Vancouver is notorious for its wet weather, but by this time of year I’m usually so enthralled by the stunning beauty of clear summer skies, I forget all about the gray time of year and think there could be no finer place on the planet. Well, not this year…
I thought last year’s cool, wet spring leading to a late start to a short summer was a bummer, but this year has been even worse, especially for my garden. I have had to reseed many things that are usually very easy to grow–lettuces, arugula, brassicas, radishes even! I mulched too early, causing an explosion in the number of slugs in the garden and they’ve decimated everything. On top of that, I’ve lost tray after tray of indoor starts when I put them into the greenhouse to harden off and apparently rats from the junkyard next door found them. I’m not surprised they ate the nutritious broccoli and collard starts, but they helped themselves to Ellie’s wildflowers too!
On the bright side, the garlic is going strong; we’re eating the scapes now. The strawberries are producing prolifically; unfortunately, the lack of sun has resulted in quite tart fruit. At least when it comes to raspberries and tayberries, tartness isn’t a bad thing and these are now starting to bear fruit as well. I got my corn transplants in the ground much later than I wanted; now I’m concerned that the heat of summer won’t last long enough for the corn to mature. The pole beans, which ought to be really straightforward to grow, are getting off to a really slow start due to slug damage. I have, since realizing the problem, removed the straw mulch from the newly planted areas, but it hasn’t seemed to help much. Likewise, beer bait traps haven’t curbed the onslaught. I just keep hoping for sun and warmth (show me some global warming!) and checking the long-range forecast. Sun always seems to be a few days away, but it doesn’t materialize and I’m starting to lose faith in meteorology. Weather like this has me wishing for a heat wave like they’re having in Atlanta right now. Ahhh… What I wouldn’t give to bask in 100-degree heat!
I’d like to think the pitiful state of my home garden is just an indication that I’m spending too much time in other gardens, all of which have been way more successful. Last weekend we wrapped up the Landed Learning year at UBC Farm with a volunteer appreciation dinner and I said goodbye to the beautiful plot my kids had tended all spring. Every time I’m at the Mt. Pleasant Family Centre, I stop in to see the community garden plot I helped start there, and it’s growing beautifully as well. Even the garden plots at the Charles Dickens Annex Children’s Garden, to which we added almost no compost and can hardly stay on top of the weeding that needs to be done, are off to a great, albeit late, start. There, the lettuces and radishes were well timed for me to harvest a huge bowl of salad for the kindergarten kids to share (since they’re the ones that planted it) with their friends and teachers on the last day of school.
The only high point for me this early in the summer has been the start of my new job at the Vancouver Homesteader’s Emporium. The store hasn’t opened yet, but we made an appearance at the Main Street Car Free Festival to let people know what we’re all about and that we’ll be opening soon. Basically, we’re a store specializing in all manner of urban homesteading materials–from everything you need to keep bees and chickens in the city to any supplies you need for canning, fermenting, baking, and making your own cheese and soaps. And, don’t worry if you don’t know how to do all those things yet; we’ll be offering workshops to get you started! I’m super excited about the opening of the store because it’s a chance for me to learn more as well as share what I already know. Also, it’s great to be involved in the store from the beginning. I went in on Friday to help unpack inventory and clean up the construction mess. The space is looking awesome and I see so much potential for this store as a viable, profitable business! We’re located at 649 E. Hastings St. in Vancouver, right across from Dan’s Homebrewing Supply store, so come check us out. We’re aiming for an auspicious opening date of Friday, July 13th.
My post about life in a dying house could not have been more timely. Soon after writing that piece, in which I mused on the implications of Vancouver’s rapid gentrification and the supreme irony of practicing permaculture on a site slated for commercial redevelopment, I discovered that our property has been sold.
Did my landlord inform me of this? No, I had to do some sleuthing to tease out the truth. Some strange things had occurred recently that started to add up to a major tip-off. First, a few months back, I saw from my kitchen window two men, looking very white-collar, stopped in the backlane; they seemed to be discussing and photographing something in my direction. I went to get my shoes so I could run out and ask them what they were doing, but when I got outside, they were gone. I told myself it was the condo building above that they were pointing out, because I didn’t want to think otherwise.
