Monday, July 23, 2007

Edible Earth

The latest New Internationalist magazine has an excellent permaculture section which needs to be mentioned here, as permaculture is a system of design whose ethics incorporate earth care, people care, and fair share.

Founded by Bill Mollison in the 1970's in Australia, permaculture design is argueably a design system that can bring about social change. It is a design system that is based on observing what makes natural systems endure, establishing simple yet effective pinciples and using them to mirror nature in whatever we choose to design (e.g. gardens, farms, buildings, woodlots, communities, businesses, towns).

Permaculture is about creating beneficial relationships between individual elements, using principles such as:
- work with nature, not against it (use it as a teacher)
- everything in nature "gardens" (e.g. deer in the woods "prune" edible shoots)
- minimum effort for maximum output
- see the problem as the solution (e.g. thistles actually benefit the soil they are growing in)
- multiple functions (e.g. a greenhouse propagates plants, harvests rainwater, extends the growing season, reflects sunlight)

Here are a few simple do-it-yourself permaculture ideas for the city.

1) Living Roofs
By adding boards, pond membrance, and soil growing medium a sturdy roof can be turned into a fabulous garden. Make sure the rafters are adequately load-bearing for the volume of soil you plan to use. Then plant drought-resistant plants into the soil, mulch the gaps and watch everything grow. Incorporate bees, flowers, planter boxes...

2) Growing in Small Spaces
Balconies, windowsills, sunny walls, trellises, and patios are all great places to increase your garden yield when growing in small spaces. Contianers can be hung from the celieing and railings to grow edibles such as berries and vining plants. It's even possible to grow dwarf apple and fig trees in pots on a warm patio. Shady balconies can grow rhubarb, salad greens, and garlic. You can include innoculated oak logs to grow shiitake mushrooms. Keeping chickens for eggs is possible if you have enough space for a run.

3) Forest Gardens
The idea of a forest garden is to grow mainly perennial food crops in every available niche, from the roots, ground cover and shrub layer, up to the small trees and larger trees. In this way, we learn from and mimic how a forest grows.

4) Community Garden Plots
Gardening communally or with individual plots in an urban community garden has so many advantages. Allowing people to share the work, expertise, and the harvest, as well as providing opportunities for adding ponds, shelters, strawbale buildings, worm composting, rainwater harvesting, even planting fruit trees and berry bushes.

5) Water Harvesting
There are many ways to harvest and collect rainwater. Placing a barrel at the end of a down-spout is the most obvious. Why not add a tray of watercress at the bottom to grow some edible water-loving greens? Incorporating a series of interconnected rainbarrels, larger tanks, bird baths, ponds, greywater systems allows more rain and household water to be saved for gardening use and diverted from our sewer systems.

6) Reusing Tires
This was an early permaculture idea, given than used abandoned tires are virtually everywhere and will not break down easily in the landfill. Tire ponds can be created by digging a tire into the ground and lining with plastic. Cover the edges with soil and stones to make a natural looking finish. Tires have also been used to make retaining walls, planter beds, potato planters, composters (using tractor tires), and even walls for "earthship" rammed earth homes.

7) No-Dig Mulch Gardens
This idea was first written about by Masanobu Fukuoka, a pioneer of natural farming in Japan (see his book The One-Straw Revolution). The idea is simple - healthy soil is an ecosystem in itself, a complex web of microorganisms, plant ntrients, and organic matter necessary for healthy plants. If we dig the soil, we disrupt that ecosystem and reduce fertility. The easiest way to grow vegetables in the no-dig way is in a raised bed where organic matter can be accumulated each year, and the gardener's feet do not compact the soil. All sorts of material can be used for mulch - newspaper, non-synthetic carpet, black plastic, leaves, strawy, cardboard.

8) Animal Tractors
Till the soil (if necessary) by using animal power, such as a chicken or a pig. Chickens naturally scratch up the soil, eat disturbed pests and small weeds and leave their manure behind - a perfect example of permaculture given the multiple functions and interconnections of this relationship. Chickens can roam from raised bed to bed, in a simple chicken tractor which is a fenced in run on wheels that is moved as each bed becomes ready for planting.

