Our First Feathered Friends

September 11, 2012 at 9:09 pm (DIY, food, Gardening, Other, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Following a mid-July family getaway, I set to work on a singular goal: GET CHICKENS!

I’d been thinking about whether to do this for a long time.  I’d read so many books on chicken keeping that I felt there was nothing left to learn except through firsthand experience.  Making the decision all the more clear was the fact that I already had a covered four-post structure and weather-proof shed in my backyard that I wasn’t using.  Following a major clean-up, some minor reapirs, and the addition of nest boxes and a sturdy bar for roosting, the shed would become a large coop where the birds would be safe at night.  The covered structure only needed some physical support, chicken wire, and a recycled screen door to become an outdoor chicken run where the birds would have access to fresh air and sunshine.

Eleanor helping paint the door frame; shed by the basement door for nighttime housing.

The kitchen window looks down on the chicken run–perfect for keeping an eye out for the girls!

The building process was pretty straightforward, the only major snag being the nest of angry yellowjackets in the ground beneath one of the corner posts.  The vibration of my hammering drove them crazy; they would pour out of the entrance to their nest, fly all around scouting for danger, then slowly calm down and go back inside.  Having to back off and wait them out was really slowing things down.  I suffered two rather unpleasant stings to my hand, but soldiered on, talking sweetly to them and telling them I meant them no harm.  In fact, if they would just let me finish, the chickens would soon be helping to fertilize the garden, which in turn would host insects for them to live off of.  Who bargains with bugs, anyway?

Hubbie suited up to work over the wasp nest.

I saved the post above the wasp nest for last and then I did what any sane woman would do–I begged my dear Hubbie to get in there and nail up the chicken wire for me.  He kindly obliged, putting on thick leather gloves and his winter raincoat for wasp protection.  He was sweating bullets in the middle of the only “heatwave” our miserable summer could muster up and, thinking he’d be covered in angry wasps, he planned to get in there and get the job done as quickly as possible.  And then–miracle of miracles!–not a single yellowjacket emerged as he drove in the first nail.  Proceeding with much trepidation, he completed the job without siting a single one.  The hive was gone!

For the last six weeks we believed they had simply moved house.  Strangely, all that remained was a large hole that looked to be the handiwork of a small animal.  Then, last night I came across the fact that a skunk or raccoon will dig out a wasp nest and eat the larvae.  For several nights in a row a few weeks ago Hubbie and I had seen a skunk rather cutely waddling through the unmown grass in the front yard.  Mystery solved; thank you Skunk!

The girls are introduced to their new home. Two standard-sized hens hopped right out; the pigeon-sized bantams had to consider it.

Buying that first bag of chicken feed was like crossing a threshold, a point of no return: we were really getting chickens!  We drove all the way out to Maple Ridge to pick out the four hens from a woman named Loretta.  She had dozens of chickens on her 12-acre property and had, at one time, tried to keep them separated by breed so that she could raise purebred chicks.  But, she greatly valued them having free range, so they tended not to breed as she wished them to.  She said that she gave up after a while and settled for raising healthy, happy mixed-breed birds–not such a bad compromise, really.  When it comes to dogs, I’ve always preferred a friendly mutt over a finicky purebred myself, so I totally agreed with her philosophy.

We chose to take home two likely-pure Old English Game Bantams (very small, amusing, and good for children) and two standard-sized hens.  The largest hen, Goldie, is likely an Orpington x Cochin cross and the white hen with gray-green feet she said was probably an Araucana x Cochin.

Dada gets a turn at the feeding trough. The Strawberry Shortcake tray from 1985 is what we serve “treats” on. It makes a nice metallic sound that the girls now recognize.

Goldie and Lord Snow hang out together a good bit.  Here they’re dust-bathing in an old metal sink filled with dirt.

Having hens has been fairly easy so far.  Only once have we had a missing-chicken-scare!  We were late eating dinner one night and the girls were antsy for their pre-bed free range time so we let them out and continued with our dinner, keeping a close eye out the window for them.  When I saw the neighbor’s cat in our yard, we all ran outside to shoo him away and do a head count to be sure and… we couldn’t find Fluffy anywhere!

Her beautiful coloring is called Wheaten. OEG Bantams are only about the size of pigeons at full maturity.

