Bioneer Talk this weekend: Suburban Permaculture

This Saturday I am honored to be a part of a 3 person panel at Madison’s Bringing Bioneers to Wisconsin conference that will be focused on “Beyond Backyard Bioneering”.  My fellow panelists and I will be attempting to give some ideas to the attendees wishing to move beyond gardening, composting, and driving a hybrid.   I will have the suburban side, and the urban sustainablitlity will be covered by James Godsil of Sweet Water Organics, a new Urban Agriculture enterprise in Milwaukee that is attempting to take Will Allen’s aquaponic principles and scale them up to a commercial size using an abandonded warehouse.  Awesome!  Covering more rural solutions will be Chamomile Nusz of Artha Sustainable Living Center – an incredible diverse and interesting farm that houses gardens, a B&B, and is a training facility for the MREA for renewable energy technologies.  Heady company indeed!

 

HOA Desolation 2004

Our tabula rasa also came completely devoid of soil life.

I was asked to talk about the transformation that we are working on here in our little piece of HOA paradise.  We are heading into our 6th year here and I must say it has been rather fun to go back through the posts from the early years, reliving my first reading of Gaia’s Garden and my growing understanding on how to build soils and start permaculture, but most of all it is healthy to remind oneself on just how far we’ve come in so little time.  The picture at left was taken the week we moved in – almost exactly 5 years ago.  The “soil” was in a wretched state – no topsoil, and so little microbial life that barely even weeds could grow.  It is amazing looking back to think that within 3 yeas I was harvesting 500#’s of food from this desolation.  And it is that story that I will be telling and teaching on Saturday.

 

 

When we moved in, the guilt of literally being Urban Sprawl weighed very heavily on me, and over that first winter I read David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways.  In the introduction Holmgren said something that grew into a stark commitment for me: that the suburban landscape that we on the environmental left so often lament, is actually one of our greatest resources.  In no other time have so many people owned land – fertile, irrigated, arable land.  In true Permaculture style, Holmgren was challenging us to take the “problem” of Suburbia and turn it into the Solution.   Thus my quest to push our property’s productivity.

The project has had some simple guidelines.  First, it was to be “normal” – no rows of corn in the front yard.  In fact, due to our being in an HOA, the front yard was mostly off limits and even out back the edible landscape needed to conform somewhat to normal suburban aesthetics.  Secondly, as we had small children and rather large dogs we decided to leave more than a bit of lawn.  In fact over half the backyard was given over to the playground and grass for frolicking.  That left about 4500 sq ft for our little experiment.

First "fruits" 2005

24" corn.... guess we'd better start composting!

We started with 2 raised beds, about 80 sq ft each and discovered very quickly just how depelted our soils really were.  Even with 4″ of store bought soil amendments, our corn was a whopping 24″ tall the first season back in 2005.  This was when I really started to dig into fertility management and started to read books like Gaia’s Garden which taught me about the soil food web.  Up went our compost bin, but with no trees or landscaping, there wasn’t much to put in it so we talked to our local coffee shop and have been composting 100#s of their slop a week for the past 4.5 years– that’s about 12 tons of organic matter that dodged the dump and is now living a new life under our gardens.  With adding not only that organic matter, but more importantly the microbial life from the compost the stage was set for me to begin putting my growing knowledge of temperate permaculture into practice.  We planted a small 500 sq ft garden of prairie plants, and 80′ of fence line went into red clover.  I went to the local nurseries and paid attention to what flowering plants the pollinators were swarming, and then bought them by the dozen.  In went nitrogen fixing shrubs and mulch making plants like Russian Comfrey.

IMG_5356

"Pop" goes the garden. In just 2 years we can now grow 7' corn without supplemental fertilizing.

By the end of our third year the garden was beginning to “pop”.  The soil was becoming richer and we could now actually find a worm or two when transplanting.   Our harvests were finally coming in – the raspberries and strawberries were producing and we were now up to 4 vegetable beds.  We had built 2 rain gardens and were considering putting in larger, more permanent plantings like a small permaculture orchard.  In 2007 our total harvest from those 4 beds with the 2 additional beds of small fruit netted us an impressive 500#’s of harvest – from about 500 sq ft– and even began to sell produce to the coffee shop that we got the slop from forming a nice resource circle.

