September 21, 2011 |
by Beth Buczynski
Would-be urban farmers have organized to fight an outdated city ordinance that prohibits the growing gardens on parkways, the city-owned strips of land between curbs and sidewalks.
Plantable land is scarce in densly-populated urban environments like Los Angeles, California. So those interested in growing their own food have to get creative about finding open plots.
By law, Los Angeles residents are required to maintain their parkways by mowing and watering them. So Richard Finely, founder of L.A. Green Grounds, decided he would use the convenient strip of land to grow edible plants instead of just grass.
Unfortunately, under a local ordinance, citizens wishing to grow plants on L.A. parkways must first obtain permits which cost at least $400 and up to thousands of dollars. Even with the permits, plants can be no taller than 36 inches, ruling out corn, beans, and lots of other delicious plants.
“The high cost of the permit to plant is very prohibitive for communities will very little excess income,” said Finley. “A lot of these places have very few options for healthy fruits and vegetables, so they are being called ‘food deserts.’ Parkway gardens would add food options, enhance lives, open up communication, and build stronger ties in communities.”
The city threatened to make Finley get rid of the garden, but backed off in August after community members and local press rallied around the issue.
The rule is ridiculous, especially because cities often have to hand out tickets just to get people to mow their parkways, and Finely and other like him are just trying to turn them into a productive and beautiful piece of urban land.
To fight for the right of any L.A. citizen to garden his or her parkway, Finely recently launched an online petition campaign at Change.org asking council members to amend the ordinance. In fewer than 48 hours, more than 300 people have already signed the petition.Reprinted with permission from Insteading
by Christian Schwagerl
From the flat roof of a brick building in Berlin‘s Kreuzberg district, the German capital looks like a concrete jungle. Apartment blocks, churches, and office buildings dominate the panorama. But Erika Mayr thinks this spot is the ideal habitat for her seven bee colonies. “My bees like it very much up here,” Mayr says.
Standing at the edge of the roof, she points to an alley of lime trees lining some streets near the building. She mentions the “trees of heaven” in the neighborhood, an invasive species that loves urban heat islands and is known for its nectar-rich flowers. And she highlights some sandy wastelands that are home to flowering plants during the period critical for honey production in spring and early summer.
Mayr grew up in rural Bavaria and now splits her life between three jobs, typical for her generation: She works in her original profession as a gardener, runs a nearby bar, and for the last few years has been producing and selling “Stadtbienenhonig” or “Berlin Citybee Honey.” Mayr, who is in her 30s, is one of the protagonists of a new trend in Berlin: raising bees. In recent years, paralleling the rise of urban farming in small gardens, keeping thousands of buzzing bees and producing one’s own honey has become very popular in this city of 3.3 million people.
Berlin is just one of many cities worldwide where beekeeping is enjoying a surge in popularity. Globally, a renaissance of beekeeping is underway as urban dwellers seek to reconnect with nature — and earn some money. In Hong Kong last year, expert product designer Michael Leung brought together local beekeepers and artists to form “HK Honey,” a company that markets honey from the city’s rooftops, rare green spots, and suburbs. In Britain, according to a recent report in The Guardian newspaper, membership of the British Beekeeping Association has doubled to 20,000 in just three years “as young, urban dwellers transform a rather staid pastime into a vibrant environmental movement.”
This renaissance taps into a culture of urban beekeeping with particularly deep historical roots in European cities. Paris at the turn of the twentieth century boasted more than 1,000 hives, and after a long decline following World War II, that number has resurged to almost 400. Some hives even claim expensive real estate, like that atop the historic Paris Opéra. For all of Germany, the beekeepers’ association reports the first increase in memberships in years, to over 40,000, following a long decline in both beekeepers and number of colonies.
In the U.S., where the number of colonies decreased from 6 million after World War II to 2.4 million today, thousands of young people are re-discovering this ancient skill. Beekeeping is still banned in many cities by “No Buzz Zones” for fear of people getting stung. But places like Detroit and Chicago are showcases of a movement to make it an integral part of the urban economy and ecology. Chicago’s city hall is home to more than 100,000 bees. With its rich patchwork of urban farms and open lots, Detroit is investigating beekeeping as a new tool for community development and economic growth. New York, where beekeeping fines once topped $2,000, lifted the ban last year, legalizing what many people had been doing for a long time.
Both environmental activists and bee researchers recognize a great potential for beekeeping to benefit from urban environments and at the same time improve them. In Britain, research by the University of Worcester and the UK National Trust supports the notion that in a world of large-scale industrial agriculture, bees find a greater variety of sources for their honey production in cities, leading to equally diverse flavors. When scientists compared pollen sources in beehives in urban and rural locations, they saw that in cities like London, bees collect from many different plants, whereas in rural Yorkshire and in Somerset, “samples were heavily dominated by oilseed rape with little other pollen types detectable.”
