Monday, April 30, 2012

Post #7 Producing food...inside your home

Remember back you your 2nd grade science class...  Your teacher handed out beans which you covered in a wet towel and put in a dark room.  After a few days, POOF, there was life- the bean burst open and a little green stem shot out.  This bean experiment that most kids go through sheds light on the origin of life.

Now, fast forward to your current, non-second grade science life.  Many of you want to produce food at home but the idea of starting a garden is daunting.  We need fresh vegetables all year round even though winter inhibits year-round vegetable growing.  So the question is 'how can you engage your inner 2nd grade scientist to produce a healthy, inexpensive food source for your family?'  Easy, sprout your own beans!

Say goodbye to packages of store bought sprouts.  Now you can do it at home.
Tap into your second grade imagination to remember that SEEDS ARE AMAZING: they are small yet they contain blueprints for the plant's entire developmental future and they are so unassuming yet they link the plant's past with its future. As you know, seeds are a warehouse of vitamins, minerals and energy to be used by the emerging plant.  Before roots can start taking up minerals from the soil and leaves can start breathing, all of the plant's life comes from the goodness locked inside a seed.  Seeds themselves are often dry and hard so they don't make good eatin', but a sprout is a whole different story.  When the seed germinates and begins to resemble an edible sprout a variety of magical chemical reactions take place: the hard seed becomes soft and palatable, inactive molecules become activated and enzymes, amino acids and minerals become available.  As a great source of protein, sprouts are great for vegetarians.  The benefits of eating sprouts are well known, to start your research see here.

Like this painting suggests, so much is stored in a seed.
How do you sprout your own seeds at home?  Its quite easy- the most popular method consists of just a few simple items:  a jar, a small piece of vinyl mesh, a dark area, water and seeds.  Many different seeds can be sprouted including mung, alfalfa, radish, broccoli, and clover.   You can find literally hundreds of websites online that offer instructions for sprouting seeds at home so I suggest searching for a set up that suits your household.  Here are a few with nice, clear videos to get you on your way.  This video  (9 minutes) is easy to follow and very informative.  This video (7 minutes) shows you how to specifically grow sunflower sprouts.  To really save money it's best to buy dry seeds in bulk and store them in a dry place while you continuously make small batches of sprouts in your home.  The following video is strictly for inspiration.  Happy sprouting!  

Friday, April 20, 2012

Post #6 Keeping your soil healthy and our landfills smaller

When I started work with the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy in March I knew that a big part of my Spring workload was to get our backyard garden off the ground.  Upon arrival I asked myself, 'what does this garden need?'  We needed to remove a lot of rocks, install deer-proof fencing and a watering system, we needed to buy seeds, obtain a soil test,  procure some type of fertilizer, and develop a planting plan.  So, where did I start?  What did I do first?  That first week- when the March days were still a bit chilly and the nights a bit frosty- I started making compost.  I knew that making compost was going to take a relatively long time (compared to buying seeds) and was one of the most important aspects of a long-term sustainable garden.  Why?  Its simple- the productivity of your garden (much like the productivity of a forest) relies on the proper condition of its soil.  By composting onsite at the Armstrong House Education Center we will always have home made humus to add to our garden's soil.

Lets back up.  What is compost?  Compost is a stable organic medium that holds water and nutrients, provides a lofty structure, buffers pH, prevents leaching of minerals and is generally a wonderful addition to your soil.  You could read on and on and on about what compost is and why it is awesome.

How do you make compost?  Imagine you just mowed your lawn and you throw all the clippings in the corner of your property.  Over time, worms, bugs, fungus and bacteria literally eat the leaves and break them down into smaller pieces.  In the end, all thats left is a big pile of usable carbon, nitrogen, calcium and other minerals.  Composting is the exact same thing with only one major difference- compost is usually managed (read: sped up) to yield a usable human product.  I lifted the following quote off of a compost website:      
"Compost" is a matter of location and planning. Anything living starts decomposing when it dies. You call it compost when you put it in a pile and WATCH it decompose. "

A handful of beautiful compost

My backyard compost system is like most other peoples.  I compost food scraps: lemon peels, egg shells, apple cores, squash guts, pineapple tops, broccoli ends, coffee grounds and all the rest of the organic matter that comes out of my kitchen as 'waste'.  These items are then mixed with things like sawdust, woodchips, leaves, dirt, straw and grass clippings.  Mix together, aerate, water, give it some time and Voila! COMPOST!