Fluffy was Eleanor’s personal selection and is so sweet, Ellie was handling her and hand-feeding her the day we brought them home.  We were quite sure Johnny Trouble couldn’t have gotten her that fast and there were no signs of a chicken abduction, so we just waited for the sunlight to fade that magical amount that would trigger the chickens’ head-for-home instinct.  For the remainder of our meal we spoke very seriously to Eleanor about the slim chances of this bird returning; we, perhaps a bit insensitively, tried to console her with the reminder that these chickens were to be food-producing animals, not pets, so we shouldn’t be too sentimental about it.  About half an hour later, quite unbelievably, Fluffy came walking around the corner of the house just as the other birds were starting to make their way toward the coop door.  She had been hiding from the cat, we supposed.  She and Dada did a reunion dance and that was that; they went in to roost for the night.

It turns out that chickens are the ultimate creatures of habit and, for this reason, it isn’t hard at all to get them in and out.  Since our coop is not contained within or directly attached to the outdoor run but is actually separated by about five feet, I was worried in the beginning that it would be difficult to herd them into the run in the morning without setting up some kind of “chicken chute” to prevent them escaping.  By now, though, we’ve settled into a timely routine that works for us.

The hens now get some free range time in the morning when they first come out of the coop and in the evening before they go back in to roost for the night.

Now, we’re just waiting for eggs.  Not wanting to raise chicks our first time, we started with 4-5 month old pullets, so they should be getting near old enough to lay by now.  However, egg production is influenced by hormones triggered by daylight and since the days are getting shorter and shorter, it could be spring before we have consistently good egg production, even if they started laying  now.  Supplemental lighting for a few hours a day may be something to try during the winter months.  For now, we’re just enjoying watching and being with our first feathered friends!

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The Weather’s Got Me Down; A New Job Has Me Looking Up

July 1, 2012 at 8:46 pm (Gardening, goings-on, Other, permaculture, Vancouver) (, , , , )

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.

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There’s no such thing as too many gardens.

June 12, 2012 at 4:49 am (Eleanor, environment, Gardening, Other, parenting, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve been saying for the last month and a half that perhaps I’ve over-extended myself with all the gardens I’ve been involved with lately, but they’re all so dear to me, that I can’t possibly think about not participating in one of them.  Closest to home and to my heart is my own backyard garden, where despite the slugs eating all the seeds I’ve tried to start outdoors, I’ve enjoyed lots of greenhouse-grown spinach and lettuce salads, the asparagus has finally sprung forth, the apples are the size of quarters, the flowering kale is 7 feet tall, and the sage is ablaze with purple flowers.

woven wood bean trellis in my home garden

The Family Center where I take my son for a children’s play group finally received a plot in the community garden next-door and, knowing that I am a gardener and student of permaculture, the newly-formed gardening group asked me to come and help out with garden planning and seed starting.  It was a fun morning and I think I even blew a few minds with my explanation of “weeds” as helpers and indicator species.  For example, when asked what to do about dandelions in the garden, I pointed out that, not only are all parts of the plant useful in a myriad of ways as food or medicine, but that the plant itself plays a vital role in rehabilitating worn and compacted soil by reaching deep down with its thick tap root and drawing up water and nutrients that are out of reach of other plants.  After reflecting on this, most members of the gardening group were “wowed” by this new perspective on a plant which has undeservedly earned the ire of gardeners all over.

garden art by landed learning students

Also, I was involved in helping plan the 10-year Reunion of the Intergenerational Landed Learning Learning Project at UBC Farm.  This is the third year that I’ve been involved in the project, so I volunteered to run an activity booth to share with others my passion for permaculture.

activity booth set-up

I worked very hard over the last couple months working on a card game aimed at educating people about the myriad connections between elements of natural and man-made landscapes.  I created a deck of fifty-two cards (and counting…), each one featuring a different element (for example: chicken, human, bathtub, rain) with their inputs and yields listed on the back.  As with dominoes, game play involves laying one of your cards down next to one that’s already been played, but it has to link up–that is, where a connection of resource use or energy flow can be made, or, where the output of one card serves the needs of the other.

permaculture card game

It’s more of an educational toy than a winner-takes-all game, but I think it’s a fun way to illustrate the interconnectedness of man-made systems with those of the natural world.  How well the point came across, I don’t really know, but I do know that people had fun thinking outside the box.  More than one participant caught on to the fact that all the excess heat and steam produced by taking a shower or using a clothes dryer could, with good design, be directed for secondary use to heat a greenhouse, for example, instead of simply being released into the atmosphere.  This is exactly what I wanted people to get out of the game: an understanding that thinking differently about how we design our homes and lay out our neighborhoods and cities, we can create landscapes that both serve the needs of humans and reduce energy and resource consumption.

