Thursday, October 29, 2009

Design Project Two :: A 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 7 years with my wife. We have added two daughters ages 4 and 2. Here's my property.

I've added some labels.

Here's some colour to help describe the property and my plan.

The backyard is heavily shaded and therefore is used as a place to keep chickens in my hot climate and a place to store equipment. I also compost and have a pair of worm bins. My family also uses the backyard as a place to relax, recreate and even cook. The side yard has fruit trees in various stages of production- hopefully the apples trees will bear next year, the peach trees have been bearing for three years. The red maple tree will eventually be removed as the fruit trees get larger.

The side yard has a swing set for the children, day lilies, strawberries and a place to store lots of fallen leaves for use as mulch. The side yard up against the southern side of house has had both vegetables and herbs in it over the years. Currently lemon balm has taken over.

The front yard is very sunny and is used to grow all sorts of herbs and vegetables. Perennials like asparagus and walking onions are present. Vines like kiwis and grapes and honeysuckle and others climb up all available columns. We often grow luffa up the southern facade of our home both as a way to provide shower scrubbers but also as a way to keep the house cooler in the summer.

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. Next week we'll talk about our strategy of expanding food production out into the neighbor instead of trying to grow all of our food within the boundaries of our property.

Here's a Google image from last May when the bamboo arbor was still in place over our front walk. We used it to grow luffas and morning glories.

composting primer


Do you recycle? For many Americans this means simply separating certain items from the trash they throw away and placing these items in another container for garbage collection. Composting can be just as easy. There are 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 have come to 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 an 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 the next question is about collecting kitchen scraps in your home and how to keep them from smelling. The compost storage system in my home does not smell. Here’s my solution.

ImageThis small, stainless steel can sits in front of my general trash can. It includes a removable 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 it contains any odors. 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 these items outside.

Ok so we’ve solved the problem of temporary indoor storage without obnoxious odors by using our close-top can. The next step is what to 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 easiest, items can be piled up and left for the composting process to 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 anaerobic bacteria and speed up the process. Anaerobic bacteria thrive only in the absence of oxygen. They tend to produce odors unpleasant to humans, specifically 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 up the process.

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 twenty-five 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 will 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. Don’t worry too much about making mistakes with the simple decompostion of your compost pile. Trial and error are unavoidable and irreplaceable as teaching tools. The important part is to get 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 is that you have to take care of these additional members of your family. There are several species ready to assist you.

ImageWorms. You can use worms to eat your leftover food and quickly turn it into worm castings, a wonderful compost for your garden. The practice 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. 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. Rabbits are easy to raise and make great pets.

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 you can read this discussion.

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.


North Carolina Composting

Introduction to Composting

Master Composter!

Composting with Children

Composting in Schools

The Composting Association

Composting with Worms from the City Farmer

Donegal County School Composts!

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!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

FRESH the movie screening in Charlotte @ CPCC

I'll be on a discussion panel to follow the screening of Fresh the movie at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC on November 5, 7:30 p.m. in Tate Hall, CPCC Central Campus.

Check out the trailer.

More info here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

artificial snow to combat drought

is there no problem human beings can't "fix"?!
Chinese meteorologists covered Beijing in snow Sunday after seeding clouds to bring winter weather to the capital in an effort to combat a lingering drought, state media reported.
whole story here

coming to a drought near you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"we're entitled to it."

“They’re opening them (oil fields) up to other companies all over the world … We’re entitled to it,” Pickens said of Iraq’s oil. “Heck, we even lost 5,000 of our people, 65,000 injured and a trillion, five hundred billion dollars.”
Tell me again about how our invasion of Iraq wasn't about oil. Tell me how it was about Geppetto's WMDs or about how Saddam Hussein was really Osama's long lost brother or better yet how it was about liberating the Iraqi people.

Pickens says U.S. firms 'entitled' to Iraqi oil

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Design Project One :: A Courtyard Garden

So it makes sense that the best way to start any design project is to begin with a some idea of what you want to accomplish and you can do that with a list of questions. The next step is to take an inventory of what you have at hand. That will be the subject of today's post. We're going to Sharon's house or more specifically to the courtyard just outside her kitchen to create a base plan. You can follow along and create a base plan for your property.

Before we get started you'll grab a few items:

1. A pencil, some paper and a few coloured pencils or crayons if you have them. I highly recommend graph paper. You can download some by clicking here.

2. A measuring tape

3. A camera. This isn't absolutely necessary but a great help.

Begin by sketching your area of focus. If you intend to create a master plan for your entire property you'll probably want to start by sketching parts of the property and combining those sketches later on.

At this point don't try and be exact. Just measure and draw dimensions- lengths and widths relative to each other. For example if the driveway extends about one car length past the garage draw it that way. We'll refine these later so don't get hung up on getting it exactly right the first time. Here's a (refined) sketch of the courtyard we're using just as an example. At this point just get all the major elements: hard surfaces, walls, doors and windows down on paper. This is what the coutryard looks like in simple shapes.

Use colour to better define certain areas if that helps.

You're probably going to redraw this several times so don't get hung up on doing it over and over. Each base map will be better than the previous. Measure all the distances you can to help better refine the plan. Mark those dimensions on the plan. Then redraw it to better represent the accurate distances.

Now label all of the physical items you think relevant to your plan. Be sure to include existing plants. Include cardinal directions- North, South, East and West.

Now add notes about site features. These might include activities, persistent problems, great views, the place where the cat always sleeps, etc. This is where the answers to your questions start to merge with your base plan. You might want to take pictures for a record of what some of these site features look like. This might make redrawing the plan easier too.

The key to creating a successful base plan (and I know I've already mentioned this but it really is important) is to realize that you are going to redraw this thing many, many times before you get it exactly as you want it. Think of it as a living document that is going to change throughout the process, not a perfect picture of what you have now or plan to create in the future.

The graph paper I mentioned above can help with getting the dimensions drawn more accurately. Let one square represent a unit of distance. 1 square = 1 foot for example. If you find that doesn't give you a big enough sheet of paper try 1 square = 2 feet. This would mean drawing a 10 foot long wall using 5 blocks. If you still don't have enough room try 1 square = 5 feet. Now that 10 foot wall would only be 2 blocks long on your base plan. Eventually you'll find a scale that will work.

Next we're on to basic design. First we'll use the answers to our questions to put in place hardscape elements like new paths.

Then we'll add key elements; in this case potential sites for a trellis.

Lastly we'll begin to add plant material in general terms.

This plan is be no means complete. From here we would make a final decision about the location of a trellis, we would research keyhole gardens and decide about that too. We would also refine the plant material to include specific varieties that meet the requires described at this stage of the plan. The more complete the plan, the more likely we are to save time, money and energy. But the plan will change as your circumstances change. I hope this intital design project helps to show you how to create a base map and how to begin to make design decisions based on the needs and wants of your situation.