Dirt!

I watched the film Dirt! last week. Many of us don’t really consider dirt, and when we do, we look down upon it. We don’t like it when we are “dirty” or when other people treat us like “dirt”. Dirt is the lowest of the low.

But in reality, there is nothing more important that dirt, as it is the cradle of life here on Earth. We need high quality dirt, or soil, to grow food. Without any dirt, we could not grow any food, and without any food … well you get the picture.

Many of us think that dirt is limitless. This is not true. Not all areas of the Earth have dirt, and some areas that have it, only have a few inches. This dirt took a long, long time to develop. Once it is gone, it will take a long, long time to develop more. Poor countries that don’t have dirt, or have lost their dirt, do not have an effective way to feed their people. So they go hungry, or migrate to areas where there is dirt. These migrations can cause conflicts among those who do not want to give up their dirt to newcomers. Countries that have dirt, even poorer countries, have a way to feed themselves and enjoy much higher food security.

Here in the West, we are paving over a lot of our dirt. Cities continue to sprawl, roads continue to be built, and less and less land is available for farming. But here we don’t notice the impact that this has on our food supply; it does not impact where our next meal is coming from. We just go and buy our food at the grocery store, much of it imported from other countries.

But wait a minute. We know that we are using almost all the arable land on this planet to grow food. Is the land attributed to feeding us, land that is way off in other countries, poor countries even, now not available to feed the local people that live there? Does our requirement for the next mall, the next suburban development, trump another country’s ability to feed its people?

Map of world percentage arable land.

% of Arable Land by Country - Image via Wikipedia

  So given how important dirt is – how are we treating it? Not very well I am afraid. A lot of our dirt has been lost due to conventional farming practices. When a farmer tills a dry field on a windy day, a lot of the dirt is taken up by the wind, blown into the sky, never to return. Dirt is also lost due to irresponsible irrigation practices that allow dirt to wash away into our streams and lakes and oceans, never to be used again. When we tear down a forest on a mountain, the dirt that remains can very quickly be washed away, without the network of trees and roots and plants to sustain it. On top of all of that, much of the dirt that we do have remaining is subjected to a host of chemical additives, such as fertilizer and pesticides. Unfortunately, nitrogen in fertilizer isn’t even completely absorbed by the plants – up to 70% of it gets carried away to lakes and oceans, creating algae blooms and reducing the oxygen content in the water. Fish stocks decline, aquatic life suffers. This is what has directly caused the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is estimated now to be the size of New Jersey.

We also add pesticides of course, as we don’t want those pesky pests eating up our crops. But pesticides kill more than just the pests; they also kill beneficial bugs and organisms that provide some of the life giving properties of the soil.

On top of all this, we plant vast mono-cultures of single crops. This ensures that the same nutrients are continuously drained from the soil, decreasing its health. Mono-cultures also invite more and more pests, as they provide a limitless feeding ground. So, we add more and more pesticides.

The result? We now have less dirt. We have dirt that is not nearly as healthy as it was 2 generations ago. We are using almost all of the arable land on Earth, yet continue to sprawl our cities, growing out instead of up. We buy food from a world away, perhaps impacting the food security of the local people of that country. We don’t know where our food comes from, and we don’t know about the importance of dirt

We are treating dirt, well – like “dirt”.

Alternatively, organic farming cherishes the dirt. It is all about dirt! Everything begins and ends with the quality of the dirt. Dirt that has been farmed organically has much more life within it, holds much more water, and releases its nutrients much more slowly – just how the plants like it. Organic dirt also holds much more carbon. If we all farmed organically, just think of the carbon sink we could create! Organic farming could contribute to reducing the carbon from the sky, which we so desperately need right now.

As for managing pests, that can be done organically as well. Instead of applying chemicals, there are several other natural alternatives:

  1. Grow strong, healthy plants in strong, healthy dirt, so that they are more able to naturally defend off pests
  2. Plant companion plants that deter pests (like marigolds and onions around your vegetable patch)
  3. Rotate plants every season to mix it up and confuse pests
  4. Introduce pest predators, such as ladybugs, into the mix
  5. Watch over and care for your plants, noticing early when there is a pest problem, so that action can be taken

So the next time you see a pile of dirt, do not scoff. Be happy and thankful for it!