“Bees today often fare better in urban environments than in contemporary farmland,” says Matthew Oates, Nature Conservation Adviser at the National Trust. Ecologist Jane Memmott from the University of Bristol, who is involved in a UK research project called the Insect Pollinators Initiative, thinks that the untapped potential of urban beekeeping is huge. “There’s a greater diversity and abundance, probably, of flowers in cities than there are in nature reserves and the countryside,” she told the BBC. Also, the flowering season is longer because cities are heat islands with an average temperature that is 2 to 3 degrees higher than in the countryside. Many city gardeners grow plants that flower very early and very late in the year, “so there is forage over a longer period of time,” says Memmot.
The most serious side of urban beekeeping is that it might sustain the colonies (and the many skills involved in keeping them) while investigators attempt to sort out the causes of so-called “colony collapse disorder,” which wiped out 35 percent of the U.S.’s honeybee population between 2006 and 2009 and has also afflicted hives in the UK and some other European countries.
Berlin’s beekeepers see themselves as part of the global renaissance. The last big boom of beekeeping in Berlin occurred immediately after World War II, when food was scarce and people tried to make a living with what was left in the ruins of Nazi Germany. Today, beekeeping is not a sign of hardship, but of a raised ecological awareness in a nation that prides itself on its recycling mania and transition to renewable energy.
Berlin‘s beekeeping boom recently came to public attention when two of the city’s leading hotels, the Intercontinental and the Westin Grand, installed beehives on their roofs. Many other large buildings, like the Berlin legislature’s offices, also have become home to bee colonies, though most people have not noticed it. A pro-bee initiative, “Berlin Buzz,” was recently awarded a federal grant to equip prominent buildings in Berlin with beehives. Initiatives like this inspire many city dwellers who start keeping bees in more private locations — on balconies, in backyards and on rooftops. Even kindergartens offer themselves as beehive locations. Courses for beginners to learn the many skills necessary during the “bee year” have become very popular.
Erika Mayr started to become interested in bees around 2004 through an arts project. For a competition, her architect friend Stéphane Orsolini had developed a concept about how to revitalize Detroit. It involved creating new sources of income by setting up hundreds of bee colonies on vacant lots. Mayr joined the project in 2008, but her involvement with bees didn’t end there. Rather, it changed her life. “I’ve since become a bee person,” she explains. “It really means a lot to me to connect nature and people in a city like Berlin through this fantastic product, honey.”
Although the origins of apiculture in Egypt and Greece are closely linked with cities, most people today consider the countryside as the ideal place to keep bees. But in Berlin, there are more than 400,000 trees lining the streets, many lots and gardens with flowering plants, and open spaces that offer vegetation to bees. “Pesticide use is much lower in the city than in the countryside,” Mayr says, “so urban beekeepers can offer a very clean product.“ She is proud of her honey production of 40 kilograms per colony — twice that of the countryside.
The Berlin beekeeping boom has already led to a specialized company being formed to market urban honey. The woman behind “Berliner Honig,” 34-year-old Annette Müller, said, “I see a real case for a local bee economy. Berliners consume about 4,000 tons of honey each year, but mainly from sources they don’t really know.”
Müller bemoans the fact that according to German law, food producers don’t need to tell their customers where honey comes from. “Food labels will show idyllic German landscapes, but most of what people consume will be produced more industrially in places like China and brought here after long storage periods with huge CO2 emissions over long distances,” she says.
Müller wants Berliners to ask for locally produced honey and to enjoy fresh honey with distinct tastes and textures. “It really should become a product like wine and cheese, where people do appreciate when, where, how and by whom it was produced,” she says. Recently, Galeria Kaufhof and Edeka, two major supermarket companies in Berlin, started carrying “Berlin Honig” in their food sections.
Müller says about 500 beekeepers exist in Berlin today, producing 150 tons of honey. But the boom also brings with it some risks. Both Mayr and Müller are worried that people who start beekeeping as a private hobby underestimate the efforts and the responsibilities that come with it. “You can’t just leave it alone for six weeks because you lost interest or you need to go on a business trip,” Müller warns.
Varroa mites and foulbrood are of particular concern. Nothing akin to the colony collapse disorder seen in the U.S. has occurred in Germany so far, but hygiene and pest control are crucial. As bee diseases are contagious, Mayr says a lack of control could easily lead to a large number of beekeepers getting into trouble due to the negligence of only a few.