9) Chicken Greenhouse
Multiple yields again - the antithesis of monoculture. Chickesn are inherently useful creatures! No only do they yield eggs, they are good waste-disposal birds eating vegetable scraps and garden weeds. They produce rich manure for hte garden and are useful pest controllers, Place them inside or their house outside on the shady side of a green house and you can also harvest their heat at night, their carbon dioxide for plants, and use th early morning heat from the green house to warm them up to lay eggs. Add a rainwater collection and plant a forage garden around their run to make them more self-sufficient. In a largescale battery house (chicken barn) their carbon dioxide, manure, feathers and heat are a problem. However, in the small-scale permaculture system they are yields! The key to this success is scale, and the relationship between all the elements in balance.

10) Swales
Swales are small ditches that hold water and allow them it to penetrate the soil They slow down, even stop, water run-off and soil erosion. They can be smlal ridges in garens, rock piles place across a slope or excavated hollows. Essential is the planting of trees.

This information taken from New Internationalist, July 2007.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

We Love Local Food

Sourcing Local Food

As most of us know, the average grocery store item travels 1500 miles (that's 2400 km) before it reaches our plate. This of course means the vast consumption of fossil fuels to transport our food; packaging so the food retains it's colour & shape; produce picked when it's underripe and sprayed so it ripens slowly as it travels; nutritionally & flavour deficient produce; and countless hands of workers along the way. With most such travelling foods we do not know the names of the farmers who grew them, the conditions the workers who picked them endured, the ecosystem they developed in, or the impact their farm had on the surrounding environment.

By buying local food, we support our local economy, gain knowledge over our food system, have opportunity to get to know the growers, reduce transportation emissions, and enjoy natural fresh taste of food picked in season and in it's time.

Here are some ways to source local food, or better yet, grow your own!

Community Supported Agriculture - provides members a chance to buy a "share" or subsciption in local farms, and receive weekly boxes of food during the growing season.

Local Farmers Market - offers wonderful Saturday recreational event, touring from booth to booth, talking with growers and sourcing your favourite fresh produce, baked goods, honey, maple syrup, and other local specialties. Make sure to ask it the items are produced locally, as many booths also resell produce.

Food Co-op - join a local food co-op, or frequent a natural foods store. Here you will often find more choice, and more voice when it comes to sourcing local foods.

Grocery Store - ask your grocery store manager whether the produce is local, and request this if it's currently not. Managers are interested in what customers want to buy, so make your preferences known.

Farm-Gate Sales - many small farms will sell produce, eggs, cheese and more from their local farm-gate. If you have the means to get out into the countryside, take along a map of local farm-gate vendors and stop by.

Community Gardens - if you are new to growing a garden, or lack growing space in your own backyard, join a local community garden. Most cities have such community gardens in each neighbourhood, and if not, start your own - many city councils will provide start-up funds for gardens, especially if you are beautifying abandoned lots or underutilized park areas. Community gardens are great places to meet other gardeners, and share seeds, growing tips, and unique produce.

Food not Lawns - turn your home lawn space into gardening space - whether it's your front yard, backyard, rooftop, or patio, there is always a place to grow a few more vegetables and herbs.

Indoor Sprout Garden - in the winter, start an indoor sprout garden to get fresh, organic greens during the cold months. Sprouts are easy to grow, take minimal effort, space or resources, and produce top quality nutrients quickly. Almost any seed or grain can be sprouted, and easy ones to start with include alfalfa, radish, sunflower, and mung. An excellent source for sprouting seeds & equipment is Mumm's in Saskatchewan!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Wonderful Weeds

"Let food be your medicine and medicine your food".

Wild plants are resources, and should be encouraged to grow whenever possible. Often, edible wild greens have a much higher nutritional value than cultivated greens. Some wild plants have been with us for more than 10,000 years! Always make sure you are property identifying the wild edibles, as many plants have similar counterparts that may be inedible or even poisonous. Investigate in a good field guide - for our region we use the Peterson's A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America.

Here are 10 excellent wild edibles to grow or wildcraft. If you visit us, you will find all of these coexisting peacefully among our other cultivated plants on our property!

(list from Organic Gardening, Feb/March 2007)

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Used medicinally as an immune stimulant; historically, it was used to relieve flu aches and as an antiperspirant. Caution: a closely related species is poisonouse.