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Seedlings

Now that I have a garden plan and seed plan, last weekend we actually planted seeds! I thought it would be fun to designate plants for each child, so they each planted three cherry tomatoes each. They love cherry tomatoes, so I figured it was best to start with that. I am hoping that they will feel a sense of pride and ownership over their plants, as they plant them, watch them germinate and grow, and finally – produce some stuff to eat! My son planted the Balcony Charm variety and my daughter  Sweet Hybrids. I also seeded Black Cherry tomatoes, as well as Roma and Early Girl tomatoes. We put three seeds in each pellet, for a total of 18 plants and hoped for the best. I put them on top of the fridge, covered with a plastic dome, to create a warm, humid environment.

Now look:

Seedlings! I have since moved them to my sunniest window. Apparently seeds like warmth to germinate, but prefer cool conditions once they are up. I am hoping they will be cool enough right up against the window.

I also planted red and green peppers, but they have yet to poke their heads out. I can see that the seed has sprouted, but they are still tiny pinpricks in the soil. These guys are still on top of the fridge.

Tomorrow I will plant parsley, mint and oregano. I am about a week behind on these. I have a feeling we might be late planting our seedlings outside this year anyway, as we still have a 3 foot pile of snow in the backyard! Spring just does not want to come this year. This week has been cold and gray, and I am yearning for the sun. Physically yearning! I want to feel the sun upon my face, I want to see greenery, I want to see things growing.

When spring finally does come, and morphs into glorious summer, I am sure I will be spending many hours outside, tending to my new garden. It will be a good excuse to get out there and soak up each and every day of summer!

Seed Plan

I have been immersed in the world of vegetables.

As I am planning my very first vegetable garden this year, I have spent the last two weekends studying, like a student, how to grow vegetables. It brought me back to my university days. For several nights I have sat at the kitchen table after the kids have gone to bed, with my library books and my notebook, busily learning.

The culmination of this effort is a page of notes for each vegetable I want to grow: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas, beans, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, basil, parsley, oregano, cilantro, mint and spinach. I have learned a lot. For example, cucumbers like hot weather, but they like their fruit to stay cool and shaded under their large leaves. Their roots are vulnerable at the seedling stage so it is best to plant them in a pot that can go directly into the ground outside.

Now peas hate the heat, and so are the very first to be planted in the spring – a full 4 weeks before last frost date! Hot weather converts the sugary goodness within their pods into starchy blandness, so one hot afternoon on the vine in the middle of summer can make all the difference.

As for beans, there are two types – little guys that grow in little bushes (bush beans), and then big trailing types that grow up poles (pole beans). I am going to try both. The pole beans can be grown up a 6′ tripod of bamboo or wood stakes; I think this will look so pretty that I am going to put them in my front yard.

Carrots take the longest to germinate, so much so that gardeners forget where they have planted them. So some people plant them mixed in with radishes, just to mark the rows (radishes sprout and grow quick, but since you have to pull them all out after the carrots finally do come up, I think that this is too much work and a waste of radishes).

Tomatoes are the divas. They are well loved, but high maintenance. I learned that there are two main types, those that stay in a bush (determinant) and those that climb on a vine (indeterminant). I will try some of each. For those that vine, you have to give them a trellis or stake support, and tie them as they grow, at every 12″ or so. You also have to prune off the little suckers, so that the plant only maintains 2 to 3 main stems to focus its energy. You need to side dress them with compost when the flowers come out, and keep them well watered but not too much or else their skins will split. They are very frost sensitive so they should go out one week after last frost and then be covered up with blankets if there is any risk of frost thereafter. This is where container gardening has some advantages, as you can just whip in all your containers inside if there is a chance of frost!

Then there is the lettuce, it grows fast and aplenty and if you plant a few seeds every week or so you will have lettuce all season long. Great!

