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 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 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!
halifaxearthtech: Photo by Panphage from the Wikimedia Commons (Soil)
It's a familiar story. You didn't intend to grow potatoes in your garden but April came around and you were left with a bag of sprouted ones, pale necks yearning and straining towards life and you take pity on the potatoes and plant them. This time of year is like a second kind of Easter egg hunt.

I put these ones in a raised bed that was filled with fresh Bengal Lancers horse manure. This is part of my project to fill my raised beds without buying soil. A lot of soil available for purchasing can come from questionable sources: slow-to-replace peat moss strip-mined from bogs, biosolids, or sometimes the topsoil from a bankrupted farmer's field. And there is no need to buy it, if you are able to sit tight for a year or two. Just look at this finished product after only one year!

I eschewed the shovel and easily sifted through the raised bed with my hands. By the way, Bengal Lancers are always pleased to give manure away for free to anyone who asks nicely as they have to pay to have it removed.

Of course I have no idea what variety these guys are, I think they were the tail end of the Ecology Action Centre root cellar project, so they were organic and purchased locally. These will tide me over until the next root cellar purchase and are going to go into some veggie pate. And yes, I dug up my potatoes in the dark. The shorter days are catching me by surprise. And I'm kind of a goth, ok?

I want to see a side-by-side trial of raised beds filled with mulch and potato towers, to see if the potatoes planted into a tower that is already filled burrow down all the way and make just as many tubers as the potato that has mulch piled around it higher and higher all year.
halifaxearthtech: workmen stand outside Alexander MacKay school in 1918 (People care)
The common Roots Urban Farm had it's launching work party day today. The raised beds to the east side are for community groups, and there are a half-dozen or so that are for public consumption (the ones closest to Robie street). Jayme Melrose said she figured about 200 volunteers attended today. Councilor Jennifer Watts made an appearance.

The schematic of the final finished farm

a haybale insulated compost depot

volunteers wheelbarrow donated soil to the raised beds

chives on a chair
volunteers and a large pile of soil
halifaxearthtech: Mysore fruit seller (Food)
A permaculture design graduating class in Seattle creates a city-centre food forest through massive public outreach.



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