Living Lighter on the Land
Here in the east, we have forests. When the forests were carved up to accommodate human settlement trees were left along road, next to houses, at property boundaries, in cemeteries and in school yards. Now, years later, we walk amongst these huge trees and connect with our place's past. I am convinced that our connection with huge trees is not confined to just the naturalist or the botanist- most people have a healthy respect for big, old trees. We submit to feelings of reverence when in the presence of these giants. Perhaps we empathize with their long struggle for survival or maybe we remember our grandparents and think it best to merely respect our elders. How do we think about these amazing organisms after they die?
Standing dead tree, or 'snag'
Here in Pound Ridge, NY very large trees- usually maple, oak, sycamore and sometimes even American elm- sit like centerpieces in many lawns and properties. On one of my running routes I admire a huge black oak tree that was badly damaged by the Halloween 2011 storm. The heavy wet snow tore the tree's large crown to bits and left it hanging upside down from the top of the trunk. The trunk was severed and gashed open. I always look forward to running past this tree because it stands out from its manicured surroundings. It looks wild in a sea of tamed. It reminds me of a hobbled war veteran- proud, but obviously succumbing to his wounds. There is something about the tree's injured state that is intriguing. For some reason, the huge gashes in the trunk make it look bigger and even more impressive. I have more respect for the tree because I can physically see its vulnerability and I know what it has been through.
The storm that threatened the tree's life also claimed three human lives and left an entire region without power for days. It is the kind of storm we will tell our children about and will change Halloween in the east forever. The kind of disaster that brings people together.
On this morning's run I was slowly making my way up the hill to where the old oak stands. As I rounded the bend to see the oak I quickly noticed that the tree had been felled over the weekend. The disassembled tree was sitting quietly in a metal container on the street. A cleanly shaven stump marked its former place in the lawn. The property now blended in with the rest of the manicured neighborhood. The one distinctive organic feature on the street had been removed. The old war veteran was taken out of his misery. Instead of withering on a pedestal in front of the neighbors he was quickly removed, destined for the mulch path or the fireplace. No one wants to look at a broken down old tree. Or do we?
I challenge the paradigm that says old dead trees should be removed from your property, and for two reasons. The first reason, rooted in ecology, says that standing dead trees, or 'snags', provide ecological value to the area. Snags are a useful resource to wildlife. Woodpeckers, owls, flying squirrels, bats, hundreds of insect species and songbirds all use snags as places to eat, hunt from, sleep in, or nest it. Also, as a snag decays it sheds carbon to the ground and soil which is gobbled up by invertebrates, which in turn feed birds and small mammals. Interestingly, its not just animals that can use a snag for habitat. Plants and fungus can make their home in or on decaying wood, some of which are nitrogen fixers, which enrich the local soil with usable nitrogen. Simply stated, snags are a form of natural capital- valuable nutrients, carbon, housing and food for our local ecosystem- that we casually just throw out.
The second reason I challenge the practice of removing snags from your property has to do with our human culture. These behemoths stand out against the surrounding young forest and remind us of the stature and glory that is attainable by our local forests. Every huge tree that is removed from our landscape is a severed tie to our past. If we take away too many huge trees our children miss out- they won't witness the big trees from the past.
Of course, most of my readers will recall that dead trees can fall on their house or other property. This is absolutely true, and if you have a tree that is threatening your property or your life, you are justified in removing it. But consider this, a dead or dying tree can have its threatening parts removed while leaving non-threatening parts behind to act as wildlife habitat. Outstretched limbs can be taken off, and the trunk can be shortened to the point of being benign.