The next year, 2008, we decided to try our hands at Market Gardening, growing potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and peppers at a permaculture designed farm 10 miles north of our home.   This was fantastically successful at not only allowing us to grow 1500#s of potatoes, but also at completely burning me out.  I found it very hard to divert my attention between the two projects and our home gardens suffered.  Still, the addition of 5 fruit tree guilds to the 2 in front and 3 more vegetable beds at home meant that our harvest was still increasing – this time to about 750#.

Current readers will be fairly abreast of our current situation.  In 2009 we continued to expand our Market Garden – this year harvesting about 2500#’s of potatoes and another several hundred pounds of tomatoes despite the blight.   The home gardens were mostly on hold with no significant plantings other than a massive expansion in our compost crops (60 comfrey plants) and the addition of several black locust trees.

 

Garden "Pops" in Year 4

From desolation to this in 4 years. The power of partnering with Nature!

After 5 years we now have 7 annual vegetable beds with more than a foot of rich topsoil, 7 fruit tree guilds deeply mulched with vibrant soil food webs, and with the exception of quack grass weeding, very little maintenance needs.  This year we took our first harvests from the orchard – with both our peach trees producing, and two of our pears as well.  All told we now have 11 kinds of fruit from the exotic hardy kiwis and paw-paw to the typical strawberries and raspberries.  We have harvests from mid March’s spinach through to the last green sorrel of fall, and the potatoes and garlic last until late February.  By the time the last pint of jam is eaten we are within weeks of the first strawberries – late May in warm years.   Our children are growing up to know that its the rare plant they can’t eat in the backyard, and those they can’t they understand play a vital role in our mini ecosystem – fixing nitrogen, attracting “good” bugs, or providing food for the worms.

 

We are likely within only a year or two of obtaining our goal of growing 2000#’s of food in a suburban backyard with very few, if any, sacrifices from a “normal” yard.   We live in a small town of about 1200 and have about 500 homes in/near our borders.   In about 5 years, or less, we could be producing 1,000,000#’s of food within our borders – from protein crops like sunflower seeds and hazelnuts to calorie crops like potatoes and corn in addition to the nutritional vegetables and herbs.  If every 3 blocks were producing 50 tons of food we would be a long way towards re-localizing our society and a lot closer to transitioning to a less energy dependent tomorrow.  The problems of our age are daunting when viewed from afar, but as Bill Mollison is fond of saying:

all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.

We can do this.

Be the Change.

Choices

May 23, 2009,  8pm and Intermission at Wisconsin Fashion week where my 30 something wife is making a stand for Real Beauty against the insurgent tide of all but 2 dimensional (literally) teen-something “beauties” that have come to define what it means to be pretty in America.  She is stomping the runway against all odds through incredible skill, vit and vim and I am damn proud of her.  And yes, its hot to be married to a model. For me, sitting in the Fashion Show was interesting to say the least.  Pretty sure I was the only potato farmer there…    Now, placed on a bench on the sidewalk of State Street and People Watching.  Just amazing to see the world passing by and I am waxing philosophical.  Go figure. 

 

State street is so vibrant, so unlike the subdivision where I live.  So many people; so easy to go all existential… what are they doing, where are they going.  Who do they love what are they thinking about?  Diversity everywhere with swallows and nighthawks to boot.

 

Country living – is it an escape or a quest?  Am I running from something or towards something?  Times like this I really wonder as the city certainly has its allure.  I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago – and never felt at home.  The competion, the sameness for mile after mile after mile.  Going to school out in the plains – Nebraska and South Dakota literally opened me to new horizons and the vastness and the cleansing emptiness of Nature.  Wisconsin brought what I thought to be a compromise.  For a year we lived right smack in the middle of down town Milwaukee – but it was nothing like this.  Where we now reside.. in a small bedroom community of 1200 on the freeway with no infrasctuture other than its HOA’s and Outlet Mall will likely never feel like “home”; there is simply not enough there.  Should the free way cease to exist the town would shrink to nothingness again.  There is no purpose; no community.  

