In the Fall of 2014, I was looking at a house just off Church Street – I decided on a whim to knock on the door of each potential neighbour and introduce myself. At one door, Naomi Pahl answered. Within minutes Naomi was giving me a tour of her yard. By the time I drove home, she had emailed me a list of fruit trees growing in her yard – in the event that I wanted to cross-reference it for cross-pollination purposes. I put an offer on the home, and I moved in at the end of October. [Read more…]
Is May Long Weekend The Best Time To Plant A Garden in Edmonton?
Originally written for and publised by Boyle McCauley News
When I was growing up, my parents kept a large vegetable garden in the backyard. Each spring, my Mom would bring out an ice-cream pail of seeds, a bundle of wooden stakes, a garden hoe, and a roll of twine she got from my Uncle – a nearby cattle farmer.
I watched as she paced the distance between rows – carefully placing one foot in front of the other – before pressing a stake into the ground. She repeated the ritual on the other side of the garden and pulled some twine tight between the stakes to mark the row. Tilting the hoe at an angle, she added a shallow trench along either side of the string. We were ready to plant. [Read more…]
You Are Not A Cancer
In response to a comment that humans are cancer on the planet, futurist and polymath once said: “Nah, cancer can’t stop asteroids.”
One of the most pernicious cultural narratives is that we are inherently separate from and destroying the Earth; a blight, a disease, cancer, or parasite on the planet. This story is uninspiring and defeating.
Nature isn’t a thing but a process of continuous becoming. Nature predates biology. Nature goes back to the Big Bang (and probably before); it is the cooling of subatomic particles into simple elements, the formation and collapse of stars that fused simple elements into complex ones. It’s the clumping of complex elements into planets and (on at least one of those worlds) the formation of the chemical soup needed to create primordial RNA. Once life appears, nature used it to further diversify. Anything natural is the product of this process.
Nature Predates Biology
Interestingly enough, nature has a built-in ethic of sorts. Generally speaking, the long arc of nature works to expand the; that is to say that nature uses the tools of the present to create even more tools for the future. Nature is playing what author and religious scholar calls “ ”; any game in which the goal is to keep playing.
Being A Good Ancestor. Will This Decision Create More Options For The Future?
If nature favours creating possibility, we can argue that to work with nature is to create possibility. To work against nature is to reduce it. So while humans are natural we don’t always act in ways that align with it. One way to work with nature is to practice long-term thinking:
- Am I interacting in ways that increase the potential of others?
- *Will this decision create more options for the future?
- Am I being a good ancestor?
- Will this act increase diversity and complexity?
While, the answers aren’t always clear-cut there are people (like Brand and Kelly) and organizations like the
Now, let’s go stop some asteroids.
Create A School Garden With Containers
One of the most significant challenges of urban agriculture in the classroom is finding a large permanent space. But what if there was a solution that means that your area need not be large or permanent? One of the easiest ways to introduce urban agriculture and gardening in the classroom is with containers. Small, attractive, and portable, container gardening might be the perfect way to gets your hands dirty without breaking the bank or going all-in with a fixed garden site.
What to Grow?
What you grow is entirely up to you and your class. With the right container, soil, water, and lighting, you can grow a staggering variety of plants.
Herbs and Leafy Green
When it comes to growing food in containers, herbs and leafy greens like basil, mint, rosemary, lettuce, and spinach are good choices. If possible, choose long-lived perennial varieties that you can harvest on an ongoing basis. Before deciding which plants you want to grow, consider how you might use them as a class or school.
If you have larger containers and lots of light, consider fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, peas, and beans. With even larger containers consider small trees or shrubs like citrus or figs.
Choosing Soil For Your Container Garden
Choosing suitable soil for your container is probably the most critical step. Though, you might be tempted to grab a few shovel scoops of soil from the garden resist the urge. While garden soil works well in the backyard it’s a terrible choice for containers; more often than not it will pack into a tight brick and be utterly unusable.
Technically speaking soil is composed of organic matter, water, air, and inorganic minerals such as sand, clay, or silt. It’s these inorganic minerals that tend to compact and make garden soil a poor potting mix. Instead, choose a soilless potting mix. While soilless potting mixes are chalked full of organic matter, water, and air, they lack the inorganic minerals found in actual soil; hence the term “soilless”. However, with more room for water and air, soilless mixes are lighter, stay fluffy (filled with air), and don’t easily compact.
Watering Your Container Garden
While each variety of plant has its preference for moisture, the key to a healthy container garden is to find a happy medium between soggy soil and bone dry. Generally speaking, your growing medium should be slightly damp to the touch but not wet. If you could grab a handful of soil, squeeze it, and get a single drop of water, you’ve got it right.
How frequently you water will depend on the size of your pot, its location, and the plant you’re growing (some plants, like tomatoes, are thirsty and won’t tolerate drying out).
To prevent overwatering, use containers with drainage holes at their base. While you can get around a lack of drainage holes by adding stones (or some other porous medium) to the bottom of your containers your plants will be better off if excess moisture can freely drain through the bottom. Remember that air is a critical component of healthy soil and that over-watering removed air to the point that the plant’s roots will be unable to breathe.