The title of this post is 'An example of rethinking our place on the planet', but why? During my run this morning, after I saw that the big oak was removed, I contemplated the ways we think about our ecosystems. Many people would consider a dead tree unsightly, unnecessary landscape features, a liability, something 'unnatural' amongst a well manicured green landscape. This perspective neglects to consider other plants and animals, the soil, the area's history, the ecosystem's future and the complete lifecycle* of a mature tree. Me, on the other hand, think that snags are neat and sexy (see the picture at top of this post). Someone might say 'a person can remove a dead tree from their yard if they think it is ugly- people can decide for themselves if something is ugly or not'. Sure, you- as the landowner- can judge for yourself what is ugly or not and you have the freedom to remove ugly features from your property. My point here is that the criteria many people use to judge if something in nature is pretty or ugly (good or bad, too much or too little) is based on limited perspectives and seriously limited information. Specifically, the biological and ecological perspectives are completely overlooked. Why? The perspectives that relate to us as living organisms in a shared ecological environment are systematically overlooked. Why? Its kind of like judging a Vincent Van Gogh painting while forgetting the artist's setting, philosophy, tools, history and personality. One can render a judgement but the judgement is not likely to be sophisticated, intelligent, defensible, or even accurate. *As a side note, the word lifecycle is totally misleading because the life of a tree does not end with its death. Instead, it stands for decades and continues to react with the rest of the ecosystem*. This is an example of rethinking our place on the planet because I have taken a common domestic 'problem' (felling a 'nuisance' tree) and expanded what we know about it. In the course of doing so I have promoted a perspective that considers humans as connected to the rest of nature. Humans don't live in isolation. The rest of nature doesn't live in isolation. We all live together.
Tate releasing a rehabilitated red tail hawk in Ohio
Once upon a time I rehabilitated injured raptors (wild eagles, owls, falcons, and hawks). At the Glen Helen Raptor Center in Yellow Springs, Ohio roughly 150 injured raptors were brought to us each year and we assessed, cared for and (if appropriate) released the birds back into the wild. In the wild world of raptor rehabilitation there are seasons you can predictably come to rely on, and these seasons reflect the rhythms of the natural world. For example, we would only expect to see injured rough-legged hawks in the winter (in the summer they nest in the Arctic), fall and winter would bring us many juvenile birds out on their own for the first time, and our busiest season – spring – would bring us many injured babies. Each spring we took in dozens of baby screech owls and kestrels, both of which nest in holes in trees. How do baby raptors get injured? 1) They fall out of their nest or, 2) someone cuts down the tree they were nesting in.
As it turns out people do a lot of tree work during the nesting season- felling trees, limbing trees, pruning shrubs- which means there are lots of unhappy parents out there. Nesting in trees is not unique to birds either- bats, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, hornets and sometimes porcupines all nest off the ground. Once separated from the nest, young animals stand very little chance of surviving. The guaranteed food source from mom and dad, warmth of the nest and the protection from predators vanishes instantly. Could you imagine spending some quality time at home with the newborn when all of the sudden you start to feel your house rattle? A loud tool with a smoking motor is slicing into your foundation and causing your house to slump. Obviously devastating.
Eastern screech owl in a tree cavity
A crow nest in a tree
To avoid cutting down a tree that contains a nest be aware what's living in your backyard. Singing birds are a dead give away for an active nest. Look for physical nests (usually made out of sticks) in trees and if you see tree a cavity, watch for animals coming and going.
Try to work around animal's nesting schedule. Raptors usually next first, in late winter/early spring. Songbirds start nesting in the early spring and continue through to mid summer. Squirrels and bats nest in the spring. To best avoid nesting critters, the fall is the best time to conduct tree work.
If you do happen to cut down a tree which contains an animal nest you can call your local rehabilitator for instructions on how to help. Just google 'wildlife rehabilitation' and your location and you will find a place. Almost any bird will be taken in by a nearby rehabilitator. Mammals of greater conservation concern like bats (yes, bats are mammals) might be taken in. Raccoons are not people's favorite so you might not find a lot of resources available for their rescue, but again, call your local rehabilitator. See what they recently did for a squirrel.
As a result of habitat fragmentation (see post #1) our woodlots, backyards, town parks, old fields, and vacant lots are now the wild places for plants and animals to call home. Like the baby screech owl that falls from its nests during our spring cleaning, our backyard management could mean a great deal to the critters that live there; sometimes the different between life and death.
My last post was all about insulation. At the Armstrong House, we keep our hot water heater buffered from its environment with an insulating foam ‘jacket’ (3.2 inches thick, removable). This single tool works to keep the heat where it should be- in the hot water. Temperature, heating, cooling, climate control – these are all necessary things to consider when building or planning a home. Here’s the goal: to design a comfortable home while minimizing long term and short term resource use. To this end, we again turn to insulation…
Everybody insulates their home and the ways to do it are plentiful: there is blown insulation (usually cellulose), the common pink fiberglass insulation, foams, stone wool – you name it. When we install these insulators in our walls they perform like a big down jacket – they act as a buffer between an inside and outside temperature. Their effectiveness lies in their make up – these kind of insulators are porous and filled with zillions of little air pockets, each of which has to heat up before passing on its heat to the next. Collectively, these air pockets slow and reduce the inevitable transfer of heat from something hot (your house, your body) to something cold (the outside air).