Not long after that, I saw a two-man survey team working in the back lane. Once again, by the time I got back there, they were walking off around the corner of the far end of the block. From back inside, I saw them get into a City of Vancouver Engineering Services van, so I told myself they couldn’t have anything to do with a private property deal. I really wanted to ignore the red flags, because I love this house and I want to live in it as long as possible, even though I know (and have known since signing the lease) that our time here would be limited.
I got really suspicious when, for a third time, I looked out my kitchen window and saw a strange man walking through my garden. When I asked what he was doing and if he was sent by the company that owns the house, he explained that he was from a third-party “environmental company” checking for a buried heating oil tank. He was evasive about who sent him but, when pressed for information about the property development process, he indicated that oil tank removal is a prerequisite for obtaining financing. I assumed this meant that the current owners intended to finally do something with the property.
The following day, I asked the neighbor if he knew what was going on, since our houses are both owned by the same company. The neighbor said that one of his bums said they saw an ad for our two houses for sale on-line. I immediately googled it and, sure enough, a realtor’s website came up with a photo of both houses under the banner “Just Sold!” The price tag? $1,700,000!
The current landlord says he was going to tell us as soon as the sale went through. Now I realize the inspection required for financing was not being sought by the current owners for building, it was part of deal to sell the property altogether. We’ve been told that, even if the new owners want to move right away to demolish and rebuild, it takes at least a year for permits to go through and plans to be approved by the city. We’ll see what they say in May; that’s when the deal is supposed to close.
In the meantime, I’ll garden like there is a tomorrow.
Over 180 concerned residents of the Mount Pleasant community were registered to speak at Monday night’s Vancouver City Council meeting to state their concern for the re-zoning and development of the southwest corner of Broadway and Kingsway. The developer, Rize Alliance, wants to erect a 19-story luxury condo tower (down from the 26 stories initially proposed), which residents contend is completely out of scale with surrounding properties and will ultimately signal the beginning of the end of affordability for the area. For more details on Rize and this project in particular, see the Mainlander’s article on Gentrification in Mount Pleasant.
Unfortunately, since the development proposal and opposition hearing was item six of six on Monday night’s agenda and since there were so many people signed up to speak, only one of the 180 citizen speakers was given a chance to speak before the meeting adjourned. The rest were invited back the following night to speak, if they could make it, but it must be assumed that not everyone could come back for round two. So, while City Council goes through the motions to appear sensitive to citizens’ concerns, gentrification marches on. Even if the re-zoning application is denied and Rize agrees to build a comparatively modest mixed-use development of only 5 to 10 stories, what the neighborhood will end up with will be a glut of one- and two-bedroom condos. Why no three- or four-bedroom condos? A three-bedroom may have the same floor space as two one-bedrooms, but the developer can’t double the sale price on it.
For those who do not reside in Vancouver, a one-bedroom condo priced under $500,000 is what passes for “affordable housing” here. City Council talks a lot about creating “affordable housing,” but it only ever seems to result in more market-rate condos. The character of a neighborhood can’t stay the same when all the families are forced to leave, which is the pattern in Vancouver: so-called “affordable housing” moves in and families stay as long as the kids are small, but inevitably move east when they outgrow a two-bedroom condo.
What’s taken for granted is that home ownership is achievable and desirable for all families; none of these new developments include affordable rental housing (except that many of the units do sell to wealthy international investors, who profit from renting them, further exacerbating the upward pressure on rental rates). A kind of middle ground exists between owning and renting, but non-profit co-operative housing has all but disappeared from the city’s vocabulary–this, despite the fact that units in the existing co-housing developments, built in the 70′s and early 80′s, are in high demand and co-op applicants can be waitlisted for years.
I’m not proposing that development should be altogether halted; but the rampant over-development that is driving Vancouver families to the financial brink, just before driving them out completely, is ultimately going to rob this city of its designation as one of the most livable cities in the world.
Apart from a five-minute hail storm that caught me out yesterday, the Vancouver weather has just graced me with three consecutive days in the garden. Days one and two were transplant-and-cover days. I’m using bent heavy-gauge wires to support a layer of landscaping fabric that should protect the young plants.