A tasty salad green that's been used topically to treat skin irritations. Grows well in cool climates.

Common Mallow
Harvest leaves for salad or cook in soup. Herbalists use tea made from the leaves and flowers to sooth sore throats.


Leaves are healthful both cooked and in salads. Leaves and roots are used in herbal tonics to aid liver function and better overall health.

Lamb's Quarters
A tender annual substitute for spinach that does well in the heat. Use in salad or cooked.

The flowering tops are used by herbalists for heart problems and female health concerns.


A rich source of iron and calcium eaten as a cooked vegetable or made into a tea. Look for it in hair products as a scalp stimulant and tonic.


Eat the leaves raw in salad or cooked in soup. Makes a healing poultice that is used to relieve bug-bit symptoms and aid the healing of wounds.


Add a taste of spring to salads, soups, and pesto. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and high in vitamin C. Herbalists apply violet internally for irritated throats and exernally to treat burns.

Wild Fennel
Has an anise-like scent and taste, and its yellow flowers attract beneficial insects that prey on leaf-eating insects.

Here at Little City Farm our other favourites include:

Has been eaten and appreciated in India and Persia for more than 2000 years, and is also a prized vegetable over much of Europe and Asia. The entire plant, stem, leaf and flower bud is good to eat. Use in salads, casseroles, steamed, and even pickled (the fat stems)!

Also known as Great Gobo, the sliced roots of this vegetable are a common ingredients in Japanese cooking. It has a long history of having a great reputation as an aphrodisiac. Burdock is a biennial, and the roots should only be collected from first-year plants in June or early July. Used by herbalists as a liver tonic.

Yellow Dock
Young leaves used in salads, and roots combined with burdock as liver tonic.

Large wooly mullein leaf is used by herbalists for sore throats, coughs and bronchitis. The smally yellow flowers can be infused in oil to make a remedy for ear aches.

Also known as "knit-bone" the comfrey leaf can be made into a poultice and applied to wounds, scrapes, sprains and even broken bones. Gets mixed reviews regarding internal use, as it may contain toxic compounds.

Youngest leaves used to make a salad. Taking a knife or weeding tool, dig underground and cut the root near the top. The white, underground parts of the leaves make an excellent salad that is most tender. The long taproots can be dried and ground into powder for an excellent coffee substitute.

Wild Grape
Wild graps can be made into a jelly, that is even more fragrant and delicious than cultivated grape. The leaves are excellent for making stuffed grape leaves, a recipe originating in the Middle East.

Day Lily
Prized in Chinese cooking, the day lily buds and flowers can be eaten fresh or dried. They can be added to soups, stews, or garnish vegetable dishes or salads.

The only food eaten by monarch butterflies, so we like to keep it well stocked in our yard to attract these beauties.

Wild Raspberry
Leaves taken as a sweet tea are wonderful for menstrual pains, and for toning the female reproductive system. Berries are small, sweet and luscious.

Wild Carrot/Queen Anne's Lace
Seeds of wild carrot are reputed to be a contraceptive. Wild carrot is also a favourite of bees and butterflies.

Read: Stalking the Wild Asparagus, by Euell Gibbons

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Live Simply on Your Urban Homestead

Living simply is not about choosing poverty or deprivation. It is about discovering what is "enough" in your life, based upon thoughtful analysis of your lifestyle and values, and discarding the rest. By thinking carefully about the way you use resources - time, money, food, energy, shelter, etc - it is possible to get much more out of life by using less.

We think that an urban homestead is just the place to learn about simplicity. Developing your urban homestead involves many small steps, and can take many forms. Don't feel pressured to create the perfect self-reliant homestad all at once. Be assured, there is lots to do, but start with choosing projects you have always been meaning to try: Set up rain barrels; start some winter sprouts; establish a regular breadbaking day; learn to make natural cheese; make a batch of home-canned tomato sauce; study herbalism; investigate solar panels; string up a clothes drying line; experiment with fermenting sauerkraut; start a container garden; build a coldframe; make soap; weather-proof your house; install a wood stove; plant your front yard in native perennials; join a local barter system; consume less by making your own or making do without.

