Living Lighter on the Land

Moving Day!

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!  

The Armstrong Family.  Sarah Bush, Tate Bushell and Loki the cat.   Follow us on our adventures at the Armstrong House.  

A little taste of Ecuador

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.




Keeping our soil healthy and our landfills smaller

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.

Lets back up.  What is compost?  Compost is a stable organic medium that holds water and nutrients, provides a lofty structure, buffers pH, prevents leaching of minerals and is generally a wonderful addition to your soil.  You could read on and on and on about what compost is and why it is awesome.
How do you make compost?  Imagine you just mowed your lawn and you throw all the clippings in the corner of your property.  Over time, worms, bugs, fungus and bacteria literally eat the leaves and break them down into smaller pieces.  In the end, all thats left is a big pile of usable carbon, nitrogen, calcium and other minerals.  Composting is the exact same thing with only one major difference- compost is usually managed (read: sped up) to yield a usable human product.  I lifted the following quote off of a compost website:      

“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.            

'Closing the loop'

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.        

To mow or not to mow- that is the question

This post follows the recent thread about habitat fragmentation and managing your backyard with an eye towards the organisms that live there.  Just a brief recap on the issue: through intense urbanization and its sprawl large pieces of intact landscape  (forests, meadows, wetlands) have become less common.  This leaves thousands of small patches of wild land across the landscape, which means: our backyards are the ecosystem, the ecosystem is our backyard.  Our backyards have therefore become places relied on by wildlife (bugs, birds, trees, bacteria, worms, fox, coyotes, etc) and our management actions (mowing, planting, cutting, spraying, gardening, bee keeping, etc) affect their survival.

The commonly cultivated and manicured lawn is an intensely managed landscape that does little to boost the vitality of our backyard ecosystem.  If you compare the ecological processes of a manicured lawn to those of a forest or a meadow (termed ‘non human-managed ecosystem’ in the table) you will see some stark differences.

Manicured lawn
Non human-managed ecosystem
Nope.  Mowed grass does not flower.  No pollen= no food for pollinating insects. 
Yes. Most plants flower and their flowers produce pollen.  Pollen is food for animals and pollination is needed to produce the seeds for next year’s plants. 
Erosion control
Not really.  Unblocked water falls hard on a lawn and kicks up pieces of soil.  Water is then quickly shed from a lawn taking soil and nutrients with it.
Yes.  Plants slow the speed of falling water.  Once slowed it can percolate into the soil. 
Wildlife habitat
Not really.  There are no hiding places or food sources in a lawn.
Yes. Trees, shrubs, and herbs in a variety of heights and densities creates diverse habitat
Water filtration
Not really.  If water is shed it does not enter the soil where filtration happens.
Yes. Water enters the soil where soil microorganisms and plant roots clean it.
Pollution control
Nope.  Quick moving erosive water caries away excess fertilizer, acids from the rain, and household nasties (detergents, oils, cleaning supplies).
Yes.  Thick living soil can accept pollutants.  The living parts of the soil- roots, bacteria, fungus, and insects- can metabolize these pollutants and render them harmless.  
Oxygen production
Not really.  Lawns don’t contain much biomass (the amount of carbon).  Biomass is the direct product of respiration, where (in plants), carbon dioxide exchanged for gaseous oxygen.  Lawns don’t make a lot of oxygen compared to a forest.
Yes.  Most non-managed systems contain more biomass than a lawn and therefor have produced wonderful, glorious, breathable oxygen.

This table could go on and on- obviously there are many ecological differences between our manicured lawns and non human-managed ecosystems.  Remembering that our backyards are the ecosystem we will see that the simple act of keeping a manicured lawn is preventing some pretty important ecological processes from occurring.      