A different type of insulation – reflective insulation or a radiant barrier – works a different way. Reflective insulation is not like your down jacket or pink fiberglass insulation. It doesn’t rely on its loft, thickness, or zillions of little air pockets to slow the transfer of heat energy. Reflective insulation simply reflects thermal radiation, and up to 95% of it. To understand how this works, and how it differs from the standard pink insulation, you should know a little bit about radiation.
|The three ways heat is transferred: conduction, convection and radiation.|
Remember all the way back to physics class. Heat can be transfer in three ways: convection (air masses of different temperatures swapping places), conduction (heat is passed through atoms that are touching one another) and radiation (electromagnetic energy moving through air). Here is a good refresher on heat transfer. If we want to stop the transfer of heat (for example, by using insulation) we have to address one of these three mechanisms. Both pink fiberglass insulation and reflective insulation inhibit the transfer of thermal radiation. Radiation (also referred to as ‘electromagnetic radiation’) is ‘energized particles and/or waves that travel through a medium or space’ (Wikipedia, radiation, 6/2012). Examples of radiation include visible light, radio waves, micro waves and infrared radiation which, when absorbed, are all forms of thermal radiation. Here is how your pink fiberglass insulation stops thermal radiation:
Thermal radiation moving through the air (from a source like your fireplace) is absorbed by the fiberglass insulation. More specifically, it is absorbed by the first pockets of air in the fiberglass that it intercepts. As those pockets of air heat up they create and emit their own thermal radiation to adjacent pockets of air that are colder. These, in turn, absorb thermal radiation, heat up and emit thermal radiation to the next pocket of air. And so on and so on, until the outermost pockets of air emit their thermal energy to the cold environment. The fiberglass insulation does not try to stop or reflect the radiation, it just tries to slow it down and keep it in place by absorbing it.
This is fundamentally different than reflective insulation, which does not allow radiation to slowly permeate it. Reflective insulation – usually with a foam interior and a thin aluminum exterior – is impenetrable to the infrared radiation, the type of radiation that makes up most of our household thermal radiation.
The product we used to wrap the Armstrong House is called Low E and it kind of looks like this when its installed:
|House wrapped in Low E reflective insulation.|
In some places at the Armstrong House we used double sided Low E to help reflect outside radiation and keep the house cool in the summer. Remember, the reflective insulation is really good at reflecting most thermal radiation but there is some that squeaks by. To insulate the house even further and trap in the most possible heat, we also used a traditional non-reflective insulator that works the same as your down jacket. I can’t wait for next winter because I’ll be as snug as a bug!
This weekend marked a very special occasion for the Armstrong garden: the first harvest. While I was tending the garden I noticed that the radishes were literally climbing out of the soil (see picture). They weren’t very big but they had a delicious flavor. I sliced them thin and added them to vegetarian springs rolls that evening. Mmmmmm. Next on the menu: my lettuce.
|The first radish to be harvested at the Armstrong House!|
My next thread will be dedicated to the Armstrong House and its neat energy efficient technologies. Today’s post is an introduction to the Armstrong House and its primary source of electricity, a set of south- facing solar panels.
Inside the house, when I flip a switch, charge my cell phone and print out a map, I do it with energy harnessed directly from the sun. A photovoltaic solar array sits securely on a rocky outcrop just a stone’s throw from my back door. In times of sunshine, the solar array produces a DC current which- when routed through an inverter- enters my home as AC and runs my appliances. Excess energy is stored in a series of batteries to be used during a cloudy day. For fun, a sample of some cool electricity websites here and here.
