halifaxearthtech: Photo by Joe Shneid of Louisville Kentucky, from Wikimedia Commons (Pattern)

The herb spiral is one of those mainstays of permaculture, as iconic as comfrey or nonlinear beds. Like other permaculture techniques they can be misused, and I've only seen one out of the dozen or so herb spirals I have seen to perform well.

In theory, the spiral conserves space, while the mound mimics the heterogeneous forest floor with its pits and mounds, increasing the surface area of the land into the third dimension. the mound creates microclimates as the top and southwest growing surfaces are drier and hotter than the bottom and east south growing surfaces, accommodating different sorts of herbs with different niches.
Most of the time when I see herb spirals I see a mostly bare garden, with herbs doing poorly. The walls of the spiral are in decay, the bare soil is slipping and unhealthy, and the spiral is not incorporated into the rest of the garden design.


Part of the problem seems to be that the spiral is often in urban environments with small lots, and the mound is not large enough to generate true microclimates. I often see the space gained by verticality finally lost in the greater wall space taken up by the vertical element. That is, the walls holding up the spiral take up so much space that it might as well be flat. In permaculture we make thoughtful use of edge. In this case I see edge between the soil growing medium and the wall reducing production.
Pit and mound
Often the rest of the design doesn't incorporate pit-and-mound dimensionality elsewhere in the garden or in a continuous landscape as in the forest floor. In nature, pits and mounds are formed when life colonizes a fallen tree stump or boulder, or the berm of debris left by flooding rivers. In the garden, the spiral is alone.

Usually in western culture we are not taught how to manage planting slopes until very late in life. This contributes immensely to our risk of civilization crisis through soil loss. I have recently seen fields and pastures on as steep as 50 degree slopes. The gardener must shore up the slopes, further terracing the spiral in a perpendicular manner, and always keep the soil planted and covered with mulch.
I wonder how suitable this technology is to the temperate climate where so many of our herbs die down to the root much of the year (parsley) or are annual (cilantro). The tropical clamate is surely more suited to having perennial living solutions for holding soil like Lemongrass and veviter (Carbon Farming Handbook, p77). I can see a spiral working where the herbs are all perennial and consistently alive and growing.

How to do herb spirals well
First of all, decide if an herb spiral is suited to your unique growing conditions. What about an herb keyholl bed, an herb square, an herb terrace or an herb wall? Second, make the spiral large to produce true microclimates. Start at 4' wide and at least 2.5 feet tall. Finally make the spiral out of durable material like stone so that soil doesn't slip, and be sure to mulch well during the winter. 

Should herb spirals be used in the temperate zone at all? Have you had or seen herb spirals that work well? If so, please tell me what you've noticed that make this function.
halifaxearthtech: (pic#9787048)
In 2006 I watched the films The End of Suburbia and An Inconvenient Truth in the same year. For the rest of that year my head exploded and I questioned everything about our lifestyle and began a prepper phase that included buying a lot of dry goods. I learned some things like flour kept well for a couple of years, and that others like soy go moldy quickly. I also later learned that a good way to hold onto large batches of dry goods is to keep them in a sealed mylar container with oxygen-consuming hand-warmers to create a low-oxygen environment, but that is a topic for another blog post. The important part was that I had to dispose of 10 kg of musty soybeans that had sat in my basement for 9 years.

It was like a cement SUV backed up into the cul-de-sac of my life and then ran out of gas

Flashing forward to this year, my community garden, Hilda Unity Garden Society, redid their raised beds and had a lot of rotten, moldy, punky mushroomy lumber to dispose of. We are also going to have to get in the habit of creating our own soil because we won't be able to import truckloads of it once the EAC grant runs out. Good compost contains a source of nitrogen (such as soybeans) and carbon (like spoiled lumber) Suddenly I had a disposal plan.



The hugels were made up of a layer of lumber, a sprinkle of soybeans, and covered with some soil to inoculate the logs, fill any cracks to help prevent any cozy hidey-holes for mice or other rodents, and keep the whole assembly damp to rot faster. I had completed one hugel before the darkness fell and the heavens opened up with a deluge of cold November rain. Excellent. Darkness fell Hugelkultur beds were a traditional practice in Germany and Austria before being popularized by Sepp Holtzer in the 1970s. Mature forests exhibit a pit-and-mound structured forest floor, made up in part by the root stumps of fallen trees that rot in place. This increases the soil's surface area, creating more space fo plants (and animals) to live and creates hotter, drier and cooler and wetter micro-climates. The rotted wood creates insect habitat and holds water like a sponge. It releases plant nutrients slowly and the decay even generates some warmth. Finally the wood decomposed under soil and away from some of the atmosphere's oxygen sequesters carbon into the soil where it can stay for a very long time. Hugelkultures can be used to orient beds for greater southern sun exposure, and create more space in a small plot of land. More information can be found here: http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/many-benefits-hugelkultur
halifaxearthtech: (Tree Canopy)
Marijuana is about to transform our legal landscape. But how has it already raised a generation of gardeners? Full disclosure, I have inhaled. And while I am not a heavy user, I fully support decriminalization as a public good to decrease organized crime, increase tax revenue, start to dismantle the prison-industrial complex and help addicts, all the good reasons to go down a path away from the war on drugs I remember so vividly from my youth.

If you remember this guy you are over 30

Drug plants have been a frontier for me, I rarely meet a plant I do not like. And here were a class of forbidden, fascinating plants that I will not be lucky to cultivate personally for perhaps some time. I'm happy to see a class of gardeners grow up around me who are more fortunate, and take the legal risk to come to know plants through psychogenic specimens: Marijuana cultivation has done much to educate people new to gardening to a lot of botanical concepts.

Plant sexes

Plants and flowers can be one sex or both

There are a number of plants with "male and female" individuals, like hardy kiwi, holly, yew, and many others. In plant parlance, "male" is the part that disperses genetic information (the pollen) and the "female" part receives that information and combines it with its own (an ovum, like in animals) before feeding and caring for the resulting new entity that will become a seed. Most flowers have male and female parts on the same flower, like roses, apples and dandelions. Other plants have male flower and female flowers, like squashes. Cannabis occupies a group of plants that are known as dioecious. To set seed, there needs to be a male plant and a female plant. Of course, in cannabis horticulture the presence of male plants is something to be avoided, as it causes female plants to put their energy toward seed rather than resin (Pollan, the Botany of Desire). Which brings me to my next point:

Cloning is an important technique for many plants, not just cannabis. We clone to preserve traits of the plant that might not exist in its offspring. We living beings evolved sex to create diversity, which helps thrive in a changing environment. But plants also clone themselves a lot in nature, by spreading roots, sticking their branches into the ground to take root, or dropping bits of themselves to float away in the water or wind that then become self-sufficient like willow and tradescantia.

There are many more ways than these that plants clone themselves in the wild, mostly to take over spaces or find new habitats in which to thrive. They do this so much because of a difference at the genetic level. It is hard to clone complex animals. To turn a skin cell to a tooth-implant takes an expensive lab and a lot of coaxing. Even though our skin cells contain all the instructions for a human body, the tooth instructions are blocked out, as well as every instruction for anything but skin. Animals are more difficult to genetically combine than plants But any part of a plant can become any other part with relative ease. A tree with a pocket of compost in the crook of some branches can grow roots there to eat up some of those nutrients. A petal can become a leaf, and a leaf can become a petal. This is called topipotency, and it means we can make almost any part of plants into whole new plants.