Some plants are started from seed outdoors, and some have a longer growing season so have to be started early indoors from seed, and then planted outside as a seedling later on. Every plant has a different plant date according to the kind of weather they like (peas like cool, cucumbers like hot) and they all grow at different rates and have different harvest times as well. It can get bit confusing to keep straight, so I decided to pull out my nerdy spreadsheet skills and map this thing out:

So it looks like next weekend, we will be planting our first seeds indoors, parsley, lettuce, oregano and mint to be exact. The weekend after that – peppers. The weekend after that – our diva tomatoes. Interestingly enough, the weekend after that we will be starting our basil indoors from seed at the same time we are supposed to be planting our peas outside from seed (April 9th). This seems ridiculous since this is only a few weeks away and there is still currently 3 feet of snow outside. Melt baby melt! That part of the schedule might have to be adjusted. It looks like I will be busy harvesting in July, and for some crops, will be able to put in a second planting before fall. Lettuce I will plant all summer long. Tomatoes will be saved for last, ready at the very end of the growing season (like all divas, they make you wait).

This will be my first crack at raising seedlings indoors, so if it doesn’t work, I will just buy seedlings at the nursery. I figure it is worth a try and will be fun for the kids to be involved too. I am sure they will love to help plant the seeds, and see how they germinate and grow. I am hoping to have two little helpers in the garden all season long. It will give us something to do together outside, and who knows, maybe they will eat all these new vegetables that they had a hand in growing…

So my planting dates are coming up quickly, and I needed to get my hands on some seeds. Since I did not have time to order them from a seed catalogue this year, I browsed varieties using online seed catalogues, looked up which varieties were recommended for my area, and then took all this information to my local nursery to buy packets of seeds off the rack. It was fun!

So much potential, those little packets. What goodness will they bring?

Garden Plan

I have been really interested in food lately. When I started this new green journey a few months ago, I could not stop thinking about garbage. Now it is food. Go figure.

But I really believe that we need to develop a different relationship with food. I am not talking about counting calories or the downfalls of emotional eating. I am talking about having a deeper respect and appreciation for food, knowing where it comes from, and the miracle of nature that brought it to us.

I was always amazed, watching tiny green shoots in the spring grow into a blaze of green by summer. Where did it come from? Does it come straight from the ground, rearranging the soil particles into a 2 foot bush? Does it come partly from the sky, drawing carbon from the air and amassing it into an organic structure? I have a huge spruce tree in my front yard; it must be about 50 feet tall. I look up at it and wonder, how far down do the roots go, given how high up the branches reach? Do they sprawl underground, across my whole yard, under the road even? How did this massive thing come to be, here?

These days we are so disconnected from this growing process. We know that food is grown, in general terms, but we really don’t think about it too much when we throw 5 tomatoes into a plastic bag at the grocery store and then move on. Where were they grown? Who was involved? How did the sun shine upon the plants? What was the soil like? Once picked, how long was the journey from farm to table?

I want to reconnect with this process. I want to see my own food, growing. I want to pick my own tomato off my own vine, and cherish the shiny red globe that it is.

So, I am planning a brand new garden for spring.

What precious agricultural land is employed so that I may sit down to eat 3 times a day, and feed my family? What if I used some of my own land, right in my own backyard, to take up this cause? What if my food did not have to travel an average of 1,500 miles to the plate, but instead made the journey in a mere 15 feet?

So yesterday I braved the weather and climbed among the snow drifts with my measuring tape, figuring out how much room I had and what I could plant. This was no small task, as we are still very much within winter’s icy grip. We are facing yet another cold snap, with temperatures hovering around -30ºC (-22ºF) with the windchill. My body hurts when I go outside! My 2 year-old daughter cries when the cold wind whips her face, so when we go out I carry her, rushing, holding her face towards me, being so cold myself, groaning under the task of trying to walk-run while carrying her, hoping not to fall on the icy, snowy sidewalks, while still trying to coax my 5 year-old to run run run it’s cold hurry hurry run!! We are all sick of it and longing for spring. What better way to beat the winter blahs than by planning a garden?

So here it is:

  1. One 3 x 8 foot bed on the east side of my house. This is a bit shady, but will get some direct sun for some hours of the day. I will grow veggies that can tolerate some shade, such as lettuce, certain herbs, carrots and radishes. I also plan to install a compost bin here as well. This is what the site looks like right now:

  2. Another 3 x 8 foot bed on the west side of my house. This area is decidedly more sunny, and should get 6 – 8 hours of sun per day. I will plant cucumbers, beets, onions, leeks, carrots and potatoes here. This is what the site looks like now.