I have learned so much myself from my involvement with Landed Learning, but I’ve also gained an incredible sense of confidence and pleasure in my role as a mentor and educator, which brings me to my third garden engagement, the Children’s Garden at Charles Dickens Annex.  My daughter started kindergarten this year at this wonderful little neighborhood school.  It’s K-3 and very small, which we like a lot, but the garden, which was established over 30 years ago, has experienced an unfortunately high variability in maintenance and parent involvement over the years.  I’d like to change that by tailoring some of what I’ve learned through my involvement with the Landed Learning Project to working with the younger kids of Charles Dickens Annex.  This year, we have a group of at least 6 parents dedicated to cleaning up the garden and getting the kids from all six classes involved in planting the garden.

At the beginning of the spring, the school owned no seeds, tools, or gloves to even get started in the garden, so one of the parent volunteers who writes for a living submitted a very well-written and thoughtful application for a Small Neighborhoods Grant that will supply the funds for these items as well as pay for someone from the Environmental Youth Alliance to visit our school and speak with the kids about bees and the importance of their role as pollinators.

We’ve had two garden clean-up parties so far, at which we transplanted the blueberry bushes, and prepared the raised beds for planting by weeding and adding compost to them.  There are two mature apple trees in the back of the garden from which the children harvested fruit in the fall to make apple pie for their Thanksgiving celebration lunch.  The trees, however, were quite overgrown, making it difficult for people, even little people, to move around them.  I made it my project to prune these trees during the garden clean-ups and, although it was a bit late in the year to prune fruit trees and we did lose a lot of the flowers, the trees are now producing a lot of fruit and look much better.  I think the increased air flow and light that will penetrate through the branches will help keep these trees healthy for a long time to come.

annex kids started pea seeds on classroom windowsills

We’ve also submitted a grant application to the Vancouver Greenest City Fund to supply the school with funds for some additional projects.  For starters, we need to build a new composting system.  At this point, there is no flow to the compost system; new organic material is simply added willy-nilly to one of four separate black compost bins and the result is a big mess.  Composting is an important part of organic gardening, as it completes the cycle of nutrient flow, returning to the soil what has been removed.  But, if we’re going to educate kids and participating parents, we need to do it properly so that it results in a nutrient-rich compost that is safe and effective, not smelly and harboring potentially dangerous pathogens.  So, we’re asking for materials to build a single three-bin composting system with clearly-labelled compartments for adding new material, turning in-process material, and completed compost.  We’ll add labels with instructions on what can and cannot be composted in a small backyard system.  Additionally, our grant application requests funds for rebuilding the raised garden beds, as some of them are starting to rot and they’re all quite low to the ground, which makes them inaccessible to students that use wheelchairs and walkers.  The paths through the garden are also prohibitively narrow for children who use mobility devices so it would be nice to redesign the layout of the beds to accommodate those students.

Another project I’ve been brainstorming for the Annex is the creation of a food forest play space on the back side of the school.  The idea came to me when I observed my daughter and her friends playing under the overgrown bushes.  They had formed a club called the “Nature Nuts” and were hiding out in their “clubhouse.”  It brought to mind a book I read a while back: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit-Disorder, in which author Richard Louv argues that urban children suffer from a lack of natural spaces in which to play freely and imaginatively.

Looking around the grounds of my daughter’s school, I notice exactly what Louv describes: fancy modern (and no doubt expensive) play equipment that offers a limited array of ways to play and a large grassy field ringed by some nice shade trees.  There’s no denying that the latter affords ample space for running around, playing sports, and having picnics, and the former aids children’s development of skills and coordination, but neither offers much for the imagination.  By contrast, natural spaces with varied topographies, trees for climbing and swinging from, overgrown bushes to hide in and around–these allow children to escape to other worlds and play anything they want.