 

At the farm, I do feel more connected, but the communion is more with Gaia than my fellow sapiens.  The earth is so alive there as to create an almost visceral reaction – the vibrancy fills your nostrils, your mouth, perhaps even your soul.  Bringing life from the soil is less a matter of coaxing than of daming; an attempt to hold back the bounty of the  Earth so as to get only what is needed/wanted rather than the profuseness that Nature desires.   

 

But the farm is not my home either – at least not yet.  And truth be told, I am not convinced it will be.  The farm entails so many finalities.  Livestock ends most travel, affordable land removes us from most to all of human contact as we get further and further away from civilization.  And removing ourselves that far – is that sustainable?  We  cannot create *everything* we need on the farm, and post oil is we are 40 miles from a population center is that workable?  With whom will we barter and share labor?  With whom will I drink my home brew?  What village will help raise my children? That desicon is a bit off, but it is not a forgone conclusion despite me soul’s yearning to bring forth bounties from the Earth.

 

Here on State Street I know that the denisty is not sustainable either – too many people even in this lightly populated metropolis for the solar energy falling in its square mileage to produce enough calories.  But I think that this may be closer to the sustainable ideal than a 20 acre oasis an hours drive from here.  I look around and see the collee youth, the educated culturata, the hedonists and know that much will change in the coming years – the years that my children will grow to witness.  As the Flobots say – we are the architects of our Last Stand.  The key to that battle, as any military strategist will tell you, is in choosing your ground.  I have many of the tools and am learning the skills – the choice looming now before me is to where I sink my own roots.   

 

Much thought on this in the coming years.

 

Be the Change.

-Rob

Why one should have Engineers for Friends…

Random email I got today:

Here is an observation I made during the power down:

if 1 million people each cut 100 Watts from the grid, that is 100
million watts of load reduced.
Since all power that is generated must be consumed voltage should rise
as the load decreases.
The power companies (Power generators) will need to cut back on
production to keep the voltage from rising to high and burning things
out that are still drawing power from the grid (A bad thing).

So I decided to monitor the voltage with a very accurate meter at my
house during the 8 pm to 10 pm time frame. I stabilized the load at my
house before taking the measurements (I turned off most all loads,
Water pump, Water heater, Most lights, and anything else that could
cause a line voltage drop if it kicked on during the monitoring
session.
At 8 pm the voltage was 120.1
At 8:15 pm 119.8
At 8:30 pm 120.4
At 8:45 pm 121.4
At 9:00 pm 122.4
At 9:15 pm 122.6
At 9:30 pm 122.2
At 9:45 pm 119.9
At 10:00 pm 120.1

All the voltages I measured were well within the acceptable range for
house hold use even during the event.
It was interesting (but expected) that the voltage went up during the
lights out time and returned back to near the 120 Volt range after the
event.
This suggests to me that we (the people who decided to participate)
were able to make a difference by turning out the lights!

Today (Sunday) I have been monitoring the voltage throughout the day,
It has been in the 120 to 121 range all day.
If we did manage to reduce the load by 100 million watts (100
Megawatt), we actually saved even more power than that! Numbers vary
but between 20 to 40% of power generated is lost in transmission
between the power plant and the end user. That is why Obama is pushing
the “Smart Grid”. If the loss numbers are anywhere near close then the
total power reduction of 100 megawatts was actually more like 120 to
140 megawatt reduction when viewed from the generation end!

There is so much to love here – that my friend took 2 hours of his life to take semi scientific voltages measurements on a Saturday night, that he spent hours preparing for it, that he took more time to email it out, but mostly that he is just so damn excited about it all.

Give the Geek in your life a hug – they will likely save us all.

Be the Change.

-Rob

Rosa Sat.

Like everyone else, I am passing this quote on from NPR today as it moved me on my commute home.  While the meaning can not possibly be as poignant for me as to those in the articles, I still fervently beleive it is true for my children, and all American Children as well:

Rosa sat,

So Martin could walk.