  3. On the north end of this area bed above, I will plant a dwarf apple tree. It will be pollinated by my crab apple tree in my front yard, as well as by my neighbor’s apple tree. The dwarf variety will only grow 5 feet wide and high, so hopefully I have room!
  4. Space in an existing bed in my backyard, where I will grow peas and beans up the fence. Raspberries already grow here as well, you can see some of their canes sticking out of the snow:

  5. 2 beds that measure 1 x 4 feet each, that will go on the patio, facing south with full sun. I will grow tomatoes and peppers here.
  6. 4 hanging window boxes that will hang on my fence facing south, where I will plant sun loving herbs.
  7. 2 container beds that will measure 2 x 3 feet each, that will go in my sunroom. The sun room takes up a lot of my backyard, so I decided to use it as a hot house and will grow tomatoes, cucumbers and possibly sweet potatoes. I can also use the sun room to start many of my plants early; I am hoping to use it as kind of a greenhouse.
  8. A space in my existing perennial raised bed in the front yard, covering an area of 5 x 3 feet. I plan to plant a strawberry patch here. This is what the perennial bed looks like now (you can barely tell that it is a raised brick bed about 2 feet off the ground):
  9. A space in another existing perennial bed in the front, in an area covering 2 x 5 feet. I plan to plant beans, peas and a two blueberry bushes. Here is what it looks like now (again, the brick raised bed is covered in snow):

It is crazy to think that I will be putting seeds and seedlings in the ground in just over two months, when it is still so cold outside and the mounds of snow still so high. But it will happen! Spring will come, new plants will grow, and this year, hanging among the leaves will be fruits and vegetables.

What about you? Are you thinking about growing some food goodies in your garden this year?

Food Friday: Herb Garden

So the weather has been getting me down. I look out at my yard and it is covered in mounds of deep snow. I long for spring, for sunny days, for greenery.

Meanwhile, I continue to think about my food footprint, the garbage it makes, the food miles it travels. I have come to the conclusion that I have to start growing some of my own food. At first I considered a few tomato plants, perhaps a pepper for fun. We already have raspberries and chives. That should be good for my first foray, no?

Then I found Gavin, who is growing a crop in his urban Australian yard, as well as Little Eco Footprints and Eat at Dixiebelles. These are all Australians who grow lots of food, right in their own backyards. Some of them call themselves urban homesteaders, a term that refers to being self-sufficient in the city. So they grow food their own food, they preserve it, and they walk lightly upon the Earth. I admire what they are doing and the efforts they are making. I covet their pretty veggies.

But can I really do it here, this when it is cold 7 months out of the year? Well yes I can, it turns out. Look at An Avenue Homesteader and Kevin Kossowan. They are doing it too, and both live in the same city as me. Wow.

But what about my small yard? My backyard is as big as a postage stamp, literally. We have lots of patio and not much grass. My front is large but faces north. I have room on each side of the house, but those areas are shady. Where am I going to put all these dreamy vegetables?

Well I am not discouraged yet. Look was the Urban Organic Gardener did, with only a balcony? Look at what you can do with square foot gardening. I do have space; I just have to rethink it.

My plan is to figure out a plan, well before spring arrives. This involves figuring out what food will grow here, what will grow for me in my conditions, and what food I want to be able to preserve and can for use next winter. I decided to work backwards on the idea – I am currently reading books on canning and preserving. What is even possible?

In the meantime I have gotten a quick fix for my longing for greenery and home grown food. I have set up an herb window garden! I purchased plants of basil, rosemary, sage, oregano and parsley, for prices less than a small serving of fresh herbs at the grocery store ($2 each). I also saw an aloe plant and a lavender plant, so I threw those into the mix as well, as they might prove useful later on in the homemade cosmetics department.

Instead of purchasing a nice new set of nice new pots for my nice new plants, I braved the deep snow and broke into our shed. I had never been in the shed in the winter before. It was weird, being so high up on the snow and stepping down into it. I rummaged around and found a bounty of pots, soil (frozen solid) and peatmoss. I put these things in our back entry over night until they thawed and then got to work.