In The Winter Harvest Handbook, Eliot Coleman writes that keeping winter crops covered with cold frames or row covers boosts their micro-climate by one USDA zone (two, if you grow them covered in a greenhouse). Besides keeping crops warmer, cold frames protect them from drying winds and direct sun that can thaw frosted leaves too quickly and cause cell-wall damage.
On day one of the extravaganza, I transplanted young mixed lettuces, spinach, and some onions (to maybe deter a few of the buggies). On day two (yesterday), I transplanted lots of leeks and a kind of romaine lettuce called Cimmaron. I spaced them closely to quickly provide cover for the soil, as well as edible thinnings over a period of time.
Today, day three of my garden extravaganza, I finally got around to shoveling the last of the truckload of soil we had dumped in the driveway last spring. It went on the hugel bed!
The soil layer is only superficial for now, but I’m really pleased with how the bed is coming along. I went ahead and sowed a cover crop of clover, which, if it gets covered with more soil later, will just decompose and add nitrogen to the soil. I also have a tray of lupins started under lights in the basement to plant on the hugel bed. (Lupins are said to fix nitrogen the way members of the legume family do.)
As I was shoveling soil onto the hugel bed, an older gentleman from the neighborhood stopped in the lane to appreciate my garden. He was European and had such a thick accent that I barely understood him, but he seemed immediately to understand what I was doing. He recommended adding manure, which I really ought to do throughout the garden… One more thing for the spring garden to-do list!
If you read my previous post about the City of Vancouver’s various programs for handling organic waste, you’ll know that composting with worms is a great option for residents of apartments and condos because worm bins are compact and odor-free. My family is fortunate to have found an affordable house to rent in Vancouver (what’s really rare is that we have a basement; there’s no “mortgage-helper” suite below) and we have a yard that is all ours to garden as we please. So, I do have one of the city-subsidized black plastic compost bins in my garden, but I wanted to try out vermi-composting for myself.
There are several reasons I wanted to start a worm bin; they boil down to convenience, speed, and frequency of harvest. When it’s cold and rainy outside, it’s a pain in the neck running out behind the garden to the big black bin, so my indoor compost collection bucket started to overflow and stink; I tried keeping a larger bucket just outside the backdoor to reduce the number of trips out back, but it just served to attract raccoons and those little buggers soon found that all they had to do was roll the bucket down the stairs and it would crash open, spilling its delicious contents. Having a worm bin in the basement is way more convenient, although I’d have to expand my vermi-composting operation by three or four times my current capacity to be able to handle all my kitchen scraps this way; for now, we still have to make trips to the backyard bin, just not as frequently. In my experience so far, food scraps are digested much quicker in the worm bin than in the backyard composter, probably due, in part, to the steady temperature and humidity levels of the indoors compared to the wild swings in outdoor conditions. Keeping the worm bin indoors means I can have compost year-round, unlike with the backyard bin, which all but ceases activity in the cold of winter. Whereas the outdoor bin produces a harvest of compost once, maybe twice, a year, the worm bin yields smaller but more frequent harvests of a high-quality soil additive fine enough for seed-starting. Aside from the foregoing reasons, I find the ecosystem of the worm bin fascinating to watch. Give me a few more months with my worms and I might be calling them pets.
I’ve mentioned Frank before: he was the original owner of this house and lived here for over sixty years. Well, his family didn’t do such a great job clearing out his things when they moved the old man to a seniors’ home. Going through a garden storage space under the house, I found a large (I’d guess 15″ x 24″ x 8″) Rubbermaid storage container with a tight-fitting lid and I immediately thought of making a worm bin out of it. I knew enough from reading up on it and I already had a source for worms, so I didn’t feel the need to spend $25 getting the bin and tutorial at the Compost Demonstration Garden. Worms and bacteria breathe oxygen, so to ventilate the plastic bin, I drilled holes all the way around it and about two inches below the top edge. For fear that the worms might try to escape, I used the smallest bit in my toolbox, although now I realize this was an unfounded fear: given enough oxygen and moisture inside, the worms won’t brave the dry air outside. They also prefer the dark, and since my bin is clear plastic, I keep it covered with a towel. Still, they congregate in the center where they’re covered with bedding and have plenty to eat. When I first introduced the worms to their new home, I made bedding for them by shredding newspaper–and lots of it because it compacts when wet. I got my worms from a friend (thanks Sarah!) who has the official city-subsidized worm bin that comes with Red Wigglers. She gave them to me in a bucket of unfinished compost so I’d have plenty of bacteria and whatever other microbes are essential to the process (and because it’s impossible to really separate them). The worms settled in nicely and within a few weeks, I could tell their numbers were increasing and they could start to handle small amounts of kitchen scraps.
