Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book review: The Bio-Integrated Farm by Shawn Jadrnicek

A Revolutionary Permaculture-Based System Using Greenhouses, Ponds, Compost Piles, Aquaponics, Chickens, and More

In my experience farmers and gardeners aren't philosophers, they're doers. They want to know why ― but most importantly they want to know how.

In this quote, Shawn Jadrnicek summarizes what I like best about his book. When I first got into permaculture in the mid-2000s, most books were heavy on theory, but light on practice. Bill Mollison's epic Permaculture: a Designer's Manual has lots of great ideas and big claims. But good ideas on paper don't always result in good results in the real world, and details of implementation can make or break even the best ideas. For successful replication, a designer needs to know what worked and what didn't, under which circumstances. Which elements need to be included? What patterns matter?

Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier's Edible Forest Gardening provided the needed details, grounded in ecological science, for a field until then mostly dependent on anecdotes. Now Shawn Jadrnicek, with the help of his wife Stephanie, has applied similarly rigorous analysis to the subtitular greenhouses, ponds, compost piles, aquaponics, and chickens, all system elements popularly used by permaculture practicioners. There's plenty of information out there about how to build and manage each of these elements in isolation, and much of the permaculture literature offers good ideas for building functional relationships between them. But this book, based on experience with commercial- and home-scale areas, shares the knowledge and wisdom people need for successful integrations.

For example, Mollison and other permaculture authors suggest that chickens, greenhouses, and plants can coexist in a natural and easy combination. When temperatures get cold, chickens move into the greenhouse, adding heat when the plants need it, and improving plant growth by increasing CO2 availability. Jardnicek opens the section "Connecting Chickens to the Greenhouse" by stating:

Before implementing this project, I'd read a lot about connecting chicken coops to greenhouses ― and in theory it works. But as with all theories, the application itself presented challenges. In a nut-shell, chicken coops connected to the greenhouse are both beneficial and problematic.

After experimentation in his South Carolina location, he discovered drawbacks to the theory: plants don't use the extra CO2 at night, when the chickens spend most of their time in the greenhouse; failing to open the coop early each morning may cause heat stress to the chickens; high heat levels may dissuade the chickens from returning to the greenhouse to roost on summer nights; ammonia from poop can quickly build to levels harmful to plants; and chicken dust doesn't mix well with raw veggie crops. He concludes that northerly climates are better suited to the combination than areas with hot winter (and even hotter summer) days. In fact, in any locale, it may be better to situate a chicken coop next to the greenhouse and move filtered air, rather than try for full integration,

The book excels in its attention to detail for the many uses of water. Jardnicek addresses residential needs, crop irrigation, multi-purpose ponds, moving nutrients across the land, and even using water flushes to separate acorns from leaves, with formulas or at least approximations to guide design in each area. He thoroughly covers moving water into and out of tanks, ponds, basins, and fields, and integration with greenhouses, plant nurseries, fish, aquaculture, and chickens. One of my favorite ideas is a system of self-watering seed trays, floating in ponds on Styrofoam rafts weighted to submerge the bottoms of the trays. The detailed description gives me confidence that I could make it work for myself.

Two factors prevent me from raving about the book as I did for Edible Forest Gardens and Martin Crawford's Agroforestry News. The first needn't hold back most readers: my tropical location makes much of the discussion of heat trapping and storage irrelevant. The second is more universal to anyone concerned with sustainability or self-sufficiency. Jardnicek relies heavily on industrial products: chicken and fish feed; pond liners and covers; pipes, pumps, expansion tanks, and valves; tractors and trucks; shade cloth and greenhouse plastic.

As Lierre Keith puts it in The Vegetarian Myth, "The absolute bottom line is: what methods of food production build topsoil while using only ambient sun and rain? Because nothing else is sustainable".

To be fair, much of what Jardnicek describes is for commercial-scale operations where the goal is almost always "less harm" rather than sustainability, and of course each reader needs to decide for him- or herself how much to design for true sustainability. But I think most of the described systems have unwise and irresponsible levels of industrial dependency, and the ideas need to be read with caution.

That said, I do recommend the book. I'm glad I read it, glad I have it for ongoing reference, and will likely reread it when the time comes to design my own homestead. Many of the principles and concepts could be adapted for my tropical needs and non-industrial ethics. I'm already brainstorming about seed trays floating on bamboo mats, or maybe on pond weeds...

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The limits of gardening as the world burns

If every homeowner in Seattle ripped up their lawn and replaced it with edible plants, the resulting crop production would be enough to feed just one percent of the city’s residents, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington.

Researchers in Seattle performed a rigorous analysis of the potential to grow the city's own food. Their conclusions are very similar to my own, based on our experiments in Portland: if everyone in Portland converted their yards and rooftops and driveways to food production, and planted all the public areas, and did a better job than we did...the city could still only feed half its population.

The Seattle study estimates the city could grow 21% of a balanced diet for the city's inhabitants, assuming conversion of all possible surfaces (permeable and impermeable) to food production. Seattle, like Portland, and like all other cities with dense populations, can never be sustainable.