This is much easier to accomplish with plants

We use this to create apples of consistent quality, or preserve nut trees with blight resistance, or any trait that shows up in plant offspring that we want to keep. It also means we can make large quantities of plants from tissue culture, like nursery stock or chemically consistent cannabis. In any type of gardening, it is a skill worth knowing. A buried branch taking root before being cut off and moved, a process called layering It is worth experimenting to see which sticks you can cut from a plant and stick in the ground just to see what will take root.

Seed saving
Illegality has brought a black market network for seed exchange that is for the present mostly out of the control of seed giant corporations. Though subject to unpredictable offspring, seeds are a convenient way to transport and store plants. It's worth noting that besides the cold-hardy Cannabis indica, the Himalayan region also supplied North America with winter-hardy pomegranates and mulberries. Hybridizing and sophisticated breeding techniques have entered common parlance: back-crossing, F1 hybrids, and interspecies snorgling.

Sometimes crossing two parents to make seeds creates just the diversity you want to yield unexpected and desired traits that you want to then preserve through further breeding and stabilizing seedlings or as is more common in cannabis horticulture, cloning. In an energy-constrained future, it is possible that extensive cloning in heated greenhouse spaces will be impractical, and we will once again resort to seed-saving as a means to get desired plants through the winter.

Interspecies snorgling: the beginning of a great new hybrid?


Cannabis has brought hydroponics to a generation of gardeners who might not otherwise have gotten into plant-raising. Indoor growing is a critical part of agriculture in our climate and has vast space-saving potential, essential for dense towns and cities who need to farm vertically to be a self-sufficient as possible, as well as for shrinking our footprint on the greater wilderness.

Of course there are loads of political dimensions that I need to bone up on. From a resource for racialized, forced prison labour to one of a lot of legal cash, a lot of big interests are getting involved. The plant is not to blame for this complex flurry of interest when it only really wanted to get insect pests high enough to forget what they were doing, or go get the munchies on some other plant. I hope we can maximize this situation's potential for good, and nurture our new generation of gardeners into productive livelihoods of growing. They will be assets to our community in an energy-constrained future.


halifaxearthtech: Photo by Joe Shneid of Louisville Kentucky, from Wikimedia Commons (Pattern)
Long-term gratification or How else can twenty bucks last three lifetimes?


A lot of people are surprised to hear that we can grow many varieties of nuts here in Nova Scotia, including Chestnuts, Almonds, Hazels, Walnuts, pine nuts and some pecans as well as more exotic varieties like yellowhorn and ginkgo. Bill and Elizabeth Glen of PEI have been growing hazelnuts commercially since 2013, pioneering both a local market and best practices for Maritime nut growing.

We should be investing in planting perennial crops anyway, and trees in particular. Planting trees fixes carbon, mitigating climate change. And nut tree crops have the added benefit from a resilience standpoint of producing a harvest for 200-500 years, meaning they can be an asset well into the future in case of many potential scenarios of food scarcity. Walnut hulls and bark are useful as mulch, medicine and as a natural dye. Some people plant walnut as a retirement fund for one's grandchildren. Country Wisdom and know-how's Woodlot Management by Jay Heinrich writes that "A single huge flawless walnut tree can sell for several thousand dollars (one such tree reportedly brought 30'000 on the stump)".


The Sex life of nuts

If you want to obtain nuts from your trees it is is important to plant nuts that are compatible, that will pollinate each other. Nut trees finish putting out male flowers before starting to put out female flowers, and so often can't pollinate themselves. Trees must be from two different seedlings to be able to pollinate each other. Some nut trees will self-pollinate but even these will fruit better with a friend. If that fails, you can pick off male flowers, keep pollen in the freezer for a week or two and then throw them at the trees.


Identifying Hardy Walnuts


A Japanese variety with huge 6' leaves and heart-shaped nuts. There is a heartnut outside of St Mary's University.


Black Walnut and Butternut


The two species hailing from North America. Butternuts are endemic to the St John River valley. Black walnuts are extremely hardy and tasty but hard to get into or extract meaty bits

Leaf shape and scars

The black walnut can be identified by leaf scars that look like three line segments of half-circles like a monkey face or clover leaf with some imagination. This way they can be identified in winter.


As you can see here, the butternut monkey face has eyebrows

From treesofwisconsin.com



Butternut leaf scars

(Raisin River Conservation authority)


Stem pith of black walnut


Stem pith of North American walnuts is honeycombed and dark brown.


Buartnut Juglans x bixbyi

The unfortunately-named first generation of children between a heartnut and butternut. Buartnuts have heartnut's easy crackability and blight resistance while having butternut cold-hardiness.


(From www.havenyt.dk)

Buartnut cross section


The grocery-store variety we are used to seeing, the English or Persian, is not yet quite hardy to our winters. Two exceptions are Carpathian and the totally safe for work Manregion, which will live in our zone 6. Some will survive even zone 4 which endures winter temperatures of -30 and includes such regions as Calgary.





Starting nut trees from seed

Credit to Sylvia Mangalam for teaching me to start nuts in pots buried in the ground in the fall, after they are thoroughly cleaned. In the spring, check the nuts for sprouted roots out the bottom, and of those that are sprouting, cut the main root tip to encourage surface side-branching roots. Then pot them back up and keep in dappled or part shade for a year or two before final planting in full sun. Time to first harvest varies from seedling to seedling and different variety grafts, but you can expect nuts after 5 to 10 years.


Planning for centuries

An urban legend has been going around of the foresters of Oxford University in England who set oaks aside for 300, 600 or 800 years until the ceiling beams of the main hall got too "beetly" and needed to be replaced. The tale grew in the telling it seems, and it's not true (though the trees were several hundred years old at harvest) but it's an appropriate sentiment.


I think it's high time to at least supplement our instant gratification with some long-term gratification. What were you doing five years ago? Starting school? Worrying about whether your pants are tight enough without being "too" tight? Convinced you would never grow a beard? The time went by faster than you thought. Trees move us beyond the treadmill of the next apartment, or the next election. They destroy the capitalist illusion of the perpetual present., connecting us to the gifts of our ancestors, and our responsibility to our descendants.


A fun article about ways to get into the shell and extract the delicious reward within


An exhaustive guide to growing nuts in Ontario


Walnuts secrete a substance called juglone that kills some plants that would grow underneath. Here are some resistant plants compatible with walnuts.


A good forager never reveals her secret stash, but I'm going to go ahead and say there are black walnuts growing behind the Dal Sportsplex. Now go nuts.


halifaxearthtech: (magic is nature)

Food forests are undeniably sexy right now in Permaculture circles. A great compliment to a regular raised garden of annual vegetables, food forests pack a lot of food sources into a small space, using different height-plants that help each other out, while benefiting soil and wild life.

But what do you do when you just don't have the funds for the latest cultivars of fruit and nut bearing trees and shrubs? Behold the free food forest planting guide!

To design a food forest on the cheap, we make use of plants that either come up from plentiful (= easily available) seeds, or clones.
A plan for expanding your food forest by cloning

You may have heard of the practice of cloning while learning about more illegal plants. But many herbs and trees can also be cloned; in nature, it's a major plant-reproducing strategy.

