Urban Food-Producing System Inspired By Nature Can Mitigate Climate Change
Complete this short survey for the chance to win a hardy apricot seedling grown from one of Edmonton’s historic Capilano apricot trees.
Lots of classrooms have plants and fish, but not many consider combining the two in a symbiotic aquaponics system. Together, fish-waste provides water and nutrients to the plants while the plants clean the water for the fish. Though aquaponics systems contain a complete nitrogen cycle, symbiotic relationships, cellular respiration, and photosynthesis they are in no way limited to the science curriculum. Addressing issues of food security (social studies), design (design/construction/fabrication/art/math), and food preparation (foods/culinary), aquaponics is an exceptionally effective cross-curricular platform for exploring various programs of studies. Regarding curricular connections, aquaponics is curricular gold mine. [Read more…]
The long tail of food has the power to transform our entire food system. It’s diverse, local, unique, and sometimes illegal.
Imagine that you could line up every conceivable food production activity and arrange them from most to least productive. On one end we’d see highly productive industrial farms, followed by large family farms, large and medium scale market gardens, hobby farms, CSAs, nurseries, urban agriculture projects, community and backyard gardens – all the way down to growing herbs on windowsills. Each produces food – all of it counts. [Read more…]
Almost by definition, cities are active, busy, bustling, ever-changing places where short-lived beings go about their busy days. Fast fashion, quick commerce, short election cycles – the world around us takes on various pace layers.
What better way to slow to slow things down than to seed cities with beings capable of living centuries or millennia? In what ways might a walk beneath ancient giants and twisted ancestors place us in a bigger here? A longer now?
Artist and musician Brian Eno once said that he wants to live in a “big here” and a “long now”. How long is your now? That is to say – what’s the timeframe in which you view our day to day? What timescale informs your decisions? Days? Months? Centuries?
In 01996, the LongNow Foundation (named by Eno) formed to “provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and [to] help make long-term thinking more common”. They define they now – the longnow – as the last 10 000 years and the next 10 000 years.
How differently would we act if we lived in a longer now? In what ways would our decisions change and in what ways might out priorities shift?
The point of slow landscaping is to provide continuity in a fast paced environment – to provide pause and contemplation – to remind us that we are the result of circumstances that extends way before (and after) us – that we’re living in the LongNow. Slow landscaping asks us to act in ways – and is an act in and of itself – that leaves future generations with more options than we inherited.
One strategy may be to plant long-lived trees on sites unlikely to be disturbed. A second more devious strategy might be to plant long-lived trees to protect existing and vulnerable sites from future disturbances or development.
Living longer than most buildings, slow landscapes would dictate the shape of the built environment – as opposed to the other way around. Cities and buildings would bend and shift to fit slow landscapes like geological features. Each tree would shape the fabric of the spaces it occupies. Poor architects and planners will hate them, but good ones will incorporate them into their designs.
There are many long-living species to choose from – a quick google search yields a list of the world’s oldest individual trees – many of which are slow growing conifers living in high alpine environments. I’ve selected a handful suitable for growing in my local (Edmonton) environment. I encourage you to see what will grow where you live.
One of three bristlecone pine species, P. aristata, can be found at local nurseries here in Edmonton and is a small to medium sized tree (20 feet tall and 25 feet wide) native to the Blackhills of Colorado.
Koren Pinenut is a slow-growing giant that produces edible nuts. Reportedly hardy to USDA zone 3, the Korean Pinenut is native to parts of Korea, Manchuria, Eastern Russia, and Japan. The tree can reportedly reach 100 feet, though, 30 to 50 feet is more typical for trees under cultivation. Plant one now and you’ll be harvesting pine nuts in 15 to 45 years – expect a yield of 10 to 20 pounds per tree. Bring a ladder.
Native to the high elevations of Alberta’s mountains, the whitebark pine is a long living Alberta tree with significant ecological value for wildlife (having coevolved with the local Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) who bury and inadvertently propagate seeds. Like the Korean Pinenut, the seeds are edible, though, smaller.
The Whitebark pine is slow growing and can take on various forms depending on the harshness of its location. At high elevations, it sometimes grows as a multi-stemmed shrub but has the potential to get as large as 70 feet tall and 45 feet wide in more favourable conditions. The oldest recorded tree is 1200 years old.
The Whitebark Pine is currently a species under threat due to white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle, and the ill effect of fire suppression. The most comprehensive sources of information on Whitebark pine that I could find is an Alberta Conservation Association report from 2007 and a profile on conifers.org.
A native Alberta tree found at high altitudes in the Rocky Mountains. Alpine Larch can grow anywhere from 30 to 80 feet tall depending on elevation – growing shorter at higher elevations. Soft green needles turn golden and fall off each year.
The oldest Alpine Larch is in Kananaskis and reported to be over 1900 years old. More information at conifers.org.
The trembling or quaking aspen grows locally in Alberta is has the potential to live for tens of thousands of years due to its massive underground root system that perpetually sends up new trunks. Though individual trunks – that present as individual trees – are short-lived, the plant as a whole can grow to be ancient.
The oldest know trembling aspen is named Pando growing in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest. Pando is a single male aspen tree estimated to be over 80 000 years old. Pando covers a staggering 106 acres, has over 4000 trunks, and has a mass around 6 600 metric tonnes.
A watershed is the area of land that captures, soaks up, and channels water towards increasingly large bodies of water. We think about watersheds as wetlands, streams, creeks, lakes, and rivers but they’re also forests, trees, soils, animals, and you.