Living off the grid. The Armstrong House Education Center is unique because it gets all of its electric energy from the sun- it is completely ‘off the grid’. There are no power lines connecting it to the power company, I don’t receive a monthly electricity bill and when the town’s power goes out in a storm I will be happily streaming videos while I charge my computer. Most houses or buildings that use a solar array are still on the grid, they just simply reduce the amount of power they take from it by capturing the sun’s energy. This ‘grid tied solar array’ is a cool option, but The Pound Ridge Land Conservancy wanted to go to the next level- we chose to be completely powered by the sun. Our electricity doesn’t come from burning fossil fuels and its associated environmental effects: acid rain, air pollution, climate change, etc. My house’s solar array can produce roughly 5 Kilowatts of electricity on a sunny day. I searched around for equivalencies in coal and found this neat websites: A 100 Watt bulb running 24 hours a day for a year requires 714 pounds of burned coal.
|The current solar array at the Armstrong House Education Center.|
A guiding principle for The Armstrong House is energy efficiency- we want to see how far we can stretch each watt (see future Blog posts for how we do this). That all begins- of course- with choosing the source of the watt. We had a choice: tie ourselves to the grid via an overhead (or buried) power line or rely on a solar array to produce our energy. After crunching the numbers, we determined it would cost more to tie ourselves into the grid than it would to buy our solar array and the first installment of batteries (this is, in part, because we are in a remote location). We decided to stay off the grid.
There is another huge difference between being on or off the grid. If the Armstrong House was on the grid, I wouldn’t be forced to monitor my power usage. I could waste as much as energy as I wanted and never worry about it running out. The alternative-locally harnessing a finite amount of solar energy each day- dedicates me to ultimate accountability of my energy use. I have to be mindful of an energy schedule (for instances, doing laundry on sunny days) and always aware of the forecasted weather (‘I better do my vacuuming today because we have 3 days of rain coming’).
I think about it like this: my solar home is like a living organism with a finite amount of inputs and outputs- in order to live happily I have to think about my actions, my environment (the house) and their combined ecology. In essence, its not just about me anymore. The house is not without luxuries- the downstairs bathroom has an heirloom claw foot bathtub and most floors are of beautifully finished wood- but a luxury that I don’t have here is the luxury of infinite resources. I can’t ignore the sun. I must mind the rain. On some level, I’m forced to admit that my domestic prosperity is reliant on the weather.
Like I always say, Living Lighter on the Land is about rethinking our place on the planet. Here at the solar-powered Armstrong House Education Center, we are rethinking the relationship between home and homeowner- the more I live here and understand the energy systems, the more it feels like the house and I are in a partnership.
Here in Pound Ridge the forests lack a dense understory of native bushes, wildflowers, shrubs and young trees. Why? White tail deer. While we can’t blame the state of our forest solely on one factor (the deer), but there seems to be a strong consensus among scientists, conservationists, and land managers that the deer are playing a large role in shaping the forest’s architecture.
|The Armstrong Preserve. Notice that the understory is very sparse and consists solely of Pennsylvania sedge.|
While it’s true that the white tail deer is native to this area, the current herd density is high enough to strongly affect the rest of the forest. Here is a good primer to get up to speed on the Deer issue in the southern New England area. Today’s Blog post is not really about the deer, its about the trees. Pound Ridge, New York is mostly forested. The trees range in age from roughly 15-200 years old with most trees falling between 50-150 years old. Take a walk on one of the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy’s preserves and you will notice that there are no young trees – an entire age class (1-15 years old) is missing. In speaking to some of the veteran land managers in the area it seems that the recently instated deer hunting programs have yet to achieve desired results (more forest regeneration). Herein lies the problem- every day, our forest looses trees- people prune or cut them down and storms blow them over- and the white tail deer eat the forest’s seedlings (young trees). If this trend continues our forests will grow more and more sparse over time. See The Nature Conservancy’s report on New York’s forest regeneration here. If we want to preserve the forest in our backyards we must do something about it.
|This map displays a forest regeneration index for New York State. Red indicates ‘poor’ regeneration.|
There is hope, and it looks like this:
|The first bed in my tree nursery which currently consists of red oak, American elm and shagbark hickory. In about 3 or 4 years these trees will be planted back in the wild.|
Go walking this week and you sill see thousands of newly emerging trees on the forest floor. I’ve seen oaks (4 kinds), ash, hickory (2 kinds), maple, birch, tulip and elm growing in the shade of their parents. I’ve even seen some older saplings (2-3 years) growing in piles of brush which apparently act as natural deer fences. Most of these baby trees will live all through the summer but when the air starts to cool, herbaceous plants start to wither and the deer’s food supply starts to fade, death will come to our forest’s future. To circumvent this process I have started a native plant nursery at the Armstrong House Education Center where I currently grow trees to be planted in the forest. At the nursery I will acquire plants in two ways: 1) propagate trees and shrubs from seed (see this awesome book) and 2) transplant seedlings from the forest into my nursery. Once there, the trees will spend 3 or 4 years protected from deer before they are planted at a chosen site. It is the second method -transplanting wild trees into deer protected areas – that I am urging you to do as well. As stewards of your own backyard forests, the protection and cultivation of a few trees is an easy way to make a lasting difference.