Some times twigs (or even sometimes leaves) broken or cut from trees and shrubs will grow roots and become a whole new tree or shrub. Other times, we can stab a shovel down the middle of the plant and cut the root-ball into two or more pieces, a process known as "dividing". 

You can probably find friends willing to divide edible ornamental like Solomon seal, daylilly or hosta, and you can almost certainly find an owner of grape, hops and hardy kiwi willing to part with some prunings to clone. Thinnings of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and thimbleberries are easy to come by as people cultivating these fruit often need to thin them. Nursery season-end sales are also good to check in July and August.

Even volunteer white oak and mountain ash can be found sprouting beneath their parent trees if these tickle your fancy for an emergency food supply. Some perennial vegetables can be started from roots and leaves available at specialty grocery stores, like watercress, sunchokes and oyster root. 

Finally, Perennial vegetables can be got from further afield from progressive nurseries and seed suppliers. It is my hope to make an initial investment to bring these varieties to Nova Scotia for further propagation to jump start local food forests. Plants like salad burnet, ice cream bean, cinnamon yam, tuber pea, perennial parsley, perennial sea kale, bush cherry, hardy passionfruit, hardy kiwi, wooly lambs ear tuber, rapunzel, potato bunching onion, skirret and hardy pecan. 

Some locations I hope to plant this year with guilds and/or food forests include:

Transition Bay St Margarets

Annapolis seeds in Nictaux


The Open Mic House on Agricola street

There will be shout-outs and volunteer opportunities as spring advances so keep your eye out for those.

Some perennial vegetable purveyors 

Eric Toensmeier





as well as more traditional nurseries if you know what you are looking for.


Gardeners around North America this year were thrilled to learn about The paw paw project. Kentucky State University are distributing 30 thousand paw paw seeds in the hopes of more widely distributing paw paw trees throughout their range and foster their diversity and strength. You can contact them here

To get your own free pawpaw seeds. Of course if you help support the project you will get on the seed distribution priority shortlist!
hawthorn, mulberry and red and black currant prepared for cloning

A by-no-means exhaustive list of easy-to-obtain plants to clone for your own

Trees and shrubs that can be cloned

Beech, dogwood, willow, alder

Hawthorn, Elder, Mulberry, Currant, Gooseberry

Autumn olive, Sea buckthorn

Hazel, Sweet fern

Food-providing Herbs that can be divided or that spread

Anything mint: lemonbalm, cat nip, bee balm, chocolate mint, apple mint, horse mint, thymes, oregano, anise hyssop

Alliums: chives, garlic chives, society garlic, golden garlic, Egyptian Walking Onions

Miscellaneous perennials: ostrich fern, hostas, may apple, Solomon seal, wintergreen, rhubarb, echinacea, sweet cicely, Comfrey, yarrow, horseradish, daylilly, good king Henry, all raspberries and blackberries, many roses, strawberries, and more.


Easily started from seed and self seeding

Nasturtiums, violets, calendula

globe thistle, rudbeckia

artemisia, columbine

musk mallow




Not edible but useful for pollinators and/or fixing nitrogen

lupine, daffodil, scilla


This is a great website for all things food forest


halifaxearthtech: Mysore fruit seller (Food)

As we order seeds and start them on our windowsills and kitchen tables, the last thing we probably want to think about are supplies of local vegetables for next winter. So I'll keep it short: order your brussels sprout, chard and endive seeds now, sow and forget. In ten months you'll be glad you did.

Belgian endive flowers
Belgian Endive flowers are highly ornamental

Here are Belgian Endives I grew last summer. The beautiful mauve blossoms and roseatte of green leaves are too bitter to eat in the summertime. They were developed for a practice known as "Forcing": the brutal art of causing a plant to use up it's winter root stores to create blanched leaves of a delicate flavour in the absence of light in your basement.
Winter-forced endives
The endive forced into winter production (picture by 3.0 from Wikimedia)

You've probably seen these torpedo-shaped salad greens in select grocery stores. They are much cheaper to create on your own with a little effort. These endives were grown in my furnace room, lights-off. If you don't get around to growing endives or are short on space, you can force dandelion roots too.

After a winter of cruel and unusual agriculture, my endives are greening up nicely in my porch. I will set them out again to gather another summers-worth of energy for future basement exploits.

 Endives turn green again in spring

The endive returns to bitter-tasting life in spring's sunlight
You can read about the impressive nutritional benefits of endive on their Wikipedia page

halifaxearthtech: workmen stand outside Alexander MacKay school in 1918 (fair shares)

Those who follow my blog will have noticed I try to offer productive solutions to the environmental problems we face, no matter how small, personal or trivial they might seem at first. This is not because I disagree with pressuring our elected officials to take stronger actions and leadership toward leading more local, communal and accountable lives, and it is to do so in fact that I write today.

Our houses are designed with several serious flaws, one of which is that without constant supplies of fuel oil and tar paper shingles our houses become moldy death-traps. Gypsum wall board is a most unwise material with which to build our houses; when it gets wet through leaks or condensation they easily breed toxic mold which can be deadly. Gypsum is also a non-renewable resource with a racist name that is often mined from what would otherwise be productive local farmland.

I think we can see bold new feed-in options for home owner beyond solar hot water that would pave the way for strong legislation for new as well as existing buildings. I am in the fortunate position that I will likely be able to build my own house in the next decade: one of a reasonable size which is oriented correctly toward the south for maximum passive solar heating and passive ventilation and made out of breathable materials and non-toxic earth plasters. My house would take care of sewage and gray water on site and produce more energy (and food) than it consumes. We already have the technology.

These thoughts comfort me as I camp out in my in-laws' spare room with a very preventable lung infection. However this will not help the hundreds of thousands of renters in our city, many with uninsulated homes who will still face a plague of unprecedented proportions as soon as the dirty road of heating oil and tar paper shingles sputters out. Will we see leadership in providing housing that works beyond CEDIFs and solutions for well-to-do homeowners, or will we take the ultimately more expensive option of toxic housing?
halifaxearthtech: Photo of fairy wrens taken by Bengamint444 from Wikimedia Commons (Habitat)
On Friday some friends and I tapped maples and grafted walnuts. Grafting is a good way to improve the food-value of trees, by creating a tree or shrub with a strong and hardy root-stock and with a topstock that will produce juicy and delicious fruit and nuts. You can see grafts toward the bottom of many urban ornamental trees.


I am tapping two maple trees in my backyard, two of my neighbour's trees and six trees from a generous friend on the Bedford highway. In a week we have gathered a half-gallon of sap. It is my hope to boil it down enough to make wine, which should take less time and energy than it would take to boil it down to the point of being syrup. Any maple can be tapped, as can birches and sycamore. Sugar maples will provide you with the highest sugar-per-sap ratio at 1:40 sugar:water, compared to other maples who have a ratio of 1:45 sugar:water. I am mostly tapping Norway maples, which is much of what has been planted by the city.

My neigbour allowed me to tap her maple trees in exchange for maple mead

The friends who helped me tap in were able to help graft Carpathian walnut scion to black walnut rootstock. This is in the hopes that the Carpathian parts will thrive and produce nuts that are larger and more easily removed from the husk.

Now is the ideal time to start grafting, while the snow is beginning to melt. Traditionally the scion wood (the part you are adding) is removed from the parent-plant around this time, kept in a cool area until the rootstock has advanced in its spring flush. This way, the root stock is more vigorous than the scion wood, and is able to push sap into it vigorously.