At the most fundamental level, the new generation of beekeepers in Germany’s capital believe their local honey will at least raise people’s awareness about the origins of their food. “With our honey,” says Müller, “we want to tell a story about urban biodiversity and the coexistence of people and insects in the city.”Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Luke Seall
Some people say that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Well I beg to differ. After partaking in a short 1 day foraging course, my eyes have been opened to the world of edible delights growing on my doorstep. Next time you’re on your way to the supermarket, why not have a look in nature’s larder first. Here are some tips to get you going.Where to start
Start with something familiar. I started by picking blackberries because they are easy to find and easy to eat. When you find what you are looking for, take a look around at what kind of environment they are growing in, and what else is growing there. You will start to recognize familiar plants and understand what conditions certain plants grow in.Learn
Get yourself a good book, or indeed several on wild plant identification or foraging. Find out about any local courses or wild food walks. The best way to learn is to be shown by an expert. Talk to the locals when you are foraging. They may have valuable knowledge on where to find specific plants. Take photo’s of plants that you are struggling to identify and seek help from online forums. Make a map and take notes of what you’ve found and where you found it. This will make it easier to find next year and help you develop an instinct for where to look for certain plants.Urban Foraging
Living in a city is no excuse not to get your foraging basket out. Many edibles thrive in urban areas. Having spent weeks scouring the countryside for rocket, I found vast quantities of it growing out of the pavement one street away from my house. In many cases, it’s easier to forage in the city than to go to the supermarket!Cook
Get yourself a good collection of recipes. You probably won’t find many recipe books that tell you how to cook something like Sea Purslane, but the Internet is a wonderful resource for learning how to prepare and eat your wild food. There is no point in gathering a basket full of edibles if you don’t know what to do with them. Be patient and open minded. Many wild plants require careful preparation before they can be considered pleasant enough to eat!Safety, the law and the environment
Never, under any circumstances risk eating a plant unless you are 100 percent sure you have identified it correctly. Always consult a good book or speak to an expert before eating something you are unsure about. Also be aware of where the plant is growing. In towns and cities, many edible plants are considered weeds and may have been doused in herbicides. You must also respect the environment when foraging. Only take what you need. Don’t strip a plant bare, take a little from many plants to allow them to continue growing healthily. In the UK there is a huge collection of laws and bi-laws that relate to foraging. The best advice is to use your common sense. One regulation to keep in mind is that it is illegal to uproot any wild plant in Great Britain. It is advisable to contact your local authority to find full details on what you can and can’t do.What to look for
Here is a selection of the most common plants to get you started. They should be quite easy to find.
In the countryside
Blackberries, Damsons, Sloes, Plums, Crab Apples, Apples, Elderflowers, Gorse flowers, Mallow, Rose hips, Wild Garlic, Fennel, Horseradish, Hawthorn.
By the seashore
Sea Kale, Sea Beet, Rock samphire, Marsh samphire, Kelp, Fennel, Sea Purslane, Seaweed (Many edible species).
In the town
Perennial wall rocket, Blackberries, Elderflowers, Wild Mustard.
Foraging for your dinner may not always be as convenient as popping to the local shop, but it certainly makes up for it with the enjoyment and satisfaction you get from collecting and cooking your own food. There is a forgotten world of delicious, unusual and exciting edibles out there waiting to be tasted. Who cares about convenience when you are up to your waist in nature collecting crab apples! So get your wellington boots on and get out there.Reprinted with permission from Green Living Ideas
by Steve Savage
For a long time we have been hearing that “Organic is the fastest growing segment of the food industry.” Organic advocates make the claim that Organic could “feed the world” or that it could be “the solution to global warming.” There is definitely enough buzz about Organic to make all of this seem plausible. The popular image of Organic is that it is finally becoming a significant part of the food supply. The actual statistics paint a very different picture.Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Failure to Do The Math.
In 2008, a USDA survey of US Organic growers got responses from over 90 percent of the growers, so we know a great deal about the US Organic industry. In that year there were nearly 2.5 million acres of certified Organic cropland. That follows growth since 1995 at the rate of 144,000 acres/year (see graph below). That sounds like a lot of land to most people (an acre is roughly the size of a football field).
In fact, all those Organic acres put together still only represent 0.71 percent of the 370 million acres of US cropland. The amount of that cropland that was actually harvested in 2008 represented only 0.52 percent of the total. Organic cropland area has been growing, but only at 0.0385 percent per year on an absolute basis (see chart below). At that rate of growth, US Organic cropland will still represent less than 2.5 percent of the total in the year 2050. The math suggests that Organic will remain as a small niche market.Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Marketing.