Planting trees is to create a better future. Drive around Northeast Westchester County- the big trees are stunning. They line streets, mark important buildings and grace cemeteries and farms. We must remember that many of these giants were intentionally planted a long time ago and the only way to ensure big trees for the future is to plant trees today. You can protect and plant baby trees to mark special occasions in your life- the birth of a child, your kid’s high school graduation, your retirement- and let the memory grow with you and your family forever. A white oak tree planted the week of your child’s birth would be over twenty feet tall by the time they graduated college. Along with planting beautiful landscaping trees (like dogwoods and which hazels), consider planting native trees in the forest behind your house. If we don’t replant our forests they will continue to grow thinner and our beautiful historic landscape will be lost.
Isn’t it bad to take seedlings from the wild? I have seen many seedlings growing on people’s property where the deer don’t browse, which is good news. The bad news is that these trees are found growing where people don’t usually want trees to grow (next to your foundation, pool, or garden). Instead of marching into the forest to find your seedlings, just search around your home. If you resort to removing seedlings from the forest on your property, make sure to do it properly. If done with care, transplanting and protecting a seedling increases its chances of survival. Remember, in the forest the deer eat almost all unguarded seedlings.
How do I transplant properly? The #1 rule with transplanting baby trees is avoid desiccation! Don’t let the plant dry out! Don’t transplant on a dry day, don’t transplant on a windy day, don’t transplant on a sunny day, don’t transplant to an area of complete sun. Instead, choose an overcast day with rain in the near future. If it is not forecast to rain for a couple days then be prepared to apply water manually. While in the process of transplanting you must keep the soil and roots wet. When transplanting, don’t forget the roots- dig up a root ball (the size of a small bowling ball) with your seedling. Here are Tips for transplanting. As you research more about safely transplanting trees you will read that it is best to transplant trees in the early Spring (before leaves open) or in the Fall (after leaves drop and before the ground freezes). Although this is true, it is not always possible; we are forced to transplant first year trees which are impossible to see before they leaf out in the Spring. Transplant as early as possible and do not transplant in the summer. An alternative to transplanting at the wrong time is protecting your trees while you wait for the right season to transplant. To protect potential transplants, place a small fence around them.
Working together. Protecting and planting trees is something that every landowner can do to help ensure a forest for the future. My goal is to team up with other local conservationists to support a region-wide initiative to replant our forests. Contact me if you are interested in learning more about forest regeneration and what you can do to protect and plant trees for our future.
As of this week- the last week of April and first week of May, 2012- I am living full-time at the Armstrong House Education Center. With the completion of its recent off-the-grid renovation, the Armstrong House will be my permanent residence and the primary location of the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy’s programming. Except when noted, the posts of this Blog will be coming directly from the Armstrong House and reflect my experiences there as I ponder, research and practice ways of Living Lighter on the Land. I will share the house with my partner Sarah Bush (of Edible Revolution) and our indoor tuxedo cat, Loki. To stay abreast of our adventures check back every week. Thanks for reading, I hope to hear from you!
To honor the beginning of the growing season the next few posts will focus on backyard gardens and food. Because the production, shipment, and disposal of food requires so much energy, learning more about our food culture might allow us to find ways to Live Lighter on the Land.