We however grafted the wood the same day it was obtained. We used the saddle-graft, where one piece is sharpened on both sides and the other wood has a triangle-shaped chunk carved out of it. In grafting it is very important that the layers of living wood match up between the rootstock and scion, so that water and nutrients can continue to be sent through the graft to the living tissue of both host and graft. This keeps the graft alive.

A successful saddle graft

This walnut tree is at the Common Roots Urban Farm at the intersection of Robie and Bell road. Please feel free to check back at the Common Roots Food Forest to see how these grafts progress! We left plenty of Black walnut branches to survive and feed the tree if these grafts don't make it. If the grafts take well, we will trim back the non-grafted branches to maximize energy to the Carpathian limbs. More walnuts will be grafted at a secret location, and those that survive will be moved to more public food forests.


Here is a good resource if you would like to graft your own walnuts:

More good information on grafting can be found at Stephen Hayesuk's youtube channel
halifaxearthtech: (Capture and Store Energy)
I visited the fossil cliffs at Joggins last week, a nice day-trip three hours out of Halifax, likely a school trip remembered by native Maritimers with boredom and dread but a novel destination for this nerdy Ontario girl. I naively wondered what era of the world these famous cliffs represented, forgetting Nova Scotia's coal industry, her coal disasters, our coal-powered electricity plants, and each old coal scuttle I've found in every garden I've worked at in this city. Could it have been, I don't know, the coal age? That still smarts!

I asked if the museum had seen an influx of tourism due to being featured in Neil Degrasse Tyson on Cosmos. They hadn't known about that reference and they said not yet. Tyson spoke of the role the carbon cycle plays in both geology and the world's climate, as carbon moves from the sky to the rocks and back again.

Joggins, NS

Lepidodendron, the 'Scale tree'

Lepidodendron was an early tree, resembling giant club mosses, and these make up the bulk of the fossils on the beach, along with Dendrerpeton, an early reptile that was one of the first animals to be able to breed on land. Displays at the museum told that scientists think the giant moss tree grew quickly and was not very substantial. (The coal seemed only to have been made from the outer skin of the moss, the core filling with silt. I could only imagine how many of these trees would have to be pressed to make even a tonne of coal).


coal bark

There are some plants that grow in this way today, living fast and dying young. Japanese knotweed is one. 'Weedy' trees like poplar or Manitoba maple are another. At Verge Permaculture they called these sorts of plants Fast Carbon Pathways, in that they are a fast pathway for carbon go to from the atmosphere as CO2 into the ground as a solid carbon mineral, whether that's as humus or eventually coal. Fast carbon pathway plants tend to be early-successional , which means that they're first on the scene when a piece of land is cleared, and then give way to slower-growing, more long-lived plants when the landscape is further matured toward forest. Their role in the ecosystem is to raise levels of soil-carbon quickly, and they exist all over the world. In the case of the Carboniferous Era, the moss-trees were early-successional in an evolutionary sense, giving way to slower-growing more long lived plants when more complex plant life emerged.

Scientists think one reason the Coal Age removed so much carbon from the atmosphere was that wood-digesting fungi had not yet evolved 1. Nowadays we have sapprophytic fungi; mushrooms with the enzyme lignase that can digest wood, gain energy and release that carbon again. If there are not humans around burning coal, this is not a problem.

coal sand

However all is not lost, humus is a great stable way to store carbon 2. Humus is a category of matter that is the end-product of decomposition. It's made out of carbon, is great for holding on to water and nutrients for your plants, and decays only very slowly, building up into a rich soil over time. You can build fertility and sequester carbon in your own garden using no-till methods, by growing perennials, composting, root-pruning, and chopping-and-dropping. Even grazing animals can be used to sequester carbon in the soil.3

Carbon farming is a new, vast and growing field, one that I hope to learn more about in future. Keep an eye out for Eric Toensmeier's upcoming book Carbon Farming: A Global Toolkit for Stabilizing the Climate with Tree Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices" which is estimated to come out next year, 2015.

And carbon farming is just starting to enter public policy. The Australian government has instituted a program facilitating Voluntary carbon credits, linking up carbon-sequestering farmers and companies who want to support them. The United States is also building toward making it sustainable for farmers to provide those services we usually take for granted. The USDA has created a new department for Ecosystem Services and Markets, designed to help farmers providing "free" services such as water and air purification, views, wildlife habitat and carbon storage. From their website, the Office aims to "provide administrative and technical assistance ... in developing the uniform guidelines and tools needed to create and expand markets for these vital ecosystem services"

Marin Organics are a farm in California is generating tools that the American state can use to adhere to its Assembly Bill 32, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050. these tools include carbon audits, voluntary carbon credits, labeling for carbon-neutral and negative-carbon foods. And because artificial pesticides an fertilizers burn up soil carbon, releasing it into the atmosphere, carbon incentives also encourage organic farming, providing further benefits to our air, water and biosphere.

The carbon storage potential of humus in the soil is huge. Writes Australian author Allan Yeomans;

“If the organic matter in the top foot of all the world’s field and pasture soils were increased by 1.6%, the greenhouse effect would be back to near normal.”

1 (Cosmos season 1 ep. 9, May 3, 2014)

2 (Growing Gaia's Garden, pp 77, 91)

3 (Michael Pollan, The Omniore's Dilemma, p156)
halifaxearthtech: Photo of fairy wrens taken by Bengamint444 from Wikimedia Commons (Habitat)
As I write I am trying to formulate a soap to sell made entirely from local materials and in the process found myself teaching a subject I've only been studying for about two months. Some online sources (Mother Earth News, Frontierfreedom.com) describe making soap with ashes to be a simple process but I had only varying success.

The Hot Process

What is soap:
All soap is made with caustic bases: usually KOH (potassium hydroxide) or NaOH (sodium hydroxide). These bases are referred to as lye. Lye and water are mixed with an animal- or vegetable-based oil and water. All soap is chemically neutral and if made properly should not be drying to the skin.

There can be false implications in the soap industry as manufacturers try to distinguish their product from others. But soaps are largely the same, and you have the perfect ability to make soap for yourself. Up until the industrial period soap was made from leftover fats from parts of the animal and KOH.

KOH was difficult to work with due to an inconsistent concentration, and in the early 1800s a more reliable lye, NaOH was invented by Sir Humphry Davy. Nowadays NaOH is made in an industrial process from limestone and seawater in several sites in the US. One producer of NaOH is Dow Chemical, who sell pesticides and genetically modified seed for industrial farming and have been implicated in a number of toxic chemical spills.

As well, soap ingredients such as stearic acid and sodium laureth sulfate usually come from large-scale animal raising and palm oil, which each come with questions regarding ethical treatment of animals and the felling of rain forests for palm plantations. Commercial products like soap are usually implicated in these sorts of ethical questions which are only really avoided by buying small-scale and locally.

KOH is still used in soapmaking; it tends to make a more liquid soap where NaOH is used for solid soap. If you are going to have a greywater recycling system in your home, be sure to use liquid soap for your dishes, laundry and body or Verge Permaculture tells me that you will poison your plants with sodium-laced wastewater.