Organic has been heavily marketed as a “super brand” so that the advertising dollars spent on everything from yogurt to spinach to baby clothes contributes to a unified consumer image. Organic also receives a great deal of free promotion by certain environmental groups, University programs, and certain corporations wanting to present a “green” image. Positive messages about Organic and negative message about conventional food are abundant in the world of food and sustainability blogging, and in the media in general. All of this gives the impression that Organic must be a sizable industry.Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? The Price Premium.
When you hear a statistic about rapidly growing Organic sales, there are several things to remember. The Organic farmer gets a premium price which is needed to cover higher production costs. The “Organic Premium” does not end there. Instead, each player in the value chain (shipper, broker, distributor, retailer) charges a premium over their normal margin for Organic products. Also, most of the statistics are about grocery retail, which don’t include food service, which is about half of US food consumption. So a lot of Organic spending does not mean a great deal of Organic farming.Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Contact With Organic Farms.
Organic also seems bigger to many consumers because they have some direct contact with a small, local Organic farm through a CSA, a farm stand, or a farmer’s market. Many people know a student who has gone to work on an Organic farm because that has been a major trend in recent years. All of this gives the impression that Organic is a major movement in the food industry. Indeed there are a great many small Organic farms. By 2008 there were >9,600 relatively small Organic farms in the US (having less than $100,000 in total sales – net income would be lower). Those farms represented 70 percent of all the Organic farms. Having a lot of people involved in farming is a great thing; however, all of those farmers combined only produced 6.6 percent of total Organic sales (see graph below) and thus an even smaller percent of all food sales. People enjoy being able to buy from small, local, Organic farms, but they represent a miniscule proportion of our food supply. A highly visible Organic farming industry does not mean that Organic is large.Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Imports.
In recent years, much of actual growth in the Organic sales at the consumer level has come from imports of mainly non-perishables from outside of North America (frozen fruit and vegetables, grains, dried fruit, fruit juice concentrate, milk products etc). This last point is of concern to many different observers (Tree Hugger, Cornucopia Institute, Public Radio International, USDA, Business Week, various bloggers) Because the Organic certification process relies mainly on paperwork and does not include random or even scheduled product testing, the possibility of fraud is substantial. Many US Organic farmers are also concerned about being undercut on price, particularly if the certification system in other countries has less integrity. Organic consumers are often surprised about the imports. In a famous case, a frozen vegetable mix called “California Blend” was sold at Whole Foods. In small font on the back of the package were the words, “produced in China.” It is even more difficult to get statistics on the extent of Organic imports or to know which food products contain imported ingredients. There are widespread concerns about this major source of growth in the US Organic sector.
So, in spite of seeming otherwise, Organic farming is a very small part of US crop agriculture. It seems destined to remain small. Organic is a solid niche and a good business for some players, but when we hear Organic being promoted as “the solution” to our food supply and environmental issues, we need to be skeptical.
Graphs by Steve Savage based on USDA-NASS and USDA-ERS data.Reprinted with permission from Sustainablog
by Jennifer Lance
As a gardner, I have certain assumptions about food. Fresh is always better; however, I do freeze for winter. Recently, a friend shared that frozen food was actually more flavorful and nutritious than fresh food available in the grocery store. This threw me for a loop: I always thought “frozen fresh” was an oxymoron, but the reasoning made sense.
With today’s massive industrial agricultural system, fruits and vegetables are picked before they are ripe to ensure they do not spoil in transportation. As result, flavor is lost and heirloom varieties that will only ripen on the plant become obsolete. In contrast, frozen food is picked when ripe then frozen immediately. So which is better?
Contrary to my assumptions, some vitamin content actually drops upon ripening. Natural Hub reports, “The vitamin C content of many fruit is higher when it is slightly immature, and declines as the fruit hits peak ripeness.” According to Vitamin Deficiency Today:
- “Potatoes lose 50 percent of its vitamin C in two month after harvesting and almost 80 percent of vitamin C is lost after four month of storage.”
- “Spinach which is very popular because of its valuable nutrients, lose 80 percent of its vitamins during first two days after harvesting even if it is stored in cool and dark place.”
- “Fresh green peas…lose significant amount of its valuable nutrients within a week. Study has showed that 77 percent of vitamin C in fresh green peas was lost after seven days of storage.”
Thus, eating the freshest food possible is the best for your health. But what happens when the fruit is picked days or sometimes weeks before reaching your local grocery store? Vitamin Deficiency Today explains:
Studies have found that frozen vegetables in some cases contain more nutrients than fresh ones.
Scientists found that cooked frozen green peas contain higher levels of beta carotene than cooked fresh peas. Most frozen fruits and vegetables bought at supermarket were frozen very soon after harvest and it helps to minimize the loss of nutrients. Today we should agree that fresh vegetables are not always better for us, because of long food storage periods.