I decided to try some self-watering containers, inspired by Michael Leiberman of the Urban Organic Gardener. The idea is that you have a pot that has a cotton wick threaded through the soil and out the bottom. You place this in another, bigger pot. You water the bigger pot and the wick transfers water up to the plant, as it needs it. I improvised with containers and things I had around the house. I cut up an old t-shirt for the cotton.

Here are my pots, ready for soil. Some have rocks at the bottom for drainage, and some will use the wicking method with two containers.

Here is what they looked like once I was done:

I really wanted to put them in the windows to maximize sunlight, but I figured if I did that they would die. It is just way to cold. So I set up a little table for them in the sunniest part of my kitchen. A few days went by and I realized that they just were not getting enough light. The sun actually never even shines into the room, as it is too low in the sky. Plus we only get about 8 hours of sunlight per day right now. I could not let my first little food plants die! So I got them a special compact fluorescent plant light bulb, just to get us over this hump. I put it into an old lamp I found in storage in the basement and brought up an old mirror to further reflect the light. Here is what they look like now:

My son is so interested in the plants, he likes to water them and smell them and even eat a little of their flavourful greens. I used some basil last night, along with cherry tomatoes from the farmer’s market and mozzarella cheese, all drizzled with balsamic vinegar and local canola oil. It made a pretty little dish that was very tasty. Also – sometimes when I walk into my kitchen it smells like an Italian pizza. Nope, no pizza, just naturally growing herbs…

My little indoor garden should tide me over until the big work begins. Bring on Spring!

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100-Mile Diet

I have been reading the 100-Mile Diet, by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon. In fact, I just finished it, moments ago. What they did was amazing and may have been the catalyst to actually get a local eating movement off the ground. In a recently published article on the top 10 food trends for 2011, eating local came in at #3. These guys did this in 2006 and the momentum is still growing. People all over the world are taking up this challenge.

It is quite the challenge. Alisa and James live in Vancouver, where salmon is a plenty and new spring veggies come early (as compared to where I live) but where wheat does not grow. It can grow there, but farmers choose not to grow it because it can be grown more efficiently somewhere else. So Alisa and James went without bread, pasta, crackers, etc for 7 months until they tracked down a farmer that did grow wheat, only to supply a related family restaurant.

In the span of one year they transform their clothes cupboards to store onions and potatoes. They hang garlic from the ceiling. They dry chillies in the front hall closet. They make their own sauerkraut, cheese and yoghurt. They preserve and can many foods for the winter, including tomatoes, pickles, berries, corn, green beans, you name it. They have a small community plot in which they garden. They source all of the rest of their foods from local farms, and have many adventures finding walnuts, hazelnuts, and the elusive olive tree. Much of their free time seems to be spent either researching where to find local food, going to local farms to get their food, or canning or preserving their food at home.

They find that they become much more connected to their food. No longer does it just miraculously arrive on their plates at a restaurant, or appear with bounty on grocery store shelves. They talk to the farmers who grow it, raise it. They go to the farms and see the crops in the field, see how the animals are treated. They watch their own food grow in their garden. They store and preserve and manage their food supply in the winter. Food becomes something to be cherished, worth working for. They research how the early peoples of the area grew and managed food, and realized that they were rich with excess. They note how varieties of vegetables and fruit grown in the area have now been reduced from thousands to a few. They tell us that the average North American dinner contains foods that have traveled an average of 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) to the plate.

After reading this book I feel just… sad. A generation ago everyone had a back garden, even if you lived in the city. Now here I am, never having grown a single tomato in my life. I live in the prairies, where the soil is rich and the sun shines brightly in the summer, yet I cannot find local food in my grocery store, even in the summer. Everything is from somewhere else. Everything is shipped. We ship our stuff to them; they ship their stuff to us. We grow the best wheat and canola; they grow the best oranges and peaches. So we trade, even though it takes thousands of kilometres to get here. This is a model I used to believe in. The market works best if resources are allowed to flow to those geographic locations where the goods can be produced the most efficiently. This keeps prices down for the consumer, allowing our money to go further. I want my money to go further, yes.