Making soap: hot vs cold process

In the hot process, lye and water are added to boiling oils. The cold process adds water and lye to oil or fat that is just melted, after they have been mixed and left to cool, as the mixing reaction generates heat. The benefit of hot process is that the soap is done in about 48 hours. With cold process you must account of your ingredients more accurately, cure it over 4 to 6 weeks. The cold process can make larger batches and use less energy. There are lots of recipes for soap elsewhere online, but a general ratio is 1 part lye and 2 parts water for 10 parts of fat.

This might seem obvious but it took me a little time to understand this: If you need soap to clean up the mess from your soap, your own soap does not have enough lye! While it is better to use less lye than the recipe says and better to have a soap that moisturizes than one that burns, it should also not leave an unpleasant greasy residue.

Ashes soap

My first attempt with soap was pig tallow from a local ethical and sustanable butcher, and lye from wood ashes. I did not have time to set up a proper lye barrel and so my lye required a large investment of energy in boiling down the ashes water until it would float the egg or potato.

The finished lye was orange in colour, and would definitely prickle and redden my skin. I purchased gloves. Because trees are largely making use of potassium and not sodium (plants don't like to be salted with the same kind we like to eat), the lye from ashes is largely potassium hydroxide or KOH.

The pig and ashes remains in my cupboard, a greasy slurry. One sign that the ashes are working is that the slurry has begun to smell like soap, instead of the remains of a living being that once suffered and loved. Philosophically I'm okay with using parts of an animal that was treated well for the sake of the local movement, but I've been vegetarian for over 16 years, and working with tallow was surprisingly gross. Cow tallow is supposed to set harder than lard. I have made a batch of cow tallow and KOH solution at 50% each, which is usually an extreme amount of lye. The crumbly mixture (pic) will dissolve in water but leaves a residue and won't yet make suds, indicating it needs yet more KOH ashes lye water.

Ashes and cow tallow (50:50)

Drain-nope: Soap with Sodium


On March 1 I gave a workshop on soap making for Transition St Margarets Bay's Upskilling event. After I offered to teach, I had one week to get the ashes soap to work, or find another recipe that would. Two days before, I gave up on the ashes and lard temporarily and worked on another recipe; cow fat, canola oil, NaOH and water. I returned the pig tallow for some cow at Getaway and bought caustic drain cleaner. While you can get NaOH crystals at some hardware store they can be hard to find (fancy that!) and the Internet remains the most reliable source. Finally 12 hours before my workshop I had a workable soap with the drain cleaner.

Pig-tallow and NaOH. This is the texture you want to see in a batch of soap.

With Transition Bay

Drain declogger is awful stuff, but the main working ingredient is NaOH. Once mixed with the cow, the resulting soap is not caustic and will clean your hands, though it will retain dyes, fragrance and some aluminum oxides and salts. In fact mixing it with fat and water made the drano safer, though personally I might not use it on dishes or my body.

The soap (Which I like to call drain-nope) will be given to Bike Again for use on greasy hands. While drain cleaners might be useful for soap in a short term emergency situation, it is more likely in a low-energy future that we will have many more hardwood ashes than drain cleaners being trucked in from Mississauga. I know which one is more sustainable.

My aim is to end up with a sellable, entirely local soap with lye from ashes and tallow or oil from local farmers. I'd also like to sell it for an affordable rate. Soap making is an addictive, fantastically popular hobby. I was surprised how many cottage-industry soapmakers there were in the province, and perhaps this is how it should be, with the knowledge of something so vital to sanitation being widespread.

If you would like to make your own soap, I recommend the Soap Making Forum, and do watch some videos as the process is best learned visually.
halifaxearthtech: photo by Lykaestria from Wikimedia Commons (Energy)
Around two weeks ago, Frank Forrestall demonstrated his rocket mass heater in my driveway. A freelance animator and post-production film editor, Forrestall is also homesteading in the Annapolis Valley and pursuing the ideal of sustainable self-sufficiency. The Rocket stove is a highly efficient design with a simple concept, and even though this was Forrstall's first welding experience he was able to create a functional highly efficient wood stove.

A cut-away view of the mass heater before the main barrel goes on

A characteristic of rocket stoves: the fire goes down, into the burn chamber, due to the draw


The rocket concept was invented in the 1970s by Ianto Evans, the author of the book Rocket Mass Heating. Since then it has caught on in the international development world, where its easy construction and efficiency found a home in refugee situations. The rocket's use in home heating is still taking off in North America, with Portland Or being the first municipality to legally permit a rocket mass heater for home use. I think with the continuing rising cost of heating oil and more homeowners interested in switching to wood, we will see continued interest in rocket mass heating.

A conceptual diagram by Paul Wheaton on richsoil.com

The secret to the design is a fierce draw: due to the insulated burn chamber and expansion of exhaust gasses, oxygen is drawn into the stove, and fuel is burned completely and at a high temperature. There is no smoke or soot, and very little ash. It also requires very little wood (as little as half a cord a year for a standard size house). Thus, the system dovetails nicely with coppicing or other sustainable ways to produce a small amount of firewood without clearcutting. Finally, the mass heater also incorporates thermal mass: a body of stone, cob, concrete or other heavy material that holds heat from the chimney, continuing to heat your house for long after the fire goes out.

A house-heating unit, also from richsoil.com

In May 2014 the Deanery project on the Eastern shore will be installing a rocket mass heater and you are invited to take part in the build. The date will be announced shortly. Incidentally I sell small models for cooking or hot water at Plan B.

Yours for $20 at Plan B!

Some awesome resources to check out include

halifaxearthtech: (Default)
If you have a garden, you need to have on-site compost. here's why.

Composting corrects nutrient mining from farms by cities

One could consider composting to be a process of enriching your own land with fertility you've bought from farms. You've only eaten it first. When you send away your compost the city profits from your organics, which are then sold to landscaping companies to fertilize ornamental gardens.

During the second world war and before, micronutrients (vegetables and fruits giving vitamins and minerals) used to be produced at home, while macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein-and yes, fat is a nutrient, we need it to survive) were grown in the more spaceous lands of the agricultural hinterland and brought into cities. this meant that foods that demand a higher nautrient input, vegetables, were produced closer to home, where the nutrients could ultimately be composted back into the soil. Foods like grains or meats returned much of their fertility back to the farm's soil as chaff or manure and hides and other unused body, with only part of their total value being sent into the city. This represented a more economical transfer of soil nutrients, with less being sent from farms into cities.

Compost reduces the effects of acid rain

I worked at the home of one client who had gardened and home-composted on the Halifax peninsula for three decades. She had her garden soil tested by the Agricultural College at Truro and discovered that her soil was chemically neutral. No small feat in a part of the country with acidic bedrock and industrially produced acid rain. I credit the compost and the constant groundcover of perennial and self-seeding annual plants, even though those plants were almost all ornamental.

One reason might have been a good cationic exchange capacity, the process by which plants acquire the minerals they need. Basically plants break down water (H2O) into an H+ and an OH-. Their roots will hold out the OH- , wave it around, and hope to grab a K+ or Ca2+ atom or molecule, securing those atoms they need to live from their soil. Cationic exchange capacity is a measure of soil health, and the ability of plants to do this. It also makes the pH of the soil more stable, making sure it is neither too acidic nor too alkaline. A good fraction of humus and organic matter will increase the cationic exchange capacity of the soil. (wikipedia)

Compost provides the soil life plants need to make use of nutrients

Your soil can have fertility but without life to assist your garden, your plants will have a much more difficult time. The field of soil chemistry is immensely diverse, but simply stated, more living things in your soil means your soil aggregates more (clumps), providing room for more water absorption, more air, more habitat for yet more soil creatures and creating more surface area for cation exchange to take place. Soil organisms such as fungi and bacteria also form symiotic relationships with plants, especially perenials and trees.

