Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Urban Homesteading- The book

Ruby Blume from the Institute of Urban Homesteading along with Rachel Kaplan wrote this beautiful book on urban homesteading

The book is wonderful, full of colorful pictures and great description on how to do things and why to do them. They have a good explanation on the politics of why to do this type of work, join this movement and remove your self as much as you can from the established system.

The most exciting part of this book is that there is a write up about MIG's in house urban farmer Patricia Algara and the work that she has been doing at the Algarden.
Here is what they wrote about her and her project at the Algarden. Enjoy.

"Patricia Algara is a landscape architect who practices urban agriculture on a double lot in Berkeley, CA that she borrows from a neighbor. Having come from a family of farmers in Mexico, working the land is instinctive to Patricia, but when she came to this country, she felt overwhelmed by the difficulties of finding a place to farm. During a winter storm a fence got blown away revealing an empty lot with perfect sun exposure two blocks from where she works. She met Giancarlo Muscardini the neighbor to the right of the unused lot, she asked him about the empty space that was a huge contrast to his own lush garden, edible garden and orchard. He knew the neighbors and had dreamed of doing something on the next-door site for a long time.

"It drove him crazy to see the neighbors mowing the weeds every other week. So together we wrote a formal proposal for the use of the land," Patricia recalls. “We met with the neighbors. They were excited but had some issues. I had a lawyer draft an agreement so they aren’t liable if anyone gets hurt. They didn’t want an open community garden, so they fenced the property in a way to keep it private for them and usable for us. I have keys and can bring people and we have work parties and events, but always in collaboration with the owners’ needs.” 

Together, Patricia and Giancarlo designed and built the garden. During the first work was done on setting up infrastructure—putting in a greenhouse, and garden beds, but mostly amending the soil which was really hard clay so that things could grow. Water was piped into the garden from Giancarlo’s place next door. “When we first started, it was all grass so we had a lot of work to do," Patricia says. "It’s been two years and it’s finally a working garden. We sheet mulched, and did compost and used a chicken tractor and did what we could to build the soil. Everything here is done through permaculture principles and the soils are much better now. They can still improve, but now they are productive and there’s a lot of food.”

Patricia and Giancarlo get food from the garden, as do the owners and people who live in the units below Giancarlo’s house. To share the excess produce, Patricia hosts an informal Friday lunch where all the food is prepared using the fruits and vegetables from the garden. The food gets harvested the night before to assure the freshest and most ripe flavors. The menu changes every week depending on what's in season. The lunch is also an opportunity to show people how the vegetables plants look while they are growing, their benefits to the garden and their nutritional properties, is mostly a way to expose people to local, organic, fresh flavors and get them excited to grow their own food.

As this demonstration urban farm project keeps growing, Giancarlo is inspired to deepen the permaculture design of the garden, as well as his own garden on the other side of the fence. He’s looking toward planting more fruit trees, trees which can be coppiced (cut back to encourage the growth of straight suckers which can be used for building and garden projects), a more evolved food forest, and planting biomass-producing trees which add further nutrients to the soil.

Patricia’s success with this garden leads her to work on food security projects in Richmond, one of the most impoverished communities in the Bay Area. “The more I learn, the more I see how this needs to happen everywhere" she says. "It is so daunting at an environmental level to understand what is going on, and sometimes it feels like a huge thing I can’t do anything about. But growing food is something I CAN do."

"The more research I do, the more I see what a big impact food production has on so many aspects of the environment. We can have an impact every time we eat, breaking away from industrial agriculture, the fuel to transport the food, and the toxins that are used to grow it. If everyone grew something, one little small thing, it would matter. Food is basic. We need it 3 times a day. At least! Even if you just have a little window, you can grow mint. And that’s one less thing to buy at the store.

“Food is the gateway drug to a more sustainable lifestyle. You start to become aware of the cycles of nature, the cycle of the moon, what’s happening with the seasons and the climate, and you start to pay attention to the world. And it has a trickle down effect—just doing this changes your behavior. It happened to me. Seeing this garden and the changes it’s brought me makes me want to work so that more people can see this and do this. And it’s not that hard. It’s a basic human thing. It’s easy and we should all be doing it."

I highly recommend you buy the book, it is a great resource to have in your library. 

Post by Patricia Algara

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Soil Testing Basics

There are several types of soil tests that can be performed.  Ideally all four tests listed below should be obtained.

1. Biological Soil Foodweb Analysis.  This will show the ratios of the most critical beneficial and non-beneficial microbes in the soil: bacteria, fungi, protozoa, ciliates, nematodes, etc.  The desired ratios of bacteria to fungi will also depend on the types of plants that will be grown at the site. 

2.  Soil analysis for nutrients and minerals. Not all soil tests are equal! Be sure to use a lab that can do a Base Saturation test, CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity), OM (Organic Matter content) and Reams testing for soil nutrients. This test most accurately measures the nutrients in the soil that the plants can actually utilize. It's a good idea to test for heavy metals as well.
Ask for fertilization recommendations based on an organic approach to soil and landscape management, including the amount of compost that would be required to bring the soil organic matter content to at least 5%.