If you are not growing your own food or shopping at a local farmer’s market, do not discount frozen vegetables, especially if eating out of season. Frozen food grown in the United States is better for you than fruits and vegetables grown in South America and transported to the United States. Energy consumption used to freeze produce is an environmental concern; however, the carbon footprint of transporting food is also heavy. As always, local, seasonal produce is the best bet for your health and the environment.Reprinted with permission from Sustainablog
Technology companies, sprawl and suburbia may have replaced the fields of prune, apricot, cherry and walnut tree orchards that once graced what is now my neighborhood, but local food production is beginning to slowly return to our region. Silicon Valley may again one day be referred to as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”, its former nickname from back when the area’s local landscape was dominated by rich, diverse food production and stunning natural beauty.Edible Landscaping by Example
Last weekend Common Ground’s 5th Annual Edible Landscaping Tour featured 10 beautiful and creative home gardens from Menlo Park to Mountain View on the SF Peninsula, all with an emphasis on organically grown vegetables and fruit. This popular event continues to attract a growing number of eager attendees ready to learn how to transform their suburban gardens and grow their own food.
The 313 attendees were treated to a diversity of designs from formal to informal, and each garden was a celebration of suburban micro-farming: using garden spaces to supply seasonal vegetables and fruit for the family table as an alternative to growing purely ornamental plants. Many homes also kept chickens, geese, ducks and rabbits, and one had several bee hives.
Tour-goers spent a full day gathering ideas and tips for reducing or eliminating lawns and incorporating edible plants into their suburban gardens for tasty and nutritious fresh food all year round.
A special participant was local restaurant Chez TJ , a Michelin starred fine dining restaurant in Mountain View with a commitment to local, seasonal, fresh ingredients. Executive Chef Joey Elenterio explained enthusiastically how much the staff loves perusing the restaurant’s lush organic garden each morning to find inspiration for the day’s menu.
Silicon Valley is certainly known for its innovative and progressive social climate, but Bay Area residents can sometimes be conservative when it comes to their suburban garden landscaping. A few years ago some residents in Palo Alto (famed home of Stanford University and Steve Jobs) received notices from local realtors that their front yard vegetable gardens were lowering the property values in their neighborhoods.Changing Attitudes One Garden at a Time
Hopefully more edible garden tours will help to change such backward attitudes towards what is considered suitable landscaping for a suburban home, and in the near future cultivating a kitchen garden will be the pride of every family across the nation.
The Edible Landscaping Tour event is organized yearly by Common Ground Organic Garden Supply and Education Center to promote sustainable gardening practices and to encourage growing food instead of lawns. The proceeds benefit Common Ground, a non-profit organization for 40 years.
Reprinted with permission from Ecolocalizer
FAO (The food and agriculture organization of the United Nations) released their June estimate of global food price indices yesterday. The new numbers were mixed, but not encouraging overall. Sugar was up 15 percent over the month. All the other indices were nearly flat: Dairy up 0.2 percent, Oils down 0.6 percent, Meat down 1.5 percent, Cereals down 1.3 percent. The net change was a miniscule +0.6 percent. This is bad news for poor people who spend much of their income on food for their family.Farmers Are Trying To Reverse This Situation
Farmers have been doing all they can to boost production and get reserves back up. The American row crop farmers have been frustrated by flooding or fields that were too wet to plant in the Midwest. Along the Mississippi river, farmers watched helplessly as 40-50,000 acres of prime land was flooded. Away from the rivers, drought and heat had already hurt yield potential. For wheat growers in France, Kansas, the US and Russia, rains were late for the winter wheat crops. The French crop could be 15 percent down – the lowest in four years.Double Whammy
Then to make matters worse, the rains were too early for planting the spring wheat, corn and soybean crops (34 percent of normal vs a typical 85 percent.) In May, Reuters reported that Ker Chung Yangan investment analyst for Phillip Futures in Singapore, a “double whammy.” By June 5, only 79 percent of the US spring wheat crop had been sown vs an average of 98 percent for the past five years. This makes millers nervous because so many baked products depend on the high protein, hard red spring wheat crop from North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota.