It’s been three or four months since I started the worm bin and I’ve just last week applied my first harvest of vermi-compost to a soil/vermiculite mixture for starting seeds indoors (the two 2 x 4′ fluorescent tube fixtures that I use also once belonged to Frank). I am able to feed the worms about once a week without overdoing it. Some people say they have preferences for certain types of foods, but I haven’t really noticed. They seem to gobble up anything remotely palatable to you or I; the one addition I’ve made to the bin that they really didn’t seem to like and took forever to digest was plant trimmings from an aquarium. Perhaps the leaves of aquatic plants are too fibrous… Perhaps the pieces were too large… They completely devoured an addition of leftover couscous in record time (I’m talking mere days), leading me to believe that the rate at which they can break down an addition of food scraps has everything to do with particle size. It makes sense: the smaller the pieces, the greater the total surface area exposed to air, moisture, and bacteria, which, as I understand it, have to kind of pre-digest the food before worms can handle it. Now, before adding anything to the bin, I use my big kitchen knife and practically mince it. I’ve even read that some people use a food processor or blender to puree food scraps before giving them to their worms, thus maximizing surface area and minimizing the time it takes for worms to break it down. I’ll try this if the food processor is already dirty the next time I intend to make an addition to the bin; otherwise, I don’t care to wash it.
In my worm bin, I actually have two different types of worms. There are Red Wigglers, which are kind of fat, pinkish-brown in color, and about two inches long at maturity; and, there are lots of skinny white worms no more than half an inch long. At first, I thought the white ones were just baby Red Wigglers, but I did some research and found that this is a common misconception, that they are, in fact, two distinct types of worms. One clue: I’ve never observed an intermediary whitish-pinkish teenage worm. What I have observed is far more interesting and offers a clue to how the worm bin ecosystem works. The large red worms do not flock to new additions of food; they seem concentrated in older, nearly-finished material. Presumably, bacteria and whatever other unseen microbes are in there are the first to attack new additions, priming the pump, so to speak, for the larger decomposers to do their jobs. Then, I observe large numbers of the small white worms starting to break down scraps that are still identifiable as human food. For sure there is some overlap in their roles, but the large red worms don’t usually seem interested until the food is partially broken down. So, their different dietary habits are another clue that they’re not the same species of worm.
To harvest the vermi-compost, it isn’t entirely necessary to separate the worms, but if you intend to use the finished compost in your garden outdoors, any worms that go out with it may not survive depending on the climate where you live. It is my understanding that Red Wigglers are not native to the Vancouver area and cannot survive the coldish winters here. Besides, it is desirable to keep as many worms in the worm bin so they can continue doing the work you’re paying them for. Separating them is fairly simple. When I start to see a lot of finished-looking compost around the bin, I just use my trowel to push it close to the front of the bin; any scraps that are still whole and need more time in the bin, I push towards the back, piling them up with the bedding and any new food I’m adding. I drape the towel over the back of the bin only, leaving the front exposed to the light. The next time I check on the worms, the nearly-completed compost at the front will be almost completely devoid worms, as most of them will have moved away from the light and towards the new food in the back. There may still be a few of the larger, red worms still working on whatever remains to be eaten in the front, but for the most part, the worms will have separated themselves from the finished product. I imagine, they’d move out completely given enough time, but having to pick a few out and toss them back when you go to harvest the finished compost is no big deal. A another tell-tale observation that lets me know my bin is working as it should: there is absolutely no odor emanating from the bin. By this I am truly shocked, because you’d expect a box of decomposing food waste to have a major stink about it, but it doesn’t (a stinky worm bin, like a stinky compost heap, would be an indication of anaerobic decomposition and should be remedied with adequate ventilation). In fact, it has the pleasant, earthy aroma of a healthy ecosystem.
A while back, I wrote an article for the Vancouver Observer about an electric composter dubbed the Red Dragon that was on trial at the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden. I talked at length with the Garden’s director, Mike Levenston, about this particular composting appliance and about composting in general, as an effective way to reduce the city’s waste and how the city has handled compost historically.