So if your garden isn't up to snuff or even if it is, consider growing your soil. After all it's your soil that grows your garden.

Above are some simple designs for compost boxes. I like to have space for a cubic yard in a box, with 4'wide walls. Three pallets lashed together are all you need to get started, but I like to use 1/4 inch mesh or "hardware cloth" to keep out all but the smallest animals. The best deal I've found is at Pierceys on Robie street who sells 25 feet for around $30. I staple this to beams to make panels, and then assemble the panels. This design has the benefit of being modular, so if you move you can take it with you.
halifaxearthtech: (Default)
If you're having trouble growing a garden it could be because your tree is poisoning it.

Norway maple (Acer planatoides) is a very common urban shade tree and it's also one naturalists love to hate.They were at the centre of last year's debacle appearing on the new $20 bill. They do indeed come from Norway as well as other regions in Eastern Europe and Western Asia
According to Wikipedia, it can tolerate poor, compacted soils and urban pollution. The roots of Norway maples grow very close to the ground surface, starving other plants of moisture. They also cast one of the most total and complete palls of shade over streets, lawns and gardens alike. Some scientists think that Norway maples might be alleopathic, meaning they poison the ground beneath them to reduce competition from other plants. The tree has been banned in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

When plants grow in nature, they very rarely grow in patches of only one kind, the way we try to make them grow in normal agriculture. Instead we see plants growing beside other plants. A patch of woodland might have taller trees, shrubs and low plants. They interact in ways we do not yet fully understand, sometimes helping and sometimes harming one another. A group of plants that work synergistically to help each other grow is called a guild. We can build whole forests out of guilds, such that each plant produces food, or helps those plants that do. You might be having to deal with aggressive plants like Norway Maple in your city garden right now. If you can't get rid of them, you can at least find the plants that can play well with these noxious species.

Guilding with Goutweed
Goutweed doesn't kill the plants around them, but will vigorously out-compete them for light, space and soil nutrients. Nearly impossible to weed out, goutweed will sprout back up from stem and root fragments and requires several going-overs to make sure it's really gone. From my own observation, goutweed occupies the root horizon most thickly between 1" and 5" below the surface. I have had good results with these plants that can co-exist with goutweed by occupying a different root horizon entirely, particularly deeply taprooted plants like burdock, comfrey and yellow dock. Shallow-rooted plants like geranium and english ivy manage with goutweed by occupying the root horizon of between 1" and the surface.

Guilding with Black walnut
As tasty as walnuts are, many kinds will kill the plants growing beneath and around them and can even produce an allergic reaction from their pollen in people and horses. (wikipedia, juglone). Many plants such as tomato, potato, blackberry, blueberry, other rhododendron and heath-family plants and apple may be injured or killed within one to two months of growth within the root zone of these trees ohiostateuniversity In spite of this, walnuts are a worthwhile addition to a food forest for their tasty nuts. Fortunately there's a lot of information online about guilding with Black Walnut.

Megan of Wisconsin (she gives no last name) at the Hardy Eco Garden explains gardening with black walnut way better than I ever could so I will just reblog her entry here:

The helpful gardener gives a guild with black walnut that includes choke cherry, currant, goumi or sea buckthorn, elder, mulberry and wolfberry.

If you are unfortunate enough to live with dog roses (Rosa multiflora) I hear goats will control them.

Here are some lists of species for you to try out in your food forest or garden compiled from several websites and forums

Norway maples
From adamsgardennativeplants;
Alumroot Heuchera villosa Some are native, pollinator support
American Bellflower Campanulastrum americanum Native, some pollinator support
American Pennyroyal Hedeoma pulegioides Edible and medicinal
Barren Strawberry Waldsteinia fragariodes A groundcover
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta Pollinator support
Black Huckleberry Gaylussacia baccata native, edible berries
Christmas Fern Polystichum acrostichoides native, erosion control
European ginger Asarum europaeum Not edible, a nicely scented and well behaved groundcover that keeps down weeds
Fumewort Corydalis solida Spring ephemeral
Hairy solomon’s seal Polygonatum pubescens The solomon's seals are taken as hepatic adaptogens. The sprouts can be eaten in the springtime like fiddleheads if they are boiled in several changes of water. A spring ephemeral. Common solomon seal has done well under Norways in my garden.
Hazelnut Corylus avellana edible nut, coppice lumber
(a note that my hazels under Norway Maples are doing poorly. It may be worth a try in a sunnier location)
Heartleaf Aster Symphyotrichum cordifolium Pollinator and calcid wasp support
sweet woodruff Galium odoratum A vigorously spreading groundcover that smells nice when dried
Largeflower bellwort Uvularia grandiflora
Lowbush Blueberry Vaccinium angustifolia native, edible fruits
Male Fern Dryopteris filix-mas Native, groundcover
Rosey sedge Carex roseaSiberian squill Scilla sibrica Not edible, but an early spring pollinator support and spring ephemeral
Rosinweed Silphium integrifolium Pollinator support, edible seeds? oil crop?
Smooth Aster Symphyotrichum laeve Polinator and calcid wasp support
Possumhaw Viburnum Viburnum nudum Native to New England. Pollinator support. Does this indicate other viburnums such as highbush cranberry and wild raisin may also do well?
Tartan dogwood Cornus alba Dynamic accumulator
Twinleaf Jeffersonia diphylla Medicinal, native
Wild Bleeding Heart Dicentra eximia pollinator support, native
Witchhazel Hamamelis virginiana Native and medicinal
Woodland Aster Senecio sylvaticus Pollinator and calcid wasp support. It may be worth trying any sort of aster or goldenrod

From Toronto Gardens http://torontogardens.blogspot.ca/2007/09/tough-as-old-boots.html;
Chrysanthemum Pelargonium spp.
Lavender Lavandula angustifolia
Wild garlic (the species name was not given, could refer to a number of 'wild garlics')

From my own observations;

Black currant, red currant Ribes spp.
Blackberry Rubus fruticosus
Chives Allium schoenoprasum
Chrysanthemum Pelargonium spp.
Jerusalem artechoke Helianthus tuberosus
Mountain Ash Sorbus aucuparia
Nettle Urtica dioica
Mother-of-thyme Thymus praecox
Quince Cydonia oblonga
Saxifragia Stolonifera A medicinal groundcover
Solomon seal Polygonatum mutiflorum

Personal observations

Annual phlox ‪Phlox drummondii‬
Beach rose (Rosa rugosa) edible fruits and flowers, pollinator support, native
Bittersweet nightshade Solaum dulcamara
Blackberry, wild raspberry Rubus fruticosus
Dog rose Rosa multiflora
English ivy Hedera helix
High bush cranberry Viburnum trilobum
Flat topped white aster Aster umbellatus
New england aster Symphyotrichum novae-angliae
Pelargonium and geranium (just so shallow-rooted that they cannot be crowded out )
Showy goldenrod Solidago speciosa


Black spruce Picea mariana
Black ash Fraxiunus nigra
Barberry Berberis vulgaris
Elder Sambucus nigra
Lilac Syringa vulgaris
Native hawthorn Crataegus spp.
Norway Maple Acer planatoides
Poplar Populus nigra
Red oak Quercus rubens
Red maple Acer rubrum
Rowan Sorbus aucuparia
White birch Betula papyrifera
Wild Plum Prunus americana
Yellow birch Betula alleghaniensis
halifaxearthtech: photo by Marlene Thyssen (Water)
The project of living sustainably can seem daunting at first. According to the New Economics Foundation in the UK, August 20 was global overshoot day for 2013 (1): the day on which the human race extends the Earth's capacity to mitigate and account for our food consumption, water usage and pollution expenditure. At Verge Permaculture they recommended we live within our solar budget for the year. That means, not overdrawing more water than falls on your personal chunk of land in a given year, not using more energy than falls as sunlight on your house. This is also referred to as the solar economy: instead of drawing upon fossil energy and ancient aquafer water, we adjust our demand to fit within what the sun and the earth give is in a given year. Obviously this is a tall order but to me it felt like a handy place to start.