A Brief Moment of Optimism in June
FAO distributed high quality wheat seed to flood-affected farmers in Pakistan – $54 million worth. That lead to a bumper crop worth nearly $190 million – a 4x return on investment. Wheat yields in that country are often limited by the fact that there is no viable “farm credit” system to allow farmers to buy good seed, fertilizers and chemicals. Then, in early June, Russia announced that they would lift their export ban on wheat. That caused a round of selling of wheat – something that is regretted now.This Food Price “Spike” May Not Be a “Spike” Afterall
The previous food price spike started in April of 2007 and ended in January of 2009 (21 months). This spike began in January of 2010 and it still going strong 16 months later. With poor harvests this fall, we can’t expect to see prices drop until well into next year
A Hard Question That Needs Much Thought and Discussion
This may not be a “spike” at all. This may be the new food price paradigm which has major ramifications for global security and international policy. During future shortages, do we sell these limited supplies to the rich customers (Japan, Western Europe, Oil Rich Middle Easterners) or to the world’s poor (sub-Saharan Africans, oil-poor Northern Africans, Eastern Europeans, Central Americans? ). These are very important questions that deserve a serious dialog. You can join that discussion here.
Reprinted with permission from Sustainablog
So you are interested in growing plants in your soil. You have picked up a packet of seeds and read on the back: This plant prefers a “loamy soil.” You wonder, what does this mean, and how can I tell if my soil is right? This guide will give you a brief introduction to types of soil, and how to tell what soil you area has.What is soil?
Soil is not easily defined. This amorphous substance that covers the dry land of our planet can be any shade of color and most any texture. Everywhere it is different, and may or may not be able to grow the variety of plant you have selected. In order to determine what type of soil you have, it is important to understand three key types: Clay, Silt, and SandClay, Silt, and Sand
Simply put this distinction is a scale ranging from small particle sizes to large particle sizes. If you grab a piece of your soil, rub it between your fingers, and notice that it feels sticky: your soil is high in clay. This soil has the smallest sized particles present. If in the same test, your soil feels soapy and smooth: it is high in silt, the next largest particle size. Finally, if the soil feels grainy: it is high in sand, the largest particle size. The best soil type for most farming is a mixture of sand and silt with a little clay. This mixture is known as loam.
So why does a good soil prefer all three soil types? Firstly, many plants prefer not to sit in standing water. Sand allows water to pass quickly through the soil in between the large particles. This is referred to as “drainage”. Clay is high in minerals which plants use as food and energy. Silt is a good medium which both allows drainage and contains some nutrients.
So now you know what they types of soil are, and how to interpret what your plant needs. But how can you tell what type of soil you have? This is when an elegant and age-old test comes into play.The Shake Test
The shake test is basically a jar filled with water and a sample of your soil. You shake it up and then use the visual results to determine your soil’s content.
What you will need:
1. Clear pint jar with a lid
2. Handful of the soil to be sampled
- First grab a heaping fistful of the soil you would like to sample. Dig down a good few inches (6 or so) before you take your sample to avoid just testing the thin rich upper soil layer; after all, you want to know what the bulk of your soil is like, not just the healthiest part.
- Next take the wad of soil and dump it in the pint jar. Fill it almost to the top with water and screw the cap on tightly. Shake the jar vigorously for at least five whole minutes. This ensures that any clods of soil are separated.
- Set the jar down in a sunny windowsill (so you can see into it!) and after a minute you will notice the larger sand-sized particles will have settled out of the cloudy water and onto the bottom of the jar. Mark with a tape or pen where this level is.
- Come back after a half hour and you will now see another horizon line. These smaller particles are the silt component. Put another marker at that lever.
- After a couple of days, the water will have cleared and the remaining particles will have settled out. Mark this level to note the amount of clay-sized particles.
At this point you have your results: the size of the layers determine the percentage of sand, silt, and clay in your soil. Either approximate the percentages, or use a ruler to determine the ratios of the different sediment types. If it turns out that your soil is too rich in clay, try this article to learn how to amend clay soil.
Reprinted with permission from Ecolocalizer
Don’t assume lack of space is a deal-breaker. Most of us don’t live on farms. Nor do we have spacious, magazine-worthy backyards. And in the case of city-dwellers, we may not have backyards of any type! That’s okay, says Ellen LaConte, who is something of an outside-the-box thinker when it comes to gardening in smaller or unconventional settings. (In fact, based on her own experiences, she has written articles on turning suburban outdoor spaces into “tiny homestead Edens.”)
In general, LaConte recommends that neighborhood gardening novices start with one of two easy options: the container garden or the raised-bed garden. (A quick Internet search will unearth a plethora of advice, instructions, and details about each.)
Make your bed…raised! A raised-bed garden is one that is built on top of your native soil—in other words, you don’t have to dig into your yard and can build it wherever you want. It can be enclosed by lumber, stone, brick, concrete, or even hay bales, and is filled with whatever type of soil you choose. Advantages include (but are certainly not limited to): improved accessibility (you don’t need to stoop as far to reach your plants), good drainage, fewer weeds, the ability to plant more densely, and improved soil quality. Also, raised-bed gardens heat up more quickly than the native soil, so you’ll be able to plant sooner and you’ll probably enjoy a higher produce yield.
