.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

water, water everywhere

There are some memories that are impossible to properly conjure up without the right setting. It’s tough, for instance, to accurately remember the sound of falling snow in August when it’s 100 degrees outside. Likewise the winters where I live are usually unsuitable for thinking correctly about drought; case in point this winter, during which it seems to have rained every four days for the last three months. You won’t hear me complain because we’ve had unusually dry weather for during the past few years, but I need a truck load of soil delivered to finish up a series of raised bed planters I built last autumn. The person who is supposed to bring me my soil hasn’t had dry enough weather this winter to bring me my soil without getting his truck stuck in my yard. It's good thing I’m not in a hurry.

So it’s been hard this winter to think about how it might be too dry this summer and how hard those conditions make growing food, especially in poor soil. The agricultural extension officer in my county made an interesting comment the other day. He said that if the soil is in great shape, irrigation is unnecessary. He’d be right of course in all but the most extreme drought conditions but then again we’ve had such conditions several times here in the Southeast during the last decade.

Several years ago I was gardening in a neighbor’s backyard in soil that was not yet in prime condition. I all but abandoned the garden in August when we had 10 weeks without a single rain event. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “When the well runs dry, we know the worth of water.” If you’re starting a garden you’ll want to consider how you plan to provide it with the water necessary to be successful if it doesn’t fall from the sky.

I’ll talk more about soil in a future post but it’s worth mentioning here that the health of the soil and its makeup are important when considering how important irrigation will be to the success of your garden. Healthy topsoil will have plenty of organic material in it that will help hold water after it rains. If you’re gardening in the dirt that was left behind in the wake of most new home construction projects it’s likely to dry out much quicker. So it’s important to consider your soil and think about ways to improve it or even ways to import better soil from elsewhere to get your garden going.

Water for irrigation is available from four sources: ground water, municipal water, grey water and rain water.

Ground water is available from springs or by drilling a well. Many parts of the country can support moderate amounts of water being drawn from underground and recharged naturally.

Some parts of the country however are already pumping water out of the ground a rate much faster than can be naturally recharged. These regions are endangering their futures. It’s difficult to gauge how much ground water is left because it’s out of sight. It is also possible that ground water can be contaminated by natural occurring high concentrates of compounds that are poisonous to humans. Have your ground water tested to be sure it’s safe. It’s also worth mentioning that in many parts of the country, drilling a well can be expensive. Contact a local well drill for more information.

Municipal water includes water that is provided by city or county governments. Often this water is pumped from lakes and rivers before being filtered and purified. The chemicals used to clean this water are harmful to soil life and often raise the pH making it less than ideal for irrigation (and arguably less than ideal for human consumption). Given a choice between letting your garden croak or irrigating with municipal water, it’s probably practical to use city/county water. One of the positives about municipal water is that in many places it is easily accessible with good pressure and is relatively inexpensive. It may also have pharmaceuticals and the residues from other chemicals used upstream but hey, nothing’s perfect.

Grey water is water that has been used in sinks, showers and tubs in households. Recycling it entails diverting it to the landscape instead of directing it into the sewer or septic system. It is not water from toilets which is called black water so as to distinguish it from grey water. Using grey water in your garden can be as simple as saving water in a dish pan and pouring it on plants.

Remember that this water can have soaps or oils in it so be careful what you’re using to clean your dishes if you plan to redistribute that water into the landscape. Food or skin particles could be a source of foul smells or even disease if left to build up but for the most part, grey water is a safe way to use water more wisely. Some parts of the country promote grey water recycling while it is illegal in others. Those places where water is scarce have long recycled their gray water. In such parts of the country, grey water systems have developed that are more advanced and direct water and sometimes filter it as part of the plumbing of the house. Art Ludwig’s Create an Oasis with Greywater is the classic text on the subject. Here’s a good website as well.

Humans have been harvest rain water for thousands of years. If you’ve taken a vacation to a tropical island nation you’ve likely seen the systems used there for capturing rain. The water falling from the sky is likely your cleanest source depending on the quality of air in your area. It won’t have harmful chemicals in it and the pH will be very close to neutral.

The sky is the source of water that will naturally irrigated your garden as it has rained on the surface of our planet for millions of years. The catch of course is that it won’t always rain in the amounts desired to keep your garden healthy or at the times when you most need the water. Here in central NC we get more rain in the winter than in the summer and much of our summer rain comes in the form of thunderstorms that might drop 1 or 2 inches of rain within an hour. So while we get more rain annually here in Charlotte, NC than in Seattle, WA or Albany, NY (check your average annual rainfall here) we don’t always get the amount we want when we want it; and that’s without the recent drought periods factored in or droughts of the future aggravated by climate change. Harvesting and storing rainwater is an excellent way to irrigate gardens.

There are three basic types of water storage: above ground, in ground and below ground.

Above ground storage happens in tanks or other containers that hold water collected from impervious surfaces, mainly roofs. Containers range in size from 42 gallon rain barrels to tanks that hold many thousands of gallons. These containers can use pumps to push the water to where it’s needed but because they are above ground they often just use gravity to move water from storage to the garden.

It’s relatively easy to see how much water is available and set up and maintenance of such tanks is relatively simple. The down side is that the aesthetics of a series of rain barrels or a giant tank might not blend in the landscape ornaments in your neighborhood. By the way these storage systems are relatively cheap compared to the in ground or below ground storage systems.

In ground systems refers basically to ponds or lakes. If you have an existing pond on your property consider yourself blessed. This type of natural water storage system has been used for millennia as a way to store irrigation water.
It can also serve as an ecosystem capable of providing you with fish and other sources of protein as well as providing a home for nutritious aquatic plants like cattails. Ponds also serve as a necessary resource for the other animals that will call your property home. Construction of ponds can be expensive depending on size and the type that is right for you based on the soils in your area. In short a pond or lake can is an excellent resource and one that an entire class could be devoted to in terms of construction and utilization. Personally I’ve always wanted to try fresh water pawn production.

Below ground storage refers to tanks used to store water in tanks, well, below ground. The excavation necessary for installation and maintenance and the reinforced tanks necessary for such storage options make this a more expensive choice. It does get the tank out of your yard though and for people for whom space is tight this might be the only option available. A pump will be necessary to get the water back up above ground. Filtration of ingoing water will be even more important as in ground systems are much harder to clean. Brea rainwater harvesting systems is a local company I’ve dealt with in the past in researching and pricing such systems.


The Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvest (a free PDF) is an excellent resource. I printed out a copy and it lives in my bookshelf and is regularly referenced.

Brad Lancaster has written two great books on the subject

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond Volumes One & Two

Here’s an article and a video of Brad.

Abundant Skies: 8 Principles for Successful Rainwater Harvesting

This alternative also looks very interesting. It fights in the crawl space beneath your house.

I’ve heard of similar systems used in Australia and would love to hear from any of my Aussie readers as to how well they work.

I should mention that there is another problem having to do with water that I haven’t mentioned here at all, flooding. Sharon has more experience with this than I do but it’s entirely possible to site your garden and get it completely ready this winter only to see it flooded this spring. Be sure that your garden is outside of all flood zones that fall within your property. Pay attention after (or during) heavy rains to see where the water on your property goes. This will help you not only to be able to avoid areas prone to flooding but also to know what areas might work well as places to store water.

Another aspect of water outside my area of expertise is the spring melt. For many of you living further north, snow and ice will melt in the spring and provide you with a great deal of water. This might mean flooding or it could be an opportunity to harvest water for use later in the year.

Like all other natural systems, understanding the hydrology of your particular site will require careful observation and harnessing the water available to you will take thought and improvisation.