This is our water usage meter. The city uses it to bill us for water (although since the city owns our house, we don't actually pay for water).

On the first day of every month I remember to, I record the total water used. On average it is 10m^3 or 10 thousand litres a month for cooking, dishes, drinking, washing clothes showering, irrigating my garden in the dry months and flushing toilets. It seems like a lot, perhaps five bathtubs full.

Find yearly average rainfall in your area from Environment Canada's website

Here's a hint: for Shearwater airport in Halifax it's 1421.4 mm average between years 1973 and 2013.

I found my house's roof area was roughly 101.8m ^2 by going out and measuring the length and width of the house with a tape measure (and then multiplying them together to find the area). Make sure your final area measurement is in metric.

Finally, multiply the mm of rain with the m^2 of the roof. The answer should come out in litres (.001 m x m^2 = .01 m^3 or 1L). I found out my roof collects an average of 144'698.5 L of water a year. That's 12'058.21 L a month.

It turns out that in a climate like ours, we can afford with our roof space even to use flush toilets. We also live in a house and have a large roof area. Implications for those who live in apartment buildings would be more frugal. However for us it takes fossil energy to pump water up from the Grand Lake aquifer to the Hydrostone reservoire for downtown Halifax, let alone to treat the water before and after home use. Reducing your water use directly saves energy and greenhouse gasses. Furthermore if you were saving rainwater for all your needs, reducing your water consumption would make it easier to accommodate fluctuations in seasonal rainfall and get you through the drier months.

During the month of September we used the humanure toilet without changing anything else and went from roughly 100 m^3 to 7 m^3. That's a decrease of more than 90%, and that should reflect a little on our power bill too.

To further reduce my water usage I could be staggering my shower (turning off the water to soap up). The next stop would be a front-loading washing machine, greywater use and better water management in my garden.

The media coop focusses on exposing class divides and injustice that other news outlets will not cover, but how can we reorient our lives to start supporting justice? How can we decouple from fossil fuels, and the pipelines, spills, fracking, global warming and human rights abuses associated with them? How can we end the oil addiction, relocalize production, create meaningful work and a truly lasting human ecology? In this column I hope to present solutions and create dialogue around permaculture. Feel free to ask your gardening and green living questions and I will answer.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecological_Debt_Day
halifaxearthtech: Photo of fairy wrens taken by Bengamint444 from Wikimedia Commons (Habitat)
Most cities on the Eastern seaboard experience soil contamination from arsenic and lead. Many choose to build raised beds to grow food in fertile soil one can be sure of. I am often asked by clients and friends for economical ways to fill a series of raised beds, which usually entails several cubic yards of soil.

The most obvious route is to buy soil from a landscaping company. Each bed may need 1/2 to 1 cubic yard. I fit six beds in my typical urban backyard. A reputable company will sell a soil/compost mix for around $30 a yard but this will include a delivery fee that is usually in the order of $80. There will also be a minimum purchase of 1/2 yard to 1 yard. Because of the delivery fee, larger purchases make sense. Furthermore landscaping companies tend not to allow customers to split purchases by dumping in two locations (though if you move the soil by wheelbarrow or truck to your friends house, who's to know). This option will cost a couple hundred dollars.

One problem with buying topsoil is that it's removed from an area of land and not replaced. Topsoil can take thousands of years for nature to create. Sometimes soil is removed from farmland and sold, and one cannot be sure if it has been treated with pesticides, some of which, in bygone days, may have contained yet more lead and arsenic (Paridise Lot, Eric Toensmeier, p33). There are no landscaping companies at this time in Nova Scotia that I know of that sell a product that is 100% compost or created soil. They all include 'mined' soil in some proportion. I try to purchase as high a percentage of compost as I can in a mix.

As an aside, it saddens me to see many gardeners needing to add further topsoil to their gardens every five to ten years. If you need to keep adding soil to your garden, if it is not creating more soil than it is using, then your garden is broken. Sometimes some of the soil is eroding off in mismanaged rainwater. But more often it is being oxidized by soil tilage: the soil is turned with a fork and oxygen in the air literally burns soil carbon, turning it into carbon dioxide. Also, carbon that would be added to the soil from falling leaves and organic material is raked up and sent away. At least in Halifax it is composted and not landfilled. These gardeners would never have a soil problem if they kept their leaves on site and composted them along with kitchen waste and as many organic materials as are created on site.

Returning to starting a new garden, a cheaper option is to buy broken bags of soil and manure from your local grocery or hardware store. If you can say you're providing for a community garden they may even give those ones away free.

For my raised beds I went to the Bengal Lancers on Bell road in downtown Halifax. They had more horse manure to give away than I would ever use in a lifetime. They and any stable usually has to pay a hefty fee to have the manure hauled away, so they are thrilled to see me at the door. The manure is fresh, of course, but the middle of the pile is hot enough to kill weed seeds. I filled my beds in the autumn and let it rot through the winter, or sometimes even planted in it directly. The composting process causes the soil level to drop (again through oxidation), but by then I could add some of my own finished compost to bring up the level. After a few years my raised bed soil will be more stable and levels will drop less. I have heard from Silas Magee of Little Foot Yurts that successive treatments of horse manure, though a wonderful free resource, can cause uncomposted wood chips to build up and borrow nitrogen from your plants, which harms them. This can be prevented by adding a nitrogen rich top dressing like manure or finished compost, or even diluted urine.

Thanks Best-Price!

Broccoli grows happily in a thin layer of soil. I filled this bed with fresh horse manure, and then a year later topped it up with bagged manure from a grocery store.

Don't let it tell you otherwise

Many other soil ingredients can be gotten for free in the city if you are willing to wait a year or two for your raised bed's full production. Cafes are a source of used coffee grounds and sometimes coffee chaff. Brewers might give you spent barley mash if you ask nicely. Apple trees might have scabby apples or simply too many. Autumn leaves line the streets of all cities in North America already bagged neatly. Tree trimming companies have copious amounts of wood chips they also will gladly give you. Restaurants and farmer's markets can give you scores of buckets of high-nitrogen food scraps. People mowing lawns may give you high-nitrogen grass clippings. Wood shops have bags of untreated sawdust. I'm sure this list can go on. One consideration is that these establishments are often short on space and it is courteous to pick up buckets promptly, or bring containers with you and pick up what is available at the moment.