I realize many parents feel that it is unsafe for a child to be out of sight in a public place because there are bad people in the world and tragic things have happened to children in places where they should have been safe, like on school grounds.  That being said, children shouldn’t be denied a connection to nature because their parents have been fed a dose of media-hyped paranoia about child predators.  And maybe, just maybe, access to nature for all members of society can have a humanizing effect and engender more sensitivity and compassion in all people.

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Maw-Maw On My Mind: A Garden Update

April 8, 2012 at 5:07 am (Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , )

Despite the news of the impending sale of our house to a commercial property development company, the glorious springtime weather has us out in the garden almost daily.  In the last few days, I have added aged manure to the garden beds and greenhouse.  Every bed has received a nice layer of straw to protect from spring rains and drying winds.  The apple trees, blueberries, and strawberries (all in containers so they can go with us when we have to move) were top-dressed with manure.

An afternoon of sun showers and hail storms followed a morning of potato planting.

The night before last, I noticed a full moon, big and low in the sky.  I wanted to get potatoes in the ground to test Maw-Maw’s theory about planting root crops with the waning moon.  For above-ground crops, Maw-Maw only plants when the moon is in the sign of Cancer.  She says that’s what her father used to do.  He wouldn’t have called himself a biodynamic farmer or anything so new-agey; he was the heir to a long tradition of farming and he knew when to plant by simply looking at the stars in the night sky.

Without knowing the word, I bet my great-grandfather would’ve grasped the concept of hugelkultur.  My hugel bed is coming along nicely now.  So far, I’ve transplanted the lupins I started inside to the hugel bed, as well as some oregano and thyme.  On one side I sowed quinoa and the millet seeds I saved last year, in hopes that these grass-like plants will grow quickly and spread their roots to hold the mound in place.  Later, I’ll plant some sprawling tomatoes on the mound, which will benefit from the warmth reflected off the garage wall.

An old baby gate will serve as a trellis for the tayberry. The wire fencing, visible on the left, extends 8-10 ft. out of the picture and will provide support for shelling peas as well as a little privacy from the busy back lane.

Of course, the garden really begins in the basement, where last year we set up 4 ft. tube fluorescent lights for starting seeds on some built-in shelves.  The part of the basement where the seedlings live stays around 60 degrees F., which is fine for starting most seeds of flowers, herbs, lettuces, and brassicas (broccoli family).  But, heat-loving plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant germinate best when the temperature is closer to 70 degrees.  In the past, I have germinated these types of seeds by precariously balancing their trays on the fluorescent light fixtures themselves to make use of any wasted heat.  This year, I have moved and rebuilt a shelving unit to make use of the heat given off by the gas furnace.

The exhaust pipe from the furnace blasts these shelves with wasted heat every time the heater comes on, keeping this area a few degrees warmer than the rest of the room.

Next up: starting seeds for all the heat-loving crops to be transplanted when it really warms up outside.  And, as if it isn’t enough for me to handle this whole garden by myself, I’ve gotten in touch with some other moms at my daughter’s school to form a garden committee to clean up and maintain the Children’s Garden.  Thursday, after spending the whole morning at UBC Farm helping with the kids in the Landed Learning project, I spent the afternoon pruning the severely overgrown apple trees at our school.  Ideally, it would’ve been done when the trees were dormant, so we’ll be losing some flowers this year, but it really needed to get done and I hope no one complains.  Maybe when we’re asked to leave this house and our beloved garden, the Children’s Garden could be the recipient of many plant donations by me…

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Just Sold…

April 7, 2012 at 3:49 am (Gardening, permaculture, Vancouver) (, , , )

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.

I placed an order for manure and straw bales to be delivered just days before I discovered that our house was sold. No time to ponder the loss: I'm going to get the most out of this year's garden since it may be the last.

I added a healthy dose of composted manure to the garden beds and a layer of fresh straw to protect the soil surface from compacting and drying out. Already, I've sown seeds for salad greens, carrots, radishes, fennel, spinach, collards, and kale.