 Compost systems (don't let the word 'system' scare- we are still just decomposing organic matter) come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are made to be stored inside your kitchen. Some systems are set up to take meat, bones, fat, and oils.  Some take advantage of worms. At a compost workshop in Vermont I met one guy-a dairy farmer- who was composting whole dead cows and another guy- a slaughterhouse-owner- who was composting 'waste' blood.  Almost anything organic can be composted!  In retrospect, I never would have imagined all those workshop attendees- crunchy granola types, professional cow killers, professional cow milkers, recycling gurus, and me (an admitted soil chemistry geek) to be in the same place at the same time.  There is something about compost that brings people together.

A poster for a compost program in New York City.  

So what is appealing about compost?  Why are people across the country beginning to compost in whatever way, shape and form they can.  Why is the City of Portland, Oregon spending public money on a city-wide composting initiative?  How can it be that American companies that make industrial sized, super efficient composting apparatuses are selling their products (to the tune of $25,000+) to Universities, high schools and corporations?  Simple answer: composting makes sense.

Here is the undisputed alternative to composting our organic food 'waste'.  Throw your food in the garbage at home.  Garbage bag fills up- put it on the curb.  Machine picks it up and brings it to a landfill.  Why are our landfills filled with food?  Do we care about seagull populations so much that we really want to feed them?  If you own a business, you pay to haul your garbage, which means you pay to haul food.  If you own a kitchen and you buy plastic garbage bags, you are paying money to haul something that doesn't need to be hauled in a bag.  If your local curbside garbage service is paid for by tax money, your tax money is paying for hauling something that should never leave your property.

Living Lighter on the Land is all about seeing things in new ways.  When I see food scraps and leaves, I don't see dirt and waste, I see vitamins, minerals, nutrients and energy.  Those things don't belong in the landfill, they below at home in your garden.  Looking at your plate after dinner, what do you see?
Living Lighter on the Land is also about honoring our biological and ecological nature.  Food isn't 'garbage' or 'waste'- it is (or was) a living organism.  That organism breathed, grew, metabolized, and developed before it got to your plate and it deserves a respectful and appropriate burial.            

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Post #5 A little taste of Ecuador

To honor the beginning of the growing season the next few posts will focus on backyard gardens and food.  Because the production, shipment, and disposal of food requires so much energy, learning more about our food culture might allow us to find ways to Live Lighter on the Land.

We all eat food, but where does it come from?  Currently, much of our food is raised in other countries or other states and is shipped to our local market.  While walking in the produce section read the source location of your banana- it ain't Florida.  Meat from Brazil, berries from Washington, Pineapples from Hawai'i - eating is a global experience.  Every time we take a bite we are experiencing a little bit of soil, sweat and sunshine from a far off land.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?  In response to the growing global food system a grassroots 'eat local' campaign has taken flight in the United States.   There are many reasons to eat locally, but one reason often quoted is difficult to wrap my brain around.  To summarize this reason, proponents of local food say that as food gets closer to home, the total energy required for production and consumption decreases.  Much of this has to do with energy used in transportation; an apple grown in your county takes less fuel for delivery than an apple grown two states away.  On the surface this makes sense, but I have often wondered about all of the other energy that goes into food production, and how local food compares with non-local food.  This article addresses just that.  Apparently a handful of scientists did something very difficult- they tallied up all the energy it takes to produce a food product and compared multiple styles of production.  They include obvious things like shipping, and farm equipment, but also quantify things like water use, fertilizer outlays, the amount of photosynthesis during production, etc.  In the end they announce that eating local food does not always save energy.  If purely saving fossil fuel is your priority, you have a lot more homework to do when buying food than just researching its origin.