We all eat food, but where does it come from? Currently, much of our food is raised in other countries or other states and is shipped to our local market. While walking in the produce section read the source location of your banana- it ain't Florida. Meat from Brazil, berries from Washington, Pineapples from Hawai'i – eating is a global experience. Every time we take a bite we are experiencing a little bit of soil, sweat and sunshine from a far off land.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? In response to the growing global food system a grassroots 'eat local' campaign has taken flight in the United States. There are many reasons to eat locally, but one reason often quoted is difficult to wrap my brain around. To summarize this reason, proponents of local food say that as food gets closer to home, the total energy required for production and consumption decreases. Much of this has to do with energy used in transportation; an apple grown in your county takes less fuel for delivery than an apple grown two states away. On the surface this makes sense, but I have often wondered about all of the other energy that goes into food production, and how local food compares with non-local food. This article addresses just that. Apparently a handful of scientists did something very difficult- they tallied up all the energy it takes to produce a food product and compared multiple styles of production. They include obvious things like shipping, and farm equipment, but also quantify things like water use, fertilizer outlays, the amount of photosynthesis during production, etc. In the end they announce that eating local food does not always save energy. If purely saving fossil fuel is your priority, you have a lot more homework to do when buying food than just researching its origin.
But, what about the other reasons for eating locally and what do they have to do with Living Lighter on the Land? Because I work for a land trust and we are interested in land use and biodiversity I will use the perspective of landscape ecology. Think about your landscape. You're driving down the road and you pass houses, buildings, cities, forests, swamps, and farms; all these pieces come together to create a mosaic of interacting units. Plants and animals move from one landscape unit to the next and larger processes (i.e.,wildlife movement, water filtration) are carried out across multiple landscape units. A farm as a landscape unit is certainly more conducive to ecological functions than a set of buildings, roads or a city block. Farms obviously vary in shape, size and character, so what kind of farm is most ecologically beneficial?
If we are to buy food from somewhere and our options are 1) A large monoculture farm or 2) a small diversified farm, from an ecological perspective it is wise to support the small diversified farms. In the northeast, perhaps neither are more ecologically valuable than a healthy forest, but if we are forced to choose one farming method it is the small diversified farm that better preserves our landscape's ecological integrity. How? Large scale monoculture farms rely on heavy inputs from synthetic fertilizers which wash into waterways and cause a series of ecological problems. Also, large expanses of land used to grow just one crop make an inhospitable environment for a large array of native organisms. Soil erosion is also linked with the common practices of large scale monoculture farming.
On the other hand small diversified farming practices, by planting a variety of crops that support the soil in different ways over time, are more able to retain their soil. Composting is achieved and organic fertilizers are also commonly used on small diversified farms. By leaving more areas for wildlife (hedgerows, corridors, ponds, etc.) small diversified farms can keep a forested landscape more connected than a huge monoculture farm. A neat NY group called Farmscape Ecology conducts research and provides education on the ecological role of small farms in the landscape.
A question that I still have is "what is the connection between 'local' and 'small diversified' farms"? Another way of asking this question is 'is every local farm a small diversified farm'? Yet another way is 'is every local farm practicing good ecological stewardship'? The answer to these is 'no'. If you live in Sioux City, Iowa your local farmer is the Tyson chicken plant. Great for local biodiversity? Perhaps not. Terms like 'local', 'organic', 'sustainable' and 'green' are only as good as the practices they represent. They have all become ambiguous buzzwords which often time lack substance or clarity. When it comes to food production one type of buzzword is not ready to solve all of our problems. Maybe the non-organic farm down the street is best. Maybe the organic farm across the state makes more ecological sense than the farm in town.
We need to develop a better system for understanding what takes place on farms. A good place to start is by just visiting a farm or farmer. Meet your farmer at the market, organize a neighborhood farm visit, or join a local food advocacy group that is a storehouse of local agricultural information. If we can't get the information directly from the farmers, our local conservation and natural resource groups should be educating the public about different farms and their practices. One thing is certain- there are ecologically 'better' farming practices and food choices out there (i.e. small diversified farms) and it is our responsibility as eaters and consumers to see through the buzzwords and buy the food that makes our living landscapes healthier.
With a dedicated rebirth of small diversified farms opening in the Northeast (see NOFA) we have more options to support our local farmers and in turn, support our local landscapes.
A small farm nestled among forest land.
When I started work with the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy in March I knew that a big part of my Spring workload was to get our backyard garden off the ground. Upon arrival I asked myself, ‘what does this garden need?’ We needed to remove a lot of rocks, install deer-proof fencing and a watering system, we needed to buy seeds, obtain a soil test, procure some type of fertilizer, and develop a planting plan. So, where did I start? What did I do first? That first week- when the March days were still a bit chilly and the nights a bit frosty- I started making compost. I knew that making compost was going to take a relatively long time (compared to buying seeds) and was one of the most important aspects of a long-term sustainable garden. Why? Its simple- the productivity of your garden (much like the productivity of a forest) relies on the proper condition of its soil. By composting onsite at the Armstrong House Education Center we will always have home made humus to add to our garden’s soil.