Lighting Your Container Garden
Like water, each plant has its preference for how much light it wants. While tomatoes and peppers love the sun other crops like lettuce, spinach, and broccoli are more shade tolerant. Depending on the location of your container and what you’re growing, you may get away with a sunny South-facing window or need to supplement your crop with full-spectrum artificial lighting (such as these sunblaster compact fluorescents or T5s.
Choosing The Right Container For The Job
Typical, Off the Shelf, Pots
There’s nothing standard about an off the shelf pot as each pot is sure to vary in height, depth, shape, size, and material. Plastic containers are inexpensive and light but not as durable. In contrast, ceramic pots can be expensive and bulky. The best pot for a school is probably a free pot so talk to colleagues, big-box stores, and nurseries to see if you can take any old containers they might have laying around. Plastic nursery pots inexpensive, pleasant to work with, and a good choice for school; they’re not pretty, but they’re durable and in abundance.
A self-watering pot is exactly what it sounds like – a pot that waters itself. Though not foolproof, self-watering containers generally have a water reservoir below the soil and a wick to draw water into the container as the soil requires it. Any form or self-watering pot or automatic watering technique is valuable for schools because it answers the existential questions of “who will take care of the plants over the weekend or break?” You can sometimes find self-watering pots at garden supply stores, though, they’re not as common.
An Earthbox is a complete gardening kit and commonly used by the Sustinable Food Edmonton’s Little Green Thumbs Program to grow vegetables and herbs in hundreds of school classrooms. The basic Earthbox kit consists of a self-watering grow box, casters (for easy transport), and an organic soil amendment (fertilisers and minerals). You can purchase lights as an accessory.
Earthboxes provide roughly two square feet of growing space on top of a self-watering reservoir; keep the water reservoir topped up, and the innovative Earthbox design wicks up water when needed. I can say from personal experience that growing in Earthboxes is an easy and efficient way to start growing food in the classroom. The only downside of Earthboxes is that they are one of the more expensive options.
For the DIY class and teacher, making Global Buckets might be the perfect option. The invention of two high school students looking for an inexpensive way to make Earthboxes, a Global Buckets is simply a bucket inside of another bucket. By adding a wick (cloth or soil filled pot) and a watering tube, you can build an inexpensive self-watering container for a fraction of the price of an Earthbox. Though, not at pretty, a Global Buckets are deep enough to root vegetables like potatoes or grow larger plants like small trees and shrubs.
Scaling Up Your School Container Garden
The great thing about a container garden is that it scales so effortlessly; you can start with one container and scale up (or down) as you see fit and as the school year progresses. However, should that day come that you’d like something more substantial and permanent, raised beds are a logical next step.
What is a raised bed if not a large pot? While a raised bed is large to be virtually immobile, they’re a logical next step for a classroom looking to scale up from or consolidate smaller container gardens. The trick to a successful raised bed on school property is finding a suitable site; ideally with plenty of sunlight, access to water, accessible to the students and staff, and relatively permanent (they’re difficult to move).
There are many off-the-shelf raised bed options or kits, though, if your school is fortunate enough to have an industrial arts class it might be possible to turn your raised bed into a fabrication project. A few things to consider; avoid using anything wider than two-arms-lengths or you’ll have to crawl into the garden to access vegetables growing in its centre (note: use your student’s arms as they’ll be the ones planting and harvesting), choose a light and fluffy soil or soilless mix. You don’t have to build it too deep, though, I’d recommend at least a foot. Organic matter helps retain moisture to the more you have in your soil, the better.
Self-Watering (Wicking) Beds
If you built a raised bed on top of a source of water you’d have a wicking-bed. Wicking beds are large self-watering pots. While there are a lot of ways to achieve this, most wicking beds rely on creating a watertight reservoir, filling it with gravel, covering the gravel with landscape fabric, and building a typical raised bed on top. Like self-watering pots, wicking beds use the soil’s natural water-wicking action to soak up water as needed.
As a less technical alternative, I have used 4″ perforated pipe to bring water from the downspout of a building directly under your garden. I prefer this technique as it doesn’t require building a water-tight reservoir or moving heavy gravel.
There are some excellent online resources for both of these wicking bed techniques.
To Sum Up
However you decide to do it, containers gardening is an excellent way to start growing food in the classroom. Use a light, soilless growing medium in inexpensive (or free) container, and you’ll be on your way! Start with a single pot and scale up as you find success.
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.
Why Set Up A Classroom Aquaponics System?
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…]
Food’s Missing Tail
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?
The Long 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.
Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata) – 500 to 2500 years
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.
Korean Pinenut (Pinus koraiensis) – 500 years
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.
Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) – 500 to 1200 years
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.
Alpine Larch (Larix lyallii) – 500 to 1500 years
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.
Honourable Mention: Trembling Aspin (Populus tremuloides) – 80 000+ years
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.