But, what about the other reasons for eating locally and what do they have to do with Living Lighter on the Land?  Because I work for a land trust and we are interested in land use and biodiversity I will use the perspective of landscape ecology.  Think about your landscape.  You're driving down the road and you pass houses, buildings, cities, forests, swamps, and farms; all these pieces come together to create a mosaic of interacting units.  Plants and animals move from one landscape unit to the next and larger processes (i.e.,wildlife movement, water filtration) are carried out across multiple landscape units.  A farm as a landscape unit is certainly more conducive to ecological functions than a set of buildings, roads or a city block.  Farms obviously vary in shape, size and character, so what kind of farm is most ecologically beneficial?

If we are to buy food from somewhere and our options are 1) A large monoculture farm or 2) a small diversified farm, from an ecological perspective it is wise to support the small diversified farms.  In the northeast, perhaps neither are more ecologically valuable than a healthy forest, but if we are forced to choose one farming method it is the small diversified farm that better preserves our landscape's ecological integrity.  How?  Large scale monoculture farms rely on heavy inputs from synthetic fertilizers which wash into waterways and cause a series of ecological problems.  Also, large expanses of land used to grow just one crop make an inhospitable environment for a large array of native organisms.  Soil erosion is also linked with the common practices of large scale monoculture farming.
On the other hand small diversified farming practices, by planting a variety of crops that support the soil in different ways over time, are more able to retain their soil.  Composting is achieved and organic fertilizers are also commonly used on small diversified farms.  By leaving more areas for wildlife (hedgerows, corridors, ponds, etc.) small diversified farms can keep a forested landscape more connected than a huge monoculture farm.  A neat NY group called Farmscape Ecology conducts research and provides education on the ecological role of small farms in the landscape.            

A question that I still have is "what is the connection between 'local' and 'small diversified' farms"?  Another way of asking this question is 'is every local farm a small diversified farm'?  Yet another way is 'is every local farm practicing good ecological stewardship'?  The answer to these is 'no'.  If you live in Sioux City, Iowa your local farmer is the Tyson chicken plant.  Great for local biodiversity?  Perhaps not.  Terms like 'local', 'organic', 'sustainable' and 'green' are only as good as the practices they represent.  They have all become ambiguous buzzwords which often time lack substance or clarity.  When it comes to food production one type of buzzword is not ready to solve all of our problems.  Maybe the non-organic farm down the street is best.  Maybe the organic farm across the state makes more ecological sense than the farm in town.

We need to develop a better system for understanding what takes place on farms.  A good place to start is by just visiting a farm or farmer.  Meet your farmer at the market, organize a neighborhood farm visit, or join a local food advocacy group that is a storehouse of local agricultural information.  If we can't get the information directly from the farmers, our local conservation and natural resource groups should be educating the public about different farms and their practices.  One thing is certain- there are ecologically 'better' farming practices and food choices out there (i.e. small diversified farms) and it is our responsibility as eaters and consumers to see through the buzzwords and buy the food that makes our living landscapes healthier.

With a dedicated rebirth of small diversified farms opening in the Northeast (see NOFA) we have more options to support our local farmers and in turn, support our local landscapes.

A small farm nestled among forest land.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Post #4. An example of rethinking our place on the planet

Here in the east, we have forests.  When the forests were carved up to accommodate human settlement trees were left along road, next to houses, at property boundaries, in cemeteries and in school yards.  Now, years later, we walk amongst these huge trees and connect with our place's past.  I am convinced that our connection with huge trees is not confined to just the naturalist or the botanist- most people have a healthy respect for big, old trees.  We submit to feelings of reverence when in the presence of these giants.  Perhaps we empathize with their long struggle for survival or maybe we remember our grandparents and think it best to merely respect our elders.   How do we think about these amazing organisms after they die?

Standing dead tree, or 'snag'

Here in Pound Ridge, NY very large trees- usually maple, oak, sycamore and sometimes even American elm- sit like centerpieces in many lawns and properties.  On one of my running routes I admire a huge black oak tree that was badly damaged by the Halloween 2011 storm.  The heavy wet snow tore the tree's large crown to bits and left it hanging upside down from the top of the trunk.  The trunk was severed and gashed open.  I always look forward to running past this tree because it stands out from its manicured surroundings.  It looks wild in a sea of tamed.  It reminds me of a hobbled war veteran- proud, but obviously succumbing to his wounds.  There is something about the tree's injured state that is intriguing.  For some reason, the huge gashes in the trunk make it look bigger and even more impressive.  I have more respect for the tree because I can physically see its vulnerability and I know what it has been through.  