Martin walked so Obama could run.

Obama is running,

so our children can fly.

This campaign will live long in history – thank you to all that are playing a part in it. 

May we finish strong.

Be the Change.  

VOTE!

Garden Update and Food Frugality

Right, so posting has taken a back seat to, er, LIFE lately but I have a bit of time to catch up some.

Hybrids:

When I bought my Inisght 28 months ago I paid $12,600 for it -its a 2001 and it had about 53k on it. Now, 30k miles later, when we are considering turning it in on a 4 door hybrid car I have received quotes -sight unseen- for $11000+ on trade. On E-Bay, Insights w/71-100k miles are going for $16k in Cali and $14 in Minnesota. I had intended the Insight to be an investment, but it apparently has become one.

Ran the Family Fleet fuel intake with our Forester and Insight v. what would happen if we switched our primary car to a Civic Hybrid and used the Subaru mostly for Farm Work and the “second” car, and annual fuel consumption dropped 10% by shifting more miles off the relatively thirsty Forester (27mpg) but adding $14k in debt seems like a bad move. However I just put new tires on the Insight (with 80k on them it was time!) and mileage appears to be up -88mpg on the way home! No easy answers here, so I’ll wait until I am sure.

Market Gardens

  • First sales of the year are in the bank -chives and spinach! First restaurant sales should happen tomorrow with our first cutting of lettuce. Very gratifying to be able to provide food to the community!
  • We had a freak late, hard frost last week that decimated most of the potato growth -setting them back by almost a month, but they are coming back strong.
  • Hoop House tomatoes are over 2′ tall ( for comparison the home ones are still in transplant shock due to cold soil and are all of 6″ tall) and beginning to blossom out! Peppers are about a foot tall. All plants are incredibly robust with thick stems are very dense leaf canopies!
  • “3 Sisters” plantings (56 hills of 10 corn, 5 squash and 7 beans) are sprouted and I will plant the pole beans into them in a week.
  • Onions are 6″ tall and my Jacob’s Cattle beans for drying are sprouting finally.
  • The “Sustainable Market Garden” plot is severely behind due to lack of time, but mostly because I have no water at the site yet. That is a whole ‘nother story.

Home Perma-Gardens

  • Strawberries are insanely productive with what appears to be our best crop yet. First one was ripe this morning -2 weeks earlier than last year- and was freakishly sweet. We planted 125 plants 3 years ago and let them run. We sold off 30 plants this year that were encroaching on our prairie and you can’t even tell. Peak harvest LY was 2 QTS/day for one week, with total harvest spread over a month.
  • Every single fruiting bush (Currant, Hazelnut and Goumi), vine (Hardy Kiwi and Grape), bramble (raspberries), and tree (1 Apple, 2 Peach, 3 Pear, and 2 Paw Paw) survived the second worst winter on record (I mulch ALOT) -and we should get our first orchard harvest off one of the pears! WAY Excited!
  • Peas and Raspberries are flowering, lettuce is up, and my Sunchokes are 2′ high

First “real” rain in over 6 weeks came last night with a vengeance: over 2.75″ here and 2.9″ at the market gardens. The more insane Global Warming is making the weather the more convinced I am that we will all be under some form of Hoop Houses within 10 years for any kind of delicate veggie. Every major front this year has dropped tornadoes somewhere along its line, and the temps are all out of whack -we’ve had 5 frosts since our “last” frost date and now may break a heat record this weekend less than 10 days after a 27 degree frost.

In addition to all of this, Mia and I are back dieting again. I am down 25 pounds from my peak of 210 2 years ago (I am all of 5’7″), but would like to lose another 15-20 to get me under 170, so we are back on Weight Watchers. Cliche? Maybe, but the shit works if you are diligent: I lose 2-5 pounds weekly like clock work. We skip the pre packaged junk and go local of course, but mostly it forces us to be even more concious about what we eat (my portion controls SUCKS – it’s still set where I ate in College… when I was running 3-7 miles and weight lifting 2 hours 3-5 days a week). Yes you can gain weight being a vegetarian -a plate FULL of pasta is too many calories even without the sausage. Weight control is a math equation.