So now what?  What can you do with your lawn?  What are the options?  Thankfully, gardeners, landscape designers, conservationists and permaculturalists across the country have begun to question the manicured lawn paradigm.  The goal is not to abandon backyard management, but instead, to manage our backyards in such a way that allows them to carry out ecological processes. The Mianus River Gorge Preserve in Westchester County has published this, which aids landowners in the conversion of their lawns into meadows.  For those of us don’t have a large enough backyard to create a full blown meadow what are some other tools?  Ecosystem gardening is a neat way to incorporate ecological principals in your own backyard.  Also, the well known bird conservation group The Audubon Society has for a long time educated the public about backyard ecosystems.  On their website is this neat interactive drawing of a healthy lawn.  Alternatives to lawns differ from region to region, place to place, town to town.  Remember, the examples I have included in this paragraph are just jumping off points and they are meant to be modified to fit your backyard and your desires.  It is not necessary to have a backyard that looks like a jungle or a prairie- the goal of this post is to help landowners understand the natural processes occurring in their backyards and how they affect the organisms living there.  Simply cutting your grass less often would make a difference to the organisms that live in your backyard.     

What about unwanted organisms like ticks and poison ivy?  It is possible to choose an lawn alternative that protects you and your family from undesirable plants and animals. To avoid ticks, keep your recreation (gardening, game of catch) away from tick hot spots such as stone walls, leaf piles and dark, humid forest edges.  Also, by spreading a 3 foot mulch barrier between the nearby woodlot and your living/working area you can protect yourself from ticks.  

Mulch barrier: a landscaping tool to prevent ticks

The 100%, hands down, no foolin’ best method to protect yourself from ticks is to check your body for them and be aware of your health.  Likewise, the best way to protect yourselves from poison ivy is to recognize and avoid it.  If desired, it can be removed from your backyard by hand (hands covered in gloves, that is).

Backyard management- to mow or not to mow? 

Where are we?


First post, let's start simple.  Where is Pound Ridge and how it fits into its larger landscape.  This can be answered in many ways- politically, socially, financially, aesthetically, ecologically, historically, geologically, physically, artistically, culinarily, etc., etc., etc., but because I like thinking about land use let's begin by considering the land use of the Eastern Seaboard, on which Pound Ridge, NY happily sits.



This video maps the densities of light pollution and human population along the Eastern Seaboard in 3-D, creating a rather bumpy surface. Consider any raised area on this map- this place has lights and people, (and therefore) houses, stores, roads, highways, buildings, ect.  These places are said to 'fragment' the landscape and leave the wild forests, meadows and wetlands that much smaller and less connected to one another.  Ecologists now have to ask themselves 'how do animal and plant populations (and their genes) move across a fragmented landscape?'      


This is a picture from space of the Northeast Megalopolis at night.  


This is Pound Ridge's backyard- we are part of this high density fragmented landscape.  Pound Ridge might appear only as a small bump in the video but we have to consider all of the map's mountains that surround us.  We can take a closer look at Pound Ridge (the pink balloon in picture) to see how the high density of the Eastern seaboard affects our local landscape.  We will start at the regional level and zoom into the town level:  


Region level.  The Hudson River is far left, Bridgeport, CT is far right.  

County level: highway 684 is visible on the left side.  


The squares in the picture are houses. 


The town of Pound Ridge.  A semi-fragmented landscape.


We can see that fragmentation happens at many scales; coastal, regional, sub-regional-town, watershed, etc.  What does this leave us with?  We find ourselves left with small bits and pieces of once continuous wild terrain.  Many big animals (big cats, bear, fisher) can't survive in a fragmented landscape like Pound Ridge, while others (gray squirrels and English sparrows) do quite well.  This shifting in animal abundances leaves ecologists and land managers wondering about animal-animal and animal-plant interactions of the future.  What about entire ecosystems?  How do they respond to fragmentation?  It is thought that fragmented ecosystems have reduced production of ecosystem services and biodiversity. 

It is futile to think that our ecosystems are like they were 100 years ago, therefore a growing emphasis is being put on our 'novel (or new) ecosystems' (see abstract here).  We are forced to engage nature in its current shape: chopped up, comprised of new animal and plant associations, invaded by plants from other continents, and possibly worst of all- an abstract notion almost totally removed from the thoughts, feelings and experience of most humans.  


Landowners have to recognize that the only wild places left in town may be their backyards.  We may not see our backyards as prime wildlife habitat, but in many cases it's all we've got left. To live lighter on the land we have to recognize how our actions at home and in our towns (planting trees, cutting down trees, mowing our lawns, etc.) affects the organisms that live there.  



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