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Zen and the Art of Natural Farming

March 4, 2012 at 7:34 pm (books, Gardening, permaculture) (, , , )

If you, like me, feel that Mankind could use a major kick in the pants, spiritually speaking, then Masanobu Fukuoka’s book, The One-Straw Revolution, is a must-read!  Don’t be fooled by how light-hearted this little page-turner is; it is packed full of wisdom that will appeal to anyone interested in exploring permaculture’s philosophical side.

You could call it “Zen and the Art of Natural Farming.”  Natural and “do-nothing” are the terms Fukuoka chooses to describe his approach to farming.  He does not mean, of course, that one can grow food by doing absolutely nothing, but that one should avoid doing nothing which is unnecessary.  In many places throughout The One-Straw Revolution, Fukuoka-san draws on the Taoist principle of Wu Wei–actionless action–which is a state of being in which acting becomes quite effortless because it is aligned with the ebb and flow of natural cycles:

[N]atural farming arises of itself when a unity exists between man and nature.  It conforms to nature as it is, and to the mind as it is.  It proceeds from the conviction that if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything.

More such nuggets of wisdom, less esoteric and all the more poignant for guiding humanity:

Extravagance of desire is the fundamental cause which has led the world into its present predicament.  Fast rather than slow, more rather than less–this flashy “development” is linked directly to society’s impending collapse.  It has only served to separate man from nature. […]  The more the farmer increases the scale of his operation, the more his body and spirit are dissipated and the further he falls away from a spiritually satisfying life.

To be worried about making money, expanding, developing, growing cash crops and shipping them out is not the way of the farmer.  To be here, caring for a small field, in full possession of the freedom and plentitude of each day, every day–this must have been the original way of agriculture.

Perhaps my favorite line in the whole book:

A natural diet lies right at one’s feet.

Can you think of a better slogan to sum up the whole local food movement?

This book is packed full of such gems.  I’m not even done with it, but I’m enjoying it so much I wanted to put it out there that I highly recommend it.  It’s not your average gardening book with instructions for growing this vegetable and that fruit and when and where to plant things.  I have seen this book referenced in so many others that I’m surprised it took me so long to get around to reading it myself, but I’m glad I finally did!

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Creating Micro-Climates for Heat-Loving Crops

February 17, 2012 at 6:06 am (Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , , )

There was a picture I wanted to post, but can’t seem to find in my photo collection… maybe I didn’t really take a picture; maybe the memory is just that vivid.

Picture this: Two winter squash plants growing side by side, organically, in the same soil.  One is pale in color, with leaves that are mottled with powdery mildew, and has but one small fruit.  The other, is vigorous, with bright green leaves, and boasts several fruits that are maturing rapidly. The difference between the two is marked.

I’m not making this up or speaking hypothetically.  These plants were grown on a test plot at the UBC Farm, where my PDC courses were mostly held.  The 24-hectare teaching farm is right by the coast, where conditions can be very cool and damp (yes, even in Vancouver, there are varying degrees of wet).

Besides sun, water, and NPK, some of the most popular garden veggies really prefer warm weather–squash, melons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, and corn (to name quite a few) really do best with some heat.

I hope the next time I grow corn, it turns out better than this. Obviously, it wasn't fully pollinated--a problem with growing too little corn for good pollen dispersal by wind.

In the squash example, the first one was planted in freshly-dug garden soil with a healthy dose of finished compost to get it started.  The other one, the vigorous grower, was planted on a mound of unfinished compost and soil, then covered with a tarp for moisture retention and insulation.  That the plant was raised a bit above the level of the surrounding garden, caused cool, damp night air to settle away from the plant on the mound, so it was less susceptible to fungi and molds.  And, the heat created by the compost continuing to break down kept the plant’s roots several degrees warmer than the outside air temperature.  When a plant is referred to as being “heat-loving,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be grown in a hot climate or greenhouse where the air temperature is high; heating the plant’s roots can be enough to boost growth.

I failed to mention in my last post, Hugel What?, that heat is one of the main reasons for building raised garden beds in the hugelkultur style: heat from rotting wood, lawn trimmings, and compost at the center can give a boost to plants growing on the  mound.

Other ideas for creating a warm micorclimate: using black plastic or landscape fabric as “mulch” between plants because black absorbs and traps heat; use gravel and rocks in your garden design because they store heat and release it back slowly as the surrounding air cools at night; use pools of water or water-collection barrels for the same reason (heat-storage); position heat-loving plants against a south facing wall that will reflect light and heat during the day; if you’re container gardening, place plants on pavement and asphalt surfaces to reflect and store heat.