At your urban homestead you many decide to grow organic vegetables, divorce your car, raise chickens, build a strawbale addition, make handmade wares to sell at the local farmers market, or take more time to read or write about your experiences. You don't need to be an expert - don't be afraid to learn by doing, and involve your friends and neighbours. Use the resources available in your particular community

Water Conservation

"Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations." - Maude Barlowe

May-July 2007 has been one of the driest summers in the past decade for our area. Farmers and gardeners are noticing the lack of rain, with certain plants not germinating properly, not leafing out as full, or not producing the volume of produce as in wetter years.

Here are a few water conservation tips to keep in mind, as water becomes a scarce and valuable resource.

- handwatering not hose or sprinkler watering
- installing low flush toilets
- installing low-flow showerheads, and limiting showers & baths
- composting toilet
- recycling sink and laundry water to the garden
- mulching your garden
- growing food rather than a lawn
- rainbarrels connected to every house/garage/shed eavestrough
- naturalizing lawn with native & drought-resistant plants

Read Maude Barlowe's Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water
Read Vandana Shiva's Water Wars

Ten Guiding Principles for Green Homes

These are ten simple principles to help create a more healthy, ecological home. (partially excerpted from Natural Home Magazine, July-Aug 2007 - all comments in italics added by Karin).

1) Plenty of Daylight
South-facing windows provide natural daylight, and the sun's rays help keep rooms warmer in the winter. Shading windows in summer (curtains, blinds, treecover) protects against overheating.

2) Air Circulation
Indoor air quality is an essential component of any healthy home. To keep your air clean, choose cleaning products without toxic chemicals, and paints and wood finishes that are natural and contain few or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Use a high-efficiency air filter. Use only low-toxic adhesives and plastic-free grout when installing tile. Also add insulated windows that open fully and create cross-breeze with fresh air, rather than cranking up the air conditioner!

3) Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs
If you can do just one thing to be more energy efficient, replace old incandescents with compact fluorescent bulbs. Some people also prefer light emitting diodes (LEDs) which can be more expensive but use very little energy.

4) Energy-Conserving Building Envelope
Most houses leak air. Holes and gaps in the wall, roof, foundation, doors and windows allow air loss, which results in winter heat loss and summer heat gain. Tight construction, good insulation and high-performance windows are key. Use weather stripping and caulking. Get a home energy audit from an accredited organization such as REEP, to find out where you could improve your home's energy use. When renovating, consider retrofitting rather than building new, and use renewable or reclaimed, or natural building materials whenever possible. Consider the size of footprint your home takes up - how much space do you really need?

5) Indoor-Outdoor Connection
Doors that open onto an inviting patio can exend your living space to the outdoors.

6) Water Conservation
Low-flow plumbing fixtures save substantial amounts of water. Low-flow toilets only use 1.6 gallons of water per flush (compared to older models which use 5 gallons per flush). Also, limit times flushing toilet, or install a composting toilet. Use low-flow showerheads which use 2.5 gallons of water per minute or less (compared to 5-8 gallons per minute).

7) Sustainable Landscaping
Rain gardens, ponds, birdbaths and streams are great for the environment, create friendly habitat, and are relaxing for us. Native and drought-resistant plants require less water and maintenance than lawns. Organic gardening builds the soil, and does not use toxic chemicals. Consider growing food not lawns!

8) Energy-Efficient Appliances
Check for Energy Star labels on kitchen, laundry and bath appliances and fixtures. Get rid of your dryer, in favour of an outdoor clothesline. Remove the microwave!

9) Renewable Energy
Solar, wind, water and geothermal are all renewable forms of energy. Although installing solar panesl or a wind generator is a fabulous goal, it may not be attainable immediately if you have budget constraints. A great right-now solution is to buy wind-generated or other renewable power from your local utitly - it may be as simple as marking a little box on your energy bill to sign up. In many areas it's not much more expenseive than conventional energy. Also take a look at solar water heaters, which can pay for themselves quickly by reducing energy bills.

10 ) Location!
Living close to your workplace, shopping, and recreation reduces your car dependence. Join a car co-op, ride your bike, walk or carpool to get around town. Take the train rather than jetting across the country by plane.