Now this whole model in which I believed is being turned on its head. Is it always better to be cheaper? What about those costs that are not priced in, those costs to the environment, the land, the atmosphere? We need to cut emissions, yet our global food system relies on shipping refrigerated containers all across the Earth, constantly. How much food is at sea, right at this moment? Or on a train or truck? In my mind I see an Earth criss-crossed with lines. Farms at home grow only a few main crops, and cannot support the full dietary needs of the people. Furthermore, farmable land continues to be reduced, due to the sprawl of our cities.

Today I planned to go to the biggest farmer’s market we have in my city. I checked it out online, researched some of the farmers, watched some of the videos on how they raise their free run chickens and how they grow and harvest their organic vegetables. These farmers are doing this differently than others because they believe in it. They are going against the grain and I want to support them.

But today a huge snow storm hit and ground traffic to a halt, so I was forced to go to my neighbourhood farmer’s market (much smaller), supplemented by Safeway. Since I had been reading the 100-Mile diet, I was considering where everything came from. The farmer’s market yielded onions, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, bacon, ham sausage, eggs and bison. The grocery store had to fill in all the rest. It took forever. Normally with grocery shopping I get it done in the smallest amount of time possible. I am in, I am out. Sometimes I surprise even myself how fast I can select, load and pay for a week’s worth of groceries. Today was different.

I was indecisive, troubled. With every product there arose a question. Should I buy the strawberries from Mexico or the blueberries from Chile? Perhaps the grapes are a bit more local… no also from Chile. I decided to get the bananas from Ecuador since we are now on a week on, week off rotation with bananas, and this is the week on. I decided on the strawberries, thinking that at least it is on the same continent. Some foods listed Canada/USA as their origin, as if this was a homogenous area. What about the chicken? There was grain fed for twice the price of regular. I would prefer grain fed, but I could not get past the price. Does grain fed mean free run? I went for the cheaper option. I was annoyed that I felt guilty.

I am also a stickler for packaging. Do I get the cherry tomatoes grown in Canada packaged in a clear plastic container, or the ones from the US in a reusable mesh bag? What about juice? I thought I would go with apple, since there was a shred of hope it could have been more local (as compared to orange, mango, and pineapple) but then they were sold out. Orange it was.

So many decisions so much global variety, I felt overwhelmed and frustrated and annoyed at myself and at the world. Damn 100-Mile Diet book, my ignorance used to be bliss!

Resolutions

Ah… a fresh new year, a new decade even. Around this time I always find myself reflecting on the year that passed. My 5-year old son and I actually took our 2010 family calendar down from the fridge this afternoon (the one that is scribbled and scratched upon beyond recognition), and paged through it month by month, remembering the events of the year. Some of it was not so great (such as a hospital stay for my daughter last January for pneumonia) and some of it was wonderful (such as our family vacation to Waterton). I think it helped him better understand the passage of time and the seasons.

With reflection comes resolution for the year ahead. This year – it just feels different. Instead of making my typical resolutions like “exercise more” I am making resolutions that I am really excited to do, not just what I should do. Somehow making resolutions that are less about myself, and more about the world I live in, is way more motivating. Here is what I have come up with:

Resolve to LEARN:
1. How to compost my food and garden waste
2. How to make natural cosmetics and soaps
3. How to make natural household cleaners
4. How to grow a vegetable garden

Resolve to DO:
5. Reduce kilometres traveled in my vehicle
6. Reduce spending on brand new items
7. Track and reduce all energy and water use
8. Become more political

Resolve to WRITE:
9. New weekly series called “Foodie Fridays” – each post will be about eco-food choices and recipes. I decided to do this because it seems like many of the green changes that I am making right now come back to food. Food definitely has its own footprint, both on the planet and on our health. So let’s try to minimize the former while maximizing the latter!

10.  New bi-weekly series called “Letters to Leaders” – each post will be in the form of a letter that I will write and send to either a politician, or a leader of a company. The purpose of this is to lend my voice in a rational and open way, to hopefully engage these people to consider alternatives. I want to start discussions, I want people to take me seriously and I want to share what I am doing with you.

This list beats “exercise more”. Totally beats it! I will inherently be exercising more due to resolution #5, which will undoubtedly involve more walking. This list is so exciting for me, because I will be learning new things and doing new things, and adding my voice to where it is desperately needed. Knowing that I may do some good, not for myself but for others and for our fragile climate, is so much more motivating. I feel more connected, engaged, alive.

Happy New Year.