The best part is how empowering dieting is. Just like when we pared down our lives to cut out the excessive consumption, paring down my eating is incredibly liberating. It is shocking how truly consumed by our appetites society trains us to be. The simple Values of Austerity and Patience are, at least to me, deeply wholesome and gratifying.
Be the Change.

Human all too Human

A humorous piece on the insanity of Suburban lawns, brought to you by the Scythe Supply.

Suburban Flight

Last night I was in a funk-attending 2 funerals in a week will do that. Doubtless it says volumes about me, but I went to the coffee shop to steep my solemnity in Arabica instead of whiskey at the local watering hole. Sitting down, I picked up Friday’s issue of USA Today and was pleased to see several articles with a ‘progressive’ bent (why are clean air, water and food progressive ideas?). The first was by Haya El Nasser concerning population growth, the second was Mimi Hall featuring my living folk hero Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm fame. Nasser’s article did about as much as one can on the immense topic of unchecked growth as you can expect in 500 words or less, but spent more energy on transit times and greenspace than on the pending pressures on water, food, and oil. Hall’s article had lots of energy on electronic chips in cattle, but less focus than I would prefer. This is probably why I don’t get newspapers.

Growth is inevitable-at least for now (optimism-remember?). With us cresting the 300 million mark here in America we are currently riding a wave (well maybe a ripple) of rare introspection as a nation. We are getting bigger, more populous, and more diverse than ever before…and the rates of all three are accelerating. It took us 40 years to add the last hundred million, and it will take us less than 30 years to add the next. Due to the fact that the established upper-middle class is reproducing less (affluence has at least some environmental up sides), most of this growth will be driven by immigration: walls or no walls. Europe is experiencing this now, so if we can step out of our Might Makes Right worldview we can learn from their recent history.

One of the interesting trends Nasser drilled in on was that the current data point towards a re-urbanisation of American, or more precisely a de-suburbanisation. Young people are fleeing the suburbs with their impractical commutes, cultural wastelands, and cookie cutter houses. The coolest part of it all is that the cities, in many cases, are ready for them. The infrastructure that was built decades ago to house the workers of America are still there-and with some updating we have cities like St Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit that are currently at 50% of their peak population levels of the 1930’s to 1960’s before Suburbia afflicted us.

I have written about this before, but urban life has taken a bad wrap from the environmentalist ethic. We think of sustainable living as safely ensconced on our 5-10 acres raising some chickens, tending a large garden-living closer to the land. This is still a great option for those like me who are currently employed 50 miles from a major metropolitan center. But for what I can’t grow I have to drive 20 miles to get good organic food and 50 miles to see any even remotely cultural event. But if you work near a city already, the easiest way for you to reduce your ecological footprint is to move in and live in a multifamily building on a mass transit line. Ever live in a apartment building? When I have I never had to run my heater due to 5 of the six ‘walls’ surrounded by climate controlled air. Even in Midwestern Milwaukee within 6 blocks of my apartment I had 2 grocery stores, and Art museum, open air Jazz every Thursday, several dozen good restaurants, parks, and of course Lake Michigan. If I had landed a job there, I would have had no need for a car. Fresh local produce? The Milwaukee Public Market has it in spades, or I could join a CSA. City neighborhoods are alive with community, provide easy access to amenities, and can seriously reduce your impact on the Earth.

I have been nominated to be one of our Village’s 3 representatives in a well funded Smart Growth initiative, and the best bet that we have here in rural America to combat sprawl is to incorporate as many of the needs of our citizens into our villages as possible. To contain our growth seems impossible, like stopping the ocean’s tides. But inherent in that unstoppable force is immense energy-we need not contain the growth (yet) just control it and use it to help the community grow as we intend it to. If Manhattan can put turbines in the East River to generate electricity, then maybe I can change zoning to foster Eco-Villages that are net energy producers, have water runoff that is cleaner than the rain it came from, and share community hybrid cars.

Be the Change!

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