3.  Soil compaction tests.  This can be done with a hand held soil penetrometer at several locations on the site to determine if there are areas where the soil has been compacted, what the compaction depth is, to determine if an area will need special remediation measures.

4.  Percolation test for water drainage at several locations on the site.  One location for every 80-100 square feet is recommended.  Tree or shrub planting pits can be used for the drainage tests. 

Based on the results of the soil tests a strategy can be mapped out. It is very helpful to consult a Soil Foodweb Advisor regarding the results of the Biological soil analysis and standard soil analysis. An approach can be formulated, taking all of the test results into consideration. If there are compaction or percolation issues these can also be addressed using a biological approach, since fungi are responsible for maintaining a healthy soil structure.

Some of the best tools we have for soil remediation are specially crafted liquid biological amendments such as Actively Aerated Compost Tea, or AACT. AACT creates conditions during brewing for microbes to multiply rapidly in the desired ratios. Once the existing levels of nutrients and biological activity are known and an approach outlined, AACT (make sure it has been properly balanced and tested, and continually aerated) can be applied to correct the biological balance in the soil. 

When the tea is applied, the microbes continue multiplying, cycling nutrients in the soil and preventing disease from pathogenic organisms. Fungi continue growing, creating soil structure, improving the water holding capabilities of the soil, storing nutrients, etc.  Properly brewed AACT must be tested (Soil Foodweb Analysis) and carefully monitored for the microbial balance before application. It cannot be off of continual active aeration for more than 4 hours before applying, or there is danger that it could start to go anaerobic.

Here are some great resources:

Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis
Soil Biology Primer published by the Soil and Water Conservation Society

Post by Suzanne Schrift

Thursday, February 3, 2011

More on Soil – the Murky, Mysterious World of Microbes

How can we maximize the health of the soil in order to ensure that our landscapes are vital and living Regenerative ecosystems?  (And save water and resources at the same time…?)

First it’s important to understand how plants get their food. The Soil Foodweb is responsible for nutrient cycling, and this elegant synergism of microbes was set up LONG ago (a billion years or so) before chemical fertilizers and pesticides came on the scene. To lay it out in a very basic way, the bacteria and other microbes, including fungi, feed on exudates from plant roots. Other microbes such as protozoa eat the bacteria and other microbes. Since the protozoa, etc. only utilize a relatively small percentage of the nutrients derived from eating the bacteria and other microbes, the extra nutrients are released in a form that is directly available to the plants. While this explanation is overly simplified, it can serve as a very general description of the nutrient cycling process.

Though there are several important steps to creating a truly Regenerative Landscape with viable living soil, the first thing to do is to analyze what you have to work with, starting with the site’s soil.  The soil should be carefully analyzed at the beginning of any landscape project.  The results of these tests can be mapped on the site plan, and different soil remediation strategies developed for each area.

I’m not just talking about your ordinary Soil Fertility Test, which analyzes the basic chemistry of the soil. While this kind of test is important for identifying certain soil characteristics, and you can gain valuable information from the standard soil test, it’s also important to perform a separate test to analyze the biology in the soil, also known as the Soil Foodweb.

The soil biology test, or Soil Foodweb Analysis, will give you much more information regarding what’s really going on in the soil.  While a standard soil test will tell you levels of soluble nutrients, contrary to popular belief this doesn’t tell you what’s actually available to the plants.  Many nutrients are held fast in the organic matter and in the soil particles, just waiting for microbe action, and will not be measurable by a standard soil chemistry test.  When the correct ratios of microbes are present in the soil they will unlock the nutrients from the compost and other organic matter, and deliver them to the plants.  By analyzing the ratios of the various microbes, the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, etc., we can get a much better idea of what nutrients are available to the plants. 

The next step, once we identify the existing biology, is to stimulate and enhance the beneficial microbes that make up the Soil Foodweb.  The right soil biology will improve soil structure, increase the water holding capacity of the soil, cycle nutrients to the plants, minimize runoff, minimize weeds, prevent disease, and will maximize the health of the entire ecosystem. We have a fabulous tool for adding biology to the soil, in the form of Actively Aerated Compost Tea, or AACT. By using properly aerated and balanced compost tea, tailored to the specific types of plants that will be grown, along with other selective nutrient sources, we can help the soil move towards a balanced, regenerative state.

I’ve mentioned before how presumptuous I think it is for people to think that we need to pump chemical fertilizers into the soil to enable plants to grow. Well, it may also seem presumptuous to think that we need to ‘heal the soil’ by adding biological concoctions to the soil, such as compost tea. Well, the problem is that we’ve caused so much damage to the soil that we need to step in and help nature heal itself, to mitigate for all the soil compaction, soil degradation, and pollution we’ve caused. Our role is to assist in balancing the biology, and then step back and let the microbes do their thing!