Contain yourself! Did you know that almost any vegetable, and quite a few fruits (such as berries, limes, and melons), can be adapted to growing in a pot? It’s true! So even if you’ve got no yard at all, you can still cultivate a container garden on your balcony, patio, or windowsill. As with a raised-bed garden, container gardens are very accessible and offer you total control over soil quality. Keep in mind a few simple guidelines such as making sure that larger plants are in larger containers and that all have adequate drainage holes, and you’re good to garden!
Start small. If you bite off more produce than you can chew, you may become overwhelmed and leave your garden to the not-so-tender mercies of nature. If you’re a newbie, choose just a few easy-to-cultivate vegetables, fruits, and herbs, preferably ones that already feature prominently in your diet. You can let yourself gradually catch the gardening bug from there!
Don’t panic: You’ll find the time. Prospective gardeners may be excited by the idea of growing their own fruits and vegetables but daunted by the scope of the project ahead of them. If you’re wondering where you’re going to find the time to cultivate and harvest plants, take a deep breath. After the initial effort of planting and potting is over, your daily garden chores such as watering and weeding will usually be done in 15 to 30 minutes. And when you consider how much time most of us waste in front of the computer or TV, well…the task ahead of you might not be so difficult to fit in after all. (And it’ll certainly be more nourishing!)
“Grow” easy on yourself. The fact is, some types of produce are much hardier and easier to grow than others. Why make your first foray into gardening more difficult than it needs to be by trying to raise plants that are needy? Start with tried-and-true plants like basil, rosemary, blueberries, tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers, for example.
It’s as easy as one, two, TREE. When most people think “gardening,” trees don’t necessarily spring to mind. While it’s true that trees can take longer than tomato plants or berry bushes to yield fruit, the wait is usually well worth it. Consider planting cherry, apple, peach, etc. saplings in your yard. As they grow, these trees will be both beautiful and practical. And the yardless needn’t be left out—remember that fruits such as peaches, plums, figs, lemons, limes, etc. (often available in dwarf varieties) can be grown in pots.
Farm alongside your flowers. Many people whose patios or yards are livened up by colorful flowers have never given a second thought to raising produce. If you’re one of them, consider this: You already have the knowledge and skills to care for plants. So why not plant some tomatoes or cilantro along with those zinnias and pansies?
Grow your own “spice rack.” Many people don’t immediately think of herbs when they hear the word “gardening,” but the truth is that these little plants are generally easy to grow, don’t require much space (think window boxes and small pots), and can really spice up your meals! Plus, with a little advance planning, you can stock your shelf with dried herbs that will last the whole year round.
Practice pollution-free pest control. If you are able to grow and harvest your produce with no unwelcome critters taking a bite or two, consider yourself lucky! The fact is, it’s a good idea to have a pesticide plan in place…but you don’t have to risk polluting your yard or harming beneficial insects in the process. For example, hot pepper sprays, garlic, used dishwater, and even some varieties of plants naturally repel insects and animals alike.
Make it a group effort… Nobody ever said that gardening had to be a solitary activity! For example, you might grab a neighbor (or two or three) and share the hoeing, weeding, and watering chores. And when your labors bear fruit, you can share that as well. (Also, it’s worth noting that gardening doesn’t have to be an adults-only activity. It can be a great bonding experience for families, too—working outside is much healthier than playing a video game or watching TV, and your kids will learn quite a bit in the process.)
…or a community-wide one! If you like the idea of enlisting aid in your cultivation efforts but don’t have the desire or space to “host” a garden yourself, research to see if there are any community gardens in your area. They may charge a fee for participation and might feature plots that are collectively gardened or plots that are allotted to individuals. One thing’s for sure, though—you’ll be able to take advantage of the expertise of your fellow gardeners, and you’ll probably make some new friends in the process!
If you need some guidance, find a 4-H club… Maybe you didn’t leave your 4-H days behind with your adolescence after all! The fact is, 4-H offers programs to its members that focus on plant science. Your local club might be able to give you personalized advice on your fledgling gardening endeavor…and you might find a fulfilling volunteering or mentoring opportunity in the process!
…or hit up the hardware store. Most hardware stores with gardening centers have everything you need to get started—and that doesn’t just include plants and gardening implements (though those are available in spades—pun intended!). Ask employees for advice on everything from which plants grow well in shade to how often to fertilize, and you’ll go home with your questions answered.
…or make friends at a farmer’s market. Chances are, there’s one near you…and who better to ask for tips and tricks than your fellow citizens who have already learned to garden successfully? This is also a good venue at which to learn about community gardens and group efforts. And bonus: You might be able to set up a booth yourself sooner than you think!