Eric Toensmeier gives a good recipe for a lasagna garden in Paridise Lot (2013). THis is a technique that could easily be used for raised beds. Though the mixture composts here as well and loses some volume, I've had no problem growing food in raised beds that were filled with even 8" of fertile soil.

If you are composting your own soil, it may take a few months to a year for your raised beds to get to full production. However besides being cheap to free you can be assured of the high quality and fertility of your soil, which will also help prevent plants from taking up contaminants like arsenic and lead. A year from now, you'll be glad you started.

halifaxearthtech: Photo by Joe Shneid of Louisville Kentucky, from Wikimedia Commons (Pattern)
To get the most out of eating wild foods and using wild medecine, it benefits to have some basic chemistry. The same chemicals are made by a wide variety of plants; if you know the use of one of them, you can use a whole host of plants. Similarly, toxic principals can be the same across family groups.

The pyrrolyzidine alkaloids are present in many plants, and is the reason why it's not suggested to take borage or comfrey internally. They are are produced by plants as a defense mechanism against insect herbivores. It's also present in groundsel, fuki,
vipers bugloss, coltsfoot, forget me nots, chrysanthemum spinach (shungiku), ligularia, heliotrope and tansy ragwort.

Wikipedia states:
More than 660 PAs and PA N-oxides have been identified in over 6,000 plants, and about half of them exhibit hepatotoxicity. They are found frequently in plants in the Boraginaceae, (borage family) Asteraceae( aster and sunflwer family) Orchidaceae (orchids) and Leguminosae (the beans and peas) families; less frequently in the Convolvulaceae (morning glory) and Poaceae, (grasses) and in at least one species in the Lamiaceae (the mints). It has been estimated that 3% of the world’s flowering plants contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids

Many poisons are harmful to us because they damage the liver. This makes sense because the liver is where we denature toxins and prepare them to be excreted as bodily waste, and so these chemicals are sent there. Pyrrolizidine is no exception, and can cause liver damage in large amounts as well as tumours. Animals with simple digestive systems (like horses or humans, which do not have compartmentalized stomachs and do not chew cud) are at risk.

Alkaloids are produced by living beings usually for self-defense purposes. Many alkaloids have a psychoactive effect. Caffeine is an alkaloid, so are compounds like morphine, nicotine, cocaine, psyilocin and medicinal compounds like berberine (an antibacterial compound found in goldenseal) and quinine.

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids can be removed from a food or medicinal plant by cooking the plant in several changes of water to which has been added a pinch of baking soda or wood ash. Avoid consuming large quantities over a long period of time.
halifaxearthtech: (Capture and Store Energy)
I planted snap beans this year, purple peacock, painted lady and lazy housewife, and then I bought 10 lbs of beans from Hutten farm because I thought mine wouldn't grow for some reason. Well they did, and I've been pulling a little over a pound of beans out of my plot every two days. I like the spicy beans they sell at the Seaport market but I guess I'm cheap, and I now have an excess of beans.

I got this recipe from my favourite ex-con Martha Steward, here . I'm using her seasonal recipies far more often that I would like to admit. I despise dill in everything but soup. My mother is in shock that I'll pickle anything because when I was growing up I wouldn't go near them. I find the combination of dill, turmeric and cucumbers to be nauseating. This one doesn't have dill.

Needs used to carry something called Blair's Death Rain chips. They would come in flavours like scotch bonnet. They were great because you really only could eat just one! Greasy, satisfying, paced out and a natural antidepressant. They don't sell them anymore. Second best are these local jalepenos. I tried stuffing them once and they were just like Blair's Death Rain! The jalepenos from away don't do that. I got a kilo of the locals last summer and that lasted me the year.

A big heaping pile of dear god why

I don't know how many beans I had but I had to double the brine recipe. I sterilized my jars because I like to have the luxury of time rather than keep them in my fridge and worry about getting through them in a month.I shouldn't have worried. The results? Firey and perfect.


Aug. 11th, 2013 12:32 am
halifaxearthtech: Photo of fairy wrens taken by Bengamint444 from Wikimedia Commons (Habitat)
I've been quite busy all summer and I realise I've not posted much. Here are some updates on the home front.

All the garlic has been harvested. I've learned I eat 100 heads a year, and if I plant 26 heads (assuming an average 5 cloves a head) I'll grow enough to eat, and enough to plant for next year to have enough to eat and plant the following year (whew!).

I've finally finished building a pest-resistent second compost bin. Like the first, it can hold a cubic yard of compost, though this never happens because it rots down and reduces in volume constantly. We'd been contributing to the first bin for 18 months and there is just about a cubic yard of finished compost. It's all going in the raised beds. The composting toilet is also back in operation now.

One lesson from this year: don't plant zucchini in a permanent clover green-manure! The lack of airflow means it's succeptible to rust and then your zucchinis turn into slime. I did get one big one though early on. Fingers are crossed for subsequent zucchini.

Also, don't plant all your broccoli and brussels sprouts in the same bed, it makes it too easy for the moths to find them!

During July's heatwave my scarlet runners were curiously unproductive. I learned that temperatures had to dip below 35C for beans to set fruit. I had no idea they were so fussy!

I tried to be self-sufficient in peas this year. I got about half that far and froze a kilo of peas. I got maybe 6 L of raspberries and 10 L of black currants, most of which I sold. I also was able to give away many canes from thinning my raspberry row.

I was pleased with the wildflower bed this year.

All in all I can't complain. The new chest freezer is being put to good use and I'll be canning up peaches and tomatoes quite soon.
halifaxearthtech: photo by Lykaestria from Wikimedia Commons (Energy)
This is a project I've been meaning to do for some time. I hope to give these away as (quazi-gag) gifts or perhaps sell them legitimately. A bicycle wheel is repurposed to be portable thermal mass, that you can place beneath a sunny window to store and release those warm rays on wintery days.

I'd had some cob saved from a project two years ago. All I had to do was just add water. The clay came from the Bay of Fundy mud, I'd bought some sharp masonry sand and used for straw some empty kale seedpods left over from harvesting kale seeds for Annapolis Seeds . I used 50% clay, 22% sand and 30% parts straw, if you assume the mud was 100% clay, though it did contain some silt.

I've put the mass in a bag for now to keep it moist so I can press in some mosaic tiles and give it further polishing. Though it's only a 20" wheel it is incredibly heavy, which is a good sign though it will be lighter when it dries out.
halifaxearthtech: Photo of fairy wrens taken by Bengamint444 from Wikimedia Commons (Habitat)
Last friday we began mulching around the trees already installed at the Common Roots Urban Farm. Work continues on the design, and we will be fundraising this year, and finishing installation probably next spring.

The mulch goes out at least 10 feet and will kill grass, reduce competition for the young trees and increase permeability and soil life.

First we spread a thin layer of fresh wood chips, to start the growth of more fungi. Tree trimming companies are a good source of fresh wood chips they will often give away for free. Use the raw wood sparingly or rot it somewhere else for a few years first, or else it will rob your soil of nitrogen.

Cardboard went over the wood chips to kill grass and preserve moisture and darkness necessary for the fungi to grow.

Soil went down to weigh down the cardboard and provide a matrix for green manures; white clover and daikon, that will be going in later.

Straw went down to protect the soil.

Thanks to the volunteers who helped with this! I think we will be there every Friday afternoon to make sure the trees are watered and finish mulching. Feel free to drop by between 2 and 5pm!


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May 2017

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