“Compost” is a matter of location and planning. Anything living starts decomposing when it dies. You call it compost when you put it in a pile and WATCH it decompose. “
|A handful of beautiful compost|
My backyard compost system is like most other peoples. I compost food scraps: lemon peels, egg shells, apple cores, squash guts, pineapple tops, broccoli ends, coffee grounds and all the rest of the organic matter that comes out of my kitchen as ‘waste’. These items are then mixed with things like sawdust, woodchips, leaves, dirt, straw and grass clippings. Mix together, aerate, water, give it some time and Voila! COMPOST!
Compost systems (don’t let the word ‘system’ scare- we are still just decomposing organic matter) come in all shapes and sizes. Some are made to be stored inside your kitchen. Some systems are set up to take meat, bones, fat, and oils. Some take advantage of worms. At a compost workshop in Vermont I met one guy-a dairy farmer- who was composting whole dead cows and another guy- a slaughterhouse-owner- who was composting ‘waste’ blood. Almost anything organic can be composted! In retrospect, I never would have imagined all those workshop attendees- crunchy granola types, professional cow killers, professional cow milkers, recycling gurus, and me (an admitted soil chemistry geek) to be in the same place at the same time. There is something about compost that brings people together.
|A poster for a compost program in New York City.|
So what is appealing about compost? Why are people across the country beginning to compost in whatever way, shape and form they can. Why is the City of Portland, Oregon spending public money on a city-wide composting initiative? How can it be that American companies that make industrial sized, super efficient composting apparatuses are selling their products (to the tune of $25,000+) to Universities, high schools and corporations? Simple answer: composting makes sense.
Here is the undisputed alternative to composting our organic food ‘waste’. Throw your food in the garbage at home. Garbage bag fills up- put it on the curb. Machine picks it up and brings it to a landfill. Why are our landfills filled with food? Do we care about seagull populations so much that we really want to feed them? If you own a business, you pay to haul your garbage, which means you pay to haul food. If you own a kitchen and you buy plastic garbage bags, you are paying money to haul something that doesn’t need to be hauled in a bag. If your local curbside garbage service is paid for by tax money, your tax money is paying for hauling something that should never leave your property.
Living Lighter on the Land is all about seeing things in new ways. When I see food scraps and leaves, I don’t see dirt and waste, I see vitamins, minerals, nutrients and energy. Those things don’t belong in the landfill, they below at home in your garden. Looking at your plate after dinner, what do you see?
Living Lighter on the Land is also about honoring our biological and ecological nature. Food isn’t ‘garbage’ or ‘waste’- it is (or was) a living organism. That organism breathed, grew, metabolized, and developed before it got to your plate and it deserves a respectful and appropriate burial.
To honor the beginning of the growing season, the next few posts will focus on backyard food production. At the Armstrong House, we are currently designing and installing a modest food production system- namely a veggie and herb garden. It is possible, however, to get very elaborate with your backyard food production. For example people have taken to growing fish, fruit trees, mushrooms, vegetables, herbs, berries, rabbits, goats, chickens, and bees in their backyards. See the following video for an example some intense backyard food production.
The foundation of any food production system- from the smallest pot of basil to the most elaborate homestead operation- is the nutrients found in the soil (or water if you are raising fish). The soil health- the soil’s composition and structure, its ability to hold and release nutrients, its loftiness, pH, water holding capacity, its aeration and compactness- all impact how it can perform as a growing medium.
*On a side note, there is no universally ‘best’ soil. Difference plants require or perform best in difference soil conditions, so for ideal plant growth and performance your soil characteristics should be paired to the plant you are trying to grow. With that being said, there are loads of edible garden plants that commonly thrive in the average ‘loam‘.
Now that we know soil is the secret, how do we get our hands on such a miracle mixture? Most commonly we buy topsoil from a nursery or garden center; it comes in bags or it comes by the yard in a truck or trailer. But what if we already have soil at our garden site but we just want to spruce it up a little bit- maybe add some nutrients or humus? Again, you could go out and buy fertilizer or bags of humus. An alternative is to create your own humus at home.