You are 60% watershed – you’re a small pond capturing water from the environment – a small pond with legs. From this perspective, a 150-pound person walking hill is 90-pounds of water flowing against gravity.
Each day, a few litres of watershed passes through your body via foods and liquids you consume – even bread is 40% water.
Much of our food is imported from distant watersheds – the banana I ate for breakfast, as an example, was 74% Ecuadorian water. In fact, in 2013, Ecuador smuggled 4.11 millions tonnes of water disguised as 5.55 million tonnes of bananas out of its local watersheds.
Here are some numbers that I managed to dig up:
Wheat – 12% water
Meat & Eggs – 75% water
Milk – 87% water
Fruits and Vegetables – 80 to 96% water
Honey – 18% water
Exporting food between watersheds has an ecological impact. Globally, patterns of trade could be seen as wholesale changes to weather and rainfall patterns – causing rivers to dry up. California, a state prone to droughts, exported over 378 billions litres of water to China for cattle feed. If you consider all of the food it exports, especially fruits and vegetables, one could argue that California’s main export is water.
A foodshed is a geographical area in which food is produced and consumed. So here’s my question – since the food you consume is mostly water, might a watershed diet be a useful way to think about local a desired local foodsheds? How closely should your watershed and foodshed align? As a geological feature, it’s less arbitrary than political borders or imaginary circles drawn concentrically around your kitchen (see 100 Mile Diet).
In truth, I’m not entirely sure what a watershed diet might look like. I’m not even sure that I could tell you what my watershed produces – probably not a lot of bananas. What would a watershed meal look like?Could it even be done? How would it change seasonally? If anything, it brings up more questions.
If 60% of me is North Saskatchewan Watershed, how does that change my relationship to the North Saskatchewan River? To the wetlands, ponds, lakes, forests, and animals I share it with?
If food was produced low in the watershed (downstream) and consumed high in the watershed (upstream) would the height of the river increase? – essentially giving us more water to grow more food?
One of the best ways to kickstart a local movement is to provide early access to training. I saw this firsthand while watching Jasper Place High School’s Culinary and Pastry Arts students. Under the guidance of teacher and Pastry Chef, Kelly Hobbs, JP culinary arts students won more over 28 awards between 2009 and 2017. But what happens when these students leave school? A sizable number of them head to programs like NAIT or SAIT, pick up jobs in local restaurants, and gradually transform the local food scene. There are local food benefits to graduating even one new local chef each year.
If you’re not sure that you have a swarm, colony of honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, or something different altogether, complete this 3-minute questionnaire to find out. Answer the questions as best as you can, and I will present you with a suggested next step.
If you want to know more about what swarms are or are an Edmonton area beekeeper that’s looking to join the Edmonton Swarm Catchers’ List check out my “The Edmonton Swarm Catchers’ List” article.
Contrary to our cultural narrative, cities are good for nature. Why? Because cities are natural and governed by same processes that created ecological systems. In fact, cities may be the most useful tool we have for tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems. One study out of Yale University reported:
“New Yorkers have the smallest carbon footprints in the United States: 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases per person per year, or less than 30 percent of the national average. Manhattanites generate even less.”
One-hundred years ago, Edmontonians longed for apples while present-day Edmontonians have so much fruit that not-for-profits like Fruits of Sherbrook and Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton (OFRE) have emerged to deal with the surplus. But how did that happen?
Chase Merrett’s book “Why Grow Here: Essays on Edmonton’s Gardening History” offers some answers. Primarily that Edmonton has a strong history of backyard experimentation, plant breeding, and pushing the horticultural limits of what grows here. The plant varieties we currently enjoy are the result of thousands of formal and informal experiments; often performed in backyards by amateurs and hobbyists. FYI, if you haven’t read “Why Grow Here“, I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Goerges Bugnet (1879 – 1981) developed hardy and famous rose varieties. Robert Simonet (1903 – 1989) made a fortune breeding double flowering petunias, apples, apricots, lilies, strawberries, and corn varieties (among others). And gardener and community advocate Gladys Reeves (1890 – 1974) “may have done more than any other Edmontonian to promote tree-planting and gardening as an expression of citizenship” (link). But why so much experimentation and why Edmonton? I suspect that immigration is a piece of the puzzle. As a young city, most of us are only a few generations removed from somewhere else. For many, especially recent immigrants, a longing for plants and food varieties grown back home breeds ambitious gardeners; think Italians trying to grow Mediterranean grapes or Vietnamese refugees growing Cai Lan.
Generally speaking, Edmonton gardeners are enthusiastic (and optimistic). Gardeners are always pushing the limits, trying to extend the growing season, or planting things that shouldn’t be able to grow here.
I can’t resist planting something new if there’s a chance that it will survive. Case in point – I recently purchased hardy pawpaw, persimmon, and magnolia trees for the backyard; trees that for all intents and purposes will probably die. I have to try.
Do you have a favourite plant to you think more Edmontonians should be growing? I’d love to hear about it. Maybe you inherited an interesting perennial, shrub, or fruit tree? A peony you got from your Grandmother? Perhaps you’ve been saving seeds or were given something special by a friend or family member. Much (if not most) of Edmonton’s horticultural history and knowledge is undocumented and exists in the minds of gardeners. Let’s bring that experience into the open. I’d love to know what you’re doing!
I’ve compiled a short google form (~3min). Tell me what you’re doing in your yard. Together, let’s continue a history of horticultural innovation in Edmonton.
Teacher, permaculture designer, master gardener, hobby beekeeper, consultant, and network nerd living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.