At the time, the City of Vancouver had just rolled out their kitchen scraps collection program, whereby any resident with yard waste collection service could start including vegetable kitchen scraps in their green bin for bi-weekly curbside pick-up. The program was supposed to eventually be able to handle meat and dairy products (good, since it isn’t recommended to compost these in a backyard bin), but two and a half years later there’s been no movement to expand. Also, there was talk about expanding the program to benefit those living in apartments and high-rise condos (where the greatest need for composting en masse exists), but who knows what will come of it.
The city’s kitchen waste collection program is a fine way for the city to appear to be taking a strong stand for the environment, but in fact, accomplishes little. Mike of City Farmer (the organization that runs the Compost Demonstration Garden) pointed out that the City of Vancouver has actually had a program in place for over twenty years to subsidize residents purchasing black plastic compost bins for their backyards. Any Vancouver resident can go to the garbage transfer station in South Van and pick one up for just $25 (compared to $75 or more for similar models available at home improvement stores). If food waste generated by single-family homes is still heading to the landfill in unacceptable quantities, it’s because the city has failed to advertise the subsidization program to maximize its efficiency. I’ve lived in Vancouver for six years and would never have known, until speaking with Mike, that those black bins you see everywhere are part of a city-wide program. Obviously, not everyone in the city has outdoor space suitable for composting, but for those who do, on-site composting is a lot better for the environment than increasing the number of diesel-burning collection trucks on the roads.
Thanks to the city’s “eco-density” development plans, more Vancouverites than ever now live in high-rise apartment and condo buildings. Arguably, residents of high-density areas stand to benefit the most from a compost collection service, since space is a limiting factor in how much compost an on-site system can handle. But, if rooftop gardens can become a valued asset in residential buildings, why not on-site compost systems? Even if they’re not planned for and integrated into a building’s design from the start, there’s something to be said for grassroots activism. Click here for one NYC apartment dweller’s story of how she started an on-site composting program for her building. When neighbors, Strata counsels and building managements just can’t be swayed, there’s still plenty that you can do to divert your organic waste from the landfill:
First, the object of my visit to the Compost Demonstration Garden, the Red Dragon electric composter, a sleek, modern-looking appliance that eats organic waste and churns out usable compost in under 48 hours–impressive, but Mike and I agreed it seemed silly to use electricity to do a job nature would gladly do for you, albeit a bit slower.
The Bokashi fermentation system is another possibility for condo-dwellers. The result, however, is not fully composted; food waste still has to be added to an active compost pile, but if you’re a condo-dweller with a community garden nearby or a friend with a compost pile in their yard, the fermentation process will keep food waste odor-free on your balcony until you can deposit it elsewhere.
Last, but certainly not least, composting with worms in compact, odor-free bins. Vermi-composting, Mike informed me, has also long been a part of the city’s program to encourage residents to compost their own kitchen scraps. You’d never know it for the lack of information out there, but the City of Vancouver also subsidizes worm bin purchases made through the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden. Included in the low cost of $25 is the ventilated bin, bedding material, worms, a handbook, and a one-hour tutorial to get you started. In my experience, worms definitely have their food preferences but will eat through most kitchen scraps in a couple weeks. The bin remains surprisingly odor-free, requires little to no time or effort to maintain, and produces a high-quality fertilizer that can be used to start seeds or give houseplants a boost. The only drawback is that a single bin is hardly enough to process the kitchen waste of a family of four–we’d need three or four worm bins to handle all our scraps! (Or a big dog…)
Given that the City already has this subsidization program in place for getting people to compost on their own, I just don’t see the need for trucking kitchen scraps around the lower mainland. Certainly, there’s no reason why they couldn’t step up the program, advertise it a little, educate city residents about the need for handling some of their waste–just like they bought ad space in all the Skytrain stations before Christmas urging people to “give memories, not garbage.” Then, they could more effectively deploy collection services in high density areas where the need is greatest and only pick-up items like dairy and meat wastes that can’t be properly handled in a backyard compost system. Heck, the city could start a Go Vegan campaign and eliminate the need completely, if it really wants to be the “Greenest City in the World.”