The storm that threatened the tree's life also claimed three human lives and left an entire region without power for days.  It is the kind of storm we will tell our children about and will change Halloween in the east forever.  The kind of disaster that brings people together.  

On this morning's run I was slowly making my way up the hill to where the old oak stands.  As I rounded the bend to see the oak I quickly noticed that the tree had been felled over the weekend.  The disassembled tree was sitting quietly in a metal container on the street.  A cleanly shaven stump marked its former place in the lawn.  The property now blended in with the rest of the manicured neighborhood.  The one distinctive organic feature on the street had been removed.  The old war veteran was taken out of his misery.  Instead of withering on a pedestal in front of the neighbors he was quickly removed, destined for the mulch path or the fireplace.  No one wants to look at a broken down old tree.  Or do we?

I challenge the paradigm that says old dead trees should be removed from your property, and for two reasons.  The first reason, rooted in ecology, says that standing dead trees, or 'snags', provide ecological value to the area.  Snags are a useful resource to wildlife.  Woodpeckers, owls, flying squirrels, bats, hundreds of insect species and songbirds all use snags as places to eat, hunt from, sleep in, or nest it.  Also, as a snag decays it sheds carbon to the ground and soil which is gobbled up by invertebrates, which in turn feed birds and small mammals.  Interestingly, its not just animals that can use a snag for habitat.  Plants and fungus can make their home in or on decaying wood, some of which are nitrogen fixers, which enrich the local soil with usable nitrogen.  Simply stated, snags are a form of natural capital- valuable nutrients, carbon, housing and food for our local ecosystem- that we casually just throw out.  Two websites for more snag ecology info.        

The second reason I challenge the practice of removing snags from your property has to do with our human culture.  These behemoths stand out against the surrounding young forest and remind us of the stature and glory that is attainable by our local forests.  Every huge tree that is removed from our landscape is a severed tie to our past.  If we take away too many huge trees our children miss out- they won't witness the big trees from the past.        
Of course, most of my readers will recall that dead trees can fall on their house or other property. This is absolutely true, and if you have a tree that is threatening your property or your life, you are justified in removing it.  But consider this, a dead or dying tree can have its threatening parts removed while leaving non-threatening parts behind to act as wildlife habitat.  Outstretched limbs can be taken off, and the trunk can be shortened to the point of being benign.

A non-threatening snag.  Only 20 feet high and still valuable to wildlife.  

The title of this post is 'An example of rethinking our place on the planet', but why?  During my run this morning, after I saw that the big oak was removed, I contemplated the ways we think about our ecosystems.  Many people would consider a dead tree unsightly, unnecessary landscape features, a liability, something 'unnatural' amongst a well manicured green landscape.  This perspective neglects to consider other plants and animals, the soil, the area's history, the ecosystem's future and the complete lifecycle* of a mature tree.  Me, on the other hand, think that snags are neat and sexy (see the picture at top of this post).  Someone might say 'a person can remove a dead tree from their yard if they think it is ugly- people can decide for themselves if something is ugly or not'.  Sure, you- as the landowner- can judge for yourself what is ugly or not and you have the freedom to remove ugly features from your property.  My point here is that the criteria many people use to judge if something in nature is pretty or ugly (good or bad, too much or too little) is based on limited perspectives and seriously limited information.  Specifically, the biological and ecological perspectives are completely overlooked.  Why?  The perspectives that relate to us as living organisms in a shared ecological environment are systematically overlooked.  Why?  Its kind of like judging a Vincent Van Gogh  painting while forgetting the artist's setting, philosophy, tools, history and personality.  One can render a judgement but the judgement is not likely to be sophisticated, intelligent, defensible, or even accurate.  
 *As a side note, the word lifecycle is totally misleading because the life of a tree does not end with its death.  Instead, it stands for decades and continues to react with the rest of the ecosystem*

This is an example of rethinking our place on the planet because I have taken a common domestic 'problem' (felling a 'nuisance' tree) and expanded what we know about it.  In the course of doing so I have promoted a perspective that considers humans as connected to the rest of nature.  Humans don't live in isolation.  The rest of nature doesn't live in isolation.  We all live together.