What are the implications for those of us working towards local food systems? It doesn't mean we shouldn't continue our work. But we shouldn't delude ourselves or others into denying cities' dependence on massive importation of resources, almost always extracted violently from the land, and often from humans. It's good and noble work to establish a community garden, or to convert our lawns to perennial polycultures to support humans and non-humans alike. But these individual actions, even if adopted by everyone, will never add up to the systematic transformation we need. To leverage their impact, this localization must be integrated into a culture of resistance, supporting direct dismantling of the industrial infrastructure wreaking large-scale havoc.

It's enjoyable and satisfying, but it's not a real solution to just putter around in our backyards while the world burns. We have to think about, and get involved with, the big picture.

Read the full article about the study: This is why cities can't grow all their own food

The article has also sparked a discussion between myself and another person on Reddit, with more of my thoughts on cities, sustainability, the value of individual action, and more

Saturday, February 06, 2016

(Relatively) quick-yielding perennials

As the new growing season approaches, you may want to plan for some low-maintenance, habitat-building perennial plants to supplement or replace some of your annuals. A friend just asked me, "Do you have any garden plant recommendations for us here in Eugene? We're interested in perennials that establish relatively quickly and provide a good crop in the first year or two." I replied with the following:

Very few perennials will yield much, if at all, in the first year, especially if you're trying to let them establish for a strong future. Some will yield decently in the 2nd year, but for most you'll have to wait til the 3rd year or later. (Assuming from seed - starting with transplants or tubers will speed it up.) That said, I'll include everything below which gives some harvest in the specified time frames, but don't expect huge returns.

First year

  • French sorrel
  • Mallows (Malva sp.)
  • Anise hyssop, lemon balm, peppermint, other mints
  • Fennel
  • Andean tubers (mashua, oca, yacon)
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Wapato
  • Salad burnet
  • Alliums
  • Columbine
  • Malabar spinach
  • Comfrey
  • Perennial kale
  • Chicory
  • Perennial arugula (Diplotaxis sp)
  • Sweet potato for greens?
  • Scarlet runner beans
  • Lactuca perennis

Second year

  • Scorzonera leaves & flowers, and maybe roots
  • Fuki
  • Bellflowers (Campanula sp)
  • Strawberries
  • Lovage
  • Dandelion
  • Miner's lettuce
  • Daylily from divisions
  • Sedums
  • Good King Henry
  • Cow parsley
  • Tree collard
  • Turkish rocket
  • Sea kale & giant sea kale
  • Mitsuba
  • Hot tuna
  • Sweet cicely
  • Sorrels (Oxalis sp)
  • Pokeweed
  • Rhubarb & Asparagus (a little bit)
  • New Zealand spinach? (not successful for us)
  • Violets

Self-seeding annuals (such as Amaranthus sp, Chenopodium sp, Calendula, Land cress, and Borage) and biennials (such as Angelica, Burdock, Evening primrose, and Alexanders) are intermediate in investment and return, yielding in the first year yet often persisting in the garden. It's also well worth identifying and researching all your "weeds", since many of them are probably edible and provide an immediate easy yield.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Open Letter to Reclaim Environmentalism

Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith wrote a powerful letter challenging modern mainstream environmentalism, pointing out that it has wandered down a dead-end trail of trying to preserve our industrial comforts and way of life rather than trying to preserve the natural world. Environmentalism has been so co-opted that members of the "conservation-industrial complex" advocate for nuclear power in its name, with straight faces.

Jensen and Keith decry the insanity of prioritizing the needs of our murderous culture over the needs of the earth which actually sustains us. If you agree with their conclusion, please read their full Open Letter to Reclaim Environmentalism and join nearly 1,000 others as a signatory:

Environmentalism is not about insulating this culture from the effects of its world-destroying activities. Nor is it about trying to perpetuate these world-destroying activities. We are reclaiming environmentalism to mean protecting the natural world from this culture.

And more importantly, we are reclaiming this earth that is our only home, reclaiming it from this extractive culture. We love this earth, and we will defend our beloved.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

PIELC 2015 in Eugene, March 5-8

This year's Public Environmental Interest Law Conference is coming up soon: Thursday March 5th through Sunday March 8th, in Eugene OR. Several Deep Green Resistance members will be presenting, so join them if you can, for this free and informative long weekend!

Keynote speakers include Kathleen Deane Moore, Amy Goodman, Gary Nabhan, and others. The theme for this conference is "Changing Currents":

“Changing Currents” expresses an awareness that the physical currents of our planet are shifting and that we must alter our human patterns to adapt for a better future. Actions of the past set in motion the drastic changes we are experiencing today. At the same time our actions today will deeply affect our world’s future. The currents that drive our climate system are changing and causing unprecedented changes to human and biotic communities across the globe. But, armed with an awareness of these changes, we can mobilize the social currency needed to change currents and set humanity on the path to resiliency. This year’s conference will provide an opportunity to challenge each other and discuss solutions and strategies for how we may move forward in confronting the world of today with an eye towards tomorrow’s reality.

For more information or to register for free, visit the PIELC website.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Spring 2015 Fertile Valley Seeds

Carol Deppe, author of The Resilient Gardener, has posted this year's seed list on her website. Unlike past years, it sounds like this year she'll keep the website info up to date as seeds run out.