About the Author:
A memoirist, magazine and book editor, and freelance writer, Ellen LaConte has been published in numerous magazines and trade journals on subjects ranging from organic gardening and alternative technologies to the evolution of consciousness, democracy theory, and complex systems. After three decades of homesteading in Connecticut and Maine, she gardens now on a half-acre in the Yadkin River watershed of the Piedmont bioregion of North Carolina.
About the Book:
Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it (Green Horizon, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-4502-5918-7, $21.95, www.ellenlaconte.com) is available from major online booksellers and can be ordered by bookstores nationwide.
Photo by epSos.de/flickr/Creative Commons
Reprinted with permission from Ecolocalizer
If you are going to put lots of hard work, sweat and money into your backyard garden, why not get delicious healthy food in return? Nothing tastes better than fresh produce that you have grown yourself, but how to start?
Inspiring Edible Landscaping Tours
In our area we are fortunate to have the annual Edible Landscaping Tour, put on by Common Ground Garden Supply and Education Center in Palo Alto, California. Now in its fifth year, this popular tour of ten home gardens, plus the Common Ground demonstration garden, will be held on Saturday July 23. Visiting different suburban vegetable and fruit gardens is a fantastic way to get inspired with great ideas; it is also a wonderful opportunity to see a variety of gardens, from no budget DIY to those that have been professionally designed.
But beware, growing your own vegetables is the “gateway drug” to a more sustainable lifestyle. Households that grow food usually do so organically, to better protect the health of their families and the environment. They begin composting in order to feed their gardening habit, then go on to add efficient watering systems, (recycling gray water, drip irrigation, collecting rainwater). Next come worm bins, chickens and perhaps a backyard beehive. Soon a suburban micro farm is thriving where you would not have expected it, as rows of leafy lettuce and succulent fava beans replace what was formerly a perfectly manicured front lawn.
You can search for edible landscaping tours in your area for garden ideas, but here are a few starter tips and questions to consider from our own experience, as well as things that we’ve learned from others:
1) Is your style formal or informal? Do you like a natural look or a more designed approach to your yard? The use of brick, stone or wooden planting beds will give you more control over the quality of the soil, keep weeds to a minimum, and can be used as part of the design plan. One downside of planting beds is that they tend to dry out faster.
2) An easy way to get the design process rolling is to think about features you’d like in your garden, then build gradually around those. For example, we built a pergola to create an outdoor dining space, and planted two kinds of grapevines to shade it (photo below and at top). We left a couple of rose bushes in place, put in flagstone with creeping thyme and drought tolerant flowering bushes nearby. The result is a lush green room in the summer with flowers and lots of yummy green and red grapes (Thompson Seedless and Red Flame).
When we added a large raised bed structure built from a kit from Gardens to Gro (above and below) to keep our vegetables safe from our greyhounds, we planted various hardy perennial herbs around it (oregano, thyme, sage, mint). It quickly became a productive kitchen garden that first season.
3) Including flowering plants for their beauty and to attract beneficial insects is a win-win. Companion planting with certain herbs and flowers is known to have beneficial effects on the garden overall. Take advantage of colorful companion plants such as calendula, nasturtium, marigolds and borage for a healthy garden ecosystem. Some plants attract predatory insects that feed on pests, in addition to also bringing pollinating insects to your tomatoes and squash. Flowering herbs such as basil, oregano, and thyme are easy to grow and are great companion plants (great companions for cooking too!).
4) Mixing perennials (plants that survive over multiple seasons) among your vegetables is an easy way to provide some structure to your landscaping, so that when the veggies are at a low point, your garden isn’t barren. If you do some research you can find plants that will provide blooms at different times of the year, such as those native to your area.
When choosing plants make sure you choose those with flowers that produce pollen- very important if you want to feed bees! I found out the hard way that some hybrid sunflowers are bred to not make pollen so that the cut flowers are less messy when you put a bouquet on the table! Growing heirloom plants is a good solution.
5) Start small. Gardening teaches us patience. Mother Nature goes at her own pace, so enjoy learning as you expand your garden and have fun gathering ideas about what you’d like to plant, eat, and how much time and effort you want to put into your garden. Alternatively, for those who have money but no time, check out the urban farming services in your area. That’s right, they will plant, maintain and harvest your veggies for you!
Transforming Suburbia into an Organic Food Oasis
If you live in suburbia you have a golden opportunity to utilize your garden spaces and lawn to grow delicious organic food and create a thriving natural habitat for many creatures. You may discover that your new garden might even begin to slowly transform your local neighborhood, as well as your own life.
Reprinted with permission from Ecolocalizer