By re-balancing the biology in the soil the vitality of the ecosystem can be dramatically improved.  This translates to improved soil structure, better water holding capacity (which means less water is needed), more efficient nutrient cycling (so fewer added amendments are needed), reduced pests and diseases, reduced carbon footprint, reduced pollution, and, the bottom line - significant cost savings! It’s simply a win-win proposition!

Post by Suzanne Schrift

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What’s the Problem With Conventional Landscaping Practices?

It’s clear that the soil is critical to our survival as a species. The soil grows our food, medicines, flowers and trees, purifies our water, and sequesters carbon, just to name a few of the ecosystem services it provides.  And how does the soil accomplish these tasks?  Beneficial soil microbes are largely responsible. Those tiny critters can do it all without any help from us humans. In fact, when humans decided that it was necessary to help plants grow by pumping chemicals into the soil we began causing a multitude of problems. We need to learn to see soil as the vast, complex, living, breathing ecosystem that it is.

Many of our conventional landscaping practices have disturbed, or even obliterated the natural balance of life in the soil, and thus continue to compromise the environment as a whole.  Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides not only require excessive consumption of fossil fuels in their manufacture and transport, but they also cause pollution of our air and water, upset the equilibrium of soil life, and can actually kill the microbes in the soil. 

Research shows that synthetic nitrogen actually degrades soil by destroying soil carbon. Commonly used herbicides such as Glyphosate not only kill beneficial microbes, but they often encourage excessive growth of fungal diseases and other pathogens. Conventional landscaping and farming practices cause depletion of soil organic matter, which in turn contributes to leaching of nutrients, soil compaction and water runoff, leading to unhealthy rivers and dying estuaries. 

So what can we do to turn this around, to heal the damage that's been done, to maximize soil life, to support this living, breathing organism that is soil? How can we help ensure that our landscapes are vital and healthy regenerative ecosystems that not only conserve water and resources and contribute to the health of our environment, but will also enhance human health and well being for generations to come?

During the coming weeks and months we’ll talk about the many facets of the Regenerative Landscape: building soil health by balancing the soil biology, increasing plant vitality, the use of sustainable maintenance practices, how to increase biodiversity and habitat, ways to increase carbon sequestration, water-conserving irrigation practices, reusing water, growing edible plants, and much more! We invite your feedback…

Post by Suzanne Schrift

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thoughts on Soil

Though we all walk across soil, we don’t always realize that we’re walking on top of an entire intricate world.  We usually don’t think about what’s going on down there under our feet.  After all, to many of us it’s just dirt.  But just take a moment to ponder the fact that a single teaspoon of healthy soil contains about a BILLION individual microbes, all busy at work cycling nutrients to plants, absorbing carbon, decomposing organic compounds, creating soil structure to hold water, preventing disease, cleaning water, and taking care of the myriad other functions that we ask of the soil.  Nature figured it out a long time ago.

The key word is ‘healthy’ soil.  Unfortunately most of our urban and developed soils are far from healthy. The soil often looks dry, cracked and crusted, or wet and slimy, weedy and obviously compacted.  The soil biology is usually completely out of balance or is virtually missing, caused by the cumulative effect of years of chemical use, compaction by machinery, and depletion of organic matter. The costs of maintaining such a landscape are high in terms of both actual maintenance costs and in the loss of the ecosystem services we depend on.

When I first ventured into the field of Landscape Architecture after years in Sustainable Agriculture, I was surprised to learn that sustainable soil management practices were not commonly prescribed or even known in the landscape design and installation business. Unfortunately it’s still rare to find landscape architects, designers or contractors who are aware of the importance of evaluating and improving the soil, though programs such as the Sustainable Sites Initiative and Bay-Friendly are increasing awareness. Even when specifications are provided that call for organic soil amendments and other sustainable practices, they are often ignored during the landscape installation.  Ongoing maintenance practices are also a huge issue.  Efforts to balance the soil are useless if the landscape is subsequently maintained in a non-sustainable way.

In the conventional landscape approach the soil is regarded as a semi inert medium that needs the addition of chemical fertilizers in order for the plants to grow. How ridiculous is this?! Does anyone need to fertilize a forest or a prairie with chemicals (or anything)? The actual LIFE in the soil is ignored. As a result the planting specifications usually call for conventional soil tests and chemical inputs, and that’s about it, with the mistaken idea that it's the chemical balance of the soil that matters most.
People have been brainwashed by the chemical industry into thinking that the only way plants will grow is if we pump chemicals into the soil (the plant world’s equivalent to fast food), and that we have to protect the plants from pests by using more chemicals. The only way to maintain such a landscape is with continued chemical and fuel inputs. This is both costly and polluting, and has many consequences to our health and well-being. A healthy, well balanced landscape will actually save money, conserve water and resources, reduce maintenance and waste, and add to the health of our environment overall. The key is in healing and balancing the soil, moving from conventional chemical landscaping practices towards a natural and regenerative approach.

Post by Suzanne Schrift