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Hugel What?

February 13, 2012 at 6:46 am (DIY, Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , )

Hugelkultur…as in raised garden beds built, mound-like, of bramble and soil.

I’m expanding the garden once again with the addition of a hugelkultur raised bed on the rear of our property.  The project was inspired by and decided upon within an hour of finishing reading Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture, in which Holzer describes a method for establishing new and long-lasting garden beds by simply piling up raw materials and covering them over with soil.  Hugel is German for hill, or mound.

The inner-most ingredient in a Hugel bed is wood–branches and trimmings from the yard, old lumber if it isn’t treated or painted with lead, even entire fallen trees for a really long bed.  By design, the wood, as it decomposes in the center of the mound, should become like a sponge and hold a resevoir of water which plant roots can tap into and feed from.  The largest wood goes in the center, followed by smaller branches and brambles.  I didn’t happen to have any fallen trees at hand, just a sad Christmas tree the city kept missing on collection day and a fifty-year-old carpet that had sat outside in the rain for a year, molding and falling apart.  Into the Hugel bed they went.

Carpet and rotting wood form the foundation of the Hugelkultur garden addition.

The middle layer of the bed can be made of whatever organic materials are on hand… anything biodegradable, really.  I would put coarser materials on first, like straw and leaves; then finer, nutritive materials like manure and/or compost.  The latter will provide immediate fertility to initial plantings, while the longer break-down time of the former will ensure continued fertility and soil tilth.

Finally–and I’m not even to this step yet–the bed should be covered with topsoil and planted into immediately.  As plants get established and start growing, sending down their roots, the layers of the bed will be woven together so that the whole thing holds.  Mulching between plants will also help retain soil and water.  Alternately, you could sow the whole bed with a “green manure” cover crop like clover, vetch, or lupins which would hold the soil in place and fix nitrogen in preparation for planting a heavy-feeding crop like corn on the new hugel bed.

I think my new Holzer-inspired hugel bed will be planted with clover and lupins initially and, later, with sunflowers, peas, beans, squash, some heat-loving herbs, and the tayberry (which will be trained against the wall of the neighbor’s garage).  When completed, my hugel bed won’t be nearly as high as Holzer makes his, but with the addition of a trellis along its ridge for the vining plants to grow up, I think it will do double duty as a privacy screen blocking the view from the lane behind our property.  I’ll post more pics as it comes together over the next few weekends.

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My Foray Into Vermi-Composting

January 19, 2012 at 6:59 pm (DIY, food, Gardening, permaculture, Vancouver) (, , , , , , , )

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.

A tangle of worms--are they having a party?

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.

When the old bedding got really mushy, I added more shredded newspaper.

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.

If you look closely, you may be able to see the small white ones.

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.

The worms loved the couscous. I separate the nearly-finished compost towards the front of the bin.

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.

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A Belated Happy New Year to All!

January 11, 2012 at 5:56 pm (food, Gardening) (, , , , , )

A favorite Southern culinary tradition is the eating of collards and black-eyed peas for luck in the New Year.  We ate our Orca beans instead.  Yes, this was a New Year’s meal over six months in the making…  (We recently cooked up some pinto beans that we grew and dried two years ago.  Not surprisingly, the older beans took a lot longer to soften; despite soaking them overnight and simmering them on the stove for two hours, I still found a crunchy bean or two in my chili.)

Beautifully colored beans grown from West Coast Seeds seed.

These beans, simmered low and slow with pancetta and onions in Christmas turkey broth did us proud on New Year’s Day.  But, as creamy and delicious as they were, we don’t plan to grow them again next summer.  In no way did they disappoint; our concern is only for the limited garden space we have.

The Orca bean is a bush-type plant, as opposed to a pole bean.  Pole beans, or runner beans, are well-suited to a tight urban garden because they can be trellised and grown vertically, thereby saving ground space.  We ended up with a total of one and one half cups of dry Orca beans and their plants grew on a total of about ten square feet of garden.  Next year we’re going to try other pole beans besides Scarlett Runners and maybe save bush beans for a future when we have more ground space.

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