She has some unique offerings, only available in the spring, so check out her list and order anything you want right away!

Carol Deppe's 2015 seed list

Monday, January 12, 2015

Book review: Eric Toensmeir's Paradise Lot - parallel universe?

My yard Toensmeier's yard

My project took place in Portland OR, his on the other side of the continent in Holyoke MA. My lot was two tenths of an acre, his lot half that. But besides differences in space for trees, and somewhat different plant palettes, Eric Toensmeir's account in Paradise Lot of applied permaculture reads like a parallel universe of my own experimentations with urban lot rehabilitation and perennial polycultures. We each started with infertile and unpromising soil, but guided by permaculture literature from other regions and with the help of gardening partners (romantic in my case; friend Jonathan Bates in his), we embarked on labors of faith towards similar goals of abundant food production and restored habitat health.

And we both succeeded. I've documented most of my experiments, successes, and failures on this blog. Toensmeier has shared much of his plant knowledge, from which I've drawn heavily, in the appendices of Edible Forest Gardens: Volume Two (coauthored with Dave Jacke), his book Perennial Vegetables, and his DVD Perennial Vegetable Gardening. But besides early site analysis in Edible Forest Gardens, a few video clips from garden tours, and the Apios Institute wiki behind a paywall, we haven't gotten many details on the overall transformation of his lot or on his polyculture explorations. Paradise Lot provides a fairly thorough account of how Toensmeir and Bates selected, analyzed, amended, sheet-mulched, planted, and enlivened their site. Though the theoretical process is well described in various forest gardening books, it doesn't hurt to have another case study providing specific details of how a site plan can evolve over the years.

Many individual species are briefly described, without many surprises for those who have already devoured references like Perennial Vegetables and Martin Crawford's Creating a Forest Garden. Most exciting for me is Toensmeier and Bates covering new ground with perennial polycultures (literally). It seems they encountered many of the same challenges I had with perennial polyculture design, especially from lack of hands-on experience growing and using individual species. It's difficult to assemble successful mixes without intimately understanding the life cycle, growth habits, and harvest season of each component. Amusingly, they created a hog-peanut/gooseberry mess similar to, though not as bad as, my infamous gooseberry/stinging nettle polyculture. A great example of why we need to share information about what works and what doesn't, to reduce effort wasted on demonstrably bad combinations!

Disappointingly, the book ends before Toensmeier has had a chance to develop many successful polycultures, similar to my timing of moving before getting to implement my own new perennial polyculture designs. Even so, there are some succesful polycultures and further hints and lessons in the book. Notably, he arrived at the same conclusion I did: low, spreading groundcovers are critical components. He describes success with some strawberry species, a violet, and some native plants, but without many details beyond that of what specific crops to fit together.

I find it very promising that we achieved similar positive results in fairly different climates. We both successfully rehabilitated trashed urban lots into land that could support both humans and non-humans. We both, through the simple techniques of heavy mulching to build soil and planting a wide variety of perennials, created habitat for greater numbers and species diversity of insects, birds, and other life. By selecting mostly edibles for our plantings, we both wound up with abundant harvests of low-maintenance perennial vegetables. (And we both had a shortage of perennial greens in the summer; apparently this has more to do with the life cycles of perennials than with the summer drought of the Pacific Northwest.) We both had similar success allowing natural predators to handle pest outbreaks. We both put a lot of time up-front into planning and design, but both made lots of mistakes easily avoidable by others learning from our examples, so I feel pretty confident that our achievements are replicable by anyone who takes this approach with even a minimum of planning and research.

I felt surprised by how much focus Toensmeir put on nitrogen-fixers, as I realized a couple years into our endeavour that one person's urine fertilizes 4000-5000sf of forest garden, the size of their entire lot. Despite cycling the urine from four adults into the yard, Toensmeier is still carefully planning N-fixing plants at the end of the book. Perhaps they all spend so much time off-site that they can't capture enough urine, or perhaps Toensmeir never thought to calculate this?

The book also features a strong subplot of the two bachelors hoping to attract mates, with as much success as in their gardening! Personally, I was much more interested in the plant-geek narrative, but I'm sure many readers will appreciate the human interest story balancing out the site analysis and gardening.

Toensmeir explores some of the dynamics of the neighborhood, the town of Holyoke, and the even broader community. I found his vague hope of inspiring change through personal example to be unconvincing. I'm fairly jaded by my own experience in Portland attempting to model something approximating urban self-sufficiency and sustainability: not only were our inputs of free wood chips and dumpstered waste streams unscaleable to more than a small fraction of the entire city, and not only did I conclude that Portland would have to kick out half the population even in a wildly optimistic scenario of everyone doing a better job than we'd managed, but only a handful of the people who toured our yard actually adopted perennials to any great extent. So I'm pessimistic (or realistic) about the inability of cities to ever support their populations in any sustainable manner.

But that's fairly tangential to the main focus of the book, and certainly anyone interested in urban, suburban, or rural zone 1 and 2 gardening can and should learn from this case study. It's a quick, fun, and relatively light read. Enjoy!